In SACRED JOURNEYS by Clemma Dawsen1 Comment

Legend has it that in the latter half of the 8th century, the emperor of Tibet, Trisong Detsen, sought to bring Buddhism to the land of Bhöd, only to be thwarted by demonic forces determined to deny him. Having exhausted all effort available to him in Tibet, he enlisted the aid of the great tantric practitioner, Padmasambhava, who traveled to the high plateau from India in response to the king’s request. Performing a sacred ritual dance, Padmasambhava confronted and pacified the demons at Hepo Ri, a hill near the village of Samye. The tale goes on to tell of one particularly tenacious demon who escaped the battle at Hepo Ri, fleeing deep into the heart of Mustang, Nepal, then known as the Kingdom of Lo.

As with so many ancient stories, we are offered a hero’s tale, one of pursuit, confrontation and conquering. We’re told that pursued by Padmasambhava, the demon is overtaken and finally destroyed, torn limb from limb and scattered across the mountains in the Annapurna range, allowing Buddhism to at last firmly take root throughout the Himalayas. The landscape bears witness to the time honored tale of Padmasambhava having utterly destroyed the demon’s body. The red cliffs surrounding the village of Ghemi are said to be stained red with his blood; the longest mani wall in Nepal, made of thousands upon thousands of stones inscribed with sacred mantra prayers, is said to have arisen from the very path of the demon’s intestines as they were dragged up the mountainside, and the monastery of Lo Gekar is said to be built directly over the spot where the demon’s heart is buried.

The poem offers a slight twist to the tale. In The Heart of Lo Gekar, the ancient story is re-imagined from a woman’s point of view. In the hours after the battle ends, our heroine senses something more than conquest. She senses that the battle is not yet over. We follow her up the mountain trail where we see her find the demon’s heart, cast aside yet still beating, on the mountainside where the gompa will eventually rise.

In the end, we’re left to imagine her compassion and kindness toward the suffering and misunderstood demon, by way of the witnessing the last beats of its now vulnerable, exposed and dying heart, and are invited to join with her in recognition that it’s not the destruction, but rather true pacification and transformation of an elemental and likewise essential being that expresses our intrinsic nature.

In true Tibetan Buddhist fashion, the belief that demons, when understood and cared for become our protectors is personified in the possibility that there’s more to liberation than simple annihilation of the enemy. There’s more to enlightenment than the vanquishing of ego. The demon does not die alone, and does not die conquered; rather his heart is transformed. Our heroine, representing the nurturing feminine, secretly witnesses the final beats of the demon’s heart before it’s buried in the ground, as terma, a hidden treasure teaching. Here the gompa will ultimately be built and we’re invited to believe that buried beneath it, tucked away in the earth below, are secret teachings on the sacred feminine held in safety until the world is ready for them.

The young woman in the poem first occurred to me in Ghemi as I watched the dancer who traveled with our film crew perform on the wide plains below the village. In the shadow of the towering red cliffs, stained by the blood of the long ago vanquished demon, I felt the stirrings of a parallel story to the legend of Padmasambhava, a woman’s story, a secret story. It was then that I heard the voice of my heroine for the first time.

As Tamin danced against the Himalayan backdrop, the village women herded their horses, goats and cattle up the narrow trails toward nightly shelter as they’ve done for centuries. I became keenly aware of the bond I shared with these women and our need, together, to move beyond the hero’s journey of domination, subjugation and destruction to embrace and express the feminine aspect of Buddhism, one of connectedness, equanimity and transformation.

That night, I awoke out of a sound sleep flat on my back, gasping for air. In the dim light I could just make out the hunched silhouette of some sort of living thing crouched on my chest, pinning me down. With all that I had, I reached up and managed to shove it off and watched, terrified, as it disappeared into the shadows overhead. A dream? Perhaps, but one in which the line between asleep and awake was nowhere to be found. A messenger? This, I find, rings much truer.

Some weeks later, at a sky-burial at Drikung Durto in Tibet, I recognized that same silhouette as the stooped profile of the magnificent giant vulture, the Himalayan Griffon, who feeds on the corpses of human beings offered on the mountaintop charnel ground. Sitting on a mountainside surrounded by these imposing creatures, I was struck by their dignity and the strange beauty of their seemingly gruesome task. I discovered in them the same feminine qualities of acceptance, transformation and connection to all things that I’d encountered in the fields at Ghemi.

For a rare and precious moment, I just might have caught a glimpse of the between, the ineffable boundary between life and death.

The choice to re-imagine an ancient, sacred and beloved tale, one upon
which an entire culture hangs its hat, is risky enough; to do so in
a woman’s voice rendered in poetic verse was not something I set out
deliberately to do.

Yet from its first imaginings the story identified as feminine, and appeared in
lyric form. The voice, or should I say voices, were clear, and clearly not mine
alone. In fact I never felt alone, it was as if I were collaborating with unseen
realms; I began to approach the poem as if I were composing a score. As
cliche as it might sound, the writing took on a life of its own.

The legend of Padmasambhava and the demon battle of Upper Mustang,
Nepal, is embedded in the oral tradition of all Tibetan people and written in
ancient texts that have been handed down for centuries. The story is visible
in the landscape, dances, songs and art of the Himalayas. The Heart of Lo
Gekar reflects the certainty I feel that the women, who were surely there
when the story took place, simply got left out of the telling.

In reading, I hope you won’t mind taking the time to find your stride and
catch the rhythm. Breathe into it. Let it breathe into you.

I humbly offer The Heart of Lo Gekar with whatever self conscious flaws
it may harbor and ask that you pardon the places where I may have failed
completely to pull it off. The poem is, in the end, simply a labor of love that
seeks in its own small way to contribute to the many meritorious efforts
worldwide to bring women out of the shadows and into the light.
May it be of benefit to all sentient beings.

Present Day
A moment fleeting splinters perception
yields – if but for a moment, recognition –
“I’ve been here before”,
not quite an adequate description
no words no words no words seem fit
unless this:
to recall what was
is simply to pay attention to what is
Hair on end, a rush up the spine
the aura, see it?
how light aligns and works the room
tracing transient solidity
vibration of earth and sky
the birds, the wind, not void
but empty
In that emptiness a sound so bright, a light
so clear
in loving embrace
with all beings
the body remembers
in vessel and cell
transient fluidity
all that is will always be
the future peers back, patient
and I awaken still dreaming
eyes wide open
and pausing, amazed
distill the meaning
I was her when she was then!
when Ghar Gampa had not yet come to be
I see myself
nothing but an errant girl
who in a dream unheard of
millennia beckoned
awakened here and now
as me
and falling flying back in time
to whirl of wind and taste of sky
to scent of horse and beat of hoof
roamed again the distant plains
and saw approaching from the east a rider
dust plume trailing
over mountains moon afloat
while I, stumbled upon? chosen? somehow to know
to witness a distant day unfold;
the time of women too long in shadow
drawing quickly to a close
So this is the tale of the demon of Samye
as I recall from far away
who fled from battle
at Hepo Ri in Bhöd
to hide among the hills and caves
above Ghemi in the Kingdom of Lo
and there pursued by Padmasambhava
cornered, vanquished in all ways pacified
torn asunder but did not die
above whose brave and buried heart rose Ghar Gompa
for centuries slumbered,
to awakening soon from sleep
will roam the mountains yet again
no longer foe but ally, friend
and dancing, dreaming, wisdom risen
bring forth the secrets
of Lo Gekar

In Ghemi the day ripens just so
under dawn-seed fire blood red
to lapis lazuli sky
until the sun at zenith squints the eye
of mountain peaks without a cloud behind
which to hide
as they rest for nightlong duty
languish resigned;
while goats browse the creekside brush
wandering through cool shadow
horses roam the tall grasses,
dzomo milked at dawn
to return by nightfall with bulging udders;
and here the women young and old who herd them
spread bright blankets, pause for tea
blue sky with room
for all beneath
breathes deep sighs and settles
let go, the lightest of wind seems to say, let go, let go, let go
little flowers tip their heads
Ecstatic with the passing kiss
of gentle breeze that twists through the branches of shrub and tree
lifts the leaves
and sets them trembling
Last night again she dreamt she could fly
and did,
rooftops far below, the horses, goats below
her mother, sisters, brothers, her father–all below
falling behind-
with outstretched arms
hair loose streaming eyes stinging with the wind she flies
under cold blue moon
looking down on her own shadow cast
on the mountains beneath her-
Dhaulgiri, White Mountain; Annapurna
all her life lived looking up from below
from above unfamiliar-
helpless she flies over impossible passes only heard of
never seen; Kora la, Jelep la
like the stories told, all a dream
she looks down on the land of Bhöd
the Heavenly Lake, the tortured gompa at Samye
to her left the moonrise on her right a vulture flies,
the griffon, sacred charnel bird
strong of wing, wings pumping
with a sound like wild water plummeting
through a deep and darkened gorge.
Her arms do not pump like wings
the wind does the work; holding her, lifting her
she surrenders and soars along
like a leaf
nothing more
until set down alone on a cliff
she wonders if awake or asleep
or perhaps no longer living at all
hoofbeats approach steadily closer
moonlit rider ascends the peak
she crouches low too terrified to speak
he too is silent but not unkind
reaches a hand, lifts her up behind-
or does she leap?
it seems as so; she scarcely dares think
beyond the scent of his hair-juniper smoke
butter tea, heat-
later recalls only that she hid her face
against his back, and so recalls
the swaying horse, mile after silent mile
until crackle and hiss of beckoning fire
ping and echo of tingshas all the while
women singing
and then of course recalls his smile
when at last her feet touched ground
even now she hears the sound of those small brass cymbals, so sweet,
and the women’s voices singing
warming to his smile she joins the song
until she awakens
tries to hold the dream but it grows faint, fades
and fading gone

She sits with the goats, white-light sun blinds
the view beyond while in her mind
she plays over and over her mysterious dreams
that hint at something freer, truer
than she’s been told her life will be
her work-worn hands lovingly stroke the silken hair
of a prized black goat,
the doe with one blind eye
progeny prolific this one always throws
triplet offspring never one or two
still a season will come when buckseed planted
no longer grows;
the doe old and barren
no longer of use
life over
black silken hide a rug underfoot on the floor;
body cut to pieces, boiled thukpa, stew,
for now smiles sweet goat-smile
pleasured by the stroking of her hair
one eye on the moment as it comes and goes.
Sun tips, teeters loses grip on the day
golden notes of final rays
compose aubade to the other side
of the world; she feels first chill of coming night
as gaining-speed sun slides
down the western sky
shadows grow long and longer still
pinks and golds, pale yellow burnt edge bright
horizon where the sun will die to be born again; goodbye
goodbye sun, khal leh shu, nyi ma, she whispers, khal leh shu
the doe wanders off, and she
herself roaming, watches for signs
endures the scolding tongues of her elders
lazy girl lazy lazy girl
bad luck to waste youth on goats and sky
enough of all the wondering why
watch yourself lest no man have you

In Ghemi the day draws down
brief wisps of cloud drift listless by
crepuscular mountains yawn stretch and sigh
and in the twilight gray silver light
the dzomo low, their deep hollow songs
like conches blowing
come in for milking, pink udders swollen
strong hands wring teats
set pails to pinging
long pink tongues of bleating
goats who too, milk-ready paps pleading
take to the trail
while horses in coats of dust, rock and fire
come in from the fields heads low tails swinging
hindquarters sway
in steady rhythm; night calls to day
and the women who follow, young and old
herding behind
with whistle and call
blend into the land like bird and stone
every day ends just so
Mountains ready themselves for moonlight
summit and face await strokes of blue, purplewhite
horses lead at a trot, she follows behind
dreaming, distracted
savors her thoughts
not caring to come in at all
hand brushes tall windstirred grasses
hips swaying braided hair swings below
her waist
twilight timeless painted scene gently scored
by birdcall, whistle, bell and laughter
bells swing from halters melody ringing soft laughter singing
hoof drum beating
while the old ones, patient, stooped and steady
eyes to trail, bright sky fading
chide and scold yet too, remember
a time when they, so young, so oft impatient
still a moment longer, lingered
as night comes on still she tarries
awake yet dreaming she breathes the mountains
tastes the air then lithe and striding
gives in, sighs
sets foot to trail
reaches up offhanded tucks fallen hair come loose
Why can’t they see?
all is music!
resignation not yet upon me
I would remain to greet the stars
and rest my head among the grasses
without fear among the grasses to
sweetly sleep and sleeping dream
a life of dreams dreaming me

Grooves of habit timeworn needful
sun and moon and all conditions
witness that she yields to purpose
obedience, duty, rightful station
horses bunch up, vie for position
fall in step single file nose to tail
like water ever more confined from pool to stream to pipe
she too is carried without volition
breathes deep surrenders falls in line
equine discourse of nose and breath
late-day birds call
all the while stillness visible all
is as always is
as always and forever is
Lull of dusk the daily bye
but wait! not here, not tonight,
here a sudden
sharp report
of tumbling stone
splits in two the silent sky
A rock come loose, of a sudden freed
bounces down rock face echoes
wildly across fields and village time and space
freed from centuries bound in place skips dances
pirouettes and plays
horses draw up sharp and quick, a snap, ears tense, muscles
the women too, stop in their tracks
raise heads, crane necks,
strain to see to watch to where
startled birds and dust fly
far above in twilight gray
and note in watching
could that plume of dust rising
trace the passage
snaking through rock shattered bone dry mountains;
of someone or something, far travelling, approaching from the east?
Beginningless time circles the puja fire
picks clean the bones
of interminable self
oceans subside, mountains snow-wind ravaged —
rdul te-la thal ba — ground to dust
then formed again
layer upon layer blood and ash
skullbone limb and rib of ancestors
who live and die
picked clean bones piled high
dust upon dust
native tongue of land and sky
flies then settles as it must
leaves maps
on sill and ledge to point the way
begs attention questions why; annoys portends
approaching danger oncoming storm
descent of blue sheep
snow lion, marmot,
a rider perhaps
or nothing more than tumbling stone
The old women sigh, shift their study
back to the path, resume their duty;
it is nothing, the ancient shoulders say,
the rounded,
burdened shoulders say, a stone, nothing more
while the young women now grown impatient
night is falling, little light remains
let’s be on
and onward move, still the horses are restless
and she hesitant
strains to see
then chided, scolded moves on again
No time for dreaming; she is after all
nothing more
than any other, like those before and
those to follow birthed, assigned:
herder of horses, goatherd, handmaid and milker; able
chicken-plucker, egg-gatherer, dumper of buckets
puller of teats
washer of backsides of babies and old people

Yet the horses bunch up anxious white of eye
so she scans nested cliffs
where vultures glide
for snow leopard seeking stalking preying
or wandering yidag, hungry ghosts
old stories lively in her mind
render benign forms sinister lurking visage
peers from shadow and stone
still the women drive the horses on
from pasture to village
through shadowed grove of stunted trees
the path drops and narrows
across crumbled scree
hooves clatter
through mumbling creek
dzomo and goats already settled
and milking
horses muddied pick their way
through wooden gates in stone walls open
then closed behind to bar the way
the evening breeze tags along
blows lazy and low to the ground
wild all day now confined
horses nip and quarrel
restless still but soon to quiet
She places both hands firm
against the rump of the last, a red mare,
hip bones like rock face angled under hide
she places a hand
either side of tail
shoves the mare with gentle grunt,
backs out leans shoulder against gate
one last shove she throws the latch
pauses for breath
and walks as so often and again
the dark street toward lighted window, ducks inside and draws
door closed
takes her place beside the hearth
boil the tea, stir the thukpa, stir
the cheese, lift tender curd with wood carved spoon–
her mother (and she, all too soon) with hungry mouth at breast
closes her eyes
baby murmurs “oma ama”
“milk” “mama’’
drinks deeply nestles
softly sighs
Sitting by the fire she sees her future
in her mother’s face her sister’s eyes
finds it wanting makes up her mind
by dim light of butter lamp
winds a threadcross–
nam mkha — spirit trap, protector
goat wool wrapped round and round
two small crossed sticks
a talisman
to ward off evil tricks she tucks it close
next to her heart
goes to bed to wait and waits
pretends to sleep waiting until
all around her quiet breathing
signals all are deeply sleeping
she creeps to the door courage bolstered
leaves the village, carefully closes
the gate behind her
crosses the creek, the scree, climbs steep
rock trail
returning by night to daytime fields
now in silver moonlight shivering
makes a bed in the soft tall grass
the sky is clear, yet thunder
rumbles distant warning
still she curls up peaceful yearning
under a goatskin drifts to sleep
and while dreaming opens her eyes to see

And so in dream I plane
through stratum veil and timeless space
no longer goatherd milker servant
I am consort princess mendicant
Embodied vaporous witness
where circles spin before invention
movement stops without cessation
here vultures scan for ritual procession
and I in shroud borne to the feast
beginning and end in evident sight
parsec emptiness to the east
luminous light body
drawn forth from delusive sleep
In Ghemi the moon slides
silver blue luminous
moon-eyes open wide
down toward waiting mountains
hides face behind them
owls done calling, all is quiet–
while in tall grass sleeping dreaming
wrapped in goatskin
softly breathing
not yet missed by her mother
she at last untied untethered
unknowing what it is that calls her
certain only of her need to follow
then somewhere near morning, in deepest dark moonset
clouds gather; steal the light
when the demon long hidden
creeps into sight
crippled in battle escaped from Samye
fled from Bhöd into the high passes
starvation forces him onto the plain
only the warrior astride his horse
in pursuit these long weeks riding
sees the demon come from hiding
And so descends the mountainside to meet him

She awakens startled frightened
to lightning flashing all earth trembling
thunder roars or something greater
she no longer naïve, lighthearted
regrets idle dreaming–what was she thinking?
to turn away from all that held her
life predictable, marriage, safety, honor
rises up to race for home
tries to run, calls for her mother
as the ground around her quakes and fractures
she falls to her knees
searing wind dust smothered
struggles to rise again, to flee
again she falls, again the thunder
mountains erupting all around her
lightning fire and hoofbeats pounding
she watches as lit by light of madness
a trail of dust flies down the mountain
I see him now fiercely riding
in hell realm light fiercely flying
he rides the wind horse–rlung ta–
to meet the demon come from hiding
with purpose precision and yet he pauses
reins his horse to where I cower
bids me leap astride behind him
eyes wide open the plain before me
I, once unknowing now empowered
certain of my place rightful needful
and here the vulture dips and wheels
against tumultuous sky asunder
and now I hear again his voice
above the din–or wait! yes, within
and hearing know at last the meaning
dakini, he calls me, khandro, sky-goer
dakini — transformer, sky-dancer
mother, sister, speaker of truth
while from the sky pours forth a retinue
Villagers panicked flee in terror
call for children, carry the elders
scramble up cliffside to caves well hidden
ancient fortress canyon where for the first time,
she is missed
as goats race bleating for brush cover creekside
mother, father, old ones weep
huddle, murmur, question, whisper
light butter lamps
offer prayers pleading
beg to know where their daughter is
while far below them
the battle rages
on and on without abate
is she lost to them?
karma ripens
they can only wait
Eastern sky births dawn’s first light
pale pink banded horizon gleaming
stretched over village ripped and shaken
fire-breath burned wind ripped rooftops
crumbled walls earth-crack swallowed streets
the demon crazed and cornered
abandons all caution now in plain sight
faces the warrior, Padmasambhava
come to tame the hordes of Mara
with his bodhisattva sons and daughters
and here the circle of dakinis
all come to end the tortured suffering
What, she asks, as horse hooves thunder
what is evil? what is good?
vultures circle, ravens glide
the demon now, subdued and beaten
with one last mighty groan and sigh
relinquishes hold on the world transformed
broken and scattered is
no more
no more no more no more

Horses stand quieted in stone-walled pens
villagers return to streets torn and littered
gaze at grasses flattened in the fields
gather their children, point to where
sun rising as every day before
shines on dying lungs gasping from afar
splattered cliffs blood-breath cinnabar
in battle torn limb from limb the demon wrung
and wrested in all ways scattered
from Tsaile to Lo Manthang and Samar;
landslide of bone, floods run bleeding
here among mountains stained forever with last breaths taken
the land will tell of the demon’s fall
from entrails will rise the great Mani wall
but something else, this isn’t all
she slides down from the horse
leaves the rider
as hearing again that call
looks up to see the griffon circling
climbs cliffside trail that leads to Dhakmar;
makes her way through the pass, climbs panting
to the top of the high plateau
and there on the ground shines
in sunlit newborn day a jewel apart
coming closer scarce believing
she finds
the beating heart of Lo

Triptych Journey’s mission is to tell compelling world stories that speak to all of us. Using multimedia arts and expression, Triptych Journey connects audiences to vulnerable people, cultures and ecology, instilling values of conservation and preservation in a rapidly changing world. In the fall of 2013, Triptych Journey recruited a team of artists–filmmaker, photographer, writer, choreographer, and sound artist – to travel through the living story of Guru Rinpoche (Precious Teacher), the Second Buddha. For eight weeks, the team traveled across five countries – Mongolia, Nepal, Tibet, Bhutan, and India – exploring sacred and cultural sites and documenting the Guru’s story through dance, photography, film, writing, and sound. Their creative reflections, harvested from across Guru Rinpoche’s landscapes, form the raw materials of the Precious Guru exhibitions, performances, publications, and film. Triptych Journey’s feature documentary, Precious Guru: Journey into the Wild Heart of the Second Buddha, is currently in post production. The film, scheduled for completion by March 2017, explores the life, legacy, and radical relevance of Guru Rinpoche. For more information about Triptych Journey, please contact Marc Wennberg.

About the Author
Clemma Dawsen

Clemma Dawsen

Clemma Dawsen is a poet and writer whose work explores the mysterious and sublime notions of existence; the nature of ultimate and conventional mind and the possibility of unconditional happiness. She often writes about destruction, death and dying and the inherent beauty therein. When not traveling or teaching, Dawsen lives in Vermont with her dog, cats, horse and a revolving cast of family and friends.

Photographs by Jonathan Schechner. Paintings by Konrad Fitzgerald.

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    Dear Clemma Dawson, I have just found your poem about re-telling the story of vanquishing as pacifying. I don’t know where you work or what else you do, but I want to express my profound appreciation for your remarkable prose-poem. I know those places. I will re-read your piece many times. Thank you.
    Jane Lillian Vance

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