A view of Kawakarpo from Baima Pass, with prayer flags in the foreground. No mountain climber has successfully reached the peak, and many have died trying.
A view of Kawakarpo from Baima Pass, with prayer flags in the foreground. No mountain climber has successfully reached the peak, and many have died trying. Anne Smith
The five-story-tall main prayer hall at Sumtseling Monastery.
The five-story-tall main prayer hall at Sumtseling Monastery. Gail McGregor
One of a group of chortens built as memorials to those who have tried to summit Kawakarpo and died. Tibetan Buddhists try to discourage attempts to climb their sacred mountain.
One of a group of chortens built as memorials to those who have tried to summit Kawakarpo and died. Tibetan Buddhists try to discourage attempts to climb their sacred mountain. Anne Smith
Radio Expeditions continues the Geography of Heaven series — a joint production of NPR and the National Geographic Society — with an odyssey to southern China. NPR sound engineer Bill McQuay begins his journey to circle the sacred mountain of Kawakarpo with a visit to some of the holiest places in Tibetan Buddhism:
Bill McQuay, NPR
A wall painting in Sumtseling Monastery of Yama, the Lord Of Death, who holds the Wheel of Life in his clutches.
A wall painting in Sumtseling Monastery of Yama, the Lord Of Death, who holds the Wheel of Life in his clutches. Bill McQuay, NPR
Pilgrimage is a core element of religious practice in the Tibetan culture, and the trek around the sacred mountain of Kawakarpo is a centuries-old act of devotion. Vast unseen tributaries of meaning and identity form a cultural landscape around the peak that somehow houses two very different holy ideas: a peaceful Buddhist heaven, and the abode of a warrior god.
The 17-day trek around the peak will reach altitudes of 14,000 feet and higher. Me and my companions will brace rushing glacial streams and mountain passes, heat and cold, wet and dry — a total of 150 miles by foot.
National Geographic Society
Click the smaller map above to chart Bill McQuay's journey.
Click the smaller map above to chart Bill McQuay's journey. National Geographic Society
Robert Thurman, the first westerner ordained as a Tibetan Buddhist monk by the 14th Dalai Lama, explains why the devout readily take on the challenge: "In Buddhist countries... pilgrimages are a way they associate with higher beings and learn something."
We begin our journey in Zhongdian, a border town in China's Yunnan province, me and my Tibetan guide Kayson visit an ancient Tibetan monastery called Sumtseling. The next stop is the Ringha temple on the outskirts of Zhongdian, where pilgrims stop to pray for health during their long pilgrimage.
Both destinations impart important lessons. At the monastery, the six-sided Wheel of Life painting on the wall reminds the faithful that the spark that animates their souls will journey to another realm along the wheel depending on the actions taken in this life. At the temple, spinning one of the many bronze prayer wheels sends a message to heaven — and adds a measure of good karma to believers.
Thubten Jinpa, a scholar living in Montreal and frequent translator for the Dalai Lama, explains it this way: "There are certain key spiritual values that are at the core of Buddhist tradition — for example, the respect for all sentient beings. And the recognition that at the fundamental level, all beings have a natural disposition to aspire for happiness and overcome suffering.
"Similarly, the recognition that at a very deep level, everything is interconnected," he says. "That all events come into being as a result of causes and conditions."
Our journey next leads to Yangsta, a tattered strip of wooden sheds resting high on a riverbank above the Mekong, where the true pilgrimage begins with a walk across a wooden footbridge. At the temple on the other side of the river, we find a statue of the deity who makes his home in the mountain.
It's an unexpected sight, given the Buddhist reputation for non-violence — a warrior figure astride a white horse, dressed in armor as if ready to lead soldiers into battle. It is Kawakarpo, a warrior god.
I am perplexed. How can a warrior god and his mountain be the devotional fulcrum for non-violent Buddhist pilgrims? How do the religious values of compassion and respect for all sentient beings fit with the devotion to a warrior god?