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Posts Tagged ‘buddhism

Myanmar impressions

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I love South-East Asia and I’ve been fortunate enough to travel extensively in this part of the world. But nothing prepared me for the splendors of Myanmar. I was totally amazed when I visited there earlier this year: wonderful people, beautiful landscapes and stunning pagodas.

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Written by Thorsten

May 17, 2013 at 7:29 am

Posted in asia, travel

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Dancing with the spirits

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Sometimes a computer problem can lead to unexpected discoveries. This week, I accidentally lost or destroyed a folder with pictures. Luckily, I had a back-up on an external hard-drive.

On this hard-drive, I also discovered some video scenes I’d shot along with the photographs in 2008 and 2009. But at that time, I didn’t know how to turn these unconnected scenes into one film. Well – I do now.

So this week, I took those old video scenes I’d shot in the secluded Himalayan country of Bhutan and turned them into two little films. Not Oscar material, but I can live with that. One is of the Thimphu tsechu in 2008, the other is of the 2009 Punakha tsechu.

What’s a tsechu? These films can give you a first impression. Or you can continue reading below or here.

Witnessing a tsechu in Bhutan is one of the most memorable things I have ever experienced. A tsechu is a sacred Buddhist festival that lasts four days. It’s the high-point of the year for the Bhutanese people. They come from near and far and meet at their local Dzong or monastery.

During the tsechu, monks wearing fantastic costumes and masks perform a never-changing sequence of dances. These dances tell the spiritual history of Bhutan. And by watching these historic rites every year, the Bhutanese stay firmly connected to their country’s history and spirituality.

Not many tourists get a chance to see these sacred festivals in Bhutan. I was very fortunate so witness two tsechus in 2008 and 2009. And even though I’m not a Buddhist myself, I felt deeply moved – maybe even changed – by these ancient rituals and the spirituality of the festivals.

Written by Thorsten

September 16, 2011 at 8:12 pm

Feeding the ancestors on Cambodia’s Pchum Ben holiday

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Pchum Ben festival at Phnom Penh's Wat OunalomFor the past 15 days, Cambodians have gotten up in the dark hours of morning and taken offerings of food and money to the buddhist pagodas. They’ve been “feeding their ancestors”.

During the 15-day Pchum Ben festival, the spirits of the dead acestors are said to walk the earth. So this is a good time for Cambodians to get on their good side by offering them food and saying prayers for them.

The offerings are supposed to help the deceased pass on to a better life. According to Khmer belief, people who don’t follow the practices of Pchum Ben will be cursed by their angry ancestors.

Today, Thursday, September 7th, is the fifteenth and final day of this year’s Pchum Ben festival. It’s the day when Cambodians travel to their home provinces to pray at the temples and pagodas where their ancestors were cremated.

Written by Thorsten

October 7, 2010 at 7:40 am

Posted in asia, travel

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Behind the scenes at the Tsechu

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child monk with ritual mask

This weekend, we got a chance to look behind the scenes of a Tsechu.

This three-day religious festival includes masked dances performed by Buddhist monks.

It’s held once a year in each disctrict or dzongkhag in Bhutan.

For the Bhutanese, the Tsechu is the highlight of the year. Some of them walk for days from their remote Himalayan villages to be part of it.

A deeply religious festival for the Bhutanese

Not many Westerners have a chance to witness these spiritual gatherings. So we were very lucky to be able to attend the Tsechu in Punakha this weekend.

Punakha dzongPunakha is home to one of the most important and most beautiful dzongs in Bhutan.

The dzong is where the religious ceremonies of the Tsechu take place.

It’s the fortress-like religious and administrative center of each district.

The Punakha dzong is made up of many different buildings, courtyards, stairways and walkways.

Inside Punakha dzongWhile the religious dances were taking place in the main courtyard, I sometimes took the chance to stroll around.

I was practically the only tourist in these parts of the dzong.

Most of the other people there were Buddhist monks or Bhutanese visitors to the Tsechu.

On my strolls around the compound, I came across the halls where the monks were getting dressed for their religious dances.

Here, they put on their colorful costumes and elaborate headdresses.

Monks in costume for the Tsechu

monks waiting behind a curtain for the next spiritual danceThen the monks made their way to the edge of the main courtyard, where their ritual dance was due to begin.

They waited behind an orange curtain for other monks to give them the sign to go out onto the courtyard.

Meanwhile, on a balcony above, other monks had picked up their instruments to start the musical fanfare.

Monks playing traditional Bhutanese instrumentsThe inside perspective

Seeing them get ready and play their instruments was something that normal tourists weren’t able to witness from this perspective.

We were lucky that we’d gotten VIP passes allowing us on to the balconies surrounding the courtyard.

Our Buthanese hosts had been kind enough to organise these passes for us.

They could not have guessed how special they made us feel and how fascinating they made this Tsechu for us.

next to the reincarnation in the dining hall of Punakha dzongFor lunch, our VIP status got us entry into the dining hall reserved for monks, celebrities and the higher clergy. Here, we were treated to wonderful Bhutanese food.

One day, the 69th reincarnation of one of Bhutan’s past senior religious figures, Je Khenpo Gyedun Rinchen, sat next to us during lunch.

He’s about five years old and it was interesting to see how the senior monks who surrounded him treated him with the highest respect. There was hardly anything childlike about him. And even we could tell that he had a very special aura.

monk returning from ritual danceAfter lunch, it was back to the hallways and the courtyards, where some monks were just coming back from their masked dance.

This one is holding his heavy wooden mask as he walks back to the hall where he will change out of his brocade costume.

He is wearing a protective cap because his carved wooden mask is not padded.

The mask would otherwise bruise his face and the strings that are used to fasten the mask to his head would cut into his flesh.

child monk putting on ritual maskI feel very fortunate that I was able to be a part of this deeply spiritual ceremony.

And being allowed to look behind the scenes, to see the monks with and without their ceremonial masks, was an unforgettable experience.





Written by Thorsten

March 10, 2009 at 6:05 pm

Life is good for animals in Bhutan

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Meat shop in Thimphu, Bhutan

Meat shop in Thimphu, Bhutan

Most Bhutanese are devout Buddhists. And one of the cornerstones of Buddhism is that it’s wrong to kill animals because they are part of the divine creation.

Unfortunately, most Bhutanese also like eating meat. And that opens up a dilemma: if you want to eat meat, you have to slaughter animals.

But what can you do as a Bhutanese, if you like traditional meat dishes like phak sha laphu (stewed pork with radishes) or no sha huentseu (beef with spinach)?

strips of meat hanging out to dry

strips of meat hanging out to dry

The solution these clever Buddhists have come up with is simple – even though it might not be 100 % in line with what Buddha wanted: they have “outsourced” the slaughtering of animals to India.

Every piece of meat you eat in Bhutan was slaughtered across the border and then imported.

Animals in Bhutan lead a good life

Cows in Bhutan wander the streets like in neighboring India, and no one gets mad at them for blocking the road. It’s taken for granted. They have a right to be there.

Offerings to the gods become a meal for the pigeons

Offerings to the gods become a meal for the pigeons

Cattle is only there to help pull the plough across the rice paddies or to get milk.

Chickens are only kept to get eggs.

In the country’s many Buddhist monasteries, the monks and nuns leave offerings of rice, which pigeons and other birds will happily feed on.

And no true Buddhist would swat a fly or a mosquito – it’s better for your karma to shoo it away than to kill it.

Thimphu’s dog dilemma

In Bhutan’s capital Thimphu, the roaming dogs caused problems for tourism in recent years: the dogs would sleep all day and bark all night. That didn’t seem to bother the Bhutanese, but the tourists complained because they couldn’t get any sleep.

Of course, the Thimphu city council couldn’t just call a dog catcher and kill the stray dogs.

Instead, the city had an animal shelter built high up in the hills above the city,

Every once in a while, the dog catcher now drives around the streets of Thimphu, collects stray dogs and brings them to the compound in the mountains.

And there, the dogs can live happily ever after.

Unless they choose to dig a tunnel under the fence and make their way back to the streets of the capital. But then, the endless Buddhist circle of life would just begin anew…

Written by Thorsten

October 6, 2008 at 5:49 am

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