Saturday, 9 February 2019

Sacred Caves of Sikkim. Part 3

After a rough night camped out on a tarpaulin which we had laid out over the bare and none too clean floorboards of the cabin, the first sounds of life outside indicating the approaching dawn summoned us to rise early and make our ablutions under the cold water tap nearby.

We set about preparing a simple breakfast after which we got ready for our ascent and the final climb up to the cave. The previous day, a local person, possibly a native to northern Sikkim had arrived a little after us and set up a  camp nearby, he rolled out his bedding not far from ours inside the shelter. As we could not communicate except with the small store of Nepali words I knew we had not been able to get to know his purpose there.

 However, that morning we shared our small cooking fire and a few biscuits with him. It seemed that he was visiting the cave as well, but he set off some time before we got going that morning.

As soon as we climbed out of our camp we were confronted with steps rising almost vertically up the side of the mountain. The steps were narrow, steep and slippery. One careless foot placement and it could all be over within a flash.

We continued our steep ascent up mossy stone stairways that seemed to become ever more narrow and steep the higher we climbed. It was a somewhat cloudy morning unlike the blue skies of the previous day which had graced our journey in. Therefore we were a little anxious about the weather turning on us. This gave us some added pressure to our sense of limited time. We intended to make it back down to the lodge that same day and our descent on the slippery pathways was not looking any easier than the ascent had been.

Onwards and upwards we continued for some forty or more minutes, by which time the sun had risen and was beginning to peak through the early morning clouds.

Then, after a particularly exposed and sheer section of bare stone steps, we suddenly noticed a whole bevvy of prayer flags hanging over a narrow entryway and we knew our destination was now very near.

There was some clambering over difficult large boulders and then we were there, right in front of a steep cliff face and looking into several dark passageways. Interestingly, there was no clearly defined cave entrance to be seen, rather a series of gloomy caverns under the sheer cliff wall.

Small shrines were set up here and there with statues and offerings of butter lamps and flowers and bowls of water. Many had passed this way before and the pilgrims had left their offerings on the stone alters. There were all sorts of things from human hair to old malas and various other knick-knacks.

We immediately sensed a very powerful blessing in the place and although it was indefinable, it could not be ignored. Not long after we arrived the Sikkimese man with whom we had shared our breakfast at the camp shelter way below suddenly re-appeared. He beckoned us to follow him and as it turned out, this was a very fortuitous occurrence because we could never have found the caves which he was soon to lead us into had we been alone there. They were quite hidden from public view and not at all obvious.

Armed with nothing more than a small candle and a box of matches he entered one shallow cave near the main cliff-face and then disappeared over the lip of a very large rock.  We followed closely behind him, Frank ahead of me on the heels of our guide and me panting up the rear. Both of us had gas lighters and torches with us but even so the inky blackness within the mountain was utterly impenetrable and our lights seemed very meagre indeed.

However, we had little time to consider our options or contemplate the risks of following our companion and it was just as well. Very soon we found ourselves on our bellies in the dust inside the mountain and inching our way forward along very narrow passages. I still don't know how I had the nerve to follow. With Frank ahead of me there was the hopeful expectation that I would be able to fit through the various openings if he had as he was taller and larger than me, but even so, we were really entering into an unknown world with an uncertain outcome awaiting us.

Despite various kinds of adventures throughout my life, squeezing myself along muddy narrow passages into the insides of a mountain was a very new kind of experience, particularly as we were being led by a fellow with unclad feet and only a wax candle wedged between his two front teeth.

On and on we went behind the man, our curiosity increasing with every passing moment. It was somewhat comforting to know that he had been here before. Only someone very familiar with these caves could ever find their way around them. We had to slide our bodies between massive boulders which appeared to separate one cavern from another. It was not long before we were covered in grime from head to foot and very soon it became damp and muddy as well, but there was nothing for it but to continue on .

Deep inside the mountain, we eventually climbed into a small cavern and saw a shrine with many offerings from previous visitors.  We were grateful to have our headlamps so that we could at least see a little around us and into the surroundings inner caverns. After some more climbing and sliding around over large rocks and boulders we entered another cavern which had a very particular atmosphere.

It was here that our guide took out a rumpled Kadak, a ceremonial scarf of greeting covered in Buddhist auspicious symbols and some other small offerings. We followed suit. After chanting a few prayers and enjoying some precious moments of silence within the heart cavern we felt that some indefinable blessing had embraced us. It was a very exquisite feeling, deeply moving and quite unforgettable.

The journey out was as perilous as the one in but thanks to our guide we were able to make it out again into the light of day, very much relieved but also thoroughly exhilarated by our unexpected adventure.

He showed us a few more of the caves, but nothing as challenging as that first one and then he went on his way. We were never to meet again. However, the gratitude that we both felt at his having come along at such a crucial time in our pilgrimage was never to leave us.

We stayed on a while longer, exploring the various levels and nooks and crannies of which there were many.

By the time we began our journey back down to our camp our hearts were completely filled and we felt that the effort that it had taken for us to reach this remote place was completely and fully justified and worthwhile.

Wednesday, 6 February 2019

Sacred Caves of Sikkim, Part 2.

A faded sign marks the beginning of our journey on foot. Here starts the trail to the northern cave of Chang Lhari Nyinpo. This roughly translates as the old cave of God's hill. The trail passes through dense forests of ancient trees, bubbling mountain streams forded by rickety bamboo and wooden bridges of dubious strength and construction.

We begin with a descent along a pathway paved with roughly hewn stones. They are damp but fortunately not slippery. However, one must be constantly vigilant as the stones are not level. They jut out from the soil in an uneven profusion and often add to the difficulty of the path rather than making it easier to traverse.

Frank leads the way into the dense forest that greets us at the beginning of our trek. Bamboo groves soon give way to massive trees dripping with orchids and ferns of all exotic kinds.

It is not long before he decides to find us suitable walking sticks. These simple branches will become essential as we progress on our journey. A stick is very necessary in so many ways and quickly becomes an indispensable trekking tool.

I don't have the greatest kneecaps and a walking stick helps me to balance and take some of the weight while climbing and descending.

There were plenty of bamboos available near the beginning of our walk so we chose a couple of sturdy staffs to help us on our way.

As we were both carrying our own loads in backpacks it was essential to be able to balance the load well, especially on the tenuous cliff stairways and hanging bridges that we were very soon to encounter.
I will have to admit that I did roll my eyes when we climbed up to the first dubious section of the pathway not long after setting out. In this particular spot, a bit of bamboo had been roped to the side of the cliff wall and it looked none too sturdy. Without luggage one can skirt these sections fairly painlessly but when carrying a load it becomes quite a different matter.

The surrounding trees were tall and magnificent. This first part of our trail passed through some very old-growth forests that had never been touched with a loggers chainsaw.

We walked steadily onwards and upwards. In fact, after the first thirty minutes of relatively flat walking, it was all ascent, ascent and more ascent!

I always find that the first thirty or forty minutes of the day is the most difficult part of walking. After that one finds ones walking pace and the going becomes much easier. After warming up the body finds its own walking rhythm and once you tap into that there is a momentum which seems to carry you along, not effortlessly of course, but slowly and steadily.

Frank and I seemed to manage our pace at about the same rate but I was aware that he was being very thoughtful and not putting too much distance between us. There were many places where large rocks or slippery wooden walkways made it a little challenging for me, especially with my load and he was always nearby to extend a helping hand. I should also mention that he had quietly taken the lions share of things which had to be carried.

Even though it was relatively cool, as often happens with trekking, we soon became very hot and sweaty.

A seven or eight-hour trek is not much to tackle, but when the trail rises sharply most of the way it can begin to get quite gruelling.

I am something of a seasoned trekker and yet, I do remember feeling particularly weary on this ascent by the middle of the day.

Our intention was to make it to a small and extremely basic hut which lies about an hour from the cave of Chang Lhari Nying Phuk.

Early afternoon, when we stumbled across a bubbling stream with large and inviting boulders along its banks we decided to take proper rest, have our lunch and a good break.

Only the occasional local villager had passed us during the morning and sometimes they had a few goats or yaks with them, but we did not encounter any other pilgrims along the path.

At a certain elevation, I began to notice leeches beginning to freeload on my boots and socks. I had chosen to wear a long cotton dress. Some would say it is not the most practical choice, and whenever we encountered large boulders I would have to agree.   There were some advantages, however. It could be hoisted up in the front when climbing and lifted above the waterline if wading across a creek and I found it was generally much more comfortable and cool to wear provided the trail was straightforward of course.

Unfortunately, as I was soon to discover soon enough, a dress was not necessarily the wisest of choices in the high alpine Sikkimese forests, where slippery pathways and leech infested grasses could make a dress a challenge. There were also a few other unexpected situations which were to arise later and make me question the wisdom of my choice on this occasion.

The higher we climbed, the cooler and mistier it became. We also noticed that the soil and vegetation around us was very damp. Just a few days before it had been raining heavily in these parts and the residue of those rains was evident on all sides. This turned the trail in something rather treacherous and the higher we climbed the more slippery it became. Slipping on these mossy stones was simply not an option, given the height at which we were climbing. One misstep could easily have spelt disaster. A broken limb in these parts would be extremely problematic to both the victim and his/her companion.

Therefore we made our way with great care and took no unnecessary risks. As nimble as goats we both somehow managed to avoid falling, but it was a wonder really.

About an hour before dusk we climbed into a small, high rocky location surrounded by massive trees and noticed to one side the trekkers or pilgrims lodge that we had heard about.

This would be as far as we could reach this day. On the morrow, we would climb up into the cliffs and find the cave.

Saturday, 26 January 2019

Sacred Caves of Sikkim. Part 1

Ever since I first came to know about the four sacred caves of Sikkim, I wanted to make a pilgrimage to each of them and as of now I still have not accomplished that entirely. If a chance comes my way, I will make another journey and endeavour to fulfil that wish.

According to historical records, the guru Padmasambhava was requested by one of Tibet's kings in the 8th century to search for places where practitioners could practise in safety during the coming times of trouble.

The four caves of Sikkim are deemed to be among the places which he blessed during his search. The spiritual heart of Sikkim is said to be a place called Tashiding and these four caves are located in the four directions which radiate out from this place.

Two of the four sacred caves are easy to find and two are more challenging being several days walk up into the mountains along slippery and leach infested trails. One, in particular, can be reached only along a very treacherous trail which leads high into the mountains. This is the cave in the West, the Dechen Phuk or Cave of Great Joy.

Two caves, Cave of the Dakinis in the South of Sikkim and the Rebungla Cave are easy to get to. Chang Lhari Nyingpo in the north of Sikkim, which roughly translates as the Old Cave of Gods Hill is perhaps the oldest of the four caves.

My German friend Frank and I were both keen to make this journey. Frank had spent a bit of time in the hills of Darjeeling and Kalimpong and when I had mentioned these caves to him was as eager as I to visit them. So in the year of 2008, we made a plan.

Our intention was to try and visit all four caves, however, Frank was by that time living and working in Germany and could only spare a few days for our proposed adventure.

Therefore we decided on one cave in the South which would be on our route into the hills north, where we proposed to climb up to the Chiang Lhari Nyingpo Cave and then we could visit if possible the other eastern cave on our way back down.

There would be no hotels or eating places on our way once we headed for the northern cave, so we packed a small stash of supplies to last us for a few days.

It was spring in the foothills, but still somewhat cool and also rather damp with rain falling on most days. the area to the north was flanked by dense forests and as we were yet to find out a very steep and slippery climb.

On our agreed meet up day, I rose very early in order to prepare for a big day of travelling ahead. It was a cloudy morning and I could not see the mountain of Kangchendzonga from my window, which would have been the case were it clear. I had to flag down a jeep from the road above the place where I was staying.

Ten minutes of concerted climbing with my luggage brought me puffing and sputtering to the gate of the forestry department. From here many jeeps would ply up and down the steep and narrow road on their way to Gangtok and Kalimpong.

Frank had already been a couple of days with a friend in Kalimpong so I was going to meet him at the turn off at the bottom of the hill which was several thousand feet below where I was living at the time. From there he would pick me up in a jeep which we had hired to take us up to the beginning of the track that would lead to Chiang Lhari Nyingpo.

That morning it was not difficult to flag down a jeep, find an empty seat and make my way down to the Teesta river. I got there a little before Frank arrived with our driver and it was not long before the two of us were heading east on our way into the Sikkimese foothills.

As the eastern cave was on our route we made a stop at Rebungla and found the trail that led to the Pe Phuk or the Secret Cave.

Honestly, we were both quite taken aback even before we even entered the cave. There was a very special sort of atmosphere surrounding the entire place and neither of us had really expected that. I guess we didn't really know what to expect. As it was already mid-afternoon, we could not linger too long in that place, however, we did take the time to sit near the entrance before climbing down into the cave itself. It was surprising how big it was inside. A large picture of Guru Rinpoche was placed high in the entrance to the cave as though guarding and protecting against unauthorised entrance.

Climbing down into gloomy interior we both wished that we had a guide. There were a few obvious routes that we could have taken in order to explore the vast cavern but they looked so small and we both felt claustrophobic just seeing them. It would also have required our crawling on all fours in the dust and then wriggling through narrow openings. Neither of us being of small Nepali or Sikkimise build we decided we might leave those excursions for another visit and we plopped ourselves down in the main entrance way instead and just imbibed the atmosphere of the place.

It was an impressive beginning and we were both somewhat wonder-struck. We decided that if we could get another chance in the future we would certainly return and spend more time exploring this cave. In a future visit, we would try to bring a guide.

After leaving Rebungla and continuing on our way we climbed higher and higher into the foothills of Sikkim towards Tashiding from where we expected to begin our journey on foot to the northern cave. It was late evening when we finally arrived at the end of the bumpy mountainous road and at the beginning of our trail. We quickly found a lodge to stay for the night.

It was cold and once the last rays of light faded would be extremely dark in these remote parts. The lodge was a basic affair but we only required shelter and water and a bed on which to sleep. Rising early the following morning we had a simple breakfast of tea and bread, loaded our packs and headed out into a bright and cloudless morning.

Unlike the previous day where clouds had obscured our views of the mountains, this morning a glorious sight awaited us. A line of towering snowy peaks greeted our vision and filled our hearts with happiness and anticipation.

View towards Lhari Nyingpo

To be continued...

Saturday, 5 January 2019

Return to Forever

When we reach the autumn's bend

Will we wish that we were young again

Laughing in the face of time

If only we knew now, what we did then

Clouds... billow cross the sky 

Changing as they fly 

Return to forever... 

Thus go the words in the song by Minnie Riperton.

When we reach the autumn's bend will we wish that we were young again?

Many people feel that their lives are filled with regrets and with the pangs of' if only and what if..?

Filled with broken promises and dreams lost.

Filled with the residue of stuff that is no longer important and perhaps never was...

Yet, each moment holds a new promise.

The promise of what is.

That elusive little something which costs us nothing,

which is always with us and from which absolutely everything arises.

How can we claim what is already ours?

This is the greatest of mysteries.

Unravelling it leads to recognising the simple and living promise that nothing and no one can ever take away.

But it can only happen when we let go of the endless strings of hope and fear and confront the challenge which appears before us as a complete and perfect paradox.

The simplest and nearest of all is also the most difficult to the see. This is the mystery, the only mystery...

Laughing in the face of time

If only we knew now, what we knew then...

In our younger years, it seems that there is less of 'stuff' to confuse and clutter our vision but in reality 'clarity' is always ours and for the taking.

And yet, how effortlessly we get caught. Like bees drowning in their own honey, we become submerged in the worlds that our mind creates.

Forgetful that we are mere flickering lights on the screen of life we become entangled in the unceasing display.

Clouds billowing across the sky, changing as they fly... 

In everything we find movement and change, this is how our lives unfold from moment to moment and day to day. This shifting force of change is something we have absolutely no control over.

We seem truly powerless in the face of change.

Yet our real power is always with us, unnoticed and ever-present. That power alone is beyond change and beyond time.

Forever; is in the palm of our hand.

It is right here and now...

New Years Resolution

Return to Forever...

Sunday, 25 November 2018

Kathok Getse, The Fearless Warrior

This post is humbly offered as a dedication to the memory of H.H.Kathok Getse Rinpoche, as we remember and honour a great and fearless Dzogchenpa. *

There are no random acts in the life of a Mahasiddha!
This must be loudly and clearly proclaimed because we ordinary beings with our limited perception perceive events very differently from those who come to this earth to benefit others.

Based on the evidence at hand, many would say that Getse Rinpoche left this world prematurely, due to an accident. But let us repeat. There are no random acts in the life of a Mahasiddha and nothing is as it appears to be. Transform this 'accident' into an act of supreme sacrifice and we come much nearer to the truth. Bodhisattva's appear in this world to remind sentient beings to recognise what actually is.

And this needs to be mentioned, in fact, it needs to be 'shouted from the rooftops' lest we forget!

And we do forget, constantly and miserably...

Getse Rinpoche was no more timid when facing death than he was in life. Having recognised the true nature of 'reality' he could move in this world without attachment and without fear. He did not relish the strictures of monastic life and yet neither did he shun them. He could 'dance the dance' while ever mindful of what really is and what really is, beckons us all.

In recognising that his time had come, he strode unflinchingly towards what awaited without even the least hesitation. By so doing, we can trust that impure karma has been averted and the unrelenting guru of impermanence has been clearly and unmistakably pointed out.

He had the courage to embrace the mortality of this earthly body and let it go when all the causes and conditions had ripened and in so doing he has bestowed upon us the supreme gift of the Dharma; that of remembering that we are not this body nor this mind!

He could gaze into the face of death without fear because he had established himself in what is deathless. In these impoverished times, when the Dharma is often practised without sincerity or determination, there are few who can understand the true activity of one such as this.

And yet here is the greatest teaching. Right here under our very noses. Not disguised, not edited, not covered over and not hidden. Right here and right now, as this whole mighty ship of samsara, within which we live, move and dream the dream of our lives, slowly and irrevocably sinks into the infinite ocean.

We, who are unmindful of what is approaching, continue to play out our lives, consumed by our dramas and our endless preoccupations.

Can we not give ourselves pause for thought? Can we not look up for a moment with an unclouded and undistracted view?

To the Lama who points fearlessly to that which is, we who falter in samsara bow down in profound gratitude for your immeasurable kindness...


Geste Rinpoche
(shared by Tulku Jigme Wangdrak)

I was blessed. I met Getse Rinpoche soon after he left Tibet and arrived in India.
It was in the winter of 1997/8... It was in Bodhgaya.

Every day I had been passing many hours in a spot near the Bodhi tree, the place where the Buddha attained realisation. Just in front of me, a young Tibetan Lama was performing prostrations. Many hours of the day he was there, polishing the wooden prostration board with his gloved hands and long red robes...

In little breaks, we sometimes shared a few words and a few jokes. He knew a smattering of English and I a smattering of Tibetan.

One day, quite out of the blue, he asked me to accompany him to meet a Lama.
At first, I was hesitant, not wanting to be sidetracked or distracted. However, the following day, he spoke of this Lama again, impressing upon me, that he had just come from Kathok in Tibet, the place where my own teacher, Chadral Rinpoche, had spent many years.  When, on the following day, he asked me for the third time I began to take note. In a dynamic place such as Bodhgaya, unexpected meetings can come ones way and in turn be meaningful.

I followed him in the early afternoon through the market streets outside the stupa compound and into a small room in a simple building above the crowded bazaar. In that first meeting, I was somewhat taken aback, surprised, unsettled in a way which I could not quite understand. It was nothing which was said, as we merely exchanged pleasantries and discussed our respective teachers but the 'atmosphere' of this meeting somehow lingered on.

After that first meeting, I seemed to bump into him all over the place and at all times of the day and evening. I joined him and a group of his close ones on a pilgrimage to Nalanda and Rajgir one day and it was on this occasion that I became fully aware of his considerable power and presence.

During the bus ride on our way back to Bodhgaya that evening, he was facing me. Some hours into that journey, I suddenly looked up, as if prodded by some invisible hand. The first thing I saw was Getse Rinpoche's face and he was looking directly at me. He fixed me with a gaze for which I was entirely unprepared. If that moment had been in any way contrived, shyness would very likely have forced me to look away, but in the disappearing light of the day, my mind simply went blank and I was drawn into a vast and unfolding silence. His gaze was like a doorway into something beyond the universe. It was utterly riveting...

Before I knew it we were all clambouring off the bus and heading towards our various accommodations. He and I exchanged no words, nothing at all was said. After such a gaze, what could possibly be said? The world had stopped, period!

During that particular winter prior to meeting Getse Rinpoche, I had been deeply immersed in the mystery; 'who am I?' I had taken it as my main practice. Hours and hours I sat in blessed proximity to the Vajrasana seat beneath the sacred Bodhi Tree where the Buddha had realised the ultimate reality. I was determined to find a way into the ever-present portal of my own mysterious awareness. And then right there, and quite unbidden came one who had gone before, who had embraced the mystery, who could open the 'door,' and who was absolutely fearless and staring directly into the face of truth...

How can one ever repay such kindness?

I was fortunate to meet him on many occasions during the months and years that followed that first meeting in Bodhgaya. One can recount so many things about these times, but I will mention just one which comes instantly to mind.

One time when I was staying near Chadral Rinpoche's retreat centre in Godavari, he came for an unexpected visit. At that time a number of students were staying in the retreat centre inside the beautiful compound and gardens. Near the entrance into the retreat, Chadral Rinpoche had placed a notice announcing that none should enter the precincts therein save those mentioned right there on the notice. None would ever think to challenge the command of Chadral Rinpoche, an elder Lama, whose authority was sacrosanct.

Yet, after perusing the sign at the entrance way, Getse Rinpoche strode right on in, met with the students staying inside, exchanged a few words and a bit of banter and then went on his way again. Many of those who were there that day, were somewhat taken aback yet, this was quite in keeping with Getse Rinpoche's character.

He had the deepest reverence and regard for Chadral Rinpoche, something which I witnessed firsthand on several occasions and yet he was not one for following conventions and he was given to demonstrating this from time to time in unexpected ways.

According to the testimony of his two attendants the day before he dropped his body, Getse Rinpoche had been half-jokingly conversing with them about impermanence. 'If I were to die tomorrow, it might be difficult for both of you to prepare the wood,' he had said.  He then went on to give clear instructions on how his funeral should be arranged.

The following morning, at his own request, Getse Rinpoche took one of his two attendants and began walking from the retreat centre which he had just visited, towards Adzom Monastery. About an hour into this journey they encountered dangerous road conditions, but Rinpoche did not heed the warning of his assistant and continued to move on. His final words were; 'you still have a very strong attachment to this physical body.' What followed is now history.

The guru of impermanence will not heed our pleas. We might try to delay but when our time comes we must be ready right there and right then.

In the timelessly relevant words of the previous Dilgo Khyentse Rinpoche.

Even if death were to strike us today like lightning, 

we must be ready to die without sadness or regret, 

without any residue of clinging to what is left behind. 

Remaining in the recognition of the absolute view, 

we should leave this life like an eagle soaring up into the blue sky.

And so too shall we be claimed when our time comes. Will we be ready right there and right then to fly?

The final flight of Getse Rinpoche was fearless. Death struck like a bolt from out of the blue and yet he was ready and could demonstrate for us the supreme teaching. Thus we bear witness to the unflinching 'view' of a true Dharma warrior in these decadent times.

May all be auspicious...

(Dzogchen, The Great Perfection; Dzogchenpa, one who practises this.)

Wednesday, 3 October 2018

Parvartimalai, Impossible Places

On top of a very steep and unusual chunk of rock sits an ancient temple. Parvartimalai is about 20 kilometres away from the small town of Pollur in the South of India.

A 3500-foot climb brings one to the entrance of a Siva temple which is said to be at least 2000 years old. This temple is perched on the very tippy top of the rock summit. It is a hard and dangerous climb to reach that place and most certainly not for the faint of heart.

Since my earliest memories, I was always drawn to inaccessible structures in impossible places. Since hearing about Parvartimalai, a mere 25 kilometres north of Tiruvannamalai, my curiosity had been peaked. I soon harboured a secret ambition to climb up there,  see the temple and enjoy the surrounding stunning views with my very own eyeballs, despite the fact that I was no longer in optimum condition for such adventures.

Therefore very early one morning, I stowed a few snacks and some bottles of water into a daypack, jumped onto my 50cc TVS moped and headed off into the fading night to pick up my Telugu friend RC.

I suppose it would have been around six o'clock. It was a cool January morning, the very heart of a tropical winter in the South of India. I found my friend waiting in our pre-arranged meeting spot and very soon we were making our way along the still sleeping streets. We headed west from the town of Tiruvannamalai towards our intended destination.

TVS mopeds are not noted for their great suspension or speed, and we endured a cool and bumpy ride down country roads dotted with holes and various other unexpected obstacles.

As we approached our goal we could make out only the base of the mountain beneath a mass of swirling grey mist. Later I realised that it had been a good thing that we could not see the entire mountain before we climbed it because it is very likely I may have baulked at the possibility of ever being able to climb it.

We had very little information as to where we should head in order to begin our climb but followed our noses and one small windy road which eventually brought us to a dead end, a small temple and what looked like a well-worn pathway.

I parked the bike and locked it all up near the temple and we headed towards the mist. There was a lot of huffing and puffing for the first thirty minutes into our climb and then the body adjusted itself into a rhythm and it became somewhat easier.

Onwards and upwards we climbed, stopping only for short breaks to drink a little water and catch our breath.

We had heard that in this place, dogs are known to approach pilgrims and if they are smiled upon favourably by the local 'gods' these dogs might accompany one on the upward journey.

Very soon our first canine friend joined us with a very wide grin and amiable air and our group grew to three.

We took this as a good omen and continued on our way.
The higher we climbed the warmer it became and very soon the cloud cover which had been hanging over the mountain began to thin and then lift revealing the summit very far above.

During the first part of our journey what lay above us was mostly obscured by trees, shrubs, ridges and the folds of the hills which surround Parvartimalai. It took us several hours of steady climbing to scale this section and finally emerge on the lower limbs of the mountain directly below the pinnacle of rock on which the temple and some new buildings are precariously perched. 

Neither of us knew much about what we should expect to find on the way so every view opened up a new sense of wonder and surprise.

We soon realized that we had not brought enough water with us. A mere 3 litres, even on a winters day, in the South of India could barely assuage our increasing thirst.

The higher we climbed the warmer it became and very soon all traces of the early morning mists had disappeared.

Until that point, our only encounter had been with the dog which was guiding us onwards and upwards, not a single human being had crossed our paths. However, once we reached the stairway below the cliff which rose directly above, a few other pilgrims, all of them climbing from a different path which merged with our own, suddenly came into view.

At the base of the cliff, we removed our sandals and gazed up at the series of steep steps and ladders. In previous times, these luxuries had not existed and one would have been confronted with chains by which to pull oneself from one platform to the next. It all looked rather doubtful to me.

However, I was in no mood to even consider not continuing on with the ascent.

This was where we parted company with our canine friend and began the even more arduous part of our journey.
I decided not to think about what lay ahead, just to deal with one step and then another and see where that might eventually take me.

RC, is a good deal younger and more spritely, managed each stage without too much effort. At that time I had a torn ligament in my leg which made all kinds of movement painful and I had no idea how far I would be able to go, quite aside from the mental challenge of dealing with ladders and increasing heights and gaping chasms. But, sticking to my resolve, I simply moved onwards and upwards and decided to just focus on each step of the way.

It was not long before we had scaled all of the lower ladders and emerged onto a platform of rock which gave us a stunning view.

Our sense of increasing thirst began to play a little on our minds. We knew that it was very likely that some industrious shopkeeper would have carried a few bottles of water to the summit but we were also very sure that these bottles would be like liquid gold up there in the waterless realm in the upper precincts of the temple.

In this area, the enterprising priest had created a well. It was a very foreboding looking place that caught the rainwater in a crevice of the mountain. It was a black hole marked by ancient stonework which one hesitated to approach. Thoughts of tumbling into that well were ever present as we skirted it gingerly on our way by. We tossed a stone over the side but failed to hear it land. This was not reassuring.

It would be doubtful that anyone unfortunate enough to fall into the well could ever hope to get out again. For all we knew, it may have been hundreds of meters deep. It was certainly wiser, at this juncture not to contemplate this matter too deeply so we continued on our way.

More ladders. I hung on grimly, trying not to look down or notice the wobbling and the rattling of the metal. A few other hardy souls passed us on their way down. They had to wait on platforms to let us pass. I was very relieved that I had worn trousers for this adventure and had nothing but admiration for the Indian woman who somehow managed to climb these ladders in their long and draping saris. 

On the final part of our ascent steps had been hewn out of the rock face itself. They were incredibly steep and narrow. I was grateful to have left my shoes at the base of the ladder as it greatly helped with our balance and movement not to be hindered by having anything between us and the bare rock surface.

At this point, I noticed that high cloud was forming around the sun. This was a very welcome development. It was inconceivable to me how one could climb in the full blaze of a tropical sun on that bare rock with unshod feet!

We passed a small hut which professed to house a tea stall but there was no sign of the owner that morning. On and on and up and up we climbed.

There were numerous shrines and curiosities along the way. However, without a guide, we would never know to whom or why these carvings and shrines had been built, or how old they might be.

The temple atop Parvartivmalai is said to have been built by Siddhas who stayed there to meditate. It is utterly miraculous in its location and would have been an ideal place for those seeking solitude. If this was, in fact, the motivation of those who built it, it certainly would seem like an extreme act and one that would have cost unimaginable suffering and toil in the construction of it. To all appearances, an edifice atop this sheer pinnacle of rock seemed quite impossible. However, this temple is not one of a kind, many such temples dot the landscape throughout Tamil Nadu and to this day no one can be sure as to exactly how they were made. There are numerous speculations, however.

Through a gateway and up one more flight of stairs and we were there peering up at the final lofty staircase. The temple had not really been visible to us throughout our climb. It was always hidden by the surrounding and rising cliffs.

But once we were able to skirt these it suddenly appeared in all of its South Indian magnificence, a monument to the skill and craftsmanship of artisans of yore.

One narrow summit of rock was the only platform upon which the temple was built.

To our surprise and delight, we discovered that the day we had chosen to visit this place coincided with a very auspicious twelve-year ceremony in which the temple was cleansed and re-energized. Special bamboo scaffoldings had been built around each of the temples three Goporums and the presiding priest had climbed these in order to pour a consecrated water over the cupola at the very top of each spire.

It was extremely gratifying to think that we had somehow, even though unwittingly, stumbled in on such an auspicious day.

The sun made its own proclamation with a bright rainbow circle appearing in the heat of the noon. After visiting the inner and outer precincts of the temple, making our offerings and partaking of the substances and blessings which were being distributed by a handful of priests and pilgrims we found a spot in a shady corner and gazed out over the surrounding landscape. It was a breathtaking sight. One that deserved time to savour.

I silently and inwardly rejoiced at having pushed myself to face my long-standing fear of heights notwithstanding my dicky kneecaps and somehow make it up to this extraordinary place. This achievement was rather unexpected and very satisfying.

One, unclad sadhu was sleeping calmly near the edge of a rock that hung out over a mighty chasm. He seemed oblivious to both the heat of the sun and the incredible drop that fell away beneath him.

In this timeless land, one encounters so many wonders which quite simply defy understanding...

Monday, 1 October 2018

The Simple Truth

Photo Credit. Man in the Universe

"I warn you, whoever you are.
Oh, you who wish to probe the arcana of nature,
if you do not find within yourself that which you seek,
neither shall you be able to find it outside.
If you ignore the excellences of your own house,
how do you intend to find other excellences?
In you is hidden the treasure of treasures.
Oh, man,
 know thyself 
and thou shall know the Universe and the Gods!”

Inscription at the Temple of Delphi.

Do we give our permission to be born into this life? More to the point, ‘who’ is there to give that permission in the first place? Who is this ‘I’ that is born, lives for a while and then dies? From whence came this ‘I’ that we journey through life with so intimately and yet barely ever notice, let alone truly know?

Isn’t it remarkable that the very essence of what and who we are, should be something that most of us are quite ignorant of? Yet even that simple question almost never arises in our minds!

It would seem that we are thrust out into this world without choice and most of the 'happenings’ of life that follow appear to be choice-less as well. The Tibetan wheel of life depicts this cycle of existence in a very graphic, unemotional way, showing the beginnings of human life, from helpless infancy, through to adulthood and all the stages leading on from there to old age and finally death. Unless we are to meet with an untimely end, we all must pass through these various unavoidable stages.

Yet it is our ‘arrival’ at the time of birth and our ‘departure’ at the time of death that are the most mysterious aspects of our existence, giving rise to the eternal question, from where did I come, to where will I go? Everything in between seems geared to pull us away from investigating the origins of our ‘Self’. Are we not almost continuously consumed with the drama of ‘life’and what appears to be happening to us? The only respite we have from the round of endless distractions comes during our sleep, at which time we reconnect so naturally and effortlessly with our true nature that here again, we barely even notice it. We know that we must sleep and yet we take the ‘blessedness’ of that condition almost completely for granted.

Although it is true that we all are born and must die, how we live out our lives in between those two crucial events is not in the least bit certain. Do we allow ourselves to be tossed into the cauldron of life, believing it to be real and true, or, do we take what is our inherent birthright, as conscious, sentient beings and go deeper, to discover the truth of who and what we REALLY are. All of us have the freedom to glimpse beyond the veil of day to day circumstances, we have the freedom to discover our true origin and yet few of us seem compelled to do so.

If we are conscious and aware, then, no matter what our outer life circumstances may be, we have the potential to see beyond them to what really is and if the intention of self-discovery is strong, then rather than being distracting, life itself can provide the very tools with which to make this most important discovery.


Excerpt from the book; Awareness Comes Knocking

Sunday, 23 September 2018

The Silent Power of a Mountain

Mount Kangchendzonga
One day, while sitting in the loft of my 'tin palace,' a small retreat hut which I built at the end of a ridge not far from Darjeeling, a town in the foothills of the eastern Himalayas, I was overcome, as happened on many occasions, by the majestic vista that spread out before me.

 From my perch, I could gaze out the window past the cupola of a small Chorten which rose up right in front of my house. It had been there a lot longer than my little house. These structures are a Buddhist symbol of the stages of enlightenment and often contain the relics of holy beings. Beyond the chorten, a line of bamboo poles had been raised, each containing large colourful prayer flags which fluttered in the wind. Each flag was covered in ornate Tibetan script bearing mantras and prayers. 

Beyond this, a few sturdy trees clung to the edge of the cliff face hiding somewhat the vast chasm which opened up right below. From that point, space ruled and swirling mists rose up from the distant valleys far below. 

The huge peaks of the Himalayas rose up just a few miles to the north, and on a clear day, one could see from Mount Everest in the west, right across a huge swathe of towering peaks to the tiny kingdom of Bhutan in the east. 

But there were no clear mountain views that particular day. Instead, monsoon mists billowed around the steamy valleys in an endlessly shifting dance.

And yet, there were moments when the clouds parted during the rainy months and then one could catch a fleeting but unforgettable glimpse of the huge massif of Kanchendzonga, freshly dusted and clothed in a thick and brilliantly white mantel.

Kanchendzonga is the world’s third highest mountain. It is an enormous eruption of black and grey granite that rises up 8586 meters in the far eastern portion of the Himalayan mountain chain.
In size it is just a few meters short of Mount Everest.

Recognized as a sacred mountain by the natives of the fiefdom of Sikkim, it holds a certain mystic and is revered by the locals who remain committed to protecting it from the footprints of irreligious mountaineers. 

However, the mountain itself is a treacherous domain for mortals and many have lost their lives trying to scale its flanks.

But from a respectful distance, the monsoon vistas are very special. There is no other time during the year when the play of light is quite so luminous and pure. What can emerge between the billowing clouds for fleeting moments are evanescent explosions of brilliant color and light. They appear as almost not of this earth.

These glorious visions of the mountain had inspired and sustained me for the many years while I lived on that ridge. The mountains were a ceaseless ocean of shifting color and light. They never looked the same. The play of light, the subtle shades of color, the shifting clouds and moods which it drew forth at different times of the day and night; all were a constant reminder, for me, of the dance of life which is forever changing. One could never lift ones gaze and not find there a new world of wonder.

During those years this majestic view of clouds, light, and mountains was nature's teaching for me. To look out of my windows and see how everything interacts in the natural world was a constant and vital lesson in impermanence and change.

Nature reflects the basic truths of life ceaselessly and with unmatched simplicity and beauty.
Even so, we often fail to notice them. We are constantly reminded of life's impermanence and yet we are swallowed up by our thoughts and by the ceaseless stream of distractions which claim almost all of our attention from the very moment we wake in the morning until we close our eyes at night.

Caught by the movement of the forms upon the screen, our eyes fail to see the screen upon which their movement depends. We gaze right past what is always present, unmovable, unshakable and null, grasping instead at the dancing forms and the shifting play of colours, light and dark.

In times cluttered with ceaseless distractions it is in the simplicity of nature that we can find, quite effortlessly, little windows of opportunity; windows that allow our spirit to soar free from the worldly display for a moment or more.

In the freedom of just such a moment, we can begin to discern what is constantly shifting and changing and what is consistently present and stable and begin to know the difference. In our eternal search for happiness, this is a very essential milestone on our journey back to the source of all being.

The silent power of a mountain can help us to recognize the unshakable power within.


Read more in Masters, Mice, and Men
Volume Three in the series; Shades of Awareness

Friday, 31 August 2018

The Alchemy of Generosity

I would like to share with you a true story that was told to me by someone directly involved in this incident.

Yogi Ram Surat Kumar

It is interesting to note that the Ashram of Yogi Ram Surat Kumar, (an Indian saint and mystic)  is one of the largest of its kind in the small city of Tiruvannamalai, which is situated in the state of Tamil Nadu in the South of India.

Yet he lived as a supremely humble being, appearing as little more than a simple beggar for the greater part of his life (1918 - 2001).

Yogi Ram roamed around India for many years aimlessly as a wandering sadhu. During these years he had the great good fortune to visit Tiruvannamalai while Sri Ramana Maharshi was still alive. On his very first visit, he had the definitive experience of recognizing his true nature in the presence of the great Sage.

Thinking that he had achieved his goal, he left the Maharshi to resume his wanderings.
Many years of hardship followed until one day he realized that he
needed to return to the Maharshi's blessed presence in order to
achieve complete stability in his realization.

He made the long and arduous journey back to Arunachala. But sadly, it was too late. It was a horrible shock for him to discover that the Maharshi had already left his body. However, he stayed on in Tiruvannamalai, living mainly at the big temple of Arunachala in the town and often visiting the Maharshi's samadhi at Ramana Ashram.

During the nineteen sixties Sri Ganesan, one of the great grand nephews of Ramana Maharshi was overseeing the running of the Ashram. At that time he was a bright, young sprig who had just completed his studies at one of India's top schools. After some subsequent travels, he had come to Tiruvannamalai where he was requested to preside over the ashram and administer to the needs of a few of the older devotees who had remained after the Maharshi passed away.

In those days, Ramana Ashram was extremely poor. Often there was barely enough food to feed the inmates, let alone anyone dropping by for a meal.

Although Ganesan had grown up bathed in the brilliant light of the Maharshi's compassion and wisdom, as a young boy he could not appreciate just how extraordinary the Maharshi really was. Despite his childhood years being blessed to be in the Maharshi's near presence, to him at that time, he was just a sweet old man, his tata, (grandfather).

Many years later and after the Maharshi had passed away, Ganesan had returned to Tiruvannamalai in a very different state of mind.
He was now all grown up. Lifes 'slings and arrows of misfortune' had given him to contemplate his existence and place in the world and he was ready to hear the precious teachings of the Maharshi. He was also keenly aware of how important were those who were still living and who had enjoyed a close association with the great Sage.

During this time, therefore, Sri Ganesan was developing a great affection and respect for Bhagawan's old devotees, and they, in turn, took him under their wing, uncovering for him, in the most skilful ways, the simple and yet profound truths that they had themselves imbibed at the feet of the Master. Deeply moved by their tenderness towards him, and the wisdom that they revealed, he vowed to always try to do whatever they advised him, at least to the best of his ability.

One day as Ganesan was going about the business of the ashram and passing from the Samadhi Hall to the office, he was called aside by one of these old devotees. To his surprise and then dismay, the man gave him a most peculiar and uncomfortable command. After pointing out a scruffy sadhu who was leaning untidily against a wall nearby, he told him to go over and make a prostration to him. Not stopping there, however, he also added that Ganesan should then go to the dining hall and try to find something for him to eat.

Being president of Ramana Ashram at that time, Sri Ganesan was not given to prostrating himself to anyone, let alone some beggar who had wandered in off the street, very likely, he thought, to try to bum a free meal. Not only was he the president, but also a proud Brahmin, well educated and very much alive to all the etiquette, that one in his elevated station, would expect to receive from others. That aside, lunch was well and truly over, and it had been a meagre meal. That he should have to scrounge a few morsels of whatever little was left behind did not give him cause to hope for a positive outcome.

However, such was his determination to stick by his former lofty
resolve, that he swallowed his initial feelings and went and
prostrated himself before the lounging form of the unkempt sadhu. The person in question drew noisily from a half-smoked bidi but showed no other sign of recognition, or response.

Somewhat embarrassed and put out, Ganesan dusted himself off and went to the kitchen to see if he could scrape together something in the way of a meal to offer to the sadhu. He
managed to produce a humble serving of rice and sambar with a dab of mango pickle. During the years that followed and on three separate occasions, this same beggar came to Ramana Ashram and Sri Ganesan was requested to do the same each time.

Many years later, when Yogi Ram was at the centre of a large and
thriving ashram of his own, Ganesan became an avid devotee. One day quite out of the blue the Yogi beckoned to him to come near. As Ganesan was often in the Yogis company he thought nothing of it and crept in close expecting to hear some request or remark. Instead, he was to hear the words; 'on three occasions Ganesha, you fed this beggar!'

It should be mentioned, that until that moment Ganesan never
realized their previous connection. Never, for a moment, had he
linked the beggarly sadhu to the gracious Yogi whom he now venerated. Many years had passed since the previous incidents and they were forgotten, well and truly.

Yogi Ram was, for two-thirds of his life ignored, mistreated and
turned away by many, many people, because he looked like an ordinary ragged beggar. He had spent many days without food, and he had suffered untold hardships, and yet he was later to become a benevolent 'Father' to many.

Yogi Ram made it his business, when circumstances permitted, to feed hundreds of sadhus, and ordinary lay people every day.  In
fact, anyone who happened to walk through the gates of his ashram was welcomed in, treated kindly and fed with great affection and respect.

Such is the magical alchemy of generosity. As a humble outpouring of the heart, selfless generosity transcends all boundaries and can manifest itself with the most remarkable and unexpected outcomes...

Thursday, 23 August 2018

When Mountains Move

I spent many months on end in the mountains just south of Mount Everest in the late 1980s and remember well, that there were several earthquakes during the time when i stayed just below the towering summit of Kumbila, the peak which is revered as the 'protector' of the region by the local Buddhist folk who reside there. Each quake was accompanied by landslides on the neighboring mountain slopes. Each quake was a sobering reminder of just how fragile life is.

At that time, i stayed in a tiny wooden hut that clung to the side of the mountain. From this perch, at 12,000 feet, whenever i looked out of my window, i felt as though i were looking out the window of an airplane.

In the 1990s under the guidance of the Tibetan Dzogchen Master, Chadral Rinpoche, i spent numerous summers camped out in a tent in the mountainous regions north of Kathmandu in an area now completely decimated by the impact a series of devastating earthquakes which hit Nepal in 2015. This area is known as Sindupalchowk. Rinpoche had several retreat centers dotted around the precipitous slopes of this mountainous region.

By the time i started to make the pilgrimage up there each year, he was already well into his eighties and no longer able to make the long and arduous climb up into the mountains by foot. However, he would come via helicopter, stay a few days or weeks, instruct those undergoing their long retreats and the few of us stragglers who had come to spend the summer months in the high alpine pastures far from the crowded, noisy and polluted marketplaces and valleys of Kathmandu.

It has been a dramatic and unnerving time watching the effects of the recent massive quakes, in two areas that i had come to know and love well.

Through the ages, since time immemorial, massive cataclysmic events have taken place on our planet yet when measured next to the span of our human lives, they seem far and widely spread apart. We measure our lives by the days, weeks, months and years that we witness passing by. Our tunnel vision gives us a feeling of continuity and safety even as we live and move within the tremendous and ever-shifting forces of the natural world which surrounds us.

The concept of the Earth as our 'Mother' is not by any means a new one. Since time immemorial people have felt that this earth upon which we 'live, move and have our being,' is in some profound and absolutely fundamental way connected to, not only our physical existence but also our emotional and mental well being.

Yet despite this ancient and known interconnection, we are now, perhaps more than ever, sadly disconnected from our 'Mother' Bhumi, routinely treating her with disregard and disrespect.

When the earth wakes up, stretches. When the earth sighs and heaves; all life upon it must take heed.

When mountains move, the very foundation and stability of all that we may have associated with steadiness and continuity comes into question. We are thrown back into ourselves, to find there, the truth of Who and What we REALLY are...