Following Machig’s footsteps to Ha valley

Well things are winding down here, sadly. I would stay a lot longer if I could. Drove to Ha, the next valley over with a few friends, 2 Bhutanese girls (Sonam and Sonam) and firey Sri Lankan Ashok, giggling most of the day. We brought a big picnic and a camera, and when we arrived at the valley, there was a monastery at the top of the hill where we heard Machig Labdron had left her footprint, so we went. She had spent time in a cliffside retreat house behind the monastery, so we asked a monk to take us. Ashok turned around the minute it started getting steep, and good thing, cause it got steeper each step. When the trail did finally level out, at times it was so thin my foot barely fit on it, and on one side of that thin trail was steep rock wall going up, and on the other side was steep rock wall going down, and down, and down. I have never said my mantra so fervently: OmManiPadmaHumOmManiPadmaHumOmManiPadmaHum, knees shaking, hands sweating, mind trying to convince myself that I have been a good girl and don’t deserve to die on my way to pay respects to a woman of wisdom, Buddhist saint, vajrayana master, fellow pilgrim. And I will admit without shame that yes, I did part of that trail on my hands and knees. Call it bowing to the goddess.

Machig Labdron's retreat

machig's retreat hut is on the left
Machig's retreat hut is on the right

Anyway I am alive and today just back from Punakha, the ancient capital of Bhutan. The Punakha Dzong there reminds me of the scene of the witch’s castle in the wizard of oz – huge, mysterious, easy to get lost in, virtually surrounded by a moat as it is at the confluence of 2 rivers, and filled with roaming masses of men dressed in identical costumes. All their main monasteries are called dzongs, fortresses, because in the old days government administration shared the same building so they could save on building expenditures, and then they would all be safe in the huge and protected building in case of invasion. The Tibetans did in fact invade a few times, but no one ever conquered Bhutan. A fairly amazing accomplishment, given its size and strategic location.

Punakha Dzong

The climate in Punakha is almost tropical – a refreshing treat from dry wintry Paro. Poinsettias as big as houses line the road on both sides entering the village, a flaming red tunnel of Christmas cheer. Oranges and guavas and bananas crowd their respective trees. I am told, thank goodness after the fact, that cobras also crowd these parts. Fortunately I did not learn this firsthand.

Students are few and far between these days; Bangkok’s political problems helped with that. The red rice has all been harvested and winnowed and now you can see great sacks of it in the marketplace on Sundays. A few straggling guests remain at the lodge, the season dwindling down and the staff making arrangements for holidays. Peasants haul huge loads of wood on their backs down the road, step by painstaking step back to their homes, preparing for winter.


Winter is in the air dropping pine needles on my head.   A velvet chill lines a good wind, fluttering prayer flags in its wake.  Puffs of chimney smoke cloud the road where I take my afternoon walk.  A new season has been announced, and I feel slightly wiser today.

Perhaps this is due to blessings received yesterday on the pilgrimage to Taktsang. It’s the one destination most everyone has heard of by the time they arrive in Bhutan: Tiger’s Nest, the cliff-side temple where Guru Rinpoche spent time in retreat.

Craning the neck from the drop-off point, it is difficult to imagine arriving there without ropes and equipment or a flying tigress, as was Guru Rinpoche’s preferred means of transportation.  The hike itself is a challenge (especially the coming down bit), but under 2 hours each way.  What is more of a challenge is to share the trail with the constant and thick flow of tourists.  I’ve become accustomed to the space here in Bhutan, trees being more numerous than humans.

To avoid this flow, I decide to visit the lesser-known temple dedicated to Machig Labdron just behind Taktsang.  A tiny sign on the main path indicates the side-trail.  Passing under a colorful canopy of frayed prayer flags, lush grass underfoot, one sees a thin dirt trail that climbs to the secret dwelling place of one of Vajrayana Buddhism’s most celebrated yoginis.

After visiting the temple and the cave where she left her footprint, and paying respects, the caretaker invites me into his small house for tea, where 5 other pilgrims are already gathered around an electric kettle of milk tea.  Taking a place in the corner, I quietly nibble on a biscuit.

Making our exit, one of the women taps me on the shoulder and, with a gesture, invites me to come with them.  We continue up a steep path over gigantic boulders, so big they need notched-log-ladders to climb up and the men hold my hand until I get solid footing.  Up, away from the trailhead, to who knows where..

We follow a crystal stream up a gently sloping grass field, past a prayer-mill, up the side of a forested mountain.  Coming to the top, the land suddenly flattens out and in the midst of a large field high above the valley is an imposing temple, Zangto Pelri Lakhang.  The dogs have announced our arrival, so the caretaker is ready with the keys to show us around. We pay our respects to Guru Rinpoche (3 prostrations) and the priest offers us amrita, blessed camphor water. Upstairs is a smaller shrine to 1000-armed Chenrezig, and on the top floor is still another shrine to Shakyamuni Buddha.

Afterwards we spread out on the grass with our picnic lunches and savor views of the expansive valley below.  Quite soon after, one of the men looks at his watch and they gather up to go, down the other side of the mountain we have just climbed.

Did I mention that no one speaks English?  I have no idea where we are going, if we are returning to the trailhead or perhaps spending the night in the wilderness, and as the sun is setting, it is too late for me to turn back.  I figure if its my time to go, it could be a lot worse than perishing on Guru Rinpoche’s sacred mountain.

Eventually we end up at a small cliff-hanging temple on the other side of the main complex, so high up its dizzy.  More prostrations and offerings.  Hugging the rock walls as we make our way back, precariously and with absolute awareness, as the sheer drop leaves no room for error.

We spend the rest of the afternoon skating down steep pine needle dusted trails through thick woods.  Ani is a bit older and frequently needs help navigating in her treadless shoes.  My companions are infinitely patient with her, chanting mantra quietly the whole way down, and we all arrive at the trailhead just as the sun disappears behind the mountains.

Meeting Dilgo Khyentse Rinpoche Yangsi

So last week I learned that Dilgo Khyentse Rinpoche’s Yangsi (it means child incarnation before they assume their teaching responsibilities) lives just down the road from me here. He’s 15-16, just about to go away (to Bodhgaya and Kathmandu) for the winter, so I started asking around how I could go see him. Because he is the incarnation of such a high lama (his previous incarnation was the Dalai Lama’s teacher) and still doing his intensive studies, he (or rather those in charge of his education) don’t often grant interviews with him.

Then, coincidentally yesterday my new Tibetan (girl)friend, Deki, who runs a small café in Paro and makes me veg momos if I call ahead, calls and says, ‘I’m going for a blessing tomorrow with rinpoche’s tutor, a khenpo, do you want to come? We can go see rinpoche afterwards. So this morning on a glorious blue day with snow packed peaks all around the mist drenched valley, we went to see Khyentse Rinpoche.

First we went to see the Khenpo, an amazing kind and all-seeing man who gave us Tibetan happy pills and blessed our malas and doused our heads with camphor scented water to wash away our suffering (I’ll let you know if it works). Afterward his servant offered us milk tea and cookies (at 7:30am) and Khenpo went into his room to find little pictures of Guru Rinpoche for us. While we drank our tea he blessed a pile of thangka paintings another monk had brought in. Just before we left we bowed and he held our head in his hands strong like he was extracting all the irrelevance and muck.

We left his small new warm wooden retreat house and walked up the hill towards rinpoche’s quarters. Five playful dogs tormented a pony on the lawn. We diverted to make 3 koras around the stupa in a green and purple flower filled garden (end-october when everything else around here is brown and crumbling). Then one of the 4 other rinpoches who live here at Sechen monastery in Paro offered us more tea while we waited for rinpoche to receive us. 3 adorable tiny puppies were there among the many dogs and we each (Deki and I) held one on our laps while she talked in Tibetan to the lamas, who she knows from years of family ties.

So finally rinpoche is ready for us. We walk across the sun filled courtyard to his small charming house. The door opens and one of the monks takes our offerings of biscuits and incense, and we enter, place our bags and katas (white offering scarves) in the corner to make our 3 prostrations to this young and clearly full-on powerful rinpoche. We offer our scarves, immediately a monk comes to offer us a Handful (I mean my mouth was full) of dutsi (blessed amrita) dust and a protection cord and while I am chomping away trying to swallow my dust and tie my cord, Deki is suddenly insistent, “do you have anything to say to rinpoche?” so I’m like, go ahead, you first (it was rather like mgho amghead, ou fiirsph with a little spray of dust) and she goes, “you can say something” and I go “no please, you go” and she goes, “you don’t have anything to say?’ and so I go, brilliantly, “I am very happy to meet you” and rinpoche (who has been sitting back calmly watching this whole mini-drama unfold) goes (get this), “thank you”. And then Deki goes, “right. then. so shall we go?” and I go, “ok”, and so 60 seconds later we get up and like some comic silent film I step on the hem of my kira and almost stumble over her and into him as we collect ourselves to go. We bow for another blessing and as we do I make eye contact with rinpoche and I can’t tell if those fathomless wisdom eyes show deep deep compassion, or slight concern and on our way out the door, the 3 lamas in the corner snicker at us and try hard to suppress their laughter, which overtakes us in the sunlit garden.

And that, my dear friends, was the highlight of my today.

84,000 paths

Its strange to hear news of the world from here. Life on earth as I have come to know it feels like a distant dream…goals and aspirations, career path, shopping, social obligations, rent. Here streams babble louder than discursive mind.I’ve just had a nice chat with Khenpo Phuntsho Tashi, director of the Paro museum. He comes to speak at the lodge occasionally, sharing insights and information about history and Buddhism in Bhutan. He is actively promoting meditation as a means to support Bhutan’s unique approach to government: the promotion of Gross National Happiness.

Paro Dzong
Paro Dzong

Every 2 years a survey is taken; citizens are asked questions like: how often do you meditate? how often do you have feelings of compassion and generosity? do you pray? how do you spend your leisure time? Notice the absence of any questions related to finance to help determine quality of life. Apparently the greatest stress encountered by the majority of Bhutanese (who are farmers) is the Dreaded Wild Pig.

Bhutan’s leaders seem to have understood the ultimate goal of existence: to be happy, in the enlightened, rather than the worldly sense of the word.

According to the Buddha, there are 84,000 different doors to enlightenment. We do not all have to follow the same path. Whatever practice we do is only relevant in the sense that it should create some benefit.

It doesn’t matter if you subscribe to Buddhist belief, or Hindu belief, or Christian belief, or no belief: we all have wisdom deep within that is hidden by our obscured view. We practice to clarify the view and uncover our brilliant original true nature.

So we should be alert to the effects of the practice. If we have been doing a particular practice for many years and don’t see positive results in our lives, then we should question whether that is the appropriate practice for us in our particular time and circumstance.

The Dalai Lama notes:

“When we take medicine, it is not the taste, color, or quantity of the medicine that matters; the important thing is the beneficial effect on our body. If in spite of having taken a certain medicine for a long time we see no effect, there is no point in continuing to take it. Regardless of whether your practice is elaborate or short, above all, it should be effective in bringing about some kind of a transformation, a change for the better, within you.”

The point is that the practice itself is not “It.” There is no prize for having an “advanced” practice, especially if we are using the practice to boost our ego. Practice is the tool, it is not the result that we are seeking. It is like a boat to ferry us across the ocean of suffering called samsara. Once we reach the far shore, we don’t need to, indeed shouldn’t, carry our boats around on our backs.

There seems to be a problem when we identify ourselves with the practice, or use the practice to define ourselves. I am a practitioner of X! This type of approach is an attempt to boost or perpetuate ego, which is exactly the thing a spiritual practice works to dissolve.

We should check in with our practice periodically to see: are we increasing wisdom and compassion, lessening self-centeredness and attachment? Is the practice working?

The proof of the practice comes out in our daily lives: how we interact with others and our environment. What is essential does not really need to be discussed. Practice is the thing that will show us the way: to living more fully and kindly with awareness of the present moment, the here and now, with all of its inconvenient and sometimes beautiful truths.


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.
Wangdue Dzong
Wangdue Dzong
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.

Market Day

The smell of betel nut pervades the air – a bit like rotten meat. You can tell who consumes these nuts by the red lips (who needs lipstick?), missing teeth (hey, cut down on dentist bills!), and the lovely wads of red spit decorating the dirt nearby, and sometimes hovering in the air just a bit too close to your shoulder. And when these betel-nut people, mostly women, smile! Oh, like Krishna on his battlefield at the moment of truth, opening his jaws wide like the gates of hell to show Arjuna the horrors of every demon ever known. Dear reader, please never, never put a betelnut in your mouth.

Sunday is market day in Paro, a much different affair than Thimpu. No rushing streams, fewer stalls, in fact no covered stalls at all and everything is laid out in (sort of) neat piles on the wet ground as today, there is rain. Besides the betel nut vendors, there are walnuts, bananas, little plastic cans of white paste (hmmm), and hanging intestines stuffed with I do not really want to know what.

Amazingly, I came here with no money. Other than a few Indian rupees (which fortunately are accepted here) I just forgot to bring any cash to Bhutan. Having become accustomed to modern convenience, I thought surely ATMs would have hit Bhutan. In fact they have, but only if you bank at the local BOB. It feels rather appropriate in a culture so unmoved by consumermania. And besides bright red apples and huge walnuts, there is nothing I really need or want. It’s quite refreshing to leave the consumer tendencies behind.

I even forgot my camera. Or rather the battery charge for it, so it is useless to me. The most beautiful country ever seen, and I can’t record any of it. All I can do is look. And write. So I wander around this magic place with the playful eyes of a gallery goer, rather than a shopper. I am free to see the art of Bhutanese life without wanting anything back, not even a photo.

This market experience makes me think of a quote by Chogyam Trungpa Rinpoche that a friend recently sent me. Rinpoche was dismayed by the frivolous and fickle approach many westerners display towards choosing a spiritual path. He called this dis-ease Spiritual Materialism:


‘The study of spiritual materialism is very important. Some people tell you to hold your breath, and you’ll feel blissful. Some people tell you to breathe out, and you’ll feel blissful. Some people tell you to eat a carrot right now! Some people say, “Stand on your head.” Some people say “Sit, then stand on one foot, then lie down on your back and have a good massage.” Or swim in cold water and that will help you. Swim in hot water — that will help you. Reading this might help you. Say these few words over and over to yourself. Or shout your words; project out. Dive in. Dive out. Wear certain clothes. Get a certain hair cut. Do certain eye gazes. People suggest all sorts of things, which is what’s known as the “spiritual supermarket.”‘

Sometimes, in the western consumer mentality, we expect that a spiritual practice should behave like a commodity: we spend good money, time and energy to learn practice from the teacher, now we want what we deserve! We want peace and happiness and freedom! Now please!

Pattabhi Jois says, “Do your practice and all is coming.” He does not say, Do your practice and only good sweet lovely things are coming: ALL is coming. And ego doesn’t necessarily like all of it. It wants its money back.

So it shops around, looking for bargains and specials.

The point is that if we look to a spiritual path to save us, we will always be disappointed. Because “we” don’t need to be saved. “We”, or our conceptual understanding of ourselves, need to be destroyed. Or at least shown that we don’t exist in the way we think we do. So shopping around, while entertaining, is ultimately counterproductive to resting in the natural state of awareness. It entices and drags us out of where we are, luring us into false hopes of somewhere better. And what place could possibly be better than here?

At the moment I return home, the skies let loose and pour down with the fury of a last hurrah. The monsoons should have ended 2 weeks ago. I seek shelter- hibernate in my “cave” for the rest of the rainy afternoon. And while I am all for returning to basics and living with the ways of nature in pre-materialistic times, I wait out the storm in elegant creature comfort, warm, cozy and dry, without complaint.

Freedom for all

You’ve got to love the king of Bhutan: one day His Majesty decided that keeping animals in captivity went against the ethical and spiritual ideals of the kingdom, and ordered that all animals be released from the zoo. Apparently the only animals left there now are takin, the national animal ( ), who didn’t know what to do with their newfound freedom, and were seen wandering around town looking for food. The king realized the only compassionate thing to do was to allow them back into the zoo and to feed them, so there they stay as guests. Talk about enlightened society.

Sometimes I relate to those takin, freedom right in front of me and I am too ignorant to know what to do with it. I stay within my prison walls, waiting for someone or something to feed me. What are these walls made of? What prevents me from high-tailing it into the hills to live in my natural habitat? Oh, I guess I’ve done just that. Now if I can only learn to feed myself.

I suppose this is why we practice: to learn to feed, or rather nourish ourselves, so that we may be of some benefit to others. Sometimes I hear other teachers make promises like, “you will feel better, your bad habits will go away, your relationships will change as a result of practice.” What I have noticed recently, however, is that it is entirely possible to use practice in the service of ego. With unclear intent, wrong understanding or lack of awareness, we can use anything, even spiritual practice, to reinforce our bad habits. I find this is most unfortunate.

With unclear intent, we may use practice to enhance our position, confusing success or popularity with understanding. Wrong understanding can lead to solidifying experience into concepts or doctrine. Without awareness, we are blind to the subtle details of our experience. We practice to cultivate this awareness – not just on the mat or the cushion, but in every single moment of our lives. If awareness is not translating into our lives, then our practice is misguided, and we should look again at what we are doing, or rather how we are doing.

This is where asana practice comes in handy: we get to watch our responses (or reactions) to failure, success, ambition, hopes, drives, fears, disappointments. How we respond to the rules suddenly being changed, or to rules period. Can we see deeply into the core of our experience of how we view and interact with the world? Until we recognize our own little thingy – that habitual pattern, whether physical, emotional or mental, that obstructs our complete opening – then we won’t be able to release it. And if we can’t let go of our thingy, then it will rule us. We will carry it around with us our whole lives, like dead skin we no longer need, but refuse to shed.

In the evening I wandered down the lane, past the rice paddy and over the rushing stream to the Drukgyal Dzong, an old fortress ruined by a fire a few decades back. I’m told the fortress was built to ward off a conflict with the Tibetans at one point. Set on a high hill overlooking the valley, now it is charmingly dilapidated and there are no angry Tibetans in sight. When I approach from the lane, there is a group of children huddled excitedly around some point of interest. As I pass, they show me their treasure, fling it to me rather, the youngest yelling, ‘a snak, a snak’!! A snakeskin, fully intact, its previous owner somewhere in the wilds, beginning a new life.


A two hour drive through humongous mountains, or rather great walls of rock and earth swirling overhead like tidal waves about to crash, takes us to the country’s capitol. The first thing one notices is how un-capitol-like it looks. More like a Swiss mountain village, with medieval stone and wooden palaces painted brightly in primary colors. Even new construction is in the traditional fashion, which appears to have been derived from the school of Gingerbread House. It is so refreshing to miss that horrific glass and concrete jumble that passes for architecture in so many other parts of Asia these days. Its like the land that time forgot. Or rather that commercialism forgot. Signs are all hand painted and discreet, in both English and Dzongkha.

Friday is market day, so I am taken to wander among the stalls of apples, turnips, chili, cheese, and spices. Did I mention the cheese? Apparently a Swiss farmer visited here in the early part of the century and brought with him some fine cows. He taught a group of local farmers the Way of Cheese and a new religion was born.

People are mildly curious as we wander, but not one person solicits or begs. There is no attempt to alter the natural course of events. They are simply not interested in getting anything out of us. Everyone seems content with their lot. I guess Gross National Happiness ratings are up this year.

It is not a particularly spectacular market, except for the fact that it takes place in the heart of town beside a raging pure blue river, the banks of which explode with the most penetrating color of green grass I have ever seen. And there is not a speck of trash. You can practically feel the prana soaking in to your skin and lungs and eyes. Everything is alive.

It occurs to me that this is what we are looking for in practice: looking for our original state of purity. And yet how easy it is to confuse this goal – why does it seem like we are trying to create something different? Like practice will take us to another, different, better place. It seems we already have exactly what we need; we just don’t realize it because we’ve covered it up with all this extra stuff. If we just leave it alone, our being is awake, alive, wise and present. Intelligent. We have natural intelligence that we mostly ignore in favor of the beliefs we are told. This is what dims Radiance. And drives us to our mats or cushions to uncover this forgotten source of life. After all what we seek is enlightenment: a lightening of our load. If we can get out of our own way, see through the imprints of ego, nature will take care of everything and glow.

On the way back to the Thimpu lodge, the rains have left a perfect rainbow exactly over the town. Long needled pine trees by the roadside with boughs that look like something Zsa Zsa Gabor might have in her closet: they lilt and waft precociously in the breeze. I am informed that rainbows here are a daily occurrence. I suppose this is only natural in a town uncorrupted by blaring commercialism and modernization: when you don’t mess with mother-nature, she shines in all her dazzling beauty.


Well, there has been a change of program.

Landed in Paro today. My first hit of Bhutan was of total peace. Peace so peaceful it is palpable: heavy and thick. Heavy peace that settles into the earth like the monsoon rains; thick peace like the air in a deep deep cave, no echos of discursiveness reverberating, only silence. Delicious glorious golden silence. Oh no, I thought, how am I going to write about this? The beauty leaves me speechless. How am I going to practice here, being mindful of my breath? It leaves me breathless.

I’m entirely at ease here as I wander around the land thick with lush and vibrant greenery, feeling gnomes and fairies frolicking by the babbling brook. Distant high cliffs chute water down in sheets. Blue pines, big cones and a blanket of brown spongy needles cover the forest floor. I feel like the only one noticing this, as at the moment, I am. People are few are far between. The ones who wander into my vision allow me space, don’t talk or stare. Only smile. It makes me relax.

Nonetheless, 4 foreigners assigned here found reason to complain. Arriving at the lodge where I will spend the next 3 months, I lunched with the staff. Too much chili and cheese which, apparently, accompanies every Bhutanese dish. I happen to love cheese. No night-life (fine with me). Smoking not allowed (yay!). Don’t like all those apples (the apple cider here is fantastic!). Amazing how the human mind can find fault in almost anything. How we bring our pre-conceived notions everywhere we go. And I do say, we.

Earlier, driving from the airport through cows and magic groves, a casual glance up gave me a gift: Taktsang (Tiger’s Nest Cave). Hanging on a cliff high up above the Paro valley, this is the cave where Padmasambhava (Guru Rinpoche – who brought Buddhism to Tibet) spent many days. Also the cave where my first teacher, Chogyam Trungpa Rinpoche, composed the Sadhana of Mahamudra, a practice to help combat the demons of this dark age. I am in the Guru’s back yard. Feeling devotion.

After a few days of settling in, I’ll begin teaching daily classes, and offering private lessons. Meanwhile just shifting slowly to a new pace, a new phase, and what is turning out to be an auspicious and completely new set of circumstances.

At the lodge, I noticed the ‘boardroom’ – serious chairs, important table, technology. I slipped back into a childhood memory and thought of my father, in his heyday, furiously making deals, moving and shaking, negotiating. Fast. Making futures. How big it all was. Big Boardrooms. Big dreams. Big hopes. Big illusions. I’m starting to see my own Bigs fade, no longer looking for futures, big ambition a thing of the past, hoping rather to slide right here with body and breath into the present moment, Right Here Now. But I suppose this is a bit Big in itself. How easy it is to wander off, even in a peaceful magical land.

I’m reading a story on the life of that great yogi, Gautama Buddha, called Old Path White Clouds (by another great yogi Thich Nhat Hanh). The chapter I open to is entitled, “Dwelling in the Present Moment.” Funny, I was just thinking about doing that earlier. Maybe this enchanted place will let me do that now.

Signing off, and more to come from Thimpu…

Winds of change

Who knows why we make the choices we do, or where the wind will take us.  I used to think that being offered choices was evidence of being at the controls.  You choose one path, you control the outcome, is how that logic goes.  Now I wonder.

It seems we all have certain lessons to learn in this life, and until we learn them, we will be tested again and again, and again.  These tests may take different shapes and sizes, and they may appear to be choices.  But are they?  Are they not simply old karma in a new form, pleading (or demanding) to be purified so that we can move on from whatever is keeping us stuck in samsara?

Awareness of this process, admittedly, can be humbling.  Yet, it allows the possibility to enjoy the moment for what it is, instead of rushing along to create the next moment.  I’ve been fascinated recently by the subtlety with which ego operates…pretending to be working for the benefit of others, and yet still looking out for Number One. Ego’s main purpose is survival; yet our main purpose in practice is to see through ego’s game. What if we were to go with the wind instead of struggling against it to get where “I” want to go?

On this theme, a few interesting questions arose from some correspondence recently, which I thought I would share….

What do you think about when you practice?

Thinking is ego’s domain; we use thoughts to reinforce our version of ourselves and the world.  So the point of practice is NOT about thinking, but coming back to experience:  of breath, of movement, and awareness.  Breath provides a focus; movement provides a context.  Coming back to the breath again and again interrupts the mental stream…it cuts the never-ending chatter that occupies our minds in the usual daily context.  We override that by coming back to the awareness of breath….this is quite an important point, because it is quite possible to go through years of breathing practice thinking that you are practicing awareness of breath, without actually practicing awareness of breath….there is a big difference!

The movement allows a more general awareness to pervade, so that we are not just fixated on our own individual experience…we remain aware of the larger environment.  This environment can be taken from the simplest experience of our body moving through the space around us, to our neighbors on the mat or family and friends, to the absolute largest degree….like which planet and universe and kalpa, past, present and future…I mean really being aware of ALL of it.  What we eventually come to suspect (and hopefully one day realize) is that not only are we devoid of a separate, solid existence, but everyone and everything else is as well.

I ask myself what it means to surrender to practice -I don’t know what I am surrendering to.

The point seems to be understanding that there is something larger than my own benefit….that it is not all about ME.  Ultimately its not necessarily surrender to anything in particular since nothing exists as a separate entity, (although in Vajrayana Buddhism devotion to the guru is extremely important as a means to understand this.)  Rather surrender is a letting go of constantly trying to better our own small individual situation.  There is some sense of letting go of our own agenda, and expanding out into the situation of humanity as a whole; an understanding that ego is a mental construct, so if I give I am not losing anything, but in fact gaining in the sense that we are all benefiting.  So we surrender cheerfully. There is a huge amount of trust involved, which develops through practice. And the more we practice, the more we come to understand that we are not who we think we are….and so to continue to invest so much time and energy boosting ego loses its appeal.

When we can see the interconnected nature of everything- that I am dependent on the farmer and the sun and the trucks who bring me my rice-then there is absolutely no problem surrendering whatever is asked, because its just like putting ice-cubes in your water.  Same same, but different.  But this is the most important point to understand:  ego, this idea of a separate self that we claim identifies who we are, is a mental construct, and therefore entirely non-existent.  Try this:  say anything about yourself, and see if it holds true always, at all times, circumstances and situations, past, present and future.  Or try this:  think of everything that identifies you, and see if you exist without those identifying factors.  For example, I identify myself with having 2 hands…if I cut off my right hand, am I still me?  Both hands?  Legs? (I’m reminded of this sick film I saw years ago, Boxing Helena…did you see that sicko film?)  Was Helena still Helena after her sweet husband cut all her limbs off?  If you have not already seen that film, please don’t.

Well after that cheery image, I will leave you with a few simple words spoken by Nyoshul Khen Rinpoche at the end of a retreat he led recently:

“I would like to pass on one little bit of advice I give everyone. Relax. Just relax. Be nice to each other. As you go through your life, simply be kind to people. Try to help them rather than hurt them. Try to get along with the, rather than fall out with them. With that, I will leave you, and with all my very best wishes.”

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