This is a version of the text and photography from an article originally published on 1/11 in The Mirror, a newspaper of the International Dzogchen Community of Chogyal Namkahai Norbu.
The Maratika Caves of Nepal are a meditation “power spot” of the world. Practitioners from everywhere strive to visit the caves before they die. Both Tibetan Buddhist and Hindu masters describe Maratika as an overlapping of two worlds, a place where someone with pure vision can actually see another realm co-existing alongside our relgular human dimension. Maratika is a prime location to do long life practices.
Pilgrimage to Maratika
“Is festival day” he said, staring off into the distance, blankly. When the man from Tara Airlines left to find a driver willing to summit and descend the winding mountainous road to Maratika Caves, the three of us felt little confidence. Joel, Mary, and I had landed in Lamidanda at 2:30 pm, our flight four hours late, to find no porters and no guide awaiting us as promised in this tiny village where everyone was drunk and no one really spoke English.
“What should we do?” I asked Joel.
“Relax,” he said.
Trekking up the steep mountainous escarpments was out of the question because we had big bags full of heavy gear in order to make a film about Mandarava. So we sat there. We hadn’t eaten lunch, and none of us had water. It started to rain.
Then we heard a sound. It emerged as a small humming and grew slowly into a loud roar. Two skinny teenage monks in robes skidded through the pools of water on the road splashing mud everywhere as they struggled to stop and balance their heavy motorcycles. Maratika Lama had sent his students. The monks, bashful, introduced themselves. They both looked about 20 years old.
“It take us three hour, for you, maybe four” they explained after strapping our gear to the back of their dirt bikes. Then, they gave us detailed directions to get from Lamidanda to Haleshi:
“You walk up mountain; you walk down mountain to other side.” With no other options and a lot of faith, we turned and began trekking in the rain.
It was like walking through a magical dream. In the distance, the snowcapped mountain peaks of the Himalaya lined the horizon. Everest surpassed the foothills, green majestic mountains with mist creeping between the corridors. A light blue river flowed through the valley, and waterfalls streamed down hills terraced with rice patties. We hiked past tiny villages of houses made with earth, dried branches covering rooftops, stones and mud like a paste holding them together. We crossed a bridge above a river to a narrow trail along a rice patty, fuchsia, yellow, orange and purple wildflowers lining the hillside, until we came upon a little girl sitting by herself on the trail, singing and crushing herbs with a mortar and pestle. Her voice echoed against the rocks. Seeing us, she stopped suddenly and looked at her hands. We passed, making our way up the steep trail, and after a few moments we heard her sweet voice spiral up the hillside.
The land felt alive, and feminine; although it was deep and rugged wilderness, there was something soft about it. Drenched in sweat, thinking we were almost there, Joel, Mary, and I summited to find the village of Visule in celebration. Women walked hand in hand with bright colored dresses, laughing. Everyone’s forehead displayed a striking red “tika” made of rice and paste. A giant swing made of four bamboo trunks, bowing with the weight of the children swinging, bounced and creaked as small feet kicked into the empty sky. Perched on the mountain crest, up against the sky at sunset, Children swung in slow motion, like breathing, on this otherworldly swing. The Himalayan foothills stretched in every direction. The town possessed an ethereal quality, like nothing had changed in ten years, or one hundred years, and if we came back again it would look the same. There was nowhere to go; there was no hurry; there was no time.
People stared at us. My brown T-shirt clung to my body, completely soaked with sweat. Mary asked some women,
“Maratika?” and they smiled warmly, directing us to the small shrine where people put a tikas on their foreheads.
“No, no, no, MAR-tika,” Mary said, laughing. They stared at us blankly.
So we just kept walking, but faster. We planned to get there before dark. Somebody made a joke about purification and we all laughed. I had a headache. At nine PM, after Mary twisted her ankle, I abandoned a heavy dharma book, and Joel had extreme cotton mouth, we realized purification was not so hilarious. With one headlamp and three people, we inched down the mountain in the rain in the dark, avoiding big muddy ruts. We came upon two women and asked,
“Maratika?” They said a lot of things in Nepali and kept walking. We met an old man.
“Uta, Uta!” he said, and pointed profusely with his cane. This meant “go ALL the way down the mountain.” It was good we did not understand.
When we arrived at a small smattering of lights on a large terrace that was the town of Haleshi we wanted to cry. I approached a house and asked a woman for some water. In one room slept the woman, her husband, her daughter, and her son’s wife with a tiny one month old baby. The floors were earthen and smoke filled the air from the hearth. Somehow, this woman’s son, a new father at the age of 19, was the only English speaker in the town, Naveen Giri. He showed us to the monastery and became our guide for the week. We loved him.
Collapsing into the Monastery guest room we bowed to a thangka of Manjushri and sipped hot chai. The teenage monks gave us a bowl of Hot Ramen. I felt nauseous and my body trembled; so Naveen took me to the special monastery bathroom, the one with a lock and key.
“Do not be scared,” he said sweetly. Inside the wooden structure awaited a tiny pit toilet with three spiders the size of my hand dangling above it… Suddenly I wasn’t nauseous, and I didn’t have to go to the bathroom any more. I decided to have an anxiety attack. That night I dreamed that I was smelling the putrid toilet and thinking,
“mmm this smells so good!” I had to laugh at myself a little bit. My mind chose an odd way to communcate the conceptless concept: “one taste.”
Back in the room, Mary was petting a medium sized dog that whimpered every now and again. I looked at the dog and noticed a tiny black puppy, and then two more came out. Mama was licking them. They were slimy and wet with their eyes closed. Then Joel saw the placenta sitting next to his hand on the floor. Mary stopped petting the dog. I said goodnight and woke up 12 hours later.
The next morning, none of us were sore, and we felt extremely happy. Just before the full moon, Joel, Mary, and I hiked to the Mandarava Cave for Ganapuja. We strolled across a narrow trail covered in wildflowers and prayer flags lapping in the wind. On a steep cliff sits the crystal cave quietly. We did the long practice, using incense sticks as dadars, all of us deeply moved. As we sang the Song of the Vajra in unison there was nothing else to do but deeply relax and feel gratitude for everything that had ever happened, was to be, and existed right then. We saw a double rainbow.
The energy at Maratika felt incredibly powerful. I am convinced now, that this place is a portal, an overlapping of two worlds, a giant vortex; as, we experienced life there as fluid, flexible, with opportunities emerging every second. We observed the magnetism of our thoughts like never before. “Reality” was constantly and instantly re-calibrating itself.
This feeling intensified at the wish fulfilling vase in the main cave. I practiced there for an hour before I asked the rock if I had permission to enter its field with my consciousness. I sensed acquiesce; so I put my hand on the stone, and I felt inside of it. Palpable energy flowed from the center of my palm up my forearm into my central channel. The waves peaked, like a line on an echocardiogram. They were grainy, like sand mixed in water; or, at least that was the only way my body could process such a high frequency. I relaxed to find my own consciousness inseparable from the stone.
“What do you want me to see?” I asked, and a sultry female voice answered,
“What do you want to see?” No pictures or smells or sounds or feelings came. It was like two mirrors facing each other. For a moment, my mind could see that it was empty, and whatever I wanted to see I would have to imagine. But there was nothing that I wanted. The imagining took effort. It was fine the way it was. It was blank; it was quiet. It had a sense of humor somehow. It felt kind of flirtatious. I don’t know.
Finally, on the last day, I entered the Heruka cave, the one with the portal to Amitaba’s pure land where Mandarava and Guru Rinpoche ascended. I practiced, experiencing an overwhelming wish that everyone I loved could have blessings from this cave. Then, I wanted everyone they loved to have blessings. As if it was some big surprise, I realized that what I really wanted was for everyone, everywhere, to be happy. And that was it. After all the practice and all the complexity, this was the answer. Walking out, a large drop of liquid hit the top of my head. There was a pigeon there, but I prefer to call it nectar.
One year ago I had never heard of Mandarava or Maratika. It is with tremendous gratitude for Chogyal Namkahai Norbu and the Dzogchen Community that I write this article, so that all beings may benefit!
Children of Haleshi
Mama and the three pups
Family in Lamidanda
Naveen Giri and his family
Wish Fulfilling Vase