Jul 17, 1977

The Caves at the Lotus Lake

Tsopema, the Lotus Lake at Rewalsar in the Himalayas.

The simple caves above Lotus Lake, in Himachal Pradesh, are homes to a community of meditators and Buddhist practitioners. Some are monks and nuns, some are married. They don’t necessarily belong under the same flag or have the same guru, but most of them come together to practice once or twice a month in a small hall that looks recently built. Previously, they used to meet together in the larger cave, the antechamber to the caves of Padmasambhava and Mandarava.

I am given a small cave belonging to Ani Bumchung. Ani means nun and her name is Bumchung, which sounds like a nickname. Currently she is down at the lake. Twenty-five years later she will is still be a nun, practicing in that same little cave, beaming like a small sun. I hear from Lama Lena that she is now authorized to give Dzogchen guidance to others. As Lena writes: "the Little Girl Nun, short for Pumo Chungchung, is by now considered one of the last great living masters of Maha-Ati. After serving her teacher 10 months of the tear, every year, and making 2 months of retreat every year, she is retired now of active duty for reasons of age. She is now free to teach and does, often. She is considered the Tibetan holder of Wangdor Rimpoche's linage of direct teaching and deep practice."

Frankly speaking, her cave is not a cave, and I know--I live in it for four months. It’s more like a rock overhang where the front has been walled up with some stones and mud. There’s not even a real door, just a frame with some rags hanging. There is a small window that doesn’t close properly. It has no glass. The room inside is not tall enough to stand up, for a Dane at least, and I doubt that she could stand up either. But there is plenty of room to sit. There’s no bed, only two planks of rough wood, and my legs dangle out over the end. There’s no mattress so I use a blanket as mat. There’s no electricity and no running water. But there are plenty of enormous spiders who love to listen to a Dane’s accent while spelling his way through a text Tibetan.

The cave’s other inhabitant is a large rat who plays jazz on the tins and cans in a corner—always between two and three in the morning. A mangy cat comes by soon after. Not to catch the rat but to steal some warmth from my oblivious body. It stinks, and I try to push it away from the planks. It holds on to dear life and makes a miserable moan, like a child about to be pushed over the brink of an abyss. Compassion gets the better of me. And, of course, the fleas feast on my blood every night, mercilessly. The only option is to let them have their fill as soon as possible, otherwise there’s no sleep.

Padmasambhava in the Guru Cave above Tsopema.
The environment is sheer heaven; I have never been in a place so beautiful. The air it is so fresh, the grass is lush, and the mountain ranges in the distance, beneath the endless sky, are dressed in every shade of delicate blue. Somehow, a chakra has opened and my heart bleeds liquid bliss, for days on end.

Provisions are carried up from the village down below. It’s a trek that takes an hour and a half, walking straight up the mountain, like on a staircase, continuously. Water, apart from the monsoon season, takes twenty minutes back and forth, also up and down the mountain. You cannot accuse the meditators up there for having attachment to the luxuries of this life, and yet, they all look very happy.

I have made the rounds once in awhile, they’re very hospitable, and at the end of my four months I have made friends with most of them, eaten their tsampa, listened to their stories. Especially I enjoy the company of one of the old geezers, who delights in telling the story of the Tibetan tyrant king, Langdarma, who tried to eradicate Buddhism, but failed because Palgyi Dorje assassinated him in a clever way -- and got away with murder--by dyeing his horse black with charcoal, and wearing a coat with two colors, white inside, black on the outside. As the assassin made his escape, he turned his coat inside out and rode through a river. The people chasing him of course asked around for a black rider on the black horse, but our hero had turned around to ride towards them, and of course lived to tell. The peaceful old monk laughs loud. Except, the assassin was the only one among twenty five close disciples of Padmasambhava who failed to attain the body of rainbow light at the time of his death. The monk beckons me to drink more Tibetan tea with rancid butter.

Yogi practitioners at the caves above Tsopema. Photo: Lama Lena.
That was just one of the stories I heard up there at the caves above Lotus Lake, and at the end of four months I am surprised and delighted to discover that I can follow a lot of their conversation.

The visit is interrupted by letter from Tulku Pema Wangyal that says “His Holiness Dudjom Rinpoche is about to give a series of important teachings. Come immediately to Nepal.” Helena Blankleder, a girl from Czechoslovakia, who stays in one of the other caves, and I quickly pack our things and walk down to take the bus to Delhi.

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