Dear Friends –
It has been seven months since my last Blog post. In the interim I have been consumed with raising the money for, and the actual construction of, a new Rancho Feliz volunteer dormitory in Agua Prieta, Sonora, MX.
But the Tibet book is finally completed.
It is a surprising 700 pages long (to be edited in half).
I have to tell you that it was five times the amount of work I originally anticipated.
In addition to myself – we have nine other expedition members contributing to the narrative.
Two of the contributors are Sherpas and their perspectives of transpired events are quite different than ours. Their realities existed in a sub-context of benevolent and monovalent spirits and a conscious, living, breathing landscape. Theirs is a rare and fascinating view.
The book is full of hardship, magic and intrigue - sprinkled with understandable Buddhist philosophy. As the last unexplored place on the planet – traveled before the benefit of mobile phones and GPS – it’s a story that can never be replicated.
No less than ten books have been written about the uncovering of this fabled landscape. Now – a quarter of a century later – our story will be told.
We are currently polishing it with one final review, inserting chapters, footnotes, etc. Once we have that completed we will find a good agent/adventure editor to cut the book down to a marketable size for the general public. We will then locate a publisher and produce our book.
As our three separate journeys through the Himalayan Hidden Lands were arduous – so too was the challenge of compiling and condensing mountains of notes and recorded conversations, allocating the time and sitting at a desk - typing for hours and days on end.
I would like to thank each of you for your encouragement and support of this consuming effort.
I promise you a story like no other.
But I enjoyed posting the Blog stories and would like to continue. If you will remember, the last post brought our 1994 expedition to a close.
Our rafting and exploration trip with Rick Fisher had been an adventure dream come true. But it lacked spiritual significance. The mystery of this secret land was what I was after. The Tibetan Buddhism that produced outrageous people like Chögyam Trungpa and the Dalai Lama. The possibilities of hidden lands such as Shangri-La and Shambhala. Furthering my understanding of meditation and the mind’s role in our interior and exterior circumstances.
This was the Tibet I wanted to see.
So let’s go back to our 1994 exit from Tibet.
May 29, 1994 – Tibet’s Capital City, Lhasa:
We had time to call home and let everyone know we were safe. Back then there was only one set of phones available to us in Lhasa and there was always a wait. The minimum cost for each call home was $18. After finally getting through and telling of our wild adventures, two Westerners approached and introduced themselves as Ian Baker and his cohort - Hamid Sardar.
“Excuse me.” Ian said. “I didn’t mean to eavesdrop but it sounds like you guys had a remarkable adventure.” And the conversation continued from there.
Ian and Hamid had been in the inner gorge at the same time we had. They were part of the American team Rick had been so worried about.
As we were exchanging pleasantries and sizing each other up it was discovered that Ian had a sister - Jennifer - who lived near us in Scottsdale, Arizona. “What are the odds of that?” we said in unison.
It soon became apparent that Ian and Hamid knew what they were talking about. Astute in their diction and studied in their content, Troy and I were impressed. They had just returned from their own trip into the Hidden Lands they called Pemako. Both Ian and Hamid had a keen interest in Tibetan Buddhism and this sacred landscape. Ian explained that its energy was essentially female.
He went on to tell us about his quest to find a fabled mountain - Kundu Dorsempotrang. However, upon his reaching the Chinese military outpost of Medog, (on the banks of the Yarlung Tsangpo River near India) the local authorities forbade his group to proceed. Ian explained that Tibetan Buddhism views the Hidden Lands as Beyul Pemako, the “Hidden Land of the Blossoming Lotus”. This was a secret land of a sacred goddess. Her name was Vajrayogini and she was a meditational deity or image. In other words, she wasn’t an externally existing goddess, rather her practice dealt with meditative visualization as a self-determined path to alter one’s reality.
Evidently Pemako was her sacred landscape and she was represented geographically spread out over the region. He mentioned that he was planning another attempt to reach Kundu Dorsempotrang the following year. As he described the adventure it would be, “A spiritual pilgrimage to the luminous mountain - heart chakra of Pemako’s patron goddess.”
“Might you be interested in going?” he asked.
Troy and I were hooked.
The Heart of the Goddess
Going Back to Tibet
The primary cause of disorder in ourselves is the seeking of reality promised by another.
Our senses perceive the way they do because a specific feature of our awareness forces them to do so... because we learn what to perceive.
Most people don’t inhabit a living reality, but a conceptualized one.
Once we overcome habitual patterns we will begin to be individual masters of our world.
August 24, 1994
7901 XXXXXX Road
Philadelphia, Pa. 19118
The day after we all got together Troy and I were talking about what a unique coincidence it was that we ran into you in Lhasa. Not to mention the fact that you have a sister who lives here in Arizona just a short distance from us. It's these types of coincidences that should not be ignored. With this in mind I would like to reiterate our interest in joining you on your next trek into southeastern Tibet. The area that you were talking about sounds absolutely fascinating. Equally important to both Troy and me would be the opportunity to see this magical place with you and to share your knowledge of the language, people and religion…
…As discussed, we believe that there is a fast closing “window of opportunity” to experience this remote region of the world in its undiscovered and pristine state. I don't think any of us should let this chance pass us by…
…One last thing. If it would be possible to structure the trip in a way as to include travel on some of Trungpa’s escape route I would greatly appreciate it. I am such a student and admirer of his that to walk in his footsteps would be a very special experience for me.
That's it for now Ian. Again, it was good seeing you and I do hope we can work out this trip together. Something tells me it would be an unforgettable adventure!
Tu Gran Amigo,
Via Facsimile: 011-977-XXX-3617
March 22, 1995
To: Gil Gillenwater
From: Ian Baker
My apologies for not responding before now to your letter last August…
…The expedition I spoke with you about last summer – into the heart of the Pemako region (south-east of the confluence of the Tsangpo and the Po-Tsangpo rivers) is definitely on for this August. It was very tentative for a while as that area we want to explore is right on the Tibet–India border. Only last week was permission from the Chinese Military official granted.
As we spoke about, this trip would be an expedition into the region that Tibetans consider to be an earthly paradise, despite the fact that it's cut off from the outside world for all but two or three months in the year. (We’d hoped to enter this area last May, but the snow on the high passes was still too deep.) Essentially the trip will last about three weeks, beginning in the first week of August. We’ll drive to Pome and cross first the range of snow peaks by truck, beginning the trek somewhere to the north of Medok. We'll be passing through villages similar to the ones you visited last year, but a significant part of this expedition will be in virgin wilderness. Setting out from the Monastery of Rinchenpung which lies – it’s said – in the naval chakra of the goddess Vajrayogini, we’ll follow the pilgrims’ route to the sacred mountain that rises at her heart center. This route descends into lush rainforest but also climbs over steep glacier covered passes. No westerners have ever been into this region and the expedition will be exploration and pilgrimage in equal measure. From the holy mountain – Dosempotrang – we’ll enter into the area that Tibetans have envisioned for centuries as a hidden paradise.
I've been collecting Tibetan texts describing this mysterious region for years as well as pilgrims’ accounts of their experiences there. There's no doubt that the journey will be a tough one; rain, leeches etc. are guaranteed, but the descriptions that pilgrims bring back of an exotic realm of mists and waterfalls – will – I’m sure – more than compensate for all adversities. So far there are three of us going. Hamid, my friend who was on the last trip, who's a Tibetan scholar and practicing Buddhist and two other people you haven't met. I would welcome you and Troy to join us as I think you would make the team all the more stronger and I know from our meeting that your view of the journey would be in accord with ours. I'll write more details when I’ve heard back from you.
All for now.
Via Facsimile: 602-949-7969
March 24, 1995
To: Ian Baker
From: Gil Gillenwater
Troy & I never argue with destiny. We're on! Please provide details A.S.A.P. as we have a lot of planning ahead of us. Especially interested in the pilgrimage & spiritual aspects of the expedition. Also think you have put together a good team. Please confirm your receipt of this FAX & looking forward to seeing you again in August.
Tu Gran Amigo,
Via Facsimile: 011-977-XXX-3617
April 30, 1995
To: Gil Gillenwater
From: Ian Baker
Sorry about the delay in providing details about the trip. I was waiting for further clarification from the Chinese regarding costs, then had to leave suddenly to India for a magazine assignment. The trip is still very much on, in fact it's becoming increasingly apparent that this is the right time to go. I met last week with the tulkus (reincarnations) of the two 17th century llamas who established the first monasteries in Pemako. We'll be bringing letters and photographs from them which will do much to secure the cooperation of the local people in our journey to Pemako’s hidden center. One of them stands about 6’3” with long black hair and the white robes of the Tantric initiate. It's too bad they can't come with us.
According to the tulkus the most auspicious time to arrive at the mountain at the heart of Pemako would be the full moon in August (according to the Tibetan calendar, August 10th). This region is meant to be extremely unusual, a glaciated peak rising out of thick subtropical jungle. This circumambulation route around the mountain passes by several small lakes, each of different colors and endowed – according to the texts – with magical powers. To reach the mountain - Kundu Dorsempotrang - at the optimal time means leaving Lhasa by July 30th…
All for now.
Via Facsimile: 215–XXX- 5641
July 5, 1995
TO: Gil, Troy, and Todd Gillenwater
FROM: Ian Baker
RE: Packing and equipment for Pemako expedition
…At least as important as these outer preparations for the journey is an inner readying. Pemako, as I think everyone knows, is a land uniquely sacred to the Tibetan people – a place they described as the ultimate place of pilgrimage and “a celestial realm on earth". At the same time this remote border region is one of the least known parts of the planet, and our focal point – a luminous peak rising out of subtropical jungle – has never to this day been visited by anyone other than devout Tibetan Buddhist pilgrims who envisioned the mountain as the heart center of the Tantric goddess Vajrayogini.
It is important that we, too, travel through this region in the spirit pilgrimage: attentive to the unknown and unexpected. As one llama described his journey through Pemako: “If you have faith that this is truly a secret and magical land, Pemako can reveal many wonders. If you doubt, however, it can seem like hell… Ultimately you must recognize that you are in no way separate from the landscape through which you walk."
All for now.
We were going back to Tibet.
Yes… we were going back to Tibet. I was beyond myself. All my study of the mind was manifesting in a trip to Tibetan Buddhism’s heart center - the “Hidden Land of the Blossoming Lotus” - Beyul Pemako.
In Tibetan Buddhism, Pemako is thought to be an earthly paradise - a Shangri La or Shambhala (Sanskrit for “the Source of Happiness”). This mystical refuge was purportedly an idyllic sanctuary originally revealed by the eighth-century Buddhist guru - Padmasambhava as the “Supreme Hidden Land”.
Pemako remained remote and secluded from the “civilized” world into the mid-1990’s. As some of the first foreigners to gain entrance, we found the Hidden Lands pristine in their isolation. In this rarified condition we learned from the “unaltered”, non-conceptualized minds of those who lived there. See Pemako Footnote. It was a fortuitous and rapidly disappearing opportunity. A mere four years after our 1995 expedition the Communist Chinese again closed Pemako to foreign travel.
For this expedition, Troy and I convinced our younger brother - Todd - to join us. Todd was 30 years old, 6’2” in height and strong. He was smart and fun and a good athlete. He would be a great addition to our trip.
A month before we were leaving Todd tore the meniscus in his right knee playing basketball. It was a painful injury and the prognosis wasn’t good. Three independent Orthopedics’ insisted surgery was mandatory. With a three month recovery, this would preclude Todd from joining us. He opted out of surgery. He was going. Troy and I were encouraged by his decision but not without trepidation. We knew Pemako. We knew the wet, slippery, unstable conditions with its steep ups and downs. Hell, these were the Himalayas.
On July 25, 1995 the three of us boarded a plane for Tibet.
Shangri La - Shambhala
Beyul Pemako is a region in southeastern Tibet roughly defined by the Great Bend of the Yarlung Tsangpo River.
The name Beyul Pemako translates as follows:
Be - hidden or secret
Yul - land or country
Pema - lotus flower
Ko - blossoming or opening
Accordingly, Beyul Pemako means “Hidden Land of the Blossoming Lotus" or “Secret Country of the Opening Lotus”. Tibetan Buddhist philosophy extols sacred landscapes as hidden places (beyuls) where pilgrims can greatly accelerate their paths to enlightenment. The more hostile the environment, the more sacred the landscape and the faster the journey to realization. As the deepest, wettest, most geologically unstable and biologically diverse areas on the planet, the Great Bend of the Yarlung Tsangpo River is Tibet’s most revered “Hidden Land”.
Pemako is home to the oldest Tibetan Buddhist tradition called Nyingma. Padmasambhava introduced this tradition over 1300 years ago. In Pemako he subdued aggressive demons, endowed the landscape with his magical powers and secreted Buddhist teachings to be rediscovered by future generations. Pemako’s extreme environment provides a compelling location for Nyingma tantric practice.
Ancient prophecies foretold a time when, “Men will lose sight of truth and religion and will turn to warfare and the pursuit of power for its own sake. Dishonesty, greed, and cunning will prevail; an ideology of brutal materialism will spread over the earth.”*
*Bernbaum, Edwin. The Way to Shambhala: A Search for the Mythical Kingdom Beyond the Himalayas, (1980) St. Martin’s Press, New York
With the projected inevitability of worldwide destruction, Buddhist texts told of pilgrimage routes into Pemako where those with pure karma could retreat. Here they would find Shangri La - a land with no disease or poverty, where sacred waters ensured longevity and food would grow without work. Here they would be liberated from the bondage of time. There would be no toil and inhabitants were free to master the highest science of them all, the science of the mind. Great lamas would teach true wisdom and all would accelerate their spiritual progress. This Shambhala would be a heaven on earth.
Following the annihilation of the outside world, Shambhala residents would emerge to repopulate the earth with an enlightened society.
However, the prophesies were clear - Pemako could only be reached with enormous hardship and pure intention. Those with ulterior motives or negative karma were certain to encounter failure or death.
To many Tibetans, the Communist Chinese invasion of the 1950’s was the prophesied destruction of their world. They fled their oppressors seeking refuge in the “Hidden Lands" or “Shambhala” of the “Great Bend of the Yarlung Tsangpo”. However, despite tremendous efforts, the promised paradise failed to materialize. What the pilgrims found instead were devastating landslides, incessant rains, warring tribes, vipers, jungle diseases, blood sucking leeches, tigers, hordes of insects, nettle forests hidden in dense vegetation….. in short, hell on earth.
Thousands of these paradise seekers died while some survivors made it on to resettlement camps in India, Nepal, Sikkim and Bhutan.
For the spiritual pilgrim, the paradise of Pemako is hidden more by habits of perception than by features of the landscape.