Wednesday, December 1, 2010

Guru Rinpoche

Source: the Crestone Eagle

by Larry Calloway. photos by Patricia Kvill and Larry Calloway

Monks at Paro escort Guru Rinpoche dancer.
In Bhutan at dawn on the final day of the annual festival at Paro monastery, monks on a high balcony unfurl for a few hours an enormous textile so sacred it’s supposed to bring liberation on sight. The devout in traditional dress come forward to touch their foreheads to its hem. Last March 30 we were there among a handful of tourists in a crowd of thousands that briefly included even young King “Jimmy.”
The central figure of the huge needlework tangka (temple hanging), is Padhmasambhava, more affectionately called Guru Rinpoche. He is the powerful sage, a tantric yogin, who brought Buddhism from the west to the Tibetan plateau and the Himalayas in the eighth century.
In the Nyingma tradition, predominant in Bhutan and the Nepal kingdom of Mustang, he is regarded as the second Buddha. He obviously eclipses the first in popular devotion because wherever you come upon a natural landmark—an odd rock or cave or spring—you also see an image or hear a story about a miraculous visit by Guru Rinpoche.
The “Tiger’s Nest” monastery near Paro.
Taktsang Gompa, the famous “Tiger’s Nest” on a dizzying cliff near Paro, is built around a cave to which Guru Rinpoche flew on a tiger’s back to tame a local demon. The tiger, who stayed for a while, was a manifestation of his consort Yeshe Tsogyal (a hero in her own right who fought forced marriage to follow a spiritual path).
These places are not just for tourists. At Taktsang our young guide Chimi, who had just become a father, summoned a monk for a private ceremony. Offering some currency on an altar of Guru Rinpoche, he closed his eyes in prayer as the monk drew a slip of paper from a jar and read three words. Chimi relaxed, then turned to us and explained the purpose of the sacred lottery. “The name of my son,” he said.
The dancing at Paro takes great energy.
In the Bhumtang Valley one morning we encountered some old folks walking around and around a monument at the ancient Jambay Lhakang (temple). Chimi said the local seniors did this every morning. They were chanting a mantra to Guru Rinpoche.
At a spring of pure water above Kurjey Lhakhang we watched a woman fill dozens of bottles. She was preparing to carry them home in a porter’s basket that must have weighed 100 pounds. The water is regarded as sacred because it was brought forth by Guru Rinpoche after he converted a local fiend who had stolen a king’s life force.
In Mustang several years ago I was taken deep into a canyon to meet an old hermit in a cave where mysterious limestone figures  testify to Guru Rinpoche’s victory over several resident demons. My guide climbed to a crack in the cliff there to fill a bottle from a trickle of sacred water.
Two things about the legend of Guru Rinpoche strike me as mythic genius. First, the stories of how he converted fearsome local spirits to Buddhism, as opposed to slaying them, are metaphors for a religious revolution. The scholar Matthew Kapstein remarks that unlike other schools, the Nyingma tradition incorporated Bon, the indigenous Tibetan religion.
Knife-wielding demon comes forth.
Knife-wielding demon comes forth.
Second, Guru Rinpoche left texts of his teachings hidden in various places for discovery by later generations. Thus, as Kapstein remarks, the dharma is continually renewed as these spiritual treasures are produced. It is an organic religion.
One more observation: the manly character of the mustachioed saint expresses a culture that developed in a time of warring kingdoms and banditry. It is no accident that Mustang is littered with empty hilltop fortresses or that Bhutan’s massive dzongs (religious centers that also are seats of government) are fortified. The surviving culture was neither intimidated nor complacent.
A Bhutanese brand of drinking water in plastic bottles claims to be from a spring extracted by Guru Rinpoche. The label says this water should be treated with respect and that it has “potent healing power for various physical and mental problems.”
Potency is certainly the essence of the phallic totem that appears everywhere in Bhutan—painted on walls, carved from wood and hung from eaves, chiseled in stone. At Chima Lhakang, dedicated to the 16th century “mad monk” Lama Kunley who found enlightenment in “wine and women,” I received a blessing with two taps at the altar. The first was with a symbolic bow and arrow (archery is the national sport). The second was a disconcerting whack on the head with an 18-inch wooden phallus.
Monks in the debate courtyard at Jakar.
Monks in the debate courtyard at Jakar.
I discovered that too was the nature of the painted “baton” used with alarming humor by the clowns at the Paro festival. The clowns, in standard red masks with big cynical grins, mimicked the dancers and members of the audience. They kept folks entertained during long repetitive dancing and kept the dancers and wayward dogs and children in line. They were as delightful as the koshari clowns at Pueblo ceremonies in New Mexico.
On another level, the tradition of debate in the monasteries carries this same engaged energy. From the market in Jakar in the Bhumtang Valley one evening we heard a lot of what seemed to be yelling from a hilltop monastery called Shukdra. A couple of days later we went there at the same time and encountered a hundred maroon-robed men confronting each other in small groups in the “debate courtyard.”
In each group the protagonists were on their feet dramatizing their points with aggressive gestures—stepping forward, finger pointing, hand slapping. Their targets in each group were monks seated as if in meditation—calmly rebutting. The debate questions, such as “Is it all right to eat animals?” perhaps are not as important as the performance, the equanimity of the response.
The movie Travelers and Magicians, shot entirely in Bhutan with local actors, begins with some of these cultural markings  before it goes into the deeper Buddhist story of an illusion within an illusion (within a movie). Its Bhutanese writer-director, Khyentse Norbu, also has written a persuasive and accessible book called What Makes You NOT A Buddhist.
On the narrow highway to the Bhumtang Valley below Pelela Pass we stopped at one of Khyentse’s mountainous filming locations—an overhanging cliff where the travelers in history spend the night listening to a monk tell a story by a fire under a painted figure on the rocks. The figure, now fading, is of the sort likely to be mistaken by Westerners as “The Buddha.” It is Guru Rinpoche.
The enormous tangka unfurled once a year at Paro.
The enormous tangka unfurled once a year at Paro.
Is there a difference? Or does that question represent—to quote something written at an exhibit in the wonderful new royal museum in the watchtower at Trongsa Dzong—“the discriminations of relative truth” as opposed to “the non-discrimination of absolute truth.” Whatever, Khyentse provides a solution to the problem (if it is a problem) in his book. “Buddha isn’t a person’s name,” he writes. “It is the label for a state of mind.”
This statement might shake you awake if you are napping in the comfort of religious equations (Buddha equals Jesus, etc.). But it is a familiar cultural backdrop, like the figure on the rocks near Pelela, where I have been fortunate to travel. It is the stability behind religious practices of the people—the people!—reported in this series—the non-communist overseas Chinese who still venerate Guan Yin, the Theravadan Buddhists of Southeast Asia who celebrate in the face of hostile military surveillance, the Tibetans in two fragile Himalayan kingdoms who still love the magic of Guru Rinpoche in a time of unmagical thinking.
Old folks walking and chanting to Guru Rinpoche.
Old folks walking and chanting to Guru Rinpoche.
Which is not to say the depth of Buddhist dharma is forgotten. On a rock face at the side of the Pelela filming location, where the travelers listened to a story and debated and worried about making a living and (two of them) fell in love, we found these painted words:
Prayer that all sentient beings may find freedom from:
Wanting praise
Not wanting criticism
Wanting happiness
Not wanting unhappiness
Wanting to gain
Not wanting to lose
Wanting fame
Not wanting to be unknown.
The author, I suppose, was Khyentse. But it is, of course, unsigned.

Friday, July 16, 2010



One World Trekking offers new research trek & cultural journey into Bhutan’s recently opened ‘Land of the Brokpas’

(TRAVPR.COM) UNITED STATES   - 16th July 2010  - From May 8 to May 18, 2011, One World Trekking ( is offering a small group of twelve trekkers the opportunity to participate on a new trekking route into the remote Merak and Sakteng region of eastern Bhutan.

This will surely be a truly incredible cultural journey and nature trek into a region of Bhutan closed to foreigners for the past 30 years. Until now, Merak and Sakteng has been closed to protect the unique cultural heritage of the Brokpa people and in part to give the mythical Yeti some peace, whose tales of wandering in these secluded valleys are very popular among the locals.

The Brokpas (highlanders) of the Merak and Sakten regions of eastern Bhutan are semi-nomadic yak herders who speak a unique dialect and wear clothing unique to this isolated region of Bhutan. Known as the Highlanders, the people of Merak and Sakteng have their ancestral roots southern Tibet, entering eastern Bhutan around the 15th century. Similar to the people of Laya, Lingshi and Lunana, the Brokpa live a semi nomadic lifestyle, primarily depending on yaks for their livelihood.
Our 6 day trek visits both Merak and the Sakteng valleys and enters the pristine Sakteng Wildlife Sanctuary. It is one of nine protected areas in Bhutan and forms part of the Bhutan Biological Conservation Complex. The Sanctuary protects the easternmost temperate forest ecosystems in the country with endemic species like eastern blue pine, black-rumped magpie and many others found only in the eastern Bhutan.

The Sanctuary was set up to protect the elusive Megay, or yeti. Other wildlife living in the Sanctuary includes the snow leopard, red panda, Himalayan black bear, barking deer and Himalayan red fox. Fauna and birds include the Assamese macaque, blood pheasant, grey backed shrike, grey-headed woodpecker, common hoopoe, rufus-vented tit and dark breasted rosefinch. According to the surveys conducted by the World Wildlife Fund, the Sakteng Sanctuary is home to some 203 species of plants, 119 species of birds and 18 species of mammals, with the snow leopard and red panda being classified internationally as “highly endangered” species.
One World Trekking’s ( brand new Bhutan hiking vacation combines a unique opportunity to travel overland into a remote corner of the ‘Land of the Thunder Dragon’ on a cultural tour and short 6 day trek into an area of Bhutan that has never before been open to foreigners. We will begin our trip in Delhi in order to take advantage of the daily flights to and from Guwahati. From here we drive overland and experience an amazingly beautiful and little-visited region of Bhutan. Once on trek we will be afforded an opportunity to see, first hand, a way of life that has remained unchanged over centuries. Please contact One World Trekking ( for a detailed trip itinerary.



Contact Name:
Andy Crisconi - One World Trekking

Phone #:



Please contact the person or company listed above for information regarding the content of this press release. are not the issuers of this press release and are not responsible for the accuracy of the content.

Monday, March 22, 2010

Traveller's tale: a broken back in Bhutan

Source:  Traveller

March 20, 2010

    Aneva Borthwick relies on the kindness of strangers.

    We are in Phobjikha, Bhutan, on a cold spring evening. One minute I'm walking down a steep and slippery path, next I'm in the air and then lying on my back in a hole. There is pain and my arms and hands are numb and tingling. I know my back is broken and I can feel blood trickling down my face.

    If I lie still, the pain is bearable. Shortly, the numbness and tingles ease. What to do? I have on about five layers of clothing, including my favourite beanie, so I don't feel cold.

    Somebody jumps into the ditch and tries to help me up. "Don't touch me," I say, "I have broken my back." The poor man moves away.

    Others arrive and ask me what I want them to do. "You must make me a collar," I say and lie back and wait.

    The collar arrives and is a work of art. They then ask what to do next. "You must get a door or plank for me to lie on," I say. After some time my travel companions arrive with a plank, which I later learn had been part of the front steps of the guesthouse at which we are staying. I roll to one side and the plank is placed under me as I roll back. It is hard and uncomfortable and not quite as wide as I am.

    The local village health workers arrive and carry me along uneven paths and up stairs into the house. This journey is frightening; any movement causes intense pain and I am scared of being dropped.

    It takes two days to get out of Bhutan with only basic medical care and inadequate pain relief. The roads have hairpin bends, with children, cars, yaks and cattle likely around any corner. I'm flown to Bangkok by air ambulance and receive first-rate care in the hospital, including surgery for a serious neck fracture. I'm on the way to a full recovery and indebted to my travelling companions.