A stony path to enlightenment: Travel

A narrow escape from death led Tim McGirk to wonder if he had missed th e point of living. So he climbed to the foothills of the Himalayas to discover if a Tibetan Buddhist mon k had any answers
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MY SEARCH for Geshe Yeshi Tob-den, a Tibetan hermit living in a shepherd's hut above the snow line in the Himalayas, began several months back with a car ride in northern India that easily could have been my last. Night had fallen, and the villag e whereI was staying in Bihar was surrounded by a small army of communist bandits who were moving in from the darkness out beyond the rice paddies. We had to get out, fast.

We had two bodyguards, but my guide decided that wasn't enough. A third rifleman piled into the back of the Ambassador car, so that we had guns poking out of every window except the driver's. The road was cratered and rutted, so it was impossible to drive at more than 15 mph. Every curve was a perfect spot for an ambush. Every bamboo grove looked as if it might be shielding a gunman. If the communists did open fire, I didn't know what would be more deadly: the shots coming towards us or those from our bodyguards, blasting out of a car jammed with seven people. Fortunately for us, it was harvest time, and the communists were too busy stealing rice to trifle with us.

The next morning, still unnerved by the night's ride and seeking tranquility in the midst of the chaos and lawlessness that pervades Bihar state, I visited its oasis of calm, Bodh Gaya, the town where 2,500 years ago, Gautama Buddha reached enlightenmentwhile meditating under a bo tree. The descendant of the original bo tree still stands. It is an ancient living giant, an arboreal planet inhabited by squirrels, crows and a family of long-tailed green parakeets, all oblivious to the great outpouring of faith from the thousands of pilgrims who gravitate to the tree. Its lower branches are tied with coloured prayer flags and its massive trunk smudged by butter-lamp offerings. Many of the faithful circumambulate the tree chanting and praying, while othersdo strenuous prostrations on planks like surfboards polished by the sweat of such exertions. Most visitors sit in the bo tree's shade, meditating.

The tree rises out of a grassy hollow, ringed by temples and hundreds of white-washed shrines. My attention was drawn to a Tibetan monk cross-legged on a knoll a few hundred yards from the tree. According to legend, the Buddha, after achieving enlightenment, spent two weeks gazing down at the tree in gratitude from that very hill. I never caught the monk's face, only his robed silhouette as he bowed, chanted and twirled a prayer wheel like a child's toy. Had this monk, like the Buddha, also r e ached liberation from suffering? If not, it seemed an audacious place for the monk to park himself.

Looking back, I suppose that nearly dying on that insane ride might have shifted a few tumblers inside my locked brain. What if this Tibetan monk had indeed zapped himself to nirvana? It was a possibility that did not reassure me. Rather, I felt deeply unsettled. Here I was, in my early forties, no closer to understanding why I existed than on the day I was born. And the way I was going, I never would. I left Bodh Gaya not pacified but panicked by the thought that at any moment I could be killed (driving anywhere on Indian roads is likely to induce such feelings) and what did I have to show? Nothing. No illuminations, no small epiphanies of self-awareness. I'd have missed the point completely if there was one.

India, by some reckonings, has more than 100,000 holy men of many faiths. A lot of them are charlatans, and a few, very few, are genuine. I think the Dalai Lama happens to be one of the genuine. Forget the more miraculous side: that his followers worshiphim as an emanation of the Compassionate Buddha or that he is supposed to have been reborn 14 times. It is enough for me that he is wise, kind and keeps his sense of humour, though Tibetans, whose land was invaded by the Chinese in 1959, have lit tle tolaugh about. The images of Tibetan Buddhism, however, daunted me: it is full of thunder dragons and many-armed gods fornicating on top of human corpses.

Among my Tibetan friends in Delhi I began to ask which of the lamas could explain to me about Buddhism pure and simple, shorn of its Himalayan sorcery. The name of Geshe Yeshi Tobden came up several times. Back in Tibet, when he was eight, a sage predicted that he would either go crazy or die if he didn't become a monk, so he did. He is 66 and was a lecturer in Buddhist studies at Sarnath University, near Varanasi (Benares). At the Dalai Lama's instigation, he left the university and climbed into the Himalayas to meditate. Geshe Yeshi Tobden has been in retreat for 25 years. He lives in the mountains high above Dharmsala, home of the Dalai Lama and the Tibetan exile community.

I liked the idea of climbing up a mountain peak to see a wise old hermit. It was cartoonish enough that I would not be tempted to take this spiritual quest too seriously. Right or wrong, I also thought I'd be more apt to trust an ascetic guru than a holyfat cat with a fleet of Rolls-Royces.

Geshe Yeshi Tobden has an attendant monk from Dharmsala who every other day treks supplies up the mountain to his teacher, and through this monk, I was able to request an audience. I did not think it proper to visit a hermit empty-handed. I was told Geshe Tobden likes Tang, an American orange powder that sells itself as "The Drink of The Astro-nauts". I wondered if, like a weightless spaceman in orbit, the lama sipped his Tang while levitating.

Regular travellers between Delhi and Dharmsala prefer the direct coach service, but I took the over-night train, the Jhelum Express, which is as slow and meandering as the river it is named after. I disembarked at Pathankot station the next morning. Fromthere I caught a taxi out of the flat Punjab plains, and the Himalayas reared abruptly into view. You see a brushstroke of dark green hills and above that, floating on clouds, are the white Dhaul Dhar peaks. Beyond that, stretching back for hundreds of miles, are range upon range of peaks, rising higher and higher until you reach the Tibetan plateau. Even in the approaches, where it is still balmy enough to grow mangos, you feel yourself on the edge of a pure, icy immensity.

In Dharmsala, I shared an old colonial lodge with a New Age French couple who were convinced their four-year old son was a Tulku, the reincarnation of a high Tibetan lama. They wanted to have him examined by learned monks, like showbiz parents insisting on a Holly-wood screen test. The lamas they collared were greatly embarrassed; for parents to go parading their son as a future Tulku is an appalling breach of etiquette. To foist such expectations on a child is considered the worst extreme of spiritual egotism.

It was a long hike from Dharmsala up to the monk's retreat, and I left early the next morning with two companions. One was Geshe Tobden's attendant, Lobsang. The other was Tenzin-Lodru Choegyal, a westernised teenager whose interest in Buddhism was re-awakened after he nearly died in a motorcycle crash. Tenzin-Lodru expresses scepticism over many aspects of the belief in the reincarnation of high lamas. There are nearly 3,000 Tulkus in Tibetan Buddhism, and because monastic property and prestige are involved, corruption has inevitably seeped in. Geshe Yeshi Tobden was not a Tulku, but someone who was thought to have reached a high level of awareness in this lifetime. A safe rule of thumb in such matters is that any lama who boasts of having reached enlightenment probably hasn't.

As we set off, I gave a bottle of French wine to friend living in Dharmsala ." Give it to Geshe Tob-den," she said, handing it back.

"But why?" I asked, perplexed. "Lamas don't booze, do they?"

" No," Lobsang assured me. "He'll use it as an offering for a Wrathful Deity. They like meat and spirits."

Following Lobsang, we took a trail up through the forests of cedar and oak where silver langur monkeys with black, startled faces moved between the branches like flying ghosts. We climbed higher, into a barren landscape of thorns, slate rocks and rhododendron trees which in spring blossom blood-red. The ravens' calls were sharp, like falling stones. After all this effort, I wasn't sure what to ask the hermit. What is the meaning of life? Hah. The lama would have had every reason to pelt me with goat dung or unleash a few wine-drunk wrathful deities on me.

We warmed ourselves with a flask of tea beside a mountain stream. The wind tasted of snow. I pointed out strange natural marking of white on a granite boulder. "It looks like a meditator," Tenzin-Lodru said. And indeed, it did. The lama lives in a small hut that looked from a distance like a pile of slate on a ridge where the wind whipped the strings of blue, white and yellow prayer flags. Geshe Yeshi Tobden, wearing a bright red ski cap, came out to greet us. Inside, wood burned in his stove, and the French wine went on to a small altar which bore a painting of Buddha and, beneath it, photographs of the Dalai Lama and his tutors. I sat next to him on his cot, and he gave us all blankets, forgoing one for himself.

He has long Buddha-like earlobes and when he laughs, which is often, his eyes sparkle and then vanish completely into his wrinkled face. He speaks no English, so Tenzin-Lodru and Lobsang translated. In Tibet, Geshe Yeshi Tobden had been jailed three times and escaped. What was the difference between a prison cell and a meditator's retreat, I asked. Some would find the two equally confining. "In prison, there's no choice. This is my own free will to be here, staying alone. You need a lot of time to battle your own ignorance," he replied. Geshe Tobden doesn't call what he's doing meditation but, rather, "sitting and thinking", which he does for 11 hours a day.

I was expecting a gruel made of nettles when he suggested a meal. Instead, he served pasta and apologised for not having Parmesan; he frequently teaches in Italy and has picked up many Italian followers and a taste for pasta. Even with the good food, I could not imagine living a hermit's life and felt compelled to ask him: "I'm not prepared to renounce everything. I have a family, a job. So what can a layman do?"

"Good motivation. But that's not enough. You have to build up your mental training so that you can live in the world of illusion but not be a part of it. You have to realise the impermanence of everything and break your attachments. If, for example, you desire a woman very much, try imagining her with the skin stripped off, just muscle and skeleton," he advised with a chuckle.

"Enlightenment, what's it like?"

"I'm not saying I see this, but those who've realised that everything including the self is empty of independent existence, that all is woven together through cause and effect, see ordinary human life as adults see children at play," Geshe Tobden explained. "Of course, ordinary people think we're crazy, that we're not capable of earning even a piece of bread. But that's OK, we think ordinary people are crazy, too."

Tibetan Buddhists believe that at certain occasions, such as during sexual climax and the moment of dying, humans can experience a sublime clear light and that this lucidity can be cultivated, even at death. "What advice would you give to someone facing death - a parent's or even their own?" I asked.

"You should try to imprint that dying person with your compassion. But don't wait till they're dying. Start now. Also, say you fall into a well. If you don't shout for help, nobody will rescue you. At the moment of death it's important to put your faith in a saviour. Not God the creator, but a saviour, a protector."

"A saviour? Why would a saviour bother with me?"

"The moon has the capacity to reflect itself in a thousand lakes at once. The saviour is the same way."

"But isn't the saviour an illusion, too?" I asked, confused.

"Yes, in the sense that everything material is based on illusion. But the saviour is as real as anything else. It's all like a magician's spell. But what plays havoc with us is that we don't know it's an illusion. It's as real as a dream is until we wakeup. That is enlightenment."

It grew late. The mountain shadows fell on Geshe Tobden's hut, and he lit butter lamps at his altar, radiating the hut in a voluptuous amber glow. We said goodbye, and he gave Tenzin-Lodru and me each a white silk scarf. Lobsang stayed behind with his teacher. Without him as our guide, we lost the original trail down the mountain, and we were never able to tell whether that image we had seen of a white meditator on the grey rock was an illusion or not. Geshe Tobden would say it was, and so wa s the granite boulder, too. ! GETTING THERE: BA (081 897 4000) flies to Delhi for £700 after 1 Feb. Holiday Planners (071-439 7755) offer Luft-hansa flights via Frankfurt for £400 plus £15.40 tax; this is a flexible ticket and valid for 1 month.

GETTING TO DHARMSALA : There is a bus service from Delhi direct to Dharmsala costing 325 rupees. The train service runs to Pathankot, from where a taxi or bus must be used to complete the journey. The train costs between 150 and 550 rupees depending on the class of travel. Hotel accommodation in Dharmsala costs a maximum of 600 rupees per night. All the above can be obtained via Potala Travel in Delhi (010 91 11 37 22552/fax 37 13309). They are easily contactable by telephone and very helpful. They can also arrange hotel accommodation and car hire in Delhi.

TOURS TO DHARMSALA : Exodus Travel (081-675 5550) has trekking trips around Dharmsala with guide Kim Butterworth. A 16-day trip starts at £1,095.

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