For some of us, celebrating Buddha’s Birthday (not to mention his conception, enlightenment, subduing of demons, and departing his earthly body) got off to an earlier start than we might have preferred, so there were forgotten rachus to retrieve, stragglers to pick up, and cuffs to pin to ghos in transit. We managed to overcome these obstacles, and arrived at the center of Bhutan’s government and summer home of Je Khenpo and monk body, Thimphu’s Trashichoedzong, before the massive crowds to come. Ana’s last minute realization that she had left her rachu behind prompted compassionate quick thinking on Tianna’s part, who lent Ana her beautiful kera (belt) that served as a splendid substitute. This allowed us all to enter together after passing through security, which scanned people not only for weapons, but also for dzong-appropriate dress.
As we walked along the riverside stone path to the dzong entrance, we saw two guards standing so stiffly at attention that some of us wondered if they were real. The changing of the guards we observed on our way out dispelled all doubts about their humanity. Rose bushes lined the path, and what at first looked like potentially cloudy day became brilliant. As soon as we entered the dzong, we joined a line of people waiting to see the thongdrol (enormous embroidered silk applique religious banner) and relics that were brought out for the occasion. Even the tiniest of Bhutanese (and we) were dressed for the occasion, in stark contrast with the usual collection of slovenly tourists.
We rounded a corner past a censor of burning juniper to find ourselves face to face with a long narrow table brimming with offerings and monks trying to manage them, rising behind which was the thongdrol, which people touched with their foreheads as they passed in order to accomplish reg drol (liberation through touching) in addition to the liberation that comes with sight from which the thongdrol gets its name. After receiving reg drol, we spent some time absorbing the sight of the thongdrol, which depicted the Lord Buddha with his two principle disciples, Maudgalyāyana and Sariputra, sixteen other disciples (arhats), the protective deities of the four directions, and others. We then joined the line to view the tshem jelkha (tooth relic) of Jamgon Ngawang Gyeltshen, a seventeenth century Drukpa Kagyu master, and a stone with a naturally inscribed mantra. After receiving this thong drol (as touching these things was out of the question) we proceeded toward the main lakhang, on our way receiving a norbu from a monk who saw to it that everyone in line received one little granule. The lakhang hall was enormous, presided over by a suitably enormous Buddha.
After paying our respects and posing for a final photo opportunity, we found taxis and Wangchuk’s car to take us to the Ambient Café, where we consumed a desperately needed breakfast. Some would return that afternoon for a contemporary art tour of Thimphu, others would stay in Ngabiphu to recover.
This was the first time I have been able to celebrate this occasion with Himalayan Buddhists in over thirty years. In Nepal in the early eighties, I celebrated every year with Newars and Tibetans. It meant the world to me to celebrate it here, which is why I commandeered the writing of this entry.
– Bruce Owens (aka Ratna Man Shakya)