Je Khenpo – the Purest of the Pure

The floors of the holy chambers of Tashichho Dzong were shiny and slippery and so I took an extra care not to put up a faux pas in front of His Holiness the 70th Je Khenpo (the supreme abbot of Bhutan). The year was 1997. I had just turned thirty, built a house and was still with my Italian mindset and manners. Meaning, I still possessed some deficits on the traditional driglam namzha – the Code for Official and Social Etiquettes of Bhutan. I was aware of my shortcoming and that made me even more nervous in the presence of such an illustrious figure. I prostrated three times, stretched out my offering of a simple white silk scarf (aka khadha in Bhutanese) to the chief attendant, prostrated three times again, after which I was signalled by the attendant to sit down. I lowered myself – paying attention not to get entangled with my kabney (ceremonial scarf), which happens all the time, crossed my legs and sat down. All the while, His Holiness was smiling broadly and pitifully at me – perhaps amused by my long hair, very undriglam namzha ways or an overly self-conscious face.

“So, what brings you here?” he asked me in his signature deep and gentle voice that I had heard before in large public prayer gatherings. I felt relieved, composed myself and submitted my request, “I would like you to come and bless my newly-built house”. He nodded and went, “ummm….. Now, how do we go about with this?” The chief attendant was taken aback by my unusual and inadmissible request.

I had not known His Holiness personally before that and, having spent a good part of my twenties in Italy as a student, my knowledge of State protocols was next to nil. I had only seen him once in person, the year before, and received his blessing when he administered the oath of allegiance for senior civil servants. I was one among few hundreds that day. On that occasion, I felt something very unusual in his presence – a feeling of remorse, pride, sadness, joy and bliss – all at the same time. I was explained much later by another Buddhist master that ‘sinners’ like me are remorseful in the presence of great Beings – in that my soul was seeking penitence. I bought his explanation. So, when I had finished building my house I was determined to get him to bless it. I wasn’t sure if he would accept but I thought it was worth a try.

As we sat in silence, another attendant waded in to the room carrying a tray. “Have some tea first,” His Holiness uttered to me and then he called his chief attendant and whispered something in his ears. I grabbed the tea cup by the handle and slowly raised it and took a sip – making sure that the cup didn’t slide away from the saucer. “What do you do? He asked me next. I explained that I was an engineer in the BBS. He smiled. He went on to ask few more questions on my family, where I was born and my education. Meanwhile, the chief attendant came in with a scarf and something small wrapped in a dresho paper.

“You see,” His Holiness went, looking down at the items – and blessing them, “I would have agreed to your request but our internal protocol bars me from doing that. I can only grace State ceremonies or consecrations.”

Iaccepted his rejection – not with a disappointment but feeling rather foolish at even advancing such a request. I was either naive or idealistic – or both, to expect the highest lama of the land to come and consecrate a private house. “Nevertheless,” he continued, “tomorrow at 3 pm, I suppose you will be doing a day-long ceremony, please tell the lama to throw these rice and the khadha in the air. Exactly at 3pm, OK?” “Las, la” I replied. I got up and received his gifts and at the same time the chief attendant signalled me to leave. I paid my due respects and waded my feet towards the door. When I got home I gave the khada and the rice to the lama who was preparing for the next day – and conveyed the instructions.

The following day was one of the most hectic days in my life. I was trying to keep tab of every aspect of the ceremony – between feeding the monks and guests to supplying the kitchen and the altar – to showing the way to toilets. Many friends and family members had come to the consecration. With all the mess going around me I was called outside for a photo session to mark the day. The photographer, a visiting Japanese-American friend from New York, clicked few shots before he pointed to the sky behind us. It was afternoon and the Sun had a beautiful ring around it – like a circular rainbow. Everyone was wowed. It wasn’t even raining. We didn’t have smartphones back then to capture the scene. But all the guests witnessed the auspicious phenomenon including my American friend. I then suddenly remembered the instruction from His Holiness. I looked at my watch. It was 3 pm.

Ever since that experience, I have a total reverence for His Holiness – our Je Khenpo. He restored in me the wonderful world of magic and miracles that I had almost forgotten as I took up engineering, quantum mechanics and technology back at the university. Now, whenever or wherever I come across him – or even see him pass by in his car, I always prostate into submission. I feel blessed and blissful. For a moment, he takes me to another realm. To me, he is a living Buddha. The real Rimpoche (the Precious One). The Purest of the Pure.

On the occasion of his 63rd Birthday anniversary, today, I can only pray that he live a very long life and continue to provide the spiritual strength to our magical Kingdom.


Thimphu Traffic? We saw it coming

Thirty years back, in 1986, I started working for the Radio NYAB (the predecessor to the Bhutan Broadcasting Service) as a young junior engineer. One of my responsibilities was to operate the sound system at the Royal Banquet Hall where almost every important government meetings, workshops and seminars were held. One such meeting was called by the erstwhile National Urban Development Corporation on the Royal Command of His Majesty the King to discuss the city plan for, and the growing traffic in, Thimphu City. All our leaders of today were there as young directors, under-secretaries and deputy ministers. NUDC was chaired by the late Foreign Minister, Lyonpo Dawa Tsering. Dasho Lhatu Wangchuk was the Secretary. The meeting was steered by late Dasho Lam Penjore, the Deputy Minister of Planning Commission – assisted by a very soft-spoken Director of Planning, Ugyen Tshering (who retired as foreign minister, Lyonpo Ugyen Tshering).

During the meeting, briefly graced by His Majesty the King, the issue of the growing traffic came up. One attendee (I think it was lyonpo Om Pradhan who was the Deputy Minister for Trade then) pointed out that the main issue to be tackled was the Chubachu junction that posed a bottleneck as majority of traffic users moved to Tashichho Dzong in the morning and then away from it in the evening. Many more ideas and feedbacks were floated in that meeting, which were all excellent. I don’t remember exactly what His Majesty commanded but I remember along the lines of not making the mistakes of other countries, to maintain adequate offset between the houses, etc.

Thirty-one years on, and my last visit home, few weeks back, I was stuck in my car for over thirty minutes to go from my house in Kawajangsa to the centre of the city. It would have taken 15 if I had walked. The Chubachu junction, which was causing the bottleneck, was still there taking around twenty minutes to clear me and my old car. As I moved inch by inch, literally, I couldn’t help but think about that meeting – and about how we Bhutanese never learn from, or listen to, our King.

Countries and nations fail because of bad or no leadership. That’s unfortunate. We are failing despite having a great one. The traffic problem, which has now become a chronic issue, is just one of the many thing we could have avoided if we had just listened to our King. Just until 20 years back Thimphu was a blank slate on which we could have drawn a beautiful artwork. We had 30 years to address this issue.

Maybe it is late. Or maybe, it isn’t.