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Circling the Mountain

Is it possible to go 'round the mountain?

(ri dee/kora gyab t’oob gee-ray-pay?)

Tibet Handbook, A Pilgrimage Guide


The dawn is overcast and chilly, drizzle falling as I leave the hotel and make my way down the street. Tsering, my guide here in Dharamsala, is waiting in front of the main gate to the Dalai Lama’s monastery and residence, and we join the river of people heading along the road to the right to do the mile-long kora pilgrimage circuit. Huge cows also seem to be doing the kora, people jumping out of the way as the beasts barrel along. One renegade, a spectacularly large black specimen, rumbles past counterclockwise, “going to meet the Buddha rather than follow him,” Tsering says.

In a few minutes, we turn off the road and start along a rocky dirt path. Prayer flags are strung in the trees and there are mani stones, crows, purple wildflowers. People pass by spinning their prayer wheels and counting their rosaries. Ahead on the path is an elderly Tibetan man in a “Team Tibet 08” jacket, a blonde couple in lime green windbreakers, an old Tibetan woman with a “Free Tibet” bag slung across her chest. The line slows: some cows are holding up traffic. The old woman shouts at them to move and everyone laughs as the old man runs forward and jabs at the recalcitrant beasts with his umbrella. The atmosphere is convivial, bawdy, like something out of The Canterbury Tales.

While we wait for the cows to move, Tsering, a thirty-ish man with thin features and a shy smile, tells me about the pilgrimages he used to take in Tibet before he walked over the mountains to India. “The way we think is: you should not be late,” he says, gazing at the line of people ahead on the path. “Do things on time. If you wait one year, you may die before. If you think, 'I'll do it in the next life,' you may be born as an animal next time.”

Going on pilgrimage is very simple, Tsering says as we start moving again. People take one bag and set off—to the big monasteries and holy places like Lhasa, Samye, Tsang—begging along the way. They leave their families for one or two years, sometimes ending up meditating in a cave instead of coming back. Or they go in a truck with pots, pans, and tents, and return in a month. They go alone, or with two or three people. Some do prostrations—one man prostrated from his home in Amdo all the way to Lhasa and then to Bodh Gaya in India.

When he was 18, Tsering went on pilgrimage with a friend to Mt. Kailash, the mountain in western Tibet sacred to both Hindus and Buddhists. “We didn’t ask our families. We just went. Kailash is very cold. There were wild dogs everywhere and the place looked like a cemetery. A charnel ground. It was so scary. There was dead relatives’ hair and clothing thrown around. It was very crowded, lots of tents pitched and people making tea. All we had was a small bag of tsampa. We’d heard the pilgrimage would take less than a month and we could buy provisions, but food was really expensive! People hired us to do the kora around Kailash, which takes a full day. Like someone would ask us, 'Can you do one for my mom?' These people couldn’t always pay, but they’d give some tea. I was young and energetic, so I could easily run the 50 kilometers around the mountain.”

We walk in silence for a while. The scene is primeval: the prayer flags and mani stones, a stream, a grove of trees, pilgrims praying as they circle the sacred hill. The odor of damp earth mingles with the scent of cedar and incense. Neykhor, the Tibetan word for pilgrimage, means to circle a holy place without any idea of arrival or gain, opening the mind to greater awareness. Since in the West “going around in circles” usually means wasting time, the Tibetan way of looking at it is something new for me. Walking in circles, not taking ourselves too seriously or too lightly, experiencing how being present in the moment allows us to expand. But my mind wanders: I should have worn a warmer jacket—how much longer is the kora? Will this trip with my mother really bring us closer together or should I just have stayed home in Tokyo? And then, in the unexpected way these things sometimes happen, my thoughts dissolve and contentment descends upon me. I feel a communal consciousness, a connection to all who are walking on this rainy morning, here and everywhere else in the world. The kora is about praying for others; now, more than a mile in the air, far from and yet close to the world I know, I walk the path with the people I love in my heart: my mother, back in the country where she was born and asleep in our hotel room; my father, aging and alone in a small California town; my grandmother and great-grandfather walking the kora around Lhasa’s holy Jokhang temple in the 1920s; my husband and children, waking to a quiet September morning in our Tokyo house.

There’s the sound of monks chanting, bells ringing, as we pass large prayer wheels set into a wall along the hill and approach a clearing. Under a covered area to the left, three monks are sitting on the ground praying; butter lamps burn inside a glass cabinet nearby. A Tibetan woman wearing a sweatshirt that says "Let’s Go Back to Tibet” drops money into a brass bowl in front of the monks. On the hill to the right, hundreds of prayer flags crisscross above stupas and shrines; smoke from burning juniper rises into the air. The shrines are for oracles like the fierce Palden Lhamo, guardian goddess of Tibet’s Lhamo Lhatso Lake, where monks go to receive visions. “When the 13th Dalai Lama was reincarnated,” my grandmother told me once, “those high lamas were instructed to look in Lhamo Lhatso Lake and surely the description of that house will be found. And the lake gave that direction. The house was there, in front of the house there was a dog, and exactly after a few months the lamas approached such a house and the little boy who was the 14th Dalai Lama came out and said, So you’ve found me at last.”

In front of the shrines, people have left offerings of cheese, incense, and the chang barley beer the oracles are said to be especially fond of.

“We think of oracles like mountains and higher space,” says Tsering, “though there’s a question in the mind because they couldn’t protect Tibet from the Chinese invasion.” But when he escaped from Tibet, carrying yellow grain blessed by the oracles in one of his bags, the only bag not searched by the Nepalese border police was the one with the grain in it. “Very strange,” he says, shaking his head. “It makes some kind of question mark.”

People are forming a line, all of them standing side by side, facing the hill. White-haired Tibetan women in faded chubas; ancient Tibetan men wearing hats and leaning on canes, one rambling to himself in a loud voice. Who are they, I wonder. How did they make it over the mountain passes and what have they left behind?

A circumambulating cow stops and stares at the line, transfixed. Birds whistle and flit. Behind us, the green Kangra Valley stretches away to the misty gray horizon. Above are the shrines and stupas, the prayer flags, and higher still, the Dalai Lama’s house, then the mountains, the great Tibetan plateau, the heavens swirling with the invocations lofted up from the prayer flags. Smoke drifts through the air; people doing the kora keep the big prayer wheels in constant motion. The wind rises, the monks’ chanting grows louder, and then everything is moving, turning to the right like the pilgrims on the path: the smoke, two crows circling overhead, Earth rotating on its axis. A faint patch of blue appears in the sky.

I stand back and watch as everyone joins hands.

A toothless old woman turns and beckons to me. “You.”

I hesitate, not wanting to intrude, but then join the line. The woman gives me a pinch of tsampa from her leather waist pouch and the old men and women begin to sing, or maybe it’s a prayer. The woman takes my hand, everyone holds hands, and together we raise our arms three times, then throw the tsampa towards the stupas. Rain starts to pour down, but the patch of blue sky remains.