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Tuesday, June 26, 2012

The Apple Of My Eye In The Kingdom Of Happiness


In the Kingdom of Happiness, there is a little eight-year boy who I spend most of my free time with and who is the apple of my eye.  His name is Jigme, aka Jimmy, and he is the nephew of my best friend, Sonam Choden.  I have often joked that Jimmy might be one of the cutest little boys in Bhutan with his deep dimples and funny smile.  However, I didn’t know that so many others probably had this same thought and that his adorable tiny face was the apple of hundreds of eyes.  

I discovered that Jimmy was “famous” when Sonam and I were shopping in a tourist shop in our village and Sonam jumped in excitement at the sight of a round magnet.  She yelled, “Sabrina, hurry, come here and look at this picture on the magnet.”  I glanced at the picture acknowledging that it was a photo of a cute toddler.  Then she said, “Well, don’t you know who this is?” 
Cute dimples
I stared at it a little longer, “No, I have no idea.  Who is this kid?”  

Then she laughed giving me a hint, “You know this little boy really well.” 

I studied the picture reading the small, white print that read “Kingdom of Happiness” on the top and “Bhutan” on the bottom.  Then it hit me, “Oh my!  Don’t tell me this is a picture of Jimmy.” 

Jimmy's picture selling on a postcard
(he is on the far left)
She answered in a beaming voice, “Yes!  It’s Jimmy when he was about two.  He was dressed in his bright gho outside a festival in Gangtey.  Someone must have thought that he was cute and took a picture of him.  Now this picture has been selling all over Bhutan for several years.  It’s selling on postcards, posters, magnets, etc. and tourists seem to love it.” 
At first, I wasn’t too excited with the idea of some stranger selling pictures of our little Jimmy and a flood of concern came pouring out of me as I demanded to know, “What do you mean someone is selling his picture?  Is that legal in Bhutan?  Did you give them permission? Who is getting rich off Jimmy’s face?  What are we going to do about this?”  
Jimmy's picture on the magnet
However, Sonam was relaxed and she laughed saying that she had no idea who was manufacturing the picture, but since it seemed harmless, she didn’t mind.  Still studying the magnet, it took me a few minutes to calm down as I started to think how darling Jimmy looked in the picture and how so many people probably smiled when they saw the picture of his precious face:  huge dark almond shaped-eyes, small button nose, stringy hair draping his big forehead and big ears on his round face with pudgy cheeks.  
As I continued to marvel over the picture, I could see how some tourists might want to bring that magnet home and stick it on their refrigerator as their happy memory of Bhutan.  In fact, on several occasions I have witnessed tourists passing through our school and at the sight of Jimmy, they whipped out their cameras to take his picture because there is something about him that is so darling.  So in the end, I agreed with Sonam that since the picture looked innocent and harmless, there was no need for concern and we joked that his little baby face did a good job representing Bhutan:  The Kingdom of Happiness. 

The apple of my eye
Thus, Sonam and I couldn’t leave the store without buying our very own magnet of Jimmy’s face (320 nu).  As we paid for the picture, we laughed at how expensive Jimmy was and we joked that we must had a million ngultrum worth of pictures of him.  Furthermore, when we took our magnets home and showed it to Jimmy, he didn’t think anything of it; he wasn’t aware of how cute he was and still is.  However, it makes me smile thinking that his picture may be on refrigerators all over the world from passing travelers who couldn’t resist his adorable Bhutanese face as a souvenir.  
Indeed, now I am one of those foreigners who owns a magnet of Jimmy’s adorable face.  It’s displayed in my room and everyday when I get a glance of it, it never fails to put a smile on my face and to bring me a dose of happiness.  I know that this magnet will be with me wherever I am for as long as I live.  It holds a very loving memory for me of my time spent in the Kingdom of Happiness.  I love my little “apple!”  

My big baby!
Memories in the Kingdom of Happiness

He is so cute!
He is really silly

Good Times

Jimmy's famous picture
Jimmy at two years old (same face as above)

Saturday, June 23, 2012

Go with the flow and learn as you go

My friend Sonam (she is always
helping me) 
When I first arrived to teach in Bhutan, I discovered that it was normal to feel a little confused at times because there was so much to learn about Bhutan and the Bhutanese school system.  So instead of stressing out and drowning myself trying to learn infinite amounts of information, I decided to go with the flow and learn as I go.  However, I didn’t know that my mantra was going to have some serious flaws to it, such as, “as you learn as you go, you may incredibly embarrass yourself because you don’t know what the heck you are doing.”   I came to this realization after my first day as Teacher On Duty (TOD).

One day I learned that I was going to be TOD for a day.  What is TOD?  I had no clue!  My friend, Sonam Choden, tried to help me by telling me that I would first report to school at 5:45 a.m. for a morning prayer, then I would monitor morning studies, next supervise breakfast, also lunch and finally attend evening studies, which is all for the boarder students (grades 7-10).  She also told me not to worry because the students would help me and it was easy.  I felt like she might had forgotten to tell me some important details, but instead of asking a million questions, I repeated my favourite mantra:  Go with the flow, you will learn as you go.  No worries! 

At first, my mantra seemed to work because not only did I go to bed with no worries, I woke up feeling confident about my first day as TOD.  When I arrived to school, I discovered that Sonam was right about one thing:  The students were more than helpful teaching me my morning duties.  I learned joyfully as I went along with the flow.

After completing my morning duties with ease, I went to one of my favourite classes to sit in while the students studied and I eagerly waited for breakfast time.  I couldn’t wait to eat breakfast with the boarder students because my stomach was in a terribly nasty mood from being woken up so early without its favourite food:  RICE.  In fact, my stomach was letting out a series of gigantic grumbles that were echoing across the silent classroom and causing my sleepy eyelids to pop wide open.

Finally, by the time the bell rang for breakfast I felt famished.  Thus, I was the first one out the door hurrying along the students so we could go eat.  We all hurried to the school kitchen and I followed the girls into a small storage room where they rummaged around for plates and cups that were in large buckets.  I noticed that all the plates looked dirty with food stuck on them from the last meal.  I asked a group of girls what everyone was doing, but they seemed too shy to answer me in English.  I turned to a another group of girls and I decided to ask a yes or no question, “Is this where I get a plate to eat?”  The girls nodded their heads yes and with that I started to look for the cleanest plate.
I thought that I was lucky because I didn’t have to search very hard; right in front of my face was a shiny clean plate with a matching clean cup and spoon.  I silently gasped, Wow, how did I get so lucky? How did all the other students miss this beautiful plate? Oh well, it’s mine for the day! I like going with the flow…  I should have known that there was a reason why so many girls didn’t snatch this clean, cute set. 

Hot water to clean your plate
Next, I observed the students scooping a cup of hot water out of massive pots and swishing the hot water around in their plates.  I started to resist the flow by going into denial mode that this was how they washed their plates.  I asked the students, “Where is the soap?  Do you have sponges?  How am I going to sterilize this cup and spoon?  How do you wash your plates with only a cup of water?”   The students didn’t know exactly how to respond to my questions and they demonstrated how to do it.  Then I remembered my mantra and I decided to use the hot water to splash on my plate too.  I started to feel grateful that I found the cleanest plate since I only had a cup of hot water to rinse it off.  Again I should have realized that my clean plate was too good to be true. 

Students get big scoops of rice
Nevertheless, I got in line with the girls to get a mountain of rice on my pretty plate as well as to fill my new cup up with hot tea.  The smell of the steamy rice was making my mouth water.  I could no longer resist my hunger pains and I started to eat the rice on my way to the Multi-Purpose Hall (MPH), which was where the students ate their meals.  As I walked while shovelling rice into my mouth, I noticed students giggling at me.  I thought that they must have found my American way of eating funny: “eating on the go.”  I didn’t know that these giggles were indicating that I was just minutes away from having my “go with the flow, I will learn as I go…” mantra being shot down.

So here is how it went down:

Breakfast:  Rice!
A few minutes later, I stood outside the MPH and ate away while I waited for all the students to enter.  Then one of my dearest students who is bright, loving and outspoken came up to me smiling from ear to ear and chuckled, “Miss do you like the rice?”

As I continued to eat it like a starving person, I said, “Mmmmmm, Oh yes, I love the rice!  It’s so tasty!  Where is your plate of breakfast?  Aren’t you going to eat?”

“Ummm, well I’ll eat later after you finish eating because you have my plate, cup and spoon.  Do you like it?” she asked smiling.

My jaw dropped and some rice fell out of my mouth at the realization that I unknowingly “stole” her only plate, cup and spoon.  I felt terrible and embarrassed.  I immediately said, “Oh my goodness!  I’m so sorry!  I didn’t know that this plate had an owner.  I thought it was first come, first serve!  Can I finish my breakfast quickly and then I will wash everything and give it back to you so you can eat too?  I’m sooooo sorry.”  

My bright, loving and outspoken student who I adore
She laughed and laughed and insisted, “Miss please take your time.  Don’t worry!  It’s ok!  I want you to use it.  I can share a plate with my friend and eat with my hands.”

“Oh no, I’m almost finished.  I feel so bad…I’m really sorry…” I said with a bright red face. 

Then after she entered the MPH, I grinned as I thought, how could Sonam forget to tell me that I had to bring my own plate, cup and spoon to eat with?  She is going to have a good laugh at this.  Ah ha, now I get why nobody took the cleanest plate; it wasn’t theirs.  Hmm is that why all the students were giggling at me?  Well I am sure learning as I go.  Now I know:  bring your own plate next time your TOD.  Whoops!  However, I didn’t know that I was still in for some more learning as I went along with the flow of breakfast.  Hence, that wasn’t the only reason why so many students were giggling at me. 

Furthermore, I was determined to hurry up and finish my plate to give it back to its rightful owner because I felt horrible.  I hurriedly entered the MPH with the last of the students and sat down at a random table.  I began to eat faster than I had ever ate in my life.  As I was pouring the rice down my throat without chewing, I found that the girls at the table were giggling at me to the point that they couldn’t even look at me.  I thought that I just looked like a funny, starving foreigner so I didn’t mind their giggles. 

However, I noticed that they weren’t eating their bowls of rice.  I thought that maybe they didn’t want to eat in front of me because I was making them feel shy.  I insisted, “Please eat, it’s ok, don’t mind me.”  They nodded while trying not to laugh and refusing to touch their rice.  I asked, “Why aren’t you eating?”  They were struggling to speak English and all they could do was mumble a few words through their giggles, which I didn't understand.  I thought that if I left their table then they would eat. 

So I moved to another table to sit with my student whose plate I took.  I told her that I was just a few more bites away from being finished and she would have it back it no time.  I was finishing up my last scoops and guzzling down my tea when I realized that the same thing was occurring at this table that I had experience at the last table; the girls were all giggling at me, trying to look away from me and not eating their bowls of rice.  Finally I thought, What is going on?  I must be doing something wrong again.  I looked around the entire MPH and my eyes bugged out as I realized that no one was eating except me. 

That’s when I got a sudden flash of insight, Oh my goodness, everyone isn't eating because they must be waiting for some kind of prayer.  Ahhh I’ve been eating the whole time… ever since I got my serving… all the way from the kitchen.  This is so embarrassing!  I must look like a pig!  Ahhhh this is why they are giggling at me.  What to do?  Just as I realized this, the morning prayer began and I shamefully hung my head down and put my hands into prayer position asking Buddha to forgive me for not praying before eating.  Now I know:  Don’t eat a meal without praying!  Whoops Again!

Although I love my mantra, I discovered that sometimes it is flawed at protecting me from making mistakes and feeling a little embarrassed while learning as I go, but it sure does ring some truth:  Whatever you don’t know, you are bound to learn when you go with the flow of lifeJ

Kitchen - huge electric rice cookers

Steaming rice cooker
Rice cooker using firewood
Boys in one line for breakfast; Girls in another line.
Black tea

Breakfast is served!

Monday, June 18, 2012

Bhutanese Cuisine: Rice Rice and More Rice

Rice Rice and More Rice

Trying to learn how to cook (my kitchen in Bhutan)
When I had first arrived to Bumthang, my principal and his family insisted that I have my meals with them for the first several days to ensure that I wouldn’t starve.  I decided that this was a good idea until I learned how to use my rice cooker and curry pan.  If you know me well, the fact that I didn’t know how to use a rice cooker/curry pan is no surprise because I am notoriously known for not being able to cook, even though I sure love to eat.  Additionally, there were no major restaurants in my village that I could easily grab dinner like I was used to doing in America and there were also only a couple of tiny stores that sold a few selected items like potatoes, onions, rice, etc., which I have already mentioned I’m not the best cook.  Thus, I gladly took my principals gracious offer to sample some traditional Bhutanese cuisine at their house for a few days while I got settled into my new home.  However, I didn’t know that this would lead to my first lesson on “how to be Bhutanese” as well as the onset of my love affair with rice.

Jimmy can probably fit inside this bowl

So the first night that I had dinner with my principal and his family, we had rice and some amazing green bean curry that was mixed with tomatoes, onions and cilantro.  As the guest of honor, they waited for me to serve myself first as they all watched me put what I thought was a lot of rice onto my plate (a cup or handful of rice.)  After I was done serving myself, they looked horrified at my plate and asked me to please take some more rice.  I thought, what? How could I possibly eat more rice than what I already have?  I didn’t want to offend anyone so I took one more spoonful.  They continued to stare at me like something was seriously wrong with me. 

Gigantic Rice Cookers
It wasn’t until after they served themselves that I understood why they were telling me to take more rice and looking at me strangely; their entire plates were covered with rice to the point you couldn’t see their plates.  Their plates looked like a gigantic, exploding rice volcano in comparison to my little anthill of rice.  In addition, my proportion of food looked different from their proportion of food.  Their plates were topped with just a few spoonfuls of curry while the majority of the serving was rice.  On the other hand, my plate had a little fist full of rice with the majority of my food being the green bean curry.  I thought, they probably think that I am so weird eating all this curry with hardly any rice.  That’s why they are looking at me with scared and sad eyes.  Holy moly how can anyone eat that much rice? As I struggled to finish my little side of rice, they took seconds and I was now the one staring at them in astonishment. 

Big Pot of Rice 
Then the next morning, I was surprised to discover that for breakfast we were having more rice.  I thought that this was a little strange because I had never eaten rice for breakfast before and I would had never considered rice as a breakfast food.  For the last twenty something years, for breakfast I have been eating fruit, oatmeal, eggs, yogurt, cereal, pancakes, toast, etc. but never rice.  However, I was so grateful for not having to face my kitchen that needed to be unpacked and cleaned, that I ate the rice along with the left over curry from dinner.  I was also so happy to see a fluffy egg on my plate that I ate it in one bite.

After breakfast, I wondered if every Bhutanese household was eating rice for breakfast or if it was just my principal’s and his family’s favorite food.  Then I started to remember how I read that rice was Bhutanese main staple food, but I didn’t know if that meant they ate it for every meal.  I also started to recall being told that Bhutanese people ate “a lot of rice,” but that phrase was too general for my imagination.  I had envisioned “a lot of rice” as a couple cups of rice a day.  Next, I pondered if this meant several cups for every single meal:  breakfast, lunch and dinner?  I was about to learn the answer to that question.

This is a serving of rice for a small child
The answer unfolded when lunchtime came around and I learned that we were having, you guessed it, more rice.  That’s when I realized that Bhutanese people eat several cups of rice for every meal and that “to be Bhutanese, is to love rice.”  However, at the time, I wasn’t so “Bhutanese” yet and I didn’t feel like eating any more rice.  So when my principal’s wife asked me if I wanted to snack on some cereal while we were waiting for lunch to cook I said, “Yes please,” but deep down I was like “Cereal! Oh My God Yes!”  I think that I unconsciously gorged on so much cereal so that I wouldn’t have any room for rice; by the time lunch was ready, I announced that I was too full and could only take a little rice.  It seemed like they were looking at me with suspicious eyes wondering how I could eat so much cereal for lunch instead of rice.

Finally, when dinnertime approached and I saw the huge rice cooker filled with more rice, I was worried because my taste buds were screaming “Nooooooo more rice.”  But of course I wanted to be respectful and I was feeling a little embarrassed that I couldn’t eat so much rice, so I painfully scooped the rice onto my plate as they all watched me while insisting to take more rice.  As I hesitantly scooped the rice onto my plate, a thought popped into my head:  You have to eat all this rice, every single scoop you put on your plate.  Then I started to feel a little nauseas looking at the small pile of rice that covered my plate.  All I can remember is my principal talking away while I was battling not to throw up as I shoveled each spoonful of rice into my mouth.  I kept saying to myself, one more scoop, don’t throw up, pretend it tastes like chocolate, mmm yummy rice, oh no I’m going to throw up…

My little rice cooker!
My friends laugh 
at how small it is 
compared to theirs
At the time, I was struggling eating rice because in America I rarely ate the same thing for more than one day and I only ate rice a few times a month.  As a result, I wasn’t used to eating so much rice over and over again and the thought of continuously eating the same thing made me feel sick.  However, I kept imagining how sad they would be for me if I vomited rice; the food they loved so dearly.  So my desire not to offend anyone helped me finish the meal while I tried to appear like I wasn’t struggling.  This went on for a few weeks whenever I was invited to someone’s house for a meal: me continuously struggling to eat a little mountain of rice.  However, slowly with time I stopped wanting to gag every time I ate a spoonful and so I started to put a few more scoops on my plate than the last time.

Then one day the strangest thing happened; while I was teaching my stomach started to growl and I thought, errr I’m so hungry, I want rice.  And life has never been the same ever since.  In fact, I now crave rice more than any other food and all I want is a big bowl of rice the size of Mount Everest for every meal.  Furthermore, I crave rice so much that I even dream about eating rice in my sleep.  For example, one morning I was dreaming that I was eating a bottomless bowl of rice that made me feel like I was in heaven.  Then, when I woke up, I immediately went straight to my rice cooker while I was still half asleep and started making rice for breakfast.  Wow!  Times have changed!
I love to eat chili on my rice. YUMMY!
Left:  Ema Datshi (Chili and Cheese)
  Right: Ezay

My favorite:  Desi Rice
Furthermore, I have become like a typical Bhutanese person when it comes to eating rice.  Just the thought of rice makes me salivate, especially red rice topped with spoonfuls of ezay/chili (ezay is my best-friend and it deserves its own blog entry).  However, my biggest weakness is desi rice (sweet yellow rice with raisons, saffron and butter), which is served only on special occasions.  I always lose track of how many bowls of desi rice I can eat because it is so delicious.  Nevertheless, I don’t discriminate against any type of rice; I love white rice, rice with maize, long grain rice, etc.  I even take rice for snacks, such as zaw (hard fried rice) in my tea.  My Bhutanese friends and principal laugh at how much rice I can now consume, which is sometimes more than them.  They proudly say that I am now like a Bhutanese person by the way I can feast on rice and eat it with my hands.  I have learned how to roll the rice into tight balls with my fingers as well as my other favorite technique of scrunching it with my fingers into a sloppy ball shape and then dropping it into my mouth.  My friends claim that eating with your hands makes the food taste better.  I personally find it to be fun!

My Favorite: Red Rice
Moreover, my Bhutanese best friend always says that if Bhutanese people don’t eat rice for a meal, then it’s like they haven’t eaten at all.  When she first told me this, I didn’t understand exactly what she meant by that saying.  However, now I know first hand what she means.  For instance, if I eat oatmeal or noodles instead of rice, I am starving a few hours later and it feels like I have skipped a meal.  On the other hand, if I eat rice, my stomach feels satisfied and happy.  In addition, if I don’t have my daily consumption of rice, I feel a little cranky like a baby without a nap.

My serving of rice now with ezay!  
My serving of rice
 when I first moved to Bhutan
Thus, ever since I have moved to Bumthang, rice has become one of my favorite foods.  I often like to reflect on how much I have changed from the first morning I settled into Bumthang when I thought that eating rice for breakfast was bizarre to now I can’t get enough of rice that I dream about it in my sleep.  I also laugh when I remember my taste buds screaming, “no more rice” because now they chant daily, “more rice more rice.”  Lastly, I also like that I came to Bhutan na├»vely not knowing that Bhutanese proudly eat “a lot of rice” for every meal; if I knew this fact before I came to Bhutan, then I wouldn’t have been so surprised, which makes learning fun.  For some strange reason it also makes me appreciate my love affair with rice ten times more.  Yum Yum!

Thursday, June 14, 2012

Spread The Heart Advice of the Khenchen

Turning 30 in Bhutan
After the Khenchen (wise monk) explained to me that worrying about getting older was useless thinking, I felt a little guilty about how I wasted precious time entertaining silly thoughts instead of making more of a difference in the world.  I knew that he was right about how one should be grateful for being a human being with fascinating body parts like eyes to experience the world.  I also couldn’t have agreed with him more that since the God blessed us as a human being, our job was to be of service to others.  Everything that he said rang a bell of familiarity to me.  I knew this wisdom when I was a child, so how did so many others and I forget this sacred truth?  How could my friends and I internalize his advice about worrisome thoughts of getting or looking older while we live in a society that advocates looking younger?  How could I get back to this place of honoring/appreciating the body and focusing more on helping others?    

So as my thoughts swam around, I pushed the matter forward to the Khenchen.  I stated that I intellectually understood that my mind created the unhappiness about turning 30 and I got that a number was just a number.  However, I pleaded that it was so hard to let it go, especially when you live in a society that favors looking young, which is usually associated with beauty.  I gave him examples about how in America some of the media advertised special creams or plastic surgery to make one look younger or more beautiful.  I claimed that in my opinion some people felt pressure to look younger to the point of injecting botox in their beautiful faces and it seemed that most people in general don’t want to grow old.  My point was when a person faces daily media advertising ways to look younger, how could a person “let go of the number/age” or worrisome thoughts of getting old so that they could concentrate more on helping others?

He continued to stress that these were all useless thoughts and that since the God made up our body and intelligence, then everything about our physical make up was wonderful.  Thus, he concluded that people worrying about the way they look and trying to alter their appearance were like insults to the God who made them.  In other words, one is perfect the way one is because God made him/her that way; anything that God makes is perfect because it comes from a loving source.  He said that if people worry about changing their looks then the God would cry: “Because I made you, you must save the world.  You must save the environment.  You must teach kindness to the people. Why do they think that after I made them?”  He said that people forgot that concept and we were only thinking about our life or our age.  Once again he reinstated that worrying about looking younger or getting older was useless thinking and a completely wrong way to think. 

Then, being the funny man that he is, he paused to decide how to tease me a bit.  He joked that since I had thought that 30 was such a big number, then I must have surely thought that he was old.  Like magic there was a cloud of laughter in the room as I swore that I didn’t think he was old.  Not only do I love the Khenchen’s wisdom and kindness, but I also love his humor.  Half joking and half serious, I told him that we needed him to call up some of the advertisement companies and commercial agencies to preach his wisdom on T.V. (to decrease suffering, to add more humor and to spread more compassion in the world).

Even though he was giving me some serious advice, we laughed a lot and the atmosphere was fun.  I was so pleased that his advice made perfect sense and I did my best to sum it up, but that led me to another grueling thought:  Hmmm if I am going to forget the number/my age, how do I celebrate being thirty? Ahhhh should I celebrate my birthday?

I'll be meditating somewhere in the Himalayan Mountains
Sure enough, he suggested that I should forget about my birthday, forget about my age and not talk about it. WOW!  FORGET ABOUT MY BIRTHDAY! MY 30th BIRTHDAY! This was a huge blow to my usual costume.  I have had some pretty lavish parties in the past and I always thought that my 30th birthday would be the grandest.  It made me realize how much I have changed while in Bhutan.  In the past, I used to picture myself having the most impressive celebration for my 30th birthday in Las Vegas, but now it turned out that on my birthday I would be practicing humbleness and meditating on compassion somewhere in the Himalayan Mountains.

"Little Sabrinas" celebrating a birthday in Bhutan
He made it all sound so easy as he claimed that when people asked him his age, he had to count the years because he had forgotten how old he was.  My friend Sonam says that this is not abnormal in Bhutan; most Bhutanese people don’t celebrate their birthdays and some people don’t know their date of birth.  So this makes it easy for them to forget about their birthdays or how old they are.  As a result, they don’t seem to worry about their age or getting older.  Therefore, she thinks that it is hysterical that I have been complaining about turning 30, especially since she will also be turning 30 and she sees it as just another number or day.  It shows the differences in our cultures.  However, Sonam and I joke that since some of the new generation of youth is taking on the Western tradition of celebrating their birthdays and since television/advertising is entering more homes, then the new generation may turn into little Sabrinas not wanting to turn 30.  Although we laugh at this thought, I cringe and hope that there will be more Khenchens around spreading the wisdom of the Buddha. 
Like prayer flags spreading prayers in the wind
let's spread the heart advice of the Khenchen

Moreover, as the conversation came to a closing with the Khenchen, he shared with me one last simple, yet powerful thought.   He told me to always think that I was like a beautiful sixteen-year-old and to meditate upon it to the God.  Thus, I would become that: young and beautiful looking.   Finally, I understood what he meant when he claimed that people saw him as an eight-year-old child regardless of what age he was.  Why?  How?  He reflects youth and beauty because that’s how he views himself; one’s internal thoughts reflect outward. 

There is no doubt that the Khenchen is a beautiful person inside and out.  When I first asked him to give me advice about turning thirty, I never expected him to suggest that I should appreciate being human, concentrate on making differences in the world and forget about my birthday or age, etc.  Overall, this was amazing advice and I have more to share from him.  His wisdom shows that he is full of love.  Therefore, as my friend Pema says, “Let's spread the heart advice of the Khenchen…”


1.     Let the age/number go as well as the worries about looking older because these are useless thoughts that doesn’t serve any sentiment beings. 
2.     Regardless of what one looks like or how one ages with time, remember that it’s all a gift from the God that should be appreciated.
3.     Eyes, teeth, intelligence etc. are all precious gifts from the God.
4.     Everyday realize that one’s body is a wonderful gift. 
5.     People should try not to concentrate on trying to make themselves more physically beautiful or altering their body or face because it’s like an insult to the God that made them. 
6.     Everything that the God made is perfect, beautiful and wonderful. 
7.     One should try not to fall into the trap of trying to change oneself to look how society or others might want him/her to look like.  It’s all useless thinking.
8.     If a person thinks beautiful thoughts about himself/herself, then those positive thoughts will reflect out and others will perceive him/her as beautiful.  How one perceives oneself is how others will see him/her.
9.     People are here on Earth to make the world a better place. 
10.  One’s purpose in life is to care for mother Earth, to help others in need, to help the next generation, to be concerned with our next life, to practice compassion, to teach kindness and to have only kind thoughts for others. 

Sunday, June 10, 2012

The Khenchen's Advice About Turning Thirty

The Khenchen
*  In this post, the Khenchen and I used the word, God, several times.  Please refer to the term, God, as whatever God you pray to or believe in whether it's Allah, Buddha, Shiva, the Universe, etc. 

I felt like I won the lottery when I got the rare opportunity to ask a Khenchen questions about life over breakfast at my friend Sonam’s house.  A Khenchen is a respectful title given to a great monk, which is like higher than a doctorate degree.  The day before when I met the Khenchen, I had no idea who he was and he looked like an ordinary monk or lama.  However, his presence felt so heavenly that I knew there was something very unique about him; he gives off the most magical vibes without doing or saying anything.  I was completely drawn to his vortex of powerful, loving energy.  I wanted to dive into it and learn all that I could from this wise soul.  Therefore, I am beyond thrilled to be able to spread the wealth of his wisdom to my friends and family as well as others all across the world. 

Filled with excitement I sat across from the Khenchen on the floor by the burning bhukari while we waited for breakfast.  I wanted to find out about what it was like being a Khenchen.  So I started to say, “Sonam told me that your title is a Khenchen…” Then he stopped me in the middle of my sentence as he gently shook his head, and with such sincerity he said that a Khenchen was just a name or title, which meant nothing.  At first, I was a little confused by his response, but then I remembered his advice from the previous day about one of the most important qualities a person must posses was HUMBLENESS.  It was obvious that he didn’t want to bloat about having such a respectful title, so that was the end of my question about what it’s like to be a Khenchen.  Ironically, I got my answer:  To be a Khenchen, is to be humble.

His humble and kind personality made me intensely interested in how he viewed the world.  I wanted to ask him a million questions about all the problems of the world as well as spiritual questions about life.  However, I held back a little trying not to be too inquisitive so early in the morning.  Nevertheless, we had great conversations about the littering problem in Bhutan, mindless consumption and the importance of laws and rules.  He even told me about his exciting experience visiting America and riding a roller coaster for the first time.  The two of us sat together like we were old friends and we talked and talked, then laughed and laughed.

After a massive breakfast, the Khenchen announced that he should start his drive home.  Panic struck me because I didn’t get to record any of his profound wisdom on film and I wanted to ask him one more question.  So before he left, I asked him if I could film him giving me some more advice about life and if I could share it with my American friends as well as anybody else around the world that were interested in viewing it.  He said that would be great and I promised that it would be fun.  And it was…

Now for the question!  I wasn’t too sure what I wanted to ask him out of the infinite choices.  I had already bombarded him with some “serious” questions and since the Khenchen and I liked to laugh, I thought that I would ask him something playful, entertaining, yet very useful.  I decided to ask him a personal question about something that I had recently started to worry about more than ever and sometimes struggled accepting.  I also thought that some of my friends, family, and others around the world might also be struggling with this particular thought at times.  Therefore, I perceived this as a universal issue that many people could benefit from getting a Khenchen’s advice on.

So with lots of laughter and dramatization I explained to him that I was going to be turning THIRTY in a few months and I was struggling with the idea of getting older, which made me feel sad at times.  I confessed that I didn’t want to leave my 20s because 30 felt like such a big number.  I also exaggerated that each month that got closer to my birthday felt like a knife entering my heart; for the first time in my life, I wasn’t looking forward to celebrating my birthday.  As a result, I asked him if he could please give me some advice so that I wouldn’t have an early “midlife crisis” on my birthday.  I also told him that the advice would be a gift for any of my friends who were dreading turning 30 as well as for anyone else who were struggling turning 30, 40, 50, 60… or any age.

The Khenchen empathetically listened to me while nodding that he understood my agony.  Then he started off by saying, “At any age, I am 8 years old.  People look at me and I am like a child.  When I saw you, I thought you were like a student and I never thought you were (old enough to be) a teacher.  So you don’t think about your year. You don’t think about being old or young. This is useless! This is nothing! This is my advice!

At first, I thought, what in the world am I going to do with this advice?  How can I just forget about getting older? My friends and I are not going to be able to do this.  I don’t understand!  Then I blurted out, “SO JUST FORGET IT?” 

“Ya! Just forget it. It’s useless,” he said reinforcing his wisdom, which I couldn’t quite grasp at that moment.

“So forget the number?” I asked once again in a confused and shocked voice trying to dig deeper into his insight. 

He further stumped me when he asked, “Why do you think about the number?”

I didn’t have a quick answer for him and I thought, “Hmmm, why do I think about the number?”

Then slowly he started to unravel why one should forget about the number.  Slowly his wisdom poured into me.  Slowly it all started to make sense.  Slowly I felt like this was the question I was supposed to ask him.  

First, he explained that we were blessed with the human body.  He pointed to his eye and said that this was a very expensive eye; the most beautiful gift from the God or ones good merit.  He continued to give more examples of precious gifts, such as your teeth, nose, intelligence and body.  Thus, he declared that we were like the King of the world, which was a very precious thing as well as wonderful.

Next he led me into the unexpected and grand finale of where this whole conversation was going.  He summed up that since we got the human body from the God, then we should be thinking about others.  He said, “Try to save the world, try to help others.  This is our job! Therefore, the God made a beautiful eye, beautiful nose, beautiful teeth…you think always that!  Don’t think, oh my age 30, 40… That is useless!” 

Finally, I understood his point:  I should be grateful for being a human being with precious body parts to experience the world because it’s all a special gift from the God.  I shouldn’t waste my time worrying about useless thoughts of getting older, especially when I have two “expensive” eyes to see the world, two working legs to walk with, two arms to hug people… so many things to appreciate.  Since I have these amazing gifts from the God, I should be showing gratitude for them by being of service.  For instance, instead of stressing about nonsense stuff like my 30th birthday, I should be more concern with how I can teach kindness to my students and how I can contribute to saving the planet.

I couldn’t have agreed with him more.  In fact, deep down inside of me I had already known this to be true ever since I was a small child, but it was as though I had forgotten this internal wisdom.  Now I sat next to him remembering this profound truth and feeling a little guilty that I had wasted so much time entertaining such “useless” thoughts.  I started wondering how did so many others and I forget this?  How can my friends and I internalize his advice while we live in a society that advocates looking younger?  How could I get back to this place of honoring/appreciating the body and focusing more on helping others?    

What the Khenchen told me next, I could have never foreseen. To be continued...

Saturday, June 2, 2012

A Khenchen's Great Advice About Life

Norbu and I

On the last day of Losar, my monk friend, Norbu, took the initiative to give me one last tour of their home Village, Gangtey, during the day while Sonam was busy.  I was so thrilled that I had Norbu to take me under his wing because I quickly realized that “My Norbu” (when I call him “My Norbu,” he blushes) was like the “it guy” of the village.  I chuckled watching Norbu stroll down his village because he looked like VIP status in the monk world; everyone who saw him coming along were so eager to greet him and he always had someone to introduce me to.  Furthermore, whenever I would say, “Norbu can you get me into there or can we do this…” he would joke with me by saying “with Norbu anything is possible.”  The way I was galloping behind Norbu following him into beautiful Buddhist institutions that I couldn’t see myself being invited into without him, made me giggle thinking that there was such a thing as a VIP monk.  However, Norbu is extremely humble and it would never occur to him that one would perceive him as a VIP monk


My Norbu
Gangtey Monastery
Once the afternoon was over, we all gathered at Sonam’s mother’s house to say our goodbyes.  I felt a little sad to leave Gangtey Village behind because I had quickly bonded with Sonam’s family and I had somehow planted a little bit of my soul in the valley of million dollar views, but I knew that this was just another aspect of life.  Just when you start to feel all comfortable, the universe moves you on.  I gave everyone a hug goodbye while saying kadrinchela (thank you) a hundred times.  My eyes grew a little teary wondering if I would ever see them again.  Losar is a time you spend with your loved ones and they had warm heartedly made me felt like I was part of their family.  I didn’t speak Dzongkha and some of them didn’t speak English, but I had somehow made them laugh and we communicated through many different ways.  It’s amazing how when your heart is fully open, you can make connections with others in a very short period of time.  A genuine smile is not just a smile, but it’s a message of a thousand kind words.  A bowl of rice topped with ezay (chili) is not just food, but it’s a gesture of care and generosity.  I felt gratitude towards Sonam for sharing her family with me and I managed to let the universe take its course without the teardrops.

Sonam's Mini Car
As we got ready to jump into the car to leave, I was surprised to discover that we had two new people coming back with us to Chumey Village:  Sonam’s monk brother, Dorji, was coming for a week visit and her niece, Dawa, was coming to live with Sonam while Dawa attended high school in Chumey.  I tried to look like the extra load of passengers was no big deal as I was thinking, what? Is Sonam playing a joke on me?  How are six people going to fit in Sonam’s mini car with all the bags?  I’m so embarrassed that I brought the most luggage.  Why did I pack so much? We can’t see out the back window.  This is going to be a long 5 hours.  However, we managed just fine with myself, Sonam, Dawa and little Jimmy spread across our laps in the back seat.  I was so grateful for the adventure that I didn’t mind being sandwiched or the over spilling luggage from the trunk that would fall on my head.  Monk Norbu did his best driving carefully while Monk Dorji sat shotgun with more luggage.  The squishy car ride was actually a lot of fun filled with laughter.  Everyone sang along to trendy Bhutanese music and I joined in by humming the melodies.  Now I laugh at my initial thoughts because I realize that if one of those five people wouldn’t have been in that car on the drive back, then the road trip wouldn’t have been the same fun memory. 

THE KHENCHEN’S ADVICE: Be Humble, Compassionate and Friendly

Four of us in the back seat:  Tea and cookies
On the way home, we got stuck in an hour roadblock along with every other car that was heading west.  The roadblocks can be found throughout Bhutan because its widening parts of their narrowest roads.  So on the side of the road, we ate cookies and drank tea that Sonam’s mother had packed for us.  Then we walked around the road to stretch our cramped legs.  As I was people watching and filming the action of the roadwork, I noticed that there seemed to be a lot of monks around and after being surrounded by monks for the last three days, this had become my new norm.  However, when I Sonam and the others saying hello to a group of monks, one particular monk grabbed my attention like a rare pink diamond.  I immediately felt compelled to move in his direction; he was a magnet pulling me closer.  Although he looked like any other monk, I couldn’t take my eyes off his face as I studied every single feature:  round bald head that was neatly wrapped in a burgundy cloth, pale slightly aged skin, high check bones, almond shaped eyes and big, beautiful pink lips.  Then when he said hello to me, the kindness in his voice memorized me even more than his loving face and I was fully captivated by his presence. 

As I basked in his aura, I had a knowing that this was no ordinary monk.  I thought, what is it that is so extraordinary about this monk?  There was something about him that was so friendly, gentle, enthusiastic, loving and every other positive emotion in this world.  I immediately felt an urge to ask him a million questions because I sensed that within him lay the answers to all the things I often enquiry about life:  What is the meaning of life? Why do people die? What does every human being need to know? etc.  I found myself scooting closer and closer to him and I thought, his energy feels so amazing! Is this what it feels like to be in the presence of a divine soul?  I have read about how some people experience a natural high, an increased level of consciousness or are even brought to joyful tears when they are in the presence of Gurus or enlightened people, but I had never known what that felt like until I met him. 

By now I couldn’t take it anymore and I whispered to Sonam, “Who is this guy and how do you know him? He seems so unique.” 

She whispered back, “He is a Khenchen and I know him because he used to be the principal in the 
Buddhist institution in my village...”

Completely clueless I asked, “What’s a Khenchen?”

“A Khenchen is a big title for a monk.  Very important!  It’s like higher than a doctorate degree…” She responded in the faintest voice that I decided not to ask any more questions until later.

My desire to plunge into the Khenchen’s wisdom and pick apart his brain must have been so intense because eventually he couldn’t ignore my radar eyes and smile that screamed “talk to me please.”  Finally, he turned his attention to me and asked me how I felt in Bhutan and if I felt like an alien being in another country.  I admitted that sometimes I felt a little alien-like because at the time I was still getting use to squatter toilets, bucket baths and no freeways.  I also highlighted that being an “alien” was great because I was experiencing beauty with fresh new eyes. 

Since the Khenchen asked me a question, I jumped on the opportunity to ask him a question about life in general.  I asked him if he could say one thing about life, what great advice could he give me.  In the most sincere voice he said that the best advice that he could give me was to be humble, compassionate and friendly with everyone.  I was so giggly and joyful to receive the simplest advice from a wise soul that I gave the Khenchen a big hug joking that I had friendly and compassionate down; two out of three.  Then feeling a little guilty, I admitted that I needed to work on being more humble and letting go of the ego.  It was something that hadn’t crossed my mind in a long time and so now this was going to be my new quality that I was going to work on while in Bhutan.  

Furthermore, the Khenchen turned the tables on me and asked me to give him some advice about life.  So to add some humor before my real advice cam pouring through, I jokingly advised him to give up doma.  Doma is a beetle nut wrapped in beetle leaves with lime, which is like the chewing gum of Bhutan.  My Bhutanese friends say that it keeps them warm and it’s really addicting.  The thought of the Khenchen, giving up his beloved doma was hysterical and it was one of those moments you had to be there in order to join in some hard laughter.  However, after the laughter died down, I gave him my “real” heartfelt advice.  I didn’t give him advice about what I had read or what others had preached to me.  Instead I shared with him what I was consciously going through during that particular time in my life.  From the rawest part of my heart, I said, “My real advice to you is what I am learning, which is to go with the flow; the flow of life. To go where life takes you on your journey.  And not fight it or have fear and get stressed out.  To just go with the flow!”  The Khenchen said that this was one of the teachings of the Buddha and I claimed that I was a Buddhist at heart.  Then Sonam predicted that I would go back to America as a Buddhist and we all laughed.  

My Beloved Picture with the Khenchen
Just when I was about to flood him with more questions about life, the road reopened and everyone started to run to their cars like they were in a race for their life.  However, instead of running, I whipped out my camera and I screamed, “Sonam, wait, please just take one picture of me with the Khenchen.  Pleassseee!”  She yelled back that there was no time and to run.  Then I pleaded that I had to have a picture incase I never saw him again and I threw the camera in her hands.  Sympathizing with my desire, she snapped a quick picture and announced that I would see him in the morning because she had invited him over for breakfast before he passed through our village.  I was beyond thrilled knowing that I would have a second chance to bombard this man with lots of fun questions (my next blog). 

Then we all ran back to our cars to partake in the mad race of getting on the road first and leaving the other cars in the dust.  However, my “need” to take a picture with the Khenchen’s kind face made our car lose as well as all the other cars that couldn’t fit around us.  Since the roads are not that wide yet, we ended up in a frantic traffic jam with the on coming cars that were on the other side of the roadblock.  It was like a disorganized game of random honking and who could inch the closest between our car and the edge of the cliff.  Now I understood why everyone was running; they wanted to be the first out so they wouldn’t get stuck in an inevitable jam.  Whoops!  Sorry!  (It’s my favorite picture though.)

Once we got through the traffic jam, I found myself still in awe with the presence of the Khenchen.  I spent some time looking out the window thinking about what I had experienced upon meeting the Khenchen.  I thought a lot about how some people give off a spark of loving energy that made others feel tingly and made everyone want to be around them.  I wondered how I could constantly cultivate that loving energy to be more like the Khenchen; to make others feel good in ones presence with or without words.  I thought about how important it was for teachers to have this type of energy that made their students want to huddle around them to learn from them.  So I silently repeated in my head…be humble, compassionate, friendly, be humble, compassionate, friendly…