In March 2014 I travelled on pilgrimage to visit Chatral Sangye Dorje in Pharping, Nepal (big thanks to Purna, Nagabodhi, and Suvajra for their encouragement and support). In preparation, I uncovered many different things including a book which I was only to read many years later. When I finally read that book, it not only connected me back to my pilgrimage but also to my current involvement with our retreat centre project in New Zealand. And to better understand all the different threads which came together in that moment for me, I wrote these reflections for myself. Recently, I decided to also share them.
At the age of nineteen, while studying scroll painting in Katmandhu, Ian Baker became fascinated with the Tibetan Buddhist stories of beyuls: remote paradises which were hidden in the mountains, worthy of pilgrimage and difficult to find. They were said to be blessed by Padmasambhava, to be places where the physical and spiritual worlds overlap, and where spiritual significance manifests in the natural topography. When the planet is approaching destruction and the world becomes too corrupt for Buddhist practice, it is said that beyuls will be discovered. However, you cannot force your way into them, force only produces failure and death.
His ensuing adventures trying to discover these beyuls are the topic of his book “The Heart of the World”. It is said that pilgrims who travel to a beyul as pilgrimage often have extraordinary experiences similar to those recorded by Buddhists on the path to Awakening. If you can get your heart around this description in the proper way, you could call them a ‘Buddhist paradise’. They are like a pure land, but right here, right now, both path and fruit.
“Beyuls are places were everything we need can be found and where meditation and Tantric practices are more effective,” the gallery owner said, pouring us glasses of tea flavored with cardamom and cloves. “Only great lamas can find them. We might be right in the middle of one and still not see it.”
The remoteness of these places is not simply physical, but may also be well beyond our habitual ways of perceiving and interpreting what surrounds us. So even if we travel to beyuls physically, we may also need to travel beyond our personal barriers of destructive emotions and limiting views. Looking for someone to help him on these travels, he went in search of a great lama. Which is how he met Chatral Sangye Dorje (one of Sangharakshita’s eight main teachers).
I tried to steer the conversation towards the exact location of the hidden valley, but Chatral Rinpoche remained adamant. If I was truly serious about understanding beyul, he said, I should come back when I had enough time to stay alone there for at least a month. That way, he said, I wouldn’t have to ask what a beyul is; I would experience it for myself.
And based on Chatral Rinpoche’s advice, Ian Baker starts on an incredible journey which ultimately leads him to Pemako: one of the most remote, least explored, and dangerous beyuls which remained only a myth on scrolls. Literally, many went in search of it and many never returned. On his first visits to the area, the locals would not share their knowledge. The landscape was uncharted and difficult with steep cliffs, deep gorges, and rivers that ran so fast and so full of water that they could not be kayaked by the most talented in the world. Not to mention the poisonous snakes, armies of leeches, and dripping humidity which makes Pemako very uncomfortable and possibly deadly to live in. And yet when approached with the right spirit of practice and a good store of merit, it is a place of heart-moving beauty, deep mystery, and profound spiritual significance.
As Chatral Rinpoche had explained: “Don’t think of Pemako as a literal paradise as described in the scrolls. Pemako is a paradise for Buddhist practise, a place where all things can be encountered and brought to the path.” Like the fourteenth-century Dzogchen master Longchenpa who described the greatest places of pilgrimage as those which make the mind waver, Chatral Rinpoche intimated that in places where human life is tenuous and heaven and hell converge, reality can be more intimately perceived.
At this point, we are well advised to be aware of any latent religious conditioning we might have. From some theistic perspectives, the absence of paradise is understood as punishment for our collective fall from Eden. Pain and difficulty tells us that someone has misbehaved, needs to be punished, and we just need to find the right person or right people to blame. And unlike this painful confusion we live in, the paradise we have lost and want desperately to find again is free from difficulties.
Buddhism sees things very differently. From a Buddhist perspective, pain and pleasure are not at odds with one another: one to be avoided, the other chased. Rather, neither can be trusted to navigate life by. And even more radically, particularly in the beyul tradition, difficulties and challenges are potentially instructive experiences which can help us see more clearly. We could say that Eden, to borrow that term, is, according to Buddhism, simply hidden rather than lost. And the difficulties and challenges we face become windows into a greater understanding of our human predicament and empathy. In the end, nothing changes but you.
The wilderness cave is an open market
where Samsara can be bartered for Nirvana.
In the monastery of your heart and body
lies a temple where all the Buddhas unite.
– p. 69 – verses quoted from Milarepa
When I was reading all this, I was constantly reminded of Sudarshanaloka Retreat Centre. Its main retreat house will comfortably hold about ten to twelve people. No troubles. However, it is not always the most comfortable place to be on group retreats when we have double that number. And although we are slowly working to improve the conditions for larger, longer retreats, it is mainly more experienced practitioners who benefit from these larger retreats at the moment. Why? Because they know how to use these potentially crowded conditions, limited facilities, and the potentially cold and rainy weather as windows into their own minds. Of course there are always people who are physically unable to manage the rugged conditions. But for most of us, it is our own minds which are the greatest enemy.
Similarly, those of us more intimately involved with the daily operations of this continuing Sudarshanaloka building project face similar challenges. We are building a better retreat space. But there is never enough money, never enough helping hands, we are rarely working with things we are trained to do, and we never seem to get on top of everything that needs to be done, let alone have the money to do them. As Hakuin says, the most beautiful lotus blooms in the fire.
What I find in a project like Sudarshanaloka is a mirror reflecting back to me my own limitations, fears, and cravings. All of which I can reify into situations which never change and relationships which never improve. As relieving as it may be, even the pleasant is honey on the razor’s edge if it engenders my complacency and instills in me resentment towards inevitable change. There is always change. But I can hold inevitable change next to my personal limitations (and the limitations of others) in the crucible of a collective Dharma practise of integrity, honestly, care and appreciation. In such conditions, it becomes more and more painful to keep telling myself stories which separate and degrade, self and other.
Difficult projects are simply difficult. I should not take these difficulties personally, they are not highlighting a punishment or a betrayal. The beyul is not lost, it is hidden. And the challenges can be the source of new capacity, strength and patience. Or perhaps they are about letting go of something? When I work with others in such a way, something else can arise which is immensely beautiful. Perhaps this is the bodhicitta?
But before we start believing we are ready to work under difficult conditions with others, perhaps we should first develop the willingness and tools to work effectively by ourselves with this unruly mind of ours? If you want to experience what a beyul is, Chatral Rinpoche advised being willing to stay there alone for at least a month. Perhaps a long solitary retreat would be helpful?
When we go away on solitary retreat, sometimes what we meet is not very enjoyable, simply because we meet ourselves and cannot so easily convince ourselves that someone else is to blame. We come looking for a rest but only find boredom. We come to finish writing our book but only stare out the window. We hope to meditate blissfully but spend hours irritable and discontent. We are hoping for the joys of solitude but encounter instead terrible loneliness and perhaps even fear. Who knows what exactly you will find when you slow down and spend time with yourself? You may finish some writing, have deeply content inspired meditations, and unfold yourself into the solitary beauty of nature? What arises in this solitary space could be challenging or blissful, both or neither (choose your own poison or joy).
When it was first purchased, I’ve been told that our founding teacher, Sangharakshita, cautioned us to never ‘tame’ this land he named Sudarshanaloka: Land of Beautiful Vision. On another occasion, during a visit to lead a retreat here, a senior member of our Order encouraged us to remove the Buddhist decorations someone had placed around the sacred puriri tree. Instead, he encouraged us to reverence this majestic old tree simply as itself. We did, and still do. That was many years ago. None of us want to tame this land anymore, we simply want to learn to live alongside it with greater love and appreciation.
The clear wind – what is it?
Something to be loved, not to be named, moving like a prince wherever it goes; the grass and trees whisper its praise.
– excerpt from “Lotus Viewing” by Su Tung-p’o translated by Burton Watson
In addition to the wind, I’ve always personally loved the water element at Sudarshanaloka. It is the home to many small and large waterfalls, still pools, and tenderly cascading streams which are making their way to the ocean. You can walk up or down these water roads, reaching places only a few people have been. And then, you can sit quietly: listening to the sounds, feeling the freshness of the air, sensitive to the rich colours and textures … perhaps the beauty of the moment will introduce herself? Or you might be sitting on an uncomfortable cold and hard rock, perhaps your butt is wet, the silence foreign and scary, your feet sore, and all you can think about is something to eat. What separates these two experiences is not the physical conditions.
Who takes the Cold Mountain Road
takes a road that never ends
the rivers are long and piled with rocks
the streams are wide and choked with grass
it’s not the rain that makes the moss slick
and it’s not the wind that makes the pines moan
who can get past the tangles of the world and sit with me in the clouds.
– poem 32, The Collected Poems of Cold Mountain, translated by Red Pine
And all the while, as we sit there with the flowing waters, there is constant change. The waters continue to flow, day after day, more or less in the different seasons, but unceasing in their movements: ever changing constant.
Everybody has the potential to lead a peaceful, meaningful life. The key point is mindfulness, a state of alertness in which the mind does not get caught up in thoughts or sensations, but lets them come and go, like watching the flow of a river … If we only search outwardly and materially for fulfillment, the world will be filled with frustration and discontent. If we look inside and outside simultaneously … without walls or divisions of any kind, our eyes may open to a world such as we have not yet imagined.
– p.473 – quote from the Dalai Lama
At one point in “The Heart of the World” [p. 82], Chatral Rinpoche ties a ritually blessed protective cord of black yak wool around Ian Baker’s neck, saying “Don’t lose this, Pemako can be dangerous.” But when asked for parting advice, Chatral Rinpoche simply says “It rains a lot and the trails are rough: bring an umbrella and good boots.” That is good advice for a solitary retreat at Sudarshanaloka too, particularly during the rainy months.
Coming back to a wider project like Sudarshanaloka, how much can we actually benefit from such difficult and challenging projects?
Perhaps, in the end, it would depend as much on how we looked as what was actually there. As Tibetans say, we would have to see not just with our eyes, but with our hearts.
– p. 371
(i) The original distinction between a ‘lost’ verses a ‘hidden’ paradise was presented by Ian Baker in a talk he gives for the Meridian Trust. It can be watched for free (as of July 2019) at http://meridian-trust.org/video/the-geography-of-paradise-ian-baker/