Holidays and calendars

Today is celebrated as another local new year although as per the lunar calendar it is the 12th month of Year of Rooster. Some may be wondering why we have so many new years in Bhutan.
Since ancient times different communities around the world, ethnic groups, religions and nations have different times to celebrate a new cycle in life. Some followed the Sun (like the Egyptians) and some the Moon (Chinese), while others both (Indian). They also had different days to observe as holidays (derived from the words, holy days) to conduct religious activities. In Sharchop communities, for example, there used to be a day for rest known as saa nyan (earth rest) – when the farmers give the soil some rest. By the way, isn’t this beautiful?
As communities came together as nations and states, the calendar system was introduced to bring everyone to synchronize their lives so that they can all work together. Therefore, the calendar is more political and administrative in nature. However, it included the religious holy days and rest days to allow people to take some time off for themselves. While the calendar systems have been subjected to political changes, the religious holidays have remained constant. And since social beliefs and religion run deeper, communities continue to practice them.
This is the reason you will find different communities in Bhutan celebrating the start of a new cycle (new year) at different times of the year. These cultural practices predate the formation of Bhutan as a nation-state in the 17th century.. This is what makes Bhutan diverse and beautiful. And when we say that we have been successful in maintaining our culture and traditions, we are talking of retaining such practices.
Furthermore, since Losar means new year and new cycle, the term, Chunipa Losar, is technically and linguistically wrong. It is more appropriate to say Sharchop Losar as in Parop Lomba. Chuni is 12. No new cycle begins at 12. It begins at 1. This day also coincides with the first day of the new moon according the older Gongdu calendar. So it is not a random or modern invention. The Tibetan tradition of celebrating the new year on the second Moon was introduced after the Mongols overrun them and imposed the Hor calendar. I would guess that they followed this day as the losar before that event.
Of greater historical importance for Bhutan is that as Zhabdrung Ngawang Namgyel formed the nation of Pelden Drukpa, in around 1637, this day became the day when regional governors and noble families from around Bhutan made the buelwa phuelwa (day of offering). The day was marked with great festivity in Punakha where different goods and foods from different regions of Bhutan were shared and celebrated. Some might argue that the “offering” was actually the annual tax – which is right. However, Zhabdrung Ngawang Namgyel didn’t believe in taxing the people and rather declared that the state should be so good that the people would offer taxes as offerings to maintain the central administration, which they did.
Bhutan, as the nation of founded on such ideals, could view this day beyond its traditional significance of local new year – and as a day of national importance, where we come together to celebrate our elders and our ancestors. It could also evolve like as a Thanksgiving to our leaders of past and present who have fought and gave us a sovereign nation – and a pride to be called sons and daughters of Pelden Drukpa.
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His Majesty the King in Tashi Yangtse celebrating the Losar with the people
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Offerings to His Majesty, a practice that should be encouraged more to pay homage for his selfless service

Who are we?

National Days are a time to reflect who we are as a nation – just as a birthday is a day that one ponders upon as a person. 

Who are we? What does it mean to be a Bhutanese? Does wearing a gho or Kira make me Bhutanese? Does simply loving my country make me a Bhutanese? Do I have to eat ema datsi or drink Ara? Do I have to perform religious rituals or be a civil servant? Or is the search a search within and somewhere far deeper or greater?

Firstly, in my view, what makes us Bhutanese is neither an external display nor just an internal sublimity (aka thib thib in Dzongkha). It is a fine balance of both – between the tangible and the intangible, the seen and the unseen, the extraordinary and the ordinary. Second, what is means to be Bhutanese is also a far bigger question than one could possibly answer. Bhutanesity cannot be just characterized by one or two overt symbols or with few internal rhetoric.

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When I won the Japan Prize 2003, I chose the national dress over a suit someone sent me. A small contribution to Bhutanesity.

Only a fool would think that wearing a gho or kira would suffice to be Bhutanese or parroting tsawa-sum constitute as Bhutanese. Many Thais love our King and our country as much as we do. Being Bhutanese requires o\ne to be even more than that – do much more. 

Being Bhutanese is also process with the variables in constant flux with several dimensions – cutting across social, cultural, geo-political, economic and religious contexts and circumstances. What it was to be a Bhutanese when I was growing up has changed to what it is now. That too less than in one generation. To put it simply, we are still a work in progress. To paraphrase an Italian freedom fighter and the PM, Cavour, we have a State. Now we (still) need to build the nation. And so it will be for many generations to come.

We are but a small country susceptible and vulnerable to even the slightest of changes within and in the neighborhood. And of the many external factors, the influx of new technologies, materialistic ideals and new individualistic values will pose serious challenges that will continuously force us to question ourselves. Within our own Lhomon khazhi, the growing indifference, complacency and declining empathy of those who make it in life – will be the greatest threat. Of the two challenges, external and internal, I would tackle the internal one first. It won’t be enough to be strong and united but we will need to look out for each other. 

Therefore,

what does it mean to be a Bhutanese is not limited to having genuine thoughts or flattering words for ‘tsawa sum’ but also calls for serious altruistic actions too. 

National Day was the day we came together as a nation under our first King Ugyen Wangchuck. 110 years since, we sing praises to our monarchs for the unprecedented developments that came about. For me, however, the greatest achievements of our Kings have been to keep us safe and sovereign. Every king had to pull some legendary acts – one as late as December 2003. It is no secret that countries and territories that were far bigger and affluent than us vanished into the wikipedia of history. No other nation or people face a continuous existential question like we do. Therefore, the search for what it means to be Bhutanese itself is quintessentially Bhutanese. It is a search for survival – as a nation, as a state and in the 21st century as an economy.

My hopes and prayers on this 110th National Day is that the Bhutanese people, wherever they are, will continue to ask this question.

As is life, so is a nation. What we ask collectively is ultimately what we seek as a goal – as a country. To ask who we are is to know our place, our roles, our responsibilities and our duties to our King and our people. Conversely, to cease asking means to cease being a Bhutanese. A tall and provocative statement? Maybe.

For now, I will stand to this claim. 

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Get busy livin’

Time flies, wounds heal, scars remain – and life goes on, regardless.

A little more than 5 years have passed after that moment when the world cracked open – sucking me in. I also saw the sky closing over me. There were two options : I could accept that everything was over, resign to the fate and disappear into the irrelevance. That was the easier option. For a while that was my option.

OR cry your life out, wipe your tears and slowly claw yourself out of the hole. That was the difficult choice but the one I ultimately took. 🏊🏊🏊

btyTo all those who stretched out their hands to help me to get me out of that hole, I thank you. You were so few; so I will never forget your faces too. 😇😇😇

To others, thank you nonetheless – for, I came out stronger. 😎😎

And to all those, who may find themselves in a hole, big or small, don’t let yourself get buried. Cry, if you must – but pause for a moment, take a deep breath and reflect in silence. Then grab your fate by its collar, shake it and say, “You can’t kill me”, and move on. There is no greater satisfaction than beating the greatest of odds. There will be no greater regret than giving up. Many choose the latter. You shouldn’t.

Fate, more often than not, deals you a heavy hand. Play with whatever you are dealt with. Don’t believe when people say things like, it happens for a reason. That’s rubbish – a mere rhetoric. There is no reason for things to happen unless you caused it. If they do, try making sense out of it, a motivation that will drive your further. Turn it into THE reason for you to launch yourself. Run with it, fly and then dunk it.🤾🤾🤾

You will also hear old moralistic cliches like, forgive and forget. Of course, you should forgive. That will make you feel much better. There is no point bottling up inside you. But unless you are going dement, you shouldn’t forget. Remember the faces, especially of those who stood by you.

When you are back on your feet, don’t forget to look around with your head held high and smile at the world. Most likely, it will smile back.

To paraphrase a line from my favourite movie, Shawshank Redemption,

Get busy living or get busy dying

As Andy, the lead character in that movie says, “It all boils down to that one choice”.

Make the right one.

Moving closer to “doing something”

These days I am swamped in books, journal articles, papers, coffees, kitkats and computers, as I work towards my PhD qualifying exam – transiting, hopefully, to being a real “scholar”. That’s what the study guidebook says, whatever that means.

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However, I have rarely been fixated with titles and designations and decorations. I have had many in my career. Rather, I am happy that I have done things in my life that I am passionate about, while doing things I had to do with the same zeal. In others words, I love what I do, and I do what I love – something that I always preach. To paraphrase Frank Sinatra, I did it my way.

I won’t say I was fortunate – or that I am lucky. I don’t believe much in fortune or chance happenings. Try waiting, if you believe in it. In life, it is the choices you make, the decisions you take that will in large part decide what will become of yourself.  

Nevertheless, there are people you draw inspirations from. And I must say, in learning, my inspiration comes from a quote by Buddhist Sakya scholar, Kuenga Gyeltshen (1150-1203), popularly known as Sakya Pandita, who said,

“Even if you are going to die tomorrow, it is still worth learning something new today”.

“Even if you are going to die tomorrow, it is still worth learning something new today”. Isn’t this wonderful?

Also as Buddhists we believe in reincarnation where your mind-soul-spirit, or whatever, passes on to the next living thing after you die (leave one’s body). My illiterate elder sister, who thought I had finished studying “everything” from Italy, asked me if I am studying again for my next life. I said, yes. She was very pleased.

To the great Sakya Pandita and my illiterate sister, thank you for your words of encouragement.24_lis_kirkby

You also just don’t get inspired by famous people, or learn from your own circle of friends, family or tribe. You can draw from some distant, unknown and unusual figures. For me one such person is Elizabeth Kirkby. Now who is Elizabeth Kirkby? I don’t know. I just saw her on the news (on the Net). She became Australia’s oldest PhD – at 93. And this is what she said that caught my imagination.

You can’t believe that when you retire you just play golf or bowls or sit round with your mates. You always have to do something

There was a time when I was seriously pondering if I really should, or shouldn’t, go to another grad school. Of course, I always had this crazy dream to meet Nelson Mandela, fly a plane and enrol for a PhD – by the time I hit 50. But you know, you always need that one last push. This news of some 93-year old graduating somewhere flashing on my newsfeed did that work. I jumped up and told myself, “I have 45 years to go. Better do something”.

Thanks Aum Elizabeth, wherever you are. 

 

(NB – I first heard of the quote by Sakya Pandita from lama Dzongsar Khyentse in his talk at Yale. The video is on YouTube. Watch if you follow him)

My mother

On this Thanksgiving day (I am not American but I love this festivity), I express my eternal gratitude to my late mother who not only brought me into the world, but also defined my character as a person and continue to guide me even after 25 years that she is physically no more.

“If you can’t do good, don’t be mean to anyone” was her advice when I was growing up as a child. I would complain about my peers and how I planned to retaliate and won’t be taking things lying down. She never allowed me to do fight back. “If it’s okay that others are bad to you, it is fine with us. That doesn’t make you any less.”  Untitled

She had a magnetic character and positivism that attracted people around her to listen to her stories, jokes and wits as they went about with their hard labour at the farm. The air would be filled with laughter wherever she was and she never seemed to have one bad day. That’s not because we had everything. In fact we were poor – very poor, that at times we had to resort to taking food loans (known as kindru) from richer neighbours. She always protected us from poverty and more than that, from poor thinking. “We are descendants of great lamas and kings. This is just a temporary hiccup,” She reassured us. She never wanted us to grow up as losers and whiners. In fact much later I learnt that our family were once rich and powerful.

She always protected us from poverty and more than that, from poor thinking.

She suffered a long terminal disease and when she was told about it, she replied, “It’s fine. All my children are grown up now and can fend for themselves. Actually we are almost there. Few things to tune up and then I will decide when to go. So Choeken Gyalpo (Lord of Death), please don’t make a big deal out of it,” She joked. She smiled and made all the other people in the hospital laugh till her last day. When it was time she told up my aunt back in our village to make sure that the funeral tent was new and had the 8 lucky signs. She told another distant aunt not to miss her cremation.

I have always tried to live like her, which gives me strength to move on from the toughest days – and not to let power or success get on my head.

People don’t go – unless they die in your heart.

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Honoured in America

It’s with great humility to share that my first scholarly paper, Influence of Buddhism on Communication Behavior – Search for the Middle Path, has been conferred the Top PhD Student Paper at the National Communication Association – in Dallas, Texas. I am simply overwhelmed to be embraced into the big league of communication scholars, as my foray into the field of academia happened only a few years ago. I am still a “young” scholar – and this is a 102-year old organization that has defined, and continues to redefine, the media and communication scholarship globally. I was informed of the award a month back but was in disbelief that I didn’t have the confidence to share with many people until now – until I was formally inducted to the awardees. I am still processing this recognition in my head.

I am very humbled that this somewhat crazy idea of middle path communication, which I first presented at the Bhutanese Bloggers Meet in Paro, would get this far. I would like to thank everyone (including our deities and denizens back home) for the support, love and friendships. Special thanks go to my blogger friends, who sat through that first presentation in Paro – and my gratitude to the The Centre for Bhutan Studies and GNH​ for Bhutan Studies for giving me the first international platform by accepting my semi-developed article at the International GNH Conference in Paro in 2015. And, of course, to my guru, Professor Todd Sandel and the people at the Department of Communication, University of Macau​ of Macau, for having me there and treating me in the most generous and gracious manner.

Greetings to all from Texas, where they say “everything is big.” This award is definitely one for me.

NB - Influence of Buddhism on Communication Behavior – looks at how the core philosophical concept of emptiness and middle path of Mahayana Buddhism are reflected in the everyday communication behaviours among the Bhutanese people. It also introduces to the challenges posed by the social media and mobile phones.

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Middlepath to America

Hong Kong, 14 November:

Bracing for one of the longest flights in the world. Hong Kong – Dallas Texas – 16 hours only. The route will take us over China, Russia, polar circle, Alaska, Canada and the US. However, I won’t be bored. No time for that. It will be 16 hours of coffee and powerpoint. Got to brush up two presentations that I will be making at the Annual Conference of the prestigious National Communication Association annual conference in Dallas, Texas.

More than my own papers, though, I am looking forward to meeting and listening to communication scholars whose theories I have studied and practiced and who books I have read, photocopied, underlined, etc. and whose perspectives rule the media and communication industry on this planet.

Meanwhile, I will be timidly offering my own Middlepath Communication model to the field. So nervous. So excited.   

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A God in Disguise

A personal account – a small homage, on the Birth Anniversary of His Majesty the Fourth King.

When I was a todler, probably 3 or 4 years and growing up in Tongling, Radhi, I remember my grandfather taking me to Tashigang for the first time. In the big “town”, we went into a shop where the first thing my grandpa did was to point to a picture on the wall. “That’s our King” he said. It was the Third King back then. I looked at the picture mesmerised to the core. “What do the kings do?” I remember asking – innocently. “Well, He is the King. He rules over the kingdom. He takes care of all the semchen thamchen (great sentient beings/minds)”, my grandpa, a hereditary lama, replied.

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His Majesty as the crown prince (in the middle). (From L to R – HRH Ashi Sonam, Her Majesty Ashi Kesang, HM, The Third King, HRH Ashi Dechen (Photo – Ashi Choki)

Wow! I thought. How cool! “Can anyone become a King?” I asked him again. My grandpa burst out laughing but he saw me bit dazzled – and confused. He loved me more this life. So he composed himself and went, “You see, our Kings are not like us. They come from the lhayul (realms of Gods) because I told you that he has to rule over, not just the people but also, all sentient beings in his kingdom. So when there is a need for a King in miyul (human world), the gods will have a zomdu (meeting) and then decide to send one of them in guise of a human being. That’s why we say our King is a truelpa (god in disguise)”.

That story remained stuck with me ever since.

Our Kings are not like us (ordinary people). They are sent from lhayul (realms of Gods)

Few years later in 1974, my father took me to Thimphu to witness the Coronation of the Fourth King, His Majesty Jigme Singye Wangchuk. And there I saw our King for the first time. But what was overwhelming was the number of people in Changlimithang stadium. The huge crowd simply frightened me. It was tough job to be a King of so many people, not even counting the semchen, I thought. The King had to be a truelpa. My grandpa was right.

Fast forward to 2003. Some thirty years later, I was leading the Bhutan Broadcasting Service team covering the consecration of Punakha Dzong. Tens of thousands of people had gathered there. The final part of the ceremony included all those present to file and move around the Dzong. The filming continued. But I wasn’t too happy with the camera angles and shots that we were getting. Then  a brilliant idea stuck me. I called out to my crew. “Can anyone climb on the roof and get a top view of the procession? We are not getting the whole picture here.” Everyone said it was a great idea but no one dared to climb on the roof. Not even the cameramen who were half my age. Punakha Dzong is at least a couple of hundreds of feet high. “You guys are chicken! Give me the camera!” I shouted. And I zoomed off, getting a monk on the way to show me the passage to the roof. From there I got the most beautiful and a complete view of the procession. Thousands and thousands of people were solemnly walking behind His Holiness the Je Khenpo, tossing colored rice in the air. Sounds of horns, cymbals filled the whole valley. Little behind His Holiness was His Majesty and the members of the royal family.

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The main entrance of Punakha Dzong. (Photo – Yellow.bt)

I had my camera pointed in that direction and was rolling when suddenly His Majesty suddenly looked up towards me. From among the thousands of people, no one noticed me up there – only the King. As I lowered my head and my camera and stepped backwards, I saw His Majesty calling for an officer and sending him off towards me. “Ah! I am caught.” I thought. “Now I am dead.” I climbed down from the roof and headed back to the controls. Few minutes later the officer came running to me. We knew each other. “Dorji!” he shouted, trying to catch his breath, “HM wants you to be careful.” “OK, OK, Aue (brother), Sorry. I just wanted one shot of the procession from the roof.” I replied justifying my stunt. “No! No! You don’t have to say sorry. Zhab is concerned about your safety. He said on big occasions, big tragedies happen.” Suddenly, my hair rose from behind my neck. My stomach folded. My face turned pale. I nearly threw up. I took me few minutes to get back to work.

“Wow! I thought.”Truly a truelpa – a god in disguise, to catch me up there and then to be concerned of MY safety – among thousands of semchen thamchen who are gathered here.”

For days and months after that incident, I went around – brimming with a big smile.

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A note for more discerning readers. As a junior scholar, I must clarify one issue about God in Buddhism. Excuse my academic bent. You can blame it on my professors who hammered me with, "You have to explain everything". 

Anyway, the point is: strictly speaking, there is no such thing as “God” in Buddhism – not at least, as it is understood in the Christian world of an Almighty Creator. However, it is also not true to claim that Buddhism is an atheistic religion. Buddhism believe in samsaric existence of birth and rebirth in the six realms of Buddhist cosmology: gods, demi-gods, humans, animals, hungry ghosts and hells. Now I don’t want to go beyond this as it is neither my area of expertise nor the intent of the above article. I am just clarifying that in our belief we have these six realms - one of which is the realm of gods.
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The Coronation of the Fifth King, 2008, – two years after His Majesty the Fourth (left) abdicated.
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His Majesty the King as a young prince with the Third King with a fishing rod (Photo – HRH Ashi Choki)

Happy Royal Wedding anniversary

Today marks the Sixth Anniversary of the Royal Wedding of His Majesty the King 🙏🙏🙏

On this day, six years back, as the whole country celebrated the joyous and historic occasion of our time, and when half the country plus foreign dignitaries and over 400 foreign press had gathered in Punakha for the Day, I was busy playing the bad cop. I was the Director of the Royal Office for Media back then. I was shouting at unauthorised people from taking pictures, cautioning foreign photographers from getting too close to the Royal Couple, responding to questions from the press on the significance of each of the lengthy ceremonies and also making sure that some of the regional pressmen who had entered the country were sticking to their script. While my job was often underrated by my peers, for me it was extremely important and tough. I felt I had to balance between the sanctity of the occasion with the new openness of democratic Bhutan (people want to take selfies and have autographs of the King and Queen – something unseen just few years before) and the desire to have extensive media coverage of the global press (that would add to our sovereignty) while keeping the event “simple” – as per the wishes of His Majesty the King.

By the end of the day I was obviously on the verge of collapsing – tired till my last muscle. I was also starving (I didn’t get anything to eat the whole day) and totally dehydrated. Still after the ceremony I managed to drag myself back to the main prayer hall of Punakha Dzong where I offered my gratitude to the gods and deities for the successful proceeding of the day’s event. As I prayed, I also burst into tears and cried silently – perhaps feeling relieved from the stress and tension that I was carrying inside for over six months since the Royal Wedding was announced. My job, as I said, was already tough. Many other unnecessary circumstances made them worse – and sometimes impossible. So I was glad that it was over – without any major failure. After wiping my tears I sat down reclining myself on one of the pillars of the Kuenra (Great Hall of Prayers) for a what I thought was a few minute power nap. But I dozed off for over an hour to be only woken up by a monk who had to close the temple.

Although 2011 was the toughest year for me (that year also saw three State visits – to Bangladesh, India and Japan where I had to play my parts to pitch the stories to the cynical pressmen in three very different countries), I look back at this Day with the greatest sense of fulfilment as a professional. Bhutan had the biggest presence of foreign media in its history and received not only the most extensive coverage but also positive. For decades since the early 1990s some of the foreign media outlets have not been too kind to us. In their eyes Bhutan was either a Shangrila or a human-rights abuser. We were, and we are, neither. I gambled to invite some of these same media for the event although officials from the foreign ministry cautioned me. We managed to give our perspective and tell our version of the story.

I also look back with great fondness and, needless to say, deep respects for both Their Majesties for not only bestowing me the lifetime opportunity and privilege of serving them but also for forgiving many errors and mistakes I made in the course of my duty at the Palace. I wasn’t perfect.

Today wherever I travel people (especially foreigners) often compliment them as the most beautiful royal couple in the world. I always contend that Their Majesties are more than that. They have the most beautiful hearts too.

Happy anniversary, Your Majesties. 🙏🙏🙏

May Your Beautiful Hearts inspire and guide not just our beloved country but our region and the world as it goes through the most uncertain times in modern history.

 

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Dechenphu – Aap Gyenyen and I

Dechenphu is located at the north-end of Thimphu Valley. The place is important for two related reasons. First, the name, Thimphu – Bhutan’s capital city, is derived from a rock in front of the temple where according to the legend, the Protector-Deity, Gyenyen Jagpa Milen, is believed to have entered or sunk (Thim in local language) into the Phu (hill). The rock that can be seen today has a shape of hill. The second reason of importance is that the temple is considered as the principal abode of the Protector-Deity.cof

Aap Gyenyen, as he is fondly called (Aap means father, elderly man in Dzongkha), is considered a very powerful deity whose protection one seeks and is believed to be bestowed almost instantly. Hence, the place is very popular among people venturing on long journeys, among students appearing for exams, among businessman making decisions,  with politicians contesting in elections, etc.

My story with Aap Gyenyen goes back to 1996. I was freshly back to the country after a long sojourn in Italy. I was young, brash, western-educated and so, a bit of a non-believer since I was trained in scientific fields. However, on the insistence of my father, I went to seek the protection of Aap Genyen for a trip to Singapore – my first trip abroad in my new job.

After completing my rituals of prostrating three times and receiving the holy water, which I seeped some and wiped the rest on my head, I sought the divination by throwing the dice. The first one went bad. I had an unlucky number. I was asked to give a second try. I did. Bad number again. The caretaker-monk said I could try three times. I was getting bit nervous by then and asked how I could get a good one. “You can promise something in return, like, you can offer a butter lamp or conduct a ceremony,” he replied. I made a deal with Aap Genyen and threw the dice for the third time. This time I hit the perfect 11. “What does this divination mean?” I asked the monk. “Well,” he replied, “You have his protection. You will be alright. But you have to be very careful in whatever you are setting out to do.”sdr

I travelled to Singapore where the hosts picked me from the airport and accommodated me into a five-star hotel. However, on the very first day of my week-long stay, I was hit by a food poisoning. I was vomiting, I had diarrhoea, giddiness; I felt my stomach was hit by a car and anything I ate was turning to water and draining out without even stopping for a minute in there. Fever was rising and I even fainted once in the toilet. I thought I was going to die. I missed the first two days of the seminar and was sick for the rest of the week.

Finally, on returning home I visited Dechenphu again and told the monk what happened. “I told you to be careful,” he brushed aside with a smile – of having successfully foretold my fate.

Now 21 years on, I always make sure to visit this place before I venture out on anything important that I do in my life. Over the years my relationship with Aap Gyenyen has become as human as it can be. I rarely throw the dice. Rather in my prayers, I tell him to look out for me (“That’s you job, my friend,” I whisper) and that if there was anything I could do, or he needs, he just has to tell me. 21 years on he has been more than willing to keep me and my family safe.

I encourage my children to follow me. And they religiously visit Dechenphu on the onset of every important decision in their life. I named my second daughter, Dechen, after the temple and have placed her under his protection.

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The place also hosts lots of chicken and animals that have been released to save from slaughters. This act is called Tshethar (releasing the life)
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The view from the temple towards East is simply breathtaking