It was very quiet just after the finish of the International Society of Ethnobiology’s 14th Congress. A lot of people left Bumthang for tours and treks, but by a curious twist of fate, I had a day without a plan.
Flicking through my Lonely Planet Guide, I came across instructions for getting to a rock painting that was said to show Padmasambhava, better known in Bhutan as Guru Rimpoche. Around 750 (CE) he came to Bhutan and Tibet, battling demons, subduing and containing them, and directing their energy toward Buddhism. The entwined actions of earth, stone, water and mountains as they mingle with local guardians (ney) and, often, with the further engagement of Guru Rimpoche and other founding Buddhist figures, make for a rich, sensuous, varied, and expressive sacred geography.
To get to the site I would need both a vehicle and my own two feet. I decided to ask my host at the Gongkhar Guest House for some help. Would she, Deki, be able to organise a reliable taxi driver for me so that I could count on him waiting for me while I hiked off in search of the site? Her response was to borrow the book and go into the private rooms to consult with some of the others.
Deki returned to greet me with her beautiful, dignified smile. She and her sister would take me, she said. We would visit the site together, but we would need to leave straight away. Deki’s sister Dechen is the cook, and we would have to be back in time for her to get dinner prepared.
We drove to the place where we would leave the car, and we crossed the river on a suspension bridge. It swayed interestingly, but Deki and Dechen apparently decided it wasn’t lively enough so they jumped around to make it more fun! They, too, had not been to the site. This was going to be something fresh and enticing for all three of us.
Once across the river we had a brief but wonderfully pleasant walk in the valley while listening to the splashy rumbles of the river. It was a delight to be on level ground, for in the land of mountains every path is either an ascent or a descent and one’s visual perspective almost invariably is either a bird’s eye view from a precipitous cliff or a neck-straining gaze up into very high places.
Before long, though, we were following a snaky little path as it took us up a hill. The two local women moved effortlessly, but I did not. So we stopped and rested a couple of times, and we talked. We talked about families, languages, life histories, food, beauty, and cultural differences. I learned that Deki is a woman of many accomplishments. Before she became a businesswoman she was a nurse at the local hospital. She did her nurse training in Switzerland, and is proficient in German as well as English, and of course in the district dialect Bumthangkha, the national language Dzongkha, and Tibetan.
As we walked Deki noticed wild strawberries, and so we ate. We ate and walked in perfectly lovely country, and the blessings of life flowed around us in sunshine, breeze, river splashings, tall trees, and the bright vision of red berries tucked amongst varied shrubs including artemisia, the aromatic herb that is used in Bhutanese hot stone baths.
The rock painting was a great surprise – bright, fresh, lively and detailed! There he was, Guru Rimpoche in the form of Dorje Drolö, riding the flying tigress who brought him to Bhutan to wrestle with demons. The tigress is his ‘consort’ in a metamorphosed form: the great Yeshe Tsogyul, a Buddhist master in her own right and sometimes known as the mother of Tibetan Buddhism.
The stories are full of metamorphoses, transformations, and manifestations. Nothing in the world of material reality is fixed, but in the Buddhism of this region place is a point of holding, while form and time seem incredibly mutable.
Sitting at the base of the painting, straining my neck to look up at it, and trying not to take too much notice of the steep fall below me, my practical imagination took over. In the presence of all this shape-shifting, I began to think what a thrill it would be to turn into a flying tiger and avoid having to hike down along the narrow, twisty little path to the valley floor.
Actually, though, I was totally happy. I didn’t really want to be a flying tigress, or even a bird. I was remembering, almost as if the memories had been stored in my cells, the irreplaceable pleasures of walking in the bush with women. The pleasures of gathering food, eating, chatting, taking life as it is offered, and sharing the moments without demands or requirements.
Walking in such abundance brought a new dimension to the fact that ‘Green Tara’, one of numerous manifestations of the female Buddha, is very popular in Bhutan. I had seen her statue in many of the temples, and had learned to recognise her signature features: a vine twining around one arm, flowers surrounding her, and the other arm held out open-handed in a gesture of giving. The statues were beautifully serene, and yet in their perfection they seemed remote.
Here on the hillside, amongst wild strawberries and women who belong in this place, Green Tara came into liveliness.
My cherished memories include the painting, the twisty path, the valley floor, the sharp sweetness of wild berries, artemisia’s captivating smell, and most of all the glow of life’s beauty when women walk, chat, gather, eat, and share the limitless pleasures of sun, water, wild food, and the sacred.
Much later I learned that western experts at econometrics have been helping Bhutan to develop methods to quantify their gross national happiness more effectively.
Somehow, I suspect that the deeply satisfying pleasures of walking amidst wild strawberries will never figure in their models. I hope that is the case. I want to go on walking in the bush with women, gathering, eating, sharing and laughing, and I hope never to have to justify or account for it, or tick a box to show that I’ve done it.
Happiness doesn’t need robust statistics. It may be, though, that for happiness to flow through us, we human beings need to be aware of manifestations and metamorphoses of the sacred – goddesses and gods, teachers and demons, rivers and mountains, ancestors and histories. We need them because life has its own power and story; it comes to meet us place by place as we walk in the world alive to ourselves – alive as creatures attentive to, and participating in, the generosity that surround us.
© Deborah Bird Rose (2014)
Postscript: Later, Deki and Dechen took me to meet Dechen’s mother (Deki’s father’s second wife). The family spoke Tibetan at home because their origins were on that side of the border. Dechen and her mother are both great cooks. They gave me the best momo ever, plump and mellow with a crimson-red chilli sauce for dipping.
Jakar is the main town in the area known as Bumthang. The Gongkhar Guest House is a short walk from town and is a perfect place to stay: friendly, family-owned, excellent food, clean, comfortable and attractive. If you want to take a meal in town, Deki’s Restaurant and Bar has fabulous momos.
Resources: The information I have shared here comes from conference presentations, local guides, the Lonely Planet Guide, various websites, and my own general knowledge of Tibetan Buddhism.
Ursula Le Guin offers a wonderful account of the pleasures for women of walking/working together, in her essay ‘The Carrier-Bag Theory of Fiction’, published in Dancing at the Edge of the World.
I have written an essay on these pleasures drawing on my long-term research with Australian Aboriginal people (access here).