buddha statue behind mountain

Keeping The Magic Alive

Student – I recently watched an interview with a Master. It was very thought-provoking, but I have a question regarding this comment by Rinpoche. “It is wrong for Bhutanese to think that people pay a lot of money to visit Bhutan because of our amazing dzongs or high-class hotel experiences. If I were looking for that kind of experience, I would sooner go to Bali, Kyoto, or Corfu. People come to Bhutan because it still has something incredibly magical and genuinely human about it.” My question is regarding the last sentence. What does Rinpoche mean by ‘magical’ and ‘genuinely human’ and how do we preserve these qualities?

Master – I cannot say what form of magic Rinpoche is referring to, but I feel that he is talking about events or situations that arise from outside the boundaries defined by logic and reason.  

In Bhutan, people grow up hearing stories of flying tigresses and burning lamps emerging from bodies of water. We are also exposed to body prints on cave walls and hand and foot prints embedded into solid rock. 

Most of the population will accept these tales and details as facts, automatically touching our heads on places where these prints are inlayed. This attitude enables magic to flourish.

So, what actually evokes a sense of magic? Why would we describe a yogi’s hut in a forest, narrow winding lanes in an ancient city, or meandering night markets as magical, but not use this term to depict a skyscraper, shopping mall, or large five-star hotel, no matter how impressive and luxurious the developments?

Generally, a magical experience is defined as an event or place that evokes a sense of awe or enchantment. Such experiences often include an element of uniqueness, transformation, and even unpredictability, and the places and situations that create these feelings inevitably arise from the depth of human experience, not from the desk of a planning officer. 

So, why does Rinpoche state that Bhutan still has a sense of magic, and, more specifically, why does it make Bhutan a unique destination? 

Well, until now our strong and enduring faith in the Buddhist teachings have enabled Bhutan to face the tsunami of Western logic and reason that has swamped the planet via colonial-era education and media outlets without being overwhelmed by this invasive system. Wisdom has prevailed over knowledge. 

As an example, show a picture of Ganesh and Mooshak to people here, and most will naturally accept it without much thought. In terms of interdependence, like Milarepa entering a yak horn, a large elephant sitting on a little mouse, works, and acceptance of such situations are embedded in our culture. 

This is not the case in countries where knowledge-based education has incapacitated the mind’s ability to process concepts that do not fit into the restrictive box of logic and reason. An openness to such tales is definitely a kind of magic, and retaining this ability is something that we should be very proud of.

A sense of magic is not limited to sacred spaces and events, however, but as mentioned above, also exists in mundane places. An ancient tree housing a small shrine that protrudes onto a busy street in Kolkata is the antithesis of efficiency and logic, yet it creates a charm that is hard to replicate. 

The narrow, interwoven alleys of Varanasi contradict a city-planner’s modern ideals, yet they touch people in a way that a wide thoroughfare with uniform foliage and signage could ever accomplish. Night markets that organically meander through lanes in Taipei, bringing light, colour, and vibrancy to neighbourhoods, create an allure that attracts people from around the world.      

A similar magic resonates in Bhutan, at least in the rural areas, where culture has been allowed to grow and develop naturally. How do we retain this magic? Maybe we should emulate the way a person would keep a butterfly on the palm of his hand – by remaining still and doing nothing. 

Put in another way, it is not so much what we do, but what we don’t do that preserves magic. In general, places where the authorities refrain from a heavy-handed approach to rules and regulations are those where culture grows organically and retains its appeal. With regard to preserving charm and a sense of magic, less is more, and just ensuring that a place is clean, safe, and in the case of a thoroughfare, free of obstructions is enough.  

As an example, imagine how the allure of Varanasi would be obliterated if the authorities insisted that the centuries-old shops in the alleys all had to display identical signage and paint their facades the same colour. Instead of oozing with quirky and organic charm, they would look like a Disneyland version of an ancient city.

Similarly, if Taipei required street market stalls to conform to a certain size and be located in a straight line, the vibrancy and charm of the city’s famous night markets would be destroyed, and a magical creative space would be replaced by a sterile outdoor supermarket.  

Last year Tharpaling Lhakhang organized a two-week initiation that attracted around 15,000 people. And, with great credit to the Bumthang authorities, a small mela/fair was allowed to spring up around the temple parking area. 

This bazaar offered people a platform to showcase their ingenuity, and there was an array of food on offer, from momos, Indian dishes, to Bhutanese favourites of ema, kewa and shamu datshi, as well as stalls selling handicrafts and daily necessities. 

Everyone loved the bazaar and the attendees flocked there at night to eat, chat, and joke with friends. While it obviously didn’t possess the charm of the ancient alleyways of Varanasi or Kathmandu, it did convey a spontaneous and natural Bhutanese atmosphere. 

In contrast, had overzealous local officials shut it down, the fun and magical experience would have been lost, depriving everyone of a simple, but enjoyable place to socialize. 

Hopefully, Bhutan can retain the sense of magic that Rinpoche claims is the real draw for visitors, not the resorts and scenery that can be experienced in many countries. However, to do so, we need to learn the art of what the ancient Taoist masters called ‘Wuwei’ – inaction, doing nothing.

As for being genuine, I feel Rinpoche is talking about people who live according to their gut emotions, rather than by others’ expectations and standards. In our rural areas, people tend to be straightforward and authentic, living without pretense or a false persona based on status or possessions. 

This characteristic is a treasure, but can we preserve it? It will be difficult in a world that obsesses over status, worships Botox, and treats celebs as gods. Still, an education system that instills students with confidence and courage and teaches them to be themselves and not to worry about meeting others’ expectations could mitigate some of the damage and enable a certain amount of authenticity to be retained.

Say Yes to New Adventures