The road from Paro to Gangtey is not for the faint-hearted, or the faint-stomached. Winding up and down, around and up again, I lost my travel companion after the first hour. Green faced and swaying, he begged the driver to stop in Thimpu, took a taxi back to Paro lodge.
Karma, our driver, likes to frequently test the brakes. He is also on a time-frame. Our stomachs are not his concern.
After Ron (the spa manager) bails, things quiet down a bit (Karma slows down), and I settle in to enjoy spectacular views. The road winds through the lush Royal Bhutan Botanical Gardens, which is a very formal way of saying pristine forested wilderness that will stay that way. Towering trees washed in heavy mist rise impossibly high overhead. Cypress so old and gnarly they’ve grown crotchety like withered old men. I expect one of them to slap my hand for staring do defiantly. Then winding around suddenly we are above them, a leafy misty carpet canopy extending below us in a thick blanket. Moss covers every available surface; five foot long ferns stretch fingerlike and droop down into the void. Birds call and shout with songs I’ve never heard: crickety birds, screeching birds, purring birds, hissy and twirly birds. Pig birds that snort and squeal.
We hear there is a festival at Wangdue Dzong, so we stop along the way to watch dancers and pilgrims dressed in their finest and most colorful kiras and gos. Long lines of devotees wrap around the inside of the monastery, waiting for a blessing from their lama. A red-masked jokerman wanders around taunting people with a large wooden penis.
Moving on, we enter the great expanse of Tsongchu valley. Winding around steep valley walls, I’m too busy trying to wrap my mind around the sheer immensity to notice the danger. Towering heights fight with fathomless depths; I can’t see the bottom of the river valley below. I wonder how long it would take us to hit bottom if we missed a turn: an hour? Not only depth, but expanse also eludes: I struggle to grasp the enormity of the valley, the massive size of these mountains and the space they create around them. Dimension defies comprehension.
Each bend presents a new fantasy land: adorable wooden bridges over fairy streams, great groves of tall white prayer flags, enormous hydro-powered prayer wheels, housed in stone huts. Clear waterfalls grace every turn, snaking through lush grass and jewelled rock. When we reach villages, the land spreads out, flattens into rice fields and rivers and road-side markets. Sunflowers and marijuana grow like weeds, free and wild. Cows and goats and donkeys roam and pose. Farmers haul produce in burlap bags or giant baskets, plodding along in bright blue plastic boots. A solitary monk marches steadfast, a crown of shrubbery on his head.
I arrive in Gangtey 8 hours later, dizzy and dazed. I’ve come to attend the consecration of the renovated 16th century Gangtey monastery, seat of the Gangtey Tulku. Before he died, Padmasambhava (also known as Guru Rinpoche, who brought Buddhism here and to Tibet) predicted 5 tertons, or treasure revealers, who would discover the teachings he left hidden in rock and stone throughout the himalaya, to be discovered only by the right person at the right time. Pema Lingpa was one of these tertons, and the Gangtey Tulku is his current incarnation. It is said that this Nyingma monastery is the most important in Bhutan.
I have no plan, am not sure what the program is, so later in the evening, I go up to the monastery to check it out. Immediately after entering the shrine hall, I see Neyphug Tulku, one of the officiating lamas, sitting with 2 other high lamas, eating dinner. I have met Neyphug Tulku only once, when he came to speak at the lodge in Paro last week, but we have an easy connection, and he calls me over to exchange greetings and introductions. You should come early tomorrow morning to the puja, he says. There, I have a plan.
One thing I have learned through dharma practice is that if you relax into a situation, it will direct you where you need to go. I have spent many years fretting about what to do, making plans in order to avoid the fearful void, facing disappointment when the plans didn’t work as hoped. Although I’m sure I still have some planning left in me, for some reason in a dharma environment, I am able to let go and go with the flow. Somehow I trust this situation.
So flow it does. It is totally by chance that I find myself at all in Gangtey on this day, with a driver and a comp room. Totally by chance that I have a new kira, the national dress for women, to greet the king, who I learn just now is coming. Even against the lodge’s insistence that I need a special permit to attend the ceremony, I arrive bright and early at the monastery gates. When the stern official inquires if I have a pass to enter, I tell him sweetly that Hebu Tulku has invited me to come, which is true. A gracious smile and a wave of the hand later find me in the inner court, a brightly dressed dakini inquiring if I would like breakfast? I am ushered into a dark room where foreigners and robed officials are served tea and rice.
The courtyard is dominated by an enormous thangka of Guru Rinpoche, surrounded by his own myriad emanations, lineage holders, buddhas and dakinis. I take a seat in one of the tents, listen to the strict protocol for receiving the king. The king is dearly loved; he is also revered as a great bodhisattva. Throughout the day we are treated to song and dance, pageantry and drinks.
In the afternoon I wander home through the woods. I return later for evening puja and a blessing from Gangtey Tulku. I sit with 2 of the youngest monks, both feisty and playful, and they end up turning around 180 degrees to face me and make a game of throwing their offering rice in my lap. At the end of the day I feel filled with auspicious blessings. I make my way slowly home through the market stalls just as the moon peaks out from behind the mountains. Tomorrow I’ll return to Paro and will try out in earnest this new approach of letting things unfold in front of me, trusting that at each step, I’ll find solid ground under my feet and magic in the air.