It’s said that the Guru Rinpoche, Padmasambhava, was summoned to Tibet from India by King Trisong Detsun sometime during the 8th century C.E. to subdue the many demons thwarting the establishment of Buddhism in the Himalayas. It was believed that only a great Tantric master had the power necessary to confront these demonic forces…
Guru Padma was believed to be the greatest of all Tantric masters, and at the king’s bequest, he journeyed from India to Tibet. Arriving in Samye, Padmasambhava was apprised of a stubbornly pernicious demon that had bedeviled the people there for some time, preventing the completion of the first Buddhist monastery in Tibet. Every day, construction proceeded; every night the demon returned to destroy whatever work had been accomplished on the gompa that day.
Padmasambhava dispatched the demon, allowing the great monastery at Samye, which still stands today, to at last be completed. Some believe that when this particular demon was subdued in Samye, he became part of a host of protector deities. Others say there was more than one malevolent spirit at work in Samye, and some–both male and female–fled to the mountains to avoid the wrath of Guru Padma. In Mustang, the story goes that when Padmasambhava chased the demons out of Samye, the destroyer of the Samye gompa escaped across the high passes into the Kingdom of Lo (present day Mustang, Nepal) whereupon he began to torment the people there.
Padmasambhava pursued the demon, tracking him into the arid mountains and high into the snowbound passes of the Himalaya, finally making his way down the other side, deep into the heart of the Kali Gandaki river drainage. Here he crossed the plains and scoured the cliffs for signs of the demon. It’s said Padmasambhava discovered the demon holed up somewhere near Lo Manthang, whereupon where the guru challenged him to do battle. Most agree that the showdown took place near the village of Ghemi.
In the course of the battle the demon was torn to bits and scattered over the hills and plains. The demon’s demise is recorded across the natural landscape, including the red (‘blood stained’) cliffs and the mani wall above Ghemi, as well as at the monastery of Lo Gekar, said to be built on top the place where the demon’s heart is buried. The great mani wall and the ancient monastery are treasures that survive to this day, yet most Westerners visit these sacred sites with the idea that the stories are just that, stories, and nothing more.
It’s understandable, given the so-called progress of science and technology, that the tales handed down for centuries are considered for the most part to be myth and metaphor and that we’ve come to think of demons on a personal level as aspects of personality or on a more fundamental level as primitive explanations for natural phenomenon. Understandable, but not all that interesting, and in my mind not accurate, either.
When I meditated in the shrine at Lo Gekar, my hair stood on end. Walking the mani wall, sitting on the rooftop in the starlight at Ghemi–just being there, anywhere–the fields, the dirt tracks, the ancient shrines and stupas–I was unable to be objective. I was unwilling to be. The stories are still alive. As I walked alone in these places it was clear; the veil between the worlds is very thin in the Himalaya.
The stories handed down for centuries in the Himalayas share elements common to the ‘Wild West’ tales I grew up watching on TV on Saturday morning, bowl of cereal in my lap; bad guys, good guys, spinsters, maidens, holy people, old people, animals, frightened villagers. I’m interested in what happens if I become a child again, if I simply believe the story, literally. In the long poem that follows, I do that, I allow myself to be there, to travel back in time, or across-in-time feels is perhaps more accurate.
“The Heart of Lo Gekar”, emerged from an essay in which I explore the possibility that we can, in fact, use our imagination to ‘prove’ things, such as the actual existence of demons in the natural and supernatural world of human experience. As I continue to absorb and assimilate my personal experiences in the Himalaya, I find it impossible to separate myth from fact, and have come to the (personal) conclusion that (for me at least) there need be no separation.
As life continues to unfold while moving inevitably toward its natural end, I find it far more compelling to invest in wonder and mystery, to take up residence, in as much as it can be done, in a ‘perfectly pure land’.
In Gemi the day draws down;
brief wisps of cloud drift listless by,
crepuscular mountains yawn, stretch and sigh
while horses–spotted, black, brown, white– file in from the fields, heads low–
heads low, tails swinging, hindquarters sway in time
to measured steps, patient for darkness
while the women, young and old, come herding behind
with whistle and call; elegant offhanded wave of hands
like grasses waving in deep summer,
rhythmic cadence gently scored
by bells chiming, swinging from halters,
chime of gentle ringing laughter
A foot steps gently, hand brushes grass, reaches up
to push back braided hair
She is young–
all is music, bird wing, goatsong,
stone and grass.
Witness now to horses moving, narrowing to the trail
like water; ever more confined from pool to stream to pipe,
tails swinging side to side,
equine discourse of nose and breath, hooves on rock,
song of evening, slight breeze rising, wisp of cloud falls
behind mountains–ah. Just so. We stretch and sigh while
all the while stillness visible while all is motion visible, all
is as always is
yet something stirs amiss–
stillness of sweet steady motion broken by cessation;
heads draw up sharp and quick, a snap–ears tense, muscles contract
and now the women, too, stop in their tracks
raise heads, crane necks,
strain to see to watch to where
in hours-away-distance dust rises, a plume of dust
traces the path that
snakes through the mountains;
a rider, far travelling, approaches from the east.
In a land where dust like snow has many names
dust is never alone; begs attention, annoys, explains
approaching danger, oncoming storm,
descent of blue sheep
snow lion, marmot or rock
a rider, nothing more.
The women sigh, shift their study
back to the path slipping into shadow, shift bundles, resume their duty;
let the rider come, the ancient shoulders say; the rounded, burdened shoulders,
the swaying hips say, let him come. The young (soon old) sigh, complain,
night is falling, little light remains. Let him come. A rider on horseback changes nothing.
Horses, heads low, resume their shuffle
it’s nothing– a rider–nothing more.
Yet something is amiss, a vague unease or is it (would they recognize) hope? Still the women drive and herd
the horses ahead
from pasture to village, from day to night, ahead.
And now through shadowed grove of stunted trees
the path narrows, drops to the creek
climbs to the village through tortured scree
through wooden gates flung open, along stone walls
the evening breeze tags along,
blows lazy and low to the ground
in dying light the mountain flashes sudden light, the grayblack rockface silver in dying light.
I plane through stratum veil and time–embodied–vaporous
consort, concubine, queen, mendicant–
through distance wheel turning long before invention
where movement stopped is not cessation
lammergeir scan for ritual procession
beginning and ending sublime recognition of light reaching through space
a parsec emptiness and easily that far away
affords a view, a hint, a trace of pure land
while here in mad darkness
the demon holds sway, in landscape complacent
day in and out whittling away at contentment
carves out certain destiny
leaving chips of resignation
She is young. She dreams forbidden dreams wherein women question, demand, refuse–
If only they knew! If only she could choose
a life of her own she’d fly; hair let loose from braids and bands, free
to run, laugh, sing, limbs supple–
A dream! She bows at his feet in dreams, beseeching; his hand on her head
blessing; the women with him sit above him–above! He leans back, rests his head–
Imagine! She’d be dead. Bone on bone; blood on blood.
He rests his head against the thigh of a woman in the dream with hands of silk
who knows her work and knows her dreams and likens
all–the work, the dreams–to wisdom; How can she?
A long sigh, no time for dreaming. Here she is a herder of horses, goatherd, able
chicken-plucker, egg-gatherer, dumper of buckets,
washer of backsides of babies and old people.
Now her strong hands reach to smooth the silk of dreams;
both hands firm and flat
against the backside of the last, a red mare–
hip bones rock face angled under hide–she places a hand either side
shoves the mare with gentle grunt,
shoulder to gate, gate to rump, throws the latch, pauses to breathe
and walks as so often and again
the dark street toward lighted window, ducks inside and draws door close–the streets yawn and sigh
an emptiness sentient– now steady to the hearth–boil the tea, stir the thukpa, stir the cheese, lift the curd with gentle spoon–
her mother(and she, all too soon) with hungry mouth at breast feeds
the baby still and quiet. From where will come deliverance?
In Gemi the moon slides down, owls done calling, all is quiet–
when somewhere near morning, in deepest dark moonset, with village sleeping
the demon awakens, stretches, sighs,
through village streets breathing, seeking,
creeps and breathes with quiet stealth, huffing
through narrow streets, gone from stealthy, grows louder
losing caution he shakes and shudders,
now fans a broken flame with fretful sputters,
gruesome roars, a dreadful bluster
of demon wind blows, without grace or purpose; a stupid wind, cowardly wasteful
breath of greed and ignorance, spiteful huge and suffering ogre wind
blows dust and lies and foolishness, draws mouth pursestring tight and blows
night after night exhausting hope.
Behind the windows darkened to sight,
long suffering sorrow, hopelessness
fright–draw blankets close, close ears and eyes tighter to no avail.
All cringe and throw it in, or rising run blindly
until darkness failed gives way to morning
it’s always so but something
The rider– no longer dust but flesh
ridden in from Samye.
The demon waits, drooling, panting, head turned sideways to the ground
blowing mouth narrows tighter still, wind whining, screaming without let up over
rooftops–a racket, a din–inescapable tyrant
pushes and shoves dust and madness through the air,
through the mountains, through cracks in walls and hearts and minds.
While horses cock their ears to the sound the monks in hiding awake,
light lamps, duck for cover
long siege nearly over–
The rider comes to battle,
tracking on horseback comes the warrior,
in search of the demon crosses over the mountains,
The Guru Rinpoche, Padmasambhava.
Siddhi Hung! She is out of bed, alight, anew the dream made clear
The clearness so
that silken hands draw curtains back fling shutters wide
while others run or cringe or hide she takes to the window
and sees it all.
In dying darkness the battle rages
the river runs past cliffsides trembling,
goats awakened, huddle; horses circle in their pens.
Out of hiding, strengthened, yielding
the monks light butter lamps
uncover tankas, lift veils, strike the gong
long-awaited startled singing,
sound the tingsha blow the conch.
And she, with open weeping heart
no more to wonder when or how.
Sun rises on dying lungs still gasping from afar
Splattered blood-breath cinnabar
In battle torn limb from limb the demon wrung
and wrestled, in all ways scattered
from Chele to Lo Manthang and Samar;
landslide of bone, floods run bleeding and here the mountains
stained forever with last breaths taken
before dying; mountains forever red to remember,
from his belly dragging the great mani wall at Gemi
breaking apart and done with torment
here, where dying heart beat its last–
rises the great monastery of Lo Gekar.
Women gather children, gather
wood, turn to the fire, stir the thukpa, turn the bread.
It all happened so long ago if ever
a story to keep children close at hand, away from the cliffs
Away from the river
In Gemi the wind rests low to the ground
a yawn a sigh blown from a wide mouth grown slack and sleepy
and now an evening, restful, easy. Tea and bed,
candle flickers flames light
In the middle of the night the great mountains rumble and roar
watching over; the old ones know the sound.
Eyes close against the sting of smoke
monks rock and chanting sit
books open candles lit
slowly open eyes
narrow slit against the sting
Pour one last cup of tea,
Smiling, ask for a song, a joke.