Between 2007 and 2013 I spent a great deal of time in solitary retreats practicing the meditation instructions I had received from my teachers. By a strange and beautiful process of synchronicity I was always able to find powerful places to practice, places that despite being on a very limited budget I could afford to do retreat. Traditionally it is somewhat embarrassing to talk about these things and I have refrained until now, however in the hope that it may be inspiring to other practitioners who also would like to undertake such retreats, I have decided to talk a little about each of these places in turn, in a series of short articles. This is the third article about Tso Pema Lotus Lake.
It is said that, after Guru Rinpoche eloped with the King’s daughter Princess Mandarava, the King was furious. Not long after, the King’s men found and captured them. Condemned to death on a funeral pyre, the Princess and Guru Rinpoche were tied to posts and the fire was lit. The next day the King and his men returned, expecting to see the charred remains, but, to their great shock, where the funeral pyre had been, was now a glorious lake, the width of an arrow shot, and in the centre of the lake on a magnificent lotus, the lovers sat serenely.
Tso Pema is Tibetan for Lotus Lake. It is a beautiful little town that surrounds an oval lake in the foothills of the Himalayas, known to the Indians as Rewalsar. In the years during which I was finding places to practice meditation, I went twice to Tso Pema to do month long retreats.
It was early Autumn of 2008, the first time that I took the long bus route up from Mandi, famous for the colourful silk sari-suits the ladies wear, to Tso Pema or Rewalsar. As you turn up the mountain roads, a gigantic statue of Guru Rinpoche looms over the valley. These enormous statues – really, maybe seven stories high – have become popular across Buddhist sites in Asia. They have their detractors, who might say they are gross, bawdy, hubristic; but they are also beautiful, powerful, and have the potential to puncture mind’s self absorption for a moment.
My first thought for this series of articles was that I would write about the places that I did retreat. However, it has quickly become apparent to me that it is actually my memories – the slight details that have stayed with me, that have become the subject of these pieces. The Tibetan word for being translates literally as migrator. We are all of us ceaseless migrators, and the places we inhabit briefly are waypoints on a longer journey. And therefore, in this spirit of transience, it seems appropriate that what is now left to me of these most magical places are the shakiest sketches or a few mundane memories.
I remember the okra was dreadful. I have not eaten okra since. For the first retreat I stayed for one month in the Drikung Kagyu monastery of Ontul Rinpoche, just a hundred yards from the hem of the lake. Because I wanted mostly not to be disturbed, I took up the offered arrangement whereby a monk would bring me some food from the monastery kitchens each day. It was for the most part good, but occasionally hard to stomach, and the okra was bitterly spiteful and slimy.
I remember going to see Ontul Rinpoche in his home at the back of the complex. Rinpoche bought the land himself in 1971 and, with the help of resident monks, built the monastery from the ground upwards. He kindly helped me with some instructions I needed for my retreat. I remember also, at the end of my time there, being able to meet again with Ontul Rinpoche’s wife, Tashi Drolma, who I found to be a very impressive woman. Trungpa Rinpoche described the Tibetans as ‘an earthy, practical people’ and these qualities are often held especially strongly by Tibetan women. As I left, Tashi Drolma gave me the business card for the guest house and told me I should tell others who were looking also for places to do retreat.
I remember the packs of monkeys, screeching and fighting brutally across the beautiful green space in front of my chalet. I remember doing cora (circumabulation) walks around the lake, sometimes when I needed a break. And I remember the last two weeks of my retreat where I didn’t leave the complex and kept strictly to silence. I made a good friend with a German lady called Stefanie who was also staying at the monastery. She would tell me stories of her adventures with the locals and, when my retreat became more strict, kindly leave me little bags of fruit at my door which were greatly appreciated!
I returned to Tso Pema four and a half years later and decided this time, not to do retreat at the Drikung Kagyu monastery near the lake, but instead take the hour and a half trek, or winding bus route, up the steep mountainside to a guest house near the famous Guru Rinpoche caves. My hosts were a Hindu family well used to supporting meditators who wanted to do retreat. The father, a proud Indian man, warned me not to stray too far from the roads because ‘sometimes tigers coming’.
It was the season in which all the flat rooftops are covered in acres of corn husks drying in the sun. The beautiful, gaudy coloured houses looked even more so. My retreat was again quite strict, although I would occasionally walk the last half mile up to the caves to spend time there, and surely sometimes buy a small flat Cadbury’s Dairy Milk on the way back from one of the hut fronted shops.
The caves are fantastic, damp earth rooms deep into the mountain. And the insides decked as temple-like spaces, lit by butter-lamps – hot and sometimes smoky, and long wooden benches for sitting. A great gold Guru Rinpoche is carved into a trellis of rock. Lower down the slope, there is one part of the rock formation where it is said you can clear the karma of seven lifetimes by clambering through. Even for my skinny frame it was a tight squeeze.
Around the caves, dotted up and down the mountainside are hundreds of what the Tibetans call retreat caves, really sometimes small shacks, or a rock overhang where the front has been walled up; a door, a window perhaps. This is where there are many many longer term retreatants; nuns, monks, and otherwise. They are numbered: cave no. 62 etc., which, among other things, makes it possible to receive post.
My friend John Manasjan joined me for the final few days of my retreat, as we were to go on pilgrimage together afterwards to Bodhgaya. He made a strong connection with the caves and would walk up each day to practice there, and I remember talking with him excitedly about environmental sci-fi aesthetics as we passed the roadside shrines. We performed the Sadhana of Mahamudra at the caves together on the full moon. And in the weeks that followed it was very joyful for me to have a friend to travel with.
Over a thousand years ago – to finish the story we began with, when the King and his men discovered Guru Rinpoche and Princess Mandarava on the lotus in the lake, they repented regretfully their crimes with tears and lamentations. The King swiftly took up the Tantric Buddhist doctrine himself, becoming a great supporter of Buddhism in the region. Guru Rinpoche and Mandarava of course were to have many further adventures together, which in time would take them as far as Nepal, Tibet, and much further beyond.
Llew Watkins is a writer and artist based in Limehouse, East London.