By Simona Coayla-Duba, Naropa student & Bhutan Study Abroad program participant
During two semesters of studying abroad at the Royal University of Bhutan’s College of Natural Resources (CNR), I found that while the academic experience within the college was full of lessons, the learning that reshaped my paradigm occurred in moments outside the classroom.
Fostered from a deep sense of openness to the vulnerability of intercultural communion, these lessons unfurled as a result of connections to the land and peoples of Bhutan. It is from these lessons that I find strength to move throughout the world in a way that promotes the transformation of suffering.
To highlight these moments, I chose four specific connections with friends in Bhutan who brought out a tenderness, a soft spot. They were the types of moments that could never be planned and yet seem to have been constructed from the divine. The moments are recounted and related to the spiral model created by Joanna Macy, whose work has been immeasurably valuable towards my aspirations. With extreme gratitude for all the memories of Bhutan, thank you to my friends who are also my teachers.
Here are four soft moments:
Gratitude: “The Water Game”
The College of Natural Resources is located in the Punakha valley, which has a mighty river running through it. While the river flows in the valley, it is common to be without running water in the student housing and on campus. The students are resourceful. To cook meals, clean amenities, and brush our teeth, we walked up and down the mountain with buckets in hand to areas where water was stored.
Rationing was strategy. Sharing was the best tactic. Opportunistic action was the best game plan. The water would turn on unexpectedly at times. If not in the building when water came, I would feel happy knowing that my floormates would fill a bucket I kept in the shower stall. If I was present for the coming of water, my ears would perk up to the first sounds of water flowing from the faucet (it really is the sweetest sound).
In these moments of running water after an expanse of time without, the halls would come alive as feet shuffled across tile floors, and songs would bounce between the walls as students’ spirits lifted knowing they could do laundry and make an extra curry for dinner. Within my first semester at CNR, I learned to fill every vessel I had when the water turned on, as the time duration of water flow was not known. It could last an hour, it could last a day. One afternoon, as my ears were excited to hear water, I rushed out with a bucket in hand to see my floor-mate doing the same. He greeted me with a smile and joyfully said, “Water game, water game!”.
Honoring Our Pain: “What is your favorite kind of rice?”
CNR is located within the forested walls of the Punakha valley. Up and down mountain trails we climbed each day to go between the student housing and the classrooms. On one of my first nights at CNR, after having tea with a new friend he insisted that he and his friends accompany me to my room, as it was dark and the forest could be dangerous (I had seen a wild boar once there, and deadly snakes are often spotted). Five of us walked between trees joking and laughing. We had just met and my western approach to meetings found me in a mode of casual-get-to-know-you-small-talk, such as favorites.
“What is your favorite kind of rice?” I asked. In the U.S., I had not been eating much rice, let alone been exposed to the vast amount of varieties as in Bhutan (Punakha valley is known for red rice, which is delicious). My friend looked at me with a puzzled smile and responded kindly, “I do not have a favorite. We eat what we can afford”.
Seeing With New Eyes: “He drinks, and I am sad”
“Ani” she calls me. It means sister. My friend is showing me her journal from before she moved to the nunnery. There are photos of her and her family in Laya (northern Bhutan). There are magazine cutouts of Korean and American pop stars. There are poems. We are in the high forest of the valley at the nunnery above CNR.
Since arriving for the second semester, I had been visiting the nuns that live here. The space is profoundly simple with bedrooms, a kitchen, classroom, garden, and a prayer hall. The prayer hall is the space I know best. For four months, I walked up the mountain to sit with the nuns for morning and evening prayers.
On this occasion, I was having a sleepover with two nuns that I became close with. Both of the sisters invited me to stay the night and had shifted beds around so we could all sleep together. The following day was timeless as we moved with ease. Mid-afternoon, after roaming in the garden, I stood outside and spoke with one of the sisters. We shared stories of our childhoods and found that leaving both our family and homes to travel and study in a new fashion was something we shared. We spoke about how we missed our homes yet were happy where we were. My friend paused when she began to speak of her dad. There was a resistance in her. I waited and then she said, “He drinks and I am sad.”
Going Forth: “Now we are in Heaven”
It was late in the evening when two friends arrived at my room. They had come to sit for a visualization meditation that had been instructed to me by a friend’s Rinpoche. My friend had, under the instruction of her Rinpoche, agreed to lead me in the practice so that I could learn the proper method.
This night was the first of many instructions to come. Before beginning the meditation, we rested on my bed talking, giggling, and telling stories of the day gone by. When it was time to begin the meditation, we first focused on posture. The way I had been instructed in the west is a much more relaxed posture than what my Bhutanese friends were doing, and I could not even straighten my arms when I attempted to sit like them. But they were gentle with me and we moved on.
We were guided for the next hour in a visualization practice for guru Padmasabhava, a tantric teacher from India known for subduing demons in Bhutan. The hour went by quickly and slowly; and once the meditation was over, we opened our eyes to a new feeling of spaciousness having settled in the room. We smiled at each other, exchanging curious and satisfactory glances. Tshering revealed his famous grin and said, “Now we are in heaven.”