Snowman Trek Bhutan — Rituals and Mystics

Aug 6, 2019 | Bhutan

Paro dzong

Our Snowman Trek began in the western town of Paro with a cultural and religious orientation to Bhutan, as well as physical acclimatization to higher altitude. We explored the town’s dzong, a massive stone monastery-fortress which helped defend and unify this Buddhist nation. Today, it’s home to over 100 monks and also houses civil administration offices for the district. This merging of Buddhist practice with management of civil affairs has been going on since the 16th century and is directly related to why Bhutan is one of the happiest places on earth. The first code of laws was written by a Buddhist teacher, and the government continues to apply Buddhist principles in practice.

In the evening, we visited one of Bhutan’s oldest temples, spinning prayer wheels and lighting 108 butter lamps to spread blessings to all sentient beings and to ask for an auspicious journey.

Lighting butter lamps

The following morning, we hiked 1500ft up into the mountains to the famous Tiger’s Nest, a complex of temples and caves impossibly built onto the side of a mountain. The Tiger’s Nest is named for 8th century sage Padmasambhava and his Tantric partner/consort, Yeshe Tsogyal, who took the form of a Tigress in their meditations. They were the first to meditate in these remote caves, doing deep Tantric visualization practice, dispersing negative energies in the valley, and bringing Buddhism to the early people of Bhutan. Many important sages and spiritual masters followed them and used these caves for retreat and revelations across the centuries.

The Tiger’s Nest remains an important pilgrimage site because Padmasambhava’s teachings and insights are the foundation for all of Tibetan Buddhism, including the teachings of the Dalai Lama. Stories abound of Padmasambhava’s travels through the Himalayas, spreading Buddhism on a timeline that spans multiple lifetimes and an impossible swathe of geography. He was a real historical figure, but it’s difficult to distinguish where history ends and legends begin. In Buddhist cultures, teachings and wisdom are often more important than a linear notion of time, so Buddhism is flexible about the chronology of events. Padmasambhava’s life across multiple centuries is taught as history in the public schools. His spiritual practices in these mountains came to define a religion that continues to shape our own thinking hundreds of years and half a world away.

8th century sage Padmasambhava (left) and his Tantric consort Yeshe Tsogyal (right)
The famous Tiger’s Nest built onto the side of a mountain and held there by the hair of dakinis, feminine sky dancers, who are believed to have carried the construction materials up the cliff centuries ago. (When the temples burned down in an electrical fire in 1998, Bhutan had to rely on more modern methods for the rebuild, including a steel cable car from the valley floor 1500 feet below–but they dismantled it after construction because a pilgrimage to the temples should require effort to help cleanse you of any sins.)

In Buddhism, a ritual blessing is a prerequisite before any major journey or undertaking, so after touring the capital, we rose early one morning and drove to a nearby nunnery. Our group and some of our trekking staff were seated in a dimly lit hall, the walls painted with fiery deities and serene Buddhas, and the altar stuffed with enormous statues, ornaments, food, flowers, offering bowls, water vessels, incense, money, rice, jewelry, and photos of important religious teachers. Tibetan Buddhist temples are a colorful cacophony of symbolic items and images, which stand in ornate contrast to the simple lives of the monastics who practice there daily.

The nuns were seated in lines along one side of the hall, and we were seated in a line along the other. They chanted in Tibetan, asking the goddess Tara for protection, as we sat quietly contemplating the present moment and the journey ahead. We all drank steaming tea that a nun poured into mugs before us. At the end of the ceremony, the ranking nun placed silky white prayer shawls around our necks and gave us sacred threads to wear for protection. We in turn made an offering of tea and food to the monastery and walked down the line of red-robed nuns with shaved heads, giving a donation to each of them one-by-one as is traditional. Participating in the ritual, rather than observing it from afar, was an experience that stayed with us long after we left the room, the town, the country.

The colorful accoutrement of Buddhist temples in Bhutan.