WE’RE ON THE ROOF of the Naro Assembly Hall, looking north across the foothills, a series of spumeless humpbacks receding into whirls of dusk. Behind us, flags emblazoned with coiled dragons whip and snap in the wind, and I ask the Calvin Klein model/ indie musician what he’s doing here, sipping a beer on a holy mountain in the Himalayas.
“We got an email from my mate Ned asking if we or any bands we knew wanted to come play a gig in Nepal, so we said yes,” explained Jamie Burke, the face of the 2009 Calvin Klein ck one campaign—who also penned the song for the fragrance line’s TV ads—leaning back on his elbow, surveying an ant-line of farmers zigzagging their way up the side of a hill. “You know when people ask you, ‘what was the weirdest show you’ve ever played?’ we figured this would be a good candidate for one of those.”
It was. When Burke and his band stepped onstage later in the evening, it was for the benefit and at the behest of the spiritual head of the Drukpa lineage of Tibetan Buddhists and his spiritual panel, celebrities in their own right: the baby-faced second-in-command, Kyabje Khamtrul Rinpoche; Jetsunma Tenzin Palmo, the British-born nun who spent 12 years of solitude in a cave in Himachal Pradesh; Her Royal Highness Ashi Kesang, a Bhutanese princess; and Laki, an actress who had been introduced to me as “the winner of Bhutan’s Oscar.” (She’d giggly demurred, and I can’t find her online anywhere.)
Behind Jigme Pema Wangchen, His Holiness the 12th Gyalwang Drukpa’s front and centre throne-seat and his retinue sat special guests, VIPs and two flanks of several hundred monks and nuns. Burke said later that night, as we necked pints in a bar in Thamel, the high point of the show had been the congregation of shorn-headed monastics clapping along to a cover of Outkast’s ‘Hey ya.’
“We’re just trying to immerse ourselves in what’s going on here,” said Burke—who is perhaps more famous for the various starlets he’s bedded than his bone structure, certainly more famous for the paparazzi shots of him with a topless Sienna Miller than for his music.
Indeed. What was going on here?
Burke admitted he didn’t know anything about the sect—or even Buddhism—though “the mission statement is pretty awesome.” So he was, in a sense, here for the money. But so was I.
A couple of weeks previous I was at the Foreign Correspondent’s Club in Delhi slurping Blender’s Pride whisky, and somewhere between shouts for more ice a colleague asked if I wanted to go on a press junket: an all expenses paid trip to Nepal to cover the 2nd Annual Drukpa Council (ADC), which would involve an audience with His Holiness the 12th Gyalwang Drukpa, the ascension of a three-year-old reincarnated lama and a concert by Jamie Burke. “All expenses paid? I’m in,” I’d said; then asked myself, “What does an 800-year-old Tibetan Buddhist sect have to do with a Calvin Klein model’s band?”
I asked the same thing to Carrie Lee, the media liaison showing a group of journalists around the temple
complex atop Druk Amitabha mountain, outside Kathmandu: “Don’t the two seem, I don’t know, kind of philosophically incongruous?”
We were walking through a throng of nuns outside the temple after sunset, what an American acquaintance, a former Tibetan Buddhist nun, had described to me before the trip as “one of the most decorated temples I’ve seen.”
It was, too. Drukpa means dragon, and the mythical beasts wrap the hall’s support columns, rising from polished wood floor to thangka-painted ceiling. The three walls squared from the main altar/stage are a grid of inset oblongs the size of shoeboxes, all glassed-in compartments, each housing a Buddha statue. In the soft ambience, the ring of light bulbs behind the main Buddha statue’s head shines a neon halo. It’s lavish—and very recently built.
“Incongruous? No, not at all,” said Carrie, “Anyone is welcome here. In fact, Tommy Lee was going to come and perform, but schedules wouldn’t allow it.”
Tommy Lee—of Motley Crue/Pamela Anderson fame—trumps even Jamie Burke when it comes to dilettante notches on the bedpost, and his music career today is perhaps even more mediocre given its scale.
“How did you get him to agree?” I asked.
“I used to be his lawyer in LA.”
TIBETAN BUDDHISM is no stranger to celebrity support—the first time I heard about the ‘Free Tibet’ movement was through the Beastie Boys on a Lollapalooza tour in the mid-1990s, and before Jamie Burke played for the clapping crowds of monks and nuns at Amitabha, Richard Gere had long been the pretty-boy advocate for the Dalai Lama and his Gelugpa sect.
His Holiness the 12th Gyalwang Drukpa says once upon a time, half the population of Tibet was of his lineage. In Bhutan, he says they enjoy 85 percent loyalty in the land of Gross National Happiness, where one of the oldest sects in Tibetan Buddhism concerns themselves with “serving through practice,” not through politics (although Drukpa is the state-sanctioned religion of the isolated Himalayan Kingdom). To fund the 2nd ADC, according to a yearly expense report ending 31 March 2010, a million and a half Nepali rupees came ‘from Bhutan,’ where His Holiness credits the “great generosity of our followers” for this new drive to garner awareness for their clan, farther outside their Himalayan base than ever before. Large sums of money were coming in as ‘registration’ fees. One registration for an ‘honanery member [sic]’ cost 69,000 rupees, and the ‘registration for HH birthday’ appeared as 671,138 rupees inbound.
So you could buy access. This is nothing new. Even more telling than the in-column ‘donations’ were the out-column expenses. Invitations for the ADC on one day were sent to Ladakh, France, Taiwan, Malaysia, Darjeeling and Varanasi. Prominent Tibetan Buddhist scholars in the US received invitations on another. The Drukpas, long known for lying low, appeared to be on an international advertising blitz.
THE JEEPS RATTLED around the mountains’ turns—esses becoming hairpins the higher we went—on the way to His Holiness’ press conference. Every so often we passed foxholes dug into the hillsides, soldiers in blue camouflage never far from their Kalashnikovs. There were still Maoist rebels in these hills outside the Nepali capital. Watching the valley floor recede, I thought about the ambiguous donations and registrations—state and private—and decided I wouldn’t be able to write the advertorial I was flown here and put up at a nice hotel to write. I deduced there would be at least three puff pieces coming from our Delhi group, decided I should just be honest about my experience—guilt is for Catholics—and resigned myself to the fact I wouldn’t likely be invited back to cover the 3rd ADC.
Are the Drukpas’ efforts to herald a new age of monk/nun equality admirable? Yes. Are His Holiness’ efforts to make Amitabha eco-friendly and carbon neutral worthwhile? Definitely. Is religion still a racket? Of course.
The first two questions for His Holiness at the press conference were as predictable as his answers: “Do you support a Free Tibet?” and “Where do your funds come from?”
He stressed that Drukpas are not political, and the sect’s supporters are very generous. He was used to such questions. Somewhat deflated, knowing any of my inquiries about his spiritual status or the legitimacy of the three-year-old as a reincarnated lama would be deflected, I thought I’d just go for the obvious. “Your Holiness, with 800 years of lineage, why is this only the 2nd Annual Drukpa Council?” I asked.
“In those days [over 100 years ago], we didn’t have a media,” he answered. “There was nothing... We did do some big events…in Ladakh…in Nepal…but no one [outside] was really interested.” He’d laughed a bit before answering, and this caught me off guard—not because he laughed, but for how much his laugh sounded like that of the Dalai Lama when I’d heard him speak in Bangalore. Their speaking patterns were similar—candid, matter of fact, friendly, with liberal usage of the word ‘therefore.’ I guess I shouldn’t have been surprised, for however much the Gyalwang Drukpa wants to stay away from politics, especially any Sino-Tibetan controversy (curious, therefore, his description of Amitabha’s buildings as adhering to the “ancient Chinese art” of Feng Shui), he was ordained as the Great Dragon by the Dalai Lama himself. “We are all his students,” he said.
Kyabje Khamtrul Rinpoche, sitting beside His Holiness, also stressed that with the advent of travel, means and modern communication, it makes more sense for the Drukpas to gather in one place instead of going missionary-style, and “Nepal is where Lord Buddha was born, so it’s a holy place for all Buddhists.”
Three years ago, the latest reincarnated lama was also born in Nepal—the new and improved Sengdrak Rinpoche, whose last somatic tour had ended in 2005. According to organiser Lynne Dipam, the Gyalwang Drukpa sent out Sengdrak Rinpoche’s students to find this child the dead master had chosen as his next vessel. They found him after “His Holiness [Gyalwang Drukpa] had a vision,” said Dipam.
The Gyalwang Drukpa admits when he was a toddler, and had been identified as number 12, his parents didn’t want to give him up and stole him away. They eventually came out of hiding and surrendered their baby son to the lineage. The reincarnated Sengdrak Rinpoche’s family, however, was much more accommodating.
“When the [former] Rimpoche was sick, he went to the hospital, and you know, the present Sengdrak Rinpoche’s grandfather and parents were in that same hospital. It can’t be a coincidence, right?” I nodded as Dipam spoke. “And this boy’s grandfather, who was in the same ward as the previous Rinpoche, has a daughter in law,” who, as it turns out, said Dipam, is on the side of the family who are some of the lineage’s biggest benefactors. “That can’t just be a coincidence, to be reborn in a family of our supporters.”
On this point, I’m also convinced. Just not in the way she is.
DRUKPA MAY BE THE STATE RELIGION of Bhutan, but His Holiness lives in the Dotsok monastery in Darjeeling, where, Dipam says, he sleeps in the nunnery—not the monastery—to promote his goal of gender equality among Drukpas. He is also patron of the Hemis Monastery in Ladakh where he was installed in 1981, where when you step into the courtyard, you might as well be in 1681. Inside Hemis, there are Buddha statues so large the four storeys of the monastery are built around them. Some doorframes are so old there are ankle-deep indents in the wood, worn down by centuries of monks’ footsteps. One of the few monks around had offered me a cup of salted butter tea, but I knew any offence by refusal would be less than that puckered face I’d make sipping salted butter tea. On the roof, overlooking the high-altitude brown layers of tiramisu mountains, improvised support beams hold parts of the structure together. Behind locked doors, warped beams allow sneaky glances into even more silent rooms in an already silent place, ancient statues of Tara still holding vigil under layers of dust and embroidered silks.
Amitabha is something else entirely. Everything is brand new. The series of stairs and landings leading to the Naro Assembly Hall are wrapped in balustrade, the frescoes and statues so fresh and garish it feels like an amusement park. “The coffee shop at the entrance makes the best cappuccino in Nepal,” Dipam had said. The coffee shop is just above the gift shop, where you can buy buttons with His Holiness’ smiling face on them, books about HH, books by HH, and aside from the t-shirt selection, there’s the unrelated kitsch of beaded bracelets, dreamcatchers and mini-running shoe keychains.
In daylight, you can see just how new the temple is, and it feels inauthentic somehow, or maybe, like a pair of human size running shoes, just not broken-in yet. What also doesn’t help with ersatz carnival association is that under the staircase to the main hall there’s a canteen selling potato chips, sugary biscuits and soft drinks. I weep for the beauty and the perceived authenticity of Hemis. But Hemis has had a good few centuries to nurture its worn and beaten character. Maybe this place will have its chance eventually.
Carrie had said this new annual council was an attempt to expand the lineage’s reach because the tradition was dying—something His Holiness contradicted, and something the cost to build Amitabha betrays. Along the Himalayan spine, from Bhutan to Ladakh, the Drukpas are doing fine. But as HH had said, before there was a media, no one outside the region cared what went on here. The Drukpas in Bhutan don’t have China battering down monasteries and driving His Holiness into a public exile; therefore, neither do they have the platoons of Western sycophants that the Dalai Lama’s Gelugpa sect has. The Drukpas don’t have any visible Western spokespeople like the Dalai Lama does either. Certainly no awareness booths on the European summer concert circuit, though there are a fair few palefaces wandering around outside the assembly hall.
“Celebrities have sought him out,” said a visiting American disciple about the Gyalwang, “but his personality comes second [to the teaching].” Going by the Tibetan name Kunzung Lhamo, bestowed on him by the master, the ponytailed American man of middle age said HH had kept a low profile on purpose for many years, and had met many of his Western followers in person. “When you’d see him, he’d remember you. He’d know what you were doing,” said Lhamo’s Australian wife, initiate name Orgyen Dorje. “His Holiness always took an interest.” Seated beside Lhamo is Dutchman Jan Duin, also here for the week’s events. He is listed as an ‘honorary member’ on the Drukpa Council website.
One could presume His Holiness took a personal interest in, aside from Duin, the other 27 honorary members listed on the website as well, mostly from Taiwan and Hong Kong. These first two councils had surely cost a mint, and were staged after His Holiness had quietly gone around the world initiating members like Lhamo and Dorje—over a dinner table in Sydney, in their case—for the past many years. He’s set to make a big public appearance in London this summer, and I ask myself if it isn’t an old-fashioned fundraising mission.
As for the three Westerners sitting outside the assembly hall, I wonder whether the era when these disciples could rap with His Holiness on a personal basis may be over. Tenphel, a Drukpa monk originally from Brazil, confirms this later. “If his Holiness saw everyone, his whole day would be spent listening to our problems,” he said.
Are the Drukpas selling out? I took up the query with Carrie, and posited that the bigger the push towards the West—starting, let’s say, with the Jamie Burke concert—the less time people will get to spend with their guru. And judging from past phases in the West—the Dalai Lama coming in and out of fashion, to say nothing of Kaballah—the sect could easily be chewed up and spat out by the pampered pseudo-questers of LA. “What if Madonna gets a hold of this?” I asked facetiously, but only a little. “We have no control over that,” she admitted.
Our three-year-old Sengdrak Rinpoche was very much en vogue on his big day, though. At the enthronement ceremony, the toddler had looked out at the gathered cenobites over a massive pile of potato chips and sugary biscuits, his view interrupted periodically by an SLR or video camera stuck in his face. At one point in the multi-hour ceremony, I was somehow comforted to see he was also having trouble staying awake, as streams of monks and disciples in traditional Tibetan costume queued to be blessed by the little guy with no childhood or adolescence in sight. “But they’re not like us, you know?” said Dipam after the ceremony. “They have a higher purpose.”
We were having lunch on the roof of the hospital, behind the assembly hall where not long ago, the Drukpas had held an eye clinic. While loitering around, I ran into that guy with the camera. I’d seen him around every day we’d been here, snapping photos, but hadn’t really met him yet. Turns out it was Ned, Jamie Burke’s mate from England. He wasn’t here for any great awakenings either, but like his friend, he was into the mission statement. He talked about what had been happening at the hospital recently, and I asked him for his full name. He showed me his pass, which read: Ned Rock n’ Roll. He insisted his surname was Rock n’ Roll, and with most other affiliated Westerners taking up pseudonyms, I couldn’t begrudge him his. He said the doctors had treated many locals for cataracts and other eye conditions. “They were blind,” said Mr Rock n’ Roll, “but when they left, they could see.”
I still felt myopic.
SO WHAT, INDEED, WAS GOING ON HERE?
What did an 800-year-old sect of Tibetan Buddhists have to do with a Calvin Klein model and his band? I was still trying to sort it out—not for their sake, or even yours, but for my own peace of mind—on our last evening in town, being ferried from the Park Village Hotel to the Kathmandu Guesthouse.
There was meant to be a Maoist strike the next day, and the receptionist at the Park Village said we’d be pelted with stones if we tried to move around the streets, and we were being transferred to another hotel to be closer to the airport. We’d still need a police escort, he said, and though I wasn’t exactly comforted, I thought at least maybe there could be something dramatic for the end of the story that still couldn’t be the story the Drukpas would want me to write. (The story they wanted appeared a few days later in The Times of India Crest Edition.)
Yes. That would be perfect. If Maoists pelted our bus with stones and police beat them back, that would be an epiphanic ending to the story. Operatic. Tremendous stuff. So when they told us the strike had been called off, I was disappointed more than relieved.
That emotion—that build-up to something exciting, just out of sight in our imagination that usually ends in, if not disappointment then at least a return to the perverse, gross material plane—is just the way it works most of the time.
We want to place the Dalai Lama and the Gyalwang Drukpa above us, as the smiling faces of something holy, something aspirational, but if you look behind the curtain, it’s usually business as usual, and no one’s afraid to tug at your spiritual vacancy for a few shekels. And if you feel inadequate, there’s chisel-cheeks Jamie Burke selling you perfume to make you feel better about yourself—or to make you feel worse about yourself so you’ll buy what he’s selling so you can imagine you’re like him. The face of another industry of need, the aspirational aspect of the marketing business maybe even more insidious than that of any sanctioned religion, and, as it turns out, this goes doubly for Burke’s ck one advert in particular.
I watched the ck one commercial on YouTube when I got back to Delhi. Jamie Burke strolls shirtless towards the screen mouthing the lyrics, All around the world, six billion me’s/ So many me’s but only just one we/ we are we are, we are, we are, we are we are, we are we are we are, we are we are/ We are one.
Just vapid enough to be universal truth-worthy and mass-market-friendly at the same time. And, as usual, not in a blast of realisation, but as a bland epiphany, something made sense: The lamas and the Calvin Klein model were in the same business. Emptiness and Need. Behind the clothes and the robes and the fragrances and the smiling face-men, they were selling the same thing.