In the weeks before leaving for a recent trip to Eastern Tibet, while reading Patrul Rinpoche’s Buddhist classic Words of My Perfect Teacher, I came upon some fascinating black and white photographs of the hermitage caves above Dzogchen monastery in Kham where Patrul Rinpoche meditated for many years and wrote the radiant, inspiring text.
One image showed a view from the top of a cave overlooking Dzogchen monastery in the Rudam Kyitram Valley, and a wave of excitement washed over me when I realized that Dzogchen was one of the places that we would visit in Kham.
I dug out the excellent itinerary that had been dreamed up by my friend, Martin Newman, a photographer (www.martinnewmanphotography.com) who has visited Kham and Amdo an amazing eight times, and who organized the trip with his friend, Tashi Samdup (www.tashistours.com), our great local guide from Nangchen. Sure enough, there it was on Day 13: “This day early in the morning we will drive from Dege to Dzogchen. Overnight in Dzogchen.”
Everything I dreamed about the trip crystallized into a vision of making a mini-pilgrimage up to Patrul Rinpoche’s cave, a sacred spot where the great Buddhist master had honed his wisdom and compassion in decades of meditation, and in or near where he had written the text that had moved and inspired me every day for months on end.
Fortunately, on the cold, snow-flurried evening we arrived in Dzogchen, Tashi found a young monk with unusually light eyes who offered to show us up to the hermitage caves if we met him at 8 a.m. the next morning.
To Tseringma, the First Hermitage Cave
Just at 8 a.m. Tashi stood calling outside the sleeping monk’s room near the Pematang Retreat Center at Dzogchen, a spot gloriously framed by the snowy, jagged peaks of Mount Dorje Ziltrom rising behind it, and the bright white snows on the river of ice – the Dorje Ziltrom glacier – curving down the mountain’s upper reaches. Shangri La might have looked like this – fresh snows, green hills, a temple etched against a radiant early morning sky.
With the monk now roused out of bed, his thin frame thick with warm robes, we crowded into the Land Cruiser for a short drive part of the way up the hill, then piled out to set off on foot into the bright clean air of the forest leading up to the hermitage caves.
The first cave, called Tseringma, was where Do Khyentse Yeshe Dorje and Dodrupchen meditated for long years. The hike up was deceptively easy, just a walk on a grassy path made crunchy with half frost and half ice but somehow not slippery. Even a small climb at over 4000 meters/13,000 feet is a huff but we soon reached the first cave.
When I stepped up onto the flat area in front of the cave the Tibetans – the monk, our guide Tashi and driver Pema – were already greeting the thin current inhabitant of the cave, a monk who was peeking out his window with a quiet smile. He is 3 months into a year or more of meditation and has the distant, interior look of someone who has been on another level of reality for a long time.
He welcomed us in and we crowded, stooping, in through the little doorway of the cave – dark and cool, the curving stone forming the back and side and top walls of the hermitage, with the front blocked up with a rough wall, door and window. Lama Tsultrim (not his whole name, which he told us, but we all forgot) sat wrapped in a blanket among his few rustic things, responding from a kind distance to our questions about who had been in the cave before him and about him.
The monk gave each of us a beautiful little phurba on an adjustable string for wearing around the neck. Fittingly, the phurba is a ritual dagger associated with the meditational diety Vajrakila, an instrument for penetrating the obscurations of mundane existence. (See p. 956 of the footnotes of Gyurmey Dorje’s Tibet Handbook.) I felt humbled and grateful for his great solitary work – for his depth and commitment. After a little while and saying our goodbyes, we stooped out again and set out for the second cave.[TravelBlockquoteKham]
High Wires: Up to Patrul Rinpoche’s Cave
On leaving Tseringma, the path quickly steepened and before long guide wires began to appear, strung by the Dzogchen monks along the very steep bits – until the hike became more like a climb, with continuous guide wires. As far as I could tell, the monk barely used the wires, nor did Pema who was somehow negotiating the rough steep path in slick-soled leather street shoes. I would look straight up from time to time and see Pema and the monk squatting 30 or 40 feet above me, either laughing good naturedly at my slow, huff-puffing ascent, or looking a little worried if I was negotiating a particularly gnarly little stretch.
They stopped entirely at one large, nasty rock in the path, with no guide wire to use to heave oneself up. Pema la offered a katag (Tibetan ceremonial scarf) as a kind of pulley, but that felt so fragile that I just stared at the rock a while, and then found some hand and foot holds and got up far enough that the katag help seemed appealing rather than scary. I was too far gone by then, but I did wander from time to time how the heck I was going to get down all this steep frosty iciness. I prayed the sun would rise and melt the ice before we returned. I took off my gloves to get a better grip on the wires, which I needed more and more to heave myself up spots with foot places too far apart to just step up, no matter how huge a step one took.
The great news was that though we were on the super steep path, there were no cliff edges or drop offs, which I don’t think I could have hacked. It was super strenuous and a little scary, but basically the path was just a hard nearly vertical walk in a sun-lit forest.
Guide Tashi caught up with us when we were almost there – having stayed back to help one of our party for while. We were damn high up there by then – delightful in the fresh dappled clear mountain light. At last, a final stretch of wire and we came to Patrul Rinpoche’s cave.
The shaggy-haired young meditator – Ven. Thupten Gyatso (just like the 13th Dalai Lama) – expressed surprise when I came bending through the door. “Ohhh…!” He’s 6 months into a 3 year retreat, though he said that he goes to the teachings at Pematang down the hill sometimes.
Above Dzogchen Monastery: A Little Piece of Heaven
The four of us settled onto the cave floor for a beautiful 30-minute prayer from Patrul Rinpoche’s teachings, led by Tashi and joined by the two monks.
It was a little piece of heaven – the peaceful drone of the prayers, the rising sun glowinghrough the cave’s one simple yellow curtain, prayers flying from the prayer flags fluttering bright and beautiful outside the door. I wept, blessed and happy to have this moment to open to the palpable gift of the teachings: liberation, compassion, wisdom.
Amusingly during the prayers, the monk got an audible WeChat message – the typical Tibetan phone greeting – “Wayyyy…,” and Kusho Thupten Gyatso la examined Tashi’s camera for a little while as he chanted. Perfectly incongruous and Tibetan, this supremely sacred space blended with casual, every day life.
After the prayer we stepped outside for some photos and headed down – laughing, a pure joyful high. Somehow the steep down was less scary and easier than the up. Holding tight the wire and stepping carefully but quick. At the bottom we reformed our little group and dragged a table and chairs out into the warming sun at Dzogchen’s canteen area for a warm and delightful breakfast of omelettes over rice, chatting with local monks and lay people who wandered by.
Dzogchen is imprinted now on my mind now as a fresh, luminous morning full of the joy of knowing that these modern-day keepers of a precious lineage of the living Dharma are sitting in those cold, isolated caves, even now, practicing for all of our sakes.