Friday, April 20, 2012

Budding Buddhists

Last Saturday morning I showed up at one of the Monasteries on the other side of the river at 7:30 as requested.  I wondered what we'd do there as a school group, and thought it might be an enriching cultural event.  I had no idea....

      Breakfast was served in the tent for officials, head monks, teachers, civil servants, etc: red rice, spicy green beans, kewa datse (chilies and potatoes in a cheese sauce), spinach and soft cheese, all served with suja, a slightly salty butter tea.  Outside the courtyard the rest of the public and monks lines up to be served from huge aluminum pots, all the food being prepared by a different community group each day on large open fires hidden behind bamboo screening.  People walk up the hill with bowls or small woven baskets and most eat with their hands: you form a tight lump of rice in the right hand, then use that to scoop up other sauces and dishes.  Same operation for lunch, dinner.

People start to walk clockwise around the prayer flagpoles and the chapel in the centre of the courtyard, disappearing like a long snake, searching for its nest.  The high school students position themselves around the upper storey of the courtyard and we move around the back, to a sort of cloister lined with tin roofing on a palisade of pine posts.  Onto the flagstones they’ve laid pine planks, some covered with carpet underlay.  Many people carry bits of carpet to sit on.  We are hundreds in this section, all seated cross-legged, facing the opening to the Lakhang (main temple).  Strings of prayer beads are handed out to those who don’t have their own with them. At 8:00AM the sun hasn’t yet hit the golden rooftops of the monastery buildings.  The breeze weaves in through the pines, but is blocked by the bamboo screen forming a wall around our group of chanters.  A voice starts us off with an initial prayer, which soon evolves into the chant we’ll be counting this week: the Monastery’s goal is to host one billion repetitions of this one, which I think is to protect others from negative thoughts and help the World focus on being mindful.
This Monastery is home to His Eminence, Rinpoche Tenzin Gyaltsen, seventh reincarnation of Chabjye Namkhai Nyingpo.  His first words as a Bhutanese baby were "Kharchhu", the distant Tibetan Monastery, and later he showed he knew the former cook there by name.  These were some of the means by which he was chosen to ascend the throne here at the age of six.

We are there for the whole Saturday until 5:00.  I decided it’s like being on an international flight: as long as you stay seated, you will be interrupted every 40 minutes or so with another beverage or meal, hot cloth or distraction.  It takes a while to get the hang of the chanting and the counting but, maybe by osmosis, I manage 5000 on my first couple visits, then return the following weekend with Tara to double my rate.  Elders, children, friends, brothers, aunts, shopkeepers, bankers, teachers, civil servants, everybody sits from 8:00 to 4:30, repeating the same words for a whole weekend.  We even gave time at school to finish off the count: in my class we hit 35,000 in 15 minutes!!!

It struck me at first as sort of crass to be quantifying spiritual communication, but like so many things here, there are other ways of looking at it.  For example, 2 weeks  later, we are back at Karchhu Dasang for another religious ceremony, the unfurling of the huge embroidered thondrel, only seen for a couple hours every year.  Most of the students and many of the adults seem completely unattentive to the chanting, readings, drumming, and all that, talking away, laughing, chewing gum, etc. I’m trying hard to sit tight and smug on my little piece of cardboard with the crowd and give all my attention to Rimpoche in his throne with the microphone, quietly judging those who aren’t.

But now I’m starting to see that it doesn’t pay to be earnest in these situations.  In fact my physical presence may be all that is required to benefit from the blessings.  It’s like some of the Tsechu dances, whose protective powers are automatically bestowed on anyone witnessing them.

Following this three hour ceremony (including the standard wait time for setup), the crowd surges forward to touch the base of the thondrel:

In order to allow the students and little ones first chance, we had to create a path in the heaving mass.  Ladders were used to contain the adults, and by shouting out that school children were first, we got them to follow a line and duck under the ladder: over one thousand kids went through, barely squeezing between the factions of the crowd.  My point was that while I took this all very seriously and could only see the potential harm, the crowd of adults seemed to be playing a sort of rugby game, pushing towards the monastery mural with smiling faces.  Police came along and one even brandished a stick to warn the pushers.  I was panicking because I was the only one tall enough to really see the whole crowd.  Their game was too much for me, so once the children were out, I took my own path down the hill, walked back to an empty school and found peaceful refuge in my classroom.  I soon decided I was taking life much too seriously and if I wanted to fit in, I had to abandon all expectations about “doing it right”, whether chanting, being blessed, or even teaching.  Almost 50 and so much to learn!!!!


  1. Great Post and Pics Martin! I like how you ended the post with insight about having the willingness to learn at any age. Take care and hopefully this Chumey girl will come see ya guys soon on the other side of the mountain...

  2. Hi Martin, I was in Bhutan as a tourist in March/April and had the great pleasure of visiting Jakar. We also met a couple very sweet kids and took their pics. If I email you the pics, can you tell me if they are your students or at your school. Our guide said they from the Wangdicholing Middle Secondary School. I remember their names were Nima and Sonam. By the way, is there a stamp collecting club in your school? Can I send you anything for the kids like magazines? By the way, I am also an English teacher and am considering a big career change...
    Take care and best regards from Germany,
    Patrick Scroggin