Tuesday 1 November 2011

Tibetan Mountain Yogis and Yoginis

Group photos of two Tibetan Masters and their disciples
Dodruchen and Chadral Rinpoche with students in Neyding, Yolmo
I spent several summers in a number of remote retreat centres in the mountains north of Kathmandu. This area is directly north of the Kathmandu Valley. My teacher, Chadral Rinpoche had a number of small retreat centres high up in the Rhododendron forests of Helambu, in the Sindupalchok region of Nepal.

Many in the Western world are quite unaware that such places exist and that such a ‘lifestyle’ is possible. In the nineteen nineties the living conditions were extremely basic and often physically challenging due to the harshness of the elements, the high altitude and many other factors that could make it a struggle to survive.

Yet those excursions into the mountains were among the happiest and most interesting years of my life. Even though we were scattered around in three different locations, the practitioners in these places all looked out for one another, this was a necessity more than a nicety. We were very much dependant upon one another. 

Very often we could be subjected to various and often unexpected ‘adventures’ many of which, demanded that we let go of any former preconceptions or rigidity with regards to conditions and circumstances in which to ‘practice the dharma.’

The months spent in the mountains were a fertile ground in which one could conceivably and with relative ease crack open not only the ‘mind’ but also the ‘heart.’

Reaching this area at that time involved a three-day trek which began in a small village called Melamchi Bazaar. From this little outpost, a trail wound its way through tiny settlements along the banks of the bubbling Melamchi River. Initially one threaded one’s way through fields of ripening rice paddy but these soon gave way to scrub and then forest as one began to climb the hills that rise up steeply into the Helambu region.

The spring cum summer months usually began from late March and continued until around the middle or end of August while from June onwards the monsoon rains commenced. Rinpoche chose these months to visit his students in the three locations which formed a triangle in the mountainous terrain. Neyding housed a number of male practitioners; Tropodang was a collection of shelters for the women and Lhakhang had both men and women practitioners living there.

Often, while Rinpoche was visiting the centres he would teach. Therefore a handful of the more hardy students from other places in Nepal and even further afield would trek up in little groups to be present during these months.

By trekking standards in Nepal, the three days walk up to the small hamlet of Tarkygyang, the nearest village to all three centres, was a reasonably easy and modest one. However, as most of us came there intending to make a longer stay, we had to plan our journey and the provisions we would take up with us quite carefully. 

There was little in the way of food or supplies of any kind to be had in this area. One also needed a tent and all the equipment required to keep it in a relatively dry and liveable condition in the damp, high altitude environment for many months on end. This meant that one also had to carry tarpaulins and mats, along with food supplies, cooking utensils and all the basic living paraphernalia needed to set up camp at high altitude.

We faced many problems during those months. Food was scarce; the weather was misty and often wet. The monsoon rains were preceded by tree snapping, heart-stopping storms, which in a moment could wipe out one's entire makeshift home!

It would take me three days to set up my camp. The ground had to be levelled and then a trench dug all around the perimeter of the tent so that it would not be washed away in a pre-monsoon flash flood or storm and then later in the season be inundated by the daily monsoon downpours.

Conditions in the retreat centres were extremely basic. Usually, they consisted of little more than a collection of makeshift huts with a mountain stream running somewhere nearby. The ‘huts’ in which the Lama lived were made of a framework of wooden poles; the walls were usually only a thick black plastic. The roof was most commonly made up of roughly hewn planks of wood. To say they were basic and flimsy was actually an understatement.

Volume Three in the series; Shades of Awareness

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