As we climbed toward Dochula on a winding, bumpy, unfinished road that connects Thimpu and Punakha, our driver Dorji jockeyed for position around a continual stream of anthropomorphic dump trucks. After about 30 minutes we began to see snow and by the time we reached the 3150 m peak we were in a white out. We couldn’t see a thing, but we were happy to stop and have a little lunch at the rustic café at the top. A group of American students on an Interim trip from Singapore American School engaged in rollicking snowball fight. We ate a simple lunch, discussed rewiring consciousness in Christianity (as you do) and headed down the other side of the mountain to the breadbasket of Bhutan. Arriving in Punakha we went for tea and again engaged in a philosophical discussion, this time of sin and karma. Wow, Gembo’s intellectual stamina is formidable. I thought my head would explode during some of our teachings, as I just couldn’t take it all in.
Gembo consciously chose places for us to stay that were not tourist hotels. Perched a solid 30 minutes above the main road into town, the local family farmhouse on three acres he carefully selected for us was a complete delight. It was not at all fancy, but gave us the experience of living in a Bhutanese family home. The family went to considerable lengths to make us comfortable and though we were sometimes chilly, the beds she bought for our visit were warm and cozy and we had everything we needed. We were invited into her efficient kitchen when we arrived and we sat cross-legged on mats around the wood stove as we sipped hot sweet milk tea. Using ingredients from her garden and her cow, our hostess created wonderful meals she served in the main room of the farmhouse.
As half of our group is Christian clergy, Sunday morning we had our own little Eucharist in the farmhouse before we headed out for our meetings. This was a first for all of us, as Gembo and Lam joined us for the service. With this simple ritual our group had reached a new level of intimacy and trust. It was another beautiful moment to add to the list. Our lovely breakfast was a meat porridge and brown rice with cilantro, onion, garlic, ginger and chilies. My new favorite.
Tucked behind the stunning 17th century Punakha Dzong is a small government ministry building where we spent many hours over the course of the next two days. The main meeting room, elaborately painted in yellow and orange clouds topped by ornate dragonheads, is furnished with stately couches and low tables. His Eminence, Letshog Lopen Rinpoche, is one cool monk. He radiated confidence as he breezed into the room with authority wearing darkened shades and sporting a small mustache and long, thin Confucian beard. A scholar, philosopher and administrator, he was curious about our group and why we had come to Bhutan, and put Gembo through the paces translating all that he had to say.
Sabina’s opening questions always set the tone for our meetings, demonstrating that we were here as practitioners and here to learn. Her skill earned our group respect and deepened the level of the conversations and interest in exchanging views. With closed eyes he would listen to our questions, then come alive with philosophical responses such as likening creation/realization to tasting an apple. Explaining that the taste itself is creation/realization, but when we talk of tasting, the processes that leads to tasting are the foundational steps and equally important as is tasting itself. Priming soil, planting the seed, water, sunlight, time… all of these elements prepare for that moment of tasting. To achieve Mahamudra, therefore, all steps are practices, attained within one’s mind along the path. Got it? After two intense hours of discussion, we shared a quiet catered lunch and then he abruptly bid farewell and left even before I worked up the courage to request a photograph.
On the following day we met His Eminence Tshglop Rinpoche responsible for social service activities for the Sangha. Our conversation was entirely different, but equally enlightening. Establishing that we were comfortable and enjoying our stay in his country that might lack services but has happiness and tranquility, our conversation centered on effort, continual practice and service as key elements in the pursuit of mahamudra. I was interested to hear from him that among older monks, they rarely if ever see mental problems. He seemed to suggest a link between generation of wisdom and staving off dementia.
After several hours in that room, and on the one day when bright sunshine beckoned us from outside the windows, we were restless, but we had another remarkable moment just ahead. Our driving companion and quiet, good natured friend, “Lam” who had accompanied us for two days practicing English and bantering about the food now changed hats and joined the list of respected experts with whom we shared dialog. Gembo translated as Lam Jampel Sangay, District Abbot of Pemagatshel District Monastic Body shared with us his deep knowledge and reassured us that the key element of spiritual practice is to have faith in the path we choose. As long as we have total faith, we are on the right path. This wisdom, among many other pithy teachings Lam shared, made staying inside a little longer worth every second.
With the mornings spent in meetings, our group was anxious to move our bodies in the afternoons and of course Gembo had a plan. On the first afternoon, we hiked to Khamsum Yuley Namgyel Chorten, a newer temple built by the queen mother with a massive mandala in the center “Victorious diety over the three worlds” and a stunning 360 degree view of Punakha valley from the top. We discussed fear and imagery and whether they are learned or ingrained. Mom wondered if Yeung might take issue with Gembo’s assertion that fearis conditioned; that the images are not inherently scary. We heard about the divine madman and his antics on the way up, and about temple architecture as we descended in a rainstorm.
On our second afternoon in Punakha we visited both Punakha Dzong and Khuruthang Lhakhang, the latter of which had survived a terrible flood. When we finally returned to the farmhouse in the evenings, we were treated to a lovely stone bath one night, dancing with the host’s adorable eight-year-old daughter, and deep conversations over lovely hearty meals.
On our way out of Punakha we stopped at a nunnery where we met a lovely young nun named Pema who gave us bracelets and told us she would pray for us. She spoke perfect English, and was articulate, earnest and soft-spoken. Though we all could have stayed in Punakha for much longer, it was time to begin our journey home.