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Tuesday, March 18, 2014

The Kingdom of Bhutan

I'm not much of a poem person, but one day on top of a mountain in The Kingdom of Bhutan, this poem came out of me.  I have been coming across it lately, so I decided to publish it on my blog to dedciate to all my Bhutanese friends whom I miss dearly. 

In a far away land,
hidden in remote valleys
barricaded in the folds of
The Great Himilayas
I have landed in Druk Yul,
The land of The Thunder Dragons,
The Kingdom of Bhutan.

Sacred white pyramids
The abode of Buddhas
Thrones of Lotus Spirits
Soar past the clouds
Piercing the heavens
Some never climbed
unsoiled by men.

Virgin green forests
home of the nagas.
Wildlife sanctuaries
flourish the endangered
and the undiscovered
Some never explored
untarnished by men.

Beautiful beings of  
heart-shaped or
moon-shaped faces
with dark almond eyes
and earthly brown skin.
Built of muscle and with
hearts of compassion.
These are the Drukpas,
The Dragon People.

Wrapped babies
sleeping on mothers backs.
Rounded backbones
tilling rice patties.
Toothless grandmas
spitting red doma.
All are basking
so close to the sun.
This is the Kingdom of Happiness.

A mystical blessed country
the land of The Lotus One,
Guru Rinpoche,
The Second Buddha,
weaved through forests
subduing demons,
hiding treasures and
spreading Buddhism
in the hearts
of generations to come.

Red robed monks
Shaved head nuns
Om Mani Padme Hum
Hail to the Jewel in the lotus.

Hundreds of prayer temples
balancing off cliffs.
Spider webs of prayer flags
beating in the wind.
Walls of prayer wheels
spinning with love.
Strings of prayer beads
infusing with merit.
All for the enlighten one.

In a far away land,
hidden in remote valleys
barricaded in the folds of
The Great Himalayas
Is the last paradise on Earth
- A Shangri-la!
The last of tantric Buddhism
- A Shambha-la!
I have landed in Druk Yul,
The land of the Thunder Dragons,
The Kingdom of Bhutan.

By Sabrina Soares

Friday, December 27, 2013

A Face of an Angel

Kinley Wangmo is a Buddhist nun with a face of an angel.  Her glowing shaved head sets off her adorning white skin and round brown eyes.  With a gentle smile, she moves with elegance and speaks with grace.  She is beautiful!

In the last four months, she was my closest friend and often she felt like my only friend while I was tucked away from the outside world.  Sometimes I sat next to her during the nuns’ evening prayers and she would offer me an orange.  At other times, we shared meals together or sat quietly side-by-side soaking in the sun.  But almost everyday she would come to my room for a visit and I would make her tea.  While sipping tea, she practiced her English by answering my endless questions about nunnery life.

She told me how she came to be a nun at the age of eleven.  She dropped out of school in the sixth grade leaving behind her small village and the difficulties of farm life in hopes of making a difference in the world by learning meditation and Buddhism.  She was one of several nuns who built the Pema Choling Nunnery with her own hands and now twelve years later she was the head nun.  

And although she was very busy running the nunnery, sometimes she would accompany me on my daily walks.  At the end of November, knowing that our time together was coming to an end, we took our last walk together.  We strolled down a winding jagged narrow dirt road cut out of the side of a mountain.  The rains had long ended and November’s clear blue skies permitted the sun to transform everything into a soft amber hue.  We were surround by the forest dropping golden pine needles, which twisted and turned all the way to the ground adding to the blanket of their brothers smothering the forest floor.

As we slowly walked down the quiet mountain, I shared with her my dreams of one day having a family and writing a book about Bhutan.  And she told me about her plans to teach at the nunnery for two more years before she would enter meditation in the forest for the rest of her life.  I thought about how our lives were heading in opposite paths.  I was going to be adding more things to my life, more attachments, more sufferings while she was simplifying her life, trying to achieve enlightenment for the benefit of all beings.  I admired her and a part of me wished we could switch lives; that I could inherit her vast knowledge on Buddhism and aspire to enlightenment.

We continued walking down the hillside with the sun warming our backs and watching our shadows moving along in front of us; mine of a tracksuit with a pointy beanie and hers of a robe fluttering in the wind.  The shadows looked so different.  Our lives were so different.  But somehow the world had brought us together, arm in arm, under descending pine needles on a remote, peaceful mountain.  She was my dearest friend and I was sad knowing that this was our last walk together.

Then as if she was reading my thoughts, she sighed and softly said, “Time is passing so fast, our lives are going.  Soon we will no longer have a shadow.  This is impermanence.” 

For the rest of the walk, we remained quiet reflecting on the nature of impermanence that could easily be seen all over the forest floor.  Thinking about how fast life passes, my heart filled with gratitude to have met a friend in this short life who was purely selfless, giving up a materialistic life with the intention to get out of samsara and seek enlightenment for all.  She was my real life hero and several weeks later when the time came for us to say goodbye, I tried hard not to weep, as all my lessons about impermanence couldn’t help my sappy heart.  To my surprise, she also wiped away her tears and squeezed me farewell.  As the car drove me away down the road we walked together so many times, I prayed that one day I would see my friend with her face and heart of an angel once more.    

Thank you Anim, Kinley Wangmo, for being such a great friend to me.  I hope that you’ll reach enlightenment soon!  You inspire me to be a better person.  xoxo

Wednesday, November 20, 2013

The little Mermaid in Membertsho (Burning Lake)

One evening, seven of my former fifth graders surprised me at the nunnery with their overnight bags and pillows.  As their ride drove off in the distance, they explained, “Miss, we got a two day holiday from school so we came to stay with you.”  Shocked at the unexpected visit, all I could do was giggle, “I’m so happy to see you all!”
Burning Lake
The next morning, I decided to walk them to Membartsho since most of them had never been to it and they were beyond thrilled.  Membartsho, or Burning Lake, is one of the most important sacred sites in Bhutan; a famous treasure finder, Pema Lingpa, dove into its ferocious icy waters with a burning lamp and returned from the water with the lamp still burning along with sacred treasures, hence the name, Burning Lake.  The treasure was hidden by the second Buddha who prophesized that a great master would find his hidden treasure.

A second well known story about Membartsho and worth mentioning is of a farmer who went looking for his cow near the lake when he heard beautiful chants coming from a magnificent temple standing where the lake was supposed to be.  He entered the temple for some time enjoying the sereneness of heavenly monks praying and then realizing that he had been there for several hours, he finally went home to tell his family about the new temple.  However, when he reached home, he discovered that he had been missing for twenty-one days and that his funeral had already taken place by his family who thought that he must had drowned in the water since they found his hat next to the water.  Everyone was in shock to see him alive and when he went back to visit the temple, it was gone.

Other strange occurrences have happened at the lake, such as tales of people who saw a hideous naked women lying in the lake without a trace of water in it.  Hours later when they returned to the lake, it was back to normal and the frightening lady was nowhere to be found.  Unfortunately, those who looked into her black socket eyes mysteriously died a few days later.  Whether all these stories are true or not, most Bhutanese people believe them and make long pilgrimages to pay great respect to the sacred spot.

So on a mundane Sunday morning, like the people in the tales, we too innocently sought out to visit the magical site, not realizing that we would also add to the mythical stories of the Burning Lake.  When we reached the lake, we stood on a boulder looking down at the rushing river that collected in a small swirling deep pool (referred to as the lake), which pushed on to continue as a river for miles and miles. 
While we looked around at the spectacular scenery, a lama who was in meditation came out of hermit to point out to us areas in the water where some pure people can see images of temples, prayer flags and other revered Buddhist items.  Just then one of my students faces turned white and she hid behind another student while some of the other girls followed her in extreme fear shouting, “There’s a mermaid in the water!”   

At first, the girls were incredibly frightened and a few were on the verge of crying.  The lama dismissed their fears telling them that it was wonderful to be able to see a mermaid.  They screamed at me, “Miss, look, can’t you see her tail swishing around… I can see her hands…” I strained my eyes, but I couldn’t see “the little mermaid.”  All I could see was the refraction of the sunrays on the surface of the water that could possibly have a shape of a mermaid if one extended their imagination.  I thought that maybe they were mistaking the refracting light as a mermaid or maybe it was a big fish they were seeing, but they all swore they could see her body perfectly clear while some reported seeing the mermaid’s face and long black hair.  
The students were in a trance fixated on the mermaid and they made offerings to her by throwing money into the water while the lama threw her a handful of packaged candy.  I gasped as I saw the plastic wrappers floating into the sacred water and seeing my disapproving frown, he unwrapped the rest of the candy and threw in the remaining sweets without the wrappers. 

The students drew a crowd of tourist who must have thought we were a crazy sight and they flashed their cameras at the girls prostrating to an “invisible” mermaid.  Nobody seemed to be able to see the mermaid except the seven little girls.  By the look of fear, excitement and disbelief all mixed upon their faces, I truly believed that they were seeing a mermaid.  The lama explained that the innocent children must have had the right Karma to see it unlike some adults who have a lack of faith or accumulated sins.

It took me a long time to nudge the girls away from Membartsho.  The entire day, all the girls could talk about was the mermaid and that night several had intriguing dreams about her.  They became obsessed with the mermaid and they asked every spiritual person we came into contact with about her.  Some told the girls it was a good omen while others shook in fear saying that it was the local deity who protected the rest of the hidden treasures in the lake.  Some cautioned the girls to be careful because the deity had the power to take the souls of people, especially if did anything bad around the lake, such as smoking. 

Then a few weeks later, I thought the story of the mermaid was over, but the mermaid talk resurfaced when a young foreign couple on their honeymoon fell into the dangerous lake and drowned without a single witness.  Everyone was horrified by the news and after a search team couldn’t find one of the bodies for three days, the nunnery held a special puja at the lake for the body to be discovered.  Minutes after the puja, the body was recovered.  Afterwards, a few of my Bhutanese friends told me that they believed the mermaid caused the couple to perish and that she kept the body until they did the puja for her to release it from the water similar to how she had done in the past.

The next day, when some of the nuns and I went to Membartsho to say a prayer for the deceased couple, I overheard the meditating lama residing at the lake telling some tourists and their guides about how seven little girls saw the mermaid; I realized that the day my students saw the mermaid had turned into a new tale in Bhutan as the tourists squinted looking for a mermaid.  I felt chills run down my spine wondering if there was really a powerful mermaid lurking somewhere deep in the pool or under a bolder.  I can’t say with any certainty that the mermaid is real or not, but that mundane day we sought out to visit Membartsho has left me with a deep respect for the sites potential for death and magical occurrences. 

Sunday, November 10, 2013

Pema Choling Nunnery

Pema Choling Nunnery

A great view

Last year, I went to tour Pema Choling Nunnery in order to make a decision on whether or not I would teach there the following year.  As I traveled through the busy town of Chamkar to get to the nunnery, I felt eager to head towards a more remote, quiet place.  Leaving behind the noise, the car turned off the main paved road that led across the country, onto a narrow dirt road obscured with jagged rocks, which made a terribly slow bumpy descend.  However, every nauseous jerk was worth it when I finally reached the beautiful two-story white nunnery with its traditional motif framework.  The nunnery sat on a flat mountaintop with panoramic views of hillsides covered in Bumthang’s famous blue pine trees that opened up to scattered villages and not to mention a view on the west of a modern palace dedicated to the fifth King as well as a gorgeous view on the east of a perched ancient temple built by angels.   

Walking through the entrance of the nunnery, I became breathless at the sight of a slab-stoned courtyard that led my eyes across its way to an astonishing focal point: a glorious temple on the second floor, which sparkled with butter lamps through panel windows.  I walked in the middle of the courtyard doing a slow 360-degree turn taking in the neighboring mountaintops peeking into the courtyard.  I tried to count the surrounding 25 plus doors on each level that housed over a hundred Buddhist nuns.  However, all the nuns were away doing a puja, so it was a quiet day and the only thing that I could hear was a little voice within saying YES to the idea of teaching in the nunnery.  I didn’t have to sleep on the decision or even meet the nuns; I instantly knew that this would be a place that I had to come back to.

Nearly a year later, I returned to the nunnery and discovered that it’s more beautiful than I had remembered.  The summer rains continued into fall keeping the wild grasses green, roses budding and two lush vegetable gardens filled with carrots, spinach, pumpkin, green beans, etc.  This time when I entered the nunnery, two large hibiscus plants were in full bloom with exotic white flowers, one on each side of the entrance welcoming all into the courtyard.  The enclosed stoned courtyard with its open sky was edged with potted plants displaying in array of colors and there was a new wooden display in front of the temple lit with hundreds and hundreds of burning lamps.  

From the second floor verandas, dozens of Buddhist nuns in their maroon robes and shaved heads leaned over to get a better look at their new English teacher.  Everyone smiled at me giving a pleasant feeling in the air and they wisped me off for a new chapter in my life. 

The nuns have turned out to be the kindest group of people that I have ever met.  There is over a hundred fifteen nuns and with that many women sharing rooms and gathering together everyday, it’s surprising that I have never seen any of them quarrel with each other or felt the slightest of negative energy from them.  They are incredibly helpful, honest and kind hearted to all; it’s a truly special congregation ranging from age six to seventy-seven.

In the short time that I have taught them, I have quickly fallen in love with them and I have already seen tremendous improvement.  The first few days of class, most of the nuns were painfully shy to speak to me in English, although those in my class have studied English before (the range of their previous study is up to fourth grade to twelfth grade).  When I would talk to them, instead of looking at me or talking with me,  most would bury their faces in their robes while turning away to blush and giggle.  In the beginning, my class looked more like a laughing mediation class than an English class.

It took a few weeks of providing many opportunities in class to practice speaking English with partners, for their shyness to subside and to feel more comfortable.  Some explained that they felt funny speaking English since they rarely used it with one another and they also felt a little self-conscious.  But day-by-day, I watched the nuns become more confident trying to speak English and after weeks of practicing, each nun in my class gave her first solo presentation about her life.  It was wonderful watching them stand tall and proud, speaking in loud clear voices.  It made me feel so happy and blessed to be teaching in Bhutan once more.

Monday, October 28, 2013

Returning to Bhutan

Gangtey Monastery 
When I landed in Bhutan, I felt alive by the September rain that colored the mountains green and purified the fresh air.  My eyes were wide open barely blinking as if they were having a feast, gorging on the spectacular scenery of forever-rising mountains.  It had been almost a year since I had been back in Bhutan, but all the love I felt for the country and its culture came rushing back even stronger than before.  The agape feeling that consumed me sparked a stronger desire to be reunited with my close friends and students from last year, so I immediately set out to central Bhutan making lots of visits on my way to my new home.

Little JImmy in Gangtey
One of my first stops was in beautiful Gangtey to see little Jimmy, Sonam’s family and the Rinpoche of Gangtey.  Since I arrived later than expected, little Jimmy was sleeping, but Sonam’s mother waited up for me.  We sat in the sitting room holding hands and smiling at each other for quite sometime while catching up on lost time.  There was joy in our hearts and all over our faces to see each other again.  I’m certain we have a karmic connection because I feel so close to her even though we don’t speak the same language.  In fact, some people think that I can understand Dzongkha because I often know what she’s saying.  It’s a funny thing to explain or watch, but some Buddhist may explain it as a karmic tie.  After some time, we decided to wake little Jimmy up and with sleepy eyes he gave me the biggest hug.  It felt like Christmas watching him open a dozen of presents at midnight from Sonam and I.

After a few days visiting little Jimmy, I was able to personally thank the Rinpoche of Gangtey for inviting me to teach in his nunnery.  Then I made my way to Chumey where I taught last year. 
The lovely road into Chumey
Driving down the straightest paved road in Bhutan leading into Chumey Valley made me feel like I was coming home to another part of me: the Bhutanese part of me that’s a Chumey girl!  My ride dropped me off in front of the school where Norbu, my dear monk friend, came trailing along the pitch-dark road to greet me.  It was such a dark night that I could barely see the outline of his robe approaching me, but I instantly recognized his voice when he said, “Hey man, long time no see.”  We hugged under a black sky and I was in disbelief to see my favorite friend again. 

The next morning, I attended school where I was bombarded by mobs of students gathering around me in their checkered school dresses asking me a thousand questions.  My old students who are now in class six dominated the mob giving me hugs and cards.  One particular student, Neera, made my tears lodge deep in my throat and I will never forget the sight of her running across the courtyard out of breath with open arms.  She had grown taller than me and was now able to throw her arms around my neck for a tight cobra squeeze, which nearly threw me off balance.  Her eyes were full of tears as she struggled to get the words out without openly crying as she stuttered, “Miss, I was afraid that we would never meet again, but I never gave up hope.  I knew you would return.”  Her pure happiness really touched my heart and I felt grateful that I too didn’t give up hope on getting a visa back to Bhutan.

After morning assembly, my former students threw me the most elaborate welcome back tea party with nearly a hundred cookies, rows of thermoses filled with tea, a bouquet of wild flowers, a homemade crown that read, “Best Teacher in the World” and balloons taped to the ceiling, which I was instructed to pop to experience a rainfall of confetti.  I realized that one of the sweetest gifts life can offer is to be loved by children.  It was one of the happiest days of my life and one that I will surely never forget.
That afternoon, I went to see one of the people I thought about the most in Bhutan; I went to see sweet Dawa who lived with me last year, but now lives in the dorms/hostel in a nearby high school.  I was on the edge of my seat waiting for her to come down a hill from her dorm room and at the first sight of each other, we ran towards one another for a big embrace.  Finally, it was my turn to cry during my 

Dawa and I
Bhutan reunions because there was a part of me that felt incredibility guilty not really knowing how she was doing while I was away.  I took care of her for several months last year, so there’s a part of me that will always feel like I’m a family member to her.  During our beautiful visit together, she reassured me that she was happy and healthy, which made the guilt slowly subside.
Since Chumey houses so many people I love, I couldn’t help but stay for several days teaching my old students, visiting past friends and going for my old long walks around Chumey.  It was strange at how it felt like I had never left.  A part of me didn’t want to leave again, but there was also another part of me that was anxious to meet my new students who were only a few hours away: the nuns of Pema Choling nunnery.

Students with my suitcase
So early the next morning, I was getting ready to leave Chumey for the nunnery when all my students surprised me to see me off.  Dozens of little fingers lifted my suitcase and bags up in the air and marched my luggage all the way to Norbu’s car.  With teary eyes they wished me the best of luck and waved goodbye as Norbu drove me to the nunnery where I would again fall in love with a different part of Bhutan, more sweet people and a whole new experience.  
The Pema Choling Nunnery

Now I have been teaching at the nunnery for almost a month and it is beyond fascinating.  It deserves it’s own special blog, which I will try to update the next time I come into town since I don’t have Internet there. 

A nice reunion 

Variety of Cookies
Tea Party - Thermoses of suja and narja

Tuesday, September 10, 2013

Is Bhutan the hardest country to get into?

Yeahhhh!!! After months and months of waiting for my Bhutan visa to clear, I had to ask myself, "Is Bhutan one of the hardest countries to get into or what?"  Well I guess the answer depends on whether or not you have $250 American dollars to spend on the DAILY tariff (unless you're an Indian or Bangladesh passport holder).  Since my bank account couldn't imagine paying the tariff for a six month stay (an estimated $45,000), I patiently waited for my invitation and visa to be granted in order to get the tariff waived.  Finally, it was granted a few weeks ago and today I'm boarding an airplane back to Bhutan for a once in a lifetime experience: living and teaching in a Buddhist nunnery in the Himalayan Mountains.  Unfortunately, I won't have internet at the nunnery so keeping up this blog may be difficult, however, it would be a dream to one day compile it into a book.  Nevertheless, I can't wait to get back to one of the world's most beautiful places, so breathtaking and special that I have to admit, I think it's worth more than a $250 daily tariff:-).