K-K-K-K-K Katmandu

Bob Seeger wrote the song Katmandu when he was tired of his profession and wanted to escape. Hippy days are gone, but an observant person will notice marijuana growing wild in empty lots and alleys. Let me emphasize that you don’t need drugs to be high in Katmandu, because this city overloads your senses without a single enhancement. This is a place of extreme opposites. People wash themselves and their dishes from a roadside spigot. Modern appliances are taken home on the back of a bike. I found clarity and focus in Buddhist thangka art opposed by lung defying air pollution.

Traffic jams from hell don’t prevent appreciation of unspoiled mountain landscapes. The entire valley is a UNESCO site for important pilgrimages and monuments amid massive filth counter-balanced with beauty.

The profane competes with the revered and sacred. The ancient trade routes for salt, wool and silk continue to run through Katmandu. The amount of diversity and fusion of cultures left in the wake is unsurpassed.

Katmandu is the odd, bizarre, benevolent, always in a hurry, yet most compassionate and loving place on the planet.

Is Katmandu schizophrenia or extreme reality?  It is really entertaining or downright controversial. I can’t imagine anyone not loving it here.

Fifteen minutes out of the airport I saw my first cremation at the river edge. IMG_7795While flames consumed the body,  little girls walked in the muddy water with magnets trying to find offerings in the funeral ashes. Despite this macabre observation, I had a profound experience talking with a Brahman priest who spoke about our mission in life and karma. He blessed me, touching my heart with a force that I still feel today.

Monkeys’ ran around stealing cotton candy. Strange men who call themselves Holy pose around the stupas coaxing tourists to take pictures, for a price. It seemed like a creative way to be a beggar, but who am I to cast accusations? My guide made an astute observation, “Don’t all religions want to be paid?”

Soak it all in. Stop to see. Touch. Smell. Taste using your fingers the local way. Chant mantras with the background roar of motorcycles. Listen to singing bowls and inhale incense. Still your breath. Calm your mind amongst chaos. Dance with joy on the street with someone you don’t know. Reach out. Embrace. If I ever get out of here, I’ll go back to Katmandu.

 

 

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Heap of Jewels Nunnery (Punakha, Bhutan)

Sangchhen Dorji Lhuendrup Lhakhang Nunnery

Once upon a time and not so long ago, a very young King in the mystical Himalayan mountains discovered that he was the fulfillment of a 300 year-old prophecy. His destiny was to reunite and bring his country into the modern world. Being a descendant of the ancient and powerful Dorji family in mind and speech, he is the incarnation of a great holy man, Ngawang Namgyal (1594-1651).

Others held claim to the title too. The best way to unify a land is to marry  into the other contenders with provenance. So the fourth king, Jigme Sungye Wangchuck married all four sisters from the opposing powerful family.

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prayer wheel on the summit of the hill overlooking a narrow valley

The father of the four sisters ( also a Dorji family member) asked the king for land to build a Buddhist nun’s university on the highest scenic hill above the Punaka valley in Bhutan. The official name–Sangchhen Dorji Lhuendrup Lhakhang Nunnery means, “Fortress of the heap of Jewels.” The young ladies here are treasures far more precious than diamonds or pearls.

The four queen’s parents have their homestead on this hill too, situated a wee bit lower, giving the nuns and religion the best position for grace and inspiration.

We visited many Buddhist landmarks and saw countless beautiful artifacts. Religious festivals with dance and music enriched our experiences.  Listening to monks chant in the temple hit an inner cord of my soul. But the visit here touched my heart in deeper ways than any other place in Bhutan.IMG_0136

Give me one giggling nun willing to express her thoughts and beliefs any day over all the pomp and circumstance.

Laughter. This was the first thing different in the nunnery compared to a monastery.  These girls look and act happy.

They wanted to talk to us, to explain with eloquence and passion why they decided to become nuns or what they’re daily life is like. They study and pray. There are also classes in tailoring, embroidery, statue making, painting and ceremonial dancing. When they graduate from their studies they will go to other communities to support a religious life. One girl told me, “It’s very important that I pray for every living thing, every day.” They are dedicated to their mission of salvation. IMG_0142

curiosity. They also wanted to know about us and how we live. In my experience, the monks could have cared less. (Of course a woman cannot touch a monk. If I would have wanted to give an item, I’d have to pass it to a man who would then give it to the monk. )

Only monks can perform religious ceremonies and are paid for services. The nuns are supported with a stipend per month. Their parents may receive a spit of land to grow rice.

Sure, there are interesting architectural components to view here. A chorten (monument) that looks like a smaller Boudhanath Stupa sits at the point of the hill with stunning views into two narrow valleys.

The UNESCO site in Nepal is the largest stupa in the world, a place of great pilgrimage and was built by a mother of poor status who petitioned her king. It’s fitting that this replica is a reminder to the young nuns of the strength within their hands and minds. It signifies the deep power within each woman.

Walk into the temple, under the crystal chandeliers to see statues of important rampoches’. It’s impressive. But nothing compares with the beautiful spirit and promise for a rich future unfolding for the women here.

 

 

Totally Dzonged

Bhutan’s Dzongs’ are pre-17th century Buddhist fortresses located at key defense  points, such as along Tibet or Chinese mountain passes.  Thirteen forts were built without architectural plans under the spiritual dreams of  holy lamas’. Today these structures remain an odd mix of religion and government. Prayer, peace, and tranquility  are steps away from offices of the nation.

The fortresses all have similar architectural components: Steep white masonry walls with few (slotted) lower windows, an ochre band indicating this is a holy place, elaborately carved and painted wood details, roofs of bamboo and hardwood without the use of nails.  There’s a complex of courtyards, monks accommodations, and temples. The stairs are all very steep (easier to push a foe down?) with thresholds at the top to keep evil spirits out.

 

Punakha Dzong (Palace of Great Happiness)

Built in 1637 at the confluence of the Phochu (father) and Mochu (mother) Rivers. This large building has three courtyards and a six-story tower.  This is the second oldest and largest Dzong in Bhutan. There are sacred relics here from the ancient battle with Tibet and the resulting unified Bhutan as well as holy mummified remains. The greatest dangers are due to location– flash floods or ice racing down from high glacial lakes, earthquakes, and fires. This dzong is where the  Wangchuck King’s of Bhutan are crowned and married.

Miraculously,  a platinum statue of the Rimpoche inside the temple didn’t melt during the last fire in 1986. This is a glorious dzong, rebuilt after the disaster in the older style.

Chhimi Lhakhang Monastery 

Built by the Divine Madman in 1499 after he trapped a demoness under the rock chorten near the entry.  This wild lama, Drukpa Kunley, loved the phallus symbol which was probably used from an earlier religion since it signifys abundance and prosperity. Evidently, if you paint a penis on your house it will dispel the evil eye and stop gossip. In my town, this would act the other way around.

I was fortunate to witness the fertility ceremony where the almost four-foot tall phallic relic was carried by a young woman three times around the monastery.  There’s a book of success stories inside the temple, if you remain a doubting Thomas.

I received the ancient bow blessing, but I’m not sure what’s supposed to happen. Maybe I should have asked first?

 

Paro Ringpung Dzong

A beautiful structure built high on a bluff in 1644, this dzong houses 14 shrines and temples. It is the center for the district monastic body as well as the government of the Paro District. On an even higher hill behind the dzong, is a seven-story watch tower that is now the National Museum. Some scenes in the movie “The Little Buddha” were filmed here.

 

Tiger’s Nest (Taktsang) MonasteryIMG_0296

Located six miles outside of Paro, this spectacular monastery balances on a 3,281 foot cliff. It’s believed that Guru Rinpoche, the father of Buddhism in Bhutan flew on the back of a tiger from Tibet and landed here around the year 800. He lived in the eight cave complex with the first of many temples built in the fourteenth century. I saw one cave where women weren’t allowed. (Bummer)  There are several nearby structures where various teachers live(d) and taught. Today, only three monks live here as caretakers. Getting supplies up would be a daunting task for a religous community.

There have been several devastating fires, the most recent from either a butter lamp or electrical malfunction in 1998.The King paid over 135 million to have the entire structure rebuilt in the old style.

All of these historic places are treasures. The art is magnificent–from statues to paintings, metal work and wood carvings.  Take time to enjoy a Buddhist ceremony, complex yet so simple in theology. Cleanse your thoughts in incense. Listen to drums and chants, or bells ringing on the prayer wheels. Reflect on time past, present, and future, united in this single second.

 

 

 

Climb Ev’ry Mountain

Nepal is the spinal cord of the world with 1,913 mountain peaks towering greater than 18,000 feet.

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Mount Everest is the background mountain to the left. Below Everest to the left is Nutse –fourth tallest in the world at 25,790′. The the right of Everest is Lhotse–27,939′. Follow the ridge to the Right background for Mt. Makalu–27,805′

Of that huge number, 14 are the highest places on earth within this relatively small country.  Mount Everest (29,029′) has trekkers gasping with more than awe. At the top, climbers only breathe 1/3 of their normal consumption of oxygen.

The soaring Himalayas march straight through Bhutan with 21 mountain peaks above 23,000′. In the picture below right is the highest, Gangkhar Puensum, at 24,840′. The media is all about Everest, but Bhutan isn’t a runner-up in the world of adventure climbers. The government offers cheaper permit fees, trying to steal some of Nepal’s historic thunder. Currently, offical paperwork will cost  $1,800 to climb Annapurna. (*keep in mind that’s permit only, not outfitting the expedition.)

Don’t plan on clawing your way up all of these mountains. Many are decreed as holy in the Buddhist faith. Since one in ten climbers dies on Everest and most of the others suffer with varing degrees of altitude sickness, the Nepal government probably has their hands full with permits to (only?) 326 mountain tops.

Summiting mountains is a rich person’s game–or a well sponsored team. The 2017 climbing permit fees for Everest were $11,000. That only gets a trekker a pat on the back.

It doesn’t include the mandatory evacuation and medical insurance. There’s also a trash removal fee of about $4,000. Imagine the amount of human waste that needs to be cleaned! And I’m not counting over 200 bodies still left on the mountain.  A quick google search gives rates of $30,000-$65,000.

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Close up on Anapurna with morning sunrise

I was very happy to travel in comfort with Yeti Airlines on the Everest Express flight from Katmandu. (www.yetiairlines.com) Passengers on both sides of the airplane were able to see the view, and the pilot allowed everyone a few moments inside the cockpit. The online cost is $176.00 US.

We had a picture-perfect early morning flight. If Yeti feels the weather is  bad, the money will be refunded. That’s their call, not yours. Another consideration is that the windows on the plane are curved at the edges, creating a prism-like distortion, but it’s easy to avoid if the camera lens is zoomed out and you don’t shoot side-ways.

On another early morning, we drove to a high lookout above the Pokhara Valley to watch the sunrise at Annapurna and (lower but closer) Machhapuchhre.

These spectacular photos are going to have to hold me until I can return and get a little closer with a 14-day trek to Everest base camp.

Climb every mountain, ford every stream. Follow every rainbow, ’till you find your dream! (Sound of Music. Composer Richard Rodgers)

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Daily Life (in the village of Mershina)

The most common question I receive about Bhutan (after “where?”) is a curiosity about how a typical family might live.

Mershina is a village surrounded by beautiful rice paddies and sits below a famous  fertility monastery (more on that later). Their claim to fame is anything in the shape of a penis–for example, an anatomical key chain keepsake.

I resisted the urge and didn’t buy one. Not even the pink one with wings. Although I’m progressing with tongue-in-cheek, infertile couples from around the world come here for the monk’s ceremony and blessing. There’s a book with tales of success inside the temple.

The exterior pictures of the homes in the banner belies what’s inside. We visited a 70 year-old woman who lives with her daughter, her son-in-law and their four children.

The ground floor is the barn where they keep their water buffalo, goats, and chickens.  The grand-daughter worked in a small shed,  toasting rice they harvested to sell at the market. This treat tastes like Rice Krispies without honey or sugar. IMG_7621

Here’s a juxtaposition: This young lady was home on a college vacation. Her right foot stands in the 21st Century and the left totters in Medieval times. She has no intention of spending a traditional life living in a small farming village.

Climbing steep wood stairs,  we entered the living room. A small color TV was on, images of the Buddhist festival in Thimphu flitted across the screen. The grandmother sat cross-legged on a mat as she invited guests to sit on her new couch. Most homes don’t have such luxurious furniture. She offered us food. Drink. Hospitality. It was an honor that we came to see her.

We proceeded to ask the family questions about life in Bhutan while the grandmother and daughter chewed doma, their lips stained red and teeth blackened by the stimulant in the nut. The grand-daughter on the left side of the photo told us (In English) that she won’t chew and become addicted like her elders.

The grandmother asked us a hard question. “How many hours do you have to ride a bus from here to California in the United States?” We looked at each other stymied, trying to figure out how to explain geographic distance to someone who didn’t know the world. After complex math based upon a 48 mile bus ride to Thimphu taking  3 hours, we came up with an impossible guesstimate of 21 days. Since she’d never seen an airplane, she wouldn’t grasp the concept of traveling across the globe faster.

After much laughter, we were invited to tour the house. The left picture above is a Buddhist altar with hanging ceremonial drums and the kitchen is quite modern with a new indoor water spigot and a refrigerator.

But a home is measured by more than “things”. A family and their happiness is something transparent. It’s a moment offered with love. It’s hidden in a smile and shared with faith. Happiness is reaching out across cultural differences and finding the common joyous denominator, even when we are so far apart. IMG_7639

Seeking Nirvana

If faith in your religion brings happiness, then Bhutan has reached nirvana.

On a high hill overlooking Thimpu, an immense Buddhea, called Puensal Phodrang, glows in the sunlight This multi-storied, 169 foot bronze statue covered in gold is the fullfillment of an ancient prophecy from the year 800 and was commisioned for the  King’s father’s 60th birthday.

This seated Buddha grounds his fingers to the earth signifying the moment He transcended. He also holds a medicine bowl and before him sits the lightning bolt, a vehicle to greater transcendence.

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There is a temple below and inside the ediface containing 125,000 smaller statues of Buddha in infinite lines. In a center alcove, another statue of Buddhea is surrounded by larger-than-life angelic helpers. (In respect, cameras are not allowed inside.)

All of this is impresive, but I was so lucky to visit during a festival with a great Lama leading continuous prayer, 24 hours a day, for over three months. It’s estimated that 10,000 people are present each day (many sleep in temporary tarp tents scattered around the site). Monks circulate through the crowd, passing out donated nourishment.IMG_7431 Under a hanging canopy, more monks sit cross-legged managing stacks of holy manuscripts. IMG_0036

 

Meanwhile, inside the temple below the statue, another group of monks repaired the disentigrating paper in old books while others hand-wrote new pages. A senior priest sat with a computer, I’m guessing he was quality control offering vigilent inspection of each page.

I chuckled as younger monks pulled cell phones out of their red robes and I wondered who sent them a vibrating message. Mom ? Brother ? Lover ? This action was secrative, as a circulating senior admonished those caught slacking off the task.

What impressed me the most was the palpable belief and trust from the thousands of worshippers inside the tent. People of all ages were intent in worship, except for a few young children who amused themselves.

The Thunder Dragon Pursuing Happiness

Bhutan is a cheeky country, promoting the philosophy of Gross National Happiness. They dilligently measure this elusive emotion, standing taller than David preaching to a Golliath world that aquiring material things does not lead to joy.

Since 1971, the King and parliament base their nation’s happiness on spirituality and physical need fullfillment. For survival, humans require protection from the elements, food, and good health. Nothing greater occurs unless these basic needs are met.

Free health care and free education were giant steps in this little Asian land. Bhutan is successful at this, but the United States fails. I’m ashamed of my homeland and the political dung heap we allow to fester.

Having spiritual fullfillment is easy when 75% of Bhutan is Bhuddhist.  During my visit I saw people of all ages begining their day at the local Bhuddist Stupa, spinning prayer wheels and fingers slipping over mantra beads. Their faith is strong. Their commitment to compassion for all beings is impressive, rising with a sun hazy with curling incense smoke. Young couples believe in the power of prayer, dropping elderly parents at the temple in the morning. Their post retirement job is to beseach God for compassion IMG_0015and abundance for every life. This is a serious and endless mission. IMG_0020

The King took another leap in 2007 by demanding a parliamentary democracy and he entered his country into the United Nations. Sandwiched like a  rare piece of prime rib between the white rice of China and India, local politics remain a high wire trapeze act without a safety net.

China already took some of the northern proviences and their request to place three highways through Bhutan to access India were quickly denied. An uneasy silence remains. Out of necessity, this tiny country with a big heart dances economically with India. Fear is expressed candidly.

“What will happen if China decides to invade us, as they did in Tibet?” Our guide held no illusions. “Will the United Nations protect us? We don’t think so, because we don’t produce anything great nations need.”  He believed that the majority of adults in Bhutan wouldn’t know the difference living under a communist China.

But this land of a dragon licking seven wishing jewelsIMG_7421 is on the cusp of change. Through education of a large young population, Bhutan is entering the twenty-first century with lightning speed. The question is: Can they keep their brightest minds living at home and not escaping abroad for higher paying jobs? 

I really admire the King for addressing this issue as well. I’ve never seen a country so full of pride about their heritage or a greater love for their King and Queen. There is a national dress code for all workers. Men wear a traditional robe called a Gho and women were a dress (Kira) topped by beautiful jackets.

The edict intends to bolster national pride and culture. It’s working. I went to a local festival near the capital city of Thimphu in a downpour of rain that didn’t stop anyone from tromping through the mud and dressing in their finest.