Thursday, January 31, 2013

I sléibhte le mo theaghlach

D'imigh mo chlann go sléibhte ar mhí agus an blianta ag an deireadh seo caite. Tá dith orainn a fheiceáil sneachta ar chéile. Bhí an am céann go raibh ag tharla sé seo dúinn.

Thiomaint Leon suas as ár dteach go dtí Idyllwild leis Niall agus mé. Éist muid ceol ag séinm os ard sa ghluaistáin.  In aice ard míle, chonaic muidsa flichsneachta éadrom ag imeall an thaobh an bóthar. Ar barr an mullaigh, bhí oigear ar fud.

Tháinig muid ar an cábáin agus diluchtú an bia. Go luath, tháinig Léna lena cara Julia agus a hiníonachtaí Rosie agus Lucy. Tháinig suas a fear céile Scott an lá dar gcíonn.

D'ol muid leann úr ó ghrúdlann i Redlands in aice láimhe.  D'ith muid béilí blasta ag cócaráilte le Léna agus na clannaí. D'imir muid cluichí focal agus d'fhéach muid na scannáin "Lolita" le Kubrick--agus "Cleopatra Jones"!

Shiúl mé ag timpeall an imeall ar tsráidbhaile, anois agus ansin. Ach, bhí sé réo agus sneachta a thit aríst. Mar sin féin, bhí maith linn ag cur cuairt den sort sin a shuíomh annamh i gCalifoirnea Thuas, iomlán gheimridh fíor. 

In the mountains with my family.

My family went off to the mountains at the end of last month and last year. We wanted to see snow together. It was the first time this happened to us.

Leo drove from our house up to Idyllwild with Niall and me. We listened to music playing loudly in the car. Near a mile high, we saw light sleet around the road. On top of the summit, there was ice all over.

We came to the cabin and unloaded the food. Soon, Layne with her friend Julia and her daughters Rosie and Lucy came. Her husband Scott came up the next day.

We drank fresh ale from a brewery in Redlands nearby. We ate tasty meals cooked by Layne and the families. We played word games and we watched the films "Lolita" by Kubrick--and "Cleopatra Jones"!

I walked around the outskirts of the village now and then. But, it froze and snow fell again. All the same, we were pleased to visit that rare place in Southern California, truly full of winter.

Tuesday, January 29, 2013

"Words of My Perfect Teacher": Film Review

How can you trust a reincarnated lama, a teacher as an assassin, ready to cut down your ego? What if this same enlightened one dismisses his calling: sometimes, Dzongsar Khyentse Rinpoche admits, due to cultural insensitivity, hypocrisy, and weariness: "I hate my profession," as it never lets him depart the spotlight. Lesley Ann Patten's 2003 Canadian documentary follows him to Munich for an England-Germany World Cup qualifying match, among adoring disciples in European cities, and the same in his native Bhutan. 

In between, waiting for the Rinpoche to contact her, she must cool her heels. Despite the declared lack of a budget, somehow she winds up to spend the interim in L.A. There, Gesar Mukpo (son of the "crazy wisdom" counterculture ambassador of Vayrayana Buddhism from Tibet to the West, Chogyam Trungpa), confesses his lack of ambition along the Middle Path. Played off against his indolence--which may be as studied a pose as his father's notoriously provocative stances--we compare Steven Seagal, Hollywood's representative of one proclaiming himself an incarnate "tulku."

Patten leaves these two figures juxtaposed but in suspension, as we judge their integrity. Whether she does this for the main guru remains open to debate. As his follower, she seems to have let her film continue on in a happenstance manner, which may show her willingness to trust in her teacher's aleatory qualities, or her naivete that the results will produce a tightly edited, consistently produced film. She narrates portions, but she does not emanate a strong, compelling presence on camera or in her voiceover. Some of this feels hesitant or half-finished. Over a conventional length of a hundred minutes this wears down a less enraptured viewer. The music can distract, annoy, or intrude; scenes may belabor the obvious. She takes along to Bhutan in the wake of 9/11 a subdued, hesitant Louise from London and a sly, cocky Luc from Vancouver as disciples of  Dzongsar Khyentse Rinpoche.

I liked the Rinpoche's aside to Louise about how her search for "the right one" sums up suffering and our plight. But this, for instance, comes after many minutes with a sluggish pace, anodyne music, and a lackluster scene-setting. The half-hour concluding the film, set in Bhutan, generated the most interest: you get to see the vertiginous, iconic Taktsang "Tiger's Nest" monastery, too.

What lies beneath the surface of the guru-student relationship key to Vajrayana does not emerge often. He's an "assassin," aiming at one's ego; he confounds timetables and expectations as many dharma-teachers do. He informs us that he's a "bridge" and that ultimately, the seeker must find in the self the nature of the teaching. (A twenty five-minute added interview allows the Rinpoche to elaborate: the buddha-dharma "nature of mind" is not external in a guru but revealed as the same in the disciple, and then, no separate guide is needed.)  

Yet, the intensity of belief in the guide that students, Western and Eastern, demonstrate makes one from a distance wonder about the internal direction and the external motivation. Only hints emerge about this nexus what the Rinpoche calls in the bonus footage the "karmic debt" which must be paid by his Western students. We get his reflections more in that portion than in the truncated feature itself, where we don't hear enough from the students he captivates. His message intrigues--and he expounds his side of the relationship in the added footage--but why it does needed Patten's articulation in this main documentary itself. Luc and Louise don't take their onscreen opportunity to open up--Luc is challenged to do so, but his evasions appear very odd, while Louise's passivity leaves us little wiser.

A breakthrough briefly happens once. Luc and Louise watch the Rinpoche walk among crowds in his native land bowing down for blessings. I wondered how Westerners so enchanted by this sight might critique a Pope or preacher among similarly worshipful congregants. Then, we hear Louise and Luc carry on an appropriate if edited conversation attempting to raise a similar issue, if comparing instead the devotion of those sworn to follow Osama bin Laden into terrorism. Too little of this necessary admission of the students' side of the guru exchange leaves parts of this superficial and frustrating. The Rinpoche in the interview notes the Western predilection for skeptical inquiry which can overshadow or limit the practice of teachings, and the cessation of questioning, so I may plead guilty.

I found this film after learning that the object of the filmmakers' affection is a name I'd encountered in two what I thought were separate guises. See: Travellers and Magicians (feature film directed by Khyentse Norbu, 2003; reviewed by me Nov. 2012). Under his Buddhist name, Dzongsar Khyentse Rinpoche, he wrote the lively introduction (Apr. 2009 review) "What Makes You 'Not' a Buddhist"

(This to Amazon US 12-12-12. P.S. Film website. With dodgy English and Chinese subtitles, on YouTube)

Sunday, January 27, 2013

"Travellers and Magicians": Film Review

As the first feature-length film from Bhutan, lama-director Khyentse Norbu's 2003 follow-up to his festival success of soccer-mad Tibetan monks in "The Cup" generates attention-- by that statement alone. What's to recommend for those curious? The previous twenty-six reviews sum up the modest, sincerely given "grass is greener" plot, as does the summation.

While the cast of this--also the first film in Dzongkha, the native language taught in schools there--is billed as non-professionals, I understand that the lead character of Dondup is the exception--as a radio actor. (As a relevant aside, I've reviewed in May, 2012, Jamie Zeppa's popular memoir of teaching in Bhutan, "Beneath the Sky and the Earth," and I believe that Dondup was the student with whom she as a young Canadian teacher fell in love.) In the film, Dondup's played by Tshewang Dendup, who has an appealing, long-haired raffish charm that fits his impatient, cocky, Westernized character who'd rather pick apples in America than eat one provided by the seller of the same from his basket, as they wait for a lift to the capital, Thimphu. He's told by the postmaster "things take time here," but he's eager to flee their remote village. Dondup wants to get out of Bhutan from Thimphu, while the apple seller, joined by a rice-paper maker and his (of course) sweet-faced daughter and a confident storytelling monk, wait to go to the capital to attend the "tsechu" grand festival.

It's a familiar frame: the varied cast hiking or hitching on the road hears a story along the way. The monk, strumming an admittedly handsome "dramyin," a dragon-headed six-string lute, passes the time with a fable about Tashi, a farmer's son who resents learning magic and longs similarly for escape. He meets the comely (of course) younger wife, Deki, of an cranky old shaman, Agay, in a storyline of a May-December marriage interrupted by a handsome stranger that "The Postman Always Rings Twice" or its Chinese adaptation "Ju Dou" dramatized.

The plot unfolds genially and gently. It's not fast-paced, and reflects the sensibility of its makers and actors. This isn't to romanticize, but it does depict Norbu's determination to offer the world and his own homeland a reflection of how Buddhist themes might enrich people, by cinema.

Some viewers complained about the ending. Without spoiling it, I felt this concluded as a short story would. It's more a literary or spiritual realization than a contrived epiphany or big, overwhelming climax. It pleased me as a more honest, if suggestive and not too tidy, final scene.

Meanwhile, the two stories of the travelers and the magician intertwine by editing and overlap. "Relax and enjoy the scenery," the monk advises his restless companion. The special effects show the perhaps limited budget, but they're respectable for an arthouse film, and while I actually wanted more of the landscape than what could be glimpsed largely by the side of the nation's only east-west road, the added feature on the DVD helps. I expected a greater panorama than the setting offers, although the film promotion stresses how difficult it was to make the film there.

Here, Norbu's ambitions as a Buddhist monk to channel "a painting of light" on film, and to craft a "modern-day 'thangka'" (an illustrated painted tapestry), to inspire his Bhutanese to make films that don't follow other nations, but lead them, gain explication. The way the fable points to Dondup's own realizations finds more elaboration in the commentary by the actors playing the monk and Dondup. This is the type of humbler film that does not stress the moral or everyday message; it may feel slower than you're used to. I recommend viewing its special feature afterwards, for it emphasized what (at least for a Westerner) might be too subtle to catch on a first viewing of "Travellers and Magicians." (Dharmaflix discussion with Norbu; Official site; YouTube. Review to Amazon US 11-28-12)

P.S. I found after viewing this that I'd already read the director's lively introduction (Apr. 2009 review) "What Makes You 'Not' a Buddhist" under his Buddhist name, Dzongsar Khyentse Rinpoche. See also Lesley Ann Patten's documentary about him, "Words of My Perfect Teacher" (reviewed by me Dec. 2012).

Friday, January 25, 2013

Michael Aris' "Views of Medieval Bhutan": Book Review

The adjective's elastic here, as this Himalayan scholar (who died of cancer in 1999 in Britain while his wife, Aung San Suu Kyi, was under control of the junta in Burma for many years) admits. Still, most Westerners further comparisons to "feudal" dzongs and "medieval" customs such as archery or monarchic and monastic devotion when they encounter Bhutan firsthand, or via photos or books. This handsome 1982 edition features an introduction by Tibetan expert Aris, who tutored the Bhutanese royal family for six years when the nation was opening up to modernization, and in less dense form than his other academic publications, he sets out the careful contexts that Samuel Davis, (1760-1819), captured in his journal and by his skilled drawings. A surveyor and draftsman for the Bengal Army, he accompanied Warren Hastings on the second British embassy, in 1783, to the kingdom.

These elegant depictions attest to the only foreign artist "of distinction" to show Bhutan, and the first outsider to paint scenes from these mountains. Aris notes that his fellow Englishman's "legacy played no part in the development of those imaginary utopias which the west continues to locate in the trans-Himalayan region." (11) Aris annotates and excerpts Davis' journal, and nods to its secular, and largely un-Romantic tone, also a part of the naturalistic art he brings to the plates reproduced here. "If sublime and romantic qualities are sometimes found expressed in his art this is surely because Davis, like most of us, was constitutionally incapable of reacting otherwise to certain combinations of mountains, light, fortresses and forests." 

It's intriguing to see how, at Punakha Dzong, Davis includes in his study of "one of the most ancient and considerable of the Rajah's castles" an analysis of its weak point. However formidably walled, its single entrance, he reasons, weakens it: "The best way of forcing admission might be by breaking open the gate with a petard." (50) He sees the subjection of the lower classes (and all women) to the rulers secular and religious, and wishes to free the peasants from the restrictions which a "monk tax" and fealty to a celibate, corrupt regime force in a manner he compares to Rome. He evinces a sympathy for the poor, and he scrutinizes the rituals of their bickering rulers closely. Certainly the considerable exoticism of this remote and then-nearly unknown realm in Davis' steady hand and pen balances with a cool appraisal of its strategic and military value to the Raj and his employer, the Crown. 

His companion and supervisor, Samuel Turner, suggested that after four months waiting in Bhutan, the Tibetan refusal of Davis to continue to that nation with the expedition that Tibetan suspicion of the pen and ink skills of Davis led to his exclusion from the mission. For more on this and the earlier venture into this region, see (reviewed by me Nov. 2012) The High Road to China: George Bogle, the Panchen Lama, and the First British Expedition to Tibet by Kate Teltscher. Davis returned to India, to collaborate with Sir William Jones, who made the breakthrough connection between Sanskrit and Indo-European languages, and Davis became a Director of the East India Company and a Fellow of the Royal Society. He kept up his draftsmanship, and the fifty-nine examples Aris presents commemorate the considerable talent this West Indies-born Briton brought, at 23, to Bhutan. (1-6-13 to Amazon US)

Wednesday, January 23, 2013

Matthieu Ricard's "Bhutan: the Land of Serenity": Book Review

Unlike other photo narratives on this often mythologized kingdom, this one from a practicing monk takes a sober, almost detached approach that reveals his calm. After a decade in the company of the Dalai Lama's tutor there, Tibetan refugee Dilgo Khyentse Rinpoche, and now the Dalai Lama's French translator himself, French-born Ricard brings the same considered evaluation of Buddhist practice and culture that his sponsorship and appearance in the films Brilliant Moon and The Spirit of Tibet (see my Dec. 2012 reviews) demonstrate about his devotion to his mentors. What this has to do with Bhutan as a larger entity comes across more gradually, and the brief three pages introducing each of these eight sections of his brilliantly reproduced color photography, 1980-2007, convey this more vividly than the miniscule font (too small, let alone the captions even smaller) do in this admittedly handsome, compact text, translated by Ruth Sharman.

About half of this content in words and images features or complements the surroundings of his dharma teacher in Bhutan. This complements Ricard's other treatments of him; it means that much of the photography documents monasticism and ceremonies around its operations. As for the country, this is not the best introduction, as no reading list, no map, and very little background is given about the region. The urbanization of many Bhutanese and the complications of modernization are barely glanced at. Intentionally, no doubt, but readers may want to consult other titles as well.

The typeface is as noted tiny and may not be legible for some readers. The book is elegantly laid out, but rather small. You get much less attention to the natural landscape and everyday people, although some stunning depictions of scenery (not only the expected panoramic vistas--one of Everest on the plane's way from Kathmandu to Paro--but abstracted patterns in reflected water) introduce the terse overview of the nation and its situation as the last Tantric Buddhist realm.

Taksang, the cover's Tiger's Lair, endures as the iconic image of the land, and its chapter shows it as before and then restored after the fire of 1998: it looks splendid in both incarnations. Sacred architecture and crafts show the incorporation of the spiritual landscape into art and costume, the Great Accomplishment ceremony, the intricate movements of dance and the composed presence of ritual. Ricard observes the "clear" lesson exemplifed by such as the Trongsar five-day festival dramatizing the message of Buddhism: "we are the architects of our own being." (153) 

While Ricard does not delve into his own manner of entry into such situations, one may assume his own position allows him a privileged status and a rare insider's perspective that allows him to bridge Himalayan contexts and Western expectations of what such mysterious presentations of Buddhism mean. Bhutan here shimmers more in its less commonly depicted textiles, paintings, and decorations that grace the inside walls of places perhaps prohibited to tourists, and his combination of exterior and interior illustrations works well to provide a Buddhist point of view. (Amazon US 1-13-12)

Monday, January 21, 2013

"Bhutan Heartland": Book Review

Libby Lloyd and Robert van Koesveld report from spring times on the Lateral Road, the east-west connection across the vertiginous valleys and high passes that furrow between the Himalayas and the subtropical plantations. As these Australian-based photographers and social workers explain early on, the choice they faced, to move from west to east, is repeated, if perhaps in reverse, by the natives of this kingdom daily. That road, and increasingly the feeder routes paved along what have been yak trails and footpaths, represents for this constitutional monarchy's Gross National Happiness plan a way to increase access to within a day's hike of most of its still largely rural citizens.

However, unlike previous photographic accounts from the 1980s and 1990s--such as Bhutan: Kingdom of the Dragon by Robert Dompnier, Bhutan: Fortress of the Mountain Gods by Christian Schicklgruber and Françoise Pommaret, or The Dragon Kingdom: Images of Bhutan by Blanche Christine Olschak with photography by Ursula Markus-Gansser and Augusto Gansser--the themes for Lloyd and van Koesveld explore not only traditions and crafts and native garb, but, as its 2010-published photos show people in "modern" dress and lifestyles, on the nation's attempt for as one schoolgirl champions as "Westernisation without modernisation."

This adds value to "Bhutan Heartland." It's set along the great road, and it doesn't look into the tropics as Dompnier does, or depart for the high country treks as does Dompnier or Bhutan: Hidden Lands of Happiness by John Wehrheim. The former book handsomely presents traditional styles but little text and the latter black-and-white and verbal portraits taken of people and landscapes both customary and contemporary. The present book meets a compromise: moderate, intelligent text, many photos. (And a beautiful binding with a weaving pattern under the dust jacket.)

It prefaces sections which follow what by now's the customary approach taken by a traveler. Paro's scenery, for the first time I've seen in a book, shows the modern town and not only the dzong (fortress-monastery center of local control): you get a better sense of why the airport occupies the flat space. And, with double spreads for this, Taktshang Gompa "the tiger's lair," or the capital Thimphu with its Trashhicho Dzong's courtyard, you appreciate more than other collections their scope.

For instance, while the interiors of dzongs and monasteries may not be as featured as in Dompnier (maybe access is more restricted twenty-odd years later?), you see the path to Taktshang, the hermitage, the prayer flags, and the visit in words is more in-depth and thoughtful than many descriptions emphasizing the difficult climb more than the destination itself, 3000 meters up a cliff. The authors also take time to give sidebar profiles of some Bhutanese they meet along the way. The chapters move over the passes into central Bhutan, and then into monasteries, valleys, and the eastern districts (if too briefly--this seems a hazard of many books, but compare Bhutan: A Visual Odyssey Across the Last Himalayan Kingdom by Michael Hawley, if you can find a copy, for more details).

Such expansion deepens the relationship you feel to them, more than the passing or anonymous mentions in some narratives. For instance, you hear from writer Kunzang Choden about her restoration of her family's former feudal estate at Ogyen Choling in the east, and you meet those old enough to have grown up under the old regimen, and listen to them compare an easier life today, as the roads reach the remote areas. Whether these can balance the modern with the traditional depends on educated people like Choden coming back to their villages and estates to improve local lives. The capital, as the civil service booms, attracts more internal migration: Thimphu's now over 100,000.

A minor observation--"the lesser vehicle" is outmoded as a way to define "Therevada," which means "the way of the elders," even if this is contrasted with "the greater vehicle" as Mahayana. As in other accounts, you don't get much sense of the east by comparison, but this may be a necessary hazard with itineraries planned in advance vs. the difficulties of expenses and getting into challenging terrain. For example, the Bumthang three-day trek by pony and foot passes rapidly, without enough sense of how an excursion by foot differs from one by jeep. Readers may want to consult Choden, or the well-known memoir from an earlier decade, Beyond the Sky and the Earth: A Journey into Bhutan by Jamie Zeppa, for more on life off-road in the regions farther away from the Paro-Thimphu-Punakha itinerary favored by short-term visitors.

The authors efficiently intersperse a lot of background (a glossary and too-short reading list are appended, and a link to van Koesveld's Bhutan Heartland website) that some earlier authors have struggled at length or brevity to include. It's the right amount for a newcomer: less academic and weighty than the "Fortress" study but more in-depth than Dompnier, and less-dated than "Dragon Kingdom." It's closest to Wehrheim's intimately scaled excursion to get into the mindset and talk to the locals more. For that, and the handsomely reproduced photographs and accessible text, a recommended addition to a short shelf, and a great place to begin an armchair adventure to Bhutan. (Amazon US 12-4-12; For two other reports by Australians on longer contracts to advise in Bhutan, see my reviews of With a Dzong in My Heart by Lansell Taudevin and "Dragon Bones" by Murray Gunn. Also see my review of Choden's 2005 novel "The Circle of Karma")

Saturday, January 19, 2013

Mary Peck's "Bhutan: Between Heaven and Earth": Book Review

From visits totaling seven months from 1999 to 2005 to this Himalayan kingdom, Mary Peck's fifty-six black-and-white photographs, each on its own right-hand page facing a blank left, command attention. Many have captions placed as endnotes; a few do not. This removal of words from image (except four brief poems, one by Gary Snyder, another by W.S. Merwin, and a pair of his translations from Muso Soseki) allows the reader to look at the landscapes, people, ceremonies, and architecture as if witnessed first-hand.

In her afterword, "Bhutan's Curve of Time," Peck relates how directions were given by Bhutanese. Each of her inquiries led to a local range of instructions--by a resident. "Just walk into that cloud." one man told her. (130) Beyond circumscribed limits, hemmed in by gorges or peaks, paths or landmarks, the estimates faded, and new ones emerged with the next encounter, the next person down the trail.

Karma Ura situates his nation within these same furrowed contours. As a distinguished civil servant charged with the think tank implementing the nation's evolving Gross National Happiness policy, Ura explains in his thoughtful forward the scope of GNH. He sums up the country, full of micro-climates from one valley to the next. He notes how "the food chain is more or less completed within one's own valley." (5) Therefore, the mythology, community, and the land are integrated over generations to support the people in a intimate, in-depth knowledge-- differing from the fragmented skills promoted today as a solution to education and modernization.

GNH philosophy, holistic, seeks value beyond quantification. Documents back to 1729, Ura reminds us, mention happiness as "the purpose of government." (8) If people are happier locally, their relationships thrive. Goods, houses, and money might not matter as much as personal and communal fulfillment. Certainly a fresh perspective, contrasted with the relentless, increasing, and often sole pursuit of economic growth posited in our own societies as the ultimate indicator of success.

With television approved only just before the millennium, and the Internet now making inroads as electrification accompanies roads into more of the previously remote interior where most Bhutanese still live, the challenges already faced in its rapidly expanding capital, Thimphu, may repeat in villages and hamlets. India and China trade exert enormous pressures on a region with a fragile ecology and strategic situation, combined with its agricultural, hydroelectric, and forested resources. "All that Bhutan has is a very long history of isolation," Ura observes. (11) It lacks "our own huge center of gravity," and its culture and traditions must not only be preserved, but kept integrated into everyday life. Not as trinkets or dances for tourists, but as decentralized, sustained, and relevant ways of living as arranged by those best suited to do so: the local people themselves.

Ura concludes with a reflective rationale for GNH. He registers the alleviation of poverty, the rights given both genders, and the control of environmental impacts. He argues against "a comfortable standard of living" measured by income or expenditure as the truest marker of well-being. Instead, he links the potential of his fellow citizens to "integrity, wisdom, and foresight." Perhaps surprisingly for readers of this book, Ura avers that such qualities may emerge even today from an historically "orally based culture" where the best and the brightest need not be literate to be community leaders. (13) For him, in the Buddhist perspective, this study via each person's "incipient" nature as a potential Buddha enables the Bhutanese to probe into understandings of the mind and perception, desire and its origins, which transcend the monetized frenzy of the rest of the world.

While a short read, this combination of Dr. Ura's essay with Mary Peck's photographs, enriched by a more eclectic reading list that goes beyond Bhutanese borders for regional eco-criticism, is recommended. For images in complementary tones, with a longer narrative that delves into similar issues, see (my Nov. 2012 review of) Bhutan: Hidden Lands of Happiness by John Wehrheim.(Amazon US 12-17-12)

Thursday, January 17, 2013

Nicole Grace's "Dreaming Bhutan": Book Review

How does this book, praised by nearly all previous [Amazon US] reviewers, compare with similar images paired with text? I've looked at (and reviewed recently) a few such pairings. Most of these have amassed far fewer reviews--even taken together--compared to Nicole Grace's "Dreaming Bhutan: Journey in the Land of the Thunder Dragon." I want to provide more context, given the paucity of most earlier and often effusive remarks as to its substance.

Substance itself may elude the reader wishing for information. Grace in her one-page introduction, however, tells her choice to eschew such detail found elsewhere. Rather, as if "waking from a rare, exquisite dream, and finding yourself reliving its charms in vivid flashes, I have attempted to capture a few precious moments." (15) This is her prerogative. But compared to other collections, how well does she do so?

She presents in "a brief glimpse" over forty photos on the right side, spare text which could fit on a postcard on the left, leaving lots of blank space. Perhaps the slightly blurred resolution of some of the photographs fits the title, as she in promotional material for this book explains how she wants to show "dreaming" not "of" but "Bhutan" itself--as a portal to enlightenment. A romanticized approach directs Grace's gaze. It prefers "a world of enchantment, ancient rituals and dress that seems not to have changed in hundreds of years."

This offers little commentary. The newcomer curious about this Himalayan constitutional monarchy, perusing these shots of Buddhist-themed and landscape-dominant subjects, will find little information. A couple of the vertiginous Taktsang cliffside iconic monastery are perhaps necessarily tilted away from the portrait to landscape settings, but this does not enhance their effect, and details of certain places and vistas are not sharply rendered or reproduced on the page. The large map cannot be discerned as to place names. The Royal Grandmother's forward takes two sentences. A few Dzongkha terms, endnotes, and an appreciation for her 2009 visit guided by an "Aide de Camp to the beloved fourth King" and also his family which enabled her access to some holy places supplements the main body, the photos and captions.

No bustling Thimphu of now a hundred thousand residents, no girls in jeans, no guys in sneakers, no cigarettes or traffic--even the eyeglasses on one shadowy monk are barely discerned. In "a cross between the mythical lands of Shangri-La and Brigadoon," if one wants to imagine a Buddhist Bhutan free of modern presence, this will satisfy your desire.

I liked the two quotes included from the country's notorious guru from centuries ago, the Divine Madman Drukpa Kinley. He's an apt rejoinder to pomposity. Overly earnest audiences might take heed of his subversive message--and the libertine style with which he conveyed it down to the phallic decorations on walls today in his memory.

In two photos on the road to Bumthang, two painted cave pictures of Padmasambhava and the Buddha and an inscribed encouragement from that latter figure appear. She notes how, old as they look, they were made for the set of a scene from Khyentse Norbu's "Travelers and Magicians" film--"NOV 2002/ Scene 112/TAKE 101" accompanies the prayer. That and a page to the 108 chortens on Dochu La to commemorate the national campaign against Indian militants are about the only references to the contemporary occurrences in this land, not as much a "Lost Horizon" as the dust jacket's quote may lead the captivated newcomer to assume about a fragile ecological, political, and cultural entity between China and India.

For those who want to explore in photos and text the challenges for this precariously perched realm, other volumes and media may be contrasted.  The Dragon Kingdom: Images of Bhutan by Blanche Christine Olschak (1984, with photography by Ursula Markus-Gansser and Augusto Gansser) covers similar Buddhist material but with a text attentive to its integration in culture and history. Bhutan: Fortress of the Mountain Gods by Christian Schicklgruber and Françoise Pommaret (1998) gives a hefty academic weight to the same, with scholarly chapters and images of artifacts.

If you want less weighty text than these but a bit more than Grace's brevity, begin with Bhutan: Kingdom of the Dragon by Robert Dompnier (1999); he entered monasteries and holy sites to show interiors more than she may have been able to do. A few years later, Bhutan: A Visual Odyssey Across the Last Himalayan Kingdom by Michael Hawley (2004 in smaller but still very large format than its 2003 museum showcase as the "biggest book in the world") balances an east-to-west journey (the opposite of the usual itinerary) with hundreds of digital photos. Finally, an updated look at the changing legacy of faith, custom, and globalization, a handsome treatment with sharp color photography is Bhutan Heartland by Libby Lloyd and Robert van Koesveld (2010).

Skillful black and white photography conveys its own suggestive appeal. See Bhutan: Between Heaven and Earth by Mary Peck (2011 with a valuable essay by Karma Ura on Gross National Happiness policy) and for more personal insights combined with a wider territorial range, Bhutan: Hidden Lands of Happiness by John Wehrheim (2nd ed. 2011). Hawley, Lloyd + Van Koesfeld, Peck + Ura, and Wehrheim all include the more difficult, less evocative subjects missing from "Dreaming Bhutan."

Perhaps it's meant to be only a dream. But Bhutan's reality's worth investigating beyond the limits of these forty or so glimpses. Grace's book may whet the appetite; perhaps some of you will turn to more extensive presentations from this land. (Amazon US 12-20-12)

Tuesday, January 15, 2013

Grús nó Gé?

Nuair chuaigh go mo fhuinneoig thuas staighre inné, chonaic mé seo. Shíl mé go raibh mála plaisteach bán. Shéid an gaoth go leor ar na cnoic os cionn mo theach, go cinnte.

Chuir mé mo dhéshúiligh síos ó seilf ard. D'fheach mé níos dlúithe aríst. Anois, bhreathnaigh mé an éan ina ionad sin.

Bhí muineál fada agus comhlacht urrúnta air ann. Níl a fhios agam ach beagán eolas faoi cineálacha na n-éan. Mar sin, ní raibh mé cinnte má bhí sé grús nó gé.

Fhill mo mhac Niall ar ais go óna scoil. D'iarr mé air. D'fhreagair sé go mbeadh sé grús.

Rinne Niall an ghrianghraf seo. Tá muid i gcónaí ag imeall an cathair ar feadh i ngach ceann dár saol; nach bhfuil muid cinnte. B'fhéidir, tú ábalta insint freagra ceart dúinnsa.

Crane or goose? 

When I came to my window upstairs yesterday, I saw this. I thought it was a plastic bag. The wind blew a lot on these hills above my house, certainly.

I got my binoculars down from a high shelf. I looked more closely again. Now, I viewed a bird in its stead.

It had a long neck and a sturdy body. I have but a little knowledge about types of birds. Therefore, I was not sure if it was a crane or a goose.

My son Niall came back from his school. I asked him. He replied it might be a crane.

Niall took this photograph. We've lived for all of our lives around the city; we're not sure. Perhaps, you're able to tell us the right answer.

Sunday, January 13, 2013

"Bhutan: Mountain Fortress of the Gods": Book Review

This folio-format study commemorates a Viennese exhibition at the Museum für Völkerkunde in 1997-98. While scholarly, and hefty in size and substance, it contributes more weightily to the knowledge we have of this Himalayan kingdom. I found it valuable as a corrective to the often more romanticized photo collections, easier to consult than more specialized if even drier monographs, or more balanced than necessarily more hurried summations in travel narratives by and for Westerners. As co-editor Christian Schicklgruber introduces the collection, it mirrors how a visitor would approach Bhutan. Visual impressions, "the lay of the land," flora and fauna, architecture, and regional peoples and their distinctive dress unfold.

Schicklgruber reminds us of the challenges a "mountain fortress" faces, given the fate of Buddhist enclaves in Ladakh, Mustang, Tibet, and Sikkim. He considers the demands of the Nepali and often Hindi populations on the southern borders, and the competing cultural and ethnic identities of the Buddhist majorities in the heartlands. He notes how modernization for the nation may not equate with conventional Western judgments, and attributes the royal stewardship for the decisions demanded as this small region deals with the pressures from India to the south and occupying China to the north.

Botanist Gerard Navara begins with a chapter on its landscape, while co-editor and Tibetologist [see my May 2012 review of her Bhutan: Himalayan Mountain Kingdom (Odyssey Guide)], Francoise Pommaret's linguistic and ethnographic survey documents the various peoples with cultural and ethnic allegiances. It (as other contributions) can be slow reading, but it sums up value--much remains to be learned about the array of languages and dialects in such a small country. Marc Dujardin, in an ambitious analysis of Rukubji in the central region, explains how it's "living architecture." As opposed to a Western understanding of monuments and concrete fixing a place's meaning, Dujardin assesses Bhutanese construction in its evolving context, sites placed by religious considerations where spirits may lurk, deities may abscond, and modern methods may undermine or support ancient ideas of how, say a farmhouse is to be rebuilt for every generation in the same family's spot.

Then, everyday life and religious worship comprise part two. I admired ethnologist Martin Brauen's "Dreamworld Tibet" (see my Feb. 2012 review) and his report from another, if unspecified, central community shows his knack for conveying the reality of life in the mountains and not myth. He relates how taxes and tasks must be achieved, and what happens when women own land and farms. 

This aligns well with Dujardin's chapter, and we see how women negotiate power and control, even as a significant percentage of the village consists of the landless families. Brauen here as in his other book cautions any Shangri-La expectations. Buddhism, more skeptical towards female energy, keeps its hold over the village and the mindsets of men and women, even as education beckons. For, the farm, if run by women, may expect girls not to stay in school, and for all there in such a village, the afterlife is still seen as more likely to reward a male than a female, regardless of her merit in this life.

"Zorig chusum" or the "thirteen crafts" have been passed down from parents to children for centuries. Barry Ison finds these exemplifying the material mixed with the spiritual out of the hardships and the diversity of Bhutan's situation. As its people cannot compete making cheap products for the globalized market, they can promote their heritage and expertise with wood, stone, painting, clay, bronze, metalwork, cane and bamboo, paper, tailoring, weaving. As in other sections, artifacts intersperse in photographs as evidence.

For the third section, Buddhism and the state being mutually supportive, Mynak Tulku as a "high cleric" interprets ritual. Although an aside, I found his paragraph on p. 140 intriguing: Buddhism may have entered Bhutan far earlier than the 7th c. AD, perhaps as early as 200-100 BC. 

Schicklgruber matches gods to sacred mountains, and applies its shamanistic origins to a religious interpretation of the striking, fabled landscape on multiple levels. "To put it rather crudely one can say that the Bhutanese do not fulfil Western demands for precise levels of classification." (161)  These gods, from folk tradition, harass or please humans, and Buddhism superseding their mythic rule, it tried to supplant or overpower them. Even the raven crown of the king may stem from this.

History, as nationhood (late for this realm), follows. Legends around the noble origins begin Pommaret's long treatment of sketchy or venerable sources transmitted from antiquity. Animism and even megaliths gave way to temples and Tibetans entered the "southern valleys of medicinal herbs" which gained fame with Guru Rinpoche's arrival in the eighth century CE. Drukpas and secondarily Nyingmapas gained pre-eminence in particular regions of the then-fragmented land. Pema Lingpa galvanized central and eastern regions as the "treasure revealer" (1450-1521). The first Shabdrung (visited by Portuguese Jesuits in 1627) repelled Tibetans to establish a western region under Drukpas. This ruler constructed dzongs in each valley to fortify then one unified theocratic-monastic kingdom.

She continues with the coming of the British (1772-1926) to use their records to compare with Bhutanese accounts. As India pushed north, Bhutan gave in, and as a trade route to Tibet, the Swiss-sized kingdom in the middle sought to stay independent internally. By the early 20th c, "Relations were excellent but distant" between the Raj and Bhutan's first king, Ugyen Wangchuck. There's a tremendous amount of information in these two chapters, full of rivalries and assassinations, but the data add up to much more than a non-specialist may want to sift through.

The final section features Karma Ura's perspective as a civil servant (and writer) on "tradition and development." He reminds us that most Bhutanese still live more than a day's walk from the "motor road," and the layout of settlement means mule tracks may endure for some as the ancient path. But, exposed as many in the capital and other towns on the road become to media and foreign goods, the elite crave more, and expectations rise faster than incomes, within a Buddhist-ruled system which cautions against excess. Globalization and development must be balanced against a precious and now rare combination of traditional values and ecological legacy. Village altruism weakens when impersonal cities beckon the young and ambitious. The lama may deserve a voice alongside the investment banker. Meanwhile, Ura's fellow intellectual, Kunzang Chöden, who wrote the first novel in English [The Circle of Karma] by a Bhutanese woman, offers five interviews from females in the capital that grows 7-10% annually. (Thimphu has now around triple the population it did when this chapter itself was drafted in the late 1990s, to prove the point.)

A glossary and list of objects illustrated end the volume. Not an exhibition catalogue in the usual sense, Bhutan: Mountain Fortress of the Gods instead presents an in-depth examination of the nation. While very factual in tone and heavily academic, the contributors serve as a cross-section of native and European scholars best able to explain this kingdom seriously to an audience for which fantasy and effusion seem to suffice given its dominant portrayal in the media as a happy hideaway.

(P.S. This book reincarnated as an award-winning 2001 Austrian website, but that's long defunct.)[11-29-12 to Amazon US]