Bhutan Pilgrimage with Chögyal Namkhai Norbu

Rinpoche and His Students – Warmly Welcomed and Happy in Bhutan

Two weeks in the beautiful Kingdom of Bhutan with Rinpoche and about one hundred and thirty of his students from all over the world – what a challenge to the organizers – and all went perfectly well! We came from east, west, north and south to Calcutta, India, stayed in the Hayat Hotel for one night and enjoyed the most relaxing swim with Rinpoche in the hotel swimming pool before the travelling started.

The next day we took a chartered flight from Calcutta to the airport town Paro, in Bhutan. For the first time in my life I went to the airport without a ticket! But I had the list of all of us, who had been issued a tourist visa by the Tour Operator Druk Kithpai Yuljong Tours & Treks. So we smoothly entered the plane and were soon admiring the mountaintops through the airplane windows.  In Bhutan we moved by bus from one town to another; we traveled, we enjoyed visits to the Dzongs, we danced, we climbed to Tigers’ nest in Paro, we enjoyed sharing with Rinpoche life in Bhutan while sitting in the sun in front of the temples. We were participants from Costa Rica, Australia, Japan and Uruguay, from Norway, USA, Lithuania, Spain, Canada and Italy, from China and from Singapore; somebody counted twenty-nine nationalities. Many of the participants lived outside their home country so the question often was: “Where are you from, and where do you live now?”

Welcome to Zhiwa Ling


Photo by Valter Bianchini

On our arrival at Paro Airport we were spontaneously divided into eight buses to be taken to the three or four different hotels. My hotel, Tenzinling Resort in Paro, had nice spacious rooms and the most helpful and kind staff. I shared the room with Jocelyne, who I had known from the time I had attended a one week program of Tibetan folk dances in Tenerife. The resort also had an area for the Bhutanese traditional specialty, the hot stone bath. Some days after, we had a relaxing moment sitting in the wooden baths under the sky, enjoying the water heated in the open fire by the special hot stones outside.

Photo by Maria Simmons

Photo by Maria Simmons

After lunch on the first day we were invited to the  Zhiwa Ling Hotel, where Rinpoche and his closest students and helpers were staying. We found our seats in the spacious and beautiful lobby, admired the paintings and wood carvings while waiting for Rinpoche to arrive. When we were ready to start, we were all inspired and happy about the cordial welcome we received. The organizer’ welcome speeches for Rinpoche were respectful and knowledgeable – the time was right, everyone – the organizers and all of us who had joined Rinpoche’s journey – were happy to see everything moving well, and to see Rinpoche enjoying the travel. The traditional dances were most enjoyable with different costumes and masks. I’m sure all of us were very eager to know more about the contents, meanings and the symbolism of each and every dance. The performances were esthetically most beautiful, but it’s obvious we missed something of the spiritual part – at least some of us. After the program Rinpoche expressed his appreciation and thanked all the performers and officials, who participated.

Visits to the Dzongs

The next day we visited the Kichu Lhakhang Temple, one of the oldest temples in Bhutan, built in the 7th century. Honorable Dilgo Khyentse Rinpoche had a residence nearby the temple, from the time he came Bhutan from China. This area is now a museum with a statue of Dilgo Khyentse, photos of him and some furniture that he used while he was living in Paro. When entering this museum Namkhai Norbu Rinpoche received a warm welcome from the Lama who takes care of the premises.


Rinpoche and students at Kyichu Lhakang built by Songsten Gampo in the 7th century. Photo M.Simmons

Rinpoche and students at Kyichu Lhakang built by Songsten Gampo in the 7th century. Photo M.Simmons

The visit to Kichu Lhakhang Temple was the first time we practiced together with Rinpoche during the journey; we did these practices upon entering different temples and Dzongs. I loved the thun practices together in the main temples during the two week pilgrimage. I was touched by this great opportunity to be here with Rinpoche and all of us. As we often said to each other: “This is the voyage of one’s life time. This is a special honor and source of happiness.” How could one be more lucky; to travel with the long time Teacher – for me twenty-four years – and his students from all over the world, in the country which has developed the philosophy of Gross National Happiness and is guided by this philosophy for developing the country. Later on we practiced together in Punakha Dzong, in Bhumtang Valley in Kuje Lhakhang and in Paro Takstsang. Every time was precious and empowering.

Bhutan with ChNN.2014.Docu-La-pass-at-3150m.Valter-Bianchini

Docu La pass. Photo by Valter Bianchini

Punakha was our destination on the third day. On the way we stayed for some time in Docu La pass – the highest spot on our journey towards east. It is 3150 meters. The pass is decorated by one hundred and eight chortens and many, many colorful prayer flags. Slightly cooler weather and rainfall got us moving, so after busy photographing and filming – there were several film crews in our group – we jumped back to our buses to continue.

The Punakha Dzong, built by the first Shabdrung Ngawang Namgyal (1596-1651). Photo by Valter Bianchini

Punakha Dzong, built by the first Shabdrung Ngawang Namgyal (1596-1651).


_ChNN-Punakha-Dzong Bhutan.crop-V.BianchiniThe Dzong in Punakha is the most impressive of all dzongs in Bhutan. It’s architecturally beautiful, located between two rivers, Pho chu (male) and Mo chu (female). This time we entered the dzong by crossing the river and walking along the long iron bridge.  During my previous visit to this Dzong in 2010, I remember sitting in the main temple for long time and having the “day dream” of Rinpoche saying, “You are here now, and we will all come here later together.” This was the time and here we are – all of us. We quietly moved forward and again when entering the main temple, all of us gradually found ourselves practicing. We had a chance to light the candles and when Rinpoche came, we did a short thun practice together.





The Temple of the Divine Mad Man


Photo by Paivi Ahonen

A special experience in Punakha was to visit the Chimed Lhakhang, temple of Lama Drukpa Kunley (1455 -1529), the Divine Mad Man. We enjoyed the twenty-minute walk to the temple along the paths in the middle of the rice fields, met women carrying heavy loads and children who wanted to sing for us. I asked the man coming across the path, when is the rice growing around ready for harvesting? It’s so easy to communicate in Bhutan – everyone speaks English. The rice looked already fairly heavy, but the man knew that it would be ready for harvesting only after three weeks, in early October.

Photo by Jamyang Oliphant

Photo by Jamyang Oliphant

The Divine Mad Man is the Lama behind the flying phalluses that can be seen painted on the wall of the houses in Bhutan. He traveled throughout Tibet and Bhutan using humeros songs and outrageous behavior to dramatize his teachings.

In the temple we moved around, listened to lamas and Bhutanese women and men chanting the prayers. Some of us did prostrations and we walked around the temple turning the prayer wheels. In one of the temples we did a short thun with Rinpoche. After the thun I managed to meet the Lama who did divinations by playing the dice. We thought of an important wish, the lama got certain numbers and depending on the number, the wish came true or did not. Both of my wishes will successfully come true.

In another temple there was a powerful bad karma releasing exercise. We had to stand in line for more than half an hour, since so many of us wanted to get rid of bad karma. We were wearing a heavy iron blanket in our back and had to walk or run with that blanket around the temple inside, through the corridors. It took about two minutes and of course it felt so much lighter after the run!

Prostrations at Chimed  Lhakhang. Photo by Maria Simmons

Prostrations at Chimed Lhakhang. Photo by Maria Simmons

Bumthang and visit to the Longchenpa Temple

On the way to Bumthang, we admired the spectacular and longest Dzong in Bhutan in Trongsa. The Trongsa Dzong was built in the 16th century. It is said to be the most aesthetic and magnificent work of traditional Bhutanese architecture, with street like corridors, wide stone stairs and beautiful stone courtyards.   We did not have time to visit this exciting looking building, so the Trongsa Dzong is for sure on the program of the next visit to Bhutan.

In Bumthang Valley we entered Kurjey Lhakhang, the temple named after the body print of Guru Rinpoche, preserved in a cave inside the oldest of the three buildings. The Saint Padmasambhava visited Bhutan first time in 746 and was invited to use his supernatural powers to save the King of Bumthang of those days, called Sindhu Raja. We practiced together with Rinpoche and visited the modern temple nearby.


Longchenpa's-monastery Bhutan 2014.V.Bianchini

Tharpaling temple, established by the Nyingma philosopher and Saint Longchenpa (1308 -1364)

Photo Maria Simmons

Photo Maria Simmons

The next day we traveled by bus for two hours through beautiful countryside to Tharpaling, the temple that was established by the Nyingma philosopher and Saint Longchenpa (1308 -1364). We were invited to typical Bhumthangpa lunch, wet picnic, by the organizers. The day was very special and memorable. We enjoyed the performances, dances and singing of Bhutanese women. We moved around on the grassy land and had our nicely served delicious lunch and finally we ended up sharing  the Tibetan dances we have learned with Rinpoche over the past years with the women and our guides.

In the hotel after the full day, Dr. Saamdu from GNH Centre was waiting for us. We had invited Dr. Saamdu to share the latest news and activities of the GNH Centre, which has a rural center located in Bumthang. Twelve of us managed to come after the long day. We were impressed to hear how Bhutan GNH experience is spreading all around the world, and how much effort Bhutan has taken to include the GNH experiences into the process of UN post 2015 development agenda.  The 20th of March is also announced by UN the International Day of Happiness proposed by Bhutan.

Rinpoche’s Teachings in Thimphu and Paro

The travel back by road from Bumthang to Thimphu took one whole day – the specialties of the long bus drive were the two hours waiting along the road caused by the road maintenance and the massage in the bus by a member of the Bus 7. The students of the College of Science and Technology were waiting on the road at the same time. We shared our visit’s purpose and they were happy to share the latest development of hydropower technology in Bhutan. The students also entertained us by dancing and singing. As for the massage – there was a massage professional in our bus, so what a treat! Thank you Pascal!

Chögyal Namkhai Norbu teaching at Hotel Taj, Thimphu. Photo V.Bianchini

Chögyal Namkhai Norbu teaching at Hotel Taj, Thimphu. Photo V.Bianchini

In Thimphu Rinpoche gave teachings at the Taj Tashi hotel for hundreds of Bhutanese who gathered to listen to the teachings and receive blessings from Rinpoche. The teachings were followed by short introductions and practices of Yantra Yoga and Vajra Dance by Rinpoche’s students Fabio Andrico and Prima Mai.

Rinpoche teaching at Paro College of Education. Photo Valter Bianchini

Rinpoche teaching at Paro College of Education. Photo Valter Bianchini

The last evening in Paro, Rinpoche gave a presentation to hundreds of Bhutanese students in the Paro College of Education. The presentation gave the background of the origin of the Bön tradition in Tibet, and the connections of the Bön tradition with Tajikistan. Rinpoche also talked about Shang Shung as an important source of knowledge of Tibetan tradition and about how Buddhism was introduced in Tibet.   In relation to development in Bhutan, he mentioned the importance of a national language as a way to keep culture, arts, medicine and different traditions alive. At the end Rinpoche talked about Buddha’s Four Noble Truths and Dzogchen as a spiritual path. Rinpoche concluded by sharing his experiences in the discussions with the peace organizations. “We need to free ourselves not to have wars but practice peace”.

Climbing to Taktshang


The last day in Bhutan we climbed to the most famous of all monasteries in Bhutan, Taktshang. The name means ‘tiger’s nest’; it was named because Guru Rinpoche is said to have flown to the site on the back of a tigress. He then meditated in the cave there for three months. The site has long been recognized as a holy place and was visited by Shabdrung Ngawang Namgyal in 1646. Milarepa is also said to have meditated there and it is now visited by pilgrims from all over Bhutan and world.

Photo Jamyang Oliphant

Photo Jamyang Oliphant

We drove from Thimphu in the early morning and started to climb the 900 meters about 10 am. When returning at about 6 pm it was also getting dark. Everyone had their own way and strategy to get to the Taksthang, depending on their age and physical condition. Some people got the horseback ride about the half way, some of us walked in the groups, some alone. Rinpoche was carried by the eight porters in the palanquin constructed of two parts. He looked very comfortable while sitting in the palanquin, but it was only until the stairs. The stairs were too narrow for porters. From the point the stairs started, Rinpoche walked by himself supported by helpers on each side.

While in the temple high up, we moved slowly from one area to another and did a short thun in a tiny little temple. Some of us could not find a seat, so it was my first practice ever done while standing. We returned fairly soon to avoid the dark when moving down, and indeed we did walk at the end for some time in the dark. Another adventure and all of us returned well and happy to the buses.

Photo Martina Bigazzi

Photo Martina Bigazzi

It was the best ever of all my travels to Bhutan, this being the sixth time. I enjoyed every minute and made a lot of new friends, as did all of us. We were all happy to see Rinpoche enjoying and having the spirit and strength to enjoy the adventure. I would like to thank first of all Rinpoche, the organizers: Tsering, David and Tsering’s brother, Samten Wangchuk, all our wonderful guides and drivers, the film crews and everyone who participated in this special pilgrimage.

Päivi Ahonen
Dzogchen Community Finland
Helsinki, Finland
28th of September 2014

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