Into the heart of the Lion: A Journey to Singye Dzong


It’s a long journey from Samdrup Jongkhar to Lhuentse, and as the vehicle turns onto a steep incline a reassuring voice from the back seat tells me that we are almost there. The vehicle comes to halt outside a stately looking building, which I am told is the dzongkhag guesthouse. We clamber out of a number of vehicles, and quickly find corners of rooms in which to curl up for the night. Other than a fleeting view of the dzong in the car mirror the next morning, that was my only memory of Lhuentse town.

At a road junction, provisions are loaded onto horses and we cross an iron bridge, which I later come to learn was built by the 14th century mahasiddha, Thangtong Gyalpo – the great bridge builder. As we enter the village of Khoma, we gain first-hand experience of Kurtoep hospitality, and people offer us fruit to eat along the way. I know that Khoma is famous for its woven fabric, and this is evidenced by the number of people on the porches busily weaving and the sound of looms clanking in the houses.

The village has an alluring charm, and I would like to stay longer. But, I am aware that the first two days of the hike will be full dawn to dusk endeavours, and so with backpack pulled securely on my waist and shoulders, I set off. Now, many people enjoy hiking in the mountains. I’m not one of them. Yes, I can appreciate the sense of achievement and physical rejuvenation after completing a long walk in crisp air while under the gaze of snowy peaks, but, in reality, I’d rather sit in a cafe and watch the planet revolve from the window. Otherwise, a good urban walk serves to move blood cells, and street characters offer ample stimulus to the mind. Anyway, here I am – about to take the first step on a three day mountain hike.

The dappled light and smell of the forest is pleasant, but after the tail end of a cyclone dumped what appears to be half the Bay of Bengal on the Himalayan foothills a few days earlier, the trail is thick with mud. Still, there is no alternative. I have to keep moving. From treks in the Solu Khumbu region of Nepal, I know that when the going gets tough, it is best to avoid thinking about the destination or take breaks, but to just take one sturdy step at a time.

The day passes without incident, and, as the sun begins to set, I am aware that the singing from our group has long since ceased, indicating that I am not the only one trudging along on reserve energy. The forest is dark and silent, and just as I tighten my backpack straps and resign myself to walking into the night, I smell smoke and our horses and their handlers come into view. There are a few houses near the encampment and an empty building. Someone says it’s a community health center. Whatever it is in the day, it is our bedroom that night. I am out like a light.

Dawn comes all too quickly, and from treks in Nepal I know that when the alarm goes off it is best not to linger, but to immediately get up, pack away the sleeping bag, wash, eat, and go. I am back on the trail. At some point I pass a check post where I present the required permits. The soldiers are friendly, but perplexed to see a foreigner alone and are unsure how to respond. Fortunately, the rest of the group soon appear, and they wave us through with a smile.

While attempting to avoid the mud, I stumble over a rock. My knee is twisted badly, but there is no option other than to keep moving. A poem composed by the wandering Zen monk Santoka comes to mind: “There is no path but this. I walk alone.”  At night around the camp fire, one of the horsemen makes a hot herbal compress, which he applies to my knee while vigorously twisting it back and forth. I grimace in agony, and jokingly ask whether he has ever treated a leg other than that of a horse before. He gives me a noncommittal grin, which I take to mean that he hasn’t. Still, the treatment is effective, and by morning the pain has ceased and I can walk. I am in for the last day of the hike.

By early afternoon, the narrow, muddy trail finally draws to a close, and in front lays the valley of the Lion Fortress, Singye Dzong, which, set against the jagged, snowcapped mountains of the eastern Himalayas, looks magnificent. The group assembles. We are in awe and nobody speaks. Now, many people swear that they can feel the energy at sacred sites, but I cannot include myself among them. In fact, I am more energized in the backstreets of Siliguri or Kolkata than a Himalayan valley. However, this place is different, and together we spontaneously offer prostrations.

As we step into the valley, a light snow falls, and someone comments that Singye Dzong is sealing us in. Certainly, it feels like we are leaving behind the mundane and stepping into the sacred. We head to a guesthouse near the monastery, but the rooms are occupied by a rinpoche and his entourage from Bangalore, and so we set our sights on a cave just above the valley. I expect a rough stone floor, but I am pleasantly surprised to see smooth wooden planks snugly fitted into each and every corner of the space. I will sleep well that night.

By evening, the clouds have dispersed, revealing a sky brimming with stars and a valley bathed in soft moon light. It is a strong contrast to the dark, muddy trail, and I feel I’ve been transported to the heavenly realms. I am at peace. At the same time I remind myself that it is unwise to cling to pleasant experiences while rejecting those that are considered harsh, but instead to see them both as fleeting illusions that are no more real than a rainbow or mirage. The poignant words of Nyshul Khen Rinpoche come to mind:

“Look outward at the appearing objects,

And like the water in a mirage, They are more delusive than delusion.

Unreal like dreams and illusions, They resemble reflected moon and rainbows.”

After a hearty breakfast,

we conduct a puja inside the monastery and then head out to explore the valley. Now, Singye Dzong is not a fortress in the traditional sense, but a sacred hidden valley where Yeshe Tsogyal undertook profound yogic practices and where Guru Rinpoche concealed eight dzongs as terma to be revealed at appropriate times in the future. As a means to inspire faith in later generations, they also left numerous hand and body prints embedded in rock, and blessed passageways that twist and bend inside huge boulders, which, even today, bestow blessings and purify the karma of pilgrims who can sufficiently contort their bodies to squeeze through. We pass the day engaging with these sacred spaces, and by evening we are like children who have played too much – with eyes closing, but not wanting the day to end.

Singye Dzong is also home to two sacred lakes – Tsho Nak and Tsho Kar, the black and white lakes – that calmly rest at the foot of the mountains. These are our destination the next day. It is a steep climb, and the walk is made tougher by knee-deep snow. The lakes are stunning, and I clamber to the side of Tsho Kar and sit firmly in the snow. Chants and prayers from the group drift across the lake, mingling with the rarified air, while bank notes made as offerings float gently on the surface. I make boats out of Taiwanese and Bhutanese bank notes and launch them onto the placid waters with prayers to Guru Rinpoche that all beings awaken to the truth and be free of suffering and its causes. I sit for a long time, watching the boats float serenely over a reflection of slow moving clouds and snowcapped peaks.

On the descent, I attempt to avoid tramping through the snow by taking a higher path along the side of a cliff. Suddenly, I come across a young monk sitting under an overhang. Sherab tells me that he is twenty years old and is six months into a retreat. He adds that it is his own decision to enter the retreat and that he hopes to spend his life like Milarepa, living in caves and barren places. He adds that he is from Lhuentse, but lived in Thimphu and has travelled as far as Siliguri. While moving his head to one side, he notes that he enjoys city life, but knows that the material world cannot bring an end to the illusory cycle of suffering characterized by old age, sickness, and death, and so, like Prince Siddhartha 2,500 years earlier, he aims to devote his life to discovering the truth. He is still young, and I am impressed by his wisdom and determination. In contrast, I reflect that after only four days into the pilgrimage I am already missing coffee and a hot shower. Sherab and I share a hug and I stick some money in his robe. He tries to return it, but I jokingly add, “For chocolate, so that you don’t get too attached to austerity”. He smiles, and we part. As I am about to drop below a ridge, I turn back to wave, but he’s gone. Large snowflakes begin to fall.

The next morning we begin our descent, breaking the journey with a detour to Roelmateng. We leave our bags at a monastery and head to the area’s most noted nye – two flat boulders where animals gathered to receive teachings from Guru Rinpoche. On both rocks, clear footprints of various animals are embedded into the surface. I offer prostrations in the direction of Guru Rinpoche’s seat.

Now, I don’t know whether the mud is less sticky due to the dry weather or my mind is lighter from the blessings, but the return journey is distinctly easier, and we reach Khoma in a day. Vehicles are waiting for us at the road, and, as we accelerate away, I offer a

‘namaste’ hand gesture towards the valley. I pray that Singye Dzong will remain a sanctuary for those who seek the truth and that Sherab can achieve the fruit of the path compassionately bequeathed us by Lord Buddha.  I also hope he can get some chocolate.

Shenphen Zangpo

Shenphen Zangpo was born in Swansea, UK, but spent more than 28 years practicing and studying Buddhism in Taiwan and Japan. Currently, he works with the youth and substance abusers in Bhutan, teaching meditation and organizing drug outreach programs.