by: Khenpo Phuntsho Tashi
Travelers set off to visit other countries for a variety of reasons including the conducting of trade or business, to undertake official work or just to take a relaxing holiday and see something new. But it’s only a small number of travelers who seek more meaningful journeys and consider themselves as spiritual tourists despite the need – especially in this day and age – for people to take time for spiritual exploration and learning in order to become more enlightened and to re-discover true happiness.
Most tourists come to Bhutan with the hope of seeing the country and its culture and to have a taste of gross national happiness. Upon returning home, they take with them a fresh perspective and new ideas about the meaning of happiness through their interaction with the Bhutanese people and through the soaking up of the breathtaking pristine Himalayan environment. Of course, most all guest visitors do experience the vibrant spiritual presence which pervades the country and its people. And wherever they go, they encounter and are greeted by sacred Buddhist objects such as prayer flags, stupas and chortens, temples, prayer wheels which are scattered across the land.
Many people explain that from the moment they disembark the plane and step onto Bhutanese soil, a feeling of peacefulness and calm sets in as if they have entered a retreat place surrounded by blue pine forests under a cloudless blue sky. With the high mountain peaks covered in snow and middle hill areas dotted with monasteries and temples, visitors also observe the lower valleys which are occupied by the inhabitants working hard to cultivate rice or other crops which forms the basis of their agricultural livelihood. Compared to many more developed and consumer driven societies, Bhutan remains a bit more primitive and its many rammed-earth farm houses remind them of the medieval period in Europe. This is why, for many travelers, Bhutan remains a unique destination even today and a country seen as a spiritually rich land which is also known as the land of Gross National Happiness.
While many travel companies have yet to promote more formal spiritual tours or pilgrimages for visitors in Bhutan, travelers themselves often describe or discover that through their visit they have become spiritual travelers or pilgrims themselves almost spontaneously. This transformation often takes place due to the calmer environment and slower pace of life which allows for deeper reflection and time to consider one’s true needs. Being away from work, pressures and the stress associated with everyday life in their home countries, they find a greater spaciousness to reflect upon and observe or consider how they would like to live their lives and what would bring them real contentment. As their minds begin to become more still, they also notice less desire and temptation since Bhutan is a simple place and doesn’t offer all the products or choices that one finds available in multi-story shopping malls or in tall skyscrapers.
Significance of Sacred Sites
Many sacred places remain intact in Bhutan not only because a number of great Buddhist saints and sages lived, meditated and transformed these places but also because they have left spiritual remnants such as foot or hand prints in the rock as spiritual gifts to visitors and pilgrims. Some were able to create a spring of water from a sheer cliff wall in areas where water was needed and these sites then became known for their sacred water sources also known as drubchu. In some locations, spiritual visitors of the past left their walking sticks they used to reach these remote destinations outside of certain caves and these were transformed and grew into magnificent trees. Such examples are clear representations of outer objective phenomena becoming transformed or marked in some way because of the enlightened master’s use of the place and the spiritual achievement obtained through submission of delusive thoughts of ignorance, anger or greed.
Therefore, even very ordinary places become sacred after use by these enlightened masters. There are thousands of sacred places in Bhutan and these locations are known to be a very powerful influence with which to transform the visitors’ mind. The sacred manifestations include both outer and inner dimensions. Pristine environments like unclimbed mountains, pollution free lakes, uncontaminated rivers, clean and fresh air, open blue sky, ancient trees are all known as outer sacred representations. The inner sacred dimension is associated with the mind of enlightenment that is free from obscurations such as ignorance, anger and attachment. Love and compassion are also considered part of the inner sacred characteristics according to Buddhism. When people go for pilgrimage to sacred sites, they are also supposed to generate the right set of motivations and should leave all their negative thoughts behind. When they journey with pure thought and the right motivation, this contributes to a true spiritual experience. Otherwise, they remain as an untamed tourists rushing from one spot to the next and not taking care about their impact on the environment or natural resources which in the end, is unmeritorious and contributes to the development of negative karma.
In Bhutan, sacred places are usually visited by pilgrims who maintain a proper motivation and bring with them great faith. They believe that if they make a pilgrimage to a sacred site, the three doors of body, speech and mind will become transformed. Because pilgrimage often requires strenuous effort and undergoing of physical hardships, the body burns off negative karma by walking for long distances on difficult or steep footpaths or trails and circumambulating or making prostration before the sacred sites themselves. The pilgrim’s speech becomes purified through the chanting of sacred syllables or mantras and through the recitation of supplication prayers to their guru or teacher while walking or travelling to the sacred location and avoiding casual talk or idle gossip. The mind also becomes cleansed by remembering the quality of the fully enlightened ones and practicing meditation at the sacred site just as the great masters did at the locations many years before. It is said that the best dharma practitioner will actually wear a hole in their mattress or sitting cushion through prolonged used for meditation and while undertaking many retreats and other dharma practitioners will go through many pairs of walking shoes because of the great number of spiritual pilgrimages or journeys that they make. It is also believed that the blessings received from practicing dharma at a sacred location for only one day is equal to one month of practice at an ordinary place. In the same way, offering one stick of incense and a single butter lamp in the sacred place is equal to the merit of offering a thousand incense sticks or lamps in the ordinary place due to the positive energy left behind by the enlightened masters. This is why those undertaking a spiritual retreat will always try to select a location associated with sacred place and often these are located deep in the forest, in isolated spots in the high mountains or hidden away in a small rock out-cropping or cave.
Thai Pilgrims Experience in Bhutan
In 2014, a group of Thai Buddhist with a special interest in Bhutan and learning more about Mahayana Buddhism organized themselves and came through a local tour company in order to experience a true Himalayan pilgrimage. The leader of the group was a well respected Thai Buddhist teacher and monk and they invited me along as their local spiritual guide. It was a wonderful experience for all as the group held dharma talks and discussions everyday at various sites and locations and following each day’s exploration, we conducted a tshog (or feast) offering puja for the benefit of all beings along with a meditation session. The trip focused on visiting a number of Bhutan’s most sacred places and temples in order to assist them in calming their mind and generation of inspiration and merit by physically making the journey to these locations. The group would spend either half a day or the entire day exploring these sites, taking teachings and to soak up the blessings of these special destinations as part of their visit. And while Bhutan – like every other location in the world – is changing at a rapid pace, it is still able to offer blessings and beauty associated with its culture and these sacred sites.
The pilgrimage group visited a variety of pilgrimage places in Bhutan including Drag Karpo a site composed of temples and meditation caves, Dzongdragkha with its amazing “floating stupa” and the famous Taktshang or Tiger’s Nest located in Paro. Around and outside of the Thimphu valley, they made sojourns to Tango monastery a famous training institute for monks undergoing higher studies, Changangkha temple and the Buddha point with its large Dordenma Buddha Statue which overlooks the entire capital city valley. In Punakha they visited Drukpa Kuenley’s famous Chime Lhakhang, the sacred spot of Nyizergang and the impressive Punakha Dzong. It was fascinating to see that so many of them were curious about and interested in practicing Mahayana Buddhism and working to cultivate bodhicitta or awakened mind and compassion for all sentient beings. The practice of Mahayana Buddhism extends benefit beyond oneself and is based upon the development great compassion for all sentient beings and the understanding of “emptiness” whereas Theravada Buddhism traditional aims to support the individual practitioner to attain self liberation without harming others. Both of these paths and teachings associated with them were taught by the Buddha and offered for use and application by students in accordance with their needs and various levels of motivation.
Upon their arrival to Bhutan, I briefed them on the history and culture of the country and provided them with an introduction to both Mahayana and Vajrayana Buddhist traditions. During the pilgrimage to Drag Karpo (or White Rock), a sacred place in Paro located above Shaba village, we visited the 8th Century temple built into the cliff face of the white rock. This location is believed to have been blessed by Guru Rinpoche and hundreds of Bhutanese come to circumambulate the rock and pray in order to show their respect and generate merit for all. Devotees believe that if they are able to circumambulate the site hundreds or even thousands of times – which would take many months – they would be able to pay off or remove karmic debt related to body, speech and mind. This is extremely important to clear away according to Buddhist tradition as the debt contributes to various obstacles arising which impede the ability to attain full liberation. The act of circumambulation at this site is also particularly associated with being able to repay the kindness and care offered by our parents during this lifetime.
At this location the group also offered a Tshog puja in an open field behind the sacred rock where it is said that dakinis (or female sky walkers) also did the same for Guru Rinpoche. Here there are also many rocks in different shapes and sizes which represent various household and ritual items such as cooking bowls, offering plates, stupas or small chortens, prayer beads and the actual heart drop of a dakini. Towards the end of our tshog offering ceremony, the Thai group was joined by some Bhutanese pilgrims who had also came to the site and were invited to join together with them in performing a special dance and song offering to the deities as one.
During the ceremony we also received a wonderful, gentle drizzle of rain that blessed us all and which we understood to be a sign of happiness from the local deity and his personal greeting sent to us. Everyone felt extremely happy to be there and then inside of the temple, I gave the group teachings on the importance of the location and we all sat together for silent meditation. Following this, the group received blessings from the hand print in rock placed there by Guru Rinpoche which hangs down from the ceiling in the middle of the main shrine and which everyone could clearly see.
As part of the ceremony ritual, the group also learned how to chant the tshog prayer and the lead Thai monk took responsibility to play or beat a huge ritual drum in accordance with the ceremony. I provided the other sounds required through the playing of the ritual bell and use of the vajra (the thunderbolt of wisdom) which represent the union of compassion and wisdom. In addition the group learned aboutand discussed the importance of the four boundless offerings which includes love, compassion, joy and equanimity. As customary or as part of traditions related to Mahayana Buddhism, at the end of every prayer or ceremony, a dedication prayer must be conducted and this highlights that whatever meritorious activity has been done, it is dedicated to all motherly sentient beings not just those who participate directly. In order to further understand this concept, there was also additional teaching given on the three types of good motivations: good motivation which should be present at the beginning, good motivation in the middle in order to complete actions and efforts and good motivation in the end to see things through to remember how blessing or merit should also benefit others.
Based upon this experience, I would personally like to see more visitors and tourists come to Bhutan as pilgrims or spiritual tourists since Bhutan strives to maintain its traditional culture and preserve its many sacred places. Also because the country still has less or limited influence associated with more developed countries and the modern world, it remains a special place for visitors to rest, relax and gain clarity of mind. As highlighted earlier, Bhutan is one of the leading countries in the world where happiness is a priority and a crucial part of its unique development philosophy and where this approach is applied to the well being of its citizens and also seriously taken into consideration as part of national government policy.
Khenpo Phuntshok Tashi is the Director of the National Museum in Paro, Bhutan and has studied with numerous accomplished Buddhist masters both within and outside of Bhutan. He earned a Masters degree in Buddhist Philosophy from Sanskrit University, Benares, India. Khenpo travels extensively attending and presenting papers at international conferences and seminars representing Bhutan and gives teachings on mindfulness and happiness around the world.