According to the Tibetan Calendar most of 2016 was in the year of the Monkey, which also happens to be the birth sign of the great master Padmasambhava, known to Tibetans as Guru Rinpoche. This only happens once every twelve years and as such seemed a particularly powerful time to connect with the unstoppable blessings of the Lotus-Born by engaging in any practice related to him, including pilgrimage.
In 2016 I was fortunate enough to visit several power places of Padmasambhava, spending some weeks in retreat at one, and doing meditation and puja at others. I will share some of my experiences in the hope of encouraging others to visit these holy sites which confer blessings even though one lacks faith or even interest.
In the long retreat, we had teachings on the creation stage from various texts, many of which extolled the virtues of practicing in places where Padmasambhava had stayed. In his text on creation stage, the author Tenpe Nyima wrote something to the effect of one day or practice in such a place being equivalent to a year in another. Kyabje Chatral Rinpoche also highly praised practice in places blessed by Padmasambhava and built his retreats in many such places, including the hidden land of Yolmo. Not being inclined to religious activity, the possibility of additional merit or blessing simply by virtue of the place of practice is a huge motivator.
Yolmo, also known as Helambu, lies to the North of the Kathmandu Valley, in Sindhupalchowk. In old Tibetan texts it forms part of the area referred to as Mangyul. It is a hidden land, a beyul, prophesised both by Padmasambhava and by Shakyamuni Buddha in the Avatamsaka Sutra. The latter formed the basis for Marpa’s instruction that Milarepa go meditate there, at Takpuk Senge Dzong, or Tiger Cave Lion Fortress. Rigzin Godem, the great revealer of Padmasambhava’s northern treasures, is also said to have spent time there, and his tradition was widely practiced. A small group of devotees from various countries wanted to visit, and I was asked to lead the trip, which we were fortunate to do mostly on foot, which I sincerely believe yields more purification and merit than simply taking a helicopter to the site and back.
From Kathmandu we took a jeep to Sermathang, which overlooks the Melamchi Valley. It seemed a nice place to spend the first night after visiting the massive golden statue of Padmasambhava, built by Khenchen Namdrol of Namdrolling monastery. I had seen pictures of it before, but the actual experience of seeing it was immensely powerful. The face is literally mesmerizing and one finds oneself captivated in a state of devotion even without effort. Pujas to Mahakala and Vajra Kilaya were offered with prayers for a successful pilgrimage.
The next morning we started the trek to Tarkegyang. It was a relatively easy trek, with a very gradual incline. Along the way we passed villages devastated by the 2015 earthquake. Ancient stupas along the trail were also damaged. It was very upsetting as the suffering of the locals, forgotten by the outside world, was obvious. Despite their suffering, all the locals we met were extremely kind and generous. We were very well looked after in terms of accommodation and food.
Waking to the most glorious morning at Tarkegyang, we did smoke and serkhyem offerings to the guardians of the Dharma, with a particular dedication to Ama Yangri, the local dakini guardian who is said to be the protector of Yolmo and resides on a peak named after her, directly above Tarkegyang. I will take the liberty to assume she was pleased with the offerings as the trek down the mountain to the river was accompanied by beautiful weather, melodious birdsong and the odd shy group of monkeys.
After crossing the Melamchi, and a tributary, we took a tea break before starting the steep climb to Melamchigaon. The climb took a few hours, but was interspersed with prayers at two Padmasambhava sites, one where he left a head print, as well as a huge footprint. These prints were as charged as anything I have experienced at Tso Pema or Yangleshod, if not more so due to their somewhat protected location. When we finally reached Melamchigaon, we found accommodation which was clean, cheap and in a perfect location without any difficulty.
Despite having seen the devastation along the valley, as well as in other parts of Nepal, the situation here was particularly bad. The village temple gompa was just a heap of stones, with one Buddha statue being preserved under a corrugated iron roof. Fortunately some of the relics stored here previously were salvaged and are being kept safe until the gompa is rebuilt. In a rare moment of inspiration I felt the weight of impermanence and the certainty of death, and made aspirations to finally do some practice.
The following day we did a quite long ganachakra offering in the Nyida Rangjung cave of Padmasambhava. The cave takes its name from the self-arisen sun and moon in the cave roof. After the puja there was time to meditate in the cave which was much appreciated as I recalled Khyabje Chatral Rinpoches poem about Yolmo, where he talks of it benefiting the three activities of path, view and meditation, and how he said this holy place is no different to the Eight Charnel Grounds of India. I felt an intense awareness of gratitude and made aspirations on the basis of this.
Melamchigaon is sort of Padmasambhava village as it is surrounded by sites associated with him. The head and footprints are below the village to the East, the stone throne to the South, the Nyida Rangjung Cave to the West and the Khandro Sangphuk, or Secret Dakini Cave of Princess Mandarava to the North. This latter cave is very much part of the cliff face down a quite dangerous narrow path, but very worth the effort as it contains a spring from which flows amrita water which tastes radically different from the other mountain springs in the area. The rock inside the cave is also red and those who venture inside and look at the ceiling will see different images, which I will not elaborate on here.
After saying goodbye to our hosts, the last day saw us head South down the valley, stopping for prayers at the cave where Milarepa had meditated. The gompa there was completely destroyed with most of the statues having been decapitated. The remains of Khenpo Tsultrim Gyatso Rinpoche’s retreat cabin could be seen half way down the cliff face, yet in spite of this the cave itself was intact and making prayers and offerings there seemed the perfect end to our pilgrimage.
Finally we reached Timbu where we met the jeep which took us back to Kathmandu. If you are able to visit Yolmo, I would highly recommend it as you will yourself benefit by receiving blessings, and you will be helping the local community as they are reliant on pilgrims and trekkers for their income. If you have questions or need a guide you can contact me via Instagram.
Written by the occasional pilgrim Dorje Phuntsok. Instagram @dorjephuntsok.
From the same author: The Spring of Awakening.
Featured image: The Nyida Rangjung cave of Padmasambhava. The cave takes its name from the self-arisen sun and moon in the cave roof.
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