Pilgrimage is a personal experience, even when performed with a group. Each person discovers his or her personal favorite sites, and within each site, his or her own favorite power spot.
For me, the sacred mountain known as Drak Yerpa ranks high. I have visited Central Tibet many times over the past three decades, and I always include it as one of the highlights of every visit I make. And on Drak Yerpa Mountain, the “Moonlight Cave” of Padma Sambhava is always the special power place that draws me in most deeply with its mysterious blessings and energies. According to local legend, it was the second place in which Padma made meditation retreat with his Tibetan disciples after coming to Tibet. (The first, of course, was Samye with the nearby Chimpuk Mountain.)
Drak Yerpa is located an hour’s drive northeast of Lhasa. No doubt the journey took several days by horse or foot in the old days. The mountain and the range immediately behind it are decorated with hundreds of caves, all of which have been used by meditators since pre-recorded times. Padma’s two caves on the mountain are the most famous; but modern pilgrims try and visit at least a dozen others.
In fact the mountain was most probably used by Tibetan mystics long before King Songtsen Gampo made Buddhism the national religion of the country in the mid seventh century. Tibetans today only identify sacred sites on the mountain from Songtsen’s time onward. Earlier records and legends have not survived the centuries. However, the very fact that this great religious king used one of the larger caves on the mountain as a summer meditation place for himself and his two Buddhist wives (and perhaps also his three Bonpo wives), rather than spend the summer in the superior comfort of his palaces in Lhasa and Tsetang, suggest that it was already a highly revered place for meditation. The popular classical name for the mountain is Lhari Nyingpo, “The Heart of Sacred Mountains.” Tibetans say the entire mountain represents the body of Arya Tara, the female buddha representing buddhakarma, or enlightenment activity. One can see her representation quite clearly from the front of Songtsen Gampo’s cave. Her left leg stretches out to become the adjoining hill with the old public teaching throne, used by visiting high lamas when they would give public teachings or blessings; the hill takes a turn and forms a ridge in the manner in which Tara’s left leg is folded into the meditation posture. The mountain to the right forms the shape of her right leg, which is outstretched in the “bodhisattva in action” posture. The symbolism is that the trainee in the Drak Yerpa tradition remains in the nirvana of emptiness or infinity samadhi, while simultaneously maintaining the bodhisattva motivation of universal compassion, and thus continually remains in the world to benefit all living beings. And directly below, where Tara’s vagina would be, a spring flows with pure healing water. As with all such water springs located at places where Padma Sambhava meditated, the waters of the spring are known as Guru Drub Chu, or “Healing Waters Empowered by the Guru,” i.e., by Guru Padma Sambhava. The pilgrimage route takes one through the main meditation caves and then circles back to this sacred spring. Pilgrims drink deeply of the spring waters, and rinse their head in it for blessings. Many also bring water containers, to carry the water home, often to villages hundreds of miles away.
Like many “national treasure” pilgrimage sites, the main khorra route for pilgrims has been well established through centuries of use. Basically the route leads the visitor through a series of meditation caves made famous by the great beings of Tibet’s spiritual history. And like most caves in Tibet in which great beings of the past practiced and accomplished enlightenment, small temples are now built over the mouth of the important caves on Drak Yerpa.
The first cave on the route is dedicated to the three great bodhisattvas symbolizing the three qualities of enlightenment: Avalokiteshvara for compassion; Manjushri for wisdom; and Vajrapani for power. Meditation on these three bodhisattva-buddhas was introduced as a national practice in the time of Songtsen Gampo, who termed them Rigsum Gonpo, “The Three Great Protectors.” The idea is that compassion protects from anger and hatred; wisdom protects from greed and attachment; and inner power protects from the inner distortions of mental cloudiness. Our pilgrimage had adopted Padma Sambhava as its focus. Padma too had taught the importance of this threefold practice, and elevated it from the simplicity of earlier Buddhism in Tibet to a transcendental tantric spiritual art. To symbolize Padma’s contribution, a statue of him looks on from the side of the central altar.
The cave is also famous for a footprint in rock left by Princess Yeshe Tsogyal, who became Padma’s main consort in Tibet, and later also his main Dharma heir. She visited here on pilgrimage with her family when only five years of age, a decade before Padma came to Tibet. The rock bearing the imprint of her tiny foot is given a prominent place of display on the altar.
A highlight of the opening section of the pilgrimage route is the cave of the Indian master Atisha, who inspired the Buddhist renaissance in Tibet during the eleventh century. The cave of Atisha’s main disciple Drom Tonpa lies immediately beside it. Like Padma Sambhava, Atisha is also regarded as an emanation of Buddha Amitabha; and like Padma Sambhava, Lama Drom is also considered a nirmanakaya emanation of Avalokiteshvara, the embodiment of compassion.
The cave used by the Fifth Dalai Lama for one of his many extensive retreats is shown special reverence by pilgrims. The Great Fifth is listed as one of the important Terton, or “Treasure Revealers,” of secret teachings buried and hidden by Padma Sambhava, for the use of future generations. The small temple built in front of it is now used as the main assembly hall of the roughly twenty monks who live on the mountain and maintain the pilgrimage caves and temples.
The final cave on the demarked pilgrimage route is that used by Padma Sambhava and his entourage of disciples during his stay on Drak Yerpa. In fact there is also a second cave used by Padma, high on the mountain above. According to local legend, Padma Sambhava and his disciples meditated together in the lower one for a period of seven months. Padma then moved to the upper cave for a further period of solitary practice. The lower cave is sometimes referred to as “The Moonlight Cave,” because Padma would fly down from his upper residence at midnight each day, to give special transmissions to the disciples.
The old monk minding this cave showed great kindness to our group, and allowed us to meditate in the inner recesses of the facility. Numerous Tibetan pilgrims came through as we meditated, seemingly quite happy to see Westerners using the place in the manner that it had been used for so many centuries, namely, meditation.
The upper Padma Sambhava cave can be seen high above the pilgrimage route. Visitors are discouraged from visiting it because of the precarious path leading to it. Many have tried, and many have suffered broken bones. We chose to admire it from afar.
Drak Yerpa is perhaps the greatest prayer flag art work in the world, as is demonstrated by sky photos of the mountain. Every visitor buys and hangs a long string of the flags. Actually, the Tibetan name for them is lungta, meaning “Wind Horse.” The flags are usually printed with a flying horse at the center, and four auspicious animals in the four corners. Auspicious prayers and mantras are printed in the remaining space on the flag. Lungta are often hung in high places, with the idea that the wind will carry the prayers and blessings around the world, this establishing well being wherever it goes. The lungta we bought and hung said things like, “May peace and abundance flourish, may health and well being flourish, may peace and happiness flourish.” Another set of lungta that we bought said, “May peace and happiness prevail during the day. May peace and happiness prevail during the night. May peace and happiness prevail both day and night.”