The road circled toward the peaks that marked the path to Tibet. Long ago, a Buddhist monk, Padmasambhva, the “Lotus Born”, traveled along theses steep valleys, windswept horizons, and snow-fed rivers.

Mountains rose in a vast cataclysmic landscape, born in clashes of earth and fire when the world was still young. The earth remembers, and the mountains still groan and whisper in the bright spaces that hold the silence of the valleys.  Even with the grinding of the old bus motor and the wind sighing through the high passes the land was filled with this silence.

You can hear the world being born when you listen to the mountains. You can hear yourself being born when you listen to the Silence.

Before entering the high Himalayas and its horizon of snow-covered plateaus, Padmasambhva sought solitude among the ridges and hanging cliffs that guarded the path to Tibet. In this place, he found a cave that looked out onto a sloping valley, a place where he could listen to the white peaks and shimmering landscapes of his life’s journey. Here, time did not flow from moment to moment but was drawn into the earth's memories, memories of ice and stone, wind-song and silence.

The dawn had come with a light blue translucency, making its vast spaces, luminous, and gentle. Massive outcroppings of rock with intersecting green valleys, broke the land into slanting shadows and clear basins of light. The village huddled around a path that wound upwards away through the hills with the same slow pace as those who were coming and going through its mists.

Wisps of pale smoke from the cooking fires fled like ghosts in the morning light. A fine powdery dust smelling of stone and ice, mingled with the aroma of chapattis and yak butter, blew through the narrow streets and scratched along walls that leaned into the winds from above.

We walked brushing against delicate tails of white clouds that touched like silk as they flowed down from high mountain passes into the streets, weaving wraith-like around our bodies as we moved upwards into the sun.

The entrance to the monastery was a small room hewn out of living rock below Padmasambhva’s cave. From its high windows, shafts of warm light played along the floor, across the muted colors of the cliff’s inner face. The wall of the shrine was native rock glistening in a sheen of moisture dripping silently from the heights above. Drops of water, glimmering like small diamonds, fell through space onto two small figures that seemed to emerge from the rock itself.

These figures, surrounded by flickering butter lamps, were the images of Ganesh, the Hindu god of Wisdom, and the Green Tara, the female Bodhisattva of Mercy. Buddhist nuns, their gray wool habits merging with the dawn light, sat in quiet prayer before the shrine, merging Mercy with Wisdom as water and time carved the figures.

Here everything is shaped by the forces that brought forth the sharp peaks and their sacred rivers. These dense landscapes of rock and irresistible winds are songs woven into the fabric of heaven and earth. Here one can hear the mountains rising and the valleys deepening, and the sound of all things that arise and diminish in their turn.

The deep metallic toll of the iron bell sounding for the morning puja, rose singing on the morning wind. Flashes of sunlight blazed on distant peaks and glimmered on wings of birds taking flight. In the prayer hall, the monks sat in rows, cross-legged before long wooden tables, sheaves of the holy Sutras open before them.

Massive beams emerging from the shadows of the high ceiling, echoed with a deep rhythmic chanting that rose through the sanctuary's luminous spaces, broken only by the shrill notes of reed instruments, the silvery chime of hand bells, and the dull thump of large skin drums that sounded deep within our bones.

As time passed, the Gompa became heavy with rhythms that flowed on the skin, connecting the soul to earth and the mind to the vast luminous spaces of the heart. Suddenly there was complete silence, a looking up and a looking around, as those who had been seeking the effortless path, returned their focus to things that the hand could touch. A monk passed among us pouring black tea mixed with yak butter into small tin cups with an offering of chapatti, unleavened bread- sharing Oneness blesses all Oneness.

As the sounds of the last sutra dissolved into the shimmering distance, silence flitted through the spaces of the Gompa, and echoes of the chant flowed out into the bright mountain air, coloring the flowered fields from horizon to horizon. The valley filled with the gentle sound of prayer flags fluttering in the breeze, bringing blessings on the wind to the land and all the people that shared its vastness.

Early morning in Chhettrapati, the Tibetan district of Kathmandu, was busy as usual, breathing colors and shadows in scents of decay, dust, and spice. The aroma of meats and vegetables sizzling in the dark oils of the cooking pots clung to yak hair vests and Western T-shirts of the Tibetans who had come down from the long mountain passes.

Families wandered, in their close space together, a child or two straining forward to find the small delights most certainly found in this shop- or maybe the next. Longings and restless pleasure stirring in warm breaths of air.

I found a bench where I could sit and enjoy the graceful purposes of this early morning with all its exotic aromas and soft radiant colors. A father from one of the highland villages and his young son of perhaps eight years, sat down beside me. The boy seemed shy and avoided looking directly at me, but I would catch him snatching furtive glances in my direction. Suddenly, no longer able to contain himself, he grabbed my hand, lifted it up and examined it closely, turning it slowly this way and that, front to back, then rubbed his thumb wonderingly on my skin. His father smiled, and in the British accent of a former Gurkha said- he has never seen a white man before.    We had traveled a very long way to meet, we three. 

Over every street, prayer flags waved in the invisible breezes, dancing in color, aroma, and dust; and on every face, were marks left by high dry winds, and eyes that sang of joy and loss endured in patient faith.

Though Chhettrapati is not a large district I spent at least half an hour walking through small airless passages and dusty streets, looking for the clinic where I had been invited to intern. After several dead ends, I saw a golden figure of the Buddha set into the wall of a small building resting in the middle of a shaded compound. 

The clinic, that served both Kathmandu and the villages of the foothills that surrounded the valley, was a simple structure of three rooms built of white cinder block. The clinic’s interior was rather sparse but its walls were a treasure of traditional Tibetan medical charts and thankas. One room served as the consultation, another functioned as a small office, the third housed jars of herbal compounds, safe behind shuttered windows, protecting them from the cold blue light of the Himalayas. This area connected to a small shed where fresh herbs and minerals are stored for making the several hundred traditional Tibetan medicinal formulas.

In a little courtyard, light dancing in the bright weave of their saris, a group of women and young girls sat around a blanket grinding herbs and mixing ingredients for the medicines, their chatter and laughter filling the still air and fragrant spaces of the compound. Dried bones and organ parts from yak, deer, and water buffalo, herbs and gemstones from the Himalayas, and paper-thin sheets of precious metals prepared in baths of herbal juices, combined to bring  Compassion and healing to the sick.

The doctor, a man in his late thirties was dressed in conventional white shirt and slacks. A quiet wakefulness reflected his character. Even when he moved he appeared to be at rest, and his long slender fingers seemed created to bring comfort and release pain. He was proficient in English, courteous, but somewhat reserved, a respectful waiting for the moment when we would find words that would bridge the long distance that separated my home in Denmark from the valleys of the Ganesh Himal.

One late afternoon, a young mother arrived at the clinic. She had traveled three days by foot on narrow paths that wound along the edge of deep chasms and restless rivers. She wore an ankle length dress of brown cotton, faded from the journey through harsh winds and dusty heat. Her loose black hair framed a face lined with distress and weariness.

She had come on behalf of her young daughter who was too sick to travel. I imagined her village, these places of beauty and poverty where I had seen too many of these children with lusterless eyes waiting patiently for death.

The mother's account was sketchy and emotional, not enough to create a picture of the girl's condition or give any clear therapeutic indications.

Gently, the doctor took both the woman’s hands, and placing three fingers on each wrist, asked her to shut her eyes and think only of her daughter, closing all other thoughts from her mind. He then pressed lightly, first one finger then the other on the pulsing arteries of her wrist, his head bent forward, concentrating, as though listening to a faint and distant voice.  His fingers moved softly and almost imperceptibly, feeling the life-energies flowing through tissue and viscera. Finally, he raised his head with a comforting smile.

Then he told me something very simple. All things are connected. Nothing can be truly separate, and Compassion connects all that to all that will be. When the mother thought of her daughter, her daughter was present in her heart, they were connected. I could then read the daughter’s pulse through the mother’s heart.

She received her packet of medicine, and disappeared in the dust and color of Chhettrapati on the long path home.

Perhaps the greatest proof that he was right about healing and compassion is the lesson of the pulse itself. Our own blood, pulsing through the vessels that bring life to our tissues and organs, also beats as One with the pulse of the world, the breath of God. There is a true connection of being and love between all creatures animate and inanimate, reflecting the One Heart that remains timelessly poised and present, over all of Creation, a Presence where each heart beats in the pulse of all other hearts.       

After returning to my own practice in Denmark, I have often thought about the clinic under the Bodhi tree in Kathmandu. Several times throughout the years, emergencies have occurred, as with the young mother in Chhettrapati, where it was necessary to evaluate the condition of a patient that could not be present. Again, I was drawn back to the exotic scents of drying herbs and bright, dusty sunlight, where sound is filled with Compassion and Silence- and I would feel the pulse of the patient change beneath my fingers, two hearts beating as One.

 

David Russell OFS
Kathmandu