Don’t be sad! Listen to this story!
Twenty-four passages from BhutanBy John Ryle • 1988 • Twenty-First Century (“24 Paragraphs from Bhutan”) • Revised • Posted 2016 • 4,400 words
Dreams of death and treasure
At Lingshi the mail-runner cried in his sleep. His father was sick. He dreamed he died. I dreamed I had long hair and no hat and lived in the forest on precious stones. They were rubies, dragon food in Himalayan folklore.
Lama, sleeping alongside me, snored all night. In the morning he looked at me and said:
“You talking too much while sleeping.”
“And you snoring too much, Lama,” I said, wondering what I’d been saying in my sleep.
The four of us were laid out on the stone floor of the mountain shelter—Lama and his friend Karma, myself and the mail-runner—curled up in our sleeping bags, caterpillars reluctant to abandon the chrysalis stage. The ashes of last night’s fire were cold. There was a layer of ice on the water bucket. Lama was the first to brave the chill. As he crawled out onto the slate flagstones I saw the scars on his back from whippings he’d undergone as a novice monk at the monastery in Thimpu.
A cold wind at Lingshi Dzong
We were waiting for horses at Lingshi Dzong, highest of the fortress monasteries that guard Bhutan’s frontier with Tibet. The dzong was in a poor state of repair. The dark red band on the central tower and the floral decorations on the roof beams had faded to pink. Half the wooden shingles on the roof were missing; those that remained had been weighed down with granite boulders against winter storms.
For half the year Lingshi is cut off by snow. Now spring had come. In the blanched pastures green blades of dwarf iris burst from ziggurats of thawing yak dung. Ravens wheeled overhead, their shadows jagged on the rough stone walls. In the valley below, bar-tailed eagles floated on juniper-scented thermals. Rhododendrons were coming into bloom. Even at noon, though, with the sun at its height, the chill wind brought a breath of winter to Lingshi.
I gazed at the peaks above us. If I had to pass a winter here, I told Lama, I’d be afraid of the dark and cold, of snowstorms and avalanches.
“Those are the things you were talking about when you were sleeping,” he said.
“Also,” he added, “you were saying something about your hat.”
Seven-lever Chinese padlock
“It is a kind of punishment to be stationed here,” announced Karma.
Until recently, he said, the cellars of the dzong had been used to incarcerate political prisoners, sometimes for many years. We set off to find the drungpa, the government official in charge of the dzong, to see if we could go inside. But the drungpa’s office was locked with a seven-lever Chinese padlock, and the courtyard of the dzong was empty, but for an old man spinning red and black yak wool on a wooden distaff. The old man told us that the drungpa was down the valley in Thimpu, the capital, three days’ ride south. He was attending a course in driglam namzha. He’d taken the key with him.
“What is driglam namzha ?” I asked Karma.
“Driglam is discipline,” he said. “Driglam namzha means traditional discipline. It means the right way to do things: how to bow, how to carry a scarf, how to speak to monks, how to build a monastery. All government officials have to learn it now, the same as we wear the kho.”
Karma was handsome and tall. The kho he wore was a thick red-and-yellow checked woollen garment, like a heavyweight dressing gown, hitched up to knee height and matched with bright plaid stockings and high leather boots. In the folds of his kho, around the waist, he stored, variously, strings of salty yak cheese, a Swiss Army knife, religious talismans, and books, including one about Tibetan Buddhism that I’d given him before we set out.
Lama was not so tall as Karma; his kho was shorter. But it concealed, likewise, useful objects, talismans and small packages, wrapped and tied.
Women in Bhutan wear a comparable ankle-length garment, the kira. This is a length of cloth made from three woven panels stitched together, wrapped round the body from head to foot and fastened with a cummerbund. The kho and the kira are official Bhutanese national dress; everyone has to wear one or the other. Except, that is, for monks. Monks have yellow and ochre robes, flamboyant and voluminous, that billow in high winds like sails, threatening to blow them away. Novice monks, though—as Lama had been till recently—do not qualify for yellow robes; their robes are red.
The ascent of the Angry Swallow
Lama, Karma and myself had trekked up to Lingshi with a group of European mountaineers. Their expedition was the only one to be given permission to climb in Bhutan that year. The target was a razor-edged 22,000-foot peak called Jichu Drake, the Angry Swallow. It was the first attempt to scale it since two Italian climbers died on the south-east ridge of the mountain four years before.
For some days we trekked with the mountaineers, skirting the snow line, as they sought a site for their base camp. We woke each morning, in tents or mountain shelters, to the sight of Jichu Drake and its neighbour, Chomolhari, the Goddess of the Holy Mountain, shining through the mist. In the course of the morning the clouds would roll back like the veil on a thangka, revealing the snow faces and fields of ice that lay between the climbers and their goal. Of the two peaks, only Jichu Drake was open to climbers now, Karma explained. Following an ascent of Chomolhari three decades since, herdsmen in the summer pastures complained that their yaks all died. Since then the mountain had been barred to climbers indefinitely.
Rapture of the heights
Bhutan is a Mahayana Buddhist state (though there is a large Hindu minority, Nepali-speaking, including some who live in exile in Nepal). The Bhutanese variant of Tantric Buddhism incorporates a huge pantheon of local gods. All mountains are potentially divine; shrines are built at their feet; their peaks are sacred sites. Doug Scott, the British leader of the Jichu Drake expedition, undertook to stop short of the summit when he reached it rather than offend the spirit of the mountain. Like many mountaineers, he was inclined to a kind of mysticism himself—the rapture of the heights.
“The higher you go,” he liked to say, “the higher you get.”
Lama laughed when I told him that. But I had the feeling that he would rather have been back home in Thimphu.
The road to Thimpu
Coming down from Lingshi, on the trek back to Thimpu, Lama sang as we walked. His song merged with the cries and whistles of the yak herders as we crossed Yalila, the last high pass. Yaks are truculent, capable of tantrums and sudden turns of speed. They keep their keepers busy. Crooked Horn was cussed; White-face and Golden Necklace were unruly. The yak dogs growled a lot. They wore thick rope collars to stay the teeth of snow leopards. Karma filled the folds of his kho with stones. The scree on the slopes below the pass was dark with snowmelt, the crags cross-hatched with ice. Snow clouds swept across the valley ahead of us, leaving the col white. Beyond the pass, deep glens led down through forests of hemlock and larch and blue pine to the central valleys.
A resolution in the National Assembly
The strictures on climbing that constrained the mountaineers, the compulsory wearing of the kho for Bhutanese, and the courses in driglam namzha that Karma outlined are responses on the part of the Bhutanese ruling elite to the diminishing seclusion of their country. Until the 1970s Bhutan was closed to outsiders. The present king, Jigme Singye Wangchuk, introduced $100-a-day tourism soon after his accession to the throne in 1974. In the 1980s growing ambivalence about contact with the outside world led him to put a brake on visitors. Video parlours in Thimpu were banned (there were two). Later, at his instigation, the National Assembly passed a resolution that read, in part, as follows:
The tourists’ action in the temple-monasteries, such as taking photographs and touching on the statues, have invariably instigated wrath in our gods and goddesses and led to the degradation of important ones, which belittles the value of blessings and mystic power. Such behavioural conduct sets an undue moral procedure for our future sons and daughters who will act in a similar manner having no faith and respect for our religion. Therefore the Assembly should take proper consideration of the small visible profit that we get and the unforeseen greater threat that would emerge. As such, it is presented to the Assembly that it would be better if those tourists who do not come for religious sake be totally restricted from visiting religious place like temples, monasteries and religious schools, including the climbing of mountain.
When we arrived in Thimpu, I sought out the government official responsible for overseeing the implementation of driglam namzha—Dasho Rigzin Dorji, secretary of the Central Monastic Secretariat and the King’s Special Commission for Cultural Affairs. The Dasho received me in his home. I asked him the reason for the change of policy towards visitors.
“As you know,” he said, looking out over the valley, where prayer-flags fluttered among the trees, “Bhutan is a small country with large and powerful neighbours. For this reason our culture is very precious to us. We have to be sure that our young people respect it.
“In the 1970s, when we first opened the country to economic development, we did not appreciate how vulnerable we were. But now we have seen what has happened in Nepal. Our new policy is not a rejection of modernity; it is so we can preserve our national identity.”
“After all,” said Dasho Rigzin, “without that there would be nothing for tourists to come and see.”
The non-arising mind-essence
I stayed at the government hotel in Thimpu—there is nowhere else where foreigners are permitted to stay. In the lobby of the hotel travellers are greeted by a stuffed black bear proffering a basket of silk flowers. In the peach season live bears descend from the mountains to raid the orchards on the perimeter of the town, further up the mountain.
There are signed photographs of celebrity visitors displayed in the hotel bar—Burt Lancaster, Henry Kissinger, Yassir Arafat—and, for the further benefit of patrons, a framed verse by Milarepa, a medieval Buddhist saint, which goes like this:
This non-arising Mind-essence cannot
Be described by metaphors or signs
The Mind-essence that cannot
Be extinguished is oft described
By fools but those who realise
It explain it by itself
Devoid of symbolised and symboliser
It is a realm beyond all words and thought
How wondrous is the blessing of my lineage
Above the hotel is a wooded enclave where the king’s aunts and his four wives, all sisters, live in wooden houses decorated with dragons and mandalas. Down below are the shacks occupied by migrant Indian road workers. As I arrived there were two boys walking down the mountain, hand in hand. Unmindful of driglam namzha, they sported bright-red T-shirts with slogans across their chests. One said “Free Tibet”; the other said “Dance Your Ass Off.”
The book I’d given Karma was a copy of a history of Buddhism by the scholar Edward Conze, printed in India. The pages were uncut; as he read it Karma separated them one by one with his Swiss Army knife. He kept both the knife and the book in the folds of his kho.
In the book, Edward Conze explains that, in the tantric period, proselytizing Buddhist monks inserted themselves into Himalayan folk belief, acting as astrologers, exorcisers, weather-makers and doctors. The tantra itself, he explains, was an attempt to subsume the magical practices that dominated the popular imagination in a new religious edifice. This provided Buddhism, a religion of kings and nobles, with a more solid foundation in everyday life. In Bhutan, accordingly, the role of the monk converged with that of the pawo, shaman of the pre-Buddhist religion. While non-Buddhists used magic to acquire power, Buddhists, according to Conze, used it to free themselves from powers that, to use the tantric phrase, were alien to their own being.
The fate of Karma’s uncle
Karma had an uncle who was a pawo, a local religious specialist. When a pawo is in trance, his uncle had explained to him, he may whisper a message in your ear. You must say this phrase back to him. He won’t repeat it. If you ask him to say it again, he’ll bite your ear off. If you can’t remember the phrase you have to drink nine cups of water without pausing for breath. When the pawo’s trance is over, you may find, on the floor where he sat, the footprint of his totemic animal—leopard, perhaps, or marmot, or bear.
Karma told me that his uncle died prematurely.
“He levitated too much,” he said.
Personally, Karma said, he had no desire to be a pawo; it ruined your prospects of reincarnation.
You study. You learn. You become crazy.
One of the culture-heroes of Bhutan is a fifteenth-century wandering monk named Drukpa Kunley, sometimes known as the Divine Madman. His exploits are recounted in songs that are still sung in the teahouses and taverns of the Tibetan region. The songs—Lama and Karma knew them, or some of them—are collected in text compiled by Geshey Chaphu, a lama at Kunga Choling hermitage in the Paro valley, which has been translated by Keith Dowman as The Sublime Life and Songs of Drukpa Kunley.
According to the folk version of his life the saint was born in 1455, the year of the wood-pig. He attained Buddhahood as a result of training in a Tibetan monastic academy of the Drukpa Kahgyu, or Red Hat, sect.
“You study,” was his comment on his long apprenticeship. “You learn. You become crazy.”
Thereafter Drukpa Kunley became a roaming naljorpa, a wonder-worker, accomplished in the arts of prescience, shape-shifting, and magical display. The Sublime Life recounts his travels across Greater Tibet, knocking demons’ teeth out with thunderbolts, bringing dead animals to life, hanging his bow on sunbeams, and praising young women’s skill in the pelvic upthrust.
Wandering in pleasant places
Drukpa Kunley’s customary greeting to the bereaved or miserable was “Don’t be sad! Listen to this story! On one occasion, it is said, falling in with a company of intoxicated Small Tent People and asked by them to sing a happy song, Drukpa Kunley sang this:
Happily I am no common ritualist lama
Gathering followers, power and wealth
Without time to experience the fullness of life.
Happily I am no novice monk
Lusting for novice lovers
Without time to study the sutras and tantras.
Happily I do not stay in a mountain hermitage
Entranced by the smiles of the nuns
Without time to ponder the three vows.
Happily I am no black magician
Taking the lives of other people
Without time to cultivate Compassionate Mind.
Happily I am no shaman of the charnel ground
Leading myself to gods and demons
Without time to sever the root of confusion.
Happily I am no householder or father
Fighting to put food in dependents’ mouths
Without time to wander in pleasant places.
Drukpa Kunley’s thunderbolt of wisdom
In contrast to more ascetic Buddhist spiritual leaders, who teach negation of the body and its desires, the wandering naljorpas of Greater Tibet routinely instructed adolescent girls in sexual technique—the art of whole-body enlightenment. Of Drukpa Kunley’s five thousand consorts, it is said, thirteen were his special favourites. And of these thirteen, according to The Sublime Life, the most favoured was Lhacho Drolma. She was sent to meditate in the snow on the summit of Chomolhari for three years. Here she sustained herself on concentration alone, eating nothing, not even snow, and never closing her eyes—hence the designation of Chomolhari as the most sacred of the mountains of Bhutan.
In Thimpu many houses bear signs of the veneration of Drukpa Kunley as a source of fertility. Lama and Karma pointed out the phallic images—some the height of a man—to be seen painted on walls or hanging from external roof beams like coats of arms, rouge with crossed arrows, invoking Drukpa Kunley’s flaming thunderbolt of wisdom. Women with gynaecological disorders make pilgrimages to his shrine, half a day’s journey away, to be blessed by the Kunley thunderbolt, naming their children Kunley or Dorje in his memory. In the Bhutanese Government Treasury small silvery spheres called ringsel are conserved—the essence of being left behind by a Buddha—along with images made from Drukpa Kunley’s bones.
The road to Bumthang
There is only one motor road in Bhutan. It leads from the border with India in the south-west of the country northwards up the Paro Valley to the country’s only airport, where most visitors arrive. From there it runs eastwards to Thimpu, the capital. After Thimpu it swoops and undulates across the central valleys to Bumthang in the far east, near the border with China. Like all roads in Bhutan it is tortuous and precipitous. Landslides mean that it needs constant maintenance. The road repairs are made by crews of Indian women, dark-skinned aquiline Bengalis with saris and nose studs, their long black hair swept back, wielding picks, breaking stones, toting baskets of rubble, living in squalid encampments by the roadside. These migrant labourers are Bhutan’s Gastarbeiter, fleeing a still more desperate life on the plains of India.
Rhododendron petals in the mountain streams
When we arrived in the Bumthang valley the rhododendrons had already flowered and faded; their petals littered the mountain streams. Outside the dzong in Bumthang stood a jeep with “Special Commission” painted on the door. Inside was a group of officials who had come from Thimpu to hold examinations in driglam namzha for local government personnel. Before entering the building, Karma adjusted his kho carefully; Lama followed suit.
Without mortar, without nails
Upriver, we were told, a new temple-monastery was being built, endowed by the Queen Mother of Bhutan. We walked there, following the curve of the river. In front of the monastery stood a huge cairn of carved prayer stones, inscribed with tantric phrases. At its foot, stone masons were chipping away at granite blocks to make chorten, monuments symbolizing stages of the Buddha’s enlightenment.
The new building was a hundred feet high; the walls were four feet thick at the top, four times that at ground level. Timbers a foot square in section radiated from each corner, decorated with doves and gilded dragons. The building was constructed in the traditional Bhutanese manner, without mortar and without nails. Apart from its roof of zinc-plated, corrugated iron, it could have been built at any time in the previous five centuries.
Inside the temple craftsmen were working on thangkas, mandalas, and bas-relief sculptures of Buddhist saints sitting, cross-legged, in heaven. The craftsmen were making plinths from papier-mâché and moulding clouds from clay. High in the roof, child artisans gilded the carved roof beams and wooden columns with glowing serpentine forms imprisoned in squared circles.
Ochre and red
In a cell in the unfinished monastery, Lopon Pemala, who had been the National Librarian of Bhutan and the king’s religious instructor, sat cross-legged and barefoot on the wooden floor. A blue raincoat concealed his red and ochre robes. On a low table were stacks of silk-lined leather boxes and yellow paper packets tied with coloured string—materia magica to be inserted into the hollow bases of the new-made statues. Under the table lay the Lopon’s Samsonite briefcase. We entered and bowed—Karma, myself, and a monk-interpreter—and sat down on the floor. The interpreter seemed anxious. I wondered whether, in requesting an audience we had somehow offended against driglam namzha.
Statues and living gods
I told Lopon Pemala I was happy to have the privilege of seeing the craftsmen at work, especially in view of the tourist ban recently promulgated by the National Assembly.
Yes, he said, I had been fortunate in the timing of my visit. Soon the monastery would be consecrated, and thereafter only worshippers would be permitted to see the images.
Why was it, I asked, that the images in the monastery need to be shielded from the gaze of non-Buddhists?
“Because,” said the Lopon, “when we see, we see with the eyes of belief. For us, these statues are not clay, they are not art. They are living gods.”
He paused for the interpreter to translate.
“When tourists come,” he continued, “their presence turns the temple into a museum. For them the statues are merely works of art. They are just material things.
“For you in the West,” said Lopon Pemala, “it seems that religious feeling has almost vanished. For you, art is a substitute for religion. For us, though, it is the servant of religion.”
I knew that Lopon Pemala was himself a distinguished painter of thangkas. Or rather, in terms of traditional Buddhist art, he is distinguished by his lack of distinction, by his adherence to a tradition where an artist’s highest achievement is to be anonymous, to copy his predecessors’ work exactly.
While we were in Thimpu, Karma had taken me to the painting school—the National Institute for Zorig Chusum, for the thirteen arts—where he had briefly been a student. Here I watched the principle of sacred replication in operation. Young students of painting spend their first years there learning to draw clouds. Then, having mastered clouds, they are permitted to paint dragons. After further years of study, they graduate to images of saints, the final stage of their training.
The stylised clouds, dragons and saints are all said to have their origin in the visions of a medieval spiritual leader, Pemalingpa, who is credited with founding many of the religious institutions of Bhutan. Pemalingpa’s models are followed as precisely as possible—as they have been since the sixteenth century—by the students, by the Lopon and by every other artist and artisan in Bhutan. The pigments are the only things that change.
The new monastery at Bumthang was a masterpiece of this process of sacred replication, an aesthetic that is part of a wider principle of repetition that pervades Mahayana Buddhism.
“Because we believe in reincarnation,” the Lopon said, “our view of the individual, of history, is different. And so is our view of the modern world. The modern world, for us, has only one dimension. And museums are institutions of the modern world. The past is imprisoned there.”
“In Tibet,” he concluded, “the Chinese have made our temples into museums. It is our duty to make sure that does not happen here
Butter lamps with floating wicks
The Lopon’s cell was lit by butter lamps with floating wicks. As it grew dark outside, his shaven head merged into the yellow pine panelling. His voice seemed to be coming from the wall. A gold Rolex flashed on a spectral wrist; he was signalling the end of the audience. The interpreter looked relieved. Karma touched my arm and stood up gracefully. I rose, stumbling, to my feet. During the interview both my legs had gone numb.
Moonrock and horses’ eggs
There is a single museum in Bhutan, at the other end of the country from Bumthang. The museum occupies a converted watchtower high above a dzong in the Paro valley, the easternmost of the provinces of Bhutan, overlooking Bhutan’s only airstrip. I spent a day there waiting for a plane.
The exhibits in the Paro museum include a stuffed snow leopard, the miraculous footprint of a lama in rock, a horse’s egg, a collection of Bhutanese postage stamps and—donated by President Nixon—a piece of the moon. There are bronze sculptures and vitrines with bowls of rubies—dragon food. The museum hovers between two realms: the domain of belief, of traditional discipline, and the phantom zone of global culture. From the windows of the watchtower you can see the mountains on the Tibetan border, where Jichu Drake and Chomolhari preside. On the valley floor below tiny plots gleam with wheat and barley; flooded rice fields mirror the mountains and the sky.
The burning dzong
The deputy director of the museum is the daughter of a Rinpoche, a reincarnate Tibetan religious dignitary. She herself is known for her work as an architectural historian (also for her arm-wrestling technique, which comes as a surprise to most visitors). During a conversation at the museum she drew my attention to the butter lamps that illuminate the religious images there.
Butter lamps, she pointed out, with their smoke and attendant fire risk, do not conform to international standards of conservation. And she gestured towards the charred ruins of Drukyel Dzong out of sight up the Paro valley, a once-imposing building destroyed in the early twentieth century after a butter lamp was overturned in an earthquake.
Such a thing could happen again, she said. But to improve the standards of conservation of the objects in Paro museum and other sites in Bhutan and introduce fire safety measures would be, in a sense, a destructive act: it would erode the ambience that gave them religious significance.
Walking down to the airstrip in the valley I considered the question of butter lamps. I remembered Karma’s uncle’s totemic animal, the talismans that Karma kept in the folds of his kho, and the scars on Lama’s back from the time he spent at the monastery. Maintaining local value systems imposes a constraint on life and on thought. Against this may be balanced the ability to build a new monastery without nails, to paint a thangka indistinguishable from one made in the middle ages. Such skills have value in the confrontation with the global culture of unfaith, whose destructive power is greater than fire. ✭