THE FAR SPLENDOR
The rickety old bus, packed with cheerfully chatting Punjabi locals, cackling chickens and bleating goats, wove its way up the one lane, crudely tarred road. As we rose along the narrow valley between ever expanding mountains, my soul opened along with the splendor view. Backpack and bedroll in the rusty rack overhead, I journeyed in high spirits. I was in the Himalayas.
After many months at an ashram in a high-rise apartment building in a huge mall in New Delhi, I definitely needed a change of scene, a change of mind. There was certainly a spiritual atmosphere in the fourth floor warren of apartments of the busy "Society of Servants Of God", but there was no personal privacy and little peace. The guru, Dadaji, a former doctor, of course had all the answers. He gave his 'cherished guidance' on all our activities, lifestyles and inner practices. He used many "should"s and "shouldn't"s and often warned ...not unless and until you accomplish... that left little room for personal preferences or gifts.
His basic teaching was to insist that everything you are aware of "is great delusion, created by the powers of Maya." Seeking for your Real You was a completely mental process of recognizing the truth of this delusion in all things, at all times. He vehemently taught a continual rejection, a pushing away from the outer world. "Neti, neti. Not this, not that, until nothing is left but the Real You... the Spacious Mind.". I somehow agreed with the premise, but my repetitious self-talk didn't seem to help me awaken from my delusionary self at all. For the most part, it seemed to activate and strengthen my uncertainties and fears. I am not a cut-and-paste mind person, so his teaching seemed controlling and manipulative, a very tight fit. .
And, the rumble of commerce in the Mall and the snarling traffic of the bustling city all around, shredded what spiritual gifts the guru did offer. Although it was a unique experience in ashram living for me, after nearly six months, my "interest" versus "effort" scale had tipped.
I had attended Buddhist Mindfulness meditation retreats in the States over the years, and enjoyed some benefits, so when a visitor at the ashram mentioned a retreat coming up in Dalhousie in the foothills of the Himalayas, given by a well known Burmese master, I knew that's what I'd been waiting for. The quiet and focus of that guided practice would help me release all this babble, and the image of forested open spaces was enticing. I soon bid my good-byes and was on my way with a few weeks left for leisurely sightseeing before the 10 day retreat began.
I heard that there were several Tibetan monasteries along my way through the foothills in the Upper Punjab. One was a library of sacred literature that had escaped the Chinese purge. Another was a school for lamas —Tibetan monks— and a monastic retreat center. A third was a small temple and a kind of bed-and-breakfast for mostly Western travelers run by 5 or 6 lamas. This one was called Kailash Monastery. I liked their giving it the Tibetan name of their heavenly city, like our Shangra La. That fit right in with the longings I carried. A heavenly place was just what I sought, and that's where I headed.
It was a pleasant train ride up from New Delhi to Pathankot, the last major city in northern Punjab. There I stayed overnight on the outskirts of the earthen warren of the medina and early next morning, I caught the bus heading north through the foothills of the Himalayas.
Transportation through that area was sporadic. The extensive rocky hills and random forests allowed for only marginal agriculture. So the population was low, the rare villages were small. An occasional man leading an overburdened donkey or a cart would come down the road and we would have to pull to the side to let it pass. Otherwise the straining old bus courageously carried us higher and higher.
Near evening, we came to the village that was the bus's last stop. This was no longer just the foothills. We'd ascended into real mountains. I felt the lofty altitude in my guts, as if I'd lightened in the ascent and was now almost floating. From here, it was nearly a day's walk further up the road to the Monastery. The weather was golden and happily much cooler than the scorching New Delhi summer. With the meditation retreat in Dalhousie a few weeks later as my goal, pack and bedroll strapped on my back, the monk in me was on a joyful pilgrimage.
I found shelter that night in a tiny village of rough stone and thatching huts just off the road. The villagers looked and dressed more Tibetan or Chinese than Indian; eyes slanting, skin to the yellow rather than brown. They were kind and obviously used to travelers and understood my requests in spite of our fragmented Hindi. Midday, after a night spent on a straw mattress, and four or five hours walking the gently ascending, sinuous road, the worn, wooden sign to one side of the dirt road affirmed I'd arrived at Kailash Monastery.
It was a weathered Victorian style stately mansion, obviously built in the 1800s, during the British Raj. Although I'd been expecting something "Tibetan", with the mood I was in, I enjoyed the unexpected humor of it. The three storied wooden building with carved porticos and beams, long unpainted, and the acre or so of well kept surrounding lawn had the feel of a time-warp feel about it.
The head lama of the Monastery painted tonkas—traditional Tibetan paintings of Buddhist religious figures— so the place had an artistic as well as spiritual feel about it. The facilities were six double bunks in a large room (three rooms merged by removing intervening walls), with two simple meals, and the lamas' tri-tonal sacramental chanting in the tiny front room/temple many times a day. The lamas, heads shaven and wrapped in heavy, dark wine colored robes, always with a benign smile and a gentle bow of affirmation, paid kind attention to the needs of we few Westerners who lodged there.
After laying out my sleeping bag on one of the lower bunks and placing my backpack under it, I went down to the temple room and listened to the devoutly moving service the monks intoned. It truly instilled a peaceful rapture, an homage to our supreme Buddha nature. The words were unintelligible to me but for one oft-repeated phrase, "Om Mani Padme Hum." Blessed is the Jewel in the Lotus.
I knew the teachings well, though I had a hard time living them...
Then I took an exploratory walk. The back of the house was much simpler than the front, built to serve as the servants quarters, kitchen, and storing firewood.
Further on, was an expanse of yard even broader than the one in front. Whether it was the pitch of the land's rising slope, the usual evening mistiness, or my own pleasantly absorbed state of mind, as I drew nearer, I couldn't tell if that was the end of the world out there, or if the green plush rolled on forever. But I continued walking with quizzical amusement. Then, suddenly, with the clearing of the mist, or of my mind, I saw where the expanse of lawn just ended.
And there was the view.
At the lawn's edge was a shear drop of naked, rough stone cliff plummeting down perhaps a mile or so. From there, as far as I could see, it swooped out to the horizon, some 20 or 30 miles beyond, to meet the rise of majestic snow capped peaks. The high Himalayas. Under the full rolling clouds, tiers upon tiers of snow dusted mountain peaks reached to merge with the heavens.
The late afternoon light, soft peach and gold, was ethereal. The precise, snow etched jagged peaks and their valleys in the barely credible distances astounded me, threw me into an exalted panic. My lungs were filled with the brisk winds that swept down from those pinnacles. The same breath that brought this in, effortlessly dissolved and released my habitual, cramped worldly mind.
With the relief of that liberation, I recognized that this secondhand, two dimensional "me" field, was the usual sieve I squeezed my life through.
Yes, here were the blessings of these sacred heavenlies. I cherished why these were places of pilgrimage, why monks gratefully lived their lives in caves up there.
While my senses were enraptured with this geological splendor, the vastness entered and enthralled my consciousness. My heart clenched, then loosened in a wave of release and freedom that brought me to only just witness this wonder, but to be it. The magnitude of that sight of the Far Splendor touched me profoundly, and revealed the vast dimensions of my own soul with ecstatic certainty.
In that revelation, I understood that this was the Spacious Mind, the Real You, that guru Dadaji had been after; except that this was by way of the Path of embracing all that is, instead of negating and denying.
Here was a guiding remedy for my life. It awoke me to the Voice in my heart that I love the most, the blissful Presence that transcends all understanding. I wasn't just me anymore, that speck of being at the edge of Kailash Monastery's back yard that the vision beamed through. I knew myself to be as aspect as well as a witness to that Splendor.
I came to that view, to that Knowing, often during my short stay there. "Om Mane Padme Hum. Om Mane Padme Hum." Echoes of the lamas' chant exalted the vision. The glimpse that absorbed me there at the precipice's edge awoke in me an awing recognition. This was the Diamond Wisdom, the Buddhist sacred Jewel in the Lotus, the Knowing that arises like a lotus from the dark waters of our confused minds, the state of consciousness the lamas extolled and evoked in their chants, rituals and their apparently selfless lives. There came a trust that I would never close to that spaciousness again.
A week later I was at the meditation retreat in Dalhousie. The hotel had comfortable, individual rooms, served fine vegetarian meals and was actually nestled in those high mountain peaks I'd seen from Kailash Monastery. A complimenting balance of circumstances for me to be in. Here, surrounded by about 30 fellow seekers in Mindfulness Meditation, that vision of the Far Splendor grew even clearer, permeated my psyche even more fully.
By the retreat's end, I'd taken a vow of silence for several months to nurture that process. The next several years I spent living a monk-like life in India while I sought to absorb and integrate this vision I received during this time. That Far Splendor is the Jewel, the Knowing that I'd gone to India seeking, that I pray will transform my life.
Copyright Nathaniel Schwartz 2003 www.WisdomVisions.com