Sacred and Profane: Tantric Buddhism in the Land of the Thunder Dragon - Page 2
By Tony Robinson–Smith

Guru Rinpoche by the Light of Butter Candles
The four men in red robes sitting against the back wall of the family chapel take not the slightest notice as we enter. All are chanting, nodding their bodies forward and back over low tables, their eyes glued to stacks of paper covered with classical Tibetan script. One beats a nga, a drum like an enormous black lollipop, with a stick the shape of a question mark; a second claps cymbals.

Guru Rinpoche

They face a statue of Guru Rinpoche, seated at the far wall behind glass. I know from reading that this is the most important religious figure for Buddhists in Bhutan, that he often takes center spot behind the altar in temples. I can't see him very clearly by the light of a hundred or so butter lamps battling a draught from the door. Gold face and red hat topping a pyramid of rippling robes in brilliant colors, object like a dumb–bell held at chest level in his right hand, left cradling a bowl, baggy sleeves spilling sumptuously over his knees. In front of him, there's a line of cups containing holy water and food offerings like those I assumed were dinner.

prayer wheels

Padmasambhava (Guru Rinpoche in Dzongkha) brought Buddhism from Swat (in present–day Pakistan) to Bhutan in the middle of the eighth century and travelled around converting rulers, subduing local spirits, and hiding records of his teachings in caves. The form of Buddhism was Mahayana, followers of which consider Siddhartha Gautama (Sakyamuni) the first of many Buddhas, with Guru Rinpoche recognized in Bhutan as the second. Devotees prostrate before the "Precious Teacher," listen to sacred texts in his presence, and perform holy rituals in order to gain enlightenment. Unenlightened, an individual must tolerate a tiresome succession of rebirths, reappearing in the world as any living creature: a cow, a spider, a farmer, an earthworm, a lama, a rhododendron. Buddhists try to accrue spiritual credit in order to be reborn at a level closer to nirvana, and they do this by raising prayer flags, circumambulating stupas, spinning prayer wheels, reciting mantras, and performing good deeds. Conducting a puja (purification ceremony) in your house is also good for the karma.

A deafening, trilling wail, like a rooster being put through a clothes mangle, makes me jump. The two young monks sitting to my right have switched from six–foot horns to short, bronze clarinets called jaling. There is no recognizable tune, no synchronization. They play with glazed expressions and little effort. A gomchen lay–monk, a wiry man wearing khaki army fatigues under his gho and an orange shawl draped over one shoulder, gets up after the clarinets have done and walks round the circle of onlookers with a jug. Muttering blessings, he pours teaspoons of holy water into our hands. We drink, wipe some in our hair. He comes round again, this time with wine. Then a third time with a bowl of what appears to be pellets of dough. I take two, sniff them, and look at Dr. Jagar.

Bhutan drums

"When we eat these," he whispers, "God comes into our body. Then you wish for all the sentient beings, animals, birds, insects that leap in sky, on earth, under earth, even germs." He rolls one between his fingers and puts it carefully on his tongue. "You wish well for all things. You wish suffering ends and taken up to higher life."

Smoke worms out of incense sticks to either side of the Guru, thickening the air in the room and making me feel giddy. The outlines of people become furry. More rumbling bellows from the horns. The gomchen gives me a handful of rice and then a cup of liquor. The rice we have to toss in the air when the drummer pauses in his drumming and rings a bell—just scatter it as though sowing the land.

"Tashi, tashi gayemba," the chanters seem to say. "Tashi chepadaa." Some rice lands on my head. "Chepadaa, gomosori."

Are We Pure Yet?
The ceremony ends. Rice grains litter the floor. Everyone raises their cups and drinks the wine. It feels like a new beginning, like I've shed a skin. Dairy Queen, traffic jams, shopping malls, and sirloin steaks are now behind us; an isolated college deep in the Himalayas and a year in the "Land of the Thunder Dragon" lie ahead. Each bend in the road we go round, each mountain pass we cross seems to commit us further. What will happen over the other side of the kingdom is anyone's guess, but I sense that we won't regret coming. I look at Nadya and wonder whether she is thinking similar thoughts. Then I look up at Guru Rinpoche and try to make out his face through the smoke. With his curly moustache, downturned eyebrows, and head tilted to one side, he seems amused.

Dr. Jagar leans over and peers in my cup. "If there is no rice in your cup," he chuckles, "your year is off to bad start!"

The revelry goes on into the early hours, the men drinking arra, the women dancing. The gomchen leads the songs, calling out lines which the dancers repeat while shuffling round in circles and stamping their feet. The noise swells and subsides, the floorboards creak and complain. The Divine Madman, who was paid in rice beer for his teachings and once said "my meditation practice is girls and song," would have approved.

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Tony Robinson–Smith spent six years circling the planet without flying, the subject of his travel book Back in 6 Years. He has written travel stories for The Globe & Mail and Druk Air's in–flight magazine Tashi Delek. Fond of sticking with the ground regardless of terrain, he is currently writing a second book about a month–long charity marathon across the Himalayan kingdom of Bhutan.

Related articles:

Breakfast in Bhutan by Michael Buckley
Tibet, a Third Eye, and Our Journeys Through Time by Michael Buckley
The Singing Shamen of Tuva by Dominic Hamilton

Other Asia travel stories from the archives

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