Pilgrimage To Tibet

"The ultimate aim of the quest must be neither release nor ecstasy for oneself, but the wisdom and the power to serve others."
- Joseph Campbell, Hero With A Thousand Faces.

Our pilgrimage to Tibet, while richly rewarding, was not an easy trip and was filled with many obstacles. While on this pilgrimage I made many discoveries. Most notable of those was that a pilgrimage is not only an external journey but it is an inward journey as well. It is a journey of consciousness, a journey of awakening. When making a pilgrimage one leaves everything familiar and yet is taking a path known by those who have gone before. Obstacles and hardships are to be expected. These difficulties are considered a part of the pilgrimage and for some a form of purification. Others believe that the more difficult the pilgrimage the more merit one achieves.

I believe a pilgrimage can be divided into various stages:

  • Preparation  
  • Separation  
  • The Journey Outward  
  • Initiation  
  • The Journey Inward   
  • Return & Sharing  

Every true pilgrimage begins with some form of preparation, however brief. My preparation began several years earlier when my Buddhist teacher, His Holiness Orgyen Kusum Lingpa announced the building of The Great Stupa of Peace at his monastery located in eastern Tibet. He was requesting all of his students to attend a dedication ceremony once the stupa was completed.

A Stupa is a Buddhist monument housing religious relics that may include those of the Buddha, past teachers and other precious religious objects. Stupas venerate the Buddha and represent his final enlightenment. For centuries it has been a tradition in Tibet for Buddhists to circumambulate stupas to gain merit.

Over 1,200 years ago Padmasambhava prophesied that a giant Stupa would be built in the area of Golok Tibet. Over the years many other Lamas repeated this same prophecy. As a very young boy His Holiness Orgyen Kusum Lingpa had a series of dreams in which Padmasambhava, Varjapani and Hayagriva instructed him to build just such a Stupa. So at the age of 20 His Holiness made a commitment to his teacher, Akong Khenpo Rinpoche, that he would realize Padmasambhava's prophecy.

That prophecy and commitment became a reality when it was announced that The Great Stupa of Peace would be completed with a dedication ceremony scheduled for August 1999. So in January of this year we began making plans for our pilgrimage. This meant obtaining the necessary visa from the Chinese consulate many months in advance. The area of Tibet we would be traveling to is not normally open to foreigners so our teacher arranged for special travel permits.


We had been told that the monastery was located in a very remote region of Tibet that lacked running water, electricity or any other vestige of the 20th century. We were told the closest phone was two days by horseback! So this pilgrimage would be more of a camping trip. We began visiting backpacking stores and tried the various freeze dried meals and high energy protein bars. We purchased a state of the art water purifying pump that was supposed to remove all harmful organisms including viruses. We packed as if we were going on a backpacking trip. Our goal was to take only the essentials; to keep what we take light, and get it all down to two bags. One bag was for camping gear, the other only enough clothing to fit into a carry-on bag.


So on July 30th of this year the four of us left everything known and comfortable to us to embark upon this religious pilgrimage. After nearly 30 hours of continuous travel (involving 4 changes of planes) we arrive exhausted in Beijing We meet 50 more Americans who would also be joining us on this odyssey. As is the custom in China we are met at the airport by a 'travel guide' (who in reality is a communist official). He arranges ground transportation to our hotel which much to our surprise turns out to be first rate. We spend two days in Beijing doing the usual tourist things including visiting the Forbidden City, the Temple of Heaven and the silk market. We then fly to Xining aboard China's own government run airline. My safety concerns about a third world country's airline are somewhat allayed when I see that this is a new Boeing 737 (yes American built!). We arrive in Xining located in central china and on the eastern border of what once was Tibet. We are told the birth place of the Fourteenth Dalai Lama is not far from here. We are met in Xining by our teacher, HH Orgyen Kusum Lingpa and he is accompanied by a wonderful traditional Tibetan Doctor by the name of Bompo. Our teacher has brought Bompo to travel with us the rest of the trip to treat any illnesses.

The effects of altitude were a major concern. Our ultimate goal is our teacher's monastery in Golok, Tibet that is at an altitude of 12,000 feet. To get there we must travel by bus for 3 days crossing mountain passes as high as 16,000 feet. So the plan is to allow the group to acclimate slowly to the increase in altitude. For that reason we spend two days in Xining located at 7,500 ft. Most have us have brought along a prescription medicine that is suppose to help prevent AMS (acute mountain sickness) which can be lethal. Unfortunately this prescription medicine can cause severe side effects ' some of which are similar to AMS itself. So as an alternative many of us choose to take a special compound of herbs from the Tibetan doctor. We are to take one teaspoon of this powder three times a day. I find it increasingly difficult to overcome the gag reflect as I try to swallow this powder that resembles dirt. In addition the group has rented two 'Gamow bags' for any AMS emergencies. These bags are compression chambers that once inside and then inflated artificially take you to a lower altitude.

Xining reminds me of a border town filled with bars and tough looking characters. We are instructed not to go out at night (and if we do, to go in a group) because there are roaming gangs waiting to prey on unsuspecting tourists.

Just before we are to leave Xining for our final destination of Golok we are informed that the local Communist officials have canceled our travel permits. Our teacher's son, Hung-Kar Dorje Rinpoche, works feverishly with the local officials to try to resolve this newly developed obstacle. We are told that it is not known when we will leave for Golok. It could be the following day or possibly never. This raises everyone's anxiety level. Most of us have been planning this trip for over a year and have made many sacrifices in terms of family and jobs, not to mention a sizable investment in money' all to visit our teacher's monastery. Now it looks questionable whether that goal will ever be realized.

The next day brings a roller coaster of emotions. First we are told that the necessary travel permits have been secured and that we will be leaving. Everyone is excited and begins getting ready to depart. Later we are told the local police have grounded our buses and that we will not be leaving after all. We are able to arrange for different buses and leave quickly before the local police have an opportunity to find another reason to keep us in Xining. We finally do leave, but not before the government placed a Communist official on the bus to keep an eye on us. We are told to be careful of what we say and under no circumstance mention the name of the Dalai Lama.

The Journey Outward

The three day (two night) bus trip to Golok, while grueling, was one of the highlights of the trip. The scenery of Tibet is breathtaking. Every minute the landscape changes and becomes more beautiful than the minute before. Much of it is beyond description and it ranged from plains and plateaus to mountains and desert. Some areas looked as if they were from a distant planet. The colors were so vibrant as to be surreal. We pass through areas of Tibet that surprisingly look like America's own southwest complete with buildings of adobe. The two nights we spent on the road we stayed in what was euphemistically called a hotel, but nothing could be further from the truth. These bare concrete rooms consisted of four cots, no bathroom, and a single light bulb hanging from the middle of the ceiling (which didn't work). This reminded me more of the gulag I had read about in Russia. The bathroom was literally a hole in the ground outside next to the stables. The first night few of us got any sleep as watch dogs at the motel barked all night at the newly arrived strangers. The rest of the trip we referred to this as the 'Dog Bark Motel'. The idea of eating in these towns was a scary proposition. However, much to our surprise the food was good and no one became sick as we all feared.

The roads to Golok were virtually non-existent in places. We experienced a total of six flat tires that the driver would repair on the road by himself. Several times we came to small rivers with no bridge across. This meant that the bus had to literally forge the river, sometimes with water coming inside. A jeep traveling with us became stuck half-way across one of the rivers. With no tow truck service available we worked for over an hour to free it from the muddy river.

As we get closer to Golok the altitude continues to increase as we go through many high mountain passes. At the top of each mountain pass the Tibetans have built a small monument out of stones with streams of prayer flags fanning out like the spokes of a wheel. It is the custom in Tibet to throw lung-tar (small squares of paper each imprinted with a windhorse) into the air as one passes these monuments. All of us purchased a quantity of lung-tar in a local town and decide to adopt the local custom. As we go through each mountain pass we throw the lung-tar into the air as we recite the Tibetan prayer, 'ki ki so so lha gyal lo' which translated means "victory to the gods". The Tibetans believe that it is at these high mountain passes that the good gods fight with the evil gods and that the lung-tar and prayer are an offering to the good gods. Offering these prayers at mountain passes is especially auspicious because it is believed that the high winds will be of benefit in carrying the prayers. If the good gods are victorious it will bring peace to those of us in the human realm.

Finally, exhausted we arrive in Golok in the early evening. The first thing everyone notices is the enormous stupa ' The Great Stupa For Peace ' the reason for our trip. It is even larger than I imagined. Larger than the Great Stupa of Bodanath, The Great Stupa for Peace has a base of 69 meters and a height of 50 meters. More than 5 years of planning went into the project which required extensive engineering studies . It took nearly 200 workers 2 years to complete the stupa. This incredible structure is dedicated solely for the purpose of alleviating famine, plague, warfare and all other suffering in the world today.

We are greeted by a thong of local Tibetan Nomads and monks from the monastery. Such a wonderful greeting! We are amazed to see they have created a little tent village for us. We are directed to two huge dining tents where they have laid out an incredible spread of food. There are cookies, candies, fruits, and nuts, piled in enormous stacks. I feel overwhelmed by their generosity. Due to a combination of exhaustion along with being touched by these simple people's hospitality I find tears flowing down my cheeks. This is beyond anything I expected.

After eating everyone sorts through the enormous pile of luggage looking for their own bags and especially their own sleeping bags so that we can get some much needed rest after 3 days on the road. It rains the first night and many find their tents leak. The next morning we wake up as the sun rises and begin to explore our new surroundings. We find we are on a plateau at 12,000 ft surrounded by beautiful green mountains. I am surprised not only by the fact that at such a high altitude it is relatively flat, but also, because I see none of the snow covered peaks that I had expected. The beauty is absolutely breath taking. However, all of us begin to feel the effects of the altitude ' making even the simplest task difficult. Simply going to the latrine and back I find I am out of breath and must rest.

On our second night I find I am having trouble sleeping because of noise coming from next door. As hard as it is to believe it sounds as if the people next to us are having a party! I am annoyed by the noise and lack of consideration. I ask my wife if I should go next door and say something to the revelers. She approves but advises to me to be tactful ' knowing that sometimes I can be curt. I go next door and ask if they can please keep it down as we are trying to sleep. Through the dim light I see a flurry of activity as someone advises me that there is a medical emergency. It seems an American who arrived after us had come from sea level to this altitude of 12,000 in 24 hours and was desperately ill. He was unconscious and had begun to go into seizures. They had placed him into the gawmow bag and had artificially taken him down to an altitude of 6,000 ft. I ask if there is anything I can do, but it seems he improves almost immediately. I meet our new arrival the next morning at breakfast and he seems much better.

I am so impressed and grateful to my teacher and the monks for the incredible effort they have taken to satisfy our needs. There is no running water and the only available water is from a nearby river. While the locals all drink directly from the river, westerners cannot. The water must be boiled and what compounds the problem is that at such a high altitude water boils at a lower temperature -- which means it must be boiled for a much longer period of time to ensure the killing of any harmful organisms. The water must be boiled for a minimum of 45 minutes to make it safe for drinking. Our teacher has arranged for the purchase of 100 thermos bottles. In addition they have set up a tent and wood stove that boils water on a continuous basis 24 hours a day! We can go anytime ' day or night and get hot water that is safe to drink. In addition our teacher has arranged for quantities of local food to be shipped in to feed all of us. There is a large kitchen tent where the food is prepared. The cooks are instructed to take extra precautions in the food preparation, making sure it is washed thoroughly and cooked long enough to keep us from getting sick. Again I am overwhelmed at their kindness and generosity. We ate only the local food that included Yak, various noodle dishes, rice and Yak yogurt.

Without any schedule the days flow by effortlessly. I notice that without clocks or electric lights I am becoming more synchronized to the rhythms of the earth. I go to bed when it is dark and wake up when it is light. As I begin to become accustomed to our temporary home I have this strange sense of equanimity and well being. I feel I belong here -- as if I have come home. I mention this to others who, much to my surprise, report the same feeling.

On our second day our teacher and the monks of the monastery inform us that we are invited to a special Tsog in the main temple. A Tsog is a ritual feast practice common in Tibetan Buddhism. The temple is the most amazing thing I have ever seen. As I walk in I again feel choked with emotion as I take in the view. It is an enormous expansive space with huge 30 ft high ceilings with thankas covering the walls. Every inch of architecture is exquisitely painted in minute detail. I recall similar emotions upon entering beautiful gothic medieval Cathedrals in Europe, but this surpasses anything I have ever seen.

We are guided to our seats as the monks play the traditional long horns and cymbals. All the monks are wearing their traditional yellow hats for such a ceremony. Our teacher takes his place on his throne along with his son on a throne next to him. The Tsog continues with much ritual and sacred music. It concludes as the monks distribute to everyone a beautiful gift basket of candies with the most amazing butter sculpture on top of every one. As I again feel overwhelmed by their generosity I come to realize that this emotion seems to grab me at every turn.

After the Tsog monks guide us to a building next to the temple that is the temporary home of the various religious objects and relics that will be sealed into The Great Stupa of Peace. We see stacks of texts from floor to ceiling encompassing an enormous space. All together there will be 1,008 sets of complete Buddhist teachings, 100 million pictures of Padmasambhava, 10 million sets of dharani (mantras), statues and relics of the Buddha and of Padmasambhava.

Our days are filled with basic activities. No plans, no schedules, no worries, and I begin to feel as if maybe I am experiencing the simple life of a Tibetan nomad. It feels, free, liberating, and I cannot help but wonder if that is the way man is meant to live. I notice my mind grasping at not wanting to ever leave.

On the next two consecutive days the monks of the monastery entertain us outside with what they call 'Tibetan Opera'. It is a type of sacred music, sacred dance with incredibly beautiful costumes. The performances almost always tell a story ' some of which we can decipher from the performance and some we cannot. The performances go on for many hours and attract several hundred local nomads who come to watch. Several of us reciprocate with performances of our own. At one point I join some of the Tibetan Dancers trying to imitate their moves. The local Nomads find a westerner trying to do Tibetan dance very amusing. Our good friend and traveling companion, Teri Wilder, gives a rousing acappella rendition of 'Kansas City' and the crowd loves it!

We are informed that our teacher will be conducting a special Chod practice that night. The literal translation of the Tibetan term Chod means 'cut off' or 'cut through". In Tibetan Buddhism, Chod is a special sadhana practice for the purpose of cutting away the false concept of ego. This is accomplished by offering one's own body to the demons. This powerful tantric practice is often practiced in a scary place such as graveyard.

Sometime after dark all of us assemble in the courtyard in front of our teacher's residence. Without any lights whatsoever it is the blackest I have ever experienced. While sitting on the bare ground I look up at the sky and cannot believe the incredible symphony of stars. Back in the States I live in the country and appreciate the star filled night sky, but this is beyond anything I have ever seen. Not only does it look as if there are billions of stars I also see these amazing bands of what look like diamond dust stretching completely across the sky. The chant master begins chanting in Tibetan the Chod sadhana accompanied by a monk keeping rhythm with a drum. I am swept away with the sights and sounds as I try to do the visualization. I can not believe that I am actually in Tibet, sitting under the stars and performing this ancient and sacred spiritual practice. Again emotion overwhelms me.          

The Journey Inward

We were suppose to be at the Monastery for a total of 13 days. However the Communist officials cut our visit down to only 5 days. Because several members of our group had become ill we were allowed to stay one extra day. As our days in Golok began to dwindle down I began to reflect upon the meaning of this pilgrimage. I began to ask myself some of the following questions:

What is the meaning of this pilgrimage?
How has this changed me?
Where is the sacred that I was looking for?

These and other questions began to plague me. I then began to realize that a pilgrimage is a search for ultimate truth. I had hoped to uncover some feeling of sacredness by traveling to this distant holy site. I was hoping that by experiencing the sacred that it may awaken some ancient spiritual calling deep within me. In the Buddhist tradition this would be shunyata or in the Christian tradition it might be referred to as grace. And for most I believe this does occur to some varying degree.

As we prepare to leave Golok I am filled with sadness. I again observe my mind clinging to the desire to stay here forever. The group begins packing for the return trip, and we say our good-byes to the monks and our teacher. I find myself walking around trying to take in as much of the beauty as possible so I will never forget this experience. I am attempting to savor and squeeze every last bit of this mystical place into my consciousness. Early the next morning we board the buses for our trip back. We follow the same route that we took to get here -- through the beautiful plains, plateaus and mountains of eastern Tibet. As we travel hour after hour I begin to reflect more about the meaning of this pilgrimage. 

During the next two days on the bus I began to realize that what I was searching for already existed long before I began the pilgrimage. A sense of sacredness is available to us at any moment. We can find the sacred in external phenomena everywhere if we only take the time to find it. We also can find that the bliss or enlightenment we were hoping to achieve was something we already had -- even before we left home. Our own innate awakened spirit has always been there and it is one with the entire Universe. So a pilgrimage while an external journey is ultimately a journey within ourselves.

Return & Sharing

I find my return to the States a difficult adjustment. In contrast to Tibet, life here seems much too fast, and shallow. As I slowly begin to slide back into my day to day routine I think about how I want to share not only the experience of the pilgrimage, but of the discoveries I have made about the sacred. I feel a desire to share my experience with others. I want to tell them that while a pilgrimage to Tibet (or any holy site) is a wonderful experience that it is not a prerequisite to finding the sacred. I realize that my pilgrimage is incomplete without sharing my discoveries with others And while that's my reason for writing this story I also recognize that a pilgrimage is never complete but rather an ongoing process of sharing. I am reminded of the words of Abdul-Baha, the founder of the Bahai faith: 

Of all pilgrimages the greatest is to relieve the sorrow-laden heart

Lama Chuck Stanford is a fully ordained Lama of Tibetan Buddhism. He is married and with his wife directs a Buddhist Center located in Kansas City: The Rime Buddhist Center, Tibetan Institute of Studies and Monastery.

EDITOR's NOTE: In August of this year Chuck & Mary Stanford, Teri Wilder and Yvonne Chassenblanche from Kansas City made a religious pilgrimage to Tibet. This article is a brief account of this pilgrimage.


More by :  Lama Chuck Stanford

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