Sunday, May 23, 2021

The Dying Art of Bhutanese Calligraphy (Yig-zo)


Tshampa Norbu Wangchuk, master calligrapher who wrote the master copy of the Constitution of Bhutan in gold, writing Kanjur in gold at the Royal Textile Academy, Thimphu (May 2021). 

Students in the monastic schools and the erstwhile Semtokha Rigney School used to study calligraphy as one of the disciplines to be mastered. But it does not seem to be the case anymore. So, when His Majesty the King of Bhutan initiated the project to write more than 100 volumes of Kanjur (Buddhist canon) in gold few years ago, it was not so easy to find skilled calligraphers to undertake the task. That is when Tshampa Norbu Wangchuk and few other lay monks (Gomchens) from Bartsham Chador Lhakhang were called upon to join the project as gold calligraphers. 

Calligraphy is called 'Yig-zo' in Bhutan, and it is an ancient art that can be traced to the introduction of Buddhism in Tibet.  It is does not feature in the 13 Arts and Crafts (zorig chusum) of Bhutan, but it is nonetheless a very important part of our rich tradition and culture that should be preserved. 

A master copy of the Constitution of Bhutan adopted in 2008 as the country transitioned to democratic form of Government under constitutional monarchy was hand-written in gold using the traditional calligraphic method  and is preserved for posterity. 

Dasho Sonam Kinga's 2010 article, "The Constitution – the King’s Gift: Defiling and Sanctifying a Sacred Gift", records the details of the signing of the Constitution of Bhutan as follows: 

"The King signed 'The Constitution of the Kingdom of Bhutan' at 10.06 a.m. on 18 July 2008 in the kuenra (assembly hall of the state monk body) of Tashichho Dzong. There were three copies of the Constitution, one of which was done in gold. The King signed in all of them. Following him, the Prime Minister led the seventy two members of Parliament in signing the Constitution. The Chief Justice signed last." 

"The day before the Constitution was signed, prayer ceremonies were organized in monastic institutions all over the country to solemnize the occasion. Before dusk, copies of the Constitution were taken inside the goenkhang of Tashichho Dzong and kept on its altar. .....Later, copies of the Constitution were taken to the kuenra from the goenkhang escorted by Dorji Lopen, who is considered to be the second highest abbot of the state monastic community. They were placed on the chhoethri located in front of the altar of the huge image of Buddha Shakya Muni."

The honour of writing the master copy of the Constitution  in gold fell upon Tshampa Norbu Wangchuk which he fulfilled very successfully. Tshampa is an accomplished lay Buddhist practitioner who has undergone practices such as the three year solitary retreats and received numerous teachings from great masters such as Dzongsar Khyentse Rinpoche, Dungse Thinley Norbu Rinpoche and Lama Pema Wangchen among others. Physically, he is a giant of a man, but is very humble and gentle in nature. 



Tshampa Norbu Wangchuk, master calligrapher who wrote the master copy of the Constitution of Bhutan in gold. Picture takeb by the author in May 2021.

Tshampa Norbu Wangchuk also had the honour of writing many other important documents for the Royal Family of Bhutan in calligraphy. Currently, as a member of the ongoing project to write all the more than 100 volumes of Kanjur (Buddhist canon) in gold, he resides in Thimphu. The project is an initiative of His Majesty the King and the writing is taking place in the project office located at the Royal Textile Academy. The text is being laboriously written using real gold ink. "Gold powder imported from Japan is finer and produces better quality ink. The ones brought in from elsewhere like Nepal is not as good as the one from Japan," recounts Tshampa. 

On being asked what kind of pen they use for writing Kajur in gold, Tshampa says that they used to use only bamboo pens in the past, but now, pens with metallic nibs are being used because they last longer. He says that the bamboo pens get their nibs soaked and dissolved sooner. 

Calligrapher writing Kanjur in gold at the Royal Textile Academy, Bhutan (March 2021). Photo by: Chrys Fynn

It would be great if the Government can initiate activities to revive the interest of the public and the younger generation in this dying art of calligraphy. In Japan, where I spent nearly six years, calligraphy is practised as a living art, and even foreigners visiting Japan are made to try Japanese calligraphy in various festivals and cultural exchange events. 

Related links:



A Tipsy Irony (based on a real encounter)

 A Tipsy Irony (based on a real encounter that happened on 8th May 2021 above Tashichhodzong)

Last Saturday at around 11 am, I was travelling in my brother’s car when a man walking unsteadily by the roadside waved his hand at us for a ride.
Brother: Where do you want to go?
Man: Can you take me to the city bus stand in the middle of town?
Brother: Okay. Get in.

As he got in, smell of ingested alcohol filled the car. His face was swelly, hair unkempt and limbs sagging without much energy.

“She is now gone. Gone forever!” he murmured to himself as he lunged his body into the back seat of the car.

“Who is she? And what happened?” we enquired.
“She was my cousin’s wife. She died. I am just returning from the cremation ground. We told her many times, but she wouldn’t stop drinking. She killed herself by drinking too much.” He spoke in drunken tones.


Picture of drunk man above: Courtesy of dendupgonpo.blogspot.com

We asked how old she was. He said she was born in the year of ox.
“Then she must have been 48 this year,” I said.
He said that must be right. We then asked him how old he was and what he did for a living.
“I work as cook for the monks in a monastery which is about half day’s walk from Thimphu. I came down today for her cremation. I live by myself now, but I have a daughter who is married with an army personnel. ”

“How old are you?”
“I was born in the year of dragon”
“Are you about 45 then?”
“Maybe. I must have crossed 40”. He said. But he looked to be in his mid 50s. It was either that he didn’t keep track of his age, or that the alcohol had hastened his ageing process.

“Why do you want to go to the bus stand? Are you going to catch a bus to somewhere?” we asked.
“No, I am not going to catch a bus. I have to go there to refuel myself (ma-khu tsuba jogobay). I can’t bear to stay without refuelling myself (makhu matsuba de mi tshubay)”, he said meaning he is going there to drink in a bar.

What an irony. He felt sorry for the relative who had just died from drinking too much alcohol. Yet, he was not bothered about his own health and life.

“Oh, you better take care of yourself. You just said you just returned from the cremation of your relative who died by drinking too much. You may follow the same path after her if you don’t control your drinking,” we told him.
“I only drink white one. She used to drink the red one – that too without mixing any water,” said he as we dropped him in the town.

I gazed after him as he disappeared wobbly into the small bystreets of Thimphu.

And I thought to myself, “There goes another potential victim of alcohol liver disease (ALD), one of the top causes of death in Bhutan for the past many years. Yet, not doing much about it remains one of the biggest ironies in our country.”

Wednesday, April 07, 2021

16 Practical Suggestions to Tackle Thimphu’s Water Problem for the Immediate to Long-term

 Let me begin by making it clear that no individual or organisation should feel offended by this post, as it is only intended to start practical conversation and actions to solve this perennial water problem in our capital city.

Fig. 1. Picture of water distribution pipe at the distribution tank above Zilukha.

The people in my neighbourhood and my family went to bed without water last night, and woke up without electricity. No electricity even as I finished writing this post at 7.30 am (i.e. on 6th April 2021). Two most necessities of modern life. Anyway, this post is dedicated to the water issue only.

I woke up this morning (on 6th April 2021) thinking about the water issue and wondered how long we can endure this. As some people commented on my Facebook post yesterday, we will look pathetic to ourselves and also to the outsiders. But this problem, like all other problems, is not without solutions. So, I really would like to invite my fellow citizens to brainstorm and come up with ideas to say good-bye to this persistent problem. As a start, here are 16 practical suggestions that we can work on immediately, starting today.

In my neighbourhood, we are used to and we are happy with water supply of 2-3 hours a day since we have invested in water tanks and store them to last throughout the day. But these days, we did not even get that. What to say about 24-hour water supply!

A. Suggestions for immediate term (doable within this week)

1. Find out the cause of the current problem

Why has the current problem started? Find out the facts. Let us not keep on making assumptions. Is it because water source has become smaller? Why so suddenly? Is it because people have diverted drinking water sources for irrigation? Let us find the solution based on the facts.

2. Give priority to drinking water over irrigation for flower and vegetable gardens

If the source has become smaller, let us find out by going to the actual site whether this is true and why? Is it a natural phenomenon for water source to dry up in this month while the water was sufficient till March? Or is it because water is being diverted for irrigation? In any case, water for drinking should be given the first priority.

3. Tappings from the main supply pipe

The water we get in Zilukha comes from the main tank in Motithang via a main distribution pipe to three syntax tanks above my neighbourhood which serve as the distribution tanks. We have connections to these three distribution tanks. But over the years, a lot of tappings have taken place from the main pipe before reaching the distribution tanks. Some have no choice but to get water that way because they are located much farther away from the distribution tanks. But a proper study needs to be done to find out how many tapings are there and if they are all verified and necessary. Because of these tappings on the way, not much water reaches the distribution tanks in the end.

4. Get rid of illegal connections

Are there illegal connections taken to water fields and gardens? If so, they need to be removed so that others can have enough to at least drink.

5. Stop leakages and overflows

On the one hand we have no water to drink, but on the other hand, a lot of water goes to waste through leakages and overflows. It happens even in our area sometimes. Why? This is a water management issue. We have to stop that.

6. Do a quick study of the water distribution network in problem-hit areas and submit a report to the Government with action plan

My neighbourhood is not the only one that suffers from water problem from time to time. A study has to be done to find out the facts and come up with solutions. How long can we go on like this? This is 2021, not 1981.

7. Make someone accountable for the water issues in Thimphu and make it clear to that person

One of the management lessons I have learnt is that things get done well and in time when we fix accountability on someone clearly. In the case of water issues, it seems this is lacking.

If not, this should not go on and on like this. Now is the time to make it clear as to who is accountable. We know that one rhetoric answer to questions like this is “We are all accountable. We should all do our bit”. Yes, that is also right. But one person has to be there who will ultimately take charge of solving this perennial issue.


B. Suggestions for the short term (doable within few months to 1 year)

8 Water distribution network information system

As suggested by one of my friends, we need water distribution network information system so that the decision makers can quickly understand where the problem lies. Such systems are in use in many countries.

9 Make a plan for proper water distribution management and implement the pan

It is understood that we have enough water for Thimphu. The problem is management of distribution. And yet, we do nothing about it. Now is the time to make a distribution management plan, and again not sit over it, but get moving to implement that plan as soon as possible.

10 Upgrade distribution networks and tanks

There is a need in some places to upgrade/repair distribution pipes and distribution tanks in the locality. The distribution tanks can be improved in my locality my instance, and the distribution system can be made fairer and more leak and overflow-proof to save precious water.

11 Work on formation of an independent corporation to manage Thimphu’s water supply – name it Twenty-Four Hour Water Supply Limited

One of the best ways to solve the accountability and going-round-and-round issue with this perennial water issue may be to set up a dedicated corporation to manage the water supply for Thimphu immediately. They may then be given the mandate to even take care of water supply in other cities. People are not so comfortable with SOEs, but SOEs may be a better at delivering such services. We have talked enough about the water issues. Let the corporation self-sustain on fees with Government regulation and subsidy extended to certain families as they need may be. Generally, we may have to pay more than what we pay now, but I am sure people will be okay with that as long as they get water when they need it.

Let the name of that Corporation be Twenty-Four Hour Water Supply Limited so that the company would feel ashamed to not live up to their name, and work harder. This would also work as a positive brand for the company.

12 Work on building bigger storage tanks near water sources to store water during good water seasons

As I have mentioned earlier, a lot of water is wasted through overflows during the good seasons. We can store them for future use by building bigger tanks near the sources. If we are scared of flooding from such tank bursts, we can build many smaller tanks. That won’t cost a lot of money.

13 Make a holistic MASTER PLAN for Thimphu’s water supply for the next 10-20 years and start implementing it

The current problem is a result of no planning. When I started working in Thimphu in 2000 after graduating from a university in Australia, I was shocked to face water issues in water-rich country. And at that time, I raised the issue informally and formally in some gatherings. And 20 years down the line, we talk of the same issue. What a shame! More than 20 years ago, I spent four years in Australia from 1996 to 1999 and I don’t remember a day when the light went off or tap went dry.

Now is the time to make a Master Plan for 24-hour water supply and implement it. Budget can be mobilized if we have a proper plan. So, budget is not an excuse. For instance, DITT worked on the National Broadband Masterplan Implementation Project and connected almost all the Gewogs to the national fibreoptic network through that project. Why can’t we do the same with water supply?


C. Suggestions for the Long-term (beyond 1 year)


14 Complete building bigger storage tanks to store water during good water seasons

We need to do this and complete them so that we can store water for use during lean seasons.

15 Complete forming the Twenty-Four Hour Water Supply Limited and hand over the water supply work to this corporation.

Let the CEO of Twenty-Four Hour Water Supply Limited take full accountability for 24-hour water supply in the long run. Right now, it seems water supply is nobody’s priority.

16 Implement the Master Plan Phase-wsie starting as soon as possible
Start implementing the Master Plan suggested above as a short term initiative.

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This article is an edited version of the Facebook post made by the author in the morning of 6th April 2021. This is being published here for the future reference by the individuals and agencies concerned to see if any of these suggestions could be helpful in solving this persistent issue of our capital city. 

 

 

Monday, January 25, 2021

Lama Pema Wangchen– Bartsham’s Most Illustrious Son and Its Greatest Benefactor

 Lama Pema Wangchen– Bartsham’s Most Illustrious Son and Its Greatest Benefactor

By Tshering Cigay Dorji

Written on 25th January 2021

 Growing up in this fertile and beautiful village of Bartsham in upper Trashigang, not very far from Bhutan’s easternmost border with Tawang district of Arunachal Pradesh, India, I, as a child, heard people talking about our revered Lama Pema Wangchen in very respectful tones. Yet, it is only now that I have realized how much he has done for our village community. I think much of what Bartsham is today is because of Lama Pema Wangchen.

Lama Pema Wangchen in 1983 in Thimphu (Picture courtesy of Khenpo Phuntshok Tashi, "Nyima Shargi Choglay", 2013)

Since the 1960s and 70s, Bartsham had become an important spiritual centre in Eastern Bhutan with its famous Bartsham Chhador Lhakhang serving as its base. It not only hosted various religious events such as Tshechus, Drubchhen and Tshog offerings on auspicious dates, but it was also one of the few villages in the area that hosted a full three-day annual Tshechu in those days with various masked dances like in the Dzongs.

All these were introduced under the personal initiative and guidance of Lama Pema Wangchen, including the re-construction of the Chhador Lhakhang in 1977 which became one of the most beautiful Lhakhangs in eastern Bhutan during those times. Before that, there was an old dilapidated Lhakhang in its place which was said to have been constructed in the 1930s by Trongsa Dronyer Drepa Sangay Thinley of Bainangkhar Nagtsang in Bartsham. The main nang-ten (inner relic) of Chador Lhakhang has been the much-acclaimed self-arisen statue of Vajrapani (Chagna Dorje) since those times, hence the name Chador Lhakhang.   


The author in front of the old Chador Lhakhang built by Lama Pema Wangchen in 1977. Picture taken in 2019.

The self-arisen statue of Vajrapani (Chagna Dorje)which was brought to Bartsham from Dungsam by a groom who married a daughter of Yangkhar Khochhe of Bartsham. This is the most important nang-ten (inner relic) of Chador Lhakhang. It is believed to be a treasure revealed by Terton Pema Lingpa, and has the power to bestow great blessings and protection to devotees. (Piture courtesy: Jubiliant Travel Facebook Page)

Yet, this great man started his journey of life in the most humble of circumstances. He was born in 1923 and was raised by a single mother and his sister on a small farm. At the age of 12, he entered Trashigang Rabdey as a monk and studied there for about six years. In 1939, His Holiness Kyabje Dudjom Rinpoche visited Trashigang and consecrated the newly rebuilt Trashigang Dzong along with Lama Sonam Zangpo at the invitation of Trashigang Dzongpon Thinley Tobgay alias Sey Dopola. After the consecration, Lama Pema Wangchen, then as a young boy of 17, was one of the monks chosen to accompany and reach Lama Sonam Zangpo to his retreat place in Tsari Kiphug in Tibet.

After Lama Pema Wangchen reached Lama Sonam Zangpo to Tsari Kiphug and came back to Trashigang Dzong, his heart longed very strongly to go to Tibet to study and practise the Dharma under the great masters there. In those days, Tibet was the place where the Dharma was flourishing with many great masters, while Bhutan was seen as a peripheral place. Therefore, he approached his teachers and Lama Neten in Trashigang who granted him the permission to leave. He then went to see his mother and sister in Bartsham and then left for Tibet with nothing but great determination.

In Tibet, life was very difficult as he hardly had any personal resources to support himself. It was only his steely determination and perseverance that kept him going. He trained under masters such as Lama Thupten Nyendrag of Kongyul, Lama Kunzang Namtrul, Lama Menlam Rabzang, Lama Thupten, Jadrel Sangay Dorji and Kyabje Dudjom Rinpocehe among others.

In particular, he had great devotion for Kyabje Dudjom Rinpoche having received teachings and initiations from him since he was 17 years old at Trashigang Dzong, and he excelled in the teachings and practices of Dudjom Tersar lineage. 

When he returned to Bartsham in 1951 from Tibet, he had accomplished much spiritually because of his unfaltering devotion to his teachers, determination and perseverance. Yet, he was very humble and kept a very low profile and lived like an ordinary Dharma practitioner.

In those days, the community of Bartsham used to conduct an annual Tshechu at Cheten Lhakhang. Since Bartsham did not have any accomplished Lama, the people of Bartsham used to invite a lama called Galing Lopen from Galing to lead the ceremony. Lama Pema Wangchen, a young man then, attended the ceremony as one of the lay monks on one occasion. Galing Lopen struck up a conversation with Lama Pema Wangchen during the break, and the former was awestruck by how learned the young Lama Pema Wangchen was. So, Galing Lopen called all the monks and people together and said to them, “You have a great master among yourselves here, and yet you take all the pains to call me all the way from Galing. Lopen Nakulung (former name of Lama Pema Wangchen) is well qualified to lead all religious ceremonies and look after your welfare. He will benefit you all greatly in the future. I am also now quite old and I don’t think I can make it to your village from next year.”

It was only from then that Lama Pema Wangchen assumed a more important role and took in a number of followers and students. A number of existing Dharma practitioners in Bartsham became his disciples in addition to new ones joining. Among his most accomplished disciples are Lama Kunzang Wangdi alias LamaNyingkhu (1942 - 2018), a highly accomplished and multi-talented master, and the equally accomplished incumbent Bartsham Lama Ugyen Namdrol alias Lama Daupo who also studied and practised under Dudjom Rinpoche.

Bartsham's annual three-day festival of Chhoekhor in the 7th month of the Bhutanese calendar. (Picture courtesy: Bartsham community Facebook Page)

My uncle Ajang Wangchuk Dorji who studied as a kid under Lama Pema Wangchen recalls, “One of the greatest qualities of Lama Pema Wangchen was his humility and respect for other Lamas. He invited so many great masters and Lamas to Bartsham and let his own students and disciples learn from them. It was not just well known Rinpoches like Dungsey Rinpoche and Dzongsar Khyentse Rinpoche, but others.”

He recalls the following Lamas being invited to Bartsham to conduct religious ceremonies when he was a kid: Hao Hao Lama (real name could not be recalled), Bazaguru Lama,  Trulku Karma Ugyen and Geshe Sangay from Tongmi Yangtse. In addition, elders recall that Lama Pema Wangchen gave practical advice and guidance to the people on all aspects of life. 

In particular, Ajang recalls that Lama Pema Wangchen invited Dungsey Rinpoche in 1969 to give Dudjom Lineage teachings, and Rinpoche stayed for about six months in Bartsham Dupchu Gonpa conferring all the important teachings.

Lama Pema Wangchen started the three-day annual Tshechu from 13th to 15th day of 10th month of the Bhutanese calendar with masked dances in 1966. This is the most important annual festival of Bartsham village to which people from most neighbouring villages used to come too. This replaced the one-day event called Dawa Tshechu that used to be held on the 10th day of the 3rd month of the Bhutanese calendar in the past.

I mentioned earlier that Chador Lakhang was constructed in 1977. However, completing all the intricate internal works, including the statues, carvings and paintings normally take a long time to complete. So, it was only in 1985 that all internal and external works of the Lhakhang were complete in every sense. To mark the occasion, Lama Pema Wangchen invited Dzongsar JamyangKhyentse Rinpoche, then only 24 years old, to preside over the first Vajrakilaya Drubchen held in Bartsham Chador Lhakhang. Since then, it has become an annual event.

It was then that Lama Pema Wangchen and the community leaders of Bartsham unanimously decided, with deep devotion and prayers for future well-being of the community, to hand over Chador Lhakhang to Dzongsar Khyentse Rinpoche for his care and patronage. Given the genuine love and devotion with which the offer was made, Rinpoche accepted it although it might have been an additional responsibility and burden for him. Since then, the strong ties of samaya between the people of Bartsham and Rinpoche remains unbroken to this day, and I think this is thanks mainly to the untainted prayers of our Lama Pema Wangchen.

Today, there is a thriving monastic school in Chador Lhakhang with many young monks supported by Dzongsar Khyentse Rinpoche’s foundation. On top of that, Khyentse Rinpoche chooses Bartsham as the venue for some of his most important Dharma teachings in Bhutan as we have seen in recent years. This brings immense benefit to the people, not only spiritually, but also economically since many of Rinpoche’s followers from around the world flock to Bartsham for these teachings. 

It is thanks to Dzongsar Khyentse Rinpoche’s support and guidance that Bartsham Lama Kunzang Wangdi alias Lama Nyingkhu was able to build the new and bigger Lhakhang in front of the old Lhakhang. The new Lhakhang construction was funded mainly by the foreign devotees of Lama Kunzang Wangdi and Dzongsar Khyentse Rinpoche and was completed in 2018 just before Lama Kunzang Wangdi passed away untimely due to kidney failure.

The author in front of the new Lhakhang constructed in 2018 by Lama Kunzang Wangdi alias Lama Nyingkhu. Picture Taken in 2019.

The Chador Lhakhang compound with the view of both the old and new Lhakhang.(Picture courtesy: Bhutan Travellhari)



The Chador Lhakhang compound with the view of both the old and new Lhakhang. 

The present Lama of Bartsham, Lama Ugyen Namdrol alias Lama Daupo is an equally accomplished Lama like Lama Kunzang Wangdi. Devoid of any interest in worldly material pursuits, he invests whatever he receives in the form of offering from his devotees to Dharma activities. These are ultimately, the living legacies of Lama Pema Wangchen.

As the scent of a beautiful flower spreads far and wide and attracts bees from afar, so did the fame of our Lama Pema Wangchen’s spiritual accomplishments spread far and wide and attracted many followers from places beyond Bartsham. In 1974, His Majesty the Fourth King had just been formally crowned. Lyonpo Tamzhing Jagar, the powerful Home Minister who had served since the reign of the Third King, felt that the nation would need to conduct some powerful tantric rituals to cleanse any simmering obstacles for the well being of the nation. And his search for a master to conduct this ritual narrowed down to Lama Pema Wangchen. 

So, the Government sent messengers with the invitation to Lama Pema Wangchen to come to Thimphu. And in Thimphu, his Tantric accomplishments became even more well known. Needless to say that this brought Bartsham to the notice of higher authorities and might have helped in bringing developmental benefits to the village too. 

For one ritual, it is said that a drop of blood from an owl was needed and the Government sent soldiers into the jungle to catch one. But they failed to get one. When this was reported to the Lama, he said it was not a problem. Then an owl mysteriously appeared at the window of the altar room. So, it was caught and a small drop of blood drawn with a syringe and let free. Attracting the owl from nowhere was attributed to the Tantric power of the Lama.

Lama Pema Wangchen spent his time mostly in Thimphu conducting important rituals for the nation from the late 1970s until his death in 1990. While in Thimphu, he lived in his simple residence in Zilukha and this is where he passed away too.

A very elaborate funeral befitting the Lama of his stature and accomplishments was conducted at a peaceful hillock with a great view of the surrounding areas called Ridi Sirsa in Bartsham. Today, a Chorten dedicated to his memory stands there, where devotees still come to pray and offer their respects to this great man who uplifted and transformed his community within his lifetime.

 

References:

1. Khenpo Phuntshok Tashi, Nyima Shargi Choglay, Sharwai Karma Namsum, Tshokye Dorje Foundation, Thimphu, 2013.

2. Oral Interviews of older generation Bartshampas


Sunday, January 24, 2021

What does a Bodhisattva look like and how does he/she act?

 What does a Bodhisattva look like and how does he/she act?

The opening paragraphs of the chapter ‘The Bodhisattva Perspective’ in the book ‘The Tantric Distinction’ by Jeffrey Hopkins gives a very good answer to this question. I couldn't help reproducing the following excerpt for more people to see. 

“The Dalai Lama mentioned in a lecture in  India during 1972 that all beings are always kind. Shortly after hearing this teaching, I visited the elder of the Dalai Lama's two tutors, a man who seemed to me the very incarnation of love.

I asked him how it could be said that sentient beings are always only kind.  He answered that all beings are kind because they are our field of merit, those in relation to whom we can practice helpful attitudes that empower our minds.

To my sight, he was a person who truly viewed beings this way. My impression that he possessed profound recognition of all sentient beings as extraordinarily valuable was so strong that it was almost painful to be in his presence. His magnanimity offended the part of my mind that wanted him to value me specially. I wanted him to think,  "This is an intelligent person," or,  "lt is so nice to see this person." He did in fact appear to  take strong pleasure in seeing me;  his attitude was neither neutral nor passive. Yet, I knew from his presence that his sense of joy would be equally great on seeing any other sentient being. He would recognize any particular positive or negative qualities, but he would not  value people differently because of them. His valuation was based on something deeper than those qualities, and it was a marvellous teaching just to enter his presence because it required me to  forsake a few baser qualities while I was there.”



Sunday, November 01, 2020

Background History on the Construction of the National Memorial Chorten in Thimphu, Bhutan

 The National Memorial Chorten is one of the most important landmarks of Thimphu, the capital city of Bhutan. This beautiful stupa is a sanctuary for a lot of senior citizens and retirees who spend their time reciting mantras, circumbulating it or meditating in peace and calm.  It is also one of the must visit tourist attractions in Thimphu, and the venue of various religious events throughout the year.

Picture of Thimphu Memorial Chorten (Courtesy: Wikimedia Commons)

People generally know it as a Chorten built in memory of His Majesty the Third King of Bhutan, His Majesty Jigme Dorji Wangchuck, who is fondly remembered as the father of modern Bhutan. It was during his reign that Bhutan opened up to the outside world and started the modern development with the first Five Year Plan in 1961. He passed away in 1972 at the young age of 43 years. In his 20 year reign, he achieved much for Bhutan including many important reforms in the legislative, executive and judicial arms of the Government.

His Majesty the Third King was also a great supporter of the Buddha Dharma. According to the biography of Her Majesty Ashi Phuntsho Choden (His Majesty the Third King’s mother), written by Lopen Yonten Phuntsho and published in 2013 (see cover picture below), the Third King wanted to build four chortens in the four corners of Bhutan and a Jangchub Chorten with Rigsum Gonpo as Nangten in Bumthang, Central Bhutan, for the peace and security of the country. When his Majesty shared his idea with Lam Gyalwang Nyima, one of the Lamas that His Majesty used to consult on religious matters, then serving as the Principal of Semtokha Rigzhung School, and asked him about his thoughts, Lam Gyalwang Nyima submitted to His Majesty that it was indeed very wonderful that His Majesty had thought about such a project that would greatly benefit all sentient beings in this degenerate age. Lam Gyalwang Nyima suggested to His Majesty that it would be best to consult the peerless master Dudjom Rinpoche Jigdral Yeshe Dorji, the one revered as the living representative of Guru Padmasambhava himself. At that time, Dudjom Rinpoche was residing in Kalimpong which is just few hundred kilometres from the Bhutan border in Phuentsholing.


Front Cover of the Biography of Her Majesty Ashi Phuntsho Choden by Lopen Yonten Phuntsho

Accordingly, the Third King deputed Lam Gyalwang Nyima with a letter to go to Kalimpong to consult Dudjom Rinpoche. Dudjom Rinpoche, based on his spiritual contemplation and prediction, advised that building a Jangchub Chorten in Thimphu, capital city of Bhutan, with Ka-Gong-Phur-sum as the Nangten would be great for the world peace in general and the peace and security of Bhutan in particular. He further assured that he would personally ask his son, Dungsey Thinley Norbu Rinpoche to oversee its construction from start to finish.

Dudjom Rinpoche had already visited Bhutan several times before that. Khenpo Phuntshok Tashi's book 'Nyima Shargi Chhogley' mentions that Dudjom Rinpoche visited Paro Taktshang to perform the Phurpa Namchapudri Drubchen in 1937 at the age of about 33 years. The same book mentions the following: In 1939, Dudjom Rinpoche visited eastern Bhutan via Guwahati in India, which happended to coincide auspiciously (not planned) with the time for the consecration of the newly rebuilt Trashigang Dzong. That started the connection with the then Trashigang Dzongpon, Thinley Tobgye, alias Sey Dopola (Grandfather of Yab Dhondup Gyaltshen, father of our Queen Her Majesty Gyaltsuen Ashi Jetsun Pema Wangchuck). Dudjom Rinpoche visited Trashigang two more times at the invitation of Sey Dopola in 1944 and 1952. After that, he again visited Trashigang in 1970 at the invitation of Lama Sonam Zangpo, Mongar Dzongdag Samdrup and Trashigang Dzongdag Dasho Tenzin Dorji.

Now, coming back to the Chorten construction, given the myriad responsibilities vying for His Majesty’s time and attention, the project could not be started before his Majesty’s untimely death in 1972. The biography of Ashi Phuntsho Choden by Lopen Yonten Phuntsho mentions that His Majesty asked his mother to complete this project after his death as his health was failing fast and he knew that he would not live too long.

Ashi Phuntsho Choden was an epitome of natural grace, beauty and compassion, and also well learned in Buddhist philosophy and grammar. A true Dharma practitioner and believed to be an embodiment of a dakini, people who served her in her old age recall how gentle, compassionate, understanding and generous she always was. His Majesty the Third King was her only surviving child, having lost a daughter at a very young age. Incidentally, Ashi Phuntsho Choden is a sister of our Queen Gyaltsuen Ashi Jetsun Pema's maternal grandfather. 

Therefore according to the wishes of the Late King, the Chorten construction started under the patronage of Her Majesty Ashi Phuntsho Choden after he passed away. According to the biography of Ashi Phuntsho Choden, the ground-breaking ceremony (Salang Tendrel) for the construction was held on 10th September 1972 by Dujom Rinpoche and Dilgo Khyentse Rinpoche, coinciding with the 3rd day of the 8th month of the Water Male Rat Year as per the Bhutanese calendar.

Bartsham Lama Ugyen Namdrol (alias Lama Daupo) also recalls serving as an assistant for Dungsey Thinley Norbu Rinpoche one very early morning (before dawn) in the rain in performing a pre-construction ritual for the Chorten. "I had spent the night in the same house where Dungsey Rinpoche resided. It was a house inside the current RBP compound below the Chorten. We woke up very early, much before dawn and walked in the rain to the spot where the Chorten stands today. When Dungsey Rinpoche and I made it through the mud to perform the rituals from one side of the spot identified for the Chorten construction, Dilgo Khyentse Rinpoche was already there in one corner under a big umbrella chanting prayers."

Bartsham Lama Ugyen Namdrol at the Memorial Chorten during the Phurpai Drubchen ceremony in October 2020 (Picture by Gomchen Ugyen Chophel of Bartsham Gomde)

The construction was overseen by Dungsey Thinley Norbu Rinpoche, son of Dudjom Rinpoche, and was completed in three years. It is quite remarkable that it was completed in such a short time, given so many intricately designed statues inside the Chorten. Even in this day and age, such projects take a long time, many stretching into five years or more.

Dudjom Rinpoche and his descendents continue to bless and benefit the Bhutanese people to this day, with his grandsons Dzongsar Khyentse Rinpoche and Garab Rinpoche working tirelessly to keep the flame of Buddha dharma burning bright in Bhutan, though they have great many followers outside Bhutan vying for their precious time and teachings.

The ground floor of the chorten contains the statues of Vajrakīlaya (ཕུར་པའི་ལྷ་ཚོགས), the middle floor is dedicated to Drubpa Kagyed (སྒྲུབ་པ་བཀའ་བརྒྱད་ not འབྲུག་པ་བཀའ་བརྒྱུད་ as sometimes mistaken) and the top floor is dedicated to Gongdü teachings (དགོངས་འདུས་) of Sangay Lingpa, as confirmed by Dr. Karma Phuntsho, a well-known Bhutanese scholar, and author of a comprehensive history of Bhutan titled 'History of Bhutan'.

The consecration ceremony was performed by Dudjom Rinpoche on the 9th day of the 4th month of the Wood Male Tiger Year (1974). Ashi Phuntsho Choden's biography mentions that attendees saw flames emerge automatically from the statues of Vajrakilalaya as Dujom Rinpoche performed the rites of the consecration ceremony – a true sign of the accomplishments of Dudjom Rinpoche and true mark of the blessedness of the Chorten.

For more detailed information on the Memorial Chorten, it is recommended that one refer Dunsey Thinley Norbu Rinpoche's account titled "Duddul Yul ley Nampar Gyalwai Cheten Chenmoi Karchhag Dorduepai Tshulgi Koedpa Norbu Bedruryai Doshel".

Dudjom Rinpoche Jigdral Yeshe Dorje performing the consecration ceremony of the Memorial Chorten (Picture from Ashi Phuntsho Choden's biography)


Key people behind the construction of the Memorial Chorten. Left to right: Lyonpo Tamzhing Jagar, Dudjom Rinpoche, HM Ashi Phuntsho Choden and Dungsey Thinley Norbu Rinpoche. (Picture source: Ashi Phuntsho Choden's Biography)

The following prayer, composed by Dudjom Rinpoche in dedication to the Chorten mention that it has the power to clear all obstacles and bestow good health on all devotees who circumbulate it as many times as they can.

1.  

Prayer composed by Late Dudjom Rinpoche Jigdral Yeshe Dorje about the Memorial Chorten's power to bestow blessings on devotees 

3.

The

Bartsham Lama Ugyen Namdrol chants the prayer of Memorial Chorten composed by Dudjom Rinpoche, on 14 Oct. 2020, during the Phurpai Drubchen 2020. Video recorded by Gomchen Ugyen Chophel of Bartsham Chador Lhakhang Gomde. 

The Prayer of Memorial Chorten composed by Dudjom Rinpoche, chanted by Bartshampa Gomchens on the closing day of Phurpai Drubchen 2020, on 16 October 2020.

   

The following are the key people involved in the construction of this beautiful Chorten that was completed in three years, according to the biography of Ashi Phuntsho Choden:

1. Her Majesty Ashi Phuntsho Choden – Patron

2. Kyabje Dungsey Thinley Norbu Rinpoche – Overall Project Director

3. Lama Sonam Zangpo – In-charge of Zung and Gold plating

4. Lyonpo Tamzhing Jagar – Chief Coordinator of Works

5. Phongmey Drungpa Drep Dolma Tshering – In charge of workers

6. Begarna Jigmela – maker of wood replica of Chorten as per design

7. Tsangpa Lopen Phuntsho Zangpo – painter

8. Begarna Lopen Yeshe Dorji (father) and his sons Lopen Wangchuk and Lopen Lodroe – painters and sculptors

9. Lopen Damchoe from Paro Hephu (elder brother) and his younger brother Lopen Dendup – sculptors

10. Lobzang from Paro Tsentochukha – head mason

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Sunday, May 24, 2020

Doing the Thimphu-Dungtsho Trek in One Day - a Test of Endurance

We had planned a one-day trek to Drakey Pangtsho with a group from JDW National Referral Hospital via Paro Drukgyal Dzong on 2nd May 2020 coinciding with Zhabdrung Kuchhoe, the death anniversary of the Zhabdrung Ngawang Namgyal, the founding father of Bhutan. It was also a Saturday and we would have the whole Sunday to rest after the trek. But the night before, a notification had been issued by the Gewog Administration of Tsento Gewog in Paro that the visit to Drakey Pangtsho lake was being restricted with immediate effect given the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic situation. So, the group immediately changed our plans to visit the Dungtsho instead.

Fig. 1. Google Map showing Dungtsho, Phajoding and Motithang. See how far Dungtsho is from Phajoding to get a proper perspective on its distance. 

It is generally advised that the Thimphu - Dungtsho trek be undertaken over the course of two days given the long distance (See the review by Druktrails.com here: https://www.druktrails.com/phajoding-dungtsho-lake-hike-of-thimphu/ ). However, our group decided to do it in one day. We were not really used to trekking much and we had members of both gender above the age of 40. Yet, our decision was driven more by our courage and determination than by our real abilities. As you would see from how arduous it was for us and how long we took to do this, we would also recommend that this trek be done in two days, unless you are a group of young people with good experience in undertaking long mountain treks.









We started our trek from the roadpoint above the Royal Takin Reserve in Motithang at 5 am. By 8 am, we passed the Phajoding monastery and reached the Jambayang temple below Thujedrak. However, from there on wards till the Thujedrak top, it seems we took it rather easy allowing our friends lagging behind to catch up. So, it was 10 am by the time we all reached Thujedrak top (Altitude: over 4000m). Getting till here and back to Thimphu is itself  considered a tough one-day trek for many, especially for non-Bhutanese who are not used to high altitude. 



From there to the lake, we thought it may be only two hours. But we were gravely mistaken. The distance turned out to be four long hours. I had been there once in the year 2000. We did it as a two-day trek then. But I had forgotten how long it took us. 

From Thukjedrak top, the trek follows the Tourism Council of Bhutan - approved Drukpath trek route. The path is wide and follows almost a level path except for few gentle climbs. You can get great views of the surrounding mountains as you trek along. I really admired the natural rock formations that made the whole landscape look like a well crafted Japanese garden. 

There is something indescribable you can receive from the vast beautiful mountain landscape. It is there so solid and unshakable, yet so welcoming in it's warm and quiet embrace. Your whole body and soul feels rejuvenated. So I really love taking time to be in the mountains once in awhile, away from the mundane meetings in Thimphu. Please experience it yourself if you are not into it already.





 

From Thukjedrak, the next milestone target is the Labala pass, considered to be the highest point on the Drukpath trek between Paro and Thimphu, and it is roughly half way between Dungtsho and Thukjedrak top. We chanted Jigten Wangchuk prayer (supplication to Zhabdrung Rinpoche) and medidated there before proceeding further.






After passing Labala, there is a gentle descent after which we come across few small lakes. Some had dried up since monsoon was yet to start. Then there is another climb up to cross another small pass. After passing this pass, we begin to see more lakes. We would then soon pass by a lake just beside the trek route. I am not sure what the name of the lake is, but it lies just beside the path we have to take.





Soon after passing this lake, we reach the diversion from the Drukpath trek route to go towards Dungtsho. It is a diversion to the right. There is a sign showing the direction to Dungtsho, but without it, it can easily be missed. The path is faint and not well trodden like the drukpath trek that continues forward.


After taking this diversion, the next milestone is the view of the Simkota Lake. After the view of the Simkota lake, we were quite tired and thought that Dungtsho must be near. But it was still quite far. May be another hour or so. From there on wards, our path was filled with snow. It made walking more difficult. The wind was cold and carried hailstones with it.










We trudged on, and suddenly, as I descended a small slope, I got a feeling that we were reaching the lake. But it was Ja Nya Tsho, not the Dungtsho. Disappointed, i trudged on through the snowcovered path.

When we at last made it to Dungtsho, it was 2 pm. Nine hours had passed since we began our journey at 5 am. The majestic view of the Dungtsho was worth all the effort we had put in. Over the next 30 minutes or so, we chanted prayers, made a fire and offered incense offerings, and took many photographs. Our tired limbs felt rejuvenated by our achievement and all tired faces seemed fresh.







Having relished the climax of our journey, we started back. We still hadn't eaten the packed lunch. The snows at Dungtsho didn't make a perfect place to eat there. So, on the way back, we had our packed lunch above the Simkota lake once the snow-covered path ended.




From then on, it was a gruelling journey back. I was worried that some of our lady friends might find it hard to move on. The hailstorms started falling and slowly turned to snow. It was a very bad combination of conditions: we were thoroughly tired but had a long way back and we were in the middle of nowhere, and the hailstorm and snow pounded on us from the top. Our shoes were wet. That made walking difficult. I had read somewhere before - when you trek, never allow your socks to get wet and reach your feet inside. But we were now all walking with wet socks. We crossed the Labala pass under hailstorm and snow. Somewhow, everybody was able to keep up pace.

When we finally made it to the Thujedrak top above Phajoding, it was around 5.30 pm. 12.5 hours had passed since our journey started that morning. Our only worry was that we would have to walk in the dark. Most of us had used up our phone batteries by taking too many pictures in excitement.

We slowly started our descent. By the time we passed the last temple in Phajoding, darkness was slowly creeping in. We walked in groups. In my group, we were four of us, and luckily, we had two phones which had sufficient batteries to light the way down. But then again, rain did not spare us from time to time making the way slippery. Even in daylight, it is common to slip and fall on this way down. In the night, we had to be extra careful.

We might have walked very slow given the condition of our legs and also the slippery path downhill. It was 8.30 pm when we finally reached the roadpoint where we had parked our cars in the morning. We were happy that at least we all made it to Duntsho and back in one day without any mishap. We had taken a total of 15.5 hours. We thanked the Triple Gem, Guru Rinpoche and the Guardian Deities for their blessings.


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