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rumtek-monastery (photo by Wanphai Nongrum)The hallmarks of Sikkim are associated with the mystical figure of Padmasambhava, known as Guru Rimpoche (literally “Dear Master”). Back in the eighth century—contemporary with the great mystic Japanese Kobo Daishi—this extraordinary character spread the esoteric version of Buddhism all over the Himalayas.

Like Kobo Daishi in Japan, Guru Rinpoche is revered as a great saint in Sikkim. The presence of Buddhist monasteries in this region is therefore very old, and it was recently reinforced in number by the tragic exodus of Tibetans. One of those monasteries is Rumtek, located just a few kilometers from Gangtok (Sikkim’s capital), and the official residence of the “official” Karmapa. Unfortunately, he was on a trip and we couldn’t pay him our respects.

The armed guards stationed in turrets, and the sign with the prohibition of access to the temple carrying guns, were images that seemed totally inappropriate for a monastery. However, the confluence of the tension between the Indian and Chinese governments on matters relating to political asylum, coupled with the schism caused by the appearance of two nominations for Karmapa—which ugly controversy has underlying economic and political implications—explains the measures of safety.

Once past the first impression, Rumtek is welcoming. The many monk-children scurrying throughout its courtyards and terraces makes one quickly forget the shady business of adults. One of the children had a facial feature considered very auspicious (which until then I only interpreted metaphorically): a long white natural plume coming out of his brow. One of the few occasions I regretted travelling without a camera.

After the massive welcome we got from the children of Gangtok, my friend headed to the top of the city. I preferred to remain stationed on a slope, like a sniper waiting for the presidential motorcade.

When the cross of the peephole of my heart focused on the limo, I pulled the trigger. A bullet hit its target, only that, instead of deadly lead, it consisted of equal parts of compassion and justice.

A few days later, the Presidents of India and China met and agreed to opening the border of Sikkim, closed for more than forty years!… Curious coincidence.

(Romanticism aside, that was the sad political rubric with which India recognized a Chinese Tibet, and China an Indian Sikkim.)

A serious fault in the motorbike upset the plans with regard to the mode of transport. We left it behind in a workshop at Kalimpong, and boarded one of the jeeps that cover the route to Gangtok, Sikkim’s capital.

The narrowness of the road, the cliffs and the speed of the jeep are factors that may cause some distress in the weak of spirit. Even worse, they can prevent the enjoyment of the natural beauty of southeastern Sikkim, a curious mix of exotic jungle and rugged topography.

Gangtok has that indefinable atmosphere of all the provincial capitals, transited by people who come to the market and to make small transactions.

Coinciding with our arrival there was also the Prime Minister of India (AB Vajpayee), who officially visited Sikkim for the first time, an event for which the streets were decorated with flowers and flags. The next morning, when we left the hostel to visit the city, we found all the school children, flags in hand, flanking the main road.

The decision to take the children out of the schools to give a warm welcome to the president of the nation was an obvious political maneuver. The Sikkimese were the last to join India, unable to keep up their neutrality between the two bullies of the “neighborhood,” India and China.

When detecting the two big Western guys, a few children began shouting, “Namaste, namaste!” Those initial shouts of a handful of bored kids propagated in the crowd and derived into the rehearsal that would welcome the Prime Minister, with thousands of screaming children eager to shake our hands. When we turn off the road leading to the presidential palace, we were both under shock, really moved.

On the way to my hostel in Pelling (Sikkim), I found an abandoned puppy that had been about to be hit by a jeep. I sneaked him into my room, I gave him biscuits soaked in milk, coughed hard with each of his weak barking, and once he was recovered I left him by the side of a female dog in a nearby house that received him with affection (I couldn’t think of any better way to deal with the situation over there). There is so much life in a puppy, how much the more in the people (soldiers and civilians) who were losing theirs at that very moment in Iraq…”Don´t we humans know to do it better?,” I asked myself.

The next day it dawned under a fine rain. I went to the bus stop and boarded a jeep bound for Siliguri. We were descending at a high speed (it seemed too fast for the bumpy and windy road) when, suddenly, the driver hit the brakes and pointed to the river that ran along the valley. “An elephant!,” he shouted. The vision of a wild elephant moved us all. The driver admitted that that was the first one he had seen, and he had been driving on those roads for many years.

The experience of seeing an elephant in its natural environment doesn’t compare to that of seeing him/her locked in a zoo, or enslaved in a circus. After about a minute of such a magnificent sight, the elephant lifted the trunk and hid in the woods. “As if the spirit of Sikkim had come to say goodbye,” I thought.

While reciting mantras in Pemayangtse, I remembered my grandmother, who used to sit every evening in the same place, rosary in hand, softly murmuring Hail Marys. Unfortunately, the wisdom behind this ancient spiritual technology is in the risk of disappearing. The rosaries have fallen back to the extremes of the social spectrum; on one hand they represent the quintessence of intolerance but on the other they appear as a symbol of transgression. This curious effect, in which the symbols disappear on one side to reappear on the contrary, is quite curious.

At the end of the recitation week, I saw the arrival of a couple who I was sure I had met before though I couldn’t remember where. In the following interim, he approached me and asked, “Do you remember me?” Then I realized it. We had met in Japan, in the apartment of a mutual friend because we all shared a similar interest on Buddhism. He had recently been married to his Japanese girlfriend, and they were traveling in Tibet and northern India.

“It’s a small world,” I thought. But the unexpected encounters wouldn’t stop there, for just a while after, my friend, the Californian biker, arrived, and also in the company of a Japanese girl. Later on, he confessed me he felt something very strong for this person. “Love?,” I asked and his answer was a shy smile (apparently, the emotional trip was more interesting than hiking on the Himalayas, since he hardly said anything about the second).

The last day of recitation, the crowd gathered at the monastery was so large that we all were a little bit compressed. A monk approached me and said, “Come up on stage with us.” He meant the area reserved for the monks. I could not help blushing, but using unequivocal gestures with my hands, I refused, “No, no. Thanks, but I’m not a monk.”

“Not yet,” he replied, still laughing (That was actually a right prediction). At the end of the session, the Californian and I got to the stage to offer a kata to the venerable monk who presided over the meeting. I also bid him farewell, grateful for having had the privilege of sharing those days with the exceptional community of monks and laymen gathered at Pemayangtse. Just before I left, I approached the monk I had talked earlier with. “How many recitations we got?,” I asked. “We exceeded twenty millions,” he answered grinning.

That night, all the foreigners met in a terrace of Pelling to celebrate our farewell: two Japanese, one American, one Belgian, one French (the saxophonist) and one Spaniard (myself). For the last weeks, even up there, the news about the war in Iraq had arrived, so the topic arose.

“The war may be a solution, but it’s the worst,” said the Belgian. The Californian admitted, “I’m ashamed of my government. Those of us who travel without seeking the “McDonalds” or “Starbucks” at each place we visit, we know (he emphasized the word) there are more things that unite than divide us.” His Japanese friend said, “The love of the mothers for their children is the same all over the world,” and the other Japanese added, “Likewise the pain for their loss.” On the roof of the world, with a shameful war on our left, and an epidemic called SARS on our right, the only way to maintain sanity seemed to have been discovered by the French guy: he drew his saxophone and played a piece of jazz! Before parting, we all hugged wishing the best for a world, beautiful in spite of a few’s insanity.

After several hours walking along the Rathong shore, I arrived to a town where my legs voted unanimously to board a jeep; a very timely decision in view of the relatively intense traffic of vehicles loaded with tourists that constantly came in and out of a cluster of hostels known as Pelling. In the jeep I met a skinny guy topped with a disproportionately large head (an effect to which contributed his lion-like hair), and who turned out to be a son of Spanish immigrants in France, who made a living playing the saxophone in locals all over India.

Pemayangtse is a gompa built in a place originally chosen by Guru Rimpoche, and today is one of the main temples of Tibetan Buddhism belonging to the Nyngma School, the oldest. Likewise in Darjeeling and Rumtek, the week of my visit to Pemayangtse “coincided” with a special assembly. Hundreds of monks and lay people from all over Sikkim had gathered there to recite the mantra of Guru Rinpoche for peace (Iraq had just been invaded). I was moved by those inhabitants on the roof of the world, who anonymous but deeply convinced of the power of their recitation, gathered there for that noble purpose.

I could not find lodging in the monastery, so every day I left early in the morning my room in a pension of Pelling, and walked about twenty minutes to reach the monastery, where I remained until the end of the day. The mechanics of the ceremony could not be simpler: the senior monk, a venerable looking old man, began and ended the sessions, consisting of reciting aloud the mantra: “Om Ah Hung Benza Guru Pema Siddi Hung,” each one at its own rhythm and intonation. The result was a constant hum sometimes broken by a louder voice that soon faded again among the others. Each one of us counted the number of times we recited the mantra by using a rosary of 108 beads, with a couple of extra strings with ten metal earrings each to keep track of the tens and hundreds. At the end of the day, a monk recorded in a notebook the number of recitations of each one of the participants. I used to report about twelve thousand a day, but there were those who reported twice.

During an intermission, the monk in charge of counting the mantras came to chat with me (the only foreigner), and I took the opportunity to ask him about his work, “Why counting the recitations?” Before answering, he opened the notebook and pointed with his index to an entry from someone who had declared thirty thousand mantras in a day; then he said smiling, “I do not believe it.”

He then added, “There is no more merit for reciting more mantras. Counting them is an expedient method to maintain the attention and the interest for many hours and days in an repetitive activity. The slight movement of the fingers over the beads helps to hold the senses so they do not get scattered.”

“Has each mantra a specific effect?,” I asked.

“Each mantra has its own resonances and specificity of results, although reciting mantras aloud produces, in general, a breathing pattern consisting of rapid inhales and slow exhales. The result is that the mind, first relaxes and then enters into a state of deep concentration focused exclusively on the mantra.”

“What happens from there?”

“One enters the territory of the mystical, where words no longer apply. Union?, love?, detachment?, compassion?, God?”

“I never had such a mystical experience,” I said, “but my mind is always grateful for a respite in which to appease, either by reciting mantras or by sitting in meditation, the chattering in my mind that starts with the alarm clock in the morning and ends with the first snoring at night …”

“And extends in between through nightmares,” he replayed, causing us both to laugh out loud.

I left Tashiding bound to Pemayangtse monastery (I figured a day away). I passed through the town and continued walking down the road. While crossing a dense forest, I was startled by the typical noise of animals stepping on the fallen leaves, but the noise instead of going away was coming towards me, from the top of Tashiding mountain. I got frozen and began to recite the mantra of great compassion, not knowing what would eventually emerge from the foliage.

Two dogs! Two medium-sized black dogs of indeterminable breed jumped to the road to sniff me, though none of their gestures indicated aggressivity, which reassured me. After a few caresses, I resumed my journey, and noticed they seemed to have decided to come along with me, always a few yards ahead. They were male and female, without a drop of extra fat, with each of their muscles trimmed and well defined.

Occasionally, they dived down the ravine to return again shortly after. Then I realized they were wild dogs that had learnt to hunt lizards and mice, which explained their excellent physical condition. After one of their huntings, the male did not return, but the female seemed determined not to abandon me. I sat down to rest and so she did. She accepted to share my tasteless cookies, but she could not avoid a gesture of displeasure when I offered her some soy milk. “Pass with the dry biscuits,” she probably thought, “but I prefer dying of thirst than having to drink that sugary liquid.”

I worried because we had walked many miles and she had not drunk anything. Finally, at the turn of a curve, we spotted the Rangit river so we walked off the road with the intention to get to the shore. Suddenly, my new friend was paralyzed. I kept on going but I immediately discovered the reason for her action. A huge dog was dashing towards me from my right side. I will never forget the reaction of my new friend: instead of running away, she stepped up to call its attention. I covered my face with my hands while reciting mantras at full speed and looking through my fingers. The big dog chased her in a frantic race, throwing a few bites from behind, until she decided to end the matter: she turned herself with a wild movement and skillfully bit him on his neck. The big dog howled in pain, and returned moaning back to where it came.

My friend waited for me, and we went down together to the riverbank. I sat down to rest while watching relieved that she was okay and was drinking plenty of water coming directly from a glacier not far away. Once quenched her thirst, she approached me to lie at my feet. That creature had risked her life to protect me. I don’t want to imagine what could have happened if she had not been there. The encounter with the big dog would have been inevitable… I was moved when I realized how providential was the presence of that special “bodyguard”. Instead of fleeing from the danger she decided to risk her life for a stranger.

After a while, I resumed the march heading towards a big bridge, a few yards down the river. Once there, I squatted and looked directly into her brown eyes, “Thanks for your company and protection, but it’s better we part here.” I got up and she still wanted to follow me. I had to say in a firm voice, “No!,” which she now understood. She sat there while I crossed the bridge without looking back.

Upon reaching the other shore, I turned around and there she was still looking at me with a gentle tilt of her head. At the exit of a curve, I took one last look and I could see her turning around, walking slowly back to Tashiding, from where she had first appeared.

P.D.: Looking for a picture to illustrate the post, I found the one shown above, taken in Sikkim in 1903, of two street dogs quite similar to how I remember them.

Unlike the hermit I met at the exit of Yuksom (the ancient capital of Sikkim), I walked slowly, admiring the scenery offered by the winding road on mountain whose inclination commanded respect even to goats.

The few inhabitants of those regions have learned to cultivate and build their homes on those precipitous slopes. I hardly met anyone, though once in a while I stumbled upon small groups of women and children sitting on piles of pebbles, breaking one by one with a hammer, to turn them into gravel. My heart sank when I realized that those roads were built with gravel produced by hand.

When they spot me, the children would dash to me yelling, “¡Rupees, rupees!,” but  instead of money, I gave them some candy I always carried in my pockets for such common eventuality.

That evening I reached the town of Tashiding, at the base of a slender cone-shaped hill on top of which  is located the stupa of the same name. Unable to wait for the next day, I started to walk up, so I could reach the summit with daylight.

Above, in addition to the monastic buildings and some private houses, I was surprised to encounter a couple of tall blondes, one leaning against the door of a gompa with the pose of a “Matahari,” and another who came to advise me -without me asking ahead- that I should get lodged up there and not in the village below. I didn’t see them again, but the suggestion was excellent. I had a single room in a large house, and a local family prepared every night a plate of rice with vegetables along with plenty of chapatti (flat Indian bread).

The whole place invited for contemplation, externally and internally, especially from a flat rock: a balcony without railings, peering over a cliff at whose bottom you could hardly catch sight of the confluence of the rivers Rathong and Rangit.

During the early hours of the next five days I got to sit on that rock to observe how the snowy peaks in the distance were first tinged golden, and blue later. Finally, the green skin of the valley opened in front.

The day before I left, I went down to the town to buy some toys for the couple of children of the family that had served me so well. Both walked along me, excited with the new toys, in a long farewell. Surely those were the first they got in their lives.

In the following post, next week, I will tell about a very special encounter that happened while exiting Tashiding.

The hallmarks of Sikkim are associated with the mystical figure of Padmasambhava, also known as Guru Rimpoche, literally “Dear Master.” This extraordinary character spread throughout the Himalayan region the most esoteric version of Buddhism, around the eighth century.

Likewise his contemporary monk Kobo Daishi in Japan, Guru Rinpoche is revered in Sikkim as a great saint. The presence of Buddhist monasteries in the region, reinforced recently by the tragic exodus of Tibetans is therefore very old. One of these is Rumtek monastery, a few kilometers from Gangtok (the capital of Sikkim), the official residence of one of the two candidates to Karmapa (who unfortunately I couldn’t meet because he was absent) .

The armed guards stationed in towers and the sign with the ban on access to the temple carrying firearms seemed extremely inappropriate for a monastery, however, the confluence of the tension between Indian and Chinese governments on matters related to political asylum coupled with the schism caused by the appearance of two candidates for Karmapa, whose ugly controversy is underlined by economic and political implications, explains the security concerns.

Passed the first impression, Rumtek can be even cozy, and the many child-monks running around the broad patios and terraces make one to quickly forget the murky affairs of adults. One of the children had a facial feature considered very auspicious, that I thought was only a metaphor: a long white plume coming naturally from its brow. “Too bad I had not a camera.”

Rumtek was preparing for a one week long ceremony called “Kalachakra,” literally “wheel of time,” focused on the correspondence between cosmic and human cycles, between the external and the internal. Unable to pass up the opportunity to participate in this special event, we stayed in one of the hostels near the monastery.

A board perfectly oriented to the four cardinal points presided over the temple, on which a great mandala had been prepared for the occasion using fine colored sands arranged in complex geometries brimming with symbolism.

The monks produced supramundane music with trumpets, conch shells, drums, cymbals and small bells. Occasionally, there were interludes in which everyone received a cup of yak milk tea, sweet in the morning and salty in the evening. I felt in heaven.

For the child-monks the long ceremonies made them terribly bored, and it was not uncommon to see them throwing rice each other, playing with their robes, or simply bored to death. One of them, approached us one day and said in broken English: “Tomorrow the ceremonies begin one hour earlier.” When we appeared at four o’clock in front of the monastery gates, even the guards were asleep. Later, we reproached him the joke, and he burst into a loud laugh. It didn’t take long for all the monks (children and adults) to know about it. Apart from the questionable amusement of the matter, Tibetans are the most cheerful people I’ve ever known (which should not be confused with the best sense of humor).

This post is the following part of a previous one, continuation of a conversation with a couple I met at Yuksom…

“What about you?, are you also a doctor?,” I asked to the American guy.

“No, I’m a journalist,” he said. “I’m doing a field-trip, searching for information about Sangri-La.”

To my mind came memories in color sepia of readings about earthly paradises hidden in remote valleys of the Himalayas.

“Is Shangri-La real?,” I asked bluntly.

“The term Shangri-La became popular with the publication in 1933 of the novel Lost Horizon by James Hilton, echoing the fascination that the East exerted on Europe in the early last century,” he answered in a journalist-style. “However, it is true that in certain writings of the Tibetan Buddhist canon there are mentions to ‘beyuls’ (Pure Lands) and kingdoms such as Shambala where people enjoy long life and happiness.”

“In Sikkim?,” I interrupted.

“There are writings, paintings and legends that locate a beyul called Pemako in Sikkim, associated with the body of a deity.”

“Are you saying that the physical geography of Sikkim correspond to that of a deity?”

“Yup,” he said while nodding. “Moreover, the Tibetans believe the land they live upon is a ogress, a female giant lying on her back, and there are especially sacred places depending on her anatomy…”

“What?,” I exclaimed.

“The most sacred place of the Himalayas is at the western end of the range, at Mount Kailash, because it is at the brow of the ogress,” the reporter said. “One of the reasons I came to Yuksom is to try to contact with an old hermit monk who may have information about Pemako, another sacred site, in her genitals.”

“Are there any hermits around here?,” I asked.

“Yes, but nobody really knows how many.”

“Do you have an appointment?”

“Not really. The locals have told us that there is no need to apply because he knows in advance when someone comes in his search and, if he decides so, it is him who comes to you.”

“Unbelievable. But here it is not uncommon to meet monks. How will you recognize him?”

“We have been told that he has a long white beard, and always carries a long staff,” it was now the doctor who replied.

I was fascinated by these and other stories, but the cold and darkness of the night did not allow us much more conversation. We parted wishing us the best.

The next morning, I got up ready “to enjoy” a hiking day. My intention was to reach one of the holiest places of Sikkim, the Tashiding stupa, a hill located about eighteen miles south of Yuksom, where, the legend says, Guru Rimpoche himself spent a few days meditating.

When I was walking down the only road out of Yuksom, I saw in the distance the figure of a Tibetan monk moving in the opposite direction of mine. When we were about one hundred yards away, I noticed that the monk fit perfectly the description of the hermit we talked about last night: an old monk with long white beard who walked leaning on a long pole. I stood frozen for a while, and then I bowed on the ground, which is not uncommon among Tibetan people as a gesture of respect. When I rose up, the monk was gone!

I looked back and, there he was! about one hundred yards away… past where I was.

“Impossible, impossible,” I repeated to myself several times. I was tempted to chase him, but I didn’t dare; perhaps he was in his way to meet the couple with whom I had spoken last night. I resumed my way musing to myself, “It cannot take me more than ten seconds to do a full bow, so, a hundred yards ahead and another hundred yards behind, implies that the old monk had to walk at twenty yards per second, twice as fast as a professional sprinter!, and pass by me on the narrow road without me noticing him!”

I then remembered that the French writer and adventurer Alexandra David-Neels –whose work I admire deeply– wrote in her books that she had witnessed extraordinary feats while living in Tibetan Buddhist communities in the early nineteenth century, precisely in Sikkim. For example, she describes in detail a technique called “lung-gom,” which allows the practitioner to walk at impressive speeds. “Would that explain the strange occurrence I had just witnessed?” Looking at the outworldy landscape that surrounded me, that thought made totally sense.

One of the byproducts of practicing meditation is the development of spiritual powers, such as flying, having the capacity to transform the appearance, guess others’ thoughts, see and hear the heavenly realms, or have knowledge of past lives. Despite how spectacular or unbelievable these powers may seem, all genuine teachers warn about their potential danger. One must be very careful not to be tempted to direct the spiritual practice to the attainment and development of these powers, because not only do not lead towards a genuine realization but they may even become a source of obstructions, especially when they appear before the wisdom of the meditator is not mature enough to know how to properly use them, and he or she is not able to keep up the golden rule: never for personal gain. In fact, some false masters may use such powers to take advantage of those more impressionable.

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"Manuel Vega has written an extraordinary book. He has turned history upside down. I strongly recommend this book."
–Gavin Menzies, author of 1421 and The Lost Empire of Atlantis

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