The kitchen of the Medicine Buddha Monastery was like everything else in Bhutan: simple, traditional, immaculate, but with occasional and startling touches of the contemporary. The wood stove in the middle of the tiny room was surrounded by sleeping mats on the floor. The only other thing in the room was a set of shelves. I stared at a chrome and plastic radio and cassette player peeking out from behind cast iron pots, and wondered how the child-monks had obtained it and whether it was against monastery rules. It was a singular incongruity, like the satellite phone I’d seen a monk pull out of his robe pocket in the dark, silent interior of another monastery’s chapel earlier that day.
There were only four monks living here. They were so young; the oldest was 20, the youngest was 12. I knew I would not normally be allowed inside, but the head monk was away on a pilgrimage to India, and since it was off-season for tourists and trekkers, the monks did not mind inviting me and my guide in for a visit.
“It will be very cold tonight,” Phurba told me, “because we are at a higher elevation. The monks said that Sonam and the herder and I can sleep inside with them. You will have to stay outside because you are a woman. But you can stay here until after dinner.”
I didn’t mind. I had a Marmot tent, a zero degree sleeping bag, and a down jacket. My guide, cook and mule herder, on the other hand, had no sleeping bags and few winter clothes. I had been worried about them for the past two nights.
We settled around the stove while Sonam began to cook my dinner. I noticed the monks were not cooking anything yet, and I wondered if etiquette dictated that they wait until I was gone. I resolved not to stay too late.
“Do you think I could ask them some questions?” I asked Phurba.
“Yes,” he said. “I will translate for you.”
I looked at the four monks sitting across from me on the other side of the stove. They wore traditional rust-colored robes with rope waistbelts, and they hugged their knees into their chests, their bare, dirty feet peeking out from underneath. Their heads were shaved. Two of them, the youngest, whispered to each other and giggled, stealing shy glances at me and staring at the floor whenever I smiled back at them.
“Ask them how they became monks,” I said to Phurba. He turned and spoke rapidly in Bhutanese to the monks. They giggled when he had finished. I was soon to notice that they giggled after almost every question; an expression of nervousness more than of humor, I concluded. But they answered him.
“Three of them are nephews of the head monk,” Phurba told me. “Their uncle is a retired monk from the Paro Dzong, and he brought them up here three years ago. The fourth one, the oldest, also came up from Paro three years ago, but the choice was his own.”
I thought about the enormity of that decision. The boy would have been 17 years old at the time, hormones raging, and he had made the decision to spend the rest of his life in celibacy in this isolated mountain monastery.
“Do they ever regret it?” I asked. “Do they ever want to do anything else?”
Phurba grinned, and said without asking the monks, “Only when they visit family in Paro and see a pretty girl walking down the street.”
But I persisted. “Do they have ambitions?”
Phurba misunderstood my question, and after translating, he replied, “The oldest one wants to become a master of meditation at the monastery up the hill from here. Those monks do not come out for three years.”
I had seen that monastery earlier today. We had toured three of the four monasteries on the mountain top when we arrived, but the meditation monastery was off limits to anyone, even to other monks.
I gave up, and began to ask questions about the monk’s daily lives. They answered eagerly, telling me how they got up at 5:00 every morning, studied and prayed, did household chores, studied and prayed more. They had free time to play, and for one week a year they could visit their families in Paro, whom they missed. Apparently their routine was much easier than some of the Dzong monks in the city, who had to get up at 2:00 or 3:00 a.m. and couldn’t get enough sleep. While visiting the other monasteries earlier that day, I’d seen some monks outside playing a game in which they threw stones into holes in the ground, like horseshoes. Their robes were hiked up and they were barefoot, laughing and running through the dirt.
“What do they like best about their lives?” I asked.
“They say they don’t like any one thing better than any other,” Phurba answered. “It is all the same. Sometimes they think about resigning, but it is difficult to do these days. The head monk of this area has decreed that a resigning monk must pay the government back for all his food and upkeep.”
Our mule herder came in and sat down. I did not know his name, and Phurba didn’t either. Earlier I had seen the herder hugging a monk in one of the other monasteries, and Phurba had explained that he was once a monk himself, but had been released.
“Could you ask him to tell his story?” I asked.
The mule herder laughed when Phurba translated, and said that it was a long story, but yes, he would tell us.
“He says he was only a monk for two years,” Phurba said. “He was sent up by his grandparents at an early age. They felt certain that he would not be an only child of his parents. But shortly after, the grandparents died, and the parents divorced without having any more children to take over the family property. His mother was alone in the family house.”
I nodded, understanding the dilemma. In Bhutan, there are no family names, only given names. But the home is passed from generation to generation through the women; when there is a marriage, the man leaves his home and comes to live in the woman’s house.
Phurba continued, “This was before the decree that you must pay back the government. He went to his head monk and requested to be released in order to take care of his mother and take over the family home. There were some difficult conversations and he had to pay a fine, but his reasons were good and his teacher understood. Then, since there were no daughters in the family, he married and brought his wife to live in his mother’s house. That was two years ago, and they have no children yet.”
I stared at the mule herder with a newfound respect. He was a man that had seen another life and made some difficult choices. I wondered why no one knew his name. We had been trekking in the mountains for three days, and I saw Phurba and Sonam joking with him in the cook tent every night. Perhaps there was some sort of caste system that made it unnecessary to ask the name of a mere mule herder, but obviously the overwhelming humanity of the Bhutanese people demanded that he be treated with warmth nonetheless. I had seen many impressive examples of that humanity so far. For instance, stray dogs were a great problem in the city of Paro—they ran through the streets in packs, barking, and kept people awake at night. Some years ago the government tried to have them poisoned, but people took them into their homes and hid them.
Around the same time, traffic was becoming a problem in the city, and the government installed the first traffic light. Shortly after, it was taken back out and the two traffic cops who had previously directed traffic at Paro’s busy intersections were reinstated. The people had complained that the traffic light was impersonal, and they missed their friendly traffic cops.
But my favorite example was the takin zoo, in the hills above Paro. It had once been a conventional zoo, but the king had decided that having animals in captivity to be gawked at by tourists was not in keeping with Bhutan’s environmental philosophy so he ordered all the animals to be let go. The takin, slow, stooped, moose-like creatures found only in Bhutan, did not know what to do with their new freedom and stupidly wandered the streets of Paro, looking for food. Finally, they were put back in the zoo for their own protection.
I was served my dinner as we talked, and then one of the monks read from a religious storybook. Everyone blushed and laughed while he read. I asked Phurba to translate for me, but he said it was a very sexual story, and he would spare me the details. I was reminded of our campfire two nights ago, when Phurba and Sonam told me the story of the Divine Madman. I had asked about the giant pictures of phalluses that my guidebook said were to be found painted on the roofs of some houses in Paro, and Phurba told me about a 17th century shaman who was famous for his voracious sexuality. But more importantly, he could drive any demon away, including a witch who demanded a villager for her dinner every night.
That is perhaps the most fascinating thing about Bhutan: there is no distinction between history and religious myth. While reading about a Tibetan invasion, I read that a certain guru drove away the demons that were enslaving the city, and all of it was presented as historical fact. On my first day in the country, I visited a temple called Kyichu Lhakhang, which was built by a Tibetan king in 659 to hold down the left foot of an ogress that covers most of Bhutan. The Tiger Monastery, also in Thimpu, is the most famous monastery in Bhutan because the Guru Rimpoche, importer of Buddhism to Bhutan, flew there on a tiger’s back and meditated for three months. Bhutan’s religion, a form of Mahayana Buddhism with Tantric influence, is described by my Lonely Planet guidebook as a “perfectly bewildering medley of gods and goddesses, Buddhas and bodhisattvas, guardian deities and canonized saints, ghouls, goblins and demons, deified kings and spirits of every conceivable description, paradises, earths and hells,” but what is most important is that the path to Nirvana can be collective rather than individual. One must pay respects to the deities, whether they are protective or troublesome, but one must also respect earthly life because we are all working together to attain nirvana. And that is why stray dogs and takins are protected, and young boys will make such enormous sacrifices to dedicate themselves to solitary worship.
The radio had been turned on during dinner, and the Bhutanese news came on. Phurba told me that the big news this week was about a village fire that burned down 30 homes. The king had given each of the affected families $1000, and decreed that they would be given free lumber to rebuild their houses.
After the news, the older monk put a cassette in, which played popular music by a contemporary local band. It sounded like Hindi dance music.
I didn’t want to leave the warmth of the fire, but no one else had eaten dinner yet. I bundled up and stepped into the frozen stone courtyard outside the kitchen, looking up at a bright, starry sky. It would be a cold night in my tent, but I would sleep better knowing that the mule herder was warm.