With a population of approx. 100,000 people, one does not expect to find herself in a traffic jam in Thimphu. And yet here we are. As we lurch along the road entering the capital we take in our stunning surroundings: lush green mountains seen in every direction with a winding road connecting them. A large Buddha statue sits on the mountainside visible from miles away.
Our guide and driver apologize for the delay. Tulku Jigme Choeda, the reincarnation of the god of power and the spiritual leader of the Bhutanese people, is traversing the city today. A rare treat that it seems nearly the entire community is lining the streets for in hopes of getting a blessing from the revered monk as his procession drives by.
Although our carefully crafted itinerary has us slated to visit the craft and folklore museum, something none of us were really that attached to to begin with, we ask our guide if we could please go join the crowd instead. At first he tries to talk us out of it. After all, we will just be standing there and we don’t know for how long. But we really want to go and are persistent with our petition until he agrees, registering slight surprise that this is how we want to spend our afternoon.
The buzz of the traditionally dressed crowd is palpable. Although his holiness tulku Jigme Choeda passes through here from time to time, for many of the folks in the crowd this may be the only time they get a blessing from him. He is a special leader, they say. Capable of things most monks aren’t, they say. He has an extraordinary quality, they say.
The parade of cars is finally visible but moving quite slowly. We are first greeted by the sacred relics. Later we will learn that many a war between the Tibetans and the Bhutanese have been fought over these relics. It is funny to think that these two peaceful, spiritual communities were at war as many times as they have been.
After several cars of monks have passed, the spiritual leader approaches. His car moves at a snail’s pace as he blesses each patiently waiting devotee. The policeman flanking his car asks if we would like a blessing too. Being the only foreigners in the crowd, we were sort of hanging back observing but we jump at the opportunity for such a wonderful gift. As we depart the crowd we are as giddy as the others at the experience and blessing just bestowed upon us. We walk slowly away, reluctant to leave as the remaining monks progress along the road by the bus full. This great honor sets the tone for a truly magical journey in Bhutan.
Prayer wheels flank buildings everywhere we go. One spins the wheel clockwise to offer up prayers for the liberation and enlightenment of all the souls on Earth. Om mani padme hum. We join the locals in their diligence in spinning the prayer wheels as we walk by.
With each spin, I strive to reflect on what it really means to be praying for the enlightenment of all the souls on Earth. I can’t help but wonder what the world would be like if such a focus was incorporated into the daily routine of everyone and not just the devout. Focusing my attention on the betterment of everyone on Earth has a profound impact on me and I take every opportunity to spin the wheel and send positive energy out to the universe.
As we embark on our journey to Paro Taktsan (Tiger’s Nest) I glance up at our destination and marvel to myself that we are headed there. It isn’t that I don’t think we will make it, because I know we will. It just looks so small and so far away. Never mind that it is on the mountain next to the one we are on.
The climb is long and from time to time we are rewarded with a glimpse of the Tiger’s Nest. Each time it is a little bigger and a little closer. Our pace is steady. We try not to compare ourselves to the others around us also making the trip. Nor do we focus on the amount of time it is supposed to take. At times we all hike together. At times my friends Lourdes and Julie are just head of me. At times we each walk alone. Our guide is diligent in his quest to walk with whomever of us is bringing up the rear. He dotes on us, making sure we have enough water, pointing out things of note along the way. We enjoy the beautiful, warm day. I talk with our guide about his country and tell him about mine. We’ve gotten to know each other in the past few days so we are less guarded with our assessments and I learn a lot about the people of this beautiful land.
At the oldest temple in the capital we consulted with an elderly man whose teeth and lips are stained red with the doma (arec and betlenut) he chews. Counting on his fingers and flipping through pages of a worn pamphlet, he determined the most auspicious time for us to hoist prayer flags – not on the 7th or the 19th and definitely before 2pm on the day we choose. With this guidance in mind, we stop along the trail to the Tiger’s Nest to hoist our flags in prayer for ourselves, our family, and all beings on Earth.
I silently celebrate our arrival at the temple that clings to the side of the mountain 3,100 meters up. A sacred place since the 8th century, the complex contains many temples marking the caves where spiritual leaders across the centuries have prayed. We happen upon a group of monks chanting in one of the temples. We slip in quietly, sitting amidst them, and begin our own meditations. Their cadence is steady as the volume of some fades and others escalate. With my eyes closed, I don’t see that a few of them are readying themselves to play instruments. The sound of the drum and the Dongchen (long horn used in Buddhist ceremonies) emerge from the chanting. Although it takes me by surprise these new sounds fit naturally into the rhythm of the monk’s prayers. The sound reverberates through my body and moves me to tears.
I leave Bhutan with a renewed connection to spirit. Kadrin Chhe la Bhutan, thank you.