Circling the Sacred Mountain: A Spiritual Adventure Through the Himalayas


To Tibetan Buddhists, Mount Kailash is the most magical place on earth, a place where one's prayers are answered instantly. The journey to the diamond-shaped peak is arduous, as it is located in the heart of the world's tallest mountains; yet it is well worth the effort. For according to tradition, one trip around the sacred mountain at 18,600 feet can wipe away the sins of a lifetime. It was this promise of transformation that inspired Robert Thurman, preeminent Buddhist scholar and teacher, to lead a group of ...
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To Tibetan Buddhists, Mount Kailash is the most magical place on earth, a place where one's prayers are answered instantly. The journey to the diamond-shaped peak is arduous, as it is located in the heart of the world's tallest mountains; yet it is well worth the effort. For according to tradition, one trip around the sacred mountain at 18,600 feet can wipe away the sins of a lifetime. It was this promise of transformation that inspired Robert Thurman, preeminent Buddhist scholar and teacher, to lead a group of eager pilgrims on the spiritual trek of a lifetime. Among the group was a former student and longtime friend, Tad Wise. Together, Thurman and Wise recount their experience circling the mountain, in chapters that counterpoint the most profound inner teachings of Tibetan Buddhism with a magnificent description of a land of awesome beauty and unexpected hardships. Chronicling the inner as well as the outer journey, confrontations both physical and metaphysical, Circling the Sacred Mountain serves as an inspiring metaphor for the challenging passage to enlightenment open to each of us.
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Editorial Reviews

From Barnes & Noble
The Barnes & Noble Review
When you arrive in a foreign country, you are routinely asked the nature of your visit. Normally, you have two choices: business or tourist.

When your Royal Nepal flight deposits you in in Kathmandu, however, you have a third choice.


Robert Thurman has been a pilgrim for many years. A leading light of the American Buddhist movement, he teaches in the Department of Religion at Columbia University and is director of its Center for Buddhist Studies. Readers know him as the author of Inner Revolution and translator of The Tibetan Book of the Dead, among other works. His Buddhist buddies call him Tenzin, which means "Upholder of Teaching."

In 1995, Thurman led a small group of people on a pilgrimage to Mt. Kailash in the Himalayas. One member of the group was Tad Wise, a former student and longtime associate of Thurman, and author of the novel Tesla.

Together Thurman and Wise have written Circling the Sacred Mountain, about that pilgrimage. In alternating sections, Thurman provides the meditations and Wise the travel narrative.

Mt. Kailash is, in Thurman's words, "the axis mundi, the cosmic pillar that upholds the vault of heaven...the most magical site on earth...the magic gemstone," and the campsite on the north face is "like a spiritual megaphone. Whatever prayer you make there is automatically transmitted instantaneously throughout the planet and even beyond."

Here's the plan, in Thurman's words: "Well, then, fellow pilgrims! If all goes well our preparations will bring us to a most magicalplace,together with the opportunity to become a more enlightened being. For a thousand years, Kailash has been a magnet for Tantric practice, the special, accelerated path designed for the extremists of the Dharma.... On our way to the mountain, we will work on meditation themes from the Tibetan Lamrim tradition, the Systematic Path of Enlightenment.... When we get to the mountain, we will turn to the Blade Wheel [The Blade Wheel of Mind Reform, an ancient text Thurman has been working on]. We will also perform a fire-offering ceremony at the heart of the mountain, dedicating all our merit and virtue to the transformation of the whole world for the sake of all beings. If all goes well, after the mountain, we will touch the wheel of bliss."

Wise's part of the story is bluff and direct. For example: "We go for dinner to different yak-butter-and-beer holes, where the greasy food is terrible. A four-man mountain-climbing team of mad Frenchmen barges in, soon filling a table with beer liters, wine bottles, and smoldering ashtrays."

The completion of their journey around the mountain coincides with an eclipse. Wise has the last word: "Tenzin sits tight, quietly reciting mantras as the eclipse roaches full darkness. The mountain people bang and shout in the distance. Some of our group get up and look through pinholes in the cardboard. I stay put, sending out waves of new resolve through the dark silver gap between the dimensions."

So, have the strenuous spiritual efforts of Thurman and his friends four years ago made a better place of the planet? And even beyond?

If you are seriously interested in Buddhism, Thurman offers an interesting and very personal take on the subject.

If you are only casually interested in Buddhism, Thurman will not win you over.

If you are interested in the travel literature on the Himalayas and "the carnival called Kathmandu," you will find Circling the Sacred Mountain a lively and vivid account. You can almost taste the yak butter.

And if you skip Thurman's meditations entirely and read only Wise's travel narrative, nobody will be the wiser.

Alan Ryan

Library Journal
Thurman (religion, Columbia Univ.), one of the country's leading scholars on Buddhism, and Wise, Thurman's former student and a writer, have produced a vivid account of a spiritual pilgrimage to Kailash, a mountain sacred to Tibetan Buddhists. Along the way, Thurman teaches the group of nine travelers the Blade Wheel of Mind Reform, a Tibetan Buddhist approach to enlightenment. The authors' descriptions of the exotic places they see, the persons they meet, and their reactions to it all are so well written that the reader feels like a fellow traveler. Thurman relates his deep knowledge of Tibetan Buddhism to each aspect of the journey and to the external and internal experience of each traveler. This intriguing account of a great physical and spiritual adventure keeps the reader engaged from beginning to end. The combination of travel and Buddhist teachings makes this a special book indeed. Recommended for any library whose travel and Buddhist collections could use a wonderful addition. --David Bourquin, California State Univ., San Bernardino
New Age Magazine
This pilgrimage -- part high adventure, part Buddhist instruction -- is certain to empower and inspire.
NY Times Magazine
Thurman is the most visible and charismatic exponent of Tibetan Buddhism in America.
Kirkus Reviews
A guru-and-disciple account of a pilgrimage to a Tibetan Buddhist sacred site. Thurman (Religion/Columbia Univ.; Inner Revolution, 1998, etc.), president of Tibet House in New York City, teamed up with his former student and surrogate son, Wise (Tesla, 1994) and other pilgrims on a 1996 journey to Mount Kailash in Tibet. This is their account of the journey-or rather, Wise's account, because apart from Thurman's autobiographical introduction, his contributions consist of his daily teachings from the trip, which Wise tape-recorded. Since all of the trip participants were novices to Buddhism, this dharma/teaching is geared for the beginner and offers a helpful introduction to esoteric (tantric) Buddhism. As the pilgrims circle Mount Kailash, the most revered peak in Tibet, Thurman outlines the spokes of "the blade wheel of mind reform," encouraging the hikers to empty themselves of samsara (suffering) and to practice compassion for all beings. (All beings, that is, except for the occupying Chinese, who are vilified and stereotyped throughout the book as warlike, secular, and universally cruel, while the Tibetans' "whole culture [is] magical.") Apart from its overt political message and more oblique spiritual instruction, the book also extends to us the rare chance to enjoy armchair traveling in an area off-limits to casual tourists. Wise's sections make for an absorbing travelogue, complete with descriptions of altitude sickness and an exciting tundric mountain climb near the end (shades of Into Thin Air). But his own spiritual odyssey gets wearisome; his struggles with personal responsibility, alcoholism, and narcissism are so pervasive that the reader begins to wishfor a less introspective narrator. Wise's relationship to Tenzin (as Thurman is called by friends and family) is also much less interesting than Wise thinks it is. Valuable for its teaching and its setting, then, but marred by Wise's self-preoccupation.
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780553103465
  • Publisher: Random House Publishing Group
  • Publication date: 3/2/1999
  • Pages: 368
  • Product dimensions: 6.50 (w) x 9.55 (h) x 1.23 (d)

Meet the Author

Robert Thurman, acclaimed translator of The Tibetan Book of the Dead and author of Inner Revolution, heads the Department of Religion at Columbia University and is the director of the Center for Buddhist Studies.  He is a friend of the Dalai Lama's, president of Tibet House in New York City, and one of the most visible and respected Buddhist scholars and thinkers in the West.

Tad Wise, the author of the biographical novel Tesla, lives in Woodstock, New York.

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Read an Excerpt

At the center of the earth, there stands a great mountain, Lord of Snows, majestic, rooted in the sea, its summit wreathed in clouds, a measuring rod for all creation.


It's the end of May 1995, a week after my thirty-ninth birthday. I'm the proud father and Cynthia the proud mother of new-baby Anna on display at a Woodstock breakfast spot. We're gaily jabbering away, drinking far too much coffee, as beneath this "happy family" the ground rumbles. Cynthia wants out of Woodstock. As usual, I'm not sure what I want.

Through the screen door I hear high, imperious European tones, looking up I find Tenzin and Nena Thurman--that larger-than-life royal couple of Tibetan Buddhism--totally filling the door. I've known the Thurmans since I was seventeen, having been off and on friend, student, house sitter, stonemason, and jester to the court. But I haven't seen them in a year or two; they've never met Cynthia or, obviously, Anna. There are hugs, introductions, congratulations; pancakes are ordered, and more coffee.

Tenzin means simply Upholder of Teaching in Tibetan. That's what he was called when Nena met him, because that's what he was. He was the first American to be ordained as a Tibetan Buddhist monk, though his teacher, Geshe Wangyal, privately counseled him not to take full vows of celibacy, even while introducing him to His Holiness the fourteenth Dalai Lama. It was as if the old Mongolian lama knew this "white monk" would also be first to ask to be released from monastic vows. His Holiness was younger then, and gave Thurman whatever he requested, along with his religious name. Tenzin is what his friends and familystill call him.

When we first met I didn't know what to call him. My stepfather introduced me to Bob Thurman, who'd built one of the domes featured in Woodstock Handmade Houses. Bob had tall, beautiful children with strange names, who looked like they'd been sculpted from marzipan. The entire family was other-worldly and proved a great comfort to me at uptight Amherst College, where Bob had become Professor Thurman. This really complicated matters, for though I was coming down with a clear case of hero worship, I still wondered what to call this glass-eyed giant, who had lost one eye in his youth, at the start of his road to wisdom.

Twenty years later this academic who cleared his own land, built his own house, and roughhoused three sons into manhood has become the American firebrand of Buddhism. Under thirty pounds of restaurant-food roll, he's solidly muscled and not in the least bit shy about putting you in a headlock to prove it. With a voice that pinches with a nasal insistence like Dudley Do-Right, then thunders like Richard Burton, Robert Tenzin Thurman is a combination of opposites: an apostle of peace who grapples in debate like the hockey player in a clinch that he was when he played for Exeter in high school.

Our breakfast nook soon takes on the air of an Irish pub at last call, with gesture, laughter, and language lashed together in happy storm. Tenzin is pounding the tabletop, Nena howling like a tea kettle, Cynthia and Anna gurgling brooks of laughter. "Now tell us, Tenzin," I inquire, "are you going to Tibet again soon?"

"Absolutely!" he thunders. "Next fall in all likelihood. An expedition to Kailash, the holy mountain, the center of the universe. In October, I wish it could be sooner, I'm off to most remote Western Tibet--quite high up and an ordeal in itself just to get there. Incredibly powerful place. Really the most powerful place. I've been trying to get there for years!"

At the sound of the word "Kailash" a bell goes off in my head, and at the end of this speech I hear my own voice blurt back: "I'm coming with you." If I'm shocked, Cynthia must be reeling. A knowing glance is exchanged between Tenzin and Nena. As I would later learn, acquaintances were constantly asking for a place on the Kailash trip, then backing out again.

"Really? How interesting," Tenzin responds politely, his huge, handsome face glowing like a jack-o'-lantern, one eye following me, the other, glass, staying put. "Well, it's only nine thousand dollars to go. Come up with that and we'd love to have you along."

My mind doesn't register the cost. I'm somewhere else; swirling in snow and wind. Looking around the table I drink inthe sight of Cynthia and Anna with a mixture of joy and grief. I'm leaving them. No one else realizes it yet, but I'm already ten thousand miles away. For some inexplicable reason, the instant I hear "Kailash" I know exactly where I'm bound.

Though impressed with my audacity, this incredibly over-scheduled scholar of Tibet is still a bit leery of my sudden Buddhist resolve. I've been a slapdash disciple, in and out of favor for years. The next weekend I drive up to the tumbledown Dharma castle to talk about the trip. Both Nena and Tenzin speak in high voices and peer at me through narrowed eyes; there is an air of audition to the visit. Unintimidated, I ask more about what will happen.

"I give Dharma talks on these trips," Tenzin says, seated at his rough-hewn desk-throne. "Really an A-to-Z primer on Tibetan Buddhism and the path to enlightenment. Between your personal odyssey, the mind-crunching altitude, and the unfamiliar terrain and climate, you'll be quite overwhelmed, I think. You'll be facing the throne of Shiva, the destroyer, confronting death every step ofthe way. No breaks for wine, women, and song."

"That's right, Tad," Nena chimes in from the next room, reclining, as usual, on the broken-down velvet couch with a view of the back side of Meads Mountain through a huge circular window. "This is a remarkable opportunity for you. To really get it--and not play the Artful Dodger yet again!"

"Because," Tenzin continues, grabbing back the verbal baton, "I'm going up there with a very clear purpose. I want to plant a specific prayer in the mind-stream of the planet, to get us beyond this moment of impending doom. For one reason or another I've been prevented from doing this earlier. Nena and I were close severaltimes, but now it looks like the time is finally right for a pilgrimage, to make offerings and meditate upon a solution for a world that has very nearly blown it." He examines my face carefully before continuing. "These days the Chinese have been upgrading their equipment at the borders. If my passport number goes into a computer I may not get through at all. Or they could follow us . . . it could get a little rough and you could end up leading the expedition!" He laughs, muttering, "Heaven forbid."

"Heaven forbid is right," echoes Nena. Then, in a more conciliatory tone, she begins one of her favorite sentences: "I have a favor to ask of you, Tad."

Years ago I gave the Thurmans a capstone left over from one of my masonry jobs to serve as the hearth beneath a woodstove. The woodstove has since been removed and Nena now wants to use the stone as a bridge at the front of the property. I rouse the youngest son, Mipam, from his science-fiction novel for help. Together we carry out the monster and stand it up next to a huge, curvaceous wall I built five years ago. Mipam starts philosophizing, as Thurmans will, while I make a few preparations, and--singlehandedly--lay the stone across the gurgling brook. It's solid. The Thurmans are delighted. Inconsequential as this may sound, it is an extremely important moment for me, harking back to the complicated relationship between Tibet's most famous saint, Milarepa, and his guru, the translator Marpa.

The eleventh-century Milarepa was the son of a prosperous Tibetan whose early death reversed his family's fortunes. The executor of the will was the dead man's brother, Mila's uncle, who reduced the widow and two children to maids and stableboy in their own mansion. After suffering beatings and humiliations at the hands of his own relatives, Mila apprenticed himself to a local warlock of great power in pursuit of vengeance. Bringing a sorceror's curse upon the farm of the usurpers, Mila created a hailstorm that blew down their house, killing thirty-five people. With the locals up in arms, Mila fled.

Searching for a teacher and for atonement for this profound crime, Mila encounters Marpa the translator and his wise and loving wife, Damema.

Marpa drinks wine and treats Mila like a serf. Though Damema tries to intervene, the relationship deteriorates. Marpa tells Mila to build a huge stone tower of a certain shape, and Milarepa accomplishes this feat, only to hear that the tower must be dismantled and rebuilt in another shape. Uncomplainingly Mila resets every stone, but not without bruising himself. Marpa tells him to rebuild it again, and upon completing it, to rebuild it again, until it has been rebuilt a total of four times. By now Mila is a broken mass of blisters and bruises. Withdrawing into seclusion, running away, coming back, and finally resolving to commit suicide, he is at last summoned by Marpa, initiated, and made his adopted son. Armed with strong teachings, Milarepa is instructed by Marpa to search out a deserted cave, to give up associations with men and women and to dedicate his life to meditation for the good of all sentient beings. Overcoming numerous hardships both natural and supernatural, the spiritual progress of this onet
ime warlock is so momentous as to propel him into buddhahood in a single lifetime.

Like several other resonances in our relationship, my relocating the hearthstone recalls the Milarepa-Marpa archetype. To me it seems like an obvious joke.

"Good," Nena says, smiling approvingly at the new bridge. "You've become quite strong. If Tenzin has a heart attack, you can carry him off the mountain." Through much resulting laughter she insists: "You will, in fact, promise to do precisely this, if need be!"

There's no turning back. I'm committed, with only a few short weeks to prepare for the trip of a lifetime. I help Cynthia and the baby move to a charming apartment in Portland, Maine. I reassure my ten-year-old daughter, Riley, who lives with her mother in Woodstock, that I'll send postcards at every opportunity. I send a similar message to my son in London. I lay a few stone walls for a few bucks and read everything on Tibet and Mt. Kailash that Tenzin recommends.

The trek itself will take between twenty-five and twenty-eight days, depending on whether we fly to Lhasa from Kathmandu and drive west straight across the Tibetan Plateau, or if, road conditions permitting, we drive overland straight from Kathmandu north through the Himalayas, swerving east and then west to Kailash. In either case we'll be on the road four or five days. The trip around Kailash itself takes about the same. Then we'll visit holy Lake Manasarovar, drive south to the Tibetan border and hike out through the Nepali Himalayas to Simikot.

Day by day I work at making it happen. Passports, visas, reservations, money, physical conditioning, attempts at spiritual practice. I journey to the holy mountain predisposed to a Buddhist point of view but not made much happier by it. I falter on the central tenet of "selflessness" since, like many committed to the arts, I suffer from an enlarged sense of self-importance. Some might say I am not a Buddhist at all, simply a huge admirer of buddhas.

Once I begin to research Mt. Kailash I soon realize it is, indeed, the most astounding place. Prophecies are heard there and it is said to be protected even from nuclear war. The Hopis acknowledge it as the other end of the world backbone that sticks up as their Black Mesa. But Kailash, the eastern spine-tip, is better protected, sublimely worshiped, and the most divinely ornamented place on Earth. It is called Mt. Kailash by Europeans; Kang Rinpoche, or Snow Jewel, by Tibetans; Mt. Meru by Indians. It is the spiritual crown of the planet, atop the very northernmost sector of the Himalayas, in the most remote region of Tibet.

The first European to see it and live to tell was a mad Swedish explorer named Sven Hedin. Early this century he came back to the Swedish academy affirming the ancient myths that tell of an ice-encased, perfect four-sided pyramid, at whose foot nestles the highest lake in the world and the source of all the major rivers of Asia. He said Kailash is this jewel mountain, which pilgrims of the Hindu, Buddhist, and Jain faiths spend years journeying to, through all sorts of weather, in order to walk clockwise around the thing, never attempting the peak.

When people ask me about my impending journey to Tibet, I explode with all this. Heads nod and mouths mutter appreciations. Sometimes I feel the glow of good fortune, sometimes, a shadow of dread. I shouldn't talk about it anymore, I realize. There are hundreds of preparations to make.

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Table of Contents

Pt. 1 Going to the Mountain
Ch. 1 Off the Deep End 3
Ch. 2 Kathmandu 21
Ch. 3 The Tibetan Border 37
Ch. 4 Acclimatizing 51
Ch. 5 Milarepa's Cave 67
Ch. 6 On the Road 83
Ch. 7 Reaching the Mountain 103
Pt. 2 Circling the Mountain
Ch. 8 The Southern Gate of the Mandala Palace 123
Ch. 9 The Great Freedom Pole 137
Ch. 10 The Mansion of Hayagriva 159
Ch. 11 The Female Yak Horn Cave 181
Ch. 12 The Cool Grove Charnel Ground 203
Ch. 13 Tara Pass 217
Ch. 14 The Dakini Secret Path 231
Ch. 15 Mila's Miracle Cave 245
Pt. 3 Returning from the Mountain
Ch. 16 The Holy Lake 267
Ch. 17 The Border Bribe 293
Ch. 18 Up and Over the Pass 309
Ch. 19 The Eclipse 323
Ch. 20 Kathmandu 343
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