Dutchy in Cornwall and the Bhutan stories (9)

 

Of course we visited several monasteries during our stay. One afternoon, the weather was pleasant, we met this group of little monks. They were sitting in the garden, doing their homework, practising how to blow the horn. They were pretty wild, these boys! Laughing and running, strangling each other, just what all little boys do. We offered them toffees.

We also visited a nunnery. The girls were a bit older, from 10 years-16, 17. Some of them spoke quite good English, so we could have a little chat. They get up in the morning at 4:30, two hours of prayer, breakfast, two ours of study, prayers again, and so on. Don’t you miss your family? we wanted to know. No, because they come from time to time to visit us. And don’t you miss having a boyfriend? “No”, one sweetheart said innocently, “because when you die, you die alone.”

Some rituals: prayer flags and prayer wheels

Prayer flags are traditionally used to promote peace, wisdom, compassion, and strength. It is believed that the wind will blow the prayers and mantras around, spreading goodwill and compassion. Therefore, prayer flags are thought to bring benefit to all. As the images fade from exposure to the elements, the prayers on the flag become a permanent part of the universe. Just as life moves on and is replaced by new life, the Bhutanese people renew their hopes for the world by continually mounting new flags alongside the old. This act symbolizes a welcoming of life’s changes and an acknowledgement that all beings are part of a greater ongoing cycle.

You’ll find these colourful panels of fabric slung across rivers, posted outside of dzongs (fortresses) and temples, in front of houses, at the top of mountain passes and in meadows. They come in five colours: blue for sky or space, white for air or clouds, red for fire, green for water and yellow for earth. The prayers are carved into wooden blocks and then printed on the cloth in repeating patterns.

Kate and I bought some prayer flags, and Jigme took us to a temple where a lama blessed them. Then we went to the river and tied them to the bridge. And I took a minute to contemplate.

Prayer wheels are cylindrical wheels on a spindle made from metal, wood, stone, or leather. Traditionally, the mantra ‘Om Mani Padme Hum’ is written in Sanskrit on the outside of the wheel. At the core of the cylinder is a “Life Tree” often made of wood or metal with certain mantras written on or wrapped around it. According to the lineage texts on prayer wheels, prayer wheels are used to accumulate wisdom and merit (good karma) and to purify negativities (bad karma).

The practitioner has to spin the wheel clockwise, as the direction is that of the movement of the sun across the sky. While turning the wheel, it is best to focus the mind and repeat the ‘Om Mani Padme Hum’ mantra. It is a mind-stabilisation technique that trains the mind while the body is in motion. However, it is said that even turning it while distracted has benefits and merits. Turn the wheel with a gentle rhythm and not too fast or frantically. Keep in mind the motivation and spirit of compassion. Not only does it help wisdom and compassion arise in the practitioner, it also enhances spiritual powers such as clairvoyance, precognition, reading others thoughts.

 

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Dutchy in Cornwall and the Bhutan stories (8)

 

One morning, sitting in the back of the car, gazing at the beautiful rural farmhouses we were passing, I noticed these ropes, with hanging objects from the eaves at the corners. “Jigme,” I asked, “what are these thingies hanging at the corners of the houses?” “Phalluses,” Jigme replied. “Beg your pardon?” “Yes, phalluses.” and he told us the story of Drukpa Kunley, the Divine Madman.

Drukpa Kunley (1455-1529) was a Buddhist monk born in Tibet. He is the one who introduced Buddhism to Bhutan. He distinguished himself by his outrageous behaviour and teaching style. He is one of Bhutan’s favourite saints.

Kunley felt that the stiffness of the clergy and social conventions were keeping people from learning the true teachings of Buddha. His often obscene actions were a deliberate method of provoking people to discard their preconception. His sexual exploits are legendary. He seduced many women, wives of his hosts included.

On one occasion when he received a blessing thread to hang around his neck, he wound it around his penis instead, saying he hoped it would bring him luck with the ladies. Kunley’s organ, as painted, is called the “Thunderbolt of Flaming Wisdom” as it unnerved demons and subdued them.

Therefore, it was Drukpa Kunley who propagated the legend of painting phalluses on walls and flying hanging phalluses from roof tops of houses to drive away evil spirits and subdue demons.

House painting has to follow strict patterns but, in phallic paintings, painters can reveal their imagination in the phalluses’ size, colour and variety. Some phalluses are even endowed with a pair of benign and comic eyes. For villagers, these sights come to be like that of any other household wares, nothing shocking. This art form, which is both beautiful and banal, is unusual in the rest of the world. At a popular level, the beholders of phallic images consider them as banal but fundamental aspects of life. In educational terms, the images are also about acceptance, without shame or guilt. A child growing up understanding such images probably gains earlier and more realistic adaptations. A common view is that when slanderous people, or those who bear us ill will, see a phallus, they are overcome by shame and embarrassment, and are unable to cause us harm. This view led people to pin wooden phalluses in such highly visible places.

Now my attention was drawn. The more I looked, the more phalluses I saw. Hanging on eaves, murals and many drawings. In Punakha we visited various shops with a pretty display of phalluses in the window. Now there was a difficult thing for me to decide. Should I buy four of them and hang them on the eaves of my house? To protect me against evil? Or perhaps one big phallus for in my windowsill?… Then I thought of my neighbours, what would the neighbours say… Finally I decided not to. In Bude it would be perhaps a bit out of context. I bought some postcards instead.

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Dutchy in Cornwall and the Bhutan stories (7)

 

Our next stay was in Bhumthang. Reached after a seven hours drive (200 km) over a bumpy road. We visited temples and monasteries. Monasteries are a vital part of the Bhutanese culture. The monks (and nuns) busy themselves with reading, memorising the daily prayers, learning dharma dances, drawing mandala’s, learning the melodies of sacred rituals, learning the use of ceremonial instruments, the art of making sacrificial objects,studying grammar and poetry. They meditate for hours each day.

We visited Dochula Pass at 3116 metres (10,223 feet). The pass is topped with 108 whitewashed Chortens (stupa’s). Inside each chorten are images of Buddhist gods made of clay stuffed with papers inscribed with prayers. A bit further away I saw the temple, Druk Wangyal Lhakhang, perched high up on a hillock. Let’s go up, then. Being halfway I saw this group of colourfully dressed people coming down the hill. I took my iPad to shoot a picture, but out of the blue came this man who put a hand over my iPad and shook his head solemnly: no pics.

So the group passed me and went down. I shot my pic from their backsides. Up, in front of the temple, I found a red carpet covered with rice decorations. Later I showed our guide Jigme my pics, who were these people? That is our queen and her entourage. Look, this is her back, in front of the group.

Later we went to another temple, Tamshing Joemba (Temple of the Good Message). We gazed at original paintings by the ancient Pema Lingpa (early 15th century). In the inner chapel lay a cloak of chainmail. Would we like to try it? And Jigme and Karma hoisted the cloak around my shoulders, I clung my thumbs in the chains and hop, a walk had to be made around the kora. The bloody thing weighs 25 kg! By each step it became heavier. So, I was very pleased to see the fourth corner, almost done. But no, there was another corner, and another… See it as a metaphor. You’re supposed to carry your sins around. Well, my sins were heavy, that’s for sure. Would I like to do another round? Uhm no, thank you. Then it was Kate’s turn. She wore the cloak with dignity. Pics were not allowed.

The second day of our stay in Bumthang I had installed myself in the dining room, next to the woodburner. A cup of coffee, and my kindle. People around me were busy doing their jobs. Kate was still in our room and would join me later. Dinner would be served soon. All was good.

Then they started to chirp and chat and decorate one of the chairs. A beautiful woven cloth over it, with frills and ties. You could feel the atmosphere change. Then, suddenly, the door flew open wide and in came this big man, dressed in red robes, striding and smiling. Everyone was bowing. He took his seat. And in they came, from everywhere, chambermaids, the cook, kitchen aids, drivers, people from around, they all went on their knees and kissed his stretched hand. The official blessed them all. A group of Chinese tourists entered and yelped with excitement. Would he please? Would he? A picture? The authority consented. Group pics were taken. And I took mine, pretending I was reading my kindle.

When all the commotion had died down a bit, he noticed me. “Hello! Where are you from?” “I’m from the Netherlands and I live in England”, I answered. “Oh, the Netherlands! Hoe maak je het? (which is ‘how do you do’ in Dutch)” And we had a pleasant little chat. He knew about Amsterdam. “And are you here on a holiday?” I asked the man, innocently. No no, he was just visiting a temple and a friend.

That was fun. Later I asked the waiter, Who is this man? Khenpo Rinpoche! Wow. (it means an honorific term used to refer to a religious person recognised as a lama or an abbot of a monastery.)

Well, I had seen the Queen and a Rinpoche within a day, not bad.

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Dutchy in Cornwall and the Bhutan stories (6)

 

In Thimphu our Bhutanese guide Jigme took us to the School of Fine Arts and Crafts, commonly known as the Painting School. Here students undergo a 6-years training course in Bhutan’s 13 traditional arts and crafts. We were allowed to walk into the classrooms and take pictures.

The thirteen crafts are:

1. Carpentry (temples, houses and other utilities made out of wood. In traditional Bhutan, a carpenter is the chief architect in building houses and palaces.
2. Masonry (stupa’s, walls of houses and monasteries).
3. Wood carving (pillars, beams, furniture, slate carving, wooden blocks for the printing of prayer flags).
4. Painting (Thangka paintings which is a Buddhist painting on cotton, or silk appliqué, mandala’s, wall frescoes, furniture, altars).
5. Clay sculpture (statues, masks).
6. Casting of bronze statues, bells, musical instruments such as cymbals.
7. Wood turning, the craft of turning bowls from special parts of trees, and the making of wooden cups, serving dishes, water jugs.
8. Black-smithing (swords, knives and other agricultural implements).
9. Gold- and silver smithing (ornaments, ritual objects like offering bowls, building of stupas, butter lamps and musical instruments).
10. Bamboo works (bow and arrow used for archery, lunch pack baskets, bamboo hats, matting, storage boxes).
11. Paper making.
12. Tailoring and embroidery (Thangkas, clothes, banners, decorative shoes).
13. Weaving (preparation and dyeing of yarn in different colours and shades with vegetable dyes, and finally weaving in clothes used by both men and women).

Later we went to the Paper Factory. We could see the whole process, from pulling off the bark from the Daphne Papyri tree, how the bark is being boiled, mashed into pulp, and vertical dried as sheets of handmade paper.

About 1500 times a day, one by one, and all by hand, a wooden frame with a bamboo screen filter is dipped into a vat of pulp and starch mixture, is swished around to allow a thin layer of the mixture to spread out evenly over the screen, and is transferred to a table where the screen is carefully removed to result in a single sheet of Bhutanese paper. Raw materials, supplied from bark from two trees, are used to make the paper. Nature provides other flora as ingredients, like flowers, leaves (marihuana!) and fern leaves, which make decorations on the paper. Paper making is done without any environmental harm to the land, and without the use of chemicals.

Finally that day we paid a visit at the National Library.

The Main Building is built in the form of a traditional Bhutanese temple in order to provide an appropriate environment for the Buddhist scriptures and other ancient texts. The structure of the building, we were told, integrates the three aspects of the Buddha and his teachings and it is therefore considered to be a sacred place. The physical (sku) aspect of the Buddha is represented by statues and paintings decorating the inside of the building; the speech (gsung) aspect of the Buddha is represented by the many books and printing-blocks found in the library; and the mind or heart (thugs) aspect of the Buddha is represented by the eight stupas found on the altar on the ground floor of the building.

In the back right corner of the reading room is a showcase containing a copy of the world’s largest published book “Bhutan: A Visual Odyssey Across the Last Himalayan Kingdom”, which has many stunning photographs of Bhutan taken by Michael Hawley on four extensive trips to the country. The book weighs over 60 kilos, and is about 152cm x 213 cm (i.e. 120 lbs, five by seven feet) in size.

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Dutchy in Cornwall and the Bhutan stories (5)

 

Making a kora

First thing in the morning of our first day in Bhutan, was paying a visit to a local temple in town. The space was crowded with people. Young and old, couples and singles, groups, mothers with babies on their back, everyone walked around the chorten (or stupa, which is a mound-shaped building). We call it circumambulation, or making a kora.

It is said that it is most beneficial to circumambulate a stupa, to walk in a clockwise direction, at least three times, while reciting a mantra or making heartfelt prayers for the benefit of loved ones, the state of the world, or for all sentient beings. Or you can simply sit in front of a stupa and generate good thoughts, compassion and loving kindness for all beings. Just to see a stupa, to walk around it or to feel the wind blowing by it is a blessing.

So, we just joined the crowd and walked around the monument three times. The weather was sunny. This was our first encounter with Bhutanese culture. I noticed the beautiful garments people were wearing, the bright primary colours of the prayer flags and decorations. I felt already deeply impressed.

Next we were taken to the Buddha Dordenma Statue, or better known as Buddha Point. The Buddha is located atop a hill and overlooks the Southern entrance to Thimphu Valley. The statue fulfills an ancient prophecy dating back to the 8th century A.D. and is said to emanate an aura of peace and happiness to the entire world.

The 51.5 meter high statue is three storied with several chapels. It is one of the largest statues of Buddha in the world. The throne that the Buddha sitsupon is a large meditation hall. The gigantic statue is completed on September 25th 2015 celebrating the 60th anniversary of the fourth king of Bhutan. The statue houses over one hundred thousand smaller Buddha statues, each of which, like the Great Buddha itself, is made of bronze and gilded in gold. One can offer prayers to Buddha, walk around and take a glimpse of the valley.

The statue is known to catch sunlight even when the surrounding areas lie in shadow. The place is expected to become a major pilgrimage centre and a focal point for Buddhists all over the world to converge, practice, meditate, and retreat. It is estimated that it will take another two years for the project to be fully completed.

From our bedroom window we could see the statue in the distance, as if Buddha himself is watching over his disciples.

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Dutchy in Cornwall and the Bhutan stories (4)

 

Going to the dogs.

Our first night in Bhutan. Our first night in the capital town, Thimphu. Of course we wanted to sleep. But that was difficult. As soon as the city life slowed down and people laid themselves to rest, dogs started to bark. Many, many stray dogs. Barking against each other. One dog started, another dog replied and the whole pack joined in. Whole choirs. Amazing what an immense noise that can be. And so it went the whole night on. No wonder we were given earplugs, on our bedside tables.

Later Kate en I were told the story by Jigme our personal guide during our stay. The dogs in Bhutan are a real problem. It is estimated there are about 100,000 stray dogs in Bhutan, largely in the cities. They have no owners and live on the streets. They breed like, well, not like rats, but they do breed like nature wants them to. Bhutanese people, who are largely Buddhist (75%), believe that sentient beings should be cared for. And the Bhutanese do care for them though not in their homes. They don’t kill the dogs, because they believe in reincarnation. This dog, well, he could be your granddaddy, right.

In 2008, Bhutan wanted to clean up the streets in advance of the coronation of their new king, so they reached out to Humane Society International for help. Bhutan had this idea of catching as many dogs as possible, to put the animals into big government pounds and just keep them sheltered that way. Humane Society International told Bhutan it was bad idea. But Bhutan went ahead. Thousands of dogs died. And the Bhutanese learned something else: No dogs leads to more rats. The rats had moved in to replace the dog void and the cities were just inundated with rats. Humane Society International suggested that Bhutan would try something better: a nationwide sterilising and rabies vaccine program. Such a solution takes time, but in the long run it is the only effective solution. And the government agreed. Dogs are released later the same day in the same location where they were captured. Such a solution however will take years…

It is weird to walk around and see dogs hanging around, sleeping on the pavement, in the parks, on the roads even. Dogs without a leash. No one stroking them. And, interesting too, no where dog shit to be seen… But some Bhutanese people do have dogs as pets. Like our guide Jigme. He has a dog and loves her dearly. Recently she has given birth to a litter of seven puppies. Sadly two of them died, but the leftover five are prospering. Jigme is determined to give them a good home.

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Dutchy in Cornwall and the Bhutan stories (3)

 

… So, bye bye Delhi! Off we went, in our plane from the Royal Bhutan Airlines, en route to Bhutan. On our way we passed the Himalaya mountains. The pilot alerted us to the peaks of Mount Kailash and of course the Mount Everest. Stunning views.

Now Kate and I knew beforehand that Paro International Airport is considered to be the most difficult and challenging international airport in the world. Because, approaching the destination, the plane slaloms along the valley, with the mountainsides almost within touching distance, and then the plane makes a last turn on its wing-tip only seconds before touchdown. A scary story.

To be honest, I didn’t notice anything of these engrossing manoeuvres. We just landed, that’s all. Plane on the ground, seat-belts lights switched off, we took our hand luggage, and moved towards the exit. Stewardesses smiled pleasantly, like they always do, and then, unsuspecting, we were confronted with this amazing Bhutanese welcome…

Because, we descended the ramp and found ourselves in the middle of a huge plaza, the airfield. Basking in sunlight. Not a single breeze. A pleasant silence. No airfield security chaps to move us around, no markers to direct us anywhere, no fences or straps. We were free to stroll around. To gaze at the high green mountains around us. To take pictures. To pause. I imagine you could even get back into the plane and have a nap and no one would be bothered. At the side of the field a few Customs buildings. Slowly and relaxed we walked in and handed over our passports. And thereafter we were admitted into the country of Bhutan. After all the hassle of Delhi this scenery felt like a dream.

Outdoors we were welcomed by a girl from the Travel Agency. A car was waiting for us. Kate and I sat in the back, gazing through our windows, taking in the awesome landscape. The forests, peaks and rocks, occasionally a few houses. Ha! Look at us, on our way to our first lodging in Thimphu, the capital of Bhutan! Our hotel was situated at the foot of the central market square. We had reached our destination.

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