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.
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.