Imagine this: you’ve just made an offering to the goddess of compassion and the temple’s resident monk pours saffron holy water into your cupped palm as a blessing. Instead of taking a noisy sip and splashing the remainder on your head (as was explained to you), you pretend to drink because you don’t want to get sick from the water, and then you surreptitiously throw the rest over the top of your head instead of on it; your hair is already a humid mess and just doesn’t need more wet. Now the dilemma: do you lose the merit you were supposed to earn by making the offering? This became a daily preoccupation during my time in Bhutan. In this case, I chose to think the goddess of compassion would understand, but would the Buddha see it the same way when I did it in front of his statue? Or how about the irrepressible Divine MadMan?
For years I dreamed of visiting Bhutan and I finally made it there. I spent sixteen days traveling by car from the sole international airport in Paro and the nearby capital city of Thimpu (the most visited areas) into the remote central part of the country, called Bumthang, via steep, narrow, winding and muddy roads over several high mountain passes, then back down across raging untamed rivers. From there, the roads looped back full circle via the tranquil Pobjikha Valley. This lovely glacial valley is where the 500 or so endangered Black-necked Cranes from Tibet spend the winter, but I was too early, pushing the end of the monsoon season with fewer tourists, but no cranes and more rain. Luckily, Blessed Rainy Day was September 22, so I took the required shower first thing in the morning and sure enough, the rain stopped, although the clouds persisted. I knew I wouldn’t see the cranes, but instead I was rewarded with a sighting of the White-Bellied Heron, equally rare, but not mentioned in the guidebooks.
Tourism in Bhutan is closely controlled and travelers must pay a set fee of $250/day (plus $40 more for the hated single supplement). This provides a licensed tour guide, a driver with vehicle, three-star lodging, three meals a day, and all the tea you could ever possibly drink. You can pay more for one of the few four or five star hotel rooms, but you can’t stay any more cheaply. This high value–low volume tourism policy is specifically designed to discourage the independent backpacker-style of travel common in India and Nepal and preserve the culture and environment of Bhutan. It also means you have a constant companion in your guide. Luckily, Sonam had a great sense of humor and was delightful, considerate, and respected my need for private time.
Bhutan has been called the Hidden Kingdom or the last Shangri-La for its incredible beauty of 17th century dzongs amidst rugged mountain landscapes, isolationist policies (closed to foreigners until 1992), and fierce protection of its unique Buddhist culture. I’d read a lot about its policy to promote Gross National Happiness instead of Gross National Product (in that earlier life a few years ago as a sustainability expert), but found I understood little else about the country and its customs.
I learned quickly, though, that bare arms and legs just aren’t done, so my skirts and tank tops stayed in the suitcase despite the heat, humidity and my guide’s assertions that I could wear anything because I was a foreigner. In spite of choosing to stay covered, I walked whenever possible, mostly climbing paths to the ubiquitous monasteries, dzongs and temples. Even so, the extreme nature of the terrain meant being in the car for three to six hours between locations, at an average speed of 15 mph (24kph). We stayed safe on the truly treacherous roads because the second day of our trip happened to be Hindu Blessed Machinery Day (the Buddhists are accommodating and honor it too). My driver had decorated our car with balloons and streamers and we drove to the blessing area where, basically, some guy who had set up an altar under a tarp put red tikka dots on my forehead, tied orange string on my right wrist, and gave me paper cones filled with nuts, crackers, and candy. The vehicle and I were thereby blessed.
Half of the Bhutan flag is orange, representing the authority of the king, while the other half is yellow for the monasteries. So it’s not surprising that the culture is completely intertwined with Buddhism in this country where power is shared by “church” (monastery) and state. The main building in each region is the dzong, most built in the 17th century to also serve as fortresses, of which half is devoted to administrative offices and half to religious functions (temple and monk’s quarters). I’m a stickler for following local customs and try hard to be a conscious traveler, although I’m sure there are times when I’m just a crass tourist. But it means that even when those customs are religious in nature (and I am not), I take part as long as I’m not intruding. In Eastern Europe, I lit candles in churches and covered my head when entering mosques. In Nepal, I turned prayer wheels and walked clockwise around all chortens.
In Bhutan, prayer wheels and prayer flags are everywhere, many hotels have an altar room for meditation, art consists of Buddhist paintings and sculpture, and monks are everywhere as part of everyday life. I carried lots of small bills to make offering to Buddha or one of the multiple deities in the many temples I visited almost every day.
Blessings were available and offered for every conceivable situation. I received my first blessed (pronounced bless-said) talisman when I landed: my guide gave me a white silk kata scarf to signify welcome and safe journey. I tied it around my purse. The next day in Thimpu, a monk stopped me on the street to give me an orange envelope. Inside were five kernels of blessed medicine good for any serious illness or to promote vitality. I kept it in case I need it later. When another monk tied a black blessed string around my neck for protection, I liked the way it looked and still wear it today.
I was fascinated by a culture where all buildings are traditional Bhutanese architecture and citizens are required to wear national dress when working. It’s a gho for men (a knee-length wrapped garment with long, fold-up white sleeves) and a kira for women (cloth wrapped at floor-length to form a dress or skirt, topped with a colored shirt and short silk jacket). I visited the school where students study for six years to become masters at weaving, painting, and sculpture. Yet, the weavers wove the same patterns as their great-great-grandmother’s had, the sculptors worked toward copying the great altar statues, and the painters learned the specific proportion and colors of how to paint Buddha and the deities exactly like the temple paintings from hundreds of years ago. The sign of a master was not a signature, but a perfect copy. The food I was served was curated for the tourist palette–somewhat bland potatoes, rice, sautéed vegetables, noodles, and sometimes an unrecognizable meat or fish dish, but there was always chilis-and-cheese, the spicy national dish made with green chilis and a melted white cheese sauce.
I thought perhaps I’d find creativity at one of the four different Tshechus I attended—the annual sacred masked dance festivals/major social gatherings that are held at each regional dzong. But the spectacular dances performed by the specially trained monks were developed by the great Lama Pema Lingpa in the 15th century and are performed unchanged. The spectators dressed in their finest ghos and kiras, designs first worn in the 16th century.
I started to question my assumptions about the role of art and creativity. Where were the authors, the filmmakers, the designers, the chefs, the rebel spirits? Or did art, artists and creativity not serve the same function as it did in my American experience? In Europe, people flock to see the history and art; why did this feel different?
I also started to question my assumptions about Buddhism, but I persisted. In addition to the many blessings I received, I also performed acts that accumulated merit. Like carrying the 55-pound chain-mail cloak, (made by Pema Lingpa himself) around his temple three times—known to be a very auspicious act. Or turning large and small prayer wheels and tying strings of prayer flags at every mountain pass I crossed, adding to the hundreds already crisscrossing the road. I spritzed a touch of my food and drink to the deities before consuming it. And it turns out I accumulated merit merely by watching the sacred dances, especially the Death Passage Dance where I learned to recognize the spirits that will guide me between death and my reincarnation.
Regardless of my belief or non-belief, I must confess that I did also lose merit. At one of the Tshechus, the high lama who is the 9th reincarnation of Pema Lingpa, gave a “welcome” speech that lasted almost an hour. The crowd baked in the hot sun while he sat on a covered daïs wearing sunglasses. I asked Sonam if it was taking so long because he was thanking every person he’d ever met during those nine lives. I shouldn’t have made fun of him. Sure enough, things didn’t go well for me for the rest of the day and I had to turn a lot of prayer wheels to get things back on track.
My favorite blessing, however, was at the temple of The Divine MadMan (1455-1529), a monk who introduced Buddhism to Bhutan in 1499, but believed enlightenment could be achieved through means other than monastic or religious practices. Known for serious drinking and seducing women (who supposedly sought his blessing in the form of sex), he introduced the practice (still followed today) of painting giant phalluses on buildings and hanging penis sculptures over doorways to drive away evil spirits. The Divine MadMan’s penis is referred to as the Thunderbolt of Flaming Wisdom because of its power to awaken unenlightened beings (have to admit, in all my years, I’ve never heard that line). At his temple, I received the coveted blessing of being tapped on the head by the MadMan’s own bow and a yak horn symbolizing his penis. As the ultimate protective talisman, I got a carved yak-bone phallus to wear around my neck on my blessed black string. So here’s that dilemma again: do I wear it or not?
Maybe I’m jaded or travel weary, and it feels awkward and a bit sacrilegious to write this, but who is blessed enough to go on a fabulous trip to an incredible place on earth, and be disappointed? But, I was. The Bhutanese landscape was spectacular, the people generous and thoughtful, the traditional culture intact and interesting, and the blessings plentiful, but there was something flat about the experience. A lack of spark and spirit of discovery. Everything a bit too controlled either by government or self. Almost like visiting a museum but being required to do the guided tour. I’m sure there’s more beneath the surface somewhere, and I loved what I saw. But for now, I’d have to say it’s a great place to visit, but I wouldn’t want to live there, Gross National Happiness or not.