Chapter 5 – Kailash
When he returned to his room Altair thought about consulting the ephemeris for himself, but this had never served him well. It always triggered events but never in a way he could foresee. So it was now. Shanti’s fateful words were somehow deeply woven into the fabric of time as within a few minutes he received a call from the temple hostess to say he had a message to call the Chinese Embassy in Wellington, New Zealand. He wondered whether he should call back immediately and following a hunch he decided to wait and telephone his mother Mary a little later. Perhaps she already knew the results of the scholarship to China.
He lay on his bed pondering the fires that had ignited within him, the desire to travel across China and study the Taoist philosopher Chuang Tzu and the now very new and burning desire, a yearning to travel to Tibet and India and learn from the Siddha Masters. He felt intensely human, as if the stillness of the Shingon Temple was calling to him, and that maybe the continual grind of an academic life was not as attractive as the flow of study with a Master such as Yogananda or the Dalai Lama. It wasn’t long before he fell asleep, dreaming of a monk crossing a very different bridge, a bridge across forever that connected worlds way beyond this one.
He awoke suddenly to the voice of his mother. He had no idea what time it was.
“Altair is that you?”
“Mmm,” Altair was still half asleep.
“Altair, the Chinese Embassy rang.”
“You didn’t get the scholarship. They gave it to an American scholar already at Beijing University. Professor Ip herself rang to confirm. You were in second place. So if it falls through…”
“Mum, I’m going to India…”
“There’s one more thing. I’m so sorry about the scholarship.”
“I’m not, because I’ve decided to go to…”
“A telegram arrived this morning…”
“India! I’m going to go to…”
“Yes! From India, the telegram is from India! How did you know?”
“Do you remember you asked to visit that Foundation, the Krishnamurti School in Varanasi?”
Sleep was getting the better of him. Altair was sure he was hearing things, getting the messages all muddled up.
“Yes, they’ve sent you an invitation.”
There was a faint light now in the temple room that gave the whole episode more than an edge of mystery. Altair longed to be on the plane right now. India? An invitation? It all seemed too good to be true.
He stood up and walked over to the speakerphone.
“Mum, that’s great, that’s just great.”
“I’m so happy for you darling.”
“So am I. I’ll call you back later when I’m more awake.”
Altair walked out into the corridor and headed towards the entrance to the temple. It was just before sunrise as he stepped out.
He decided to go on the long walk to Okunoin, Kukai’s mausoleum and Japan’s largest cemetery. In the early morning mists it was the perfect place to clear his head. According to Shingon Buddhism belief there are no dead there, only waiting spirits. Kukai, also known as Kobo Daishi, came out of meditation there upon the arrival of Miroku or Maitreya, the Buddha of the Future in his visions.
As he crossed the Ichi No Hashi Bridge, reaching the outskirts of the first headstones, it was like he was crossing a bridge between two worlds, as something strange was happening in the mists. He thought it was the early morning winds, moving and trembling but something else was stirring. Dizzying cedars dotted the graves, hiding the sky. The atmosphere was different, the air charged with the sacred.
A figure was forming in the mists, like a ghost. Altair’s surprise was so strong he had to check his feet, that they were still connected to the ground.
The vision filled the forest. It began to spill out beyond the corners as if delicate fingers of light were searching and trembling for something. Kukai was holding a dragon blossom, coming into bloom, and the mists looked like the ocean rising, both signs of the future Buddha, Maitreya. Kukai was as transparent as fragile silk and shimmered like delicately disturbed water on a calm lake. Altair felt deeply moved. It was as profound as any dream or vision he had ever experienced. The beauty of the sacred, and its holiness touched his eyes with tears. As Altair watched, the vision became a portal, just like when he read someone’s astrology chart, and he was transported beyond the confines of the cemetery and the mountain he was standing upon, into another mountain range, one with its own mists and dreams and visions, as if he was looking across a vast natural vista and into another universe.
Altair was gifted with a mystical vision of the future, seated on the top of Mt Kailash on an outspread mandala. Shiva and Parvati, turned to look at him, then blended into Saraswati and Brahma. The fusion was deep, immersed in the ecstatic bliss of creation. Then they in turn blended into the wisdom and knowledge of the Bodhisattva Manjushri and the Goddess Benzaiten Saraswati. The fierce sun, the soft snow, the blue skies, the mystic mists, made the journey of the Tibetan pilgrims circumambulating the mountain far below look even more arduous. In the light he saw himself, now at some period in the future, making his way up a mountain range with a group of people, traversing the Himalayas.
So Shanti was right after all.
It was India, not China.
Something deeper had called Altair, perhaps the wild of the Himalayas.
“Boarding for Kathmandu at Gate 22!” came the call over the loudspeakers at Bangkok Airport. Altair had been staying with a friend of his, Ting, at a monastery in Northern Thailand after flying out from Japan and Koya-san.
“You should follow your dreams,” she said.
So he did.
He decided to follow the dream of Tibet and Samye Monastery, by going overland through Nepal.
He was ready to get underway to Nepal and had been itching to do so ever since landing in Thailand but he’d promised Ting a visit and it was a good opportunity to weigh up the paths ahead once he decided not to take up the scholarship in China. Some dreams weighed more heavily than others. Even in airport terminals.
“Excuse me Sir?” It was a gentleman in fine clothes with gold trim, gold-rimmed sunglasses and a very tanned bald head. “Could you lend me a hand?”
He turned around behind him to lift the largest teddy bear Altair had ever seen.
“Do you have much check in luggage? I am wondering if I could bother you to take this?”
Altair nodded dumbly. He seemed to remember somewhere his mother warning him about the Asian drugs trade and Bangkok being a kingpin in the drug triangle.
Naively he took the bear which was as large as he was and lifted it clumsily into the plane, to the wide-eyed glances of the hostesses.
Soon they were skywards and heading towards Nepal. The flight and the landing were smooth and the tender bump on the runway filled Altair’s eyes with tears although he could have never said why. It was like he was coming home.
He clambered off, hugging the bear and made his way to immigration, looking out for the bear’s owner. There was no sign.
Altair felt anxious. He could have sworn the gentleman had got off the plane with him, though he didn’t see him sitting in economy class.
Suddenly there was a tug on his shirt.
It was an officer in a military uniform.
Altair’s heart skipped a beat.
But his consternation was met with a smile.
“This way Sir, please.”
The officer opened a door he hadn’t noticed to the side of immigration.
It was semi-dark, a long smooth corridor with no distinguishing features or signs.
The next moment he emerged to a fanfare of trumpets and a crowd surging towards him as he marched with the bear down between a guard of honour, to join the bear’s owner and another man in a wheelchair with a bandage wrapped tightly around his head.
“Welcome to Nepal!” said the man with the gold-rimmed sunglasses. That bear belong’s to this man’s son.”
“What happened to him?” whispered Altair.
“This man is the King’s brother and I am his Secretary. He was shot and wounded in an assassination attempt a few months ago. We have just returned from America where he was taken for surgery. We are very grateful to you for helping us. We want to repay your kindness. Tell us anything you want or need in Nepal and we will make sure it is done.”
And so it was that Altair was given a King’s Feast, a luxurious hotel, as well as a Royal Tour of Nepal and its surrounding schools and educational foundations which is how he thought this gift would serve his mission here on earth the best.
A young woman seated with a small group of hikers greeted Altair in Pokhara. He was at the start of the Annapurna Circuit which snakes through lush rice paddy valleys, roaring rivers, Tibetan Buddhist villages, Hindu temples and unassailable arid Himalayan peaks. He had taken some crazy bus rides to get here after the tours of Nepalese schools, on overloaded buses with 20 seats and 40 people to pack in like sardines. He had ridden on the rooftops of buses along insanely dangerous ravines where the slightest mistake would have meant a fatal fall of several hundred meters to their death. He had even driven into Tibet with a truckload of Chinese soldiers which left him feeling completely ill at ease even though they had been very civil and shared their Chinese superfood biscuit rations with him.
With his pack on his back and his heart beating with excitement, Altair was ready for the first ascent, which he was told would climb to giddy heights of several thousand meters and leave him breathless and with aching muscles especially around his kneecaps.
So it was with a measure of relief that he met the woman’s smile and greeting.
“Want to join us?”
Altair smiled again. As simple as that and he was one of them. He soon discovered they were all ballet dancers from Belgium. Monica was the leader, and she had gathered her friends, Cecilia, Irene, Louise and Peter, to come on the hike with her. Together they made their way through lush hills and over swollen rivers, in and out of bamboo forests and traversing waterfalls. Sometimes they skipped across rocks and at other times the trail wove into and up hillsides, with giant blocks at some parts which went upwards for hours leaving them all with sore knees at each resting point. Each night they stayed at a different village along the trail in very basic tea house accommodation. Mattresses varied from very sparse to somewhat thicker, walls would often have cracks to encourage a view, showers ran from cold to very cold and toilets smelt bad or just plain intolerable. Food was usually Dahl, rice, lentils, potatoes and tea. As their bodies adjusted so did the path, from muddy tracks to dusty paths with valleys revealing the snowy mountain peaks from time to time.
In the light of one early morning high up in the Annapurna mountain range they were met by a young Tibetan monk smiling broadly and sipping tea. His saffron robes flapped in the breeze.
“You teach us?”
Altair felt a chill up his back. He knew this young monk would help him connect to his dream as a child, that this boy would somehow link him to Samye.
“I…I’ll…” he had trouble getting his words out.
It was Monica, the lead dancer in the Belgian Ballet group who replied.
“We dance,” she said, “we love dancing!” And she turned and twirled and did a dainty pirouette right there on the spot.
The monk clapped in delight and called out something in Tibetan. Instantly doors opened all around the group and young monks and several nuns gaily skipped out to join them.
The monks were composed and free and wild all at once. Then Cecilia danced followed by Irene and Louise. The monks copied them all as Altair breakdanced and Peter showed them some jazz steps. It was a hilarious introduction. The young nuns pointed and giggled.
At the end they all bowed respectfully.
“We are happy to teach you our meditation,” said the monk with a smattering of English. “Here…”
And he brought out some ancient texts all in Sanskrit that none of the group could read.
“This here,” he said. “Breathing.” He pointed to a diagram of a Yogi sitting. “Like this.” He began to demonstrate so Altair and the dancers all sat down together to practice.
The young monk, whose name was Jampa, which means loving kindness and is the Tibetan name for the Buddha Maitreya, took great pride in showing Altair sitting posture, breathing techniques and how to visualize the various deities.
“Inside or outside?” he said pointing to their rooms which were simple dwellings built of brick.
“We’d rather stay outside,” said Altair laughing as he watched a group of four monks mimicking Peter as they danced in unison across the courtyard.
They shook their heads vigorously although it was rather brisk at this high altitude.
“You,” said Jampa pointing at Altair. “Who?”
“Altair,” said Altair. “Shyam.”
The monk nodded, gesturing wide with his arms. “Space.”
“Shyam. That’s right. It means space in Sanskrit.”
“You monk.” He tapped his chest. It was more a statement than a question.
Altair hesitated not knowing whether to nod or shake his head so he decided to smile instead. The other monks had gathered around, listening as Jampa chatted in Tibetan, translating the staccato English conversation.
Altair stayed with them like this, exchanging culture and dance, meditation and mindfulness all day until the sun went down, when he headed to the tea houses with the group and the monks and nuns to their own lodgings.
They were all well wrapped up and ready for the cold night air when they began drinking tea just before dinner.
After a few sips Altair hesitated.
“Anyone taste anything funny?”
“It all tastes the same to me, awful,” said Monica grimacing.
“Did anyone add their iodine tablets?” said Peter.
“I did,” said Altair.
“Me too,” said Monica.
Irene, Louise, and Cecilia all shook their heads.
“Boiled water?” Altair asked the owner of the tea house in Nepalese.
The owner nodded.
“Can we look?”
He gestured towards the fire where there was a pot heating over logs.
“It has to be properly boiled to be effective,” said Monica. “And if it isn’t…”
“Then the water source could be the problem,” said Altair.
“Can we see the water?” asked Altair. “Where it comes from?”
The owner nodded and took a flashlight and walked with them outside the simple shelter to the water tank around the back. High up in the mountains some of the lodgings were infamous for polluted water supplies.
Altair stood on tiptoes and looked over the edge of the water tank.
What they saw made their stomachs churn. A dead rat, some other indescribable objects and bird shit, was floating in the water.
“I’m going to be sick,” said Monica.
Altair felt his stomach clench.
“Let’s go back to the hotel.”
The hotel was little more than a wooden shell with some rooms.
And it was to this wooden shell that they were all confined together for the next three days, much of it spent moaning or going to the toilet to throw up or emit watery substances from either end, much to the dismay of the other members of the group who were trying to keep everything down.
Altair struggled up as often as he could to meditate and do yoga, which kept the food down rather than up, and he drank enormous quantities of purified water, much to the delight and then growing consternation of his ever-groaning stomach.
It was in one of these long nights that he saw Babaji. He could never be quite sure which night it was as he was so sick but the message Babaji gave was clear and direct.
Babaji looked straight at Altair with dark sparkling eyes.
His mere presence engulfed Altair in a wave of spiritual blessing.
Altair could not stand to bow at the feet of this angelic being so he let his heart kneel in front of Babaji in humility.
Babaji was young, just like in all the pictures Altair had seen of him.
Babaji had a power allowing direct telepathy between two souls so what Altair heard was like a stream of nectar flowing between two hearts.
“What do you think of the schools you have seen here?”
“I am looking for so much more sir, the blending of yoga and science, of life and literature, of love and peace.”
“Child,” the Master said, “the forces on earth are mixed, like sand and sugar, so be wise. Look for schools blessed by men and women of God-realization.”
“Sir, the Western schools are filled with science and the Eastern with philosophy. One can benefit from the other.”
“I know you are interested in the East and the West. That is why I am here.
East and West must share the golden path of spirituality and activity.
Your dreams and visions can shake material reality when founded in yoga science and meditation and transformed through action.
Altair, very soon Krishna will visit you, and help you understand your path in the West. There are many very young Yogis waiting to be awakened. You will know by the signs I send you, the Bhagavad Gita and the Goddess Saraswati. You will write about the unity between the Christ, Krishna and the Buddha. That inspired sons and daughters of God speak with the same truth.”
“Babaji, how can I undertake such a task?”
“Why do you doubt? Whose work is all this? Who is the doer behind all your actions? Who is the meditator and who dreams the dreams?”
The vision was fading. Altair bowed humbly in farewell and Babaji smiled.
“I will visit you again.”
The others were roused and looked up from their beds.
“I saw something,” said Monica. “A light. Did you have a visitor?”
Altair laughed and told them the story of Babaji. Irene looked at Altair curiously.
“Does this sort of thing often happen to you?”
“Only when I’m not expecting it,” Altair said with a smile. “I know I have to meditate more. Then I will be able to see the Great Masters hiding behind the sunlight.”
“Curiouser and curiouser,” said Irene as they all laughed.