Tashi Delek – A Journey to Bhutan, Part IV, Homeward Bound

Retracing our steps, working our way back to Paro over the course of the next three days, we had a chance to shop, check our email, reflect and regroup in now familiar Thimpu.  Our official meetings were finished, but there was still work to be done.

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The drive back between Punakha and Thimpu could not have been more different from our previous summit days before.  This time the sky was blue and, as we reached Dochula we had a 360 degree view of the Himalayas all around us.  As we waited for the pass to open, we explored the 108 chortens build by the Queen mother commemorating those lost in a brief skirmish with India in 2003 as well as the temple built in honor of the 4th Druk Gyalpo which contained paintings by Karma Ura.

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Returning to where it all began outside Paro, on our last day we climbed to Tiger’s Nest.  At my regular pace it would have taken about an hour, but for our group it took three.  Slowly we ascended, savoring the now comfortable conversation as much as the view.  I worked consciously not to make the destination the whole goal as we meandered our way up, catching glimpses of Takshang on a competing peak across the deep divide.  After finally reaching Takshang’s elevation, the path turns toward the mountain face and one must descend hundreds of steps only to climb back up to the final destination perched impossibly on the cliff above.

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Dedicated to Guru Padmasambhava Rimpoche the tantric mystic who brought Buddhism to Bhutan and who flew on a tigress and landed on that sacred spot that is said to resemble a dagger, Takshang defies all reason.   To build the foundation, Regent Tenzin Rabgye mixed hair with flour and water and tossed it out.  Where it stuck, they placed small stones, then larger and larger stones on top until the foundation emerged.  Despite two significant fires in the 20th century that destroyed documents and most of the temples, the foundation and the statue of Guru Padmasambhava Rimpoche survived unharmed.  Taksang was rebuilt upon the original foundation.

Inside Taksang, the new Abbot welcomed and served us tea and biscuits before giving us a personal tour of several of the 11 temples, two of which are closed to outsiders because visitors might bring bad omens and cause harm.  The primary temple is built around an auspicious and powerful cave that is accessible only to the most senior of monks and only at certain times of the year.  The rest of the time an imposing face festooned with offerings blocks the entrance.  In this temple, those who have powers charge the place while others receive. We sat before the statue in a light filled temple as many, many pilgrims, including a beautiful young boy with glasses in a gold gho earnestly worshiped.

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The descent was much faster, even with a quick stop for tea along the way, and we got to the bottom to find Namgyel, back from a quick trip to India, waiting.  It was like greeting an old friend.  He drove us back to the guesthouse where we had our final meal together and then Gembo offered his final surprise, a culture show.  Performers in elaborate costumes shared cultural heritage through song and dance and even got us up dancing.

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After the show, our group attempted a wrap up session, but it was the least successful initiative we undertook on the trip.  Too many emotions, thoughts, ideas, feelings swirled and the energy was too solemn.   Overwhelming gratitude to our hosts clouded our ability to rationally analyze the important elements of the trip and to lighten up and just talk.  At least that’s how I felt.  We said goodnight and turned our attention to the mundane tasks of packing for our departure, reasoning that for a reflective bunch such as us, the meaning would reveal when it did.

Despite continual togetherness for eleven days, we never really established the true impetus for the generous invitation and treatment we received on this journey.  Gembo told us on our first night together that learning other traditions equips you with a way to see your own culture.  That Bhutan has the desire to slow down the process of modernization and to maintain the culture, tradition, way of living and whatever is possible of the values and the goodness that Bhutan has as it modernizes. To do so well, they need right intervention and good decisions in their leadership.  Values must be in the heart of any good decision maker.  A perpetual student and curious to a fault, Gembo reasoned that experienced teachers of Christianity can link values and teach as well as learn from each other so as to eventually walk on same path, aligned.

Gembo, Sabina and Namgyel took us to the airport the following morning.  We bid farewell with promises to keep in touch, hearts heavy with gratitude for the experience of a lifetime.  While we all went to Bhutan for our own reasons, collectively something big happened.   The group is just now getting around to putting thoughts on paper in a much more reflective way than mine.

Returning to the beginning of the journey, I can only offer that the essence of an artichoke is its heart, and is fiercely protected.  It isn’t immediately obvious and takes hard work to reach.  Whoever was the first to discover the sweet reward of an artichoke must have been wise and persistent; patient, purposeful and resolute.  All qualities I hope I gained a little on this journey.  The deepest and most profound moments and stories of our trip are like that artichoke, protected, and hidden deep within…for now.  I will write them, maybe for a book one day and only at the grace and agreement of those involved.  For now I hope that these tales give you some of those tasty morsels on the outside and a desire to dig deeper with me, eventually, to the heart.

To Gembo and Sabina, all I can say is “Name same kadin chhe.”  Thank you beyond the sky and earth.

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Tashi Delek – A Journey to Bhutan, Part III

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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. 

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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.

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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.

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Tashi Delek – A Journey to Bhutan, Part II

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Thimpu is home to 10% of the population of Bhutan, about 80,000 people and 65% of the cars in the country.  Residents complain that it is overcrowded and “ruined” but they don’t even have a traffic light unless you count the white-gloved police officer who stands at the busiest intersection directing traffic in town.  Ours was a modest guesthouse with a stunning view of the Tashichho Dzong built in 1772.  What the guesthouse lacked in amenities, it made up in spades with this gorgeous view.  Looking out at the Dzong which houses both the Sangha (central monastic body) and the central government administration, we found it impressive by day, but even more so as it is lit with white and red lights at night.  Vegas would be all over this as the next casino design if they only knew. 

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The Sangha makes up 1% of the population of Bhutan, about 8,000 monks.  The monks reside for ½ of the year at Tashichho Dzong in Thimpu and the other ½ in more mild Punakha, further to the north.  Influence of the Sangha is felt throughout the country, both in the presence of the monks in town, but also through more targeted programs like Values Education where monks go into secular schools and work with students and families to teach and ingrain Buddhist values.

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Dress and colors are very important in traditional Bhutanese culture.  A monk’s level of experience can be determined by the colors on the shirt he wears, orange indicating ministry level, for example. Both the Sangha Raj and the King wear yellow.   While street dress is about 50/50 western and traditional Gho and Kira, any time there is a public celebration or they enter an official location, Bhutanese must wear traditional dress in a very precise way.   The women’s Kira is a rather constricting looking long skirt and silk jacket style top.  Men wear the Gho which looks a bit like a big knee length bathrobe worn with long black socks and wingtips.  The mix of east and west has modernized the shoe choice but resulted in a look that through Westerners’ eyes looks like men who forgot to put on trousers.  Nonetheless, I think it’s a great look and brought two of them back for my husband hoping he might start a new trend. 

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On our second day in Thimpu we drove about ½ an hour outside of the city through achingly beautiful countryside to a rural parking lot at the foot of a steep hill.  A lovely stone path (built in two weeks as a surprise for the 7th Tri Rinpoche, a young incarnation of Tenzin Rabgye and current resident at Tango) lead us in gentle switchbacks up through the trees to Tango Thorim Shedra, the primary monastic college in the country.  Tango, which means “Horsehead” is built on an auspicious spot, where Avalokiteshvara revealed himself as prophesized in Tibet and where Shabdrung Ngawang Namgyal meditated in a cave among other bits and pieces of stories I gleaned from Gembo.  At our unhurried pace, the walk took about an hour, as our group bonded,deep in conversations.  Arriving at Tango we were all struck by its beauty perched precariously on the side of a cliff.   The hot milk tea and biscuits we were offered by a young monk were very welcome.  We met with statuesque Lopen Karma, the VP of the school and had an opportunity to ask questions of him.  Amazingly, we were permitted to witness a Mahakala ritual service while we were there.  This was one of the most memorable moments of the whole trip for me.

A few weeks before we left for Bhutan, a relatively new friend of mine, Sandra d’Auriol, had fallen to her death from the roof of a plastic surgery clinic in Beverly Hills.  Making sense of her tragic death was impossible, but her memorial service in Hong Kong coincided with the precise moment we sat there in the temple at Tango, cross legged on carpets in mediation as we listened to twenty young monks rhythmically chant and beat drums with question mark shaped instruments and blow long haunting horns, the sound of which reverberated to the very core of my being.  When we later stood, we were invited to a contiguous temple and told that the enormous Buddha (adorned with a gorgeous turquoise teardrop on the forehead that jewelry designer Sandra would have loved) was a special “wish fulfilling Buddha” as it contained many important relics.  We were encouraged to make offerings and mine was the most earnest wish for Sandra’s family, her husband and two beautiful daughters to find peace and happiness in life and relief from their suffering.  I had a really clear understanding this this was precisely what I was supposed to be doing then, and perhaps the reason for my trip. 

We loved Tango so much we lost track of time.  The cold set in and so did the darkness.  We descended along the stone path in the dark, thankful for the torches and iphone flashlight apps we had along.  Dinner that night at the Folk Museum of Bhutan was delicious.  We sampled native cuisine from all regions of Bhutan including the local rice wine called ara, salty butter tea, momo and many other local dishes.  This was a fantastic meal, but an even more unbelievable day.

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Dasho Karma Ura, who, working alongside the King, gave shape to Gross National Happiness, Director of the Center for Bhutan Studies and modern-day Renaissance man invited us to his home for lunch the following day.  In his living room we sat comfortably as the wood stove crackled and his youngest daughter chased her new kitten around while Karma Ura enlightened us on everything from his theory on Japanese malaise to geopolitics, formation, government processes, heat generation, GNH and so much more.  We sipped our sweet tea, ate fermented millet to warm our stomachs and listened intently.  Karma Ura’s talents are nearly boundless.  When he believed a festival was lacking, he created a new one including choreography, costumes, story and all.  The new temple on Dochela pass includes detailed contemporary wall murals he painted.  He recently published a chapter in a thought-provoking book called Learning From The World.  I took so many notes and have many thoughts on GNH, so will save those for a separate post, but suffice it to say, meeting Karma Ura and hisfamily was extraordinary. 

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We left Karma Ura’s and went straight to Semtoka Dzong, a temple and monastic school for younger monks built in 1629 in Thimpu.  We met the vice principal and our group got a little bold asking about the benefits of celibacy as the essence of Vinaya.  Gembo must have had a time of it translating in that meeting, but handled it with his usual aplomb.   While the Dzong was beautiful, the most memorable element of our time there was an impromptu history lesson on all of the reincarnations of Avalakateshvara and philosophical teaching on the union of bliss & emptiness Gembo gave on the spot in the new museum annex.

Dinner that night was at a restaurant called Jampelyang Resort on the opposite bank of the river with a beautiful view of the lights of the city.  Our hosts for the evening, Cheki and her husband Kinley, were fantastic.  Cheki is one of 9 children, including our friend Nomgeil who helped cart us around all week and Lam Jampal, District Abbot, and now dear friend too.  Each of these four amazing people has a story I would love to share separately.  Cheki’s 15 kilometer walk each day to go to school when she was young, Nomgeil’s terrible experience pumping gas and working in a Japanese restaurant kitchen in midtown NY on a fated flirtation with the American dream, and Lam Jampal’s recent work to build a secular school to support his monastery in the East.  I love this family and would like to send business to Cheki’s travel agency, find Nomgeil a wonderful wife and raise funds for Lam’s school.

On our final morning in Thimpu, in a light chilly rain we walked across the main courtyard of Tashichho Dzong to the private chamber where his Eminence Dorji Lopen Rinpoche, the Vice Sangha Raja awaited our visit.  This beautifully imposing man sat cross-legged on a platform, cloaked in robes, commanding the room without saying a word.  We presented our white scarves and bowed our heads low and he placed them around our necks and gently touched our cheeks. We spent two hours in his presence asking questions about the path to mahamudra, shamata, Vipassana and so many other topics, and he replied with patience and wisdom, offering just the right teachings and examples for our group.  Before we left, he offered us a blessing to “tie our karma so we continue to be together.”  The energy was truly electric as we all sat with our heads bowed and he chanted then presented us with silk cords and mental health herb pills that had been blessed and consecrated in a way to help generate awareness and benefit those with mental problems.  I am definitely going to hold onto those!  The photo of all of us taken afterwards looks like we all just went through the ringer.  I can’t describe exactly what it feels like to have your karma tied to a monk like that, but I can say that we all felt changed by it.

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We left Thimpu in a warm daze and headed up and over the pass to Punakha.

To be continued in Punakha…

Tashi Delek – A Journey to Bhutan, Part I

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“If it doesn’t work out, we can visit another temple.”  – Gembo

Why is it that the best stories are the hardest to write?  When nothing big happens, the words flow easily.  When I spend twelve days in a continual state of “I-can’t-believe-how-lucky-I-am-to-be-here,” I don’t know where to begin to write about it.  Such was the case with my trip to Bhutan last week.  Far beyond a travel adventure, this trip had meaning and importance more than I can even begin to understand or convey in a blog post.  The only thing I can think to do is to write it in a series; like an artichoke with a few tasty morsels on the outside to be greedily consumed before picking my way through the fibrous, unpalatable layer to eventually reveal the sweet essence hidden deep within.

Visionaries come in many forms.  Ours were a Bhutanese Buddhist monk in flowing red robes and a deferential but celebrated economist and Anglican priest who, together, wondered what might happen if they invited a small group of Christian contemplatives to spend ten days in dialog and shared practice in the Buddhist Himalayan country where Gross National Happiness and the values of the monastic body infuse a rapidly modernizing country with an ingrained collective conscientiousness.  Here is our story…

Touching down at Paro airport after a night spent in Bangkok, Pip, a Christian contemplative from New Zealand who had spent time as a Buddhist nun in Thailand, mom and I navigated our way through customs and were greeted on the other side by our hosts; Lopen Gembo Dorji, Secretary General of the Monastic Body of Bhutan, and Sabina, an American woman living in the UK who had been our primary contact in the logistical planning of the trip.  Erik, an intense young American Christian studying at Naropa Univeristy in Boulder, and Oswin, a Christian monk from Mirfiled, UK with a specific interest in Japanese art rounded out our group.  We were a somewhat unlikely “delegation,” spanning a thirty year age range and with varying degrees of wisdom and practice, but with an unrivaled earnestness and sense of gratitude for whatever stars had aligned to bring us together for this experience.

Our host Gembo had attended secular school though university and then became a monk, an unusual trajectory, as most choose one path or the other much earlier in life.  Once he became a monk he did a three-year retreat and lived alone in deep practice in the mountains for years before being beckoned back to service by the central monastic body.  Gembo is fluent in English, politics, economics, history, religion, culture, philosophy, and has a particular gift for story telling and teaching.  While he expertly serves with grace and skill, his heart is in his practice.  Gembo is one of the most extraordinary people I have ever met.

The awe-factor continued with Gembo’s co-host.  The woman I knew by email as our coordinator, Sabina Alkire, turned out to be a hero in my book, and the same age as me.   Founding director of the Oxford Poverty and Human Development Initiative, a PhD economist and ordained Anglican priest, Sabina is the protégé of Nobel Prize winning Indian poverty expert Amartya Sen, and is also the economist behind the measurement of GNH in Bhutan among other things.   With this resume, one might expect a formidable presence, and yet Sabina treads lightly in all that she does, gracefully and humbly leading our group with an artistic skill that was a delight to experience and an inspiration.

Gembo and Sabina created an 11-day itinerary for our group that would cover three towns on the West side of the country, Paro, Thimpu and Punakha.  Our schedule listed meetings with senior members of the monastic body including three of the five Eminences, Dasho Karma Ura, the architect of GNH and Director of the Center of Bhutan Studies, and two vice principals of monastic schools.  Everywhere we went we were welcomed into the private chambers of the temples and monastic schools, served tea, biscuits and roasted rice by monks, and treated like honored guests.

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Modernization in Bhutan has come fast.  Mobile phones were introduced only a decade ago and are now ubiquitous.  Even the monks carry and answer mobile phones all the time.  It was a regular occurrence to hear cell phones chime in the temples, and there seemed to be no particular concern about it.   While Wi-Fi for tourists is still mostly accessible at Internet cafes and international hotels (I went three days without checking email), the insidious attraction of constant connectivity and electronic entertainment has not spared this small kingdom.  English usage is spreading too.  Secular schools are now taught in English while the monastic schools continue to be taught in the traditional Dzongkha.  Television and radio are widespread, with mostly Indian content on the TV.  This is a rapidly modernizing country, but with a desire to do so consciously.

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Our first night was spent in a guesthouse outside of Paro with a view of the majestic Taktshang Monastery, Bhutan’s most famous attraction more commonly known as the Tiger’s Nest built on the edge of a cliff.   We would later return to Taktshang on our final day in Bhutan to make the ascent once our bodies had acclimatized to the altitude.

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Our accommodations were simple, but perfectly located.  As we prepared for our first meal together, I eyed my almonds and granola bars, reasoning I could supplement after the meal.  I had done Internet research on food in Bhutan and found a series of drab photos of grey food, mostly chilies in cheese sauce and red rice. To my delight, I found these to be woefully outdated.  The food in Bhutan is delicious!  A few years ago people discovered a taste for fresh fruits and vegetables and began growing them in the off-season in and around the beautiful rice terraces.  With clean Himalayan water and good rich soil these plants grow plentifully.  Every meal we ate in Bhutan included vegetables as well as some local favorite dishes like eze – chilies, onions, tomatoes & cheese — and the delicious emadatse – hot chilies and cheese.  There was nothing gray to be found ever.  I returned to HK missing the food in Bhutan.

The first temple we visited, Kechu Lhakhang, was built in 651 AD.  Visiting a temple has a very specific routine we learned.  Remove shoes and step over the entrance into the temple.   Facing the statues, bow three times, hands in prayer over head, in front of face, in front of chest, and then lower to the floor and touch one’s head to ground, then return to standing and repeating two more times. Next, rest an offering gently to one’s forehead, say a prayer and place the bill on the altar.  If a monk caretaker is present, a small drop of saffron-infused water is poured from a beautiful peacock feather adorned pitcher into the palm of one’s hand.   Drink it, or place it on the back of your head.  We repeated this ritual at each temple we visited.

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On our way to Thimpu the next day, we visited Dungtse Lhakhang, a chorten-shaped temple built by the famed iron bridge builder Thangtong Gyelpo in the 15th century.  Inside the mandala inspired temple we scaled smooth ladders in the darkness up to the very top level. With flashlights and some small electric light bulbs we marveled at exquisite detailed paintings depicting dharmakaya, sambhogakaya and nirmonakaya.  Gembo was a walking encyclopedia of Bhutan history, Drukpa Kargyu and Vajrayama, and could identify and tell us the meaning of every image we saw.  Avalokiteshvara, Guru Rinpoche, Mahakala, the divine madman, chakra sambala, bodhicita, tantra… these words swam in my mind as I tried to capture what I could.  I was wishing I had studied more before I went.  On our way out, circling the temple clockwise and turning the prayer wheels as we went, I was amused to see the young caretaker family share a coke and a smile.

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Bhutan is glorious countryside.  As part of their effort at conscientious modernization they have protected 70% of the land, most of which is national parkland.  Bhutan’s economy is supported by hydroelectric power it sells to India, special cordyceps (a medicinal “caterpillar fungi” popular in Chinese medicine) sold mostly to China, agriculture, and high-end tourism.  Bhutan’s relations are closely tied to India and not at all to China.  Even the national currency, the Ngultrum, is tied to the Indian rupee.  On the two-hour drive from Paro to the capital city of Thimpu, we snaked along, high above a river on a bumpy two-lane road reminiscent of the last 15 miles into Telluride that regularly gets cut off by mudslides, marveling that this was one of the “highways” in the country.

The story will continue in the next post.  Stay tuned..

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Girls’ Night In

As I gather my thoughts to write about Bhutan (a daunting task that really should be a book, not a blog post), I decided to share another unique story first: 

Last November I attended the most unexpectedly terrific dinner party ever.  Knowing that I would be in London for one night on a trip that took me to Rwanda and Oxford, I sent a message to Gwyneth Paltrow to see if she might happen to be in London at the same time.  Gwyneth and I met years before when I lived in London and, even after I moved to Hong Kong, we kept in touch and I sometimes visited her when I was in town.  Despite having relocated to Los Angeles, Gwyneth happened to be working on a movie in London and would be there during my visit.  She invited me over for dinner.

I had been to her house a few times for lunch, sometimes just the two of us, sometimes with our kids and once with her whole family, including her brother and his wife.  Having made the mistake of asking her sister-in-law what kind of photos she takes when I later learned that she’s one of the most famous photographers in the world and was opening a solo show at the Tate Modern that same week, I wanted to make sure I didn’t embarrass myself again.  I sent Gwyneth a message asking if anyone else was coming and she replied that yes, a few great ladies would be joining.   “Who?” I asked.   “My best friend Stella McCartney and Adele.  The singer.”

Oh my.  Seriously?!

Now what do you wear to a dinner party of four that includes the world’s most beautiful Oscar winner lifestyle guru, an OBE top fashion designer daughter of one of the Beatles and a Grammy award winner with the most stunning voice ever?  I opted for black skinny jeans, a sequined racer back top and a gray cashmere coat sweater with little heel boots.  I know next to nothing about fashion anyway, but I think it was OK for the evening.

Gwyneth’s home is lovely and she took great care of us.  She served beautiful food and we indulged in great conversation that flowed seamlessly from the mundane to the ridiculous and back again.  Sometimes we were talking about work/life balance and raising children and then they were comparing notes on changing paparazzi laws and how terrific Beyoncé is.  I could contribute to some conversations, and not at all to others, but the fundamental feeling I had was that we were four moms with very different lives, but who all love and want what’s best for our children.

At one point during dinner after I finished telling them about my trip to Rwanda and how I had worked in Somalia years before Stella says, “Christ, we all feel like wankers compared to you.”  I laughed hard and told Stella that I wanted to have that engraved on my tombstone.

Stella and I bonded over Ed Ruscha, my favorite California artist who had done an Iconoclast episode with Stella I had recently seen.  I gave her my card and hoped I might hear from her, but didn’t get her contact details.  Hugs goodbye with all and I was in a taxi home, pinching myself from a truly fun and wonderful night.

A few weeks later sitting at my desk in HK a message arrived from “Merry Sam” with nothing in the subject line.  I nearly deleted it thinking it spam, but then decided to read it.  It said,

“Hello.  I am writing on behalf of Stella who has asked if you could let me have your underwear bra / pant sizes, shoe size and also your children’s ages and names please.  Also the best address to send you something please.  Many thanks.”

I pondered this strange message and then replied,

“Hi.  I’ve never received an email like that before.  Are you serious?  If so, I’m psyched.  If not, well, you have a lot of random info at your disposal.  Here goes…”, and I listed the information requested.

A few days after Christmas in Colorado I returned from skiing to find a box waiting for me with a return address “Stella McCartney.”  Opening the box there were four beautifully wrapped silver packages with red ribbon, one each for my children and one for me.  All were addressed by name and signed “Stella.”  Each kid had received a beautiful outfit, and a nightgown for me that fits as if it was custom made.  I was so touched that she thought of me and even with her extraordinarily busy schedule sent beautiful gifts for no apparent reason.  I was (and remain) rather speechless with gratitude.

I share this story because it’s too good not to.  The cult of celebrity is so intense, so revered, so reviled and such a mystery.  My biggest take away from the night was that these are women with extraordinary talents, but even bigger hearts.  Moms who want the best for their kids, like we all do, who are trying to make life work for their families and to share their talents with the world.  I am as inspired by the depth of their character and thoughtfulness as I am by their resumes, and I was so honored and thrilled to have spent an evening in their company.

Now on to karma knitting in Bhutan…

Bhutan Bound

Few things cause me greater discomfort than group meditation and cold, and yet in a few days I will willingly, gratefully spend 10 days fully immersed in both.  My mother was invited as a guest of the central monastic body of Bhutan to travel to the small Himalayan country, and she kindly secured an invitation for me to accompany her.  What I lack in heartiness and spiritual fortitude I hope I can make up for as the group’s chief photographer and scribe, the pragmatic optimist in a gathering of mystical heavyweights.

On the purely mundane level, I have never liked cold and since I was old enough to make my own decisions, have done my best to avoid it.  My college search revolved around temperature.  I picked Virginia because it was warmer than my home state of Pennsylvania and applied to schools exclusively in that state.  After college I moved to sub-Saharan Africa and then Los Angeles and except for two years in frigid Boston for grad school and a year in damp London, have lived in places where it doesn’t snow ever since.  My fingers go numb if it drops below 70 degrees.

My two coldest memories involve my mother, and I fear Bhutan may be the third.  I couldn’t have been more than seven when mom took me to the Poconos for a day of skiing where my loose knit mittens immediately absorbed the wet snow from my numerous falls, threatening frostbite to my little digits.  I can still recall the deep ache and tingling burn as they slowly thawed by the radiator in the nursery as she skied the rest of the day.  It took me a decade to attempt the sport again.

Years later, mom and I traveled in the dead of winter to Matinicus Island off the coast of Maine to interview year round residents for an article she was writing for the Island Institute’s periodical.  Exiting the prop plane onto the dirt airstrip on a gray, sunless January day, my lungs ached as I shallowly breathed in the biting cold air.   Our overnight hosts had a small home that was long hospitality, but short insulation.  I felt a little panicked at the idea of possibly freezing to death on that island and instinctively consumed the entire plate of hummus someone had made for the voyage, probably intuitively trying to store up some fat.

As I check the weather, Bhutan’s temperatures are scheduled to be just above freezing next week.  While East Coasters in the US are currently experiencing similar temperatures, the difference is that in New York while outside is cold, inside is heated and lovely.  From what I read, this is not the case in most places outside the fancy Aman resorts in Bhutan.  Our itinerary involves outdoor trekking to see magical, majestic sites and time spent in meditation and conversation with monks in monasteries throughout the western part of the country.  I’m taking everything warm I own and was pleased to read in the NY Times today that shivering is the body’s way of converting bad white fat into good brown fat which might help counteract my inevitable overconsumption of emadatse, the fiery hot chili cheese sauce that’s a daily staple of the Bhutanese diet.

As for group meditation, I am equally ill prepared, but well intentioned.  A birthright Quaker, 15 year practitioner of yoga, daughter of a Christian mystic, novice participant in Buddhist conferences at Hong Kong University and voracious consumer of neuroscience research, I sit at the intersection of faiths and science, a dismal practitioner of meditation, but with a deep sense of its individual and collective transformational power.  We will learn about the Mahamudra practices in Bhutan, and witness chanting and ritual as we talk with monks who have completed the 3-year/3-day/3-hour meditations at Cheri among other traditions.  If I return home with one thing from Bhutan, I hope it will be a greater patience with my own practice.  I expect to be uncomfortable most of the time I’m in Bhutan and I have to say at this point, I am totally comfortable with that.

(If you want to hear how it goes, click the link to follow this blog and stay tuned…).

Rwanda Revisited

Rwanda is an optimist’s paradise.  Naysayers and cynics move along.  This post is rife with inspiration, innovation and resilience in a country that 19 years ago was in unimaginable turmoil.

Continual controlled panic was the way I described my visit to Rwanda in October 1994, just months after a brutal genocide saw the massacre of a million people in 100 days.  On that visit I slept on the floor of the destroyed Ministry of Health office in Kibungo, eerily listening to dogs howl as they raided shallow graves for sustenance.  Tufts of hair and pools of blood still stained the floors of the new office space under consideration, and we’d speed up as we passed churches still full of the remains of those who’d fatally reasoned that the church would be a refuge rather than a mass grave during the worst of it.  I never saw a dead body that trip, but empty villages and the smell were enough to connect the dots in my imagination.  I never thought I would return.  Ever.

Yet last week that’s precisely what I did.  Invited as a strategic advisor to Vision for a Nation, a registered UK charity with a mission to make vision assessments and affordable eyeglasses available to all, I traveled to Rwanda and spent three remarkable days consistently impressed and inspired by what I saw and experienced.

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With 11 million people in Rwanda, Vision for a Nation’s goal to give every person (over 8) in the country an eye exam and provide relief for correctable refractive error is ambitious, but now that I have been there and seen their approach, I believe it is possible. VFAN was born from a simple adjustable lens technology and ‘train the trainer’ model that enables nurses to diagnose and correct refractive error in the 45 health centers throughout the country.  The adjustable glasses have dials on the sides which, when rotated, slide one lens in front of the other until the unique prescription is achieved.  Those with refractive error walk into a health center and walk out with glasses completely eliminating the need to return to the center to pick up custom glasses or the inefficiencies of pairing donated glasses from the developed world with end recipients.  It’s inexpensive, efficient and instant gratification.  Other benefits include diagnosis and treatment of cataracts, conjunctivitis and other easily treatable eye ailments.  Working in partnership with the Ministry of Health, VFAN will soon launch a public awareness campaign through a highly organized communication system in the country to educate and inform the public about vision care.  Eye care is generally not a life saving intervention, but it certainly improves quality of life.  This is one of many public health initiatives the MOH has embraced to improve the lives of those in Rwanda.

http://www.visionforanation.org

Speaking of the Ministry of Health, we were fortunate to have a private dinner with the remarkable Minister of Health, Agnes Binagwaho one night in Kigali.  The list of health initiatives she has implemented to improve the lives of Rwandans is impressive.  She is entrepreneurial, philosophical and pragmatic with a “can do” attitude I’ve never seen before in Africa.  She’s a total pro.  Dinner conversation included great one-liners like, “The best idea on the table is the one I take.”  “Money will come.  Good strategy is the important thing.”  “I want to die happy of what I have achieved.  I don’t want to be the richest in the cemetery.”   Her initiatives include the 80/40/20 plan to reduce non-communicable diseases (NCDs) by 80% for those under 40 by 2020.  To do this she began by implementing very concrete public health changes including mandating helmets for motorbikes, seatbelts, banning smoking in public places, cooking stove improvements and other initiatives that didn’t cost much, but had a huge impact.  She was the first to offer the HPV vaccine, countrywide, to schoolgirls of a certain age.  Her work in reducing HIV AIDS in the country is legendary.  Her entire staff has all gone to graduate school at the expense of the ministry and many are beginning PhDs now.  Government workers are mandated to do an exercise of their choice on Fridays during the workday and pay a fine if they do not.   She regularly tweets (as does the President) and responds to every tweet she receives.  She has 10,000 followers and has a regular Monday with the Minister show two times a month to address public health issues.  The Honorable Minister is a global health leader, not only for Rwanda.  I was honored to share a meal with her. 

Rwanda has two unique programs that contribute to its continued growth and improvement.  If I understand correctly, the Muganda is a compulsory gathering the last Saturday of every month at which time the entire country, divided into local communities, comes together to work from 7-10 on an improvement project and then from 10-12 to meet and share information.  They will paint a house that has fallen into disrepair, collect trash, build a road, or anything that the community deems as an improvement.  As a result, the country is tidy, fresh and continually improving.  Similarly, the Urunana radio programs reach an unprecedented percentage of the country with a soap opera-like ongoing storyline.  Intertwined in the programs are community health and agricultural messages.  This is one of the primary vehicles for spreading information throughout the country.  So radio that was once used for inciting violence is now used in a similar way for improving lives.

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Beyond health initiatives, last spring, in preparation for the TEDxHappyValley “Radical Resilience” event in Hong Kong, I was teamed up as a speech coach for a remarkable 27-year-old entrepreneur Elizabeth Dearborn Hughes, founder of the Akilah Institute for Women in Kigali.  Elizabeth taught me more than I her during the process.  When I agreed to go to Kigali, I knew that a visit to see Akilah would be important.   Akilah Institute for Women is a three-year training program for women.  Women apply, take an entrance exam, provide references and interview for spaces at Akilah.  Those selected do a foundational year of math and English language as well as leadership training and then embark on a two-year program in one of three disciplines, entrepreneurship, information management or tourism.  Women receive career counseling, do internships, and continue with leadership training and practical skills development throughout their studies.  The first graduating class in 2012 had 100% job placement.    I had the honor of having lunch with four of their current students.  I was completely inspired and humbled by their poise, intelligence, determination and vision for their futures.  I can’t say enough good things about Akilah!  If you’re looking for a good place to invest in women’s education, this would be my top recommendation.

http://www.akilahinstitute.org

Above and beyond these formal gatherings, I was inspired to meet others who are consciously building businesses in Rwanda.  A friend of a friend has launched an organic coffee farm on his family’s heritage land after having fled Rwanda in 1959.  Upon returning, he was given back his family land and is now gently learning the coffee business, producing some of the world’s finest artisenal products.  I can’t wait to try some.

A dear friend of mine, Rachel Radcliffe, made the effort to fly all the way from Nairobi to visit me during my short stay in Rwanda.  I was so touched and happy to see her!  We worked together 20 years before at OFDA and have both led circuitous international lives since then.  Reconnecting with an old friend from those formative years was grounding and inspiring.  I feel so blessed.

Returning to Rwanda under much better circumstances was cathartic.  I know it isn’t perfect.  I’ve read the articles and heard the naysayers about Rwanda, but in this post I choose to see the country as it should be, celebrating those things that are working and truly inspired by earnest, innovative efforts on the parts of so many people to make things good in a place that hasn’t always been so.