Posted by: Sarah Lidsey | January 7, 2010

Pilgrimage of the Heart: Mount Kailash, Tibet

 

Pilgrimage is a very special thing.  For me it is about reconnecting – remembering – feeling with awe the incredible places that exist on this planet and how important they are in the mandala of my existence. It is the journey to something unknown but guessed at, to a place to find more of myself and to connect with other realities than my own.  It is a journey of enlightenment in the most humble sense of the word.  Mount Kailash, in Tibet, embodies all of that and, as the explorer and Buddhist theologian Ian Baker writes in discussing the experience of the Tibetans traveling to sacred sites, ‘pilgrimage is not entirely about reaching the destination, but in transcend[ing] through inspired travel the attachments and habits of inattention that restrict awareness of a larger reality’. He notes (T. Kelly, C. Dunham and I. Baker, Tibet: Reflections from the Wheel of Life) that ‘the sacred sites themselves, through their geological features and the narratives of the transformation attached to them, continually remind pilgrims of the liberating power of the [Tantric Buddhist] tradition.’ I believe it is the same no matter what your belief structure.  I am struck by the similarity in the approach to the sacred nature of the land of many ancient cultures. The Tibetans and, for instance, the Aboriginal peoples of Australia both are in living contact with the icons and energies of their ‘dreamings’. The Tibetans wrote down their experiences of the sacred lands they inhabit, with accounts of the forces they encountered there, interpreting its significance as it interwove with their history, creating a sacred geography recorded both orally and on paper in the same way that the original peoples of Australia did through their oral recollections.  These cultures and others tell of a world ordered and transformed through the magic and metaphysics of their traditions, through the unity of man with land and spirit.  I feel incredibly blessed to have experienced this for myself especially in this journey to Mount Kailash, one of the most profound and powerful recognized places of pilgrimage on this planet.

I knew from the moment I saw my first photograph of Mount Kailash that I had to go there.  I also knew that I wasn’t ready. Both pieces of intuition came in so fast that it was as if they were fact. Some four years from that moment I began my preparation, and another two later I knew that the timing was right and I could go. In that time, I started to learn about Hinduism and Tibetan Buddhism from an extraordinary teacher of both traditions, Tom Kenyon. In addition, I read a lot, and I attended teachings given by Tibetan Buddhist, and Bön Lamas, and other awakened masters.  I steeped myself in the sensibilities of the East.

Records of Mount Kailash’s legendary status go back to the time of the ancient Asian cultures that predate the Buddhist, Hindu and Jain cosmologies. It was then depicted as the mythical Mount Meru, the Axis Mundi, both the center of the universe and the birthplace of the entire world.  To the Tibetan people it is the home of Chakrasamvara, Buddha of supreme Bliss and Emptiness. For followers of the Hindu faith Mount Kailash is the seat of Shiva. Together with Brahma (the Creator) and Vishnu (the Preserver of life), he is one of the trinity of male creator deities, and of that triad, he holds the powers of destruction and transformation. By dint of that, he is also the one who creates the space for life to be reborn. Perhaps because of this, death (whether physical or spiritual) and rebirth are part of Mount Kailash’s arsenal of powers. At the foot of this sacred Mountain is the ‘home’ of Shiva’s consort, Parvati. Her residence is the magical Lake Manasarovar – a word meaning ‘Consciousness and Enlightenment’ – whose powers are said to purify those who bath in her, and to bestow on some great shamanic abilities.  Beside her – its shape a crescent to her full moon – is the Lake of Demons, Lake Rakshastal, whose presence seems to point to the importance of embracing the dualistic nature of this world – light and dark, balance at the heart of all creation.  Behind Parvati’s seat is the earthly residence of Saraswati, Cosmic mother who, myth suggests, resides in the beautiful mountain Gurla Mandata that looks over to the South face of Mount Kailash.  From the standpoint of pure esoteric and metaphysical awareness, Mount Kailash is the place where the lineages and laws of many of the Eastern religions and philosophies are held, and interacting with them, whether you hold those beliefs or not, is often a life changing experience.  Here, many gateways and portals to other dimensions and other worlds are held, controlled, and guarded by spiritual masters of each lineage.  Here, the Wheel of Life, which many say dictates how you enter and leave this reality, where you go to, and what you reincarnate as, is activated.

This sacred Mountain’s dynamism is tangible and it stands out like a pyramid over its own mountain range in the Himalayas.  It also sits in an area of great geophysical power.  From its immediate area arise four of the major rivers of Asia – the Indus, the Sutlej – an important tributary of the Indus, the Brahmaputra, and the Karnali – a tributary of the Ganges.  They flow out in four directions across Tibet and down into India.  The position of Mount Kailash as the axial point of these four rivers, and as the holder of perfect balance in the world, gave rise to the ancient symbol given to the Mountain, the Swastika.  Though hijacked by the Nazi party in Germany in the 20th Century, in truth it symbolizes divine unity, and is said to convey good fortune and happiness.

Mount Kailash’s geographical splendor and position are matched by its perceived spiritual weight.  Though not the highest of the Tibetan peaks, at 22,028’ it is one of the most revered mountains in the Himalayan region. GangTise, as it is called by the Tibet’s most ancient practitioners, the Bönpo, is visited by the hardy who can reach it by vehicle, or on foot, replete with all the supplies they might need.  It is in a remote region in the far west of the country, and the journey there is often difficult and sometimes dangerous, and not for the faint of heart. The altitude is high on the Tibetan Plateau, the air thin, and the weather mercurial – it can close in at a moment’s notice leaving the traveler stranded or disappointed as the Mountain recedes, veiled by impenetratable, often violent storms.  The role of the land, and the relationship of the pilgrim to the journey cannot be overstated.  The necessity of right relationship between man, land, and spirit is key.  Without that, unseen and unexpected obstacles impede the traveler’s path.  Stories abound of sickness, whether altitude related or not and in addition, for the foreign traveler, broken down vehicles that prevent arrival within the small window of time that the visas issued for this trip allow, as well as foul weather and fouler connections with supply trucks and support staff.  Luck may account for part of this equation, but in this region you walk on powerful ground and it pays not to take that lightly.

In deference to its spiritual standing, Mount Kailash has never been climbed. Pilgrims circumambulate its base in accordance with the nature of respectful pilgrimage, a journey known as a Kora. The most walked outer Kora, which covers a distance of around 32 miles, isn’t a particularly hard trek but because of the altitude (between 15,000’ and 18,750’) and the dry atmosphere, it is really wearing on the body. It is said that by circling the Mountain once in your lifetime you release all negative karma accrued in that life, and if you are so fortunate as to make the journey in the Year of the Horse, ten lifetimes worth dissolve.  Only after going there do you realize what a feat it would be to complete the 108 Koras required to attain enlightenment!  So it is that people flock here every year to release their karma, or to die, for to die at Mount Kailash is said to guarantee an immediate entry, through the divinely directed exit points accessible here, into Nirvana.

Valley to South West

From the moment you descend into the valley to the South West of the Mountain, you are under the eye of Shiva, and the energies of death are tangible.  The journey goes something like this – having left the small town of Darchen, you pass from the Tarboche flag pole and the Sky Burial site above it, through a deep valley following the western side of the Mountain, past the Three Pinacles of Longevity, great craggy mastiffs of rock – each home to a powerful deity – that overlook you as you move deeper onto the path of pilgrimage onwards, towards the North face of the Mountain, under the gaze of which most travelers rest for the night prior to making the climb up to the highest point, the Dolma La pass, which you reach at just over 18,750’ towards the end of that second day. The whole time the consciousness of the mountain rains down on you as you walk, and you are offered the opportunity to let go of ignorance and negative karma. Shiva takes it and transmutes it, and then his energies give way to those of Tara, the Buddha of Healing and Compassion, and once you have crossed over the Dolma La Pass it is she who welcomes you back into life.

It was important to me at the outset to find a company to go with that was both equipped and practiced in traveling at high altitude, and also aware of the sacred nature of the journey.  As the time drew closer I was struggling to find someone who held both pieces, and whose trip coincided with the timing that my inner knowing dictated was right for me.  In the end I joined a practiced, professional outfit, and trusted that I could carry the spiritual piece clearly myself and that all would unfold as it was meant to for me. Just prior to leaving New York, and in an amazing synchronicity of timing, I was privileged to attend a teaching and receive a personal blessing from the Netchung Oracle, State Oracle to the Tibetan Government in Exile, and embodier of Dorje Drakden, the premier protector spirit for the Buddha dharma, its practitioners and the sacred lands of Tibet.  He gave me blessed grains to take with me, and on connecting with my fellow travelers, our guides and crew, I shared this good fortune amongst us all.

As well as the blessing of the Oracle, before I left I was also given a warning, crystal clear guidance for my journey that if I went in with any willful intention to change any specific aspect of my being I would be washed away as flotsam in the potency of the energies I was about to encounter.  Like stepping into the current of a raging, fast flowing river, should I enter into the transformative currents here with a specific intention of change, the result was sure to be death from its force, speed, and power. For me, survival in the presence of this mountain necessitated that I metaphorically stand on the banks and let the stream of consciousness wash away whatever was ready to be given up with a natural ease. I was to do no more than stand in its presence and surrender to its will, rather than actively engage it.  I viscerally understood that to ignore the guidance I had been given would have direct and immediate consequences. It was a salient warning as I find personal evolution fascinating.  And so, as I left London on my way to Kathmandu and the start of my trip, I said a highly emotional goodbye to my bewildered, lovely, sister and headed out of the door.  I thought I might not be coming back.  As it turned out I did, but I didn’t know who I was for some time!  My purification and transformation at the hands of the Mountain was incredible.

I started out on the five week trip to and from Mount Kailash early in September 2007.  I traveled with three others and our Hungarian guide, Anna.  We spent a few days in Kathmandu and Llasa, site-seeing and acclimatizing before driving for the best part of a week across the country in two four wheel drive vehicles, with a kitchen truck going ahead to set up camps and prepare meals for us at the end of each day.  Two nights out of Llasa, past Gyantse and Shigatse, and we were finally clear of the areas where Chinese influence is most tangible.  The Chinese occupation of the Tibetan lands leaves a feeling of visceral oppression, and so it was with a sigh of relief that we headed out onto the Tibetan Plateau.  Our crew was largely from Nepal, though on arrival in Llasa we were joined by two Tibetan drivers, Llobsan and ‘PooBoo’, and by a young and very knowledgeable Tibetan guide, Norbu.  The son of nomadic herdsmen, Norbu had only recently returned to Tibet, having been smuggled out of the country aged 8yrs with his brother to live with his aunt in India so that he could be educated as a Tibetan Buddhist by the Tibetan community in exile there.  It was the last time he saw his parents until he returned to his country aged 21yrs.  Not surprisingly he was vehement in his political opinions especially as, upon his re-entry into Tibet, he had been held for three months and subjected to techniques of ‘persuasion’ at the hands of Chinese officials. He told us that he, and other foreign educated Tibetans like him, are treated as second-class (Chinese) citizens in their own land, roundly discriminated against and monitored by the Chinese authorities, their excellent foreign educations and qualifications discounted, their families penalized if they put a foot out of line.  They find it hard to get any work and their pay is low.  His service to us was unique and insightful, and for me, he provided a depth to my journey that was a real blessing.  He talked of his cultural background as well as of the history of the monasteries we visited, of Buddhist doctrine, and about the Buddhist deities that we met in the monasteries that we visited on our way.  He and all our support crew were endlessly friendly, polite and supportive as we went on our journey.

On the fifth day of our safari across the Tibetan Plateau we arrived at the shores of Lake Manasarovar. We learnt that there had been a huge storm there only the day before and that those people already on the Kora had had a really rough time, taking a full day extra to complete their journey, and that those about to start had had to turn back even as they were ready to commence their journey.  It was cold, and the dying force of the storm was still so fierce that our empty tents were being blown out of the ground.  Once unpacked and in them they stayed up, but the beating of the wind against the canvas made sleep impossible.

That first afternoon Anna and I defied the weather to bathe in the Lake.  I had been told before the trip that just wetting my head, hands and feet was sufficient to both pay respects and to receive a purification.  Frankly, it was arctic cold and just stripping down in order to wade out felt like lunacy!  As I approached the shore, I was told by my inner guides to get in.  Full dunking!!  I am not by nature a water person and, unless the water is blood temperature, bathing is anathema to me!  I walked out into the lake in my underwear and, holding my breath, I immersed myself three times.  It was so cold that contact with the water hurt my brain.  Ever mindful of my instructions not to be specific in any request made while on this journey, I asked for a blessing and to release any aspect of my being, conscious or unconscious, that no longer served me.  I was too cold to feel any change in the moment, but I came out feeling purified, prepared and calm in a way that had been absent before; I felt as if my journey had truly begun.  I’d introduced myself to the guardians of this Land and I felt their attention.

Chuku Monastery

We picked up additional supplies (and Norbu finalized our rendez-vous with the yak-herders) in Darchen, a dirty, dust-bowl of a town where pilgrims gather and sometimes spend the night as they start and end of their journey.  Luckily we were not staying there – our support team had gone ahead to set up our camp near tiny Chuku monastery, under the shadow of the South West face of the Mountain. So my three fellow pilgrims and I were ushered quickly through the town and driven west to the entry of the Valley towards the Tarboche flag pole, one of the first major ‘landmarks’ of the Kailash Kora.   Approaching the Mountain I felt humbled to be in its immense presence.  I circled the 80’ high Tarboche pole with its mandala of fluttering prayer flags three times, calling in all my guides, calling on the guardians and spirits of the Land, and singing to Shiva, and to Amitabha, Buddha of Light, to protect me on my path.  By chance, at the end of the third kora round the pole, I stopped and put my hand on a small rock and, looking up to the South face of the Mountain, I dropped into silence. My consciousness shifted and I felt the gates to the Kora open and permission to enter was given to me.  It was an amazing feeling, like awakening to a different reality separated from me physically by only the thinnest of veils. And so I took the first steps up to the sky burial site, a place where Tibetan people used to routinely bring their dead to be picked clean by the Vultures and, as custom dictates, I symbolically laid down my life as nothing in the face of these awesome powers.  Spread-eagled on the ground, I offered myself and left a token – a few strands of hair – as part of that prayer.

Mani stone, Kailash Kora

The whole of my journey around the Kora was a walking meditation of such profundity and such simplicity.  I was keenly aware of the rocks that I walked by and the consciousness of the landscape.  The air is crystal clear, pure, and thin there, and all that breaks the silence is the wind, and the sound of pilgrims talking as they walk.  Most Tibetans positively race round, and if not doing prostrations the whole way, generally they complete the Kora in a single day.  Most foreign tourists take two nights and three days to make the pilgrimage.  We were doing it slowly over three nights and three days, camping our first night in the valley to the South West of the mountain.  At the end of our second day, we met up with our belongings and the soulful yaks that carried it all around the Kora, and we set up camp below the North face. That night was a brilliantly clear and cold one, and the sunlight as it hit the snow-covered face of the Mountain gave off a yellow light before dusk deepened it into the rich purple shadows of night.

North Face, Mt. Kailash

As the light sank I fell into a high fever, one that was like an intense level of internal purification that lasted for most of the night.  I prayed that I would be strong enough to walk up to the Shivastal the next day so that I could, as tradition dictates, hand to Shiva that which no longer served me. According to tradition, I intended to leave something to signify the release of the burden – a symbolic token, though it could have been an article of clothing, or just about anything. Before I had left New York I had decided to make and take a totem fashioned from a piece of Palo Santo wood (a sacred tree of the southern hemisphere), a braid of hair, and a small heart made of stone (as signs of my connection to life and of my desire to open up my being to love on every level). The potency and symbolism to me was completed with the signature of my blood stamped into the wood.

By dawn the following day I was fine – weak, but fine. Breathing slowly and evenly so that the effect of the altitude wasn’t too intense, I set out with my traveling companions on the final part of the walk through the energies of death.  We were now at over 17,000’ and even a small incline seemed really stressful to my system.  Something began to move in me and affected me deeply quite a long time before we reached the Shivastal.  I was in tears, unclear about what I was emoting, but clear that at its root was the surrender that I was being invited to make.   A couple of times, I sank to my knees with the weight of these feelings, and I silently asked Shiva for help. I felt the surrender to my bones and as I came to the Shivastal I wandered for a moment until I found a small rock that felt just right, and here I offered up my totem to the Mountain, and sat and meditated for a few minutes.  I looked out over the barren beautiful valleys of Mount Kailash back towards the North face and wondered about life and death.  And as I sat I had the sensation that something left my energy field at high speed moving out into space.  It felt like a pellet being shot out of a pop-gun.  I wasn’t at all sure what aspect of my being had just left, just that through Grace and with Shiva’s blessing, I had surrendered it.

Dolma La Pass

I rejoined my traveling companions further up, at the Dolma La pass, a place marked by a mass of prayer flags and objects. They had gone ahead, leaving me to my own reflections, each of us deeply respectful of our individual journeys. All of us were contemplative, our gaze turned inward, even as we surveyed the incredible beauty of the Mountain.  As we walked over the pass, from that very first moment I felt the shift in the energies – they felt so very different from Shiva’s.  Under the auspices of Tara I was off, bounding along, grateful to be brimming with Life. I registered on another level entirely how impactful the spiritual beings are as they come down to play in this physical world.  It was a direct experience of the universal power of the Mountain, and the beings that emanate out into this reality from there.  I danced my way down to our final camping spot in a beautiful valley to the east of Mount Kailash, hopping across small streams of glacial water, from moss-covered rock to moss-covered rock, each one of us – whether water, rock, plant, or man – in our own way and time, heading down the valley to the sacred lakes.

The final day’s walk felt like an integration back into life.  The valley was so sunny, frosty, and beautiful and, having meditated in a cave above Milarepa’s monastery, I walked with an empty mind, in an infinite space of such awesome power and clarity.  By early afternoon we had finished our Kora, said goodbye to the yaks and their two herdsmen, and were heading back across the plain to Lake Manasarovar, eating the dust kicked up by the trucks working to construct a new road.  Their activity was jarring after just a few days in such pure silent lands. That night a storm brewed.  The ‘gates’ were closing behind us and a group that we encountered camping near us on the shores of the lake, preparing for their kora as we recovered from ours, were forced to turn back without completing their pilgrimage.  Ours had been a blessed trip – those before and after us had been turned away by the Mountain.

From the Eastern shores of Lake Manasarovar we drove west, out towards the Sutlej valley and deeper into the ancient kingdom of Zhang Zhung, before heading back across the Tibetan plateau to the Nepalese border. Tibetans are not allowed to cross into Nepal, and the bridge between the two countries forms a link that literally and metaphorically connects and divides our worlds.  Strong bonds had formed between our Tibetan guides and us, and it was painful to say goodbye to them as we reached the chaotic immigration point. In what seemed like only moments, we were pushed through and heading once more back into the Western world.

A year later, my heart still overflowing with love for the Mountain, I wanted to return to offer my gratitude for the gifts it had given me, but even as my plans started to crystallize, the borders between China, Tibet, and the western world shut.  I felt that the gates had shut for me too – that for the time being I no longer have permission to walk in the presence of Mount Kailash.  Equally, with time, I have come to understand that even though I had to leave the Mountain, Mount Kailash has never left me – I don’t have to be physically there. The connection is strong, and eternal.

©2010 Sarah Lidsey. All rights reserved. www.sarahlidsey.com

To learn more about Ian Baker, his expeditions and publications go to www.rarejourneys.com


Responses

  1. I just like the approach you took with this topic. It’s not often that you just find a subject so concise and enlightening.

    • it was astounding to learn that a total westerner with no previous leanings/knowledge of hinduism could experence such powerfull feelings/vibrations in the presense of this majestic mountain !!
      I am also planning,god willing, my humble visit to this holiness. Thanks.


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