The Guest Room
Musings, Memories & Epiphanies Inspired by Place
There’s More to Letting Go
Mary M. Mullane
Although we have been made to believe that if we let go we will end up with nothing,
life itself reveals again and again the opposite: that letting go is the path to real freedom.
I’d experienced 9/11 and premature menopause, left my boyfriend and NYC apartment and left my job as a VP at an investment bank under stressful circumstances. I was miserable in my fabricated self. I moved into my weekend house upstate, rode my horse, worked on my novel, mediated and tried to hold my often debilitating fears at bay. I realize now I was jumping off a cliff in order to free my soul.
I went to Sri Lanka because friends I adore were having a five-day wedding. I went to neighboring Bhutan because it was close-by, only allowed a limited number of foreign visitors a year–and I could get in.
Sometimes you think you are taking a vacation, but it becomes a journey that leaves you changed, from the inside, forever. Your tectonic internal shift goes unnoticed by family and friends, until sometimes months or even years later, when they realize that you are not the same person. This is that vacation.
Mary M. Mullane
It was October 2002, the tail end of a week-long wedding in Galle, Sri Lanka. Eric and I were discussing my month-long vacation, throughout Sri Lanka and then on to include Bhutan. “Traveling in this part of the world will change your life,” Eric said, with the certainty of someone who’d been doing it for twenty years. His words meant a great deal to me. I was embarking on a journey to cleanse my soul and spirit after spending far too long on Wall Street in search of the fulfillment I thought money and a corporate career could provide my ever yearning soul.
“I already know you have to let go. I’ve been working on it,” I replied, rather flippantly for someone who, in retrospect, possessed only a slight clue. I was little over a year off Wall Street, and still thought that being a type A perfectionist was a good thing. I had a hard time accepting loss of control in any form. I had no living spiritual teachers and although I longed for one, they say that your teachers come when you are ready. I was, by definition, not ready. But I wasn’t completely ignorant. I’d been meditating since early childhood and had found years earlier that the Tibetan Book of Living and Dying by Sogyal Rinpoche put into words what I’d always known in my heart to be true.
In responding to Eric, I was referring to the “letting go” known to travelers to remote areas of the world–that itineraries, including specific dates, places and times, should be tossed onto the tarmac before takeoff, in order to experience the joy of letting the journey unfold in its own way. But I also meant the deeper practice of letting go of ‘everything’ and permitting life to take its course, and Eric knew it.
“That’s it, but there’s more,” he replied. When I pressed for what I knew would be a key to living my new life, Eric said, “No, you’ll tell me when I see you back in New York.”
After weeks of traveling with my friend and intrepid traveler Belle throughout Sri Lanka, I did, in fact, embrace the letting go aspect of traveling in a far-flung region and was comfortable relying solely on our guide and the universe at large. There were hints of what Eric spoke of– like searching for a leopard and its cubs for hours on safari in Yala Nathional Park and then spotting them sunning themselves on a rock moments after deciding to let it go and head back to the lodge. Then we were off to Bhutan, an isolated Buddhist country the size of Switzerland, where the great Himalayan peaks divide it from Tibet in the north and its rivers and tributaries feed into India in the south.
In the 8th century the Indian siddha and saint known as Guru Rinpoche–worshipped today as the second Buddha–came to Bhutan from India. Guru Rinpoche was blessed with miraculous powers, including the ability to subdue evil spirits. The legend goes that in AD 746 the king of Bumthang, in central Bhutan, was embroiled in conflict with a king in southern Bhutan and became possessed by a demon. It is said that Guru Rinpoche brought Buddhism to Bhutan when he went to Bumthang, exorcised the demon and converted it and the two kings to Buddhism.
Until the early 1960’s Bhutan, a monastic country steeped in this buddhist tradition and mythology, remained isolated from the outside world. Drukpa Kagyu, a school of tantric Buddhism, is the official religion of Bhutan. Kagyu means “whispered transmission,” and tantra in Sanskrit means “loom.” The tantric concept was best described to me by a Siddha Swami, as being like a loom weaving threads –the warp and the woof, the finite and the infinite, the divine within the mundane. The tantric premise of non-dualism is that we already possess the nature of enlightened beings and need only to recognize that by seeing past our ignorance to our true nature. That is done by turning the mind inward through meditation, teachings and an array of complex rituals and practices.
This philosophy is an indelible and important aspect of Bhutan’s culture. The acceptance of impermanence, reincarnation and the ability to obtain enlightenment in this lifetime is woven into people’s perspective on daily life. Life is embraced as a rare preparation for death and a chance to transform beyond the endless cycle of death and rebirth to a lasting, ultimate happiness, free of suffering, that lies within our own true nature.
For centuries Bhutan remained committed to its isolation from the rest of the world. Under King Jigme Dorji Wangchuck, Bhutan began to slowly emerge and embark on a process of development, emphasizing the need to preserve its unified culture and tradition. Upon his death in 1972 he was succeeded by his 16-year-old son Jigme Singye Wangchuck, who put Gross National Happiness ahead of Gross National Product, emphasizing ecological and cultural considerations above commercial interests. Thus, the young king continued his father’s ideal of building an economy and opening Bhutan to the rest of the world while retaining the country’s strong spiritual heritage.
In 1999 Bhutan was the last country on earth to launch television and the internet. When I visited, a special visa was necessary and we were required to travel with a full-time guide. It was still a land imbued with Buddhist tradition: prayer wheels, round stone chortens, some containing relics, prayer flags and a traditional dress code – requiring men to wear ghos, a heavy knee length robe tied with a belt and women kiras, a long rectangular weaved clothe in earth tones which is clasped over a colorful blouse. But the young men in silver Nikes with black leather jackets worn over their ghos at the King’s birthday celebration were evidence of western culture seeping in and beginning to co-exist with their own.
We landed in Paro, home to the country’s only international airport, with party blowers and balloons for the village children and a bag of gold toe socks requested by our guide, Tenzin Thinley, to wear with his national dress. We explored Paro and drove to Thimpu for the night. In the morning we shopped in the Thimpu market where villagers traveled on weekends to sell produce along with their crafts. The air was clean, dry and sun-drenched. The Bhutanese people, in their colorfully weaved kiras and ghos, exude a spiritual beauty and a calm sense of well-being.
A dirt road known as the National Highway crosses Bhutan from Thimpu in the east to our furthest destination of Bumthang in the west. It is narrow, rocky and filled with steep winding switchbacks and deep potholes. We loaded up on two staples of the Bhutanese – doma, areca nuts wrapped in betel leaves, which is said to give a caffeine like buzz and chugo or dried yak cheese–in the market and embarked on a bumpy eight-hour drive. We were told we’d be in for a cold night–our destination had spotty solar electricity, no heat and no running water. We were headed up the mountains into freezing cold weather, knowing that most people would have cut and run; luckily, by that point, we were seasoned believers in letting go.
Our 1980 two-door Peugot slowly made the climb through blue pine forests toan altitude of 3150m, where the ‘highway’ traverses Dochu La Pass. The Pass is usually covered in clouds and rarely allows visitors a peek at the Himalayas. We were fortunate to have a full view of the range – surrounded by hundreds and hundreds of colorful, loudly flapping prayer flags from one of the most spectacular spots on the planet. People come from all over Bhutan to the pass to place their prayer flags here, knowing the blessing imprinted on their cloth will be scattered far and wide by the high altitude wind.
“When angels travel the weather is good,” Tenzin explained. I was glad angels were traveling, but was certain that they were not in the backseat of his car in the form of Belle and me headed toward the Panakha Dzong.
Dzongs are an integral part of Bhutan’s architectural landscape, originally serving as fortresses and monasteries. Their enormous exterior walls house complex inner courtyards that lead to temples, accommodations for monks and administrative offices. The Punakha Dzong is one of the most beautiful. Its construction began in 1637 at the convergence of the Mo Chhu and Pho Chhu rivers where the Sankosh River begins. These river systems and their tributaries are fed by the Himalayas and provide water for a good portion of Bhutan and India.
The Punakha valley, one of the most fertile in all of Bhutan, is covered with terraced fields of hay and mustard rising above the Sankosh River. The traditional architecture of Bhutanese homes blends into its sweeping landscape. Red chilies, a national crop, lay drying on metal rooftops held down by rocks in lieu of nails. Many of the homes throughout the region are painted with a flying phallus, a symbol said to ward off evil. It is common for four families to occupy one home. The ancestral home is left to the women.
Leaving the Punakha Valley the car crept up into the mountains and Tenzin’s story of our destination began to unfold. As we knew, Tenzin was an attendant of Gangteng Tulku Rinpoche – Gangteng is in reference to his monastary or Goemba, a tulku is a reincarnated Lama and Rinpoche is an honorable title that literally means ‘precious one’. The Rinpoche is the 9th reincarnation of Pema Lingpa, who is revered as a patron saint. Because we were traveling with Tenzin we were considered guests of the Rinpoche and were granted access to areas within monasteries and Dzongs that are rarely, if ever, seen by foreign travelers. That did not lessen our astonishment when Tenzin told us we were going to stay at the Rinpoche’s monastery known as Gangte Goemba.
My connection to Bhutan was through a preservation group raising money for the restoration of the monastery. We knew that it was in a state of severe disrepair and closed for renovation. The dilapidated monastery lay 6 km off the ‘highway’ through rough terrain. It was cold and pitch black and we were in the middle of nowhere headed toward the unknown. We starred at each other, wide-eyed with anxiety, but we were thrilled.
The deterioration of the monastery and the Pema Lingpa lineage occurred during the 40-year gap between Gangteng Tulku Rinpoche and his predecessor, the 8th reincarnation of Pema Lingpa, who spent much of his life as Governor of Paro. Pema Lingpa prophesied that a monastery named Gang-teng (hilltop) would be built on the ridge overlooking the Phobjika Valley where his teachings would survive and spread. The Phobjika Valley on the western slopes of the Black Mountains borders the Black Mountain National Park and is considered one of the most important wildlife preserves in the country.
Gangteng Tulku Rinpoche has spent his life ceaselessly working to assure the survival of the teachings and practices of the lineage. Because the Pema Lingpa lineage was eradicated from Tibet, Gangteng Tulku spent years studying the teachings with Masters who had received its initiations and carried the texts with them when escaping Tibet.
The resurrection of the monastery as a teaching and meditation center was central to the Rinpoche’s revival of the lineage. The spiritual treasures, some dating back to the 8th century and creations of Pema Lingpa himself, were removed for safe keeping while Gangtey Tulku and his team managed the restoration.
We spent the night in one of Gangte’s ‘guesthouses’ were we found a bathroom, a bedroom and a common room with a wood burning stove. Tenzin and Belle took the sofas in the common room while I was granted the luxury of the bed—but without the warmth from the fire. I’ll never forget laying under piles and piles of blankets with my face frozen, listening to packs of wild dogs bark and howl throughout the night, knowing that sacred treasures, some dating back to the 8th century, were being stored in the room above mine. Sleep was out of the question.
We awoke at 4 a.m. for a trek down into the marshy Phobjika Valley. After a pot of tea we descended in the bitter cold through a forest of blue pines draped in long, light green moss, as Tenzin described the significance of the valley below. The Phobjika Valley is the wintering grounds for rare Black-Necked Cranes which migrate each year from their summering grounds in Tibet. Black-Necked Cranes weigh about 12 pounds, have a wingspan of almost 8 feet and live to up to 80 years. They are revered as the reincarnation of enlightened beings that come to inspire the monks of Gangte Goemba on their journey to enlightenment. Each year they arrive on the same day and circle the monastery exactly 3 times clockwise, believed to be an expression of gratitude and blessing, before settling in for the winter. In Buddhism it is a sign of respect when pilgrimaging to holy places to circle clockwise.
It was at the base of our descent, at the mouth of the U-shaped valley that the ‘more’ beyond letting go struck my being. I was literally standing in a dream I’ve experienced repeatedly since I was four or five years old. In that dream, I am walking on old wooden planks across vast sheets of what I thought was Arctic ice. I know that I am safe and belong on that path following someone I trust, but cannot see.
There, right before my eyes, in Bhutan’s hidden glacial valley, was that path made of time-weathered boards. I was not surrounded by sheets of arctic ice but rather, crystallized blades of grass –each covered with a thick layer of sparkling ice. In the distance I could see an ancient chorten and the Black-Necked Cranes. Tenzin walked in front of me in his gho. I was deep within my own true nature and knew without question that it was time to more actively embrace the tantric Buddhist and Yogic paths.
We watched the mysterious Black-Necked Cranes dance and feed just yards from us in the most beautiful, frozen, blue-tinted valley I will ever see. Three cranes approached us, but I missed the shot because the shutter on my borrowed camera was uncocked. Tenzin explained that the people of Gangte swear that someone from outside the village can never get close to the cranes. Tenzin lived at the monastery for two years and tried to prove the villagers wrong when he walked through the valley in winter. He never was able get close to the cranes and watched in awe as the villagers strolled straight through flocks of the revered creatures without disrupting them.
In mid-February, when it is time for the cranes to migrate to Tibet, the birds start to practice by flying through the valley in small groups. As the days pass they rise higher and higher above the valley and again circle the monastery three times clockwise before flying off toward Tibet.
We climbed the 8,000 feet back up to the monastery where in the light of day, we witnessed its decay. Extensive damage done to support beams by termites, beetles and fungal growth threatened its collapse. The mortar between the walls in a lot of areas had turned to dust. The craftsman on site were challenged with re-building the monastery to its original grandeur using the same techniques that were used in the 17th century, this time with wooden beams that are resistant to wood-boring bugs and special paints that will survive centuries.
In the eight years since my journey to Gangte Goemba, the monastery has been reopened. It is now home to monks, a Buddhist college, a traditional meditation retreat center, and is one of the main seats of the religious tradition based on Pema Lingpa’s revelations.
After my return, when Eric and I got together in the city, I couldn’t wait to tell him what I thought there being more to letting go meant. He looked at me with a skeptic smirk and asked, “So, what do you think it is?”
I leaned in. “When you let go, when you embrace the impermanence of this existence and let go at the core of your being,” I whispered, “you create a space and that is when the magic comes in.”
“Precisely,” he responded with a broad and knowing smile.
Days after returning upstate, I was invited by a friend to meditate with her teacher, Swami Nirmalananda. In the years since she has taught me more about non-dualism, meditation, the yoga sutras, asana practice and ancient texts and practices then I could possibly put into words.
Not long after first meeting Swami Nirmalananda, I got lost on a nearby country road and stumbled across Evam Institute, founded by Traleg Rinpoche who frequently visits and teaches in the Kagyu School of Tibetan Buddhism tradition. Across the river from my home, I discovered Karma Trayana Dharmachakra, a Tibetan Buddhist Monastery in the Kagyu lineage, where I have since taken my vows. These teachers were within my reach all along, but I was not ready for living teachers.
I now embrace letting go. I know that whether in a deep meditation practice or in daily life, letting go is a portal to the love, compassion and bliss that is within our own true nature. I remain a perfectly fallible human being who has been blessed with glimpses that go beyond the point where one knows that you are one with the universe, beyond all negative emotion, and beyond the bliss that is our true nature. I know there is an even higher place within us all that is the source of true happiness, emptiness, and a sense of infallibility, indestructibility, universal knowledge and love and compassion that is beyond description.
There are many paths. This is my path and from it I see that there is a place beyond the yearning, suffering and sorrow brought on by negative emotions. It is within reach, inside all of us. It is the essence of our own true being. It transcends the difficulties of life and recognizes that our universal, divine and infinite self is our true essence.
The fact that they are only glimpses of the ultimate lightness of being–experienced between working to pay my mortgage–is a source of frustration, but one must walk on the path between what His Holiness the Dalai Lama, the lineage holder of all four schools of Tibetan Buddhism including Kagyu, refers to as Ultimate knowledge and Conventional knowledge or as Swami Nirmalananda puts it, the divine within the mundane. I am learning to accept this finite life while gaining a perspective on the infinite. It is the ever broadening glimpses that keep me dedicated to pursuing a path toward enlightenment for the benefit of all sentient beings.
Return to View from the Pier’s home page, which offers the latest articles on a variety of the world’s cultural traditions!