This is a story about a pilgrimage I undertook in late summer of 2001- a journey to a mountain in one of the most remote corners of the Earth in an area considered by Buddhist tradition to be “the navel of the world”. As always with pilgrimages though, the journey is not merely a story of epic bus and train rides or the joys and challenges of living out of a backpack with meager food, sleeping in dusty dog houses, encountering stunningly beautiful mountains and friendly natives. Pilgrimage is ultimately an inner journey, an unfolding of the hidden pathways of the mind – the fear, doubt, confusion, and sometimes, the love, compassion, and wisdom of purification.
As Thoreau once remarked, “the mass of men live lives of quiet desperation”. We rush about here and there striving for our little piece of the pie and rarely do we stop to reflect on something larger than “I, me, mine”. This story hopefully serves as a testimony to the blessings that flow when we step out of that narrowness, standing next to the river of life peacefully observing its flow instead of ever being drowned in the turbulent waves.
At the turn of the millennium, I placed my acupuncture career on hold and moved to the Tibetan refugee village of Dharamsala in order to study Buddhist philosophy. In August of 2001, when the fog and rain of the monsoon season is often particularly oppressive, my heart yearned for wider horizons and I decided to make a trip to Mount Kailash. The idea for the trip had been brewing in my mind for a number of years.
That summer, I found a postcard on the road. On it, there was a picture of a Tibetan pilgrim standing next to Lake Manasarovar, the lake at the foot of Kailash, his eyes aglow with the inner light of mystical union. I wanted to experience that, to return to that place inside that we all know, but that so easily escapes us in the clutter of our usual existence.
I had been interested in Tibet for a number of years because many of my teachers were born there. Probably most of you have heard how the 14th Dalai Lama was born in a small village in Tibet and became the spiritual and secular leader of his country at the tender age of 16. When the Communist Chinese invaded Tibet in 1949, he appealed to the world for help but mostly was left to manage the crisis without any outside intervention. Finally, in 1959, after the Chinese army had made it clear there would be no negotiations and had begun shelling the palace, he fled the capital at night, making a dangerous escape over the Himalayan mountains to India.In response to these events, His Holiness, has worked tirelessly for peace in his country, and the world, promoting the Gandhian ideal of non-violence and winning the Nobel Peace Prize in 1989. He often remarks that his religion is kindness and is not interested in converting anyone to Buddhism. Such a being, in my opinion, rarely visits the world, and it is to His Holiness that I dedicate my story.
Shortly after I met the Buddhist teachings in the late 1980s, I had a dream: I was following my teacher and the rest of her students, along the banks of an underground river. Suddenly from this dark, cavernous, and wildly churning watercourse, I instantaneously awakened on a broad plateau. The sky was an intense blue. The horizon was empty, except for a jagged line of snowy peaks, more majestic than any I had ever seen. From within my dream, I had a clear sense of knowing: “These are the Himalayan Mountains.” When I awoke, I wondered, “how could I have known they were the Himalayas?” For many years prior to this, I had periodic nightmares of torture in prison. Was I Tibetan in my previous life?
August, 2001. Seven days before departure. Fast forward a decade. The cozy, familiar world of my one room flat just up the ridge from the Dalai Lama’s residence will soon be left behind. We make so many plans: “I will go here, there. I will do this, that.” But who knows if we will get out of bed today, or even draw the next in-breath or exhale the next out-breath. We are always forever heading out to sea in the tiny ship of this one brief life. As long as we perceive ourselves as separate from the sea, we will fear its waves.
I have never been to Pakistan or China. The internet buzzes with stories of terrorists, bandits, religious zealots, spies and military police. My pack will be heavy, and my body grows weaker with age. Recently in Kashgar, local Muslim dissidents bombed a Chinese government office. The Chinese government responded by executing sixteen Muslims. In the last month, Kashmiri militants have bombed Indian railway stations and the Congress Assembly building in Delhi. And who knows what Osama Bin Laden is up to in nearby Afghanistan?
Is this trip simply a misguided way to touch my deepest fear? I am about to cast the Lonely Planet guidebook and U.S. State Department recommendations to the wind and tread like a human with no birthplace, a homeless wanderer in a timeless universe. Ah, this is freedom, but do I dare? “No! Give me my cage back. I want my security.”
I reflect further: Sooner or later this person named Jordan will die and Tibet will disappear, as have many past empires, and so too will America. There is no escaping the universal law of birth and decay. To see this clearly is the doorway to truth and freedom. If I stay in my cage, I will die, never having lived.
Pakistan border. Hundreds of men are carrying large crates on their heads across the border‚ a distance of a few hundred meters. They offload the freight from a truck, load it on their heads, and trek east on the road into India, sweating profusely in the ninety degree heat, reloading everything back on another truck.
Here is a perfectly good road. There is the truck with four functional wheels. Why make humans labor like beasts when it is so unnecessary? Instead they could be employed for a more intelligent humanitarian purpose such as agriculture, ecological restoration, or building livable homes for the huge Afghani refuge population. Why do governments pay people to go to war instead of paying them to go to peace?
“What nationality?” the custom’s agent asks me? “American.” “Pakistan and America are very good friends,” he replies. “I am so glad to hear that,” I reply. Meanwhile, the dark-skinned man next to me from Zimbabwe is getting an extremely harsh interrogation.
The agent puts a purple triangular stamp on my passport. The ink is wet and runny in the heat, and bleeds onto the adjacent page. None of the words are readable, but I am free to go. A bus is pulling away from the curb just outside the custom’s station and I run to catch it just in time. I am hot and sweaty and still absorbing the chaotic scene at the custom’s office.
Now I am in a different bardo. Something strange is happening all around me but I can’t place it. I feel as if every eye is focused on the white guy with the white hat – ME. Slowly, trying to be nonchalant but dumping sweat out of every pore, I gaze around. Yes, my intuition is right, nearly everyone is staring at me. A genuine smile from the heart is really the best passport of all, so I flash mine, gazing around the room as if to say thanks for the warm welcome to your country.
Everyone seems to relax a bit and my self-consciousness subsides. There is a large partition in the middle of the bus. Hmm. “That’s strange, I wonder what kind of cargo is carried up front?” Suddenly I realize I can’t see any women, old or young, anywhere. The hidden cargo is the female gender.
The segregation of women from men that is customary in fundamentalist Islamic culture adds a layer of tension to society. Male and female exist within each one of us. When the female energy is denied, repressed and abused in the society at large, the male cannot access the compassionate nurturing energy within himself. Instead we get a fanatical militant society with lots of weaponry. The energy contrast is quite evident after living in India for eighteen months where there is no such blatant separation.
A young Pakistani man sits down and quickly engages me in conversation. There is something peculiar about his manner, his zealous friendliness, the fire burning in his eyes. He says he is a medical practitioner and is very excited to hear that I also am in that field. He says he will get off at the next stop, and invites me to come to his home. I think he wants companionship‚ perhaps sexual. Later in the day, on another bus to Islamabad, nearly the same experience repeats itself‚ a man in his mid 20s or early 30s, waiting to be married by his parents, lonely, restless and tense, urgently seeking companionship.
Chinese embassy in Islamabad. While waiting for my China visa to be processed, I visit the Faisal Mosque, a huge temple built with funds from the King of Saudi Arabia. The four minarets around the exterior bear a striking resemblance to nuclear missiles, complete with tail fins, and the interior of the main sanctum has a chandelier which evokes an image of a nuclear explosion‚ thousands of little points of light emanating from a globe of fire in the center. Days later, sharing my observations with a travel guidebook writer on Pakistan, he thinks the architect’s use of imagery is intentional – a sort of glorification of apocalypse and holy wars. But perhaps its just my imagination or my western conditioning?
People are staring at the westerner again. I feel mildly uncomfortable, wondering whether I am welcome. People seem to come here more as a social and family outing, rather than to enter into prayer, though everyone pauses to kneel before the wall and pray for a moment. I must not be quick to judge that which I don’t understand, and if I consider karma, certainly many times in my life I have laughed at the appearance of others who seemed strange. . Now I am closing that circle, and in recognizing the grand movement of spiritual energy on the unseen planes of reality, I drop into the much sought after sacred awareness. The laughter becomes music and the delightful happiness of sentient beings. Others’ stares become sunflowers in a field.
Northern Pakistan and China. Jagged mountains and a winding mountain road over Khunjerab Pass (4800 meters). Taxkorgan, my first experience of a Chinese town. Coming from Islamic Pakistan, the contrast couldn’t be more extreme. Pakistan, where the women are invisible, and the towns seem like villages creeping out of the stone age – a chaos of muddy lanes and shacks with chicken blood painting the rocks at the side of the road. China, where the women are very visible and wearing clothes that imitate liberal western fashions. The towns have ridiculously wide boulevards‚ big enough for a line of tanks – and building facades which rival modern prison architecture in ugliness. Radio towers with loudspeakers blast propaganda periodically.
Kashgar. A bigger, more modern looking Taxkorgan. A few dozen men crowd on a street corner, selling cellular phones – to each other? Very strange. Chairman Mao standing tall over the central square. . Giant billboards depicting the modern successful China, with happy soldiers saluting the Motherland. Powerful images that would repeat themselves all across China and Tibet. Is it true? Certainly, the casual uninformed tourist who does not venture off of Main Street is easily impressed with the new glass and steel going up. Wandering down a back alley, I discover a dilapidated mosque with a padlock on the front door. I sense that I’m not supposed to be seeing this, let alone photographing it. Better keep moving.
Yecheng. This is the back door to Tibet. Here it is possible for intrepid (or perhaps foolish) backpackers to circumvent the official Chinese Tibet policy which requires foreign travelers to join a tour of no less than four people, at considerable expense. If one keeps a low profile and is lucky, it is possible to purchase a ride on a truck entering Tibet via its western “military” road. The passage to Ali, which takes anywhere from two to six days reportedly costs around 500 yuan or about $65.
I catch a local bus to the truck stop south of town, hop out, eagerly looking for my next ride. Perhaps I will be at Kailash by my birthday. Underneath a thatched awning next to a pool table, I see a Westerner with a backpack nearby. Z from central Europe is into his second day of waiting. Yesterday he made an unexpected trip to the police station after getting caught in a private vehicle (forbidden for foreigners). He had made a deal with the driver and was set to go south but the driver was stopped in front of the police station and fined 500 yuan for having an illegal passenger.
We decide to travel together, but all day the drivers seem reluctant to be seen speaking with us. The military road is a politically sensitive area; China only recently appropriated the land from India. The geography is so remote that it took the Indian government a few years to figure out that the Chinese had built a road in their country.
Second day of waiting. Hundreds of Chinese soldiers are moving back and forth every hour, riding like cattle in the back of large flatbed trucks. Sometimes we line up a driver who seems interested, but then something happens, the driver changes his mind, or doesn’t show at the appointed time. I begin to suspect some kind of communication gap, as if everybody is trying to tell us something but we haven’t understood. The truck stop is too visible to Chinese police. Maybe we need to try something different.
At around noon, we finally have a ride lined up. Drawing pictures of stick figures and a setting sun on a piece of paper, the driver nods, 500 yuan each to Ali. The driver will meet us just after dark, around eight, on a turn off a few hundred yards south, out of sight – or at least, that’s what we’ve tried to communicate. Whether he understood us isn’t at all certain in my mind. But for now, the plan is to lay low, and slip down the road around dusk.
Around six thirty, a police officer shows up and much to our displeasure, begins to show an interest in us. First he eyes us from across the road, then, he slowly ambles over. He is holding a baby, trying to look casual, but his crisp green soldier’s uniform and beady eyes look about as casual as, well, a Chinese military police officer. “Nee How”, he coos at the baby, but obviously addressing us. A woman dressed in plainclothes begins to ask us questions, also, trying to be casual, but not doing a very good job of it: “Where are you from? Where are you going?” The woman is either a police officer or under some sort of duress to interrogate us. I wonder who the baby belongs to?
Z. and I, on the other hand, are obviously western tourists trying to sneak into Tibet illegally. Why else would anyone in their right mind be hanging out all day at a seedy truck stop in Western China. I contemplate our options. If we try to sneak away somehow and meet our ride just down the road, the driver will probably be caught and fined. The authorities will record my passport number and I may be permanently black listed from ever visiting China (or Tibet) again. I tell Z. he can do what he likes but I am going back to Yecheng, renting a room for the night, and catching a bus east along the Silk Road in the morning. I have no desire to go to a Chinese police station against my will.
Upon waking in the morning, I hear Americans talking outside the window of the hotel, how do I know they are Americans? Something in their booming voices‚ so full of themselves and their imperial presence. I haven’t heard such arrogance in a long time. Nonetheless, they are my tribe so I walk outside and engage the meekest looking one of them in conversation. Their guide views me with suspicion, obviously I am a loner, not on any official tour. Maybe he thinks being seen with me could bring problems.
They are part of the National Geographic tour to the north face of K2. In a few hours, they will breeze past the checkpoints south of Yecheng without a problem. They have the required papers and paid dearly for them. When I ask how much, the man seems to almost choke on the words as he utters the sum: eighty-six hundred dollars. This is the kind of tourist that has a green light to go almost anywhere in China.
Khotan. A small Chinese city with the usual formula: The center of town looks very modern‚ perhaps a downsized version of any modern city on the planet – Big wide boulevards with shiny glass and steel buildings. Just a few blocks in any direction though, one finds run down buildings from a different era, and then soon after that, dirt and straw shacks.
Two days later Z. and I arrive in Urumqi, a huge modern city in the middle of the desert. I have been traveling now for about two weeks and am perhaps two thousand kilometers further from reaching Kailash than when I started. Lonely Planet doesn’t have much to say about Urumqi, apparently it’s not much of a destination for westerners. We find a park, complete with amusement rides set in the pleasant shade of trees. Young Chinese couples laugh, riding the logs down the sluiceway. I feel like a ghost here, a stranger in a strange land.
Dunhuang. The Mogao Caves line a dry river bank. In the second century, a wandering monk, exhausted from traveling through a sand storm, had a vision of one thousand Buddhas and so began to carve magnificent figures of Buddhas and bodhisattvas into the sandstone cliffs. This place was once a thriving center of spiritual practice, but now it is simply a museum. I suspect the Chinese are shrewdly aware of the value of preserving such places in tourist dollars. . A beautiful sand dune at the southern edge of town with a small pool of water at its base is the other major tourist attraction in the area. Walking past several blocks of souvenir hawkers, when I arrive at an imposing archway, entry to the dunes, the guard gruffly stops me and an attendant demands 50 yuan to pass. 50 yuan to get sweaty climbing a pile of sand! That’s a good joke.
Our Chinese guide and translator at Mogao seems quite knowledgeable regarding the history and artistic styles employed by the sculptors, but in speaking about the basic tenets of Buddhism, her words are clearly spouting the official party line: “Buddhism is nothing but superstitious cult worship.” Mao himself was more blunt: “religion is poison.”
Golmud. After the smokiest 12 hour bus ride of my life, I am sick with an upper respiratory infection again. Adding to my woes, it is here where I am compelled to submit to tourist extortion. The entrance ticket to Tibet requires that I sign on to an official tour to the tune of 3000 yuan or about $400. What I receive in exchange is a bus ticket, 4 days in a dorm in Lhasa, and a tour of the main sights of Lhasa. Chinese tourists pay a small fraction of this‚ perhaps ten percent, with no requirement to join a group tour.
Golmud was part of Tibet before 1959, but it is not very apparent today. And soon Lhasa may suffer the same fate. A few museum pieces from the past swamped in a sea of Chinese. The government gives monetary incentives for Chinese to migrate into Tibet. They are told they are helping modernize a backward province. Cigarettes, alcohol, prostitutes, karaoke bars, pool halls, prisons, and secret missile sites along with massive deforestation, economic and educational discrimination of Tibetan people – genocide in a word – define this new Tibet.
This future is visible from the window of the bus just outside Golmud. All along the 1000 kilometer road to Lhasa, thousands of workers and heavy equipment are busy moving dirt and tearing down mountains, building a railroad that will connect with the rest of China. The magnitude of the project compares with the Three Gorges Dam, another ecological boondoggle. (Note: Six years later, in 2007, a friend tells me he road the train to Tibet.) Tibet is on the map to millions for Chinese looking for a better life.
The official party line, painted in large letters in both Tibetan and Chinese on numerous gateway arches all along the road says: “For the great friendship and brotherhood of Tibetans and Chinese, let’s build the highest railway in the world. What a wonderful project!”
The towns along the highway seem little more than garbage pits where animals are slaughtered, meat bought and sold, pool tables line the storefronts, and muddy ruts pass for sidewalks. I loathe getting off the bus but the basics of life‚ food and a toilet‚ compel me. The food is usually acceptable, but the toilet is out in the field. That is, the field IS the toilet. One needs to step very carefully through the maze of excrement and toilet paper.
Lhasa. On the morning after my arrival, the tour guide says we are going to the Norbulinka. I decide that I would rather go to the Jokhang Temple and pay my respects to Jowo Shakyamuni, the main Buddha statue. This is customary for Buddhist pilgrims upon first arriving in Lhasa. . Hearing that the guide has no objections to my setting my own itinerary, I forget about the tour once and for all.
The following morning I walk to the Potala Palace. I am the first tourist of the day and as soon as the gate opens, I climb to the top floor to the Fourteenth Dalai Lama’s private quarters. He hasn’t lived here in over forty years, but Kundun, The Presence is everywhere. After some time, I tour the rest of the building. Hordes of tourists are now pouring in, with guides chattering in many languages, cell phones beeping. This is Buddhist Disneyland. The Chinese promote Tibetan Buddhist culture as part of a quaint past‚ something tourists should spend money on, but modern China has liberated the Tibetan people from this ancient foolishness. Liberation at gun point that is.
Tibetan Lamas (or respected teachers) are free to teach students, but if a particular Lama becomes too popular, then his activities come under the scrutiny of the Party, and his religious work undergoes enforced restrictions. Many have been imprisoned and even executed for alleged participation in counter-revolutionary activities. Trials, if they are held at all, are before military tribunals in secret. Monasteries are subjected to Party repatriation sessions‚ classes in Communist ideology. Regularly the monks and nuns must sign statements denouncing the Dalai Lama whose picture is banned in Tibet.
In my tour through the monasteries in and around Lhasa I see monks engaged in traditional activities of debating, conducting pujas (prayer offerings), and studying texts. Many shrines are undergoing renovation, with new altars, and statues being built and religious frescoes being repainted. All of this on the surface looks like a renaissance of Tibetan Buddhism, a relaxation of the harsher measures which were imposed during the Cultural Revolution from 1965-1976. However, in reality these are mere token displays for western tourists, obscuring the wider oppression and religious restrictions within Tibet.
Sept. 13, 2001. My friend looks like she is in shock‚ “Did you read the note on the bulletin board, something about two jets crashing into the World Trade Center?” I go and read the note myself. It is cryptic, unbelievable. Quickly, I walk to the internet cafe, and log on to the New York Times website: “Grim Day of Terror.” A photo of smoldering rubble. Radical shift in consciousness, as if my mind dropped into a deep dark hole with no bottom. Everything seems so unreal right now, like I’ve just stepped out of a long movie. Maybe it’s all a dream.
The Frenchwoman with whom I shared a seat on the bus ride from Golmud, numb to any feeling of compassion throws a cruel taunt at me: “You Americans have always been sheltered from this. Welcome to the real world.” I let her words pass, stepping outside to sit on a bench alone. An elderly Tibetan woman is hanging her laundry to dry as the earlier showers of the day give way to sunshine. Having promised my Dutch friend from “the tour” that I would give her an acupuncture treatment, I realize that a conscious act of healing is what the world needs, now more than ever. Life goes on.
At the bus station. Not your typical Greyhound terminal but the living room of a Chinese man’s home. When he discovers that I am American, he communicates a feeling of genuine affection and compassion. “Please sit down,” he says in clear English, gesturing me towards the sofa, “let me pour you a cup of tea. What a great a tragedy this is.”
“Yes,” I reply. “We really need to make peace in the world now.” He turns on the TV. The terrorist strike in America, now 18 hours past, is old news on the Chinese networks. Patiently I wait, enduring film clips of party officials applauding each other at some grand meeting complete with fireworks and banners. And then the story from America. The Chinese broadcast needs no interpreter. The picture tells all. One tower on fire, jet plane slams into the other tower, building shudders, massive explosion. Tower collapses.
Too much to comprehend. Another man standing next to the TV and smoking a cigarette, is not even looking at the screen. He shows no interest at all, as if New York and Washington don’t exist for him. I remember the sharp bite in the French woman’s words and acknowledge their truth. America is not the center of the Universe. Most humans on the planet struggle from birth to grave, eeking out a meager existence under dictators, through famines, droughts, wars and the like. Why should I expect them to give more than a passing moment of interest in images and words about dimly imagined places flashing across the screen of a box plugged into the wall? It’s like trying to tell a tribesman in some remote jungle that man has walked on the moon. The cultural gap is simply too wide.
On the bus to Ali. I am the only westerner on a bus full of Chinese and Tibetans and I am happy for the moment to be left alone in meditation. For two and a half days, I gaze at turquoise lakes, snow-capped mountains, vast meadows with herds of yaks, nomad tents and the odd town. Again and again, an image of a jet plane careening into a tower and exploding in a ball of fire returns to mind. ……
Ali, Western Tibet. Another collection of lifeless buildings and roads. I am tired and feel no welcome here. I telephone my father and am relieved to hear that he seems in good spirits. I could probably use a day or two of rest here, but something will not allow me to stop here. I only wish to keep moving. In the predawn hours, I take a taxi to the edge of town and wait for a truck.
By noon, my legs are growing weary from the standing. I have been chanting Tara’s mantra all morning to keep my mind focused. . .Om tare tutare ture soha….Om tare tutare ture soha…Om tare tutare ture soha….Six schoolgirls, perhaps age ten to eleven, pass and stare at the odd bunch of travelers gathered. “Did you go to school today?” I ask in my broken Tibetan. “Giggle, giggle….no school today, tomorrow.” One of them wants me to take their picture and when I pull out my camera, they giggle in unison. I think they are all emanations of Tara. Before I can put the camera away, a large truck pulls up and stops. Minutes later I am riding south in the cab, on my way to Holy Kailash.
The Dong Feng truck carries a load of fruit, driven by a group of Uigurs from Yecheng. Uigurs are ethnic Chinese Muslims living in the remote northwestern part of China. Only a week has passed since the terrorist attacks in America. I smile, trying to be jovial, enduring the cigarette smoke. Citizen diplomacy can heal the world. We are all far more alike than different‚ two eyes, two ears, two arms, two legs, and a sensitive body and mind that easily feels pain. Though our communication in words is minimal due to the language barrier – energetic communication actually goes quite far – the smiles, gestures of help, sharing of bread, the nonverbal effort to understand each other.
Kailash. The Tibetan’s call it “Kang Rimpoche” – Precious Mountain. Chinese say Shen Shan, “Holy Mountain”. The Hindus believe that Lord Shiva resides here. Buddhists believe that the mountain is an emanation of Heruka Buddha. People come in an act of devotion and faith to what is regarded by many as the center of the universe. Indeed four of South Asia’s largest rivers flow out in all directions from this spot. I’ve arrived here sleepless after a twenty hour truck ride – 330 km across a bumpy dirt road, five flat tires.
The truckers drop me about a mile from the town of Darchen, at the base of the foothills in front of Holy Mountain. I am exhausted and needing rest, but when I look towards the town of Darchen, only a sense of revulsion rears up in my mind.
Two hours later, having followed the creek up Kailash’s west face, I collapse in my tent. I am nearing 5000 meters and my chi seems insufficient to power my body. Add to this the effects of a 20 hour truck ride, surviving only on bread, fruit, not enough water, and too much cigarette smoke.
In the morning, glazed ice coats my tent. Sugary snow is sprinkled on the ground, just enough to see my footprints. I hike another few hours and collapse again, pitching my tent and sleeping on and off through the afternoon and evening. I peel some garlic and add it to the Chinese supermarket rations purchased in Lhasa. Reconstituted glop. At least the stove works and my stomach can be fed something warm.
Do I have altitude sickness? AMS can develop quickly, and be fatal. Am I delirious? I suppose if I am able to ask the question, the answer is no, not yet. Scooping a handful of mud out of the icy creek, I paint SOS on the side of my tent. Late in the afternoon, a lone Tibetan pilgrim passes in the distance. I consider calling to him but have neither the energy, nor the desire to disturb my peace. If it is my karma to die here, I’m ready. I couldn’t ask for a better meditation place to make the transition. If I survive, may my life be devoted to peace.
In the morning, I feel a little stronger, but after ten minutes loading my pack, I am exhausted. It would be foolish to attempt the pass (5600 meters), so I leave my pack on the ground and walk another hour around to the north facing valley offering a view of the sheer north face of Holy Mountain. I make three prostrations to all the Buddhas, stand in silence a few moments, and walk back down to my pack.
I have come so far, at such great effort, but will not achieve my goal of circling the mountain. Habitual disappointment at failed worldly objectives gradually gives way to the recognition that the ultimate mountain is within. A yak or a marmot can walk around Mt. Kailash, as can many an ego-centered backpacker. The vision quest is ever complete – in every conscious step and breath on this sacred Earth. Only this awareness can bring deep healing to the world. Outer achievement is meaningless when it lacks conscious intention.
I am seven miles from the town of Darchen. I will need help carrying my pack – or will have to leave it behind as another pilgrim’s offering. I walk back to the nomad tent I passed the day before and offer the man 200 yuan – about 25 dollars‚ to be my porter. He asks for 300 yuan to which I agree. I am taken aback when he volunteers his 14-year-old daughter as my porter – saying thieves will plunder his shop if he leaves it.
I am uncomfortable loading thirty-five pounds of gear on the back of a child. She looks more like ten years old to me. I start out with ten pounds and give the girl twenty-five. After fifteen minutes, we stop to rest. My strength is holding steady so I take a little weight from the girl. Whenever she needs to rest, she lets out a cry of “hoi”, and drops the pack on the ground. I ask her if she goes to school. She shakes her head. There is something missing in her spirit, as if she knows that her future holds few options in China’s “brave new world.”
I tell her that life is difficult, for everyone, but if she can remember the Dharma, then real happiness and peace is possible. I don’t know how much is understood through my broken Tibetan and I feel more than a little hypocritical telling her to get in touch with religion. We arrive at the dirt road and a jeep suddenly appears and offers us a ride. Ten minutes later we are in Darchen. The girl disappears before I can thank her.
My motel room is three concrete walls, a concrete floor and ceiling, one window, a door with a half-broken bolt lock on the inside, and a bare light bulb. The toilet is out in the field as usual. The bed is comfortable after sleeping in trucks and on dirt. The trinket seller holding arm loads of beads and icons chatters at me from the doorway of my room. After asking her politely to leave me alone several times and getting no response, I smile and bow to her as I close the door on her and pour myself a cup of hot tea.
Another face of Holy Mountain: A group of Hindu tourists from India stride up to me, extending their hands in greeting and ask, “Where are you from? Have you eaten? Well, then please sit down.” Out comes a table-cloth with a plate of peanut butter, honey, jam, fresh-baked rolls, and a large hunk of yak cheese. “Please take the cheese with you. What is your email address? I will write to you when I get to Nepal.”
I am only a self-centered tourist looking for my next free ride – and yet I am showered with such kindness and open heartedness. Of course though, this is Holy Mountain, where both good and evil seem magnified. Something happened out there in my tent, looking at death. Who am I? Who is telling this story? Jordan? Who’s he? The syllables, jor-dan, reverberate in my mind, but no solid meaning-image finds a home with that sound. I rest in that not knowing, the space of freedom.
By not being anybody special, or conversely, being simply who I am, in the deepest sense, I invite openness in others. Physical sickness will continue to ravage the body, and one day I will die, but the mind devoted to purification – insight, compassion, and other noble ideals of peace – continues to emerge from the dross of worldly existence – like a fresh sprout pushing up through the decayed leaves of autumn. It shines ever brighter like the pristine white snowy robe upon Kailash’s summit.
In my dream that night, I am holding a vajra‚ the symbol of enlightenment. I drop it by accident into the mud, and then quickly retrieve it, dipping it into a nearby waterfall. Once again the vajra shines. Innate purity is revealed. I hear a whisper: “This vajra mind is indestructible.”
Don’t believe in ordinary conceptions. Question them again and again. Understand gross sense perception as just that. And ever look towards that which dwells beyond, the deathless. I hope to leave this filthy parking lot with its pack of very dangerous looking dogs. A trip to the toilet in predawn light is like walking a minefield amidst probing carnivorous eyes.
Perhaps I will be able to ride with the Indian tourists. But freedom is here and now, not in hopes and fears. The surroundings have no bearing on inner freedom. A true warrior of peace makes full use of time and place, without self-centered thoughts of comfort, family, or personal well-being.
Inside the Chinese restaurant, I reconnect with three other travelers with whom I had waited for a ride back in Ali a week prior. I was able to board the fruit truck with space for one passenger, but they had to wait three days for the next truck. They ask me about my time at Kailash.
As an acupuncturist, I accept that the body has various energy centers and power spots called chakras and acupoints. Why should the earth, as a living system, be any different. Kailash is DU-20, the top of the world, the extreme of Yang. It is here where all of our mental intentions, positive or negative, come together, accelerating spiritual transformation, or quickening our descent into hell.
The Dutchman breaks in: “Have you heard the news from America? Bush has put up a reward for Bin Laden with an ultimatum. This is just the beginning, regardless of what happens as a result of the terrorist attack, in perhaps a 100 years there will be a major war between the Islamic World and the rest.”
“Maybe this doesn’t need to happen,” I say. “If you acknowledge the possibility of peace within yourself, then world peace is certainly possible. If, on the other hand, one adopts a fatalistic attitude, then you simply hand the future over to your own dark side. Every human being has both some good and evil with them. Even Bid Laden, Sadaam Hussein, and Hitler. We need to seek out the orb of goodness within everyone we meet and focus all our attention there, not being diverted from our task by suspicious looks, unfriendly words, or unexamined prejudice. When others try to cheat us in money matters, we must not take it personally, but view the situation as if our child had a sickness. How can I remove this sickness from my child who stands here before me?”
“You have a noble mind”, the Dutch fellow replies, “but I prefer to be more practical. There will always be war.”
“Actually, active non-violence rooted in compassion and love is extremely practical. If you investigate carefully how world peace can be achieved, of course it can only happen if first the individual achieves it. Or if individuals gradually achieve it, simultaneously while working for global peace. The individual cannot be neglected. And how is that done? One first needs to acknowledge that there is a problem – a lack of peace. In this sense, the terrorist bombings are a wake up call. How many of us responded with feelings of anger, or fear, confusion, despair, vulnerability, etc. This is quite obviously, a lack of peace. So the real enemies in this situation are anger and self centeredness.
As long as we think: “MY country, to hell with those Arabs,” then we are not understanding the truth of interdependence, the law of karma, and the path to happiness. We continue to tear at the very fabric of life upon which we derive our sustenance. Our problem is that our inner vision is distorted. We don’t need missiles, aircraft carriers and CIA commandos. What we need is mindfulness, concentration, insight, love, compassion, patience, and many other skillful weapons to defeat the inner delusions.
The Dutch fellow seems to be trying to change the subject: “You know, these events of the past week and a half have changed world history.”
“You and I and all of us are changing world history right now as we sit here, exchanging thoughts and ideas. Just as drops of water fill a bucket. Just as the thousand mile journey begins with a single step. A single thought-seed of love and compassion changes the whole world and one day blossoms as world peace. Everything is connected. Our mental thoughts and intentions aren’t like marbles rolling around inside a concrete vault of a brain. Thoughts and emotions are energy, and energy is not limited by time, space, or matter.”
Across the Roof of the World. The tour leader of the Hindus asks me if I am alone and then says it is fine if I travel with them. “We are pilgrims and we should help out other pilgrims in need.” Travelling about 250 km a day in a caravan of two supply trucks and nine land cruisers, they expect to be in Kathmandu after four days. I also ask permission from the trucker in whose vehicle I will ride. He is a Tibetan named Phenba. He asks for 500 yuan (about $65) which I happily pay. Phen ba, in Tibetan means “benefit” or “help,” and Phenba is the embodiment of help. He is always wearing a smile and ever quick to help out a fellow driver with a problem.
Leaving late in the day, our first drive is a short one to the eastern shore of Lake Manasarovar, the Holy Lake. . . There are two sadhus in the group, one of whom seems to be the spiritual leader of the group. “Om Nama Shivaya”, people utter as they approach him to seek his blessing. I decide that as a Buddhist, there is no conflict in saying these words, honoring Shiva. It seems to make the others happy, so why not do what is easy if it also pleases others? ….
The rest of the trip across Southern Tibet is a blur of bumpy roads, cold hours sitting in the top of the truck bouncing around breathing clouds of dust, hot hours sitting in the cab in front, dirty towns, beggars, mangy dogs, garbage and excrement left everywhere, stunningly beautiful mountains, turquoise blue lakes, temples and monasteries clinging to remote mountainsides, and Chinese red flags atop frequent check posts.
On the third day, after driving many hours through a desert, we drop into a small gully. The gully opens into a long valley with a creek flowing through it. Mountains suddenly loom up on both sides. A light rain began to fall. We continue to descend. More creeks feed into the main creek. Strong gusts of wind blow up the canyon. I am descending off the roof of the world, heading home.
Nepal. On the way to Kathmandu. Soldiers board the bus every hour, looking under the seats, checking my backpack. The royal family was assassinated only four months ago. Reports of Maoist rebels on the warpath adds to the daily tension in this country. Nothing fazes me now. I have been to the mountain and back and learned to accept death a little more. Now my lungs are drunk on oxygen saturated air, my eyes feasting on lush green tropical foliage.
New Delhi, India. Ghandi-ji’s birthday today and the final day of my journey back to Dharamsala. On the train platform, a child beggar pesters me for a handout. He arrogantly pushes my shoulder as he chews gum, insisting that it is my duty to give him money. I feel as if I am being buzzed by a mosquito. I raise my voice telling him to get lost. Finally an Indian man with a stick chases him away.
15 minutes later, I am sitting on my pack when a wet silky smooth sensation blossoms on my back. Out of the corner of my eye, a young boy is scurrying away through the crowd. I reach around to touch my back and discover I have been slimed with glop‚ perhaps only oatmeal if I am lucky. My clothing and pack are completely covered. “Where is the little bastard, I’ll, I’ll…” do what? Nuke him?
I check my mind and realize how contradictory are my words (turn the other cheek), and my deeds (seeking vengeance). “Violence solves nothing,” the words flow glibly from my mouth. And here I am going nuclear after a spindly child spills some oatmeal on me. Wearing sticky uncomfortable clothes for the rest of the day, I reflect on how much more uncomfortable are the clothes of ignorance, anger, and greed. May all minds be peaceful and quick to forgive. May I never generate hostility for any being, no matter what. May I only cultivate gratitude for this life and may I use it well, diligently practicing the path of peace.