Thimphu woke up to Prayers being broadcast on the loudspeaker. As I lay on my cot in the hotel room and listened, I realized it was the day of Buddha Purnima. Buddha was born, attained enlightenment and passed away to the Higher Realms on this very day. And it was my desire to visit a Buddhist land on this day to see what happened.
So, as I stretched, woke up, and strolled towards the balcony of my window, I could hear faint murmurs of a distant prayer verse. The sun was still orange and the mist was clearing up, leaving glistening water beads on the railings of my balcony. I ran a finger over the droplets and watched them drip down from my finger.
As a family, we had travelled all the way from South India to Bhutan, under the pretext of showing Bhutan to our son who was always interested in travelling to mystic lands. But this visit was more for our own selves, as a couple, because we are interested in travelling to peaceful destinations across the world, to soak up some “peace-culture”.
Bhutan, the land of the Thunder Dragon, is a beautiful country. It is beyond any imagined Utopia; rightly called the Last of the Shangri La. Bhutan is more than a country of dragon and Buddhist tales. It is more than an earthly paradise or Himalayan peace-land.
And here we were, on this very holy day!
As we made our way slowly towards the National Memorial Chorten to pray, we could see people hurrying with prayer beads in their nimble fingers. They were dressed in a simple, yet elegant manner. There was no grandeur in their Gho and Kira (national clothes of men and women of Bhutan), at the same time, it spoke of their proud culture.
“Do you think we are going to read Buddhist scriptures, mama?” asked my son.
“No, we are just going to see what they do on this special day,” I replied.
“They are going to pray,” said my son with absolute conviction.
“Yes, we know that, what we are going to observe is how they pray, and what they do, and try to understand their culture and practices,” I reasoned.
“There is only one way to pray, mama,” he said wisely.
I remained silent after that.
As we reached the Memorial Chorten, built by the Queen mother, Phunto Chodem in loving memory of her son, the 3rd King, Druk Gyalpo, I felt my heart race. This was not just the first place I was about to visit in Bhutan, this was also the most important modern Buddhist landmarks in Thimphu, and that too on Buddha Purnima day. The place was crowded as we expected it to be.
The whole place was adorned with Prayer flags.
I asked our chauffeur, “What is the significance of these various colored prayer flags?”
“Let me ask that monk for sure,” he said.
He returned and mentioned that each color signified an element of nature. Blue for sky, white for air, red symbolizes fire, green for water, and yellow the earth. The flags fluttered softly in the cool morning breeze, as if whispering the mantras and sutras written all over them in the Dzongka language.
“What is written all over them,” I asked him again, “Are they prayers for the Gods?”
“These mantras are for the long life, health, happiness and harmony of the people. The winds which blow through these flags carry the good wishes ascribed in them, to all the beings across the world,” he replied.
Standing against the cool Himalayan breeze, I closed my eyes and imagined the prayers from the flags brushing across me, and giving me the promise of a pure and peaceful eternity. What would you have prayed for ?
He further explained how there were two kinds of Prayer flags – Horizontal ones and Vertical ones. And they had the same colors and for the same reason. I could feel the reverence with which he spoke of them, as if the piece of cloth was God. He explained how the Buddhists believe that these prayers are carried by the wind, even to other parts of the Universe. New flags are erected just beside the old, and the world goes on, he said. I could visualize the blessings of peace and harmony pervading all over. Is it just me or is it the effect of Buddha Purnima, I wondered.
As I walked with my chauffeur in the courtyard of the Chorten, alongside my son and husband, the soft tones of the prayer grew louder. As loud as it grew, it never became a jarring sound. I have this thing for loud noise, and I can never tolerate even loud music, no matter how soft and gentle it is. All shows, in low volume, I say. My son has his own separate Headphones, even for viewing the TV.
Elderly Buddhists were sitting under a shaded tent structure and slowly rotating the prayer beads in their fingers, and murmuring mantras along with the loudspeaker. Children were running around in the courtyard. Some were trying to feed the pigeons, and some were running through them. The pigeons had relocated thrice already in the past fifteen minutes, but they were nowhere near leaving the Chorten either. They knew too that it was the holy day, and silently bided their time and patiently observed the children.
The large white structure of the Chorten had a golden spire at its top. There were symbols of Power, knowledge, and compassion adorning the gates, as explained by my chauffeur with the help of his monk friend (again). The large prayer wheel towards the left was for a purpose. As one circumambulate the shrine, it is always in the clockwise direction, and so as the circumambulation starts, one rotates the prayer wheel. The prayer wheel was a huge structure in itself. The inscription was fascinating. A lot of mystical symbols and letters engraved on the shiny metallic bronze, which blessed me with peace and harmony, perhaps, I mused.
As I continued my circumambulation, I was in for a surprise. There was a deeper shaded area towards the back of the shrine, where hundreds of worshippers sat down in deep silence, and meditated with prayer beads in their fingers, a smile on their lips, and peace in their hearts. I stopped for an instant. What held them so still for so long? Just the promise of peace by Lord Buddha? I tried to take pictures of these serene Buddhists, and immediately felt uncomfortable. Here I had come thousands of miles, to see how they celebrated Buddha Purnima, to partake in their joy and peace, not to take pictures. I walked along side my son, as he excitedly wanted to run his fingers through all the tiny prayer wheels in the backyard.
“Madam, I am going to go inside, pray and come back. Do you mind?” asked my chauffeur.
“Not at all, we would like to come with you too,” I said and followed him.
The inside of the Chorten was a complete Universe in itself. There were two floors. There were various pictures of the King, for whom the Stupa was dedicated. He was a boy, he was a man, he looked lovingly, he looked with discipline, there was an entire spectrum of photo book there to understand his personality. A lot of esoteric teachings of the Buddhist philosophy adorned the walls. There were ferocious looking deities with angry red eyes, and all sorts of sharp weapons in their arms, and my son gazed at them curiously, “Are they Gods? I wonder why they are angry.”
“They depict the Vajrayana form of Buddhism which is Tantric in nature. The deities are fearsome and wrathful, because they had to slay the demons of those times” explained our chauffeur to my young boy (this time the monk had vanished).
The three of us drifted out of the inner chambers, allowing our chauffeur to pray without our curiosity interrupting him. Time stood still. The old timers were serenely meditating in spite of the loud prayer songs. The children were running through the pigeons. And the prayer flags were fluttering. A child-tourist was excitedly running his palm over the prayer wheel. And time repeated again and again.
A Spiritual Revelation
Chorten means “the mind of Buddha” or “the seat of Buddha” and so as the name symbolized, the Buddhist elders were deeply etched into their mindful meditation.
As we made our exit of the Chorten, I wondered, what did I gain by visiting the most important Chorten of Thimphu on Buddha Purnima, the day I was born, the day Buddha was born? What did those multitudes of people gain by sitting in meditation for hours together? Mothers,Fathers, Husbands, Wives, domestic helps, Managers, Officers, Monks, Vegetable Vendors, CEOs, Doctors, Electricians, Mountaineers, and everyone else you could think of, were sitting there in the Stupa, in silent contemplation, some with closed eyes, some open eyed, some listening to the prayers, some mumbling their own prayers, some relaxed, some deep in meditation – all with the silent focus of introspection and contemplation on this most important day.
“So is this a tradition? Do you celebrate Buddha Purnima every year in this Chorten?” I asked our chauffeur.
“Yes and No, madam,” he replied, “Wherever I am, I try to visit a sacred site. At times in Thimphu, other times in Paro or Punakha or Central Bhutan, or wherever else I am.”
Visiting a spiritual place is an important part of all religions, philosophies and traditions. Contrary to popular beliefs I feel these visits may not exactly be gateways to heaven. However they surely help the soul in going deeper into oneself, be one with the Higher, tap into our innate pure self, and help in manifesting it out.
Imagine sitting and meditating at Times Square in New York on the opening day of an IPO. Imagine meditating at the Gateway of India on a holiday when tourists are milling about. No, I cannot. And neither can you. So what happens on a special day in a special place? Why is it important?
The atmosphere the place creates, the aroma of peace which is spread all around, the condition of the mind when it settles down in such a place, naturally lends one to establish a spiritual routine.
I meditate every day. I always wondered what I gain, other than the hundred different benefits as explained by the Internet and the physicians. I still wonder, at times. And my wonder increases with every single thing I continue to gain. The splendour and sacredness of the Chorten, on this holy day, the sight of the souls vibrating in esoteric unity, the whispers from the prayer flags carried by the gentle breeze caressing the face, all lend itself a beautiful state of the mind. The heart slips into an innate goodness, taps the rich blessings present in abundance in the Infinite recess of the soul.
My Personal Inner Pilgrimage
This special day, I experienced the beauty of the blessing to be one with the Buddha.
But on other days, at other places, in the din of my laptop keys typing away, while cooking a hurried breakfast for my family, what do I do? From where do I tap this beautiful serenity I experienced at the Chorten? Wisdom, love, compassion, peace – all this should be long-lasting, and as and when I need their support, I need to be able to tap into them. But how?
Rejuvenate myself every day! I cannot travel to Bhutan every day, but I can create a practice of meditation, rejuvenation, a deep sense of awareness of the Self!
The true purpose of a pilgrimage, is to discover one’s own purity, again and again, bathe in it again and again!
“Next, we are visiting The Buddha Dordenma Project site, which is hosting the tallest Buddha in the world, at 159 feet tall,” said Kinley our chauffeur.
“Is that also a site to pray,” asked Ashwin, my son.
“Prayer is a state of being, on Buddha Purnima, and always, my son,” I thought.
“Yes,” said he chauffeur and accelerated the car.
This is an original report by #WorldMom Purnima Ramakrishnan of India during her travels in Bhutan.