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On Buddha’s Paths

After a strenuous hike, if the weather permits, one is rewarded with a fascinating view of Bhutan’s most northern Himalayan mountain range with its snow-covered peaks that rise above 7000m. Such beautiful views are not uncommon, if you don’t mind the hike to the many mountain monasteries in Bhutan.

We are currently in Phadjoding, a monastery complex above Thimphu, which lies on a green mountain face at an altitude of 3600 – 3800 meters. A group of monks in their traditional maroon gowns and orange shirts stand in front of one of the houses and prepare powder for incense sticks. A younger novice runs around uninhibited. A wonderful and lively image. After a few minutes of quietness, I look around and notice that one of the buildings has some deep cracks and dearly needs some renovation. Some other has just been renovated.

Suddenly a monk speaks to me in flawless English. It is Lama Namgay, one of the leading monks of the monastery, who oversees the education for novices. He asks me who I am and where I am from, and invites me to a cup of tea – something welcome after the long hike. Traditionally Suja (salted butter-tea) is served with Zaw, fried rice. Namgay, who I visited multiple times in the following months and years, tells me more about the history of the monastery. It was founded in the 13th century though most of the complex was built in the 18th century.

We talk about life in the monastery and Namgay tells me how expendable but at the same time fulfilling living as a monk up here can be.  Young men are often sent at a young age to the monastery for the education as monk. It used to be the goal of each family to have at least one man educated as a monk. These days this tradition is not followed by all families anymore. After our conversation, I hike up to the building highest up the mountain to pray in silence. Afterwards I part from this inspiring place and embark on my walk back to Thimphu.

However, Phadjoding is only one of many monasteries in Bhutan. Many are located in breath-taking places, such as the most famous monastery in Bhutan Taktsang, or tigers nest, which lies on a cliff. Legend says it was built at the place at which Guru Rinpoche landed on his tigers when he brought Buddhism to Bhutan and meditated there for three years. Both the meaning of the monastery as well as the location draw many foreign and local tourists to it. The beauty of this monastery is unrivalled.

Bhutan’s two oldest monasteries that are constructed identically to one another have a great spiritual attraction. Kyichu Lhakhang is located in Paro whereas Jambay Lhakhang is situated in Bumthang. These are two of 108 monasteries that, according to legend, were built by the Tibetan king Songtsen Goenpo in a single day in the seventh century in Tibet, Bhutan, and neighbouring regions. Those monasteries were built to trap a demon that was haunting the people in the region into the ground and make her harmless.

Not all monasteries are located as spectacularly as Taktsang or have such a rich story as Kyichu Lhakhang. However, they are still worthwhile, as the monasteries are such an important part of Bhutanese culture.