“Geographical pilgrimage is the symbolic acting out of an inner journey, the interpolation of meanings and signs of the outer pilgrimage.”
– The Cistercian monk Thomas Merton
We were warned – from the very man who enticed us to go on the adventure.
In a letter to prospective pilgrims, Dzongsar Khyentse Rinpoche, the celebrated Bhutanese Buddhist teacher, stressed the difficulty of the journey many of us were hoping to make:
“We always knew it was going to be a tough journey, but even us Bhutanese didn’t fathom the extent of the difficulty. It is reallllly difficult. This is the hardest journey I’ve taken myself. It’s very long. I’ve never seen this much mud in my life.”
His plan to conduct a 10-day drubchen kindled a surge of interest for people to make the trip to one of the most sacred sites in Bhutan – Singye Dzong, one of the eight places in Bhutan and Tibet blessed by Guru Rinpoche.
Located near the remote Chinese border in Lhuentse, Singye Dzong is no sunny walk to Taktsang; it’s a three-day, 3,000-meter ascentalong a meter-wide path that can only be traversed by foot – for 90 kilometers.
After sorting out all the paperwork, I joined on as a struggling, and still very much confused, student of Rinpoche’s, trying to tune my own motivation to practice. Pilgrimage is supposed to be the great enabler for this endeavor: an act of leaving the comforts of our physical, ‘worldly’ homes to find a spiritual one.
How better to do it than to set out to the top of some mysticalpeak that is really unknown to the rest of the (published) world. Just try Googling “Singye Dzong” – you’ll find close to nothing that reveals anything meaningful about the place.
The Outer Singye Dzong
Day One: Going Khomatose
I arrive at Khoma, the village base, people gather at Nado’s, a small, shack-like restaurant that’s arranging horses, porters, and food along the way. A couple of monks, some elderly locals, and me.
I went alone on the trip, to the bewilderment of many Bhutanese. “Where are your friends?” “Do you have a guide?” Nope. Going alone makes sense for a pilgrim; otherwise it becomes a picnic with friends. I should be uncomfortable in my “inner journey” and without any crutches or safety nets to fall back on.
This status, though, ends before the trip even begins. One of the first people I meet, the Lhuentse District Health Officer (DHO), for some reasonfelt compelled to adopt me into his group and arrange a porter for me. Cool. If I get sick or injured, he can help me out, right? I gratefully accept the offer, “inner journey” be damned.
There’s also a strong adrenaline rush for the journey to begin, and I try to orient my motivation and chant aspiration prayers. “May this journey help me benefit others,” I pray, though a bit half-heartedly. I’m not sure whether I’m doing this as a selfish conquest or for altruistic growth.
We set off for the base. “Today will be very difficult for you,” The DHO warns, chuckling. “But tomorrow and the day after will be much worse.” How comforting. Locals, it seems, do not have a high regard for the trekking abilities of foreigners. I’m determined to prove him wrong.
The road ends, and all you can see is a thin, rocky trail that disappears into a dense mass of trees in the mountains. Such an unceremonious beginning, I think, but there’s no other visible way. “You should start,” DHO exhorts me, as he makes arrangements with others for packages and other items that need to go up for the drubchen. “There are 300 people going up today. We’ll see you on the way.”
I begin moving, along with porters and horses. What I didn’t realize is that porters are living human beings carrying human-sized loads – some as heavy as 80 kilograms. Most of them seem to be shorter than five feet, weigh less than half their load, and possessing intensely vascular legs. They’re wearing shorts and some, almost audaciously, wear chapals. The horses, carrying similar loads, trot sure-footedly ahead.
It’s not too long before the trail starts to roller coaster – up steep slopes and down sharp drops. The stress accumulates quickly. An hour and a half in, I really start to feel the 18 kilograms of my backpack weigh down on me. My head bandana is already drenched with sweat, and I heave as I release my baggage and sink into rocky cavity. I drink half of the ORS (oral rehydration salts) infused water in my flask. This is going to be tough.
As I rise, one of the members of the DHO’s team, Dorji, stops. “Sir, I think you will have tough time with that bag,” he points out. He’s already carrying the DHO’s camping backpack, which looks to be at least 30 kilograms. “Let me take it.” He says this in a shockingly uncontrived manner; he really wants to carry my load. I politely refuse, but, before I can do anything, he lobs my bag atop his other one. It somehow balances, perfectly, and he continues walking at the same pace.
“Come with me, Sir,” he insists. “We’ll take lunch together later.” He reaches for his mobile to turn on his Dzongkha songs and project them as loud as possible from the weak speakers.
Not wanting to appear as a pampered, helpless westerner, I look for something to carry. We pass some people stopping to break and eat cucumbers. Dorji speaks with them, and discovers the elderly woman will be heading back down. The group needs the small red backpack, however, and a man prepares to double his own load. It’s light – only 6 kilograms – and I offer to take it. I pull the same trick Dorji did to me and just load up. I’m assuming we’ll meet at the top, at least.
The rest of the day’s trek is a long, consistent alternation between patches of forest clearing, where the sun beats down with intense strength, and cooler shade. We stop every so often by a drub chu to relax. Along the way, Dorji tells me about his life: how he works as a caretaker for the Khoma Basic Health Unit; how he’s been up-and-down the SingyeDzong path over 15 times. Including once with the Queen mother. He excitedly recounts how his first trip outside of the country was to take his daughter to a hospital in Delhi to check on an abnormal respiratory condition. He is a really, really nice guy with a heart of gold.
At around lunchtime, we reach a pretty breathtaking clearing with a couple of farmhouses facing a cascade on the neighboring mountain. It’s the first moment of peace we get. We don’t have food, but Dorji has friends who are picnicking invite us over and I’m done playing games – I delightfully accept. And they have a lot to offer: tubs of boiled eggs, ema datshe, rice and spinach. It’s a feast. “Look over there, sir,” Dorji says, pointing to some distant clouds, which our path appears to lead to. “That’s our destination for today – Tshikhang. Only few hours away.”
We move ahead and pass through a small village, Khomagang. It’s beautiful and quaint. We pass by fenced-off fields of what looks like golden wheat, small antiquated white clay chortens, and eventually enter a more well-paved path with a line of two-story buildings, horse stables, outhouses and, hard-to-believe, people living here. I think this is Tshikhang, but Dorji corrects me. “Still a few more hours, sir,” he says, ending my sense of relief.
It’s 5pm when we reach Tshikhang. I look to stake out a place for my tent. Dorji finds a place. This is the first time in my life that I’ve ever setup a tent, but I take out all the materials with the confidence of veteran camper. Dorji sees right through me and takes over connecting the poles to the body, and attaching the cover to the ground. By the time he’s assembled everything, the sun has almost fully set and we feel a slight drizzle of rain.
I walk over to the bigger camp house near the beginning of the campsite where a tarp-covered hut reveals a makeshift kitchen, busy with makeshift cooks serving warm dinner: suja, rice and kewa datshe. I devour a full plate, brush my teeth and rush to my tent. The rain has picked up and with only darkness surrounding us the only option is, really, to settle in for the night.
In the wee hours of the morning my knees and joints throb with agony, as if, overnight, the packhorses had walked all over them. My back, in spite of the day’s light load, is also cringing. ‘This is good,’ I tell myself. ‘Just watch the pain. Don’t judge it. There’s no mountaintop without going through the valley of the shadow of death.’
It doesn’t help. I pop two ibuprofen pills and pass out.
Day Two: There will be MUD
“Sir, wake up.” It’s 6am. Dorji has unzipped my tent. “Come get breakfast.” The pain has subsided, though I’m still really sore. Dorji has bad news: the Gup has called him down, and so he won’t be with me today. Being the bodhisattva he is, he redistributes some of weight of my bag into the DHO’s, which will now be carried by a packhorse, and brings the weight of my bag down to about 10 kilograms. I’m grateful, but saddened to lose my guardian angel.
The DHO appears from one of the army houses and greets me. “Today, the path to Thangkarmo will be double-tough. Hope your boots are waterproof. There will be mud!” He says this with some intensity as one would the title of the Daniel Day Lewis film “There will be blood!”
Rain had transformed yesterday’s path into a marshy nightmare. What was once a dry, manageable uphill walk was now a sludgy trial of keeping my eyes glued to the ground in an almost zen-like, single-pointed concentration to find the right rocks and tree roots to land my feet on and avoid the muddy, ankle-high pits that splashed pants and dampened boots and hopes. Forget about the scenery; I felt trapped in the canopies of the jungle. There is little to appreciate as tired bodies move ahead.
Even worse is the peculiar feeling of de-ja-vu the path creates. Every corner brings the hope of some kind of refuge, some kind of sign that ‘yes, you’re getting closer’. But every corner looks the same. You’re in some kind of eternal recurrence, a treadmill of mud, rocks, and roots that goes on and on. Break spots are hard to come by, as everything’s wet; there’s hardly any sun and it’s still drizzling.
Without Dorji, I start to feel restless. I’m in the middle of nowhere, there are families briskly passing me by, and we have passed the threshold of no phone signal – meaning from here on, no contact with the outside world. I finally have what I’ve been yearning for; I’m kind of alone. It’s pretty depressing. (Not really alone there are 300 other Bhutanese!)
Many of the Bhutanese, on the other hand, seem to be approaching it more easily. I start to receive invitations to “stop by and have some tea” where groups have settled on dry boulders and logs to rest. Not only am I too angry to receive their kindness, I’m baffled at why they’re drinking tea in the first place. Tea dehydrates you. It’s a diuretic (meaning it makes you pee).
I meet some foreigners flanked by a group of soldiers and guides. One even rides a horse! They happen to be the Rinpoche’s guests and Jindas (donors), presumably wealthy, long-time students from Taiwan, Hong Kong, and Thailand, working for Rinpoche and serving as patrons. Encountering them among the mass of Bhutanese coming up is refreshing. Nice as they are, they were moving a bit too slowly. I could have hit the brakes and hobnobbed out with them – cool people that I could communicate with – but my inner voice tells me to keep moving. No easy sailing on the path to enlightenment.
Incredibly, the path gets worse. All the elements conspire together to increase their intensity: heavier rain; mud with greater viscosity; steeper slopes; roots that smack into the arch of your foot. I prayed for the sun to arrive.
Just as all hope dissipates and the sun begins to set, we reach the campsite. It’s not a welcoming site. Thangkorma is hardly ideal for camping; the grounds are muddy, and whatever dry area there is, has been occupied. I can’t find the porter with my tent. People looked relaxed near bonfires, laughing and drinking tea, even singing and it is getting cold in my soaked and muddied boots and pants.
I walk off. I’m cold, but I really need to cool down or I might scream. I meet some acquaintances, including a few foreigners, from Thimphu and we share a cup of whisky near a fire. They’re also feeling what I’m feeling; an acute sense of despair, aching body pain. But they also feel resilient. Again, I find that I’m not really alone on this. We somehow find a way to laugh at it all, how incredibly difficult this whole adventure really is.
Day Three: The Promised Land
I feel revived. This is it, the last day of flagellating ourselves with this torturous path. You could throw me anything – an avalanche, an earthquake, an army of leeches – and I would be ready to walk through it. Nothing could surprise me at this point, nor could it drown my resolve. I will be at Singye Dzong today or I will be dead.
After a few bowls of thuep (rice porridge) and tea, I’m moving.
The day goes quickly. I meet a young group of pilgrims kind enough to offer me some cashews and raisins. “Take some energy bars, brother,” they say. I think I’m finally starting to strip away my inhibitions and open up to other fellow pilgrims. I join them for what would be the rest of the way.
Around 2pm, we cross a bridge to a bevy of boulders and stones. The sky is clear and the sun is beaming – a welcome arrival. We climb over the rocks, our mid-soles and arches now in pain from jumping over tree roots. The vegetation gradually becomes thinner with dwarf bamboos, scrub rhododendrons, and conifers. The air is cooler and rare, and majestic cliffs start to dominate the landscape. Then we reach a signboard:
Though we are still some ways from the camp, we are brought into living contact with the energies of this power place. We cross a few more bridges, and we see some prayer flags, tarp-covered houses, and clouds of smoke. It’s the clearing we’ve all held our breaths for.
The Power Place
The final leg is an all-too-familiar path of rocks, mud, and incline. This time, however, there are no more illusions of arrival – we are actually here.We’ve made excellent time; it’s only 2:30pm. A bench invites us to sit, relax, and just drop everything. We sit, arms over each other’s shoulders, and take time to witness, for the first time, what our destination looks like.
From where we are, we can see the ad hoc pilgrim village that has emerged. A stream slithers through the valley where hundreds of tightly packed tents. The DHO said at least 1,000 people would eventually come, but it looks like more. Smoke billows from many of the enclaves of pilgrims that have likely come together and are probably feasting on some tea. Mountains of pine encase us into a bowl of activity.
Singye Dzong is not like the other mighty fortresses popular across Bhutan. ‘Dzongs’, in the context of Singye Dzong, refers to ‘abodes’; in this case, the eight caves or rock structures where Guru Rinpoche and Khandro Yeshey Tshogyel meditated. The name Singye Dzong, or “abode of the lion”, is derived from the shape of the hillock on which the cave where Guru Rinpoche meditated is located. Supposedly, from an aerial point of view, one can see the full features of a lion – head, body, tail and all.
Within 30 minutes, it’s raining again, but this time it’s also freezing. I find my new ‘group’ from the day and we discover the hut where a volunteer staff of ex-gomchens were brewing tubs of hot water and tea with a fire.
As we sit and shiver, I start to feel a richly charged, magical feeling of togetherness. We are a community bound by spiritual purpose. Whatever lives we had before here just don’t hold weight; they become essence-less, aren’t they, anyway?
The Inner Pilgrimage: An Act of Offering
It’s a spiritual axiom that really deep spiritual teaching, practice, and transmission can only be shared with someone who deeply wants to receive it. To want to receive this profound teaching would mean that we’re willing to be offered up to it.
And having come to my destination, it seemed to dawn on me – this is what pilgrimage is for: to target our inner obstacles and ways of holding back from others, by offering everything – our body, our possessions, our lives, and our whole experienced world. Only after a few weeks of reflection do I see how experiencing all of that drudgery and struggling provides a way for the subconscious material – the anger, the faulty assumptions, the paranoia, and so on – to be brought to conscious awareness.
I experienced so many swings and moments of darkness on the trip. But this ‘darkness’ is not my or anybody else’s nature. If we take the opportunity, it’s something that can be offered up to its empty ground and source. In return, we can experience moments of being offered up to our deepest spirituality, rather than our ego clinging, and released.