by Larry Calloway

photos by Patricia Kvill

and Larry Calloway

In Bhutan at dawn on the final day of the annual festival at Paro monastery, monks on a high balcony unfurl for a few hours an enormous textile so sacred it’s supposed to bring liberation on sight. The devout in traditional dress come forward to touch their foreheads to its hem. Last March 30 we were there among a handful of tourists in a crowd of thousands that briefly included even young King “Jimmy.”

The central figure of the huge needlework tangka (temple hanging), is Padhmasambhava, more affectionately called Guru Rinpoche. He is the powerful sage, a tantric yogin, who brought Buddhism from the west to the Tibetan plateau and the Himalayas in the eighth century.

In the Nyingma tradition, predominant in Bhutan and the Nepal kingdom of Mustang, he is regarded as the second Buddha. He obviously eclipses the first in popular devotion because wherever you come upon a natural landmark—an odd rock or cave or spring—you also see an image or hear a story about a miraculous visit by Guru Rinpoche.

Taktsang Gompa, the famous “Tiger’s Nest” on a dizzying cliff near Paro, is built around a cave to which Guru Rinpoche flew on a tiger’s back to tame a local demon. The tiger, who stayed for a while, was a manifestation of his consort Yeshe Tsogyal (a hero in her own right who fought forced marriage to follow a spiritual path).

These places are not just for tourists. At Taktsang our young guide Chimi, who had just become a father, summoned a monk for a private ceremony. Offering some currency on an altar of Guru Rinpoche, he closed his eyes in prayer as the monk drew a slip of paper from a jar and read three words. Chimi relaxed, then turned to us and explained the purpose of the sacred lottery. “The name of my son,” he said.

In the Bhumtang Valley one morning we encountered some old folks walking around and around a monument at the ancient Jambay Lhakang (temple). Chimi said the local seniors did this every morning. They were chanting a mantra to Guru Rinpoche.

At a spring of pure water above Kurjey Lhakhang we watched a woman fill dozens of bottles. She was preparing to carry them home in a porter’s basket that must have weighed 100 pounds. The water is regarded as sacred because it was brought forth by Guru Rinpoche after he converted a local fiend who had stolen a king’s life force.

In Mustang several years ago I was taken deep into a canyon to meet an old hermit in a cave where mysterious limestone figures  testify to Guru Rinpoche’s victory over several resident demons. My guide climbed to a crack in the cliff there to fill a bottle from a trickle of sacred water.

Two things about the legend of Guru Rinpoche strike me as mythic genius. First, the stories of how he converted fearsome local spirits to Buddhism, as opposed to slaying them, are metaphors for a religious revolution. The scholar Matthew Kapstein remarks that unlike other schools, the Nyingma tradition incorporated Bon, the indigenous Tibetan religion.

Second, Guru Rinpoche left texts of his teachings hidden in various places for discovery by later generations. Thus, as Kapstein remarks, the dharma is continually renewed as these spiritual treasures are produced. It is an organic religion.

One more observation: the manly character of the mustachioed saint expresses a culture that developed in a time of warring kingdoms and banditry. It is no accident that Mustang is littered with empty hilltop fortresses or that Bhutan’s massive dzongs (religious centers that also are seats of government) are fortified. The surviving culture was neither intimidated nor complacent.

A Bhutanese brand of drinking water in plastic bottles claims to be from a spring extracted by Guru Rinpoche. The label says this water should be treated with respect and that it has “potent healing power for various physical and mental problems.”

Potency is certainly the essence of the phallic totem that appears everywhere in Bhutan—painted on walls, carved from wood and hung from eaves, chiseled in stone. At Chima Lhakang, dedicated to the 16th century “mad monk” Lama Kunley who found enlightenment in “wine and women,” I received a blessing with two taps at the altar. The first was with a symbolic bow and arrow (archery is the national sport). The second was a disconcerting whack on the head with an 18-inch wooden phallus.

I discovered that too was the nature of the painted “baton” used with alarming humor by the clowns at the Paro festival. The clowns, in standard red masks with big cynical grins, mimicked the dancers and members of the audience. They kept folks entertained during long repetitive dancing and kept the dancers and wayward dogs and children in line. They were as delightful as the koshari clowns at Pueblo ceremonies in New Mexico.

On another level, the tradition of debate in the monasteries carries this same engaged energy. From the market in Jakar in the Bhumtang Valley one evening we heard a lot of what seemed to be yelling from a hilltop monastery called Shukdra. A couple of days later we went there at the same time and encountered a hundred maroon-robed men confronting each other in small groups in the “debate courtyard.”

In each group the protagonists were on their feet dramatizing their points with aggressive gestures—stepping forward, finger pointing, hand slapping. Their targets in each group were monks seated as if in meditation—calmly rebutting. The debate questions, such as “Is it all right to eat animals?” perhaps are not as important as the performance, the equanimity of the response.

The movie Travelers and Magicians, shot entirely in Bhutan with local actors, begins with some of these cultural markings  before it goes into the deeper Buddhist story of an illusion within an illusion (within a movie). Its Bhutanese writer-director, Khyentse Norbu, also has written a persuasive and accessible book called What Makes You NOT A Buddhist.

On the narrow highway to the Bhumtang Valley below Pelela Pass we stopped at one of Khyentse’s mountainous filming locations—an overhanging cliff where the travelers in history spend the night listening to a monk tell a story by a fire under a painted figure on the rocks. The figure, now fading, is of the sort likely to be mistaken by Westerners as “The Buddha.” It is Guru Rinpoche.

Is there a difference? Or does that question represent—to quote something written at an exhibit in the wonderful new royal museum in the watchtower at Trongsa Dzong—“the discriminations of relative truth” as opposed to “the non-discrimination of absolute truth.” Whatever, Khyentse provides a solution to the problem (if it is a problem) in his book. “Buddha isn’t a person’s name,” he writes. “It is the label for a state of mind.”

This statement might shake you awake if you are napping in the comfort of religious equations (Buddha equals Jesus, etc.). But it is a familiar cultural backdrop, like the figure on the rocks near Pelela, where I have been fortunate to travel. It is the stability behind religious practices of the people—the people!—reported in this series—the non-communist overseas Chinese who still venerate Guan Yin, the Theravadan Buddhists of Southeast Asia who celebrate in the face of hostile military surveillance, the Tibetans in two fragile Himalayan kingdoms who still love the magic of Guru Rinpoche in a time of unmagical thinking.

Which is not to say the depth of Buddhist dharma is forgotten. On a rock face at the side of the Pelela filming location, where the travelers listened to a story and debated and worried about making a living and (two of them) fell in love, we found these painted words:

Prayer that all sentient beings may find freedom from:

Wanting praise

Not wanting criticism

Wanting happiness

Not wanting unhappiness

Wanting to gain

Not wanting to lose

Wanting fame

Not wanting to be unknown.

The author, I suppose, was Khyentse. But it is, of course, unsigned.