Saturday, April 10, 2010

Dear Blogspot, this is NOT SPAM! Why would you think this site is a spam blog? This is an academic paper and is not for the promotion of any commercial enterprise or political cause. It is for informational purposes only.

Caves and Tibetan Buddhism: The Definitive Text

Caves and Tibetan Buddhism

(Please note that due to formatting issues on this site my footnotes did not appear in this post. When I figure out how to make them I will put them on here, until then refer to my bibliography)

This paper seeks to explain links between caves, a common geographic feature in and around the Tibetan Plateau, and Buddhism, the main religion of that region. If one seeks out knowledge of caves associated with Buddhism, they will be overwhelmed with information about caves that have little or nothing to do with Tibetan traditions and at the same time be hard pressed to find any comprehensive studies done on caves in the Tibetan tradition. Therefore, this paper will largely ignore the famous caves of Eastern China and the tropical plains of India, which are far more well known than any Tibetan Buddhist caves.
With the exception of one place talked about extensively, the Maratika Cave in Nepal, the caves are considered sacred primarily by adherents of one or all schools of Tibetan Buddhism, regardless of whether or not they are located in the Tibetan region of China.
Since caves are a geographical feature common to all of central and eastern Asia, they can be viewed as a symbol of unity among the Buddhist landscape, and their use in religion is something common to all humans of the region, ancient or modern. The caves of Tibetan Buddhists have not only been shaped by their use in conjunction with religion, but have created aspects of the religion unique to their region. The caves have played a crucial role in the development of the form of Buddhism that is uniquely Tibetan.
Caves are a common characteristic of the entire Himalaya and all its connected mountain ranges. The Himalayas and mountain ranges connected to it extend like fingers down to Southeast Asia in the east, all the way to Afghanistan in the west. Americans heard of Osama bin Laden hiding out in the Tora Bora cave complex in Afghanistan, thumbing his nose at the west. And just as many have heard the humorous stereotype of the Buddhist monk that meditates in a cave for many years. The Himalayas are the heart of Buddhist Asia, and with the exception of Central Asia at the far western end of the mountain range, the Himalayas are dominated by Buddhist cultures. Historically they have been a proving ground for the great Buddhist thinkers, a place where powerful thoughts are conceived which trickle down to the lowlands the way melting glacial waters become the source of Asia’s great rivers. The valleys and cliff faces of the Central Himalaya form the walls of Buddhist kingdoms.
The Tibetan Plateau has an average altitude of 4,000 meters. Lhasa is at a latitude similar to Jacksonville, Florida, and Cairo, Egypt. But the high altitude creates a climactic zone on the plateau similar to Northern Canada in terms of temperature. At such a high elevation and with such a cool climate one might think crops would fail, but sunlight is more powerful at higher elevations, which means faster plant growth, and the cooler temperatures at night keep water from evaporating from the soil.
Much of Tibet is too difficult to access during the months when snow falls. Before the introduction of the airplane and heavy machinery to build passable roads, which only happened in the last 50 years, the only way in or out was to commute on foot or horseback through tough mountain passes 15,000 ft. high that can get hit with deadly blizzards. Some passes, particularly the ones bordering the Indian subcontinent, are also in zones so high up there is no vegetation. Just to reach a pass, a party might have to travel many days above vegetation level. Pack mules die of starvation, and some trails are littered with skeletons of dead pack animals.
Mountain passes and the temperamental nature of their immediate environment must have provoked prayers for mercy from divine forces. At the top of each mountain pass, a man made pile of rocks serves as an altar to the deity of the mountain pass. Prayer flags may be added as well as offerings.
The geographic features of the Tibetan plateau have made it an isolated area throughout history, where Buddhism took on a new identity. Physical features such as its dry, rugged landscape, its high-altitude mountainous location, and deep, isolated valleys have played the most important role in creating a unique religion. The geographic isolation also helped preserve Buddhism because at several points in history it was shielded from invaders who would have sought to convert the population to a different faith.
Caves are the result of earth’s natural geologic processes. To explain how they were formed one must first know that the face of the earth has changed many times over its 4.6 billion years of existence, and sea levels have fluctuated wildly. Caves in the Himalayas were formed in mountainous areas that were once at the bottom of the ocean, but then were driven upward by continental collisions. These mountains are mostly made of limestone. The limestone does not change as long as it is under the ocean, but when it is pushed up above the surface it gets exposed to fresh water from rain or melting snow. The natural acidity of the fresh water eats away at the limestone. Streams form underground flowing through the limestone, making tunnels. When the water dries up, the results are caves.
The most famous Buddhist caves are not in Tibet. Tibet has always been sparsely populated, so more devotees and their resources were available to construct cave temples in China and the Indian subcontinent. Typically, natural caves were altered and hollowed out further, had ornate architecture carved into them, and were turned into temples or monasteries, sometimes with buildings built around the entrance to the cave. All these techniques were employed to some extent in Tibet. In areas such as Korea, where there are almost no naturally occurring caves, a cave sanctuary called Sokkuram was dug out entirely from the side of Mount T’oham in the 8th century.
Possibly the most impressive of these cave complexes are the Ajanta and Ellora caves in Central India, constructed from 200 BC to 650 AD. Impressive pillars and statues depicting the Buddha and bodhisattvas were carved in relief from the rock walls of the cave. The caves are dedicated to Buddhists, Hindu and Jain temples.
Tibet is a sacred land, and is dotted with sites associated with Buddhism. There are also Hindu pilgrimage points, such as Mt. Kailash in western Tibet, the home of Lord Shiva, the Hindu God. Tibetans refer to it as Kang Rinpoche and it is regarded as the Sakyamuni Buddha itself. Other sites commemorate people and events that introduced Buddhism into Tibet, and some show a link with a past dating back to prehistoric times. Caves are older than people. The earliest humans in the Tibetan plateau surely viewed these natural shelters as something of a gift from the gods.
Before Buddhism arrived in Tibet over 1200 years ago, the native religion was called Bon. Buddhism has incorporated the indigenous beliefs of each culture it has spread to, and Tibet was no exception. The synthesis of Bon and Mahayana Buddhism can be seen in the places held sacred by Tibetans. There are geographic traces of the path Buddhism took in entering Tibet, and while these show how Buddhism entered Tibet, they have also incorporated beliefs that are entirely indigenous to the Tibetan Plateau.
The worshipping of features of the natural landscape is more easily understood by westerners if they take into account that rural Tibetans lead a very “outdoorsy” life, to say the least. The visual world of a person who herds livestock, or a nomad, or a farmer is dominated by nature and a landscape that is not manmade. It is not like living in an American city where all a person can see is achievements of other humans and nature is just an afterthought.
Many Tibetans throughout history have lived in caves, and it was not just religious people. The lack of vegetation meant a lack of materials to build any other type of habitation.
The interiors of some caves, with their striking geological features, multi-colored rocks that form strange shapes, and underground rivers may have suggested a passage to an underworld. The unusual geology of the Tibetan plateau is home to many things an ordinary person cannot understand. For example, in the border region of modern day Nepal is the pilgrimage destination revered by both Buddhists and Hindus known as Mukhtinath. The most famous feature of this spot is a place where natural gas escapes through a hole in the rocks causing an eternal blue flame.
The role of caves as power places is important. To cite a reason from the past 60 years, they could not be found and destroyed as easily as a hilltop monastery. They are located strategically in certain places in valleys.
The caves in the valleys of Tibet are “frequently self-evident focal points, the topography leading naturally to them…Thus the pilgrim’s destination is always a special point of the earth’s surface endowed with a powerful mystique.”
The historical question about all sacred caves is whether they were sacred in pre-Buddhist times, or whether the introduction of Buddhism somehow caused them to be considered sacred.
The prehistoric era of Tibetan history was largely unknown by archaeologists until the 1970s when the Chinese began working on digs in the plateau. Most of it will remain unknown. Excavations that could reveal a lot might never happen because so many of these sacred caves are currently in use by pilgrims and monks. Going in there with a jackhammer is not an option, for obvious reasons.

The Cave in Buddhist Pilgrimage

Anyone studying eastern religions has no doubt heard about religious pilgrimage. Pilgrimage for Buddhists and Hindus was best scientifically described as “an ancient socio-religious institution sustaining a system of interrelated holy centers.” It is a trip a person takes to a special place on the earth, typically far from where they live, where they engage in religious worship.
Many Buddhists, Tibetan or otherwise, are encouraged to take a pilgrimage at least once in their earthly lifetime. It improves their karma, accumulates spiritual merit, and advances their journey toward nirvana. The most famous pilgrimage sites are in India, such as Sarnath where the Buddha preached his first sermon teaching the middle way. All the major religions of India have strong pilgrimage traditions, particularly Hinduism which has countless pilgrimage destinations. If one takes time to research and explore the Indian subcontinent, it may eventually seem like every street corner and crack in the sidewalk holds some type of signficance in Hindu cosmology. Each Buddhist region in Asia also holds many sacred sites with their own stories behind them.
In pilgrimage, once the faithful reaches the destination it is imperative they circumambulate around the sacred spot in a clockwise direction. Even if a cave only consists of a single narrow corridor, the pilgrim would be wise to walk along the left wall on the way in, then turn at the end and walk along the opposite wall on the way out. If the cave is merely one round chamber fifteen feet in diameter, a person would perform a series of prostrations in a clockwise manner, as if they were on the dial of a clock. A person prostrating gets down on their knees then lies all the way down flat on the ground on their front and has their arms all the way out in front of them. Ritual offerings are given at sacred locations, mantras are repeated while circumambulating, the Buddha is visualized in the mind of the pilgrim, and respect is given to the spirits inside the cave.
This practice of regarding a cave as circular keeps with the principal of the mandala, the sacred circle. The mandala can be depicted literally, in paintings illustrating the sacred and material worlds and the realms of existence and reincarnation. It can also be a metaphor for the world around us. The mandala can be used to describe the layout of sacred locations big and small. It can be a metaphor for consciousness or it can be used as a map.
A two-dimensional mandala can be a guide to the three dimensional physical items depicting manifestations of the Buddha. One type of manifestation found in many caves are chortens. A chorten is a sculpture, usually made of stone or brick, built to house relics of a past saint or holy person. Since caves were spots where many of these people dwelled for lengthy stays in meditation, chortens are common in caves. Some of the people staying in the caves were Indians who spread the Buddhist teachings north, some were Tibetans who discovered the secrets to existence while in the cave, and in some caves there were all of the above.
Essential to the understanding of Tibetan Buddhist caves and pilgrimage is the concept of “gnas.” “Gnas” is sacred space. Gnas translates as “place,” but with respect to the sacredness of the spot and residential spirits and deities, past and present. It is also written and pronounced “ne” in some English texts. A particularly powerful zone of gnas is called gnas-chen, and the landscape is filled with sacred space and supernatural forces and spirits in Tibetan beliefs.
In current and pre-Buddhist traditional beliefs in Tibet gods live in the mountains and spirits live below the water level. Humans inhabit the middle realm. Features of the natural environment are the homes of supernatural forces.
Mark Aldenderfer, an archaeologist who has done some of the few detailed studies of caves in western Tibet, asserts that Tibet has no “indigenous” pilgrimage tradition, but the imported tradition of Buddhist pilgrimage created a syncretism between Bon power places and stories from the Buddhist era.
“The pilgrim may acknowledge Buddhist canonical motivations, but these tend to be obscured by the indigenous concept of gnas as the pilgrim gains physical and mental benefit from moving into the gnas-chen.”
The question of why Buddhists go on pilgrimage is a question worth answering in more detail. “To accumulate merit,” is a typical answer, but probably an overly simplistic one. Being a good Buddhist, for the layperson, basically entails a life of accumulating merit by giving food to the monks, becoming a monk for a period of time, and avoiding bad actions. But there is nothing in the Four Noble Truths about going on pilgrimage to caves, so a link must be found between this practice and original Indian Buddhist doctrines. For one thing, most pilgrimage places are maintained by monks living on-site. There are entire monasteries built around some. Charity toward these monks and institutions is a mandatory part of each pilgrimage. Pilgrimage of the individual also produces some sort of benefit to the local community that the pilgrim is a part of.
The pilgrimage in the Tibetan world is also both “holy day and holiday,” where pilgrims patronize the local tea stalls, drink beer, make friends with people from other places, and have a good time. Large pilgrimage spots are about as attractive as any tourist spot in the world. A pilgrimage is supposed to be fun, and if it is not fun then it is educational, and at the very least it is thought to be of religious or supernatural benefit.
One interesting case study is the Maratika Cave at the pilgrimage site called Halase in Nepal. Maratika is the cave where Guru Rinpoche stayed in retreat before heading north to spread Buddhism to Tibet. This cave has become a sacred space commemorating an episode in the life of a cultural hero. It was here that Rinpoche and his consort, the Indian princess Mandarava, perfected a tantric practice that gave them everlasting life. Pilgrims circumambulate the inside of the cave as well as the entire hill the cave is situated on. A pilgrimage to this site guarantees one will not be reborn into one of the three bad realms, the realms of hell beings, hungry ghosts, and animals.
Tibetan Buddhists typically visit this site during losar, the Tibetan New Year. Local Nepalese Hindus visit the site every few months.
The Maratika cave is on a hill that is inexplicably well covered in trees, while surrounding hills in the region have only sparse vegetation. The trees are decorated with prayer flags, as is the tradition with so many places in the Tibetan world. There are two caves in this hill. At the entrance to the lower one, pilgrims are supposed to blow through a hole in a rock by the entrance and it makes a sound similar to blowing through a conch-shell.
The second cave is the Maratika Cave and it should be noted that much like other famous Buddhist pilgrimage sites such as Mt. Kailash, this site is held sacred by Hindus as well as Buddhists. Eberhard Berg, a researcher following a group of Tibetan Buddhist Sherpas in Nepal on their pilgrimage there, made a lasting impression with his vivid description of the environment inside the cave just before the Hindu festival Shivaratri:

“A personal impression may suffice to convey an idea of the specific atmosphere reigning down there among the (Hindu-) pilgrims gathered in combination with the impressive size of Maratika cave. After ringing the numerous bells we passed through this gate. At the threshold the constant sound of these bells met with thick clouds of incense in combination with a loud mix of human voices and of the high-pitched screaming of thousands of bats coming up in waves from a dark pit.”

The site is however, void of most types of shrines that are specific to either religion. The abundance of bats in the cave is in accordance with both the Hindu and Buddhist tradition of not disturbing or harming animals. The property around the cave is owned by an important lama who forbid hunting and cutting down of trees in the area.
Further inside the cave steps reinforced by cement lead the pilgrim far down into the darkness of the underground. Deep down at the bottom is a large chamber the size of an auditorium. This is the area where pilgrims circumambulate in a clockwise direction and it is lit with butter lamps to help them find their way. Each strange rock formation inside the cave has a legend behind it regarding its origin or supernatural power associated with it. Each rock has its own identity.
The chamber is an obstacle course of stalagmites, ridges, holes and small tunnels. The pilgrim is invited to test their faith by trying to navigate the more challenging features like edging their way through stalagmites less than a foot apart, or crawling down holes to see the tiny relic at the end of it. It is like a jungle gym of faith. These different crevices can represent the heavens and hells and different realms of existence. In many Buddhist caves this is part of the formal religious ritual and a tradition of the pilgrimage. It illustrates the metaphoric value provided by cave pilgrimage sites. The people are not worshiping a rock or some other inanimate object but rather what it represents.
Tibetans have a term for a cave with this type of feature. They call it a “womb cave,” one with a narrow crevice where a person must squeeze through. If a pilgrim squeezes through successfully they are guaranteed purification of their sins and better rebirth. They are also guaranteed a shorter and less terrifying stay in the intermediate stage after death, the bardo. It is believed that the size of the passage in the cave will automatically change to allow a moral person through, regardless of whether they are fat or thin.
The flip side is the womb-cave that represents the gateway to hell. These are sometimes termed “hell path” caves and represent a person escaping the hell realm of rebirth. These two legends surround the features of caves throughout the Buddhist world. For Tibetan Buddhism some of the better known examples other than the Maratika Cave are found at the caves of Gur Du Monastery in Amdo, The Ayui-yin sume Monastery in Mongolia, and the caves near the pilgrimage sites of Mt. Kailash and Mt. Amnye Machen in Tibet.
In the case of the Sherpas, a trip to Maratika on Tibetan New Year includes a worship service presided over by a resident lama. After this, festivities are held in a designated area near the gate to the cave. This always includes food and drinking of chang, a local type of alcoholic beverage similar to beer that is traditionally served during religious ceremonies or festivals.
It should be noted that the ceremonies Buddhists perform surrounding the pilgrimage inside the cave are done alongside Hindus, devotees of another faith. This religious syncretism encountered in many places on the Indian Subcontinent is also present on the Tibetan Plateau across the political boundaries of China. Bon and Buddhism are mixed as one in the same at religious cave sites on the plateau of Tibet proper. Plurality of religious meaning validates both traditions. In the Maratika Cave Hindus come to see a famous shrine of Mahadev in the large chamber of the cave, and Buddhists come to see the place where Guru Rinpoche lived, and they are both down inside the cave together.
A pilgrimage does not have to be just a trip to one place or one cave. A pilgrimage can be a trip that includes several sacred sites. One such example are the Drakyul Caves and Dorje Drak Gompa. This is a pilgrimage circuit that takes about four days of trekking and includes several caves where Guru Rinpoche meditated, and Dorje Drak Gompa, one of two main monasteries of the Nyingma school. This institution was founded by a monk named Godemchen who was the incarnation of Guru Rinpoche. The circuit also includes the Drak Yangdzong group of caves, then the pilgrim must travel to a 4,800 meter ridge where the Dzong Kumbum caves that have religious paintings on the walls. Tsogyal Latso is a small lake near there where the soul of Yeshe Tsogyal rests. The pilgrimage is a long hike that includes all these sites, visited in a clockwise direction while walking on a trail that is shaped like a long arch to the north of the Yarlung Tsangpo River.
Clockwise circumambulation with respect to pilgrims visiting a sacred site in Tibet is called korra. For example, the pilgrimage circuit around Mt. Kailash would be called the Mt. Kailash Korra.(Tib world) Some of these are very long trips, the one around Kailash being a 52 kilometer walk that is traditionally done in one day.
An interesting type of cave is the “passage-cave,” which are the caves that have extended chambers and galleries reaching so deep and far they have never been fully explored. Sometimes these are explained as being tunnels created by nagas, giant mythical snakes that come and go from the underworld. Another explanation is more interesting and perhaps more grounded in geography. Some passage-caves are said to be underground pathways from one place to another, such as from the Kathmandu Valley to Lhasa. A cave in a cliff in the Kathmandu Valley is said to have been where the giant lake that used to cover the valley was drained by Manjushri and the water sent to Lhasa. Pilgrims throw coins hoping the money will reach Lhasa. The passage-cave as a drainage tunnel also is used to explain the formation of Lake Kokonor in far northeastern Tibet. Supposedly there was a lake beneath the site of the Jokhang Temple in Lhasa that prevented the building of the temple. It was drained through the passage-cave and the water formed Lake Kokonor.

The Story of Guru Rinpoche

No study of Tibet’s sacred geography would be complete without an introduction to the legend of Padmasambhava. The most important pilgrimage sites in the Tibetan natural landscape are associated with Padhmasambhava, and of his sacred sites, the most important happen to be caves.
Also known as Guru Rinpoche, Padmasambhava was a traveling holy man from Northwest India, in what is now considered the Swat Valley in Pakistan, who brought Tantric Buddhist teachings to Tibet in the 8th century. Padmasambhava’s name means “the Lotus-born.” Trisong Detsing, the first emperor of Tibet, hired Guru Rinpoche to rid the kingdom of demons.
Rinpoche specialized in Mahayoga, a tantric practice that included the violent subjugation of demons and evil spirits. He subsequently defeated and tamed Tibet’s indigenous demons and turned them into protectors of Buddhism. In The Early Development of the Padmasambhava Legend in Tibet, author Jacob Dalton explains the significance of spirits in Tibetan religion:

“The Tibetans seem to have been attracted to tantra in part for its effectiveness in controlling spirits and demons. The Tibetan universe is infused with spirits- spirits that live in the rocks, the trees, and the mountains, spirits that live in one’s body, that wander the landscape, that live underground and in the sky, spirits that cause illness or natural distasters. The spirit world of Tibet is an unruly domain. Spirits demand recognition and respect, yet they are forever changing names, can be associated with multiple locations, appear in different groups, escape classification, and manifest themselves with shifting iconographies…Through tantra the spirits could be mapped onto the Tibetan landscape and correlated with the more orderly Buddhist system of deities.”

Guru Rinpoche’s specialty was fighting demons. His power was so great he supposedly created caves by using his magical powers to bore holes into the sides of mountains so he could rid them of demons. He imprisoned demons inside caves. In Tibet there are valleys with lines across the sides of the mountains, similar to the Painted Desert in Arizona. Tibetans have legends surrounding the unusual look of these landscapes that say the lines were created by the thrashing tail of the demons Rinpoche was fighting. Demons are also said to be responsible for the horizontal lines in the snow covered upper half of Mt. Kailash in western Tibet. Legend has it that a demon caused them by tying ropes around the mountain trying to haul the mountain off to Sri Lanka.
In modern times, Tibet is a place in China, India, Nepal, and Bhutan. Modern political boundaries have chewed up the Tibetan cultural realm and obscured information on most of the important sacred caves. Some Buddhist caves are well documented. They are the subject of scholarly reporting and even televised video documentaries. Others are summarized in a sentence or two in a book about the massive subject of Tibetan Buddhism and its sites. Of course if one can read Tibetan, then there is much more information available. This is a very literate culture, possibly with more books than people. It is a society that hides away certain written documents as treasures, the same way westerners would bury a box of gold coins.
Rinpoche traveled extensively in the Himalayan region. He first stayed in retreat in caves in Nepal. Here he developed his reputation as a spiritual master and exorcist. The first Buddhist king of Tibet invited him into the kingdom to subjugate the indigenous spirits opposed to the foreign religion. Rinpoche also helped found the monastery at Samye, the first Buddhist monastery in Tibet. As a reward for his hard work, the king awarded him a second female consort named Yeshe Tsogyal. Together with this powerful woman, who was only one of several female consorts, he spread the dharma in Tibet and destroyed demons.
Yeshe Tsogyal translated Rinpoche’s treasure texts into various languages. Buddhism brought written language to Tibet. Before the introduction of writing, which was loosely based on the Sanskrit script used in Buddhist India at the time, Tibetans had no writing system for recording history or beliefs. Instead there was a tradition of oral history, memorized by people to recite.
The recounting of the many mythological and sometimes contradictory tales of Guru Rinpoche and his life is a special subject. The caves, lakes, temples, and mountains associated with him are too numerous to name here. At the very least it has been said that every sacred spot in the kingdom of Tibetan Buddhism is blessed by Guru Rinpoche, no matter how small. Each valley in central Tibet has a Guru Rinpoche cave. Most caves within the historic sphere of Tibetan Buddhism have something to do with Guru Rinpoche. He is the ubiquitous character of northern Buddhism, the most important person to think of regarding caves in Tibet.
Guru Rinpoche eventually left central Tibet and throughout his life visited most of Buddhist Asia. He had achieved immortality in the Maratika cave in Nepal, near Mt. Everest, before coming to Tibet, so there is no telling how many more Buddhist places he visited later. Most of his time in Tibet, however, was spent in the valleys of the Tsangpo and Kyichu Rivers, and in regions of southern Tibet he had to pass through while traveling to or from India and Nepal.
The Nyingma school considers Rinpoche the second Buddha, the one held most sacred in Tibet, second only to the Sakyamuni Buddha. A doctrine was developed within this school saying that wherever a spiritual master meditates, that spot is blessed by Guru Rinpoche. Furthermore, any cave where a person like this meditated is considered a Guru Rinpoche cave and becomes a pilgrimage destination.

Guru Rinpoche Caves

Within Tibet there are well ordered and numbered spots associated with Guru Rinpoche that are more important than others. These are the Eight Solitary Places of Realization, where the visions and dreams he experienced came to him. Rinpoche had prophecies revealed to him during his meditation and communication with spirits. He prophesized that later yogis would come there and discover what he had learned. He also recorded his teachings in the form of treasure texts and concealed them inside caves or items in or around the caves. These hidden treasure texts and artifacts are called terma in Tibetan.
Within the Eight Solitary Places of Realization are the Five Power-places of the Guru. These are five caves where Guru Rinpoche meditated during his lifetime. Each one is associated with a different aspect of him: Body, speech, mind, qualities, and action.
Drak Yongdzong is the cave of his Buddha-body, located on the side of a white cliff called Shinje Rolpai Potang, which means “The Citadel of the Dancing Lord of Death.” Inside is a chamber spanning 30 meters high, deep, and wide, with a very old temple. Its altar has a statue of Guru Rinpoche. Other passages of the cave have not been preserved but still contain smaller caverns and caves within the cave. Currently a lama and his disciple reside there. The cave also has a shrine with a makeshift bowl of ground up crystalline limestone from the cave that is given to pilgrims because it is considered to have protective and medicinal value. Pilgrims in need of special blessing consume a tiny amount of this dust.
Rinpoche sent two of his disciples to this cave to meditate with the goal of realizing their yidam, which is the Tibetan term for tutelary deity. They emerged with supernatural powers, such as the power to pierce rock with telekinetic energy, and the power to summon spirits and liberate them from samsara. Other yoginis who meditated here gained the same powers, fifty-five in all, spawning the legend of the Fifty-Five Recluses, featured in Tibetan mythology as examples of people who obtained extra-sensory powers.
The cave of Samye Chimpu, the power-place of the guru’s speech, is located 12 km from Samye Monastery. It does of course contain treasures left there by Guru Rinpoche and his disciples, and it is located at the natural head of the valley. The cave is positioned atop the ridge at the head of a valley containing many caves, some of which are associated with disciples of the guru. The surrounding hermitages were destroyed during the Cultural Revolution, and the entrances to the caves blocked using explosive devices. But these have long since been cleared and the valley remains a place of learning among monks meditating in caves. Chimpu is the only one of Guru Rinpoche’s caves mentioned in Bon documents. This clearly shows its significance before the Buddhist era, although it is probable that the other caves were also known before Guru Rinpoche found them.
Yarlung Shetak is the power-place of the Guru’s qualities. This is Rinpoche’s crystal cave, located at the base of a 5,500 meter mountain at the head of a valley. This is an example of an “eagle’s nest” hermitage, commanding a spectacular view of the valley below and the surrounding peaks miles away. Having a naturally occurring shelter here in the form of a cave is auspicious. The entrance faces east, toward the rising sun, and is about four meters wide and three meters deep, with a second smaller chamber housing a shrine. At one point several other hermitages and temples were built around this cave, but all were destroyed by the Chinese government. The remote location of this cave suggests it was only developed as a meditation retreat so its use may only date back through Buddhist times. It is very difficult to access due to the rough terrain. Rinpoche visited this cave to exorcise and then enslave the Bon deities and demons of the area, and redistributed their power to Buddhist yogis. He returned later and stashed treasure-texts in the nearby cave of Padma Shepuk. These were later discovered in the 14th century by a revealer of Rinpoche’s treasure texts named Orgyen Lingpa. He found them hidden inside a statue of Rahu, a dragon-like deity from Hindu mythology that guarded the cave entrance. These texts became a key source of information on the guru’s life and the early propagation of Buddhism in Tibet.
In keeping with the Nyingma tradition of spiritually enlightened people meditating in caves and invoking the power of Guru Rinpoche, Orgyen Lingpa is an important historical figure. He was a combination of a yogi and what would today be considered a spelunker, an explorer of caves. Lingpa was a monk of the Nyingma school born in 1323, and is an example of what Tibetans call a terton, a person who seeks and discovers treasure texts. He discovered artwork, ritual objects, jewels, and over 100 texts throughout his life. The most important discovery was a five volume text called the Katang Denga which includes the biography of Guru Rinpoche, and also the history of the Emperor Trisong Detsen era, when Buddhism was propagated in Tibet.
Tibetan texts in those days were not bound. Instead, the pages were stacked in order and placed inside a piece of fabric that was folded around them. The fabric may not have always been firmly around the pages, because some of the texts found in caves have been found in disarray, scattered all over the floor by gusts of wind and missing pages. Thieves have also raided caves and taken them, and these may never have been shared with the public. But for the most part, an important historical document might get written but the author did not trust the stability of the situation around them so instead of putting the text in a library, which could get burned down, they hid it in a cave.
Senge Dzong, the power place of the guru’s action is located across the Tibetan border in the Mon region of Eastern Bhutan. Spelled many different ways in English, sometimes called Monka Senge Dzong, where both Guru Rinpoche and Yeshe Tsogyal have meditated and practiced tantra.
The cave of Lhodrak Karchu, the power-place of the guru’s mind, is in the Tibetan district of Lhodrak. In this cave Namkai Nyingpo, one of Rinpoche’s original twenty-five disciples, achieved enlightenment.
Three more Guru Rinpoche caves must be added to The Five Power-Places of the Guru in order to make the Eight Solitary Places of Realization. These are the caves of Paro Taktsang Puk in Bhutan, Drakmar Yamalung in Central Tibet, and Mon ka Sri Dzong.
Paro Taktsang Puk is in Bhutan, Tsaktsang meaning ‘tiger’s lair,’ and Paro is the well known valley it is in also. The cave has a temple and monastery built on its entrance, which looks like it is hanging from the side of the cliff it is built on. The legend surrounding it is that the incarnation of Guru Rinpoche flew there on a tiger (something he supposedly did often) and wiped out the demons fighting Buddhism. Tsaktsang Monastery has remained relatively safe since it was founded in 1692 and is one of Bhutan’s cultural icons.
Drakmar Yamalung, also called Samye Yamalung because it is about 18 km from Samye Monastery, is Guru Rinpoche’s treasure cave. It was here that he initiated Yeshe Tsogyal and he also lived in the cave for an extended period of time. Emperor Trisong Detsen corresponded with Guru Rinpoche writing letters asking for advice on how to deal with officials of the Bon religion. He also warned Rinpoche to flee an impending attack by Bon practitioners. This cave complex was sacked during the Cultural Revolution, has been closed off to foreign visitors, and is all but abandoned now.
The ubiquitous nature of the Guru Rinpoche cave is found anywhere he was supposed to have traveled. He visited places as far north as Mongolia. The Gelugpa school of Tibetan Buddhism, the most well known figure of which is the Dalai Lama, has had a firm hold in Mongolia since the 17th century. Communism ruled Mongolia during the 1900s, and the fascist regime attempted to wipe out all religious institutions. In the 1990s their Soviet-backed regime toppled along with the USSR, and Buddhism has been restored as the main religion. Their Buddhist culture was historically linked with Tibet as well as China, and Mongolians viewed pilgrimage centers in these regions as the holy land. But the importance of local pilgrimage is an essential feature of Tibetan Buddhism in Mongolia as well.
Ayui-yin sume, meaning “Temple/Monastery of the Caves” is one of the most important Buddhist institutions in Southern Mongolia and was built around a cave complex. Guru Rinpoche visited the caves here, long before the monastery was built, and met five dakinis, each one of them inhabiting a different cave in the complex. He practiced tantra with them, subdued a local demon and locked it up inside one cave, and took as a disciple the child of a couple living inside another one of the caves. He took his disciple with him on his return to India where he furthered his tantric teachings. The disciple eventually went back to Mongolia and founded another cave temple nearby Ayui-yin sume. Mongolian hermits and monks followed this example and a tradition of meditation and temple building began around caves in Mongolia.
The five main caves of the complex are typical of ones in Tibet. They are decorated with images of meditation deities, statues of Guru Rinpoche and his consorts, garudas, and prayer flags. A few of these are several hundred feet up along the side of a steep ravine, connected by a narrow stairway carved out of the side of a cliff. One slip and a pilgrim would fall to their death. Pilgrims receive spiritual merit simply by making the journey, which is no doubt a scary place to walk if one is not accustomed to heights.

Caves of the Mustang Valley in Nepal
Lo Manthang, commonly referred to as Mustang (pronounced “muh-staang”), is a region on the Tibetan Plateau on the Nepal side of the modern Tibetan border. Culturally it has been part of the Tibet for far longer than the existence of the Nepali nation state. Its contributions to Tibetan Buddhist history have been significant, being the birthplace of several significant Tibetan Buddhist philosophers.
Like many place names around the Indian subcontinent, the word Mustang is actually a mispronunciation of the indigenous name that has stuck. The original name of this valley is Lo Manthang. It used to be part of the Tibetan province of Ngari, and along with Dolpo immediately to its west, featured prominently in Tibetan history.
The valleys of Mustang lead into Tibet proper. In the 1950s during the Chinese Cultural Revolution and Tibet’s subsequent rebellion, the CIA used Mustang as a base to funnel weapons and supplies to the Tibetan freedom fighters. With such easy access to China, the government of Nepal has severely limited foreigners’ access to it unless they obtain special permission.
Mustang is a very important region for Tibetan Buddhism today because since Tibetans are not free to practice their religion in Chinese occupied Tibet. This is one of the few regions where Tibetan Buddhism has been practiced for hundreds of years and still flourishes without interference, so it is easier for westerners to research sacred spots like caves there than across the political boundaries in China.
The caves of the Mustang valley are numerous and unexplored. Most of them probably saw use by Buddhist hermits and travelers alike. The caves in upper Mustang are so obscure the locals are unsure of their origins. Their creators are long dead, and the oral history lost in lineages that were not carried on in the area. Nepalese archaeologists said they may not have been visited by anyone within the last six or seven hundred years.
In 2009 an expedition was lead into Mustang with experienced climbers who had previously climbed Mt. Everest. The crew included Pete Athans, who has climbed Everest seven times, and cave archaeologist Mark Aldenderfer. They brought modern mountaineering equipment enabling them to be the first people, foreign or local, to enter the cliff-side caves abandoned hundreds of years ago. Locals had spread the word about the caves after pages of ancient Buddhist texts had been blown out of them by the wind, fluttering down to the villages below. The caves were impossible to reach unless expert climbers with sophisticated equipment were brought in.
One such complex held masses of evidence that people of an unknown civilization had used it as a home. It had been dug out extensively and reinforced with timbers and brick, furnished with stones assembled into benches, and even had a kitchen sink and countertop for food preparation carved out of one wall. Half a dozen openings in the cliff face were connected to the cavity. It would even be a suitable home for someone if it were not for the fact it could only be reached by scaling a couple hundred feet of cliff face. During the time of its habitation it probably had ladders that reached it. It is possible there was some type of rough stairway carved out of the cliff leading up to it that eroded away over the centuries. Timbers had most likely been used to build bridges connecting the entrances.
A single spiral was drawn on the wall of one cave. It may have been some type of pictograph made by the original inhabitants, or a drawing made by a meditating monk at some unknown point in history. Its meaning will never be known.
Another cave contained paintings of Nagarjuna, the great Buddhist philosopher, teaching his students. Some held hundreds of urns filled with the ashes of the dead. A relatively intact human skeleton was found inside another cave.
The caves also had paintings depicting deer, palm trees, and Hindu gods. Upper Mustang is a high mountain desert area, and cannot support a deer population. Deer only live in forested areas. Nor are palm trees something ever seen in this area. These paintings indicate the caves were most likely decorated and inhabited at one point in history by Buddhist travelers from further south, in India or southern Nepal.
This type of sacred cave is called a khabum. It is a cave enshrined to house the remains of holy teachers, such as Lamas. They typically contain chortens and may also still have sacred scriptures inside. The word kabum indicates the significance of the sites themselves. “Ka” is a word for teachings of the Buddha, while “bum” means receptacle.
Thousands of pages of texts littered the floors of the caves. Most of them have yet to be removed or translated. The few that were revealed that Bon and Buddhism were practiced simultaneously by the rulers in the valley during the 15th century. This fact was previously unknown and caused controversy among the villagers who looked down on the Bon religion as primitive.
People in Mustang are also reluctant to leave sacred artifacts in the hands of people they do not know, such as westerners. Texts like this are worth hundreds of thousands of dollars on the international art and antique market. They are a physical link to the spiritual world. But more importantly they are also physical artifacts of their culture. How would Americans feel if someone took, for whatever reason, their texts containing the Declaration of Independence?
The caves in Mustang are some of the only filmed caves that can be compared to the Guru Rinpoche caves in Tibet. They are typical in terms of style and use. While they are probably too remote to become pilgrimage sites, these are examples providing proof that treasure texts still exist and many are still waiting to be found.
Ancient Tibetan texts say that Guru Rinpoche hid treasures in 108 major power-places and 1008 minor power-places. During meditation he prophesized that 22,000 incarnations of the Guru will appear throughout history to uncover those treasures. The archaeologists in Mustang not only made a great discovery that tells about the history of the region, but they may have also fulfilled a prophecy. Either way, the texts they uncovered will probably benefit the area by uncovering missing pieces of history.
The village of Lo Manthang, the capital of the region, is a walled city. The king of Mustang lives there, and still holds formal power over the inhabitants, although the government of Nepal stripped him of political power in 2008 when monarchical institutions were outlawed in the country. In another cave in Mustang, near the town of Lo Manthang, deities supposedly emanate from walls like steam blowing off a hot surface. “The people who are high in spiritual development can see everything of the deities. But people who are low in spiritual practice cannot see anything,” explains His Holiness Sakya Trizin, a Sakya monk who guards and tends to the cave. It works the same way as the terma treasures stashed away by Guru Rinpoche. Only after deep meditation can a person see the hidden features of the cave.
The caves in Lo Manthang have unusual petroglyphs on the walls, formed naturally and bearing no evidence of tool marks. The formations in the rock walls naturally resemble human faces, human figures, and images of religious figures such as the Buddha. An interesting comparison would be to picture New Hampshire’s “Old man in the Mountain” rock formation, which collapsed a few years ago. Its silhouette still adorns the license plates of that state. Imagine finding such rocks inside a cave. The human mind is designed to assign values to anything it sees. Inanimate objects naturally occurring in nature, like rocks, might suddenly appear soothing comforting in a harsh, unforgiving landscape like the Himalayas. Those mountains are filled with spots comparable to the “Old Man in the Mountain,” such as the Shiva Linga mountain in the Indian Himalayas in Uttarakhand Province, also known as Mt. Shivling. The silhouette of the peak resembles the linga, a phallic stone icon that symbolizing the Hindu god Shiva.
Another site, rock carvings discovered in Kak Nyingba in Lower Mustang can be used as a metaphor for the cultural and religious values assigned to certain sacred sites. These rocks have artwork from the Neolithic era, alongside evidence of later cultures. At some point in history someone carved Buddhist inscriptions and symbols into the rocks as well. The rock art probably started out as a place of significance for stone age cultures, evolved into a site of Bon religious significance, and with the arrival Buddhism the artwork was “converted” to Buddhism as well. The sacredness is fused together in stone.
One recently well-explored region of western Tibet is Piyang, an area west of Mt. Kailash. It has over 1,100 caves of varying size. The exploration of this region has caused some researchers to rethink their original theories on the early peopling of Tibet. They had originally assumed the first inhabitants of the Tibetan plateau had migrated there through the northeast part, where the terrain is less treacherous. Recent discoveries in western Tibet suggest people arrived using multiple routes, such as arriving through the Sutlej River valleys on the border with India and Pakistan. Within the last twenty years, archaeologists have uncovered remains of stone tools from the Paleolithic Era that were similar in style to those found across the border India and Nepal. The Sutlej River valley in western Tibet supported a civilization of over 30,000 inhabitants who lived in caves between 1,500 and 3,000 years ago. Archaeologists from western nations as well as China are currently excavating these areas. There could be discoveries buried here that would rewrite Buddhist history.
Tibet is a region with an unknown but probably large amount of “lost” stories. During the Cultural Revolution the Chinese government burned libraries and destroyed as much Buddhist culture as they thought they could get away with. The only copies of many historical records were destroyed. There could have been records of significant events in the shaping of the Buddhist doctrine that were lost forever, one will never know. In a place where the flow of information is subject to government discretion, such as China, archaeology could be perceived as a threat to the official government version of history. Mark Aldenderfer, the American archaeologist excavating the caves in the restricted area of Piyang in cooperation with Chinese archaeologists, commenting on archaeology in China, said, “…excavation is often little more than the attempt to demonstrate the veracity of documentary sources. When conflicts arise between the sources, archaeology tends to be ignored.” So the idea that caves could hold more secrets about the past and present may not be a welcome one. As with anything regarding Tibetan religious practice, there is the potential for a pointless cover up.
But other regions are easier to explore. Nepal has enthusiastically allows archaeology, and Kathmandu is a center of knowledge for the subject of Buddhist geography. More than a dozen scholarly journals on the subject are published there in both western languages such as English, and local ones like Nepali and Tibetan. Tibetan Buddhism would be even less preserved if it were not for the Indian subcontinent, where Tibet relocated a large portion of its people and culture. This was already a sacred place for Buddhists. The Buddha spent most of his life in Nepal and the region of India adjacent to it. Of the four most important places in the Buddha’s life, three of them are in India, and one is just across the border in Nepal. These two countries have protected religious freedom in modern times to a degree that few other countries have. Scholars there have been courteous enough to translate teachings from their original language into English. Buddhists owe the most essential type of spiritual respect to this civilization.

The Cave Meditators
What is it like to meditate in a cave? Deep enough in a cave there is no light. No ambient noise can be heard, not even the dripping of water. Fresh air does not reach inner confines of the cave and the air has a humid, still feeling to it. The rock walls do not absorb any heat or humidity, so the air could reach body temperature. It would seem as dark, warm, and soundless as the womb. Without any sensory stimuli, time may seem to stop. A world void of inherent existence may become imaginable. It would be the perfect environment in which to imagine nothingness.
The empty environment of the cave is as close to a physical metaphor for enlightenment as one can get in the conventional world. One of the most important philosophies in history was the notion of dependent arising, articulated by the Buddha in his original teachings, and further explored by the South Indian philosopher Nagarjuna about 500 years later.
Nagarjuna has own history with caves. According to legend, he discovered the Prajnaparamita sutras buried in a naga cave deep underground, where they had been hidden there by the first Buddha. There are many caves associated with Nagarjuna. Most Nagarjuna caves are in India, particularly in the state of Bihar, where the same region where the Sakyamuni Buddha lived.
Everything arises from, or is caused by, something else, and there is nothing that arises and exists independently of all other phenomena. He wrote, “That being, this comes to be; From the arising of that, this arises. That being absent, this is not; from the cessation of that, this arises.”
In other words, we live in world of relativity. Since every phenomena is relative, there is no single essence that the world is made up of, and it is in thinking there is some intrinsic value or core of existence that we are caused to suffer. Everything is empty of inherent existence.
The theory of emptiness is called sunyata. Reality is two-fold. Conventional reality is the world we know, the one the Buddha was referring to. Since nothing exists inherently, or in and of itself, then it can be concluded that it is empty. Ultimate reality is emptiness. To realize ultimate reality and the emptiness of the conventional world is to attain enlightenment.
Sunyata is obviously a complicated concept. It is a great concept to think about while sitting in a cave. To understand it fully is to be enlightened. But the way it relates to the caves of the Himalaya is as easy as going inside one.
The goal of Buddhist practice is enlightenment, and the dark caverns of the cave help set forth a path. The cave served as the world’s first sensory deprivation chamber. A meditator can seal themselves off from the outside world with the ultimate goal of achieving enlightenment. The point of using a cave is total isolation from people and nature’s elements. One of the caves in Upper Mustang had an L-shaped hole through which villagers could deposit food for the meditating monk without coming into visual or physical contact with them.
The immenseness of large caverns inside caves cannot be conceptualized due to the lack of light. A pilgrim can get a sense of the vast unknown in one of these chambers. Most of the large caves in Tibet have never been measured, nor explored by scientists with modern equipment. Robert B. Ekvall, a missionary in Tibet during the 1930s and author of Religious Observances in Tibet: Patterns and Function recounted a pilgrimage trip inside a very large cave complex he calls “Brag dKar” in Amdo province, Tibet:

“…performance of the circuit takes over an hour, with the aid of both torches and a monk guide. When I made that circuit with a party of Tibetans, I discovered at one point that we were standing on the bank of a pool of unknown size. Somewhat surreptitiously I slipped off my Tibetan cloak- we were all barefoot as a precaution against slipping- and was in the water and swimming before the guide realized what I was doing. Once he recovered from his fears for me- and possibly for himself, though no actual sacrilege was involved- he was most anxious that I explore all sides of the pool to ascertain whether it would be possible to plot a circumambulation path around the underground lake and thus add another circumambulation attraction to the Brag dKar cave.”

Here one can get a sense of the vast size and unexplored features of a Buddhist cave present in many across the plateau.
A traditional purpose of a cave is as a meditation retreat. Here, without any distractions from the outside world, a person can get to know themselves. This is an ideal meditation chamber and has been used by Buddhists in every region, and will continue to be in the future.
Another of Tibet’s great saints was Milarepa. His story states he started life as a practitioner of black magic, which he used to kill several people who had wronged him. Later he turned to Buddhism and meditated in caves for most of his life. He subsisted on nettle tea, which supposedly turned his skin green. There several caves associated with Milarepa in the Lhodrak region of southern Tibet, near Lake Yamdroktso.
A contemporary account of meditation inside a cave was written by Marilyn Stablein in Sleeping in Caves: A Sixties Himalayan Memoir, excerpts of which describes her experience meditating in a cave near Bodhgaya, India:

I'm certain I'll have a transcendental experience of some sort. I embark on my cave retreat with high hopes. The cave is not deep. In fact, there is barely enough room to stretch out and lie down at night. The floor is not flat, but angles at odd places. A sharp rock face juts out to form a roof over the uneven ledge. I can stand up and stretch, but to get up and take a walk seems like a dramatic break from my strict meditation goal. I can't walk on the ledge, so I sit—for many, many more hours than I am accustomed to…During meditation, I visualize a number of deities especially the goddess Tara. Earlier I study and receive the Tara initiation or empowerment which grants me the permission, so to speak, to practice her meditation. The times I meditate vary from an hour to three hours at a stretch.
My body numbs: my legs go to sleep from restricted circulation, my back aches and shoulders cramp up. Without the usual daily distractions, time drags on and on… On the third day of my retreat I quit.
If I gained any insight at all, it is a sharp reminder that my body is frail, with limitless potential for aches and pains. I am reminded, also, of how much I like comfort and companionship…The hardest part of meditation—regardless of the setting—is maintaining concentration. My mind wanders constantly. In the cave, I attain some moments of absolute concentration, but mostly my mind wanders and my legs numb with pain.

Cave meditation is not easy. It is harder than regular Buddhist meditation because of the setting. Hard rock floors of a cave are hard to sit on, most caves chambers are not large enough for a person to stretch out on, and there is no break from these conditions without leaving the cave entirely. The isolation provided by the cave also means there is no relief from being alone with one’s thoughts. It is a lonely and grueling practice probably not suited for amateurs.
But the benefit of cave meditation can be profound insight and even spiritual enlightenment, as was the case with Milarepa. In the stories about Guru Rinpoche the cave setting was also like some sort of secluded office or laboratory, where he was free to practice his tantric rites and hone his magical powers.
The cave as a form of natural, uncomfortable, sensory deprivation chamber can be seen as a place where one is alone with their thoughts, stuck there in an arena to battle their own personal inner demons. Sensory deprivation has been found to invariably cause frightening hallucinations as a mind clambering for stimuli begins to form its own. Perhaps Guru Rinpoche’s demon taming ability was not of the literal kind seen depicted in western stories like The Exorcist. Rinpoche’s exorcisms may have been a metaphor for his own overcoming of an aspect of the human mind that can become a person’s own worst enemy. The taming of consciousness may have been what was really going on. Regardless, it is in this metaphor that ancient myth has a dialog with modern psychology.
Out of respect to the Tibetan religion, and the fact that I do not know and have no way of knowing what went on inside those caves where Rinpoche stayed, discredit the myth by saying it was a product of hallucination. With respect to modern psychology, I will say that if Rinpoche had extended stays inside even a fraction of the caves Tibetans say he dwelled in, for even a fraction of the amount of time Tibetans say he sat in meditation, he is truly a master of controlling his own mind. For his achievements in consciousness Guru Rinpoche should be worshipped.
There are no ancient texts declaring to the Buddhist world that caves should be considered sacred ground, and the Four Noble Truths say nothing of caves. The reasons behind cave sanctuaries are obvious ones. Caves are unique because they are a natural feature of the landscape that Tibetan Buddhists have utilized in their religious practice and survival. Caves are Buddhist because the people around them are Buddhist.
There are Buddhist deities, rituals, and practices associated with certain caves that could not be dealt with here simply because of a lack of time. In order to understand a place, like a cave, other phenomena like rituals must be explained, and to explain the ritual one has to first explain the deity associated with it, and to understand the deity one has to learn about the mythology dealing with it, and so on until the reader loses focus. Tibet is a big place, and there are thousands of caves that are sacred for thousands of reasons.
What did people think of caves before modern geological science established the facts about them? How did early philosophers negate the intrinsic nature geological features if they were unaware of the causes and conditions that formed these features?
Cross cultural comparisons can be used to better understand Tibet’s monuments in nature. “To Christians, it would be like suddenly meeting an isolated crucifix sculpture placed on a mountainside, or perhaps an unexpected gravestone. The encounter automatically takes observers out of the mundane world and projects them into consideration of other worlds of existence, either past or future.”
Americans have their monuments. A trip to the bridge in Concord, Massachusetts where the first shot of the Revolutionary War was fired might not be considered religious, but there is a spiritual connection and a symbolism that tells us about our destiny and beliefs. The same can be said of pilgrimage to a cave, as far fetched as it might sound. It is a place where the past can be physically linked with the present. And in the case of Tibet one is dealing with a past that predates most manmade structures.
Did Guru Rinpoche really slay demons, fly around on the back of a tiger, and visit all these caves? I have no way of knowing for sure, these are all stories from a thousand years ago. Did Jesus Christ really return from the dead? I have no way of knowing that either, it was two thousand years ago. Amazing and seemingly unreal stories surround the features of the world we do not understand.
The use of caves by Buddhists in Tibet is the perfect example of how people have absorbed features of the landscape around them into religious practice. And in the case of Guru Rinpoche, caves, and other aspects of Tibet, the landscape has shaped the Buddhist religion.


Aldenderfer, Mark & John W. Olsen. “Archaeological Research Conducted in Ngari Prefecture, Tibet Autonomous Region and in the Amdo Region, Qinghai in 2007.” (2007): Accessed via Google Scholar 3/10/10.

Aldenderfer, Mark. “Caves as Sacred Places on the Tibetan Plateau.” Expedition. 47/3 (2005): p. 8-13.

Aldenderfer, Mark. “From the Trenches: Roots of Tibetan Buddhism.” Archaeology: A Publication of the Archaeological Institute of America. 54/3 (2001): Accessed 3/31/10.

Ardussi, John A. “Gyalse Tenzin Rabgye and the Founding of Taktsang Lhakhang.” Journal of Bhutan Studies. 1/1 (1999): p. 36-63.

Ashmore, Wendy & Arthur Bernard Knapp, ed. Archaeologies of Landscape: Contemporary Perspectives. Oxford: Blackwell, 1999.

Berg, Eberhard. “Sherpa Buddhists on a Regional Pilgrimage: The Case of Maratika Cave at Halase.” Occasional Papers in Sociology and Anthropology. 4/8 (1994): p. 124-145.

Budhathoki, Bishnu. “Mustang Caves Excite Archaeologists.” The Himalayan Universe. Posted May 6, 2007. Accessed 3/31/10.

Buswell, Robert E., Jr., ed. Encyclopedia of Buddhism. New York: Macmillan Reference, 2004.

Charleux, Isabelle. “Padmasambhava’s Travel to the North: The Pilgrimage to the Monastery of the Caves and the Old Schools of Tibetan Buddhism in Mongolia.” Central Asiatic Journal 46-2 (2002): p. 168-232

Clark, Liesl. “Secrets of Shangri-La: Quest for Sacred Caves.” Program description. PBS Online. 2009. Accessed 3/1/10.

Dalton, Jacob. “The Early Development of the Padmasambhava Legend in Tibet: A Study of IOL Tib J 644 and Pelliot tibetain 307.” Journal of the American Oriental Society. 124/4 (2004): p. 759-772.

Dowman, Keith. The Power-Places of Central Tibet: The Pilgrim’s Guide. Kathmandu: Vajra Publications, 2008

Ekvall, Robert B. Religious Observances in Tibet: Patterns and Function. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1964.

Geshe Gelek Jinpa, Charles Ramble, and Carroll Dunham. Sacred Landscape and Pilgrimage in Tibet: In Search of the Lost Kingdom of Bon. New York: Abbeville Press, 2005.

Gold, Peter. Tibetan Pilgrimage. Ithaca, NY: Snow Lion Publications, 1988.

Kanamaru, Atsushi & Gavin Allwright, ed. Mapping the Tibetan World. Reno, NV: Kotan Publishing, 2000.

Lhalungpa, Lobsang P., translator. The Life of Milarepa. Boston: Shambhala, 1985.

“Lost Cave Temples.” PBS Presents. Produced, directed and written by Liesl Clark. PBS Video. 2009. Online Video. Accessed 2/28/2010.

Mitchell, Donald W. Buddhism: Introducing the Buddhist Experience. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2002.

“Nova: Lost Treasures of Tibet.” Nova. Produced and Directed by Liesl Clark & NOVA Production for WGBH/Boston in association with Channel Four. 2009. Online Video. Accessed 4/1/10.

Oxtoby, Willard G., ed. World Religions: Eastern Traditions. Canada: Oxford University Press, 2002.

Pohle, Perdita. “Petroglyphs And Abandoned Sites In Mustang A Unique Source For Research In Cultural History And Historical Geography.” Ancient Nepal. #153 (2003): p. 1-14.

Quintman, Andrew. “Toward a Geographic Biography: Mi la ras pa in the Tibetan Landscape.” Brill. Number #55 (2008): 363-410.

Ray, Reginald. “Rebirth in the Buddhist Tradition,” in Samuel Bercholz & Sherab Chodzin Kohn, ed. The Buddha and His Teachings. Boston: Shambala, 2003.

“Relics Recovered: A pair of World-Class Climbers goes Where Archaeologists Can’t.” National Geographic Adventure Blog. Posted November 16, 2009. Accessed 4/1/10.

“Secrets of Shangri-La: Quest for Sacred Caves.” Produced by National Geographic and Sky Door Films. PBS Video. 2009. Originally aired 11/18/2009. Online Video. Accessed 3/1/10.

Smith, Jr., Warren W. Tibetan Nation: A History of Tibetan Nationalism and Sino-Tibetan Relations. Boulder, CO: Westview Press, 1996.

Stein, R.A. Tibetan Civilization. Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 1972.

Thomas, Bryn & David Collins, ed. Lonely Planet India. Sydney: Lonely Planet, 1997.

Tucci, Giuseppe. Tibet: Land of Snows. New York: Stein and Day, 1967.

Monday, March 29, 2010

Tibetan Caves...Coming Soon

In just a very short time from now, I will present to you the most extensive overview of Buddhist caves of Tibet on the entire internet. Tibet has countless caves, and most of them were utilized in the Buddhist religion...I hope the Chinese internet spies don't trash this site.
So join me! If you like CAVES, and you are interested in BUDDHISM, you will enjoy this...