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.

On To Japan!

Our flight to Tokyo was, thankfully, uneventful…aside, of course from the early morning wake up call and jaunt to the airport (3:45 AM!).  We landed in Narita (a very quiet airport…really, very little noise even with hundreds of people around.

We made it quickly through immigration and caught the Keisei Limited Express to Asakusa.  I have stayed in a few places in Tokyo and I really like Asakusa.  Historically, this area was an entertainment district during the Tokugawa Shogunate and remains a center of attraction for Japanese folks to this day.  Literally thousands of people crammed the streets.  We arrived during a political rally as the streets near our hotel were all blocked off for the speeches of candidates.  They stood on a bus with a platform on top….they traveled around the city on this bus and spoke from loudspeakers to a huge crowd.

After making our way through this dense mass of humanity, we headed through the grounds of  Senso-ji temple past vendors in stalls leading into the temple proper.  We wandered, a bit, trying to find this small, traditional Japanese hotel…or Ryokan.  I had the street address, but the problem is that once off the main thoroughfares, all signs are in Japanese….I know a fare bit of Kanji, and these signs were all written in traditional script.  Well,  hmmm.

IMG_1367
We Made it to Japan!

So, we turned to Apple Maps.  I keyed in the address and it popped up the hotel and location with walking distance and a direction arrow….EXACTLY what I needed!

(An aside about cellphones and WIFI in Japan.  Just about anyone’s cell phone will work in Japan.  When I first arrived, only GSM phones worked and cost a small fortune.  I rented phones in 2008.  Now, TMobile (my provider) allows for free texts and free data at 2G speeds.  In a pinch, the service works well enough to grab data for maps etc.  I just turn the data off when I am not using it (past experience here).  As far as WIFI goes, Japan is getting better, BUT it’s hard to find free WIFI in the country.  A new app I downloaded, NTT Broadband, works at finding you find free access…it helped me more than once during this short trip.)

Back to the story: We found the spot about 300 feet down a very small street.

The Entrance to the Ryokan
The Entrance to the Ryokan

The place could not be any nicer and centrally located….steps away from the vendors and the temple.  Our check in was seamless.  If you travel to any part of Asia and are looking for a way to expedite your travels and book rooms, www.agoda.com is really a great booking web site.  Every time I have used them I have had no difficulties at all.  You get a receipt to present to the hotel with the details of your stay.  It works exactly as you imagine it would…no issues.

After I found out that Natascha and Halle could travel with me, I extended the trip by a few days and added this side trip to Tokyo.  I booked these traditional rooms as a way to experience Japan with Halle and Natascha.  They can

IMG_1373
The small room…tatami mat and all!

speak about the room and whether or not they enjoyed it!

As you will see in the photos, the rooms are small, with a futon on a tatami (rice) mat.  The futon leaves a lot to be desired; those used to sleeping on pads in a tent will have no problem.  Those looking for more plush surroundings should look elsewhere.

The hotel  and rooms are very quiet, even though they are packed into a very small space….Halle and Natascha are next to me (302 and 303) and I cannot hear them at all.  On the top floor, the hotel includes a hot bath for guests….the small space is really wonderful and includes a room that looks exactly like an onsen.  Halle and Natascha enjoyed a first night in the tub together.  More details in the next post.

Our Last Full Day in Bhutan

Despite the various difficulties getting here, Bhutan was, as always, wonderful.  Today, our travel from Haa to Paro took about 2:30 hours and we headed to lunch in town and then on to Kyechu Lhakhang Temple.

The entrance to the temple grounds.
The entrance to the temple grounds.
Back, Exterior, Kyechu Lhakhang temple
Back, Exterior, Kyechu Lhakhang temple
Placing Offerings (berries) on the Chorten
Placing Offerings (berries) on the Chorten

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

For years I wanted to visit the temple dedicated to Dilgo Khentsye Rinpoche and visit his home and grounds.  The temple did not disappoint.  The original building was constructed in the 7th century and is dedicated to Avalokitshevara, the bodhisattva of compassion.

The two shrine rooms include a few ancient statues and a monk obliged our request to open the inner sanctum and view the original Buddha statue and the surrounding bodhisattvas.  I so wish I could share a photo, but, as you can imagine, that practice is strictly forbidden.

The room is small and filled with statues of a number of bodhisattvas.  The largest are life size and the smallest sit on shelves around the room.  I’m guessing we were in a space no more than 12×12 feet square.

Spinning the Prayer Wheels
Natascha and Halle Spinning the Prayer Wheels at Kyechu Lhakhang

Halle and Natascha had their prayer beads blessed and we departed for the other shrine room (the main shrine room).  In this space is a statue of Dilgo Khentsye Rinpoche himself.  Halle’s comment “Dad, he was so cute” pretty much captures his essence, I’d say.  He was, by all accounts, a very learned, loving, humorous, caring person.We slowly made our way around the grounds of the temple, spinning prayer wheels, Namgay talking about the history and significance of this place.

Our evening was spent strolling around Paro town, visiting with Namgay’s nieces and his partner Debbie.

We are on to Bangkok tomorrow and Tokyo the next day.  Our stay in Tokyo at a traditional Ryokan promises to be fascinating…and hopefully, interesting!

The Haa Valley

Many valleys in Bhutan are remote, taking hours of travel to reach.  In some cases, you travel through small villages and communities filled with cows, dogs, and the occassional horse.  On this day, we took the road from Thimphu south toward the Indian border and then turn off toward the Haa valley.

IMG_1208
Some silliness with cows in the Haa…
Reaching for the clouds.
Reaching for the clouds.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

In the world, there is remote and then there is REMOTE…the Haa Valley is situated in the folds of the mountains in a small valley with a river running through the center of the valley and town.

One goal for today was to see the Haa Festival.  We arrived just in time to sample the local food including one of the tastiest foods I have ever had in Bhutan, buckwheat and spinach mo-mos.  These small delicacies are served just twice a year and we were lucky enough to have them on this day.

The festival included dancing, music, archery, and spear throwing as well as booths on local health, botany, farming, history, and art.  As we wandered around the grounds, most of the festival goers were waiting for the evening activities….as rain descended on the valley, we wondered if those events would happen!

Diversion channel headed to the mill.
Diversion channel headed to the mill.

After the festival we headed west up the valley to just a few kilometers from the Indian border to a village called Hatey (or Champa….a couple of people argued about the name).  Namgay found a farm house (Soednam Zingkha) situated along a stream in this farming community.

The house was owned by a family whose matriarch was known as Zingkha Mii-aum, or mother of the village.  The house gots its name Soednam (jewel of luck) on the surface of a pond (zingkha) because the location was considered auspicious between a running stream and pond.

Just across the stream from the house is a working wheat grinding mill, centuries old.  We found a woman grinding wheat into flour to be used in the regional dish tsampa.  Her work was in a this small, dark building and she managed the grinding wheels as she poured wheat into a basket just above the grinding stone.

In the afternoon, we hiked down a farm trail / animal trail near the stream and into another village just below.  We found farmers using cows to plow a field, children playing soccer, and folks hanging wheat in the rafters of their houses for winter.

Grinding the wheat into tsampa.
Grinding the wheat into tsampa.

This place is so worth the visit and stay; I will definitely bring students to this village in the future.  It is, truly, a lifetime away from the rest of the world.