Wednesday, October 24, 2012

How spiritual is your life?

There must be so many ways to measure one’s spirituality, though the thought itself sounds pretty crass.  Nonetheless, the thought has occurred to me, coming as I am from the West Coast of Canada, which in cultural terms still seems like the New Frontier.  The First Nations are about the only people there who can claim more than third generation status.
Enter Bhutan and you’re thrown into traditions and culture that seem so established it’s hard to see them changing with the times. And on top of that, Tara and I land in Bumthang, the spiritual heartland of this country.  I want to share some recent experiences that are simply part of life here: but few pics, can’t take photos of spirits….

The Chainsaw

I’ve gone off to the mountain pass between us and the next valley with Karma, our landlord, and his family to cut firewood for the winter.  Having stopped to pick up 2-cycle oil to mix with the petrol in a couple of empty water bottles, we park on the side of the switchback road (of course, what other type of road is there?), and I operate the chainsaw I’ve just repaired.  The saw runs with this mix for about 20 minutes, then stops.  We argue about why it stops, and hack away with axes enough to fill up the back of the truck.  He jokes that it looks bad for the passing cars to see a ‘Chillip’ like me working with Bhutanese standing watching: it’s supposed to be the other way around.  Then he says that it doesn’t "feel right" where we are working, and that the saw will work better at home.  We don’t solve the problem, and I insist that we have the wrong oil/petrol mix.  But Karma gets the saw going again at home, so we agree to disagree.

 Now the next day is Vishwakarma Day, a Hindu holiday whose precepts are adopted by many Bhutanese.  Cars, trucks and tractors are festooned with balloons and blessed white scarves, and the trades people have set up altars at work.  Music blares from the construction sites and sawmills, as they dedicate their celebrations to the God responsible for maintaining safety at work and smooth running machinery and tools.  I laugh at the perfect timing, hoping our chainsaw is taking this all in.  Karma continues to insist that whatever was stopping the saw is ‘fixed’; that the saw will probably work now.
bronze and gold Buddha Dordenma statue in Thimphu sits 60+ m
above its parking area, and will house more than 5 meditation
 halls inside: its construction was prophesized twice in ancient
religious texts more than 800 yrs ago

Sonam's Demons

While Tara’s away on her India adventure, I’ve been checking in on our little friend with a sore leg, Sonam.  This high school student has been in bed for more than a month now.  She started with a fever and strange-feeling head, but now it is pain around her right femur.   Like all locals, she is incredibly stoic, peacefully answering my questions while writhing in pain.  She lives 24/7 in a bed in the altar room of her family's small 3-room bamboo hut.  This is typical of families who set up on someone’s land for a short term, such as a year’s work contract or a building project. Surrounding Sonam are various small bowls of food offerings placed around the room.  This teenager lies here with only a mug and an occasional school text for company while her family come and go around her. 
I keep insisting they take Sonam to the hospital, and she smiles and placates me for another week.  I find this frustrating and urge a teacher friend to convey my concerns more pointedly.  Finally her sister-in-law explains through a friend in translation that the astrologer they have consulted has told them not to not use any modern medicine until this ‘process’ is complete.  I argue about my theories of bone cysts, deep tissue damage, blood clots, etc., and even go to the hospital to arrange an X-ray, but no one in the family will take her.

Finally, the waiting comes to an end.  I’m invited at lunch time to go down to visit. I leave my shoes at the entrance and stoop to enter, but there’s already a lineup of people filling the small altar room, which serves as the living room of their home.   A young monk dressed in maroon beats endlessly on a drum.  In the centre is a small elderly man dressed like a monk but it many colours.  He is spinning around, shouting wildly, spitting his words into the air as he tosses rice in all directions.  His eyes are rolled back in his head and his whole body shakes.  His attendants offer him various objects from their ceremonial bowls: rice, chana (chickpea) flour, chana dough, water, milk.  He babbles and shouts, taking some items, pushing away others. 

This is the Pao, the shaman, and his job is to remove the evil spirits from Sonam, taking them into his body to exorcise them.  His patient has been moved into her adjacent bedroom, and he backs himself into her space, making a small altar in the doorway: an attendant places a small table on the floor, covered with yellow silk.  The Pao sprinkles chana, then scribes some figures in the flour with a ceremonial dagger.  He then grabs dough and makes a tower.  Other sculptures are added, each being created as he passes his hands in front of Sonam’s forehead.  Next her brother is summoned, carrying a small brass bowl.  The shaman fills it with milk, passes it by Sonam, and then directs it to be sprinkled away outside.  Sonam’s brother repeats this several times, tossing the milk in three compass directions, then finally over the roof of the hut.  I have to go back to school at this point, but the ceremony goes on.  I don’t know what I think about the last half hour, and no one is asking me.  I am stunned.  All I can think of doing is to turn to the brother, thank him for allowing me in, and offer some bills to help pay for the Pao’s visit. 

The next day I’m told that the day before the visit, a whole ‘flask’ of pus had been drained from a hole in Sonam’s leg.  Today she is feeling better, still walks with a limp, but is back at school.  Go figure….

Burning for a Blessing?

The following day in this same week, an afternoon holiday from school is suddenly announced.  This will give staff and students enough time to cross the river and attend the Blessing offered at one of the Lakhangs in the area.  I come home, have some dinner, then walk up the valley with a headlamp.  When I start to cross the next suspension bridge, I see ahead of me the glow of other lights in a procession coming out of the tunnel of prayer flags, then up the side of the hill on the other bank of the river.  
Now in Bhutan you often can’t really see much of the guy wires and superstructure of bridges, no matter how remote.  They’re hidden behind streams of flapping prayer flags.  The purpose for this is that the wind that tunnels along valleys, sweeps up mountainsides, and passes over tall buildings and monuments will carry the prayers out to the surrounding air, purifying it.   So those prayer flags people coveted in Western bedrooms and living rooms are not fulfilling their purpose:  to set their Buddhist Mantras free to the universe.  The block-printed cotton flags come in the colours of the five elements, and as they fade to white, are usually left there to return to the elements. Others are continually added, so these bridges always to be moving in the night breezes to hosts of quivering ghosts.

I follow the procession into the night along a path for another twenty minutes, towards the glow of firelight coming out of a smoky haze, a white cloud in the dark.  When I arrive at the Lakhang, it is surrounded by blue and orange tarpaulined structures: this is the travelling market, a collection of 30 stalls that appears at any religious celebration lasting for more than a day.  The incongruity of it all takes something to get used to: the stalls are selling cheap imported clothing, plastic toys from China, household items like mug with cryptic English sayings on them, or perhaps they house a betting game designed for throwing darts at a number boards…all this is going on in the courtyard of the Tamshing Monastery, built in 1501 by the sacred treasure-seeker Pema Lingpa himself. 
After a beer and a serving of liver with chillies at one of the snack stalls, I follow a beating drum out into the night again.  The locals have formed a huge procession, led by two monks holding flaming torches over their heads.  We follow them along the winding dirt road to a field with a 4 metre archway erected in the centre, covered in dry cedar boughs.  I think we have now technically gone from a throng to a horde.  And this horde is suddenly rushing towards this archway!  The monks put their torches to the base, and the whole archway bursts into flames.  The crowd presses forward, but no one moves independently now, for fear of being trampled.  We run on as a serpentine mass, rushing beneath this roaring inferno.  

As I come through the other side, two children slip.  I trip over them, but grab the people at my side to stay afloat.  Yet the movement continues, as others push right over them.  The children recover and are yanked up on their feet, and I am wondering how this spiritual hysteria doesn’t kill people!  Some of the teenagers circle around and around, leaping through the flaming archway even as the burning boughs fall from the structure.  I notice most people are dressed in cotton hoodies tonight, an infinitely practical way to receive this Blessing.  Having removed my synthetic polar fleece, I’ve gone through five times myself: I must now be good for another two more sin-free years, I reckon....

Tamshing Lakhang, built in 1501 by
the sacred treasure-seeker, Pema Lingpa
Dancing is Sacred

Here is what Joseph Houseal, spiritual dance expert, has said about the dances performed at Tamshing Lakhang:
" the living tradition of their founding identity and the means by which Pema Lingpa sought to teach the world Buddhism - and the treasure he specifically left the Tamshing monks. It is the life of the order, the Buddhist truth they maintain. That is one reason we have focused on Tamshing: their dances were revealed by the most famous Bhutanese saint, and Tamshing alone performs the dances correctly..."

As monks, these two girls have dedicated their life to
prayer and service at Pemachholing Monastery, located high
on a hill in the remote Tang Valley,  here in Bumthang


  1. Nice article ...

    Clear karma and realize self

  2. Hi Martin,

    I'm a Canadian teacher considering teaching with BCF and was just wondering if you might be able to answer a few questions for me. If you have the time, it would be so appreciated! I can be reached at

    Thanks a lot!


  3. Martin, we (Raymond and Peggy) met you at one of the hotels in Bumthang two years ago while you were having dinner with a Canadian couple, we were doing volunteer work at the Royal Institute of Health Sciences. Where are you now? we would like to catch up with you.
    Raymond Neutra MD