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Posted By Luminous Jewel, Blake Walton

A week later and many arduous miles from Lhasa in a remote valley the locals called the “Womb of the Great Mother”, I finally found the real Shangri-La that I had been questing for, which was to know my true place in the nature of things.  In preparation for the pilgrimage, I had written my intentions for the journey in my journal.  Chief among my intentions was to “look into the eyes and the faces of the people I meet” and to “be aware of the doors that will open”.  

 

Pilgrim

 

On the morning of the full moon of Sagadawa (the sacred month of May which is the Buddha’s birth month), we ate an early breakfast in our idyllic campsite at 13,000 feet above sea level, surrounded by the sounds of birds, goats bleating, and bees buzzing amongst the fragrant flowering bushes. The sun was just beginning to illuminate the rim at the top of the valley as we started our three-hour, thousand foot trek up a steep and dusty path to the monastery. On the path winding past ancient and still occupied meditation caves and hermitages clinging to the side of the mountain, Tibetans from the village below overtook us, greeting us warmly and offering words of encouragement along with the occasional chunk of dried goat cheese for much-needed energy. I began to lag behind the others, suffering from the effects of the altitude and dehydration. Finally reaching the monastery, I collapsed in the shade weeping from exhaustion.

WomanWoman#2

 

A crowd of Tibetan women immediately clustered around me, murmuring, praying, patting my arms and stroking my forehead.  A Tibetan nun appeared with the ubiquitous yak butter tea and a much more rare, and therefore more precious, aspirin for my headache.  I started to laugh through my tears, and they all laughed too, while continuing to comfort me and smile into my eyes. I was at that moment, though thousands of miles from home amongst complete strangers, more at home than I had ever been; and all, magically, without exchanging a single word. I was pervaded by a sense of deep peace. “So”, I thought, “This is heaven on earth—accepting all the hardships as well as the blessings, the joy along with the pain.  So”, I rejoiced, “This is my true place in the nature of things--at home everywhere and always among friends”.

The Tibetans know this instinctually, having thrived for centuries in the harshest of environments with resilience, grace and joy. “My religion is kindness,” the Dalai Lama is fond of saying, and the Tibetan people I met embodied this.  Though impoverished and sorely lacking in even basic medical care and education, the Tibetans we encountered did not beg money from us but instead often offered us what little tsampa (barley flour dough) they had.  We, in turn, reached into our own hearts and wallets, raising money to bring clean running water to the monastery where we stayed in Zangri, to provide medical care for a nun suffering from leprosy, and surgery for a young man with a congenital leg deformity.  In one remote village we pooled all our soaps, unused toothbrushes, lotions and over-the-counter drugs and supplies for an impromptu hygiene and medical clinic for the 50 villagers who showed up at our campsite. It was the least we could do for all the blessings, kindness, and insights we had experienced in their magical country.

 

Child

Now, back “home” in the United States, the pilgrimage continues as I begin to integrate the “changed me” into my old life. Regaling my friends with the details of the hardships endured, including the outdoor toilets lacking privacy and running water, some of them react incredulously: “Why would you do something so hard? I could never do that!” I answer with what I used to say to the women in my cancer support group: “We should live even our wildest dreams while we can.”  I seem to have taken my own advice to heart.


 
Posted By Luminous Jewel, Blake Walton
Tibetan Autonomous Region (May 26 – June 9, 2007)

Arriving in Lhasa, the capital of Tibet, was breathtaking not only because the rarefied atmosphere at 12,000 feet above sea level kept us gasping for oxygen, but also because the vast 360-degree views were stunning: hilltop monasteries glittering in the brilliant sun; brightly hued prayer flags radiating mantras of peace with every breeze; mountains rising in the distance deep purple and snow capped; and threading through it all, the azure beauty of a tributary of the mighty and legendary Tsangpo River.

 

Potola Palace


Lhasa literally means “place of the gods” though, sadly, under Chinese occupation it looks and feels more like a tourist attraction. Ethnic Chinese now outnumber Tibetans in the capital city and the Chinese government has relegated Tibetan merchants to one market near a temple surrounded by hotels for tourists. Even the magnificent and massive former residence of the Dalai Lama, the Potola Palace, which mercifully was spared the destruction meted out to 90% of the Tibetan monasteries during the Cultural Revolution, felt like a mummified museum housing the artifacts of a once vibrant and flourishing culture. One Tibetan teacher we met told us, shaking his head, that he was not sure Buddhism would be able to survive in Tibet. Indeed throughout our Tibetan journey we visited monasteries that were in disrepair and rarely used, and met young men who had given up being monks because of political and economic harassment. 

 

 

Lhasa Temple


Despite this, I sensed as I gazed at the snow-encrusted splendor of the Himalayas against the vast blue luminosity of the sky, that my true pilgrimage was just beginning. Here was the landscape of my childhood dreams, my longed-for Shangri-La where the sacred geography of physical and spiritual worlds overlap. “I’m definitely not in Kansas anymore,” I thought with a strange mixture of fear and curiosity at what lay ahead.

Pilgrimage, according to the Dalai Lama, is an outer journey reflecting an inner process that moves from “materialistic preoccupations to a deep internal sense of the interconnectedness of all life”.  It is not an escape an escape from the world but rather a way to enter the world more deeply. And it is said in Tibet that the more remote and inaccessible the bayul (metaphorical “hidden-lands” that are the destination for the pilgrim), the more luminous the paradise on earth it contains. I was soon to experience the truth of these sayings.

Tsangpo


 
Posted By Luminous Jewel, Blake Walton

Traffic

 

At any moment of the day, it would appear that all 1.9 million people living in Kathmandu were on the streets at the same time given the level of bicycle, motorcycle, rickshaw, cart and bus traffic careening along the lane-less roads. Honking seemed to be the national pastime, engaged in freely while passing other vehicles, being passed by other vehicles, and swerving to avoid the mass of pedestrians and even cows crossing the roads. And to make matters even more unnerving, vehicles in Nepal are driven on the left side of the road  (a remnant of British rule) at break neck speed. Surprisingly and blessedly, there was no evidence of any road rage even in the frequent and massive traffic jams caused by Maoist street demonstrations or the general strikes called by political coalition groups. The residents of Kathmandu seemed to take this chaotic life in stride with grace and humor. 

Group in doorway

 

Chapati

Because of the warm weather, crowding (an average of 42,000 people per square mile) and cultural traditions, the Nepalese lead a more “public” and outdoor life than in the West.  We witnessed open-air barbershops under shade trees by the side of the road, public laundry and bathing in town squares, and people taking noonday naps sprawled in the sun on grassy highway medians. The only concession the residents seemed to make as they went about their daily business clad in brightly colored saris and other traditional clothing was to wear facemasks against the heavily polluted air.  According to our guide, the pollution is a result of the valley’s natural air inversion effect but also, because of the lack of strict emission controls, many people add cheap kerosene to the higher-priced gas they burn in their vehicles. 

So, as happy as we were to have spent time in the vibrant valley of Kathmandu, it was almost quite literally a breath of fresh air to finally be heading to the wide-open skies at the roof of the world—Tibet.


 
Posted By Luminous Jewel, Blake Walton

Pilgrimage#1: Origins of the Path

 

Some things are meant to be. My recent trip to Nepal and Tibet falls into that category, as well as the categories of “once-in-a-lifetime”, “dream-come-true”, and “too-good-to-be-true”. Actually, the trip ultimately defied categories altogether; but more about that later.

 

Winter Solstice gif

Winter Solstice Sunrise at Tara Mandala

 

I had dreamed of going to the Himalayas since I was 12 years old, an unlikely aspiration for a girl growing up in suburban Dallas in the 1950s.  My maternal grandparents managed a summer camp near Rocky Mountain National Park in Colorado, and rather than loll around the public pool in the sweltering Texas heat, I spent every summer in the cool high mountains of Colorado, hiking, riding my cousin’s horses, and attending camp.  I looked forward to my annual summer pilgrimage to the mountains all year long. It felt like my salvation, my own private Shangri-la, to escape to the mountains from the suffocating confines of school and a dysfunctional nuclear-family life. The summer I was 12, I climbed my first mountain over 14,000 feet. And I was hooked. I voraciously read books from the library about the Himalayas, and settled on Nepal as my ultimate destination to visit in the world. It was not until some years later that I even learned about a place called Tibet, because all the maps after the Chinese invasion of Tibet in 1959 listed the region as China.

So, here I was more than four decades after my original Himalayan dream was born, passport in hand, walking across the tarmac towards the Kathmandu airport in Nepal. It still seemed like a dream; but the hazy terraced fields in the distance, the steamy heat, the cacophonous traffic, and the colorful clothing of the Nepali people were all viscerally real.  How did this Himalayan dream of mine come full circle to reality?  As a middle-aged massage therapist, meditation instructor and counselor, I seemed an unlikely world traveler.

Early in my life, my fascination with things “Eastern” led me to a steadfast meditation practice: Transcendental Meditation in the 60s (along with every other “boomer” it seemed, including the Beatles) and eventually to the study and practice of Tibetan Buddhism in the 80s. In 2005, I started living and working at Tara Mandala, a Buddhist retreat center in Southern Colorado (www.taramandala.org).  The founder of Tara Mandala and author of Women of Wisdom, Tsultrim Allione, organized the trip to commemorate the fortieth anniversary of her introduction to Tibetan Buddhism in Nepal, where in 1967 at the age of 19, she became one of the first Western women to be ordained as a Buddhist nun. Our tour guide serendipitously would be Jerome Edou, a long-time Buddhist practitioner and author of Machig Labdron and the Origins of Chod. Jerome’s Kathmandu-based company, Base Camp Trek (www.basecamptrek.com), would be handling all the logistics of our journey.


Tsultrim
      Tsultrim Allione