In late May, I sent an email to Anne Klein to let Rinpoche know that Nancy, Linhai and I, three members of Rinpoche’s Dorje Phurba Ling, would be going to Tibet. That evening I received an answer from Anne. She said my email popped up as she was talking to Rinpoche in Chengdu, and she read it to him on the spot. “Consider your trip blessed.”
Even though we bought our air tickets to Lhasa in early May, it wasn’t until one week before our departure date of July 26th that we were granted the permits necessary to enter Tibet from China. During this time of uncertainty my determination was unflagging, because I held on to one key thought: Rinpoche knew we were planning to go!
Linhai, who opens his shrine room each Sunday to Dorje Phurba Ling’s Vajrakilaya practice, has arranged tours to Tibet for the last 25years. He calls his enterprise, “Sacred Journeys.” I had been quite reluctant to brave the altitude and weather elements of Tibet until the beginning of 2012, when I had a significant dream of a cave in Tibet. A clear liquid was dripping from its ceiling, and I heard Rinpoche’s voice saying, “Drink my nectar.” Another morning I awoke and heard my inner voice instructing, “Renew your passport as soon as possible.” Finally, one morning as I awoke I heard Guru Rinpoche himself say, “Go where I walked.” It began to seem so logical to me that visiting the very places where Guru Rinpoche actually manifested would help fuel my plan to write a children’s book on his life, so I found myself signing up for the sacred journey to Lhasa and Samye.
When we arrived in Tibet, we stayed in a hotel in the heart of Lhasa where locals did their early morning khora, spinning their prayer wheels and chanting with malas as they circumambulated the Jokhang temple. Staying put in one hotel with proper meals for three nights was a key element to getting used to the high altitude before heading on to the Samye area for the remainder of the week. As we drove 5 hours to Samye, we could reflect on our good experiences in the Lhasa area including a tour of the Potala Palace, an opportunity to witness the painting of the Jowo Buddha with liquid gold leaf in the Jokhang Temple and also our meeting with Khandro Ma Rinpoche. She is reputed to be an incarnation of Yeshe Togyal, and she lives three hours out of Lhasa high up in the green mountains.
We were finally headed towards the land of Samye monastery, Samye Chimphu (mountain caves where Guru Rinpoche did his magical manifestation high up in the mountains) and the caves of Drak Yunsel (where he and Yeshe Tsogyal did long cave retreats).
We spent just one morning touring the three floors of the Samye Monastery. There are secret Guru Rinpoche shrines tucked away under stair cases and up ladders between the walls to the attic, which only my guide could have revealed to me. I felt like I was on Mount Meru when I stood on the roof top of the monastery and I could see the four main stupas representing the four continents and the many smaller temples within the walls of Samye. It is surrounded by blue sky and majestic mountains, including Mt. Hebori where Guru Rinpoche stood and created a meteor shower to transform the nature spirits who opposed Buddhism. These nature spirits became Dharmapalas who then helped to build this sacred fortress of temples.
During the three days we spent at the Samye guest house, I made regular early morning visits to the Samye Monastery to sit before the statue of Guru Rinpoche, designated as “Looks Like Me.” It is said that when Guru Rinpoche first saw this statue, he not only said, “It Looks like me,” but he put his hands on it, blessed it, and said, “Now it is me.” People say that it changes its expression each morning, noon and evening.
When we climbed Samye Chimphu to visit the sacred caves of Guru Rinpoche, Yeshe Tsogyal, Longchenpa and Jigme Lingpa, we saw that nearly every cave had a photo of our own Rinpoche on its inner shrines. Why is that? There is a monk or nun who watches over and protects each sacred cave, and nearly each one claims to be a disciple of our teacher. He is the main lama of Samye. We have seen this for ourselves.
Travelers visit the monasteries at the foot of both Samye Chimphu and Drak Yunsel to ask the nuns to pray for the safety and blessings of their journey up the mountains and into the caves. These nuns are also students of Rinpoche. Halfway up the mountain on our way to the full moon ceremony at the upper Guru Rinpoche cave, we came to Rinpoche’s Gompa. Within this chapel of lovely statues where the nuns pray, there is a throne chair with cushions for Rinpoche to sit when he is present. There are photos of him in many places throughout the meditation room. I recognized the photo of Rinpoche’s visit to roof of the Empire State building after our Vajrakilaya empowerment of 2008. I told them that this photo was taken the last time I saw Rinpoche in the US.
It was moving for me to hear from them that they also have not seen him for about the same length of time. When we exchanged names, and when they heard that I also had a name given to me by Rinpoche (Osel Tshomo), they immediately adopted me as their sister, and from that moment on it became their project to fatten my skinny body up for the mountain trekking ahead with tsampa cakes and hot water. Our Dorje Phurba Ling trio was also inspired to adopt them as our Tibetan sister sangha. Before we resumed our journey up the mountain, we all sang Dechen Barwa together. Then they insisted that we return again that night after we finished our visit to the Guru Rinpoche cave. I inwardly thanked Rinpoche for his magical display of hospitality.
Every few feet we would come to another hand print, head print, or finger drawing of Guru Rinpoche. Samye Chimphu is the mountain home of sacred meditation places of Guru Rinpoche and Yeshe Tsogyal or meeting places of King Trisong Detsen with Guru Rinpoche. The intense heat of the sun warmed the sage and juniper, filling the air with its fresh fragrance. The climbing is not easy, but it seemed that there always was a nun or a kind guide to give a hand if needed.
Because the nuns and monks filled the meditation room outside Guru Rinpoche’s cave for the special occasion of the full moon ceremony, we had only minutes to actually be in the cave itself. As I sat motionless after leaving the cave, the monks and I exchanged in our glances, a mutual awareness of the significance of this holy place. When I went to the roof of Guru Rinpoche’s cave to view the valley from this high place, one Tibetan retreatant followed me. He spoke to me in English, so I said to him, “Guru Rinpoche walked where I am walking now!” He handed me two envelopes of Dutsi from relics of Guru Rinpoche’s hair, which the monks had given him to deliver to me. I asked him, why two? “One is to protect your health for the rest of the journey. Take it at the first sign of the slightest sickness. The other is for your meditation”. Then he led me into Vairochana’s meditation cave where I stayed for some time alone in the sacred darkness.
We returned to Rinpoche’s gompa for a night’s rest, which was only a short distance from Guru Rinpoche’s summit cave. The nuns brought us blankets, hot water, snacks and finally a vegetable and noodle dish, extravagantly generous for this part of Tibet. We had the intention to hold a drupchen in the gompa, but the nuns would not leave us until the lights were out and they were certain we were resting.
Sleeping in Rinpoche’s gompa was quite impossible, because I was so in awe of the strong feeling of his presence there. The next morning when I took a walk outside, a young nun approached me and communicated to me in sign language that she was not feeling well. Since both Nancy and Linhai were doctors, I brought the nun to Nancy for treatment. Before I knew it, there was a line of nearly 20 nuns waiting for their turn to be treated either by Nancy’s chiropractic work and Linhai’s qigong therapy and Chinese medicine.
In the meantime, the nuns joined me in praying, “The Vine of Faith” sadhana; I chanted in English, as they looked over my shoulder at the Tibetan words and smiled. We ended the morning with tsampa cakes and hot water. Our parting song together was “The Faithful Student” song as we all stood under a big poster of Rinpoche and his eyes looked down at us. We were full of tears and laughter. Somehow we knew we were going to keep our connection as sister centers: NY and Samye! The nuns burned a juniper smoke offering for the success of the remainder of our journey, and we kept looking up at its billowing white smoke as we descended the mountain.
As we spent several more hours exploring the mountain,a kind of sickness came over me until I chanted the Guru Rinpoche mantra; then I suddenly remembered the monks’ dutsi instructions to me. As soon as I took the dutsi, the sickness was dispelled, just as the Lama’s attendant predicted.
The final full day of our journey was a visit to Drak Yongsel with its sacred cave at 16,000 feet where Guru Rinpoche and Yeshe Tsogyal did retreats for months at a time. Linhai had spoken of how challenging it was to climb the ladders of this cave and to crawl through the rock into the cave rooms. He was determined that he would get me into the cave! Nothing in me appreciated hanging out in dark caves or crawling through small crevices after rope-climbing up a long birth canal of rock. It was very unappealing, but as the trip became a reality, it was clear that I was supposed to overcome my antipathy and jump into this experience.
To my surprise, on the morning of our journey to this cave, I awoke early, meditated and was full of burning desire to BE in the cave. I could not wait. I had an inner thrill, and every time I closed my eyes I saw the cave opening beckoning me to enter. Drak Yunsel mountain has gushing water falls which turn prayer wheels and ring devotional bells. This holy water pours out of faucets for blessings to the pilgrims. Tiny flowers and lush grass surround the rocky paths leading up to the ladders into the sacred caves. It is higher than Samye Chimphu, but the step-like rocks make it easier to climb.
It is not uncommon to see caves of resident monks along the way who are doing long retreats. In one cave I met a monk with shining eyes who indicated that he had been there for four years. He offered a blessed liquid into my hands which contained a relic of Guru Rinpoche. Then as I was leaving the cave, he called me back again. He performed a blessing ceremony over my head and ended with hitting the top of my head with a sacred text. It was clear that this blessing was connected with Guru Rinpoche, and my energy to climb was greatly increased.
When we came to the two long ladders I eagerly climbed. It was only a slight struggle to climb the rope diagonally through the long womb-like birth canal against the smooth hard rock into the inner space of the cave. Then we came to the sandalwood ladder which is said to have been brought by Tara. I saw Yeshe Tsogyal’s hand print at the top of the ladder which signified her pledge that no one would fall off this sacred sandalwood ladder and die. That was only somewhat reassuring, as there are other ladders to climb!
There was a nun of Rinpoche’s inside the cave, who served as a guide for us pilgrims. She was tapping the rock formations on the ceiling to demonstrate that each stone had a unique pitch and tone to create sacred music. She then led me into a special cave room which had a small entrance. Yeshe Tsogyal begged Guru Rinpoche to make the hole to this particular room larger, but it is still quite small, especially for such tall men as Linhai. He managed to enter each year, but he has seen small Tibetan ladies try each year to enter without success.
While we waited for about 13 Tibetan fellow-pilgrims to join us in this space, we saw a clear liquid dripping from a large breast-like appendage on the ceiling of the cave. On the shrine in this very room was a blue photo of our Rinpoche. His nun guide offered each of us a spoonful of the liquid. I remembered my dream of being in a cave and hearing Rinpoche say, “Drink my nectar.”
There was a large room where the guide told us it is customary to sing and dance for Yeshe Tsogyal. The air was cool and clear and it felt good to move in this room, softly singing Rinpoche’s songs and doing gentle qigong motions. Only our head lamps permitted us to see that some white khata scarves hung on the rocks. It was mostly darkness.
Soon Linhai and I realized that all the Tibetan Pilgrims had left and we were alone. So we went to another main room and turned off our head lamps to meditate uninterrupted in the blackness of the cave for about 15 minutes.
We then climbed up the sandalwood ladder, slid down the rope through the tunnel to begin our descent down the long ladder. Linhai asked me to take a photo of the view from the ladder down to the valley below. My camera was off when I took it out, but for some unexplained reason it was glowing with a photo I had taken long ago of Rinpoche. He was giving us a clear sign that he was blessing this experience. Our Rinpoche was using the technology of my camera to give a clear sign that he blessed our trip from start to finish.
Nancy had been waiting for us with the news that she had made friends with more of Rinpoche’s nuns, who invited us to their hermitage down the mountain. It was where the faucets of sacred water were guarded. They made us dinner, as the sun was setting.
I reflected on this act of generosity by the nuns. Our Tibetan adventure started with a simple email informing Rinpoche of our trip and his simple nod of recognition; it ended with his magical display of love and compassion manifested through his nuns throughout our entire journey in Samye.
Arriving home it was so easy to be grateful for the physical comforts we have in our country, but it was hard to awaken at night and not be in the sacred mountains of Chimphu. In the middle of the night, I had to go outside into my street and look for the moon. As I held my gaze on this shining orb, I said to myself, “There is a moon here, just like there is a moon in Samye. In Samye I was inside Guru Rinpoche. Here Guru Rinpoche is inside me.”