Imagine visiting a place where every blade of grass is believed to be sacred. Now imagine visiting a monastery in that place.
Certain places can’t be reached by chance. One needs to be destined to be there. One such place in Bhutan is Lajab Pema Gatshel in Samdrup Jongkhar.
It’s a little corner of paradise on earth created by Lama Sherub Jamtsho known for his great learning and service to society.
Ani Sherab Pemo
In March 2014, it was my good fortune to be able to visit Lajab Pema Gatshel accompanying Her Majesty the Queen Mother, Tshering Yangdoen Wangchuck, Patron of the Bhutan Nuns Foundation (BNF), who was destined to visit the place.
I say the visit was destined because it was not planned. Our trip to Lauri area was to visit the two nunneries – Dolma Lhakhang and Ugyen Dakiling. As we were getting ready for the trip, Her Majesty heard about the place and decided to visit Lajab. This unscheduled visit became one of the highlights of our trip.
Her Majesty visited nunneries in the south eastern part of the country, more importantly the remote nunneries of Ugyen Dakiling in Jomotshangkha in Samdrup Jongkhar district, and Dolma Lhakhang nunnery in Tshothang in Lauri.
BNF supports those nuns and nunneries in Bhutan by helping to improve education, health and hygiene, self-sufficiency and livelihood trainings. It also helps those nunneries in the remote areas to ensure adequate living conditions by upgrading their living quarters.
During the visit, Her Majesty participated in a sensitization workshop for women in the nunneries aimed at preventing and addressing gender-based violence through application of Life Skills Education (LSE). The workshop was organized with financial support from UNFPA. The nuns from these two nunneries were greatly inspired by Her Majesty’s visit.
Her Majesty the Queen Mother with school children from the locality
Her Majesty’s visit to Lajab Pema Gatshel, however, assumed a special significance. Lajab Pema Gatshel was founded by Lama Sherub Jamtsho, the son of Geshey Sherub Dorji, who is the great grand uncle of Her Majesty the Queen Mother.
Lama Sherub was one of the most respected teachers in that region who greatly contributed to the spiritual well-being of the people. A few of his students who are still living in Lajab talk about him with great devotion. The lama has left behind a great legacy in this unique place.
Lama Sherub built a lhakhang (temple) with, among others, 10,000 Guru statues, a huge prayer wheel containing six billion Ami Dewa Hri Mantra (Therboom Dungkhor) and a choeten (stupa) as a symbolic representation of the enlightened body, speech and mind.
It is believed that his teacher, Dudjom Jigdral Yeshe Dorji, had prophesied that Lama Sherub Jamtsho would establish these religious structures in this particular place for the well-being of the nation.
The path to Lajab is extremely challenging. We followed a trail through dense jungles, thick with a huge variety of plants, flowers and trees. We also crossed rivers to reach this heavenly place seemingly created out of nothing.
Walking up the beautiful natural lawn gave one mixed feelings of excitement and poignancy, feelings that were hard to express in words. There was also a feeling of warmth and being welcomed to this place. There was a distinct sense of harmony. It is believed that, in that place, every blade of grass bears the sacred letter ཨ and, therefore, it is well protected and preserved out of devotion.
This place would inspire one to compose a poem if one were a poet, paint one’s feelings if one were an artist. Since I am neither, it was very difficult to find the right words to articulate my feelings about this place. Nevertheless, some of us felt that we had left a piece of ourselves there.
Even though there is no nunnery in Lajab, we discovered that this is one place where women’s spiritual practice and achievements are valued and respected quite distinctly.
Lama Sherub Jamtsho’s mother, Ani (nun) Damcho Zangmo, lived here all her life. She is known to have accomplished 4000 sets of nyungney (fasting ritual for purification). One set of nyungney is 24 hours of practice without eating, drinking and talking. The session includes prostrations and mantra recitation in the praise of Avalokiteshvara.
This little monastery complex, which looks like a village from a distance, has retreat huts in interesting shapes and sizes, built since the Lama’s time. The most significant retreat huts are known as Drupkhang Dangpa, Drupkhang Nyipa, and Drupkhang Sumpa (retreat hut No. 1, No. 2, No. 3).
Luwang Dzong, Lajab
Drupkhang Nyipa is also known as Luwang Dzong (the Fortress of Nagas) and it is where Ani Damcho Zangmo lived and practised nyungey all her life.
A unique two-storied retreat house on Ani Damcho Zangmo is still standing in good shape almost as if she were still residing there. There is a little shrine room upstairs which still has her simple bed in good condition. After she passed away, her son made a statue of her and placed it in this shrine in her memory.
There is also a small stuatue of Gelongma Palmo in the main temple, which is preserved as nangten (a treasure that is not usually displayed to the public).
Gelongma Palmo, who was a daughter of King of Uddiyana (believed to be in present-day Pakistan), left her father’s palace in search of dharma and became the founder of nyungney practice. She is believed to have attained enlightenment through this practice. Even though she left stories behind and is known in both Tibetan and Bhutanese traditions, one usually doesn’t find her images in temples and monasteries. But it was good to find her statue there preserved as one of the main nangtens.
Ani Sherub Pemo and Dorji Dema are the only current residents who come from the time of Lama Sherub Jamtsho. Ani Sherub Pemo, who is in her 80s, still has a clear memory and talks about the Lama and his activities with much enthusiasm. She is from Lauri and came to Lajab at the age of 24 to be a disciple of the Lama. She has since lived there.
Her Majesty with nuns
An elderly woman receives a gift of Kira from Her Majesty
Ani Sherub Pemo shared her story with her Majesty recounting with great pride how hard she worked with the Lama to make the place the way it is. She said, “This place was all covered with trees and thorny bushes. We cleared them to build the temple, the stupa and the retreat houses. We worked very hard. I don’t know any choe (dharma). I never got an opportunity to learn much reading and writing since I was always working and helping the Lama in clearing the jungle to create this place.”
Dolma Lhakhang nuns await Her Majesty
According to Ani Sherub Pemo, Lama Sherub Jamtsho was born in the year of Iron horse and if he were alive, he would be 84 this year (2014). He died in 1990 in his early 60s.
A general Buddhist belief is that when enlightened beings or practitioners reside in a place, that place gets blessed and becomes holy. This is how special beings dedicate their prayers and deeds for the benefit of other beings to receive blessings from such places.
Lajab Pema Gatshel gives you a special feeling of spiritual fulfillment, which validates its sanctity. We were completely touched by the account of Lama Sherub Jamtsho’s hardships and efforts and were left with a feeling that some of us will one day return to follow his footsteps and accumulate merits. Since there is always a reason why we do what we do, our visit to the place, especially Her Majesty’s, was predestined.
Her Majesty has traveled extensively throughout the country, visiting various nunneries. Ever since its establishment, BNF has enjoyed Her Majesty’s constant support. With her energy and passion, Her Majesty has inspired many nuns to awaken their dormant potential and to become more active in their endeavours to benefit society.
The people of Lauri welcomed Her Majesty with great honour. I believe that Her Majesty’s visit will make a difference in continuing to revive and preserve these important places, especially Lajab Pema Gatshel. Perhaps Her Majesty the Queen Mother is the chosen one to restore the past glory of Lajab.
A sea of Tshogchang (drink offering) in honour of Her Majesty
Tashi Zangmo (Ph.D).
Tashi Zangmo (Ph.D) is Executive Director of Bhutan Nuns Foundation (www.bhutannuns.org).
(The article was initially published by Tashi Delek, an inflight megazine of Druk Air in May-June 2014 edition, pp:46)