Stories and Photos from the Bhutan Pilgrimage

Stories and Photos from the Bhutan Pilgrimage


In October of 2013, Lama Palden traveled to India and then led a group on pilgrimage to Bhutan. In the article below, she vividly describes some of the highlights of the trip.

pilgrimsLAMA PALDEN: A number of us from the Sukhasiddhi community recently returned from a pilgrimage to Bhutan, where we were welcomed with katas and loving kindness by Benchen Khenpo Rinpoche, his wife Rigzen and Lama Sonam — a student of the late Tertön Padgyal Lingpa and Benchen’s nephew. The sun shone as did the pilgrims faces as they streamed off the tour bus and I introduced them one by one to Rinpoche. Three of us from Sukhasiddhi had arrived the day before from Delhi, and so were on hand to welcome the main group flying in from Bangkok. Our group was 24 from the States, plus four with the guides and drivers. And we were often accompanied, to our great pleasure, by the three Bhutanese mentioned above. (Photo: Some of the pilgrims)

LP_with_TaiSituRinpocheI had gone to India a week early to meet with Tai Situ Rinpoche, one of the lamas I have been fortunate to know for many years. He is the root guru of HH Karmapa and the young Kalu Rinpoche, and one of the primary Kagyu and Shangpa lineage holders. The drive up to his monastic complex in Himalchal Pradesh entails cars and bicycles driving towards you on the wrong side of the freeway, animals and people crossing randomly while cars zoom by at 50-60 miles an hour, and then after the freeway gives way for a short time to mellow country roads, the paved road often turned to dirt and rocks next to a cliff, with trucks and cars coming towards us — passing by an inch or two as we continued to climb thousands of feet. Of course it was like this in Bhutan as well, although less chaotic–the Himalayan region had a particularly bad monsoon this last summer. (Photo: Lama Palden with Tai Situ Rinpoche)

Eventually we made it up to Sherabling, situated in a pine forest with the snow mountains in the background, where Situ Rinpoche provides for hundreds of monks, nuns and foreign dharma students from around the world. Sherabling now includes a monastery, nunnery, male and female shedras (monastic colleges), male and female three-year retreat centers, as well as a Western-style school for the young monastics in addition to their regular training. It also has a 200-bed foreign student guest house. Unfortunately, we were not able to stay there as one needs a special permit to stay at monasteries in the area. We were grateful to be able to see Rinpoche twice for long talks.

LP_with_JetsunTenzinPalmo We were fortunate to also have a good visit with Jetsun Tenzin Palmo at the nunnery (Tib: ani gompa) she founded nearby called Dongyu Gatsal Ling. It was inspiring and deeply gratifying to see that the nuns now have excellent facilities for living, studying, debating and for long retreats, as well as having a gorgeous new lhakhang, primarily painted with Taras, Prajnaparamita and other female awakened ones. Jetsunma explained that having a beautiful temple lets the girls feel like they are worth something. The atmosphere felt happy and relaxed, and the nuns are clearly thriving. (Photo: Lama Palden with Jetsun Tenzin Palmo)

After the group had time to settle for a bit at our hotel, the pilgrimage began in earnest. We started off visiting and praying at the giant, 169-foot bronze and gold Buddha statue on the mountainside above Thimphu, Bhutan’s capital. The project necessitated international cooperation, most notably between India and China –Bhutan’s monolithic neighbors that are not friendly towards each other. Maybe that was the statue’s first activity of peace building.

celebrationThat first day of our pilgrimage was Lha Bab Duchen (Kagyu calendar), the commemoration of the day when the Buddha came back down to earth after teaching his mother in a heavenly realm. This is one of the four great religious holidays of the Vajrayana calendar and so hundreds of lay people turned out at the Memorial Stupa (Tibetan: chörten) that the Royal family had Trinley Norbu Rinpoche build in the early 70’s to commemorate the third king, a great Dharma ruler, of the present dynasty. We were happy to pay homage, winding our way up a tiny, narrow, circling staircase wrapped around the three-dimensional, three-story Dorje Phurba, (Sanskrit: Vajra Kilaya) mandala inside the stupa. Afterwards, we sat on the grass outside and chanted Guru Rinpoche’s seven-line prayer. It was a good beginning. (Photo: outside the Chörten)

As our pilgrimage wound around and around on the curvy roads, our next major stop was the Punakha valley, where we first prayed and meditated in the Drukpa Kunley lhakhang

[temple]. Drukpa Kunley is the most revered crazy mahasiddha in Bhutan, beloved over the centuries by many generations of Bhutanese. The next day, on a bridge over a sacred river, chanting mantras and praying, we scattered the ashes three pilgrims had brought of their loved ones. I was by then beginning to realize that I had pneumonia, so I went back to rest for half a day, while the pilgrims hiked up to Khamsum Namgyal chörten. Also dedicated to Dorje Phurba, one of the queen mothers had this built in the 90’s on a site that Guru Rinpoche had recommended as an auspicious holy spot. Breathtakingly lovely, the group was able to have a deep meditation inside.

punakhadzong They also visited Punakha Dzong, perhaps the most impressive (it’s a tough competition) of the dzongs in Bhutan. Dzongs, built as fortresses, usually house government offices, lhakhangs and monasteries. The main lhakhang can seat thousands and has gorgeous, large statutes of the three figures most often seen in every Bhutanese lhakhang: Guru Rinpoche, Shakyamuni Buddha and the Shabdrung, a Tibetan rinpoche who unified Bhutan and ruled as both a secular and religious leader in the 17th century. (Photo: Punakha Dzong)

lhakhangOnce we reached the Bumthang area, Benchen Khenpo, Lama Sonam and Rigzin joined usagain, just in time to visit the place where Longchen Rabjam, the great 14th century Dzogchen yogi and writer, lived for many years. We were again blessed to meditate in the old lhakhang and to meet Khenpo Nyima, who is restoring and building better monastic quarters here, as well as new lhakhangs. I was thrilled that we were able to visit this sacred place of Longchenpa, where also many of the lamas I knew in Bhutan in my early days–including Dilgo Khyentse, Loppon Nado, and Nyöshul Khenpo–spent time. (Photo: Lama Sonam, Khenpo Nyima, Benchen Khenpo and Rigzin)

The pilgrimage continued on to more caves and lhakhangs where Guru Rinpoche, Yeshe Tsogyal, Milarepa, Machig Lhadron and many others practiced over the 12-13 centuries of Buddhism in Bhutan. We continued to have ever deepening meditations and spiritual experiences, not the least of which were in the presence of Maitreya Buddha statues in the Guru Rinpoche temples. As we drank in the blessings of these sacred places, each of us were purifying, transforming and healing in our own ways. Even though I did turn out to have pneumonia, I felt completely held in the love of both our visible and invisible hosts.

LP_with_AniYesheIn Trongsa district, we also made pilgrimage to Karma Drubdey nunnery, founded by Khenpo Tsultrim Gyamtso Rinpoche, one of my dearly beloved teachers. We had the most delicious lunch here followed by a catch-up with the head Anila, and then meditation in the lhakhang. Here we enjoyed the , exquisite murals, all painted by the nuns themselves. (Photo: Ani Yeshe with Lama Palden)

Our last night in Thimphu, before going back to Paro and up to Taksang (Eng: Tiger’s Nest), Benchen Khenpo, his wife and nephew treated us to a beautiful dinner adorned by native singers and dancers. We were also honored to have with us two Ministers from the Cabinet,and the General in charge of the Royal Body Guard. The minister, who is Cabinet Chair, talked to us about the pillars of the Gross National Happiness policy.

taktsangOur last couple of days were spent in the Paro Valley. In addition to the powerful places of Guru Rinpoche — while I rested, everyone else made it up to Taktsang, where Guru Rinpoche, Yeshe Tsogyal, Machig and Milarepa all meditated. Then we visited Thangtong Gyalpo’s chörten and again wound our way up inside the stupa. This place is particularly meaningful for us as Shangpa practitioners, since Thangtong Gyalpo, great mahasiddha and bridge builder (14-15th c.), was a very important Shangpa lineage holder and the author of many of our commentaries. Many of us felt a strong connection with this humble chörten as we looked around and saw the Shangpa yidams, protectors and dakinis painted on the walls. Thangtong Gyalpo also gave us the Chenresig meditation on compassion that people do all over the world. Om Mani Padme Hum! (Photo: Taktsang Monastery)

All in all, I was again so honored and delighted to walk, pray, meditate, visit and lay my head down in this beloved country, this land of Buddhadharma. Many thanks to all the pilgrims, to Benchen Khenpo and his family and guides, to everyone who made the pilgrimage possible, and to all those who shared their lives with us.

Love to you all,

Lama Palden

Leave A Comment