by Betty Bland
Originally printed in the MAY-JUNE 2008 issue of Quest magazine.
Citation: Bland, Betty. "Along the Way." Quest 96.3 (MAY-JUNE 2008): 84.
HOW WOULD WE COPE WITH THE EXTREME altitudes 14,500 to16,500 feet above sea level? Would we experience a major spiritual insight? Who were these folks we were going to spend the next two to three weeks with? These questions buzzed through our heads as we prepared for the journey to Tibet and again, as we began gathering at our rendezvous point in Beijing.
In the past, I have related to the word "pilgrimage" in terms of this lifetime of effort and unfoldment. Madame Blavatsky's description in the "Proem" of The Secret Doctrine rang true to my heart when I read of the obligatory pilgrimage of every soul "through the Cycle of Incarnation (or "Necessity") in accordance with Cyclic and Karmic law." It made sense that each struggling soul had its own purpose, challenges, and pathway. And we were each called upon to unravel the mystery for ourselves—with a little help from our friends, of course.
The other meaning of "pilgrimage," that of a particular physical journey in this world in order to visit a holy site, consistently applied to other people but not to me. There were a few destinations that could be termed loosely as pilgrimage sites, such as my regular treks during the 1980's to Stil-Light Theosophical Retreat Center in the Great Smokey Mountains, or my annual Thanksgiving homecomings to visit family in North Carolina; but these were journeys to familiar places with familiar people. The idea of pilgrimage as a journey to an unknown holy site with unknown people had not entered my personal experience until I joined the pilgrimage to Tibet.
We were well into the journey before I began to realize that the process of the journey was of equal importance to reaching the destination itself. Each obstacle we encountered provided an opportunity to bond with fellow pilgrims. Each holy site, reverent practitioner, or resting stopover made an important contribution to the whole. This process, supported by the mutual intent of each wayfarer, was the pilgrimage.
We did not come together merely to experience travel, or to see sights, but to gather nuggets of understanding and to encounter transformative inspiration. I do not know what we expected, but our first encounters with the Chinese in Tiananmen Square put us a little off balance. First, there was the friendliness of the people—they were particularly attracted to Chris Bolger's 6 foot 6 inch frame, but there was also an otherworldliness about the street vendors hawking English versions of the sayings of Chairman Mao, and the stark reality of several acres of open pavement broken only occasionally by a light pole, monument, or military guard stand. Shades of oppression nibbled at our peripheral vision.
Then, after a visit to the Lamasery, which sadly had been reduced to not much more than museum status, we were further introduced to the very different mindset of the Chinese government. Because of the Security Police's suspicions of Westerners in general, spiritually inclined travelers in particular, and a technical difficulty with one person's passport, our passage to Tibet was to be blocked. Skillful but tedious negotiations on the part of our guides finally resolved the issue with only one sacrificial lamb. Vicki Jerome of New Zealand would be barred from entry but would be compensated with her own private tour of holy sites, including the birthplaces of Tsongkapa and the Dalai Lama, in the former Amdo Province of Tibet, now known as Qinghai by the Chinese. Already we were confronted with unpleasant circumstances to accept and work around.
After a few days of acclimation in Beijing, we welcomed our flight to Lhasa which is located 14,000 feet above sea level, but we were all concerned about how we would react to the effects of high altitude. We had different remedies, mostly diuretics to give our fluidic circulating systems a jumpstart in order to function at the more rapid pace required by high altitude. We compared notes, shared our miseries, and generally adapted very well—all, that is, except for Valerie Malka from Australia who required extra pressurization/decompression in a portable body bag brought along for the occasion. Our guides, Glenn Mullin and Pawan Tuladhar, had thought of everything.
Every day was a new adventure of hiking, sitting, riding, eating, and settling into new accommodations—not to mention our creative toileting experiences. For our comfort breaks off the bus out on the open plateaus of Tibet, we were told, "Gents to the left; ladies to the right." Ladies were provided umbrellas for a modicum of modesty, but we soon found that it was easier to maneuver ourselves behind deep trenches or retaining walls. Eating establishments were usually ornately decorated, second floor, family style affairs. Most destinations were at the top of a mountain after an extended bus trip. Every aspect of physical life took care and attention. Nothing was according to the old routine. In having to break with our set patterns, we were finding enhanced capabilities and a new openness in ourselves.
During each adventure, we counted noses numerous times to be sure we were not missing anyone, but it was not always failsafe. Once, after stopping at an outlook at one of the highest passes we traversed, we all clambered back on the buses and headed down the other side, glad to be out of the chill wind. All of a sudden the shout went up, "Where is John Besse?" The bus slowed down as we looked at the sight back up the road. John was running after the bus for all he was worth. We could not imagine a more desolate place to be marooned.
As bus mates, we sang, told jokes and stories, and shared intimate details, and were not unlike the pilgrims of Chaucer's The Canterbury Tales. Being thrown together in all sorts of circumstances brought about unusual opportunities to bond with fellow travelers on a mutual mission. These connections opened our hearts a bit wider and created new channels for caring communication within our psyches.
Not only did we get to know each other, but we developed an understanding and concern for our Tibetan brothers and sisters. We wrangled with them in the Free Market at Shigatse and believe me, when their very livelihood depends on the bargaining, they can be quite persistent. If one enters into the argument over pricing, one had better be prepared to make the purchase. After that point, "No" is not an acceptable answer. Later, we were most kindly served yak butter tea by the nuns at Ani Sangkhu Nunnery (a little sip will do you) and shared our western hats and clothing with gently curious native people. Our pilgrimage expanded our horizons and concerns for our fellow human beings in the larger world.
The underlying key to all of this, however, is the single spiritual focus—in this case that of touching the mystery of Tibet and its ancient teachings. A journey becomes a pilgrimage when the traveler, recognizing the purpose embedded in spiritual experience and unfoldment, becomes a pilgrim. With the help of our guides, we sought out the caves where great lamas achieved enlightenment, circumambulated holy temples (long the site of devotional destinations), mindfully turned the prayer wheels, hung prayer flags, and tossed the prayer papers called windhorses to the winds. And we meditated, meditated, meditated. Glenn provided rich explanations along the way and on occasion he or other monks would chant the sacred and timeless chants associated with Tibetan Buddhist practice.
Individual devotion and the power of place contributed to the tangible spiritual cohesiveness that developed over the course of the trip. Each precious temple or cave and each breathtaking mountain vista in the crisp clear air added its essence to the overall experience. The combined energy of the group enhanced the deep spiritual impact of our journey. The power of spiritual intention supported by fellow pilgrims and powerful places worked its magic on each of us, making a permanent impact on our being.
This rambling tale reveals the aspects of pilgrimage, whether as the one we made to Tibet last May, or the one on which we have embarked as an obligatory pilgrimage of the soul. The destination is not always crystal clear, but in order to make progress, the purpose must be set. In our personal pilgrimage, which is life itself, we have to cultivate our capabilities, be open to change, and deal with constraints and absolute obstacles. The joy and growth is to be found in rising to the challenges, growing in personal strength, supporting and being supported by others of like mind. The goal may recede as we approach it, but we are headed in the right direction if we cultivate and share our aspirations and care for one another along the way.