TWO: Bad Boys and Bodhisattvas

Tom Joyce
Tom Joyce
Jul 2, 2018 · 158 min read

“On Kailasa mountain, Shiva lives as a naked yogi. His wife Parvati is the most beautiful woman in the universe, capable of bewitching even the best of yogis. Though Shiva is the enemy of Kama and is without passion, he is her slave when he makes love to her…He is tortured by longing and can find no peace as he wanders everywhere, weeping and behaving like a lover in distress.”

— Shiva Purana

The author with a Tibetan drögpa (herder) on the Kangshung Glacier, 1991, photo by Gary McCue

10 MAY 1994, KATHMANDU, NEPAL

Poof! Made it all disappear. That life you thought you always wanted? Gone. Distractions? Gone. Excuses? All gone. Time to return what doesn’t belong to you and reclaim what does. Best regards, Shiva. [RSVP regrets only.]

On October 22, 1991, I received that incendiary invitation from the mythic arsonist who incinerated my home in the Oakland hills. The Lord of the Dance now causes the sun’s rays to ignite ice crystals on my bulkhead window as the Boeing 747 banks into the Himalaya, a blinding array of uncut diamonds thrusting from the Earth’s backbone.

Beyond this snowbound fortress, in a land called Bhöt by the people who live there, at the summit of a mountain believed in ancient times to be the Axis of the World, Shiva awaits my reply. I hold his lucent gaze until the vision dims, slowly extinguished by a hydrocarbon haze draped like a brown shroud over the landscape below.

Yesterday morning was wet with mist and good-byes. Nicholas, now twelve, pulled open the heavy oak door of my former home and reached up for a perfunctory high-five. Climbing the redwood-paneled staircase, I watched my golden-haired son shuffle sleepily back into the kitchen to finish his breakfast.

Upstairs, my two-year-old daughter was snuggled into her mother’s king-sized bed. Little hearts peppering the fuzzy fabric of her pajamas, Eli was torn between her ritual morning bottle, her father’s attention, and Sesame Street. Her puckered mouth smiled a greeting around the latex nipple as her limpid eyes shifted focus back and forth between Cookie Monster and her approaching father. I wrapped my arms around her tiny body, still warm from sleep, as if it were the last time I’d ever have the chance.

Through the bedroom window of the home we’d made for our children after the fire, the gray wedge of Mount Tamalpais hovered over a silver bay framed by gnarled boughs of live oak and veiled in coastal fog. Kate stood backlit against this Japanesque watercolor landscape, her posture bent in heavy thought. It was the same spot from which she’d delivered her parting shot nearly a year ago.

“I think you should look for a place of your own,” my wife had told me.

She was 38 now, and only creases of laughter on her face and hips re-sculpted by childbirth altered my memory of “Katie,” the defiant 18-year-old summer intern and blonde of complexity. When she moved into sunlight, common straw was spun into gold. Alchemy happened. Young men fell hopelessly in love.

I remember looking deeply into Katie’s green eyes after I’d kissed her for the first time, feeling my breath catch and my face flush, and thinking that it couldn’t possibly get any better than this. Ever.

But we’d forgotten to ask each other one very important question: What do you want? Instead, we’d let our fantasies run wild, made assumptions. Young people in love usually learn the hard way that assuming anything in relationship is fatal.

Katie was tall — five-ten in bare feet, and a lot of women hated her for the way she looked. Most men were either intimidated or bewitched, depending on how she used those green eyes. During our honeymoon on the island of Spetsae, a Greek millionaire treated us to a feast of roasted goat and vintage wine, then propositioned Katie at the dinner table when I went searching for the gents. She thought it was just what men always did — older ones especially — and I thought we might never have to buy our own meals again.

In the early years of marriage, this incorrigible flirtatiousness placed her in professional jeopardy as a publicist, first with a priapic musical director at the San Francisco Symphony — not used to having his baton unappreciated — and later with a notoriously lascivious hotelier, who made his expectations clear one evening in the penthouse suite, then fired my wife for lack of accommodation.

Jealous? I confess that it actually felt good to be married to a woman in such demand.

Resilient and feisty, Katie took it all in stride until the day her architect father dropped dead in the streets of Cuernavaca, Mexico. She lost both her life-long hero and her brash self-confidence in a single stroke. And unexpectedly, that tragedy became the catalyst for her transformation. That was when Katie became Kate.

In grief, my wife found her voice. The music she made finally freed her from the need for her father’s approval, even though the professional life she’d always dreamed of — the center stage soprano, the diva enrapturing her audience and inhaling their adoration — never materialized. While waiting for the curtain to rise, she’d settled for a career as a publicist, married an incorrigible seeker of truth putting in time as an art director, and given birth to two children she could count on to be around more than her husband.

And the years passed.

When Kate finally let her muse take the reins of imagination, sat down after a long day at work and let her fingers drift across the ivories of her baby grand, it was as if she were channeling some long-departed maestro, and her magic came alive again. As our marriage faded into its autumn, I fell in love with a part of my wife I’d never known before — the part that could make me cry by singing Gershwin and Porter as if they’d written the songs just for her.

But after 13 years, a deep sadness for all we might have had, all she might have been, began to bleed into the laugh lines around Kate’s eyes. And somewhere along the way to discovering our authenticity, we shifted — almost imperceptibly — from being crazy-fucking-like-minks-head-over-heels-in-love, to cohabitating as platonic partners in parenting. Like frogs dying obliviously in water slowly heating to a boil.

I think that’s why she had the first affair. Her need to be needed again. Adored again. I blamed myself. But after the second one, even self-flagellation couldn’t balance the ledger.

Although we’d been separated for almost a year, it wasn’t until yesterday morning that Kate finally woke up to the fact that I was really leaving — heading for the other side of the world to pay my debt to Shiva, and search for something…indestructible.

“What if you get hurt?” she asked. “Did you think about that? What am I supposed to tell the kids?” Kate hugged herself and turned to stare out the window, not looking at anything in particular — just away from me.

“Damn it! I told myself I was not going to cry…” she stifled a tear, stamped her foot, and then inserted the hook: “I just don’t know what I’m going to do when you’re gone.”

Yesterday morning, I found myself immune to Kate’s alchemy for the first time. Partly because of Rick — solid guy with a thriving family business, sexy Beemer, taste for expensive wine. A guy who adores her and the kids. And for Kate, adoration is the next best thing to diva-hood.

There was nothing left undone — or unsaid. My wife didn’t really need me anymore. She knew it too. Still, goodbyes are never easy. Even ones you’ve been rehearsing for years.

SFO to LAX to Bangkok: Time in the air makes everything distant, somewhere behind you. Only Shiva lies ahead — choreographing the future, playing with matches.

Aboard a Thai Airways flight to Kathmandu, I am served perfect boeuf tournedos by a flight attendant in a crisp apricot silk dress. While making a trip to the head, I encounter two members of our expedition scattered among the Thai Buddhists, Punjabi Sikhs, Korean Christians, and Nepali Hindus. Somehow, they just stand out.

Ned is a lanky, affable carpenter with sandy hair and an ingenuous smile accentuated by his chipped front tooth. He confesses that he’s never been to a foreign country before — as in ever — and has a chronically bad back. I nearly choke on my perfect green tea. Does Ned have any fucking idea where we were going?

“Yeah, those Himmies look pretty harsh, huh?” his nervous grin is hardly reassuring. “Sure seemed like a cool way to celebrate my 50th birthday. Hope I’m in shape for this.” Ned shifts his aching lumbar in the narrow seat perfectly engineered for a five-foot-two-inch Thai person. “Just in case, I bought some of that emergency evacuation insurance.”

I congratulate Ned on his forward thinking, but do not tell him that the Chinese won’t allow a Nepalese rescue helicopter into their airspace — no matter what kind of insurance he has — not for the Big Umbrella people; not even the Good Hands folks. I hope I’ll never have to tell him.

Ned’s younger sister, Gisele, is nearly as tall, enthusiastic blue eyes, bobbed blonde hair of a USC cheerleader and the legs of a Nordic Valkierie. She’s put Ned up to this, I’m sure of it. Although Gisele has never been to the Himalaya — “this lifetime, anyway” — she admits to having been obsessed with Tibet’s “spiritual aura” since childhood.

Gisele is wistful, rimmed in a halo of sunlight from the porthole behind her head. “I don’t know,” she muses, “maybe I was a Buddhist in a past life. Are you a Buddhist?”

No, I reply. And neither was the Buddha.

She ponders this incongruity for a moment, and then locks in on my glib avoidance like a heat-seeking missile. “So, what are you doing here?”

I’ll never forget the look on Kate’s face when I told her.

It was just before Thanksgiving, 1989. She had been caressing the keys of the Steinway she’d inherited from her father’s estate, improvising an etude, and composing her libretto for an idyllic life — the Craftsman bungalow, the open sun porch with oversized wicker chairs, two kids playing on a freshly mown lawn beneath a Japanese maple, her husband walking through the wisteria covered gate at dinner time. Kate acted as if I had smashed her fragile sonata with a sledgehammer when I finally told her my dream.

“Ti-bet?” she gasped as if I’d just told her I had cancer. Kate stared at me in horror and shivered. “That’s the last place on Earth I’d want to go on vacation.”

Yeah, I was pretty sure she’d say that.

I tried to explain to her that it had started with the illustrated edition of Lost Horizon I’d found in my mother’s bookcase. Kate hadn’t read James Hilton’s 1933 novel about a utopian society hidden in a virtually impenetrable Himalayan valley, where the stresses of life were neutralized and the resident population aged very…very…slowly. As a kid, I’d been enchanted by this tale of a Capuchin missionary who had stumbled into the “Valley of the Blue Moon,” accepted the mantle of High Lama at the monastery of Shangri-La after his predecessor’s passing, and subsequently spent two hundred years learning the wisdom of moderation from its heathen population while preparing them for an impending global holocaust. Something in Hilton’s fatuous yet magical tale reached beyond his Eurocentric weltanschauung and triggered in me what Carl Jung called the “truth of the blood,” an encrypted pattern in consciousness that slowly unfolds like the petals of a lotus to release an intoxicating fragrance of destiny.

Kate had paced back and forth behind her piano, unsure whether she should fly into a rage or burst into laughter. “So, this is some kind of, what… ‘spiritual’ trip?” She wiggled her index fingers to insert quotation marks around “spiritual,” just to make it clear how inane she thought I was. Kate had been raised in a family of rigorous scientists — a research physicist for a stepfather, a psychologist mother, and brothers who wrote logarithms and did things with computers that made my brain hurt to contemplate. My esoteric interests had been met with polite disdain during dinner table discussions.

And maybe Kate’s skepticism was justified. After all, I had crossed out Roman Catholicism at 18 when I fell in love with an acid freak turned Bahá’í. I’d lost my virginity to the aphrodisiac of Sufi poetry. I’d read the Upanishads, the Bhagavad-Gita, Yoga Sutras, and the Dhammapada — okay, in English, but I’d taught myself enough Sanskrit terminology to sound erudite at cocktail parties, and had a ready opinion about every “crazy wisdom” guru from Gurdjieff to Bubba Free John. I had learned the difference between zazen and vipassana meditation — although I practiced neither — engaged in every kind of therapy from Gestalt to Transpersonal, and sampled the requisite potpourri of new age systems from Scientology to Arica. I could now distinguish my “service facsimile” from my “enneagon ego-fixation.”

Acknowledging that I had a history of syncretistic dilettantism, I told Kate I had always been drawn to Tibet — the way a pilgrim feels drawn to visit a sacred place.

“So now you’re a ‘pilgrim’?” Again the air quotes.

Maybe so, I admitted. The Latin word peregrinus means “wanderer,” and in a spiritual sense, the sandal fit. Since I was 18, I had been probing the Big Mystery, trying to answer that ontological question: Is-this-all-there-is?

Kate had drawn her line in the sand. “Well, this does not work for me.”

Translation: Saddle up, pilgrim.

Beyond baggage claim, beyond immigration where I’m required to “fill up this application form those who are without,” beyond the rubber stamp welcoming me to His Majesty’s Government of Nepal, a teaming mob of dark faces and eager eyes waits in the gritty golden light of late afternoon. Young, unemployed sudra — lowest of the Hindu castes — in sweat-stained dress shirts and knock-off soccer jerseys, beat each other back in the withering heat for a chance to carry my duffle a few meters to the taxi queue. And parting this sea of humanity, like Moses on a surfing holiday, is a six-foot Caucasian pushing forty, with shaggy brown hair and full grizzled beard, dressed in beige chinos, Teva sandals, and a rayon Kahala shirt as multi-chromatic as Joseph’s jacket.

“Welcome back to the Third World.” Gary McCue grins and hugs me the way men do — firm grasp, two claps on the back, quick release. “I’ve got a vehicle,” he says. “Let’s round ’em up.”

A former Rocky Mountain National Park ranger, Tasmanian whitewater river rafting guide, Lake Tahoe disc jockey, and expat resident of Kathmandu for more than a decade, my friend currently makes his living as a professional trek leader in the Himalaya. Gary’s been hired by Wilderness Travel to lead a small group up the recently opened Humla Karnali River Gorge, across the “Abode of Snow,” and into a barren landscape scorched by day, frozen by night, and swept by an incessant wind. The People’s Republic of China — whose army has occupied it since 1950 — calls it Xizáng. The rest of the world calls it Tibet.

Long before Mao Zedong attempted to crush the “poison of religion,” the Chinese expression for pilgrimage was ch’ao-shan chin-hsiang, which literally means: “paying one’s respect to a mountain.” And that’s our real reason for being here: to circle and pay our respect to a mountain.

Well, not just a mountain. A legend, really — the axis mundi on which spirit and flesh, wisdom and dogma, compassion and intolerance spin in a paradoxical waltz led by my nemesis, Shiva. On this mountain’s still virgin summit, he dwells in eternal conjugal bliss with his beloved Parvati, performing Tantric alchemy, transmuting the raw energy of cosmic sexual desire into spiritual awakening.

Over the years, I’d combed through the dusty stacks of San Francisco’s public library, devoured everything I could find about Tibet. Silly stuff like Tuesday Lobsang Rampa’s The Third Eye, esoteric stuff like Anagarika Govinda’s The Way of the White Clouds, and chronicles of exploration like Sven Hedin’s Transhimalaya. But one book captivated me more than any other.

Herbert Tichy was an Austrian explorer who had set off from India in the mid-1930s, searching for what Sven Hedin had called the “glittering pyramid of silver.” When I first opened a battered copy of Tichy’s memoir, Tibetan Adventure, I was flash-frozen in my seat by a photograph he had made — lying belly-down in the dust to conceal his Leica rangefinder — of a group of robed lamas on the roof of an adobe chapel festooned with prayer flags, prostrating in homage before the icy face of a monolith the Tibetan’s call Gang Rínpoche — “Precious Snow Mountain.” Tichy explained that the unclimbed peak was sacred to four major religions, and revered in ancient times as the Crystal Throne of Shiva.

I wondered what made this particular piece of icy real estate so much more “precious” than all the other peaks in the Himalaya? Higher ones like Everest, K2, Kangchenjunga, Nanga Parbat, Makalu — why were they any less sacred than this Throne of Shiva?

I’d walked out of the library with a lot of unanswered questions, but one thing I knew for certain: Although I’d never been a devotee of mythic mountain deities and their impossibly passionate consorts, I knew I would never be satisfied until I saw that precious mountain with my own eyes.

Samsara is a Sanskrit word meaning “journeying,” as in birth leading to death, leading to rebirth; as in ignorance leading to suffering, leading to hatred, craving, delusion. Shiva has a big role in this cosmic process: He is both Lord of the Dance and Destroyer of Illusion — hit man of that petulant thing we call ego.

It works like this, Shiva tells me: Get a little too cocky; I pull the rug out from beneath your hubris. Fall in love; I grab you by the balls and squeeze. Take what doesn’t belong to you; I light a fire under your ass until you give it back. Any questions?

Swayambhu Chaitya atop the Swayambhunath, Kathmandu, Nepal

11 MAY 1994, KATHMANDU, NEPAL

In a quiet roundabout off Lazimpat Road, humid darkness lingers over the fragrant gardens of the Shangri-La Hotel like a spent lover. My room, a color palate of teak wood and earthy fabrics, opens on to a verandah overlooking a torch-lit pool and undulating palm fronds. My black canvas duffle lies open on the floor, fleece and Gortex gear compulsively organized on one of the russet chairs. A painting of the Pashupatinath temple at sunset hangs above the desk where my journal lies open to its last entry, and on the bedside table — in lieu of the Gideon Bible — a copy of Hilton’s Lost Horizon is standard issue in every room. God, I love this town!

Despite its polluted water and barely breathable air, Kathmandu continues to thrive like a prodigal, street-wise child, patched together with unreinforced masonry and capitalistic fervor, its effete monarchy continually antagonized by a growing Maoist element bent on covering every square inch of historical significance with strident political graffiti.

But in small enclaves surrounded by vine choked brick walls, sheltered from the cacophonous city streets, clutching hands, and imploring eyes; shut off from the incessant cajoling voices of ten million desperate souls trying to survive another day in the trickle-down global economy, there is another Kathmandu.

A loose-knit community of European, American, and Australian expatriates, most of whom speak passable Nepali, are working behind the scene to promote public health policy, ecological sustainability, and political reform. Some are employed by international non-governmental organizations; others make their living trading in art, antiques, and dharma-ware, or — like Gary — leading treks into the remote and breathtaking backcountry.

All the expats I’ve met acknowledge some personal connection to the Buddhadharma and a love/hate relationship with this romantically disheveled, fetid cesspool of a city — its sweet and bitter faces, hidden brick cottages, lush gardens, cremation ghats and haunting ancient temples — an unrelenting pageant of all things simultaneously indulgent and transcendent.

“Yo Nepal ho,” the expats will tell you with a shrug of resignation. “That’s just how it is here, mate. Get used to it.”

I drip coffee into an aluminum thermos using pre-boiled, irradiated water scrounged from the hotel kitchen. In the lobby, Ned and Gisele are slumped bleary-eyed on a batik sofa. Will, a buzz-cut Outward Bound instructor with calves like knotted madrone, and his wife, Jane, a compact, irreverent middle school teacher from Seattle who looks every bit as tough as her husband, inspect the antique sepia-toned photographs of Enfield rifle-wielding Rajas straddling dead tigers. Last night after Gary’s reception dinner, dim-witted from jet lag and a few bottles of San Miguel, we all made a pact to watch the sun come up from the Swayambhunath.

Still in darkness, the streets of Kathmandu begin to stir. On the grounds of the old Royal Palace, giant fruit bats return to their banyan tree roosts and hang like alien chrysalides, cocooned in enormous black wings. In the labyrinth of Thamel, fat brown swine feast in ecstasy on last night’s garbage. Jane and Gisele speculate about the breakfast delights awaiting us at Shangri La’s poolside café as we negotiate twisting lanes of diesel-darkened brick guesthouses and iron-gated storefronts where cheap trinkets and embroidered t-shirts will be hawked to tourists when they awaken from their hashish dreams.

Outside a whitewashed shanty near the river, a gaunt Hindu carefully ties a young goat by the horns to an upright post. Gisele is delighted by the tableau, wonders if he’s preparing to bathe and groom his pet, or milk the animal for his café latte. The color drains from her face as the man beheads the bound goat with a single stroke of his kukhri, catching the gushing arterial blood in a blackened aluminum pan.

There is no more talk of breakfast after that.

A taupe veil of grit hangs over the Vishnumati River as we cross the footbridge and approach Swayambhunath, an ancient complex of both Buddhist and Hindu shrines built on a green hill overlooking the valley. 365 steps climb to its summit. At its base, russet robed monks prostrate before the painted effigy of a seated bodhisattva — a being dedicated to the liberation of all sentient creatures. Only a few meters away, a decorous sadhu — itinerate Hindu ascetic with matted locks and painted body — makes a saffron offering to the stone carving of Ganesha, elephant-headed deity revered as the remover of obstacles. At the top of the stairway, an iron gate opens to reveal an enormous bronze vajra, the ornate double-headed mace symbolizing an indestructible thunderbolt.

Tourists call Swayambhunath the “Monkey Temple,” owing to the clans of rhesus macaque wandering through the grottos and recesses of the ancient shrine. The cinnamon-colored apes climb and nest where they please — siblings squabble, parents scold and protect — a parallel simian culture mirroring our own. The sleek, long-tailed hominids perch in niches, studiously observing their hairless cousins circumambulate Swayambhu Chaitya, the whitewashed hemispherical stupa — a reliquary dome capped with a golden spire and cables supporting hundreds of prayer flags. The apes are believed to be progeny of Hanuman, who — like Ganesha — sprang from Shiva’s golden seed.

As dawn teases the smog-shrouded horizon, Ned straddles a railing overlooking the Kathmandu valley, grinning like a snaggletooth kid on his first trip to Disneyland. Perky Gisele snaps pictures of sturdy Jane and burly Will mugging with the inscrutable monkeys. And I find myself wandering through time and space toward the Vasundhara temple, toward the eternal “self-originated flame” guarded by the goddess of abundance, inhaling a heady perfume of pungent incense blended with floral bouquets that saturate the morning breeze. Every sprinkled saffron offering is redolent with collective memory, every hand-polished and foot-worn stone a reified chronicle of the rituals and stories brought to South Asia more than 3,000 years ago by horsemen of uncertain origin.

They may have come from somewhere between the Black and Caspian Seas, migrated east across the high passes of Central Asia, then steered south and collided with the already ancient settlements of Mohenjodaro, Mehrgarh, and Harappa. The Aryans, despite what you may have heard, were not some master race of giant, blue-eyed, tow-headed Teutons. They were, however, epic storytellers.

In Sanskrit, the word aryan means “noble” or “cultured.” These northern interlopers employed their rich linguistic skills to recount tales of the devas, warrior gods wielding weapons of mass destruction; soma, a substance used to induce altered states of consciousness for ritual sacrifice; and yoga, a physical practice revealing the secret of harnessing nature’s spiritual forces. From generation to generation, their myths were retold and eventually recorded as a collection of hymns called the Rig Veda, perhaps the world’s oldest surviving text.

Cognizant of their physical fragility in a harsh, often violent world, these noble ones spent a lot of time speculating about their origin and ultimate fate:

“What stirred? Where? In whose protection?…There was neither death nor immortality then. There was no distinguishing sign of night or day. That one breathed, windless, by its own impulse.”

This singular entity that “breathed” was personified as Brahman, the primordial vitality of consciousness continuously recreating itself through dharma — the true “impulse” of all life. The physical world was therefore sacred, but its function and meaning had to be interpreted by elite teachers able to explain the complex nature of life-the-universe-and-everything to simple herders and farmers in relative terms they could understand. And so, the brahmin — the anointed priest — sat at the top of the social strata.

As the Aryans settled into a pastoral existence, some of the Vedic sacrificial devas — like Indra, creator of the sun and master of the life-giving rains; Ganga, maternal spirit of the everlasting river; and Agni, bearer of the fire that both warms and burns — evolved into a sacred trinity describing the cyclical nature of existence: The were given new names and faces: Brahma, the Creator; Vishnu, the Preserver; and Shiva, the Destroyer. Their story became the basic mythology of Hinduism.

But Shiva stands apart. A primordial bad boy who discovered the secret of controlling both the breath and orgasm, Shiva is the bridge between divine and human. And judging by statuary found in the prehistoric Indus Valley, this yogin with a permanent hard-on might have been a celebrity long before the Aryans arrived.

Although there are Vedic references to a character with similarly impressive attributes, Shiva first appears by name in the Mahabharata around 300 BCE, and his curriculum vitae is fleshed out in the Saiva Purana of medieval India. He is the Paradoxical Man — an ithyphallic ascetic — archetypal embodiment of the most primal human dichotomy, our eternal struggle to balance sensual pleasure — kama — with the heat of spiritual fire — tapas. To that end, Shiva created the practice of tantra — the continuous transformation of worldly desire and physical passion into a refined, sacred clarity.

In my youth, this delicious blending of spirit and flesh seemed like the perfect recipe for a good time. But I learned the hard way that playing in Shiva’s kitchen is a dangerous game.

In the summer of 1975, I had a place on San Francisco’s Nob Hill below the Masonic Auditorium. French windows wrapped the corner room on Taylor Street. Sandwiched between bookshelves on the inner wall, an oak door laid across two steel file cabinets served as a writing desk. When I wasn’t slapping nouns against verbs on an IBM Selectric, or practicing k’ung-fu kicks at imaginary ninjas, I sometimes sat on a round zafu cushion and fought off gentler fantasies while attempting to meditate. It was in that room, on a futon I kept rolled in the corner, that one of those fantasies materialized.

Katie was 18 — five years my junior — tall, blonde, and endearingly awkward, a long-legged foal trying to find her footing in a world where family pedigree didn’t count. She told me her great grandfather had been a Lithuanian Jew who’d made his fortune as an art historian coaching American robber barons in good taste. Her famous older cousin was the jet-set darling of Scavulo’s fashion spreads and a rising Hollywood starlet. But Katie quickly discovered the journalism department at Boulder’s Colorado University only cared if she were acquainted with the Chicago Manual of Style. She’d just finished her freshman year. Her dad, Dean of Architecture at the University of Cincinnati, had pulled some strings, arranged a summer job for her in the San Francisco firm where I ran blueprints and a copy camera. As an aspiring writer and an “older man” — at 23 — recently separated after a four-year marriage, I had piqued her naughty curiosity. We flirted in the hallway, continued on the elevator and I invited her to lunch.

As we strolled through Aquatic Park, overlooking a turquoise bay littered with sparkling white sails, I attempted to impress her with my culinary acumen. Carbonara, I told her, required only fresh fettuccini, lean guanciale or pancetta, aged Pecorino Romano, and raw egg. No cream, or onions, or any of the other crap Californian chefs threw into it with no regard for tradition. More amused than impressed, Katie invited herself over for dinner Friday evening.

June fog blanketed the city, and anticipation prevented us from eating more than a few bites of pasta. But we drank a bottle of red wine I’d foolishly refrigerated and Katie giggled as I peevishly held forth about Eastern philosophy.

Did she really think fundamental cosmic emptiness was a laughing matter?

“Will you teach me how to meditate?” Katie asked, although I knew she didn’t really give a rat’s ass about cosmic emptiness. Still, I couldn’t pass up the opportunity to show off my superficial knowledge of Bodhidharma’s “wall gazing” practice. Had she heard, for instance, that the austere Buddhist monk reputedly had his eyelids cut off in order to hold his gaze indefinitely?

“Grr-oss!” She laughed and spilled wine down the front of her yellow tank top.

I grabbed a cushion from the living room sofa, unrolled the futon, and gave her my zafu, positioning us knee to knee. Then I held Katie’s hands lightly, explained that meditation was really simple: all she had to do was sit with her back straight, her eyes open, and be aware of what is.

“What is what?

Just…this. Just what is. But that’s the easy part. The hard part is getting your mind to behave, because it wants to constantly chatter like a monkey, or wander off like an errant puppy, and you have to keep calling it back and telling it to sit still and shut up. And if you do that long enough, eventually your mind will become aware of just what is.

“How long will that take?” Katie asked.

About a thousand lifetimes, I said.

Her green eyes sparkled. “Well, let’s try it anyway. Is it okay if I look into your eyes while we meditate?”

As long as she only saw what is.

Katie furrowed her brow in concentration. “What happens if I get distracted?”

I glanced down to where the wine had formed a Rorschach blot on the cotton fabric between her breasts. Okay, then. Just let those thoughts pass like a breeze fluttering through maple leaves — as Basho undoubtedly would have instructed under the circumstances.

“Such a poet.” Her sigh sounded genuine. “What color are your eyes, anyway?”

Khaki, I guessed.

“Isn’t there a better word? Hazel, maybe?” Katie hunched her shoulders, narrowed her gaze. “How many women have you seduced like this?”

Hundreds, I lied.

“I believe you.” Her hands were warming in mine.

Meditation comes from yoga, I explained, which was supposedly invented by a bad boy named Shiva. In India and Nepal, he’s worshipped as a god.

“I did not know that,” she replied, stifling a laugh.

I told her Shiva used his yogic concentration to harness the spirit and flesh so he could actually embody and channel their heat.

“Cool!” she replied. “Kind of a yin/yang-thang?”

Exactly. Shiva mastered both asceticism and desire by making love all day long to his girlfriend, Parvati. Together, they discovered the secret of transforming lust into enlightenment.

Tiny jewels of perspiration gathered above her mouth. “What do you think would happen if we tried some of that?”

Well…I couldn’t promise her enlightenment.

She took both my hands in hers and held them clasped tightly in her lap. “What I mean is…if we have sex, would you be able to walk away; just let it go?”

I blinked — stupidly.

“Because I’ll have to leave you in September,” she explained without drama. “I’ll be going back to school…and there’s a guy I’ve been seeing in Boulder. You know…my other life. This is a beautiful fantasy with you, sitting here with all your weird books, and your poetic fire, and your funny yoga stories. It’s like a sensual vacation. But it won’t last, and I don’t want to feel any regrets when the summer’s over.”

I looked hard into her eyes — past the wispy lashes, past the serpentine and turquoise highlights, all the way in to where I sensed she was crafting her strategy like a war game.

Then I tightened my armor, tried to channel Steve McQueen. Here and now. That’s all there is, I told her.

Arching slowly across the inches that separated us, I watched in slow motion the nuances of Katie’s body language — how her eyes shifted focus, closed halfway; how her head tilted slightly to the right, and how her lips parted just before brushing mine. She tasted like strawberries and smelled like freshly washed teenage girl hair. My ears rang in the silence between our heartbeats.

In Zen tradition, satori is a moment of spontaneous apprehension of reality. As in: Wow! September is really going to suck.

When we finally parted for air, Katie was flushed, breathing heavily. She held my face in her hands. “Oh-ma-god!” she said. “I think I’m going to regret this.”

I remember in astonishing detail the way she looked that night, stretching her long body on the mat like a golden lioness, strobing headlights on Pine Street invading the room, bouncing off the walls, splashing across her flat suntanned belly and round white breasts. I remember how the downy hairs on her inner thighs felt against my fingers, how her salty delta greeted my tongue. We were young, beautiful carnivores undone by the smell of each other’s flesh. Katie took charge, her thick mane whipping wildly. I lay on my back, exposing my throat to her teeth, my heart to her claws. She made her final assault, drew emotional blood, then a gentle roar of release.

Even if you have prior experience of passion’s inevitable dwindling spiral, Shiva’s dance is irresistible. You turn willingly to his tune, oblivious to the warning that love’s fire will ultimately consume passion — that after the banquet you will wake up still hungry.

Or, as a Zen roshi later told me, “Today’s satori is tomorrow’s mistake.”

Sunlight arcs over a diesel-smudged horizon igniting the gilded rings of Swayambhu’s spire. 13 tiers represent the ladder to nirvana, literally a “blowing out” — like the breath extinguishing a flame. Morning air warms rapidly as wind agitates the multi-colored prayer flags draped from the stupa’s glittering steeple. Just above its whitewashed dome, the serene golden eyes of Vairocana, the Primordial Buddha, gaze down on rivulets of brown bird droppings.

Wisdom seeing through the shit. An apt metaphor for how the Dharma finally rose above the muddy waters of superstition.

Something quite extraordinary happened to human development between the 8th and 2nd centuries BCE. Sophisticated ideologies erupted like mushrooms from the mulch of animistic beliefs, and goddesses of fertility were relegated to the kitchen by male philosophers. Lao Tsu’s Tao Teh Ching appeared beside Confucian ethics in China. Zarathustra’s Avesta captivated Persia while the tribe of Judah — still held prisoner in Babylon — collected their ancestral myths into the Torah. As Pythagoras wove metaphysics into theoretical strings of mathematics in Greece, the Vedic lore of India was distilled into Aranyakas and Upanishads — intellectual discourses that would eventually blossom into Vedanta, “the end of the Vedas.”

The Upanishads described Brahman as “the formed and unformed, the mortal and the immortal, the abiding and the fleeting, the being and the beyond.” But Brahman, the sages cautioned, can only be understood through atman, the “true self,” because individual essence — or the appearance of it — is only a reflection of the Absolute.

Finding atman, however, can take many lifetimes because Brahman plays hide and seek in the veils of maya, the seductive illusions of our material world. The quest for pleasure and success results only in dukkha — the sad conclusion that, no matter how much you have accomplished or acquired, life remains “unsatisfactory” because you cling to insatiable desires, hoping circumstances will change. Instead, you find only an unending cycle of birth, struggle, death, and rebirth — samsara.

After a thousand lifetimes or so, maybe you discover that your own actions have some bearing on this wheel of suffering — the pursuit of pleasure leading always to dissatisfaction, like a drunk who can never get enough liquor. And maybe your pain is a result of having caused others to suffer. The sages called this interdependent cycle of cause and effect karma, or “action,” the moral corollary to Newton’s Third Law of Motion: for every action, there is an equal and opposite reaction.

At the beginning of the Iron Age, the Upanishads gnawed an intellectual hole in the Brahmanic priesthood’s rigid caste system. And prompted by the resulting restructuring of society, great teachers arose to impress the consequences of karma on the masses.

Vardhamana Jnatiputra was a prince who left his palace at age thirty to become a sadhu. He visualized karma as a material substance adhering to the life force in 148 different forms and colors, and concluded that by renouncing violence, stealing, lying, sexual gratification, and all possessions in the material world, you could reach a state of kevala — isolation from the harmful effects of karma. The usually naked sadhu’s super-human asceticism earned him the title: Mahavira — “Great Hero.” His followers became known as Jainas — “those who walk with the victor.”

Vedic literature hadn’t yet penetrated Magadha, the eastern part of India, but ash-covered sadhus were starting to drift up the Ganges to the Himalayan foothills along with a thriving merchant class. In the stronghold of the Sakya clan, another young prince — a contemporary of Mahavira’s — was inspired to take the yellow robes of a sannyasin, one who “casts off” wealth and social position, to venture into the harsh world in search of liberation from the sickness, old age, and death he had witnessed outside the sheltering walls of his father’s palace.

Sakyamuni — “Sage of the Sakyas” — began with a single observation: nobody gets out alive. If all life is impermanent, then how can there be a separate, indestructible atman, a “you” independent from the rest of existence? Life, he concluded, must be a continual, interdependent process of origination, or mutual arising based on karma. If so, it is reasonable to assume you could reverse the downward spiral of dukkha by an effort of “right action”, and step off the wheel of samsara by extinguishing the desire to either cling to, or avoid whatever life throws at you by walking a “middle path” between material indulgence and fanatical renunciation.

But where to begin? The young sage sat down to face his innermost fears and doubts alone, abiding calmly in shamatha — “mindfulness” — until the veils of illusion dropped away to reveal the jewel of vipassana — “insight” into the true nature of existence. Sakyamuni, in that moment of clarity, became a buddha — an “awakened one” — freed from the mind’s tyranny.

Despite Brahmin resistance to his heretical ideas and egalitarian sangha — the “crowd” of commingled castes that comprised the Buddha’s community — Sakyamuni’s insight into the cause of samsara, and liberation from dukkha, gained enormous popularity during his forty years as a teacher. So much so that a few centuries later, the brutal Mauryan king, Ashoka, had a change of heart and embraced the Buddhadharma, then pressured the Brahmin old guard into acquiescence. Councils were held, a canon of teachings was compiled, and the Nikaya, or “Eighteen Schools,” flourished in India. The Buddha was posthumously accepted by Hindus as an avatar — “one who descends” from the pantheon of the gods.

It always seemed to me ironic that Sakyamuni’s heresy gave birth to “Buddhism” — a state-sponsored religion under King Ashoka. It is not so surprising that with popularity came embellishment. Over the centuries, the Buddha’s story grew more and more fanciful, as stories about heretics, holy men, and heroes always do.

In the 2nd century, Nagarjuna — reputed to be everything from a repentant lothario to an Ayurvedic physician — is said to have encountered the Naga King, a great serpent who entrusted him with the Prajñāpāramitā — the “Perfection of Wisdom” often called Heart Sutra — teachings of the Buddha long-hidden for safe keeping in the “water realm.” These verses characterized what has been called the “Second Turning of the Wheel of Dharma.” Nagarjuna’s school of Madhyamaka was based on the doctrine of shunyata — usually translated as “emptiness” — the absence of any permanent tangible essence inherent in any form. His teachings flowered into the Mahayana, or “Greater Vehicle” of the bodhisattva, one who has awakened to the truth that individual enlightenment has no inherent meaning, and understands that service toward the liberation of all beings is the only purpose of existence — the purest form of altruism.

But that big Wheel of the Dharma kept on turning.

Its third revolution was the Vajrayana — the “Indestructible Vehicle” — a marriage of Mahayana principles and Tantric yogacara practice that arose in India during the 7th century. Recasting Vedic deities and demons as aspects of Buddha Nature and wrathful protectors, Vajrayana tantrikas often practiced visualizations in charnel grounds, drank from human skulls, and wore the skin of corpses as raiment. They mocked conventional morality and taught that all human experience — sensual, cerebral and transcendental — must be appreciated as the seeds of awakening, and therefore to be considered every bit as sacred as any monastic tradition. It was Shiva’s yoga revitalized, refined, and repackaged for new generations under the rubric of Buddhism.

So, myth becomes tradition, and tradition history. At Swayambhunath, the epic is carved into the stones beneath your feet, with Shiva as its central protagonist. His nature is progressively revealed in the hymns of brahmins, the asceticism of sadhus, the renunciation of bodhisattvas, and the transformation of tantrikas. His names and costumes change, but the primordial Lord of the Dance choreographs the whole dazzling performance from his crystal throne at the center of the world — the axis mundi.

The ancient Mesopotamians called it Sumeru. In the Mahabharata, it is “Meru, King of Mountains.” The Vishnu Purana identifies it as the “Center of the Universe,” encircled by seven continents and seven oceans like the great cosmic mandala — a geometric projection of universal consciousness. From its summit, four great rivers flow respectively from the mouths of an elephant, lion, peacock and horse into the life-sustaining arms of Mother Ganges.

In our century, the myth was discovered to have a geographical corollary. A mountain called Ti-tsé — “Water Peak” — by the Zhang-Zhung Bön, an ancient culture that once inhabited the remote plateau of Western Tibet, fit the descriptions of Meru with astonishing accuracy. From its surrounding watershed, the Indus River flows north to the Arabian Sea, the Sutlej runs west into the Punjab, the Karnali drops south into the Ganges, and the Tsangpo meanders east to feed the Brahmaputra and Bangladesh. The Jainas called it Ashtapada — the “Eight-Step Mountain.” Tibetan Buddhists, who absorbed much of the Bön-po culture, named it Gang Rínpoche — “Precious Snow Mountain” — associating the peak with a Tantric deity, Dem-chog. But it is by its most ancient name that this 22,027-foot monolith is best known: Kailash — from the Sanskrit kailasa, meaning “crystal.”

The Throne of Shiva.

Competing religious traditions rarely see eye-to-eye. But, after 2,500 years of philosophical debate, sectarian squabbling, and internecine warfare, one thing is still agreed upon by every Hindu, Jaina, Bön-po, and Buddhist in Asia: Kailash is the still point around which all of creation spins — the lightening rod of karma. To circle that mountain on foot is to expiate a full lifetime of sin, to start over — clean.

Since my first trip to Tibet three years ago, I have been digging deeply into the origins and implications of the world’s spiritual traditions, trying to get a handle on what I believe, and perhaps more importantly, what I don’t.

My hand slips into the cargo pocket of my trousers and palms the object I’ve brought with me from California. The surface is flinty but worn smooth, except for the rough dbu-tsan letterforms chiseled into it by an unknown hand. The stone is unique, yet similar to a million others stacked into countless thousands of walls and cairns throughout Northern India, Nepal, Bhutan, Sikkim, and Tibet. The six characters represent a mantra, Sanskrit “seed” syllables: Om ma ni pad me hum. This is the Mantra of Avalokiteshvara, Bodhisattva of Compassion, believed to contain the essence of the Buddha’s teachings — the underlying order of life-the-universe-and-everything. So, the mani stone is a reified prayer, a tangible affirmation of faith.

I took this stone from a pilgrim’s altar on Chakpori, the “Iron Hill” overlooking Lhasa. It spent four months on my desk where the inscription occasionally piqued a visitor’s curiosity. One friend asked me if removing a sacred object from its intended location might be considered “bad mojo,” like pilfering a chunk of Pele’s lava from Hawaii? I remember laughing at his suggestion — until the day I saw Shiva coming for me in the Oakland hills.

I wouldn’t call myself a superstitious man, but I figure Murphy’s Law isn’t likely to be repealed any time soon. So, when the opportunity arose, I thought it prudent to revisit the scene of my crime, and return that mani stone to its altar. Just in case.

And while I’m at it, I have decided to confront the mythic force that took my former life away. Approach Shiva’s icy throne, look straight into the Destroyer’s eyes and ask him just one question. Before he lights any more fires.

“Don’t eat anything you can’t cook or peel, and don’t drink anything you haven’t opened yourself.” Gary’s slate-blue eyes dominate a chiseled, weathered face, and his long fingers punctuate every sentence with graceful, mudra-like gestures. “We’ve got a few logistics to cover.” He hands out blue-line topo maps, drawn from Russian satellite images, of Nepal’s western Humla region. We study our route over huevos rancheros and sautéed water buffalo livers at Mike’s Breakfast Café, asking the same battery of questions Gary has answered at least a thousand times before.

In addition to Ned, Gisele, Will, and Jane, our entourage includes Marina, a doe-eyed lady with a thick mane of shoulder-length brown ringlets, and Roger, her silver-haired, puckish husband — world-class travelers on a year-long pilgrimage to sacred sites in the Middle East and Asia. Beatific Beth is ash blonde, forty-something, and fresh from a six-month tour of duty at Mother Therese’s hospice in Calcutta, after which anything has got to seem like a vacation. Finally, there’s Doctor Marla, a butch, sandy-haired, stoic ER physician from British Columbia, who heli-skis in the remote Canadian Rockies when not mending broken bodies.

An Australian waitress with dreadlocks and nose ring brings another pot of coffee and plates of fresh mango as Gary patiently gives his spiel about trail hygiene: “whatever doesn’t burn, we pack out,” and backcountry protocols: “I ask my groups not to wear shorts. Women or men.” All eyes drop simultaneously to our naked North American legs. “They’ll never tell you directly, but showing skin is really offensive to both the Hindu and Buddhist villagers in the mountains. Since we’re guests in their country, let’s try to be sensitive. Questions?”

Roger’s been impatiently tugging at his small gold earring. He beams elfin defiance through his Armani spectacles and neatly trimmed beard. “We’ve done a lot of trekking here, Gary, and we’ve always worn shorts. No other group leader has had a problem with it.”

Gary confronts Roger’s challenge and returns his grin with the stopping power of an elephant rifle. “Well, Roger, you haven’t trekked with me.”

But I have.

The Potala Palace from Chakpori Hill, Lhasa, Tibet, June 1991

Six months before the fire that would change the course of so many lives, I was already showing the first signs of a mid-life crisis. After my painful epiphany on the night of our 10th wedding anniversary, it felt as if both creativity and desire were slowly bleeding out of me, my dreams of a lost horizon fast disappearing into the pragmatic cloudbank of everyone else’s agenda. I became a petulant man, a distant husband, and Kate grew more and more frustrated as her biological time clock sounded alarms about the second child she might never conceive.

Maybe if I took that crazy trip to Tibet, I suggested. Got it out of my system. Maybe then I could focus on the hearth-home-maple-wisteria thing, the whole catastrophe…no, I meant catalogue…of normal human experience. Deal?

No deal. Saddle up, pilgrim.

I found myself back in San Francisco, this time on Telegraph Hill, trying to adjust to the single life again. A white noise generator helped me go to sleep at night and a couple of willing partners helped me forget my anxiety when I wasn’t spending late nights at the office. But I preferred to spend my weekends at our house in the Oakland hills with Nicholas, while Kate accompanied her new boyfriend on motorcycle rides up the coast. It took me about 18 months to realize that this was her strategy, brilliantly designed to break me down.

It worked. I relented and Kate acquiesced. A compromise was reached. Six weeks after I returned to Oakland, she was pregnant and I was planning my Journey to the East.

On May10th, I belted myself into a rattling China Air Boeing 707, and white-knuckled west from Chengdu with Gary McCue, whom I’d met a few days earlier in Hong Kong. We crossed the white desolation of the Daxue, Shaluli, and Ningjing Shan ranges, finally touching down at Gongkar, on the longest runway in Asia, sixty miles west of Lhasa. Situated 11,500 feet above sea level — minus thirty percent of the oxygen — my first glimpse of Tibet literally left me breathless.

The next few days were spent acclimating and exploring Lhasa with Jhampa, our young interpreter who sported a black Fedora and penny loafers. Everywhere were ominous signs of the city’s evisceration; old Tibetan buildings were being torn down and replaced with faux-Tibetan façades festooned with garishly painted kitsch. Blocks of screaming neon shops selling knock-off electronics and western clothing, blue glass constructivist apartment and office buildings — monstrosities with translucent plastic strips hanging from lintels in lieu of glass doors — lined the wide boulevards north of the old town. West of the Lingkor, where serene pathways once traversed verdant parkland, vast concrete cellblocks were being erected along the Kyi Chu tributary of the Yarlung Tsangpo River. These, Jhampa informed us, were neither prisons nor military barracks, but “resorts” intended to lure, and eventually warehouse Han tourists. On the streets, spindly prostitutes from Sichuan, sporting garish vinyl mini-skirts and baggy nylons, sat clustered in front of noodle shops, knitting and tossing half-hearted invitations to green-uniformed boys packing side arms.

At the Potala Palace, a white and russet walled fortress thrusting organically from the rock of Marpori Hill, the Dalai Lamas once held court as both clerical and secular head of state. Now, Han on holiday mobbed the place. Costumed in quaint Tibetan garb and fox fur caps, they posed in front of the dramatic panorama, grinning for Polaroid mementos. Daily, they staged this humiliating theatre of the absurd featuring reluctant performances by Geluk-pa monks, now relegated to the roles of toll-takers or cultural oddities.

Gelug-Pa monks at the Tsuglhakhang Temple, Lhasa, Tibet

But at the Tsuglhakhang — most important “house of the gods” in Tibet — the vestiges of Vajrayana still breathed. Just barely. The Barkor promenade surrounding the temple teamed with merchants hawking colorful fabrics and spices, pots and pans, fresh yak meat, butter and cheese, and the ubiquitous dharma-ware — assorted ritual objects smuggled by the ton to bazaars in Nepal and India. At the temple gate, billowing coils of trang — juniper incense — choked the air and diffused morning sunlight. Leather-gloved pilgrims polished the paving stones with endless prostration as police in ill-fitting blue uniforms practiced their k’ung-fu on young monks who had not learned to keep their “splittist” opinions to themselves.

Above it all, two gilded deer still listened intently to Sakyamuni’s wisdom symbolized by the eight-spoke Wheel of Dharma over the temple’s boisterous entrance. Within its central hall, restored after desecration by the Chinese Peoples’ Liberation Army, Guru Rínpoche and Maitreya — the Future Buddha — still held court in effigy as dozens of pilgrims waited to enter the sanctuary of Jowo Rínpoche. With ornate golden headdress and blue eyes fashioned in a wise and compassionate gaze, this legendary statue is the reason the temple is popularly known as “Jokhang.”

Just before dawn on May 14th, 1991, I set out from the gated Holiday Inn to explore Chakpori, the highest promontory in Lhasa. On its summit, Sangye Gyatsho, 17th century regent of Tibet, built the Mentsikhang, a medical college that trained skilled physicians until it was demolished in the uprising of 1959 and replaced with a steel radio transmitter tower to broadcast news of Tibet’s “peaceful liberation” by the PLA.

I worked my way up the hill on a path that skirts the 7th century Palha Luphuk — a retreat cave used by King Songtsen Gampo — and finally reached a ridge where I could see the Potala Palace illuminated by the first rays of sunlight spilling over the eastern peaks. Blue, white, red, green, and yellow prayer flags had been strung from a steel pole and were flapping like a flock of excited birds over a four-foot high rock cairn built of flat mani stones. In a concavity atop the altar, bits of burning paper and juniper needles created a lhasang — “offering to the gods” adopted by Buddhists from the ancient Bön tradition. Whoever made it had vanished, probably to avoid being busted by the Kung Fu Cops.

On top of the cairn was that little carved stone — just one of several hundred — calling out to me, picturing itself in my hand, in my pocket, wrapped in my sock, hidden in my sneaker, deep in my duffle, unwrapped like a birthday present and displayed half-way around the world for all my friends to admire.

How could I resist?

After breakfast, Jhampa arrived with a battered blue Toyota Land Cruiser piloted by Big Pemba, our pockmarked bear of a driver, and we hit the road — actually the rutted dirt track that continued on after the tarmac pavement disappeared a few miles past the airport. Over the course of four days, we visited the Tashilumpo monastic complex in Shigatse and the walled fortress town of Gayantse, then made camp in a misty, rain-soaked meadow beside the rushing Kharta Tsangpo Chu. Gary and Jhampa negotiated portage with local yak herders, and we left Pemba with the Land Cruiser, two-weeks’ provisions, and several cartons of cigarettes at the trailhead before continuing up country on foot, into the rain.

I’d done plenty of summer backpacking in the Sierra Nevada, but had never crossed a 15,700-foot pass, nor spent a week trekking through unrelenting rain and snow, heels rubbed raw, hands and feet perpetually numb with cold. But by the time we descended into the lush Karma Tsangpo Chu — a primeval forest of giant fern and 30-foot-high purple, pink, and white rhododendron — I’d grown a new skin.

We’d climbed higher, to the tip of a monstrous tongue of loud-crackling glacial moraine descending from an unseen maw somewhere higher still. Then, in a snowstorm at Pethang Ringmo, a 16,000-foot-high alpine meadow once used as base camp by British mountaineers, Gary and I were invited into a felt tent to drink po cha — yak butter tea — with a drögpa, one of the nomadic herders of the plateau. His leathery hands unwrapped a hide filled with fresh butter, carved off a chunk with his long knife, and melted the salted yellow fat in his dung fire-blackened tea pot. As he poured the taupe-colored liquid into my aluminum cup, I saw something fascinating in his sooty face and smoky eyes, something wild and primal, something I’d never seen in a human being. It was as if he knew things — first-hand — things I could never even imagine. Like what it means to be completely, unequivocally free.

As the storm subsided, and the last drop was drained from my cup, the drögpa jumped to his feet — clad only in canvas high-top sneakers — and pulled back the tent flap like a stage magician revealing the prestige of his trick. Light-headed, I rose slowly and emerged from the warm felt womb into an alien dreamscape.

Standing beside Gary, I watched a thick curtain of silver mist begin to part, slowly unveiling an immense granite shrine — the ice-glazed buttress of Jomolonzo, towering another 10,000 feet above my head in a golden halo of sunlight — so close it took what little breath I had left away. It was like peeking over Moses’ shoulder, up into that place where the Lord abides. Glancing back, the herder grinned as if to say, “Whoa! Check it out, dude.”

I don’t know if I can explain what happened to me in that moment of no-time and limitless space. I can’t say if it should be written off to dehydration, oxygen deprivation, or incipient cerebral edema. Maybe if I’d been on Diamox, none of it would have happened. Sometimes, I’m not sure I didn’t just dream the whole thing, but the experience has been burned indelibly into the emulsion of my memory, revealing something shockingly direct and intimate. The vision bypassed both brain and gut, and changed the way I perceived everything from that moment on. Satori?

In the course of my reading, I’d run across a Tibetan Buddhist practice called dzogchen, which has something to do with cultivating a non-dual awareness of our primordial state, our “true” condition rather than any sort of transcendental reality. And I remembered feeling — in that moment of ineffable breathless joy — that there was no separation at all between Gary, that herder, that mountain and myself. We were all made not only of the same carbon substance, but the same non-substance — both form and emptiness all in the same instant.

Ha ko song, I told the drögie. I get it.

The next morning was sharp as adamantine. I awoke just before dawn to watch the sun’s first kiss brush, then gradually ignite the seductively treacherous east face of Everest — looming above the still dark, creaking Kangshung Glacier that we’d been following. Beneath a surreal lapis-blue sky, Jomolangma — the Mother Goddess — smiled down at me from the highest place on Planet Earth.

I found myself bowing as respectfully and reverently as a monk, then laughing like a drunken madman — louder and wilder than I had ever laughed in my life. And I was certain I could never go back to that other life I once thought I was supposed to want. Because, for the very first time, I understood what “sacred” really meant.

14 MAY 1994, SIMIKOT, NEPAL

A Nepali Air twin-engine prop lurches off the tarmac in Nepalgunj at dawn and bounces northward on heated air currents. The parched brown Terrai morphs into the Mahabharat Hills as sunlight drapes golden raiment over the distant Himalaya. Our diesel-powered bird finally touches down in Simikot, the only serviceable airstrip in the Humla region of western Nepal, and the village hums with the news that another group of round-eyes has arrived. Yesterday evening, the German Alpine Club off-loaded twenty trekkers arrayed with official patches, matching green rucksacks, and ski poles. This morning, they’re being forced-marched upcountry by a barrel-chested übermensch führer named Bruno. Our less disciplined group is only the third ever to gain legal access to this ancient trade route.

The well-maintained trail, connecting a string of villages along the Humla Karnali River gorge, once facilitated the transportation of salt, rice, and barley between Taklakot, or Purang, on the northern plateau, and Simikot in the southern Himalayan foothills. That changed in October 1950, when Mao Zedong invaded Tibet from the east to “liberate” the country from feudalism. Within a decade, Tibet had been sealed off from the rest of the world and subjected to the ice pick lobotomy of Mao’s Cultural Revolution. After his death, and the slow normalization of relations between the western world and the Peoples’ Republic of China, restrictions began to loosen. In 1979, several organized tour groups were permitted into Lhasa, and in 1981, the PRC granted permission for Indian pilgrims to access Kailash via Almora and Lipu Lekh Pass. Although a few intrepid souls managed to skirt police checkpoints and enter Tibet via the Karnali route, it was not officially opened to trekkers until now.

In the village square, girls flashing ornate nose rings launder their colorful saris beneath brass spigots and stitch tattered clothing on the steps of the “Women’s Upliftment Society.” Giggling behind brown hands and woven silver bracelets, the girls flirt with Will and Ned while posing for Jane’s camera.

I follow Gary through town as he bargains with shopkeepers for fresh vegetables, a scarce commodity in the mountain villages we’ll encounter on route to the Tibetan border. Eventually, we hook up with Chumbi, our pony-tailed Sherpa sirdar — trail foreman — at the police station, where his correction of a misspelling on our permit itinerary and patience with the pedantic authorities helps avoid a disaster at one of the higher checkpoints.

As morning sun crests the ridge, I wander off for an hour of solitude, climbing to a rocky promontory above the village and resting on the stone steps of a herder’s shelter. In the cool, rarefied air, immense lammergeyers and griffon vultures play tag with sleek, aerobatic kites over a valley surrounded by 18,000-foot snow peaks of the Api Himal. Far below, the Karnali River cuts a deep wedge through the green terraced foothills, pushing furiously toward its dispersive destiny in the Bay of Bengal.

There is something both familiar and serene about this side of the Himalayan watershed, something reminiscent of the Merced River’s plummet through the Sierra Nevada into the San Joaquin Valley of California. But here, everything is sculpted on a grander geological scale: the gorges cut deeper, the peaks thrust higher, and the mountain air smells even more perfumed in the mid-spring bloom. You can’t help but fall in love with these mountains, or believe that if deities were to abide anywhere, it might just as well be here.

14 MAY 1994, TULING, NEPAL

2,000 feet down into the Karnali River Gorge, our slow-moving entourage clatters along a well-maintained goat path and eventually arrives at Tuling, a terraced village surrounded by a walnut grove. Along a thin strip of flat ground above the river, we pitch eight yellow dome tents in an orderly row. A blue cook tarp and two green dining tents are discreetly distanced from a pair of khaki canvas latrines flanking the compound.

Ned and I have been bunking together since Nepalgunj. He has an easy temperament, snores only moderately, and Gary — also concerned about his lack of backcountry experience — has asked me to keep an eye on him.

As our chef, Bhakat Rai, prepares a sumptuous meal of daalbhat — a spicy stew of rice and lentil — accompanied by roasted cauliflower and mutton, a choir of porters serenades us with Thakuri chants from around their campfire on the hillside above.

One of our greatest logistical challenges is dealing with the amount of garbage produced by a group this size. We burn toilet paper and bury degradable refuse, but any solid, inorganic material that can’t be incinerated must be packed out. Because of Gary’s attention to biodegradability, we will have far less impact on the environment than the enormous mountaineering expeditions that have been attacking the Himalaya for decades with the tenacity — and often disregard — of military campaigns.

Unfortunately, Gary’s sensitivity to the environment is not shared or appreciated by our porters, who aren’t the least bit hesitant to scatter aluminum foil, plastic, or paper debris throughout their beautiful countryside. Nor do the indigenous folk understand why we stop to pick up this refuse when we see it. But the sight of an environmentally-correct sahib, stooping to retrieve their casually discarded candy wrappers, provides the Thakuris with an endless source of amusement as they slog our duffels, food, and fuel through the steep ravine. What they do with their excreta remains a mystery none of us have been inclined to investigate.

Roshan — a Brahmin and former gurkha — handles communication with our porters. In addition to English, Roshan speaks most Nepali dialects, as do our Sherpas — Chumbi, Dorje, Dendi, Jangbu, and Renge — all from the Solu Khumbu region.

The fifty dark-skinned porters segregate themselves below our terrace — a protocol still tacitly enforced by centuries of colonialism. Chumbi says they’ve been hauling supplies for 17 days from Nepalgunj to reach the trailhead at Simikot. Our sirdar assures me we need that many men to carry enough provisions to get us across the Himalaya to Purang. The reason, ironically, is because there’s no chance of finding what we’ll require for an entourage our size in the mountain villages upcountry.

Especially fuel. Like oxygen, it becomes more and more scarce the higher we ascend. Chumbi tells me there are 32 porters carrying comestibles, tents, and kitchen gear. I do the math. That means 18 are hauling nothing but kerosene to boil drinking water and cook our meals. We could have decreased our environmental impact by a third, and saved a lot of weight and money by using water pumps with iodized filters, I reckon.

Chumbi nods, his black eyes amused behind the round disks of his John Lennon glasses. “Yes,” he replies in a soft, patient voice, “but porters need work. So, everyone is now happy.”

15 MAY 1994, KERMI, NEPAL

In the playground of a little schoolyard above the village of Kermi, an open quadrangle surrounded by fieldstone structures with corrugated steel roofs, we’re on display to most of the local community as we pitch our tents on a broken concrete slab.

The Bhötia — people indigenous to the upper Humla Karnali region — are of Tibetan ancestry, strikingly different in physical features, dress, and traditions from the Thakuri Hindus we’ve encountered thus far. Bhötia are Buddhists who migrated from the high plateau five hundred years ago and settled the fertile valleys along the southern Himalayan watershed, the land that became Nepal after the fierce Gorkha Clan carved it away from India. Sherpas are of Bhötia decent, and likewise the inhabitants of Humla, Dolpo, and Lo Monthang. The Kingdom of Bhutan is literally “the end of Bhöt.”

The children of Kermi are captivated by the pale-skinned Martians who wear high-tech synthetic fleece and Gore-tex, sleep in flimsy portable domes of rip-stop nylon, eat strange pseudo-food called “gorp” out of plastic bags, and shit in a hole behind the flaps of a tiny canvas tent. The adults think we’re pretty amusing as well.

But I’m the one laughing loudest — because I’m here, making this journey I’ve dreamed about for so many years. In my twenties, I spent countless hours studying declassified military survey maps drawn from satellite photographs of the Himalayan foothills, wondering naïvely if I could possibly sneak across the border to catch just a glimpse of Kailash. It’s now clear that I would not have been able to sneak very far — or for very long — through this country without being detected. The trails traverse exposed, well-tended barley fields, snake through the bustling centers of terraced villages, then feed directly into police checkpoints like the one we hit yesterday at Dharaburi. And it’s a foregone conclusion the Nepali Heat knows the backcountry way better than I do.

Lying awake in my sleeping bag, a dusty black duffle on one side and a heavy-breathing Ned on the other, I listen contentedly to the mountain wind howling outside our tent. The porters are still slapping dice cups down on a wooden board in a heated game of shö, but eventually the mountains around us absorb every other sound in the universe and contentment gives way to exquisitely peaceful sleep.

Naked to the waist, and bowing beneath the oxidized faucet of a hand-pump artesian well near the schoolyard, I splash water over my head in the crisp morning air, shake my hair out like a wet dog, and wander up the hillside to dry off on a stone wall and bask in my good fortune.

Ahead lies the Abode of Snow, four days’ walk to the northwest on a well-maintained trail that was only an inked line on a topo map a few days ago. I’m armed with all the necessary backcountry and border crossing permits, supported by an army of porters, provisions, and kerosene. When it starts to feel like I’m really roughing it, I can strip off my twenty-pound rucksack and camera gear, and remove my lug soled leather boots to tend my heel blisters as the caravan of skinny brown Thakuris in tattered clothing and flimsy rubber flip-flop sandals pass me on the steep trail carrying forty-kilo loads across narrow timber bridges while chain-smoking cigarettes. I console myself with the thought that they are most likely computer illiterate.

Regardless of our relative stations in life, there’s a protocol we all observe, a salutation of respect: namasté, the universal greeting throughout Nepal and India. From the Sanskrit root namo, it means: “to honor, and give glory” for our mutual arising and inevitable connection. Because, stripped of our respective attire and attitudes, we’re all just trying to figure it out.

Will, for instance, is a strapping mountain man who wears his pinstriped railroad engineer’s cap and canvas gaiters like he’s earned them. He usually takes the lead while his wife, Jane, paces Doctor Marla on the trail. A big-hearted, good-natured guy, Will reads tomes on the Dharma and absorbs Bhötia culture like a sponge, always keen to practice some Tibetan phrase he’s just learned.

“Kayrang kusu debo yimbay?” Will asks a gang of tousle-headed urchins with dirty faces. “What’s happening?” They laugh at him like he’s a big doofus and he laughs back like they’re no different than the snot-nosed kids he teaches to rappel off boulders in the Cascades.

Beth, our resident Vajrayana practitioner, is often perched on a flat rock by a stream or waterfall, protecting her China-blue eyes behind glacier glasses and her milky skin beneath a floppy, broad-brimmed hat. Beaming in meditative bliss, Beth has got to be the happiest person I’ve ever met. Her only conceivable flaw is an annoying tendency to lag behind the rest of the group, no doubt meditating or noting some cosmic insight in her journal. One of Roshan’s duties as “trail sweep” is to insure Beth makes it to camp before dark. I suggest tying a yak bell to her rucksack, but Gary dismisses my solution as even more of a potential annoyance.

And then there’s Marina — easy on the eyes, as eclectic as she is exotic — into Sufi chanting, Diamond Heart, Advaita Vedanta, and stuff I’ve never even heard of. Marina enchants me with animated stories about her travels, and judging by the amount of time she and Roger spend doing it, I can only assume they don’t need to work for a living. They arrived in Nepal fresh from a sojourn through Sa’udi Arabia, Syria, Lebanon, and Turkey.

“Oh my God! You have to see Rumi’s tomb in Konya before you die,” Marina erupts into laughter at her own pun. “Even Roger was impressed, and that’s saying something. The guy’s been everywhere. Roger’s not really into devotional practice, but he loves the travel and the people — and me, of course,” Marina adds with tenderness. “He just goes along with this stuff because he knows it makes me happy.”

That sounds like devotion in my book, I tell her. Kate and I only traveled abroad once after our honeymoon. Bed-and-breakfast girl. Wouldn’t be caught dead in a tent.

“High maintenance?” Marina tilts her head toward me, peering in her penetrating way through mirrored Vuarnet sunglasses beneath the bill of a white Legionnaire’s cap. “Well, you must have had something in common.”

We had lust in common, I admit. In the beginning, anyway. Eventually we had two kids to schlep, an old house to remodel and the perfect recipe for middle-class ennui.

“You know, for a spiritual guy, you’re awfully cynical.”

What makes her think I’m a “spiritual guy?” A glowing bookmark in my aura?

“No,” she shows me perfect white teeth. “It’s a soulful look in your big green eyes…”

Hazel.

“…which has nothing to do with lust. You try to hide behind cynicism, but I don’t buy it. You’re not a very good liar.”

Wrong. I’m a great liar — to myself, anyway. I lied about being a happily married man. About being a good father. About Kate’s affairs being just aberrations in an otherwise solid marriage.

“You cheated on each other?”

I wanted to return the compliment, I tell her, but never had the guts.

“Maybe you just never had the heart.” Her smile is sympathetic but provocative. “And you don’t have to feel guilty about it anymore, do you?” Marina pauses, shifts gears, reveals her secret. “Roger and I have a very trusting relationship — an open marriage, I guess you’d say. It’s kept us together for ten years. But sometimes he gets a little jealous.”

She walks a little closer — close enough for me to smell whatever she uses on her skin to keep it moist. “Like when I told him I was kind of attracted to you.”

Traversing forested glens and terraced hillsides hovering between rock buttresses and whitewater cascades, my thoughts have room to breathe and dissipate into wisps of whimsy. Keenly aware of present time, cognizant of each crunching step, each bite of spam, each ritual of burning toilet paper, I’m immersed in the immediacy of basic survival, its tiny trivialities and myriad minutia. All the stresses of my previous existence seem so utterly irrelevant.

In late afternoon, we all congregate in the mess tent for afternoon chiya — Nepali-style tea with milk and sugar — and reportage: which Sherpa we tried unsuccessfully to pace that day, the number of lammergeyers we spotted soaring on thermal currents, or who was the last to spot Beth somewhere in half-lotus. Sometimes, we share a deep thought or two that arose on the trail. But there are some things too private to divulge.

Like temptations. And fantasies about giving in to them. And fears about what might happen if you do.

Gary McCue and the young lamas of Namka Khyung Dzong, Nepal

16 MAY 1994, YALBANG, NEPAL

Namka Khyung Dzong — “Garuda’s Sky Fortress” — is named for a winged, raptor-headed Brahmanic deity who looks to have been first cousin to the Egyptian god, Horus. In Hindu lore, Garuda was the mount of Vishnu, but crossed over into Tibetan Buddhist mythology as one of the devas exhibiting characteristics of both animal and human. Garuda hunts the naga serpents and is often pictured with one writhing in its sharp beak — a symbol that has found its way into many cultural traditions.

This fortress is much larger than a gömpa, the modest “dwelling in solitude” we’ve encountered in most villages. The dzong, a fortress constructed with ornately carved beams and lintels painted in brilliant primary colors, is also a shedra, a monastic academy that resides under the auspices of a khenpo — an abbot named Pema Rigtsel Rínpoche — and home to a small army of young boys he is personally training to be monks.

His little nephew is particularly fascinating, a five-year-old who carries around a Maurice Sendak “Wild Thing” doll as if it were one of his personal protector deities. Believed to be a tulku — a “transformation body” recognized as the incarnation of a previously departed lama of great stature — the youngster still plays rough with his friends like the precocious little boy he currently is. I suspect wisdom and compassion have to be re-learned — no matter how many lifetimes you’ve got under your robes. The older Rínpoche, however, seems to view ego-bolstering status with the enlightened modesty of a man who carries the Buddha’s begging bowl. Consequently, all of his students get equal treatment.

The khenpo grants us a morning audience at his home. Several of our group sit on cushions around Rínpoche, listening politely to his Tibetan discourse, and learn — with the aid of Chumbi’s translation — that Pema Rigtsel holds a lineage in two traditions: the Nyingma, or “old school” of Vajrayana first brought into Tibet by Padmasambhava, and Geluk, “those who follow the system of virtue,” like the Dalai Lama. He’s been to India, attempting to raise capital to rebuild an old monastery destroyed during the Cultural Revolution near Purang, just across the border in Tibet. Although he’s never been granted permission by Chinese authorities to visit the ruins, it doesn’t seem to dampen his determination to get the job done.

Taking time out from spiritual practice with his young students, Rínpoche feels compelled to instruct us in the basic differences between the schools of Buddhadharma. He explains that a monk of the Hinayana — “lesser vehicle” — considers enlightenment, and ultimately nirvana, his goal. But those who practice the “greater vehicle” of Mahayana seek liberation for all conscious creation. An aspiring bodhisattva takes a vow to refrain from entering into nirvana until all sentient beings have attained enlightenment, because no one is truly free until we are all free. The khenpo explains that the very idea of individual enlightenment is just an empty thought chasing itself.

I want to ask Pema Rigtsel a few questions about the Dharma: like why it took half a millennium for the Buddha’s “Second Turning” to be discovered, and why Sakyamuni decided to hide it in the care of an enlightened sea serpent. Moreover, Rínpoche did not even mention his own tradition, Vajrayana, the “Third Turning” of the Dharmic Wheel discovered a few centuries after Nagarjuna revealed ultimate reality to be “empty” of inherent meaning. Wasn’t that kind of anticlimactic? Why do humans need to continually repackage truth? And what the hell is “enlightenment” anyway?

I consider asking Pema Rigtsel about all this, but instead, take a deep breath and hold back for fear my questions will sound like that “one-hand-clapping” gambit — more koan than reasonable query — by the time Chumbi renders them back into Tibetan.

After our audience, Pema Rigtsel confers blessings on those of us inclined to receive them, and Beth, of course, is first in line, kneeling on the ground as Rínpoche drapes a gauzy white khata scarf around her neck. We’re invited to photograph the beautifully carved and painted dzong. Inside, an effigy of Avalokiteshvara — known in Tibet as Chenrezik — sits serenely amidst the hundreds of coruscating butter lamps and water-filled ting bowls crowding the altar.

On the temple steps, the young monks and tiny tulku assemble with their teacher for a group portrait. But as I adjust my F-stop and select a filter to enhance the golden sheen of Pema Rigtsel’s raiment, Gary playfully nudges me aside to bag his own shot of the tableau.

“Down in front!” he grunts playfully. “You ain’t no Rínpoche.”

Mothers of Muchu, Humla, Nepal

17 MAY 1994, MUCHU, NEPAL

Up river, the Humla Karnali cuts deeper into the Himalaya and fortress-like settlements cling to terraced hillsides above the raging whitewater. At a village called Yangkar, we navigate a maze of stone huts, high walls covered with yak dung patties drying in the sun, and small children with their dirty hands out, begging for candy, pens, medicine and photos of their favorite celebrity, the 14th Dali Lama — known around here as Yeshin Norbu, or Gyelwa Rínpoche.

The trail snakes beneath steep rock faces and crosses a suspension bridge of weathered wood slats spanning the deep gorge. Eventually, we are funneled through a cleft in the canyon onto a plaza where the royal flag flies above the Nepal Immigration Checkpoint. There, we wait…and wait…for our trekking permits to be sorted, scrutinized, and properly stamped by the bureaucratic border policemen with way too much time on their hands. Sprawled against a loose rock wall beside a whitewashed chöten — a conical reliquary monument enshrining a zhabje, or sacred footprint of a local bodhisattva named Kharsapani — our collective thoughts stray far from the Dharma.

“Fuck!” Salty Jane knocks trail dust from her long denim skirt. “I’d sell my soul this very moment for a hot bath — even without a Jacuzzi.” Beth and Gisele laugh wickedly and agree they, too, would accept that Faustian bargain.

Will pulls the sweat stained Casey Jones cap from his head and rubs meaty fingers through his spiky hair. “So, what would it take to buy your soul, Berkeley Boy?”

Mine comes cheap, I tell him. A pint of good stout would do it.

“IPA for me,” says Will. “Imperial pint.”

“And there’s your fundamental difference between the genders,” notes Dr. Marla, slipping off her rucksack and digging out a Nalgene water bottle.

“Yeah, the difference requires about a hundred gallons of water,” Will says.

“Sorry, no microbreweries around here.” Gary exits the police station with our stamped permits and a short Bhötia villager. “But this fellow is go-nyer at Kharsapani, the ‘key keeper.’ It’s up on the ridge crest, just beyond the village of Muchu, and he says the lama’s wife would be happy to churn us some butter tea.”

“I feel about yak butter tea the way I do about goat livers,” Beth admits.

“Right,” Marla concurs. “Just as soon push on to camp for a spot of Bhakat’s chiya,

Gisele pats her hips and groans as if she could never burn enough calories on this tortuous trail to justify the yak fat content.

“I’d rather eat grass,” says Jane.

And Will shrugs, wisely acquiescing to his wife’s opt-out, leaving me to accept this unanticipated invitation in the spirit of cultural ambassador.

Gary and I follow the spry go-nyer up a steeply pitched slope and climb a network of rough-hewn timber ladders through a maze of ochre adobe buildings reminiscent of the Anasazi cliff dwellings at Mesa Verde and Canyon de Chelly.

There are more than just physical similarities between these Bhötia and our so-called “indigenous people.” In Neolithic times, it is believed they roamed the high Asian plateau before venturing across a land bridge spanning the Bering Strait to settle in the ice-free canyons of the American Southwest. An anthropologist friend who works with the Navajo in Chinle, Arizona, says that, in addition to physical features, Tibetans share art, architecture and spiritual beliefs with the Anasazi — “ancient ones” — whose animistic practices were similar to the shamanic Bön.

The Lama of Kharsapani is apparently discharging his clerical duties downstream today, but his cherry-cheeked wife greets us warmly at the door and prepares salty po cha in her char-blackened kettle. Gary explains that, unlike a celibate monk of the Geluk sect, a Nyingma lama usually raises a family and supports his gömpa with whatever he can produce from the land, supplemented by tithes from the local villagers.

On the hard-packed dirt floor beside the hearth sits a doe-eyed Bhötia girl wearing a silk floral print honju opened down the front, her white breast exposed as she feeds a blanket-swaddled infant.

The lama’s daughter?

“Possibly,” Gary replies. “But it’s odd she’s not wearing a panden.” A married woman traditionally wears the striped apron, he explains.

And didn’t he say that showing skin below the neck or above the wrists was taboo around here?

“She doesn’t seem at all embarrassed, does she?” He winks at me slyly. “Probably looking for a husband. Since I’m already taken, it’ll have to be you.”

I shoot him a sideways scowl and ask about the child?

“Maybe she’s a wet nurse.”

The girl inspects our fair faces with great interest. I catch her eye and she smiles warmly. Captivated by the contrast of her pale breast to the red-brown complexion of her cheeks and the charcoal patina of her hands, a shiver rockets up my spine. Mama pours butter tea into a lathe-sculpted wooden poba and hands it to me.

“Looks like she approves of you as a son-in-law,” Gary says. “Want me to have your mail forwarded?”

I ignore his taunt, but realize I’ve already wandered deep into fantasy. I haven’t slept with another woman since Kate and I split up. And here is this stunning Bhötia girl in front of me, and I’m wondering what she’d be like in bed. I’m thinking you could soak her in a tub for a couple of hours, coif, manicure, and enhance her with Estée Lauder, and oh my God!

And then my ignorance slaps me awake. My concept of beauty is as fatuous as a pair of open-toed Ferragamo pumps up here. And this young, lactating surrogate, with her smudged face and filthy hands, tough as a mountain goat and gentle as a gazelle, is as stunning as the Himalayan sunrise. I have to laugh to myself — no, at myself — with the sudden realization that my thought patterns are breaking down as they become exposed to critical inspection in the sharp mountain light.

18 MAY 1994, TUMKOT, NEPAL

Another day, another gömpa. Above the village of Tumkot, the 15th century Dungkar Chözang breaks the ridgeline like a medieval fortress. The mud brick and timber structure reeks of five centuries worth of incense and rancid yak butter flickering in votive bowls. But that doesn’t deter Gary and Will from spending the morning chatting up the diminutive lama who sports a droopy Fu-Manchu and a weathered fedora hat. The Nyingma-pa explains in detail the origin and meaning of a silk-framed thangka, an ornate geometric painting depicting aspects of “Awakened Buddha Nature.” A stylized pageant of transcendent deities, flame-enshrouded “protectors” and their explicitly clinging consorts adorn his temple’s rough walls.

Without warning I’m overcome with claustrophobia, jaded by the inscrutable smiles of golden statuary, dizzied by the flagrant display of Tantric sexuality, and nauseated by the smell of ritual devotion. I slip away and climb to the flat roof for some air, looking out over the pueblo terraces stacked up the side of the ravine below. Around the village perimeter, ripening barley undulates sensuously in the morning breeze and young women work their way through chartreuse fields, basket lanyards strung around their foreheads to leverage their loads. The scene is idyllic, but as remote as the cloud-seated deities in those temple paintings, as untouchable as the lama’s beautiful daughter. Clearly, I’m still an unenlightened man — and an unbearably lonely one — in the midst of this bucolic landscape.

There’s scuffling on the ladder leading to the roof hatch, and I turn to confront an urchin, maybe ten, wearing a filthy embroidered jacket and a disarming smile. She scampers on to the timber roof and stretches herself against a wooden mast supporting a construction of prayer flags and brass yak bells. Curious as she is fearless, the little girl sizes up the bearded foreigner brooding on the roof. I watch her play with delight, wondering what my own daughter will be like at her age.

Hearing sounds from below, she disappears down the ladder. A moment passes and then Will pokes his head through the hatch. He lifts his muscular bulk up to the roof and shares sweet orange segments with me in the warming sun.

“Dude, this place just blows me away. Are those thangkas a trip, or what?”

Will’s wide-eyed enthusiasm for all things Tibetan awakens a bug that’s been crawling up my ass since our first morning at Swayambhunath. What does he think this array of over-accessorized gods and priapic demons has to do with the Buddha?

Will appraises me as if I’d just asked him a question in Swahili. He hauls off, spits an orange pit about twenty feet across the roof. “What do you mean?”

Before I can catch myself, I launch into a tirade that’s been building in my head like a thunderstorm: What passes for the Dharma here looks suspiciously like re-cast Brahmanic deities, Tantric ritual magic, and Bön shamanism pureed and poured out into russet robes. Yeah, those thangkas say it all: Vajrayana Buddhists have reverse engineered an elegant process for psychological inquiry into a complex superstitious stew. Worst of all, they’ve literally deified an atheist — a guy who thought religion was bullshit.

Will laughs. “Did the Buddha say that?”

Truth is, nobody really knows what the Buddha said. The first historical evidence of a religion called “Buddhism” can be traced to inscriptions made by the Mauryan King, Ashoka, in the 3rd century BCE — about 300 years after the Buddha died. Not a single dialogue with any bhikkhu — “monk companion” — was written down until more than a hundred years after his death, and their authenticity is still hotly disputed.

The only tenets universally agreed upon are the “Four Noble Truths” and the “Eightfold Path:” Life gets painful; anguish is caused by your aversion to discomfort and clinging to impermanent pleasures; letting go of your attachment to any particular outcome is the antidote to suffering; and you can practice letting go by maintaining “right” view, intention, speech, action, livelihood, effort, mindfulness, and concentration. That’s pretty much it.

The Buddha seems less a mystic than a keen observer of the human condition — the first psychologist, you might say. He identified a practical, heuristic process characterized by an agnostic rationalism that must have seemed dangerously heretical to the entrenched interests of the Brahmin priesthood of his age.

Will sips instant Gatorade from his aluminum Sierra cup and appears patiently perplexed. “Ooh-kaay. And your point is…?”

That he may have been a Buddh-a, but not a Buddh-ist. He never developed any rituals to honor gods or placate demons, probably didn’t even believe in them. And as far as we know, he never made any distinction between a big and small yana — no hina or maha or vajra — and “enlightenment” was only about waking up to what’s right in front of your eyes.

The Buddhadharma was pretty clear: the reason you experience anguish is precisely because you try to hold on to what has already dissolved into the past — like youth, beauty, and maybe even religion — or you obsess about a future that hasn’t yet happened — like sickness, death, and yes…enlightenment. Human nature wants to cling to the ideal and the familiar, regardless of whether it’s true or not. So, human beings molded the Dharma into exactly what the Buddha eschewed: dogma. An “ism.” They overlaid allegorical deities onto a pragmatic psychology; constructed a complicated, arcane hierarchical religion after Sakyamuni checked into nirvana. And whom did that serve? Only the high priests that have ever since guarded their “secret” doctrines.

Will chews on my acerbic thesis for a while, nodding his head and probably wondering if I’ve been smoking some of the local cannabis sativa. “Well, dude, like the Buddha is supposed to have said: nothing’s permanent.”

My intellectual hubris dissolves into laughter. What the hell do I know, anyway? I’m certainly no Buddhist.

“Really?” Will replies with an arcing orange pit. “You could have fooled me.”

19 MAY 1994, SIPSIP, NEPAL

At nearly 14,000 feet, the air is sharp and chill as we climb to a rocky terrace beside a monolithic boulder carved and painted with Avalokiteshvara’s mantra, an elephantine reminder of my petty theft on Chakpori Hill. The primrose evening turns icy blue as the last finger of sun paints the snowcapped tip of Thado Dhunga, towering on the horizon to the southwest. After we’ve pitched our tents beneath the great mani boulder, the porters decide to warm things up by setting fire to the only combustibles they can find — scrubby clumps of sagebrush on the hillside beneath our camp.

The wind picks up and low flames spread rapidly across dry chaparral. I call the alarm to Chumbi, and a few of us rush toward the conflagration, begin stamping our feet to quell an imminent wildfire. Our porters watch from the sidelines, smoking cigarettes and laughing as if we were game show contestants competing to see which one of us can stomp the fastest without his boots catching fire. It takes a bit of shrill ass-reaming on the part of our sirdar, before the young Thakuris realize they’ve put us all in jeopardy. Will and Gary arrive moments later, and the chastened porters pitch in to help extinguish the blaze. Twenty minutes later, we’re panting in the thin air over a patch of charred hillside in the twilight.

“Okay,” Will wipes sweat from his forehead and ash from his trousers. “I now totally understand why we need to carry all that kerosene.”

“And why there’s no timber left in these mountains,” Gary adds.

Despite the lingering heat rising from the smoldering earth, I’m shaking in the rapidly cooling night, remembering — all too vividly — the leaping flames and insatiable appetite of another fire that changed the course of my life three years ago. A strong hand clamps over my shoulder, and I turn into Will’s grinning red face glowing with sweat beneath his cap.

“What’s the matter, dude? You look like you just saw a hungry ghost.”

I shake off the ashes of the past and smile weakly back at him. As long as that mani stone stays in my pocket, I’ll be looking over my shoulder and waiting for the other shoe to drop.

Morning in the Himalaya is crisp and clear, sharp as the peaks surrounding us. Lumpy oatmeal and sweet Sherpa tea taste like mana from heaven in the warming sun.

We’ve skirted the Karnali River, and will meet it again where its icy current cuts a border between Nepal and the Tibetan Autonomous Region on the other side of Nara-La — the pass rising more than a thousand feet above us. Breaking camp in golden light, we begin climbing, inch-by-gravelly-inch.

I’m feeling strong, pacing Sherpa Dorje and reaching the 15,000-foot saddle before the rest of the group. At the windy pass, Dorje and I shake hands, gather a fistful of small stones, and toss them into the air over the lha-dzay, a seven-foot-high rock cairn adorned with tattered prayer flags and the horned skulls of yaks that didn’t made it as far as Tibet.

“Lha-sö-sö-sö!” We belt out a ritual prayer to the dakini, capricious and reputedly ill-tempered female spirits that guard the high places — especially mountain passes — sometimes taunting beleaguered pilgrims who travel with hubris in their hearts.

Not that I believe in such things, but why tempt fate?

On the northern side of Nara-La, our group assembles for lunch on a ledge clear of snow and sheltered from the wind. The strenuous climb is rewarded by our first sight of the spectacular mountain terrain of western Tibet — the Nala Kankar Himal to the northeast, and the Byas Risi Himal to the southwest — spreading like white-capped ocean waves frozen for eternity.

Sated on canned spam, doughy naan and hot orange Tang, we begin the 2,000-foot descent, sliding painfully on a brutal trail of ball-bearing-sized scree, back down into the Karnali gorge.

Two hours later, I’m straddling river rock at Hilsa, soaking my blistered feet in the icy water, waiting for Roshan to retrieve Beth who is no doubt perched on some rock in blissful meditation. In an eddy on the glittering surface of the river, tiny diaphanous nymphs are breaking free of their pollywog shells and, in a supreme act of will, leaping skyward with newfound wings. Only a few hundred meters upstream, a cantilevered span of rough-cut timbers bridges the churning gray current. And on the other side, the Land of Bhöt beckons. We’ll camp tonight at Hilsa, and wait for our entrance visas to become valid in the morning.

Insulated now from other voices by the white noise of fast water polishing river rock, I’m visited by the dreaded dakini of nostalgia. It’s been almost a year since Kate and I broke free of our shared cocoon, a year of stretching our respective wings and exploring those places we weren’t ever able to go together. After 19 years of struggling to recapture that magical summer we fell in love, my wife and I parted, still friends, but sadly disillusioned with the harsh reality of relationship.

The hardest part is that I still love Kate. Or is it the illusion of “Katie”? I’ve wrestled with whether or not to tell her that when I return but decided it would only make things worse. Love isn’t measured by what you say — only by what you do. And since I’m no longer expected to do anything but pay child support, I can afford to slide into the sweet quicksand of nostalgia.

Does that make me a fraud? Or just some sorry-ass, middle-aged cliché?

Is this really a journey of self-discovery, or just ego indulging itself in a new, self-referential game? As anxiety rises to the center of my chest, Pema Rigtsel’s measured words echo through the cavern where my heart used to be. If Rínpoche is right, we will never be liberated from suffering until we commit ourselves to the liberation of all other beings.

Forget about enlightenment. Never mind freeing Tibet or saving the freaking world. Even the deceptively simple state of intimacy is a daunting proposition — one that requires an act of will and faith exponentially greater than those river nymphs taking wing before my eyes.

A young resident of Khochar, Tibet beneath a mani wall

20 MAY 1994, KHOCHAR, TIBET

Crossing an intimidating bridge suspended twenty feet above the churning gray Karnali River, an upright stone marker informs us we’ve just entered the People’s Republic of China: Welcome to the Tibetan Autonomous Region — a political euphemism for “brutally occupied territory.”

Meandering past the fieldstone huts and whitewashed chöten of a border village called Zher, we enter an ochre and sienna wonderland where the Karnali magically becomes the Mapchu Khambab — “River Flowing from the Peacock’s Mouth.” Stretching out before us like the supine body of an earth deva, high desert plains have all but swallowed the last vestiges of the ancient kingdom of Zhang Zhung.

By mid-day, we reached the village of Khochar — Khojarnath to Hindu pilgrims — where whitewashed masonry reflects sunlight so intensely that I can’t see without my glacier glasses. At the village outskirts, our Tibetan contacts are waiting with overland transport: two battered blue Toyota Land Cruisers and a pale green Chinese deuce-and-a-half. We greet our hosts with the all-purpose Tashi-delek — literally “auspicious luck” — which seems to be the equivalent of “Yo” in American vernacular.

Jhampa, the Michael Jackson wannabe who accompanied Gary and me to the Kangshung Glacier three years before, displays teeth as white as the surrounding adobe walls. Jhampa’s a product of Beijing schooling, which means his parents must have played ball with the Chinese occupation force. There are no educational privileges for “splitists” who remained loyal to the Fourteenth Dali Lama. And even with a decent education under his belt, the most prestigious job a young Tibetan can get is working for foreign tourists as a guide or driver. A girl’s best bet is to marry one of these guys — or better yet, find herself a Chinese boyfriend.

Our lead guide is Rinchen, about the same age as Jhampa, but there the similarity ends. This boy came up hard. At twelve, his dissident parents died in Lhasa’s Dhrapchi prison and Rinchen was taken under the wing of GT Sönam, a tour operator who is as close to an entrepreneur as you’ll find in Tibet — because his profitable business lines Chinese pockets. Now Sönam’s protégé, young Rinchen possesses both a calm acceptance of his station, and a very long memory. Like so many of his countrymen, he bides his time, waiting for the dawn of a brighter day — or renewed CIA funding for insurgency.

Skirting a field of newly cast mud bricks drying in a natural solar kiln, we traverse a two-hundred-foot-long mani wall decorated with ochre-dusted yak horns, and penetrate a maze of narrow alleys leading into the heart of a medieval Sakya-pa monastic complex, one of the oldest in Tibet. Dating back to King Khor-re of the 10th century Guge kingdom, the lhakhang is aglow with a thousand butter lamps illuminating the silver faces of the Risum Gompo Triad: Chenrezik representing “compassion,” Jhampeyang “wisdom,” and Chakna Dorje “power.” In another chamber, we find nearly obliterated frescoes and mutilated statuary, relics of the Chinese Cultural Revolution’s desecration. A chapel dedicated to the Black Mahakala has been converted into a horse stable. Manure, smeared by PLA grooms as a sign of their disdain, still lingers on the wrathful protector’s intricately painted face.

The parched plateau is oppressively hot during the day — even at an average elevation of 14,000 feet — and predictably cold at night. As afternoon shadows lengthen under a cloudless sky, we load our gear into the canvas-covered truck, and roll north in our Land Cruisers toward Purang, also called Taklakot, provincial capital of the Ngari region.

The two-hour passage is flanked on the east by a 25,000-foot massif called Gurla Mandhata — Memo Nani in Tibetan — and on the west by the most astonishing wall of rock I’ve ever seen — the Tshering Che-nga, or “Five Long-Life Sisters,” that guard India’s border like a mastiff’s incisors. The wild Zanskar Range stretches to the northwest as far as the imagination can project, fading into a horizon of eternal snow. It is abundantly clear why this spectacular landscape is considered sacred to so many spiritual traditions.

21 MAY 1994, PURANG, TIBET

Like most towns where the PLA has installed military garrisons, Purang is not what you’d call a vacation spot. Our first stop is the police station, a grimy, decrepit shell of mud brick, shabbily spattered with a thin veneer of whitewash. In a stark, gray-green room with only a metal table, we’re left to stand or squat on rough floor planking after our passports have been confiscated, while in the back room our duffels and rucksacks are ransacked — for contraband photos of the Dalai Lama.

Well-meaning but naïve Westerners often bring these images into Tibet as gifts for the natives, unaware or oblivious to the fact that His Holiness, Tenzin Gyatsho, is considered a “counter-revolutionary terrorist” by the Peoples’ Republic of China. Photographs of him — especially those incorporating the banned Tibetan flag — are illegal and could land you in prison.

Looking grim, Gary emerges from the back room to distribute tourist permits. “The police are being stubborn about our visas for some reason that isn’t quite clear. You guys can head over to the Guesthouse, or take a walk while I suss out the situation. Just try to stay out of trouble.”

After stashing our duffels at the Indian Pilgrim Guesthouse — a wretched hybrid of Siberian gulag and Bates’ Motel — I stroll through the gritty streets of Purang with Mother Theresa’s former protégé. Beth is a diminutive but sturdy woman, usually protected from the high-altitude sun by a broad brimmed straw hat, colorful scarf, and smoky gray glacier glasses with leather side blinders. Unflappable — probably due to her ceaseless meditation — Beth exudes a serenity that seems both impervious and incongruous to the raw frontier life of Purang.

We pass a shabby Szechuan restaurant where the shrill Han proprietress hustles customers in for egg noodles and fortune cookies. A young, spiky haired soldier wearing his grease-stained tunic open over a t-shirt, carries a dead chicken by the neck and bargains with the hostess for a potluck dinner. Outside a dreary disco strung with garish colored lights and blaring Chinese music, unemployed Tibetan men in flat-brim felt hats and threadbare suit coats shoot eight-ball and drink Lhasa beer with off-duty PLA regulars, sharing their mutual and sometimes antithetical frustration with life in Tibet. Occasionally, a truckload of loud, fur-clad pilgrims rattle past on their way to the Saga Dawa festival, churning dust and diesel fumes into the thin atmosphere.

As black holes go, I tell Beth, Purang’s got to be better than Calcutta.

“Poverty and despair suck no matter where you are,” she replies cheerily.

But don’t Buddhists accept suffering as the nature of existence, I ask?

Beth takes my bait, smiles behind her scarf. “Taking refuge in the Dharma doesn’t automatically give you a warm and fuzzy feeling toward human suffering, if that’s what you mean. Personally, it makes me want to do something about it.”

Interesting though, that she decided to do something about it with a Christian missionary rather than a Buddhist sangha. But, come to think of it, I haven’t seen Tibetans doing anything to alleviate suffering around here. They seem numb and apathetic.

Beth gets in my face. “Because they’re not throwing rocks at the Chinese?”

That would be suicide, I concede. But Tibetans are so mired in superstition — which saint left his footprint here, which bodhisattva took a crap there — they probably couldn’t organize a meaningful resistance even if they tried. I remind Beth that, while Gandhi proved non-violence could be an effective weapon against an occupying army, his biggest struggle came after the British left, dealing with his own intractable countrymen and their sectarian hatred. The way Buddhism is practiced in Tibet seems like just another antiquated religion maintaining status quo, mostly for the benefit of monks and businessmen who collaborate with the Chinese. Somehow, I don’t think that’s what old Sakyamuni had in mind.

Looking down, I notice that I’ve stepped in a goat turd masquerading as a small rock. “Well, what did he have in mind?” Beth asks, barely suppressing a laugh.

How the hell should I know? Petulantly, I kick grassy excrement from the lug sole of my boot. It’s been twenty-five hundred years, and the guy never wrote anything down. The Mahayana school puts down Theravadans as “Hinayana,” and Vajrayana practitioners consider themselves in possession of some magically manifested secret doctrine. My adrenaline is pumping now, intellectual arrogance rising up in defense of ignorance. And don’t the Kagyü-pa believe their lineage is actually more “authentic” than the Geluk-pa?

Beth shakes her head, smiles patiently like a teacher about to eviscerate a smart-ass student. “I can’t speak for any lineage, or the Buddha,” she replies thoughtfully. “Only for myself. When I asked for Pema Rigtsel Rínpoche’s blessing — even though he’s Geluk-pa — it was because I believe in honoring the wisdom that stands in front of you. That’s also why I volunteered to work with Mother Theresa. As far as I’m concerned, she’s a demanding, often ill-tempered, traditional Roman Catholic nun. But that doesn’t mean she isn’t also a living saint with a profound respect for the Dharma — as she understands it.”

Blind faith?

“Faith is always blind.” Beth’s serenity remains unblemished by my cynicism. “It just means you can never anticipate the outcome. But Mother’s faith also demands responsibility. She not only prays; she walks the walk. She goes out and picks dying people up out of the street because faith tells her that’s what is needed.”

We’ve reached the edge of town, where the dirt road bends and snakes upward toward the spectacular 25, 355-foot snowcap of Gurla Mandhata. On a rocky spur just above us, a Chinese-built aqueduct traverses the jagged topography. I raise my Canon to capture the panorama, just as a passing troop carrier enters my viewfinder.

The camo-covered truck screeches to a halt and an officer no more than twenty-years old leaps from the cab. With the rest of his comrades watching, the boy swaggers up to us, one hand on his sidearm, barking angrily in Mandarin. I don’t need an interpreter to understand he’s demanding my roll of film. Several soldiers climb from the back of the truck as I back quickly away from his reach, zipping the camera into my fanny pack and fumbling for the police permits we were issued after surrendering our passports. The officer scrutinizes them as he screams ugly orders and stabs his finger at the hillside. It is then that I realize there’s more to the scene than I first observed. Blended meticulously into the variegated ochre landscape above the stone aqueduct is a battery of howitzers — trained on the nearby Indian border.

I point out the fortification to Beth and she quickly joins the game, gesturing effusively toward Gurla Mandhata, extolling its magnificence in Pidgin English. We milk it like an old Hope and Crosby routine until the flustered young officer decides we’re really just stupid tourists rather than spies, and spits a final warning about taking a picture of anything that doesn’t smile.

As his truck lumbers off, I swallow the lump in my throat and Beth elbows me playfully in the ribs. “Well, bad boy, ol’ Sakyamuni seems to be watching your back.”

An officious clerk has informed Gary that the border crossing from Humla has just been closed under orders from Beijing. We are the last group allowed through. “We’re still good to go for Saga Dawa at Kailash,” Gary says, a tacit “but” hanging at the end of his sentence.

The bad news is: the Beijing bureaucrats have barred overland travel to Lhasa. Apparently, the PLA is on full alert for the next few weeks pending the 43rd anniversary of the “Peaceful Liberation of Tibet” and the 4th anniversary of the Tiananmen Square uprising.

Sliding into quiet panic, I picture that mani stone burning a hole in my rucksack as Shiva’s trident jabs me in the ass.

What now? What happens when your carefully considered plan for restitution has just gone down in flames? Some things are out of your control, right? You have to roll with the punches, find an alternate solution. But I’m still going to Kailash. Hell, things could be much worse.

And for some, things are. In late afternoon, a gritty, bearded man with a red bandanna covering his head climbs wearily from the back of an open truck and splashes water on his sunburned face from an artesian well in the guesthouse courtyard. I overhear him telling Gary about his altercation with the police that afternoon.

A graduate student at the California Institute of Integral Studies, Nathan’s pilgrimage to Kailash was to be the centerpiece of his doctoral dissertation on Buddhist traditions. But because of a wrong date on his Chinese visa — one he had no way of reading — Nathan has been barred from traveling to the holy mountain. His logical explanation, indignant protest, and subsequent last-ditch cajoling, have fallen on deaf ears. Tomorrow, he is to be escorted back to the border by a PLA contingent and deported. Nathan’s frustration is visceral, having come so close to his goal only to be blocked by a careless SNAFU.

“You can’t reason with these pricks,” Nathan growls. “They know the visa was incorrectly stamped, they even know who stamped it, but they’re fucking with me because they also know I’m Buddhist.”

So much for the truth setting you free. Unable to summon any more compassionate equanimity, Nathan decides to apply alternative “skillful means” to the situation. He’s off to get drunk on Tsing Tao beer in the restaurant next door.

I decide to join him.

In the morning, Sherpa Dorje boils water in the courtyard using kerosene blowtorches on blackened aluminum kettles. After chiya, I wash my hair and clothes in a chipped porcelain basin, as far away from the foul-smelling latrine as I can get. Back in our room, Ned is still curled up in his sleeping bag, shivering with fever. I give him a cup of sweet milky tea.

“That Kung-Pao Chicken next door tasted a little iffy,” Ned groans. Gary doesn’t need his pre-med experience to determine that my tent mate has the tourístas — a mild case of bacterial dysentery. He administers a dose of Ciprofloxacin Hydrochloride, and I make sure Ned has plenty of pre-boiled water to drink before exploring the outskirts of Purang.

In the afternoon, we descend a wooden ladder from the precarious catwalks of Gungpur, a 13th century gömpa carved high in the canyon wall, and encounter some of the local children ready to play cross-cultural charades. One of the little girls, Agilamo, takes me by the hand to a small cave dug into the base of the crumbling cliff, and introduces me to its crusty resident.

An old hermit, eyes glazed with cataracts from high altitude ultraviolet exposure, spins his copper prayer wheel in serenity. The little girl and I sit beside him at the mouth of his cave. I’m not sure why, but I begin speaking to the grizzled hermit in English, imagining the old man can comprehend what I’m saying by the inflection of my voice.

I tell him that I’ve just visited a tiny chapel excavated from the solid rock above us, and knelt beside the “One Hundred Thousand Teachings” of the Vajrayana, strips of hand-printed paper neatly bound in wooden covers and stacked into a compartmented alcove. There, before a golden effigy of the bodhisattva Chenrezik, my heart had torn open. In tears and anger, I’d remembered the litany of historical atrocities: more than a million Tibetans dead as a result of China’s assault, occupation, mass-imprisonment, torture, and work gangs; 6,000 monasteries, temples, and chapels like this one destroyed; all part of a wholesale attempt to smash popular belief in the Buddhadharma and the theocracy that espoused it.

I tell the hermit that sitting quietly in that little jewel of a chapel made it all real for the first time. And despite my cynicism about their religion, I’d felt real empathy for the Tibetan people, and for their children — for fearless, sweet Agilamo, who is not afraid to take a stranger to meet her hermit friend. How could the Chinese not have felt some sort of compassion? How could they have forgotten their history and treated you all so brutally? How could we — the imperial “We” who stand for liberty and justice for all — not have intervened in the slaughter?

I tell the hermit that, just as I’d worked myself into a fine state of outrage, I remembered what my own countrymen did to his cousins of the North American plains. I had to concede that the theocratic government of Tibet was indeed a feudal and sometimes oppressive state, and admit that a Chinese man gave us the Tao Teh Ching — arguably the single most profound collection of wisdom ever to appear on this planet.

The old hermit purses his leathery lips over rotted teeth and stares at me through his cataracts as if to say, “So, what’s your point?”

I reply that nothing is quite as simplistic as you’d like it to be — as black and white. Experience keeps opening your eyes to a dazzling array of hues, tones, tints, and shades of truth. And a lot of those colors are uncomfortable to look at.

I tell him that the first Tibetan I ever met ran a dharma-ware shop in San Francisco long before such things were popular. Mr. Lama was a deferential man with kind eyes who talked about the country he left as a child as if it were a magical place where everyone lived an enlightened existence. To him, Tibet was synonymous with the Buddhadharma, and an innocent victim of Chinese aggression. He assured me his religion was the only one that had never resorted to violent conversion.

I really wanted to believe him, but it turned out to be a fairy tale.

I found out that when Songtsen Gampo wanted to expand his kingdom in the 7th century, he had two options: war or marriage. He wisely chose the latter and took brides from both India and China. To house the golden statues belonging to his Buddhist wives — and simultaneously appease the old gods — the crafty king constructed two temples, the Tsuglhakhang and Ramoché, over mystical Bön hot spots in the Yarlung Tsangpo valley. That’s how the Dharma was introduced to Lhasa, “City of the Gods.” The Bön-po weren’t so thrilled about that.

A century later, King Trisong Detsen invited Shantirakshita, a Mahayana scholar from India’s Nalanda University, to establish an institution of learning in Tibet. He ran into major resistance because the Bön-po had their own long-standing traditions and didn’t welcome the new kids on the block with open arms. The esteemed scholar enlisted Padmasambhava — bad boy yogin — who wielded his Tantric powers to “subdue” the local deities, along with the Bön population that revered them. With a little help from the Vajrayana magician — and all the king’s men — Samye, the “edgeless” monastery, was founded in central Tibet. Almost immediately, the adherents of Bön clashed with those who took refuge in the Buddhadharma. The subsequent King Langdarma brutally persecuted Buddhists, until one of them assassinated him.

For nearly two centuries, the competing religions languished in their respective corners until another Indian tantrika, Atisha, founded the Khadam-pa monasteries of Reting and Narthang. His order flourished and gave rise to the austere Geluk sect under Tsong Khapa at Ganden Monastery. Ironically, the Geluk-pa, who professed to be “Models of Virtue,” also became model adepts of Machiavellian political intrigue.

A rebellion against the Rimpung princes in the 16th century instigated conflict between the Geluk-pa of Ganden and the rival Kagyü order residing at the nearby Tsurphu and Nenang monasteries. To secure his position, Sönam Gyatsho, the Geluk khenpo of Drepung in Lhasa, formed a political alliance with Altan Khan, a powerful Mongol warlord. The Khan called him dal-ai — meaning “Great Ocean,” a literal translation of his Tibetan name. Thereafter, Sönam became the Third Dalai Lama. The two prior abbots of Drepung were enshrined retroactively as First and Second DLs. When Sönam died, a young boy was chosen as his “reincarnated” successor, a selection practice that had been instituted several centuries earlier by the Kagyü-pa.

In the 17th century, the Kagyü king of Tsang sacked Drepung and Sera monasteries. The 5th Dalai Lama called in his Mongolian cavalry, destroyed Tsurphu, and murdered the Tsang ruler. But a century later, the Mongols turned on their spiritual ally. The 6th Dalai Lama died mysteriously in the company of a Mongol general, and when a dispute erupted over his successor, the Chinese decided it was time to make their play. Marching on Lhasa, the Manchu army drove the Mongols back to the Gobi, and delivered a young boy who was warmly accepted by the Geluk monks and Tibetan people as the 7th Dalai Lama. How the Manchu “discovered” the reincarnated lad remains a mystery.

This little-known history underlies the Chinese claim that Tibet has traditionally been allied with the Han Motherland, despite a ninth century treaty asserting that China and Tibet vowed “eternal peace and mutual respect of the borders of their independent states.” Political relations remained relatively cozy with China until 1911, when the Manchu dynasty collapsed. The 13th Dalai Lama then expelled his Chinese benefactors and re-established a feudal theocracy in Lhasa, which pissed off the Han, but lasted until Mao’s army invaded in 1950.

I did not know any of this in the 1970s when I hung out at the Tibetan boutique in North Beach, absorbing Mr. Lama’s rose-colored mythology. It was this same redacted history that was championed by well-meaning western Buddhists, understandably outraged by what the PRC was doing to Tibet. But an unbiased look at the facts of history reveals an unsettling pattern: all religions inevitably become the political tools of ambitious men. Not even the Buddhadharma has escaped this inauspicious entropy.

Maybe Sakyamuni’s lineage is paying a collective karmic debt, I suggest to the hermit. Maybe Tibet would never have been brought to Western attention had the Han not felt it necessary to liberate people who did not want or need their assistance. And if Gyelwa Rínpoche hadn’t gone into exile, we might never have been exposed to his remarkable compassion toward Tibet’s oppressors. The Dharma is indeed a curious thing, I conclude, wondering if I’ve made any sense to this old fellow, or if I’m just suffering from sunstroke.

Agilamo stares at me with wide onyx eyes, her round chin resting on dirty little hands. The hermit considers the lingering sound of my words in his crusty ears, and then nods sagely. “Kaba paga? Gang Rínpoche?” he asks. Am I going to the Precious Snow Mountain?

I nod and he beams a toothless smile, acknowledges me as a fellow pilgrim. The old man shows me his swollen ankles; he can’t make it to Kailash because he is too broken, has been visited by too much suffering in his life. The hermit reaches into the folds of his grimy yak hide chuba, carefully removes a tattered yellow prayer flag imprinted with a wood block engraving of the granter of all wishes, lungta — the mythical “wind horse” — and asks if I will carry his greeting to Gang Rínpoche.

Suddenly, I have been given an alternate means of karmic restitution.

I accept the cloth from his gnarled fingers; tell him it will be an honor. The old hermit’s milky eyes drift into peaceful silence, and he resumes spinning the copper Wheel of Dharma as if I’d never existed. Agilamo — Shiva’s little messenger — jumps to her feet and leads me back to our group.

Beneath the broad brim of his canvas Stetson, Gary is grinning like Sylvester the Cat with Tweetie Bird in his mouth. It means he’s discovered something really cool, and is splitting an inseam waiting to tell me about it. He tosses me a hard lemon-ginger candy, the ones he dispenses before long uphill slogs that dry out your throat.

“I found Pema Rigtsel’s gömpa,” Gary arches a challenging eyebrow. “It’s about a mile from here. Want to check it out?”

The ruins of Shepaling Shedra above Purang, Tibet

21 MAY 1994, SHEPALING SHEDRA, TIBET

On a windswept ridge above Purang, nearly 13,650 feet above sea level, stands all that remains of the monastic teaching complex called Shepaling. Once the largest in all of Western Tibet, it housed hundreds of full-time residents and student monks from across the region. Part of the complex was a five-story dzong belonging to the pönpo — Lord of Purang. The crumbling mud brick walls of the erstwhile shedra appear to have been deserted for at least half a millennium. But in fact, Shepaling was destroyed sometime after 1966, during what is innocuously referred to as Mao’s Zedong’s “Cultural Revolution.”

The People’s Republic of China apparently had no tolerance for people who practiced the “poison of religion.” Tibet represented entrenched institutions that were anathema to Chairman Mao’s ideology, and so were earmarked for excision from his new cultural tapestry. Besides, Tibet’s vast plateau made a formidable buffer zone between China and India — as well as a great place to dump nuclear waste.

Shepaling is just one more forgotten desecration in a tidal wave of cultural annihilation. Undoubtedly aided by local Tibetan Red Guard, the People’s Liberation Army didn’t need to waste a single mortar shell on the fortress complex. They simply tore the roof off each earthenware structure, leaving the harsh climate to reclaim its organic elements. No one in Purang can say how many monks were slaughtered there, or shuttled off to the labor camps for “re-education.” No one in Purang dares talk about such things.

Late in the day, Gary, Will and I reach the crumbling russet ruins of Shepaling, then split up to explore its fenestrated walls. An incessant wind howls and the broken stones whisper their story to me as I climb through a portal of collapsed timbers in time to watch the retreating sun illuminate faded pastel frescoes in what was once a refectory hall…

How could I possibly know this?

Maybe I’ve seen so many of these gömpas I can now guess at their layout. Or maybe I am just light-headed from the strenuous climb in thin air? Or maybe…

Dropping to my knees, I can suddenly hear the long-silenced voices of chanting monks, see the ethereal apparitions of long-departed comrades through a gauzy membrane of birth and death and…re-birth?

This cannot be happening!

I must be dehydrated, delusional from the altitude. But why have I been so drawn to this country? Why so captivated by a faded photograph of a holy mountain in an obscure book? Why so obsessed with reaching it? As a kid, I’d never wanted to be a Tibetan monk for Halloween. Still, I cannot ignore the uncanny feeling that…well, that I have been here before — right here — in this very monastery, this dwelling in solitude, listening to a wind-whipped symphony of prayer flags and the deep croaking resonance of my chanting brothers, living in blissful ignorance of a waiting apocalypse. Holographic images of destruction and slaughter descend on me like a flock of ravens as some internal voice cries out in anguish.

This isn’t how it was supposed to happen!

But I’m dead wrong. Like the fire that destroyed my home and changed my life, this is exactly how it was supposed to happen. It could never have happened any other way. If the PLA had not invaded, if Gyalwa Rínpoche had not escaped to India, if Shepaling had not fallen to the desecrators, if Pema Rigtsel had not accepted responsibility for rebuilding the shedra, if I had not walked into his gömpa one morning in May…I would not be here. Would I?

But here I am.

Head bent, tears squeeze from my eyes and explode in the red earth beneath my hands and knees. I see clearly, in a heartbeat, that my whole life — everything I’ve ever thought, planned, or avoided, every compulsion and aversion, every glorious and wretched experience — has brought me to this place, this moment of truth: Anitya, the Buddha called it — the truth of impermanence.

I am going to die.

But maybe it’s only in facing the absolute certainty of your own death that you begin to live — authentically. Knowing changes everything.

Or perhaps it changes nothing at all.

“How much water have you had today? When did you last take a leak? Was it clear or cloudy?” Gary looks down at me as if he is observing a lab specimen gone moldy in a Petri dish. When he arrives with Will, I am slumped like a broken marionette on the remains of a low wall, staring at the oblate lunar disc rising in a primrose twilight, shaken and spent, but awake in a way I’ve never been before.

Gary searches his medical kit for Diamox. Will shivers and rubs his arms. “This place is kinda’ creepy, don’t you think?”

“A lot of people died here,” Gary replied, matter-of-factly.

I am mute. There are moments that should remain wordless. Any attempt to describe them will only crush the fragile experience like a hummingbird’s egg.

22 MAY 1994, DARCHEN, TIBET

Ned has his legs back under him again, and everyone is thrilled to be checking out of the Indian Pilgrim’s Guest House. Our Land Cruisers and supply trucks rattle out of Purang and lumber like groaning cast iron tortoises over the wind-whipped, 15,000-foot Gurla La. In early afternoon, our caravan descends onto the parched ochre plain, where dust devils whirl like toothless cyclones across the vast panorama of high desert scrub.

I can see it now on the clear horizon, thrusting like a diamond solitaire from the tortuous folds of purple-brown earth — white and sharp — Shiva’s crystal throne rising above a retinue of barren, earth-bound supplicants.

Gang Rínpoche. My Precious Snow Mountain.

Inspired by their first sight of Kailash, our drivers race each other across the plain like vaqueros on locoweed. Despite our protests, we’re brutally jostled along rutted tracks for nearly thirty miles, bandannas stretched across our faces to stave off the unrelenting dust. One of the Cruisers eventually sputters to a halt with a fouled fuel intake.

As we mill about among clumps of tumbling sagebrush in the dust, waiting for our four-wheeling jockeys to jury-rig a repair, Gary points to the east. Nearly camouflaged against the rusty hills, a rare herd of kiyang — Tibetan wild ass, once abundant throughout the country — grazes on sparse vegetation. PLA troops have hunted them to near-extinction. When our drivers finally signal that the vehicle is operational, we climb stoically back into the Land Cruisers and prepare ourselves for another testosterone-fueled push.

In late afternoon, our gritty caravan limps into the pilgrims’ encampment at Darchen, once center of the Zhang Zhung wool trade. We pitch our tents on concrete slabs above a garbage-choked stream flowing through the village, and lash the guy-lines to steel hooks protruding from the blocks. We’ve been watching Kailash all day, rising above the Bharka plain like a great, cosmic chöten, perhaps the original inspiration for all such structures. The mountain finally disappeared behind dark ridges above Darchen. Knowing it’s out there is more than I can bear, so, while the rest of our group naps or reorganizes gear behind zipped tent flaps in the wind, I lace my boots, zip up my Gor-tex shell, and begin to climb.

For ninety minutes, I work my way up a steep ridge to the north of our camp — alternately sweating in the harsh sun and chilled by an unrelenting wind — a man on a mission. Cresting a 16,000-foot shoulder of rock, pumped full of adrenaline from the strenuous ascent, and shaking with half-a-lifetime of unrequited anticipation, I finally stand before Shiva’s throne in the golden light of late afternoon.

Steadied against a cairn of mani stones, yak skulls, tattered prayer flags, and tea-bleached pobas, I’m buffeted like a prayer flag in the wind and splashed by an oblique sun bathing the mountain’s southern face. Until now it was only a projection of my imagination from photographs in library books. But now it is a solid reality, a brilliant pyramid of rock and ice filling the space of my vision. And I’m laughing like a drunk in the crystalline atmosphere, not so much from a sense of accomplishment, but rather from genuine humility and gratitude for being so privileged to stand in this mountain’s proximity.

Setting up camera and tripod, I’m slammed backward by the violent wind, knocked on my ass, gear clattering against the stones. Dakini. Those harpies of high places taunt me as I gather up my camera equipment and remind me I’m only here at their pleasure, only a voyeur infatuated by a mountain singing its siren song, that familiar verse inscribed on the stones at my feet — Om ma ni pad me hum — the secret I haven’t yet decoded.

As the wind picks up, another stone — one with a shockingly different inscription — catches my eye. Set at the base of the cairn and segregated from the others, it echoes the mountain’s shape. Carved into its soot-blackened surface is a familiar symbol that once meant “eternal well-being,” until a 20th century Austrian fanatic adopted it as the emblem of his own warped religion of hate, forever destroying its benevolence.

That svastika didn’t appear on Hitler’s flag by accident. Heinrich Himmler, Shutzstaffel Reich Commander, considered his brotherhood the advance guard of German research into a racially pure “Aryan faith” as he imagined it had existed in prehistoric times. With Himmler’s blessing, the leaders of the SS Tibet expeditions of 1938–39, Ernst Schäfer and Bruno Beger, went off to find Shambhala — a mythical Aryan kingdom reputed to have employed ritual magic and arcane sexual practices to develop super weapons of mass destruction — a place that seemed to mirror Nazi philosophy.

The myth of Shambhala first came to the West in the early 17th century through the Portuguese Jesuit missionary and Asian explorer, Estêvão Cacella. Its location and lore has been an endless fascination for scholars, gurus, crackpots, and despots ever since. Helena Petrovna Blavatsky, occultist and founder of the Theosophical Society in the late 19th century, popularized Shambhala as headquarters for the “Great White Lodge.” In the 1920s, the Soviet GPU intelligence service financed several expeditions to Tibet in search of Shambhala, two of them led by the Theosophical stage designer, Nicholas Roerich, and Cheka agent, Yakov Blumkin. Shambhala, of course, was also the prototype for James Hilton’s utopian Shangri-La.

The Kalachakra Tantra, a text that turned up at Nalanda University in Bihar around 1027 CE, is thought by Tibetan Buddhists to contain the most profound wisdom of the Dharma, secret teachings ostensibly delivered by Sakyamuni directly to Suchandra — rigden, or protector monarch, of Shambhala — 1,500 years earlier. According to the 19th century Buddhist teacher, Mipham Jamyang Namgyal, Shambhala’s capitol was called Kalapa, and the crystal palace of its rigden was built atop the peak called Kailasa.

Shambhala was also an alternate name for the Bön homeland. The Yungdrung, or Svastika Bön tradition emerged from Neolithic shamanism and flourished in the 18 Zhang Zhung kingdoms that extended from Baltistan to Lo Montang, and from central Tibet to the Chang Tang plateau. In fact, the legendary hero of the Bön-po bears a striking similarity to the Buddha. According to tradition, Tönpa Shenrab was born into the royal family of Tagzig Olmolungring and abdicated his princely throne at age 31 to study the Dharma. Wandering for many years, he eventually settled in Zhang Zhung and taught the “Four Portals and One Treasury” — which included the practice of dzogchen — to local shamans. The geographic center of the Bön homeland was a nine-stepped pyramidal mountain facing the four cardinal directions and draining into four great rivers named for the snow lion, horse, peacock, and elephant. The peak was called Yungdrung Gutsuk — “Edifice of Nine Svastikas.”

That Nazi-tainted symbol carved into the stone at my feet and echoed on the mountain’s face reminds me how mythologies are often warped to fit dubious agendas. Kailash is an ancient symbol of all that is sacred — and perhaps unattainable — to countless generations of pilgrims in four spiritual traditions. But the Precious Snow Mountain touches something deeply primordial — even within a heretic like me.

At last, I am standing in the presence of my long-lost horizon.

On the parikrama around Mount Kailash, Tibet

23 MAY 1994, SERLUNG CHU, TIBET

Barking mastiffs and drunken pilgrims roaming the alleys of Darchen make sleep an impossible dream. At first light, Sherpa Dorje’s tea and oatmeal bring us back to life before we break camp and begin the 32-mile clockwise parikrama — the ritual circuit of Kailash. Will and Jane take the lead as most of the group embarks on the traditional pilgrim’s route to the west. But Ned, Marla and I trudge due north with Gary, climbing through the winding Serlung Chu — Gray River Valley — to visit one of five gömpa encircling Kailash.

Serlung is nestled in a sheltering fold of rocky hillside. Destroyed during the Cultural Revolution, it has since been rebuilt from the stones of its former incarnation by Drukpa Kagyü monks from Bhutan as a retreat facility for the Gyangdrak monastery. We pay our respects, wolf down a lunch of dry hard-boiled egg and cloying canned juice; then continue up the defile toward Sheldra beneath the south face of Kailash.

Possessed by some demon that feeds on perpetual motion, I push farther and farther ahead of the others, following the curve of the Serlung Chu and stopping only when I spot the sun-bleached white skull of a nawa — the Himalayan “blue sheep” — displayed amidst polished rocks beside the rushing stream like a Georgia O’Keeffe still life. Wherever you find remnants of a nawa, the feline carnivore called sah is not far away.

A full-grown snow leopard can weigh 120 pounds and measure more than fifty inches, sporting a tail often as long as its body. Fewer than 7,000 of these animals still survive — at elevations up to 20,000 feet — in the mountains from Uzbekistan to China, as far north as Mongolia and south to the foothills of Nepal. Nocturnal and usually solitary hunters, snow leopards eat in a crouched position and never roar. The most aesthetic and elusive of all big cats, the dusty white, charcoal spotted, bushy-tailed sah can leap fifty feet on a good day and bring down most mountain species all by herself. But given a menu option, a snow leopard will go for nawa — more goat than sheep — every time.

In 1991 — at Pethang Ringmo on the Kangshung glacier — we came across the head and spine of a freshly killed nawa, but never saw a whisker of the hunter. The drögpa Gary and I met there parked it next to his yak hair tent flap. Good luck comes from displaying a nawa skull at your abode, he told us.

This skull before me now has been picked clean, so I cinch the brittle talisman to my rucksack, hoping it might ensure good weather for the duration of our parikrama. Then I continue to climb through shale and scree toward a cathedral-shaped butte called Arhat Yenlagjung by Buddhists. Hindu pilgrims call it “Nandi,” after the massive bull that Shiva and Parvati employed as their gatekeeper. Beyond soars the black striated wall of Kailash.

An avalanche of snow plummets through a deep vertical cleft in the mountain’s south face, scarring its horizontal strata and forming the rough svastika symbol. This great gash was also known as the “Stairway to Heaven” long before Led Zeppelin became a gleam in the eye of the universe.

According to Tantric lore, the cleft was carved by the sorcerer, Naro Bönchung, who fell with his clattering drum from the summit of Kailash after losing a duel with the great Milarepa, a former black magician and dharma student of Marpa the Translator. Buddhism had been influencing Bön inhabitants and engendering a spiritual rivalry since Songtsen Gampo conquered the Zhang Zhung nearly four centuries earlier. This allegorical duel between Milarepa and Naro Bönchung served as a Buddhist proclamation of hegemony. Not surprisingly, no mention of the mythic battle is recorded in Bön tradition.

Often called jetsun — “venerable one” — Milarepa is reputedly the only human to have reached the summit of Kailash. But he did not climb, as any other mortal would have done. According to legend, Jetsun Mila flew — like one of the great lammergeyers that soar in endless meditation on thermal currents through the deep canyons of the Himalaya. Among The Hundred Thousand Songs of Milarepa is found his paean to the Precious Snow Mountain:

“The prophesy of Buddha says [most truly] That this snow mountain is the navel of the world,A place where the snow leopards dance. The mountain top, the crystal-like pagoda, Is the [white and glistening] palace of Dem-Chog…There is no place more wonderful than this.”

By mid-afternoon, I reach Sheldra, overlooking a talus-filled amphitheater known as the Golden Basin. This is the beginning of the nangkor, the inner circuit of Kailash.

Surrounded by barren brown formations of evocative shapes that morph into demons in the minds of oxygen-deprived devotees, the Precious Snow Mountain stands alone and aloof — monolithic. Its smooth black wall ascends to a white crown, the slightly bulging pyramid sliced vertically through its center point. Plumes of snow dance in the wind on its summit, and ice crystals tumble like granular sugar through its funneling rift onto the treacherous nangkor route. An intrepid pilgrim could climb through the snow to Serdung Chuksum La — the 19,000-foot Pass of the 13 Golden Stupas — and then descend precipitously to Kapala Tso and Kavala Tso, two tiny glacial lakes on Nandi’s eastern flank.

Suddenly exhausted, I strip off my skull-festooned rucksack, pull a Gor-tex shell around my shoulders, and slump behind a broad, sheltering rock to appreciate the panorama. But even as contentment banishes fatigue, those persistent dakini gnaw away at my sense of accomplishment.

I’m here, I tell them. Axis of the World, Ma! Surely that must mean something.

The spirit of the blue sheep stares at me through its skull’s gaping eye sockets. I was like you once, it seems to say, agile and flirtatious and self-absorbed. But I forgot to look both ways, forgot to take my head out of the clouds. Up here you don’t get a second chance. This world is beautiful but merciless. Claws and fangs await your inattention. Now, I can only teach in death what I never learned in life.

But life is a one-way event — neither hindsight nor nostalgia permits a return to the way things were. Shifting my focus from the erstwhile nawa to the scarred face of Kailash, the last bittersweet memories of hearth, home, and young love dissipate like the gossamer clouds playing hide-and-seek with the mountain’s snowy summit and dissolve in the cold, incisive light.

Gary has hung back with Ned and Marla to keep an eye on them. Arriving at Sheldra 15 minutes behind me, he checks his altimeter and informs us we’ve reached an altitude of 17,500 feet above sea level. Doctor Marla, in blue leg warmers and denim walking skirt, nods briskly in satisfaction, her short brown hair windblown above a fleece headband. My tall tent mate leans against his walking staff, breathing heavily, a weary but triumphant grin brightening his pale, bearded face. I toss Ned a packet of Pashupati biscuits; congratulate homeboy on being in good enough shape after all.

“What on Earth are all those things?” Marla asks, sweeping her hi-tech, cork handled walking stick across the vista of talus. Scattered like Lilliputian temples throughout the amphitheater, an array of tiny cairns pock the approach to the nangkor as far as we can see.

“Spirit houses,” Gary tells her. He explains that during the bardo interval — the “gap” between one incarnation and another — a disembodied being needs sanctuary from abominable mental projections and irresistible temptations that inhabit the between-life realm. “Anybody who reaches Sheldra understandably wants their spirit to be protected by auspicious energy emanating from Kailash after they die. Right?”

“Well, naturally,” Marla chuckles condescendingly. “Some people will believe anything, won’t they?”

Ned scratches his sandy beard. “Yeah, how crazy is that?”

We all stare in uncomfortable silence at the near-vertical wall of Kailash, breathless, transfixed, listening to an eerie wind song echoing through the Golden Basin, and the rumble of snow avalanching through the mountain’s cleft. Glancing sheepishly at each other, we shrug simultaneously, and then silently, reverently — hedging our bets in an uncertain universe — Ned, Marla, Gary, and I begin to lay one stone upon another, constructing our spirit houses side by side on this auspicious piece of real estate facing the Stairway to Heaven.

24 MAY 1994, RECHUNG PHUK, TIBET

Shiva walks slowly toward me out of the swirling cloud formations surrounding his crystal throne. His matted black hair is pulled back from a handsome bronzed face and piled atop his head like a crown of vipers. His glistening, muscular body is girded in a tiger’s pelt, and he wields his trident like Poseidon. Shiva holds out his hand and I know exactly what he wants — the mani stone. The one I stole. I explain to him that I can’t return it to the cairn on Chakpori, and offer some flimsy excuse about searching for just the right place to leave that stone for my old hermit friend — what’s-his-name — in Purang. But the Destroyer cuts through my bullshit with a knowing smile, extends a finger. As he touches my chest, my heart stops.

Bolting upright in my sleeping bag, I gasp for oxygen in a panic, realizing I haven’t been breathing. Cheyne-Stokes respiration, Gary called it, characterized by shallow breathing and a sensation of sudden suffocation. A common problem up here in this desiccated world, over 15,000 feet in elevation.

I zip open my tent flap and squint into the morning sun just cresting the canyon wall. The Lha Chu — Valley of the Gods — stretches north in stark desolation. Striated palisades of rock rise on either side of the broad, sloping valley bisected by a silvery, ice encrusted ribbon of holy water. Bhakat Rai is banging on a yak bell to signal that breakfast is ready. Tsampa — ground barley gruel — powdered eggs, and Sherpa chiya seem like a little bit of heaven.

Chöku, first gömpa on the parikrama, is perched at the base of a mountain called Nyen-ri. Pilgrims perform a kora around the compound walls like slow-motion electrons orbiting a mud brick nucleus. A separate gönkhang shrine is dedicated to Gangri Lhatsen, another demonic looking “protector”. To my surprise, women are not allowed to enter this chapel. Gary explains he’s often seen this prohibition at protector shrines.

Will, Gary and I climb the steep defile of Nyen-ri to a cleft slashed into the metamorphic rock wall. Scrambling up a thousand feet through the loose talus and scree that bleeds from the gash, we’re rewarded with the glorious sight of fluttering prayer flags marking Rechung Phuk, a cave that sheltered Milarepa nine hundred years ago.

After the Buddha and Guru Rínpoche, there is no more revered personage in Tibet than Milarepa. The black magician turned ascetic is known for his feats of super-human deprivation and satirical teachings, usually delivered in verse and song. If not a full-fledged heretic, Milarepa was certainly a maverick, as disdainful of monastic dogma as he was of the elite Khadam-pa clerics who espoused it:

“In the name of religion, they amass as much wealth and fame as they can. They take holy names and put on yellow robes. I turn away from them and always will…Do not cast figurines or build a stupa. I have no monastery…Adopt as your abode of solitude both the arid and the snow-covered mountains.”

Ironically, Milarepa’s star student, Gampopa, founded a monastic order to propagate his teacher’s lineage. And despite Jetsun Mila’s admonition, the Drigung Kagyü-pa built their monasteries and stupas right here at the Precious Snow Mountain. Here, they perpetuated the myth of a flying saint who effortlessly subdued both rival sorcerers and seductive dakini. If I listen very hard, I can hear Milarepa laughing.

From the spot where I now stand, the revered acetic, wearing only his thin cotton repa, commanded a view of Kailash to the north and Gurla Mandhata to the south. His aerie has been improved over the centuries by the addition of tightly fitted stones and a packed sod roof. Entering his meditation retreat, I sit enraptured by dust particles dancing on a single beam of light, floating upward toward a slit opening in the ceiling, then higher, toward the source of light itself. In this solitude of harsh contrasts, I’m overcome by a profound sense of loss, grieving the slow, nearly unnoticed death of joyous anticipation I once felt for the future. Somewhere along the highway of life, my joie de vivre went flat.

I’ll soon be 43 years old. No longer seduced by my youthful illusion of invincibility, I’ve come to terms with the fact that the biological ecosystem in which “I” reside will eventually feed the worms. But fear has morphed into a new monster: the violent world my children will inherit. I can’t protect them from the fear they will have to face, or the pain of learning what it is like to be human.

Is that why I ran away? To escape parenthood? Abdicate responsibility for any needs, dreams or desires other than my own? How can you be responsible for the wellbeing of others when you’re dying inside? How can you teach what you haven’t yet learned?

What sort of demons came to torment Jetsun Mila as he sat for years in dark places like this one? It’s certain the hermit adept didn’t achieve enlightenment by dwelling in sweetness and light. Presented with two roads before him, Mila consistently took the harder. And therein lies the principal difference between a bodhisattva and me. I have always taken the path of least resistance, always erred on the side of caution. I am just a sybaritic pilgrim who will return to a life of relative luxury and tell adventure stories at dinner parties, regale my friends with slide shows of exotic places and ethnic faces.

Pathetically, I try to pray. But what right do I have to absolution?

Back in my tent, I sprawl exhausted across a thermal pad, bathed in the yellow glow of sunlight penetrating the nylon fabric. Gear is strewn atop my duffel, a chaotic arrangement of colors, textures, and high-tech materials. The reflection in the lens of my glacier glasses reminds me I’m no longer a young man. The gray whiskers salting my beard, the deepening lines in my sunburned face, the eyes that look sad and lost bear witness to a stark and unavoidable truth: All journeys end in death.

A drögpa suddenly appears before my open tent flap. The young, homely girl bends before the golden dome to stare at the alien within the chrysalis, and her brilliant smile reaches out to me from a soot-smudged brown face.

“Tashi-delek,” she almost sings, and I find myself involuntarily returning her greeting. Her black-eyed stare tells me, “Wake up, you fool! Look around and see where you are!”

I crawl from my rip-stop cocoon and stand beside her for a moment, taking in the immensity of the River Valley of the Gods and the Precious Snow Mountain, painted in rosy alpenglow, rising above our encampment. I am here — only here — only now.

The young nomad laughs at the middle-aged foreigner standing in his socks. I return her grin, reassured that my children are safe. If I look very closely, I can see them playing happily, a reflection in the drogie’s onyx eyes.

25 MAY 1994, DARPOCHE, TIBET

It rises in a cacophony of color, like a Druid’s May Pole, just beyond the portal of the Lha Chu. Each year during the full moon of May, the Darpoche is lowered and new prayer flags are strung from the huge wooden mast before it is raised up again, accompanied by the deep trumpeting of horns and mesmerizing chants of monks. Then comes the frenzy — pilgrims on foot, on horseback, leading their garishly decorated yaks, piled into the backs of open trucks, everyone making a continuous circuit around Darpoche like orbiting planetary detritus.

Reveling in the ochre dust, there are rose-brown Kham-pas from eastern Tibet with blood red tassels braided into their raven hair, belts adorned with great silver buckles, carrying long ominous daggers, and wearing thick woolen boots. There are women from Amdo — decked out in billowing fox fur caps, multi-colored panden aprons, and necklaces of turquoise and rough-cut amber — selling meat-filled dumplings called momo out of white tents emblazoned in blue with the eight “auspicious symbols”. There are raucous, drunken klatches of grinning drögpa downing liters of Chinese beer, and prostrators in wooden-palmed gloves and leather aprons over filthy, loose-fitting chuba, stretching out their bodies in the dirt with each step, making a kora around the flag-festooned Darpoche before continuing their torturous circuit of the holy mountain.

Saga Dawa — “Fourth Month” — is a religious carnival like no other, a combined celebration of the birth, enlightenment, and “extinguishment” of a man revered as the historical Buddha. And I have to laugh, wondering what the reputedly austere Sakyamuni would have had to say about this bacchanal.

His birth name was Siddhatta, and he came into the world sometime between 538 and 563 BCE, in the Himalayan foothill stronghold of Kapilavastu, the beloved son of Shuddhodana Gotama, warlord of the Sakya clan. It is said he had a birthmark symbolic of either a great king or an enlightened being. His family decided it was the former, because renunciate mystics were a rupee-a-dozen in those days.

As a boy, Siddhatta lived a storybook life of luxury and sensual pleasure. He married a beautiful princess, Yashodhara, who gave birth to his son, Rahula. Despite Siddhatta’s life of pleasant distraction, the prince couldn’t help but feel he was missing something — something big.

One day, venturing forth from his palatial refuge into the streets of Kapilavastu, Siddhatta encountered an old man, a sick man and a corpse. This shocking revelation of pain, suffering and death changed the course of his life. Was suffering really necessary to the human condition, or just a circumstance we have the ability to overcome?

That one burning question drove Prince Siddhatta to leave his palace and family, and renounce his royal inheritance. He studied samkhya, or “discrimination” yoga, with Alara Kalama, and eventually surpassed even his teachers in meditative bliss. Still, Siddhatta found no answers. He subsequently took the vow of a sannyasin, a wandering renunciate like Mahavira, the Jaina. He fasted to near-death, and became “Sakyamuni” in the process. But his years of practice and self-denial brought the erstwhile prince no closer to enlightenment. In desperation, he sat down beneath the sheltering boughs of a ficus religiosas in the village of Gaya, pledging not to arise from the spot until he had answered his all-consuming question:

Is human suffering inevitable?

There are varying accounts of how long Sakyamuni remained seated in shamatha — calm abiding — beneath that tree, but it’s written that, on the night of the full moon in May, he ascended through the four stages of dhyana — levels of insight. During the course of that long dark night, the Sage of the Sakyas was illuminated beneath the full moon. Before the sun rose, he “awoke” to the truth, became a buddha, setting a compassionate revolution into motion.

That’s the legend, but who was the man? Truth is, we really don’t know.

By all accounts, he wasn’t religious in the generally accepted sense of the word. It is clear from his teachings that, even if he believed in the gods and demons so prevalent in his day, he certainly attributed no importance to them in the process of human awakening. As far as the Buddha was concerned, it was not about any individual “I” but the collective “we.”

We, alone, are in charge of our destiny and responsible for our own condition. This is what the Buddha supposedly told his five companions at the Deer Park in Isipatana. There is no mystery, no hidden teaching, no esoteric secret doctrine — nothing withheld in “the closed fist of the teacher.” We are already bodhichita, he said — awakened heart/mind — as soon as we extinguish our desires to attain or avoid what happens to us, and after the false idea of an independent “self” has fallen away. During his 45 years of teaching, the Buddha repeatedly told his sangha that, rather than depend on him for revelation, they needed to discover truth for themselves.

And like Milarepa, the last thing the Buddha would have wanted were golden statues cast in his physical image, or ornate temples erected to his discoveries about liberation from suffering, or esoteric magical incantations practiced by an elite priesthood in remote monasteries. But a raucous party celebrating the certainty of non-existence? Now, that might have been just his cup of chai.

On a flat escarpment, emerging like a dream above billows of trang, Drachom Ngagye Durtro, the “sky burial” site of the Eighty-four Mahasiddhas hovers between the frenetic activity at Darpoche and the icy summit of Gang Rínpoche. On this broad table of rock, roljolpa — lamas specially trained to dismember a human corpse after its spiritual inhabitant has departed — dredge bits of the flesh in fine tsampa barley flour, and feed the delicacy to huge, white-headed griffon vultures more than happy to accommodate the recycling. In a land where firewood is exceedingly scarce, the sky burial has become an expedient ecological practice.

This afternoon, a group of Nyingma lamas attend the spirits of the departed, beating drums, ringing bells, chanting, and conferring blessings upon those who request their ministrations. Celebrants bring articles of clothing to leave as offerings on the rock where cleavers, knives and tsampa residue bear witness to the craft of preparing the departed for their journey through the bardo. Some of the more devout — or masochistic — pilgrims pull out a tooth, spitting their blood into the dirt as a reminder of their temporary imprisonment in human flesh.

“Do you have something for my lips?” I hear someone behind me ask.

The Parisian accent is so utterly out of place it snaps my attention away from the monotonous chanting like a bungee cord. She is dressed in a battered leather motorcycle jacket over a golden tunic, with a red fox fur cap cocked on her head like a Kham-pa warrior princess. Her face is stunning — brown eyes, framed by a filigree of smiling creases, sparkle in the intense sunlight. I stare at her like an idiot as she points to her mouth, moving her fingers back and forth. Only then do I realize she’s talking to me.

“Lip balm?…Hal-lo…Parlez vous Anglais?”

Je comprends. I fumble in the pocket of my fleece jacket for a Chapstick.

“This is Raphaéla,” says Gary. “A friend from Kathmandu.”

By way of Paris?

“Saint Claude,” Raphaéla corrects. Her eyes assess my interest as she applies the waxy balm to her sunburned lips and hands the plastic cylinder back to me.

I tell her to keep it, touching her outstretched hand.

“You are a saint,” Raphaéla sighs, her eyes hold mine.

Gary laughs. “Not this one.”

And who put him in charge of beatification?

Raphaéla speaks Tibetan as fluently as she does English. I learn that she first came to Kailash six years ago, and is making her fifth circuit of the sacred mountain, accumulating whatever spiritual merit there may be in such an endeavor. But she’s no saint either. Raphaéla has an eye for young Rínpoches and Kham-pa lads — though not quite for the same reasons. She keeps clean boundaries between her tapas and her kama. And although her face could easily have graced a Parisian fashion magazine before high altitude and sun had their way with her, Raphaéla is more comfortable behind a camera these days. She wields her battered Nikon like a pro, but admits her real estate holdings allow her to travel Asia in search of…well, whatever it is she’s searching for.

As we snap pictures of each other like tourists on holiday, I find myself electrified by this woman, and not only because I haven’t slept with one in over a year. She’s a wild creature, at once worldly and cerebral, exuding the pheromones of primal sexuality. Her every movement is studied seduction; her every question a surprise package.

“Are you doing the Dharma?”

Raphaéla sidesteps to my left, framing me in her viewfinder, and I blush like a schoolboy, uncomfortable on the business end of both her camera and pointed question. She purses her full, softened lips and laughs at my distress, reflecting my carnal craving right back at me. My game is exposed through the lens of her inquiry, broken down in her spectral analysis, and I’m forced to focus sharply on my typically male response.

Do I have any choice?

“We can always choose ignorance,” she replies.

Or bliss?

Raphaéla hesitates only a millisecond before clicking her shutter. “Ah, tres bon!” She applauds either the ingenuous equivocation of my answer, or the absurdity of my deer-caught-in-the-headlights expression, rewarding me with a perfect white smile.

Without a doubt, this very flesh-and-blood dakini would devour me whole if I gave her half a chance. A man knows instantly it would be folly to fall in love with Raphaéla — and impossible not to.

Author at 17,500 feet on the Gangjam Glacier below the north face of Kailash, Tibet

26 MAY 1994, GANGJAM GLACIER, TIBET

Want to wash away the sins of a lifetime? A single parikrama of Kailash is all it takes — or so claims the Tibetan recipe for salvation. Except there’s a little catch: as far as Buddhists are concerned, a single lifetime is less than a cosmic fart in your karmic hard time. Samsara means that the hits just keep on coming for as many eons as it takes a sacred mountain to become a sandy beach. Nobody gets off easy.

Today, I feel very small — an infinitesimal speck of yak dung in the sweeping Lha Chu canyon — and so very lost. A lifetime of accumulated failures casts a long shadow in the merciless sun, and I hide behind the mirrored lenses of my glacier glasses like a guilty child begging for forgiveness — but fundamentally unrepentant.

Slogging in solitude through this desolate vista, heels rubbing raw against boot leather, an unevolved male libido aching for the fantasy of Raphaéla’s touch, I have all the time in the world to inspect my sins. But even stripped of alibis, my judgment seems so clouded I don’t trust this act of contrition. Is my ego chasing its own tail, seeking spiritual status in mortification? Credentials with which to buy admiration?

As Gang Rínpoche’s north face peers over a serrated shoulder of purple rock, my déjà vu experience in the ruins of Shepaling still shrouds my spirit. Back home, the notion of “past lives” is a fatuous New Age pick-up line at the Whole Life Expo. But Tibet plays by different rules. The “memory” of existence in another body can cling to you like spider webs in a dark cave; you just can’t seem to brush them off.

Breaking for lunch, the hunger in my belly is as vast as the glacial wash stretching north across the Lha Chu to the gömpa at Drira Phuk — “Cave of the Female Yak Horn.” To the south, Kailash looms above, a sheer wall of black granite glazed with glittering ice — so close, so intimidating I can’t take my eyes off it.

As we pass around tins of cheap Chinese pâté and hard-boiled eggs, dissention arises in the ranks. Patience and trust have been wearing as thin as the oxygen. Some of my distressed companions want to know why Gary can’t convince the bureaucrats in Purang to listen to reason. Isn’t that his job? Why should they be forced to walk back to Simikot instead of driving on to Lhasa as planned? That’s what they paid for, isn’t it? And failing that, why not just radio Kathmandu, and have a helicopter flown in to evacuate them from Tibet? After all, they’re Americans!

I can hear Dr. Marla laughing to herself as she cinches up her gaiters.

Gary takes these complaints and hare-brained ideas in stride, and then counsels the kvetchers like a stern, but caring parent. “Do you really think the Chinese will allow a Nepali chopper into their airspace just because we don’t feel like walking home? We’re in Tibet, guys! It’s an occupied country. Remember? I’m doing my best to get us all home safely. That’s my job. But I don’t hold all the cards here. I need a little slack, okay?”

I can see my friend’s usual state of equanimity beginning to fray. “There are days,” he confides to me, “when I really wish I’d stayed in med school.”

But think of the money he’s saved on malpractice insurance, I remind him.

“We’ll camp here for the night,” Gary announces to the group. “You can all rest this afternoon if you like. But I’m heading up the glacier, if anyone is interested in joining me.”

Will takes the lead up a scree-choked stream draining from the Gangjam glacier, with Marla and Gary following behind at a leisurely pace. Two-hours of climbing through talus brings us to ice blue seracs rising like frozen waveforms from the mottled glacier, their shadows stretched into rippling daggers by the waning afternoon light. An hour further, in the glacial bowl beneath the black wall of Kailash, we begin to sink up to our knees in the sun-softened snow. Above us, the mountain’s sheer north face rises in a 4,000-foot vertical thrust of rock capped by a treacherous white cornice — a sight that would surely intimidate even veterans of the infamous Eigerwand. Jaws gone slack, Will and I stare in awe.

Break out the crampons, bro?

“Jesus!” Will replies, “I am not seeing a good route on that wall.”

We both rasp out a knowing laugh. Kailash remains one of the few legendary mountains on this planet left unclimbed, not due to altitude, or obvious technical difficulty, but because of the reverence with which the monolith is held by those fortunate enough to stand in its radiance. There were rumors a decade ago, that the legendary Austrian mountaineer, Reinhold Messner, surreptitiously planned to bag Kailash, which he certainly had the skill and resources to accomplish. But when Messner saw the Precious Snow Mountain for himself, he realized what a desecration it would be to set crampons on its face or boots on its summit. He’s since become a vocal proponent for the Chinese keeping Kailash off-limits to climbers.

“And look at that freakin’ cornice!” Will adds for effect. “Nevé ice for sure. Like frost on a windowpane. Won’t hold your front points for shit.”

His altimeter reads 17,500 feet. On a flat ridge of moraine previewing the final concave stretch of the Gangjam glacier, we build a meter-high cairn, and tuck the edge of a prayer flag beneath the capstone to flutter in the wind. Looking back toward the Lha Chu, I spot two dark figures trudging toward us through the snow. What first appears to be Gary and Marla turns out to be a pair of drögpa. The hide-draped herders approach us, notice the lungta decorating our cairn, and suddenly prostrate themselves in prayer on the windy ridge.

I elbow Will, flash him a sardonic smile mocking the gullible drögies. What a hoot! Here we are facing the most magnificent mountain wall in the world, and these superstitious yokels are bowing in front of our altar — our little joke. And suddenly, I remember a prayer I once heard attributed to the Christian mystic, Francis of Assisi:

Lord, make me an instrument of Your peace…

One man’s joke, it seems, is another’s altar. It’s a paradox I’ve wrestled with throughout this journey, a variation of the old “if a tree falls in the woods…” gambit: Is a place or thing sacred because of some intrinsic quality it possesses, or because we arbitrarily ascribe some special mojo to it? Is “sacred space” actually a projection of sacred mind?

Gary and Marla finally appear on the glacier and reach our cairn. After a few words with one of the drögpa, Gary cautions, “Those streams we saw below run under the glacier up here. Most likely hidden crevasses as well. And this snow’s been softening all afternoon.” He squints up at the sun retreating behind the mountain’s west ridge.

“It’s nearly five; let’s call it a day.”

No fucking way! We can make it to the face from here, I yell over my shoulder, digging post-holes with burning muscles through deep snow, inching toward the looming wall. I’ve come too close to back off now. But Gary’s seen altitude obliterate reason too often. He calls my name, and as if yanked on a psychic tether, I stop mid-stride and turn abruptly in the direction of his steady voice.

“Listen to me! We have no ropes, no jumars or prussics, nothing to pull you out of a crevasse if the glacier opens up under you. I say it’s time to go back.” There’s a soft but unrelenting force charging Gary’s words. “Time to surrender that male ego of yours.” My friend grins, knowing he has exposed me, knowing that like my namesake, the doubting apostle, I need to touch the substance of everything, feel it’s reality for myself, verify that this miracle before my eyes is no mirage. We both know it’s a damn foolish game to play on a river of ice that can swallow you alive.

I hover in mute confusion. The summit cornice is backlit by a halo of a retreating sun, glinting now like a polished crystal against an impossibly deep lapis sky. My Precious Snow Mountain — so close it brings me to tears. A life of comfortable illusion sacrificed to this mythic obsession, this lover I can’t even touch. It’s now or never.

I need to ask Shiva that question…

Great sages were seldom great writers. Either they spent their time talking to illiterate folks and left the writing to some other generation, or anonymously penned poetic but cryptic metaphor to insinuate their discoveries to any of their contemporaries who could read. No one knows which noble being determined the relationship between Brahman and atman, or first committed the Upanishads to vellum. If Sakyamuni ever wrote any of his riffs down, his amanuensis clearly tossed them into the wrong basket.

Apologists will tell you that in the ancient days there were people specially trained to listen to sages like the Buddha and remember every word, every linguistic nuance, every wry turn of phrase and word play, and then repeat it — exactly — to his successor, and so on, for generations, without misplacing a comma.

I don’t buy it. If you have ever tried to remember what your spouse asked you to do last week, and repeat her instruction back — even paraphrased — you’ll understand why I remain skeptical about the accuracy of oral tradition.

The Tipitaka — “Three Baskets” — is a compilation of sermons, philosophical discourses, and monastic regulations the Buddha supposedly gave, that were subsequently written down by his followers around the 1st century BCE. Because this collection is called the “Pali Canon,” it is assumed the Buddha spoke that northern Indian dialect — related to Sanskrit the way Italian is related to Latin. But no one knows for sure; it is more likely that he spoke a dialect called Magadhan.

The earliest extant version of the Pali Canon was produced only about 500 years ago. Maybe it was all made up by some committee and just attributed to Sakyamuni. If so, does that make the Dharma invalid? Didn’t the Buddha — or somebody posing as him — say you should examine any concept to determine if it’s valuable for you, rather than swallow it just because some pandit said so? Assuming that’s true, you might logically conclude that every aphorism in the Buddhist archive has been lab tested and certified “defect-free” through centuries of heuristic experimentation.

So, here’s the rub, the cause of my long-standing distress — that bug up my spiritual ass. There is one concept the Buddha is supposed to have revealed to his students, one that has no parallel in any other religion or psychology. It’s called anatta in Pali, anatman in Sanskrit, and every Buddhist in the world will tell you it means there is “no self.” But when you ask them who is telling you that, they will either laugh superciliously or parrot some scholarly commentary. They’ll tell you there are things called skandhas — literally “heaps” — five of them, in fact, that make up what you only think is you. They’ll say: “form” leads to “sensation,” leads to “perception,” leads to “mental formations,” and bingo, you end up with a big heap called “consciousness.” Desires and aversions attach themselves to these skandhas like psychic dust bunnies, and that’s when it all gets out of control.

But what I want to know is: who pays the rent?

If you practice any kind of meditation, you may find yourself poking at the solidity of some thought and discover that there is nothing really there. No thing, no thought, and maybe even no thinker. Insight — vipassana. And there’s actually “scientific” backup for this phenomenon: if you probe those charming sub-atomic quarks, all you find is space — or maybe if you’re lucky, Schrödinger’s cat.

But who is doing the observation?

Who is in charge if there is no “me?”

What am I — really?

I silently pose my question to Shiva. Am I not a human being? As much flesh and blood as, say…Raphaéla. As hungry as any other mortal for food and sex and approval. Begging to be appreciated. Admired. loved. But is that all?

I know instinctively there’s more to it. I can taste it. But I need to name it!

The Destroyer of Illusion remains inscrutable. Shiva stretches his luminous arms to create an ineluctable web of light that spans the gap between phenomenon and philosophy, between the stone-cold reality of his mountain sanctuary and the paradox that has confounded me all my life. Kailash, Shiva reveals, is everything I haven’t understood — reified — carved by the wind into an altar of perfect stillness. His throne is a blazing mirror, reflecting the dichotomy I see in myself — seeker and sybarite, father and philanderer, explorer and coward — a conflicted man, both pathetic and contemptuous, a man whose skin I’ve been reluctantly inhabiting all my life. And after he’s rubbed my nose in that familiar self-loathing, my nemesis delivers his punch line:

You won’t find enlightenment in a piece of stone. Only by observing just what is — and letting go of your compulsion to make it otherwise.

I have to laugh out loud because I once used this very line to seduce Katie. It seemed so wise, so Zen at the time. Then, I remember TS Eliot’s poetic moment of truth:

“…And the end of all our exploring will be to arrive where we started
and know the place for the first time
.”

The drögies are heading back down the glacier — Will and Marla close behind them — back to where it is safe for human beings to live. I remain frozen in place, caught between the poles of my desire to touch the absolute and my earth-bound pragmatism. Gary stares up at Shiva’s Throne from beneath the wide brim of his Stetson, his observant eyes hidden in the strong shadow of late afternoon sun, and the smile I know so well dimples his ruddy cheeks above a grizzled beard.

He wants it too.

I slog back through the softened snowfield, clap my friend on his Gor-tex shoulder, and motion toward the others. It’s okay, I tell him. I’m back.

One last look. Parvati winks, Shiva gives a thumbs-up. In response, I place my fingertips together in humble submission, content to have reached the axis mundi, grateful to have finally beheld the myth with which I once fell so madly in love. Namasté. The cosmic consorts melt together in their ice crystal boudoir and only the mountain remains.

It’s just a piece of stone.

26 MAY 1994, DRIRA PHUK GÖMPA, TIBET

We pack our gear and break camp soon after sunrise paints Kailash primrose. My boots crunch through ice-crusted scrub and clots of ochre earth, across a bowl-shaped valley to the confluence of two rivulet streams that drain from Kailash, the Lha Chu and Drölma La-Chu. On the far side of a rough log bridge, the gömpa of Drira Phuk rises like a pueblo stronghold against a rocky hillside. This is where it all began for me.

That photograph.

I climb a series of ladders to the structure’s flat roof and calculate the exact spot where Herbert Tichy must have lain on his belly sixty years ago, aiming his concealed Leica rangefinder at the lamas paying homage to Gang Rínpoche, its north face aglow in early morning light. And for just a moment, I experience the immense exhilaration he must have felt. Seeing the mountain as he saw it, I understand why he threw caution to the wind, why he felt compelled to snap his shutter and capture that magical moment on film. Though Tichy was not as well-known as most of his contemporaries, his photograph literally changed the course of my life. If only I could tell him now.

The mountain is a gleaming chöten rising between two lesser peaks named after the bodhisattvas Chenrezik and Chakna Dorje. I raise my camera to frame the shot in memory of Herbert Tichy; my polarizer turns the sky from royal blue to indigo and the mountain to gold. Composition is perfect. I press the shutter release and…nothing.

My battery is dead. Dakini always have the last laugh.

Author at Drira Phuk Gömpa on the parikrama around Kailash, May 1994, photo by Gary McCue

The rest of the group straggles into Drira Phuk, weary from the altitude and unrelenting sun. A few pause to visit the sacred grotto of the Female Yak’s Horn for which the gömpa is named. I sit in the brilliant morning light, quietly bemoaning my technological SNAFU. Gisele emerges from the little grotto, ashen faced beneath her red bandana. Her eyes swollen, barely able to speak, she tells me something’s happened to her down there — something that has shaken her to the core.

“I went into that little room off to the side of the…chapel, or whatever it is, and it was like walking through a veil of time.” Her eyes fill with tears, not in sadness, but something more like ecstatic confusion. “This is going to sound really stupid, okay? But…I know this place!” Gisele’s voice cracks under the emotional weight of her revelation. She grabs hold of my arm, needing urgently for someone to understand. “I mean, isn’t that just…crazy?”

Not so crazy, I assure her.

“I recognize that little cave,” Gisele says, “the faded colors on the walls, even the burnished handle on the door…I remember every tiny detail as if it were yesterday. I saw it all — as a child…some other child.”

She laughs as two salty tears trail down her radiant, sunburned face.

I place a gentle hand on Gisele’s arm; try to hide the mist clouding my own eyes.

Welcome home…

27 MAY 1994, DRÖLMA-LA, TIBET

Walking east from Drira Phuk, a pilgrim starts contemplating his mortality as he begins the climb to Drölma-La, highest point on the parikrama. A well-worn trail winds past Shiva-Tshal, the “Place of Death,” where the devout divest themselves of clothing and drops of their own blood, as they did on the sky burial site near Darpoche. After a few more kilometers, they reach Dikpa Kar-nak — the “sin testing stone” — where believers are dared to insert a hand into an ominous hole in the rock, hoping to retrieve it intact. These bizarre rituals of proving piety are endemic to pilgrimage sites around the world, and add elements of a religious theme park to an otherwise austere and tedious undertaking. As if this high-altitude circuit weren’t challenging enough.

On a flat stretch below the big ascent, Gary and I are invited to share pok with a group of generous ani — Buddhist nuns. Heads shaven, russet-robed, feet clad in old sneakers, the young women roll a doughy mixture of roasted barley nuts, tsampa flour, and butter tea in a pliable yak skin pouch. What emerges is actually more edible than it sounds, carbohydrate-rich, and graciously accepted.

One foot after another, exaggerating each breath in the thin air, I climb slowly up the steep slope following steps cut over the last week by thousands of feet trampling through packed snow. My fingers caress the cool, flat mani stone inside the pocket of my jacket as I contemplate Edward Lorenz’s whimsical suggestion that the fluttering of a butterfly’s wings in California could theoretically set off a chain reaction culminating in a hurricane by the time it crosses the Pacific and reaches Japan. It was the same thought that crossed my mind when I saw the mani stone lying in the ashes of my obliterated home in the fire-ravaged Oakland Hills.

I certainly don’t mean to suggest the whole thing was my fault. Rather a not-so-subtle invitation to review what I truly valued in life. I came to the realization that I’d been accumulating material possessions based on ignorance rather than respect for either the objects or their creators. That was the day I made a vow to return the stone to its cairn in Lhasa — as a good will gesture and an acknowledgement of Shiva’s pyrotechnic karma cleansing display.

After an anonymous Chinese bureaucrat thwarted my well-intentioned plan for restitution, along came little Agilamo, and the cataract-blinded hermit of Gungpur who needed a pair of proxy legs. It was then that I started thinking: maybe Shiva — or the Universe, or Whoever — had engineered this odd, circuitous destiny, elected yours truly to be the serendipitous porter of an incapacitated pilgrim’s offering, directed to the destination for which it had always been intended.

Okay, maybe that’s a stretch.

But no more improbable than my time warp at Shepaling. In Tibet, you begin to look at everything a bit differently. You don’t just see rocks and sky and frozen lakes; you don’t just see nomads and yaks and monks going through the motions of life; you no longer experience existence as a just series of disconnected, random moments. You might begin to observe the world as a continuous, “sacred” event. You might come to realize there is a connectedness and a consequence to everything you do or say or think — every cause and condition. After you get over being freaked out by this, you may find yourself becoming just another dharma bum, paying your respects to the Buddha’s revelation of our “mutual arising,” and the mathematics of a meteorologist from MIT who confirmed this fanciful “Butterfly Effect” 2,500 years later.

Drölma La crests at 18,200 feet according to Gary’s altimeter. Others have put it four hundred feet higher, which only confirms how fickle barometric pressure can be. At the summit, a cold wind whips fur-clad pilgrims as they pass beneath a chest-high steel cable arrayed with a thick twist of prayer flags and then prostrate in the snow. Building lhasang fires in protected rock grottos, the pilgrims sip hot butter tea from Chinese thermoses and rejoice at the apogee of their purification regimen.

Approaching the flag-draped boulder — auspiciously named for Drölma, “forgiver of all sins” — I wrap the indestructible mani stone in the hermit’s yellow lungta and wedge it into a niche on the rock’s leeward side, where the wind horse can work his wish-granting magic. What does it matter if I brought that stone back to Tibet only to assuage my guilty conscience? The Universe doesn’t give a damn. I’ve inadvertently run a relay with whomever carved the prayer into it, and my anonymous collaborator’s offering has just crossed the finish line.

Mutual arising.

The arduous descent from the pass leads down a natural stairway of loose rock coated with slick ice and mud, past Thugkye Chenpo Tsho, the frozen “Lake of Compassion” — highest on Planet Earth, Gary says. In late afternoon, our weary group makes camp in a dry yak pasture at 16,000 feet, due west of Kailash in the river valley of Lham Chu Khyer.

The desiccated skin on my hands has split in the cold, so I make a painful entry in my journal wearing woolen gloves. Five days without a change of clothes, smelling like one of those hirsute beasts of burden in the field beyond my tent, I pull my goose down sleeping bag around me and listen to yak bells playing a monotonous concert on an icy night in a remote corner of Western Tibet beneath a waning silver moon.

I’ve come a long way to circle Shiva’s mountain throne, pay homage to his consort, suffer the torment of his dakini, and look deeply enough to see the cold light of truth reflected back at me. I’ve brought the mani stone home, made formal restitution for my hubris. I should be content in the knowledge that my task has been accomplished, my goal achieved.

I should be feeling at peace. Shouldn’t I?

Prayer flags at Trugo Gömpa, Lake Manasaravor [Mapam Yumtsho], Tibet

28 MAY 1994, TRUGO GÖMPA, TIBET

“You still up for this?” Will asks.

I’m in, I tell him. Soon as I get my pants off.

Rakshas Tal and Manasarovar — known locally as Langka Tsho and Mapam Yumtsho — lie due south of Kailash at an elevation of about 15,000 feet. Separated by a narrow, curved isthmus of land that sometimes floods, the twin lakes are uncannily reminiscent of a gigantic yin/yang symbol emblazoned in lapis lazuli on the ochre landscape. Raksas Tal is said to be the dark repository of female energy, and its water reputed to be poisonous — an intriguingly misogynistic, but apocryphal myth. Of course, I had to test it myself by taking a sip.

Manasarovar, on the other hand, holds male energy. Full-submersion in the lake’s icy water ostensibly insures enlightenment for Hindus; a mere drink promises awakening for less intrepid Buddhists, who believe that dunking one’s physical aggregates would only befoul the precious waters. Tibetans settle for a sip and a splash over the head — which explains the odd name of the gömpa where we are camped: Trugo — “Holy Head-Washing Gate.”

The surface temperature of Lake Manasarovar dissuades most western pilgrims from seeking the blessings assured by full submersion, but Will and I are not about to let this once-in-a-lifetime chance slip through our fingers. Leaving our camp, we hike along the shoreline, locating a spot accessible to blistered bare feet. We strip off our boots and fleece and wade bare-ass naked into the lake for a frosty baptism.

“Holy shit!” I hear Will scream behind me.

Numb but enervated, I dip quickly below the surface and emerge bolt upright, gasping for breath and laughing like a lunatic in frigid shock.

Waist-deep in holy water, I stretch my arms toward the Stairway to Heaven hovering above the dun-colored hills on the northern shore, then scoop up a handful of Manasarovar and swallow a sweet draught of male energy.

“Woooo-hooooo!” Will laughs. “You enlightened yet?”

If only it were that easy.

Our day of holy head washing, laundering socks, and lazy dharma bumming passes slowly on the soft, sandy shingle below Trugo. Wet underwear is strung across every available length of line in our campsite. The women comb out freshly shampooed hair, and the men sprawl in folding chairs reading dog-eared paperbacks. Late afternoon sun turns the surrounding hills gold and the wind-rippled surface of Manasarovar purple, as I crack open a liter of Lhasa beer to celebrate the conclusion of our kora.

While Roger reminisces to Gary about his experiences in Dolpo, I meander to the edge of the placid lake and sink into a nylon sling chair beside Marina, her slender body swaddled in layers of black fleece. Diffused sunlight spreads like a golden veil across Manasarovar to the distant pyramid of Kailash, and the holy mountain seems no longer so remote or mysterious now — more like an old friend sending greetings from an exotic land across the sea.

“What do you think?” Marina asks, nodding toward the mountain. “Male or female?”

Sipping beer from my aluminum cup, I study the south face of Kailash, trying to suss-out its gender. It’s kind of like those morphing optical prints, I finally reply. If you look at it one way, you see this great white lingam rising from the brown hills.

“A circumcised one at that!” Marina adds with a naughty laugh.

Shiva in a state of arousal. But that’s the north face. On this side, Kailash has a softer, feminine quality — like Parvati. I lean close enough to smell Marina’s thick, freshly washed mane, and point over her shoulder to the slit running down from the south summit. Maybe there’s another reason it’s called Stairway to Heaven.

“Oh my God! You’re right!” Marina concedes. “It’s a giant yoni. Does that mean Shiva can actually fuck himself?”

If anyone can. Dude’s all about ambivalence. The archetypal ascetic who longs for spiritual austerity, constantly distracted by his raging desire for Parvati’s sensual brown body. Classic battle between the little head and the big one.

Marina runs slender, newly manicured fingers through her dark curls to remind me she’s not about ambivalence — as if I need reminding. “You’ve read a lot about this stuff, haven’t you?” Her stare pierces through the mirrored lenses of her Vuarnets. “What brought you to Kailash?”

Obsession.

“Duh! But what obsessed you?”

I tell her I once had this crazy idea that there was some higher purpose to life. I had no clue what it was, or who was in charge, but I began to believe there was a method behind the madness. A pattern or blueprint.

Marina nods as if she knows that story intimately.

So, one day, I’m sitting in the stacks of the San Francisco library, looking through old books on Himalayan exploration for a story I’m writing, and I see it: this black and white litho of a mountain, rising all by itself from the plains of forbidden Tibet. “Axis of the World,” the book called it. “Precious Snow Mountain.” It was like a dream, I told her, like I’d been sent a postcard from home. I know it sounds silly, but that’s how it struck me — a reminder of that undiscovered purpose. And I kept wondering: what was it about this mountain that made it so special? Were mountains — like Olympus, or Sinai — the inspiration for our sacred stories? Had sacred places actually informed the texts of our religions? And what makes a place “sacred” anyway? I decided this was my higher purpose, my path — to explore sacred space.

I turn to see dual reflections of my grizzled face in Marina’s sunglasses, and wonder if this is the man she sees as well.

Only problem is, I tell her, I’m constantly distracted by, well…other stuff.

“You mean women?”

I thought things would be different with Kate. I thought we could find that blissful balance between body and spirit — kama and tapas.

“So, what happened?”

I squirm in my seat. Shrug. Contentment kills, I tell her.

Marina slips the Vuarnets off of her nose to reveal her sparkling brown eyes. “Well, the way I see it, bucko, there’s a time for meditation, and a time for fucking.” Marina pauses to let me consider the implications of her thesis, and perspire a little. “But the trick is to know when to sit quietly, and when to get hot and sweaty.” She leans closer and I feel her breath on my face. “And never to confuse your motivation for doing either.” Marina places her Walkman headset over my ears. “Sit quietly for a while. It might help.”

Sunglasses back in place, Marina smiles mischievously and sinks into her chair. Staring across Manasarovar toward Shiva’s white tipped lingam and Parvati’s sugarcoated yoni, I close my eyes and drift with Hildegard von Bingen’s 12th century Gregorian chant. And then I see Katie’s young face, aglow with the promise of a glorious future, gazing down at me in soft afternoon light after we had made love in my flat on Nob Hill. As if it were yesterday. As if 19 years had never passed. As if time and space didn’t even exist. Backed by an angelic choir, Hildegard sings her lament into my aching heart, as tears blur my eyes.

30 MAY 1994, CHIU GÖMPA, TIBET

Of the eight gömpa encircling Lake Manasarovar — like the eight-spoke Wheel of Dharma — Chiu, or “Little Bird,” is the most spectacular and fanciful. This Buddhist Disneyland attraction is a fairyland labyrinth of twisting stairways, recessed doorways and towering stone chöten strung with fluttering prayer flags. Looking out over the deep blue water, you feel suspended between two worlds.

In vast areas of Tibet, time has stopped in its tracks; the country’s isolated backwaters remain rooted in medieval customs, and its inhabitants regard us as if we come from another planet. Maybe they’re right.

Our planet is replete with steel and concrete temples for the worship of industry, high-speed transit, satellite phones, networked computers, and anti-stress medication. Our technologies are positioned by marketing mavens as “solutions” to problems we weren’t even aware we had. In actuality, most of these brilliant fixes only create a new generation of problems. Our technological conquest of nature and unrestrained economic growth has generated an outbreak of heartless greed and lethal stress on the earth’s “carrying capacity.” Our scientists and economists fiercely debate cost-benefit analyses of ecological sustainability — as if it were even sane to weigh a healthy environment against the alternative of a toxic dump in which life gradually suffocates.

But here on Planet Tibet, things aren’t nearly as complicated. About the time I was born, Tibet’s absolute feudal theocracy was usurped, almost overnight, by an absolute secular totalitarianism. The “poison of religion” was replaced by Maoist deconstruction. A cynic might ask, what’s the difference?

The difference, of course, is that it was replaced at gunpoint.

A vast majority of Tibetans favored the mystery of their religion over the murderous “socialism” proffered by their Han “liberators.” Theocracy had given them faith in their tradition, and trust in the ultimate justice of karma. It taught them to be compassionate to the enemy, and wait patiently for their beloved Gyalwa Rínpoche to return with a solution to the Chinese “problem.”

In the West, we’ve been taught to regard resistance to oppression as a virtue, and acquiescence as weakness. Yet we remain inspired by the Buddhist capacity for compassion, maybe intuit at some deeper level that there is a paradoxical liberation in the act of surrender.

Just prior to leaving for Nepal, I attended a screening of Ellen Bruno’s A Prayer for the Enemy at San Francisco’s Asian Arts Museum. Her documentary includes an interview with a Buddhist ani formerly imprisoned in Lhasa, and recently escaped to Dharamsala, India — seat of the Tibetan government in exile. This young woman recounted her attempt to practice compassion despite the horrors of being beaten daily by her Chinese guard during incarceration. Raising her broken body up from the floor, she visualized the man who had just brutalized her going home to his family, holding his children in loving arms, caressing his wife gently with the same hands that inflicted so much pain on her. No human being could hear this nun’s testimony without being moved to tears. How, I wondered, is such forgiveness possible? The magnitude of courage this woman displayed is far beyond my moral capability of turning the other cheek.

You cannot visit this country without being awestruck by the astonishing forbearance that still shines through the devastation Tibetans have been forced to endure. It makes the rumors I’ve been hearing from Gary and others even more appalling — the most fearsome torturer in Lhasa’s Dhrapchi prison is not only Tibetan, but a woman.

Clambering up a narrow stone stairway onto an open plaza, I find Rinchen standing by the ochre-dusted mani wall looking out over Manasarovar’s lapping expanse. Wearing his gray fedora and a black shoulder-buttoned chuba, the young man’s face is serene, wise beyond his years. I cannot even imagine the kind of brutal childhood Rinchen must have endured, or the things he witnessed. His name means “jewel.”

Probing Rinchen’s limited English, I ask him why Chumbi, our Sherpa sirdar, doesn’t ride with us in the Land Cruisers when we’ve got room for him. Rinchen smiles awkwardly, his hat brim fluttering in the wind. “Drivers not like Sherpa,” he replies hesitantly.

Why not? Aren’t Sherpas also Tibetan? Originally from Kham, right?

“Yes.” Rinchen is obviously uncomfortable with this idea. “But different,” is all he can say. “Drivers don’t like.”

The young man shrugs awkwardly and looks out over the windy lake. Who would have guessed that Chumbi’s Buddhist brethren were racists?

Should I really be surprised that not all Tibetans are saints? The guy who brought the Vajrayana to Tibet was certainly no saint, even though he is revered as such.

Padmasambhava, “the Lotus Born,” was an unconventional — some might say heretical — dharma bum. Ostensibly found as a baby on a lotus in the middle of a lake, in what is now Pakistan’s Swat Valley, the child was taken to live at the palace of King Indrabhuti, where he exhibited other Moses-like characteristics. Outrageous and untamable, young Padma was eventually exiled from human society altogether. He took up residence in the charnel grounds, lived among the dying and insane, confronted wild animals and every mental demon imaginable, until he broke the bondage of dukkha and awakened to the truth of existence.

When Shantirakshita, the Abbot of Nalanda, came to teach the Mahayana system in Tibet, the wild Bön-po shamans quickly convinced the Buddhist he was in over his head. Enter Padmasambhava, who left his Indian wife to go forth and tame the unruly deities of Bhöt, eventually helping Shantirakshita to establish Samye monastery. There, along with the formal Mahayana doctrine, Padmasambhava began training a few less orthodox disciples in Vajrayana practice, and subsequently the tantrika became known as Guru Rínpoche.

King Trisong Detsen gave the yogin one of his own consorts, Yeshe Tsogyal, as his student/mistress. Padmasambhava is reputed to have told her: “The basis for realizing enlightenment is a human body. Male or female, there is no great difference. But if she develops the mind bent on enlightenment, the woman’s body is better.” And sure enough, Yeshe Tsogyal became Guru Rínpoche’s dharma heir.

In meditation caves like the one below the lhakhang here at Chiu, where Padmasambhava spent his last seven days on Earth — the guru and his consort explored the Vajra world in every conceivable form, a world in which sacred and profane merge in open — or is it “empty” — spaciousness. In the depths of these caves, the Lotus Born teacher left his terma — “hidden treasure” — for those specially trained to interpret its significance in future ages. Eventually, Padmasambhava became revered as another Buddha, and his unorthodox system gave birth to the four major lineages of Tibetan Vajrayana.

I’ve come to understand that the Dharma is much broader in its vision than could be imagined by repressed monastic celibates. Guru Rínpoche was cut from the same cloth as Shiva: an indomitable and outrageous being of mythic proportions. Both hero and heretic — the embodiment of human dichotomy.

On the red stone parapet of a monastic fantasy in Tibet, overlooking a magical lake where time has slowed to a crawl and the great mystery still survives, I find myself remembering how to pray. And what I pray for is that Tibet always remains this way, as irrational as that might seem. We need sacred places left uncontaminated by our “scientific” certainty. We need places where we can enter the Mystery, be absorbed by it, transformed by it. Because, without faith in the possibility of human transcendence, we eventually come to the dead end of intellectual hubris — and our well-meaning solutions to political and environmental crises become even bigger problems down the road.

Besides, that afternoon at Shepaling seems to have dulled Ockham’s blade. I’m compelled by heuristic experience to entertain the possibility that life in this body is not as cut and dried as I once thought. I may be as short on faith as I am on breath these days, but some things you just cannot blame on altitude.

31 MAY 1994, PURANG, TIBET

The PLA has reinforced its border guards, not only to insure no one else enters Tibet, but also to make certain we leave by the same door we entered. Before we departed for Darchen, Gary sent Dendi and Jangbu hoofing it back to Simikot. The Sherpas wired Kathmandu for supplies and new trekking permits, rounded up local porters, and marched northward to meet us on the Nepalese side of the Karnali River.

To my delight, Raphaéla needs to extend her visa in Shigatse and has hitched a ride with the German Alpine Club group. Bruno now sports an ornate Kham-pa warrior’s belt and struts like a Luftwaffe pilot. He’s obviously as smitten with Raphaéla as I am. And, just as obviously, she’s using him for his wheels.

Covered with grit and dust from the road, Raphaéla and I eat yak cheese and boiled momo on the filthy steps of the Purang guesthouse, as happily as if we were sitting in a chic bistro on the Boulevard Saint Germaine.

I crack open a lukewarm Lhasa beer and motion toward Bruno standing officiously by his Land Cruiser. In the States, I tell her, we’d call that one a “stud-muffin.”

Raphaéla manages to laugh sensuously while devouring her momo. “Ah, I must remember that. Bruno will be flattered.” Her eyes sparkle in the light reflecting off the whitewashed walls. “And what will you do with your life back in America?”

I tell her she has a talent for asking the most difficult questions.

Raphaéla’s eyes crease in amusement. “It is because I like to watch you struggle for an answer. You are like a little boy digging down in the sand to reach China.”

I lean closer and remind her we’re already in China.

“Correctement!” Raphaéla playfully slaps my face, and I finally hear the sound of one hand clapping. “So, when you have dug down very deep for your answer, you will write to me, and tell me what you have found, no?”

Yes, I tell her. I wish we could travel to Shigatse together. But since the rubber-stampers in Beijing are fucking with us, we’ve got to trek out of Tibet the same way we came in, regardless of what our permits say.

“Ah well, the trail is beautiful and serene, not like the road to Ali.” Raphaéla idly fingers the silver and amber beads around her neck. Her once elegant hands are callused by the life she’s chosen to live, but it only enhances her rough-edged sex appeal. “You will travel maybe to Europe this year?”

Who knows what life has in store?

Raphaéla smiles knowingly. “I am studying with the young Karmapa until September,” she says, “then home for a while. If you are in Paris…it is very near St. Claude.”

Bruno strides across the yard to inform Raphaéla their passports have been returned and the vehicles are ready to depart. He glances suspiciously at me.

Tschüss, I give Bruno a big grin.

“Right,” he grunts, then returns to babysitting the Alpine Club.

Slipping into her motorcycle jacket, Raphaéla passes me a slip of paper on which she has written her contact numbers. Throwing her leather-clad arms around my shoulders, she kisses both my hairy cheeks and, with a provocative tilt to her head, says, “Fax me.”

It sounds so much sexier with a French accent.

D’accord. Avec plaisir. I’m going to miss flirting with this one. But I don’t envy the übermensch one bit. Raphaéla, like Yeshe Tsogyal, is a woman who knows what she needs, what she wants, and what she doesn’t — and never confuses pleasure with necessity. As an equestrian friend of mine is fond of saying, Bruno will undoubtedly be “rode hard and put up wet.”

photo of author by Raphaéla Demandré, Purang, Tibet, June 1994

1 JUNE 1994, ZHER, TIBET

Arriving in twilight at the sleepy village of Zher, we pitch our tents beside a battery of whitewashed chöten. This is as far as Jhampa and Rinchen are permitted to go. We exchange hugs and slip them their gratuities — envelopes containing wads of yuan. The young guides ceremoniously place white khata scarves around our necks in preparation for our homeward journey. What awaits these boys back in Lhasa is anyone’s guess.

Tibetans are minorities now in their own capital. One wrong word, one suspicious action, and they disappear into the horrific bowels of Dhrapchi prison, a bardo through which any sane person would fear to pass. Oppression hangs in the air like nuclear winter. You don’t appreciate its weight until you’re out from beneath it. Old Tibet may have had its feudal flaws, but in his campaign to glorify conformity by crushing the human spirit, Mao Zedong liberated no one.

On my last trip to Lhasa in 1991, I observed bleak rows of cinder-block monstrosities with garishly painted faux Tibetan façades. Erected by the Han to replace what they had destroyed of the old city, they must have believed western tourists would never even know the difference. The bitter irony of this cultural “cleansing” became clear to me when I read a passage from Mao’s early writings:

“Letting a hundred flowers blossom and a hundred schools of thought contend is the policy for promoting the progress of the arts and the sciences, and a flourishing socialist culture in our land.”

The aesthetic sensibility of China, a legacy created by the political savvy of K’ung Fu-tzu [Confucius], the logistical brilliance of Sun-Tzu, the poetic articulation of Chuang Tzu, the philosophical illumination of Lao Tzu, as well as innumerable other luminaries, was ground into dust by the man who wrote those words.

In the cool morning, we greet Sherpas Dendi and Jangbu, who’ve arrived with the porters that will lug our gear back down the Karnali gorge. Armed PLA guards check and re-check our passports, then escort us to the river’s edge. One young soldier tugs at the nawa skull strapped to my rucksack, jabs it with the butt of his rifle, and laughs contemptuously as I start down toward the river crossing. This arrogant, coal-eyed boy enrages me, but Gary takes my arm before I do something we’ll all regret.

“Let it go,” Gary cautions. “He’s not worth it.”

My friend is right. The soldier is only a boy, and given a choice he’d prefer to be almost anywhere other than here on the Tibetan border, waiting for the appearance of an errant trekker or the unlikely invasion of Indian troops. It is the same appalling story here as everywhere: young idealists are seduced into doing the killing and dying for old politicians. What purpose does it serve to be angry at this little pawn of Beijing’s bureaucrats? It’s so easy to care about the oppressed, and so very difficult to love the oppressor. But, if compassion is only conditional, it is not real compassion.

Crossing the bridge over the Karnali River, I glance back at our PLA escort, climbing slowly back up the path to Zher, hands behind their backs, almost wistfully, perhaps dreaming about eating steamed pork dumplings in their parents’ kitchens, or the girlfriends they left behind at school in Sichuan. Maybe, underneath their green uniforms and Han skin, they are not so different from me. Maybe the world I observe is just a reflection of my own conflicted mind, my own imperfections — a reminder of how far I’ve come, and how very far I have to go.

At mid-point on the log span, I stand still — suspended between air and water, freedom and bondage — and feel the cool spray rising from the raging river anointing my face. As I look down at the white water below, Raphaéla’s incisive question cuts through the mist like sunlight:

Are you doing the Dharma?

I realize in that moment that there really is no choice — no shelter from the truth — much as I might wish it to be otherwise. I have to laugh, answer her question aloud, and pretend she can hear across the miles that now separate us.

Frankly, my dear, the Dharma is doing me.

5 JUNE 1994, SIMIKOT, TIBET

We named him “Billy Rínpoche,” and the task of killing him fell to one of the Thakuri kitchen staff. Then Roshan made a valiant but vain effort to skin Billy with his dull kukhri. Watching the Gurkha’s painful efforts, it became clear to me that dinner wouldn’t happen until breakfast, so I tossed Roshan my Gerber folding blade and the abattoir was back in business. Billy’s horns and skull went to the boy who dispatched him, and the pelt went to Bhakat Rai, who roasted our goat and prepared a magnificent curry with his flesh. Only the cloven hooves were discarded. Beth prepared raviolis stuffed with wild rosemary and dried yak cheese, and for dessert, Marina and Roger baked a dense tsampa cake covered with chocolate shavings and laced with indigenous cannabis.

It’s a celebration, after all. We made it back to Simikot in only five days. Never mind that Dendi and Jangbu covered this trail in two, chain-smoking cigarettes the entire way, I’m sure. Even the Sherpas — Buddhists who would never kill another sentient being — feasted on Billy’s succulent flesh, and thanked him for his sacrifice. It’s bad karma to allow any creature to be wasted once it dies. Hence those sky burials.

For the first time in twenty years, I indulge in a thin wedge of the pot-laced cake, which results in an after-dinner conversation far more profound and amusing than it would have been otherwise. As wind batters our dining tent like a demon-possessed drummer, the discussion shifts to our youngest staff member, Sherpa Dorje — my faithful trail mate — who has apparently forsaken Buddhism for Pentecostal Christianity.

“My beef with evangelical missionaries,” says Gary, “is that they’re interfering with indigenous religious traditions all over the world.”

I ask him if that’s any different than Padmasambhava teaching Buddhist doctrine to indigenous Tibetans.

“The difference is that Guru Rínpoche was invited to Tibet. Christian evangelists weren’t.”

“Visitors always bring their own values with them as baggage.” Jane insists as suicidal moths dance around the glass cylinder that shields the white-hot flame of our kerosene lamp. “It’s just naïve to you think you can walk through someone’s backyard without leaving footprints. Whenever you open communication with any indigenous people, study their history and customs, give them your technology to improve the quality of their lives, you’re going to have an impact on everything: their culture, their ecosystem, their economy — even on the way they think. It’s inevitable.”

The teacher makes a good point; one Werner Heisenberg would applaud. Whether you look at it from the point of view of a Buddhist or a quantum physicist, the conclusion is the same: you inevitably affect whatever you observe.

Roger, however, observes that tourism has brought Tibet to the attention of the Western world, which reassures the Tibetan people they haven’t been completely forgotten. “Sure, exposure has its downside,” he says. “Even in the most remote areas you’ll find open garbage dumps. Fifty years ago, all the yak fur, goat horn, and worn leather would have degraded. Now batteries, aluminum cans, and rubber-soled Chinese sneakers have made the waste dumps toxic.”

“Why are we so surprised by this? Why this overweening concern for multi-cultural diversity?” Doctor Marla retorts facetiously. “All you noble indigenous peoples must remain pure, sheltered from the technological contamination of our society, so we may visit your pristine, primitive villages, take pictures of your lovely, dirty faces, and return home to our hot showers, haute cuisine, and soft beds, where we will hang your images on our walls, and tell all of our friends how basic and unspoiled you are. Please, never, never change! What a load of hypocritical rubbish!”

Talk about a conversation stopper. We all came here to observe the remnants of a dying culture, insulated from the cause of death by our passports, Marla has reminded us. Now, we’re going home with our exotic souvenirs and looted dharma-ware. But what have we really learned about the Tibetan people? What do we really know about their sacred places?

Marla shakes her head in disgust. “Of course, those wonderful, unspoiled indigenous people will change — but bloody well not to suit us.”

“Shhh! Listen,” Roger’s ears are pricked; his eyes magnified like a cartoon character behind his Armani glasses.

“What?” Marla squints at him.

“Can’t you hear it?” Roger rotates his head as if trying to follow the sound.
“There. In the wind, outside?”

She takes the bait. “I don’t hear anything.”

With an impish grin, Roger leans closer to the kerosene lamp and whispers, “I think it’s Guru Rínpoche…he wants a hit of whatever you’ve been smoking.”

As everyone breaks into a howl, Marina asks, “Roger, just how much of that cake did you eat?”

Unable to focus on any of the faces around me, I suddenly remember why I stopped doing drugs twenty years ago and slip quietly out of the mess tent. The wind has subsided and I walk for a while toward the river, finding a flat rock where I can lean back and collect myself. The Milky Way is smeared across a moonless night sky, a thick arc of diamond dust on black velvet. I’m not sure how long I remain there, mentally connecting the glittering dots like one of those games you play in the waiting room of a doctor’s office. From the direction of camp, the beam of a flashlight moves tentatively in my direction.

“Don’t get up,” I hear Marina’s voice in the darkness behind the light. Bundled in a thick down jacket and woolen cap, she sits down on the edge of my rock. “You were looking a little wasted,” she says. “When you disappeared, I got worried.”

I tell her I just needed some air. That stuff was stronger than I thought.

“No shit!” she laughs. “Roger is blasted, and he smokes all the time.” Marina assesses me for a moment. “So, are you okay?”

Damn good question, I admit. I’m lying here realizing that I may be a lot of things, but “okay” is not one of them.

Marina places a hand over my heart. “Tell mama where it hurts.”

We giggle simultaneously at the absurdity of it all, at the inconsequentiality of our silly lives passing before us like leaves dancing on the wind, at the knowledge that all we really have in this frozen moment of eternity is each other and a willingness to share our fragility. Suddenly caught off guard, my brittle laughter turns liquid, and tears transform the night sky into a cascade of starbursts.

Truth is, I tell Marina, Kate had a couple of affairs and it gave me the perfect excuse to bolt. No one could blame me. Right? But the reason I left had nothing to do with infidelity, or slow death by contentment. It was really this obsession. This spiritual quest became my convenient excuse to destroy any possibility of a lasting marriage. Truth is: I’m the one who fucked things up. I brought it all on myself.

Although I can’t see her face, Marina’s voice is measured, soothing. “Hey, it isn’t all about you. It takes two people to make or break a relationship.”

Maybe, but I was the one who abdicated emotionally. Kate just pulled the plug when she saw the handwriting on the wall. I looked elsewhere for comfort, but no one could fix that hole in my heart. So, I went back, tried giving it another shot with Kate.

Marina shrugs. “Due diligence.”

Cowardice.

“Half empty!” Marina flicks on her mini Mag-lite and flashes it in my eyes. “Wake up, bucko! So you fucked up. Big deal! You’re human. Welcome to life school. Second chances abound.” She laughs playfully as I grab the flashlight.

Do I get spanked now?

Marina laughs and I can almost see her blushing in the darkness. “Roger made me promise to behave myself. I do love to see him get jealous after all these years.”

6 JUNE 1994, KATHMANDU, NEPAL

After being on the trail for a month, the lobby bar at the Shangri-La seems as unfamiliar to me as beachfront property to a yak herder. But halfway through a cold bottle of San Miguel, it starts to feel a lot more like home. Sunburned, bearded, and weary, still high from our sojourn on holy ground, we’ve left a dusty mountain of duffel bags and rucksacks in the hands of the veteran hotel valets. Perched now on colorfully upholstered barstools and sprawled around teak cocktail tables, our motley crew toasts the successful conclusion of a most extraordinary journey.

“We’re looking at Bhutan for next year,” Will announces, his freckled, hairy arm draped around Jane’s diminutive shoulders. I’ve yet to decide which one of them is tougher, but if pressed, I’d put my money on Jane. “The King of Bhutan is letting about a thousand tourists into the country every year, and we’ve heard the gömpas there are totally incredible. Untouched by the Chinese. You interested?”

I dodge quickly and pass the ball to my now-fifty-year-old tent mate. How about it, Ned? Up for another hike in the Himmies?

The carpenter shakes his sandy head slowly, eyes happily glazed, chipped-tooth smile mellowed by his first beer in weeks. “Right now, I’m just thinking about a bath upstairs and an appointment with my chiropractor when I get back to Oakland.”

But his sister, Gisele, is already planning a Christmas reunion at her flat in San Francisco, and Doctor Marla is scribbling phone numbers and inviting everyone up to British Columbia for some heli-skiing in the Bugaboos.

Treks are like that. People who don’t know anything about each other at the outset, and find they have little in common along the way, come to realize in the end that they’re mostly made of the same stuff. With our dirty laundry hung literally in plain view, our fears and frustrations displayed alongside the worst and the best of our human traits, we’ve become surprisingly intimate. And now, as we prepare to resume our other lives, we’re all too aware that this intimacy is as ephemeral as the morning frost on our tents.

Beth maintains her serene glow despite the ugly gastrointestinal ailment that left her retching and immobilized at Sali Khola on our return trip. We’d debated whether it was possible to portage her on our backs over the steep stretch of trail ahead, but in the end, Gary decided to send Jangbu on to Kermi for help. Three hours later, the Sherpa returned over the ridge with a Bhötia villager and his saddled mare in tow. Dehydrated and too weak to be anything but grateful, Beth was wearily hoisted into the saddle and escorted down river to our next campsite.

“I never got a chance to thank you,” Beth says, sipping iced chiya. “Gary said you offered to carry me piggyback to Kermi.”

I laugh and tell Beth I must have been delirious from the altitude.

She punches my chest with her small fist several times as her laughing eyes crinkle. “You know, somewhere beneath that bad boy attitude there’s a bodhisattva trying to be born. If you’re not careful, somebody might just out you.”

Mother Teresa’s protégé leaves me staring into my beer as if I were autistic.

Marina and Roger announce that they’re flying to Phuket for some R and R before visiting the wats of Ayutthaya, Pagan, and Angkor. Despite the decade of age that separates them — and Marina’s wide-eyed spirituality challenging Roger’s pragmatism — they seem as compatible as any couple I’ve ever known, completely attuned to each other’s quirks and peccadilloes.

“Where did you put my Systane drops, honey?” Roger asks.

“They’re in your blue zip pouch,” Marina replies, “Inside the red duffle.”

“No, I looked in there,” he fusses. “All I could find were the Bausch & Lomb drops, and I really need the Systane with all the grit in the air here.”

“I’m sure they’re in the blue Patagonia pouch, honey.”

“My eyelids are like sandpaper. You stay and enjoy yourself. I’ll go look for them.”

“No, honey, I’ll come with you,” says Marina.

As they amble off, arm in arm, to find Roger’s misplaced eye drops, I discover what looks like insight at the bottom of my beer. No momentary flirtation can ever compete with ten years of nurturing from a soul mate. That conclusion shines a small ray of hope on my otherwise murky future, and I decide to make a long-distance call when I get to my room.

Maybe, I think…just maybe…

9 JUNE 1994, KATHMANDU, NEPAL

It feels as if I’ve been sucked into a black hole and spit out the other side. Ambushed by bacterial dysentery 18 hours ago — probably salmonella from one of the Thamel’s popular restaurants — I’m barely capable of crawling to the WC at Gary’s house for a dose of Cipro.

Goat meat. Karmic retribution.

Summoning enough courage to confront the bathroom mirror, I’m shocked by the face that stares back at me: gaunt, sunburned, grizzled, eyes bleak as a condemned prisoner. My body has dropped a dozen pounds during the past month, and — like some wild, bearded, bushy-haired sadhu — I’ve morphed into a metaphysical madman.

The cool phone conversation with Kate the night we returned to Kathmandu keeps replaying in my head like a bad song I can’t shake. She seemed a million miles away, had a scheduling conflict; said she couldn’t make it to meet my return flight from Bangkok. Then she asked me to move my books out of the house as soon as I got back. Rick — her new guy — “needs closure,” she said, wants to “take ownership of the space,” she said, “and those books are well, so…so you.”

Fuck Rick, I’d said, and Kate reminded me that she does.

There will be no more hanging out and drinking wine in the kitchen I spent nine months renovating, no more late nights writing in the study I painstakingly restored to its Arts & Crafts era glory, no more amiable conversations about the children in the bathroom with the leaky shower door as we brush our teeth, exposing ourselves and our most intimate habits, our torn underwear and bruised egos, in absolute trust.

Anitya — the truth of impermanence. Kate is officially my ex-wife.

When you’re scared shitless, want to retreat to familiar ground, desperately try to rectify your mistakes, assuage your regrets, cover your ass — anitya always sets you straight. Retracing steps is not permitted in this universe. Live, screw up, learn, and get over it. Just like Marina said. Try to go back, whether for reasons of nostalgia, or even to fix what you broke, and you find only sentimentality, senility, and Sinatra.

Lying on a sweat-sodden mattress in a rainy Kathmandu afternoon, drinking twice-purified water as if I were an alien tasting it for the first time, emerging like Lazarus from a pitch-dark night, I realize there is nothing waiting for me at home. I’m stuck in this shithole of a town, so sick I can’t keep water in my gut, and it all seems so out of control, like everything is disintegrating before my eyes. Must the euphoria of self-discovery always be followed by annihilation? Or is that just how the game is played?

I remember something I heard Ram Dass once say: “It all stinks. And it’s all perfect.”

As the fever subsides, I replay a conversation I had with Gary at Sali Kola the evening after Beth’s bout with tourístas. The sun had dropped behind the canyon walls, and she was resting quietly in her tent. Gary and I were soaking our feet and rinsing out dirty socks in a shallow but frigid tributary stream. Tending a blister on my left heel, I remarked that Beth probably could have meditated her way through the illness.

“Maybe so,” Gary replied. “But my money’s on the Cipro. Besides, you can never be sure out here. There was a guy on one of my treks a few years back, successful lawyer for some environmental advocacy groups. Hard driver. Beautiful family. Fit and experienced. Kind of guy you’d never worry about. We’re up on the Annapurna Circuit, maybe third day in, and he comes down with what I’m thinking is garden-variety dehydration, the usual headaches you see all the time at altitude…at least it looks that way. But none of the standard interventions are working, so I start to think cerebral edema, even though all the pieces don’t add up.” Gary paused gravely. “We found out later it was Meningococcomia.”

Is that as bad as it sounds?

“A rare and extremely virulent bacterial blood disease.”

So, did he portage the guy out? Get him to a local clinic?

Gary squeezed water from his woolen socks. “No clinics at Annapurna, pal. I radioed for an evac, of course, but we couldn’t get anyone there in time.” My friend’s face slackened as he looked off toward the misty mountains where so many of his memories still linger. “Poor guy didn’t last twenty-four hours.”

I suppressed my shock with a flippant reply. Guess it doesn’t matter how many good deeds you rack up, or how many toys you have. Death always wins.

“Yeah, you just never think it’s going to win on your watch.”

30 AUGUST 1994, SWARTHMORE, PENNSYLVANIA

Beneath a canopy of white oak, red maple and silver linden, I grew up in this tiny college town of fieldstone and clapboard houses insulated from the suburban sprawl of Philadelphia. Swarthmore retains a soft-focused nostalgia, the aura of a gentler era when people lounged in Adirondack chairs on open porches and sipped lemonade on humid summer afternoons. It was on such days that I lay in the grass beneath a black cherry tree, staring into a perfect blue sky, listening to the white noise of cicadas, and tried to ignore a gray premonition that the perfection of these summer days would eventually come to a colorless end.

I’ve returned to my first home carrying an unusual khata Gary gave me the day I left Kathmandu.

Never saw one in saffron, I told him, feeling the scarf caress my sunburned neck.

“Got this at Tashilumpo,” my friend said. “We stopped there on the way to Kangshung in ninety-one, remember?”

Vividly. It had been the anniversary of the “Peaceful Liberation of Tibet” as I recall. Troop carriers in the streets filled with Chinese soldiers brandishing AK-47s to remind those ungrateful Tibetan’s they’d been liberated.

Gary was back in his Tevas and surf-bum gear, happy to be out of Gore-Tex for a while. “I figured that you, of all people, would appreciate the non-traditional color — being a heretic and all.” He grinned and slapped my shoulder hard, the way guys do when they feel affectionate. “Wear it in good health until next time we take a walk together.”

It turns out life had other plans for this khata. Last night, I packed it in my bag and brought it home for my father.

Because dad had a long-standing reputation for eccentricity, the rest of the family didn’t blink an eye at his recent behavior. This once dapper man-about-town had been dressing like an indigent for the past decade, wearing tattered sweaters with missing buttons and a length of old cord tied round his waist for a belt. An accreting glob of Superglue held the bridge of his tortoise shell glasses together. His idea of curating an art collection had been taping pictures of pies he’d cut from Sara Lee boxes to the kitchen walls.

Mom was the first to suspect something. “Your father’s been acting…oddly.”

Define “oddly.”

“He’s been taking me to restaurants. He hasn’t wanted to eat out for…oh, I can’t even remember the last time. Maybe Cousin Peachy’s wedding? And…he’s been getting…”

Go on.

“Well…amorous.”

I remind her Dad was 89 years old.

“Tell him.”

Dad’s reawakened libido reversed vector as summer arrived. He’d sunk into a deep depression and my sister suspected a stroke, although no signs were found. The family GP suggested pernicious anemia, but my father’s red blood cell count was normal. That’s when his doctor ordered a CT scan.

We’d gotten so used to Dad’s peculiarities and never imagined they were being amplified by a steadily growing tumor in the parietal lobe of his brain. He was diagnosed in early July.

“Is it operable?” Mom asked the doctor.

“He’s 89 years old,” the 32-year-old oncologist reminded her, as if Mom should just be grateful for the 44 years they’d had together, and let it go at that.

In late August, my mother called to say I’d better come home. Soon.

My oldest friend in the world slugged me in the eye in 8th grade. I took it as a wake-up call — an asshole alert. That’s how Rob and I became comrades-in-exploration — beginning with mind-altering substances, moving on to esoteric spiritual traditions, and culminating in the greatest cosmic mystery of all for a young man — getting laid.

Rob was never the hippest-looking guy. While I experimented with various lengths and masses of cranial and facial hair, Rob’s tonsorial look never changed to accommodate the vagaries of fashions. But beneath his conservative haircut and nerdy wire-rimmed glasses, beneath his nondescript, plaid seersucker shirt and topsider façade, there beat the heart of a freak who smoked Lebanese hash and read Ouspensky. 25 years later, Rob’s face hasn’t aged or wrinkled. Along with a few pounds, he gained a master’s degree in counseling, and a serenity that came from having survived a personal war with throat cancer.

I phoned Rob after hearing from my mother and asked him to pick me up at the airport when I arrived back in town. Sitting anxiously now in his gray sedan, under a shroud of oak boughs in front of my childhood home, I muster the courage to face what I know I’ll find inside.

Why am I having such a hard time with this?

My old friend unlatches his seatbelt and twists his tall, stocky frame in the narrow driver’s seat. He faces me with a tight-lipped smile. “Hmmm. What could possibly be so upsetting about your old man dying?”

It’s not him, I tell Rob. It’s my mother. Every time I see her we get into a philosophical skirmish. Mom can’t abide any point of view that hasn’t received a papal imprimatur. I’m okay with being a heretic, so why do I feel compelled to justify my life to her? Why should I even care what she thinks?

“A shrink would say it’s because you seek her approval. Or maybe just because you love her, and feel her pain. Remind her that Jesus was a heretic, too? When he wasn’t arguing with Pharisees, the Naz was also deep into mother issues, as I recall. Come to think of it, every one of the great sages and prophets stood up and took the heat from their family and community,” Rob says. “All of them, man — Moses to Muhammad. It’s way harder to live with truth than to face death. Believe me.”

And that is exactly the problem. Looking into Rob’s wise brown eyes, I tell him I don’t know what’s true. I’ll be 43 next week. I’ve been divorced twice. I’m a nomad with no tradition, no community. I’ve lost my way, and still I’m obsessed with the search. It’s destroying everything in my life, but I’m hooked like a junkie. I don’t think I could step off the path if I wanted to.

Rob reaches over the front seat and grabs a small book from the back. “You might want to read this.” He hands me a copy of Padmasambhava’s Bardo Thötröl, an ancient Tantric manual for crossing the space between one form of existence and another. “I picked it up when you told me about your dad. Figured you’ve got this Tibetan thing going on, and this is some wild shit — between-lives stuff. Maybe it’s total bullshit.” Rob learned long ago to soft-pedal his sales pitches.

I reach into my carry-on bag, find a plastic film container, shake the gravelly dirt inside like a maraca, and toss it to Rob. He nods appreciatively, snaps off the top, sniffs the dirt I’d scooped up from the ruins of Shepaling as if it were aromatic herbs, and smiles like a Rínpoche caught off guard.

“Thanks, comrade. Close as I’ll ever get to the old country — this lifetime, anyway.”

I stare pensively through his windshield, remembering that epic day of howling ghosts, catastrophic visions, and tears mixing with the red earth at the desecrated Tibetan monastery.

Something happened to me over there, I tell him. I remind Rob how we used to smoke dope and talk about reincarnation — Eastern-Philosophy-101-on-pot. I remind him that I was always the skeptical one.

“But now?” Rob appraises me through his thick glasses. “You stepped out of time, didn’t you? Came ‘unstuck’ — Like Billy Pilgrim in Slaughterhouse Five.”

More like hitting a fucking brick wall. On my knees in the dirt, crying like a baby, ghost monks chanting all around me. Crazy shit is right. I try to stifle the emotions rising in my chest, convert them to laughter. It’s not death that frightens me, I tell him. It’s the idea that I have to keep coming back — again and again — until I get it right.

“Yeah,” Rob’s voice is measured, steady, a crisis counselor talking a potential jumper off the ledge. “You may want to read that little book.”

Dad is Auschwitz-thin, unable to speak, his body already dead on the left side. He seems disoriented, grasping at the sheets with his still functional hand — a “perfectly normal occurrence due in part to the decrease in oxygen circulation to the brain,” according to information the hospice nurse has left. Although his biological functions are shutting down one by one, Dad appears to be in no pain. Taking shallow, Cheyne-Stokes breaths with long gaps in between, his eyes gaze longingly through some portal to another world. He is locked in the final struggle of his life, a last effort to free himself from the useless body that is lying in front of me like a withered cenotaph.

My mother and I embrace and call a moratorium on religious debate. After dinner, she retires to her bedroom, and I settle into quiet reverie on the brocaded sofa. Memories leak from the walls as I listen to the cicadas’ lament in the sultry night.

My mother and father met on a stage, singing the respective leads in the Philadelphia Savoy Company’s production of Gilbert & Sullivan’s Mikado. He was 18 years her senior, and suave as Tyrone Power. In her twenties, my Mom was very clear on what she wanted: a good Catholic man to provide her with the big family she never had growing up. This charming older guy, who didn’t want kids, was out of the question…well, possibly trainable.

He gave in, of course and she got what she wanted — but not what she bargained for. Six kids. House in the suburbs. Anger. Resentment. Withdrawal. Violent outbursts. Especially against those my father loved most.

I learned years later that his own mother had died of tuberculosis before he was three, and Dad’s only recollection of his old man was fetching him home for supper from the tavern. My father was an orphan by his tenth year, an angry, resentful kid living with an abusive uncle. But this wasn’t something he ever discussed with his own children. The Irish are taught never to speak ill of the dead.

Dad caught a train every morning into Philadelphia, where he sold securities at a brokerage firm. Ironic that he was never financially secure. He worked well into his seventies, until no one would hire him anymore.

Other than that, I knew very little about my father — except for one thing: he loved cowboys. During a re-run of Shane on TV, Dad told me about a summer he’d spent in Wyoming, riding quarter horses and learning to shoot a Winchester like a range hand.

I remember Saturday mornings when I was three, riding like a little sod-buster on Dad’s bony shoulders all the way to the firehouse to watch the blue uniformed men polish their red hook-and-ladder truck. On those crisp autumn days, walking back home together through golden light and falling leaves, he and his little cowboy were as close as we could be.

And then I remember that day on the beach at Margate when a summer squall blew in without warning from the Atlantic Ocean. Frightened out of my wits, my head burrowed into Dad’s chest, he had carried me forever, leaning into the biting wind, and driving rain and blowing sand, just like those cowboy heroes in the movies.

As time passed, and the birth of five more children multiplied his anxiety about the money he wasn’t making, Dad and I lost something, and never found it again. I moved to California, and when we talked at all, it was perfunctory, shallow. When I told him Kate and I weren’t doing so well, that we’d separated, that she’d filed for divorce, Dad cleared his throat, quickly shifted the topic to something superficial. How ‘bout those Niners?

Since my father never revealed himself, I had to interpret his silence. I came to believe he was trapped in a prison of unfulfilled dreams. But, behind those bars he remained stoic, committed to his family. Whatever his faults, his dark recesses, he showed up, stuck it out. For that, my mother loved him, and despite our disconnection, I gradually came to respect him. Because, in the end, he had succeeded, where I had failed.

Now, those autumn mornings at the firehouse and his wind-swept heroism on the beach were just faded memories, like Polaroid photos left too long in the attic.

About mid-afternoon on September 1st, my youngest brother and I lift Dad’s frail body to change his diaper, joking about it in an attempt to lighten our spirits. But Jim and I end up crying in each other’s arms. I drape the saffron khata around the shoulders once strong enough to carry me to the firehouse and shelter me from the squall. Now, Dad’s bones could be snapped like matchsticks. More helpless than a baby, his eyes are full open, staring straight into eternity. A single labored breath tells me how tired he is of his burden.

I lay my hand across Dad’s forehead, the skin translucent as antique rice paper, whisper into his ear, fragile as a dried flower. I tell him he’s a brave cowboy, tell him it is okay to rest now. And I suddenly feel the need to thank him — not for any particular moment of my childhood, but for all of them. Just for the chance to be a child — a chance he never really had. I feel him responding — at least I want to believe he is.

And then, without even a sigh, my father is gone.

Perfect day for a funeral. The solemn gray overcast is assaulted by the piercing colors of a mountain of mortuary flowers. Dad’s waxy remains are on display in the funeral parlor where a formal wake is wrapping up, the saffron scarf around his neck an odd, rakish compliment to the blue suit my mother picked out for his final public appearance.

Mom insisted he be buried wearing the khata. “I thought your father looked so dapper in that scarf,” she tells me, perusing her prayer book as if she’s searching for an incantation to absolve her prodigal son. “You said it’s supposed to be worn for a journey, didn’t you?”

I nod, and Mom seems comforted. I slip my arm around her black crepe shoulder, brush my cheek against her powdery blush, and feel her restrain a sob. I know the khata is a message intended for me, an acknowledgement of something she cannot bring herself to say.

The little volume Rob gave me is popularly known as “The Tibetan Book of the Dead” — supposedly one of Padmasambhava’s terma teachings, discovered in some cave by Karma-Lingpa, and translated into English by Chögyam Trungpa Rínpoche. “The Great Liberation Through Hearing in the Bardo,” he called it:

“Bardo means gap; it is not only an interval of suspension after we die but also suspension in the living situation as well. The bardo experience is part of our basic psychological make-up…it is like not being sure of our ground, not knowing quite what we have asked for or what we are getting into.”

Dad’s casket is closed and readied for interment. The family repairs to the gravesite and the priest reminds the congregation that our short time on Earth is only preparation for eternal life in the company of our Heavenly Father. A comforting notion, I must admit, certainly more so than the idea of a dark passage into the bardo — that vast space of groundless uncertainty into which my father has recently gone.

At the reception, I hoist a glass with my brothers and sister in memory of the man who brought us into the world. After a couple more, I begin to think the Irish had it right all along. Maybe death ought to be more of a cause for celebration than mourning. Perhaps our passage is just another pilgrimage.

Lama Anagarika Govinda — a scholarly little eccentric whose Sanskrit name means “homeless one” — wrote: “pilgrimage in an outer space is actually the mirrored reflection of an inner movement or development,” and continues to manifest as “spiritual unfoldment” even after you’ve completed the physical journey.

I stand just outside the door to the reception hall and watch my siblings telling jokes about Dad and laughing with his former acquaintances. Clearly, some part of my father still lives on in us. His form is gone, but the spirit of him remains in all those who loved him.

Perhaps we really do experience many different lives, rising and falling like a wave in eternity’s ocean, stumbling through time and space as homeless wanderers, coming back again and again — until we get it right.

Maybe I’ll see you again someday, daddy. Out there on the beach.

North Face of Mount Everest [Jomolungma], from base camp above Dögnak Chöling Gömpa, Tibet

HERETIC • Reflections on Unorthodox Pilgrimage “Bad Boys and Bodhisattvas” is the second part of a memoir about a decade of travel and pilgrimage to sacred places throughout the world between 1991 and 2001.

It is based on contemporaneous notes — many of which were written in a tent wearing gloves, in monastery dormitories, airports or hotel rooms of dubious distinction. Along the way, I published pieces of the full story [The Last Place on Earth in Blue, Journal for the New Traveler in 1997; The Throne of Shiva in Travelers Tales “Pilgrimage” and The Ravens and the Virgin in Travelers Tales “Greece”, both in 2000; and Melting Point in Whitefish Review, 2014], but never the whole memoir. I finished the final manuscript in 2008 and could find neither an agent nor publisher. While many were complimentary about the writing, they felt the story was too esoteric and would not sell. Far be it from me to tell them their job.

Over the years, I have shown the completed manuscript to a number of people and received some very encouraging reviews. This has led to my decision to publish the book in a serialized format on both Medium and Wattpad with the hope to get enough positive responses and reviews that I can develop a strong case for publication in a “traditional” venue.

Thank you for your time and interest, and I look forward to hearing from you.

Tom Joyce

Written by

Tom Joyce

Art director, graphic designer, published writer, photographer and explorer of sacred places

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