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A Pilgrimage to Bhutan – Making Sense of 2012

Posted Dec 22 2012 10:12pm

What we can be sure of is change, the unpredictability and shifting nature of life.   How we relate to that change determines everything – does it beat us down or hone us into more refined ways of being, does it tear apart what we know leaving nothing, or does it guide us into a deeper relationship to what is true, to our deeper nature and a richer texture of life, like a grain of sand that becomes a pearl.

This year, 2012, has symbolism and meaning for many in ancient times, and for many today – the end of the world, a time of upheaval, and of renewal.  For me, in my small world, it has been an unusual and extraordinary year – of deep peaks and valleys, of experience throwing me back into the questions that all of us at one time or another must confront such as why am I here, why do bad things happen, how do I make sense of loss and change, what is true and how do I live fully now, and how should I spend this one precious life?

Over the past year, my older sister, Carrie, died slowly from biliary cancer.  Environmental toxins are causing an increase in this type of cancer.  She was young, a single mother, and had two children, my niece and nephew.

Despite a desperate struggle, she died last month in my home surrounded by her family singing songs, offering poems, prayers, and laughter. It was out of order – her parents, my parents, buried her.  Her children are not yet raised; her life, so incomplete, was gone in one breath.

I also sadly ended a marriage of eight years.  And so I took a pause, and went to do the things that restore me, that slow me down enough to notice what is true.  For me it is walking in the mountains and offering myself in the service of others.

In the fresh and raw place of these changes, my 24 year old daughter Rachel and I went to Bhutan on a trek to a sacred mountain, Jomolhari, altitude 23,000 feet, and to a Tibetan boy’s orphanage at Menri Monastery in the foothills of the Himalayas in India, to pare away the known and see what is left.  It was a sort of pilgrimage to sacred outer and internal landscapes. For thousands of years, human beings have made pilgrimages to such sacred places.

And in my life, at this moment, it was time for that pilgrimage.   I would like to share some of my experience with you in several blogs with the hope that in them you might find a way to make your own pilgrimage in thought, place or deed that brings you closer to what is true, essential and eternal in life, to peace, and happiness.  It is not the kind of thing I am prone to share, but it informs all of the work I do to help create healing in the world.



We begin in Paro, nested at 7,000 feet, a small, rugged, mountainous town.  It is a cold, crisp and dark morning. I awoke from fitful dreams of my sister struggling to find a way to live, to find a way back.  The Tibetan Buddhists believe in the Bardo, a transitional state where the soul is lost, confused, and uncertain of its state.

For 49 days it is believed that the soul seeks to reconnect with life, family, friends, and the departed feel as though they are still alive but no one responds to them; and this creates great suffering.  Perhaps it is that or my sadness, but in the deep dark nights in my dreams she is there, palpable, real, resisting death, longing desperately to live.

I do not pretend to understand how this life works, my place in it, or how to arrive to a place that is settled, authentic, powerful, and clear, but I am trying.  As I return to the East where I spent so much of my youth, either as a mythical place explored in ancient texts and practices, or thirty years ago in the physical places and spaces of Tibet and Nepal where I wandered as a young man in search of meaning, I am reminded of the foundation upon which I have built my life, beliefs, attitudes, and aspirations that are who I am.

I am reminded of the notion of compassion and the Bodhisattva committed to the liberation from suffering of all sentient beings, of loving kindness, of impermanence and non-attachment, of clear and present awareness of what is without judgment or ideas of this or that, of realms of consciousness and beings beyond the senses and beyond knowing, of merit and the endless cycle of life, of discernment, of seeing what is true, and of our true or Buddha nature and the Buddha nature in all things. These are the quiet and unspoken principles that are the filters through which I experience life.

Being here, visiting the sacred places, in this sacred country where these Buddhist principles are their constitution, their declaration of interdependence and interconnection of all things, I am quieted and happy, but less certain than ever of how things should be – only open to how things might be if I relax, let go, be present, show up, pay attention, and listen for what is true in everything.

I have failed at this many times, have made many mistakes, but now in this little crack in my life where, as Leonard Cohen reminds us, is how the light gets in, I am sensing something luminous and possible. With the death of my sister, the drama of the divorce leaving me raw, and in the questions, I sense a transition to something different – though I am not sure what it is.

It is a day’s hike up the river toward the sacred mountain Jomolhari; I awoke nestled in my sleeping bag warmed by a hot water bottle that reminded me of the safety of my childhood, something my mother offered when I was sick.

Here in this remote valley, in this even more remote country, Bhutan, nestled against the border of Tibet and India, is a place that rejects the values of the West, of material success in exchange for “Gross National Happiness”, a measure of life’s quality, of how we care for each other and the earth. It is place that outlaws smoking because it kills and enforces driving slowly and safely. It is a place that educates the young and whose last king abdicated power to introduce democracy and describes himself as a servant, parent, caretaker, and steward not a ruler.

Though poor, a gentle happiness exudes from the Bhutanese I have met. They are graceful, generous, and kind. The landscape and the people are imbued with core Buddhist values – loving kindness, compassion, peace with the impermanence of life, understanding the cycles of life, death and rebirth, and of creating merit in this lifetime which shapes a different way of being in each day.

When we arrived at our destination we climbed up a steep mountain to an 8th century monastery, the Tiger’s Nest.  It is perched on the edge of a cliff, held on by angel hairs, the place where Padmasambhava (or Guru Rinpoche) meditated for 3 years, 3 months, 3 weeks, 3 days, 3 minutes and 3 seconds in the 8th century and brought Tantra and Tibetan Buddhism to Bhutan and Tibet, offering an accelerated path to enlightenment.

The monasteries are sacred ancient places where, for over a thousand years, the Dharma (the Buddha’s teachings) have been taught, the sutras (prayers) chanted, the butter lamps lit, where offerings were made, and where thousands upon tens of thousands of prostrations were done by the humble caretaker of a 7th century monastery that has worn grooves into the wood that somehow fits everyone’s foot regardless of size.

The walls speak and resonate with the sacred, ancient Thangka paintings. They adorn the walls telling the story of Samsara, the endless wheel of life, of the Buddha and his disciples, of Guru Rinpoche and his eight manifestations and consorts with whom he formed mystical union and achieved the Great Enlightenment.

They speak of demons representing the demons of our minds and statues of Buddhas and Bodhisattvas, of Avalokiteśvara, the Bodhisattva of Compassion, who returned from the gates of enlightenment to work for the liberation of all sentient beings. He made it his life’s work to teach all of us the power of loving kindness and to heal and remake the world through compassion. The current Dalai Lama is the 14th reincarnation of Avalokiteśvara.

These Buddhist values permeate Bhutan – values of compassion, non-attachment, discernment of the true nature of reality, the nature of our minds, the Buddha nature of all people and all things,  the impermanence of life, our Self versus self, our true nature versus our ego mind, our thought forms as impermanent, and of the seeking toward witnessing the play of our minds and our lives as part of Samsara, of Maya, the illusion that arises and passes.

It is the belief that the cultivation of happiness is, all at once, understanding the true nature of things, the beautiful, wondrous, magical nature of life and it’s preciousness, and that one of life’s greatest achievements is to be awake to that preciousness in every moment, in everyone, and in everything.

Against the backdrop of this sacred and protected country, absent of all things familiar to the West, Rachel and I set out on our pilgrimage to the sacred goddess mountain, Jomolhari, to the roof of the world.

This pilgrimage is not easy or always pleasant, as we find out while sitting cross-legged for hours in a monastery on a cold morning.  It takes us away from what is known, comfortable, and easy, where we confront only our minds, our fears, and our beliefs about the limits of our body.

And there we are left only with the vastness of nature, the cold, the deep biting cold, each other, and the play of our minds. With each step toward the sacred mountain we shed layers of what and where we are, shed ideas and notions of what is true and real, and come directly in contact with unadorned experience.

We walked yesterday for hour and hours, past small villages and the beautiful square houses of Bhutan, where animals, cows, pigs, and horses lived below, humans on the middle floor, and food and hay were stored on the top floor.

Electricity and roads have just come in the last few years, but are still absent for most of the country. Life is slow and simple, people grow Bhutanese red rice and turnips, tend animals, wash clothes, and make everything by hand.

Time stretches out like a vast ocean here, not hurried along in some chaotic race to nowhere. What are we to do with our one precious human life, a life so rare that it is likened to a turtle who comes up for one breath once a century and in order to create one human life he must poke his head through one small yellow yoke floating upon all the seas.

What are we to do with this one wild and precious life, as the poet Mary Oliver asks us, but to be awake to its wonder and beauty and live each day with gratitude and loving kindness and service to each other.

Yes, there is suffering, and from a great suffering I have just emerged, the suffering of my sister, Carrie, dying slowly from the ravages of bile duct cancer that slowly twisted and turned off her bowels. The suffering of a mother who was not yet ready to leave her children, who clung to life even as she took her last breath surrounded by all of us, her family, her children, her friends singing to her, blessing her, reading her Rilke’s poetry as she took her last breath.

My own suffering is in losing my beloved and only sister, witnessing the pain of my elderly parents burying their daughter, and of her children losing their mother. Of course there is suffering.  It is real, and yet how we meet it and how we dance with it determines if it devours or enriches us wearing us smooth and beautiful like rocks pounded by the sea.

How we meet the cycle of life and death and, as the Buddhists believe, rebirth, determines if we greet life and greet each other with loving kindness or with bitterness and resentment.   The basic Buddhist belief is that in the endless cycle of life, death, and rebirth everyone at one time was your mother or will be in the next life, highlighting the value of loving kindness toward all beings.

This simple idea, so hard to achieve, is the path to happiness.  And so it is – we set out on this trek alone, unadorned, as no one, and with nothing, simply to meet ourselves and the world as it is.

Now I crawl from my sleep back to meet the day, to have a camp breakfast by the side of this glacial river, as our camp cook brings us hot tea and we head up the trail toward the unknown, a little bit of suffering heaped upon a big dose of happiness.

Wishing you and your family a very happy and healthy holiday!

To your good health,

Mark Hyman, MD

P.S. Please leave your thoughts by adding a comment below – but remember, we can’t offer personal medical advice online, so be sure to limit your comments to those about taking back our health!

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