Monk(ey) Business Part 13: Pilgrimage


Monk(ey) Business is a blog series chronicling the joys, challenges, ups, and downs of my nine years as a Buddhist monk. Enjoy!

Nepal has an allure and mysticism that calls many to it’s valleys and mountains. Bordering Tibet, India, and Bhutan, it has been a gateway to the Himalayas for centuries. It boasts 8 of the worlds 10 highest peaks, and is the birthplace of the Buddha. With a population of more than 26 million, Nepal is made up of over 40 distinct ethnic groups who speak a range of languages and dialects. It may come as no surprise that Buddhists have flocked to Nepal for the last 2,600 years, and have added a rich complexity to it’s religious, ethnic, and cultural milieu. A majority Hindu, and similar to India, Buddhists and Hindus have lived side by side, sharing land, culture, and religious beliefs. In fact, many shrines, holy places, and pilgrimage destinations are shared by both Hindus and Buddhists. 

I experienced this first hand during my first trip to Nepal in 2011, as I ventured out into unfamiliar parts of the Kathmandu valley to seek out temples dedicated to the Buddhist goddess Vajrayogini. In my search I would often come upon a nondescript shrine, with no obvious markings, looking mostly like a Hindu place of worship. As I payed my respects and meditated, most of the locals just stared. It was probably pretty odd to see a Western monk meditating and praying at a pilgrimage site so off the beaten path. Like many Indian Hindu practitioners, I found Nepalis to be mostly non-sectarian, and generally open to the spiritual beliefs of others. Overall there is not such a hard line between Buddhist and Hindu religious sites, and even well known pilgrimage destinations like Swayambunath are shared by both traditions. Over the course of my stay in Nepal I noticed this approach to land, religion, and faith, beginning to seep into my own perceptions as a Buddhist practitioner. The flexibility, lack of black and white thinking, and a plurality that was directly connected to the land helped me to come into a more embodied experience of the Buddha’s teachings. Although shocking to the system at first, over time this kind of reorientation was deeply nourishing, putting me in touch with the unspoken aspects of my spiritual tradition that are not often found when looking at Buddhism through a Western lens. 

During both my first and second extended trips to Nepal I would often spend my days studying, meditating, and visiting various pilgrimage sites with friends. Some pilgrimage sites spoke to me more than others, and I seemed to continually be drawn to the shrines and temples that embodied a diverse history, and where the ancient and modern converged. A short walk from where I was staying, I would often visit the cremation grounds and river at the heart of the Pashupatinath temple complex. Here mourners converge with yogis, smoke from funeral pyres with tourists, and Life with death. Out of the many places to meditate, this quickly became one of my favorites. I was first drawn here because of the meditation caves a short walk up the river, that are attributed to the famous Indian yogis Tilopa and Naropa. These two Buddhist saints are not only important lineage figures in the Sarma traditions of Tibetan Buddhism, but have very colorful life stories that often act as both a teaching tool, and inspiration for fledgling practitioners. In his early life Tilopa (988–1069) lived as a mendicant, traveling throughout India to seek teachings from a variety of important Buddhist sages of the time. He is known for attaining enlightenment mainly through the Buddhist tantric path, and his life story and teachings are filled with unconventional anecdotes expressing the nature of his realization. His main disciple was Naropa, who prior to meeting Tilopa, was a renowned Buddhist scholar at Nalanda monastic college. At a certain point he became disillusioned with his state of knowledge and realization, and upon hearing Tilopa’s name, left the monastery to seek him out. The story continues with both the twelve minor hardships Naropa endured in order to find Tilopa, and the twelve major hardships he went through while under Tilopa’s direct guidance. Naropa’s perseverance is legendary and eventually won him the ultimate siddhi of enlightenment, which culminated in Tilopa hitting him over the head with a shoe, thus pointing out the ultimate nature of mind.

Visiting the caves where Tilopa and Naropa are said to have practiced was deeply inspiring, and I reflected on how they must have been, or what they may have looked like. When great yogis and yoginis practice in certain places, they also leave an energetic imprint, and as I sat there practicing I silently supplicated these great saints, attempting to tune into their blessings and imprints. I’m not sure what I ended up tuning into, but soon after getting up to walk back down the river, a young Nepali yogi in a (I kid you not) tiger skin colored White Zombie (yes, the 90’s heavy metal band) vest, popped his head out of the cave above and invited my friend and I to visit. He was visibly drunk, and kept hugging me. In good spirit, I just went with it, as he seemed harmless and was overjoyed to have two Western Buddhist monks visiting him in his cave. Also having just reflected on the unconventional nature of both Tilopa and Naropa’s lives, I couldn’t help but keep an open mind to how appearance does not always correlate with reality. As we talked together in broken English I admired his cave, and wondered how this yogi ended up here. What was his earlier life like? What practices did he do? Was he really a fan of the heavy metal band White Zombie? And who do you talk to in order to get such a kick ass cave!? Bidding farewell, I left with more questions than answers, and as we approached the main temple, the embers of the funeral pyres glowed, a brutal reminder of the end to every human story. 

A few weeks later, I found myself back at the banks of the Bagmati river, overlooking Pashupatinath. I watched the funeral pyres burn, contemplating impermanence, as I imagined my own body an occupant of that pyre. I thought of my mother dying at such a young age, and of all the families in mourning across the river from me. I watched as women wailed and fathers broke down in tears. I marveled at the open, ritualized, and large display of death that we so quickly sweep under the rug in the West. I later found out that those with a terminal illness sometimes come to reside around the temple complex, and eventually die here. I wondered how we may gain back parts of our humanity lost in the West through making death more open and public. When we ignore and suppress, we only cut ourselves off from reality further, and ignoring reality does not change it’s hard truths. Standing up from my contemplation, I wandered into what looked like animal stables. Within it’s walls I was surprised to find quarters for visiting pilgrims and yogis. My guess was that these were wandering Hindu yogis who had come for pilgrimage. After a few minutes one yogi caught my eye. With long matted dreadlocks he was completely naked, with only a small loin cloth covering his private bits. We silently shared a moment as we stared at each other from across the room. In that moment my judgment dropped, and I had a feeling that I was looking directly at Tilopa. I thought to myself, “This is what Tilopa must have looked like!” As soon as I had the thought, the yogi was gone. I went after him, but he had wandered into a crowd, and out of sight. I stood for a while, dumbfounded by the experience. Am I just imagining all of this? What is reality, but my imagination? As I let this shift in experience settle, something in me opened. Pilgrimage is said to assist us in opening parts of our human experience that cannot be opened through the intellect alone. I guess this can be attributed to a combination of curiosity, inspiration, and faith. Though as in my case, I think a little imagination can go a long way.