Early in the week we were told in assembly that Jigme Sherubling HSS would be having its annual Rimdro on Friday, and that classes would be canceled that day in order to prepare for the event.
At school all of the teachers were asked to contribute some money in order to finance the festivities, a request which sparked a little bit of debate that was left unresolved. The question was whether there should be a mandatory minimum donation or not. I understood and sympathized with both sides of the argument. On one hand there was going to be a large celebration for the entire school community that would span from morning to night, and therefore require meals for students, staff and guests. I was told that dinner would be a large feast and that much of the money was going towards purchasing meat, a commodity towards which I would have contributed the majority of my salary. On the other hand, a rimdro is also a religious ceremony, and considering that none of the twelve Indian teachers are Buddhist, it did seem somewhat unfair to demand that they contribute to this Buddhist ceremony. I, of course, am not Buddhist either (at least not yet), but I was happy to contribute the same amount as all of my friends. I was already salivating just from the thought of sinking my teeth into some tender beef.
The rimdro was supposed to begin at about 9:00, so I was also quite excited that I was going to be able to sleep in a bit. But at 6:30 in the morning my phone rang and jolted me from my sleep. At first I considered ignoring the call, as it was from a number I didn’t recognize and didn’t really feel like acknowledging so early in the morning, but then I realized that it probably had something to do with the rimdro and that ignoring it wouldn’t reflect so well upon my professionalism. So I answered the incessant ringing with a groggy, muffled voice. It was one of the other teachers who was helping coordinate the rimdro. The principal, he told me, was requesting that I be the official photographer for the day. I got out of bed, grabbed my camera, popped the battery out of its slot, threw it into its charger, jumped back into bed, and slipped back into my dreams for another hour.
The morning program was fairly uneventful. For the most part I actually slipped away to the computer lab and chatted online with a few important people at home. In all fairness, not much else was going on. Several students were in the dining hall praying with some monks, but the majority of students were preparing for the arrival of one of Eastern Bhutan’s most powerful Lamas, Garab Rimpoche..
At around eleven o’clock I was rushed over to the principal’s car. The Rimpoche wasn’t far from Khaling, and as a custom important guests are always received by their hosts a ways away from their actual destination. So I hopped in the principal’s car with my camera in hand, and we led a convoy of eight cars to Thrizor, a tiny community (better described as a small clearing) about 15 minutes from Khaling. We all parked snugly against a bend in the mountain, and moved over to a plat clearing on the other side of the road, where we set up a chair, an umbrella, and a table with cloth for the Rimpoche’s arrival.
The actually arrival and reception were over in the blink of an eye. What took more than twenty minutes of preparation to set up was used for less than three minutes while the Rimpoche blessed each of us who came to receive him, and before I knew it I was being hustled back into the principal’s car, leading the convoy back to JigSher.
The whole school was waiting for us by the time we arrived back. The teachers and several lucky community members were lining the path leading towards the dining hall, waiting to be blessed by the Rimpoche.
His Holiness was actually incredibly casual and laid back. He instantly struck up conversation with me when I first met him (I stand out a bit here), while my Bhutanese friends and colleagues stood with backs bent, eyes lowered and mouths shut. I was not entirely comfortable with my special treatment, but at the same time I understood where it was coming from. I was not a part of Bhutanese culture, and his Holiness had traveled a fair bit and been exposed to many western cultures, so as a result he was trying to make me feel more comfortable by blurring the lines that divided East and West. More often than not he did this with humour. As a walked backwards past the receiving line snapping photos of the Rimpoche’s arrival, and the Bhutanese bowed and covered their mouths and noses with a hand, the Rimpoche approached me and asked, “Do you know why all of these people are covering their mouths and noses?” to which I replied, “Yes, sir. It is out of respect for you,” the appropriate and accurate response. At this the Rimpoche pounced, “No, it’s because the principal and I smell really bad.” I couldn’t believe it. I was standing next to one of the most powerful religious figures in the country, and there he was cracking jokes with me.
Backwards, I led the way into the dining hall where the entire student body was waiting for the Rimpoche to give his speech and to recite several mantras. The assembly was quite boring for me, I must admit, as the entire speech was delivered in Dzongkha. I spent the two hours snapping photo after photo, but even this left me unsatisfied, as the lighting in the dining hall was less than ideal.
At the end of the speech, after the students had cleared out of the dining hall, the Rimpoche called me to the stage on which he was sitting. We chatted casually at first. He thanked me for coming to Bhutan to teach and expressed his appreciation for what I am doing, and I told him that it was my pleasure to be here and that I consider myself to be the lucky one. Then he summarized his speech to the students for me. He told me that he was explaining to them that Bhutan is really a model country for the rest of the world and that they, the youth, are responsible for preserving this status. He told me, and them, that in terms of culture, peace, safety, happiness and other aspects of life that we all value so dearly, Bhutan is leading the world at preserving and fostering these values.
Then the Rimpoche’s lunch arrived, so I thanked him for talking with me, and left him to eat in peace.
At the end of the busy day we once again escorted the Rimpoche to a different sight on the opposite side of Khaling. Just as it is customary to receive important guests, it is also customary to send them off. We drove to an equally beautiful sight where the principal and teachers of Wamrong had erected their own reception sight. I followed the Rimpoche and principal to the top of a hill while the rest of my Bhutanese colleagues stood below. We stood around while the Rimpoche drank some tea and ate some biscuits, and then right before we were all about to depart, I mustered up the courage to ask one of his assistants if it would be okay to take a picture with his Holiness. The assistant asked the Rimpoche who was happy to oblige. On top of a grassy hill, I stood beside one of Bhutan’s holiest men while he put an arm around my shoulder and joked about how I needed to crouch a little so he didn’t look so short next to me.
When the principal and I marched back down the hill and I showed my friends the pictures they were all bursting with jealousy. Again, I felt guilty that I had been treated so differently and had been awarded a photo opportunity with this man who they all worshiped so passionately. However, this is just the position in which I have placed, and I am telling myself that all I can do is embrace all that this unbelievable experience has to offer.