Ash shows us the way to the Hemis Monastery in Ladakh and the Hermitage.
Samsara, a film by Pan Nalin opens with a close up of a monk with long matted hair and nails, sitting in meditation. He has completed 3 years, 3 months and 3 days of a silent retreat. The opening scene is dramatic, but the context is even more challenging and it still continues today in a hermitage which is a part of Hemis Monastery in Ladakh, northern India in the state of Jammu and Kashmir.
On the way to Hemis Gompa
The Hemis monastery is about 50km south of the main market town of Leh, which for centuries was an important stopover on trade routes along the Indus Valley between Tibet to the east and Kashmir to the west. The sage Gonbo Dorje came to a cave in this remote high valley, which is at 3900 meters altitude and 300 meters above what was later to become Hemis Monastery. His retreat in the cave began an unfolding which long preceded Hemis, Ladakh’s biggest gompa.
The Dukpa Kargyutpa School of the great Mahayana culture, of which Hemis represents, was founded in western Tibet by Drogon Tsangpa Gyare Yeshe Dorje (1161–1211). While on a pilgrimage Tsangpa Gyare and his disciples witnessed a set of nine dragons roaring out of the earth and into the skies, as flowers rained down everywhere. From this incident they named their sect Drukpa.
I am here with a group of friends to explore the area by jeep and classic Indian Enfield ‘Bullet’ motorcycles. They have all recently flown into Leh from Delhi and the visit to Hemis today will be our first outing together. For many years I have been taking friends on motorcycle and jeep adventures to the high himalayas. These mountains have the most incredible landscape that I know of on our beautiful planet and riding in them is an amazing way to be utterly in the moment! Those who have tasted the experience often return again and again to enjoy that space of meditation.
The road to Hemis Monastery heads south out of Leh and we ride up the Indus river valley for about 50 km. We are in high mountain desert, surrounded by peaks of up to 6000 meters. The mountains and scree slopes range in color from purplish brown to ochre with intense green pockets of barley and wheat fields, irrigated by the snowmelt from the surrounding mountains.
Many Tibetan monasteries or ‘gompas’ occupy prominent and commanding positions in this vast desert wilderness, while others, like Hemis, are tucked away from view in remote side valleys. Hemis cannot be seen from the main road and is about seven kilometers from it on winding roads that gradually climb higher and higher through the wheat and barley fields. The road snakes back and forth passing several times through a long mani wall which leads up to the gompa. These Tibetan stone walls are often 5 meters wide and 2 meters high and are covered with mani stones which have the sacred mantra beautifully carved on them: ‘Om mani padme hum’ which is translated as ‘Hail the Jewel in the Lotus’.
The ride is invigorating and gives me an amazing feeling of space and clarity. With every turn in the road there is another stunning view! We are really on top of the world. In winter snow covers the land for 8 months of the year but in summer it is warm, even hot and the daylight has a special quality and clarity. Blue to indigo sky with small fluffy clouds remind me of the Tibetan thangkas I have seen hanging in Tibetan gompas. (A ‘thangka’ is a painting on silk with embroidery, usually depicting a Buddhist deity, scene, or mandala of some sort.)
Eventually we pass through a relatively small opening between two converging mountains and once through it, the very small village of Hemis is before us with the gompa just beyond it and at a higher elevation. Hemis Gompa is also known as ‘Lone Place of the Compassionate Person’. It is a large gompa with some well-preserved frescoes as well as an impressive three-storey statue of the sage Padmasambhava who is credited for carrying Buddhism from India to Tibet.
There is a quite famous festival here each year, the Tse-Chu festival, which is a celebration of Padmasambhava’s birth (see video). The highlight of the Festival is the Masked Dance, performed by the monks, or ‘lamas’, that illustrates good prevailing over evil. In Tibetan Buddhism lamas are monks who have reached a certain level of spiritual attainment and authority to teach.
Trekking up to the Hermitage of Gotsang
The walk from Hemis Gompa to the hermitage of Gotsang is just long and steep enough to ground me thoroughly into my body. The trail from the left hand side of the gompa passes through a small gate and continues up between two large ‘chortens’. These large structures, square at the base with a rounded upper portion, are symbols of the body of the Buddha and will typically have relics of spiritual importance enclosed within them.
The trail runs up a small stream that falls down the narrow gully in the mountain. In this spot spindly trees have grown up offering some shade and cool from the fierce sun which at this altitude can quickly burn your unprotected skin. It is midday and I welcome the coolness before the track emerges from the trees and continues over a cemented pathway of large steps, up the mountainside. It is silent except for the gurgling of the stream, the song of a bird from time to time and the sound of my steps and my breathing. At the moment no one else is on this path. It is a treasured solitary walk with the hermitage in the distance against a deep blue sky.
With the sun beating down, my footsteps take on a familiar rhythm as the main ascent begins. After about 1 km I pause and look up to the left to a place described to me by Sey Rinpoche. ‘Rinpoche’ literally means ‘precious one’, and is used to address or describe Tibetan lamas and other high-ranking or respected teachers. This honor is generally bestowed on reincarnated lamas, or ‘tulkus’, by default. I met Sey Rinpoche the previous year in Vashist, a small village near the town of Manali 480km south of Leh in the state of Himachal Pradesh. He is in the direct lineage of the sage Gonbo Dorjey who meditated in the cave now called Gotsang, long prior to the establishment of Hemis Gompa.
I had visited his small temple in Vashist with Garimo, Smita and German Ageha, a longtime friend and Manali resident. We wanted to arrange a puja for my dear friend Disha who had very recently left her body in Byron Bay, Australia. Disha’s leaving was totally unexpected and a shock to me. She was very healthy, a vibrant beautiful friend who had lived with her partner on a community with me and about 12 other close friends in Australia. The puja was my way of connecting more deeply with my feelings for Disha and also my own death. This puja was performed by several lamas chanting Tibetan ‘sutras’ or texts to the accompaniment of bells, cymbals and drums.
There was a name burning ceremony, more prayers on subsequent days and many butter lamps lit every day for 49 days. This is the time that Tibetans believe the consciousness will take to reincarnate into another birth. My prayer was for complete realization and freedom for Disha from any further births. Ageha and I made all the arrangements with a beautiful old lama called Immi, who has been with the Rinpoche since he was a boy. Later I met the Sey Rinpoche who I found very warm and approachable and who encouraged me to visit Gotsang in the winter months.
Now a year later I look for the spot he had then indicated to me. I guess it to be about 3/4 of the way up the mountain and it would be where lamas who have completed the 3 year, 3 month and 3 day retreat might sit throughout the night in meditation. They practice mindfulness and ‘tsumo’, a very advanced practice of inner fire breathing and visualization that allows them to endure the intense cold for the entire night. It amazes me that they are only wearing light robes and a shawl! In the depth of the long winter when they do this, temperatures are in the range of 20 to 30 degrees C, below zero!
Upon reaching the hermitage I can look across to where the three year meditation rooms are located separately across the gorge, about 100 meters away. We are understandably not permitted to walk there. The small hermitage has a very old temple which, if my memory serves me right, is about 1000 years old. It is small with four or five monks present, and has a number of very old thangkas.
I take a fork in the path to the left that leads to the cave where Gonbo Dorjey meditated. A monk is there, caring for it and welcomes me into a small room, just before the cave itself. We walk through a low narrow door into the dimly lit cave. The room is about 6 meters long and varies in width from 2 to 3 meters.
The ceiling is very low and the monk shows me what he says is the hand print of the sage on the ceiling. The legend is that he pushed the roof up to make more room and there is a distinct impression of a hand print which does not require much imagination. In this cave there is a narrow flat space, up off the floor about 2 meters, and about 1.5 meters from the ceiling where Gongo Dorje slept at night.
Visitors have left pieces of silver paper and coins jammed into the cracks in the rock face as offerings. It is dark and cool with black stone walls and it would be difficult to know if it was day or night! Being in retreat in this place will demand an almost constant looking within oneself.
A few years prior to this visit I did a 4 month long silent retreat. It was in a beautiful area of the Kullu valley with wonderful vistas over the valley of deodar pine forests with white mountain peaks in the distance. I wonder at the inner space of the sage Gonbo Dorje? To perhaps be so thoroughly complete with this world of ‘name and form’, and to have seen its inherent emptiness? Certainly his commitment and inner space must have been exceptional! In my silent retreat I needed to face a barrage of thoughts, feelings and emotions that ranged from anger, sadness and elation, to sexual fantasies and immense boredom; with some occasional moments of deep inner peace and silence. It was the first time that I had given my time and attention solely to myself. I found that retreat immensely beneficial!
Many people would like to meditate here but it is rare to be permitted to do so unless one is a committed Buddhist. This is a very sacred space and the lamas understandably revere it and want to preserve its integrity and sacredness. On this occasion I know that it is not my path, but I welcome the silence and peace I feel in the cave. After some hours just being up here in this amazing setting many of the group of friends and I are transported some – where, that I have no ability to describe.
I am reminded of the beauty of life, this very moment!
Ash (aka Ashvagosha) met Osho in 1975 and lived in the ashram until Osho left India. He worked in the audio department and was fortunate to be present at many darshans as the audio tape man. As all of us, he had various jobs back again in Pune II. He lives in Totnes (Devon, UK) and organises tours in the Himalayas: www.ridinghightours.com
Manali via Spiti valley to Leh: June 24 to July 7, 2013
Leh to Manali: July 13 – July 27, 2013