Bhutan Reflections 2016 part 1

After a couple of weeks being back in Albuquerque and living my life, I always have to come down from my Bhutan experience.  I’ve tried, numerous times, to express, clearly, openly, what it is like to be in Bhutan and to return to the world I live in.  The experience is difficult to understand without going through the various moments and travels in Bhutan.  I read, at some point, a comment by a lama which said, in essence, that the spirit or influence of Padmasambhava is so vast and so deep in Bhutan that once in the place among the folks that live in the country, you gain some merit, some connection to the teachings and philosophy of the country and the teachings and philosophy of Padmasambhava.

So, as you can tell, this post is going to delve a bit into my experience with both being in Bhutan and connecting that to my understanding of Padmasambhava and the teachings of that enlightened being.

First and foremost, I am no expert in the life or teachings of this first Rinpoche (teacher/scholar/enlightened being).  I am a Ngondro practitioner and study under Sogyal Rinpoche.  What little knowledge I have comes from the readings and teachings of this great man.  None of my understanding, then, can be separated from the information gleaned from Sogyal Rinpoche.  I have read a number of books and teachings from a variety of past and present teachers as well.  If you are interested in such things, you will find the writings and teachings of Dilgo Khentsye Rinpoche valuable in understanding some of the concepts handed down by Padmasambhava.  In addition, I am particularly struck by the recent work of Dzongar Jamyang Khentyse.  His book, Not for Happiness, is a wonderful look at the practice of Ngondro.  His pithy insights and explanations are remarkable and accessible to those who have started the practice and who want a bit more information.

As you can read on the web and elsewhere, Padmasambhava traveled to Bhutan (and Nepal and Tibet) in the 8th century or so.  Narratives of his life are limited to a small group of writings written by his followers (especially his consort Yeshe Tsogyal) and those who learned about him from other teachers and scholars.  The stories of his life are wonderful to read if for no other reason than to glimpse the impact this man had on the lives of thousands.  He is considered the second Buddha and his teachings are vast (an understatement) in the canon of Buddhist teachings.  That canon, by the way, is so extensive that if one started reading Buddhist texts from their origin one would never complete them in a lifetime. (Well in most people’s lifetimes)

The impact of Padmasambhava on Bhutan is profound.  In almost every corner of this country are the imprints of his works and teachings.  While I have not visited every single place in Bhutan or met every single person, I can say with authority that his influence is found in households, temples, stupas, on street corners, in cafes, along the roadside, and in the hearts and minds of most Bhutanese folk.  On my first visit to Bhutan in 2010, I wandered into a Snooker shop in Jakar, Bumthang (since burned in a fire that swept through the town).  Playing snooker (a kind of pool game with similar balls and sticks; is that what they are called??) were three men and a woman (the owner).  They asked me about the U.S., talked about Bumthang, and then one of the men commented that he was almost finished reading Patrul Rinpoche’s The Words of My Perfect Teacher.  This book, written in the late 19th century, is a distillation of Ngondro teachings all descended from Padmasambhava.  Here it was, right there in that Snooker parlor….the influence and teachings of Guru Rinpoche.

So, the influence of this teacher from the 8th century not only lingers in modern Bhutan but is imbedded in the culture and lives of many people.  And, as I mentioned, is found in physical form on the sides of hills, in nooks and crannies of rock faces, and in temples and household shrines.  My first real look at Padmasambhava was on a hillside headed up to the Takin refuge outside of Thimphu, the capital city.  Winding through pines headed up to the refuge, one turns corner after corner.  On this particular day, the sun was bright and the skies blue.  We turned what I imagined to be our 50th bend and on the left side of the road, on a rocky cliff face, was an enormous painting of the Guru.

Padmasambhava carved into the hillside on the road to Tango Buddhist University.
Padmasambhava carved into the hillside on the road to Tango Buddhist University.

As you can see, the carving and painting spans the rock wall and stands high above the road.  Just below is a prayer wheel, turned by flowing water (another example of Padmasambhava’s influence).

At this point in the tale, I want to make clear that the following information might be classified, in the vernacular, as woo woo stuff.  If you don’t know what “woo woo stuff” is, it is a feeling, thought, idea, or emotion that does not conform to standard understandings of the world and how the world functions.  Now that you understand that the following commentary classifies as something outside of the ordinary AND you are willing to read on, here we go….

Knowing about Padmasambhava and his teachings and influence on Bhutan before I traveled to the country, I did not imagine the experience I would have (and continue to have) in the country and among those people I have met and interacted with.  I’ll start with landing in Bhutan.  I have written about the flight into the country; that first one was a doozy….flying among the mountains, over tree tops….the experience was breathtaking.   However, it was (and is) getting off the plane that has always taken me by surprise.  I have never gotten used to the experience of walking down the steps, onto the tarmac and just feeling the place.  My first experience was somewhat overwhelming; a shift in consciousness, a slight variation on reality, a gentle nudge outside of what I knew into what I did not know.  Sure, I get it.  A new place, a culture unlike my own, an experience after little sleep…all of which one might argue explains the experience.  Possible?  Sure.  Yet. Yet….here’s what I feel; a sense of release, a recognition that this place is different in a way that benefits all beings. (more on this idea in another post) A place that holds a fundamental understanding of humanity that does not conform to modern notions of knowledge.  And, finally, a sense of peace that pervades.

Now, do Bhutanese experience this same feeling?  Well, in a few conversations, I found that folks did not have that experience….they were struggling to make ends meet, find work, live their lives.  Most had never left the country and could not imagine being free to just get on a plane and travel across the world.  Some related that the United States IS that place that I described!

Hmmm…is my experience simply based on romantic notions of a kind of Shangri-la?  Am I just some naïve fool?  I’ll continue my story and those thoughts in my next post.  Until then, may you be happy, may you be well.

Back in the U.S.

Our return trip to the U.S. was much, much easier than our frantic departure.  We took the Keisei Limited Express from Asakusa Station to Narita Airport, a little over an hour ride, and made it to Terminal Two with plenty of time to spare.

Our flight on the 787 Dreamliner was relatively easy, and we did notice and interesting difference between the ANA (All Nippon Airways) and the United Airlines flights.  Simply put, United flights across the Pacific are a bit more comfortable and the entertainment options more robust.  We found the options available to us on United far outpaced the ANA offerings and we were pleasantly surprised that the service was a bit better.  This note is not to knock ANA.  We just noticed a couple of differences that make long flights to and from Asia a bit more bearable.

Speaking of which, flights across the Pacific are long.  The shortest route, from my experience, is the LAX or SFO flights to Tokyo.  Running about 11 hours and 30 minutes, that trip is tiring.  On trips to Bhutan, I always fly to Bangkok, a 6 hour and 40 minute flight from Narita in Japan.  That makes the flying day, from Albuquerque, roughly 18 hours of travel IN THE AIR.  Whew.

Back Home....
Back Home….

Back in Albuquerque, Halle, Natascha, and I were spent, and we pretty much crashed.  I think I walked in the house and fell asleep almost immediately after having been awake since 3:45 AM Bangkok time….about 28 hours of being awake!

As I mentioned in an earlier post, I will submit a few more photos from my Black and White rolls of Bhutan and Japan.  In the meantime, you can read some reflections on the trip from Halle and Natascha as well as some thoughts about the upcoming trips next summer.

Thanks for reading.

A Couple of Thoughts about Photography

Finding the perfect shot in this city is all about angles and light; the flat, grey sky over Tokyo is tough on photos, and we tried and tried to grab some decent shots.  Halle and Natascha took hundreds of photos of everything they saw.  I will post selections of their photos today and tomorrow.

The Perfect Shot.
The Perfect Shot.

I used my iPhone and my film camera, a Hasselblad 500 C/M.  I shot mostly black and white with a couple of color rolls thrown in for good measure.  As I develop the film, I will upload what I have.

The other thing we noticed in Tokyo was that the frenetic pace is hard to adapt to in street shooting.  It took a day or so to get into a rhythm.  That experience is probably true for most folks and we experienced the movement of people especially when we were trying to take a photo…in that moment you deliberately stop, pause, and compose.  In my case, the composition part of the process included setting aperture and speed, and focus each time I took a picture.  I became much more choosey, as well, because of the number of photos I could shoot. (12 per roll)

If you are looking for 120MM film in Tokyo, really you have few choices.  I tracked down a decent selection at BIC Camera in Shibuya….only some of their stores have anything.  For B/W, you can find Ilford HP5.  For color, Fuji Velvia 100 (that’s it!)  Tokyo has quite a few film labs around the city; many locals are still shooting 35mm film and I saw many older folks (me included) shooting film cameras.

Of course, the tide turned years ago.  I will have to send my color film off for development to San Diego when I get home.  They process and scan for one price.  For B/W, I’m developing my film at Prep.

 

Asakusa to Shibuya to Harajuku and Back

The Ginza line ends in Asakusa station and it is a straight ride to Shibuya and the excitement of downtown Tokyo.  Well, maybe not DOWNTOWN, but near town and in an area of everything going on at once.

We had four goals today: visit the Meiji Shrine, see Harajuku, and walk around the Shibuya shopping district, and spend some time finding Bubble Tea….Halle was obsessed with finding tea with tapioca and the online information on this type of tea said most of the shops were in Shibuya and Harajuku.  So, once we left the Shibuya station, we turned to Apple Maps, again, to find our locat

Bubble Tea FOUND!
Bubble Tea FOUND!

ion.  About 1.4 miles later we found Lady Pearl’s Tea and Crepe Shop.  Bubble Tea found!

The tea spot is in the midst of the mania of the Harajuku shopping district, Takeshita street.  The hawk wares of questionable quality as well as any kind of hip, trendy thing going on in Tokyo at the time.  Seriously, here is the center of youth fashion (maybe for the world) and you will find people attired in a wide range of clothing and styles….the main word I would use to describe the clothing and area is “cute”.  Little animated characters are everywhere; anime and manga characters are represented as well as small, cute cartoon animals.  The young women are often seen dressed as dolls all in lace.  Some are dressed in a kind of goth style with black and white accessories.

As we waddled on, the day became almost painfully hot.  93 F; 64% humidity.  Walking in the sweltering weather, we hoped for a cooler respite in the Meiji gardens.  The shade was a blessing, and, as many of you know living in the southern states, shade does not seem to alleviate the heat.  Still, we walked through the park, to the shrine.  Crews had covered the shrine and were doing some restoration work.  We took pictures, hung around for a while, spent some time writing prayers on paper and putting them in a prayer box….then off to shopping!

Sake Donations, Meiji Shrine
Sake Donations, Meiji Shrine

While I can imagine shopping is one of those things that draws people to it, I am not one of them.  I found a bookstore and café in Shibuya and Halle and Natascha wandered the streets looking some of the hundreds of shops and stores.

We met back up around 4:30, waited until almost dark, and headed over to the so-called Shibuya Scramble.  It’s a place where thousands cross the road in 5 directions at once….it is something to see to believe.  I’ve mentioned the number of people we pass each day and the huge numbers of humans crossing these streets and walking through town are just amazing.

Grabbing the Shot
Grabbing the Shot

We watched for most of an hour as we photographed various stages of the experience.  And it is an experience to be among so many people at one time.  I have to say that humanity, in these moments, is so wonderful.  Just being in the presence of people and all of us in our own little worlds, passing by one another, making eye contact ( or not), a smile (or not), all of it is so remarkable.  I stood in awe of this experience….hopefully, when I develop my photos from the trip, I can share some of the wonder.  In the meantime, I’ll post Halle and Natascha’s photos to the blog tomorrow.

Halle in the Midst of the Scramble.
Halle in the Midst of the Scramble.

We ended up eating at the original sushi spot, Maguro Bito, and we, now regulars, received special treatment from a couple of free dishes and watermelon.  The sushi chefs really got a kick out of Natascha and Halle….making Halle, tonight, order in Japanese!  Funny.

On we go tomorrow back to the U.S.  We are ready to get home.

 

In and Around Asakusa and Ueno

Our morning saw us sleep in a bit before the rush of the day.  We headed to Starbucks for breakfast (close, easy) and found that, aside from a few drinks, everything was different…food included a wide variety of pastries like matcha and plum bread (similar to pumpkin bread in the States).  Many of the drinks include some form of tea…really interesting.

With our “home” fix in we hit the streets and headed to the temple grounds around Asakusa.  The number of people out for the day was enormous.  A sea of people walking around this place.  Once inside the temple grounds, the crowds thin out, and you can walk, relatively easily, through the temple grounds.

Natascha spied the tower overlooking Asakusa and all of Tokyo, and we decided to walk.  Seeing the tower from the temple, it really looks like a 5 to 10 minute walk.  Not so.  It took us a solid 45 minutes (with a stop for water) walking directly to the building below.IMG_1413

The Skytree tower is tall (they claim to be the tallest observation tower in the world) and you can take an elevator 350 M or 450M up to an observation deck (with shops and restaurants).  The view of Tokyo and the Kanto plain is amazing.  You can see all the way to the Kanto mountains and, on a good day, Mt. Fuji.

From the lookout deck, Skytree (Tokyo) Tower
From the lookout deck, Skytree (Tokyo) Tower

The haze was situated on the plain and sadly, the views to the far south not great.  However, we saw all of Tokyo from the tower and it is worth the experience….on this very crowded day, we waited about 1 hour for a elevator ride using the express service….it’s a bit more in $$ but otherwise one has to wait for 3 to 4 hours for a ride up.  Not appealing on this hot day (89F; 100% humidity).

From the tower we headed back to Asakusa for lunch (by subway this time).  Negotiating the subway system in Tokyo takes some doing.  Be on your toes, read the signs well (they ARE easy to read) and make sure you are going in the direction you want to go.  Thankfully, since I spent time in Tokyo in 2008, the signage is much better (for us)  and includes English in most cases.

In Asakusa we found a place that served katsu (chopped, fried chicken and pork) for Natascha.  You can get many different kinds of items, but this restaurant served primarily chicken in all of its forms….legs, cartledge and the more typical grilled, fried, and marinated.  The restaurant had seats for maybe 12 people…the cook was the owner and you

Natty enjoying the lunch crowd of 3.
Natty enjoying the lunch crowd of 3.
Interior of the restaurant.
Interior of the restaurant.

were within a few feet of his kitchen, watching the whole thing.

After a long lunch (because of the heat), we made our way to Ueno park.  The short train ride (15 minutes) on the Ginza line drops you off at the base of the park; we walked up to find an exhibition on Bhutan!

Bhutan in Japan!
Bhutan in Japan!

What?!  We had to go in.  In the exhibition, the curators included historical garments and thangkhas, as well as a wide variety of woven goods including clothing, blankets, etc.  The videos of the people really struck us as we saw the places and maybe even some of the people we just left!  How cool!

Painting of Taktsang.
Painting of Taktsang.

The heat finally got to us, and we all decided it was time to head back to the hotel.  The quick subway ride to Asakusa and then into the swarm of humanity (sometimes pushing your way past folks) onto the quiet street we called our temporary home.

We have one more full day in Tokyo before our return flight on Tuesday PM.  Our plan is to visit Shibuya in the height of evening and finish our trip with a wonderful meal in that spot.