Outside the Gate, and In: Audio, Bodh Gaya, India

I’ve just returned to Bhutan from two weeks in Bodh Gaya, the home of the Bodhi tree, under which Siddartha Gautama became the Buddha, the Awake One.  Hundreds of thousands of Buddhist pilgrims come to the temple every year to pray, to prostrate, to chant, to offer, to sit, and to circumambulate the temple. I flew on a lovely flight over the Himalayas–Everest, Annapurna, Jhomolhari, sea of mountainous snows and clouds–on a plane filled with Bhutanese pilgrims. It feels very safe on a plane murmuring with chanted prayers and the quiet whirr of hand held prayer wheels.

I went for a ten day silent Vipassana meditation retreat, and I was under the hugely mistaken thought that going to Bodh Gaya might be a gentle introduction to India, a way of dipping my toes in. Nope. Thrown in, and struggling to swim.

The noise was the most difficult thing. I could only conclude, that either Indians love noise, or, they are all so deaf they have no idea. Aside from all the daily living noises which included endless horns (required for driving), children, dogs, throat retching and hawking (especially out the door of the meditation hall), coughing (in the hall), street sellers, and fireworks, there was amplified noise: weddings, music, announcements, chanting, ceremonies, all amplified to reach anyone within a kilometer, if not two. At times it was so loud that the windows in the meditation hall vibrated and some of us wore ear plugs during meditation. And, there was no thought of considering that people might enjoy sleeping. One movie, or something, was being broadcast until 2 am. Occasionally during meditation, I would watch how the sound would affect my body: stinging pinging shrapnel of sound. And, once in awhile, there would be some beautiful music or chanting, and we would all find such relief in it. With all the daily power outages, I prayed that the amplifiers’ power would be cut, but it never was. They must have relied on diesel generators (more noise.)

I was terribly relieved to be back home in Bhutan, complete with its own night time dog orchestras and honking, but deliciously quiet in comparison.

This is a little video I made on my camera looking out the gate of the Thai Temple (where I was on retreat.) The video is a little jerky, but the sound is pretty accurate, and normal conditions out on the street.

India has nice sounds as well. I made these recordings on my no-sim-card Iphone, so you will probably need to turn up your volume. Then imagine the volume much much higher.

Just some average noise, 70-80 decibels or so:

India-Live at the meditation hall

Birds, also loud:

India-Thai Temple-Birds

Thai Temple chanting, amplified and not:

India-Thai Temple 1

India-Thai Temple 4

At the Mahabodhi Temple at the Bodhi Tree, there seemed to be two different teachings going on at the same time, with hundreds of monks chanting at each, almost side by side. The first is one teaching, the second and third, the other; one short, one longer for those who like it. You can hear all the other things going on as well: horns, people shuffling, etc.

India-Mahabodhi Temple 1

India-Mahabodhi Temple 2

India-Mahabodhi Temple 3

The meditation teachings: heart opening, and silence.

(And many thanks to friends Leanne and Suki who assisted in the audio file conversion method so I could post it here.)


Six weeks in, I’ve done it.

It’s happened. I wore a kira to work today, to pretty rave reviews, I have to say, and received only minor adjustments to the collars by onlookers. A few people asked if I had help getting dressed, which I think was praise. One normally wears high heels, but that is really going too far. I might be able to do heeled boots, but I have none, so I’m safe from further difficulties on uneven paving for now.
(A wordpress problem–I can’t get the paragraph breaks to show up. If any readers know how to fix this, let me know. It bugggs me. Thanks.)

Kira (pattern), toego (black), wanju (beige) and rachu, ceremonial sash with dorje/vajra pattern*, and brooch with endless knot symbol:**

Properly dressed.

I had to meet with a Minister today, overseer of my new project, so I was appropriately dressed for the first time. Women have to wear the rachu and men, a kabney, a broad, long, flowing wrap around drape-scarf, whenever they go in a building with a national flag (ie. where I work, any government office) or in a monastery or for any other formal occasion.
I followed my shopping assistant’s advice and got the foreigner’s version of the kira, which means it is only waist length instead of shoulder length,  and has some hooks and velcro. Normally the kira is held up with two hooks at the shoulders, and a belt in the middle. The wanju and teogo have no hooks or anything. You use the brooch and safety pins to hold it in place. (Women and men are constantly adjusting their clothes here. The men have two pleats in the back of their gho that they always have to mind.)
There is also a half kira that is a bit like a wrap around skirt, but you wear a broad fabric belt with it, and cinch it down very tight at the waist. My advisor advised against that option, saying the Bhutanese women have permanent marks around their middles from cinching the belt so tight. This is all to say that there are lots of opportunities for wardrobe malfunctions, if the hooks unhook, or the hookless belt loosens, or, or . . .
The sleeves of both upper items extend way beyond the hands and get folded up twice to land at the wrists. The wanju (accent color) gets folded double over the toego collar. The toego isn’t tailored, so I’m wearing the standard, looseish version, which allows for long underwear underneath, but I found it all very warm this morning. I don’t know what happens in hot weather. I’ve noticed that young, slender women have improved the toego tailoring to something more fitted.
The picture doesn’t show the kira pleats, but there are two pleats that run down the right side. These are from folding layers of fabric (as opposed to sewn or pressed in) and allow some movement, but you have to hold it up going uphill, so you don’t trip on the front, and downhill so you don’t trip on the back, and going up and down stairs, so essentially you have to hold it up almost all of the time. Ok, not going down the hall. (And speaking of, the floors of the toilets are generally wet, and there is no toilet paper, and no pockets, but I have discovered a small amount of tp will tuck nicely, and unnoticeably in a sleeve. That doesn’t solve the problem of needing soap and a towel, but it is a step.)
Day one of kira wearing survived. Tomorrow I head south to see the new project. Supposedly it is  six hours drive each way, but I suspect it is not much more than 150 miles, and probably less as the crow flies, so that gives you some idea of the roads here. Should be very scenic in any case. Back on Wednesday.
* “The Sanskrit word vajra stands for adamant, that is, ‘diamond-like’. Hence, besides being able to indent whatever object and overwhelm with its uncomparable blaze, the vajra or dorje represents eminent durability – a hardness and an immutableness that is virtually eternal. Dorje is the Tibetan word for vajra. Do-rje stands for noble stone (Do = stone and rJe = noble or prince). This embodies not only the blaze of refracted or reflected illuminance, but also symbolises the imperviable and fixed solidness of the point of power around which totally else turns – the hub of the world. Vajra is a Sanskrit equal of the Tibetan word dorje and it transmits a lot of meanings: Indra’s thunderbolt, the lama’s scepter, and diamond.”
**”This latter image signifies the dramatic interplay and interaction of the opposing forces in the dualistic world of manifestation, leading to their union, and ultimately to harmony in the universe. This fact is amply reflected in the symmetrical and regular form of the endless knot.

The intertwining of lines reminds us how all phenomena are conjoined and yoked together as a closed cycle of cause and effect. Thus the whole composition is a pattern that is closed on in itself with no gaps, leading to a representational form of great simplicity and fully balanced harmony.”

 The two quotes on Buddhist symbology can be found here, and here, as well a much lengthier explanation of both.

Tango, the Monastery

Today was another holiday in Bhutan. Life is good as a civil servant. Two friends and I hiked to Tango Monastery, which is also the Buddhist Studies University for the country, housing 250 monks. (Do the nuns get to study? I don’t know.) An easier hike than Tatkshang, but still noticeably uphill. I’m pretty sure the monastery placements high above are designed to facilitate-mimic-symbolize the process of enlightenment, an uphill, toe stubbing trudge for most, but if you are truly great your beautiful consort will turn into a tigress and fly you up. (Am I dreaming? Yes, I am.)

In any case, this place is beautiful, with exceptional architecture and detailing. Different elements were added over time, beginning in the 15th century. A monk showed us some of the holy figures and paintings, including thangkas that cried when an (important) body was being cremated, and another painting of Guru Rinpoche (he of the tigress) that finished itself overnight. My friends and I concluded that sort of thing sounded very much like Christian miracles (and happening in the same time periods?) So far, I’m sticking to earth worship. (By the way, the historical facts are cribbed from the Lonely Planet Guide.)

Here are some photos. (Uploading went more smoothly today. I did them all at once and went away for a long time.)

The land.

Prayer flags and monks' robes on the line.

Tango Monastery. Outside the gate.

Tango Monastery. Detail.

Tango Monastery. The arcing front face of the building.

Famous person's cave below.

The inside courtyard, much like a Christian cloister without the garden. Butter lamp building in the middle, dogs and roses on the left.

Women in kira and sensible shoes heading down. Another woman was wearing pretty purple pumps. How she did it, I don't know.

On the way home. The old and the new.

On the way home. The river.

In my mind, here is where the holiness lies, or flows, as the case may be.

Where to begin?

(Some of you readers have been clamoring for an update, but between very inconsistent internet access, computer troubles, etc, it has been very hard to get on line and stay on line, and the bandwidth is minimal, which has made it difficult to post pictures. For example, at work, the connection is pretty fast, but for some unknown reason, I can’t send out any email. Access is also blocked to many websites, including Flickr, Pandora, Facebook (but not Twitter?) by the government during work hours. Where I live now the wireless cuts in and out, so I am going to try and post a text blog, and post photos separately. Please check the twitter feed for photos, because I can sometimes get single photos posted.)

I’ve been here in Bhutan for two weeks today, and so much distance has been traveled. I haven’t literally gone far (not counting the 9500 miles of air flight to get here)–I’ve only had one short trip out of town—but still I’ve come a long ways. Given how much I could say, it is hard to know where to start. When everything is new, everything has to be figured out, from the practical day to day living, to social etiquette, to language differences, to all that underlies culture. I have barely a clue on the latter. I do know that I need to seriously brush up on my Buddhist symbology, structure, understanding. At this point, I’m a preschooler in a post-doctorate program. My little bit of American, non-religious, vipassana Buddhism isn’t enough in this Tantric Buddhist society. I can’t even tell you what tantric means. (Perhaps my Tibetan Buddhist practitioner teachers will help me out?) I can tell you about practical matters, so I will start there, since that is how I started here.


Much of my first week here when not at work was spent concerned about housing and food. I had a hotel reservation for only the first three days, and anywhere else that my tender self would be willing to stay was sold out (due to high tourist season and the royal wedding), and an apartment that I wanted wasn’t available until the end of the month, so I’ve ended up moving to an expensive apartment for a month. Twice the size of my Napa apartment, lovely view, two beds, two baths. Overkill, but nice. This has eaten up almost all the cash I brought, so I am being conservative about what I buy, and haven’t gotten my local clothing yet. To help address the cash flow problem, and because it seemed nice to have company, I now have roommates for the next week, a radio documentarian and her son. Another expat, Oliver, from Germany, here to work on a microfinance project, is going to take over the apartment before the month is up so I can move to a cheaper one. (Oliver can afford it because he is being paid by Germany, not Bhutan, whereas I am going to be paid by Bhutan. Some of the expats are volunteers, but it appears that most are here as part of NGOs (non-governmental organizations) such as UNICEF. ) As westerners, we have luxuries that many Bhutanese do not, including indoor plumbing, water, and hot water. I am willing to have these things.

Food Notes

Unlike the US where different businesses have different kinds of signs, most of the signs here are the same. Same size, color, font, and they are not actually descriptive of the business inside. In other words, a grocery store is not signed ‘grocery store’ it says Sharakang Enterprise, or some such. In addition, the businesses tend to be dark, and the windows clogged, so it is very hard to see what a store sells without walking in. A grocery store is really a drygoods store with very little, if anything, that requires refrigeration. That means you have to find veggies, milk, meat, etc at separate stores. I’ve figured the basics of all this out now, though I haven’t gotten up the courage to venture in a meat store. The only place that I’ve found to buy fresh milk is at the milk shed, where you bring a container, hand it in through the window, and the attendant dips the milk out of a big red plastic bin into your bottle. You can also buy Duyul, which is Bhutanese milk in a carton that isn’t refrigerated (like European milk) or Nestle Dairy Whitener, which is too scary to contemplate, but I suspect it is in many of the cups of tea I’ve drunk. (When you meet with someone, they (men, usually) have tea brought in by ‘the girl’ (usually.) Last Monday was a three cups of tea afternoon. First we met with the supreme court justice, then the secretariat for the Ministry of Works and Human Settlement, then the Minister of same. More on that later.)

Most of the food in the grocery stores comes from India, although one of the stores has things from Thailand. Bright packages, other alphabets, barely discernable contents. So, things look different. Some things are different. Dish soap is a bar, and you break some off in a dish and add a little water to make the soap. I hear laundry soap might be the same, but thus far I’ve had laundry service. (My clothes have never been so neatly folded, so nicely put away. And speaking of clothes, it seems like I hardly brought any. Partially because I haven’t bought my kira for work yet (and, boy, did I feel underdressed when I met with the supreme court justice), partially because it has been quite warm, which I’m wasn’t prepared for.)

It isn’t that easy to eat local, since most of the food is shipped in. Bhutanese products include Bumthang honey (Bumthang is a district), Bumthang cheese, mango juice, ginger, the milk, apples, peaches, and most of the vegetables. The cheese is precious, the only real cheese here. It is a Swiss gruyere type cheese (thank you to the Swiss, who came and helped develop it several years ago) and it is seasonal and hard to find. Expats let others know when it comes into the very few stores that sell it. Via this word of mouth, I got some yesterday. I bought two blocks. If I had more money, I would have stockpiled more. (For those who don’t know me well, cheese is probably my favorite food stuff, and a major dietary staple. Perhaps my cholesterol will go down now that I can’t have much of it.) The tofu distribution seems to operate on a similar word of mouth. I got the last package yesterday, and turned it into a tasty stirfry.

Some of the fruit at the fruit market is brought in from India, but I don’t know which is which yet. There are apples, pineapples, citrus, persimmon, papayas, sugarcane and pears today. Word is that India uses lots of chemicals (all the ones banned in the US, shipped to India.) I don’t know if this is true.

Bhutanese eat huge quantities of rice, and grow it, but I think much of it is imported as well. I was given some rice. Hand planted, hand harvested, hand dried, hand threshed. Some spilled in my backpack. I carefully re-collected it. I suspect I wouldn’t have if it had been the US machine planted, machine harvested, etc. Small lessons/practices.

I eat lunch at work, where there is a little canteen. There are usually two kinds of rice, a meat dish or two, and several veggie dishes in Indo-Bhutanese style. The canteen itself is dark, dingy and grimy, but the food is tasty and cheap. My rice and three vegie lunch Thursday was about $1.10. Breakfast thus far is oatmeal (no toaster, no oven) and dinner tends to be rice and veggies, and occasionally tuna with crackers.

Then, there is the mysterious Shop 8, somewhere up the hill from me. A grocery store, again, not a signed grocery store, that has things that foreigners like. When I start to get desperate for something, chocolate perhaps, I might trek up there.

Other Physical Notes

Thimphu is not flat. Some of the roads run roughly parallel to the contour, but otherwise you are either walking uphill or downhill. Sidewalks, where they exist, are usually rough stone paving. Stair riser heights can range from about 4” to more than 12”. Open drains run through the middle of the sidewalks and you have to step over them often. Stepping off a curb into the street can be a drop as much as 18”. What this means is that you have to stare at your feet all the time to not fall in or over something. The other day, I fell, not once, not twice, but three times. There were reasons for each, including, perhaps, my inner ear/balance being affected by my cold, but I found it unsettling, and bruising. Some one pointed out to me how slow Bhutanese walk. There could be good reason for this. My New York style striding might not be the best approach.

Driving is freeform here. Aside from driving on the right, which is enough to relearn, there are no stoplights, only very few stop signs, lots of traffic circles, and pedestrians are essentially left to their own devices to make their way across the streets. Honking when you are going to pass, or want to, is standard. I am still working on always looking the correct direction when I cross the road, and remembering to go to the left side of the car when I am a passenger. At this moment, I have no real desire to drive, although I would like to get out in the countryside.

More anon.