The Tiger’s Nest

According to the teenager with a shaved head, two hand tattoos and one bare shoulder, the crossed lightning pendant I just purchased will cancel out eighteen different evils and assist me in overcoming 80,000 obstacles.

The IRS comes to mind—but the young Buddhist monk who kneels before me offers no policy with my purchase—no small print to name the exact evils my silvery talisman is good for. How will I ever know if it’s working?

We came to the Land of the Thundering Dragon on a thundering plane—not our usual private jet, but a chartered Druk Air flight from Kathmandu that made three (rather severe) mountain turns only seconds before dropping a few hundred feet and straightening us out, it seemed, just in time to slam the brakes on the asphalt and skip to a halt right next to the painted brocade of the temple-like complex that is, in fact, the only airport in the country.

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Taking off in Bhutan, a tricky endeavor with so many steep mountains and deep valleys. (Photo by Andrew Evans, National Geographic)

Only eight pilots are certified to land in Bhutan. Only these few expert pilots know how to zigzag the deep-cut valleys without smashing into the terraced slopes. Like life, Bhutan is not straightforward—obstacles abound but like the archer’s arrow, if you hit your mark, the reward is sweet.

Back in the 8th century, long before ours or any other airplane entered Tibet, Guru Rinpoche “the Lotus-Born”, flew from Tibet on the back of a Tigress and took refuge in the cleft of a rock some 10,000 feet above sea level.

The Tigress was actually the transformed eminence of the Guru Rinpoche’s female consort, Yeshe Tsogyal, a woman whose mother gave birth to her “without pain”, and whose life adventures include converting seven bandits to goodness before attaining the full status of a female Buddha by the early age of 30.

But that is all secondary to Padmasambhava the Lotus-Born, who stopped at this “Tiger’s Lair” in the rock, climbed down into the natural-formed cave where he meditated for 3 years, 3 months, 3 weeks, 3 days, and 3 hours.

“He did this without drinking any water or eating any food,” explained one Bhutanese man to me, pointing out this particular fact, like I would point out that Bhutan has a population of around 750,000—a significantly small number compared to its bordering neighbors India and China—like a punctuation mark between books.

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A mule waits to carry tourists up the path to the Tiger’s Nest, though the hike is much more rewarding. (Photo by Andrew Evans, National Geographic)

I cannot go without food or water for more than thirty minutes, let alone the three hours it takes to hike up to Paro Taktsang—the “Tiger’s Nest” monastery. The path is steep, and the air thin, dry, and crisp. Hiking at high elevation had me pulling in oxygen with audible gasps. The green pine hits my nose and my eyes catch the colorful patches of prayer flags strung from tree to tree.

These are blessings on the land, a way to sanctify a place in nature, and the higher we hike, the more prayer flags appear, until it seems, the entire sky is strung with long kites of red, green, yellow, blue, and white flags, the pattern repeated again and again, by the hundreds and thousands—a million fluttering prayer flags across the rocky path, and then across the open chasms of the Himalayas.

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Traditionally made with block prints on cloth, Buddhist prayer flags “bless” the surrounding landscape in Bhutan. (Photo by Andrew Evans, National Geographic)

My body aches from the climb—my feet, ankles, calves and knees, and my throat and my head. I feel sadness for the poor souls who hike this long upwards path in nothing but sandals.

But Guru Rinpoche taught that, “The basis for realizing enlightenment is a human body,” and if ascending this mountain has made me aware of anything, it’s my human body with its many limiting factors.

Still, we press on, for the goal is evident—all along the way, the white walls and golden rooftops of the lofty monastery are in plain view, the windy prayer flags like a thousand arrows pointing us upwards, up and up, just a little farther to the top.

But then we must descend again—down a hundred steps or more, around a thousand-foot-high waterfall that makes the cliff glisten, across a precarious bridge, and then up and up, like some old Chinese fairytale, around more and more steps, more and more prayer flags until suddenly, I have arrived at the Tiger’s Nest at the edge of the cliff overlooking the hidden valley of Paro in Bhutan.

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Paro Taktsang, popularly known as the Tiger’s Nest, sits on a clifftop high in the Himalayas of Bhutan. (Photo by Andrew Evans, National Geographic)

We remove our shoes and with stocking feet on stone, we shuffle upwards and into that holy room, where a monk opens up a trap door and motions for me to kneel down and look.

I peer down into the dark hole and see nothing besides the black void, feel only the colder, darker life of the cave within. This is the spot where Guru Rinpoche did his meditation, and by so doing, subdued all the evil spirits of this valley, making Bhutan the inhabitable and pleasant home that it is today.

This hole at the top of a cliff is Bhutan’s equivalent of Washington crossing the Delaware, England’s 1066, and the Bastille in France. A nation was born here—not from a war between kings, but by a lone man, crawling into a hole, and overcoming all the evil in the world with eyes half-shut.

Emerging from the darkness, my own eyes catch the glint of gold on the walls, the massive buddhas behind glass, the hanging cotton tapestry, so colorful, and the fantastic frescoes of all these enlightened beings.

Finally, I am led into an even smaller room, trying hard not to consider the fact that this little stone temple is dangling from the edge of a dizzying cliff.

I kneel on the rough wood floor and hold out my hands. From a gold pitcher, an older monk pours yellow sandalwood oil into my hand, then has me touch it to my lips, my forehead, and then across my neck, forcing me to touch the crossed lightning pendant I now wear around my neck.

The monk smiles in such a gentle and kind way, the afternoon light pierces the window and lights up the smoke of incense in this manmade cavern up on high.

Guru Rinpoche went through eight different reincarnations on this spot, and I have just experienced my first.

I began the day as a tourist climbing a mountain, but up here now, alone with the smiling monk, I have become a pilgrim. I may be naïve and western, but I can feel the brightness of this place. My day has changed from mere sightseeing to reaching a whole new understanding.

Intense hope fills me inside, so that I float right of the Tiger’s Nest like a butterfly, out to the place of a thousand fluttering prayer flags and heavenly waterfalls. I am joyful and feel incredibly invincible—the world is on my side, and evil conquered.

Descending the long path, I can see everything so clearly . . .

. . . and there are no obstacles.

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The Tiger’s Nest is built on the site where in the 8th century, Guru Rinpoche came and meditated, defeating the evil spirits that ruled the Paro Valley. (Photo by Andrew Evans, National Geographic)

This trip is one of the many ways to travel with National Geographic Expeditions. To learn more about all of our travel programs, click here.