The following originally appeared on the blog of Champaca Journey’s John Leupold. My former talented landscaper, he’s been leading these small groups for several years.
On each of my visits to Bhutan I take many pictures. Photographing people here is a pleasure, as most everyone is a willing subject. Little kids often times clamor, please take my picture, then act serious or ham it up for the camera. All they want is to see is their image at the back of your digital camera. Those very few people who shoot film always disappoint these young kids.
I take many photos and then bring copies on return visits to distribute to friends, aacquaintances and others I meet and think I might encounter again on future trips. Few people seem to have photos of themselves (though most everyone has a phone with camera, and stored pictures, actual print photos are not the norm). On the few occasions when I’ve not brought pictures I feel I’ve disappointed my friends and acquaintances, “what no pictures?”
Among the many impressive sights is the Paro Dzong, the 350 year old fortress/monastery that perches above Paro town in western Bhutan. These fortresses, vast white washed stone buildings with inward sloping walls, several stories tall with protruding towers, cover an acre or more of land. They were constructed to provide refuge for the inhabitants of an area against marauding Tibetans. The population of a given area would take shelter inside the several feet thick stone walls in times of strife, where the army resided. The monks and monastery, as well as civil servants also operated from the dzong.
Three and a half centuries later, not much has changed in the appearance of the dzongs. Electricity was installed 50 years ago, and the army is now garrisoned elsewhere, the local municipal government offices now use computers instead of abacuses, while the monk body has scarcely changed in appearance or numbers.
To become a monk in Bhutan, where Mahayana Buddhism is practiced, is a life long commitment. Parents often send, or rather give one of their children to the monastery to become a monk at the tender age of 5 or 6. This may be to reduce the number of mouths that poor families have to feed, but also it is considered a blessing to have a son as a monk in this highly devout society.
Monks are everywhere visible in Bhutan, in their flowing red robes. An expected sight in monasteries, but also a common sight on the street, markets and shops, even in my local gym where the owner allows monks to shower with hot water, unavailable in the monastery. While Bhutanese are extremely friendly, gracious and willing, even eager to talk with foreigners, monks are an exception to this. Education in Bhutan is in English, so proficiency in English is near universal and many foreigners are surprised by the eloquence of Bhutanese, in many cases exceeding that of many Americans who have English as our mother tongue. Bhutanese and their elegant command of English are a joy to the ears.
Monks however do not receive a secular education, so seldom speak English and are less willing to interact with tourists, other than smile and permit photographs. Three months ago at the monastery section of the Paro Dzong we encountered 3 monks sitting by the entrance of one of the altar rooms. They had a table of amulets attached to strings to place around ones neck. Each amulet was blessed by a senior monk, making them powerful talismans to ward off illness and bad luck, and promote good fortune. Many Bhutanese wear these around their necks. One of the monks spoke English and very politely explained the meaning of the different amulets. The other 2 monks were younger than him and spoke no English. I took several photos of the three monks. And I told him I would bring copies on my next visit. “I am always here, find me in this same spot,” he said.
Yesterday I carried pictures of the monks to the dzong. I thought perhaps I’d not see them, but would give my photos to another monk and they’d make their way to the monks. As we neared the entrance of the altar room, I saw across the way the eldest monk in my picture. I split from my group and approached him. The immediate look on his face was one of alarm, I think perhaps my approach was too hasty and he wondered why this tall chilip (foreigner) was making a beeline to him. My own thoughts were that he’d maybe disappear into one of the numerous maze like corridors of the monastery, off limits to foreigners and I’d loose him. Though he did not bolt and as I brought out the pictures his face visibly relaxed and then morphed into a smile of delight as he saw himself and his friends. “Please come with me” he murmured and we walked across the stone courtyard to the table where an assortment of amulets were laid out in what I can only term a serene display. We reintroduced ourselves, Dorji is his name. I told him I was happy to see him again and to be able to bring him the photos. No replied, the pleasure and joy was his, and how kind of me to remember and to bring such beautiful pictures. Dorji’s path is not the standard monk story. He is 16 years old, and 2 years ago decided to become a monk. He left school and his family and joined the monastery, as he felt himself a devout Buddhist and wanted to devote his life to religious studies. He is very content in the monastery. His English is not just impeccable, but eloquent and beautiful. We talked for a long time, as my clients were inside the altar room with our guide. Dorji’s wish is to transfer to a mountain top monastery near Thimphu where higher religious studies are offered, akin to a university.
I told him his parents must be very happy to have such a son, and his reply was that they will be very happy to hear he has me as such a friend. His words were so sincere and pure and had the force of happiness behind them that I myself felt a shiver of what? Bliss, joy, the beauty of small things being greater than my pursuits in the material world. I was touched as I seldom feel touched.
Moments later my clients emerged from the altar room. I introduced them all to Dorji and asked him to explain the amulets. In exquisite English he did so, answering all their questions, all the while radiating an aura of confidence mixed with humility, that made me feel I was in the presence of someone much more evolved than myself. He and I sat cross legged side by side, and after my clients had purchased many amulets, and I purchased one, Dorji said he had a present for me, and gave me one of each, and 2 small paper packets of medicine. Mix with water and drink he said, it is blessed and will protect you from illness and bring you good fortune. We had several pictures taken of us together, and agreed to meet in March when I next visit.
As I walked away from him I turned around to look back until he was out of my view, each time his hand was raised in a farewell wave, and the smile never left his face.
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