A Pilgrim’s Tale
By Susan Griffith-Jones
Traveling is something that I love doing, so going on pilgrimage has also been a natural undertaking for me. But the act of pilgrimage is not just traveling to a place in the normal sense of going somewhere, but should be carried out in a very conscious way, where the actual journey is as much a part of the process as reaching the destination.
When you’re planning and setting out on pilgrimage, having a heightened awareness of what’s going on around you is a first requisite. It’s important to notice physical signs that appear—a rainbow in the sky, a sudden blast of snow or wind, what happens to you unexpectedly, people who suddenly come into your life, or odd little occurrences—they may be insights into specific places you should go to on your trip or indications of obstacles affecting the impending success of the journey that you need to address and overcome. For when one sets out on a pilgrimage to visit a place that is hard to get to, with the intention of purifying oneself and has asked for ‘assistance’ to get there, one should expect to be tested, as to reach a sacred site and gain the full merit of the trip is setting a high goal for which you’ll have to prove yourself worthy through displaying deep spiritual responses to problems at hand.
In the Buddhist sense, an ultimate pilgrimage is to the heart of Shambala, whose inhabitants are said to be a step away from enlightenment. Tibetan texts mention that it’s located within the continent that flanks the outermost ocean of Mount Meru, whose ring of seven mountains interspersed by seven oceans protects its innermost pyramidal structure. Some say that this mountain exists here in our physical world, while others say that it’s visible in a dimension beyond that only those who have developed pure perception may see. Others claim that it’s simply an analogy for the pilgrimage of life, the ultimate goal of which is to reveal one’s enlightened state, each of the barriers representing another test of courage and obstacles that we need to get through in order to refine our minds. A pilgrimage I undertook to the pyramidal-shaped mountain of Mount Kailash, thought by many to be a worldly representative of Mt. Meru, and located in the western part of Tibet, elucidates much of what I mention above.
After the idea first comes in my head, I go to see my guru, His Eminence Chogye Trichen Rinpoche in Bouddhanath, where I’m also living at the time, to ask his opinion about me setting out on such a journey. He replies that it’s a very good idea and that I should consider going through Pakistan to get there. There’s a lull in terrorist activities there, but it’s still not exactly ‘safe’ at that time, but my teacher is encouraging me to go with ‘certainty’ in my mind, to an extremely sacred part of this land, to connect with the place that is the cradle of the highest teachings of Buddhism.
Nearer the time when I’m preparing to leave, I meet a very respected nun, the sister of a high Lama at a lunch gathering. Her English is excellent, and I tell her about my upcoming trip and my trepidation about going to Pakistan. She frankly (and kindly) replies that I am looking at it completely the wrong way round! For the most sacred places are always guarded by wrathful energies at their perimeters, who are manifesting there to keep the ‘riffraff’ out, as not seeing their true nature as protectors of the sacred heartland, the person trying to enter would be paralyzed by fear and turn back. Just to seal my visit to this corner of Pakistan, at the end of the lunch, the guru himself requests me to bring him back a bag of soil from this region, telling me that he’s received precious gifts of rocks, earth, and other items from many sacred places, but never the soil of Oddiyana, where I am to go.
In a dream I have about a week before leaving to go there, I am in a train. Suddenly, the temperature increases, and everything becomes extremely bright outside the window. I consciously know I’m entering ‘Oddiyana’. Suddenly I’m walking along a pathway in the mountains, and when I look down, see an eagle’s feather on the pathway. A man is then standing in front of me. He bends down, picks it up and gives it to me. Switch to real-time. A week or so later, I meet my friend in north-west India and we enter through the Amritsar-Lahore border into Pakistan. We’ve been advised to go to Taxila, a place on the south-western corner of the Swat Valley (Oddiyana), through which the mighty Indus flows and where one of the greatest civilizations of ancient India had flourished. One of the greatest Buddhist universities used to be here at Taxila, but it’s now just piles of stones spread across the landscape. However, the ruined body of the Dharmarajika Stupa, similar in shape to the mighty stupa at Bouddhanath, Kathmandu, still stands in partial recognition of former glory. We are sitting upon it, a little apart, doing our mediation practices. Suddenly I look up, and a man is walking towards me holding something in his hand. As he approaches, he bends down and lays an eagle feather upon my meditation book. My dream flashes through my mind, and I’m shocked to the bone! Is this really happening? I am almost shaking with the confirmation of a deeper power at work here, and that I’m surely in the right place. Is this perhaps the entrance to Oddiyana?
In the coming days, when we’re staying at Mingora inside the Swat valley, I have a dream in which I meet the attendant of my teacher, Chogye Trichen Rinpoche. I ask him what he’s doing there, and he replies in surprise, “We live here, of course, in the monastery just 16 km from here.” We had already planned to visit the ruins of an old town the next day, and when I look at the map, its 16 km from here! At the site, we’re sitting down doing our meditation practices when a tall, Grecian looking man, a local Pathan fellow, dirty blond hair and green eyes, approaches me and pours a number of old coins onto my meditation book!
But Swat Valley, Pakistan, is just one stop en route to Kailash that is another seven days’ journey on from here by road. Having passed through one of the most stunning landscapes in the world, we enter the western Chinese province of Xinjiang and need to find a way to get off the Silk Road down through the Kunlun mountains to Kailash. The bus will leave in a week, so we decide to just surrender to the road and simply walk onto the route we need to be on and take whatever transportation is passing that way; first, a cart carrying tomatoes, another one carrying vegetables, pillion on a motorbike each. I have a tremendous feeling of ‘being free’, as we literally stop trying to control the path, putting our trust into being guided and letting it happen.
It’s starting to get dark and we’re wondering whether to pitch the tent, but take one last chance at hitching a ride. A petrol tanker grinds up the hill towards us and passes us. Our hearts sink. But then it stops around 50 m from us. We don’t know a word of Chinese, and nor do they, English, but we’ve been managing with my phrasebook so far and negotiate a ride to a town near Kailash that’ll be a five-day ride from here. Logically speaking, getting into the head of the truck with five Chinese worker guys seems more than risky, but I remember saying to myself that if we could really perceive these fellows as our protectors and not as aggressors, then so they would become exactly that. Such is the power of perception, or our good luck, that indeed, they looked after us all the way!
Next, we have to pass into the Tibetan Autonomous Region, and neither of us has a permit, only a general Chinese visa. It’s the middle of the night, and we enter a booth where a Chinese policeman gets up bleary-eyed from a bed in the corner. He takes our documents, but is continually menaced by a fly that starts buzzing around him. A fly at that time of night?! He’s so distracted by the insect that he hastily checks our visas, hands us back the passports, and off we go. We’re in Tibet without an official permit!
They drop us off at the gateway town to Kailash, and I could go on and on citing incidents that occur. What is constant though is that, each step of the way, we are being thoroughly tested as to how we cope with situations when they arise. So far so good, we have at least arrived at the destination!