Friday, April 20, 2018

In the Land of the Divine Madman VIII

May 20, 2003

This morning my shower took a little while to get cold water.  Afterward was a symphony of pipes, some ghostly, others like Scottish bagpipes.

At breakfast we met the hotel's owner, Dodo, who told us the story of Kuba, a Thai shamanistic monk who has an affinity with Bhutan. At an adjoining table was Albert, a Thai Chinese who told us more.  Kuba had fainted at a certain spot in Bhutan and said that he had died there. 

We drove over to Khamsum Yulley Namgyal Chöten.  Crossing a rickety wooden bridge over a fast swollen river, we went along a stream through rice fields, past cows being driven downhill.  A young woman hoe'd barefoot.  The trail began its exposed switchback ascent high above terraced rice fields, with cows grazing at multiple levels.  A few farmhouses stood high above the valley, with a high, narrow thumb-like peak beyond.  I wondered whether there were any hermitages up there.  Near the top of the trail, a dung beetle began its sisyphean battle uphill.  A fresh pile nearby pulsated with the labors of the bugs beneath. 

The trail stopped at a small gate whose bright paint contrasted sharply with the low white wall.  The temple was built like a chortan, tall and golden in a Thai style. On a hill sitting before a tree was a meditating Buddha.  Behind him, two old men sat under a small pavilion containing a pair of large prayer wheels.  In back was a Chinese goddess standing over a pool of water.  Very eclectic place.

I walked up the steps past a few sleeping dogs.  Inside were two massive protective statues which wrapped around 360 degrees, 108 manifestations of the same deity.  The figures were smaller at the bottom and got bigger near the top.  At the front was a small throne for the king, and directly across were a few protectors in yab-yum position, with drawn swords or bows.  The whole thing was of amazing detail and woodwork.  the walls too were painted with bright pastels, the lower part skulls on a red background.  Lower down were the nagas, female deities on a Freudian water background.  Higher were various Hindu and Buddhist figures, and at the top were strange death-like images, of skulls and flaming eyeballs and what looked like a strawberry.   There were two more floors above, each with deities in the same incredible pastel detail.  On each level they got smaller.  On the third floor were various Thai figures of gold.  One had hands clasped in a wai.  I felt great affinity with them.  There was a balcony area at the very top, with Thai Buddhas overlooking the valley.  Below were rice fields, almost dripping into one another.  In one section were huge boulders, the fields wrapped around them.  The Himalayas, as usual, were clouded in above.

I felt so at peace here, the perfect blend of elements to quiet me.  It was a place where I could easily finish out my days. 

On the way down, I passed a beautiful young farm girl.  Susan and Cheryl, with their parasols, looked like out of a book by Foster.  As the day was hot, I splashed my face a couple of times in the stream running beside the trail. 

After lunch we went to Punahka Dzong, a huge battleship at the confluence of two rivers.  Crossed the bridge behind some school kids who sang happy birthday until they were out of earshot.  We went into a small temple outside the dzong,  and the main Buddha had been found floating in the flooding of 1995.

Next we entered the Dzong itself, past a guard armed with a machine gun.  Beyond was a narrow hall ( with a crossword puzzle mandala on one side, and a color blind test on the other) that led to a large courtyard with a Bodhi Tree and a stupa.  This area housed the administrative offices. In a middle courtyard, from above, we could hear horns and cymbals.  Then, through a narrow wrap around hallway (with no thangkas surprisingly) into the courtyard housing the big temple.  On the entrance were four mandalas, one of them looking like a spyrograph.

Entering the main hall, we saw many small monks sweeping with brooms made of feathers, cleaning rice which stuck to your feet with every step.  The hall was filled with gold pillars, covered with fake gold and rising up to a ceiling high above, covered with hundreds of small Buddhas.  The doors were very tall, with a single knocker in the center.  The walls were filled with pictures depicting the life of the Buddha, one of which included a small ninja star.  At the back of the hall was a huge Buddha and few smaller deities.  Reconsecrated a few days before, they dazzled with their size and shine.  You could get enlightened just looking their way.  We and a few other westerners seemed awestruck.  There were a couple of guys who were incredibly tall, perhaps in town for a game of basketball with the king.

By now, the temple was bustling with the activity of young monks.  A couple of little ones were pulling dust balls out of holes in the base of the pillars.  Three were standing at attention, hands folded in front.  One monk seemed to be having trouble, so a "drill sergeant" monk would rap him on the head.  Three really small kids were standing at attention in the front of the hall, completely dwarfed by the big Buddhas.  A gong went off, and some of the older monks lined up, holding out their hands.  if something was amiss, they were slapped lightly in your face.  A few more were sitting in the doorway in a high seiza position, obviously uncomfortable.  Saddest of all was the one little kid skidding across the floor on his bottom, one arm raised to protect himself from the whip of his elder "brother." I wondered at where the compassion was, but I'm sure that the hard treatment makes them better monks, which could help them become enlightened.  Compassion.

An older monk came in and all the boys formed two lines, going from one end of the courtyard to the
hall and back. From outside it looked like a stream of red water rushing down,  Through a window at the opposite end of the courtyard, older monks had finished up a puja, their bells and vajra lined up along rolls of red carpet.  We followed the boy monks out of the courtyard, along the maze-like halls.  One of them was playing with a gameboy.  Instant samsara. 

The three hour drive back to Thimphu went rather quickly.  A burnt out temple stood silent in the valley.  Below Dochu La  Pass, a group of prayer flags on a ridge above looked like a samurai army.  Near this, we blew a tire.  A stray archer perhaps?   

We arrived in Thimphu at 7 pm, to have dinner with a guy in the conservation ministry.  We had a good talk, but about things other than conservation.  At the next table were a group of young Japanese: a couple from Ibaraki who had an interest in Asia, and a woman from Hiroshima working for the planning division.  Her American English teacher was married to a thangka painter who she met while traveling in Turkey.  She invited me for dinner the next night but I already had plans, which is a shame since I want to learn more about expat life here. 

Went home with a nasty headache.  Couldn't sleep because of the drunks early, and the dogs later.

On the turntable: Frank Sinatra, "Where are You?"  
On the nighttable: Tim Macartney-Snape, Everest: From Sea to Summit"

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