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Bhutan: Hiking (Almost) into the Tiger’s Nest; a Certain Lightness of Being

Taktsang monastery, rebuilt after a devastating fire in 1998. The temple structure surrounds the sacred cave where Guru Rinpoche meditated for 3 years, 3 months and 3 days after arriving from Tibet on the back of a flying tiger.

Taktsang monastery, rebuilt after a devastating fire in 1998. The temple structure surrounds the sacred cave where Guru Rinpoche meditated for 3 years, 3 months and 3 days after arriving from Tibet on the back of a flying tiger.

Do you ever skip to the last page of a book to see how it all turns out?

I certainly do, and I’m guessing that I’m not alone. Occasionally I might peek at the end before tackling the middle—or even the beginning.

In Bhutan, spinning tales is like breathing air. Stories of Buddha and evil demons, flying tigers and ribald monks, elephant-riding enemies and treasures hidden in burning lakes are neither the stuff of legend nor ancient history. Instead they are real and present, very nearly as immediate as the prayer wheel you’ve just spun or the left turn you’ve taken around a giantstupa dividing the Kingdom’s national highway.

So here’s a tale of Guru Rinpoche and the Tiger’s Nest. Imagine that it happened yesterday.

Guru Rinpoche, also known as Padmasambhava, was born in a lotus blossom in what is now known as the Swat Valley of Pakistan. He was a divine being….

….“a Tantric wonder-working sage,” (says Michael Aris in The Raven Crown), considered by many to be the Second Buddha. In the 8th century, after bringing Tantric Buddhism to Tibet and conquering a host of evil demons, Guru Rinpoche flew to Bhutan on the back of his consort, Yeshe Tsogyal, who had been transformed into a tiger. After landing on a precipitous cliff overlooking the Paro valley, he is said to have retreated into a cave where he meditated for three years, three months and three days.

Buddhism is full of magical numbers, by the way.

For centuries legions of holy men and women climbed thousands of feet up steep and rocky paths to mediate in this sacred place. In 1692, a monastery was built around Guru Rinpoche’s cave. The Taktsang Palphug monastery, also known as Tiger’s Nest, became Bhutan’s most iconic image. But in 1998, it was severely damaged in a terrible fire that was fueled by the flames of an errant butter lamp. One monk died in the conflagration (which some speculate was actually caused by an electrical short.) It has since been rebuilt.

Padmasambhava, from a mural at Para Bridge. Image by Baldiri: Wikimedia Commons

Padmasambhava, from a mural at Para Bridge. Image by Baldiri: Wikimedia Commons

As for Guru Rinpoche, he is one of Bhutan’s most revered figures: A vanquisher of demons, he brought Buddhism to a land in which Bon, an animistic religion with a dark side, had long held sway. His image (sometimes benign, sometimes angry, depending on which of his eight manifestations is portrayed) is a central focus of temples and chortens throughout the Kingdom. Michael Aris cites “a widespread oral tradition” that says he introduced the early Bhutanese to “the national habit” of chewing betel nut “as a substitute for cannibalism.” (Switch the red juice spat onto sidewalks for blood and you get the idea.)

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If anyone had told me that I’d have an epiphany on the rocky path to Taktsang a couple of weeks ago, I would have laughed in disbelief. I’m a city girl and my idea of a hike is walking up the stairs to Bergdorf’s 7th floor when the escalator is on the fritz. From the half-empty parking lot late that morning, the monastery seemed far away. Just a tiny cluster of undistinguished white stucco buildings clinging to a precipitous cliff.

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Make that very, very far away: elevation 10,000 feet. Paging the flying tiger…

Naturally the 3,000-foot upwards hike was arduous. Often the path—wide but deeply rutted, strewn with rocks and slippery gravel—seemed almost vertical. In the thin air, our group of three stopped often to catch our collective breath. We’d been traveling in the Kingdom for nearly two weeks, often at altitudes over 9,000 feet, but I found myself gulping oxygen.

To make matters worse, I had to focus on each step to keep from falling. Watching my feet, I became acutely aware of sounds: the clip-clop of ponies hauling other travelers up the mountain, the murmuring of Bhutanese families, many carrying babies on their first pilgrimage, the multi-lingual chattering of the rest of us, the fluttering of prayer flags.

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When we passed a prayer wheel, I slowly turned the heavy barrel, silently asking for help.

I began to feel a little dizzy.

After a while, time became meaningless. How many hours had we been climbing? We kept going higher and higher, but for me there was only the path. One step, then another. And another.

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Then, unexpectedly, the path flattened out.

Suddenly we were at a vantage point directly opposite Taktsang. The gilded roofs gleamed in the late afternoon sun. I could see red-robed monks walking along the stucco parapets. Thousands of colorful prayer flags flapped loudly in the wind.

Next to me a cheerful Taiwanese gentleman was preserving the moment for posterity with a high speed burst of his camera shutter. Click, click, click, click.

I was mesmerized by the apparent closeness of the temple. We were almost there.

But as we started down the 800 steps hewn into side of the gorge, a route which would have taken us past a hidden waterfall on our way to the temple, Karchung called us back. The sun was too low, he said. It would be dark by the time we climbed up the other side, too dark to retrace our steps, too dark to climb back down that steep, rubble-strewn path to where we had begun.

And so we turned away from the Tiger’s Nest. But as I looked back, I experienced a moment of sheer joy that I can’t really explain. I briefly felt free, felt a certain “lightness of being” that had nothing to do with lightheaded-ness…

During our days in Bhutan, our guide Karchung often spoke of “merit.” For the devout Buddhist, making merit—whether through acts of goodness and kindness, climbing a difficult path to a sacred place, or lengthy meditation—is a way of advancing along the path to enlightenment, of freeing the soul of the burdens of attachment and ignorance on its way to the next incarnation.

Even in the Kingdom of Happiness, I’m not sure that bliss is the proper objectivebut for me, anyway, that moment was as close to perfection as I’m likely to come–in this lifetime.

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