My experiences with Buddhism led me directly to Japan and Bhutan. Interested in uncovering, for myself, the source of my practice, I headed to places where the practice is common, engrained in the fabric of society. Ok, sure, we can argue THAT point….you can see (again) my romanticism sneaking through the cracks in logic and reason. You would, of course, be right AND you will find truth in the statement that Buddhism’s heart is being maintained in those places (and of course many other places in the world….I am not trying to be exclusive).
Yet, it’s in Bhutan that I found Buddhism’s heart and, to a great extent, a shift in my thinking and feeling about the world around us all. You may wonder why I even raise this point here, now. You see, I completed the preliminary practices of Vajrayana Buddhism, the Ngondro practice. I started Ngondro with my first visit to Bhutan. I cannot say that I deliberately planned to start Ngondro and head to Bhutan during the same year, but that is what happened.
For anyone who is in the midst of the practice, I offer my support. The practice is challenging in every possible way; it can upend what you think, believe, understand about yourself and the world around you. It will, quite literally, blow your heart and mind apart. Combine the practice with a visit to Bhutan and your mind will truly and completely fall to pieces.
I started this essay off with how/why a visit to Bhutan can change your life; I do believe the combination of Ngondro and experiences in Bhutan combined to reorient my thinking in terms that I, to that point, did not understand.
In particular, you can see in Bhutan a kind of Buddhist faith integrated into the very nature of the Bhutanese state and culture. As I have written before, along roadsides, on homes, in villages, on distant trails, the faith in Vajrayana is everywhere. The visual representations of Buddhist iconography influences your thoughts and ideas about the place.
Further, in homes across the country, shrine rooms are dedicated to deities, usually Padmasambhava, and the spaces are sacred rooms integrated into households. I watched an older woman in the late afternoon sit on a cushion and chant in her shrine room….I’ve seen children making torma, butter sculptures, for their own shrines or for sale to families. These small acts are acts of faith in the practice.
All of these various aspects of society do have an effect on how you see the world, if you let them. For me, the impact was more profound because of my study of loving-kindness at the time of my travel. Simply put, loving-kindness is about having compassion for all sentient beings. This practice opened my heart in a way I had not experienced. Combined with seeing the daily practice of loving-kindness in Bhutan changed the way I saw the world. Quite literally, I saw a different way of being.
So the change I’m talking about is a change in being, influenced by Bhutanese culture. I am not who I was before I traveled to Bhutan. However, I did not put it all together and didn’t really GET it until this summer.
Here’s where it gets weird (yea, as if it wasn’t already)….this summer I faced a serious health scare. The experience presented the very real possibility of death. Sure, I know we all die and I had, up until that point, rationalized that it wasn’t a big deal. Dude, I was practicing Ngondro; I’ve got this! Yea, right. I reallllllyyy got it ; whacked upside the head more like.
When you are in a hospital in Bangkok wondering if you are going to die, well, things get very real. Laying in a stark hospital intake room with about twenty patients in beds side by side, one receives a bit of perspective. I believed this was IT. The moment of redemption or perdition. You remember the moment from Inception in which Leonardo DiCaprio’s character spins the top at the end of the movie….does it drop? If it does drop, is that the end of the road for the character? The story? That is exactly how I felt; a spinning top perched on its base ready to topple as the spin came to an end.
I felt fear like I have known only once before in life. I climbed to the top of Cloud Peak, in the Cloud Peak Wilderness area in Wyoming in 1982. On the top, a 3 foot by about 10 foot long summit, I looked to the southeast down a cliff face into a glacial cirque and turquoise colored water. The drop was hundreds of feet. I walked to the edge, and looked down. A gust of wind hit me hard and I fell forward. I can, to this day, see the scene exactly as I experienced it…..time slowed down and my arms extended in front of me as my head rushed toward the edge of the precipice. I felt like half of my body was over the side of the cliff face and I was going to go down fast and hard.
I remember having a so-called “life review” as images of parents, sisters, friends, my grandmother flashed before me. This moment was my moment of death. As I fell I twisted my body to the right and my bottom landed hard on the rock; as my legs hit the ground I pushed off with my right foot toward the center of the summit…my hands went down hard and I grabbed onto small rocks (about fist size) and came to a halt. My back now faced the open air of the cliff edge. My friend, in the meantime, jumped to grab my left hand and pulled me toward him.
I stopped moving and lay on the rocks of Cloud Peak summit. I didn’t move for what seemed like an hour. John, my friend, was talking to me, but I couldn’t answer. I could hear the sound of the wind whip past my ears and I slowly felt pain in various parts of my body. Nothing debilitating….just diffuse pain.
The moment I realized I was not going to die was remarkable. I heard EVERYTHING. My mind was as clear as I had ever experienced and I just wanted to stay in that place.
In Bangkok in July, my situation was very different but shared a particular similarity with that mountaintop tumble. I felt diffuse pain. This time, however, the clarity did not come instantly. In fact, it took a few weeks for it to arrive. My hospital visit over, I took a taxi back to the hotel in a comedy that I will write about in a future post.
As the weeks went by and I returned to the U.S., the clarity slowly grew until, by August, my mind had changed. I gained a different sort of understanding and awareness.
The awareness that came to me in August was the same awareness I had in Bhutan. It was, for lack of a better term, a quiet mind. The noise in my head melted away and I was left with silence. Or, rather, calm. There is a phrase called “calm-abiding” and it’s a term used to describe one’s mind at rest at the end of meditation. That calm came to me and has stayed with me ever since. Sure I have moments of my mind wild, but those moments are fleeting and not the norm.
OK, yea, sure, now you are thinking, “come on G-Funk, really? You have this experience and you are linking THAT to Bhutan too? Seriously, dude, you’ve got issues.”
I have issues. One of them is the fact that what brought me back to realization and awareness was a feeling, an experience, a moment that I have only been able to capture in Bhutan. So, fellow humans, I credit Bhutan for a part of the calm that sits quietly in my mind.
May you be happy, may you be well!