It’s a warm, early June day. The sky is crystal clear in Bumthang with white, billowy clouds dotting the expansive space over our heads as we walk along a dirt road headed to Kurje Lhakhang. The dust rises from underneath our feet as we trod a dirt road following the Chamkar Chu river. We started this short trek just a mile before, walking toward the east, headed toward a suspension bridge above the river. The mood is lively as a couple of students run down the road, seeing the bridge in front of them, eager to be the first to cross.
A slight breeze crosses our path as we walk and the heat starts to build. Beads of sweat appear on my brow and I wish I had worn a short sleeve shirt; why did I choose the polyester collared shirt on this day? As I walk, I take pictures of houses, landscapes, students, flowers, and the river. I pull up the rear (my spot on these recent hikes) and arrive at the bridge with most folks already across. I step onto the swinging expanse as the breeze is hitting its height, the bridge slowly swinging side to side over the rushing river below. Covered in prayer flags, the wind whips these small cloth tiles. I pause at the middle and look forward and back; students are already walking down the dirt road on the other side toward the temple grounds.
Below the bridge toward the Kurje temple grounds, standing on a large rock in the river, is a woman, washing and cleaning clothes. With a bucket mixed with soap and water, she puts one piece at a time in the bucket, scrubs the clothes with her hands, and then rinses in the river. Once the washing is complete, she lays the clothes flat on the stone in the hot sun…about ten garments stretch across these rocks, drying in the mid-day sunlight.
I make it onto the dirt road just below a hill leading high up into the mountains surrounding the valley. At the end of the road (maybe 100 yards or so) is a small parking area near the metal gate separating the road from the temple. The gate, no more than 5 feet high opens into the grounds with a guard and monk standing close by. We cross through the gate and emerge in front of the first building of Kurje Lhakang. To the right, a cliff face rises about 30 feet or so above the ground level and its rocky face is covered in moss and vines. As we walk around the building toward the stairs leading into the main shrine rooms of the temple, you can tell that the temple covers the cliff face, sealing off the outside world with an inner world of shrine rooms and caves.
This building, constructed in the distant past (about 1200 years ago), seals off a series of caves in the wall of the cliff. It is this building and the shrine room associated with it that is our goal.
The stairs leading up to the temple zig zag between two distinct temples….on the right is the temple surrounding the cave, and the left a sign clearly says “Guru Rimpoche Footprint”. We climb up the stairs and head to the temple on the right. After two flights of steps, we walk to a landing with a doorway that enters into a darkened hall.
To the left, at our feet, is an opening in the wall about three feet tall and maybe two feet wide. The floor inside this small opening is dirt and curves around a column inside the wall. Namgay, our guide, asks if we want to crawl through the small opening and through a tight cave. After passing through, we will receive a kind of blessing from the Guru and receive a ritual purification. We all agree to pass through. One by one we get down on hands and knees….the dirt is a light brown color, kind of a tan, and the dirt is a fine powder. Some if us laugh at the experience, some of us take it very seriously. We crawl on hands and knees through the opening….me, at over 6 feet, struggle to wriggle through the tiny space…..once inside the doorway, the cave makes a sharp left turn….I can feel dirt, sand, and rock on the floor of the cave and the cool feeling of the rock wall as it rubs my shoulder on the right….I bend my body down, almost flat on the floor, to make the turn….as soon as I come around, I can see the light of the exit, just a couple of feet away….it’s remarkable how dark the cave is when the light is so close! I wiggle my way up and out of the opening…not so graceful, but feeling a sense of accomplishment.
From there we head up another flight of stairs and into the shrine room of the meditation cave for Padmasambhava. As I part the curtain that separates the shrine from the outside world, a glass encased series of sculptures, statues, and offerings sit behind the glass….just behind those statues you can see the rock wall, very dimly lit in this room. I cross in front of the alter that sits in front of the glass enclosed cave, and see, on the far side of the room, the cave Padmasambhava meditated in. I am struck by how small the space really is, and imagine that Padmasambhava was about 5’ 5” tall, or so….the cave has a distinct floor and ceiling. At the time he arrived here, the cave sat maybe 20 feet above the valley floor…..I am imagine he climbed up to this spot, capable of seeing the valley in front of him, across a grassy field, probably with a few animals grazing in the distance. In the winter, this cave must have been a chilly place to sit, as Bumthang sits relatively high in elevation and receives a decent amount of snow during the winter. Similarly, this cave would have been visible from across the valley as he sat in calm abiding. Certainly people who lived here would have known of his presence and more than likely brought him offerings of food and clothing for his stay.
With all of these thoughts in mind, I find a place to sit in the far corner of the room. Near me is a local resident of Bumthang, sitting under a exterior window near the lama’s seat, chanting a mantra and moving beads in his hands. He is fully clothed, from head to toe, with only his head and hands showing. He glances gently my way. I immediately reach a state of stillness and begin a short meditation, legs crossed, sitting on polished wooden floor boards hewn and hand cut. Over the years these boards have been polished with an animal fur pad that attaches to your feet, the pads sitting next to the entrance of the room. The stillness permeates the space and the quiet chanting completely fills the silence in the room.
A moment later (maybe two), students file in, silently, and find a spot to sit. Across from us sits Namgay….as we rest, silently for a few moments, he talks about the importance of this place. He tells the story of Padmasambhava and his travels to Bhutan. We all listen carefully and I can tell the students are very attentive with a kind of heightened awareness. These moments happen consistently in these sacred places, and I am so impressed by the respectful nature of the students as they listen intently.
Soon enough, we rise and slowly leave the room….
(You can find more information about Kurjey here.)