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The geography of happiness

March 20, 2020

reading time: 8 minutes

by Richard Aslan, presented by Cereal


A journey to Bhutan, the Land of the Dragon: Wide rivers, Buddhists myths and the search for happiness. 

It is already getting dark. I sit in a pool of lamplight. There are papers strewn across my desk, and a steaming cup of tea sits at my elbow. Outside, thin, cold rain slants down through naked branches. I count the windows in the building on the other side of the courtyard beyond the trees. In one of them, there is a warm, orange light, and the silhouette of a bowed head; the dark shape of someone else at work. My fingers hover over the keyboard. I am here to write to you about happiness. But I hesitate.

Where can I find happiness? In the pulse of fluids rushing around my body, perhaps? Or will I find it between flicking synapses and the collage of memories in my mind? If it is there, lurking among shifting images and swells of emotion, how can I be sure it exists at all? Or is happiness out there in the world, somewhere, waiting to be found? Is there a place where a gentle havoc has been wrought on our messy, struggling hearts, and we can just be?

Wrathful and smiling

Druk Yul, the Land of the Dragon, lies at the far eastern end of the Himalayas, beyond the ochre inclines of Kashmir and Ladakh in the west, and the high, sparse, Tibetan plateau. Here, the Earth’s crust buckles upwards as the Indian Subcontinent pushes insistently at the southern flank of Eurasia. Secret valleys, dark with rhododendrons. Wide, rushing rivers, paved with flat stones washed smooth by the colour turquoise. The sheer wall of a fortress towering over ranks of upright pines.

"Is there a place where a gentle havoc has been wrought on our messy, struggling hearts, and we can just be?"

I refuse to indulge in treacherous fantasies — even for a moment — that people anywhere are anything other than people, filled with hopes and fears, sorrow and delight, joy and disappointment. I will not talk to you about Shangri-La, because I am sure it does not exist.

Still, the myth persists, and I cannot let go of the suspicion that there might be a secret after all. After thousands of years, locked in the steadfast hold of the mountains, did they discover the prize? In dark monasteries, filled with murmuring, tradition, technique, and teachings were woven painstakingly together. Vajrayana; diamond thunderbolt vehicle, grafting indestructibility onto irresistible force. A chariot forged to carry us from right here, right now, and away to happiness.

What you accomplish in seven years in Tibet, you will accomplish in seven days in these holy places.


Guru Rinpoche. Padmasambhava. Pema Jung-né. Lotus born. I stare at his portrait. He is wrathful and smiling. He blazes magnificently. On his head, he wears a five-petalled lotus hat. His eyes are wide open in a piercing gaze. His lips are parted. His complexion is the silvery white of the moon, tinged with the fiery red of the sun. In his right hand, he holds a five-pronged thunderbolt to his heart. In his left, a skull cap brimming with the nectar of deathless wisdom and compassion. He flew to these valleys on the back of his lover, Yeshé Tsogyal, Wisdom Ocean, transformed into a winged tigress. He left an imprint of his body on the wall of a cave at Kurjey Lhakhang Temple. Tiger’s Nest Monastery was built around Taktsang Sengé Samdup, the cave where he meditated.

“There is not a place in Bhutan,” he said, “even the size of a horse-shoe or a sesame seed, where I have not set my foot. Just by travelling here, you will find the path to liberation. Flee to the southern gorges, the hidden, sacred land! What you accomplish in seven years in Tibet”, he said, “you will accomplish in seven days in these holy places.”

Colours and skulls

His mantra rings out through the perfume-laden air. Om Ah Hung Benza Guru Pema Siddhi Hung. Om Ah Hung purifies the obscurations emerging from the three mental poisons of attraction, aversion, and indifference. Benza cleanses the confusion arising from anger. Guru banishes the delusions flowing from pride. Pema drives away the maddening fog of desire. Siddhi frees us from the grip of envy. Hung wipes away all emotional afflictions. The notes reverberate through the air before his song fades into stillness.

The "Tiger's Nest" is enthroned next to the cave where Padmasambhava used to meditate.

I am silent. Can there be any greater goal than striving for the happiness of every sentient being? But what of my own happiness? What if these two things are in conflict? Can I have one without the other?

I expected peace and contemplation, but instead, I find bright colours, singing and dancing, spiced pork, red rice, and heady wine. Skirts swirl in the yellow, white, red, green, and blue of the five elements of earth, water, fire, air, space. Jackets are embroidered with grinning skulls; constant reminders of impermanence. Masks bristle with the tusks of wild boar, the fangs of tigers, and the shredding beaks of vultures.

Through the storm of dream logic can I see, directly, the ground of my being? Can I fuse the view with reality, and use the hatchet, the dagger, the antler, to cut through solidity and into direct vision? Spontaneous presence. Rigpa. Dharma. Chö. Whatever reality is, I can be certain it is more than I can imagine. 

Wideness and mountain ranges alternate: the mountains of the Himalaya.
Wideness and mountain ranges alternate: the peaks of the Himalaya.

The wide sweep of a valley floor. Earth tones. A geometric grid of rice paddies. Mist over a line of mountains and a higher, broken horizon beyond. Piles of stones and spinning prayer wheels. Empty streets and imposing, plaster buildings. I came here to escape, but this vehicle keeps bringing me straight back home.

Can I find happiness riding on a battered bus along a bumpy road on the way to a house full of relatives who delight and exasperate in equal measure? Can I locate it in a belly that is just a little too full? Or in the heat of a hand enfolded into my hand? Does it lay among the pushing and pulling of love, or amid the pangs of jealousy? Does it even swim in this shadow-soup of sorrow? Or between the beats of excitement, and the lightning strikes of mirth, loss, and pain? Should I visualise the destruction of my body five times a day? Is happiness acceptance, or a dopamine hit to my brain?

My hands still hover over the keyboard. Have I come this far just to discover what I already knew? In the midst of all this magnificence cloaked in shaded forest, I realise I cannot fly to happiness on the back a of winged tigress, because it is already, always there. It sparkles through the warp and weft of memory, expectation, and fear. It exists in the way of other things — complex, contradictory, fleeting — in the spaces between one moment and the next. Happiness, I write, is a kind of haunting.

Images: Rich Stapleton

On Cereal

MAG/NET curates selected contributions from Cereal, one of the world’s leading independent publications, covering the subjects of travel, art, design, and style. The magazine is published biannually, is available in over 45 countries, and features content from around the globe.

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