If there is one word to describe Ladakh, it is “fairy-land” (or should I say Dakini land)? The flight from Delhi was one of the most spectacular as we flew over the whole range of Himalayas from south to north, with breathtaking views of the Himalayan landscape. As we landed in Leh, capital of Ladakh, a wave of ecstasy spread, not only in our group but amongst local tourists too. Even though it was prohibited to take pictures at airports in India, everyone was taking selfies, smiling, and hugging each other, as if we couldn’t believe we had come this far and away land. Because Ladakh is India’s most sparsely populated and well preserved region, it felt like we had been transported to a few centuries ago. The high desert cradled by mountains preserved Ladakh’s culture and principle religion, Mahayana Buddhism for centuries. It felt to me that this could be second best to Tibet in being exposed to Mahayana culture.
We were warned about possible altitude sickness, since we flew and landed at 11,600 feet (3,500 mt). It takes few days for the bodies to acclimatize to the altitude. We took the first day very easy as advised, rested a whole lot, drank lots of fluids (3lt/day), but still a few people in our group became really sick with headaches and nausea. I had some altitude sickness in Cuzco, Peru years ago, and this time I came ready with my homeopathic medication. I was lucky this time that I adjusted pretty well and didn’t feel any discomfort except it felt like we were walking on the moon due to the lesser gravity.
Our hotel was charming with a touch of local architecture, rooms were simple but comfortable with even a few TV channels. Hot water and delicious meals, who needs more? We slept after lunch for a few hours and then stepped outside to visit Shanti Stupa. We were in Stupa heaven in Ladakh, there were stupas in every corner. I engraved the flying Tibetan flags and stupas into my mind. Shanti stupa was situated in a hill top overlooking to Leh. It was simply gorgeous. The green Indus valley, surrounding high deserts, and lofty mountain peaks were like scenes from a movie. This was my first real stupa encounter. I saw pictures of stupas and I was practicing a Stupa meditation for years but I had never seen a real stupa before.
People walk around the stupas, typically clockwise, for healing, to let go of their ego or karma, to reconnect to their spirit or deeper truth, or simply with a heartfelt prayer. You can also meditate in front of a stupa with compassion and loving kindness.
My intention for this spiritual pilgrimage was to clean any karma that keeps me away from my Divine self. It was to release, let go of any root causes, including karmic causes, of any physical, mental, emotional or spiritual package that don’t serve me anymore. It was healing at all levels by letting go of all that’s not in harmony with my Divine self.
I was determined to use every opportunity to practice this in this trip. The Stupa was no different. As I circumambulated the stupa (what a big word!), I imagined any karma that I don’t need any more simply falling off of me, leaving me lighter, brighter in each step.
As I sat for meditation in front of the stupa, I noticed that it was so easy to do the Stupa meditation here. I’ve have been practicing a stupa meditation for a while but here, it was as if the stupa was doing the meditation for me and I was just witnessing, it was so effortless. In this meditation we visualize a square in our base and on top of the square a sphere, a triangle, a crescent moon and the top of stupa in perfect balance on top of each other. These shapes also correspond to the elements; square for earth, sphere for water, triangle for fire, a crescent moon for air and the top of stupa for the space. As we chant the syllables corresponding to each element and visualize the shapes within our body perfectly balanced on top of each other; our inner Universe, our elements balance and harmonize just like the pieces of the stupa.
We started every morning with energization exercises and meditation followed by a rich breakfast. We had chanting and satsangs during the day too. The next morning we left early to visit Hemis, Tikse and Stakna monasteries. These are still vibrant centers of meditation, dedication, and service, preserving a deep and ancient mystical heritage, still intact.
As we walked in to the Hemis monastery a big poster for Naropa’s millennial birth anniversary celebration
greeted us. My heart started to beat. I just stood there, and couldn’t take my eyes off of it. It turns out that this monastery belongs to Dugpa (Dragon) order and is an off shoot off Kagyu lineage of Tibetan Buddhism, one of the 4 schools of Tibethan Budhism and the lineage of one my heroes Milarepa. Milerepa is a beloved hero of Tibetan Buddhism because he is a living proof that anyone can be enlightened with proper dedication and practice even if they’re killers and sinners. I can’t get enough watching Milarepa’s life story, reading his 1000 songs, I even watched an opera about his life; and now I was at this monastery dedicated to his lineage. I deeply bowed to Naropa, Marpa and Milerepa.
Hemis is the largest and wealthiest monastery, founded in 1672, and home to 500 monks. They are famous with the annual festival held here every summer, in honour of Guru Padmasambhava. Guru Padmasambhava is the 8th century Indian guru who brought Buddhism throughout the Himalayas and to Tibet. The dancers wear brightly colored masks that represent good and evil characters in Mahayana Buddhism and enact an age-old tale of the victory of good over evil. Hemis has the largest Tanka (silk embroidered brocade) in Ladakh, which is unfolded, once in 12 years, during this festival. They even call this festival as the Kumbh mela of Buddhism. The next one is coming in summer of 2016! Hemis is also the monastery that the old manuscripts were found in to support the claim Jesus stayed at this spot during his “lost years”. We knew the monks don’t answer any question about these manuscripts anymore so we didn’t even bother asking. Yet someone from our groups stayed behind in Ladakh to further investigate Jesus’s lost years.
We were very fortunate to witness a soul-stirring chanting by the Buddhist monks during one of our visits. I witnessed chanting many times before but probably because of the inherent energy built here over the centuries it felt deeper. We were also lucky that there was ample time built in our schedules to meditate in each of the monasteries we visited. This wasn’t simply a sightseeing tour, it was a spiritual pilgrimage. I took the opportunity in each temple to meditate and pray to let go of my karma and clear myself from anything that is not in harmony with my true self. As I left each monastery I felt lighter and lighter and thankful to the presence of Dakinis and Masters surrounding me (Dalai Lama blinking me with his big smile) and helping me with my practice and to heal myself to BE my true self, the Great Bright Light, Dai Ko Myo.
The next day we traveled along the scenic Indus River and visited the charming village of Alchi containing
deeply peaceful 11th century temples with wall paintings done in Kashmiri style, amazingly preserved by Ladakh’s dry climate. The Buddha’s teachings were brought from India first to Kashmir, then to Ladakh, then to Tibet in the 9th century. Ladakh’s continuous and still vibrant tradition of meditation, introspection, and Buddha’s teachings of Dharma, dates from this time. We’ll also visited Likir and Spituk monasteries, which offer rich collections of paintings and Buddhist artifacts, and the opportunity to feel the tangible power left by centuries of spiritual practice in these same monasteries.
In one of the small towns I noticed a sign for a Tibetan Medicine shop. Just before I left for the trip I ordered Dr. Yeshes’ book (Dalai Lama’s doctor) on Tibetan Medicine and I was reading it in every chance. I walked into the store and met the monk who is also a Tibetan medicine doctor. It didn’t take me long to realize he didn’t speak any English. I pulled Dr. Yeshe’s book from my book bag and showed it to the little monk. First he didn’t get it, I realized he might not read the Latin alphabet either. Then I slowly pointed him the picture of Dr. Yeshe and said his name. He got it. He repeated the name himself a few times. It was so funny. He smiled big time. I told him I’ll be back with a translator but of course he didn’t get what I said. I got back in few minutes with our tour guide and asked him if he could give me a consultation. I didn’t tell him anything about my health condition. Just like that, no appointments, no insurance cards, you walk into the doctors office; pretty unusual for us Westerners. I sat on the wooden stool while he is checking my pulse and looking into my tongue and asking me questions about my sleep patterns, how hot/cold I am, etc. When he concluded his examination he said I am in perfect health. Yes! That’s what I needed to hear. Yet he gave me herbal medication to take daily. He only charged 72 rupees (less than $1.5) including the medication. If only the health care could be this accessible!
As I was reading Dr. Yeshe’s book, I see a lot of similarities with Ayurveda. Just like in Ayurveda, Tibetan Medicine is a holistic system that restores the balance of the elements. In Tibetan medicine these elements (life forces) are called, Wind, Bile and Phlegm. These forces represent the combination of 5 elements (earth, water, fire, wind, space). If these elements are in good harmony and balance – the person is healthy. But misbalance of elements is known as a sickness or disorder. Everything is about the balance and not a quick fix. Later I learned more about the real applications of Tibetan medicine from my friend I met at Bodh Gaya as she treated her paralysis with Tibetan Medicine. I’m mostly surprised they still practice moxa (moxibustion), literally burning the skin until it blisters at acupuncture points which then scars after it heals. I saw it movies but when I saw my friend’s scars, I knew it was real.
Another landmark in Ladakh was Guru Nanak’s temple. Guru Nanak lived in the 15th century and is the founder of Sikh religion. According to the legend, he was visiting Ladakh , at the time there was a demon who terrorized local villagers. Guru Nanak sat on meditation on the river banks. Determined to kill him, the demon pushed a large boulder down from the hilltop, aiming at Guru Nanak. The boulder rumbled down the hill but when it touched the Guru’s body, it softened like warm wax and an impression of Guru Nanak’s back is embedded on the rock. Thinking that the Guru had been killed, the demon came down and was taken aback to see the Guru deep in meditation. This time, he tried to push the boulder with his right foot, but his foot got embedded in soft rock. The demon realised the spiritual power of the great Guru and he fell at his feet for forgiveness.
Now there is a temple built around the rock and we were very lucky to witness warm Sikh hospitality as we enjoyed the prasad (blessed food) and the masala tea.
A trip in India couldn’t be complete without shopping. Leh’s main bazaar, on the ancient Silk Road connecting China, India, and Europe—and still a crossroads of Tibetan, Kashmiri, and Indian culture was literally outside our hotel where we shamelessly spent a few hours to look into all delicacies of handmade craft.
As we left Ladakh, I said goodbye to Dakinis over my air plane window and bowed deeply for accompanying me in my trip and taking part in my journey. Needless to say, I left a piece of my heart (and my karma) there.
Zeynep Premdasi Yilmaz