This March, I had the honor of participating in a free medical camp hosted by Sorig First Aid (a wonderful project directed by Sorig Khang International) at the sacred place of Maratika in Eastern Nepal. Led by Dr. Nida Chenagtsang, Dr. Machik, and allopathic physician Dr. Jens Tönnemann, our team of Sowa Rigpa practitioners treated over 200 patients over the course of the camp, creating connections and laying groundwork for future service and collaboration in this remarkable sacred place.
Maratika cave (also known as Haleshi/"Literally Astonishing" in Nepali or Chiwa Tarjé/"Elimination of Death" in Tibetan) is one of the most widely revered and captivating pilgrimage destinations in Nepal’s sacred landscape. Located just 100 miles south of Mt. Everest, Maratika was once a part of the ancient kingdom of Zahor, where Padmasambhava (Guru Rinpoche) spent a good deal of time in the 8th century before being invited north to establish Buddhism on the Tibetan plateau. It was in Maratika cave that Guru Rinpoche and the Dakini Princess Mandarava are believed to have attained the state of immortality through the union of long-life practice with karmamudra. After spending approximately 100 days in retreat (a calculation relating to the alchemical extraction of wisdom wind from the 10 rLung energies identified in the Tibetan medical and yogic traditions), the Buddha Amitayus manifested and bestowed immortality upon them through a self-arisen vase of immortality, an object that remains the most sacred item in the cave. This attainment was tested when the King of Zahor, Mandarava's father, sentenced Padmasambhava to death for engaging in sexual union with his daughter. But when his pyre was lit for a public immolation in a town square in modern-day Himachal Pradesh, a giant cloud of thick smoke filled the air and remained for days on end. When it cleared, the townspeople found that the village center had been transformed into a lake, in the center of which sat Padmasambhava and Mandarava. Based on this miraculous display, the King gave leave to his daughter to be with her guru and consort.
In the Tibetan Medical tradition, Maratika holds particular significance as the abode of the Dakini Pelden Trengwa, from whom Yuthok the Younger (the father of Tibetan Medicine) received the Yuthok Nyingthik terma cycle through visionary experience. Her association with the site is further recalled in the chudlen visualization prescribed by Yuthok. In one part of the practice, emanated offering rays are sent to four particular wisdom beings in their respective pure lands: Amitabha in Dewachen (Sukhavati/the Western Pure Land of “Great Bliss”), Medicine Buddha in Tanaduk (the “Lovely to See” pure land of medicinal plants and substances), Padmasambhava in Zangdok Pelri (the “Glorious Copper-colored Mountain”), and Pelden Trengwa in Maratika. As Maratika is the only one of these four pure lands to have a known physical location on this planet, its preciousness is truly exceptional.
In the Shaivist tradition, it’s believed that Maratika served as a refuge for Lord Shiva while he hid from the demon Bhasmasur, and for this reason it is often referred to as the Pashupatinath of the East. It's worth noting that in many non-Tibetan Himalayan traditions, Guru Rinpoche is identified as Shiva, making the intersection at Maratika particularly significant. For devotees, the cave's uniquely realistic self-arisen lingam is highly regarded as a manifestation of Mahadev. Historically speaking Maratika is likely to have been occupied by humans in some capacity for over 6,000 years, and its prevalence as a place of worship goes back many millennia.
We reached Maratika from Kathmandu via a very bumpy 10-hour jeep ride on precarious roads through the remote reaches of southeastern Nepal. Having grown up jeeping in the mountains of Colorado, I'm not a stranger to off-roading. But even by Colorado standards, some stretches of our journey were downright hairy. After a long day of travel, our cohort arrived at the convergence of three sacred mountains, each attributed to one of the “three lord protector” Bodhisattvas: Avalokiteshvara (manifestation of the Buddha’s compassion), Manjushri (manifestation of the Buddha’s wisdom), and Vajrapani (manifestation of the Buddha’s power). While most of us had expected to come upon a hidden cave nestled in the deepest recesses of the valley below, the cave systems of Maratika sit at the top of a small mountain range, opening to a vast expanse of sky above. The village surrounding the site, while remote, was bustling with an array of villagers, sadhus, monks, livestock, and pilgrims.
While rich in history, culture, and spiritual power, the remote villages surrounding Maratika do not have an abundance of resources. Medical care is sparsely available, with just one Amchi in Maratika serving the entire local region. This local Doctor, our friend and colleage Dr. Sonam Sherpa, works tirelessly along with his assistants (including Ani Regina, an allopathic Nurse from Belgium) to treat patients and increase awareness surrounding hygiene and sanitation in the local community. He reports that a large portion of the medicine and treatments offered in their clinic have to be given at no charge, since many patients in the region live with virtually nothing. Through the organizing efforts of Sorig First Aid, which seeks to bring Sowa Rigpa and basic medical care to communities in need, our team of Tibetan Medicine practitioners offered free treatment to more than 200 patients in our time at Maratika. Many traveled from distant villages to attend the camp, including a number of patients who walked for a day and a half to receive medical care. Most were given one month of Tibetan herbal medicine as well as any necessary acupuncture, moxibustion, hormé, kunyé massage, cupping, bloodletting, and yukchö stick therapy.
In breaks from the clinic, Dr. Nida led our cohort on pilgrimage through the sacred caves at Maratika. As our trip happened to overlap with the first Guru Rinpoche Day of the new Tibetan year, we were fortunate to be able to offer a ganapuja in the main cave (one of many groups of practitioners doing the same). We sat and practiced among the many self-arisen manifestations of deities and auspicious objects, including Vajravarahi & Hayagriva in union, the Four Kings, and the Long-Life Vase of Amitayus. With flying bats overhead, resounding drums, and sang piles smoldering throughout the cave, the sensory experience of being in this sacred place was otherworldly. Among the many pilgrimage activities in the cave are the four sang-lam, or secret paths. These exercises in contortion require the pilgrim to squeeze under rocks, through tunnels, and between stalactites in order to purify four particular kinds of karmic seeds: those associated with the hell realms, the bardo, a womb birth, and broken samaya.
Below the main cave lies the Eight Heruka cave, associated with Padmasambhava’s accomplishment of Vajrakilaya and the highest teachings of Atiyoga. Like it’s more famous neighbor, this cavern is rich with profound symbolism, including a trickling fountain of Mandarava’s “nectar” among towering rock walls adorned with self-arisen Twilight Language (the secret script of the Dakinis). As you enter the cave, the mineralized remains of a demoness are strewn around the entryway, with clearly-defined intestines hovering above a stone array of organs below. The heart of the cave is illuminated by a large hole in the rock-ceiling overhead, believed to have been created when Padmasambhava flew through it after accomplishing the practice of Vajrakilaya (giant footprints on the wall leading to the opening further support this legend). This skylight is referred to as zangthel, meaning “unimpededness” or “penetrating openness,” both in reference to this famous anecdote and serving as a secret instruction on Dzogchen.
The third cave that we visited with Dr. Nida was a small cave used by Padmasambhava for sleeping and personal practice. Located on Manjushri Peak, it is accessed by a long staircase and features an open face with expansive views of the sky and valley below. To honor it’s relationship with the Bodhisattva of Wisdom, Dr. Nida led us in recitation of Manjushri’s mantra.
I passed the evenings practicing in this small secluded "sleeper cave," which was the only one of the three open for use after sunset. According to our hosts, practitioners occasionally barricade themselves in the innermost chamber of the cave (Guru Rinpoche's sleeping quarters) to do retreat, which is permitted on a first-come, first-serve basis. "However," they warned, "you have to be careful of the acid-spitting spiders." Despite the bizarre warning (unnerving even to our two Australian colleagues), I decided to spend our last night at Maratika in this cave, figuring that the opportunity to sleep and practice where Padmasambhava did should likely never be missed. I woke without acid wounds and full of inspiration, yet very sad to say goodbye to such a magical place.
Of the handful of incredible pilgrimage sites I've been blessed to visit in my life, Maratika is likely the most impressive and transformative. It's interesting to recall that in some forms of Nepali Buddhism, Guru Rinpoche is identified as the father of shamans (distinct from his usually strict association with Tibetan tantra), closely
associated both with flight through the spiritual upper-world and descent into the
crystalline underworld. The peacock feather that often adorns Guru Rinpoche's hat, associated with the peacock's transformation of poison (oleander) into wisdom (the majestic colors of their tail) in the tantric tradition, is viewed by the Himalayan shaman as a tool for flight through the spiritual upper-world. As such, peacock feather headdresses are still a standard piece of equipment for Himalayan shamans like the Jhankri. At Maratika, these shamanic concepts and trance experiences can be acted out and directly experienced, to some degree. We can descend into the underworld to retrieveour lost life-force, and we can climb through dark tunnels to confront our greatest fears. We can stand under the skylight left by Guru Rinpoche's flight, or climb a ladder to reach his personal perch on the mountaintop and look out at an unimpeded expanse of blue sky. Few places embody the spiritual diversity of Nepal better than Maratika - where the lord of all tantrikas/yogis/shamans/alchemists/dzogchenpas accomplished kyérim and dzogrim practice, flew through space, descended into the underworld, uncovered the elixir of immortality, and realized all-pervasive awareness. It's no surprise that this crossroads can also be considered the source of the Yuthok Nyingthik, a practice cycle that so perfectly exemplifies the non-sectarian union of spiritual wisdom and medical science in ancient Tibet.
My deepest gratitude to everybody who helped make this experience so unforgettable, especially my endlessly inspiring Sowa Rigpa guru, Dr. Nida. Please Like Sorig First Aid on Facebook and consider supporting SKI's efforts in bringing Tibetan Medicine to communities in need. You can also visit The Maratika Foundation to discover other ways to support this wonderful little community in the mountains of Nepal. May Amitayus and Pelden Trengwa bless us all with the Nectar of Immortality!