Tibet’s Ashirwad (Blessings) in the Sky: Kailash and Mansarovar

“Pilgrimage is an activity common to many religions. The faithful set off on long journeys to particular places with the hope of creating virtue and gaining merit. What distinguishes Mount Kailash is that, for many people of different faiths in South and Central Asia, it is the holiest mountain on earth. It is sacred to the Bonpos, practitioners of the indigenous pre-Buddhist religion of Tibet. For Buddhists it is associated with adepts like the great yogi-poet Milarepa and is regarded as one of the sacred locations of the deities Shiva and Parvati. Moreover, even for those without a specific faith, the mountain’s physical form and colour make it a natural symbol of purity.” – His Holiness The Dalai Lama

Western Tibet seemed like a far off dream when I first heard of Asia’s most holy mountain and lake six years ago. There are few moments in our life that we never, ever forget and when I first laid eyes on Mount Kailash and Lake Mansarovar I was consumed with gratitude, bliss, peace, joy and complete awe. Words and pictures cannot capture the essence, enormity and spiritual ethos of this glorious mountain and lake.

My journey through Western Tibet was one of the more challenging experiences I’ve endured (physically, mentally and emotionally). It was as if I was experiencing joy and pain simultaneously because amidst this spiritually significant mountain and lake I witnessed a great deal of insincerity, disrespect and selfishness. I met quite a few pilgrims that had come all the way to Tibet to bathe in Lake Mansarovar, perform puja and attempt to complete the circumambulation of Mount Kailash yet they would treat others, especially Tibetans and Nepali sherpas with cruelty. I think the universe sent me to Kailash and Mansarovar to reinforce the teaching that ritual and pilgrimage means nothing if you don’t have a pure intention and at the end of the day all that really matters is having a good heart. Still, the sight of Kailash and Mansarovar is breathtaking and without a doubt the most amazing thing I’ve ever seen in my entire life.

For thousands of years Kailash and Mansarovar have played a significant role in the collective consciousness of Hindus, Buddhists, Jains and Sikhs. Lake Mansarovar represents the female or wisdom aspect of enlightenment and is a symbol of good fortune and fertility. According to Hindu mythology, Lord Vishnu floated in the lake for an eternity dreaming until the life force stirred and out of the water’s infinite potential sprang forth all of creation. Its highest point is 4650m and the distance around the lake is 110km and is surrounded by monasteries along the way. At a height of 6714m, Mount Kailash (kailasha means crystal in Sanskrit) is locally known as “Kang Rinpoche” which means “The Precious Jewel of the Snow.” Four rivers flow from Mount Kailash from its four faces in the cardinal directions (South = Karnali, West = Sutlej, North = Indus, East = Brahmaputra). For Hindus particularly, Kailash is the seat of Shiva Mahadeva. While there are numerous gods and idols in India, the two aspects under which God is most often worshipped are Shiva and Vishnu, for Shiva is God to the Advaitin (one who subscribes to nonduality) and Vishnu to the devotee who admits duality. Climbing the mountain is forbidden and the only people to have reached the top are the 11th century Tibetan Buddhist Yogi-Poet, Milarepa and the founder of the Sikh faith, Guru Nanak Dev. Jains refer to Kailash as Ashtapada and believe that Rishabhadeva (the founder of their faith) attained liberation on this mountain. 

One parikrama (circumambulation) of Mount Kailash is said to erase the accumulated sins of a lifetime and 108 of these will ensure nirvana and completing a kora (Buddhist term for circumambulation) during the full moon (which is what I did) is worth 31 circumambulations. It takes 3 days to complete the 52km circuit (the first and third days are only a few hours but the second day is a full day) and if you are in good shape and have had experience doing physical activity in high altitudes (trekking in Ladakh would be great preparation) then the parikrama is doable. But if you are not physically fit attempting to complete the entire parikrama on foot can very dangerous. Seven people died during my parikrama (possibly more passed away but by the time I left Kailash on the third day seven had been confirmed dead) and I was one of two people (the other was a mountaineering expert who was completing his third circumambulation) that successfully completed the entire circuit on foot while carrying our own gear. Most non-Tibetans (Hindu pilgrims) hire a pony to ride around the mountain (but you still have to walk about 7km through steep, icy terrain because the ponies can’t manage that) which seemed totally sacrilegious to me. The reason why Kailash can be a death trap for some is because of the Dolma-La pass which is 5630m and you only have 40% oxygen that high up. Altitude sickness is very serious. I tagged along with a group of 40 Indian strangers to Tibet (otherwise it would have been impossible for me to sort out permits, transportation and lodging) and five had to be evacuated due to severe altitude sickness. In the end, only 15 attempted the parikrama, 11 on ponies and 4 on foot. After the first day the two men from Bangalore that had intended to complete the parikrama on foot opted for ponies to help them through the Dolma-La pass. Since it was high season for pilgrims even if I wanted a porter to carry my gear none were available. Everyone at Kailash base camp tried to dissuade me from going on foot—being a girl and carrying my own gear seemed impossible to them. But I had come this far and there was no way I was going to give up so I appeased them by taking an oxygen cylinder and I set off. And I figured if I’m going to kick the bucket anywhere there is no better place to die 🙂

Before officially beginning the parikrama I prostrated three times before the legendary Chorten Kangnyi that marks the start of the kora. I then cut a lock of my hair and left it among the hair of other pilgrims at the sky burial site of the 84 mahasiddhas. The only parts of our body that don’t contain prana (life force) are our hair and nails and when adept yogis light body and dissolve back into the elements all that remains are their hair and nails. Leaving a lock of my hair at this site symbolizes not only the intention to dissolve back into the elements when I “die” but it also signifies the old life I am leaving behind and the transformation that is supposed to occur during a pilgrimage. I said a prayer to Lord Ganesha to remove all obstacles, chanted Maha Mrityunjay (Om Tryambakam Yajamahe…) and the Refuge chant (Buddham Sharanam Gacchami…) and then with all my heart asked all of my Gurus (living and dead), ancestors and all of the enlightened beings to walk with me around the mountain.

Initially I tried to keep up with the mountaineer. This dude was hard core (the day before he had jumped into the icy, cold Mansarovar like it was nothing) and he would literally skip up the mountain and then take long breaks and move again at lightening speed laughing and singing. During our second break he was telling me how when you are on expedition literally every step matters immensely. Then a light bulb went off in my head and I thought about my beloved teacher, Thich Nhat Hanh and all of the walking meditation we did when he was in Delhi last fall. I told mountain man to go ahead and that I would be fine. I picked up my gear and coordinated each step with my breath and a line from my favorite gatha: “I have arrived. I am home. In the here. In the now. I am solid. I am free. In the Ultimate I dwell. Arrived. Home. Here. Now. Solid. Free. Ultimate. Dwell.” So I decided to mindfully walk the entire circuit! That first day as I climbed hundreds of pilgrims were coming down telling me that it was too difficult and a young girl like me will never make it with all y gear. In response I smiled, pressed my palms together and said, “Om Namah Shivaya. Lord Shiva is my father, he will take care of me” and pressed on. During my three-day journey around the mountain I just bathed in the beauty and glory of Kailash. You can literally see Lord Shiva’s face on the side of the mountain and in the morning Kailash glows like gold with the sun’s rays.

Before and during the parikrama I witnessed pilgrims act in the most selfish manner. Unfortunately, many of these individuals were also Brahmins. They had come all the way to Kailash to perform pilgrimage yet they had not yet understood the basics of spirituality. While I know you need to have the dark in order to have the light I’d rather not go into detail about the countless incidents or types of things I saw. Thich Nhat Hanh often talks about how we all have good seeds and bad seeds and we must water our good seeds and the good seeds of others. Throughout the yatra as I noticed the selfishness of others I became more aware of my own selfish tendencies. This whole transformation thing is tough but I guess the first step is recognizing our own unskillful behavior and when others behave cruelly we can use it as a lens to examine how we can be kinder, more compassionate and remind ourselves that we too can be cruel if we don’t water our good seeds.

On the eve of the parikrama I broke down in tears quite disillusioned. My heart hurt because here I was at my dream spiritual destination yet I mostly kept seeing cruelty, cheapness, insincerity and on top of that the extreme poverty of the Tibetan people. I asked Mahadeva why he had called me to Kailash—to lose my faith in humanity? As I wept the answer came and I knew that I had come to Kailash not to pray for Moksha or Nirvana but for collective awakening which is something my teacher, Thich Nhat Hanh, speaks about often. So as I mindfully walked around the mountain I prayed for everyone to become “awake” and in order to do so I must first be able to water my good seeds and the good seeds of others. Even with mindfully walking I somehow managed to be the first person to complete the entire parikrama on foot and I wasn’t even tired or sore at all. It was as if someone else was doing all the hard work!

So I didn’t have an out of body experience or see beings from other dimensions like yogis usually do at Mansarovar and Kailash but none of that stuff even matters to me any more. In fact, I didn’t even do a proper puja. I just lit some incense, prostrated before the mountain and lake and said, “Thank you. I’m so sorry for all of my unskillful actions. I love you. Help me be a good person and be of service to others.” I know this may seem sinful to some of you because I was fortunate enough to get to Kailash and Mansarovar and I didn’t even do a puja but I had to trust my heart and this is what felt right to me—anything else would have felt fake.

 According to the folks as Kailash base camp it’s likely that I’m the first Western woman under the age of 30 (and quite possibly the youngest non-Tibetan female) to have come to Kailash alone (without any friends, family, spiritual teacher or Sangha) in recent times to perform a pilgrimage and successfully complete the entire parikrama on foot without the help of a porter. Regardless of whether or not this is true I’m incredibly grateful to have the financial resources (it’s very expensive to get to Western Tibet), optimal health, and spiritual calling to have made this trip. Kailash has been my dream for so long and now I’ve been able to do sadhana (spiritual practice) at every site that is of great importance to me and while it is hard to articulate specifics in words I definitely do feel very different after completing this most auspicious yatra (pilgrimage)—I’m much more aware of my inner demons and self-cherishing nature and realize how important it is to constantly be mindful and water my good seeds.

During the yatra I spent more time with the various Nepali sherpas I met than other yatris. I found them to be more spiritual than any of the Indian pilgrims and they were all so very sweet and totally not sketchy. Being at least a few years older they all looked out for me like a little sister and were concerned that I had come all the way to Kailash and Mansarovar alone. In fact, they all called me “Bahini” which means little sister in Nepali. Their poor English and my pathetic Hindi made communication quite hilarious. One of my Nepali brothers was just so helpful, kind, generous, sincere and he was always smiling. When I asked him how he managed to always remain calm and cheerful under all circumstances he just laughed and said, “I don’t know Bahini, I think my face is just like this—always smiling.” I also met a Tamil Brahmin woman from Chennai during the yatra who was my mother’s age. She was shocked that I was born and raised in the US but had come to Kailash alone to complete the parikrama. This aunty took care of me like her very own daughter. When I asked her if she had a Guru she said, “direct Shiva-Linga itself” and I knew she was hardcore. We had many great discussions about shunya and nonduality and having her speak to me only in Tamil and call me affectionate names in my ancestral language made me feel so happy. She was always worried I wasn’t eating enough and would constantly give me snacks! I just feel so blessed that wherever I go people go out of their way to look after me. This aunty asked me if my parents were religious because I was so into all this stuff and I told her that they aren’t really religious but they are good people and that is far more important. My parents may not go to the temple all the time and do puja but they are far more evolved and enlightened than all of the charlatans I came across during my yatra (pilgrimage).  

I crossed into Tibet from the Nepal border. Chinese immigration was quite an ordeal (and Swine Flu only made things more complicated). I had to obtain a special (very expensive) permit to get to Kailash and Mansarovar since I am a US citizen. I came to Nepal early to have the permit sorted out at the Chinese Embassy and at one point while I was waiting for my passport to be returned I became totally neurotic and thought for sure I would be denied entry to Tibet because the Chinese government somehow knew about all of the petitions I’ve signed and protests I’ve partaken in to support my Tibetan brothers and sisters. But alas, I wasn’t on some black list and was able to get into Tibet with no problems. Still, you have to be very careful about your actions while in Tibet. I heard that a few Americans were arrested recently because the Buddhist monks they were talking to were actually Chinese spies.

It takes 5 days to get from the border to Mansarovar and Kailash (4 days of solid driving and one day to acclimatize) and the terrain is very challenging to navigate even in a Landcruiser.  The Tibetan landscapes are beautiful but there are very few places in Western Tibet with running water and electricity. I would have much rather camped than stayed in mud houses—I know this sounds totally obnoxious and American but they were extremely dirty and unhygienic. In fact, a few of the places I came across in Western Tibet just might be the dirtiest places I’ve ever experienced (imagine the dirtiest place in India and multiply it by 10). I got in touch with my inner sherpa during the pilgrimage because aside from my bath in Lake Mansarovar (where I obviously didn’t use soap or shampoo) I didn’t bathe for close to 16 days! My hair got so dirty and knotty that I started developing matted locks like Lord Shiva himself and had to unfortunately cut my long hair because it was just so damaged. There were very few places that had toilets (even compost ones) and you mostly did your business outside in the open—there was literally shit everywhere. It also felt like almost every Tibetan was always smoking and this was actually more difficult for me than the smell of shit.

The towns I visited on my way to Kailash and Mansarovar were very, very depressing and the poverty was immense and the main difference with India was that it was just a smaller population. It was challenging to communicate since “Tashi Delek” is the only Tibetan I know and hardly anyone speaks English. Tibetan girls would literally come up to me and ask for bindis and bangles but I didn’t have anything but the tiny earrings I was wearing which I just gave away. I also noticed Bollywood posters in some of the towns. I did meet a lovely young Tibetan girl named Kalsang who studied at TCV (the Tibetan Children’s Village) in Dharamsala and she now works as a tour guide. When she found out I was from the American Embassy School her face lit up and she gave me a huge hug. The American Embassy School has had a longstanding partnership with TCV and Kalsang has been to the American Embassy School many times.  She cried to me and told me about how horrible the situation is for Tibetans—it made my heart ache. One of her friends was killed during the uprising in Lhasa last March. She says that there is absolutely no free speech and that there are Chinese spies everywhere. She said to me, “Since you are from the American Embassy School I know you are not a spy and I feel safe talking to you.” Kalsang wants badly to visit India but she cannot cross the border and if she does she will never be able to return to Tibet.

Before and after my trip to Tibet I was able to spend some time in Nepal and see my very pregnant Nepali Didi, Neeta. The first night I arrived Neeta and her lovely husband, Garrett, treated me to “Fire and Ice”—which is a famous restaurant in Kathmandu and the best pizza I’ve eaten in Asia! Nepal is an absolutely fascinating, incredibly complex, very troubled, politically unstable country. I was finally able to read “Forget Kathmandu” by Manjushree Thapa. The book begins with the 2001 royal massacre and attempts to give a brief history of modern Nepal while also giving attention to the appeal of the Maoists to some Nepali’s. Unfortunately, the few days I was in Kathmandu there were strikes, everything was shut down and I was confined to my hotel room in the ultra touristy region of Thamel. I spent a few days in Pokhara when I first arrived which is the starting and ending point for the Annapurna circuit.  When I was in Pokhara I overheard some ignorant videshis (foreigners) cast off Nepali’s as “poor but happy mountain people” during their dinner conversation.  Did these folks have any clue about what is going on in Nepal?!?!?! On my way back from Pokhara to Kathmandu because of protests what was supposed to be a 7 hour journey turned into a 14 hour one! I would love to return to Nepal when things are more stable and get a better feel for the country. I find the Nepali people absolutely beautiful and I just love the diversity of their features and want to spend more time getting to know the Nepali people. Still, as much as I love living and traveling in Asia I’m looking forward to the fact that in a few hours I’m off to the airport and will be heading to North America for the first time in three years! At times while I was in Tibet instead of being “present” I found myself dreaming about bathrooms (I didn’t even care if they were clean), showers, water that I didn’t have to add purification tablets to and nutritious food.

Seriously though, I’m eternally grateful for being able to complete this yatra (pilgrimage) to one of the most sacred spots in the world. No doubt, the blessings of my ancestors, teachers and parents brought me to Kailash and Mansarovar. While I didn’t have any expectations for this journey I feel that the lessons I learned while on this pilgrimage were the most powerful ashirwad (blessings) I’ve ever received. Coming to Kailash and Mansarovar made me realize that we have to work hard to transform ourselves and be mindful and act skillfully—it’s a constant process of watering our good seeds and I have such a long way to go. In the Zen Buddhist tradition of my teacher we are taught to rely on ourselves.  We can’t just believe and have faith in something (even if it is a person like the Buddha). We have to take our destiny in our own hands in order to make the world a better place.

When the Buddha’s death was coming near he told Ananda that pilgrimage should be made to four places: where he was born, where he attained enlightenment, where he gave his first teaching, and where he died. The Buddha said that those that died while making pilgrimage with a faithful heart would be reborn in one of the heavenly realms. Ananda then asked what should be done with the remains of the Buddha’s body when he passed and he told Ananda not to worry about such things and to instead dedicate himself to his own spiritual welfare. At first this seems contradictory but it shows an important distinction between those who follow a path of action and those that strive for ultimate realization. There is a similar story in Hindu mythology where a group of Rishis are performing austerities and Lord Shiva appears to them disguised as a sadhu. He convinces the Rishis of his superior powers and they ask him for guidance and he tells them it is impossible to transcend action by means of action. This story is written as a Tamil poem by a well-known modern poet named Muruganar. But when Murunagar came to the passage giving Shiva’s instructions to the Rishis he asked the great Sage Ramana Maharshi to write it for him. Bhagavan writes: “The results of action pass away and yet leave seeds which cast the agent into an ocean of action. Action does not bring Release. But actions performed without any attachment, in the spirit of service to “God,” cleanse the mind and point the way to Release.” 

Maybe one day we’ll get there Ramana Maharshi 🙂 but for now I’ll keep trying to water my good seeds and the good seeds of others 🙂

With Love & Eternal Blessings,