Saturday, July 27, 2013

Kailash me to the mast

A few thoughts on my wending my way to Kailash may not be out of place as I gather myself for the trip.

The first thought is that (like many things in my life) the privilege of this journey seems something I don't deserve. Seeing or circumambulating the holy mountain is the lifelong dream of a fifth of the world's population. Kailash is the abode of Shiva, home of all the great Indian rivers, and the Mount Meru at the heart of the Buddhist cosmos. When I told my Indian friend L that I was going, she said, voice in a hush, "that is the one thing I wish to do before I die."

But the Kailash kora has never been one of those things I hope one day to be able to do. Part of that has to do with the mountain's mythical status - like Shangrila it seemed a place merely of fable, and it has indeed been all but inaccessible until recently - but only part. Another part, I should admit, is its connection to religions which don't particularly speak to me - Hindu and Tibetan. But Australia has taught me the importance of places. One thing I hope is to feel the power of this mountain, the power that has called people to it for millennia as an axis mundi - not that I know what I would do with that experience if I had it! I guess that's another thing I go to find out.

Of course, encounter with the mountain won't be unmediated. The way we'll walk has been trod by untold thousands of pilgrims over centuries (perhaps millions over millennia), bringing their prayers, penances, more generally their meanings. For Tibetan Buddhists there's no part of it that's mere stone - not that I'm likely to see this:

Buddhist lore claims that if the eyes are purified, the land transforms. In a small gap between stones– so runs a sacred guidebook– the high lama may perceive a great city, a lesser yogi a fine hut, and the ordinary eye a patch of rock and scrub. A perfect adept might gaze up at Kailas and discern the palace of Demchog with sixteen attendant goddess mountains, but he transfigures this view inwardly to a mandala peopled by bodhisattvas, the goddesses multiply to sixty-two, and he is guided to other knowledge as if layers of illusion have peeled away. ...
Knowledge of these half-seen inhabitants– their whereabouts and power– was codified in pilgrim guidebooks as early as the thirteenth century. A few are still in use. Their narratives have trickled down orally from educated pilgrims to illiterate ones, who seal them with reported miracles. These are the Baedekers of the pious. They lay a tracing paper over the physical landscape, transforming it with stories, ordering it into sanctity. So Kailas becomes symmetrical. It deploys four prostration sites, and its humble gompas are seen as shining temples at its cardinal points. Their statues and treasures are reverently inventoried. Every peak and hummock now assumes a Buddhist title. Meditation caves overflow with the visions of named ascetics, even to within living memory. Any abnormality of cliff or boulder– a chance stain, a weird hollow– is identified with the passage of a saint, or the deed of a local hero
Colin Thubron, To a Mountain in Tibet (HarperCollins, 2011), 193-4

I'm usually a sucker for places saturated with past pious use. I like to ride the swells of past belief. I hope that's not all I feel, though, second-hand religion.

So am I going on a pilgrimage after all? Our party of ten will include three Americans, five Nepalis (one a Nepali-American), a Tibetan and a member of the Bai minority from China. Beyond one of the Nepalis and the Tibetan, I'm not sure anyone is religiously interested in Kailash - but I may be surprised. We may all be. It may be that its interest, its charge, its claim aren't or aren't just "religious."

Can one go on a pilgrimage casually, or unawares? People stumble on sites of power all the time in the lore of world religions - but after that, others seek these places of power out in hope, gratitude, desperation. The journey becomes as important as the destination; the setting out, the leaving one's ordinary life, becomes in some ways as important as the journey. After life-changing pilgrimages like the Haj, people's very names change. (Some Hindus add "Kailash" to their name after completing this pilgrimage, I understand.) Many pilgrims go for a particular reason, their hopes of absolution from sin or the satisfaction of a fervent wish enhanced by the ardor and danger of the journey.

[T]he merit accrued from pilgrmage gets enhanced if besides the long distance and time taken, it involves undergoing and overcoming life-threatening situations. Thus, the arduous journey and the accompanying hardships and perils undergone by a pilgrim on the way bring correspondingly greatre reward.... Thus, mishaps, extremities of weather (including sub-zero temperatures, snow storms bitter cold, and blazing sun), bad roads, devastating landslides, avalanches, flooding, torrential rains, turbulent rivers, swept away bridges, hunger and thirst, dangerous passes over high ranges, and occasional attacks by bandits and wild animals are generally seen as enhancing the value and merits of pilgrimage.
K. T. S. Sarao, Pilgrimage to Kailash: The Indian Route (New Delhi: Aryan Books, 2009), 3

This describes the long, treacherous route taken by Hindu pilgrims up through the Himalayas on foot, many of whom aim to arrive at Kailash for auspicious days in still wintry April. We're going in a clement season in comfortable Toyota landcruisers, and walking only for the three-day kora itself. There may be road problems - always a possibility in the Himalaya - but Chinese roads are apparently much better than Indian or Nepali, and the Tibetan plateau is flat and dry. Compared to the traditional pilgrim's hardship-filled journey, it'll be a breeze. And its cost is minimal in time, not to mention expense - my way is paid by the Everyday Religion and Sustainable Environments in the Himalaya (ERSEH) project.

A voice in the back of my head is saying that you get out of a pilgrimage what you put into it, that a low-cost pilgrimage is a contradiction in terms, a wasted opportunity. It needs not only to be rooted in your own religious-cosmic geography and intentional but should involve sacrifice, preferably a big one. Before the arrival of modern technology - planes, cars, Chinese roads - Mount Kailash was a place one couldn't get to without significant hardship. (I haven't mentioned that dying en route was the ultimately significant and effective sacrifice.)

Part of why ERSEH is going, I gather, is that the international tourist-industrial complex is chomping at the bit, eager to make Kailash as easy of access as Bodh Gaya, Shangrila, Hong Kong Disneyland. Billions of Hindus and Buddhists have have been waiting for the chance - and more and more can afford to do it in style! Hardship pilgrimage is a thing of the past. Why not fly or luxury bus in, stay in a five-star hotel, get whisked around the famous mountain by helicopter (maybe one day you'll be able to glide in a monorail!), and still get back to your luxury suite in time for world-class cuisine and a soak in a Manosarovar-spiked spa? The governments of Nepal, India and China have signed an agreement declaring Kailash a "sacred landscape," and this is the moment when is determined what exactly that will mean. That project is mainly about environmental sustainability, but the question of how to sustain a religious landscape is acute here.

And me, where does this leave me? Sociologically speaking I'm a seeker, if a lackadaisical one. I'm hoping to find something on this trip I didn't know was available, the kind of thing one couldn't have known one was seeking until the finding. Part of my slapdash approach to seeking is an openness to serendipity - I didn't agree to come on this trip because of the challenges, however real, of mass tourism; my reason is closer to Edmund Hillary's oft-quoted reason for ascending Everest, "because it's there": the opportunity presented itself. Perhaps that in itself is worth appreciating.

Along with the above-quoted books I've been reading the account of pioneering western Tibetan Buddhist Robert Thurman's first trip to Kailash, heady stuff which seems to me, an outsider, often grandiose. He's is going to Mount Kailash literally to save the world, bringing his bodhisattva wishes for all people to a place which channels them farther and more effectively than any other. World peace and true Enlightenment for all beings! But I've marked the pages where he exhorts his group:

We came here on pilgrimage, to perform the Dharma, and we should confidently feel a sense of destiny. ... 
Awareness of freedom is part of Tibet’s special legacy. So is the rare preciousness of human life. Enjoy this contemplation of your potential. Count your blessings carefully. Be honestly proud of yourself. Karmically, you all made great efforts and did great things to get to be such beautiful human beings, to be here at this time…
Robert Thurman and Tad Wise, Circling the Sacred Mountain:
A Spiritual Adventure through the Himalayas (NY: Bantam, 1999), 46, 49

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