The second half they say is significantly more trying on the body than the first half. The steps become more random in height and width and in many areas the incline is so significant you must hold a railing or even crawl.
Somewhere in the middle I lost myself. My mind became more and more empty; the only thought was the next step. In walking meditation we focus on the bones in our feet, we observe each of them moving. The observation, feeling each muscle, it takes all you’ve got mentally to focus on such a tiny thing. Continuing the climb felt just the same. We talked occasionally, laughed, told stories. We stopped at numerous bluffs to catch our breath. With perfect weather we looked at the sky, the stars were magnified beyond anything I even dreamed possible. We soon discovered we were looking due north, towards India. I had no idea then what we were really looking at… the blackness stole the “vastness and reverenced cathedrals” from me but we kept climbing with a knowing something huge was about to be revealed.
It never once occurred to me we were hanging off the side of a mountain. It never once occurred to me to think back to all the pictures I had seen. The only thing I thought about was the next step. This has become of utmost significance.
I didn’t even realize there was much open space behind me. The darkness was so close I thought we were almost in a tunnel. Hours later my mind was blown as I realized how totally raw and exposed we actually were. But I never once felt it. We just kept moving.
More times than I can count continuing a sacred commitment to keep moving is the only thing that got me anywhere. Step, step, step, step. If I had known, or even considered my surroundings, I’d have had a very different outcome. I could list a thousand things that only happened to me because I was willing to say yes, three steps, one bow, three steps, one bow. This pilgrimage is no different.
Very soon into the “hard part” the only option became to keep moving.
Nearer to the top, we only made it maybe 20 stairs at a time.
20 stairs, rest.
20 stairs rest.
As we climbed another 20 stairs, each one slower and slower, I thought about how many times I’ve given up on things because I couldn’t keep the pace I originally started with and I marveled at what might have been if I’d not been attached.
20 soon became 10 but we kept moving.
A sign, finally written in English, announced we’d made it to the last tea house and rest stop before reaching the top. The tea house was closed, of course, but we reached in and stole a bottle of water, each committing to repay them on our way back down.
At a 10 step rest point someone pointed to a light. “That’s it, that’s the temple, we’ve made it”. Saying we’ve made it and actually making it are two very different things. The last sets of steps were as hard as the entire mountain.
I was soaked in sweat and once we stopped climbing quickly froze me almost to death. I’m not sure if I was shaking from cold or from the climb. After hours of being completely alone, I was surprised to see people already atop, meditating, sleeping, eating, laughing, waiting.. Lots of waiting. We found a spot and settled in as we were hours early for the sunrise. The temple monk would not awake for several hours to open the gates of the temple and let us in.
Every day I get older I re-discover, the top really isn’t the top until you are in the temple, whatever your temple may be.
As we sat curled up trying to stay warm, maybe as many as a hundred or more pilgrims arrived. I had no idea anyone was behind us. The same scene repeated itself.. They arrived in t-shirts and shorts, so happy to have made it. They go immediately to the temple gate and realize it’s locked, then look around and finally notice us all huddled up and waiting. Eventually they joined in, one after another adding themselves to us, individuals becoming part of the collective. Symbolic only now that I’m warm, awake and safe.
It would be embarrassing for me to attempt to describe “the miracle of sunrise”. The realization of where we were, what we had done and what I was looking at came very slowly. The slowness was mandatory; I couldn’t have (and still fully haven’t yet) comprehended what I saw.
As we waited for the monk to wake up I never once thought about the millions of pilgrims before us, or the sacred acts performed here, or the significance of this interfaith holy site at this particular time in our worlds history… I didn’t have one deep or profound thought, no insight, not even for a second. I’ve been told again and again, that’s the entire point of a pilgrimage, to become that completely empty. I most certainly succeeded.
As the sun rose, so did the monk. When he saw us traveling with our own monk we were near the first to be let in. I was so captivated by the views I had to force myself to notice anything of the temple site.
We left our shoes at the gate, a moment that for me was the most significant of all. I am moved beyond anything I can describe any time I see people prepare for worship and the site of shoes outside any sacred space always blows me away.
We were quickly escorted to the sacred “footprint” and Bhante and I got on our knees and bowed and then began chanting. A woman with her daughter were behind us and she began crying the mom so deeply moved. I moved away and her daughter took my place, bowing with Bhante and then he did a special blessing chant for her. She wore a blue coat and her mom called her blueberry. Mike joined the bowing and chanting and then we made way for others.
We came upon the famous bell, the first to begin the precession of pilgrims, and our monk went first, ringing it 14 times, one for each of his assents to the sacred peak. His last pilgrimage was 25 years prior and when he reached the bottom then, he announced he would never climb it again in this lifetime. He kept his word for along time. I’m sure glad he broke it for us.
When I rang it I realized just how resonate it was, I am certain villages across the valley hear it constantly, a daily reminder of faith.
Only now, finally slept and clean and alive, I reflect on all the people who’ve pilgrimaged to this holy site. Marco Polo among the notable. What’s so interesting is how little all that means to me. Nowhere during the journey did I give reverence to anything other than my steps, of us continuing. We just kept going.
For our final mountaintop moments, we recited 2 sacred passages directly from the Buddha’s teachings and we lit candles and incense on an alter by the edge. We each made private vows, mine (1) to know myself and (2) to allow you to know me. The second so much harder for me than the first. The backdrop of this ceremony was beyond comprehension. Another traveler took our group picture but there was no need to memorialize as an imprint, like the sacred foot, is now in my heart.