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Rooftop of the World
(Part II — Pilgrimage to Nepal and Tibet)

(following from Part I: Entry into the Sacred)

For the first week after we entered Tibet, I couldn't shake the feeling that I was in a movie (or a dream). My favorite Tibetan movies are Kundun, Seven Years in Tibet, and The Little Buddha[1]. Aaron Eagle, my special son with Down Syndrome who loves Buddhism, and I watch these movies over and over again. So when our group of pilgrims flew over Mt. Everest on our way to Lhasa, I knew I had entered the dream.

The whole time we were in Lhasa (only three days), I continued to experience my life as if it were being projected through the lens of a movie camera. prostrations at Jokang 
        TempleNo doubt some of this blurred sense of reality had to do with the sudden experience of high altitude (nearly 12,000 feet). But seeing the Jokang Temple and the Potala in person seemed fictional after 30 years of looking at them in books or movies. We might just as well have flown to the Moon.

The Jokang Temple — the spiritual center of Tibet, built to house a statue of the Buddha brought by one of King Songtsen Gampo's foreign wives in the 7th century — was just down the street from our hotel, so we could go there immediately on foot. Just as in the books and movies, there were always hundreds of Tibetan pilgrims making full-length prostrations on the ground in front of the entrance. Our second day in Lhasa, when we went to the Jokang as a group, happened to be the day that the Tibetans were doing one million mantras of OM MANI PADME HUM. Potala PalaceThere they were in their traditional dress, the women's colorful aprons silently announcing the regions where they came from. Men, women, and children were crowded into the inner courtyard, chanting, counting beads, swinging their prayer wheels, and drinking their famous butter tea. And (how was this possible?) we were allowed to simply be there and coexist with them.

That day, I bought juniper incense from a woman in the courtyard. When I burn it now at home, it is a vivid reminder of that fascinating state of being in the midst of Tibetan lay people immersed in their normal (but extraordinary) devotional practices.

Everywhere we went this was the case. In Kathmandu[2] the Tibetan refugees made their daily prostrations and circumambulations around the stupa, and here in Lhasa the indigenous Tibetans were equally engaged in prostrating and saying their mantras and prayers. At every monastery, every village we visited in Tibet, no matter how poor and underserved the Tibetans were as a class, they showed the most incredible zeal in their devotion and joy in life itself. crossing the Yarlong Tsangpo River.jpgAnd I'm talking about a colonized people — I can only imagine what they were like before the Chinese overtook their country fifty years ago.

The contrast between here and home is so intense, it puts us to shame — we Westerners, with our untold privileges, tend to complain constantly, to be profoundly dissatisfied and discordant about the details of our lives. We are so uncomfortable in our skins, so uncertain of our destinies!

After three days in Lhasa and some adjustment to the high altitude, we set out from the city to our first campground, below the famous tantric caves of Chimphu. The Chimphu caves are near Samye, located north of the Yarlong Tsangpo River that we crossed in our bus at sunset. At Samye we climbed into the back of a truck for the roughest ride I've ever taken, up an endless rutted dirt road.

The ancient beauty of the valley of Chimphu — which Tsultrim told us is known as the Vagina of the Great Mountain Mother — was awesome and palpable. In stark contrast to this idyllic scene was the extremely filthy trickle of water running down the hillside, from which we were expected to filter drinking water.

On our second day there, despite the thin air and our various altitude problems, we climbed as a group up to the caves of ancient yogis and yoginis such as Jigme Lingpa, Yeshe Tsogyal, and Guru Padmasambhava. Present-day nuns and yogis now inhabit many of these caves. For me (and a few others in our group) this ascent meant taking one step at a time, six steps and a rest, breathing carefully every step of the way, and moving slowly but steadily upwards. It took everything I had to make the climb, but I wouldn't have missed it for the world.

at Chimphu Rock, looking down on the valley   Tibetan nun's cave-hut

Eventually we reached the rock outcropping known as the "clitoris" of the Mountain Mother, where we circumambulated and rested briefly before climbing the rest of the way to the top for lunch. On the way down the mountain later that day, I was blessed to walk with our incredible guide, Jerome Edou, scholar and author of Machig Labdrön and the Foundations of Chöd. When we came across a cave-hut inhabited by an "Ani" (Tibetan nun), she and her friend invited us in for tea. Jerome, speaking Tibetan, was able to facilitate a conversation and the next day the two Anis came down the hill to our campsite for medical care. Because Christine, our doctor, was delayed, they spent a good part of the day in my tent, where I worked on them (hands-on healing), gave them prayer flags created and sent with me by American artist Lydia Ruyle, and taught them a Goddess chant: ISIS ASTARTE DIANA HECATE DEMETER KALI INANNA. It was a joyful exchange, one of my favorite and most satisfying days of the whole trip.

Tibetan nuns serving tea in their cave-hut    Tibetan nuns with Lydia Ruyle's prayer flags

Our time at Chimphu was crucial in many ways. It broke us in for the rest of the trip. We learned to tolerate difficult conditions — the lack of clean water, the altitude which took our breath away, direct sunlight and strong heat in the daytime and sharp cold at night, inconsistent camp food, goat poop and yak dung underfoot pretty much everywhere, and dour Chinese military types watching us through scopes above our camp.

group meditating at Champhu Pond

Vicki Noble in front of the Samye MonasteryOur arrival in Chimphu had been shocking for me — I actually cried the first night and wondered if I would be able to adapt; I went to sleep in my clothes without even brushing my teeth, curled into a fetal position. Gradually I relaxed and by the third day was even able to wash my hair near the stream with a friend. As a group, we daily practiced the Chöd near the beautiful pond below our camp. By the time we left, all of us wished we could stay there longer.

Our visit after that to the Samye monastery itself was very meaningful to me. Standing in the courtyard of that great place — the first monastery in Tibet, built in the 8th century — I had a powerful body-memory, the energy coursing up through my feet and legs into my body. "I have been here before," I thought, and I wept.

remnant Black Dakini mural at Samye MonasteryIn the 1980s, I was teaching a women's group in Oregon when I experienced the first of my two definite past-life memories. We were circling in astrologer Demetra George's house and I was teaching the women a simple OM AH HUM chant from Tibetan Buddhism. We were chanting in a circle, in the dark, with candles burning in the center, when I suddenly opened my eyes and saw only men (including me) chanting in the circle. It was so unnerving that I closed my eyes and tried to make it go away, to no avail. The vision lasted five minutes and during that time I assimilated that I had been a monk in a past life in Tibet and was therefore authorized to be teaching the chant. At Samye I had the feeling that this might be a place where I had been a practicing monk. I've included a photo so you will know that I was actually there in my present form as well!

mural image of Yeshe Tsogyal, the female co-founder of Tibetan BuddhismThe monastery at Samye was destroyed during the Chinese invasion, but some of the old murals survived, including a wonderful image of the Black Dakini. The monastery has been restored, and now includes a gorgeous image of Yeshe Tsogyal (the female co-founder of Tibetan Buddhism).

Chimphu is the place where the Guru Padmasambhava and his consort, the yogini Yeshe Tsogyal, hid treasures that would be discovered in later times by reincarnated students of theirs. I have come to understand Motherpeace[3] in the context of this tradition, as I've written in Shakti Woman and The Double Goddess: Women Sharing Power[4]. The process of "pulling out" the Motherpeace included all the classic elements of a treasure or "terma," although I certainly did not know that when Karen Vogel and I created the oracle. I've only realized it fully in the last ten years, as more and more Tibetan literature describing "Terma" is translated to English.

(Part III: Machig Lapdron's Cave will appear in the Imbolc 2008 issue of MatriFocus)

Notes

  1. Kundun (the story of the Dalai Lama's life and his exile from Tibet when the Chinese invaded); Seven Years in Tibet (the story of Austrian Heinrich Harrar's visit to Tibet as a mountain climber, his involuntary stay in India as a prisoner of war, and finally his escape into Tibet where he became a dear friend to the young Dalai Lama before the latter's forced exile to India); and The Little Buddha (the story of three children who share the honor of being "found" as reincarnations of a former Tibetan Lama, including a beautiful allegorical story of the Buddha's birth, life, and enlightenment experiences).
  2. See my article, Entry into the Sacred, in the Lammas 2007 issue of MatriFocus.
  3. The Motherpeace Tarot Deck is a round oracular deck created by Karen Vogel and me, beginning in the late 1970s, and first published in 1983.
  4. Shakti Woman: Feeling Our Fire, Healing Our World (The New Female Shamanism), 1991: Harper San Francisco. The Double Goddess: Women Sharing Power. 2003: Bear & Company.

Graphics Credits

  • all photos, © 2007 Vicki Noble. All rights reserved.
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