AROUND AND AROUND WE GO

Why Lara Ko­erner Yeo be­lieves in pil­grim­age.

Elle (Canada) - - Travel -

my mother in­tro­duced me to the idea of pil­grim­age when I was a child. I’ve been fas­ci­nated ever since. “Pil­grim­age is a time to think through tough ques­tions about how and why we are living our lives as we are,” she used to say. Even though she had never gone on one, she felt it was some­thing ev­ery per­son should con­sider. Dur­ing sum­mer week­ends at Lake of Bays, Ont., we would sit on the dock and make plans to walk the Camino de San­ti­ago, a well-trod pil­grim­age across north­ern Spain. But when my mother died of a sud­den stroke dur­ing one of those sum­mers, just a few days be­fore I turned 17, I tucked our travel books away.

Three years later, the sum­mer af­ter my first year of uni­ver­sity, I spent a month walk­ing hun­dreds of kilo­me­tres on the Camino trail with my brother and cousin. We ar­rived in San­ti­ago de Com­postela, the Camino’s end, on a swel­ter­ing day in Au­gust 2008. I was both elated and dis­sat­is­fied with be­ing done. By the end of a few cel­e­bra­tory days in San­ti­ago, I re­al­ized that my pil­grim­age wasn’t over—that there was much more to it than just a path with a fi­nite be­gin­ning and end­ing.

As a re­sult of that trip, and in the wake of my mother’s death, I be­came in­creas­ingly in­ter­ested in Ti­betan Bud­dhism; its tenets of com­pas­sion, mind­ful­ness and open-heart­ed­ness made a lot of sense to me. I felt I could ei­ther lan­guish in bit­ter­ness and anger at how trauma had re­ver­ber­ated through my fam­ily or I could turn to com­pas­sion and love. I read about the prac­tice quite ex­ten­sively—as did an­other one of my broth­ers—and I par­tic­i­pated in Bud­dhist com­mu­ni­ties. But, to this day, I do not think of my­self as an ac­tive prac­ti­tioner of Bud­dhism.

By 2012, I was work­ing on my mas­ter’s in hu­man rights and hu­man­i­tar­ian ac­tion when a close friend, Au­gusta Thom­son, called to ask if I would join her in film­ing a doc­u­men­tary about the pil­grim­age com­mu­nity around Mount Kailash, a sa­cred peak in west­ern Ti­bet, as part of her un­der­grad­u­ate dis­ser­ta­tion in so­cial an­thro­pol­ogy. The op­por­tu­nity seemed like a gift—one that would awaken me from the monotony of the class­room and, I hoped, deepen my un­der­stand­ing of pil­grim­age.

On July 12, I ar­rived in Darchen, the set­tle­ment at the base of Mount Kailash, with Au­gusta, who would di­rect the film; Don Nel­son, a fel­low re­searcher and our pri­mary videog­ra­pher; and a small Ti­betan crew. The moun­tain h

is deeply ven­er­ated by Hin­dus, Jains, Bons and Bud­dhists; it is con­sid­ered the cen­tre of their cos­mo­log­i­cal uni­verse and known as the “jewel of the snow” and “the navel of the world.” Each year, thou­sands of pil­grims make the 52-kilo­me­tre cir­cum­am­bu­la­tion, or kora, as it’s known in Ti­betan, around the 6,638-me­tre peak—which has never been sum­mited be­cause of its spir­i­tual sig­nif­i­cance.

We en­coun­tered three types of pil­grims at Mount Kailash: per­ma­nent lo­cals who live and work in Darchen, who com­plete the kora some­times but pri­mar­ily re­main in town; groups of per­ma­nent and semi-per­ma­nent no­madic Ti­betan Bud­dhists and Bons who come to the moun­tain from nearby vil­lages dur­ing the mild sea­sons for a cou­ple of weeks and walk or pros­trate along the route on a daily ba­sis, wak­ing at 3 a.m. to com­plete one kora by late af­ter­noon; and other vis­i­tors, of­ten for­eign­ers, who tend to com­plete only one kora in two to three days. Our group ended up slowly cir­cum­am­bu­lat­ing three times in 12 days so we could do in­ter­views and film along the way.

We started our first kora on a sunny af­ter­noon. From Darchen, we set out across the ex­pan­sive dry plateau be­low Kailash’s snow-capped dome. Walk­ing clock­wise, the di­rec­tion that Bud­dhists and most other faiths take (only Bons walk counter-clock­wise), we soon en­coun­tered heaps of colour­ful prayer flags and cer­e­mo­nial scarves, or katas. We’d reached the first of four pros­tra­tion points, called chak­stal gangs, along the Bud­dhist route. At th­ese lo­ca­tions, pil­grims stop, bring their hands to their chest in prayer, raise them to their fore­head and then bow down to the ground and touch their hands and fore­head on the path in front of them. The ma­jor­ity of pil­grims pros­trate only at spe­cific sites along their path, but some do so at ev­ery step—mak­ing for an in­tensely ar­du­ous, slow­go­ing jour­ney.

Un­like the ju­bi­lant group of Bon pil­grims we met at this first chak­stal gang, we didn’t pros­trate. In­stead, we smiled and raised our hands in greet­ing. We could feel their ex­cite­ment as they fin­ished their jour­ney for the day, and I’m sure they could sense our first-day en­thu­si­asm. Next, we con­tin­ued into the Lha Chu val­ley, pass­ing the Chuku monastery, tea huts, no­mad camps, the sa­cred Tar­boche flag­pole and the sec­ond chak­stal gang. Just be­fore we reached the Dri­ra­phuk monastery, where pil­grims who com­plete the kora in two days gen­er­ally camp, we met a fam­ily of Bud­dhist pil­grims from cen­tral Ti­bet—an el­der ma­tri­arch, her chil­dren and one grand­child—who were pros­trat­ing ev­ery step of the route.

The dust that en­gulfed the ma­tri­arch couldn’t dis­tract my at­ten­tion from her shock of dark hair, her bright, pen­e­trat­ing eyes and her deeply sin­cere voice. She took a break to speak with us through our team’s Ti­betan trans­la­tor as her fam­ily slowly moved for­ward. She seemed com­pletely ex­hausted by the phys­i­cal ex­er­tion of her de­vo­tion, yet she praised the moun­tain and its pow­er­ful grace. (The fore­heads of her chil­dren, like hers, were caked with a thick layer of dirt from their pros­tra­tion bows—some even had bro­ken skin and small patches of dried blood.)

She ex­plained how her fam­ily had spent months pre­par­ing for this jour­ney, how they all made their own pros­tra­tion gear—they’d sewn rub­ber pads for their knees, lower arms and palms and cloth aprons for their tor­sos. “We hope to com­plete the kora in two weeks,” she ex­plained hope­fully. I was deeply touched to be in her h

pres­ence and watch her fam­ily per­form their de­vo­tions. I had never wit­nessed any­thing like it be­fore, and it gave me a new per­spec­tive on my com­par­a­tively easy jour­ney.

The next ma­jor site was the kora’s tra­di­tional burial site, called Si­wash­tal. Here, most pil­grims leave prayer flags and katas along­side bun­dles con­tain­ing cloth­ing and be­long­ings of their de­ceased rel­a­tives (which of­ten in­clude bits of the de­ceased’s hair and teeth). The enor­mous mass of stuff over­takes the trail—it’s an as­ton­ish­ing con­trast to the oth­er­wise des­o­late land­scape along the path be­tween sa­cred sites. At first, I felt some fore­bod­ing as we ap­proached the site. Dur­ing one of our cir­cum­am­bu­la­tions, we watched some pil­grims en­act a rit­u­al­is­tic death: They lay on a slab of rock and gen­tly rolled on their backs with their palms open to­ward the sky. It seemed so star­tling. I never con­trib­uted any­thing to the pile or en­acted my own death, but to­day, I think of such things as gifts and signs of re­spect for the moun­tain, for pil­grims’ own spir­i­tual selves and for their an­ces­tors.

The apex of the pil­grim­age is Drolma La Pass, which is about half­way around the route. At 5,636 me­tres, it’s the high­est point and con­sid­ered by many to be the kora’s most sa­cred site. It’s where one is sym­bol­i­cally re­born. The path up is the steep­est part of the as­cent, and I cer­tainly felt the ef­fects—I had ter­ri­ble headaches from the altitude. With ev­ery heavy step, I would fo­cus on my ex­hal­ing breath and the fam­ily mantra my fa­ther used when, as a teen, I first started hik­ing: “Just put one foot in front of the other.” As I ap­proached the pass, I thought of the pros­trat­ing Bud­dhist ma­tri­arch and her fam­ily and how dif­fi­cult it would be for them to reach this point. De­spite the ex­er­tion, ev­ery pil­grim we met on Drolma La Pass was over­come with emo­tion and full of greet­ings—and I imag­ined it would be the same for the ma­tri­arch and her fam­ily. It felt nat­u­ral here for me to bring my hands to­gether in prayer and re­cite mantras to the moun­tain.

At this high point, our team joined in the prac­tice of leav­ing prayer flags on the pass. We chose to write the names of fam­ily and friends on in­di­vid­ual prayer flags we’d car­ried with us. Then we strung them up to fly in the wind and act as a form of bless­ing. I took a photo of each of our flags and re­flected, in that mo­ment, on ev­ery name. When I came to my mom’s name, I knew she was there, some­where, ap­prov­ing of our jour­ney.

In time, our lit­tle doc­u­men­tary team be­came a part of the col­lec­tive pil­grim com­mu­nity. We in­ter­viewed de­vout Hin­dus in tour groups or with their gu­rus, a Ger­man man ex­pos­ing his grand­sons to moun­tain travel for the first time, a young Chi­nese pil­grim who quit his job to travel the coun­try and who found Bud­dhism at Kailash, and a cou­ple of jovial Bon men whom we en­coun­tered on the path three times. Ev­ery­one seemed cen­tred on the com­mon themes of rev­er­ence for the spir­i­tual power of the moun­tain and open­ness to­ward their fel­low pil­grims. I think Rolf van Buren, the Ger­man grand­fa­ther, char­ac­ter­ized this best when he spoke to us of how, if you take the time to smile, raise your hands in greet­ing and say “chin lab che” (a Ti­betan pil­grim­age bless­ing) to pass­ing pil­grims, you are al­ways met with tremen­dous warmth. Although I never learned the ex­act trans­la­tion, this is the sen­ti­ment. We were see­ing first-hand how th­ese small ges­tures—a smile, an ex­tended hand, eye con­tact—are the pil­grims’ communal lan­guage and the foun­da­tion of this unique com­mu­nity. It was a joy to par­take in th­ese prac­tices day af­ter day.

One night, while we were camp­ing near Drolma La Pass, I set out to hike up to a glacier to have some time alone to re­flect. Part­way though a river cross­ing, I stopped on a rock to re­think how I could safely reach the other side. Be­fore I could fig­ure it out, a young no­mad walked swiftly through the wa­ter to­ward me with a smile and open arms. I lunged to­ward him and he caught me in his em­brace—I felt in­cred­i­bly safe in the arms of this stranger. We raised our hands in prayer, bowed to each other and walked our sep­a­rate ways. No words were ex­changed.

Dur­ing an­other cir­cum­am­bu­la­tion, Au­gusta and I wit­nessed a rare ex­change be­tween pros­trat­ing pil­grims—it’s a scene that made it into our doc­u­men­tary. As we walked back to camp af­ter film­ing at the fourth chak­stal gang, we en­coun­tered a Bud­dhist and a Bon pros­trat­ing to­ward each other. Tra­di­tion­ally, fol­low­ers of Ti­betan Bud­dhism and the

Bon faith are ri­vals; they be­lieve that rit­u­al­is­tic du­els were fought be­tween the re­li­gions’ prin­ci­ple deities for con­trol of the moun­tain. Know­ing this as we looked at the nar­row path, Au­gusta and I weren’t sure what would hap­pen. But right be­fore the pil­grims would have col­lided, the Bon man halved his pros­tra­tion to give the el­derly Bud­dhist space to com­plete his bow. Both pil­grims then sat to­gether on a large rock over­look­ing the path, talk­ing and chuck­ling; they were two men, strangers, from op­po­si­tional faiths, brought to­gether through hu­mil­ity and a shared prac­tice.

I felt hum­bled to wit­ness the scene. In fact, I of­ten felt in­cred­i­bly hum­bled by the kind de­meanour of strangers on the kora. On the Camino, pil­grims were friendly and I felt very much a part of a com­mu­nity dur­ing my walk. But, com­par­ing the ex­pe­ri­ences, I think my abil­ity to ca­su­ally speak with many other pil­grims in Spain di­luted the power and im­por­tance of phys­i­cal ges­tures that ac­knowl­edge and show re­spect for one an­other. On the kora, be­cause the lan­guage bar­rier of­ten pre­vented my group from speak­ing di­rectly with fel­low pil­grims, ev­ery ges­ture res­onated.

To­day, I’m study­ing law at the Uni­ver­sity of Toronto and work­ing on projects re­lated to women’s and in­dige­nous rights. In con­trast to my time walk­ing the kora, life is busy and hec­tic. Peo­ple are abrupt with one an­other and of­ten dis­tracted by the minu­tiae of dead­lines and to-do lists. It’s not an en­v­i­ron­ment where peo­ple ap­pear to no­tice or un­der­stand the power of eye con­tact or a smile—ges­tures that come so nat­u­rally to pil­grims at Mount Kailash.

In the two years since I com­pleted the kora, I’ve started a new tra­di­tion—a sym­bolic ges­ture of my own. I leave prayer flags wher­ever I hap­pen to be each July. In 2013, I did so along the Dalai Lama tem­ple cir­cum­am­bu­la­tion in Dharam­sala, In­dia; and this past July, I strung up flags on an Ovoo, a sa­cred cairn for of­fer­ings, in Mon­go­lia’s Gobi Desert. I do this be­cause soon af­ter I left Ti­bet, I learned that one of my cousins had been mur­dered just a few days af­ter I had flown a flag for her on Kailash. In re­mem­brance of her, and my mother, among oth­ers, I will do this ev­ery year. Now, when I’m caught up in the te­dium of school and feel like I’m los­ing per­spec­tive, I turn to the sto­ries in our doc­u­men­tary, Nine-Story Moun­tain (ninesto­ry­moun­tain.com), which Au­gusta re­leased last year. I also think of my mother and her own small but sig­nif­i­cant act of teach­ing me about the power of pil­grim­age—how on those lazy sum­mer days, we would talk about what it might mean to treat ev­ery day as a pil­grim­age. I trust in this as I put one foot in front of the other each day. n

Prayer flags near Ser­alung Monastery in Ti­bet’s Kailash re­gion; Ko­erner Yeo; the peak of Mount Kailash, which has never been sum­mited be­cause it is con­sid­ered sa­cred

Thom­son, sur­rounded by prayer flags and fel­low pil­grims, film­ing at Mount Kailash’s Drolma La Pass; a Bon pil­grim (be­low) pros­trat­ing along the route into the Zhong Chu river val­ley

A Bon pil­grim smiles and bows her hands—which are in home­made pros­tra­tion gear—as she takes a break along the trail; Ko­erner Yeo strings prayer flags in the Gobi Desert; a typ­i­cal view along the Kailash kora

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