Pilgrimageto Pemakoe: “Joining Heaven and Earth”
Ah, how can one start to describe our trip to Pemakoe? It is in many ways beyond words, but perhaps this phrase we say when we practice comes first to mind: “profound, brilliant glory” – of the deities and of the nature we experienced there.
We were about thirty three in the end – two thirds from Russia and one third from Europe, and myself, the lone American – and we all had our own experiences. It was a pilgrimage, a lifetime voyage penetrating and burning through our own obscurations, and karmas, and a call, a challenge to live up to the best in ourselves, to find through Pemakoe, as Gyetrul Jigme Rinpoche said, our own inner Pemakoe – and to leave behind old habits.
In my case, it was the experience of the light and truly extraordinary landscape – verdure and abundance that filled my notebook with pages upon pages of wonder: enormous lush palms, towering trees, giant ferns, streams everywhere, waterfalls, abundant fruit, freely roaming cows, pigs and all kinds of animals from ducks to barking deer to gorgeous roosters, to beautiful swallow like birds, to horses, goats and dogs – even an elephant – to help with the roadwork on our drive in!
The dense foliage of the huge Indian jungle, trees giving the impression of vertigo from below, as if looking up they would tumble down upon one as if from the sky – huge chasm like gorges, vast open skies above, gazing at the snow capped sacred mountains of Tibet in the distance – pure lands of Guru Rinpoche, Chenrezig and Vajravarahi – all incredible visions that impressed themselves upon our minds. We passed through the gates of pure lands, outer and inner Pemakoe – visited sacred rocks, washed our faces and feet in the river before eating lunch, made treacherous kora to hidden caves, drank secret spring water in grottoes and were shown the places of hidden lands to be opened in the future.
We were extraordinarily lucky with the weather – we had no rain – and hence no leeches – and brilliant, bright clear blue skies. The quality of the light itself was what penetrated most – in places carrying the quality of open sky and others the moist fecund water around us – shimmering, dancing light that filled us all with a golden rosy glow.
On the trail itself we experienced stark contrasts of blazing light and deep shade of forest as we raced along the jungle path. Gyetrul Jigme Rinpoche has the siddhi of speed walking and at one point one of the Tibetans amongst us thought we were going a good clip of five kilometers per hour! The trail was extremely rocky, uneven, slippery, and at times in mud or under water, or filled with vines and fallen trees, and in many cases we had to resort to climbing or scrambling – no simple rambling trek this, and that with packs on our backs! The drops were quite sharp and dangerous in places, with very little space to find one’s footing – Gyetrul Jigme Rinpoche reminded us at one point that we could go back to camp if the trail were too much – but in the end, we all made it! We crossed, there and on the return – ten hanging bridges.
For me, this was the outer challenge – as I tend to experience vertigo – and the drops were far below to giant unforgiving rocks and very cold rushing water. The bridges were in some cases next to older ones that had collapsed and even the new ones were in disrepair – many missing or broken wooden planks meant that in some cases we had to walk over gaping spaces on just a narrow wire, holding the cables to left and right – it seemed in some cases there were more prayer flags than bridge is some parts! As my heart raced, saying mantras and deeply focused as I moved forward – the bridges swayed and bounced with all of us on them and so one was forced to be utterly alert!
After the first few bridges I overcame panic and took it as it came – but even Gyetrul Jigme Rinpoche paused a few times to consider whether the bridge would hold – at one point he shouted across the river to the group to stop – as too many people were on the bridge at once. We had as part of our party over thirty porters as well – carrying loads of fifty kilos in burlap sacks – so it was simply a matter of being prudent – too much would be too much! Indeed, not many months before a large bridge with fifty people on it had collapsed, and many perished in the river below. It is with that event that a new ferry service was conceived and we had the honor to be on the ferry with Gyetrul Jigme Rinpoche as he blessed its maiden voyage!
Indeed, many moments felt historical for us – everywhere we went, Gyetrul Jigme Rinpoche was greeted with large groups of Tibetans, lasangs, katas, jalings and all kinds of abundance – of food, fruit, cookies, chai, chang, and even local popcorn! Rice was cooked and served in giant palm leaves, chang was served out of large tin buckets using a ladle into homemade machete-crafted bamboo cups.
Indeed we were very impressed with the clever use of bamboo and wood. Many locals walked with machetes – a necessity in the forest – and we saw a few local tribal people with guns for hunting. In these parts there are over 125 tribes and many languages are spoken.
During our visits through various villages, many people had only a brief half hour with Gyetrul Jigme Rinpoche – as he gave teachings and blessings after having been away for a lifetime to many of his old students. He has lived in Pemakoe for four of his previous lifetimes – and in two cases – an old man and an old woman had each seen him now in his third incarnation!
There were some very poignant moments… in Tashigang we visited the place where Khandro-la had been living before she met His Eminence – her family had lived separately from the village below in retreat – and it was an extraordinarily beautiful and wonderful place. We visited the land where His Eminence had been in retreat and I could still feel the energy of his practice there. It was a perfect place for retreat, with a view to the mountain that is the pure land of Guru Rinpoche – equivalent to copper coloured mountain – that is called Ugyen Peshe or “crown of Ugyen” to one side and on the other side was Riwo Tala moutain or “Potola” mountain – the pure land of Chenrezig.
Lama Dorje Tenzin was our guide all along the trail and when we arrived at his home in Tashigang, he was the consummate host – where we were served food and tea. He generously offered us food on the full day that we stayed there – including our culinary high light – homemade momos! Gyetrul Jigme Rinpoche gave two Amitayus wangs and blessed the gompas – or future gompas – as we went. There were auspicious signs – as the cuppola or sertok was placed on the new pink wooden gompa in Tashigang – out of a brilliantly clear, cloudless blue sky there shone a rainbow onto the gompa!
Later, upon our return back, as we entered Mahakota – the meeting place of the dakinis – we saw rainbow like clouds in the blue sky – with symbolic images and in one case the unmistakable face of a protector. Gyetrul Jigme Rinpoche said that each day he experienced his past lives coming back to him and that the protectors and dakinis were very happy to see him – showing him signs that he was truly in the right place. Connected to Pemakoe by both blood and lineage – he found himself feeling both very happy and also sad to be back – it was good to be back and of course the sadness of having been away for so long, and on only such a short trip, was also there!
Gyetrul Jigme Rinpoche reminded us that “Pemakoe is truly a place to practice – that the blessings of the divinities to the land push one forward in one’s practice – revealing one’s mind to one’s self, so that everything is experienced much more vividly – including its very emptiness. When we become fixated is when the problems come, but if we can let go into the emptiness it becomes bliss – and we are made more complete thereby. Fixation brings the pain of hope or of loss – but there is joy if the emptiness of mind enables us to begin to radiate luminosity – as thoughts and emotions dissolve within the state of mind – without reference or clinging. When the light is unobstructed it is unobstructed because there is space – therefore it flows everywhere. In the same way Pemakoe lies in your heart, your own mind…. In the West, our problem is that we explore and exploit. In Pemakoe, one lives simply, without manipulation of the environment, but in harmony with it – here, one’s mind becomes simple and pure.”
In the evenings, as there was no electricity, we sang songs by the campfire if we were amongst ourselves – Russian, French, Spanish, English, German… or, if with the Tibetans, we joined in Lingdro dances. The nights were sometimes quite cold, with only the sound of the river far below, and the vast star filled heavens above. Gyetrul Jigme Rinpoche said that Pemakoe is a place that can break you as a practitioner, there is no place for the ego to be entertained and it can become very lonely if you are not able to be at peace with that aloneness. Here one practices until the point of nearly dying – that is how much one should be devoted to practice – and also to the teachers – since it is through faith, trust and devotion that the blessings are received and that one quickly progresses on the path. Thus, though we were a merry and exhausted group, sore and literally quite dirty at times from the long trekks – over eight hours some days – and covered sometimes in mud – we were mostly with each other. And yet each of us did find a few moments of being alone on the trail, listening to the forest, bathed in the brilliant sun above, looking out on spectacular views of the sacred snow covered mountains in the distance, wondering, how the Rinpoches could ever be brought to leave such a wonderful place! As if hearing our question, Gyetrul Jigme Rinpoche said that Pemakoe is a place for practicing and accomplishing, and that in the case of His Eminence, as he accomplished what was to be accomplished, it was of greater benefit for him to leave and so make a contribution to the world. How lucky we are!!
So, we hope that during a future trip to Pemakoe, you will think to join us – but be forwarned, the trip is only for those who are up to the challenge!