Buddhism in the Himalayas

Dazzling white and fair to see are Himalayas’ peaks
Jataka IV,287

The Himalayas are the highest mountains in the world. They form a giant arch 2500 kilometres long, between 200 and 300 kilometres wide and define the northern boundary of the Indian sub-continent. The Jātakas describe the Himalayas as ‘a vast region, five hundred yojanas high and three thousand in breadth’. (Ja.V,415. To the ancient Indians they were ‘the thousand-peaked mountains’ or ‘the measuring rod of the world’. The Hindus scriptures know them as Devabhūmi, ‘the abode of the gods’ while the Buddha called them Pabbatarāja, ‘the lord of mountains’. (S.II,137). The exact meaning of the name Himalaya is uncertain. It may have been formed from the words hima and mala meaning ‘garland of snow’ or from hima and alaya meaning ‘abode of snow’. Both meanings are appropriate to these majestic mountains. Viewed from a distance in either summer or winter they give the appearance of a string of pure white blossoms and no matter how pleasantly warm it may be down in the valleys during the summer, there is always snow on the horizon. Although more often associated with Hinduism, the Himalayas are often mentioned in the Buddhist scriptures and were familiar to the Buddha himself. He would have seen these great ice and rock ramparts long before he renounced the world to begin his quest for truth. The spectacular 8167 meter high sentinel of Dhaulagiri can be clearly seen from his hometown of Kapilavatthu. Perhaps he had this particular mountain in mind when he compared the virtuous person to the dazzling sun-lit snow peaks:

01 Kumaon, photo by Ven. Dhammika

02 Kumaon, photo by Ven. Dhammika

03 Kumaon, photo by Ven. Dhammika

04 Kumaon, photo by Ven. Dhammika

The good shine from afar like the Himalayas.
The bad are obscure like an arrow shot into the night.

Shortly after his enlightenment, the Buddha is said to have used his super-normal powers to visit Lake Anotatta now identified with Lake Manasarovar near the foot of Mount Kilash (Vin.I,27). Later in life, he occasionally ‘sojourned in a forest hut in the Himalayan region’, probably the thickly wooded hills of the lower Kumon or the Mahabarata Lekha of Nepal (S.I,116). It is hard to know how far into the mountains the Buddha may have gone but he once mentioned ‘the rugged uneven places in the Himalayas where hunters and their prey could go and beyond it, the regions where neither man nor beast can penetrate’. (S.V,148). Some of his direct disciples, following the horary tradition of Indian ascetics, would have gone up into the mountains to find peace and solitude. In the Jātakas, the Buddha is attributed with asking his monks: ‘Do you wish to go wandering in the Himalayas?’ (Gacchissatha pana Himavanta cārikaṁ, Ja.V,415).

The Himalayas feature prominently in early Buddhist geography. India was known to the ancient Buddhists as Jambudīpa and was one of the four great continents that made up the world. The northern border of this land was defined by the Usiraddhaja Mountains (Vin.IV,197) and beyond that were the Himalayas, the region called sometimes Himava, Himacāla or Himavata. The Jātakas name numerous caves, plateaus, valleys, hermitages and rivers in the Himalayas but almost none of these can be identified today. The most famous cave was somewhere near the foot of Mount Nanda and was thus known as Nandamūla Cave. Pacceka Buddhas are mentioned as living in this cave and flying from there to Varanasi or elsewhere in India, and back again (Ja.III,157,190,230,259). In one place it describes one of these mysterious saintly men like this: ‘He wore rag robes red as lac, dark as a rain cloud, his belt was yellow like a flash of lightening and the clay bowl hanging over his shoulder was as brown as a bumble bee. He rose into the air and after having given a talk on Dhamma he flew to the Nandamūla Cave in the north of the Himalayas’. (J.IV,114). Seven of the biggest lakes mentioned in the Jātaka are Kannamundaka, Rathakara, Sihapapata, Chaddanta, Tiyaggala, Anotatta and Kunala and some of the more prominent peaks were Manipabbata, Hingulapabbata, Ajanapabbata, Sanupabbata and Phalikapabbata (Ja.V,415). Two peaks that can be identified are Kelasa, now known as Kilash (Ja.VI,490) and Nanda which is of course the 7817 meter high Nanda Devi, the second highest peak in India (Ja.IV,216,230,233).

05 Himalayas, photo by Ven. Dhammika

06 Himalayas, photo by Ven. Dhammika

07 Himalayas, photo by Ven. Dhammika

Amongst the first range of hills or perhaps beyond them (ancient geography is sometimes unclear or contradictory) was Uttarakuru, Northern Kuru, from which the modern district of Kulu derives its name. Uttarakuru was seen as a kind of garden of earthly delights, a paradise of eternal sunshine and free love where healing herbs and fragrant flowers grew in abundance and all kinds of fantastic creatures lived without care or toil. According to the Atanatiya Sutta, the rice that grew in Uttarakuru was self-sown, fragrant and without husks, the people travelled on the backs of beautiful maidens or comely youths, the trees always hung heavy with fruit and ‘peacocks screech, herons call and cuckoos gently warble’. (D.III,199). Somewhere in Uttarakuru, Kuvera, the king of the north and the god of good fortune, had his jewel-encrusted palace (D.III,201). If the modern visitor travels through Garhwal or Kumaon, at least during the spring time, he or she can easily understand how such legends developed. These regions offer some of the most enchantingly beautiful prospects to be seen anywhere on earth.

Beyond the Himalayas was a huge mountain called Kelasa, Seneru, Neru or more commonly Meru. This mountain has long been thought of by Indian Buddhists, Hindus and Jains as being the axis of the world, the point at which the four great continents met (S.II,139, Ja.I,25, III,247). Meru of course, corresponds with Mount Kailash near the southern edge of the Tibetan Plateau. Although not the loftiest mountain in the region, all the peaks around Kailash are much lower than it, giving it the impression of immense height and grandeur. Kailash’s nearly symmetrical pyramid-shaped snowy summit marked with several black horizontal gashes give it a distinct hub-like appearance. Although fanciful in parts and completely wrong in others, the ancient Buddhist conception of India and the region to its north was relatively correct in its general outline.

08 Gangotri, photo by Ven. Dhammika

09 Gangotri, photo by Ven. Dhammika

10 Gangotri, photo by Ven. Dhammika

The Himalayas are used as the setting for numerous Jātaka stories. In many of his previous lives the Buddha renounced the world and went to live as an ascetic in the mountains or retired there towards the end of his life (e.g. Ja.I,140,362,371,406,440). He and other ascetics lived of wild fruit and grains and often made friends with the forest creatures. As the winter approached they would come down to the plains to escape the cold, collect salt, vinegar and other supplies and then return four months later. The Jātakas explain: ‘Now in the Himalayas, during the rainy season, when the rains are incessant, it is impossible to dig up any bulb or root, or to get any wild fruits, and the leaves begin to fall, the ascetics for the most part come down from the Himalayas, and take up their abode amidst the haunts of men.’ (Ja.III,37). It was probably the Bodhisattva and other ascetics before and after him who first explored the more remote mountain valleys of the Himalayas and brought back to India proper descriptions of this natural and spiritual wonderland. In the beautiful Sama Jātaka, the Bodhisattva is described as following the Ganges into the mountains to where the Migasammata River flows into it and then following this second river until he came to a suitable place to build himself a hermitage (Ja.VI,72). The Migasammata probably corresponds to the Alakanda River which joins the Ganges near Devaprayag. Various rulers may have also played a part in this exploration as well. The Jātakas tell of a king who sent an expedition into the Himalayas guided by foresters. They tied several rafts together and sailed up the Ganges (Ja.III,371).

Buddhism came to the Himalayas very early. After the Third Council convened by King Asoka, five monk led by the arahat Majjhima were sent to the Himalayan region to spread the Dhamma (Mv.XII,6). Unfortunately, the records do not tell us which part of the Himalayas Majjhima and his companions went, although it was probably either Kashmir or the Kathmandu Valley. When the Chinese pilgrim Huien Tsiang visited Kulu and its surrounding valleys in the 7th century the area still had a significant Buddhist population. He wrote: ‘The land is rich and fertile and the crops are duly sown and gathered. Flowers and fruit are abundant and the plants and trees afford rich vegetation. Being nestled in the midst of the Snowy Mountains there are found here many medical herbs of much value. Gold, silver and copper are found here as well as crystal and native copper. The climate is unusually cold and hail and snow often fall. The people are rustic and common in appearance and are much afflicted with goitre and tumours. They are tough and fierce by nature although they greatly regard justice and bravery. There are about twenty monasteries and a thousand or so monks. They mostly study Mahayana although a few practices the other schools… Here arahats and rishis dwell. In the middle of the country is a stupa built by King Asoka.’ In time nearly the whole of the Himalayan region became Buddhist and even today Ladhkh, Zanskar, Lahaul, Spiti, Kinnaur, Mustang, Sikkim, Bhutan and of course Tibet remain predominately Buddhist.

14 Spiti, photo by Ven. Dhammika

15 Spiti, photo by Ven. Dhammika

16 Spiti, photo by Ven. Dhammika

The modern traveller in the Garhwal or Kumaon regions of the Himalayas will find almost no ancient traces of Buddhism in the Himalayas. The lovely old temple at Nala was originally a Buddhist one but has been a Hindu temple for at least a thousand years. The stone stupas at each of its four corners and the much worn statues of bodhisattvas within it, are evidence of this. On the other side of the river at Mandi are a few caves cut out of the rock in which Buddhist monks and later Buddhist Tantric siddhas used to live and practice. Many of Tibetans refugees have established communities and monasteries in Garhwal and Kumaon in places like Dharmasala and Manali. They have also reclaimed and sometimes even ‘recreated’ Buddhist sacred places like Rawalsa, supposedly the birth-place of Padmasambhava.

Hindus have long held the Himalayas to be sacred. Siva, Pavathi and the other gods dwell in their ethereal cloud-clapped heights and the sacred Ganges and Yamnua Rivers begin their long journey to the sea from there. The Mahābhārata calls the Ganges the ‘Daughter of the Himalayas’. (Mb.3,33,5). The three-pronged peak Trishul is thought to be Siva’s trident. Another peak, Sivaling near Gangotri, is believed to be his huge, erect lingam, the symbol of divine creativity, bliss and power, and its eternal snow Siva’s life-giving semen. Mahānirvāna Tantra says: ‘The Lord of the Seasons (i.e. Siva) and his retinue dwell amongst the mountains.’ The Mahābhārata describes the Himalayas as ‘sublime, ornamented with jagged and mineral-rich peaks and embraced by clouds that drift in the wind. It is adorned with rivers, groves and vales and inhabited by lions and tigers that lived in its many in grottos and caves. The mountains are astir with flocks of song birds, with bumble bees, swans, moor hens, peacocks, pheasants, cuckoos, woodpeckers and black-eyed cakoras which cherish their chicks in lovely lakes adorned with lotuses’. (Mb. 3, 33,5). In popular posters sold throughout India Siva is portrayed as an ascetic meditating in this Himalayan arcadia, his body smeared with ash, his trident and water pot besides him and the Ganges, like the tail of a comet, cascading from his matted hair.

Although rishis, swamis, yatis and sannyasins have lived in or travelled through the Himalayas for centuries, none of them ever wrote accounts of their experiences until well into the 19th century. This is because travel writing was never a recognized genera of Sanskrit literature, but it may also have been because a Himalayan pilgrimage left a person so utterly fulfilled that they had no desire to write of their experiences. However, various mahatmyas or pilgrims’ guides mention many sacred places in the Himalayas and retell the stories and legends associated with them. Probably the oldest of these is to be found incorporated into the Mahābhārata. This great epic traces a pilgrims’ circuit which starts at Puskar in Rajasthan, then moves in a huge clockwise arch around India and ends in the Himalayas.

11 Spiti, photo by Ven. Dhammika

12 Spiti, photo by Ven. Dhammika

13 Spiti, photo by Ven. Dhammika

In 1975 before I became a monk I had travelled widely through Himachal Pradesh, climbing over the Rohtang Pass, (the first time I had ever seen snow) and spending a summer in a monastery in Lahaul. In my mind’s eye I can still see the apple trees of Kulu in full blossom, making the whole valley look as if it had just been dusted with a light fall of snow. In 1990 and again a year later I travelled through Ladakh and into Zanskar as far as Padum. Then in 2005 I had the opportunity to spend time in Bhutan, the isolated Buddhist kingdom on the eastern end of the Himalayas. In 2006 myself and my good friend Viraj went to Gangotri, Badranath, Kedranath, Tungnath and other sacred places in the mountains. We also travelled along the Milam path to Nanda Devi as far as Milam Glacier, one of the three main routes that pilgrims used to take to Mt. Kailash. From the top of 18,300 high Kungri Bingri Pass marking the India-Tibet border, Kailash can be clearly seen, although of course we were not able to go that far. Today’s political barriers are far more impenetrable than any snowy pass, raging river or mountain wilderness.

While all these sojourns were physically and spiritually invigorating, always in the back of my mind was the possibility of making a pilgrimage to Mt. Kailash. It has never been easy for a Westerner to visit this fabled mountain. Before 1950 the Tibetan government, for all its backwards in other areas, was extraordinarily efficient at keeping foreigners out of their country, a task in which they were assisted in by the British Raj. Hindus were able to make the pilgrimage to Kailash, but nearly everyone else was turned back even before they approached the border. A few resourceful and determined Westerners were able to elude the border guards but their numbers were small. After the Chinese invasion of Tibet in 1950 crossing the border became difficult even for pilgrims and local traders, and after the Sino-Indian War of 1962 it became impossible. Only in the early 1980s, with major changes in Chinese policies was permission given again for forigners to visit Tibet. I went (in disguise) in 1985 and although I tried to go to Mt. Kailash this proved to be impossible. Finally, in 2009, the generosity and good-will of friends and disciples in Singapore enabled to make a pilgrimage to Mt. Kailash, a journey that turned out to be one of the highlights of my life.

What follows is not a guide book to Mt. Kailash, there are already several of these. Rather, it is a companion for those making the pilgrimage, something to read before setting out or while on the road. It’s purpose is to inform the pilgrim of the history of the sacred mountain and its environs, its natural and spiritual significance and to stimulate reflection so that his or her pilgrimage might be more inspiring and meaningful.