I left off with the question about my ignorance, lack of understanding, or my romantic view of the world that is represented in and by Bhutan. I fully own that part of myself that sees Bhutan and the cultural space the people and country represent as a kind of romanticized place. Much of my understanding, prior to my travels to the country, is based on similarly romanticized views from a variety of writers who came to the Land of the Thunder Dragon and took away from the visit a sense that the people who live in this place are, somehow, closer to enlightenment or have an innate understanding of human existence that most of us lack.
So, yes, I brought my rose-colored view of the place BEFORE I ever entered the kingdom. I was enamored by the traditional dress, local dances, and songs, the stories of Padmasambhava and the establishment of the Dzong system by Zhabdrung Namgyal Rinpoche or the “crazy wisdom” of the divine madman. All of these stories and much of the folklore grabbed my attention (and still does) as a representation of something other than what I had, to that point, experienced. For those of you who read “other” that idea is certainly one place to unpack my thoughts and ideas about Bhutan and reveal the thoughts as a classic case of defining the “other” in my own terms rather than seeing the people and the place as their own representations void of Euro-American ideafication. Too much jargon for a couple of sentences? How about this idea: simply put, that my idea of the people of Bhutan was based on a fantasy of who I thought those people were / are. (as if we can group ANY number of people as part of a larger group)
Given that I am lost in a kind of fog in thoughts of my own making, I have experiences both in and out of the country that do not, necessarily, fit into the context of romanticism. What about that “woo woo” feeling? Is there something to the idea that the society introduced by Padmsambhava does, in fact, affect the people who visit this country and that the experience stays with the traveler long after that visit?
To answer those questions, I will describe what the experience is like after I depart Bhutan and return to the U.S.
A brief aside: on any number of other travels to China, Japan, Canada, Mexico, or elsewhere, I have not returned with a similar experience from the ones I bring home from Bhutan. Briefly, my Bhutan experience is different from all other travel experiences I have had. I think you will have to trust me on that one…I’m pretty sure nothing I can say could ever really convince anyone that my Bhutan experience is, definitively different.
On my most recent trip to Bhutan (July 2016) I experienced a few differences from previous trips based on a number of factors unique to my own emotional and physical experience; AND what I brought back was an abiding calm that permeated my mind. For those who have experienced this sensation, it’s very similar to the moment just after meditation or deep prayer in which your mind is quiet, still, and open. In addition, I noticed, when I returned home, that the muscles in my cheekbones were sore. As my wild mind is want to do, I searched for some explanation; what had happened to me? Did I have a fever? Was I sick? Was this part of an allergy attack? Of course, the muscles in my face were sore BECAUSE I had been smiling so much! Seriously. I was, fundamentally, happier than I had been in months and months.
What I brought back from Bhutan was a small piece of happiness. Not the giddy happiness that comes from playing or even watching a game, and not the happiness that comes from meeting new friends or even being with your child when they have a wonderful experience. All of those forms of happiness are equally wonderful. What I brought back from Bhutan is what I would call an inner happiness…one that stays in mind. Of course, even that form of happiness fades as time goes by. The echoes of the experience, however, remain as a kind of beacon or benchmark or bookmark on my mind. This happiness is renewed and strengthened by my return visits to the country.
My travels to Bhutan have been facilitated and organized by my friend and companion on these trips, Namgay. Bhutan requires a travel guide for all visits to the country for most people in the world. This system of pairing a company and guide with travelers is wonderful in that the country guarantees a quality experience for all visitors (ideally of course). I met Namgay on my first visit to the country, in 2010. He was the first Bhutanese person I got to know. I’m not really a believer in fate or destiny, but I do believe in karma and the laws of cause and effect: meeting Namgay and becoming a friend of his (and his family) is a connection in the world that I value and really treasure.
Namgay has, without question, gently revealed his experiences and life to me (and to students and parents that have traveled with me) in a way that is remarkable and revealing as a glimpse at his life in his hometown. Those insights have really opened my understanding of real life in Bhutan…I say real because life in small, agricultural towns, across the globe, has distinct similarities and having grown up in a small town, I can understand much of what Namgay’s life was like. Our travels across Bhutan together have been among the most valuable experiences of my life.
Namgay’s stories of people and events are engaging and he has a real grasp of the complexity of some of the events that formed the modern Bhutanese state. More importantly, aside from basic cultural and historical knowledge related to Bhutanese history, Namgay imparts personal knowledge of his own past. The quality of his stories and his perspective on both past and present Bhutan is so much a part of what I now understand about the country.
Now maybe I have strayed, a bit, from my tale of why I come home with a carried over experience, and why Bhutan and the people I have met in Bhutan have imparted that feeling, notion, thought in me without me really knowing it. I have more than a few thoughts about that and I will explain those thoughts by focusing on one experience in particular.
In the heart of Bumthang are a number of very important temples. One of them is among the oldest temples in the country, Kurje Lhakhang (early 8th century), was the site of Padmasambhava’s meditation in a cave above a river. Kurje, Ku (body), je (imprint), represents the place where Padmasambhava’s body, literally, made an imprint into the stone of the cave. The temple surrounds this sacred site and protects the cave.
During my second trip to Bhutan, I entered the room before the rest of the group and grabbed a seat in the far corner of this dimly lit shrine room. In front of me, behind glass, was a clear view of the cave and a statue of Padmasambhava. Sitting on a cushion behind me under a window was a local person chanting a mantra, moving his prayer beads. I sat there for a few minutes and began my meditation practice. For those of you who meditate or pray fervently, you understand that when one first sits to meditation or pray, it takes a few minutes to get started. Here, in this shrine room, when I began my meditation I was instantly in it. Still, quiet mind. I usually have to follow my breath to get into the practice, but on this occasion, I was there, immediately. The experience was striking. Students wandered in with Namgay and sat around me….I stayed, in silence, right there. Awake and aware.
See, I told you there was a woo woo moment. Now, Buddhist teachers have said that being in a sacred place allows one’s mind to focus attention on the main practice. I imagine visiting a cathedral in France or Italy, or visiting a sacred site like Chaco Canyon might have the same effect. That feeling and mental stillness stayed with me for days after, and I was able to call it to mind when I was back in Albuquerque. Does a place, a physical construct, have the ability to impart knowledge? As some teachers have said, to impart merit to the person in the temple simply because that person is in a place where Padmasambhava meditated? Of course, I cannot answer that question for you, but I can answer the question for myself. Yes. Something is transmitted by being in that space. You could argue that it was always in my mind (I might call that my true nature) or that the romanticism I mentioned before is the source for all of these so-called feelings.
I’ve got a bit more to say (actually a lot) and it’s getting late here…more in the next post.