Padmasambhava Caves

If one activity defined me, it would be the activity of seeking for the vein. A variety of experiences accompany this: scars from jabbing muscle, mishaps, misadventures, great adventures, and every now and again, the one percent of experience that retroactively confers meaning on the other 99 percent—finding. There are truths, volatile and elusive, that lie outside of the scope of language and yet, at the same time, issue a demand that one return from and try to describe what just happened. Those who are successful are poets and mystics. Those who return too hot and find that their descriptions melt into a word-soup, are considered mad. 

I suppose I lie somewhere in between. I like silence too much to pander to the vanity of trying to look normal in the insane asylum. I write as a grateful but indentured servant to the mystery. And because without words, the profound is too volatile and evaporative to work its magic—to transform, reconstitute, reassemble the mundane into complex and ornate mandalas. The new perceptions remain ephemeral but send in some much-needed fresh air.

To bind the mind to this activity is not unlike bonding with any substance, one must first and foremost cherish being alone. Any addict will tell you that their first love is what intoxicates. Humans and animals are an afterthought made manageable by a shift in perception from confined to liberated, helping with the mishigas of human relating. My “you cannot be serious” mind that looks out at the reality circus, shaking my head and repeating regularly, “not my monkeys,” takes on a bit of compassion, a bit of ownership, merely because I can breathe. Being stuck in the stuffed cabin of the mind, I believe, is the cause of all suffering. But getting past the guards is no easy task. This, too, is a risk I take very seriously although I would still prefer to be a madwoman to being the mad woman that comes from mental confinement.

After nearly a week, I returned to the Butsugen Hotel in Kathmandu, another ineffable experience brought back, swaddled gently that it is not damaged in its perishability before I can get to a keyboard with the hope that it will offer itself up for view. It strikes me that the Padmasambhava caves are what everything I did prior is for: the broken-kneecap feeling and feet falling asleep with the sciatic throb of anyone who sits. The journeys through the spiritual desert where not a single drop of pleasure or insight might appear. The chronic doubt of, “Am I really just fooling myself; did I buy some fairy tale?” quality that can darken one’s spiritual doorstep. 

Nonetheless, there are people with much more exalted motivations for practice than I who quit. I think this is because I’ve managed one trick and that is to repurpose my junkie. I can endure much without much fuss and for this I am rewarded with thunderclaps and skies opening to reveal the great cosmic orchestra. Or the trapdoor hidden in the floorboards dropping me down into underworld banquets.

Oh. This exists. This exists and enough of me has been emptied that this vessel might receive it. I could write a Michelin Guide to great consciousness food. And just as there are tiny back-alley food trucks in the Guide that one must be a true epicurean with a strong stomach to find, there would be off-the-beaten-path recommendations.

I will tell you about the caves and everything that led up to them, from walking past the Hindi sadhus made so sexy in their dirt and matted hair, the shrivel-faced woman in a hot-red sari and ornate nose ring who walked up to me and roared in contagious laughter repeating “dakini,” pointing first to herself then to me. That it was not better than sex but sex itself is something I will say and those in the know will know exactly what I mean and those who are not will not know until they do. There are not enough words in all human language to make known what transpired. 

Or that like a junkie, the day after the first visit, I had to go back alone, to break from the group. I had to sit in that cave, naked of the expressions and gestures, the body one must wear in order to be human. The cave begs you to strip yourself of flesh and the accommodating realities that come with flesh. 

“I will be that for you,” it seems to say. “I don’t understand why you didn’t stay longer,” my lama says as we sit in the tiny dining area of the Butsugen, drinking lemon water and milk tea, in reference to the fact that I chose to return to Kathmandu with him rather than stay with the group. I want to say there are experiences so salient that one must either leave before greed sets in corrupting them or give themselves over wholly and let them own you. To say I considered never returning is an understatement.

Were it not for a tiny Amy’s, “Don’t get any ideas yet!” which she said, sending this cave-yogi soul an article about a Spanish woman who lived in a cave alone for 500 days to return with the report, “I did not want to leave.” Amy knows I’m a mortal flight risk. I have one tether, that is my bodhisattva vow. There’s a part of many Buddhist prayers where one prays that they may live a long life in order to benefit the world. I just move my lips for that part of the prayer.

But sitting in that cave. That massive open-ceiling cave. The at-once sense of vast sky and compression that is the only response to the eternal yearning to return to the compression of having been nested once inside another human’s belly. The closest description I can think of is being held, swaddled, even gently squeezed in a freefall with no ground.

Three lamas. There are three traveling lamas who support themselves by taking up temporary residence in the cave. You drop rupees on their small red platform table, kneel before them, and DJ’s choice, they either offer holy water to run through your hair or a gentle tap with a red Tibetan book as a means of shuttling wisdom from the material to the immaterial.

I bow before him on my knees. He taps the top of my head. A lightning bolt shoots from skull to arches. My hand goes down to steady myself. I nearly tip forward onto the table and into this tiny lama’s lap. Tottering, I am literally, not figuratively, lightheaded, a light behind my eyes switched on. I look up and in the same way Pau’s drum draws me out of the karmic soup and into the breakout, the lama draws my eyes to his. But there is nothing there. 

There are two portals to the Milky Way. I am sucked through until what exists behind those eyes gently places me back before this man, before this table, in this cave. That this is where the landing occurs seems entirely arbitrary. I could have shot out of the Pez dispenser in Abu Dhabi as an old man smoking a hookah. The time dilation that permits one to see they are the random result of a chemical reaction that is occurring NOW. The same way, when one sits in meditation and realizes the thought stream that, moving quickly, makes perfect sense, but when slowed forms sentences like Pizza! Itchy leg. Bad mosquito. Miss my ex.

In other words, who knows if this consciousness is continuous, or infinite moments of waking up in various scenes and novel attempts at improv? Lama bonks Western woman’s head, she looks where his eyes should be and not only sees, but is absorbed, into vast infinity. She lands on the soil in a mammoth cave. Go!

I stand, or more accurately, am stood up. There’s a sense that emptiness is kissing and he and I are the lips. That is the intimacy of humanity. What makes me want to write letters to the various doorways that are the people who have cleared their entry of clutter that this may come through. A smear like that of the blur of light that remains driving at rapid speed on a deserted highway remains.

Funny how the Western mind can seep in at the oddest moments because I still have two lamas to go. In the same way it might feel slutty to open one’s legs after a night of deeply moving sex with a lover, it would feel untoward to open my eyes so soon for another lama. I am now lama monogamous with a stranger. I remain standing, bow and drop the rupees on their table without making eye contact, more like eye grazing. Again, a funny Western woman moment, and please do not explain how ridiculous this is to me, I fear that they will get their feelings hurt. They are good lamas, too! It’s just that I am monogamous with a lama I will never see again and who, technically, I never really saw.

I walk over to the other side of the cave, perhaps twenty feet away, in the shadowed area of the cave that faces them. There is a 60-foot-high altar with a thangka of Padmasambhava with hundreds of butter lamps and various offerings from flowers to rupees to their right. I situate myself so I am facing between Padmasambhava and the lamas. This seems a nice safe space to snuggle into.

I sit. The lama draws my attention and with a pained look of care points to the Styrofoam, clearly cushier than my flat little piece, for me to sit on. I rise to make my way over and, after doing some calculation, he has determined this is not enough. He draws me over and hands me a cushion. As he hands it to me, our eyes collide into a shared light. I make my way back over to my self-designated area.

What is it that brings tears to my eyes in this moment? It’s contact with that place I have reached a few times, that once what had me spend an entire night bowing involuntarily and repeating again and again, “thank you thank you thank you thank you thank you.” It’s the activation of what cleanses the senses, the tight muscles, the heart from the state of perpetual bracing and the self-protection and defense that is a result. I’ve heard that a woman cannot go into orgasm unless she feels safe, that the guardians of the vigilance center, albeit noble in their efforts, block all things involuntary, what would make us wet or hot, from tears to climax, from blushing to laughter. The ego protects us in the best way it knows how; it turns us to stone in order to match the hardness of the world we live in.

And yet, there is but one safety safe enough to let go inside of and it happens to be hidden right in front of us, in us, around us. But just as a chemical needs a catalyst, this emptiness needs a portal. Until it doesn’t.

So, I sit, wrecked with relief. My ass descends, my shoulders descend, tears hot-crawl down my cheeks.

Thank you thank you thank you thank you. A bit disoriented, my hearing trained to seek out a carrier signal, it listens and finds the 100-syllable Vajrasattva mantra the lama is reciting, that I might add sounds nothing like my own. His sounds like lava; mine is closer to lava rock.

Self-consciousness, the mystery killer can rush in in moments like this. My sense is that all practice is geared to keep a working relationship with these barbarians so that when the flash-pangs of doubt enter to ask who I am and what I think I am doing here with three Tibetan monks in the “inner secret” level of the cave and takes a moment to question my wardrobe choices and the sheerness of my blouse. That tells me to pull myself together, I look like a foolish woman. I know that the voices from the peanut gallery rise in direct proportion to the threat the ego perceives and that if I just endure the burn for a bit, they will all settle soon. Oh, but when they do.

There’s a rumbling. As if sensing I need orientation, he turns up the volume of his mantra.

Om vajrasattva tenopa tishta drido me bowa sutokayo me bowa anarakto me bowa sarwa siddi sutsa me

Next, the quiet mantra across the cave is in surround sound at full volume. It’s like a train waiting for me to hop on. I join in as if my car has square wooden wheels but is moving, nonetheless. And then, a dam comprised of the sounds being foreign, my tongue being stiff, the heft of my earnestness, breaks and a sound issues from me that I have never heard before, fluid and confident. It’s as if it’s been waiting in the background preformed ready to emerge when the temperature was right. For a few moments, I was not only a native Tibetan speaker but I was one who’d spent a lifetime inside of mantras. They were here waiting for me to enter.

Entering, they knew the precise spots to touch. This is not to say it was pleasurable. The mantra would enter like a skilled finger and press down on the tiny knots and nodules of internal congestion. From that would rise a flood of undigested memories. It was like pus, toxins releasing. Trapped neuroses opening and now open, no longer neurotic. This was not without a low-grade panic. The mantra-finger was continuous. What in the normal non-cave, non-mantra symphonic sound is perhaps discomfort or irritability, presented now with an urgency. 

I am not for the most part an anxious person. And yet, a merry-go-round of anxious thoughts and feelings were spinning around the internal viewing eye with a unifying message: It is not, and will never be, okay. Robert will never love me. I’ve made too many mistakes in my life, accompanied by a visual slideshow for impact. The demons are on my ass and it’s all going to come crashing down very soon.

My Dzogchen mantra: Leave it be. Don’t poke or prod. Let it rise in consciousness. My mind started putting two and two together and clearly these mantras were stirring the pot. An involuntary defense would set in and temporarily melt my mind. I’ve done this mantra for two years straight at a very minimum twice a day but sometimes hundreds of times. I’d suffer mantra dementia and forget what I was doing altogether. But like a prize fighter who refuses to go down, another part of the mind, determined to continue and elegant or inelegant, would track back and start again. It’s a long mantra. At one point, I must have started again a good thirty times, my mind just dropping off a cliff into some great abyss. “Tenopa tishta…what comes next…what did I just say…wait, am I at the end…blank blank blank.” Okay start again, fingers not leaving that bead for a good 5-10 minutes.

I don’t know how these things work, I sincerely don’t. But I could swear the lama could sense that I’d fallen off the cliff and would send the mantra into my mind to get back up. I’d be in the white-out and I’d hear his voice. For those not familiar with mantra, for the most part when they get revved up it sounds like one punctuated slur. Unless you are familiar with the mantra, you would have no hope of guessing where you are at. And yet, it was as if he were enunciating every single syllable and driving it slowly enough for me to hop back on. It’s terribly vulnerable. The mind would tell me to just give it up for God’s sake. Stop with the posturing. You are not meant to be in this cave. You are out of your league. Then, his dulcet tone would enter and a whole other voice would follow. 

Anyone who has ever been to see Amma, the hugging saint, is familiar with her whispering into your ear, “my daughter my daughter my daughter.” The lama’s mantra has a similar quality but instead there is a suggestion that, “you’re home you’re home you’re home.”

I do not know how but I lift my head to look at the Padmasambhava thangka. There’s a hypnosis to the klesha, the cloud of undigested material, that you cannot look away from. But something snapped and turned my head quickly. I entered the memory of Mingyur Rinpoche saying he went to Padmasambhava to answer all of his prayers. I hear this crap all the time. But there was something so sincere, so non-salesy about how he said it, that I bookmarked it. Now, I know, for this moment.

I remember well making love to him in my little cave in dream time, melting into a puddle of power blood. I remember the feeling of him, like a troubadour coming in, his body as offering. I remember when I lost track of Robert’s signal, lost in the marketplace of deities, no idea who or what to pray to, my ex sending me a documentary saying, “If you were a male deity, this is who you would be. He’s the bad boy of Buddhism,” watching the documentary and hearing words and ideas presented that I’d said to people since I was a very young girl only to be received with the raised eyebrow of hearing crazy talk. He was my St. Jude, my patron saint of desperate and lost causes.

Those are the eyes I look up at his image with. Padmasambhava, with great masculine flair, lifts the entire cloud cover that has descended the moment my eyes make contact with the image of him. My body continues to tremble a bit but those are aftershocks. My mind rings like one of the hundred bells outside the cave. The old has been lifted.

“Now Tara,” I hear. I love the line, “white Tara with the light of a thousand autumn moons.” That cooling light, like a salve, fills me. Then, just like that, I am done. With the same intensity I was drawn into the cave, I am clear that this session is complete. I rise, return the cushion and Styrofoam, no longer a visitor but a citizen of this cave. Again, I do not know the truth of what happened next but the lama is restored to human status only when our eyes meet one last time; it is as if we lived through something great together, a plane crash or a birth of a baby, and there is a mutual gratitude at having shared in that.

I begin to descend the stairs and the group, having changed plans, also returned to this cave only remained in the second tier. I look up and see my lama waving with great enthusiasm as if he knows what just happened. I feel like all things that want to fly into the arms of a great man—young girl, long-lost lover, a wife upon seeing the man she has spent a lifetime carving out the reservoir of adoration. Between us is a sea of retreatants. I’m shaping my face in an expression, trying to communicate, “Do you know what just happened up there?” And seeing clearly that I need to be guided into a landing, he says my name loud and clear as if through a bullhorn. I follow its echo over to him. That it might be strange for me to fall into his arms is the only tiny crisis of the moment. He issues a warm, pale yellow light from his eyes that I step inside of. My trembling subsides. I bathe in the warmth.

I once had a night school dream that my lama’s attendant and I had been with him since the beginning of time. As if they’d both read the stage direction from that dream, they move me into position. My lama says, “Nicole will sit here next to me.”

He tells the story of a young boy who worked at the café near his home in Bodhgaya. One day, the boy pleaded with my lama to bring him home with him. He had been subjected to horrors unimaginable—forced to sleep on tables, worked for 16 hours straight, made the equivalent to 30 cents a day. His parents, he said, died in a great mudslide and the shrewd café owner saw an opportunity for cheap labor.

My lama took the boy in and for a good two years homeschooled him, adopting him as his own. It was nearing the time to apply for college but the boy, daily feigning forgetfulness, neglected to give the lama the report card from his teacher. My lama decided to go to the teacher himself.

As he left his house, there in the clothing of the Brahmin caste, a woman bedecked in jewels and a man in silks begged the lama to return their son. He had been angry about a change in his inheritance and ran away.

The boy, coming from princely wealth, had been in hiding. My lama made a deal that he would bring them to him on the condition that they pay for his college.

I identify with that boy, having been willing to forego a spiritual wealth, resentful at what was being asked of me with Ray, my original consort/teacher. I’d lived scrappy and impoverished since him without protection, forced to supplicate to people who were opportunists. I, a delicate being, feigned the resilience of a street fighter. The knives cut deeper in my soft flesh but a determination to break from dependency, to know for myself, to not be a white tower woman, kept me out there far longer than I should have stayed.

I feel like the prodigal daughter returning home. One night on retreat, the owner having prostrated before my lama, sees me and wanting to impress takes on the quality of a Hindi preacher dripping in superiority. As I have done for decades, I endure the insult of one who has been to the locations he’s only read about in books. My lama stands and walks to the counter as if to pay out tab and with that bullhorn voice that one cannot not come for says my name. In an instant, I am at his side. He tells me to go back to my room. As I make my way out of the room, I hear my lama say to him, “I do not ever want to hear you talking to her like that again.” And with that, a dignity relinquished and a womanhood unprotected, are restored. 

In a single instant, I am soft again.

There are roles we are built for. From the time of seeing Paper Moon with my father where the daughter is a charming accomplice, to my years with Ray, my right place is on the right side of men too gruff and particular for anyone to tend to well. I know when to move forward and when to step back. I know how to soothe the warrior’s soul that would otherwise deny a wound. It’s second nature to take their plate, to pick up their forgotten eyeglasses. I am built to move in unison with this man. 

In fact, to not be in this role is unnatural for me. I am a thoroughbred. Thoroughbreds are known to be wild and difficult to tame unless the rider has mastery, then they are butter, the most obedient. I know how to be meeked in the right hands. Both are positions that cannot be feigned. His competence must be an outgrowth of his nature or I buck. And I do not need his spiritual nod because I have my own inheritance (it has nothing to do with being near the lama). But he will listen to me because my thought I love him breaks in where his rigid independence leaves him with stains on his shirt and a diet of cinnamon rolls. Encoded in his nature is my face as one he can trust to tend to him.

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