Before you start to read the following diary of the Bhutan journey, I would like to give my deepest appreciation to Prema (the creative director of Tara Dhatu). She has spent many hours writing down this fascinating story and choosing the pictures to accompany it. She is truly my Akashic record holder and helps me remember the magnificent time I had meeting wonderful people, recording the nuns, and introducing Bhutan — the land of the dragon — to Raphael (my beloved husband and genius musician), Prema Dasara and Robin Mazor (who filmed our journey and is currently working on a documentary on behalf of the nuns).
Also, I would like to give special thanks to our kind host, Her Majesty the Queen of Bhutan as well as Rinzing and Lexang, my loving friends. With their care, our journey was blessed from the beginning.
Robin and I met Raphael and Kutira Decosterd in the beautiful Asia Hotel in Bangkok (was that really only two weeks ago!!!) Kutira often travels through Bangkok with groups and we truly appreciated her arranging for us five star comfort with a three star price. We had several days to shop for the odds and ends we knew were not available in Bhutan. But the main event of our stay there was to meet with Mae Chee, a Buddhist nun who has founded an institution in Bangkok called Sathira-Dhammasathan.
The seven acres of gardens, lotus ponds and mud sculpted structures harbor an innovative community based on Buddhist principles. Mae Chee had been a famous fashion model before she took the robes and her first order of business was to help women who had been raped and were expecting a child. From there her mission expanded to working with families and working within the prisons.
We were there to see if she would be interested in a group of Tara Dancers offering the dance on our way to Bhutan and she was delighted with the possibilities.
Mae Chee, and Her Community of Peace
Mae Chee has the most amazingly peaceful presence. She hugged us all in welcome and I experienced a wondrous, timeless moment in her embrace.
Raphael offered to record her and her nuns chanting and I offered to dance for them and then lead them in the White Tara Ritual Blessing Dance.
It was a stellar experience. Their simple prayer hall had a stupa of candles and flowers in the center with a large statue of Tara in front. A group of about 30 of her community workers and ten of her nuns were present.
After the dance and recording we all offered flowers at the shrine and then she encouraged each one of us to light candles to illumine our prayers. I thought of all the loved ones who had made this journey possible. I thought of all my dear ones who are struggling with illness or other challenging circumstances. Our prayers were deep and profound.
We are committed to returning to share dances with this exceptional woman and her community. She loaded us up with gifts and with blessings that our journey would be smooth and successful.
With bows and hugs we turned our face to the Kingdom of Bhutan.
To view photos illustrating these stories please go to:
Entering the Dragon Kingdom
Flying into Bhutan on Dragon Airlines (Druk) we were greeted by a vision of the white peaks of the Himalayas towering above tumbling foothills. Robin hugged the window with her camera trying to capture the moment.
I was leaning across the isle having a heated discussion with Khenpo Tashi, the Director of Bhutan’s National Museum, a friend of Kutira’s. We had upgraded to First Class to avoid stiff luggage penalties and when Kutira discovered Khenpo Tashi on the same flight we upgraded him as well. We flew into the country in the arms of the dharma exploring with him the work we had come to do, establishing a lineage of transmission through woman teachers.
In discussing the Tara Dance he declared it a Terma and was effusive in his joy at meeting me, the treasure finder. He repeatedly exhorted Kutira, “thank you for bringing a treasure finder to us in Bhutan”. He was intrigued with the idea of a “Cham” (sacred dance festival) for the nuns. He spoke elegantly about the sacred music of Bhutan and the Five Wisdom Dakinis began singing and dancing in his mind.
The Five Wisdom Dakinis appear in the teachings about Damsik, the commitment we make with our spiritual teachers. As humans we are incapable of keeping the commitments pure, we have doubts, we transgress in countless small and significant ways. According to the teachings this diminishes the life force of the teacher. It is said that the lineage masters are constantly invited to leave us slackers and join the dakinis in their pure realms of infinite spaciousness, joy and freedom.
During empowerments, when all beings seen and unseen are treated to the pure vision of the enlightened master, we must beseech the dakinis not to take our spiritual guides from us. In the tradition, out of their compassion, the dakinis sing songs of sacrifice, as they one by one leave the master embodied to continue to teach. They each leave a token of their protection, a scarf colored as the Buddha family they represent. Khenpo looked at me with arched eyebrow, here is a dance we must create for the nuns.
Then we spoke of the difficulties of establishing a lineage of female Khenpos…….a line of intellectual transmission. It takes nine years of higher education to receive the title “Khenpo”. Khenpo Tashi told us in frustration that nuns have been sent out from Bhutan to study at monastic shedras and they don’t come back. He was mystified by this….some married, some went into business…..He spoke of a great Nyingmapa Master, threatening to close down his nunnery in the South of India because the nuns complained about difficult living conditions. I was appalled, having seen that nunnery myself and knowing that indeed the living conditions were minimal and uncomfortable, especially compared to the monastery down the road where the monks were housed in comfort.
I asked the Khenpo that perhaps the women had something to say, that perhaps their grievances should be at least listened to. It was a novel idea to him, to listen to them. At the same time a gentleman in the seat in front of him turned to me and said that he was not interested in listening to what this woman (meaning me) had to say and could I tone it down. We realized that we had been shouting across the aisle to be heard.
We all became reflective, enjoying the view as the plane eased onto a small runway. On a hillside bordering the tiny airport a black rock formation caught my eye. As I contemplated it’s rhythmic pattern it revealed itself as a wrathful protector. Welcome to the Dragon Kingdom.
A Warm Welcome
The first flush of passengers had descended the steps and as our party struggled to sort out their bits and parcels I found myself making my way down the airline steps into the brilliant sunshine alone. At the foot of the stairs was a lovely young Bhutanese woman holding a sign with my name on it. Laura, a Tara Dancer of Santa Barbara California has a Bhutanese husband. She had contacted her Bhutanese family about our arrival. Sonam, one of the cousins, worked at the airport and she lovingly placed a white kata of welcome around my neck. It was a timeless moment.
And then Kutira and Robin and Raphael sailed down the steps, were introduced and greeted. Scarf adorned we entered the small airport building to deal with our unusual immigration situation. We had no visa papers. Because our party was under the Queen Mother’s patronage we had not been subject to the elaborate and expensive process. But we still needed some kind of papers. Sonam, with Khenpo’s support, made all the necessary phone calls, the necessary fax arrived with our permission to enter and ….. ta da. We were past the smiling immigration officer, loaded up our luggage including one suitcase full of socks for the nuns and were back into the warm sunshine in no time.
Two lovely young Bhutanese men in national dress greeted us respectfully and informed us that they had been sent from Thimpu to be our guide and driver. They whisked our belongings into a white VW van. On the plane Kutira had had an inspiration that perhaps we should start our journey with a visit to the 21 Tara Shrine in one of the “Dzongs” These are old forts, monumental structures, now filled with religious treasure but they require permits to enter. This can be a long and laborious process we discovered, especially since there was no precedent for a spontaneous permit.
We hung about town for a bit, securing cell phones and setting them up with local sim cards. Kutira immediately began the process of arranging meetings with the Queen and all those relevant to our various projects. We were invited to lunch at Namgey & Laura’s family house so we abandoned our idea of a spontaneous permit and enjoyed a delicious feast they had prepared to welcome us. Altitude and exhaustion hit as our car poked it’s way from Paro, the village where we arrived to Thimpu, the capitol of the country.
Bhutan is preparing for the Coronation of it’s new King next year, and the launch of democracy. These two main cities are abuzz in construction and repair. The road between them was one lane until last year……..now in the process of cutting another lane into the hill side the road was ripped apart. Tousled and dusted we tumbled into our hotel. Robin and I treated ourselves to separate rooms, there was lavish hot water, a wireless internet, heaters and bed sweet bed.
Kutira and Raphael went to Kalu Rinpoche’s home in Taba, a village on the outskirts of the city. Rinpoche’s mother is Bhutanese and Kutira had made a close connection with Rinpoche’s older sister, Rinzin who lived around the corner. We would join them there the next day and begin a non stop immersion into the work we had come to do.
Bhutan, Reaching for the Modern World, Established in Tradition
2007 was declared by the astrologers of Bhutan to be an inauspicious year. No marriages were to be registered, no businesses started during this turbulent time. It was an interesting time for us to visit. We were quite clear what our goals were, but not sure how we were going to accomplish them. Communication from outside the country is cumbersome. Internet is a presence but fast lines are not yet common or easy to access. Phone calls are costly.
The purpose of our trip was to provide support to the Queen Mother, Tsering Yongdon Wangchuck, in her aspiration to help the nuns of Bhutan. Kutira and Raphael were going to record the nuns and other Bhutanese musicians as a fund raiser for the nuns. I was to explore the possibilities of bringing the Tara Dance to the country with the intent of developing a festival of Tara. I was also asked to look into the conditions of the nuns to see how our organization could support them as far as infrastructure and education. Robin came to document our trip.
The National Library
We started our outreach at the National Library and Archives in Thimphu. This elegant building houses a priceless collection of religious texts and a modern library of material focused on Bhutan and it’s neighbors. We were there to meet the director, Gyonpo Tshering. Gyonpo helps with the organizational needs of the Zilukha Nunnery which was first on our agenda to record and interview. He offered to meet us there the next day and promised to make arrangements with the nuns. We felt the doors to our aspirations opening before us. He guided through the library, detailing the country’s determination to preserve it’s heritage. He introduced us to a craftsman who was carving a page of scripture onto a wooden block. This art is fast becoming obsolete with modern techniques of reproduction.
You can see pictures of the library at….
Zilukha Anim Goenpa
November 22, 2007
The next morning we drove through neighborhoods and small farm plots and as the road wandered up a hillside we found ourselves at a small nunnery a short walk above the road. We met Gyanpo and he helped Raphael to get organized for recording the nuns in the Prayer Hall. Kutira, Robin and I went into the head nun’s quarters to chat about the nunnery, it’s aspirations and frustrations. But first of all we wanted to know a bit about it’s history.
Gyanpo was the perfect one to share this story as his son, Nangwang Thrinley Lhundrup, who is currently studying in India has inherited the institution from his previous incarnation, the famous Rigzin Thujepal, 15th incarnation of Thangtong Gyalpo the Iron Bridge Builder. This lineage goes all the way back to Kukuripa, one of the 84 Mahasiddhas.
Rigzin Thujepal was already advanced in years when he went to Ladakh at the invitation of one of his students. His teachings inspired five young women to become his disciples and beg to accompany him to Bhutan where he wished to establish a residence for himself. He agreed to their wishes, and together with his wife they founded the Zilukha nunnery. He passed away in 1983.
Three of those original students were at the nunnery and willing for us to interview them. The Head nun, Ani Uzin brought out an old picture of the Rinpoche in Ladakh and was happy to share her stories of the early days with us. These three women were remarkable. They had a profound presence. One of them was in retreat when we arrived but came out to talk with us. I felt totally relaxed and welcomed and really understood the concept of “Vajra Sister”. Though we could not speak a word to each other the deep waters were communicating quite well.
My main purpose in traveling to Bhutan had been to see if the Tara Dance would serve the nuns. I had proposed a dance festival being developed in the country based on Tara, organized and offered by nuns. So one of our lines of inquiry was to see if the nuns were interested in this idea. Each one we asked expressed enthusiasm, and caution. Approval would have to be sought from the heads of the lineage. We were also interested in how the Charity Division of Tara Dhatu could help in the aspirations of the Queen Mother to help the situation of the nuns in her country.
As we spoke with Gyanpo and Ani Uzin it was obvious that the nunnery needed to improve basic infrastructure. There were so many women requesting to join the nunnery but there were barely enough beds for the 55 nuns in residence. There were only a few bathrooms to serve all these women and these were at a great distance from the living quarters. The retreat huts were dilapidated and needed to be constructed in a more secluded section of the property.
The other aspect of our inquiry was education. One of the Queen’s main concerns was in developing a line of transmission through women teachers. This, of course, requires that women receive higher education. Several nunneries have dealt with this by sending nuns to Shedras in India. We interviewed two young nuns who were eager to serve in this way. Both have achieved good grades in primary and secondary education before joining the nunnery. We would like to try and find them sponsors.
It is a nine year course of training for them to achieve the status of Khenpo. Currently, a mere $30 per month would pay all their expenses. If you are interested in helping educate one of these young women please let me know. They both promised to keep in close touch with us and their sponsors. And to return to their nunnery to help develop a program of higher education for the rest of the nuns there.
Outside the interview room we found a number of local folks milling about, enjoying the sunshine. They were waiting for Raphael to be finished with recording in the shrine room so they could make their offerings. This nunnery has a close relationship with the locals, their support depends on the sponsorship of rituals in the homes. They also host a Mani Dungdrub for the community. Every one gathers and repeats the Mani Mantra, collecting huge numbers of mantra together and dedicating the practice to the cause of peace and prosperity for all.
We were very inspired by our time at Zilukha Anim Goenpa. The three elder nuns embody the power, compassion and presence of the practice. Gyanpo was a thoughtful and dedicated advocate for the nunnery.
It will be an honor and a joy to help them continue to be a light to the community around them.
For pictures illustrating this story please go to:
Over the Dorchula Pass
November 25, 2007
Movement for travelers within Bhutan is stringently regulated. To visit Dzongs and monasteries, to travel the roads, visitors must have permits and they are carefully checked. Standard visas to enter the country are negotiated through a Bhutanese Travel Agent. The charge is more than several hundreds of dollars a day depending on the season. This includes housing, food and internal transportation. Groups are assigned drivers and guides. Itineraries are made well in advance so that all permits can be arranged.
Visitors can also be invited as guests or workers into the country. This was our situation. In that case the fee is waived but then the guest must arrange their own housing, food and transportation. Rinzing, Kalu Rinpoche’s sister, was our Bhutanese Travel Agent and when we weren’t staying in private situations she arranged housing for us. She also took care of all our transportation needs. After making countless phone calls sorting out our diplomatic meetings with Queen etc., Kutira had developed an itinerary for us, She arranged the permits with the Queen’s help, and we were ready for our next adventure, We were to go over the Dorchula Pass to Punakha.
Dorje, our driver, and Pelden, our guide, were constantly shaking their head at our unconventional situation and ideas. These two young men were trained to work with tourists. Pelden translated for us and in all ways worked to keep us safe and informed about the conditions, customs and circumstances during our journey. They were charming fellows and we all grew quite fond of each other. For the most part they wore traditional dress, a kimono like top that went down to the knees and a pair of high socks. Made from traditional fabric it used to be required by all the citizens of the country all the time. It is still essential for them when entering any governmental or religious establishment.
They looked quite dapper in their outfits but a few times they seemed to be really unpractical. Imagine what a cold wind would feel like under that upper garment!!!!….Roads are a fairly new arrival in most of Bhutan and many of them are barely big enough for one car, winding along steep cliffs and through dense forest. Dorje was a wonderful driver and we always felt quite safe and comfortable in our little white van.
Up and up, around and around we went and then suddenly we popped out onto a high mountain pass, a long ridge of white peaked mountains shining in the brilliant blue sky. Breathless from the view and the altitude we bowed to the mountain deities of Dorchula Pass. As spectacular as the natural surroundings were, the human adornment was also breathtaking. One hundred and nine stupas circle a gently sloping hill top. Called the Stupas of Victory they are important modern monuments for Bhutan and also in our own personal story.
In 2003 militant groups from India’s north-eastern region had established their guerilla camps in the dense jungles of southern Bhutan, from where they would launch terrorist attacks across the border. For many years the King had tried to negotiate with these groups, asking them to leave Bhutan but to no effect. It became clear that they posed a real threat to Bhutan’s security and the King declared war against these insurgents.
When Queen Ashi Dorji Wangmo Wangchuck realized that her teenage son was preparing to go to war with his father, the King, she built the first stupa at Dorcula Pass as a symbol of her prayers to protect her family and her country. She vowed to build 108 stupas around the central one hoping for the safe return of the King and his subjects. The Bhutan Army was successful in driving out the insurgents in less than two days. Thirty militant camps were destroyed, many of the leaders captured and the rest fled the country. Her Majesty completed the stupas and declared them the Stupas of Victory.
It was in this auspicious place where Kutira met the Queen. On Kutira’s first visit to Bhutan she had just arrived at the pass with her tour group. They had heard that the queen was there and most of the group walked around the kora path to find her. Kutira “heard” an inner voice tell her to stay right where she was, in the parking lot facing the entry to the garden of stupas. As she stood there the Queen appeared in the walk in front of her and called to her, asking where she was from. She spontaneously answered, “I am born in Switzerland, I live in the Hawaiian Islands and in my heart I am Bhutanese”.
The Queen called her up, embraced her and then linking arms they walked about the stupas chatting like old friends. The Queen pointed out the direction of where her birth village was and then invited Kutira to attend an important ceremony. The old Je Khenpo, head of the state religious body, the Drukpa Kagyus, had recently passed away. His cremation was to be held in the Punakha Dzong the following week.
It was the beginning of a magical relationship for Kutira, and what made our presence in Bhutan possible. It was hard to leave Dorchula pass, but our bellies were rumbling and we had been promised a Bhutanese feast in a village below. The slide down the mountain was idyllic, passing huts and farmlands, looking down into the terraced fields where villagers were harvesting grain. The restaurant was charming, the food delicious and lavish. The stairs were a bit steep, more like a glorified ladder but we laughingly made our way, our drivers skating out the back side of the building to have a smoke.
A picture of the 5th King adorned the walls. The royal family is precious to the Bhutanese people. Their pictures grace most public establishments.
The restaurant owner was gracious but we could not linger. We had one more appointment and the sun was getting low.
You can see picture’s illustrating this story at:
Up the Mountain, Into the Forest
November 23, 2007
Penjor Choling (Dhorangdha Goenpa) in Wangdi Phodrang.
It was late afternoon when we pulled off the main road onto a dirt track. Pelden sought out directions from some local residents who pointed up, and up we went. The road was not well traveled and appeared newly cut. We all fervently wished we were in a 4 wheel drive Land Rover and not a willing but underpowered Van. We wound through dense forest, popping out occasionally to see the valley floor dropping away. Neither the guides nor Kutira had been to the nunnery we sought, We had been recommended it as a place where a sponsorship program might be suitable.
Eventually we noticed under some rock outcroppings nests of TsaTsas. These clay stupas are composed of earth and sacred substances, each has a roll of mantras inside of them. We imagined that we were getting close. To our great relief the forest opened to a magical vision of a towering white stupa. We climbed out gratefully and were welcomed to the Goenpa by a young nun. Runners were sent for Anem Choden, a nun who has been at the Goenpa for many years and is looked to for guidance and direction.
We met in the Prayer Hall, a simple building beautifully maintained, to discuss the needs of the nunnery and our various projects and propositions. She explained that in fact there were two groups sharing the grounds. Before the road, Lama Sonam Zangpo guided them into practice and they were essentially in retreat. Above the Goenpa we could see a number of small huts, retreat cottages. Some of these retreatants had been doing practice here for over 30 years.
On the ground floor of the Prayer Hall area lived ten young nuns sponsored by Garab Rinpoche. His organization built the road and hoped to build a structure that would house 40 retreatants and provide some infrastructure and support to the whole group. As we spoke with Anem Choden we realized that we were not really prepared to organize a sponsorship program for the nuns at the Goenpa. But what did become apparent was how much the two groups relied on her for guidance in their practice. She confessed that even though she had experience she had come to the point where she needed more instruction herself.
We offered to try and find some sponsorship for this purpose and she was radiant with the thought. She gave us the name of a monk who had been helping with the organizational needs of the Goenpa, Mahakala was his name, and she asked us to contact him when we returned to Thimpu. The nuns of this Goenpa were intrigued with the idea of our sacred dance and happy to participate if it had the approval of the head of their order. The sun was setting and our driver Dorje was making nervous gestures that we should go. He did not want to face that road in the dark and neither did we. But we couldn’t leave without a last cup of tea. We coaxed them to offer it to us outside and were so grateful, for there was sister moon rising in fullness above us.
We regretted having to leave this abode of peace and would have loved settling into one of those tiny retreat huts. The area was resplendent with a deep peace. We circled the blazing white stupa on our way out, and bumped down the road accompanied by the laughing moonlight.
To see photos illustrating this article please go to:
November 24, 2007
We survived the late night descent from the Penjor Nunnery, and were grateful slip into The Zangdhopelri Hotel. This beautiful establishment is owned by the royal family and demonstrates their excellent taste. Our rooms were in a little cabin outside the main building. I planned to go straight to bed but couldn’t resist opening a mysterious door in the back of my room. It led to a balcony overlooking a river, the most magnificent, stunning view. Kutira and Robin went off to dinner but we all got up early to take photos. The mist rising off the river was sheer magic and we enjoyed our morning, wandering about soaking in the beauty.
You can see photos of the hotel and surroundings at:
The Punakha Dzong
Dzongs are fortresses, built to defend the land. But the defense of Bhutan does not only rest on the shoulders of the Army. It is the Deity Protectors that are credited with the safety and well being of the country.
The walls of each Dzong are covered with pictures of Tibetan Buddhist Deities, teaching stories and astrological calculations of the country and it’s rulers. Most Dzongs have a group of monks in residence and an elaborate Prayer Hall where the rituals of the Drukpa Kagyu lineage are conducted.
Within the spacious courtyard of the Dzongs magnificent yearly festivals are held that go on for days. One of the main features of the festivals is the Lama dancing rituals. Dressed in layers of silken brocade, wearing fearsome, wooden masks, the monks invoke the forces of the wrathful protectors. At the end of the festival a enormous thanka is displayed.
The Punakha Dzong is famous for repelling two Tibetan invasions of the country. It recently suffered a flood that swept away the bridge and damaged some of the lower buildings.
In May/June 2008 the Punakha Dzong will host some of the coronation rituals. The body of the Shabdrung is in a restricted part of the Dzong. The Shabdrung was responsible for unifying the country and is consider the founder of Bhutan.
We began our exploration across the rivers, enjoying the incredible view. Our guide Pelden pointed out that one river was darker than the other and he said they were referred to as the male and female rivers meeting. We asked him which was which and he looked at us astonished that we did not know.
“The black is female and the white is male.” he told us with authority. We were a little surprised to hear this and asked him what that indication was based on.
“Well,” he said, “the female is more dirty than the male, everyone knows that.” As we were gasping for breath and looking at him as if he had lost his mind he hastened to explain that this was what was taught to them in school, in the scriptures. The woman has nine orifices of purification and the man has only eight, there fore…..
Kutira told him pointedly that he should never say this to western women or he would find himself floating down the river. A lively discussion ensued and we often touched into this piece of folklore as we continued our explorations of the Bhutanese cultural psyche.
Once in the Dzong we wandered about delighting in the incredible beauty and grandeur. Pelden was a bit subdued but we told him to buck up, that we didn’t hold his education against him and that we were here to show him a different point of view. He kept muttering that he had never encountered a group like this before. You bettcha!!!!!
You can see photos that illustrate this story at;
A Stupa of Grace and Beauty
We dropped Kutira at a function she had been invited to attend. A quick lunch at a local restaurant and we were off across a swinging foot bridge through harvested fields to visit the Khamum Yuelay Namgyel Choeten, “The Stupa of Great Magnificence”. This Stupa was built by Her Majesty Ashi Tshering Yangdon Wangchuck, the Queen Mother who is the patron of the nuns.
The fields gave way to forest and the path was steep but well traveled. As we approached the top of the hill the Stupa appeared, lavishly ornamented.
The view of fields, river and mountains was breathtaking. We walked around the outside of the stupa, stopping before a charming statue of Tseringma, the beloved goddess of good fortune. She was tipping a vase that had a steady stream of water flowing from it. There were a few Bhutanese pilgrims eagerly stretching out their hands to sip the blessing water so we got right in line. May Good Fortune be Abundant for all.
Inside the stupa were towering statues of Tantric Deities, each of the four floors with a different focus.
Pelden came running up to me as I was photographing the 16 Offering Goddesses, depicted in metal work on the third level, to say that Kutira just called, she was finished with her meeting and if we were to see Drukpa Kunley’s shrine we needed to go right away.
The Divine Madman
Of course we wanted to see Drukpa Kunley’s shrine. This Divine Madman was an unconventional teacher. His sexual exploits were famous and his teachings often had licentious overtones.
We danced merrily down the hill and over the bridge, the sun was getting low. We picked up Kutira and because darkness would make it difficult for us to find the shrine Dorje showed us how the Bhutanese drive for the Bhutanese.
As we approached the small rural village where we were to park the car we noticed enormous phallus’s adorning the sides of buildings.
A common symbol in Bhutan, much more realistic than the stylized Shiva Lingams of India, the phallus represents protection and fertility.
We scrambled through the darkening fields. Robin was looking to adopt a child and we figured that the ritual at DK’s shrine was just the thing. The attendant monk brought out a large wooden phallus and because of the late hour did an abbreviated version of the fertility blessing for her, touching her head and her hands with the sacred object.
We picked our way down through the fields in the dark. We still had miles to go to get back to our rooms at Kalu’s house. We needed to get good rest, Kutira had received word, we had a meeting with the queen scheduled!!
We meet the Queen Mother
Tashichodzong, Thimphu, Bhutan November 2007
What fairy tale images arise with the thought of “Meeting the Queen”. Since our arrival her presence had been invoked, opening doors for us and in general providing for our well being. Now, finally, we were to meet face to face.
Rinzing sent over two young women to dress us in Kutira’s kiras, the traditional dress for women in Bhutan. The main garment is a square of finely woven, colorful fabric wrapped about the body somewhat tightly and firmly held in place by a cloth belt. If it is a full length kira like the one Kutira wore it is pulled up under the arms and over the shoulders, held in place by jewelry clasps. If it is a half kira such as Robin and I were wearing there is a Tibetan style light silk under blouse that is worn. On top of this comes a brocade jacket held in place with a brooch.
Robin and Kutira looked elegant. I felt like a stuffed sausage but what was a little sacrifice of being hobbled in order to have such a rare opportunity.
The boys were spiffed up as well. Raphael actually sported a jacket and TIE!!!! Dorje and Pelden were a bit nervous as they had never brought any visitors for an audience with Her Majesty. They had a long white scarf draped over one shoulder, an important part of the ceremony of entering the palace grounds.
We were greeted by the chief of protocol, a charming and educated fellow who escorted us up the stairs and past two sentries who saluted us smartly. I was praying nothing would fall off and then, to my horror we had a red sash placed over our shoulder. It immediately fell off and I was terrified about having to bend over and rearrange it. Fortunately our guide graciously replaced it and tucked it in the rear waistband of my outfit. I could hold onto the other end and feel somewhat secure.
We entered the room and Her Majesty was sitting on a settee, a picture of gracious beauty. She greeted us warmly, pulling Kutira to sit on one side of her. Kutira introduced us.
“I can tell you practice dharma,” she said to me. “You have a deep, inner peace.” For a moment the room became absolutely quiet and we all felt the great peace of her own practice.
Kutira told her of our efforts, projects and accomplishments on behalf of the nuns of Bhutan. Her Majesty spoke passionately about the situation of the country’s nuns.
Some of the nunneries are doing well but many of them aren’t. They lack the most basic comforts. She was especially concerned about the general lack of good sanitation. Before anything she felt these needs had to be solved.
She was also concerned about their educational opportunities. She is planning to build an institute of higher Buddhist education for the nuns and has already begun looking at property and designs.
The time passed swiftly. She called Raphael to sit next to her. He spoke enthusiastically about music and what he was hoping to achieve by recording some of the music of Bhutan. Then she called Robin to her. Robin asked if she could video the meeting and though Her Majesty agreed she did so reluctantly. She confessed to us that she froze in front of the camera and was unable to speak.
Robin offered her a beautiful gift from Kauai. We had all brought her something. I gave her a pair of Tara Tam earrings and she put them on immediately.
We spoke of the Tara Dance and agreed that in the case of the nuns it had to be approached with delicacy. She was interested in witnessing the dance and invited us to join her at her meditation retreat above the stupa she had built in Punakha. We could dance and practice there.
We were delighted with the idea. We had been discussing the possibility of bringing a group. What a joy it would be to dance Tara for this elegant woman.
Robin set up the camera and we did try to coax Her Majesty into speaking a few words, but it was obvious it made her uncomfortable so we went on to other things.
We were offered tea and little cakes. And then it was time to go. We had been together for two hours. We were escorted out of the palace by the chief of protocol. He told us that usually meetings with the queen were brief. She rarely spent more than 20 minutes. “It is different with friends,” he remarked, including us in that magic circle.
You can see photos illustrating this story at:
Wrapping it Up
Glowing from our visit with the queen and feeling pretty cha cha in our native dress, Kutira instructed the driver to take us to the Amankora, one of the most exclusive hotels in Bhutan. She was a friend of Ian, the manager, who had invited us to tea.
We discussed our work with the nuns and Ian offered to help. Brainstorming together we thought to bring our group of dancers when we organize a pilgrimage to the hotel to dance as a fund raising gesture for the nuns.
One Step from a Knight
Then we were whisked off up a lovely valley to meet Michael Rutland. Almost a Sir he was granted the next best title (OBE)
from the Queen of England because of his pioneer work in strengthening relations between Bhutan and the United Kingdom.
We were welcomed by his adopted Bhutanese son, Kesang and his family who lived in the lower cottage. It was a jolly crew that escorted us up a cobbled track to Michael’s lair.
We were delighted with his tales of the “old days” and he showed us a dvd of the very formal OBE ceremony when he was acknowledged for his work. He came to Bhutan almost 40 years ago as a tutor to the 4th King. Four years ago he was appointed by the Bhutan Government their “Honorary Consul to the United Kingdom”.
His grand son, Jamyang Rinchen, sang us a lovely song he had just composed about the preciousness of a friend. Robin wandered down to the lower house to take some footage of the magnificent weavings of Ugyen Wangmo, Kesang’s wife. The colors were refined, the patterns unique, she confessed that often they take more than a year to complete.
Kesang is a Radio and TV Producer for the BBS (Bhutan
Broadcasting Service). He became very excited by our conversations and invited Kutira to be interviewed for his TV Talk Show, “Change”.
Rinzing, Family and Friends
Our time in the Thimphu area had been productive and with gratitude and anticipation we prepared to leave. Rinzing had done everything possible to makes us comfortable in Kalu Rinpoche’s residence. We had a good bye party at her home which was just around the corner from where we were staying. She prepared a fabulous feast for us, and we enjoyed visiting with her beautiful husband and three children.
She also invited Pem to the festivities. Pem is the daughter of the former Minister of Culture and Religion, a close friend of Kutira’s. Pem spoke ardently about her dharma aspirations. She was inspired by the idea of dancing Tara and asked if there was any chance that she could learn the dance. We are hoping to get a scholarship for her to come to the Kauai camp.
When we return to Bhutan with a group of dancing Taras we plan to send one of our senior Teachers ahead of the group to work with several Bhutanese women who mentioned to me their aspiration to dance Tara with us.
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We started our last day in Thimphu at the Television Studio. I thought I was just going to accompany Kutira but they invited me to be interviewed as well. It was an interesting experience. We had been in Bhutan just over a week, I could not even begin to know the culture from the inside. I could simply offer the few observations and experiences we had reflecting them off of my previous experience in other Himalayan cultures.
The country is at a dynamic crossroads, so much is changing. It is a good time for self examination. The issue of gender equality is not easily solved with sound bites.
Kesang was quite sincere with his interview questions and attentive as we shared our thoughts. The time was over quickly and we felt that we had just begun to explore this issue together. His appreciation was so sincere. Kutira and I said a little prayer that our ideas would be helpful and not misleading.
Even though our departure clock was ticking we had to meet the station director, a beautiful young woman. Our chat was lively. I was surprised to hear that she felt the need to step lively with her programming. The Bhutanese were only allowed to have television five years ago, but once it was open….it was wide open. They are connected through satellite and hundreds of channels from around the world are beamed into their sets 24 hours a day.
On our way out we bumped into a lovely young man who was introduced to us as the star of “Travelers & Magicians”. This movie, made by a Bhutanese Rinpoche, (Director of “The Cup”) is a story that directly illustrates the challenge of the traditional world meeting the modern in Bhutan. It is beautifully done, the acting superb, the scenery sublime.
It was the same dusty road back to Paro but we had a wonderful stop midway at Sisena Nunnery. Founded by His Holiness Dilgo Khentse Rinpoche, we visited the prayer hall with a golden stupa holding the ashes of Khentse Rinpoche’s wife. She had been an ardent supporter of this nunnery, a woman well respected in the dharma world. It was nice to see her being acknowledged in this way.
Under the patronage of Khentse Rinpoche’s Labrang, the buildings were in good repair and there was an active teaching schedule. Three lamas are in charge of the organization of the nunnery and the education of the nuns. We spent several hours chatting with the Khenpo and exploring the shrine rooms.
You can see photos of the Sisena nunnery at:
Hot Pool Heaven
It was dark by the time we got to our hotel, but we were sure that we would be well taken care of. The five star, elegant and expensive Uma Hotel had offered to give us an extremely discounted rate for the four days we would be in Paro. With it’s heated swimming pool and saunas we didn’t hesitate to say yes. We knew that a lavish breakfast went with the meal and we settled in happily to our luxury accommodations.
The Uma is high on a hill and we watched the twinkling lights of Paro, driven by the country’s own hydro electric power blink off as we entered dreamland.
You can see pictures of The Uma at the end of the Rinzing page
I thought that our visit to the Royal Academy was in Paro but Kutira says….Thimpu. So the following short about RAPA is a little out of sequence but the pictures are sublime.
Music and Mountain Shrines
The Royal Academy
When Kutira had her meeting with the Minister she asked to meet some of Bhutan’s musicians. The Minister immediately extended an invitation to RAPA the Royal Academy of Performing Art so Raphael could record professional Bhutanese Music. Before we left Thimpu we had a day with some of the artists. The instruments were exotic, the players warmhearted and dedicated. We requested sacred songs and they ruffled around a bit gathering the pieces they thought would satisfy our needs.
Into the Mountains – Kila Goempa
Our first big excursion in Paro was to visit Kila Goempa. After a sumptuous breakfast and an early morning hot swim we gathered our mountain climbing cold weather gear and drove up up up. This eagle’s nest of a nunnery is just below the Chelela Pass which looks into the Ha Valley. There were two approaches to the nunnery. One, walking down from the pass is easier on the heart and lungs. The other, shorter, is more direct, a steady upward climb.
Two nuns were waiting for us at the bottom of the more direct route. They had started a small fire to keep warm, the air was icy cold. They hopped into the car, grateful for the heat. Chelela Pass is adorned with prayer flags and two smoke offering choertens. Devices for appeasing the mountain gods it was not long ago that the only way to get over this pass was on foot. The drops were steep and the weather could be treacherous.
We all enjoyed the primal wonder of the pass and then Robin accompanied Dorje back down to the beginning of the direct route. They would leave the car there and hike up.
Heading out with the nuns as our guides Raphael and Kutira were able to keep up a brisk pace. But there were a lot of uphill sections of our trail and the high altitude of 13,000 feet slowed me to a crawl. Fortunately Pelden waited or I would have surely gone astray.
We passed frozen streams and weather carved rocks, we walked through dense forest dripping with moss. And then it appeared in the distance, the nunnery, clinging to the rock wall, the mountain dropping away to the valley far below. It took me several more hours then we had all anticipated and everyone was tapping their toes waiting for me to arrive for lunch. It was a humble lunch huddled in one of the little shacks for warmth. Each cabin has a wood burning stove but the dense forest below insures an adequate supply of wood.
After lunch we went into the prayer hall and the nuns chanted a moving rendition of the Dewachen Prayer. ”May all beings, after death, be led to the pure realm of infinite joy”. Raphael had been carrying a portable recording device throughout our tour for just this moment.
Then we pulled out the big, red duffle bag and poured the sixty pairs of socks that our wonderful Tara Dhatu friends had sent us onto the floor. Knowing that this nunnery was the highest we would encounter on our trip and that the nuns were relatively poor, we saved them for this moment. There were only 20 of the 55 nuns who live in the gompa present. The rest were in town doing ritual prayers at one of the monasteries. We would connect up with them when we were done.
It was great fun getting them to try on the different sizes and shades of red. They said a beautiful thank you prayer for the sponsors. And then we realized that it was getting dark and we had to scramble down the mountain.
It was hard to leave. I could easily have stayed in one of those little cabins, hugging the rock wall, gazing into infinite space, sending prayers out for the benefit of all beings.
There are many legends about Guru Rinpoche’s sojourn in Bhutan. He meditated in caves and left imprints in the rocks as tokens of his meditative prowess.
One of the most famous shrines in the region is Tiger’s Nest. It is said that Guru Rinpoche’s main consort, Yeshe Tsogyal, turned herself into a Tiger, had Guru Rinpoche climb on her back, and flew up to this high mountain crag. There they meditated together in a cave, leaving impressions of their presence in the rock.
Over the years a number of small shrines have been built about the cave, molded into the rock, precarious to reach. Great meditators have experienced illumination in the area. The main shrine has burnt down several times and only recently has it been open to western travelers.
It is a steep track into the mountains and our guide made arrangements for us to have some mountain ponies for most of the ascent. We started in dense forest where we met our mounts and the men who would lead them. Well, Kutira and Raphael had a man, Robin and I had his young son.
The saddles were a modified English saddles but we were not given the reins. There were no reins. The attendant had a rope that was attached under the horses halter that he at times would jerk the unwilling animal or when he felt things were going well, would just drop and let the horse make his own way. This was a very unsettling experience to this horsewoman. We were climbing up very steep trails with some very steep drop offs and I was supposed to hold onto the saddle and trust. Hmmmmm.
Kutira and Raphael trotted up ahead of us. She had an appointment later in the day and I wanted to relish the entire journey so we waved good bye and soaked up every leisurely moment. The woods were dense with different colored moss. When the trees opened we had magnificent vistas of the valley below. At times we would be able to look up and see, sparkling like a jewel in the mountain crest , the temple.
We passed pilgrims, toiling up the trail. Western trekkers glanced at us enviously, they didn’t know there was a pony option. Three quarters of the way to the top our pony fellow stopped and indicated that this was as far as he went. Since we did not share any common language at all it was difficult to argue. Kutira and our guide were long gone. We knew there was still quite a bit of hike ahead of us but he acted completely convinced that this was as far as they would go.
Robin and I decided to meander at our own speed. She was committed to taking as much footage as possible of this remarkable experience. I had to focus on just keeping the breath coming and going, the higher I got, the more difficult it became.
Just when I thought I could go no further the trail leveled out. I walked past a cave that had a remarkable energy and took note that on the way back I would stop and tune in. I passed a small temple with a proud placard that announced that one of the Je Khenpo’s (the Dalai Lama of Bhutan) had been born there.
The trail led through a small, prayer flag festooned gate. Just down from the gate there was a small shrine devoted to Yeshe Tsogyal. The shrine attendant was so kind. I was moved by the simplicity of the building, the riot of flowers planted at the door. He invited me to light a butter lamp. But I had forgotten to bring any money. He laughed and shook his head and indicated that I should light some lamps anyway. I lit three, thinking of my friends, my students all those who had made this amazing journey possible and sent prayers for their well being.
Just around the corner the trail seemed to end at a precipice.
A western woman I encountered earlier on her way down had mentioned that the last jog was treacherous and that a number of her group did not go the rest of the way. Well, the view was incredible. Across a deep gorge, clinging to the cliffs was the temple complex. You could see that there were several buildings. Prayer flags were strung across the gorge, what looked like an impossible feat. To the left there was a steep waterfall. Wedged into the rock on the waterfall side were other small buildings.
A strong young man came up behind me and sat for a spell. As we chatted he said, “you were on the same plane as us. My girl friend and I were fascinated by the conversation you were having with the Bhutanese monk sitting across from you.” I laughed and told him that the fellow in front of me had told me off for my strident conversation. He had some choice Aussie words about that and we parted in good spirits.
What a place to dream, to let the spirit soar. The smell of the nearby forest, the crisp mountain air, the unbelievable temple, the flapping of prayer flags, the view sweeping dramatically to the valley floor far below. In the distance, blue mountains were adorned with purple clouds and bursts of sunbeams.
It looked like this was really the end of the trail. There was a step that appeared to take you right over the edge of the cliff. I slipped down to it gingerly. From that vantage point I could see the next step around the corner. The steps were well set in the rock face. I would be fine if I did not dwell on the fact that one side of this trail was a sheer drop to the rocks far below.
It was not a long ordeal, really, the trail leveled out towards the back of the gorge. The waterfall was sparkling and dancing down the canyon wall, the water driving a prayer wheel at the base of the fall. Across a small wooden bridge the trail started up towards the temple. I got to the entrance gate just as Kutira and Raphael were coming down.
She was aglow with the divination she had received inside one of the secret inner temples. Specially authorized by His Excellency
the High Lama of Paro, she has received readings during each of her four visits to Tiger’s Nest, asking for guidance and inspiration about the nun’s project. It sounded like all augured well and they sallied on back to make her appointment.
I sat for a long time at the gate overwhelmed with gratitude. Our guide Pelden helped me through the protocol. There were guards at the gate that insisted on us leaving our packs with them. We were not to take our cameras with us into the shrine. He showed them the permit with my name, my identification was checked and I floated up the rest of the stone stairs to the first temple.
The monk there spoke English and we got into a lively dharma discussion. He took me to the entrance of the cave where Guru Rinpoche and consort had lived and meditated. Once a year pilgrims were allowed to go into the cave, for the rest of the year we could but look through a locked gate. Since it was only me in the shrine he relaxed a bit and told me two stories about the large statue of Guru Rinpoche that filled the cave.
It had been built some years ago and carried with great devotion up the mountain trail. But when they came to the gorge the devotees realized that they could not get it around that treacherous corner. A lively discussion followed and they reasoned that they would have to take the statue apart, carry it in pieces up the gorge and then reassemble it at the temple site. At this point the statue spoke to them and told them not to do that. They were instructed to leave the statue there and the local mountain gods would get him across.
Reluctantly the pilgrims went back down the mountain and on the day the statue had told them to return they found it across the gorge safely installed in the temple.
The second story was equally impressive and quite modern. The shrine had burned completely to the ground just a few years ago. Everything was destroyed except the statue. It had been ensconced in a temple directly above the cave. When everything burned it had fallen through the floor into the cave and was untouched by the fire.
Just as he completed that story a group of Bhutanese pilgrims arrived and I followed them through the other buildings as they made their offerings and prayers. The monk told me that they did not usually allow foreigners to go into the upper temples. It was nice to feel a little special.
I met Robin back in the cave temple. We shared some moments together. I knew I needed to leave soon. The sun was low and I was so slow. Robin loaned me some money to give the monk at the Yeshe Tsogyal temple. I found the cave I had taken note of on my way up and sat for a long time, mind expanded, at peace.
And then Robin caught up with me and we laughed and waltzed down the mountain, through the woods to our beloved Dorje driver who had brought food for us. As we ate we looked up at the shrine winking in the setting sun, immersed in the blessing of Yeshe Tsogyal and Guru Rinpoche.
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Last Days in Bhutan
1 Dec 2007
We arrived back at the Uma from our stunning day at Tiger’s Nest. We were happy to find that Dolkar, Rinzing and Kalu Rinpoche’s mom, had arrived at the hotel to visit with us. A large party had gathered in the back lounge. It was wonderful to see Dolkar, I had known that she was Bhutanese when I met her ages ago, but had never thought I would be greeting her in her home country.
Dolkar and I had shared some close moments when the old Kalu Rinpoche had been alive. I had gone to Sonada, his monastery near Darjeeling, India, on several occasions to meet with Kalu and do practice there. After his death we heard that Dolkar and her husband Gyaltsen, Kalu’s nephew and General Secretary, had conceived. We were all surprised and delighted when their baby was declared to be the Tulku “reincarnation” of Kalu.
I was fortunate to go to the coronation of the new dharma heir. The baby was only 2 years old and we spent some wonderful time with him and his parents. But the years had been a struggle for all of them and I had often thought of Dolkar and sent little prayers her way.
It was great to see her strong and clear and happy. She asked us our plans and promised to make sure that the monastery took care of us when we were in the Darjeeling area. That was to be a magnificent understatement.
Kutira and Raphael went to their room to record a young woman brought by Khenpo Tashi. Her haunting voice was mountain crystal clear.
The next day Kutira, Robin and Raphael went in search of the rest of the Kila Gompa nuns. They bumped into them while visiting one of the oldest temples in Bhutan. The nuns were not prepared to do any recording but they were happy to receive the socks that had been reserved for them.
I stayed at the hotel and enjoyed a leisurely day of hot pool swimming and organizing my notes to write these stories for you, dear reader.
Breakfast with Khenpo Tashi
Raphael had an early morning flight to Bangkok. We three women were going to be driven to the boarder where the Sonada monastery car would meet us and take us into India.
But first we had our last sumptuous Uma breakfast and invited Khenpo Tashi to join us. We were so happy to have one last chance to be with our dear friend. In some ways it seemed so perfect to begin and end our stay in Bhutan with Khenpo.
Again Khenpo talked about the Terma Nature of the Tara Dance. And then he started thinking out loud…..”you must dance at one of the great festivals in Bhutan. That way everyone would see what you are doing”.
He asked if we would like to do this and of course I agreed. Immediately he began brainstorming with Kutira….which festival and when. They all sounded wonderfully exciting.
Off to Phoentsoling
And then it was time to check out of our wonderful hotel, hop in the van with all of our luggage and head south to the border. The road meandered along, a river to the right, sometimes close and sometimes we towered above. To the left were mountain cliffs or dense forest.
The road was big enough for 1 1/2 cars and not in the best state of repair so after six hours we were happy to see the lights of Phoentsoling shimmering below and through the trees.
The next morning we were delighted to meet our new escorts from Sonada monastery and very touched that they had driven five hours to come and pick us up.
Pelden and Dorje accompanied us to the Immigration Office to show the documents that allowed us to exit Bhutan. Being somewhat unconventional there were some lively exchanges but they let us pass. There were poignant goodbyes to Dorje the Driver and Pelden the Guide, they had truly made our visit comfortable and very special. And then we turned our faces to India, Sikkim, Nepal and another set of amazing adventures.
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