Memories are not for enlightened beings. Enlightened beings don’t remember because, for them, there is no past. Past—and for that matter present and future—are for beings like us, who use the past as a reference and then expect and assume that the future will come.
I have many memories. Also, I am sure I don’t have many memories. Some are gone forever and some are lying low, only to be revived by a simple cause such as the smell of coriander. It’s very unfortunate, because having memories proves that I am not a sublime being. But for now, memory serves as a big part of my path.
In August 2016, I stepped into Kurjey Lhakhang in Bumthang, where I hadn’t been for almost three decades. Her Majesty the Royal Grand Mother Kesang Choeden Wangchuck, built Khaje Lhakhang in 1990 at this holy site in central Bhutan, which was once a hub for Bhutanese aristocracy. It was the seat of the Wangchuck lineage until the 1950s. Her temple is an added jewel in this beautiful crown of Bumthang.
The main temple hall is large enough for large public gatherings but it has a long narrow open-air hallway along the side, almost like a verandah, which is typical of Bhutanese temples. A lot of bells are typically hung in this area, which people occasionally ring. It’s not really an appropriate place for a bed. But when I walked into the temple with its very particular mood and smell, memories immediately arose of Kyabje Dilgo Khyentse Rinpoche resting on his bed on that verandah. He would park there for weeks, even months, while I and a few other attendants slept in the main hall, rolling up our beds during the day. From a spoiled human perspective it was not livable, it was like parking your body in a room adjoining a banquet hall. There was no verandah door to close, no bathroom, let alone an attached bath. There was no cupboard or side table, no amenities. But he would eat there and sleep there, his clothes folded neatly. He would write there. He would hold audience there. All he had was a thin curtain, which was almost always open anyway.
It was good to be back in Kurjey. A few months before I had received a personally handwritten letter from Her Majesty, in an elegant envelope sealed with wax, graciously giving me permission to conduct a drupchen there. Even though she is so busy, Her Majesty always writes her invitations by hand. This elegance I have tried to mimic in my own communications, but then I realised that it takes a lot of time and patience, so of course I gave up. Receiving this letter, another memory was fished out: The first time I met Her Majesty was at Dechencholing Palace in Thimphu, where she lived many years ago, right through the reigns of the Third and Fourth Kings, 1953-2009. It made such an impression on me because this is where I discovered what good taste could look like. Dechencholing is the most beautiful and elegant dwelling in Bhutan. Many well-to-do elite have built newer, more expensive residences but they are often gaudy, overly ornamented with carvings and murals, and stuffed to the ceilings with Bangkok bling. I have to say I am deadly worried that Bhutanese taste will never go beyond Bangkok. It really makes me cringe. But the moment you enter the garden at Dechencholing Palace, you are struck by the simplicity. You can feel the unique Bhutanese character. You may also see the suggestion of an English garden, hinting that whoever is dwelling there has spent some time wandering in distant places, perhaps London’s Regent’s Park. Bhutan has no history of cultivating botanical gardens and public greens, so Her Majesty had to find an influence elsewhere to create her own Bhutanese style. Her garden had a wild element to it. I clearly remember once two bear cubs running around.
I was lucky to be invited back by Her Majesty many times and it always gave me joy—whether it was just me or a large group, for dinner, lunch, or afternoon tea—because everything was always done as a kind of ritual. At the entrance, guests were greeted by a life-size painting of Rigdzin Jatsön Nyingpo, one of the most important treasure revealers of the Nyingma tradition. Much later I learned that she had commissioned this portrait at the suggestion of Kyabje Dilgo Khyentse Rinpoche. Before I even laid eyes on the Queen, there was such a majestic air, a way people acted in anticipation of her presence. First, her personal aide-de-camp, dressed in his full military uniform, would meet me and whoever I was with at the gate. Even though I was just a young tulku, he would take off his beret and bow for a blessing instead of doing the usual salute. Then he would lead us to the palace door where Her Majesty waited.
Whatever the occasion at Dechencholing, Her Majesty greeted guests personally and spoke to each one so thoughtfully. I remember her as very beautiful. She didn’t wear much makeup, and her scarf and blouse were always so elegant and simple. Her aide would hand her a katag (ceremonial scarf) and we would exchange scarves, but she would always manage to humbly put hers below mine. This humility made her even more majestic in my eyes.
Then we would go inside where the attendants were all barefoot. I think bare feet are the perfect accessory for the traditional Bhutanese gho that men wear. A handmade Bhutanese gho paired with argyle socks and Nike sneakers just doesn’t do it for me. These attendants were so well trained that they moved quickly down the hallways without making a sound, whereas I had to be careful not to slip because the floors were so highly polished.
From there we were led upstairs to a magnificent living room. The walls were beautifully painted with traditional Bhutanese vegetable dyes and were so understated, not bright or gaudy. There were no Italian sofas or Chinese side tables. The divans and simple tables clustered around the room were all traditional Bhutanese. The orange-ish walls were adorned with many amazing black and white photos of the Royal Family, perfectly framed. And in one corner was a Buddha Shakyamuni shrine with offerings meticulously arranged, not all lumped together, each object carefully chosen and placed. This is where Kyabje Dilgo Khyentse Rinpoche did pujas. Sometimes he would even be there when she was hosting us.
Her Majesty always insisted that I sit on a particular divan with a brocade cover, and then everyone would take their seats. The first course was traditional Bhutanese tea with saffron rice, both served in ivory cups with silver spoons. Our cups were never left empty. Then came bangchungs filled with Bhutanese corn flakes, fried puffed rice, and other little snacks made to perfection in the palace, not anything you can buy in the market.
Lunch was served either right there or in the dining room. The attendants came in with trays of cutlery, dinnerware, glasses, and napkins. The colours and patterns all matched, and of course the napkins were ironed. Her Majesty would go around the room visiting with each guest and telling interesting stories. She spoke so softly that we had to listen carefully. And she always insisted that I eat so much. “If you eat I’ll be happy,” she would say, so I would always get completely stuffed.
The meal was followed by coffee or tea in the parlour. Sometimes I went to the palace just for tea. English tea was arranged meticulously, from the selection of the tea to the tea set to the milk container, even the tea cosy. She always kept an eye on the attendants (chhankaps) to make sure they poured the tea first before the milk. I think she must have read George Orwell’s treatise on making a proper cup of tea. Sometimes she served fresh mint tea in short-coloured glasses.
Everything she did was with elegance—whether it was Bhutanese elegance, British elegance, or another kind of elegance. Such unassuming, understated, refined elegance is so difficult to come by in today’s world.
I have noticed an emergence of Chinese and Tibetan nouveau riche. When I was in Tibet a few years ago, I met a Khampa who had gold-plated one quarter of his mouth. He told me he was thinking of getting the rest of his mouth done as well because if you don’t display your wealth, people will look down on you. And recently when I went to Lhasa, the organisers booked me in the Intercontinental Hotel. The scale of the hotel was humongous. The toilet was almost as big as my house in Bir. The Chinese seem to have forgotten that small can be beautiful. The designs on the mantels and chandeliers were so overdone that they were dangerously close to gaudy. But a local told me that it was the most popular place for Tibetans, especially eastern Tibetans, to show off their wealth. So people have different styles of dealing with their insecurities and displaying their confidence.
Her Majesty’s style is to be elegant in all things. Her confidence is understated. Sometimes she would send her car to pick me up. Being very nosey, I once pressed play on her car stereo to see what music she was listening to. It was a Dvorak cello concerto. And she was one of those rare people back then who had good taste in film. She had a collection of films by directors like Kurosawa.
I learned so much from being in the presence of the Royal Grand Mother, in particular from her respect and one-pointed devotion to Kyabje Dilgo Khyentse Rinpoche. He lived at Dechencholing Palace for many years. Even after he passed away, she did many prostrations to his throne and prayed to Guru Rinpoche. I would sometimes eavesdrop on her, and more often than not, I found her speaking to him as if she were actually talking to Guru Rinpoche or the deity. I have now learned to do this myself and have encouraged my students to do this because, after all the composed supplications, actual talking is so nice. It’s much more personal, and at times, better than reading some poetic sadhana. If you recite something from memory, eventually you just blabber. You don’t think about the words.
I and many of my peers continue to give Her Majesty all of our respect, not just because she was a Queen but because what she did for the Dharma and for Bhutan and for what she represents. When I had the honour of meeting Her Majesty again after the drupchen in August, her presence once again evoked all the precious memories of the days when we were so cared for and protected by Dilgo Khyentse Rinpoche. I guess memories can be useful after all.
Dzongsar Jamyang Khyentse Rinpoche