With a vertical rise of 2000 feet from the valley below, our hike took us on a footpath that climbed 1600 vertical feet from our point of departure. The path was rocky, winding through the forest and across the face of rocky
slopes, vertical drops to hundreds
of feet to one side or the other. On the way we passed donkeys with supplies or pilgrims on the path upward at that early time of day. The sun, at low angle at this latitude, brought beams of light through the mist and light smoke from the valley. The pilgrim’s path is his dharma, and this was the “dharma du jour”.
From various angles one could see the spectacular view of the Tiger’s Nest Monastery, built in 1692. Guru Padmasambhava is said to have meditated on the site for three years, three months, three weeks, three days and three hours in the 8th century. Padmasambhava is credited with introducing Buddhism to Bhutan and is one of the revered deities of the country. A fire in 1998 destroyed much of the monastery, but it was rebuilt in in 2005. Each piece of stone, timber, metal, and glass was either hand-carried or crafted in place to build the magnificent monastery. Volunteer labor was supplied by villages all over the country.
An hour into the climb brought us to past the “Tea House”, but I was instructed to continue with a stop only planned for the descent. It took another hour to make the final ascent. Crossing a mountain saddle pass, the final climb ended at an entrance guarded by Bhutan police who ensured that all packs, cameras, cell phones, walking sticks and hats were left behind before entering the monastery.
Prior to entering, I had heard bells ringing, and soon discovered that this was a call to prayers or chanting. A group of monks were in a room with a Buddha and wall paintings, with incense and a small amount of light coming in through two diminutive windows facing the altar. The chanting seemed at first discordant, but after immersing for 10 minutes in the experience, I could detect a slow crescendo in the tones and volume, which would then fall off in a couple of minutes to almost a murmur. The session was led by an older monk, with a dozen monks and novitiates participating.
Every turn through the narrow walkways, going up and down stairs, brought new discoveries of meditation spots, rooms with beautifully carved statues, and tapestries and paintings that adorned the rooms. I have been to hundreds of temples and monasteries throughout the world, but this was the first where the energy of the divine was palpable. And it was not just the lack of oxygen that contributed to the sense of the sacred. This has literally been the height of our expedition thus far!