The Punakha Dzong, built in 1637 at the confluence of two rivers in Western Bhutan, houses the most significant sacred art in the country. The Bhutanese regularly pilgrimage to this temple to absorb its holy energies and pay homage to the colossal golden Buddha in the monks’ assembly hall. Here, the walls are covered floor to ceiling with some of the world’s most detailed murals of Buddhist stories.
One of them stops me short: an image of the Buddha’s sleeping mother being told in a dream that she is pregnant with a pure and powerful being. The dream imagery is painted inside a circle that floats above her head, like a cartoon thought bubble, except that it’s connected to her heart, not her head. Buddhists believe the mind dwells in the heart, and so a long painted line twists from her heart up to the bubble. It’s an annunciation scene, the same theme depicted in countless medieval and Renaissance paintings.
The next morning finds us on yet another four-hour-plus drive, to a wide-open glacial valley called the Phobjikha. My four previous drives here were deemed auspicious by my Buddhist friends because each time I’d seen rare golden langur monkeys along the way, which I’m told is a good-luck symbol. This time, I spy a bird that appears to be carved out of turquoise, a verditer flycatcher, and then a scarlet finch. But no langurs. Suddenly we come upon a huge male perched atop a small tree beside the road, as if he’s waiting for us. “I’ve never seen a golden langur here,” Dorji says; they usually stay in shaded glens. An hour later, I spot a large mongoose, the ultimate local sign of good fortune. All Bhutanese temple murals include images of Jambhala, the god of wealth, holding a mongoose that spits precious jewels nonstop. I’m speechless and Dorji is overjoyed. “I think,” he says, “that you will return to Bhutan and build your farmhouse in the Paro Valley,” a life’s dream, as I’d confided to him earlier.
Our day ends at my favorite retreat, Gangtey Monastery, where we’re given a very rare invitation to join the monks for their evening prayers. The deeper lesson, during the oblations, is about what Buddhists call presence. The farther you go into “Buddha nature,” the still, electric peace within (what Westerners might call the spirit), the more aware you become. Marry this to Buddhism’s eternal call for compassion, and needs beyond one’s own come clearly into focus. You feel drawn to meet them.
As we listen to the chanting and drumming, I notice a new stillness in Tom. “I always feel like moving on to the next thing,” he tells me after the prayers are over. “But being surrounded by the monks, by the depth of their voices, the drums beating and the perpetual nature of the chanting—it slowed me down. And I was right there.”
We spend the next morning hiking through the Phobjikha Valley, a place of primordial beauty. The valley is a testament to Bhutan’s stellar conservation policies. “Respect for the natural world is a central tenet of Buddhism,” states a 1990 government resolution on sustainable development. The Phobjikha’s blue pine forests are still home to tigers and leopards. Bhutan’s endangered black-necked cranes winter here, drawing bird-watchers from around the world. (In Bhutan’s subtropical jungle, elephants and rhinos still roam, and snow leopards inhabit its 25,000-foot mountain peaks—pretty amazing, considering that the country is about the size of Switzerland.)
We decide to hike as the Bhutanese do, in our surprisingly comfortable gho and kira. Dorji sets a course along a path in the center of the valley, then leads us up along the foothills. At 9,000 feet, climbing anything is a challenge. But the valley’s scattered farmhouses have temple rooms where herbal incense burns all day long, and whenever I catch its spiced scent, I feel as though I’m breathing in peace.
I regard my stately husband, who would have looked even statelier had his kneesocks been only a couple of inches higher, and I can’t remember a time when he seemed more present.
“So,” I say, taking his hand, “what do you think of my favorite country?”