“To orient ourselves at the interface of the visible and invisible worlds-which may be the purpose of all pilgrimages-we must embrace the search as well as the goal” Tom Robbins
What does anxiety teach us and what about fear? One that possesses these qualities might be a prime candidate for Satori riding the thunderbolt to enlightenment…Just got a package from mom with candy, slacks, binoculars and rat poison and I was paranoid at the proximity of the poison and sweets. I ate the candy greedily anyhow and even chipped my tooth on a pistachio, what to do? The region has seen copious amounts of rain and I’ve awoken frequently awash in electrical storms with the drawl of thunder as it rolls up and down the valleys sometimes in a continuum lasting more than a minute before the next flash and subsequent boom. It’s a wonderful loneliness lying awake at 3 AM in a remote land hearing the roar of the Thunder Dragon which seems a blessing for those of us slumbering on earth, the pitch blackness suddenly illuminated by a dash of lightning briefly lighting the silhouettes of my beloved ridges. One can judge by the interval between thunder clasps and lightning bursts how far off the storm is (Grandpa Harrys’ old trick) and also where the cell is located on this night passing directly over my hut onwards to Bromla and west towards Buyoung.
On Sunday I went on a pilgrimage to Omba Ney one of the holiest spots in Eastern Bhutan. I dropped down to the dirt farm road walking an hour to Sep a traditional village that even with the scarcely used dirt track retains a traditional air. I went to Sonam Choden’s ama’s cottage and picked up pup Dawa Dema who squealed ecstatically when she caught whiff of me and pounced on me, I cuddled her and now I have her fleas biting my legs as I write this three days later. After the renewal of bonds Nawang prepared a cup of hot tea before me and pup set out on our way winding through the idyllic village of farmhouses weaving through fields of spuds along a rose lined pathway. Wandering through a Himalayan village on foot is one of the distinct pleasures of this life and particularly appealing to Western souls but for me it’s often a feeling of homecoming maybe from a past life or just a yearning to return to a simpler way for this life. Yes I romanticize that existence as Nawang complains about the backbreaking farm work that I don’t have to do and this painstaking toil is what drives the current generation into Thimphu or towns searching for a “better life” The trail resumes at a picturesque canopied prayer wheel perched on a ledge overlooking the Bey Yul between Nankhar and Shampula a veritable lost world tucked off the main Tawang Valley cozily hidden away in deep deciduous forest now in full glory. The trail drops steeply into a wooded ravine until after an hour we reached a brook where I encountered a stinky drunken man with a crusty beard who would incorporate himself into the next few hours of the trek. The sun was shining intermittently interrupted occasionally by soaring nimbus clouds that cloaked the high peaks thousands of feet overhead. The forest in this sector of my territory is practically jungle with thin trunked wispy stands interspersed with more formidable oaks with luscious chartreuse foliage alive with birdsong. Dawa Dema is an exceptional little tow headed creature growling menacingly at drunkard and bovine alike and even fending off much larger dogs with her no nonsense demeanor. And although she stands ankle high her rapidly moving legs carry her as far as I want to go and at just about the same pace although if needed she can accelerate quickly to catch me and bound ahead as the situation warrants. About three hours after leaving Sep we spied Omba village perhaps the most alluring village on the planet a cluster of farmhouses set on a slope in a field of boulders and banana trees in a verdant paradise of waterfalls and secret cirques and hollows. The temple Omba is perched on a cliff high over the settlement earning it the moniker (Tigers Nest of the East) We bypassed the village and continued to the cliff face where a host of prayer flags and altar announces the place where OM is naturally engraved upon the rock and from that rock marigolds and geraniums spring magically reminding me of my childhood gardens of Kentfield. On this day no one was in the vicinity and one could only here the lilting breeze and panting from Dawa Dema as we trod up the switchbacks which circumnavigated the sheer rock face rising a thousand or more feet to the secluded Lhakhang. The trail passes a whitewashed Chorten and covered prayer wheel finally reaching the small temple two thirds of the way up the mighty cliff. What strikes the wayfarer on this trek is the landscape which is unique for this area as if the cliffs appear from a dream out of nowhere. Sure there are numerable crags and near vertical slopes since the mountains in this sector of the east are steep but a cliff of this magnitude is singular. Vegetation sticks out of cracks and crevices wherever it can get a foothold and at the temple itself are wild roses, a cypress tree, ferns, and other assorted dainty flowers but as for the temple itself quiet surprisingly the little whitewashed pagoda was padlocked. In fact it was eerily quiet up there without a pilgrim or caretaker only the swaying trees and the imposing cliff dropping away a thousand feet into an emerald abyss. From the quant temple a narrow set of stepping stones leads up the rock to a platform where a miniature golf Disney style statue of Guru and two consorts commands an immense view of the hidden lands. The effigy of Guru is cloaked in robes and he holds his scepter impaling several meek skulls his golden head curly mustache and fixed stare which always contains a different expression. To his right and left Yeshi and Mandarava with sweet feminine countenances bedecked in white scarves and faux pearls. Above the mini golf statue another steeper set of stepping stones leads to a cavern a slit in the cliff that is a secret passageway also known as a sin testing cave. Dawa whimpered as I vanished in the blackness and began what quickly turned into a dangerous climb on a sequence of thin wooden poles with notches etched into them where brave pilgrims place their feet while shimmering up the walls of the cave until they are vertically clawing through the darkness. I thought of turning back realizing a fall would be perhaps life squelching especially without a friend or phone and only whimpering Dawa thirty feet below but one must exercise faith at certain times especially when symbolically trying to cleanse ten thousand lifetimes of iniquity. So I continued completely focused in the moment losing my foothold and hanging on in the darkness where I could hear the screeching of bats as I inched towards the light at the end of the tunnel. It was a remarkable accomplishment and even scarier when I realized after emerging onto a ledge that I had to descend again down the rickety poles in pitch blackness to safety which was even harder to do. I can’t adequately describe the scene so far from another living soul besides helpless Dawa who obediently awaited my return but oh how I relied on her keeping verbal contact each step of the way with my faithful companion. Afterwards I felt lighthearted and thankful to be alive so I sat on an outcropping dangling in space over the abyss and made a cheese sandwich and had a warm coke sharing the crumbly bread and some crackers with little tow headed Dawa, so soon after I tried to meditate in the shadow of Mandarava but all kinds of despairing images and presentiments floated into my mind. I contemplated all manners of sufferings, suicides and murders and tragedies experienced by people I’ve known and ones I’d never know but it’s all interchangeable and I felt like Yeshi at Singye or Buddha under his tree except I lost the battle. My heart was black when I limped away but I was consoled by the pretty flowers and solitude that I cherish in this life…The clover, the cliff the trickling spring and the cypress tree and wild roses that led me away. But where was the caretaker, the resident lama anyway?
On the return hike I stopped at a rushing brook, a rarity in the mountains of this region in fact I couldn’t tell you where that water came from since it couldn’t be the high Himalaya so far North perhaps some underground well in Bromla I don’t know. But a waterfall splashed into a waste deep pool so I got naked and submerged myself into the clear cold water letting out an involuntary yet delicious yelp as Dawa looked on getting her own muddy feet wet (when was life so sweet) At 4 we arrived at Sep under overcast skies where everyone knew Dawa Dema by name and Nawang had dried fish, potato and chillie curry waiting in the tiny mud walled kitchen and there she told me a peculiar thing quite queer that she hadn’t mentioned it before. She spoke in broken English saying the day before the old ascetic Omba Lama (who looked a little like a dreaded David Nelson) died while in meditation inside his little temple and the next day his body was found in that posture by some pilgrims and carried away down the cliffs.
“Tiger Tiger burning bright -won’t you take my heart tonight”
Bhutan is a weird place. People make their own families here or everyone is somehow related maybe. I had Karma Wangchuk and Pema Wangchuk for tea and when Pema Chedup and Nima arrived they seemed put out by the other pair. Strange since Pema Chedup and Karma Wangchuk are blood brothers but often brothers will be closer to their chosen friends I guess. Meanwhile I played Sharchopoly as Becky calls it with Nima and Pema on Saturday night and had a feast of emadatsi and fried egg. The reader may recall that Sharchopoly is the fictional cousin brother to Monopoly and when one pulls a Community Chest card it might read, “Your Yak herd matures” receive 500 Ngultrum. Exams are approaching and I’m under the gun to get the confounded questions set. The rain continues to fall and I continue to itch and teach as it seems I’m living for Sundays this year. Or maybe I’m living for the grind which in Bhutan is a beautiful thing, I mean where else could I teach in this world left to my own devices with these funny little creatures in gho and kira on the fringe of the Dragon kingdom. Every day the beauty sees me through every trial and evil thought and it’s clear to me that this is HOME.
In class all 115 pupils gave impromptu speeches which highlighted there deficiency in speaking English although they did remarkably well since they never practice outside the classroom and hardly speak in class. They are adept at languages which is their saving grace. Only 5 out of the lot could elucidate on their topic a whole minute but remember they only got a minute to plan and couldn’t write it down. Even teachers admit they don’t feel comfortable talking to one another in English so this is the reality in East Bhutan where the language ability is the weakest in the Kingdom. Becky and I had a long conversation about the future of our learners who know have been exposed to education and don’t want to toil in the fields like their parents and ancestors. I could write a lot on the subject but am too sleepy now. Many of my colleagues concur that the board exams should take place at Class 8 eliminating the masses before they become resentful of farm work. Piet mentions better machinery that must be pieced together on the incised terraces might ease the burden of a difficult life that westerners can’t comprehend. Back pain cataracts from glaring sun and no medicine is the harsh reality of this happy kingdom. But with education comes confusion, the disintegration of one of the world’s last great cultures, and disillusionment as youth flocks to Thimphu and everyone wants I phones and cars, roads and electricity ETC. It’s naïve for me to speculate and I’m just grateful to live here in the far- east a stronghold of culture but I’m sure Nancy would notice the changes since 88’. In many ways Thimphu seems more like San Francisco than Tsenkharla if you’re picking up what I’m laying down. What’s great is we each get our own village and are completely submerged in our community’s with the nearest BCF colleague at least an hour away. This allows for our own adventure although phones keep us in touch when in Nancy’s day they were even more isolated. I consider this situation one of the last great adventures left on earth and like any adventure worth a damn it is taxing! Like Sam says to Frotto on Mount Doom, “by rights we shouldn’t even be here” I’m paraphrasing the movie not the book sorry diehards.
By the way Omba is one temple in the chain of holy places associated with Guru Rinpoche in East Bhutan and it is said by some that Yeshi also sang songs up in those mysterious cliffs. According to legend the Guru was wrestling with a demoness who sprang from a Tibetan lake and he tracked her into Tawang and eventually to Omba, Gongsa and Gom Kora before subduing her by a rock near Chazam (a serpentine deity) The miracle of Guru Rinpoche is that he travelled so extensively throughout Tibet, Nepal and Bhutan leaving his body print at Dechen Phodrang, flying on a tigress to Tigers Nest and entering from Singye Dzong on the archipelago of peaks along the Northeastern border with Tibet. He spent most of his time while in Bhutan in Bumthang so I wonder where he actually went and if he actually existed at all. I believe from oral accounts the Indian Saint (born in Swat Valley Pakistan) existed but did he really spend a month meditating in the scorching canyon near modern day Doksom? The truth well the truth is it doesn’t matter since it’s faith that matters. Whatever the Guru was in reality he spawned devotion that courses through Tantric Buddhists today and Monpa’s still cross the invisible line to worship him at both koras. That devotion and faith trumps truth and as it happens I believe Guru Rinpoche was an intrepid traveler who did indeed visit many far flung places even in desolate Eastern Bhutan which was a tribal no-man’s-land even then known as Lhomon the land of southern darkness. He slay the demons and subdued the bloodletting Bonpo’s and spread the Dharma in his magical fashion, a Buddha with an attitude! If the illustrious Fourth King has four fetching wives (all sisters) than Guru certainly could have two rocking consorts trained in mystical precepts learned in many secret caves on many chilly nights across the Great Himalayan Range. I believe that he must have skinny dipped and frolicked with Yeshi and company in the frothing Gongri Chu on a hot summers eve and she must have entreated him there and sang the sweetest lullaby’s in that Tibetan mother tongue converting a good many Sharchop ancestors along the way. GOD BLESS YOU GURU AND ETERNAL LIFE TO YOU AND ALL YOUR DAKINIS…HO! MAY THE BUTTERLAMPS ALWAYS BURN UNTIL SAMSARA IS EMPTIED…It’s a peaceful morning with birds singing and the hush of the river wafting up from the valley floor… This world makes sense to me…All that’s in my wooden classroom are a chalkboard a new handsome wall clock courtesy of the government and our own paper decorations and teaching aids along with an old scratchy chalkboard the students are talkative so I scold them and they halfheartedly abide, they’re clearly not afraid of me although I could make them that way if need be but I’d rather engage them and hear them speak English but mostly they chatter away mellifluously in Sharchop, outside Nawang rings the circular brass bell five times, it has a sweet chime…announcing lunch where the students receive gruel in a prison style line but they don’t complain.