This is MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm Steve Inskeep.


And I'm Renee Montagne with the second installment in our NPR-National Geographic Radio Expedition series called, The Geography of Heaven. The theme for the stories is how people from diverse cultures live their lives in anticipation of the afterlife.

Today, we join NPR sound engineer Bill McQuay and thousands of Tibetans on their journey around the sacred mountain Kawakarpo, which sits on the border between China's Yunnan Province and Tibet. Pilgrimage is a core element of religious practice in the Tibetan cultural world. The often dangerous circling of sacred mountains is a devotional journey Tibetans have walked for many centuries. Here's Bill McQuay.

BILL MCQUAY reporting:

Right now, we're at about 10,417 feet. We'll be, eventually, to as much as 13-5, 14,000. And rugged terrain. I'm watching all the Tibetans and I think it's been difficult geography.

During my 17-day pilgrimage, there were rushing glacial streams and high mountain passes. Some days were cold and wet, others hot and dry. Occasionally, the trail was blanketed with snow. All told, 150 miles on foot. To help me better understand the significance of pilgrimage for Tibetan Buddhists, I have relied on the guidance of more experienced cultural navigators.

Robert Thurman was the first Westerner ordained a Tibetan Buddhist monk by the fourteenth Dalai Lama. He's now chairman of the Department of Religion at Columbia University in New York.

Professor ROBERT THURMAN (Chairman, Department of Religion, Columbia University): In Buddhist countries, people will go on a lot of pilgrimages. Pilgrimages are the way they associate with higher beings and learn something. They will want to go to the place where Buddha was, obtained enlightenment, or the Holy Mountain.

MCQUAY: Like other pilgrims, I seek spiritual advice and guidance before heading out to Kawakarpo. In Zhongdian, a border-town in Yunnan Province, my Tibetan guide, Kayson, and I visit an old Tibetan monastery called Sumtseling. We climb the wooden stairs leading to the monastery's main prayer hall, which is thick with the smoky aroma of burning butter lamps. On the wall is a painting of a giant demon clutching a wheel.

KAYSON (Pilgrimage Guide): This is the Wheel of Life, and all we human beings are being born again and again in this Wheel of Life.

(Soundbite of monastery activity)

MCQUAY: Robert Thurman.

Professor THURMAN: The legend about the Wheel of Life is, it is the one thing that the Buddha himself drew, and it is at the doorway of all Buddhist monasteries and in many lay houses. And the Wheel usually, nowadays, has six divisions. The six divisions of the Wheel symbolize the six stages of life that we migrate around always, and have from beginning of time in the Buddhist view. They know that in that infinity they can have a lot of pleasurable lives, sure, but they're scared of having a whole lot of bad ones. So, they want to obtain the freedom to know where they're going, so to speak. You know, they want to have their, take their visa and passport to only the good realms among the six realms. And it makes them very intense about their use of this life.

MCQUAY: The next day, Kayson and I traveled to Ringha Temple on the outskirts of Zhongdian. Pilgrims stop here and pray for help during their long pilgrimage. I struggle for breath as I approach the temple, more than 10,000 feet above sea level. I recall yesterday's meeting with a lama. One of the things he said was that through your pilgrimage you will probably see many different kinds of people that will seem friendly to you. And there'll be people who may treat you harshly. They're there because of your karma, your past actions.

Dr. THUBTEN JINPA (Buddhist Scholar): The concept of karma is intimately linked to the concept of rebirth.

MCQUAY: Thubten Jinpa is a scholar of Tibetan Buddhism living in Montreal and a frequent translator for the Dalai Lama.

Dr. JINPA: The form of existence that you will assume after death is thought to be, to a large extent, determined by the kind of karma that you carry with you. If you do a good action, its results will be beneficial. If you do a negative action, its results will be undesirable. Good karma is created when you engage in positive actions, such as helping others, or engaging in spiritual activities. For the Tibetans, pilgrimage to sacred sites is considered to be a very important activity.

MCQUAY: We reach the temple.

Dr. JINPA: You see on the right-hand side, all the bronze prayer wheels.

MCQUAY: We spin the cylinders, still with printed prayers.

Dr. JINPA: 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; that all events come into being as a result of causes and conditions.

(Soundbite of automobile and people talking)

MCQUAY: The following day we arrive at Yangsta. It's a tattered strip of wooden sheds resting high on a riverbank above the Mekong.

(Soundbite of city noise)

Dr. JINPA: (Unintelligible) You see there's a lot of shops and also a lot of (unintelligible). We cross the bridge and then we start our first trekking.

MCQUAY: This is an all wooden suspended bridge covered with beautiful prayer flags.

Dr. JINPA: There is the one main temple. All the pilgrims, just after crossing the bridge, they all have to go down there and pray inside the temple and then they go up and start the trekking.

(Soundbite of a gong sounding)

MCQUAY: We enter a small thick walled room covered with painted images of serene Buddhas and Buddhist saints. A young monk circles around the room naming the colorful images painted on the temple walls.

(Soundbite of monk speaking in foreign language)

MCQUAY: But it's two statues of a figure riding a white horse that gets my attention. Unlike the tranquil, devotional images on the walls, the man on the horse is imposing, dressed in what looks like a suit of armor. He reminds me of a medieval king dressed for battle.

(Soundbite of monk speaking in foreign language)

MCQUAY: It's the god of the mountain circumambulate, Kawakarpo, a warrior god. I'm perplexed. How can a warrior god and his mountain be the devotional fulcrum for non-violent Buddhists pilgrims? How do the values of compassion and respect for all sentient beings fit with the devotion to a warrior god? We're only at the beginning of our 17 day journey. I wonder what answers I will find in the days ahead?

(Soundbite of Tibetan music)

MCQUAY: For Radio Expeditions, I'm Bill McQuay.


Tomorrow we join the pilgrimage across the border into Tibet and deeper into the heart of Buddhist beliefs. Radio Expeditions is a co-production of NPR and the National Geographic Society. Buddha described six realms that all life forms pass through. To take a multi-media tour of those realms, go to

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