The Way of the White Clouds

by Anāgarika Lāma Govinda | 123,888 words

The Way of the White Clouds as an eye-witness account and the description of a pilgrimage in Tibet during the last decenniums of its independence and unbroken cultural tradition, is the attempt to do justice to the above-mentioned task, as far as this is possible within the frame of personal experiences and impressions. This work is licensed under...

Chapter 44 - A Bon Monastery

Li and I were still filled with the presence of Kailas when after a days journey to the west we came to a place which stood out from the rest of the landscape by its vivid red colour, as if it had been marked by nature as a hallowed spot. And, indeed, it was a place of great sanctity, that once every year came to life during an important religious festival, commemorating the birth of Śākyamuni Buddha in the full-moon night of June. On this night, a wondrous sight is seen by those who are present: the full moon rises like a fiery dome over the icy crest of Kailas, and as the moonbeams trace the outline of the sacred mountain on the red slope, 'heaven' and 'earth' are connected, and as if the realm of divine beings, inhabiting the 'Throne of the Gods', were projected in a flood of light into the world of man. The Enlightened Ones and their retinue are believed to descend on the rays of the moon and assemble on the red carpet of earth to bless the faithful by their luminous presence. It is like a rite of transcendental communion, a rite subtler than any man-made ritual, a truly universal Mass, in which the light is the body and the life-blood of the divine, the human heart the chalice.[1]

The very soil on which this mass is celebrated every year is hallowed, and when we camped there for one night we experienced an extraordinary sense of profound peace and bliss. In the morning, each of us collected a handful of the red earth as a remembrance of the sacred spot and as a last farewell gift of Kailas.

Four days after we had left Kailas we entered a deep valley, bordered by perpendicular rock-walls. The floor of the valley was flat and green, and a shallow river, the beginning of the Langchen-Khambab, wound its leisurely way through it. Towards evening we saw the gleaming white walls of a monastery, standing out against a dark rock-face pierced with the caves and galleries of rock-dwellings. The whole scene was reminiscent of the Valley of the Kings near Thebes, with its cubic Egyptian temple structures at the foot of bare table mountains, whose rock-walls contained numerous galleries with the tombs of the Pharaohs. The only thing that surprised us was the apparent newness and neatness of the whitewashed, red-bordered buildings, which rose like a fortress out of the lonely, otherwise uninhabited, valley.

The leader of our caravan of eight yaks (we had to carry provisions for a year's travel in the wilderness with scant chances of replacing our stores) told us that the monastery had been rebuilt recently, because a few years before during the incursions of Mohammedan raiders from Turkestan the Gompa had been pillaged and burnt, and the inmates had either been killed or ill-treated. The abbot himself had been stripped naked and beaten, but left alive. After the destruction of the monastery, he had taken refuge in the cave-dwellings and ancient meditation chambers above the Gompa, and there he had remained even after the buildings had been restored.

We had looked forward to being comfortably housed in one of the monastery buildings, but contrary to our expectations nothing stirred when we approached the Gompa -- a most unusual thing in a country where people never hide their curiosity and where the arrival of a caravan is an important event. Not even a dog barked, and that could only mean that the place was uninhabited. So we pitched our tents outside the walls near the river and prepared for the night.

The next morning we sent our caravan leader to the abbot in order to announce our visit, and after we had received his reply we were led up a narrow path to the foot of the rock-face, from where a staircase led inside the rock, until we came to a trapdoor which was opened at our approach, and after a few further steps we found ourselves in a well-lit cave in front of the abbot. He was seated on a high throne, framed by a decorative wooden arch. The whole structure reminded me somewhat of a concierge's box with a counter-window and was in strange contrast with the neolithic style of a cave-dwelling. The walls of the cave were covered with minutely executed frescoes of innumerable miniature Buddha-figures which, as we discovered only after a closer inspection, proved to be a tapestry of colour reproductions, printed on small paper sheets and skilfully pasted on the walls of the cave. The same prints had been used over and over again, but the repetition of the same figures in regular sequences rather heightened the decorative effect and were quite in keeping with the traditional frescoes of the Thousand Buddhas, seen in many of the ancient temples and grottoes. The mellow light that came through the open window of the cave helped to harmonise the colours, so that one could mistake them at first sight for original frescoes. The abbot, in spite of the rather theatrical setting, was a simply dressed middle-aged man with an intelligent face and dignified behaviour.

After exchanging the customary pleasantries and sipping some buttered tea we finally came to the main point of our visit, namely the necessity of getting transport for the next stage of our journey, since the caravan that had brought us here was to return to Purang, from where we had started almost a month ago. Generally people are reluctant to venture beyond the territory with which they are familiar and it is therefore necessary to assemble a new team of people and animals for every stage of the journey, which generally means from one inhabited place to another. In the sparsely inhabited parts of Western Tibet, this may mean anything from a few days to one or two weeks distance, and once one has reached the end of the stage, the people are anxious to return home with their animals as quickly as possible, without waiting whether or when the travellers may be able to find further transport.

The abbot though friendly; declared that he could not supply us with transport, as there were neither yaks nor men available in this season, and when we pointed out that we held a Lamyig from Lhasa, which entitled us to transport and food supplies at the local prices and when we showed him the document, he laughed derisively, as if it was a big joke, and we felt that his attitude changed from friendliness to defiance. Apparently, he wanted to show us that he would not take any orders from the Lhasa authorities. We began to wonder what might be the reason for his antagonism against Lhasa and so we tried to appeal to his sense of religious duty to help us in our predicament. But he declared that the few able-bodied people at his disposal and their yaks were busy with the harvest somewhere down in the valley, and that he could not do anything about it. We could feel that there was no point in pressing our demand and showed instead of this our admiration for the artistic way in which he had decorated the walls of his cave. It was then that we learned that he had been several times to India and that on these occasions he had ordered a number of paintings to be reproduced. He also had some important texts of the Sacred Scriptures printed there and showed us some specimens. Though the titles looked familiar to me, they contained strange names and mantras, which made me doubt whether these could be Buddhist texts. But since I had no chance to inspect them more closely, I thought it wiser to keep my doubts to myself and merely to express my admiration for the good work he had done for the propagation of the Dharma and for the high quality of the colour reproductions. Apparently, he had spent large sums to get all these things done, and I could not help wondering how a man living in a lonely cave in the wilderness of these remote mountain-tracts could have collected the funds not only to rebuild his monastery, but to engage in cultural and literary work of this kind. Only a man of high reputation and far-reaching influence could achieve all this. But who were his followers and where were his disciples? Except for a few nuns who, as we were told, lived in some of the other caves, there was nobody around anywhere. All the more were we keen to see the monastery and when we mentioned this he readily agreed to instruct the Konyer (caretaker) to open the gates and to show us round.

So we took our leave and returned to our tent, while our caravan people packed up their belongings and left in a hurry -- as if afraid to have us on their hands. Even money could not induce them to go farther, and so we were left alone between the ominous-looking rock-face and the deserted monastery. It all seemed very weird to us. A big well-built monastery without a living soul in it, an abbot and a few nuns hiding in caves, and nobody around who could give us any information or assistance. And stranger still was the fact that the abbot had not offered us shelter in the monastery, though he knew that we were Buddhist pilgrims -- or was it precisely because of this?

The next day the Konyer came to our tent and, though we were reluctant to leave it without a guard, we followed him to the Gompa, trusting that anyway no human beings were around, who might take the opportunity to steal our precious stores or any other useful things in our equipment, which would be an irreplaceable loss.

When approaching the Gompa we observed outside and right in front of it a low, long building that seemed to contain a row of narrow cells. From the position we might have concluded that it was a land of outer sanctuary, like a maṇi-wall, placed there for circumambulation. But to our surprise we were told that it was a row of latrines, which were used on festival days by the pilgrims and worshippers camping outside the monastery. This was certainly a very praiseworthy innovation and showed the abbots appreciation for modern hygiene. But we still could not help wondering why this structure had been placed just in the front centre of the Gompa. Or was it perhaps a symbolical way of saying that cleanliness is godliness?

Our next surprise was that the Konyer led us in an anti-clockwise direction around the monastery which in any other place would have been regarded as highly improper, if not an insult to the sanctuary.

Since it is only the Bön-pos who reverse the direction of the circumambulation or who pass a shrine or a sacred place (as for instance Mount Kailas) with the left shoulder towards it, our suspicion that the abbot was not a Buddhist but a Bön-po was confirmed, and when we entered the main temple our last doubt vanished, because everything we saw seemed to be a reversal or at least a distortion of Buddhist tradition. Thus, the swastika sign of the Bön-pos points to the left, while the Buddhist one points to the right. On the other hand, the Bön-pos have copied almost every feature of Buddhist iconography. They have their own Buddhas and Bodhisattvas, their own fierce 'Protectors' and deities of sky and earth; their names are different, but otherwise they are hardly distinguishable from their corresponding Buddhist originals. The same can be said of the Bön-Scriptures, which are more or less an imitation of the Buddhist ones, sometimes even bearing the same titles (like the Prāṇāpāramitā texts), but ascribing them to different authors, giving them a different setting and different mantras (instead of Oṁ maṇi padme hūṁ hrī, for instance, Om ma-tri-mu-ye-sa-le-du). The main deities of the Bön-pos were originally those of the sky, the embodiments of space and light, of infinity and purity; thus it was easy to identify them with the Buddhist system of Dhyani-Buddhas and to take over the complete symbolism of Buddhist tradition (thrones, animal vehicles, gestures, body-colours, haloes; implements like vajra and bell, sword and hook, spear and arrow, skull-bowl and magic dagger, etc.). The impact of Buddhism upon Bönism was so overpowering that the latter could only survive by adopting Buddhist methods and interpreting its doctrine in Buddhist terminology, so that Bönism, as it survives today, is hardly more than an off-shoot of Buddhism, or merely another sect of Lamaism. This seems to be how the common man in Tibet feels about it, as we could see from the way in which our caravan people spoke to us about this monastery. It never appeared to them as non-Buddhist, but merely as 'different' from the other better-known sects; and this was the main reason that made us reluctant to think of it as a Bön-monastery, though the province of Shang-Shung, in which it is situated, is known as the original home of the Bön-pos.

Before entering the main Lhakhang, we observed among the frescoes of the porch the familiar 'Wheel of Life'. But instead of the usual twelve divisions with the pictorial representations of the twelve links of the Buddhist formula of Dependent Origination (pratītyasamutpada) there were thirteen divisions, the additional one depicting the state of samādhi or Dhyāna in the form of a meditating Buddha-like figure, inserted between death and the beginning of a new incarnation.

Entering the assembly hall of the Lhakhang, we expected to find ourselves facing the main image. Instead of this we were facing an empty wall with the throne of the abbot in its centre. The wall, however, did not cover the whole width of the hall, but left two narrow passages to the right and to the left that gave access to a corridor behind the wall which contained a row of over-life-size statues of what appeared to us images of the five Dhyani-Buddhas. But their gestures did not fit their colours, nor were the symbolical animals of their thrones in accordance with them, nor were their emblems. A figure that looked like Amitābha, for instance, had white as its body-colour, instead of red, and was seated on an elephant throne, instead of peacock throne, and his name was Shen-lha Ö-kar (gShen-lha ḥod-dkar), 'the God Shen of the White Light'. We had to crane our necks in order to see the images properly, because only a narrow passage was left between the statues and the wall screening them from the main hall. Why the images were screened from the hall and the congregation, and why they were placed behind the abbot's seat, remained a riddle to us. But there were so many strange things in this place, that it was not possible to go into further details unless we were forced to stay here for a longer time, which we fervently hoped would not be the case.

However, we were impressed by the neatness and solidity of the buildings, which had the compactness of a fortress and reflected the power of a well-trained mind. But what moved him to rebuild this place, if there was nobody to live in it and if he himself preferred to remain in his cave? And where was the community that could support and maintain such a monastery in this remote valley? All these questions moved us while we were returning to our tent. We had hardly reached it when we saw a dog dashing out of it -- and found to our dismay that the food we had prepared for the day was gone!

The lesson was not lost upon us, and we never left the tent alone again. Though this was a great handicap, because it meant that we could never go out together, we found sufficient subjects for sketching and photographing around our tent -- apart from the many little chores that regularly crop up on rest days -- to keep us busy for one or two days more. Yet we began to feel worried, wondering how long our enforced stay here would last, because we could ill afford to waste our precious time, and our equally precious stores, without getting nearer the main object of our journey: the ruins of the ancient city of Tsaparang and the temples of Rinchen Zangpo. We had already spent a year in Central Tibet in order to secure the permission of the Lhasa authorities for a proper study of the temples and monasteries founded by or attributed to Rinchen Zangpo, belonging to the period of the tenth and eleventh centuries A.D. (roughly 750-1050) and it was essential to do as much work as possible before the onslaught of the winter and before political events could upset our plans.

However, our patience was finally rewarded by the unexpected visit of the abbot to our tent. We welcomed him warmly, and now he seemed to be an entirely different man. His proud aloofness and the slightly sarcastic smile with which he had listened to our demands and perused our Lamyig had given place to a friendly expression and a genuine solicitude for our difficulties. We on our part stressed the fact that we were dependent on his kindness and that we would be grateful for any help he could give us. We did not mention the Lhasa authorities nor the Lamyig again, but told him that we had been greatly impressed by all that we had seen during our visit to his Gompa, and now he begun to open out and promised to send us a number of yaks and some people who could look after them and who knew the difficult territory ahead of us. We had imagined -- judging from the maps -- that we could travel comfortably over green meadows or shrubland along the banks of the Langchen-Khambab as we had done on the last stage before getting here. But now the abbot explained to us that the river flowed through a deep, inaccessible gorge, and that by following the course of the river we would have to cross innumerable deeply intersecting ravines and side valleys, formed by generally dry water-courses, which with every rainfall would turn into raging torrents within a matter of minutes. He therefore advised us to travel over the highland, following the ridge of the mountain range to the north that separates the Gartok Valley from that of the Langchen-Khambab. This meant that we had to give up the idea of visiting one or two ancient monasteries of Shang-Shung, in which we might have found more information about the origin of Bön, but the danger of further delay was too great, and so we resisted the temptation and followed the abbot's advice. There was also another advantage in avoiding inhabited places: it gave us an opportunity to cover a bigger distance in one leap without changing the caravan.

The abbot was as good as his word, and the next day two men came and offered their yaks and their services. They were rather old and decrepit-looking, and we noticed that both of them were limping. But they told us that all the younger and stronger people were engaged in harvesting and that therefore they had reluctantly agreed to come with us at the Rimpoché's request. After inspecting our luggage and assessing the number of yaks we required, we finally came to terms with them -- though at a considerably higher price than we had bargained for. But there was no other choice, since we could not risk further delay.

We started the following morning and were glad to be on the move again. The whole day we were travelling uphill. There was no track and the two old fellows, limping along and from time to time consulting each other, did not seem to be quite sure as to the direction or their whereabouts. Towards evening we reached the endlessly undulating ridge of the mountain range, here and there strewn with enormous boulders, as if giants had scattered them in the fury of battle. There was no recognisable landmark anywhere, and finally we realised that our caravan leaders had lost their bearings altogether. Everybody was exhausted, and this was aggravated by the altitude of more than 16,000 feet, but there was no chance of pitching camp, because there was not a drop of water to be found anywhere.

Our caravan had been increased by a wandering Trapa and a little girl of about twelve years, who claimed to be a nun and had attached herself to the caravan in the hope of food and warmth by the camp-fire. It had become bitterly cold and neither a rockshelter nor any shrubs for fuel were in sight; and everybody's throat was parched after the incessant climb under a merciless sun, which had only lost its fierceness with the approaching evening.

On the eastern horizon, we got a last glimpse of the white dome of Kailas, while the southern horizon was filled by the glittering snows of the Himalayas, dominated by what appeared like a second Kailas, the sacred mountain of the Menla-Buddhas (the Great 'Healers': bcom-ldan-ḥdas-sman-bla) called Khang-men. It was a magnificent, breathtaking view, that made us feel as if we were floating high above the world on a petrified sea of softly swelling and ebbing mountain waves.

But, alas, we were too exhausted to enjoy this view for long, and when finally we found a trickle of water between an outcrop of tumbled boulders, we had hardly sufficient strength left to pitch our tent, to prepare some hot tea, and to eat some dry chapāties, which we had prepared the evening before. Li had got fever and could hardly eat, and in the night, we were shivering with cold, in spite of keeping on all our clothes and wrapping ourselves in all available blankets. The water which we had collected in a basin for the morning was solidly Frozen and the bottle with the sacred water of Manasarovar had burst! This was our first taste of what was in store for us in the winter, if we delayed too long.

Our men, the Trapa and the little beggar-girl seemed to be none the worse for having spent the night without shelter or cover, and we could not help admiring them. As soon as the sun had risen, the Trapa performed the ceremony of offering water and light, while reciting prayers and blessings for all living beings. As his bell rang out in the crisp morning air and the sun rose victoriously over the far-off mountains, we too forgot the rigours of the night and were filled with the joy of a new day.

Footnotes and references:


This is probably the origin of the popular belief that once every year all the Buddhas and Bodhisattvas assemble in a remote valley on the Tibetan highland.

Like what you read? Consider supporting this website: