Monday, November 06, 2006

Himalayan Mountain Flight

(Photo: from the cockpit, off in the distance, Sagarmatha (left) and Lhotse . . . this is last posting until after meditation/teaching retreat ends on december 8 . . . happy days to all, mw)

Boudha, Nepal -- There is more to these mountains than just rock, ice and snow.

The Tibetans talk of places where the physical and spiritual worlds overlap. These places were first revealed through writings by Padmasambhava, the 8th century sage who brought Buddhism to Tibet.

A Tibetan yogi discovered the first of Padmasambhava’s scrolls in 1366, containing cryptic accounts of Himalayan valleys in which plants and animals have miraculous powers, where aging is halted and enlightenment can be quickly attained.

Over the centuries many Tibetans have gone off in search of these fabled places, but only those with faith and merit actually find them and experience their spiritual qualities. That's because these places are not only hidden by their extreme remoteness, but by barriers formed by our habitual ways of perceiving our surroundings.


The highest peaks of the Himalaya lie in a crescent, forming a natural border between Nepal and the Tibetan plateau to the north. Forty million years ago the Indian subcontinent began to collide with the Asian landmass, forcing the earth upward into colossal mountains. The Tibetans refer to the Himalyan terrain as a “tray of gems,” seeing it as paradise for Buddhist practice, corresponding to increasingly subtle levels of perception.

After years of wondering, I was booked on Buddha Air’s “Mountain Flight” from Kathmandu. I was about to see this “tray of gems” up close.

The morning was ideal – clear, freshly sunny, unlimited visibility with very little hint of haze. The plane was full, mostly Japanese, everyone with a digital something – snapshooters, SLR’s, video cameras. 14 seats, seven rows, everyone on a window. (For those who care abut such things, the plane was a prop Beech 1900C).

It's a tourist thing, a one hour plane ride to see the high Himalaya. If you want to see it up close, there's just two options: you can either arrange a two-week trek, or do this. Without an extra two weeks to spare, I was in seat 3A on Sunday's 6:30am flight.

Above the haze of the Kathmandu Valley, after less than 10 minutes in the air, off to the north the Himalaya comes into focus, and yes, it is huge.

Snowy, proud, shining in the bright early sun, each mountain different in personality, these immense giants stab sharply into the sky.

Of the fourteen mountains on the planet that rise above 26,000 feet in altitude, Nepal has eight, and during the flight seven would be in view. The highlight being, at 29,028 feet, the most famous, highest mountain in the world: Sagarmatha (Nepali), Chomolungma (Tibetan), Everest (English) – writing from Nepal, I’ll use the name Sagarmatha.

The flight heads east toward along the line of peaks, gets past Sagarmatha to Makalu (27,766 ft.) and then turns around for the return to Kathmandu. It is 60 minutes of complete surreal.

Passengers are allowed to visit the small cockpit where the pilot identifies the peaks of interest, answers questions and allows wide-view photographs.

While it is the highest and most photographed, Sagarmatha is not the most visually dramatic peak in the range. But, as the highest point on Earth, it stands proud and draws attention.

Floating past the south face of the summit -- about nine miles away -- the names Mallory and Norgay and Hillary came to mind, and a feeling of solemn reverence arose . . . so much human drama, pain, anguish, triumph, courage and folly. All to stand atop that peaceful and majestic snowy point.

Although not as high, it's the other “stand-alone” peaks that really catch the eye.

Notable is Cho-Oyo (26,906 ft.) for a recent and disturbing mortal reason: it was in one of its high snowy passes that Chinese soldiers fired upon Tibetan refugees fleeing Tibet for Nepal on Sept. 30, killing two including a 17-year old Buddhist nun.

Marveling at the sights out the window while trying to connect it all with a "Zen moment" sense of the eternal was hard. It will take some time for the experience to settle in. I look forward to seeing if and how it manifests.

In two days my reason for being here, the month-long teaching/meditation retreat, begins at a hilltop monastery north of town. My days here have been full, and I'm trying to merge what I'm seeing and doing with what I understand of Tibetan Buddhist practice and wisdom.

With some guidance from the Dalai Lama this is how I see it: places like India or Nepal or the Himalaya are not places to go to escape everyday life, but to enter it more deeply.

To paraphrase HHDL, “The qualities inherent in such places deepen awareness of hidden regions of mind and spirit. Being in places like these with good motivation and merit can enable us to see the world differently from the way it commonly appears, and this intuitive knowledge will enhance the Buddhist virtues of wisdom and compassion.”

He continues, “In the Buddhist tradition, the goal of “pilgrimage” is not so much to reach a particular destination, but to awaken in oneself the qualities and energies of the destination, which ultimately lies within our own minds.”

It sounds good, but I can't escape the feeling that if I am ever able to fully awaken in myself the “qualities and energies” of the timeless immensity I saw in the Himalaya yesterday, it will likely cause my head to explode.

Perhaps that's why I'm here.

Friday, November 03, 2006

"Destabilizing" in a Mandala

Kathmandu Valley, Nepal -- There are some places on this planet one wants to visit merely because of the way they roll off the tongue . . . Timbuktu, Chicoutimi, Mandalay, Kathmandu.

For many, just hearing or saying their names invokes feelings and images of mystery, adventure, romance and discovery.

I’m writing this from the second floor balcony of the Thorong Peak Guest House, in the Thamel neighborhood of one of those distant places . . . Kathmandu.

International in flavor, the Thamel is this city's densely-packed “shopping” area, the crossroads of a city that is itself a crossroads of southern and northern Asia, where the icy high Himalaya dramatically meets the Indian plains.

Most of those who come to Kathmandu as a stop-over or destination for sightseeing, trekking and/or climbing at some point gather in the Thamel.

It is 9:00am, the sun is quickly warming the remains of the cool night. To the north, the outline of high Himalyan peaks are emerging from the morning mist. Surrounded by rhododendron plants and ferns, I'm engulfed by a sweet cacophony of cooing pigeons and chattering parrots and parakeets.

I arrived in Kathmandu yesterday with Maya, with whom I connected in Delhi. She was there with her husband Fred, the three of us became friends in Dharamsala this past May. Maya, who is Israeli, will be attending the same 30-day retreat as I beginning next week.

Fred remained in India. After seeing Maya off he was to ride the overnight bus north from Delhi to Dharamsala where he is the supervisor of the rebuilding of a Tibetan Buddhist meditation center (gompa) in the forest a few kilometers above the town.

I enjoy travel to the Indian subcontinent because it is a destination for so many unique people like Fred and Maya, and friendships made here can become very special, as ours has.

After purchasing our 60-day Nepali visas at the charming little Kathmandu airport, and a short car ride into town, Maya and I walked around the Thamel . . . it had gotten dark and each of us, over and over, found ourselves with our minds blown. This place is like a dream.

The Lonely Planet guidebook just touches upon it:

“For many people, arriving in Kathmandu is a shock – the sights, sounds and smells can lead to a sensory overload: there are narrow streets and lanes with carved wooden balconies perched above tiny hole-in-the-wall shops, town squares packed with extraordinary temples and monuments; and fruit and vegetable markets alive with a constant throng of humanity"

Where Maya and I walked last night -- the "old" part of the city -- seems unchanged from the Middle Ages, architecturally, energy-wise and culturally.

Surreal and almost psychedelic, we felt as though we had wandered onto an Indiana Jones-type movie set. But even the great Spielberg couldn't create this.

Only in Varansi have I seen ancient buildings like these, but never have I seen streets with more enticing nooks and crannies, marketplaces with goods and sights and sensations like these, nor a more eclectic set of people sharing in it.

The energy carries you through the gnarled streets, all seemingly connected by back passages and alleyways until you emerge into one of the countless wide open squares with people and colors swirling about and around some sort of temple, shrine, pagoda, stupa or statue, many of them centuries old. (It is not uncommon to see merchants peddling their incense or fresh vegetables at the feet of a 1,000-year-old statue of Brahma or Saraswati or Buddha.)

It is impossible not to be absorbed, and then, through a crack between the buildings, the whole thing becomes sublime as one sees the magnificent Himalaya sitting off in the distance, a glimpse of white in the blue sky, sacred, glorious and awe-inspiring, and you feel a sensation not unlike what a bird must feel in the moments before it floats into flight.

So the two worlds collide in your head and heart -- the magnificent Himalaya and the timeless 14th century old city -- and with every step the joy of anticiaption oozes. You simply "know" the unforgettable unexpected is right around the bend – and in its delight it will touch deeply.

It is like wandering in a mandala.

I recently read of the Tibetan notion that the key to pilgrimage is danang, the sacred vision that transfigures the environment into a pure realm of enlightened energies. Therefore, in Tibetan tradition the idea of pilgrimage is not simply to visit sacred sites, but to facilitate an inner transformation at places that challenge conventional ways of seeing. (In this sense, the more “destabilizing” the better.)

It has become tired cliche to invoke Dorothy Gale's "Toto, we're not in Kansas anymore" as the wonders of Oz unfolded. But I understand the feeling.

I’ve never seen a city as inviting to the wanderer as Kathmandu. I was not expecting this.

If this is “destabilizing” I think I'm ready for it.