Nov 26, 2012
As our taxi slowly made its way to the airport through the Delhi traffic, Sri Nama Vanamali Krsna Dasa turned to me. “Why are you going to Bhutan?” he asked. “Everyone there is Buddhist.”
“Well,” I said, “it’s a sannyasi’s duty to travel far and wide to introduce Krsna consciousness, especially in places where people know little or nothing about our spiritual tradition.”
“But I heard that in Bhutan it is forbidden to proselytize,” said Sri Nama.
“That’s true,” I said, “and we don’t plan to do so. But just by traveling and mixing with the people I am confident we can generate an interest in Krsna consciousness. What’s more, I am going to Bhutan to learn something.”
“Like what?” asked Sri Nama.
“I have read that the government and the people of Bhutan are very careful to maintain their ancient spiritual culture while slowly introducing material progress. That the culture exists on such a large scale in modern times intrigues me. And I believe we, as ISKCON, can learn from that.
“Over the years Bhutan has cultivated a unique approach to develop-ment based on a principle they call Gross National Happiness, whereby development in society takes place when material and spiritual advance-ment complement and reinforce one another. Their king said recently that Gross National Happiness is far more important than Gross National Domestic Product.”
“He sounds like a king in Vedic times,” said Sri Nama.
“I’ve heard that the people love him,” I replied. “That is rare in our present times. Listen to this from this travel brochure. It’s from his coronation speech in 2008.
“Throughout my reign I will never rule you as a king. I will protect you as a parent, care for you as a brother, and serve you as a son. I shall give you everything and keep nothing; I shall live such a life as a good human being that you may find it worthy to serve as an example for your children; I have no personal goals other than to fulfill your hopes and aspirations. I shall always serve you, day and night, in the spirit of kindness, justice, and equality.”
“Wow!” said Sri Nama. “It reminds me of Maharaja Yudhistira’s rule described in the Srimad-Bhagavatam, where all the citizens were happy.”
“In a recent survey,” I said, “45.2 percent of Bhutanese reported being very happy, 51.6 percent happy, and only 3.2 percent being unhappy. That’s something I’d like to see.”
As my Drukair flight circled the airport at Paro, Bhutan, I looked out the window at mountains as far as the eye could see. I would soon discover that the entire country is mountainous. There is hardly a straight road anywhere, most being narrow and winding along mountainsides with steep ravines.
As I exited the terminal I was met by Sri Prahlada Dasa and Sakhi Rai Dasa from Australia as well as our Bhutanese tour guide. Bhutan has taken a cautious approach to the number of foreign tourists it allows into the country, understanding the effects mass tourism could have on its environment, culture, and identity. It limits the number of tourists who visit the country each year, all tourists being obliged to visit via a govern-ment-approved travel agency.
Leaving Paro we drove one hour to Thimphu, the capital. Our first destination was Choten, a large national memorial stupa near the center of the city. As we entered the grounds I saw many people circumambula-ting the stupa, a practice followed by the faithful on auspicious days to gain merit. It was a closed structure with mantras, prayers, and deities inside.
Fifty or sixty pilgrims dressed in traditional Bhutanese clothes were going around the stupa chanting the age-old Buddhist mantra, “Aum mani padme hum” (“I offer my respects to the jewel within the lotus.”)
“Who is that jewel within the lotus?” I asked Sri Prahlada.
He smiled. “We would say it is Laksmi, the goddess of fortune,” he said, “or better yet Radharani, whose father, King Vrsabhanu, found Her on a lotus flower in a lake. That is described in the Vidagda Madhava by Srila Rupa Goswami.”
“But what does the mantra mean to the Buddhists?” I asked.
“They say it is Lord Buddha on the lotus,” Sri Prahlada replied.
As we left the stupa and started driving towards our hotel I was surprised to see that everyone was wearing traditional clothes.
“Is today a special day?” I asked our tour guide. “Everyone seems dressed up.”
He laughed. “No,” he said. “We dress like this every day. It’s part of our culture. Bhutanese law requires all citizens to wear traditional dress in public areas. Men wear a knee-length robe tied at the waist called a gho, and women wear an ankle-length dress called a keyra.”
“Look at all the buildings,” said Sakhi Rai. “They’re all so artistic and beautiful.”
“It is Bhutanese law,” our guide said. “All new buildings, public and private, must follow the designs and rules of traditional architecture. It’s one of the ways we safeguard our culture. You’ll see throughout the country that the wooden beams, the windows, and the doors of the houses are painted with floral, animal, and religious motifs. In this way we are reminded of the Buddha throughout our daily affairs.”
As we drove outside the city I could see his words coming true. Every structure had a special charm to it. What’s more, I could see that religion was highly visible in every aspect of life in Bhutan. On almost every mountain ridge I saw a temple, and at every mountain pass I saw stupas and thousands of colorful prayer flags.
Prayer wheels seemed especially common, large enclosed wheels with prayers written on rolled paper. By turning the wheel one achieves the same result as by reciting the prayers. I saw many people turning the wheels while at the same time praying on their beads.
“Double the benefit,” said our tour guide with a smile.
That night I had great difficulty sleeping. When I finally did fall asleep I found myself waking up from time to time gasping for air. When I woke up in the morning I had a headache.
“It’s because of the high altitude,” said our tour guide. “We’re at almost three thousand meters. The altitude affects people in different ways. You’ll get over it soon.”
Later that morning we drove a hundred and thirty kilometers east to Phobjikha. It took five hours because of the mountainous terrain. Seeing me suffering from nausea, our tour guide smiled sympathetically. “We are a county of short distances, with long journeys,” he said.
And for the next ten days I never conquered my fear of the vertical drops off the side of the roads.
When we finally arrived in Phobjikha we walked up a mountain trail to Gangtey Goenpa, a Buddhist monastery built in the sixteenth century. The trail was steep and winding.
I turned to our guide. “How long will it take to get up to the monastery?” I gasped.
“It’s a two-hour walk,” he said. “It’s the only way in. There are no roads to the monastery. That would defeat the purpose. The monks live there in isolation so they can focus on their rituals and prayers. They will be chanting mantras when we arrive. We should move faster.”
But Sri Prahlada, Sakhi Rai, and I couldn’t go more than a few steps without stopping to catch our breath. “There’s less and less oxygen as we go higher,” said Sakhi Rai huffing and puffing. “It’s going to take us some time to reach our destination.”
Sure enough, we reached the monastery three hours later. As we entered the sacred temple I was stunned by the fact that it looked much the same as it must have in the sixteenth century. Nothing had changed. It was like going back in time. Seventy or eighty monks of different ages, sitting in lotus positions, were chanting from memory hundreds, or perhaps thousands, of verses from ancient palm-leaf scriptures at their feet.
The only light came from small windows. The guru, a large man with a shaved head, sat on an elevated seat leading the rhythmic chanting. To keep the rhythm, several monks played on drums that looked like they had been there as long as the monastery. Other monks played large brass cymbals. Two young monks, around ten years old, blew on long brass trumpets.
When I looked at the guru he motioned to me to sit down among the monks. I took out my japa beads and began chanting Hare Krsna, while studying the monks around me. I was deeply impressed. They were all so focused, intent on their spiritual practices and deeply absorbed in their faith.
As the minutes turned into an hour I felt a transformation coming over me, an awakening of the same determination they displayed. Amid the hum of the prayers, the beating of the gongs and cymbals, and the trumpeting of the horns, I found myself fixed on every syllable of the maha-mantra.
Then suddenly, without warning, everything stopped, and the monks sat silently in meditation for several minutes then opened their eyes as one of the younger monks came around with water and rice. He moved quickly from student to student, pouring a little water into each monk’s cup and scooping a little rice into the monk’s bowl. The guru motioned for him to bring me a cup of water and a bowl of rice as well. The monks finished their meal within sixty seconds, and the mantras and prayers began again.
“Shall we go now?” our tour guide whispered in my ear.
“I don’t know,” I said. “This is a very deep experience for me.”
“If you want to stay, you’ll have to stay for six hours,” he said. “They have two six-hour sessions a day. Once you sit down, you must finish the session. It would be very impolite if you left.”
Feeling a bit embarrassed, I stood up and started to leave. But just as I was going out, the guru signaled for me to come over. When I reached his sitting place, he took a sacred thread from an old box and tied it around my right hand. Then he touched a palm-leaf scripture to my head.
When he saw my beadbag he indicated he wanted see my beads. As I took them out his eyes opened wide.
“They are much used,” he said.
“Yes,” I replied. “I have had them for many years.”
“And what is your faith?” he asked.
“I am a practicing Vaisnava,” I said. “And I chant names of God on these beads.”
“Which names?” he said.
“The names of Lord Krsna,” I said. “Hare Krsna, Hare Krsna, Krsna Krsna, Hare Hare, Hare Rama, Hare Rama, Rama Rama, Hare Hare.”
“May the blessings of Buddha be upon you,” he said.
As we left I was struck by the fact that no one watched us go, so concentrated were the monks on their meditation.
On the long descent back down the mountain trail Sakhi Rai spoke. “Guru Maharaja,” he said, “is it all right for us to have such close associa-tion with Buddhists?”
“We offer our respects to all classes of transcendentalists,” I said. “We don’t embrace their teachings, but we accept that they are not ordinary souls.” I quoted a verse from the Srimad-Bhagavatam:
mahat sevam dvaram ahur vimuktes
tamo dvaram yositam sangi sangam
mahantas te sama cittah prasanta
vimanyavah suhrdah sadhavo ye
“One can attain the path of liberation from material bondage only by rendering service to highly advanced spiritual personalities. These personalities are impersonalists and devotees. Whether one wants to merge into the Lord’s existence or wants to associate with the Persona-lity of Godhead, one should render service to the mahatmas. For those who are not interested in such activities, who associate with people fond of women and sex, the path to hell is wide open. The mahatmas are equipoised. They do not see any difference between one living entity and another. They are very peaceful and are fully engaged in devotional service. They are devoid of anger, and they work for the benefit of everyone. They do not behave in any abominable way. Such people are known as mahatmas.”
“You know,” I continued, “I was impressed with the focus they have in their spiritual practices. For twelve hours a day they chant and pray. I would like to have that determination in my own sadhana.”
“But their determination is to become void,” said Sakhi Rai. “How can we be inspired by that?”
“The Visnu Purana uses a material analogy to compare material desire with love of Krsna,” I said.
ya pritir avivekanam
tvam anusmaratad sa me
“Unintelligent persons have unflinching affection for the objects of sense gratification. Similarly, may I always remember You, so that that same attachment, applied to You, never leaves my heart.”
“We’ve come to here learn, as well as to teach,” I continued. “Bear in mind that this spiritual culture has existed in Bhutan for hundreds of years. Let’s get some impressions of how ISKCON can also survive the ravages of time.”
The next day, after I had spent another restless night combating the high altitude, we drove ten hours higher into the mountains, to Bumthang in the center of the country. Along the way we encountered many pious people who were curious about our dress and especially our beads. Many times we showed our beads and explained the process of chanting Hare Krsna.
I turned to our tour guide. “How do the Bhutanese blend modernization with their spiritual tradition?” I asked.
“We are not against material progress,” he said. “It can also be used to serve our spiritual purposes. Bhutan used to be a kingdom with self-im-posed isolation. It had its advantages and disadvantages. For example, in health care: communicable diseases were widespread and more than half the children born in Bhutan died at birth or within the first few years of their lives. Malaria claimed hundreds of lives each year.
“But since Bhutan opened up to modernization in 1961, with far-reaching political, social, and economic reforms, the health status of the popula-tion has improved with more than ninety percent of the population benefiting from full health coverage.
“In 2008 Bhutan became a democracy, after hundreds of years of monar-chy. The king and the National Assembly work closely together. But while we incorporate modernization, we are careful not to do so at the expense of our spiritual culture. We feel strongly that the holistic develop-ment of the individual and society can be achieved through a balance of the economic, social, emotional, spiritual, and cultural needs of the people.
“It’s not always easy to find this balance, but we try our best. And once again, we judge our success by the happiness of our people. We have a saying, ‘Happiness is a place.'”
After eight hours on the winding roads I needed a break and asked the driver to pull over. Getting out of the car we walked down an embank-ment and sat down to have lunch. I saw monkeys scampering through the thick foliage. Birds were chirping as the nearby river flowed by. It was an idyllic environment.
“It’s kind of sad,” I thought. “I haven’t been in nature like this since I was a boy. This is calming on the self.”
I took my japa beads out and began to chant. In such a natural peaceful atmosphere it was easy to focus on the holy names.
“It’s obvious why the yogis in days of yore chose such places for their spiritual practices,” I thought. I envisioned myself easily spending a month there in that mode-of-goodness environment.
As I chanted I happened to glance up the mountain and saw a small monastery perched high on a ledge with many small cottages around it.
“What is that?” I asked our tour guide.
“That’s a special place of meditation for our monks,” he said.
“I can understand how they can meditate there,” I said. “I was contem-plating spending a month here myself.”
He chuckled. “After an initial nine years of training in a monastery,” he said, “all our monks are sent to that monastery to meditate in silence for three years, three months, three weeks and three days.”
My jaw dropped. “So much for my one month,” I thought. Once again I was drawn to the seriousness these Buddhist monks express in their commitment to their sadhana, their spiritual practices.
“Do we have anything equivalent to such determination?” asked Sakhi Rai.
“Yes, we do,” I replied. “Devotees like Haridas Thakur and Ragunath dasa Goswami chanted Hare Krsna twenty-two hours a day.”
“Then why don’t we do that?” he asked.
“We do as Srila Prabhupada requested,” I said. “A minimum of sixteen rounds a day. But as you advance you naturally find yourself chanting more. Also, we do service to the holy names by spreading the glories of chanting Hare Krsna all over the world. For that we receive the mercy of guru and Gauranga. But here, we can pray for the determination these monks have in their daily rituals of spiritual life.”
“We have come here to learn, as well as to teach,” repeated Sakhi Rai with a smile.
“Yes, we have,” I said. “And we are accomplishing both.”
After lunch we drove on through the forested mountains. At one point we stopped at a small stupa where an elderly woman was selling her wares. I noticed what looked like a very old piece of intricately woven fabric.
I turned to our guide. “Can you ask her what that is,” I said.
He spoke to the woman and then turned to me. “She said it was used by her ancestors and passed down through the generations,” he said.
“This would make a perfect seat for my puja,” I thought.
“How much does she want for it?” I asked our guide.
“She’s asking fifty dollars,” he said.
As we left the place with a newly acquired piece of Bhutanese history, the guide spoke to me. “It’s actually a museum piece,” he said.
Day after day we drove through the mountainous countryside, visiting monasteries, astrology schools, and administrative buildings called dzongs that serve also as small refuges for monks. Everywhere we were greeted with friendliness and respect.
“I haven’t seen one person get angry since I’ve been here,” said Sri Prahlada one afternoon. “I’m sure it happens, but in most countries you often see people get upset or angry in public.”
“The way of life here bears sweet fruit,” I said.
After almost two weeks we reached the furthermost point of our journey, Monggar in eastern Bhutan.
“We’ll be visiting a special monastery today,” said our tour guide. “It’s called Drametse Lhakhang. It was founded in 1511 by Ani Choeten Zangmo, the grand-daughter of the Bhutanese saint Pema Lingpa.”
Although the names didn’t mean much to me, they did to him, and I respectfully thanked him for the opportunity to visit there.
That afternoon as we entered the sanctified atmosphere of the monas-tery we again found monks chanting in the main hall with the guru seated nearby overseeing everything. We walked in slowly, sat down among the monks, and took out our beads again in an attempt to imbibe the mood of concentration.
Afterwards we were taken on a tour of the monastery. As we took in the age-old surroundings I noticed the guru standing nearby observing us.
“Let’s go speak to him,” I said to the others.
“No, no!” said our tour guide. “We cannot approach such men of wisdom.”
“But that’s what they’re here for,” I said.
Pulling him along I walked over to the guru. “Sir,” I said, “may I have the honor of speaking with you?”
“Yes, of course,” he said, smiling.
“I would like to understand the goal of your practices,” I said. “What is it you hope to achieve through a lifetime dedicated to prayer, meditation, and ritual? My understanding of Buddhism is that by eventually ceasing all material desire, one achieves a state of non-existence.”
“We follow the path of Vajrayana Buddhism,” the guru said, “which teaches that the consequence of deeds in previous lives, or karma, forces all beings to reincarnate. All human effort should be to attain enlightenment through which the gate to Nirvana is opened. When one reaches the state of Nirvana, he does not take birth again.”
“Thank you for your explanation,” I said. “But I would like to know if the soul remains an individual when attaining enlightenment. In our philoso-phy the liberated soul goes to a spiritual abode to associate eternally with the Supreme Soul, God.”
The guru looked puzzled. He thought for a moment. “In Vajrayana Buddhism,” he said, “we also believe in a heavenly abode: the land of Buddha.”
“But what exactly is it like there?” I asked.
“That, no one knows,” he said.
“Thank you,” I said. “We will take our leave now.”
On our way back to the car Sakhi Rai turned to me. “Guru Maharaja,” he said, “I thought Buddhism advocated impersonalism. He was referring to a heavenly abode.”
As we started driving Sri Prahlada took out his computer. “Srila Bhaktivi-noda Thakur had a similar encounter with a Buddhist monk,” he said. “He writes in text 13 of his Tattva-viveka, First Realization, ‘I once asked some questions of a Buddhist monk from Myanmar. He answered my questions by saying, “God is beginningless. He created the entire world. Assuming the form of Buddha, He descended to this world and then again, assuming His form as God, He returned to Heaven.” From what he told me, I could see that this Buddhist monk from Myanmar did not know the true Buddhist philosophy.'”
“So what’s the conclusion?” Sakhi Rai asked.
“The conclusion is that Buddha actually did advocate an atheistic philosophy,” I said. “But he did so because people at that time were using the Vedas to condone the killing of animals. Therefore Buddha said, ‘Don’t follow the Vedas. Follow me.’ Thus he tricked them into following the Supreme Personality of Godhead.
“By doing so they would gradually become purified and eventually be able to once again understand the soul as the eternal servant of God. Because the guru we just spoke to is on that path, we must respect him.”
I took Sri Prahlada’s computer and found ISKCON’S Interfaith Statement. I read it to Sakhi Rai: “In ISKCON we view all communities and philoso-phies advocating love for God and founded on revealed scripture as representative of the ultimate religious expression. We also respect the spiritual worth of paths of genuine self-realization and search for the Absolute Truth in which the concept of a personal deity is not explicit.”
On our long journey back to Thimphu to meet the Deputy Governor of Punaka, I meditated on my good fortune: visiting an entire country devoted both in principle and practice to its faith. I prayed that the International Society for Krsna Consciousness would continue to maintain its founding principles and exist for the next 10,000 years.
The next evening I would be flying back to India. I felt enriched and wiser from my journey into the heart of Bhutan, but I hankered to be back in the transcendental abode of Vrndavana again, where the Supreme Lord performs eternal pastimes with His loving devotees. With renewed determination I looked forward to chanting, praying, and studying the sastra, just as I saw the monks do in Bhutan.
Srila Prabhupada writes:
“Either you follow Buddha philosophy or Sankara philosophy or Vaisnava philosophy, the ultimate goal is Krsna. You have to approach Krsna through these different types of philosophy. They are partial realization. Just like Brahman realization means eternity realization. Paramatma realization means eternity and knowledge. And Bhagavan realization means eternity, knowledge and blissfulness. If you realize Krsna, then you realize simultaneously Brahman, Paramatma and Bhagavan.”
[Lecture, Bombay, March 31, 1974.]