The Kingdom of Bhutan always fascinated us – the Himalayas; its rich tradition of Tantric Buddhism; the Gross National Product that was replaced with Gross National Happiness; a King beloved by his entire realm; and a society in which men and women live together in equal partnership… this fascination combined with several auspicious circumstances led to us putting this journey together.
It began with me experiencing a strong tantric connection with Padmasambhava, also known as Guru Rinpoche, or the 2nd Buddha, who brought Buddhism to Bhutan and Tibet in the 8th century. This connection has progressively and profoundly deepened my insight into the spiritual realms of Tantra since he first appeared to me in a vision almost three years ago.
Friends returned from Bhutan with amazing and colorful stories, and excitement about the vibrant spirituality that permeates every nook and cranny of the places they visited and the people they met.
While the idea of a Bhutan visit filled our hearts and invigorated our creativity, in late 2009 a client promised that if we ever put together a trip to Bhutan, her husband and her would be the first people to register. And that very day I received an e-mail from Mutt, a dear long-time friend of mine who has been living and meditating in India for many years, and organizes journeys to Bhutan and Tibet. This was the first time I had heard from him in many years! So, true to the Tantric way, there was only one word – YES.
We just returned from this grand journey, our “Tantric Pilgrimage to Bhutan” which we shared with a group of 14 clients, all advanced tantrikas, as well as Mutt, our organizer and Rinchen, a Buddhist lama who recently completed a traditional 3 year, 3 month, 3 week, 3 day solitary retreat, and two Bhutanese guides.
And a pilgrimage it was! To me, a pilgrimage is a journey inward as well as outward – a transformative journey to a sacred center. Brandon Wilson, the best-selling author who has been on many pilgrimages in different parts of the world, puts it very eloquently –
“A pilgrimage is the act of deliberate travel; traveling outside while traveling within. It is a chance to reconnect with the earth, to listen, to face your inner self, to actively commune with a greater power. […]
A pilgrimage is time devoted purely to the present. There is no past, no future, only now. Your world is your breath, a heartbeat reverberating in your ears, a Zen-like placing of each footstep along a well-trod path.
A pilgrimage is a trampoline for the mind, a purging for the soul. It is a thousand small moments. It is unexpected acts of kindness and fleeting revelations. It is surrendering to fate, spontaneity, an absolute unknown, and small arrows that light your way.
A pilgrimage is traveling lightly. Just as you leave most of your worldly belongings behind, on the trail there is a gentle unraveling of fears, emotions, desires and demons as you surrender unwanted psychic baggage to the universe.
A pilgrimage is letting go, then discovering, and in truth be found.[…]
Each pilgrim’s journey is unique. It can never be repeated. Yet it continues long after we return home to distant shores.”
I must admit, I expected a lot from this trip. In my mind it was going to be this great spiritual revelation of my connection with the teachings of Padmasambhava. I had visions of sitting in a remote cave in complete silence, and communing with God, not ever wanting to return home, maybe even remembering a past life as an important spiritual figure.
What transpired, though, was quite different but nevertheless just as revealing and life-changing as I had hoped.
The all pervading feeling in Bhutan was one of joy, ease, love and openness. Perhaps this is a result of the fact that the society is based on what is called Gross National Happiness, or short GNH. The way we understand it is that the central factors holding a GNH society together are generosity, compassion, altruism, social responsibility and community consciousness. These were adopted originally from the Buddhist religious context and applied to the secular context, to make them accessible to everyone. An individual’s personal happiness cannot be achieved by him or herself alone, but only through having a commitment to common welfare. Therefore GNH happiness is based on the idea that everything and everyone depends on each other. Only when core values such as trust, serenity, bonding, creativity, insightfulness, patience, integrity fairness, unity and cooperation, are present in a society, can there be happiness for the society and the individual.
We experienced and were deeply touched by this society first hand by traveling for 16 days through Bhutan and meeting many people from all walks of life. Our journey took us on one-lane, windy roads, often unpaved, from Thimphu, the capital, all the way to the Bumthang Valley in Central Bhutan and back. On the way a lot of things happened!
After climbing all the way up to Tango Gompa, a monastery high up on a mountain, we arrived just in time for the monks’ daily puja (a devotional ritual), and we were blessed to be able to join them in their prayer room while they prayed, dedicating it to a person who recently passed in one ceremony, and the naming of a baby in another. During the first ceremony, I was bewildered to witness each monk being given several bank notes towards the end of the prayer.
My judgmental mind immediately thought, “Well, that’s weird. What’s so spiritual about that? I thought there were monks!” Then I went upstairs to the second prayer room for another ceremony. The room was quite full, and Steve ended up sitting right next to one of the praying monks. Steve was so deeply touched by the ceremony and the chanting that tears were rolling down his cheeks. As the senior monk came by distributing the money, he dropped three notes into Steve’s lap, and the entire monk community broke out into huge grins. It was a very sweet moment! At the end of the ceremony Steve attempted to return the money, but he was lovingly told that it was for good luck and abundance, and he should keep it.
That was the first of many moments in Bhutan of looking at my conditioning about what “spiritual” is.
The second came when we were at Gangtey Gompa, one of the oldest monasteries in Bhutan. Abut 80 monks were dedicatedly chanting. This puja was particularly intense for us all because we had offered the names of our loved ones to be prayed for. I was sitting right behind a line of monks, wrapped into my warm meditation scarf, with large trumpets blowing incredible, energetic sounds into the very core of my being. But then, to my dismay, just to my side our two Bhutanese guides were loudly chatting away with several of the villagers. I shot them some angry glances, demanding that they be quiet and practice reverence. But they did not concur. “Hm”, I thought, “don’t they have any respect for the sacredness of all this?”
Later I asked Rinchen if it was ok for people to talk loudly during a religious service like that and he said, yes, of course, spiritual practice is part of our everyday, and so while it is sacred, it is also quite normal. I realized then just how deep my German church conditioning had gone!
Throughout our entire journey, we travelled on through the most majestic, pure and incredible nature I have ever been blessed to see. Snow-capped Himalayan peaks in the background, there were high, green mountains with the deepest valleys, with a rushing river snaking deep down in the lushest valleys, filled with terraced rice fields, grazing yaks, cows and horses with the most adorable baby foals, and houses, painted with ejaculating penises.
Yes, you read right. The 15th century Tibetan teacher, Drukpa Kunley, also known in Bhutan as “the Divine Madman”, is said to have subdued demons and other negative forces with the power of his erect penis. Hence an erect penis has become a symbol of protection for the Bhutanese. It is either painted prominently on or hung above the door of many houses we saw. Believe me, even though I am a Tantra teacher, it was quite confronting!
Up to that point, the spirituality resonating in this mysterious land had seemed mostly male oriented to me. One day I got mad that after taking quite a tough climb to a temple high up on a sheer mountain top, through pouring rain, I was not allowed to enter the famed cave where Guru Rinpoche had meditated, all because I was a woman! But, I had to let it go, as I did with many other resistances and obstacles that my ego presented to me while on this journey! It was, after all, a Pilgrimage!
This, my limited view of the Bhutanese spirituality changed on the day we were able to visit a nunnery on top of yet another amazing mountain, somewhere in the Bumthang Valley. The 50 or so nuns there generously offered us a puja for the well being of all our loved ones and sentient beings. For me, sitting with them in their beautiful prayer room, melting into the hypnotizing chant of their voices was amazing. I sat there long after they were finished and everyone had left the room. At that moment I truly felt and fully realized that my Tantric lineage, although originally transmitted from a man, Padmasambhava, is basically a feminine path. I was thankful to Yeshe Tsogyel, his learned consort and skilful writer for recording all his teachings so that they could live into our times, and to Margot Anand for receiving and distilling the teachings and passing the lineage on to me.
At this nunnery, Steve met the main lama, a 70-year old nun who had been living there since she was 7 years old, spinning her prayer wheel continuously for all these years, in selfless service sending prayers out to heal the world. Her dedication gave Steve a new perspective on what dedication and service. By making others, their peace and well-being more important than oneself, all personal misery, drama and suffering vanishes.
We stayed in the Bumthang Valley for six nights, and it was wonderful to settle down and feel. I had decided long before this journey actually began, to write a travelogue with the plan to publish it as a book. I had recorded interviews with some of our fellow travellers, and already transcribed them. But once I got to Bhutan, it became clear that my purpose there, if any at all, was to f-e-e-l. Whenever my mind took over with thoughts about the boiling hot water in the toilet, or the scary road with the sheer cliff falling 90 degrees down to my right, or the thin mattress on the bed, or the lack of Internet…. I reminded myself just to f-e-e-l. While the mind boggled, I felt so much throughout our entire trip!
One very sweet connection for me was with our lama Rinchen. At first I was a little intimidated by him. He seemed very serious in his robes, and so self contained, speaking very little English. On about the third day or so we ate at a small restaurant that also sported one of Bhutan’s very few gift stores. “How very enterprising of the owner,” we all thought. For purchase was a selection of items, from hand-woven scarves to penis statues, to colorful thangkas and some traditional Buddhist hats.
Rinchen was standing next to me when I looked at one of the traditional hats, and, not wanting to be disrespectful by asking Steve to put it on and model it for me, I asked Rinchen to do it. He put on this hat and looked at me, and BANG! – my heart opened right up! Just like that. He told me that this particular hat was a teaching hat, only worn when lamas give teachings. I stood there breathless, with my heart completely unprotected, wide open, vulnerable and beating hard and looked into his eyes. And then I told him that, “See, Rinchen, teaching is very simple, it is right here. Right this moment! You didn’t even have to do anything.” I am not sure he understood my vocabulary but I am certain that he got the message because from then on, our connection was deep and vibrant. Teaching after all is not about what we teach or how we teach it, but all about who we are.
I was surprised how open he was to all of us. I asked him about his solitary retreat, how it was to spend all these years alone, in silence. One of the sweetest things for him, he said, was that he connected with so many wild animals during his time – the jungle goats, deer and birds. And also, it was hard not to wash, shave or cut his hair or nails for the first four months. Talk about dedication to spiritual practice! We talked about the Tantric practices included in his path, but it took until the very last evening for him to ask me about the sexual practices of “our Tantra”. It was a fabulous conversation. He is only 34 years old, and has been a monk since age 10. I asked him how he deals with his sexuality, and he told me that in his Tantric practice, the sexual energy is transmuted into spiritual ecstasy through visualizations of the Tantric deities in sexual union. He said he does not miss the sexual act in the physical form. Amazing. This is some of the advanced material we teach in the Love & Ecstasy Training, after we have been through healing, exploring and expanding our physical sexual energy in the previous cycles.
One day we visited the large Punakha Dzong. A dzong is an old, fortress like structure built several centuries ago, each housing administrational, government offices of Bhutan as well as a monastery. The Punakha Dzong was surrounded by purple blooming jacaranda trees, and that coloring, together with the flowing red-robed shapes of the monks and confluence of two rushing rivers will never leave my memory. Inside, preparations were underway for the birthday celebrations of Bhutan’s founder, Zhabdrung Ngawang Namgyal.
Monks were busy hanging gigantic banners, unrolling huge thangkas, cleaning prayer wheels, washing the steps with long, thick red fire hoses, and decorating window openings with colorful brocades and flags adorned with the eight auspicious symbols. We saw one monk hiking up his voluminous robes to climb up on the roof, while the others helped him, pulled him up, laughing to us as we took their photo. Other monks were drying their freshly washed robes on the dzongs’ roofs. It was quite the spectacle and brought back to us that everything – even something seemingly mundane as doing our laundry – is part of life and can be a spiritual practice. Today Rinchen e-mailed me that 30,000 people joined the celebration. Quite the feat in a country of only 700,000.2
At my favorite place of all, the Trongsa Dzong, the largest Dzong in the country, we were drawn to an upstairs temple room by the guttural – yes, passionate – reverberations of monks’ prayer emerging into the courtyard. I felt my hair stand on end, and my skin turn into goose bumps. They were on day seven of a 14-day puja dedicated to the long life of all sentient beings, praying and meditating selflessly for 12 hours every day, starting at 1am. Sitting with the monks in puja is a listening experience like no other. Being allowed into this room where monks have done the same thing for the past 500 years, we received the prayers with our ears, with our hearts, with our entire bodies, and the deep, penetrating voices removed all armoring we might have brought with us. In fact we felt the same sensations every time we sat with the monks and it left us moved and with a new appreciation for the mystery of life.
Everywhere we went people were so incredibly friendly and available. Their faces opened up in huge smiles, and the children calling out, “Hello, how are you” in their sweet, melodious voices with such gusto and enthusiasm that it sometimes brought tears to our eyes.
Spirituality permeates everything in Bhutan in a very practical and down to earth way. It is evident in the people and the nature. It vibrates in the faces, in the healthy, abundant landscapes, in the happy looking, well-fed free roaming animals and the bright eyes of the monks and nuns. It is part of the food we ate, the delicious vegetables of wide varieties from young ferns to asparagus to okra and all sorts of other delights. It is there in the rice fields, the stupas (dome-shaped Buddhist shrines) and in the detailed, artful decorations on the outside of their houses. Most cars we saw had a small solar powered prayer wheel on the dashboard, sending prayers out into the world for the health and long life of all sentient beings. The lodges we stayed at were staffed by lovely people who took care of us in ways that we never experienced before. And, in Bhutanese hotels it is the women who carry the luggage to the guests’ accommodation, not the “bell boy”!
Another memorable visit for both Steve and me was the residence of Dilgo Khyentse Rinpoche, the most venerated Buddhist teacher of our time and one of the main teachers of Sogyal Rinpoche, the author of “The Tibetan Book of Living and Dying”.
He left his body in 1991 and his home of 30 years continues to be lovingly maintained as a sacred place of pilgrimage. We had read a lot of his work, and recently watched the movie about his life and teaching, “Brilliant Moon”, during which I cried inexplicably the entire time. Entering the small, typically decorated building, we both sensed the strong energy and presence of this great Master. Crying, I walked through the rooms alone, prostrating before a surprisingly life-like wax statue of Rinpoche, taking in the images, ritual items and resonance of him.
After watching a lovely video about him, our group was rearing to settle into our nearby hotel. Somehow it was a very private moment for me, so I decided to get away from them all and walked out into the garden. There I stood by a small dais where he had given his teachings, feeling the magic of this place, breathing it in. Still crying, I heard footsteps behind me but I did not let them disturb my special moment. And then I felt the arm of my beloved Steve coming around me, and as I turned, I saw that he, too, was crying. It was a very sweet space of connection and understanding; without any words but everything was said.
On our last day, we hiked (well, me on a horse) on twisty paths through the forest up to the famous Taktsang Gompa, also know as the Tiger’s Nest. This magical monastery clings to a vertical granite cliff 2,000 feet above the valley floor and is an amazing feat of architecture! Legend has it that Guru Padmasambhava flew to a cave on this cliff riding a tiger – hence the name – to meditate. The tiger was actually his favorite consort, Yeshe Tsogyel, whom he transformed into a tiger for the purposes of this journey. They meditated in the cave, and when the Guru left, he instructed that the monastery was to be built right there.
Hailed as the must-see place in Bhutan, I was ready for a spectacular experience. Our guides provided a most informative tour through the monastery, but for me there was only one place – the cave! Finally, I got to sit in the cave I had envisaged all along. It was small, freezing cold and adorned with the most colorful, sublime altar and statuary. I just sat there for a long time, feeling the silence, breathing in the profundity, letting the vibration of the cave’s rock walls permeate me. When I emerged, it was in such peace and relaxation that I have never felt before. Like a steady, quiet, one-tone hum of a pleasant, deep sound inside my being.
One of the most profound visceral realizations came when one early morning I sat down to meditate on a rock by the side of a rushing river, facing downstream. I dedicated time to letting go of the old, moving on, releasing fears and restrictions. Then I turned upstream, open to receiving all that was new and refreshing. It was a fabulous experience. The next morning I returned to the same rock, again, to meditate. To my surprise, this time the river called me to sit right in the middle, neither facing upstream nor downstream, just being in the middle. That’s when I really felt what the Buddha called, “the middle way”. Neither future, nor past, but right now, right here. Impermanence. The water flows, every moment is new, there is nothing permanent, even right now is nothing but a concept of the busy mind.
Since we left Bhutan some 10 days ago, I have dreamed about it vividly every night. I suspect – indeed hope – that the images I carry with me in my heart and memory will never leave me. I also know the pilgrimage to such a sacred place is possible only very rarely, and I take the experience of Bhutan as my guiding light to be on pilgrimage every day, right here, under my fig tree, with my husband, looking at the blooming lavender in my garden.
If I had to summarize this journey and my experience and learning in a few words I would say – acceptance, love, ease, feeling and completion. More than once did I feel, deep down, that yes, today is a good day to die, right here. And that is the way I want to live every day of my life!
© 2011 Lokita Carter