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The THRONE of SHIVA


[Published in 2000, this is an expanded account of the Mt. Kailash kora of 1994, first described in The Last Place on Earth.]

Crossing an intimidating span of cantilevered logs splayed twenty feet above the churning gray Karnali River, I pass a stone marker that informs me I am leaving the Kingdom of Nepal behind and entering the People’s Republic of China. My feet touch down in occupied Tibet.

Meandering through the tiny border village of Zher, with its fieldstone huts and whitewashed chöten [conical domed monuments called stupa on the other side of the river] I enter an ochre and sienna wonderland where the Karnali evolves into the Mapcha Khabab, [River Flowing From the Peacock’s Mouth]. Stretching before me, like the sensuous folds of Tara’s supine body,[1] lies the high desert plain of Central Asia.

Our entourage, led by Gary McCue,[2] an American expat living in Kathmandu, has been six days on the trail from Simikot, a high mountain outpost with the only airstrip in far-western Nepal. We have been winding our way along an ancient salt trading route that follows the Humla Karnali River to the Himalayan watershed at Nara Lagna, a 15,000-foot pass. Our destination is a mythical mountain rising like a glittering pyramid of ice out of the arid Tibetan plateau, a mountain long considered to be the “Axis of the World” and revered by Hindus, Buddhists, Jains, and Bön-po [3] as the most sacred place on Earth.

References to this mountain of legend first appeared in records from the Sumerian civilization of Bronze Age Mesopotamia, and were echoed in the folklore of many ancient cultures. The Indian Vishnu Purana describes Mount Meru as the “Center of the Universe,” encircled by the seven continents and seven oceans, a physical manifestation of the mandala [a geometric projection of universal consciousness]. From Meru’s summit, it was said that the sacred waters of the Ganges fall and divide into four great rivers. The epic Mahabharata describes this “King of Mountains” with lavish hyperbole:

There is an all-surpassing mountain that blazes like a pile of fire and

Casts forth the splendor of the sun with its golden glowing peak—Mount Meru! [4]

Although mythic in reputation, Meru was subsequently discovered to be geographically substantial. In the remote Zhang-Zhung kingdom of Western Tibet, a solitary peak called Gang Ti-sé by the shamanic Bön-po inhabiting the region fit the ancient descriptions of Meru with surprising accuracy. From a nearby watershed, the Indus, Sutlej, Brahmaputra, and Karnali Rivers flow in torrents through the Himalaya, carrying life to the thirsty Indian subcontinent. Tibetan Buddhists who came to hold this place sacred named the peak Gang Rinpoché [Precious Snow Mountain]; Jains called it Ashtapada, but it is by a Hindi name that this 22,028-foot natural pyramid is best known: Kailash [5]—the dwelling place of Shiva, wild primordial yogin, and Lord of the Dance.

In the mid-1970s, I had stumbled upon Sven Hedin’s Transhimalaya: Discoveries and Adventures in Tibet, Lama Anagarika Govinda’s The Way of the White Clouds, and Heinrich Harrer’s Seven Years in Tibet in the musty stacks of the San Francisco Public Library. But most provocative among this peripatetic genré was an account by Herbert Tichy, an Austrian adventurer who set off from India in search of what Hedin had described as the “glittering pyramid of silver.” In his 1938 book Tibetan Adventure, I encountered a picture that was to change the course of my life. Lying belly-down in the dust to conceal his camera, Tichy had photographed a group of Buddhist lamas in prayer before the sheer, ice glazed face of an unclimbed holy mountain—more treacherous, from the look of it, than the infamous Eigerwand of Switzerland, yet more beautiful in its serene singularity than any natural monolith on Earth. Until the moment I fixated on this fading black and white image, I didn’t know it was possible to fall in love with a piece of stone.

I felt utterly compelled to stand in the physical presence of Sven Hedin’s silver pyramid, but that was quite impossible at the time. The Chinese People’s Liberation Army [PLA] had invaded Tibet in 1950, sealing it off from the outside world, and even though Richard Nixon’s foreign policy had resulted in a strained diplomatic dialogue with Mao Zedong, Tibet had become more of a lost horizon than in James Hilton’s day.

And why was I so obsessed with this “sacred mountain” anyway? Did I seriously think enlightenment was to be had by circling a piece of rock in the middle of nowhere? A recovered idealist, I got with the program, married, had children, started a business, got divorced—the whole catastrophe. Then, in the latter part of the 1980s, Tibet opened to limited travel, and the obsession was rekindled. I began to plot a course in that direction, convinced that the time had come to meet Shiva face to face.

I joined Gary, with whom I’d trekked previously, and our group of white, middle-class pilgrims in Kathmandu during the humid month of May 1994. We chartered a twin-engine prop plane to drop us and our provisions in Simikot, situated in a green terraced valley surrounded by 18,000-foot nameless snow peaks, where lammergeiers play tag on the wind with kites. From there, it was all on foot.

During long days on the trail, I have managed to engage most of my fellow trekkers in conversation of a philosophical nature. After all, this is a pilgrimage, and stripped of our Western attire and attitudes, we are just another group of seekers approaching a mystery in the form of a mountain.

It’s an eclectic group: Mahalia is a practitioner of Maulawi Sufism, Advaita Vedanta, Diamond Heart, and a few other things I’ve never heard of. Barbara, a student of the Karma-Kagyü school of Vajrayana, recently worked with Mother Therese in the slums of Calcutta. Michael, a schoolteacher and mountaineer from Seattle, spends his spare moments absorbing Mahayana ritual like a sponge too long deprived of moisture. Peter and his fiancée, Leela, are just besotted with one another, and as mobile as I wished I could have been in my twenties. Edward, a practicing carpenter, has never been anywhere and decided to spend his 50th birthday in Tibet. Go figure.

As for me, I’m not a Buddhist. Nor, for that matter, am I a Christian, Hindu, Muslim, or Jew. If anything, I’m a heretic. It became clear to me at an early age that any “organized” religion will always choose to propagate structure at the expense of truth, because human beings create ritual to institutionalize what they don’t really understand. And, although they often pay lip service to the concept, those in charge are rarely receptive to questioning authority—especially their own. I have twice been expelled from such institutions for vocalizing my unwelcomed questions.

Fortunately, heretics are no longer burned at the stake—in most places.

20 May 1994, Khochar, Tibet

By mid-day we reach the village of Khochar [or Khojarnath, to Hindu pilgrims], where the whitewashed masonry is so bright with reflective sunlight that I cannot remove my glacier glasses. Here we meet our Tibetan guides.

Jhampa, by sheer coincidence, was with Gary and I on the Kangshung Glacier trek in 1991. He is the product of school in Beijing, which can only mean that his parents were collaborators. There is no real education available for Tibetans who remained loyalists to the Fourteenth Dali Lama after his escape in 1959. The best job a young man can get is working for foreign tourists as a guide or driver. A woman’s best bet is to marry one.

Our other guide, Rinchen, came up hard. His parents died in prison, and the young boy was taken under the wing of GT Sönam, who is as close as one comes to an entrepreneur in Tibet. Sönam specializes in the high-end tourist trade, and is permitted to operate only because his profitable business lines Chinese pockets. We greet our amicable Tibetan hosts with the all-purpose phrase, Tashi-delek, which seems to be the colloquial equivalent of “Yo” when addressing a Philadelphian.

Passing a field of newly-formed mud bricks drying in the merciless sun, we traverse a mani wall [6] festooned with yak horns dusted in ochre, then penetrate a convoluted maze of alleys into the heart of a tenth century monastery complex under restoration. The central temple is awash with the faint glow of a thousand butter lamps flickering on the faces of three golden bodhisattva [7]—Jampeyang [wisdom], Chenrezik [compassion], and Changna Dorje [power]. But in other chambers we are shown nearly obliterated frescoes and mutilated statuary—relics of desecration by the PLA One chapel has been used as a horse stable by the aesthetically barren “liberators”.

As the afternoon shadows lengthen under a cloudless sky, we board Toyota Land Cruisers that will carry us to Purang, once known as Taklakot, the provincial capitol of the Ngari region. The dusty plateau is surprisingly hot during the day, even at an average elevation of 14,000 feet, and predictably cold at night. Our two-hour passage is flanked on one side by the 25,000-foot massif of Gurla Mandata, and on the other by the most astonishing mountain wall I have ever seen—the Zanskar Range to the south, merging on the western horizon with India’s Byas Rikhi Himal— knife-edged peaks of eternal snow stretching as far as the imagination can project them.

20 May 1994, Purang, Tibet

Purang is a thoroughly wretched place, as are most towns where the Chinese have installed a military garrison. When we check in at the police station, our passports are confiscated and our bags searched—for what, we haven’t a clue. And we are informed that the border crossing from Humla has been officially closed. Our group is apparently the last to be allowed through, which leaves us all feeling uncomfortably isolated.

To make the situation even more tenuous, the Beijing bureaucrats have barred our planned overland travel to Lhasa. The 43rd anniversary of the “Peaceful Liberation of Tibet”, the Buddhist festival of Saga Dawa [8], and fourth anniversary of the Tiananmen Square massacre are all occurring in the next several weeks. Needles to say, troops are on full alert in Lhasa. But there is a silver lining to this dark cloud of political intrigue—we are permitted to proceed to Gang Rimpoché.

After our interview with the police, Barbara and I go for a late afternoon stroll through the dusty streets. We pass a young girl hustling customers into a Chinese restaurant, unemployed Tibetans shooting 8-ball with Chinese soldiers outside the disco, and truckloads of fur-clad pilgrims en route to Darchen. At the end of town we are greeted by a spectacular view of Gurla Mandata with a picturesque aqueduct traversing the hillside in the foreground. As I adjust the f-stop of my camera, a passing troop carrier screeches to a halt.

A green uniformed boy of twenty leaps from the cab, attempting to confiscate my film. I quickly back off, zipping the camera into my fanny pack, and fumble for my papers. The young soldier stabs his finger vehemently at the aqueduct and barks angry admonishments.

Upon further inspection of the hillside, I realize that there is more to the scene than had been immediately apparent. Above the stone aqueduct, built meticulously into the ochre landscape, an army gun emplacement is trained on the nearby Indian border. Naturally, it is forbidden to photograph such things. Barbara and I grin and gesture effusively toward Gurla Mandata, extolling its magnificence in Pidgin English. Finally, the soldier decides we are just stupid tourists, spits a final caution, and climbs back into his truck, leaving both camera and film in my possession.

In the morning, we take the opportunity to wash our hair and clothes in the courtyard of the Purang Guest House—a grim synthesis of gulag and the Bates’ Motel—as far from the latrine as we can possibly get. Refreshed, most of our group visits the cave temple of Gungpur [“Fly to Heaven”], a gömpa [“a place in solitude”] carved from a canyon wall just north of town.

Nearby, some of the local children engage us in a playful session of cross-cultural communication. One of the little girls, Agilamo, leads me by the hand up a trail to the mouth of a small cave dug into the crumbling walls of the cliff. There, she introduces me to an old man whose eyes are glazed over with cataracts, a common result of high altitude exposure to ultraviolet light.

As he spins his copper prayer wheel, I speak to him in my own language, sensing somehow that he can comprehend the emotion in my voice. I tell him how I have just scaled the ladders at Tsegu, crossed a rickety catwalk to a tiny chapel excavated from the solid mountain wall, and knelt beside the 100,000 teachings—strips of hand-printed paper neatly bound and stacked into a compartmented alcove. There, before an effigy of Chenrezik, Buddha of Compassion, I felt my heart tear open.

I recalled the litany of atrocities: An estimated 1.2 million Tibetans dead as a result of China’s invasion, occupation, mass-imprisonment, torture, and work gangs; 6,000 monasteries, temples, and chapels like this one destroyed; and a wholesale attempt to smash popular belief in the Buddha dharma[ix] along with the theocracy that espoused it.

But just as I worked myself into a fine state of anger, I remembered that the pre-invasion government of Tibet was indeed a feudal, and sometimes oppressive state itself. And I remember that it was a Chinese man who wrote the Tao Teh Ching, arguably the single most profound collection of wisdom ever to appear on this planet.

Nothing is ever as black and white as our preconceptions, I admit to the old man. Experience opens our eyes to a most dazzling array of hues, and tones, and tints, and shades of truth. Perhaps the followers of Sakyamuni are paying a karmic debt. The wonders of Tibetan culture might never have been brought to Western attention had the Chinese not felt it necessary to liberate people who did not want or need their assistance. And, had Gyelwa Rinpoche [10] not gone into exile, we might never have been exposed to his remarkable compassion toward those oppressors. The dharma is indeed a curious unfoldment.

The old hermit considers the sound of what I have said, then nods sagely and asks, “Gang Rinpoche?”

When I give an affirmative response, he smiles thoughtfully and shows me his swollen ankles, indicating that he cannot make that pilgrimage himself. He is too old, has been visited by too much suffering. He seems to ask me if I will carry his greeting to the Precious Snow Mountain. I tell him that I will be honored to do so, and his milky eyes drift into a peaceful silence. The old man resumes spinning the wheel of dharma as if I never existed, and Agilamo leads me back to the others.

On a ridge above Purang, about a kilometer to the north and close to 15,000 feet above sea level, is all that remains of the great Shepeling monastery. Once an enormous structure where thousands of monks studied and meditated upon the sutras, Shepeling appears to have been deserted for at least half a millennium. In fact, it was destroyed sometime after 1966, during one of the blackest horror shows of recorded history, Mao Zedong’s “Cultural Revolution”.

The great reformers of the People’s Republic of China had no use for a Buddhist theocracy. Tibet’s ponderously complex art and ritual represented ideas that were anathema to Mao’s ideology, and were therefore to be eradicated from the cultural fabric. Besides, Tibet made a formidable military buffer zone between China and India—and a great place to dump nuclear waste.

Shepeling is just one more forgotten desecration in a tidal wave of annihilation—the dark side of nirvana. The PLA, undoubtedly aided by Tibetan sympathizers, tore the roof off the earthenware structure, leaving the harsh climate free to reclaim the elements from which Shepeling had been constructed. No one remembers how many monks were

slaughtered there, or shuttled off to labor camps for “reeducation in revolutionary values. It is a place redolent with emotion, with ghosts howling in the incessant wind. As I wander through the crumbling ruins, the dying sun casts long shadows against ochre walls still showing faded pastel images of once-vibrant murals.

Then the psychic pictures of slaughter descend on me like a flock of raptors, and I cry out in anguish, “This isn’t how it was supposed to happen!” But, no, I realize before the words have formed into a sentence that I am wrong. This is exactly how it was supposed to happen. It could never be any other way. This is the dharma.

As tears mingle with the red dust at my feet, I realize that my whole life, everything I have ever thought, or done, or planned, or avoided—every glorious and wretched moment—has been carefully designed to bring me to this place, and to this absurdly simple cognition: we don’t begin to live until we face the absolute certainty of our own death. Knowing that this body will cease to be, changes everything. And of course, it changes nothing at all.

22 May 1994, Darchen, Tibet

Our dirty Land Cruisers lumber over Gurla La, and then descend to the Barkha Plain where dust devils whirl like toothless cyclones across endless stretches of desert scrub. Off in the distance, I can see it. On the horizon, a white pyramid towers above the surrounding range of supplicant hills, a diamond glittering on the cusp between a lapis lazuli sky and the raw ochre of earth.

We are jostled on rutted tracks for fifty miles, bandannas covering our faces to stave off the unrelenting dust, until one of the vehicles gasps to a halt with a fouled fuel intake. As we mill about on the Barkha plain, Edward points to the east. Nearly camouflaged against the rusty hills, a herd of kiyang, rare Tibetan wild Asses, graze on sparse vegetation. Finally, Rinchen signals that the repair has been made, and we climb back into the vehicles with a simultaneous groan.

In mid-afternoon, our caravan arrives at the pilgrims’ encampment at Darchen, where we pitch our tents on concrete blocks above the garbage-choked stream flowing through the bleak village and tent city surrounding it.

I can no longer contain myself. While the others nap and organize their duffels behind zipped flaps, I climb for ninety minutes to a 16,500-foot ridge, moving like a man possessed, pushing higher and higher, fighting a wrathful wind that presses me back with each step. Finally, after years of fantasy and impossible anticipation, pumped full of adrenaline from the strenuous ascent, I cast unobstructed eyes upon the Throne of Shiva.

Steadying myself against a huge mani stone cairn festooned with, skulls, flags and wooden poba [tea bowls], I drink in the last golden rays of light that bathe the “sapphire” face of Gang Rinpoche. What existed only as mental image, a picture in a book, has finally become a solid reality, more perfectly breathtaking than can be fully absorbed in my oxygen-impaired state. Reveling like a drunk in the sharp, angular light and rarefied air, I am filled with a joy I could not have anticipated.

The wind on the ridge viciously swats my tripod and camera against the rocks as I set up to take a photograph, nearly knocking me over as well—doubtless, a dakini [female spirit of the mountains, a combination of siren and harpy] having her kicks. Even so, I am possessed by the stunning sensuality of Kailash, and imagine a priapic Shiva making eternal love to his spiritual consort Parvati on the summit. This crystal wonder overwhelms me; the only words that can express my state are those already inscribed on the stones at my feet by others so enraptured.

The Mountain sings: Om ma ni pad me hum, and I resonate in the refrain.

23 May 1994, Selung Chu, Tibet

After a nearly sleepless night of barking dogs and loud drunken pilgrims, we break camp at Darchen. While our entourage set off on the prescribed route for the 32-mile clock-wise parikrama, or circumambulation of Kailash, Gary and I detour up the winding Selung Chu [Gray River Valley].

Among the rocks lining the rushing stream, I find the skull of a bharal, the Himalayan blue sheep, which is the preferred delicacy of uncia uncia, the snow leopard. Whatever dispatched this animal has long gone, and the bone is bleached white. Good luck comes to one, I have heard, who prominently displays a bharal skull in his home. Although not particularly superstitious, I am cautious enough to hedge my bets. Cinching the brittle talisman to my rucksack, I continue up into the windy saddle between a cathedral-shaped butte called Nandi, after Shiva’s bull, and the striated white buttress of Kailash.

A plume of snow avalanches from the long vertical cleft in the mountain’s south face, known as the “Stairway to Heaven” long before Led Zeppelin was a gleam in the eye of the universe. It was carved, so the legend goes, by the sorcerer Naro Bönchung as he fell from Gang Ti-sé’s summit after losing a magical duel with Milarepa, black magician turned Buddhist ascetic, reputedly the only human being ever to stand on the mountain’s peak. But Milarepa did not climb to the summit; the tale is told that he flew—like one of the great soaring lammergeiers that float in endless meditation on the thermal currents.

By mid-afternoon we reach an overlook above the talus-filled amphitheater that marks the beginning of the nangkor, the inner circuit passing between the holy mountain’s south face and the flank of Nandi. Entrance is forbidden to one who has not already made thirteen outer kora [clockwise circles]. As it happens, I am way too tired to flout tradition.

Stripping off my gear, I sit down on a rock to contemplate the perfection of the geological architecture arrayed before me. Emotionally naked in the light of midday, I am beset again by the dakini. These capricious sprites have a way of opening one’s eyes to the illusion of reality. Or is it the reality of illusion? I seem to have lost my bearings. When—or if—I return from this journey, will I still be the man whose face I have seen in the mirror for the past 43 years? Or someone else—someone I have not yet become?

On the slope where I sit, tiny cairns rise like Lilliputian temples over the studded hillside. “Spirit houses”, Gary explains. During the interval one spends in the bardo, the “gap” between one incarnation and another, according to Tibetan scripture, one needs a place to dwell in safety, for the bardo is full of the most abominable mental projections and irresistible temptations [11]. We chuckle condescendingly at this myth—and then cautiously, ironically, reverently, we lay aside our civilized hubris and begin to build, constructing our spirit houses side by side on an icy piece of real estate facing the Stairway to Heaven.

24 May 1994, Rechung Phuk, Tibet

The cold, desiccating, endless night has ended. A merciful sun finally crests the canyon walls and begins to warm the Lha Chu [God’s River] valley. This is a barren, dusty world, over 15,000 feet in elevation, yet surprisingly beautiful in its utter starkness. Striated walls rise on either side of this sloping valley bisected by an icy silver ribbon of holy water. With food in our bellies, we set off to explore the Martian landscape.

At Chöku, a gömpa directly above our campsite, pilgrims perform a mini-kora of the structure, like slow-motion electrons whirling around a mud brick nucleus. A separate shrine, called a gönkhang, is dedicated to Gangri Lhatsen, a “protector” of demonic appearance. But to our dismay, no women are allowed to enter this chapel. Spiritual chauvinism is apparently non-denominational.

A few of us continue up the defile to a cleft slashed into the wall of a mountain called Nyenri. Scrambling up the steep talus bleeding from that gash for a thousand feet, we are rewarded with the glorious sight of fluttering prayer flags marking Rechung Phuk, a cave that sheltered Jetsun [12] Mila 900 years ago. A repa [thin white cotton garment] was all the mystic ever wore, even in the dead of winter. From his lofty aerie, Milarepa commanded a view of Kailash to the north and Gurla Mandhata to the south. His cave was constructed of tightly fit stones and a packed sod roof, but we suspect these were later improvements made to the site.

I descend into the saint’s cave, and sit enraptured by particles of dust dancing on a single beam of light, floating ever upward toward a slit opening in the ceiling, then higher, toward the source of light itself. In this solitude of harsh contrasts, I am suddenly overcome with grief. Sobbing in darkness, I cannot remember what it is like to feel joy. I know that this body will inevitably return to dust, and yes, I do fear the great unknown of death. But more than that, I fear for my children, for the harsh and violent world they will inherit.

When I finally emerge into the sunlight, I wonder if these thoughts came to Milarepa when he sat in the darkness, besieged by his own demons. Even saints must have their doubts.

Back in my tent, I lay on a thermal pad, bathed in the yellow glow of sun penetrating the nylon fabric. My gear lies in a pile on my duffel, a chaotic arrangement of colors, and textures, and materials. The reflection in my mirrored glasses reminds me, cruelly, that I am no longer a young man. The gray in my beard, the deepening lines in my face, the eyes that look sad and lost bear witness to my journey toward death.

A drögpa [nomad] pauses before the unzipped tent flap. This young, rather homely girl bends before the golden dome to look at the alien within. Her bright smile reaches out to me from a dirty, red-brown face. “Tashi-delek,” she intones, almost as a song, and I find myself returning her greeting, and smile.

Then suddenly, I am here, only here—in this instant, this now. The waters of “God’s River” flow just beyond my vision, and my life has just begun. Observing this young nomad, I know that my children are safe, and healthy, and happy. I can see them playing with joyous abandon in the reflection of her dark eyes.

25 May 1994, Darpoche, Tibet

Rising at the entrance to the Lha Chu canyon, the Darpoche looms like a garish Druidic May Pole. Each year, during the full moon of May, the huge wooden mast is lowered, new multi-chromatic prayer flags are strung, and the shaft is raised again to the deep trumpeting of horns, and the mesmerizing chant of lamas. There is a frenzy of activity as pilgrims on foot, on horseback, and piled into the backs of open trucks, make numerous kora around the perimeter inscribed by the pole’s anchors.

Prostrators, sporting protective leather aprons over their loose-fitting chuba, make torturous circuits in the red dust. Drögpa open liters of Chinese beer, cook momo [little meat-filled dumplings], and celebrate in wild, drunken groups. Khampas, rose-brown people from the east, bedecked in daggers, silver jewelry, and colorful woolen raiment, braid flaming red tassels into their raven hair, and sell their wares out of white tents adorned with blue Tantric symbols. Such is the carnival atmosphere of Saga Dawa.

But, on a flat escarpment overlooking the frenetic celebration at the Darpoche, we stumble upon a very different venue. At this “sky burial” site, the roljolpa, lamas specially trained for the task of cutting up human corpses—presumably after the former inhabitant has been escorted through the bardo—roll the bits of flesh in tsampa [barley flour] and feed them to Egyptian Griffon vultures all too happy to accommodate the recycling. It is the perfect synthesis of ecology and religion, in a land where firewood is exceedingly scarce, the point at which the food chain loops back upon itself and spirit is freed from imprisonment in maya, the “illusion” we call the physical world.

But no one has died today, and in the spirit of Saga Dawa, a group of chödpa lamas beat drums, ring bells, chant, and confer blessings upon those who request their ministrations. Celebrants bring articles of clothing to leave on the flat rock, where cleavers, knives and tsampa residue are everywhere in evidence. Some of the more devout pilgrims pull out a tooth and leave it on the rock, spitting blood into the dirt to remind them of their mortality.

Amidst this pastiche of hypnotic chanting, primary colors, and frenzied spirituality, Gary introduces me to a flesh and blood dakini. Wearing a leather motorcycle jacket and a Khampa’s fox fur cap, Raphaéla has brown eyes that sparkle in the intense sunlight, framed by a filigree of smiling creases. Her face is that of a former fashion model, sunburned and devoid of makeup, but beautiful nonetheless. She speaks Tibetan as fluently as her native French, and a man knows instantly that it would be insane to fall in love with her. There is a predatory seductiveness in her eyes, and a sense that she would devour me if I gave her half a chance.

“Do you have something to put on my lips?” Raphaéla asks with her sophisticated Parisian accent. I take deep breaths and hand her my chapstick.

Raphaéla is an accomplished photographer who wields her well-worn Nikon like a pro. But it is her real estate holdings near Paris, she admits, that allow her to travel Asia in search of…well, whatever it is she’s searching for.

As we snap pictures of each other like Japanese tourists, Raphaéla asks me quite seriously, “Are you doing the dharma?” I don’t know quite how to answer. I am not a Buddhist, but I also realize that has nothing whatsoever to do with her question.

To me, the dharma is a process of peeling fine layers of cloudy intellectual and mystical membrane from the onion of truth. Somewhere at the center of this klugey human construct of hope and faith and good intentions is the reality that awakened Siddhartha Gautama. He did not arise from beneath that pipal tree with a complex, ritualized cosmology, but rather with a simple observation of what is—and what isn’t. Siddhartha was not a Buddhist either; he was a heretic.

“What else can I do?” I finally reply.

“Ah, tres bon!” She likes the answer, rewarding me with a perfect white smile, which I capture forever on film.

26 May 1994, Drira Phuk, Tibet

It is said that a parikrama of Kailash washes away the sins of a lifetime. Heaven knows, I have a lot of scrubbing to do.

I walk in solitude through the desolate Lha Chu canyon. With each step, my heels rub raw against boot leather as I painfully inspect a life stripped of illusion. By the time Gang Rimpoché’s awesome north face peers over a shoulder of purple rock, I feel purged of excuses, emptied of alibis. Sitting down to eat lunch with my fellow pilgrims, I am possessed of a hunger that seems as vast as the great valley that stretches before us to the gömpa at Drira Phuk [Cave of the Female Yak’s Horn].

A few of us climb still higher along a scree-choked stream that empties from the Gangjam glacier. Beyond, blue seracs rise like frozen waveforms from the mottled ice, their shadows stretched into rippling daggers by the waning afternoon light. Beneath the sheer north wall, we begin to sink up to our crotches in the sun-softened glacial snow. Above me, the “golden” face of Kailash rises in a 4,000-foot vertical thrust of ice-glazed rock. Michael and his brother Peter are accomplished mountaineers, but they gaze up at this monolith with open mouths. “Holy shit!” Michael exclaims softly, a nervous laugh underscored with reverence, “I don’t see a good route on that wall.”

Kailash remains one of the very few legendary mountains on this planet left unclimbed, not because of its altitude or its technical difficulty, but because of the complete awe in which the mountain is held by those fortunate enough to stand in its radiance. And now that I am standing here, my heart bursting, I realize that this is not just a mountain filling the expanse of my vision. It represents everything I do not yet understand, reified into impenetrable stone. Perfection, whispers Gang Rinpoche, is observing that which is, and feeling neither the need, nor the desire, to make it otherwise.

Michael and I build a cairn on a rocky promontory at 17,500 feet, securing a prayer flag beneath the capstone. I notice two figures appear at the edge of the glacier, trudging through the snow in our direction. The pair of drögpa reaches our little monument, spot the flags, and immediately prostrate in prayer. I throw Peter an ironic smile, suddenly remembering the words of Saint Francis of Assisi:

Lord, make me an instrument of thy peace.

As the Tibetans pay homage at our makeshift alter, Gary and Edward reach the high point. We celebrate the carpenter’s tenacity with the last of our Pashupati biscuits.

After a few words with the drögies, Gary cautions, “There are most likely streams running below the snow up here, and that means crevasses. I think we should call it a day and get back to camp.”

Although I realize that we’re rapidly losing sunlight, I am suddenly obsessed with touching the Throne of Shiva. Its siren song beckons and I feel powerless to resist.

“It’s not that far,” I yell like a sugar-hyped child, bounding through deep snow toward the dark, looming wall. “Come on, we can make it to the face. We can touch it!”

But Gary knows better. He has seen too often how altitude can obliterate reason. Our leader calls my name forcefully and I stop in mid-stride, as if on a psychic tether, turn in the direction of his deep, steady voice. “It’s time to surrender that male ego!”

I look up at Shiva, bereft of words. So close, so goddamn close! But Gary has exposed me; he knows I demand divine verification just like my namesake, the doubting apostle, Thomas. And we both know that is a fool’s game.

I sink into serene submission, content just to have reached this spot, to exist in this moment. There is nothing to prove. It is perfect, just as it is. Parvati nods her approval, and I place my fingertips together in salute before descending to where it is safe for humans to live.

When sunrise turns Kailash primrose, I walk in chilled intoxication to the gömpa at Drira Phuk. Climbing to the flat roof, I calculate the spot where Herbert Tichy must have lain on his belly sixty years ago, pointing his Leica rangefinder at the lamas paying homage to Gang Rinpoché. And for just a moment, I experience the exhilaration he must have felt, and understand why he threw caution to the wind in order to snap the shutter. Although Tichy never achieved fame during his 75 years of exploration, his serendipitous photograph utterly changed the course of my life. How many lives might I touch with the image I am about to make?

I raise my Canon EOS 1 to frame the shot. The mountain is golden, the sky a royal blue. My polarizer cuts the glare; I press the shutter release and…nothing.

My battery is dead. Dakini always have the last laugh.

27 May 1994, Drölma La, Tibet

Before we cross Drölma La, the highest point on the parikrama—18,200 feet by Gary’s altimeter—we are invited to share pok, a doughy mixture of roasted barley nuts, tsampa, and butter tea with a group of ani, Buddhist nuns. I never cease to be amazed by the generosity of these people. Possessing so little, they are willing to share everything.

As I climb the steep, snowbound incline to the pass, my fingers caress a cool, flat object inside my Gore-Tex pocket. Three years ago, it beckoned to me like forbidden fruit on Chakpori Hill, former site of the Medical College in Lhasa. It was so small, and there were so many of them, just lying around in the dirt. Surely, I thought, no one would miss this one.

The mani stone was kept on my office desk in San Francisco, occasionally eliciting a curious inquiry from a friend or client. I learned later that it is considered the worst possible luck to take a prayer offering as a souvenir. But, because of its location, the stone managed to survive the 1991 firestorm in the Oakland Hills that destroyed everything else I owned. And so I made a vow to return it to the cairn from which it had been taken when I returned to Lhasa—not because I’m superstitious, mind you, but because Murphy’s Law is not likely to be repealed.

However, my plans for restitution were changed by some Chinese bureaucrat barring our way to Lhasa. Then a bizarre thought occurred to me: perhaps the one who had carved this stone, like the old man with the cataracts at Gungpur, had not been able to make the pilgrimage to Gang Rinpoche. Might not the universe have made me the unwitting instrument of a circuitous destiny, the serendipitous porter of that incapacitated pilgrim’s offering to the destination for which it had been intended all along?

Hey, why not?

Finally reaching the flag-draped boulder that marks the icy summit of the pass— named for Drölma, the forgiver of all sins—I wrap my indestructible mani stone in a yellow square of cotton printed with the Wind Horse, granter of all wishes. I wedge it into a niche, sheltered from the fierce wind, and stand back to admire the stone’s new setting. I feel as if I and its maker had run an unconscious relay to place this symbol of eternal being at the Axis of the World, where it can touch, and be touched by the thousands of pilgrims who will eventually make the rigorous journey.

In that instant, I recall Edward Lorenz’s suggestion that something as seemingly insignificant as the fluttering of a butterfly’s wings has the potential to affect global weather patterns [13]. If the physicist’s assertion is true, then at some quantum level, connection is all there is. Mutual Arising, as Sakyamuni put it.

28 May 1994, Lake Manasarovar, Tibet

Due south of Mount Kailash, the twin lakes of Rakshas Tal and Manasarovar [Langka Tsho and Mapam Yumtsho in Tibetan] emblazon a natural yin/yang symbol on the geography. Raksas Tal is the dark sapphire repository of female energy, and its water is reputed to be poisonous—an intriguingly misogynistic, but apocryphal myth. Manasarovar, on the other hand, holds male energy, and it is claimed that full-submersion in its icy depths ensures enlightenment for Hindus; a mere drink promises the same for less intrepid Buddhists, who feel that dunking one’s body would only befoul the precious water. Buddhists generally settle for a sip and a splash over the head—hence the name of the local gömpa: Trugo, which, as near as anyone can figure, means “Holy Head Washing Gate”.

We are camped near the gömpa on a shingle of soft sand beside Manasarovar, the setting sun turning the surrounding hills to gold, and the wind-rippled surface of the lake to purple. With exuberance, we crack open liters of Lhasa beer to celebrate the conclusion of our kora. Tomorrow, we will enjoy not only a day of holy head washing, but also the Zen of laundering our filthy clothes.

At 15,000 feet, the temperature of Manasarovar dissuades most of our group from seeking the enlightenment assured by full immersion. But Michael and I have decided that we are not about to let this once-in-a-lifetime chance go by.

With the solemnity of naughty children, we strip off our fleece clothing and wade into the frigid lake for a quick plunge beneath the surface. This frosty baptism elicits screams of exhilarated shock, and lunatic laughter. Waist deep in holy water, I scoop up a handful of Manasarovar and swallow a draught to replenish my depleted male energy. Ah, if only enlightenment were so easily attained.

That afternoon, I sit with Mahalia near the edge of the placid lake, lazily watching the sun drift like a golden veil across Manasarovar to the distant glistening snow cone of Kailash.

“Do you think it’s male or female?” she asks. “The mountain, I mean.”

“Both,” I reply. “The north face is definitely phallic, but that slit on the south face…”

“You’re right,” Mahalia concedes with laughter. “It’s a yoni!” She places her Walkman headset over my ears and plays a twelfth century Gregorian chant written by the mystical prodigy Hildegard von Bingen. Backed by an angelic choral, Parvati sings me to sleep.

31 May 1994, Purang, Tibet

The overland return to Simikot has presented a logistical nightmare for Gary. Still unable to give us just cause for this interdiction, the local officials have posted border guards at Zher, not only to insure that no one else enters, but also to make certain we leave the way we came. Gary sent two Sherpas hoofing back to Simikot, where they wired Kathmandu for supplies and new trekking permits, rounded up local porters, and marched them northward to meet us on the Nepal side of the Karnali River.

To my delight, Raphaéla rolls into Purang with a group from the German Alpine Club, led by Bruno, an übermensch who wears an ornate Khampa warrior’s belt and struts like a Luftwaffe pilot. Obviously, he is smitten by her; just as obviously, she is using him to get a ride to Shigatse, where she needs to extend her visa. Dakini are like that.

Covered with grit and dust from the road, Raphaéla and I eat yak cheese and momo on the filthy steps of the Purang guesthouse, flirting with each other as if we were in a chic bistro on Boulevard Saint Germaine. When our passports are returned and our vehicles ready, she passes me a slip of paper with her European telephone number.

“I will be in Tibet until autumn,” she says, “studying with the young Karmapa. Then maybe back home for a while. If you are ever near St. Cloud,” Raphaelá adds provocatively, “fax me.”

We embrace and I wish her well.

1 June 1994, Zher, Tibet

Arriving in Zher at twilight, we set up camp at the edge of the sleepy village, and bid farewell to Jhampa and Rinchen. As our guides place white khata [ceremonial scarves] around our necks, I wonder what awaits them back in Lhasa. Life there is a tenuous proposition for Tibetans, now minorities in their own home. A wrong word, or a suspicious action could cause one to disappear into the black bowels of Dhrapchi prison—a bardo through which anyone would fear to pass.

I feel sadly relieved to be leaving this country. Oppression hangs in the air like the dark cloud of a nuclear winter, but one does not appreciate its full weight until out from beneath it. Without a doubt, feudal Tibet had its drawbacks, but crushing the human spirit seems a high price to pay for land reform and redistribution of wealth.

In the morning, we greet Dendi Sherpa and the porters who will lug our gear back down the Karnali gorge. Armed border guards check our passports far too carefully, and then escort us to the river’s edge. One young soldier roughly taps the bharal skull strapped to my rucksack and laughs contemptuously as I descend toward the Karnali River crossing.

The arrogant, coal-eyed boys with guns enrage me. Gary smiles knowingly before I say something that we all will regret. “It’s not worth it. Keep walking.”

I remember that they really are boys who, given a choice, would prefer to be almost anywhere other than the Tibetan border waiting for the appearance of an errant trekker, or an unlikely invasion of Indian troops. What purpose does it serve to be angry at these pawns of Beijing’s octogenarian bureaucracy? True compassion cannot be conditional. It’s easy to care about the oppressed, but very difficult to love the oppressor.

I suppose integrity is, after all, a lifelong pursuit, and the world a constant reminder of my vast imperfection. I think of Raphaéla’s incisive question, and her lusty laugh reminds me that if I am not doing the dharma, it will be doing me.

Notes:

[1] Tara [“She Who Helps Cross” in Sanskrit], is the female aspect of compassion, and the equivalent of the Chinese Kuan-yin, Japanese Kannon, or Tibetan Drölma.

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

[3] Tibetans call their country Bhöt [pronounced: Pö], and their ancient, animistic religion is known as Bön. A practitioner is a Bön-po. The much later Tibetan Buddhism is a thing unto itself, consisting of Tantric ritual, Bön mysticism, and Buddhist philosophy. It is usually distinguished as Vajrayana [“Vehicle of the Indestructible Diamond Thunderbolt”]. Hence the problem with literal translation.

[4] vanBuitenen, J.A.B. [trans. and ed.], Mahabharata (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1975), 1 (5) 15.5-10.

[5] For a more complete history and description of Kailas, see: Allen, Charles, A Mountain in Tibet (London: André Deutsch Ltd., 1982); Snelling, John, The Sacred Mountain (London: East-West Publications, 1983,1990); Johnson, Russell, & Moran, Kerry, The Sacred Mountain of Tibet (Rochester, Vermont: Park Street Press, 1989).

[6] Mani wall: a stacked wall of loose stones inscribed with the words Om ma ni pad me hum in Devanagri script. It is said that these sounds echo the harmonic resonance that continuously creates all substance and life within the universe. Thus the mantra, whether chanted or carved, brings the faithful into harmony with the primal rhythm of the cosmos. But pedantic linguists insist on something more literal, like: “Hail to the Wish Fulfilling Jewel in the Lotus.” Somehow, this falls short of the enormous significance the mantra communicates to Tibetans.

[7] Bodhisattva: an enlightened being who consciously chooses to forgo nirvana [extinguishment], instead reincarnating to work for the liberation of all other sentient beings. The best-known are Avalokiteshvara [compassion], Manjusri, [wisdom], and Vajrapani [power]. They are called Chenrezig, Jambayang, and Changna Dorje in Tibet.

[8] Saga Dawa is a simultaneously celebration of Siddhartha Gautama’s birth, death, and awakening as the Buddha.

[9] Dharma is a Sanskrit term which means “great norm.” It represents the factors of existence, the basis of Buddha’s teaching, and the cosmic law underlying our reality.

[10] Tenzin Gyatso, the Fourteenth Dalai Lama, is known to Tibetans as Gyelwa Rinpoché. “Dalai Lama” was actually a title bestowed by the Mongolian Emperor.

[11] Fremantle, Francesca and Trungpa, Chögyam [trans.] The Tibetan Book of the Dead or Bardo Thötröl. A work attributed to Guru Rinpoché [a.k.a.: Padmasambhava] according to Karma-Lingpa, (Boston, Shambhala, 1992).

[12] Jetsun: an honorific title applied to revered teachers in Tibet.

[13i] Gleick, James, Chaos, The Making of a New Science (New York: Viking, 1987). See Chapter 1, p.11: “The Butterfly Effect”.

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