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A Pilgrimage to Bhutan: Making Sense of 2012 – Part 2

Posted Dec 28 2012 1:43am

We are shaped by our thoughts,
We become what we think
When the mind is pure,
Joy follows like a shadow that never leaves.
- The Buddha

Last week, in Part I ,  I wrote a little about my pilgrimage to Bhutan.  I was deeply touched by the outpouring of feelings from many of you. It seems, despite all of our outward differences, we share something in common – the human experience. And in the sharing of mine, many of you saw something true about yourself or your life.

At moments in our lives we stop, either by choice or by the inevitable unfolding of the story of our lives, and in those moments of pause, raw and authentic feelings bubble up.



It is what we all crave and long for, and so I thought I would share a bit more from my Bhutan journal over the next few weeks, and of my experience doing medical service in a Tibetan orphanage in a monastery in northern India at the foot of the Himalayas.

As the year turns over, and we start anew, we get to chew a bit on where we have been and where we are going.  It is different kind of diet – a meal of experience, feeling, and reflection that can nourish us in different ways.  I highly recommend it!

It is a brisk, cold morning; my hands barely work to pen these words after a long day of trekking for eight hours and 14 miles yesterday. Walking, walking, back and forth, across the rushing pristine glacial torrent of a river where thin wooden bridges displayed prayer flags hanging at their entrances.  The walking somehow is getting easier despite the elevation and the rocky rugged trails.

As we get close to the base of Jomolhari, the Mountain of the Goddess, we continue to see people. Nomads with yaks, Bhutanese who have lived at these altitudes for centuries, who walk 30 to 40 miles to trade yak butter and cheese for a few supplies of rice and cooking oil.  They had, until recently, walked over the pass to Tibet to trade Bhutanese red rice for salt.

Whole families appear on the trail with their trains of small mountain horses laden with supplies headed down the mountain to town to get rice before the winter makes traveling impossible.

As I walked by the river, I felt the past wash away. The heaviness of the past year of death and divorce, of weariness and struggle shed like a second skin. The mountain air illuminated the ways in which I acted, or didn’t, that made the struggle more painful.

The sudden loss of my sister Carrie, who I dream of every night, has left me quiet, without struggle or conflict. I dropped into this remote rugged mountainous land with my daughter Rachel where snow leopard, blue sheep, and Bengal tigers still roam , to share this pause, this going deeper into what is, and into this rich and abundant land.

I feel as if I just jumped out of an airplane; floating, soaring, not quite sure where I will land. Steeped in Buddhist teachings, I am provided with a place for joyfulness, for being in the immediacy of the moment, and the experience.

What is sure is that we all will die, that we will always be uncertain of when or how, and that the quality with which we live our lives will determine everything. How much of the Dharma (the true nature of things) have we integrated into the core of our being – in our openness, fearlessness, tolerance, generosity, intelligence, and our calm.

How do we spend our time? Do we cultivate these qualities or seek material or physical gain, which will always and inevitably pass away?

In my house, a few weeks ago, with family all around, my sister died as I held her hand and read poetry.  One moment she was breathing, and the next she was not.

Just like that – the real, raw, and undeniable fact of death. That we will die underscores the impermanence of life.  If this is true, then the moment is all that remains; to be fully alert to just now, just this word, to this person, touch, deed, smell or vision.  It is all that there is and in it is all the perfection of the true nature (or Buddha nature) of all things.

Yesterday as I walked, toward the end of the day, I was exhausted. I chanted with each step, to keep going.  The Buddhist’s chant “om mani padme hum” roughly translates to mean “the jewel in the lotus flower”, symbols of wisdom and compassion.

The chant is a meditation on these simple values – seeking to be awake, wise to what is true, and toward loving kindness and compassion.  Everywhere this meditation washes over the valley – it is written on every prayer flag, on the mani walls, carved into stone, and is on the lips of every nomad.

As I chanted and passed around the bend, there was an ancient stupa or chorten, a sacred monument holding relics. Around the next bend, breaking out like a giant white nipple, was Jomolhari, the goddess mountain, beyond any vision I had ever seen.

The air is thinner up here at 13,000 feet; we are now above the tree line in alpine terrain where only yaks, herdsman, and their families survive. This Himalayan peak bursts up from this desolate landscape like a white goddess watching over and protecting us.

Only a few families live up here at the edge of the possible; happy, smiling, calm, without distraction of things such as entertainment, stimulation, phones, cars, electricity, and all the civilized things we value as necessities.

They have each other, their animals, and the landscape which somehow seems to be enough. They could leave, but they don’t. It is where their fathers and mothers and their father’s and mother’s fathers and mothers lived.

Some essentials they must smuggle from Tibet (now China).  Last night smugglers came back from Tibet through our camp. They had been walking day and night with their horse packs bringing thermoses, blankets, and shoes; things we take for granted but for which they risk their lives.

Today, climbing to about 13,000 feet, I felt my heart beat faster and my breath grow shorter. We march past yak herder’s homes, following the river to its headwaters at the base of Jomolhari and enter a vast, spacious, and open landscape surrounded by mountains on all sides.

We hike past more chortens or stupas, with sacred relics inside designed to honor and protect travelers. The words on the thousands of prayer flags draped across this elevated landscape all say the same thing – om mani padme hum – the jewel in the lotus flower – spreading wisdom and compassion as they flutter in the wind.  These simple values string this whole land together, and with each flap of the flag in the wind the prayers echo through the valley.

In this place, alone with my daughter Rachel, with a few simple things, walking and walking, it seems complete enough. Even the drama of death and divorce seem distant, part of the endless cycle of life, not something to dwell in, to linger on, but to face, absorb and pass on.

What is left after meeting something fully is breathing and knowing the impermanence of everything.  There is only joy, only now, only happiness.  There is ugliness, hatred, and danger as well. They too are part of the wheel of life, but it turns and it all passes and out of all of it there is the possibility of meeting each moment fully without fear, judgment or control. What remains is just showing up to what is, and what is essential – love, wisdom, compassion, kindness, service, and attention. These abide and all else passes.

Today we hiked to Tsho Phu twin lakes above 14,000 feet.  We walked out of camp past yak herds and stark houses at the base of the snow-capped mountains. We started late in the morning after the sun was well up warming the valley.

It is said that the king who once lived here told his subjects to move the mountains blocking the sun from coming to this place, the ruins of his Dzong (or castle) still stand.  I understand why he said this.

Rachel and I stay in our sleeping bags until the sun comes up. These December nights are long and cold and the mountain, Jomolhari, shines iridescent in the moonlight.

The dogs barking at yaks and snow leopards all across this valley punctuate the night along with strange, oxygen deprived dreams and the occasional excursion into the brilliant moonlight coating the rugged valley in this soft, gentle light.

This morning we huddled around a smoky old stove filled with yak dung, the only fuel in this barren alpine tundra. We saw images of snow leopards and Tibetan wolves captured by hidden cameras retrieved by the Bhutanese foresters.

We then trekked up to the high alpine twin lakes. As we reached the crest of the mountain, laboring with each breath, we came upon a herd of rare and wild blue sheep, pristine against the jagged and snow-capped peaks of this eastern Himalaya.

Walking is meditation, a pilgrimage leaving behind the known, enduring physical hardship and biting cold. It is a pilgrimage to the inner landscape, to the edge of what is comfortable, to confront the rough and broken parts of life, to re-imagine, review, and reflect on the spiritual journey that is this life.

And in the journeying, in the walking, in the pilgrimage itself something happens.  Slowly, and imperceptibly, that, which is important and real and eternal, emerges from the refuse and clutter of the material story of life.

There arises in me now a simple and calm joy, a savoring of each moment, each sense, each connection with every person, with the earth, the animals, and the plants. Tomorrow the pilgrimage continues, as it does for all of us, step by step, through this ancient and sacred land. For that I am thankful.

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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