by Tracey Aysson
Originally printed in the MAY-JUNE 2008 issue of Quest magazine.
Citation: Aysson, Tracey. "One Woman's Journey Around Mount Kalish." Quest 96.3 (MAY-JUNE 2008):87-91.
RISING MAGNIFICENTLY in the wilderness of Western Tibet, Mount Kailash is one of three sacred mountains in Tibet. Its shape is unmistakable: a symmetrical cone marked with striations and graced with perpetual snows. Four rivers emanate from it, nourishing the entire region. Mount Kailash is the center of the spiritual universe. It is sacred to four religions: Buddhism, Hinduism, Ben, and Jainism. For Hindus, it is the home of Shiva. All of these statements are true of this magnificent mountain, but the truest is what my teacher said to me before I left to do prostrations around Mt. Kailash: "The center of the spiritual universe already exists in your human heart. Meet your mirror."
In 2005, I was vacationing with dear friends, which afforded me a whole week of time to rest, read, and practice Tibetan Buddhism. It was perhaps the first morning I was there when, during practice, I felt an invitation to return to Tibet and a calling to do prostrations around Mt. Kailash. I was not aware that circumambulating Mt. Kailash is called khora, and that a very small number of pilgrims will do khora with prostrations. It was from within my heart that there arose a fierce longing and devotion to go to Kailash, to lie on the land of Tibet with my heart open wide.
I had the advantage of going to Tibet with no base of experience to bias me. I am not an outdoorswoman, had no knowledge of the terrain of Tibet, or experience in high altitudes. I am not a Buddhist, never heard of doing prostrations around Mt. Kailash until the invitation came to me, and did not think much about the Chinese occupation. Friends kept asking if I was scared and advised me to be careful. It did not occur to me that my journey was dangerous. None of this cluttered my simple preparations. I began to exercise to develop more physical stamina and did more prostrations in my daily practice, until I was able to prostrate for several hours a few days in a row. To protect their bodies from the constant contact with the ground, Tibetans wear heavy leather aprons and a kind of wooden clog on their hands. A friend made me the leather apron and I designed the hand clogs. I had my eyes checked for exposure to the sun at high altitudes; acquired medication for altitude sickness, tetanus, Hepatitis A, and a course of antibiotics; along with over-the-counter cold and diarrhea medicines. I bought duffel bags, a plane ticket, wired money to my travel agent, got travelers checks and cash, and off I went.
Mt. Kailash is in Western Tibet, which is wilderness. Darchen is a small town at the base of the mountain, with guesthouses, supplies, horses, and yaks. A few kilometers down the road is Tarboche, famous for an enormous flagpole that is the site of Tibetan festivals each year. Lines of prayer flags stream down from the flagpole, making it a joyful, colorful, highly visible landmark. Between Darchen and Tarboche there is a road for vehicles, and parallel to this road, but some distance away, is the khora path for pilgrims. Beyond Tarboche there is only the narrow khora path. There are three monasteries as one circumambulates Mt. Kailash. Chuku Monastery is just outside Tarboche. As one finishes the northern climb around Mt. Kailash, before turning east towards the highest pass, there is Drira Phuk Monastery. And as one is approaching Darchen, having come nearly all the way around the mountain, there is Zutrul Phuk Monastery, where Milarepa stayed. History tells us that Gotshangpa was the first to mark the trail around Kailash. The story goes that whenever he came to a point where he was unsure, dakinis or spiritual beings would appear and point out the path to follow. It is at these points that the monasteries were built. As I prostrated through the wilderness, these monasteries were the few landmarks letting me know where I was on the circuit around Mt. Kailash.
The land of Tibet is amazing in and of itself. I crossed the border from Nepal, and was perhaps only a few miles into Tibet, when tears began running down my face. The power emanating from the land was palpable. Guru Rinpoche, also known as Padmasambhava, came from India in the eighth century bringing Buddhism to Tibet. There are stories of how he tamed the land, containing the natural and demonic forces within the mountains. As we drove into Tibet, I understood what he had done as I could still feel the forces there. I wrote in my journal, "If I were the Chinese, I'd get out of here while I still could. The power in this land is unbelievable."
The wilderness of Western Tibet is arduous in every way. Generally, I was at an elevation of 14,500 feet. The highest point of the khora path around Kailash is Drolma La Pass at an altitude of 18,500 feet. I am blessed with good health that is sturdy and resilient, but was surprised at the physical impact of being at these altitudes. For the first week, driving toward Kailash, I suffered from altitude sickness and spent an entire eight-hour day throwing up out of the window of the Land Cruiser as we lurched across rugged terrain. Finally, I adjusted to the 14,500 foot altitude, became less nauseated, got over my headache, and could eat again.
The first day of khora is an article in itself. My intention was simply to get past the hurdle of beginning to do something I did not know how to do, in a land that was completely strange and new to me. I did not realize that I was beginning khora at Tarboche, close to Darchen, where people were returning for supplies or to leave the area. (Two of my four-guide team stayed in Darchen, while the other two guides accompanied me, made camp, and watched me like hawks. I think they were not sure that my body would hold up.) There would be many days when I saw very few people and spent the day alone in the spacious silence of this magnificent land. But on a brilliant Tibetan day, blazing with sunshine, I began my journey north on the khora trail, and met many people who were curious about this Westerner doing prostrations, curious about my leather apron and clogs. I heard no English spoken that day and I spoke no Tibetan, so learned the art of speaking through gesture and mime, a sign language of sorts. I was overwhelmed with everything that day; beginning with all the people who wanted to stop and talk with me, the heat of the sun, how to carry my water bottle while prostrating, getting my skirt to stop catching on the heel of my boot, how I would know when to stop, where the camp would be pitched for the night, and how I would find it.
What drew me to my pilgrimage most was a spiritual passion. It is said that doing khora around Mt. Kailash will dissolve a year of karma. For me, it dissolved my life. On the first day of khora, I wrote in my journal:
Tossing and turning for an hour, sorting things through in my thoughts. I am so afraid. I am so afraid to set my foot on Mt. Kailash. . . . It's not going around the mountain. I think I can do that if I choose to. It's that if I go around the Mountain, it never stops. There's no escape from all this Love. There's no escape, and that's what terrifies me . . . Mother/Father Kailash, receive me, teach me in the way I need to be taught. Despite my ignorance, despite my blindness, I have come to you. I have come to receive your blessing and your teaching and your empowerment. I have come to love you. I have come to love me.
The beauty of Tibet's wilderness is still pure. The ground is rocky, pervasively strewn with chunks of jagged rock. At times, I prostrated across boulder fields, laying my body across boulders that spilled across the landscape. At other times, the khora trail ran along the edge of rivers dropping off into embankments ending in white water. Sometimes, the khora trail was at an angle as it curved around the mountain, and I would literally grab onto the land as I came down into the prostration, so that I did not slide or roll off the trail into the river below.
The wildlife of Tibet was very much a part of my experience. Particularly up the west side of Kailash, the eagles soared over the mountains, at times gliding down to fish the rivers. The rivers moved from pristine pools of blue water to roaring stretches of white water. Yaks stood in the rivers, cooling themselves or crossing through to a new pasture. Vultures circled above. My guide explained to me that there are two kinds of vultures in Tibet, those that eat bones, and those that eat meat. He pointed out the bone-eating kind which carry the bones to a great height, drop them to break them open, and then descend to have their meal.
I worried about the reception I would receive from the people. After all, I am a Westerner, and I knew enough to understand that I was undertaking a ritual that is sacred and specific to the Tibetan people. I did not know if they would experience me as an intruder or a pilgrim. I had no need for worry. The reception I received from the Tibetan people, day after day, was overwhelming to me. Every day people gave me food or money. Encouragement was shown by a hearty thumbs-up. One day I heard someone calling from across the river, and I looked up to see a young yak herder on his return journey down the valley calling to me with a vigorous thumbs-up. Each day, I met a man who I decided must have been a Ben lama. Ben is the original religion of Tibet. We would smile in greeting as we had no language in common. He would stop and give me food of some kind, sometimes evaluating my jacket for sufficient warmth at the higher elevations. At one point, while I was trying to navigate my way up a steep mountainside covered with boulders that made it impossible to find a path, he did his best to point out possible routes I might take. He was always very kind and I wondered if his practice was to walk khora everyday, an amazing practice since the circuit is thirty-four miles around.
Such examples of kindness toward me are an endless. However, the ones that touched me most deeply were the Tibetans who were clearly so very poor but who insisted on giving me what I am sure was their dinner. One day as I prostrated up a particularly steep mountainside, I saw a young man tracing the Tibetan letters of a mantra on a boulder and then chiseling them into the rock, making a mani stone. As I headed toward my camp and guides that evening, he was sitting among the boulders, also at the end of his day. He had a small campfire, and through sign language, he invited me to a warm meal. I indicated my camp a little ways ahead. But I was touched at his generous invitation and at his devotion to turning the boulders into prayers.
On Day 4, I wrote:
I've been home [at camp] for an hour. My feet are tucked into my sleeping bag. I've just encouraged myself to get up and dressed, to put my soaking skirt, hat, and wet jacket in various places where they might dry. I prostrated for five hours. When I stopped, I could hardly stand with tiredness and belly pain. . . . It's hard. Spiritual admission is not cheap. I still don't know where I am, or what I am capable of. . . . I injured myself today. This morning, I came down on a rock which connected with my last left rib. Not too bad. . . . Mostly the coughing bothers it.
Although everyday was the same, I never got in a rhythm. I never felt stronger, oriented, confident, or like I "had gotten it down." I never got better at breathing the scarce air nor was I less tired. Every day was hard, physically hard, and it never got easier. Since I did not know how to do this, I simply moved at a pace that respected myself and my body. I never pushed or judged. Although there were days that my issues walked with me, that depression, discouragement, and despair were available to me, I never chose to go there. There was only the doing of each prostration.
On day 13, I wrote:
Though Khora is not a goal, it is an experience, perhaps that is why it never becomes easier. It is always a teacher. It is never about the lesson, which could be mastered, but about the teacher, which is always present in the new moment. The Khora is a teacher, not a goal. I'm beginning to not know where this Khora is taking me. That's a good sign.
The climb to Drolma La Pass deserves mention. Although I had acclimated to an elevation of 14,500 feet, as I began the climb to Drolma La Pass which rises to 18,500 feet, altitude sickness arose again. My main guide showed up the next day with a special Chinese medicine for altitude sickness. I do not know how he knew, although in retrospect, I realize that my four-man team had their own ways of communicating. Sleep was frequently disrupted due to nightmares as my mind brought forth issues that needed purification. Often, I was simply awake every two hours, although I did not know why. I was always exhausted. Yet, I was so constantly joyful at the incredible opportunity to circumambulate the mountain that the sickness was unimportant.
One day, my guide pointed to some pilgrims, a few on horseback, who were passing through our camp area. He explained it was a party of Koreans from India who had turned back from Drolma La because they could not tolerate the cold. Later, my guide told me that five people had died on Dromla La that year, and more had died the previous year, because of the altitude and temperatures. One day over lunch, I asked him how old he was. He smiled and said, "Twenty-eight. And you are fifty-six." That is all he said, but the implication was clear: why would a fifty-six year-old, middle class, non-athlete from a low altitude terrain who did not even like camping choose to do this? And would she be able? He made an unspoken point.
The path that begins the ascent to Drolma La is about a thousand feet straight up a steep hillside, disappearing at the top. Prostrating up that path, I had the thought that if I could just get to the top of it, I would see Drolma La, the prayer flags, and Milarepa's great stone. When I did finally get to the top of that steep path, it flattened out into a very small area, like the landing on a staircase, and I could see that it was just the first leg of the climb. I took a breath and kept going. Many, many such climbs later, I finally saw the many prayer flags that mark the Pass. Before it, lay a sea of boulders. The closer I got to the Pass, the more I was prostrating on boulders, laying across them as I headed up, always up, toward the mass of prayer flags marking that sacred Pass.
The day I headed out across the last field of huge boulders toward the Pass is the only day that my guide stayed with me the whole day. It is dangerous ground. The path snaked across, between, and around the boulders, and I often lost sight of it. Although I rarely saw him, he would appear just as I was about to lose the path and head off in some circuitous direction. He was tactfully unerring.
When I reached Drolma La, we sprayed and drank Cokes in celebration. In the fog, snow, and cold, I stood there touching Milarepa's rock, hanging prayer flags and katas for my loved ones at home and my newly loved ones in Tibet, while drinking in the pleasure of this sacred site. The Pass itself is a very short space from edge to edge. I prostrated across it and began a precipitous descent downward, almost immediately seeing Shiva's sacred lakes as I rounded a corner on the narrow, rocky path.
As I came through Darchen, a man with a somewhat ragged child standing just behind him was watching me. He disappeared then reappeared and greeted me with a short bow, which I returned saying "Namaste." He then reached behind and drew out one child who was holding a cellophane bag of noodles and a second child with another package of noodles. I am sure they were offering me the family's dinner for two nights.
I met the Ben lama again when was I was nearing the end of khora. I did not know I was near the end because the wilderness has no markers in it. I knew Tarboche was ahead, but did not know how far. That particular day I was quite ill. I prostrated most of the day continuing around the edges of wash-outs and gulches, when the lama appeared from around the edge of one gulch. He looked so surprised to see me still doing khora. He and I stopped to greet each other. He held my hands and took off my clogs. He seemed concerned at how dirty my hands were and brushed them tenderly. He then looked at me with extraordinary kindness, pointed over his shoulder and said, "Tarboche." It was clear to me that he was offering me encouragement, telling me that although I could not see the end of my journey, I was close, that Tarboche was within reach.
I did finish khora with prostrations. It took me twenty-eight days. I will always remember the last prostration when I finally reached where I had begun at Tarboche. It was unbelievable to me that khora was ending, that there was not another prostration to do. It was all I wanted to do for the rest of my life's time, to stay at Kailash, prostrate, and pray. But there came a time when the circle was closed and my task was to move forward, not around.
I must speak of the Void. A great blessing of khora with prostrations was the ignorance with which I approached my task. I sought advice from more experienced friends, from Rinpoches who knew the terrain and tradition. But no one could tell me how long to prostrate for each day; or when the hailstorm was too heavy or too cold to prostrate in; or how hot or cold it would be that day as I left for the day's prostrations. What did I know of what was reasonable in such conditions? All I had was myself.
The khora path looks the same everywhere. Sometimes it is going up a mountainside, sometimes down, sometimes along or through a river. But none of those things ever told me where I was. After six hours of prostrating, I had no idea if I had gone five hundred yards or a kilometer. I would prostrate for hours and then walk back for half an hour to the camp and my guides, wondering if I had gotten anywhere at all. I did not know if my body would hold up. There was nothing to encourage myself, nothing to gauge progress, and really, this is as it should have been. There is no progress, no goal. There is the experience and there is surrender to the invitation to attempt this. Doing khora was not my idea; it was an invitation that came to me in prayer. I felt that my role was to show up and do the best I could each moment. Khora is surrender in the not-knowing.
The Void filled me. It rang in my ears. It wrapped itself around me. It was inside and outside of me. It was infinite, it was everything. My intellect did not even try to analyze the Void. It would have been a silly endeavor, like a gnat wanting to navigate outer space, and it never occurred to me to attempt it. I let the Void hold me because I just did not know; I could not assess or control my experience; I could only show up or not show up. There is an enormous freedom when we let go of the illusion of knowing. After all, life is enacting itself along some pattern, some dance, but that dance is not for me or you. It is for itself, it is dancing itself. I am invited to participate, but I should not have the arrogance to think that it is my dance, my design. It is infinitely beyond anything I will ever grasp. My choice is to play at the hem of its skirt, or to sit aside while it dances.
Khora was a crushing spiritual experience. On every level, it was the most difficult thing I have ever done in my life and the most joyful. It would not surprise me if someday, when I die, I look back and know for sure that it was the most meaningful and most important thing I have done in my life. After I returned, a very kind Rinpoche in Nepal repeatedly told me that I might not understand the meaning of what I had done for some time and should not worry about it. He said that in time, it would become clear to me. It has been just over a year since I completed khora and the truth of his words remains with me. Although I better understand the magnitude of what I undertook, my depth of understanding is that of a layer of paint on a huge block of wood. The wood will rise to meet me, but I cannot yet let it in. Tibet was singing out signs to me that I was welcome, that she had made a place for me to be there, that she was supporting me in this step into the Void, in this effort of which I had no conception. She would take my life while holding me together and dissolve me while carrying me forward. I believe that the unfolding of her lesson will continue for the rest of my life, dissolving and re-shaping me according to her wisdom.
Six months after I returned, despite my efforts to come back to the life I left, it finally became clear to me that I would never be back again. That moment of life had become my home. Very, very slowly, through each relentless day, I found myself changed, as if pieces of me that had been missing were rising again to support my feet. I am returning, more mature, more open, less knowing, more conscious, more loving, more humble, and more confident. At last, the first glimmers spill over the horizon that is me. It has taken so long to come home. In October 2007, I returned from my second trip to Tibet, Eastern Tibet this time. I realized that I needed to bring closure to my first trip and to finish closing the circle. The circle is inside me. It is the circle of my word, the circle of how I live my life, of how present I am in my moment, of how open my heart is. Mount Kailash was an enormous, diamond-studded door through which I stepped. And now, the opening will not stop. Door after door opens, drawing me deeper into the heart of love, devoured and comforted in the infinite heart of love that is Kailash, that is Tibet, and that is me.
Tracey Alysson, Ph.D. has worked as a clinical psychologist since 1980. She incorporates mind-body techniques including EMDR, hypnosis, and thought field therapy in her clinical practice with individuals of all ages, families and groups, and combat veterans. Tracey is presently interested in where psychology and spirituality meet in humans and is developing training to address the healing rather than the maintenance of trauma symptoms by exploring and reclaiming innocence in the human being. This article is part of Dying and Living in the Arms of Love: One Woman's Journey around Mount Kailash, a book in progress.