27 July: Anniversary of the Buddha’s first teaching

Thursday turned out to be a holiday—the day marking the Buddha’s first teaching, on the Four Noble Truths—an auspicious day to begin our time in Bhutan, but not a day on which one could acquire a visa.

The Four Noble Truths are

1) the truth of suffering (from birth, aging, illness death; union with the displeasing, separation from what pleases; not getting what one wants)

2) the origin of suffering is craving

3) the cessation of suffering comes from freedom from craving

4) the way leading to the cessation of suffering is the eight-fold path:

right view, right intention, right speech, right action, right livelihood, right effort, right mindfulness, right concentration.

Grappling with that should last us a year and more. Maybe if I put the Truths up on the wall, it will help Jeremy deal with his many sufferings.

We began and ended the day at the private temple near the resort. Jigme (the young night manager) took us over to the temple, partly to see the view down the valley over Thimphu.

Thimphu dzong with the city beyond
The law courts with their red roofs

We spun the prayer wheels and then, because it was a private temple, we were invited inside and even encouraged to take photographs (not usually permitted inside of Bhutanese shrines).

The figures in the temple included the Buddha (of course):

plus a local protector deity:

the Zhabdrung, often credited with unifying Bhutan (attribution a little uncertain):

and a kind of patron saint for the temple (again, a little uncertain: I should have written this up at the time).


By the time we got back from the temple, Ugyen was waiting for us with the truck. He drove us first to the archery field, where we watched teams competing across such a long field I could barely see the target, much less the landing of the arrows.

Then we drove into central Thimphu, to meet with Jigme and his mom, who helped us get ourselves some proper Bhutanese clothing.

Putting a gho on involves smoothing miles of fabric over a man or boy’s butt: this had Jeremy giggling and squirming all over the floor of the shop.


Looking at me trying on a kira had Jigme’s mom muttering something. Jigme translated: “She says you look like you’re crossing a river.” (The highwaters of my adolescence return…)

Zoë looked beautiful. Jigme’s mom said she should wear her hair in a bun. Bhutanese hair styles are far more contained than our normal effect.

Jeremy’s hair must be quivering in anticipation.

We met up with the rest of Jigme’s family for lunch at the Zone. Ugyen stayed with us the whole day, but the dynamic was a little awkward. He didn’t eat lunch, though Jigme’s dad asked what he would eat—and he didn’t sit at the table with us. This made James in particular very uncomfortable. It’s hard to know how to negotiate class relations when you’re a foreigner and you don’t know all the presumptions operating under the surface. Myself, I was fully caught up in the conversation. Everyone in Jigme’s family was incredibly engaging and charming.

After lunch, we did a little more shopping. Thinley, Jigme’s dad, went off and got me a SIM card so that we had basic communication capabilities. (Shelly had said we would need a letter from RUB requesting Bhutan Telecom to give us non-tourist SIM cards, but Thinley did an end run around that particular branch of bureaucracy.)

We stopped in another shop (a Tibetan-run store, where Jigme’s Tibetan mom negotiated another discount for us) to get brooches to hold our tegus closed (Tegus are the jackets women wear above the half-kiras). Jigme pointed out the book of phallus images, so for Jeremy, this was the “penis store” for the rest of our time in Thimphu. Jigme also took us to a bookstore where we managed to score some Hardy Boys books for Jeremy (which unfortunately he inhaled while we were still in Thimphu) and some Murakami for Zoë (who saved them, understanding better what a year without books might be like).

By mid-afternoon, despite the architecture and the charm of the human traffic light in Thimphu, we were ready to head back to the resort. Zoë and I rested while James took Jeremy back over to the celebration at the temple.

The community there shared fruit and photos. I came over just in time to talk with the head priest, after James had done the harder work of connecting with the community. Then Jeremy wanted to go rest so I took him back to the hotel, past the scary dogs; James stayed to watch the community dancing.


The community supporting this temple is mostly composed of people who have come from a town in the east to find work in Thimphu—but they remain a tight-knit group defined by their place of origin.