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Lapsed Lama Recalls 800 Years in Shangri-La : King's Guru Tells of Bhutan's Warp and Woof

January 10, 1987|DICK RORABACK | Times Staff Writer

In the south, elephants, leopards and rhinos trample the heady tropical flora. As the ancients were wont to inscribe on their maps, "Here there be tygers."

In the north, high in the Himalayas, roam yetis and dragons. Oh yes, dragons!

In between is Shangri-La.

And in Shangri-La dwells Benchen Khenpo.

Benchen has been around. For 800 years or more, he explains. This December, he has taken a laid-back leave of absence from his duties as guru to Jigme Singye Wangchuk, fourth king of Bhutan.

Benchen has been displaying his country's rare wares on Pico Boulevard, No. 10868 to be exact, in Los Angeles; (213) 474-5333. His store is in the Westside Pavilion.

Bhutan doesn't export very much to the United States. Not very much at all. In fact, nothing.

An overwhelmingly agrarian society, its men till the soil and tend the herds. Its women weave. Oh, do they weave!

Their exquisite, painstaking, entirely hand-crafted textiles must be seen to be appreciated: wall hangings, dresses, tapestries, coats, boot tops. . . .

"Each village has its own traditional patterns," says Benchen, a lapsed lama who spent six years traveling his country on foot to amass the collection.

"They've been practicing their art since--I guess since time began."

So has Benchen.

Benchen, you see, has been guru to Bhutan's rulers for more than 300 years. Before that, "Who knows?"

Buddhists, of course, are reincarnated regularly. So, Benchen says, is everybody, though he doesn't press the point.

A short, sturdy, smiling man who looks like a benevolent Charles Bronson, Benchen reckons he is now 42, "in this life."

At the age of 6, they came for him. He was not surprised.

The guru of the present king's father, Jigme Dorji Wangchuk, had died. The king asked his high lama to find his reincarnation. "We want to know where he was reborn," the king said.

The high lama "received instructions," Benchen said, not bothering to explain whence the instructions came, it being quite obvious to him.

"It was like a map," Benchen said: "so-and-so village, so-and-so house facing in so-and-so direction. Name of parents. Name of myself.

"So the king sent a delegation of holy men to my village, to make sure. I knew they were coming. I told my mother, 'I'm expecting a lot of guests this evening.'

"She said, 'What are you talking about, Stupid?' 'Stupid' was my nickname.

"They came, and right away I recognized one monk who was my friend in a past life. I hugged him.

"They still wanted to make sure. They had brought a lot of objects, a few of them from my previous life. They said, 'Which is your coat? Which is your bell?'

"It was easy. The memory comes back much easier when you are a child, when your brain is still clear, before it is so cluttered you can't see through it.

"So I told them which was my bell, and the other things, and that was that."

Young Benchen was taken to a Bhutanese monastery for a few years, then sent to Tibet to study and meditate.

"China took over Tibet in 1959," he said, "so I had to run away, to escape." By then, however, Benchen, a relatively earthy, splendidly gregarious man, had decided "I didn't want the monastery life, not again ."

He was packed off to India for an education in a Catholic school ("You know, run by a father and a mother") so as to better serve his king. He has been in government service since, with his special project the introduction of Bhutanese textiles to the West. "The people do such wonderful work. I want to help them. If I can sell their weaving--some of the tapestries take a year or more to make--then they can be free to weave, not have to go and milk the cows . . . "

The display at Pico will likely be one's only chance to see Bhutan's handicrafts. Tucked between India and Tibet, totally isolated from the West, Bhutan has gently dissuaded tourism until very recently.

Even now, tourism is carefully controlled, and only by tour group. Only about 2,000 visitors were received--albeit most cordially--last year. The tourist industry, moreover, is expected to grow to a maximum 3,500 by about 1995.

Benchen, the soul of hospitality, does not say it in so many words, but the implication is clear: You live in Shangri-La, you don't want it cluttered up with beer cans and rock concerts. Besides, they might spook the dragons. Or, more probably, vice versa.

"Dragons definitely exist in Bhutan," says Benchen, a simple declaration, neither precious nor ingenuous. Dragons just are, period.

Bhutan, in fact, is called either Land of the Thunder Dragon or Land of the Peaceful Dragon, depending on which of the intriguing little films you watch at Benchen's exhibition.

Prefers 'Peaceful'

"It was 'thunder' originally," Benchen said, "because that's the sound a dragon makes when he flies. But I prefer 'peaceful' because it better describes my country."

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