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A Pilgrimage to Bhutan

July 13, 2018

Recently, the founders and friends of The Elephant Story and Sara Story Design made a spiritual pilgrimage to Bhutan which is a devout Buddhist country in the Himalayan mountains where the Gross National Product measurement of a developing country's progress has been replaced with the Gross National Happiness Index. Also, keep in mind that satellite television was only introduced in the country in 1999. From the moment one's airplane lands from the winding final approach, Buddhist tradition is evident everywhere. Most notable are the prayer wheels.

The interior of a large prayer wheel can contain up to millions of mantras or Buddhist prayers. Spinning the wheel in a clockwise movement is believed to have much the same meritorious effect as orally reciting the prayers. Tradition has it they were created to promote the transmission of Buddhist teachings to facilitate the chanting of the sutra for illiterate people by turning the wheel.

In fact, the visiting team received a special blessing by a young monk in front of a number of prayer wheels.

The 7th century Kyichu Lhakhang temple in Paro was a very popular place during our visit on a Buddhist holiday as numbers of Bhutanese made the rounds spinning the prayer wheels.

On a grander scale is the Buddha Dordenma statue in Thimphu. Inside the 165-foot Buddha, 125,000 miniature Buddha images are located. As the population of the capital is 100,000 people, Buddha statues exceed the human population. The enormity of the scale of the Buddha is best illustrated by the individual on the far right in the image below. Also, note the ever-present elephants supporting the base of the statue.

The headline experience was spending time with Mynak Tulku Rinpoche (1945 DOB), recognized at the age of two and a half as the reincarnation of Wonpo Tulku of Rikhud Monastery in Eastern Tibet. Rinpoche was installed as the presiding Lama when he was five years old. As required under monastic traditions, he travelled to central Tibet and Sakya in western Tibet in 1957 to further pursue his monastic education.

Following the tragic events in 1959 in Tibet, he moved to Sikkim where he studied English and Sanskrit at the Institute of Tibetology in Gangtok. He taught Tibetan language to Indians and foreign scholars and continued his studies in Buddhist philosophy and history with senior Lamas and visiting foreign scholars at the Institute from 1960 to 1970. He worked for the Royal Government of Bhutan as Assistant Director and Director of the National Museum in Paro and the Director of National Library and Archives in Thimphu from 1970 to 2004. If you had the opportunity to spend time with one of the leading Buddhist scholars, historians, and spiritualists of the world, Mynak Tulku Rinpoche is that person.

We began our evening with a simple question from the author regarding the differences between Theravada Buddhism, often referred to as the lesser vehicle, and Mahayana Buddhism, the greater vehicle. Theravada Buddhism developed in Sri Lanka and spread to the rest of Southeast Asia. The author has far greater experience with Theravada Buddhism than Mahayana given all the years in that part of the world. Mahayana Buddhism, the greater vehicle, is practiced in Tibet, China, Bhutan, Japan, Korea and Mongolia where the author was first exposed to it.

To cut to the chase, Theravada Buddhism is more self-centered focusing on one's own experience, application of knowledge and critical reasoning with the goal of achieving personal liberation or Nirvana. Mahayana goes beyond the individual in that the practitioner should not just seek personal enlightenment but the enlightenment of all beings. It includes not just meditation and personal disciplines but selfless service and working for the benefit of others. The Cliff note synopsis for Mahayana Buddhism is compassionate and altruistically-oriented practice as embodied in the original ideal of bodhisattva - meaning a person who is able to reach nirvana but delays doing so out of compassion in order to save suffering beings.

Mynak Tulku Rinpoche subsequently described some of his work regarding the reconstruction of the Minyang Rikhud Monastery following massive earthquake damage. Mynak Tulku has a strong spiritual connection to his former monastery which is the yellow-roofed structure in the foreground below.

Mynak Tulku is shown below in the middle of a large gathering of monks from the monastery and Buddhist followers in 2015.

A five-meter tall Buddha image was recently crafted in Chengdu, Tibet and then transported to the Minyang Rikhud monastery for installation.

The depth of feeling and emotion of the monks and village residents can best be judged by the short video that can be accessed below. The visiting team from The Elephant Story and Sara Story Design were moved to donate to the monastery renovation project and Mynak Tulku said the funds were received on an auspicious day in that the Buddha image was delivered and he received his Chinese visa to visit the monastery later in July on the same day. Should any of you wish to lend a personal amount of support, please contact The Elephant Story.

Show your support for Asian elephant conservation with The Elephant Story's 100% cotton twill ball cap.  With an oversized red Asian elephant on the front and The Elephant Story displayed on the back, this cap will surely start conversations.

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