Shambhala is a kingdom hidden somewhere in Inner Asia. Shambhala gradually came to be seen as a Buddhist Pure Land, a fabulous kingdom whose reality is visionary or spiritual as much as physical or geographic.
On our 3rd day in the Gobi Desert, we returned to Shambhala to explore the now quiet sacred grounds. The festival, which had drawn hundreds of pilgrims the day before, was finished and the desert had reclaimed it’s unique and untouchable silence.
We drove up a narrow plateau that overlooked the Gobi and parked the van at the edge of an embankment. In one direction, hardscrabble dunes disappeared into the infinite distance of the desert. In another direction, at the edge of an escarpment, a path dropped down into a something akin to a spiritual obstacle course.
After receiving instructions from our guide, we followed the path through the purifying powers of the site. We squeezed our way through a small opening, representative of a birth canal, to be reborn anew. Later, we descended a narrow path into the deepest recesses of the canyon, holding hands as an act of humility. We finished the course by pressing and rubbing our backs against deep purple stones imbued with healing qualities. The stones, which radiated with desert heat, were worn silky smooth by the countless backs of other pilgrims.
Besides mystical powers, the obstacle course also was a physical narrative of recent Mongolian history. The Lama of the Gobi and revealer of Shambhala, Danzan Ravjaa, spent long periods in retreat in a small cave on the site. There also were several other meditation caves, each with small openings at the top for food deliveries. The site had served as a hiding ground for Tudev, the monastery caretaker, who fearlessly preserved the Khamariin Khiid’s monastic treasures from the Soviet purges of the 1930s.
We finished the day on a small knoll that tilted in all directions. Our driver pushed the van up the hill, cutting his own path, and we piled out of the vehicle to survey the Gobi in all of its immensity. Shambhala, the magical portal to a mythical kingdom, rose up from flattened earth to offer a stark yet strangely seamless contrast to the endless space. In another direction, mound upon mound of beaten sand and earth flowed into the distance like an open and rolling sea of red and yellow.
The Shamballic vision, which had seized Danzan Ravjaa more than 150 years prior, was as close to its primal form as possible. Empty, quiet, and windblown- just a few errant crows and starlings, searching the grounds for scattered seeds and food. In all of this emptiness, before there were pillars, stupas and temples, Danzan saw something and then staked out his vision.
We were near the end of our stay in the Gobi- first stop on the Triptych Journey itinerary. The next evening we would board a slow train for Ulaanbaatar and later, the Terelj Valley. Our journey was still young and we were testing the newness of the experience and each other. Our Sangha of eight was taking shape.