August 19, 2008

Bhutan: Pilgrimage to the Last Buddhist Kingdom, via Frank Berliner

From the Spring 2006 issue.

OCTOBER 7 & 8, 2005 AT LAST, only weeks before my 60th birthday, my first visit to Asia. As our plane rises away from Denver International Airport and crosses the Rockies toward the Pacific Coast, I’m grateful that I will not come to the end of my life without making this journey.

Three flights: Denver to San Francisco to Tokyo to Bangkok. 10 hours over the Pacific remains vivid and strange in recollection. Flying at 38,000 feet from SF to Tokyo, looking out at an unchanging tableau of vast blue sky and sea, no horizon line visible, just white puffs of cloud beyond the unmoving wing of the plane glinting like a knife blade in mid-afternoon sunlight. The entire flight passes in this way, as if time had been suspended. We move west at virtually the same speed as the sun. Perpetual noon. Traveling 5,600 miles without appearing to move.

OCTOBER 9 OUR HOTEL IN BANGKOK IS the “Royal River,” on the banks of the Chao Praya which undulates through the heart of this huge, sprawling city. Smell of mildew on the ground floor as we walk to breakfast. The Chao Praya is the color of coffee with cream. Floating weeds like green tentacles in the brown river. The weeds are bright green, tenacious, everywhere, especially at the piers where the shuttle-taxi boats stop every few minutes, they form undulating paddies where the river sloshes against the tarred pilings. Dotted with white, they look from a distance like lotus paddies; on closer view the white is bits of styrofoam bobbing in the debris with empty plastic water bottles, an old shoe…

We visit The Temple of the Emerald Buddha, a few blocks from Pier 14 on the Chao Praya river-taxi line. Thai natives purify themselves at the temple’s entrance with sanctified water, which they sprinkle on themselves with large stems of unopened lotuses, then offer incense and brightly-colored flowers. Inside, the rich, aromatic space is reminiscent of Catholic churches in Europe: gold everywhere on statues and painted images and candlesticks and shrine objects; a similar intense yearning and reverence among the faithful. Even small children, emulating their parents and grandparents, place hands in anjali and perform half-prostrations on the polished, multi-colored marble floor.

Monks in saffron robes sit together in their own roped-off section up by the main shrine. Outside and nearby a soldier stands guard. He has soft skin, large dark eyes like the deer listening to the Buddha’s first teaching in Sarnath. His mouth is perfect as a fresh flower-petal. And he holds an automatic weapon, the cold black steel glints dully in the misty gray afternoon light.

The air of Bangkok today is uncomfortably heavy, moist and warm. The Thais bloom in their rainbow-colored clothing on the dark, dirty piers and crowded streets. Along the river the odor of soup seasoned with cilantro, of garbage, of incense, of diesel. At once enticing, repellent. “When you return to America, you realize how there are hardly ever any smells,” Nan observes. “I noticed that when I came back from India.” Before we even knew each other, I think to myself.

Life is large. We are, as my Buddhist teacher always said, grains of sand with huge hearts. Every taxi driver we flag has a little statue of a meditating monk, lohan-style, sitting on the dashboard, serenely facing the oncoming traffic. 93% of the Thai people are Buddhist.

OCTOBER 10 WETAKE A DAYLONGTOUR, traveling 40 miles out beyond Bangkok into the countryside. The diesel smog fades behind us along with the echoes of 10 million living beings. On either side of the highway, rank, green vegetation sprouts uncontrollably in vacant lots from which shanties of rusty corrugated tin peep out. Human beings live in these places. I’m shocked.

At Attayutha, the old palace grounds of the Siamese monarchy, as baroque as Versailles but on a more intimate scale, more human. Topiary on the grass going down to the ponds—a small band of rabbits, a family of green elephants in arrested movement on the manicured lawns. Birds sing exuberantly in the eaves of the royal temples, darting in and out through the heavy doors of the outer courtyard, open to the fragrant morning air.

The river is a powerful presence all day long, the “strong brown god” of T.S. Eliot’s great poem The Dry Salvages, carrying us for three hours at our ease, as we pass gaily colored tugboats pulling massive barges festooned with old tires and fragrant with creosote, like small boys pulling elephants. Shanty huts standing crazily at the water’s edge, their tenants on rickety porches, their feet dangling in the tea-colored water, patiently fishing.

Behind the ramshackle tumble of riverfront dwellings now and then a gleaming temple painted in brilliant reds and yellows, gold on the dragon-curved rooftops flashing suddenly as the afternoon sun hits the thread between them and my eyes. A tableau of cheerful poverty buoyed by faith, as in Latin America’s peasant Catholic villages-all richness and hope poured into the temples in every little riverside hamlet.

Stopping at the great statue of the Reclining Buddha. It is more than 100 feet long, the feet a flat wall perhaps 15 feet high, with the 10 toes stacked one above the other like logs. The gentle, inscrutable smile of the about-to-pass-into-nirvana Sage is veiled within the gray and white swirling patterns of the sculpted rock. As I leap from the bus, I almost step on a small mongrel dog stretched out asleep in the shade of a tree. Reclining in the shadow of the Reclining Buddha.

Does dog have Buddha-nature?…How will you find the guru, Naropa, if you have no compassion for what is directly in front of you?

I bow to the little mutt—and snap his picture. In our hotel room, the classic primer for Westerners, What the Buddha Taught, sits on top of the Bible on the table next to our freshly-made canopied bed. Outside our window the wide black river glows with distant golden reflections of a harp-like suspension bridge. A soft wind stirs the curtains in the Bangkok night. We drift off to sleep.

OCTOBER 11 EVEN BEFORE THE ALARM clock sounds, we’re wide awake. By 3:20 a.m. we’re in a taxi heading through Bangkok’s empty boulevards toward the airport… The great waterways of Asia—Irrawaddy, Brahmaputra and Ganges—reveal themselves one after another in their full majesty as we fly north into India, shining like vast sheets of silver glass in the early morning sun. Over Burma, southern India, Calcutta, then up into the foothills of the Himalayas as we approach Bhutan in its sheltered high green nest. Flying back toward the headwaters of all these rivers as they narrow, as they move more urgently now through deep green canyons, become giant white waterfalls alone in the vast green expanse of forests and mountain ridges, unseen by any except the great winged cranes and our iron bird in flight….

Out of the left side of the windows of the plane, perhaps 100 miles to the northeast, Mt. Everest comes into view. Then its neighbors Nuptse and Lhotse, nearly as high, obscure all but the top of Everest’s dark pyramid. 100 miles distant, great Kangchenjunga in Sikkim rises all alone, a stupendous crystal floating several miles above the clouds; impossibly beautiful. Only a few disappointing images captured through the tiny hazed airplane window by my digital camera prove that I didn’t hallucinate these visions out of my lifelong yearning to see them. Breathless as a child, I watch them fade slowly away beyond the wing of our Druk jet-plane.

The evening of our first day in Bhutan, at Kichu Lhakhang, a temple built by the Tibetan King Songtsen Gampo in the 8th century, and the place where the great master Dilgö Khyentse, Rinpoche—my teacher’s teacher—practiced and taught for more than 30 years as the spiritual advisor to the Royal Family of Bhutan after his untimely exile from Tibet in 1959.

The buildings of the temple are 1,300 years old, the wood floors so worn and polished by the movements and prostrations of countless generations of Bhutanese practitioners that you can see your reflection. The harmonies of the nuns chanting their evening pujas are plaintive, penetrating. An old nun prostrates next to us with a fluid vigor that makes our own devotional movements seem feeble and stiff by comparison. In the main shrine room, there’s a gleaming gold rupa [statue] of Khyentse Rinpoche on his throne—the likeness so uncanny, the eyes so alive that he seems suddenly, vividly present again in this sacred space where he practiced each day for so many years. He looks at me with the compassionate, fathomless gaze I so well remember, sitting in his meditation room in Vermont nearly 30 years ago. My own eyes fill with tears.

No photographs here; I must give up my constant, gnawing hunger to capture what cannot be captured. The real experience, impermanent yet complete, has already happened. Gilding this lily is futile. The sun is gone. There is silver twilight now behind the western hills beyond the temple walls. We say goodbye. The sound of the nuns’ chanting follows us faintly into the dusk.

OCTOBER 12 EARLY NEXT MORNING A FEW OF US WALK before breakfast to the land where Khyentse Rinpoche was cremated in the summer of 1992 in a stupa just a few hundred yards from his hermitage.

The morning sun moves slowly down the long valley, pure white mist like a vast silk kata rises and dissolves between us and Tagtsang, hermitage high in the rocks across the river. I stand near Khyentse’s hermitage now framed by a deep blue cloudless sky, looking out at the steep cliffs where my own teacher, Trungpa Rinpoche, composed the Sadhana of Mahamudra.Two great masters who turned my life irrevocably toward the Dharma. White prayer flags flutter on a distant cluster of poles below us. The sun illuminates the gold roof of the temple, and the red roofs of the houses where peppers have been spread out to dry after the autumn harvest.

Dogs everywhere on the grounds near the temple, all looking as if they had the same parents. They are fox-like, somnolent and stretched out in the shadow of parked cars and trees by day; but they rule the night in little packs, barking incessantly at each other, waking me from my sleep long before the rooster crows.

Next to His Holiness’ stupa with its carvings of golden elephants is a small pond with carp swimming about, and in the center of it a memorial to his grand-daughter Tsering Wangmo, born in 1972, died in 1995. Only twenty-three! Even having a Buddha for a grandfather offered no protection for her. “Cancer,” says our guide Sangye softly. “She was born the same year as me.”

Driving to the mountain pass of Chelela, 20 miles from downtown Paro and more than a mile above it. The narrow, winding road a harrowing experience from start to finish. So difficult to relax into the enjoyment of the scenic unfolding of lush green forests and rugged snow peaks when every passing car seems intent on a head-on collision.

The pavement can barely accommodate two small cars passing each other, much less our SUV and the trucks barreling toward us with their unruly cargo of Indian highway workers. They’ve come to work on the roads for 10 times the wages they can earn in India, yet still are reduced to dwelling in shacks along those very roads. Their homes look more like sheds for chickens or goats than human shelters.

Incongruously, the trucks they drive are brilliantly colored, with large eyes painted above the front headlights, and plastic flowers fluttering on the hood ornament. As if a laughing deity were about to spirit you away on this scary road 12,000 miles from home.

The men are dark and sullen; the women, even pregnant ones, haul heavy rocks in the midday heat by the roadside. A pall of suffering and hopelessness emanates from the whole shabby world they have created in emigrating here. Such contrast with even the humblest rural Bhutanese who, though poor by our Western monetary standards, seem almost without exception content, ready to smile at even the slightest sign of friendliness, comfortable with their modest earthly lot, at home on their land.

FRANK BERLINER, a close student of meditation master Chögyam Trungpa Rinpoche, teaches Buddhist psychology and meditation at Naropa University. He lives in Boulder, Colorado, with his wife, Nan Kenney.

Read 5 Comments and Reply

Read 5 comments and reply

Top Contributors Latest

Frank Berliner  |  Contribution: 3,420