Mortality and the Gift of the Moment

Image of Buddha with prayers in Tibetan script inscribed into the mountain rock i i

Image of Buddha with prayers in Tibetan script inscribed into the mountain rock on the pilgrimage trail to Chudu. Bill McQuay, NPR hide caption

itoggle caption Bill McQuay, NPR
Image of Buddha with prayers in Tibetan script inscribed into the mountain rock

Image of Buddha with prayers in Tibetan script inscribed into the mountain rock on the pilgrimage trail to Chudu.

Bill McQuay, NPR
Stone houses built by pilgrims on their way up to Dokarla Pass. i i

Stone houses built by pilgrims on their way up to Dokarla Pass. Many create the crude "houses" to store items for use in the next life -- money, grain, cigarettes and even alcohol. Bill McQuay, NPR hide caption

itoggle caption Bill McQuay, NPR
Stone houses built by pilgrims on their way up to Dokarla Pass.

Stone houses built by pilgrims on their way up to Dokarla Pass. Many create the crude "houses" to store items for use in the next life -- money, grain, cigarettes and even alcohol.

Bill McQuay, NPR
Sunrise view from a very cold Gebula Pass of one of Kawakarpo's sister peaks. i i

Sunrise view from a very cold Gebula Pass of one of Kawakarpo's sister peaks. Bill McQuay, NPR hide caption

itoggle caption Bill McQuay, NPR
Sunrise view from a very cold Gebula Pass of one of Kawakarpo's sister peaks.

Sunrise view from a very cold Gebula Pass of one of Kawakarpo's sister peaks.

Bill McQuay, NPR
Bill McQuay carefully makes his way down from Shula Pass -- the last mountain pass on the pilgrimage i i

Bill McQuay carefully makes his way down from Shula Pass -- the last mountain pass on the pilgrimage. hide caption

itoggle caption
Bill McQuay carefully makes his way down from Shula Pass -- the last mountain pass on the pilgrimage

Bill McQuay carefully makes his way down from Shula Pass -- the last mountain pass on the pilgrimage.

Following the descent from Shula Pass and the end of the foot pilgrimage i i

Following the descent from Shula Pass and the end of the foot pilgrimage, this trail leads to Meili Xui and a motor ride to Deqin. Bill McQuay, NPR hide caption

itoggle caption Bill McQuay, NPR
Following the descent from Shula Pass and the end of the foot pilgrimage

Following the descent from Shula Pass and the end of the foot pilgrimage, this trail leads to Meili Xui and a motor ride to Deqin.

Bill McQuay, NPR

Tired, cold and breathless, NPR sound engineer Bill McQuay continues his pilgrimage around a sacred mountain in China revered by Tibetan Buddhists, and finds a powerful force guiding his path — an awareness of his own mortality:

Breathless at 14,000 feet, at the top of Dokarla Pass on the fourth day of our pilgrimage around the sacred peak of Kawakarpo... Me and my Tibetan guide Kayson are surrounded by color — hundreds of prayer flags left by the faithful, spinning in the wind...

We've joined thousands of other pilgrims in an arduous, 150-mile trek around a mountain the faithful believe is the spiritual home of a Buddhist warrior god. The journey itself is an important part of worship in the Tibetan brand of Buddhism.

Death and rebirth seem to occupy most of the pilgrims we meet, and there are thousands. They believe the arduous journey around the mountain is an opportunity for repentance, and a better rebirth.

At the top of the Dokarla Pass are hundreds of white flags left by relatives praying for a better rebirth for the deceased. There are also hundreds of small stone "houses" made from flat rocks fitted together. Many Tibetans believe human souls wander the world for 49 days after death. Inside the rock houses are cigarettes, money, even liquor — a brief shelter for the soul, and supplies for the next life.

From the high mountain pass we slog through heavy rain to the next pass. Each pass is dotted with more prayer flags, piles of barley flour and bowls of yak butter left as offerings.

At a temple on an island on the Salween River, a bell rings with each turn of a large prayer wheel. In letters of gold on the outside is the familiar Buddhist mantra: Om Mani Padme Hum. The phrase cannot truly be translated — it is said to hold the essence of all the teachings of the Buddha — and it is a favorite of Tibetan Buddhists.

And once again, a statue of the Kawakarpo god seems to invade the heavenly space of the temple. He's depicted as a proud warrior atop a horse, in full armor. He was a hero long before the arrival of Buddhism, when Tibet was an empire bent on conquest, and he does not look remotely compassionate. When the new religion arrived in the 7th century AD, the older god never left...

We will need all the blessings we can get — ahead are steep trails, jagged rocks and rubble left from road-building crews dynamiting the mountain. The blasting covers large parts of the ancient pilgrim trails with tons of dirt and rocks, all in the name of progress.

Cold nights and long days lay ahead. The mindfulness of death and danger is one of the main points of Tibetan Buddhist practice, and on the pilgrim's trail the peril is a powerful motivating factor. Each step is a reminder of mortality — and the weight of that responsibility is a constant reminder to use each moment in a responsible and constructive manner.

At the end of the pilgrim's trail awaits a small but important lesson: So much of what I've seen and heard during this long journey seems only concerned with the future — the seemingly endless cycle of rebirth and death stretching ever onward.

But at the final pass, surrounded by prayer flags, I'm not concerned with either death or rebirth. Just what's happening this moment.

Pilgrimage Map

Map of Kawakarpo pilgrimage route i i

Click the smaller map above to chart Bill McQuay's journey. National Geographic Society hide caption

itoggle caption National Geographic Society
Map of Kawakarpo pilgrimage route

Click the smaller map above to chart Bill McQuay's journey.

National Geographic Society

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