We arrived in Bhumtang yesterday â€“ Ugyenâ€™s hometown. We got up this morning at 7am because I had asked to visit a school, which started at 8:15am. We got there to find the children hard at work, cleaning the school. At 8:45am, they gathered in the schoolyard for the daily assembly. The school has about 900 students in grades 1 through 8. Assembly started with a prayer for wisdom and two presentations by a student â€“ one in English and the other in Dzongka. Finally, a student raised the flag of Bhutan and they all sang the national song. The presentations are apparently rotational and each student has to do one once a year.
The principal told us that there are about 50 students per class, but about 90 percent of them go on to higher education, which is pretty impressive. He had visited a school in Canada at some point, and he said he was struck by the informality between teachers and students there. He said they put distance between students and teachers in Bhutan, which is good in some ways, but also makes it difficult for students to confide in their teachers when they have problems. He said they were also trying to get rid of corporal punishment.
Their school day is pretty long â€“ from 8:15am til 3:30pm or so, followed by an hour of extracurricular activities. Classes are taught mainly in English in Bhutan because the country has designated English as their second language. And in fact, Patrick witnessed kids correcting other kids when they were writing in Dzongka, and a sign in a classroom said, â€œI will speak English.â€ Itâ€™s such a smart thing to teach them in English. I think of all the Japanese, who canâ€™t speak English, and these kids are so much further than they are.
We spent an hour with a 5th grade class, where kids 10-13 years old, were studying English. Their teacher was out sick today, so we played the substitute teacher, telling them about Japan and the U.S. I made an awkward attempt to draw maps of Japan and the U.S. while Patrick sang the Star Spangled Banner.
The kids were shy but also curious, asking us questions about our national flower, tree and animal (none of which I knew), about our family. They, in turn, showed us pictures they drew of their families and their homes as part of a school assignment. They couldnâ€™t get over the fact that so many people lived in Tokyo and some buildings were over 30 stories high. One question by a young girl threw me a bit for a loop. She wanted to know if I was happy. Of course, I said yes, but such an odd question from a child. I guess Bhutan is really about Gross National Happiness.
Ugyen told us that how pleased he was to have observed the school as well. It turns out that Ugyen has never been to school, and this was the first time he had been to one. Ugyenâ€™s family lives about a two hour walk from the Aman lodge, where we stayed, and there are no roads to get there. He wanted to go to school as a child, but his parents needed him to help them take care of the cows. â€œIâ€™m uneducated,â€ he told us, though I would have to disagree. When Ugyen began working for the Aman four years ago, he spoke no English, but his self-taught English is superb. He also has a certain grace about him, and itâ€™s clear he absorbs everything he can from the guests that he serves. Chencho said heâ€™s now teaching himself to read and write.
If that wasnâ€™t a full enough morning, Chencho and Ugyen then took us to a neighborhood monastery called Kharchung Drastshang Monastery. We were to get an audience with a high lama. Ugyen apparently drove one of the trucks that carried the stuff necessary to build a road to this monastery a few years ago, and he himself had spent about 3 years there, he said, though he insisted that he was no monk. The way he talks about girls, we never thought otherwise. The monastery houses 400 monks from age 7 and up.
While we were waiting for an audience with the high lama, the monks served us tea as well as toasted rice and corn as snacks. We had a fascinating conversation with a friendly monk named Rinzin, the resident historian. He has been at the monastery for 25 years, since he was 13 years old and plans to die there, he told us. He said he wanted to become a monk when he was in the fourth grade, but his parents discouraged him. After 6th grade, they finally agreed to let him go. It was very difficult at first, as I would imagine it to be when youâ€™re only 13 years old. At the time, he said there were only about 25-30 monks in residence. He says a lot of the youngest boys come to them after their parents divorce, and neither is able to care for them, or when there are problems between the children and stepfathers in second marriages.
I asked him about how modernization was affecting Buddhism. The number of monks has risen since he first joined, but Rinzin worries about the religious spirit of the people. As people have gotten busier and the world becomes more developed, the spirituality of the people has declined, he says. Money is the problem, he said. People have a certain amount, and they feel like they need more. He is certain that the next generation will be less happy. He, himself, is very happy, he told us because unlike his brothers he has no obligations or responsibilities for anyone except for himself. He asked us how long we were married, if we were happy, and offered to pray for us. Itâ€™s nice to know that weâ€™ll have someone in Bhutan praying for our souls.
He didnâ€™t say so, but I also got the impression that he disapproves of the country being democratized. People are happy just with the king, he said to us. He also thinks that people really have no clue, who to vote for, and theyâ€™re swayed easily by political talk. He seems astute about these matters for someone who has removed himself from society (though we found out the monastery has a television, which they can watch on Saturday afternoons and Sundays â€“ their time off from the daily grind).
Monks also donâ€™t have the right to vote, which means that a little over 10 percent of the population isnâ€™t represented. He worries that another religion could eventually take over Bhutan.
We also asked him about his days. Monks get up at 5-5:30am, pray, have tea, study, have lunch, have tea, study some more, have dinner, and then meditate til lights go out at 10pm. The young monks have recently begun getting English lessons, which is good. Rinzin himself spoke excellent English, thanks probably to his parents, who made him stay in school til 6th grade.
Out of the blue, Rinzin asked us if weâ€™ve been to Tibet. It turns out Rinzin has, though he had to disguise himself as a civilian since monks are banned from the China-controlled Tibet. â€œItâ€™s just 5 or 6 days walk from here,â€ he said to us. The border is so high up that weather conditions are harsh, and no one is there. The Bhutanese army, patrolling the border, is stationed two days walk away, so one can evidently sneak around. He wasnâ€™t able to get to Lhasa, but he spent six months there on a pilgrimage. Guru Rinpoche, the father of Bhutan, came from there, and Bhutanese Buddhism is very much affected by both Tibetan and Nepalese Buddhism.
After we chatted with him for nearly an hour, he showed us their kitchen where two men were making huge vats of soup. He then took us outside, where they were serving lunch. As monks appeared with their bowls, he showed us todayâ€™s lunch â€“ rice and cauliflower with hot peppers. He gave us a little bit to try â€“ it was quite tasty. Itâ€™s interesting how quickly weâ€™ve begun to lose our inhibitions about trying local things not from the hotel.
Of course, the main objective of our visit had yet to happen. To be blessed by the Lamai Namkhi Neangpo Rinpoche, an important high lama, who is the reincarnation of a disciple of Guru Rinpoche. Chencho says heâ€™s a also a reincarnation of Guru Rinpoche, who brought Buddhism to Bhutan in the 8th century. Our lodge manager says Guru Rinpoche was such a great man that he is reincarnated into three people, and this one is the reincarnation of his mind. We still arenâ€™t quite sure who he is.
Before we saw him, Chencho gave us the rules â€“ donâ€™t look at him in the eye (though I snuck a couple peaks), cover your nose and mouth when youâ€™re blessed because youâ€™re not supposed to breath at him, only answer when spoken. He gave us white clothes, showed us how to present them to him, so we can receive his blessing. We also had to prostrate ourselves three times when we entered the room. They led us up to a small room, where we waited while the lama went to the bathroom (even great reincarnations have to go when they have to go!), and we went in. The white cloth that was blessed, we were told to leave on all day. A red string that he also blessed with long life, peace and prosperity went around our necks, joining the white one I already had for safe journey (we donâ€™t dare throw either of these out for fear of incurring the wrath of the Buddhist gods). We were then given some spice â€“ Patrick guessed a part of a juniper tree â€“ to eat. That was to help us stay healthy and cleanse us of any illness. The lamaâ€™s blessings, Ugyen, said was very powerful. He had something on him with his blessing when he was in a truck accident, in which the vehicle rolled over three times, and he emerged unhurt.
Both Chencho and Ugyen were very honored since he only usually receives audiences once a year. We suspect our donation of 2,000 rupees ($50) helped get us in, in addition to Ugyenâ€™s connection, but it was an interesting experience nevertheless, and I was honored too. Patrick doesnâ€™t believe in reincarnation. I donâ€™t believe that I know enough to know whether there is or isnâ€™t, but the man that I saw seemed like a very gentle, holy man. And he seems to have done a lot of good, which is what matters. We got the impression that he personally helped Ugyen make the transformation from â€œcowboyâ€ as Ugyen describes who he used to be, to someone, who managed to get a job at the Aman. Ugyen said the lama gave him money and many other things over the years. â€œWhen I went to his bedroom to ask him for 600 rupees, he gave me 6,000 rupees,â€ he said. We hope the 2,000 rupees we donated will go toward helping other promising boys or young men.
After a drive back to the hotel for lunch, we had a pleasant afternoon biking around to see some of the monasteries in the area. It was fun, but an anticlimax after the exciting morning. That evening, we played Scrabble. In his second turn, Patrick played â€œSTRINGYâ€, earning himself 50 extra bonus points. He forced me to continue playing, and he kept coming with words that he doesnâ€™t even know the meaning of like â€œQATâ€ and â€œAVERâ€. Final score â€“ Patrick 415, Yukari 210. Starting tomorrow, Iâ€™m banning him from using up all 7 of his letters.
At night, we slept with the blessed white clothes hanging at the head of our bed as Chencho and Ugyen suggested.