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The SPACE BETWEEN


[Published in 2000, the events in this story took place in September 1998.]

In late June of 1921, two members of a British reconnaissance team set out from the Tibetan village of Tingri to survey the northern approach to a mountain determined to be the highest point on Earth. One of the mountaineers, George Mallory, made mention in letters to his wife of a Buddhist monastery he and Guy Bullock had encountered at the mouth of a vast glacial floodplain fanning out below the peak. Indigenous people had called the massif Jomolangma, [1] but it was now christened with a proper English name after India’s Surveyor General, Sir George Everest. Mallory referred to the monastic complex they visited as “Rongbuk,” assuming it to be the Tibetan name for the glacier. Eighty years later, I found out just how wrong Mallory had been.

Designated by that same corruption in every Tibetan travel guide, except the one written by my friend and companion, Gary McCue [2], this ochre mud brick gömpa—literally “a place in solitude”—had been virtually destroyed by the Chinese Peoples’ Liberation Army during the Cultural Revolution in the late 1960s. It was rebuilt, predominately as a western tourist attraction, twenty years later. Gary had reasoned that since the actual name of the glacier was Rong-phu, the monastery likely bore the title of Dza Rong-phu. But now, as we sit in the cramped, candle-lit chamber of Tsongpa, one of the young monks in residence, we learn that even Gary’s deduction had been in error.

“What is this monastery called?” Gary inquires in Tibetan, his strong hands cupped around a carved wooden poba of salty yak butter tea.

“Do-ngak Chöling,” replies the elfin monk, a tattered yellow ski jacket covering the upper half of his russet robes, green Chinese sneakers peeking out below their lower hem.

“It’s something like ‘Place of the Dharma, and Tantric Sutras’,” my friend muses.

The site, we learn, is dedicated to Padmasambhava, an eighth century Indian monk who first brought the dharma to the forbidden land of Bhöt—the vast plateau beyond the “Abode of Snow.” Known in Tibet as Guru Rinpoche, this legendary tantric yogin established the school of Nyingma, which once permeated Central Asia and is now known as the “old sect” of Vajrayana.

Tsongpa motions upward and south toward the glacier. “Dza Rong-phu drubphuk,” he explains, practicing his halting English on us. “Guru Rinpoche there alone…many years.”

“Of course,” Gary nods excitedly. “Dza would be where the valley begins to ascend toward the Rong-phu glacier, but it isn’t the name of the gömpa after all, it’s the drubphuk—the cave where Guru Rinpoché meditated in seclusion. Mallory must have heard the words all slurred together and it came out ‘Rong-bhuk’.” We both have a good laugh at how easily our knowledge of geography has been corrupted by bad hearing. Gary turns to the diminutive monk, “How far from here is the cave?”

“Maybe one hour,” Tsongpa confirms. “Tomorrow, you see.”

We pitch our tents in a walled yak pasture below the monastery’s gates, but thick clouds and intermittent rain obliterate any glimpse of the world’s highest peak, which stands as sentinel over the valley. Excited by the prospect of another adventure, but weary from our month-long journey, I curl up in my down sack and dream of waking to a clear sunrise.

We had been trekking further west in the Rongshar and Menlung valleys, exploring the rugged country where the legendary Milarepa was reputed to have flown like an emaciated lammergeier through the canyons of Drin in the eleventh century. There, we climbed steep walls to the village of Drinthang, where Jetsun Mila had been poisoned by a jealous rival, and found below, near the viciously desecrated gömpa of Chuwar, a place called Dreche Phuk—“the Demon’s Tongue Cave”—where the acetic had given up his mortal remains. Strangest of all, we were shown a granite boulder into which, according to legend, the celibate saint had plunged his erect penis as a display of disdain toward the seductive advances of two dakini—capricious "female" mountain spirits. It was a hole of impressive depth and diameter.

But nothing impresses me more than the sensuous, ice-glazed granite flanks of Jomolangma, herself. At daybreak, I throw back the flap of my tent to greet her crystal-blue north face towering like a natural chöten, or stupa, above the living river of gritty ice that forms Rongphu glacier. She is back-lit, crowned with a halo of morning sun, and plumed with a soft feather of snow dancing in the lapis jet stream above her head. Only the arrogant Raj could have been so insensitive as to re-name a goddess after a male colonial bureaucrat.

My breath condenses in the cold air while dressing in the confines of my tent. Encased in synthetic fleece, I make my way to the chapel before breakfast, where the old chant master is leading a ragtag assembly of young monks and ani—Buddhist nuns—in morning prayer. On a cushion covered with dusty rugs, I remove my boots and try to join the spirit of the sangha—the host of initiates. But this proves difficult; several of the ani are coughing with tubercular violence, some of the young monks are snickering at me as if I were a Saturday morning cartoon, and seems more intent on eyeballing the alien in capillene while loudly slurping their bottomless poba of butter tea than the ritual du jour. Yet the chant master croaks on as if it were just the same dharma, different day. In the midst of this distraction, reminiscent of a high school assembly, I cannot manage to silence my cerebral “monkey-chatter,” and leave enshrouded in a state of spiritual dissonance, which even sweet Sherpa tea cannot permeate.

“I’ve found the Key Master,” Gary informs me at breakfast.

I stare at him blankly over warm tsampa pancakes. “Did I miss something?”

“Tsongpa introduced me to the go-nyer, the caretaker who keeps the key to Guru Rinpoché’s cave.”

“Of course,” I nod, heaping Nescafé crystals into an aluminum cup, “the Key Master. That would make sense. After all, some Chinese soldiers with machine guns and mortars might get in and do mischief if the place were left unlocked.”

Gary ignores my sarcasm. “Well, he’s agreed to take us up to the cave after breakfast.”

“Excellent. Do you think he has any tricks for improving the taste of tsampa?”

At 9 a.m., we await the Key Master within the butter-tea-and-yak-dung scented labyrinth of the gömpa. Finally, he appears from an alley, a lean fellow, cut with the lines of a lifetime in high altitude sun. His head is shaven, making it is impossible to guess his age—thirty-five or seventy-five for all I can tell. The Nyingma-pa wears a gray woolen sweater, threadbare at the elbows, over his deep claret robes. His leather street shoes are blown out at the sides; the sole is separating from the last. Evidently, they take their vow of poverty seriously at Do-ngak Chöling.

Gary makes the introductions: “This is Ngawang Sangye,” he tells me. The lanky monk’s face glows with simplicity and generosity, a child-like happiness so prevalent among his brethren. Although his teeth are rotting, Ngawang’s smile is warm and ingratiating. He idly fingers an array of steel keys, some intricately shaped and intriguingly engraved, tethered to his belt by a cord of braided yak hair. Key Master beckons for us to follow him up a sloping moraine beyond the monastery walls, toward the glacier’s tongue.

Along the high route that leads to Jomolangma’s Base Camp, we encounter the scattered ruins of what once had been the enormous hermitage of Changchub Tarling, as well as those of the Rongchung ani-gömpa, an erstwhile nunnery. Here lies more evidence of the Chinese government’s contempt for the “poison” of religion, and a testament to their efficiency in eradicating all aspects of it that didn’t readily contribute to tourist revenues.

After about an hour of following the glacial tributary, we approach a rocky spur affixed with ropes stretched from a central mast across a defile that rises abruptly on the far side. The ropes are strung with a sequence of red, blue, green, yellow, and white squares of wind-tattered cotton, each imprinted with a black drawing of the “Wind Horse” and prayers lettered in Tibetan script. Beneath the mast, a little chapel is built into the slabs of glacial talus. We follow the Key Master up steps carved into the spur, finally reaching a weathered wooden door.

Ngawang selects a plain steel church key from his tether, opens a padlock, then steps back to allow Gary and I entrance to the little chapel. Perhaps I’ve become jaded after exploring the treasures of the Potala, the Tsuglakhang and Tashilumpo monasteries, where enormous gilded images of Maitraya, Chenrezig, Padmasambhava, and Tsong Khapa meditate infinitely within incense-scented chapels, where the rumbling drone of hundreds of chanting monks, and the sophisticated, multi-chromatic architectural ornamentation overwhelm every molecule of one’s being. It is easy to appreciate spirituality in such an aesthetically pleasing environment, but in this wretched little place, where centuries of butter lamp smoke has blackened the rough-hewn rock ceiling, and all but a few pitiful statues have been stolen by looters or sold to European collectors by monks in dire need of food and new shoes, I find myself sinking into ennui.

Key Master points to a hole in the floor and drops down a ladder into the blackness below. We follow with our mini Mag-lites into a six-by-ten-foot cavern with a ceiling so low we have to stoop. The lean monk smiles a near toothless smile, and lights a yak butter lamp beside a tiny grotto in which a small effigy of Guru Rinpoche had been placed.

“Can you imagine,” Gary asks rhetorically, “being in seclusion, meditating for years down in this cave?” I stand in perfunctory admiration as Ngawang reverently reveals his dingy treasures with a fading flashlight. Gary fishes a few yuan from his belt pouch and tucks them alongside the greasy butter drippings and assorted coins scattered on the tiny altar. The monk nods and removes two filthy gray khatas—scarves of greeting—from the shrine, placing them around our necks. They smell rancid and permeated with smoke from the butter lamps.

I am growing rapidly disdainful of the rote ritual piety and self-replicating dogma of Tibetan Buddhism, and simultaneously ashamed by my lack of appreciation for our host’s generosity. I want only to escape from this cold, damp, greasy little hole in the ground, to get back out into the crisp rarefied air and the pristine clarity of Jomolangma, more glorious, more compellingly divine, than any temple fashioned by human craft. Milarepa understood this, and repeatedly admonished the Khadampa priests for their corrupt materialism cloaked in false piety. I have reached utter saturation with man-made religion. It is time to leave these ascetics to their archaic cerebral fantasies and return to the spiritual reality of rock and ice.

As I climb back up the ladder, Gary and Ngawang are conferring in Tibetan.

“He says that there is a kora we can follow,” Gary explains, referring to a clockwise circumambulation route around the premises, undoubtedly replete with various stations of sacred significance.

I sigh impatiently, “I’m anxious to reach Base Camp before sunset.”

“Where’s your sense of adventure?” Gary goads, a challenging grin creasing his sun browned angular face beneath a salt-and-pepper beard. “Let’s see how it goes and bolt if necessary,” he offers judiciously.

Tentatively, I agree and the three of us set off through the defile, beneath the strands of rustling prayer flags flapping like the shreds of Christo’s ill-fated curtain that briefly spanned Colorado’s Rifle Gap.

After half an hour of walking the circuit, we have been shown several little shrines cut into the boulders where shabjay were found. These are generally agreed to be impressions left in solid stone by bodhisattva—a sort of Mann’s Theatre of Buddhist sainthood—but most of the impressions look suspiciously like natural erosion to me, and bear little or no resemblance to human hands or feet. My impatience simmers to contempt.

“I’ve seen enough, Gary. Let’s get out of here.”

Gary makes our apologies to Key Master, and he nods graciously. But as we turn to go, Ngawang touches Gary’s arm and points up the defile behind us. They exchange words and glances up at the tumble of enormous boulders re-arranged by the ever-shifting Himalaya.

Gary takes me aside. “Ngawang says there is one more stop on the kora—Nyang Dong Ringmo, he calls it.”

“What’s that?”

“Another cave of some sort,” Gary replies, “ but not a shrine. He uses a word that means ‘test’. Apparently, only those who have good intentions can get through it.”

“Otherwise?”

Gary draws a finger across his throat and grins menacingly. “Well? Are you game?”

“I don’t like caves, Gary,” I admit as my gut begins to tighten.

“Questioning your intentions?”

“Just my karma. All right. Let’s see this cave of good intentions.”

Ngawang instructs Gary and I to find a black stone and a white stone among the loose scree at our feet. Once we have located these items, we follow the monk several hundred yards up the slope, where he points to an opening in the rock and indicates we will need to remove our rucksacks in order to enter the narrow crevice. We dig out Mag-lites once again and stow our packs behind a boulder. Suddenly sweating, I strip to my tee shirt in the afternoon sun.

“Are you ready?” Gary asks, removing his wide brimmed hat.

“No, but what the hell!”

Crouching, we follow the smiling Key Master into a natural tunnel created by the spaces between the stones. Soon we are crawling in a cool darkness, climbing over obstacles, dropping down into channels formed by a landslide some millennia before the Buddha was a thought in the great Universal Mind. After what seems like an eternity, the passage abruptly narrows to a point where I must contort my body to negotiate the opening in the rock. My shoulder blade scrapes on a rough surface and my boot sole wedges into a crack. With the Mag-lite clenched between my teeth, I wrench free. Discovering that the two stones I’m carrying have become an awkward handicap, I tuck them into the cargo pocket of my trousers, noticing that my hands are shaking with cold—and fear. Suddenly, the monkeys of the mind begin to shriek:

Are you insane? Why did you ever agree to do this? To prove you’re not a coward? To prove you’re as tough as Gary? What if this smiling monk is really a lunatic? What if he can’t find the way out? You’ll never be able to retrace your steps. Are you out of your fucking mind?

It must be obvious by now that even the thought of spelunking breaks me out in a cold sweat. In my panic, I remember a recurring childhood dream: I am deep in a cave just like this one—crawling gradually into a narrower and narrower space, deeper and deeper into a cold dark tunnel. I somehow know that there is an exit just ahead, but soon there is not enough space to squeeze through. My head gets stuck in the gap. I can’t breathe…. The Freudian implications are obvious, but perhaps there are Jungian archetypes at work here as well, Gnostic implications of spirit imprisoned in matter, psyche frozen in stone…or maybe it was just a feverish hallucination.

But I am not able to reason through the etiology just now, as I shiver and sweat simultaneously. We down climb a 12-foot chimney and emerge into a grotto. I shine my wide beam up onto the wet rock twenty feet above my head, then down its concavity to my right; there is an opening in the floor. Cautiously approaching the pit, I discover a low rim of stones built up around it like the lip of a well. Clearly this is a place of ritual, perhaps one that predates even Guru Rinpoche. The ancient Bön-po of Tibet were animists led by shamans like the infamous Naro Bönchung, defeated at Gang Ti-sé—Mount Kailash—in a black magical duel with Milarepa. Looking into the dark hole before me, I can only guess what may have taken place in this grotto deep beneath the glacial moraine…but I try not to.

Ngawang hurls his black stone into the pit with a flourish, and I listen to it clatter off the well shaft for several seconds. When Gary and I have replicated his actions, the monk turns to the opposite side of the grotto. My flashlight reveals a six-foot conical pile of white stones. Key Master tosses his shard to mingle with the others, and again, we follow his lead.

I shine my beam on Ngawang’s face; he is smiling as if in possession of some numinous secret. Key Master begins a subdued discourse, which Gary attempts to translate faithfully: “He says the black stone represents all the karma you carry through life… ‘It is just a burden, so you must throw it away…The white stone represents you—your spirit… By placing it with all the others who have come here, you are rededicating yourself to the liberation of all beings.’”

The monk turns to Gary and taps his Mag-lite. “He wants us to turn them off.” With great trepidation, I oblige.

“‘This is how your journey will be after you die…There will be no butter lamps to light your way…it will be dark, and you will be cold and afraid…’”

No shit!

“‘You will be surrounded by all your demons—the projections of your human mind… Fear of loss will cause your desire to cling to things you no longer need.’”

Like life? Is it wrong to cling to life?

“‘This is what you will find in the bardo…the space between one life and another…You will discover that you are not separate from all other beings… Together, you must help each other face fear…and prepare yourself to blow out the flame of desire.’”

Should I panic yet? Jesus! This guy has decided it’s time to die and he’s taking us with him. No one will know where we are. No one will be looking for us. How the hell are we ever going to find our way out of here?

Although certain I’ve been in more dire circumstances than this, I’m hard pressed at the moment to remember a single instance. We are in Key Master’s hands now, totally at the mercy of his intention and whim. There is no alternative but to hope—to trust—that this little monk is not as insane as he presently appears in my state of high anxiety. There is nothing else I can do, no way out, no course of action but surrender.

I wait in the dead silent darkness—the space between my last thought and the next…

After an eternity in suspended animation, a lamp flashes on. Ngawang is smiling as before, obviously pleased with his little near-death demonstration. He motions us to the base of a boulder in the grotto, where Gary shines his beam down into a crevice.

“There’s a tiny stream under here.”

“Chinlap,” Ngawang replies, motioning me closer. “Drub chu.”

Gary smiles, “A ‘blessing’. We’re supposed to drink the ‘water of attainment’.”

“Why not?” I agree, reaching into the crevice to feel the icy trickle. Wetting my fingers, I bring them to my parched lips. The water is sweet and mineral laden. When Gary has taken his blessing, the Key Master heads off into the underground labyrinth without a word.

We follow closely on his tattered leather heels.

We scramble up a slick, narrow ramp and emerge on a flat boulder sloping sharply to the ochre earth outside the cave. Sliding down out of the talus tomb, the sun kisses my face like a long-absent lover; the cool, rarefied air bites my nose, and I am ecstatically happy to be alive. Endorphins subside; I feel giddy, physically lighter, mentally sharper. It seems that all the problems of life, once weighing so heavily on me, have been effortlessly reduced to trivial annoyances, or vaporized in the blinding mid-day sunlight.

I am new.

The Key Master stands before us with his paradoxical grin, simultaneously wise and childlike. He speaks to me through Gary, “‘Now, you are re-born…now, you can start over… from this moment.’”

Tears well in my eyes. I grope for something to say as I grasp the monk’s hands in mine, but his sage nod tell me that no words are necessary. He understands exactly what I am experiencing—the ineffable. After all, he too was once initiated.

“Tujay chay,” I thank him from the bottom of my heart with a voice that seems to echo another lifetime.

Gary digs deep into his oversized pack, producing a pair of white, Indonesian-knock-off running shoes, and presents them to Ngawang. “I’ve been carrying these around for months, waiting for the right opportunity to give them to a deserving soul,” Gary explains with a wry grin.

With all the time in the world, keys jangling from the braided lanyard at his side, Ngawang Sangye begins back down the trail toward Do-ngak Chöling, clutching his new shoes like a contented child returning home from his birthday party.

Bereft of analysis, I stroke the coarse beard on my face in silent emptiness. Electricity seems to flow from my fingertips, dancing across my cheek like fireflies, crackling through my hair like winter static, pulsing up the back of my neck on a trajectory to the crown of my head, exiting toward some destination beyond my ability to envision.

“Do you suppose we’re alive or dead?” I ask only half-facetiously.

Gary squints for a long time back toward the mouth of the cave, then shakes his head as if waking from a lucid dream. “Probably somewhere in between,” my friend concludes, pulling the canvas brim of his hat down over his eyes.

I shoulder my rucksack in euphoric silence, cinch up, and point what remains of my ego in the direction of the Goddess Miyolangsangma, napping peacefully behind her afternoon veil of silver clouds.

Notes:

[1] Jomolangma is a shortened form of the “Goddess Miolangsangma”. See: Bernbaum, Edwin,

“A Note on the Tibetan and Nepali Names of Mount Everest“ (American Alpine News, 1999)

[2] Gary McCue is author of the definitive guide Trekking in Tibet (Seattle: The Mountaineers, 1991.

Second edition, 1999).

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