A Couple's Pilgrimage to Bhutan

By Jessica Maxwell
Jessica Maxwell and her husband Tom Anderssen
Photograph: Photographed by Gentl & Hyers

I’m sitting cross-legged on a floor cushion in Gangtey Temple, one of Bhutan’s most sacred sites, surrounded by monks in flowing red robes. About 70 are gathered in this 450-year-old hilltop monastery to chant their evening prayers. Several beat slowly on cylindrical hand drums. Purifying incense rich with cardamom, nutmeg and sandalwood burns on the altar, and light floods in from a wall of windows. The light, the drumming, the smoke and the low voices of the monks make the room seem suspended in time, and I know I am as close to the source of Himalayan Buddhism as a modern woman could ever be. No less moving than this ancient ritual is the presence of my husband on the cushion next to me. A tough, loud, super­competitive trial attorney who’s normally in constant motion, Tom Andersen is also a minister’s son and a faithful churchgoer who respects but doesn’t really understand my Buddhist beliefs. I long to share the blissful stillness of my morning meditation with him, but Tom’s style makes this a challenge. He wakes up full of chatty joy in the mornings. “I ­really do respect your quiet time,” he often tells me with a grin, “but I sometimes forget and just start talking!” Yet right now, a week into our visit to Bhutan, he is as serene and still as I’ve ever known him to be.

Bhutan has been my spiritual home ever since I fell in love with Himalayan Buddhism during my first visit here a decade ago. Thirty-eight years old and newly divorced, I found an unexpected peace in Buddhism’s message of compassion and in its gorgeous pageantry, art and rituals. I now meditate every morning, sometimes for as long as two hours. Fierce Bhutanese masks guard my writing studio door, and brightly colored prayer flags hang from the ceiling above an altar set up on a table. I light candles and offer prayers there for family, friends, the problems of the world. (Sometimes I even ask for help with tricky dinner party recipes!) I also attend a Presbyterian church with Tom on Sundays (we met in the choir), but Himalayan Buddhism has my heart.

Which is why we’re in Bhutan (population 700,000, about the same as Vermont’s), one of the world’s great centers of Himalayan Buddhism. Buddhism spread from its native India some 2,400 years ago and evolved into a number of schools, including Himalayan or ­Tibetan-style Buddhism, which is practiced by the American Pema Chödrön; the cool, minimalist Zen Buddhism, practiced in Vietnam, Korea and Japan; and India’s ancient Theravada Buddhism, which took hold in Sri Lanka, Thailand, Burma and Cambodia and is taught by the American master Jack Kornfield. Our visit is a pilgrimage of sorts, with stops at some of Bhutan’s most revered spiritual centers, and my hope is that this immersion will allow Tom to experience the powerful resonance between this sweet, ancient faith and the progressive Christianity we both cherish.

We arrive in early April to attend the Paro Festival, one of the most important religious gatherings of the Bhutanese calendar year. By royal decree, all Bhutanese must wear their traditional garb in public, and out of respect we decide to adopt their custom. So before we head out to the festival, staffers at the Zhiwa Ling hotel and spa where we’re staying (the name means “place of peace”) help us dress. Tom changes into a gho, a white-cuffed, belted jacket that’s long enough to be worn sans trousers with high kneesocks and dress shoes. I had custom-ordered it for him since, at six foot four, he’s probably the tallest guy in the country. I don a beautiful new kira, the vibrant handwoven full-body sarong that vexes the heck out of Westerners, who tend to end up looking like Dame Edna in a curtain if somebody doesn’t help them. Fortunately, the rest of the women’s ­costume—a short outer jacket called a toego and a silky long-cuffed under-blouse called a wonju, each in a contrasting color—is far less complicated.

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