The First Pebble
Several years ago I embarked on a writing project using poetry as a vehicle to explore the nature of reality, creation, and consciousness. I examined traditions in thought, philosophy, and religion. While I am not Buddhist, many of my personal beliefs are remarkably congruent with Buddhist thought. I felt compelled to journey to the one place on Earth that embodies the Buddha with the most profound purity. I had to visit Bhutan! So, this spring I did just that, embarking on a long and languid exploration of Bhutan over the course of 43 days.
Visitors to Bhutan come for many reasons and bring with them many expectations. I am here to address those future visitors who know that this land is a holy place and who come here to touch and to be touched by its sacredness.
I found a way to do this. We each have our traditions, rituals, and other preparations we might undertake before engaging in something potentially pivotal, potentially life-changing. For me it is reading, and I chose what I read very carefully. First and foremost, I did not want to read about Bhutan for I wanted to arrive in Bhutan free of preconceptions and expectations. I call this “travelling cluelessly”, and I have practiced it for years. Instead, I read The Universe in a Single Atom – The Convergence of Science and Spirituality, by His Holiness the Fourteenth Dalai Lama, The Diversity of Life, by Edward O. Wilson, The Tibetan Book of the Dead, translated by Lama Kazi Dawa-Samdup, the “Report by the Commission on the Measurement of Economic Performance and Social Progress”, Joseph E. Stiglitz, Chair (2009), inspired by Gross National Happiness, and I reread the novelette, For I Have Touched the Sky, by Mike Resnick .
I carried within me what I considered the four most important postulates of Buddhism – the principle of emptiness, the principle of dependent origination, mindfulness, and compassion. I suspect that many visitors to Bhutan develop a fantasy of what Bhutan will be like and what they will gain from their visit. A fantasy, like any other work of fiction, requires the participant to engage in the suspension of disbelief. I did not even want to engage in this artifice.
I wanted to arrive in Bhutan as an empty vessel, free of all prior notions; I consciously avoided making any comparisons with the outside world; I wanted to sustain a state of mindfulness throughout my time there, and I wanted to practice compassion, kindness, and generosity.
Western thought introduced us to the concept of an ecology, but in this conception humans are always set apart, dispassionate observers rather than passionate participants. Ah, not so in Bhutan. The people are an inextricable part of the ecology. I arrive as an empty vessel and I am slowly remade through the growing relationships I develop as I explore Bhutan, and quite unexpectedly, by the process of dependent origination, what emerges is a spirituality, a deep sense of connection and belonging. As I travel across Bhutan, I begin to appreciate auspicious signs, to see the workings of demons and deities, to quit being surprised by all the coincidences and chance encounters, to attribute the long concatenation of my fortunate circumstances to karma, and to believe that the very landscape is aware of and welcomes my presence.
I made compassion, kindness, and generosity part of the ethics of my journey. I once had a student who took an introductory course in chemistry. She told me that since taking that course, she suddenly saw chemistry and heard or read about it all the time. She told me that it must have been there all along, but she was blind to it until she learned it. So too, when I became mindful of compassion, I saw it everywhere in Bhutan. My efforts at compassion, I saw, were both pale and meager. I was humbled by the fabric of compassion that is woven throughout the culture. There is hardly a household that has not taken in someone in need, often part of the extended family, and sometimes not, and when even this becomes overwhelming, the monasteries provide yet another sanctuary. There are no homeless, and there are no beggars in Bhutan.
You can’t think about Bhutan without thinking about Buddhism. The land, the people, and Buddhism are woven together, and in that weaving, like a mandala or a thangka, is revealed the hidden reality of Bhutan.
A prayer flag can fray and unravel in the wind and still retain its power, but to truly understand Bhutan, it must be viewed as whole cloth. The Rinpoche asked me during a long afternoon conversation, that of the many monasteries I had visited, which did I like best. Each monastery is unique in some way and I cannot help but feel the sacredness of each space, but as a novice to Buddhism, the rich and complex iconography is just too overwhelming and bewildering for me to comprehend. I told him that what I liked best, what I was most attracted to, were the chortens. While many think chortens are monuments, they are far more than that. They are physical manifestations of the Buddha in the landscape. Their lines are elegant and simple and reassure me that the path to enlightenment is unencumbered, and their ubiquity teaches me that the Buddha is everywhere, in the very fabric of reality. The eightfold path is not a way that can be traversed through space and time, but instead resides within each of us, and so long as we remain mindful of it, and abide within its wisdom, no matter what direction our lives may take us, we will be following in the direction of the Buddha.
I watch as my hosts tend to their cow and fill the pail with its morning milk, then grab a long stalk of a weed, its seed head bending it into a gentle arc, dipping it into the warm milk to fling drops of milk here and there, an offering to Chhundu, the protective deity of Haa Valley… The sheer beauty of the idea staggers me to think that every turn of a prayer wheel is intended to send blessings to every sentient being in the universe…
At my farmstay in Jakar, my hosts had gone hiking one beautiful sunny day to gather wild strawberries that they later made into several jars of preserves. It moved me to know the provenance of a single jar of preserves I saw the next morning placed as an offering on the altar of the monastery just down the hill… In the courtyard of that same monastery the pious elderly gather under the shade of a tree to socialize while spinning their mani wheels, or mutter prayers or mantras, marking their progress with their prayer beads, or count their circumambulations around the temple by adding one small pebble each time to the growing pile they have started on a ledge at one corner of the temple wall… I sit cross-legged on the floor, helping my host separate fresh mint leaves from their stalks. I twirl each stem clockwise between my thumb and forefinger, removing each leaf one at a time. This reminds me of the little handheld prayer wheels (but absent their prayers), so I drop into a silent meditation, filling each stalk with prayers and blessings…
I grow accustomed to the muttering and softly whispered prayers of everyone around me, comforted that they have, in that moment, forgotten that I am even there…
In the village of Khoma, I inquire one evening about the doleful sound of Buddhist horns I hear somewhere in the village and I am told that there has been a death in the village and these horns are part of the ceremonies that have gone on for days and weeks to guide the recently departed. I know the body will be cremated, the ashes mixed with clay, divided into 108 portions, each molded by the monks into the little conical tsa tsas that the family will thoughtfully disperse throughout the landscape, tiny emulations that remind me of chortens, and this thought makes me smile, not knowing whether this gesture is merely symbolic, or whether the departed has found the turn in the path that leaves samsara behind… I am in the hills above Punakha on the last morning of my last farmstay in Bhutan. I am dressed formally in my gho out of respect for the Rinpoche I would be meeting later in Thimphu. Nobody said anything, but the mat I sat on for dinner or while writing in my journal was placed directly under an open window in which was placed a brass bowl of burning incense. While I sat there, a gentle morning breeze caught the fragrant smoke and sent it cascading down upon my head and shoulders. It put me in a quiet meditative reverie, a perfect preparation for my departure, to accompany me while wandering among the 108 chortens at Dochu La, and a perfect closure to my first circumambulation of Bhutan.
My visit to Bhutan was a profound experience and I feel blessed to have had this opportunity. Bhutan has subtly altered my perception of reality. I am woven into the fabric of Bhutan; it is part of me and I am part of it. I am eternally grateful to Bhutan and its people. Thank you. It is said that in times of great need a tertön will appear and reveal a great treasure to heal the world, to turn the world onto the right path. Perhaps Bhutan is that sacred treasure.
…I am back home again and while unpacking I notice a tiny faded blue thread clinging to my fleece. I remove it and look at it speculatively, and suddenly realize what it is, a tiny fragment of a prayer flag, a blessing carried on the wind. I take it outside, place it in the palm of my hand, raise it above my head and wait until it lifts into the sky to drift away in the purling air.
STORY & PHOTOGRAPHY BY CHUCK REED