Thursday, March 7, 2013

Tiger's Nest

Approaching Paro Taktsang, photo by Catherine Perkins

On Tuesday the 26th, we visited the Paro Dzong and hiked to the Tiger's Nest (Paro Taktsang.) This was a very exciting day, so I'd like to dedicate a whole post to it.

Paro Dzong
The Paro Dzong consists of a large square building with a courtyard surrounding an inner tower. The dzong is a very important place as a government and monastic center, and the dress code for entering is very specific. For Bhutanese nationals, wearing kira or gho with a special sash is mandatory, and for foreigners, they must wear formal clothes like trousers or a long shirt, and a collared long sleeve shirt. Essentially, you must have no skin but your face and hands showing, out of respect. Guards at the entrance ensure that no one dressed inappropriately may enter. The dzong was beautiful inside, though it had a different atmosphere than the temple, Kyichu Lhakhang. The walls of the entrance hall were painted with the four kings of the cardinal directions, images of Buddha, the “four friends:” elephant, monkey, rabbit, and bird, and the Buddhist wheel of life.

The Four Friends, painted inside the dzong.
Tsewang is wearing the gho with the kabne sash.

Unfortunately, I don’t have any non-blurry pictures of this artwork, but the wheel of life is particularly fascinating. From my limited knowledge, it depicts the six groups of sentient beings within the wheel of karma. The three groups at the top are humans, demi-gods, and gods. The three at the bottom are animals, hungry ghosts, and hell. All of these groups experience suffering, and depending on one’s karma, one moves between the groups throughout one’s reincarnations. Karma is poisoned by ignorance, hate/anger, desire, jealousy, and pride. According to Tsewang, it is best to be born as a human because this is the only group exposed to Buddhist teachings, through which one can attain enlightenment and exit the wheel. Living ignorantly could lead to being born as an animal next time, anger and hate often led to a life or lives in hell, and greed or desire could lead to being a hungry ghost, whose bellies are giant but whose throats are only big enough to allow one drop of water at a time. Tsewang emphasized the importance of compassion and thinking before acting, because even killing a fly could mean you would come back as a fly 500 times, and be subjected to the same suffering of being swatted. There is some contradiction, at least in my mind, in these teachings, because many Bhutanese do eat meat, which can be considered killing. It is probably just a matter of my still being ignorant, but I did start to appreciate that my past lives must have attained a great amount of karma in order for me to have the incredible opportunity to be here and be exposed to all of this.
We also toured some of the shrines in the dzong, and admired the architecture, but we left soon enough in order to be sure we would have time to climb to the Tiger’s Nest. We drove about half an hour outside of the city of Paro to the trailhead toward the temple on the cliff-side. At the beginning of the hike, women had trinkets and flags and other wares for sale spread out on blankets at the side of the trail. A popular item was the “diamond thunderbolt” or Vajra often held by the wish-granting Lord of Compassion, symbolizing the ability of wisdom to cut through ignorance. The form of Buddhism practiced most in Bhutan: Vajrayana Buddhism is related to this word.

Tiger's Nest, about halfway through the hike.
Luckily, we had a beautiful sunny day for our climb, with mild temperatures. Nonetheless, it was a strenuous climb and Tsewang gave us the trekking advice that it is better to always continue at a slow baby-step pace than to stop and rest and then start again. We opted to take the slightly steeper, but less traveled path through the woods as opposed to the horse path. Not only was this way less congested and smattered with horse poo, we got some stunning views of the Tiger’s Nest as we gradually came closer to it. The trails are intermittently but reliably strung with rows of prayer flags, which gives the entire approach an exciting and yet peaceful energy, as if the air is humming a touch faster in the expectation of your discovery of this place and yourself. The whole mountain feels wiser than you are, and you tread a little more carefully with your slow and measured steps along the rooted and dirt path.

Horses along the trail
Occasionally, a stream crossed the path, and there would be a shrine and a water-spun prayer wheel perpetually turning and offering its mantras to the wind and water passing it by, and carrying its words and meanings away and toward the valley. Then, as an unexpected but perfect and wild addition to this scene, a pair of pack-horses raced down the steep trails, nipping at each other’s necks, and scattering the people in their way to either side of the path. Oftentimes, the prayer flags depict a “wind-horse” who gallops along with the mantras printed on the flags, helping spread them throughout the air.

Most of the vegetation were pines, a type of oak, and rhododendrons for what I could tell, and sometimes small cardinal-sized birds with white masks and green tail-feathers would hop in the branches, and sing whistling songs. We stopped about mid-way up the climb at a meadow where a man had brought us a hot lunch. We ate picnic-style with rice, chicken, chilies, cabbage, and a chai-like tea. Bhutanese meat dishes have the bones still in them, and I haven’t figured out how to negotiate eating around all of them yet, but I did learn a lesson in compassion during this meal. I did not finish my meat, so I asked if it would be ok to feed the pieces to a stray dog nearby, which is not always permitted. Tsewang said I could, and so I threw the pieces to the dog, who gobbled them up quickly. After I had done this, Tsewang gently chided me that it would have been better to place the pieces in a pile so that they did not get dirt on them, and so the dog would not have to eat the dust and dirt too. I felt a little embarrassed, but I learned my lesson.

We soon continued on our way, and passed a cave where one of the Je Khempos, similar to an abbott (a leader of the monastic body) had been born. I could not imagine hiking these mountains pregnant, and I gained another piece of appreciation for the durability and amazing power of the human body and spirit. A few more switchbacks of trail and a few more turns, and we had made it around the gorge that separates the cliff from the mountain we had been climbing. We turned a corner where the stairs began to lead down and then back up, and were able to fully behold the Tiger’s Nest for the first time.

Paro Taktsang or Tiger's Nest

Dozens of strings of prayer flags hung across the gap between one part of the cliff and the other, combining the gray and black stone of the cliff wall with the rainbow assortment of flags, and the white, brown and gold of the temple reflecting in the sunlight. A waterfall poured down to the side of the temple, and many small buildings and shrines stood tucked away into the nooks and faces of the sheer cliff, with only the cut steps and stairs of stone leading up to them.

Looking back down the trail from the temple entrance

We entered through a doorway and I put my long skirt and sweater over my hiking clothes, as I did for the dzong earlier. We had to leave our bags behind in a cupboard, and Tsewang led us into the temple. We climbed a few more sets of stairs and then paused at a large stone. A thumb sized depression was formed into it at about hip-height, and Tsewang instructed us to stand about ten feet away, close our eyes, think about what we are grateful for, and then walk toward the stone with an arm outstretched. The goal was to place your thumb inside this depression, within three tries. If you could, it meant that you were more likely to repay your parent’s generosity in this lifetime. Unfortunately I was unsuccessful, so I’m afraid I’ll have to keep working on it next life, Mom and Dad.

We visited five shrines within the temple, since five is a more auspicious number than four, including one with a large statue of Buddha with a very incredible story. It is said that some monks were carrying the statue up to the temple, but at this time, there were no stairs yet, and the statue was very heavy and unwieldy, and difficult to carry around the narrow paths of the cliff. The sun was going down, and the monks were afraid, so the statue suddenly spoke to them and said that they were allowed to leave him there on the side of the cliff for the night. The next morning when they awoke and went to bring the statue the rest of the way, they found that it was already in place inside the temple.

the gorge below the waterfall, the temple is at the top of this image

The sun was beginning to go down on our visit as well, so we re-gathered our belongings and set back down the trail toward the base of the mountain. I had overheard some people speaking German at the temple, and while pausing to catch my breath at the top of a set of stairs, I struck up a conversion with one of the women in that group. It turned out that they were a group of German Buddhists from Frankfurt who came to Bhutan on a two-week pilgrimage. I had a great conversation with this woman, Christina (in Deutsch! Yay!) and when we met up again at the very end of the trail, she wrote down her email and address and told me to contact her if I was near Frankfurt this summer, and that she would show me around her town! I was floored, and totally psyched, and amazed at the connections I have and can make around the world. Who would’ve thought. My mind is blown. Every day.

Next time I’ll write about life here at R.T.C. and my experiences so far in Thimphu. I am sending much love your way! On a final note for now, here are some wicked funky gold-tipped chrysalises that were on a fence by the temple. How weird are living things.

unknown caterpillar chrysalises

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