Pilgrimage to Nepal and Maratika

By Will Shea

In 1984 the Longsal Mandarava practice was revealed to Chögyal Namkhai Norbu while he was practicing in the Eight Heruka Cave in Maratika, Nepal. To mark the fortieth anniversary of this auspicious event, a collaboration between Shang Shung Institute UK and the Museo di Arte e Culturale Orientale (MACO), in Arcidosso, Italy provided in April 2024 a tour to Nepal, including several days at the caves of Maratika. The caves are the site where in the eighth century Padmasambhava and his consort Mandarava realized the spiritual immortality of the Vajra body. 

With all this in mind, forty-three of us pilgrims descended on Kathmandu from around the world for an eleven day tour. 

Our guiding team was headed by the Tibetologists Jacobella Gaetani, who was among those accompanying Rinpoche to Maratika forty years ago, Jamyang Oliphant, scholar and connoisseur of all things Nepali, and Pemba Lama,  Director of Bodhisattva Trips. Kyu Kyuno helped facilitate for the sizeable Japanese contingent. The capable and responsive team provided for all our needs from the esoteric to the mundane.

Before heading for Maratika, we spent a number of days exploring the considerable spiritual and cultural riches of the Kathmandu Valley, while also getting over jetlag and preparing to go to our remote destination. Kathmandu is a chaotic yet in some ways relaxed city, with the sizeable Tibetan Buddhist presence coexisting harmoniously with the Hindu majority.  Every taxi ride through the crowded streets seems to pass several temples of both religions, some of which are shared by the two. 

Our festive introduction dinner at a traditional Nepali banquet hall, complete with a lively dance performance, set the tone for discovering the area. To fully chronicle all the  wonders we enjoyed over the next several days, visiting many places of lore that we had read about for years, could fill a book. Mention of a few highlights will hopefully convey something of the overall impact. 

For our first day out our guides arranged for an intimate tour of nearby Sechen monastery’s temples and former personal quarters of the late revered master Dilgo Khyentse Rinpoche, which also contain a reliquary of his remains. On Guru Rinpoche Day we would return to the Monastery to celebrate our Ganapuja in a small temple under the watchful gaze of enormous statues of Guru Rinpoche, Mandarava, and Yeshe Tsogyal.

In the afternoon we visited a thangka painting studio where scores of artisans work diligently to continue the creation of beautiful images using the traditional method of creating pigments from various colored minerals.

The same evening we visited the river bank ghats of Pashupatinath, an ancient Hindu shrine dedicated to Shiva, and watched from the opposite bank of the Bagmati River as families burned the remains of their recently deceased relatives on open fires, then dispersed the ashes into the river. Being downwind of the charnel smoke, our experience was quite direct. Any lingering doubts we may have had about the reality of impermanence were charred as well!

We then visited the nearby small riverside caves of the eleventh-century mahasiddas Tilopa and Naropa. We had the very auspicious opportunity to sit inside briefly – without the inconvenience of being slapped with a sandal – the legendary means of awakening administered to Naropa by Tilopa.

Afterward we remained on the Pashupatinath grounds to see and hear the festive evening Arti prayers to Shiva and other gods. The sensual, and eventually boisterous ritual of gratitude, with the cremation fires still burning within sight, provided for interesting reflection. 

A day trip to Pharping enabled a visit to the  auspicious caves of that area, sometimes referred to as the Bodh Gaya of Vajrayana, where Guru Rinpoche’s ‘Re-Enlightenment’ (as is written above one of the cave entrances) occurred. When possible we sang together the seven-line invocation to Padmasambhava or the Song of the Vajra inside the small caves, integrating with the powerful energy there.

We also visited the late Chatral Rinpoche’s temple, residence, and reliquary stupa, which resonate with the eminent Dzogchen master’s enduring presence.

Another highlight was the visit to Triten Norbutse Bonpo Monastery, residence of the highly respected master Lopon Tenzin Namdak. We were treated to a talk by the abbot and master Kenchen Tenpa Yungdrung Rinpoche. His perceptive comments on the rewards and challenges of pilgrimage were well-attuned to our conditions, and included the advice to collaborate harmoniously on the tour. Jamyang joked afterward that he had paid him to give this advice. We also paid a visit to the Tibetan medicine clinic within the monastery and some of us had brief health consultations, with herbal medicines dispensed corresponding to diagnosis.

We had the unlikely experience in central Kathmandu of having a glimpse of the Royal Kumari,  a young ‘living goddess’ who lives in seclusion and only appears in her window on rare days for people to see her. I won’t attempt to explain this unusual tradition! I asked Oliver (Leick) if we have a living goddess in the Dzogchen Community. “Yes,” he said. “All of us”.

An interesting tangential event of the tour was the teaching of Vajra Dance at Tsoknyi Rinpoche’s monastery, Tsoknyi Gechak Ling.  Ten or so young nuns joined the two-day class with other locals and a few from our tour group. Instructors Anna Apraksina and Lorraine Gaultier, (supported by Carisa O’Kelly and Kyu), were delighted to see the receptivity and enthusiasm with which the girls embraced learning the Dance. 

As the immense and magnificent Boudhanath Stupa was within walking distance of our hotels, we had the opportunity between outings to join the kora circumambulation. The flow of pilgrims around the Stupa  conveys a force of Buddhist devotion not readily found in the West.

And of course we enjoyed the ordinary pleasures (another good reason for pilgrimage) of dining and shopping in colorful Kathmandu and the world heritage site artisan towns of Bhaktapur and Patan.

Eventually we embarked in a convoy of nine jeeps and a pickup truck full of luggage for the daylong journey to our primary destination, Maratika. Beautiful scenery and the good humor of fellow passengers provided some relief from the hot, bumpy ride. Of course, a pilgrimage would not be complete without some challenges to body, voice, and mind. Along with the delights of our voyage were experiences of inner and outer limitations in various forms. However,  in light of the reward, they seemed minimal; the devoted group coped and seemed to collaborate reasonably well.  (Perhaps this should be confirmed by the guides).

When we finally entered the Maratika Eight Heruka cavern, all the previous sites visited were forgotten, at least for the moment. The powerful energy of the place is incomparable. Visiting lama Kochog Gyaltsen would later point out, with his industrial flashlight, the many amazing signs of Guru Rinpoche and Dakinis in the rock walls. He also gave a tour of the other sacred caves of Avalokiteshvara Hill.

Jacobella recalled for us many details of Rinpoche’s visit and his reception of the gongter. Jakob Winkler explained the Mandarava practice for those unfamiliar with it, and Oliver gave basic advice on yogic breathing. Over three days we did the practice together inside the  cave. 

Though in the Dzogchen view all is perfect from the beginning, for those of us with less than stellar capacity it is easier to practice awareness while surrounded by the energy of realization!

We also had the opportunity to practice integrating with commotion as waves of Hindu pilgrims came in and out of the cave and took pictures of us and with us. It is not an isolated spot! At one point a group of drumming mountain shamans entered and drowned out our singing. They were quite interesting though and we enjoyed their visit. On the day of the full moon a group of monks chanted their Tsok offering ritual nearby to us. We practiced a Mandarava Ganapuja later that day. 

We visited other auspicious caves on nearby Vajrapani and Manjushri Hills, and some took a short ride to a powerful Naga cave that had been discovered by Kyabje Trulshik Rinpoche. Others took a longer ride and hike to a small secret cave of Mandarava. In many cases people squeezed through tight spaces in the caves; there were some close calls but no one was permanently stuck. 

At one last Ganapuja in the hotel’s Gönpa (nice feature), we expressed our  appreciation,  as we would begin to separate with the return to Kathmandu.

We then dispersed to our  various destinations to resume our endeavors to recognize all locations as primordially pure. In my own case, living near Khandroling, in Massachusetts, it was also a reminder to fully appreciate that special place of the Dzogchen Community.  In conclusion, I express my  gratitude for the incredible gifts given to us by Rinpoche and his lineage, and for the kindness of the guides and fellow travelers on this wondrous trip. 

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