By Lisa Napoli, adapted from her book Radio Shangri-La: What I Learned in Bhutan, the Happiest Kingdom on Earth, coming from Crown Publishing on February 8 (but available for pre-order now). You can read a review of the book in our March 2011 issue, coming soon and featuring Pema Chodron’s “Smile at Fear” teachings.
The weekend my hosts in Bhutan squired me away to the most sacred spot in the kingdom, I didn’t understand how important our destination was—or would wind up being for me. I’d arrived a week earlier from Los Angeles to volunteer at Kuzoo FM, a start-up radio station for Bhutanese youth; I knew very little about the country, and next to nothing about Mahayana Buddhism; a chance encounter at a party in New York had led to an invitation to spend six weeks here, and I eagerly accepted. My interest in Bhutan was more about its evolving media culture and its impact on the nation’s commitment to “gross national happiness” over rampant growth and development. I wasn’t particularly looking to soak up the spirituality of Shangri-La, the last Buddhist Kingdom (as some consider Bhutan to be).
Still, I didn’t take this opportunity — to live and volunteer for six weeks in a once-in-a-lifetime travel destination — lightly. I was fed up with my life back home, and saw this as a chance to escape, even if only temporarily. My work as a reporter on a public radio show about money and economics felt more hollow and meaningless with each day. So did the madness of a large city filled with stressed-out people driving hours to get to jobs they didn’t like to buy things they didn’t need. Perhaps this exotic place would inspire me in a new direction.
Here I was now, in the back of a tinny passenger van, with Kesang, Pema, and Ngawang, three twenty-something year old Bhutanese employees of Kuzoo, and Pema’s little sister, headed to a place called Taktsang. All I knew about it was that it was deemed an important location for a visitor to see; the boss at the radio station had insisted I be taken there as soon as possible. A walk, a road trip, a sacred monastery — it all sounded like a lovely way to spend a cold winter’s Sunday in January, halfway around the world from home.
Even though I was fighting to deny it, the twin effects of the time change and altitude adjustment were addling my brain and body. The bumpy, death-defying 50-mile trip from Thimphu to Paro didn’t help my condition. But I suppressed my queasiness in the name of adventure.
As we pulled into the parking area, we spotted two other westerners who were volunteering in the capital city and had been there a while longer than me. I’d met Ed, a golf pro, just the day before; he’d told me about his friend Pam, a nurse. (Running into people in unlikely places would become of the things I’d grow to love about living in Bhutan.) Now our party had two additional members, a spur-of-the-moment insta-family ranging in age from 20 to 60. All together, we began the climb.
This was before I’d learned that Bhutanese often underestimate the intensity of a walk. “Uphill,” “downhill,” “steep,” or “paved” aren’t factors or considerations. It hadn’t occurred to me to ask beforehand how long this journey, up to this place I didn’t know about, would be. Here in Bhutan, I didn’t want to let practical details stop me from trying anything.
“They say it’ll be 45 minutes to an hour up,” Pam and Ed told me, skeptically, as elderly pilgrims scurried past us, loaded down with their offerings of heavy sacks of oil for butter lamps, and colorful canisters filled with lunch. From what little I could make out of it, the structure known as Taktsang looked farther away than an hour’s climb to me, too. Ed said he’d met several people in Thimphu who couldn’t make it all the way up.
I didn’t allow myself to calculate the route. I just unzipped my heavy down coat, and moved forward.
The stairs up to Taktsang, when there are any, are narrow, and the path is steep and winding. As the enormous gold-tipped monastery came into clearer focus, I gasped. It looked like it was hanging off a cliff. It became obvious as we got closer that it was, in fact, built into the side of the cliff. It seemed improbable that a structure could ever be constructed there, much less hundreds of years ago, gracing the mountain on which it seemed to hang.
As we walked, we quickly skipped past the polite how-do-you-dos of new friends; something about this location and our excursion immediately bound us all together as if we were old pals. Ed, a devout and longtime practitioner, explained to Pam and me why just why Taktsang is so important—to the Bhutanese, and to Buddhism. In the 6th century, he said, Padmasambhava — who would be credited with bringing Buddhism to Tibet and Bhutan — flew into a cave there on the back of a tiger, to subdue an evil being. “After turning the bad guy into a rock, he figured while he was here he would also convert Bhutan to Buddhism,” Ed told us.
We continued our climb. Our Bhutanese friends were way ahead of us, with the exception of Kesang, the driver and only non-English speaker in the bunch, who kindly stayed to the rear of the group to keep it together. Though she was wearing flat white dress shoes, Pema was in the lead, far ahead of us. At some point, she sensed that we weren’t keeping pace with her and retraced her steps to make sure we were okay. Pam in particular was having a rough time with the climb, not because she wasn’t fit or intrepid (she was ample doses of both) but because the twin effects of the altitude (ten thousand feet) and the sheer drop of the cliff had hit her hard. She insisted she didn’t want to stay back, though, and Pema and Ngawang helped her make her way.
I myself was starting to feel a bit giddy. How beautiful this was, how odd it was that I was here, how magnificent the vista. I’d often found myself craving nature back in Los Angeles, staring longingly at the distant mountains from my apartment window. Now I had nature in abundance. The site of a beatific, naked twelve-year-old boy followed by a flock of (clothed) older men rushing past us amped up the surreality of the moment.
“Who is that?” we three non-Bhutanese asked our friends.
“A monk,” answered Pema, nonchalantly.
“It’s not our business to ask,” she responded.
Shamed a bit by my unwelcome curiosity, I continued to climb. It was around the halfway point that my giddiness suddenly, inexplicably turned to pure joy. I’d felt happy before, of course; I’d felt moments of transcendence at the most unexpected times; but this was different, as if a bolt of pure love and God pierced through me, and then enveloped me. Here I was in a kingdom, surrounded by people I’d just met but felt I’d known forever. (Though the truth was they were people I might not ever see again after this adventure was over.) I wallowed in the pristine Himalayan air; all my worries, regrets, fears, everything evaporated. In that moment, everything that had happened to me in my 43 years on earth, good and bad and indifferent, came into focus. They had led me here. I felt ecstatic, alive in a way I’d never felt before, and I felt the purest sense of calm I’d ever known.
It took us three hours to reach our destination. Ed went into one of the hallways for privacy, and began chanting; I knew he didn’t intend for us to hear the sound of his prayers, but it was impossible to avoid. My Bhutanese friends prostrated at the various altars. The privilege of seeing and hearing these people worship intensified how I was feeling. This, I thought, is grace.
It was me who had the harder time on the descent from Taktsang. Ngawang and Pema helped me make my way. It must have been a cocktail of the altitude and the repressed jet lag and the emotion. That night, as I fell asleep in my little apartment, I knew somehow I’d never be the same. I just couldn’t know at that moment what, exactly, that meant.
Lisa Napoli is a journalist whose last staff job was on the public radio show Marketplace. An early chronicler of the dawn of the World Wide Web as a columnist at the New York Times CyberTimes, she has also been the Internet correspondent at MSNBC. She began her career at CNN, worked in local news in North Carolina, and has directed several documentaries about Southern culture. Visit her online at LisaNapoli.com.