July 26, 2008

Pilgrimage to Mt. Sedzong

I feel elated each time I return from a pilgrimage trip, including this time, regardless of my bus crash. As a matter of fact, I’m recovering very quickly. I was told by a doctor that it would take a month to recover. It has been slightly over a week and an half but my routine has been resumed, i.e. going to work, researching, and writing. Pilgrimage in general gives me a sense of rebirth, transformation of my consciousness in terms of my existential and spiritual positions in this world. The world goes on as it is with events of both happiness and sadness. The transcendental nature of pilgrimage elevates my consciousness from multi-dualities of our worldly mode of being. I feel restored, recovered, and renewed upon returning from my recent pilgrimage trip to Mt. Sedzong, a sacred site where Guru Rinpoche (Padmasambhava, founder of Tibetan Buddhism) had solitary meditation in a cave.

This time, my pilgrimage was not only a trip expressing my homage to the teachings and practices of a Buddhist saint. I was also connecting the sublime physical environment of Mt. Sedzong with human ecology. For this coming fall, I plan on making a visual documentary with my students on the relationship between Tibetan traditional wisdom and ecological health. Mt. Sedzong is an ideal site. Unlike Mt. Ani Machin, Mt. Gang Rinpoche and other sacred sites that require many days to complete a circumambulation, Mt. Sedzong is compact enough for my students to explore its natural beauty and caves of historical and spiritual significance in three days. It is also fairly close to the county seat of Xinghai, about an hour bus ride. Most importantly, there is a monastery on the south side of the mountain. It’ll be our base and a site for our students to have conversations with monks who know the history and folklore of Mt. Sedzong.

The rock formation at Mt. Sedzong is one of a kind in the region. It stands out among the expansive rolling mountains covered with lush grass in the summer. If a Chinese Fengshui man or an Australian aboriginal Dreamer happened to be at Mt. Sedzong, I am sure he would identify it as a celestial place or as a place where many songlines (passages of dreams) converge. This was how I felt when I was there: Buddhist practice in Tibet isn’t a lone business; on the contrary, when a lone practitioner takes residence in a cave, he or she immediately plugs into multi-interplay with other species and with both earthly and cosmological energy-fields. Enlightenment comes from within, but I wonder how much our inner landscape is nourished by sublime natural environments like Mt. Sedzong. In turn, from the perspective of human ecology, we also consecrate the landscape of our spiritual/religious choice. In the context of Tibetan Buddhism, the consecration is done in Buddhist terms.

The circumambulation of Mt. Sedzong goes clockwise. Direction-wise, it starts from the south toward the west, turns to the north, and return from the east to the south. The west side is uphill, a gradual slope leading up to a long ridge, resembling a long spine of a dinosaur, which separates the south and the north sides of the mountain. A long stretch of prayer flags were hung over the ridge. It was a spectacular scene. I began to see how humans are capable of sanctifying parts of the earth with spiritual orientations; thus, they’re immune from our utilitarian activities.

While I was standing along the ridge taking a photo of it, my Tibetan student cautioned me not to stand right on the spine of the mountain too long because I could faint. He grew up in the area and told me a few cases of local residents who had fainted on the ridge. He shared his folk education with me that mountain ridges are the intersections where deities, spirits, and ghosts frequently pass. They are the places where the living need to stay low and be respectful toward lives and things that are not visible to our eyes. In fact, I was feeling slightly light headed; perhaps, I was intoxicated with the congregations of the assorted invisible beings.

I felt much affinity with the north and the east sides. When I reached to the north side, it was around 5:30pm. The sun was tilting toward the west, shining on the north side of the mountain. Everything, i.e. rocks, grass and yaks, looked surreally uplifting. A nomad boy was singing on a rock while overseeing the herd of his family’s yaks. I caught a few verses of his song – “The sun is dropping to my height…my ama (mother) is beckoning me home…” I waved at him. He joined us for our walk on the north side. It was a long stretched slope with green grass on the foot of the mountain.

One tree decorated with layers of prayer flags caught my attention. It must be the “karmic scale” that I had read about prior to the pilgrimage. It’s a tall pine tree. Its uniqueness isn’t the prayer flags left on it by pilgrims. Of course, they certainly mark it as a special site. It is known as the “karmic scale” because a pilgrim can actually “weigh” how heavy his or her karmic retributions from wrong doings of past and present. The side of the tree facing Mt. Sedzong has a short, sturdy branch sticking out. One may lift oneself up by hanging onto it. The nomad boy demonstrated the weighing process. He was utterly serious about it. The weight of one’s karmic retribution is determined by whether or not one can see the “karmic mirror,” which is a large, round hole in one of the large rocks on the top of Mt. Sedzong. If one can see it, the weight is light. If not, the weight is heavy, unfortunately. This means one has much purification work to do.

We bid goodbye to the nomad boy when we turned to the east side of Mt. Sedzong. The caves on the east side gave me goosebumps and a warmth went up my spine. Entereing the cave where Guru Rinpoche had his solitary practice was revisting a history of Tibetan Buddhism. The precipice in the cave is smooth, having been worn by the hands of countless pilgrims. A sense of blessing and empowerment rose from within.

Besides Guru Rinpoche's cave, there are many other caves on the east side of Mt. Sedzong. Numerous monks, yogis, and yoginis followed the footsteps of Guru Rinpoche by taking residence in caves. These historical sites are marked with prayer flags and kadhas (honorific scarves).

These caves aren't quite historical in the conventional sense, as if they were only the relics of the Tibetan Buddhist past. There are current residents who have found new caves or have built cabins for their solitary practices. My yogi friend and I met four persons who currently live in cabins next to Guru Rinpoche's cave. One is a nun, one man is a cook for the other residents, and there is also a woman and her niece.
The aunt has lived in her cabin for fifteen years. She hasn't left Mt. Sedzong since she arrived in 1997. She is the primary caretaker of Guru Rinpoche's cave, offering daily incense and water and cleaning the dust brought by the wind. Her niece joins her in the summer, before the family wheat wheat harvest. I took the aunt's long-term presence at Mt. Sedzong as a form of consecration and guardianship of the sacred.

The focal point of the sacredness is a Buddhist saint; however, what is consecrated has become a refuge for everyone who happens to reside here (besides the mountain itself). I particularly
want to mention wild goats who freely roam the mountains. They walk fairly close to humans but keep enough distance to leap away. They resemble northern California's wild deer - brown, small and agile.

I feel very fortunate that I have a panoramic camera. For the last three years, I have got myself fixated on panoramic views of both interior and landscape photography. I considered being a freelance photographer, but it does not support our living. There’re tons of photos of sunsets, mountains, flowers, animals, that could be downloaded from the internet. I don’t know how attentive people are about landscapes and sacred sites. But I do believe awe-inspiring and sublime state of being is collectively felt.


Anonymous said...

hello Dan, very good writing. i felt your journey. where is mt. sedzong? i sense you unfolding into your nature. my spirit smiles with you...Sean

Dan said...

Sean, hi! Mt.Sedzong is in Qinghai province. The entire Tibetan region is full of sacred sites. I often imagine that I film a documentary on these sacred sites with a super-wide angle lens on a movie camera...and I could fly over mountains for aerial shots:) Dan

Bluebell said...

As always, breathtaking photos and incredible narrative. Wish I was one of your students!