The Taktsang Monastery, known as Tiger’s Nest, is built atop a vertical cliff 2,600 feet above the valley floor. The parking area is 8,400 feet above sea level. To get to the monastery one must climb to the first vantage point where there is, thankfully, a teahouse. It is at 9,460 feet. A second vantage point is 700 feet above that at 10,160 feet. The climb is a hard one, harder than the climb to Cheri and Tango. It is not that it is steeper. It is just twice as long. The people who service the teahouse make the trip every working day. They manage it in 30 minutes. It takes Nancy and me an hour and a half.
Guru Rinpoche founded Tiger’s Nest in the 8th century. He flew to the spot on the back of one of his consorts. She had taken the shape of a tigress for the journey, anticipating Claire Chennault’s World War II Flying Tigers by thirteen centuries. The main temple of the Taktsang Monastery, the one surrounding the cave, was built in 1692, 46 years after the first Shabdrung visited the spot.
Once we reached the teahouse I collapsed into a green plastic chair with a cup of tea. I was too tired to focus on the flurry of activity around me. Before I knew it Nancy was on the path to the second vantage point. She asked if I wanted to join her, but I was so tired, I couldn’t muster the energy.
"I'll just hold you back," I said feebly.
No sooner was she out of sight but I regretted my decision. I was like a child too tired to stay up and too tired to go to bed. I should have known that when Nancy got to the second vantage point, there was no way she was not going on to the monastery itself.
As I sat at the teahouse, scanning the mountainside with my binoculars, I saw a small white structure pressed into a crevice below the monastery. It was a meditation hall. Inside, I learned, was a forty-year old monk. No one knew how long he had been there, but his intention was to stay in utter seclusion for three years, three months and three days. He would, in fact, do that three times in this life. As I sat in the teahouse, I tried to imagine him sitting cross-legged, his beard down to his knees, turning his mind into a movie screen after the movie was over. Something told me to train my binoculars higher up. Suddenly, I saw Nancy coming out onto the edge of a veranda in the monastery itself. She had made it all the way up to Tiger's Nest, as I guessed she would. My first reaction took me by surprise. I was angry. Perhaps I resented that she had made it to the top and I hadn't, I thought. But that wasn’t it at all. Quite the contrary I was glad she was able to push her body to the point where she reached the high point of our Bhutan trip, the Tiger's Nest monastery at Paro.
Why, then, was I angry? Everyone I talked to who had been there had come away with an intense recollection of the experience. They didn’t want me to feel bad. But I could read between the lines. One person told me that the ornamentation around Guru Rinpoche's cave was stunning. Another said stepping into Tiger's Nest was like stepping into another world. Nancy’s comment was the most painful of all. She said, I was wise not to go. Sidestepping the subject let me know just how wonderful it must have been.
Nobody likes looking their limitations in the face. I have seen Tiger's Nest. I have watched its gold spires glint in the sun, its white walls painted whiter by the afternoon light, marveled at the single-mindedness of a group of builders who put a monastery in a place most people would think of as suicidal. But I have seen all that from a distance. For me leaving Taktsang Monastery was like walking out of King Lear before the third act curtain.
That's what dying must be like. No wonder I was angry.
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