The Pilgrimage

This year I completed my third pilgrimage. Twenty-three years ago I made my first attempt to circumnavigate the Holy Mountain Kailash in Tibet. Although this attempt turned into what seemed like a death experience, it was the most powerful experience of my life. Then, eighteen years ago I repeated this pilgrimage with my late husband, my protector, and we succeeded to walk around the mountain. Both experiences were challenging and transformative.
This time I thought it would be easier. After traveling over three continents to arrive in Leh, the capital of the former kingdom of Ladakh, it seemed to be easier….until I left the airport and was hit severely with symptoms from the high altitude. I was somewhat able to balance the challenging effects with my homeopathic remedies, but for a few days I was huffing and puffing when climbing the steep steps to the many ninth- and sixteenth-century monasteries I visited.

Finally arriving at the prayer field, where His Holiness the Dalai Lama gave teachings for 12 days, I was even more overwhelmed by the 150,000 pilgrims than the heat and desert or by the construction dust from the newly built roads. Pilgrims came from all neighboring countries—Sikkim, Bhutan, Nepal, India—and 4,000 western visitors from all over the world, to listen to HH’s teachings and to participate in the prayers for world peace. This was further demonstrated by the creation of the Kalachakra sand mandala, one of the most powerful Buddhist rituals, performed during ongoing prayers by ten monks all day long. A special celebration was the birthday of HH on July 6. There, politicians, high lamas and Richard Gere offered special speeches and gifts. All pilgrims were dressed in their “Sunday best” outfits with jewels, silks, fancy hats and boots.

I had my moments when I wondered if my spiritual awareness would have grown stronger in the quiet of my meditation space at home rather than enduring the hardship of suffering in the brutally hot sun, sitting cramped on a tiny stool for eight hours a day in this huge crowd…
(How big was Woodstock, another peaceful gathering?)

At the end I had a rushed glimpse of the magnificent sand mandala, while 149,999 other pilgrims waited for the same. As with other intense experiences, the deeper value often manifests later, after slowly seeping through your brain. The consciousness eventually shifts when I finally sit quietly at home, dwelling on the moments of awareness I expect to receive from such an extensive journey.

Overall it was profound, powerful and I met many beautiful people of Ladakh. Those moments when 150,000 people were praying in unity, murmuring the mantras of the Buddha with the Dalai Lama, “Om mane pad me hum” — that I will never forget. That sound of unity in the peace mantra made me especially aware of how truly fortunate I am, we are, to be reborn at a time to receive teachings from the Dalai Lama, to have the opportunity to be near and to pray with such an enlightened being.