Marilyn Stablein was eighteen when she first traveled to India for what turned into a five-year stay. She chronicled her experiences in The Census Taker: Tales of a Traveler in India and Nepal. A story from that book, “Mataji” — about an untouchable woman from a tantric sect of Siva worshippers, who raids the funeral pyres on the banks of the Ganges — appeared in Issue 127 of The Sun.
Two decades later, she’s completed another collection, Thinking and Sleeping in Caves: Travels to the Himalayas, from which “High in the Himalayas” is excerpted. She is looking for a publisher.
T wenty years ago I had my first and only mescaline trip in a remote part of the Himalayas that borders India and Nepal. I had already traveled and studied Tibetan Buddhism in India for three years. I had read Timothy Leary and Richard Alpert’s book on psychedelic experience, which they compared with the Tibetan bardo, or after-death realm. When I actually ran into Alpert — now known as Ram Dass — in a small town in northern India, the meeting seemed fortuitous.
My English companion Keith and I were touring the Kangra and Kulu valleys. Our pilgrimage included a stop at the lotus lake in Rewalsar, where Padma Sambhava was born, and a dip in the hot springs at Manikaran. Dharamsala, the seat of the Dalai Lama, the exiled Tibetan ruler, was part of our tour. As it took three days to get an official appointment, we had already decided to forego an interview with His Holiness.
One day as we walked down the road on the outskirts of Dharamsala, a jeep pulled up. The driver rolled down the window and in an unmistakable American accent said, “Hi! Want a lift?” It was Alpert.
We drove to a Tibetan restaurant. A barefoot girl in a long Tibetan dress showed us to a table. We sat on carpet-covered beds and ordered thupa, bowls of noodle soup with tough water buffalo meat and a few sprigs of turnip greens. We drank large tungbas of chang, tall bamboo glasses filled with fermented red millet beer. After we sucked the hot beer through bamboo straws, a Tibetan woman refilled our glasses with boiling water.
Alpert was a natural storyteller. He told us the history of his Harvard drug experiments, and reported on the current psychedelic happenings in America. He had an appointment for an audience with His Holiness, the Dalai Lama. He asked if we wanted to come along.
The following Tuesday, we arrived at the fenced-in compound and were frisked. The Dalai Lama’s security guards worried about political assassins. I was uncomfortable at first, but His Holiness entered and quickly put us at ease. We sat on two couches across from him and an interpreter. The Dalai Lama understood English, but relied on the translator to render his Tibetan responses. After ten minutes of conversation about travel and America, Alpert changed the subject.
“Ask His Holiness if he’s heard of LSD,” he told the interpreter.
“Yes. He’s heard about the drug LSD,” the interpreter replied for His Holiness. “There are similarities with meditation, he says.”
“What are the similarities?” Alpert asked.
“Similarities with five steps. . . .”
“Five steps — the states of mind during meditation.”
“Five is a lot,” Alpert said.
“No, five is five. Only five,” the translator replied. “You need six . . . the sixth stage is the highest. All others do not come close.”
Alpert was silent.
“Yes, only five,” the interpreter repeated after the Dalai Lama spoke in a rapid, melodical Tibetan. “Taking the ‘American medicine,’ ” he went on, “will not bring you to the sixth or highest level of consciousness. Only through meditation can you achieve the highest level.”
His response summed up the Tibetan attitude toward drugs.
Six months after the Dharamsala interview, and after a few acid trips — compliments of Alpert — I wanted to try mescaline. Robert, an anthropology graduate student who was studying the Hindu holy men, or sadhus, had brought mescaline with him from California. We met in the small village of Sonada, near Darjeeling. I had rented a room from a Nepalese family near the monastery of one of my teachers, Kalu Rimpoche. I suggested we trek into Nepal, a two-day walk, to take the mescaline. I knew we could get a permit to enter Nepal at the border. Our destination was a monastery I’d heard about. The remote mountainous region would enhance our spiritual quest.
The path led through the Mim tea estate outside Darjeeling, then cut across patches of wild strawberries. Delicate irises and tree-sized rhododendrons dotted the landscape, a haphazard abundance.
We sang as we walked. The rhythm of our steps set the beat. The deep syllables of Om Mani Padme Hum, a chant we had learned in Tibetan, resounded in the mountain air. To my surprise, there was a reply. Other Tibetan pilgrims on the trail across the valley echoed the same mantra. I yodeled at the top of my lungs. The mantra bounced back. The sound spanned the wide valley and reached the distant mountain.
At the monastery, we were ushered into the head lama’s room, where we performed the customary greetings and prostrations. We each presented the lama with a khata — a ceremonial scarf — and touched our foreheads to the floor three times. I also presented the lama with a bowl of Himalayan wild strawberries we had picked along the way. To me, the gift was associated with memories of the juicy, domestic strawberries in the supermarkets of America; I thought of strawberries and cream, strawberry waffles, strawberry shortcake — sweet dishes fit for a lama. The Himalayan wild strawberry, it turned out, is not particularly juicy, and the flesh is grainy, almost gritty.
The cook told us later the strawberries were thrown out to feed the crows. “Never mind,” she shrugged. “Crows or lamas . . . one offering to another. A good deed is double lucky.”
After my wooden bowl was emptied of berries, the lama motioned for a monk to bring a huge caldron of noodle soup. The monk filled our bowls, and the lama excused himself. After we ate, a monk showed us to a room on the floor below the lama’s quarters.
The room had a musty, dank odor. During the monsoon season, rain clouds hover in the high peaks and patches of mold appear on walls. My tablet of cheap Indian paper absorbed ink like blotter paper; my leather shoes and belts developed a greenish, moldy covering. We spread our blankets over two wooden plank beds. I shared my pack of bidis with Robert. As smoke from the coarse Indian cigarettes filled the room, a dense aura from the lone light bulb gave the illusion of heat.
Within minutes there was a sharp rap at the door. Robert opened it to a contingent of agitated monks. They no longer smiled. A tall, thin monk spoke.
“It is forbidden,” he said. “You must not smoke here.”
“Oh,” I said sheepishly. I dropped my bidi to the dirt floor and extinguished the butt with my shoe.
“The lama is in poor health,” the monk continued. “Smoke from cigarettes is very bad.”
“I didn’t know he was in poor health,” I said.
“Tobacco is a bad plant,” the monk said. “The leaves grow where blood drops.”
“Blood?” Robert followed my gesture; he dropped his bidi to the floor and ground the butt out.
“Blood, yes. Blood from the demons, the demons of your sex.” The monk looked at me.
I had read about the ogress associated with the tobacco plant. “He means,” I volunteered, “menstrual blood.”
The monks nodded in agreement. Robert looked perplexed.
“Smoke — this smoke — harms the delicate creatures of the sky,” the monk explained. “You have killed many khadromas (lady sky-goers) by your senseless sin.”
“Please give our apologies to the lama,” I said. “We didn’t mean any harm.”
The monks turned to leave when the spokesman addressed us once more. “We have to perform puja now,” he said. “All the foul-mouthed smoke lovers are too happy?”
I had studied the mountain spirits and knew how Tibetans feel about tobacco smoke and the effects of foul smells. Certain spirits feast on smells; they literally eat smoke and other stenches. Incense is an offering to the peaceful, benign spirits, those who adore the sweet fragrance. Tobacco smoke and burning flesh, on the other hand, attract the wrong spirits.
Unwittingly we had nourished the very demons the lamas sought to dispel. This was not an auspicious beginning to a mystical communion with the spirit of the sacred mescal cactus. I spent an uncomfortable night. Low moans from the domesticated yaks in the next room gave voice to the invisible spirits inhabiting my dream world.
In Tibetan, the word for poison, duk, can signify that which is lethal to the body; it can also signify that which threatens the soul. Poison can be a wrong action, a wrong emotion. Lust, for example, is a poisonous thought; stupidity is the result of a poisoned mind. Duk also refers to tobacco, and by extension other drugs, such as opium or ganja.
The printed word acts as a deterrent to evil spirits. Charms with printed mantras scare away evil creatures, and implore protective deities to watch over a place, a ritual, or a person. One text, “Teachings on the Meaning of Poison,” warns of the evils of tobacco.
Some years later I translated a few of the passages: “Nothing is better able to destroy the dharma than the leaf of poison which propagates from the womb blood of the nine demon sisters.”
“All those who are hit by the breath of someone eating (or smoking) ‘bad food’ become polluted. The offense is equal to the heart sacrifice of six million beings.”
“Sinners who have experienced the ‘bad food’ with nose and mouth in the age of degeneration . . . are like those who are poor. Later in hell they will be crying out, wailing. They will dwell there for one hundred kalpas.”
Even though I didn’t believe I would die in one of the eighteen hells if I smoked tobacco, it was hard to dismiss such passages altogether. Tibetans frown on tobacco and drug use and regard those who smoke or eat the “bad food” or “poison” as killers of the lady sky-goers, those precious dakinis of the Buddhist tantras.
We rose early the next day. Robert packed the food — roasted peanuts, apples, and dried mango strips — and I carried a hot thermos of salted Tibetan tea. We had passed a deserted Tibetan temple the day before; we decided to investigate the temple, then find an isolated spot to take the mescaline.
The temple door was locked. Robert fiddled with the giant brass padlock until it sprang open. We called out. When no one answered, we paused briefly, then entered. Laundry was strung up in the rear of the shrine room, and pieces of raw meat hung from a rope to dry. Rice-paper scorpion charms were balled up and carelessly tossed on the floor as if a novice monk had been practicing a block-printing technique. Printed words are never idly discarded; only burning the paper to ash can assure the words will not be used for a mundane purpose.
An old caretaker, a nun in ragged robes of patched woolen scraps, surprised us. She seemed pleased that we had appeared to pay respects to her dusty shrine. She shuffled after us. When we neared the main shrine, she nodded toward a small door.
“Come here.” She motioned. “Here . . . come here.”
The door led to a second shrine. It contained some seventy sculpted papier mâché deities circling a pyramid-like structure that rose from the center of the room to a height of six feet. Tiers were built into the structure. Each row supported dozens of two-foot deities from the Tibetan pantheon.
The deities were not familiar to me: there was no white Chenrasig with four arms; there was no green Tara with graceful hands and a gentle smile; there were no Buddhas. Rather, there were fish-tailed monsters with eyes, noses, and mouths protruding from their bellies; demons wielded daggers dripping blood; surly, fanged monsters were portrayed in all their hideousness. The presence of so many sculptures of angry Tibetan gods in the deserted, dusty shrine was spooky.
Although I didn’t recognize the deities, I guessed they were the ones that appear in the bardo. The Tibetans believe the soul departs the body after death, and wanders for forty-nine days in a limbo between death and rebirth. During this journey, many ferocious deities are encountered. I looked more closely at the sculptures. Such fine detail — the necklace of severed heads on one female deity, the twisted snakes held in another deity’s hand.
The deities are described in The Tibetan Book of the Dead. They appear in the bardo state and distract and confuse the wandering soul. If The Book of the Dead is read over a corpse, Tibetans believe, the words will guide the soul into the best possible rebirth — that of the human realm. Only in the human realm can a being gain enlightenment. The guidebook prepares the reader for death by helping him recognize the after-death experience.
Both the psychedelic book of the dead by Leary and Alpert and the Tibetan book portray fierce, wrathful spirits. But Leary and Alpert’s version associates the wrathful deities with bad hallucinations and paranoid fears; any comparison to the after-death is purely metaphorical. The American version is a guide on how to deal with such fears and hallucinations.
We left the temple, walked to a deserted ridge, and spread our blankets. Robert produced the tiny white paper squares of mescaline, and I swallowed mine with a cup of tea from the thermos.
While waiting for the drug to take effect, I kept thinking, am I high yet? Is the mescaline working? It wasn’t until the clouds parted later in the afternoon that I was sure. Suddenly sun sparkled on Sandakphoo, a mountain just across the valley that had been covered by clouds ever since we left Darjeeling.
Sunshine! Sunshine during the monsoon season was rare. Soon thousands of tiny creatures pulsed to life and hopped on my blanket; wings hummed, insects droned, and the entire meadow vibrated.
A surge of compassion swept over me. What about the bugs under my blanket? Now, I had a mission: to free the insects I was sitting on. I stood up.
I glanced at Robert. He dropped to one knee and held his arms at right angles. I had the distinct impression he was imitating a saguaro cactus. Not that the mescal cactus is anything like the tall saguaro; in fact, mescal buttons are tiny. When we talked the next day, he confirmed my impression. He was transfixed in a cactus consciousness and stayed in that position for hours.
As I stood before the frozen expanse of glaciers and snow on the other side of the valley, the winds turned brisk. I scanned the panorama of mountain, sky, and cloud. I spotted an untended fire pit some fifty feet away. I was in a place where warmth mattered. A thoughtful pilgrim had left a fire for the next traveler. Above the tree line, wood was scarce. The meadow crested a treeless ridge at eight thousand feet. The wood for the fire had been carried from a distant place.
One of the oldest traditions in the east is to provide food and shelter to pilgrims. More than 2,500 years ago, the Buddha subsisted on the alms he procured with his begging bowl. Every pilgrimage route has hostels where lodging and meals are available. In the Himalayas most routes lead to recognized holy sites — temples, or ice caves. And yet, if there was a holy site nearby, I didn’t know of it. Maybe I had connected with some ancient pathway to the gods.
I squatted at the perimeter of the pit. Ash rustled with wind. The simple, rock-rimmed pit was a small, human gesture in an expanse of mountain. I’d walked for hours; aside from the footworn trail, I hadn’t seen a person or a trace of civilization. A fire pit, whether burning or not, signified survival: heat to cook by, heat to warm by, light in a black night.
I held my palm over the center of the pit. Warmth rose from the ashes. I jabbed the gray dust with a stick, casting for coals, for flames from embers.
I pinched a smudge of ash between thumb and index finger, confirming a fineness soft to the touch. Ash adorns foreheads, marks religious sacraments. Hindu sadhus dust their skin with cremation ash. But larger accumulations, I suddenly realized, are not so innocuous. Such fineness can also penetrate nostrils, clog breath. Inhale ash and sputter with suffocation.
Under a thick bed of ash, smokeless until I disturbed the calm, coals glowed. I looked around for more wood to fuel the fire, but there was nothing but the barren landscape.
When a log burns, patterns of bark etch the wood. These coals had another symmetry, not of the wood I have known.
I uncovered traces of red and yellow yarn, crudely tied to sticks. I recognized a miniature stick-cross, scorched and partially burned. “Demon-catchers,” the villagers called them — small “god’s eyes” to lure evil spirits. The more beautiful these colorful crosses were, the more successfully they lured spirits away from some other event such as a birth or a wedding. Here, beauty had treacherous intent.
Suddenly, every movement I had made in approaching this fire pit came back to me, as if in slow motion. I pulled away, my face flushed. These coals were not meant to warm passing pilgrims, I realized. These coals were embers of a corpse! The “demon-catchers” assured the peaceful journey of the departed, now wandering soul.
The fire had not been abandoned by a wayward pilgrim. Rather, it was a convenience for the village undertaker, located away from the village yet close enough to transport corpses. The pretty colors I retrieved from the pit were lures for evil spirits. I had even fingered a fragment, held the “god’s eye” in my hands. Was I now hexed? Would something dire happen? Would spirits follow me?
The Tibetans believe that after death, a soul escapes from the body through an opening in the skull. In the first stages of this limbo, the soul returns to the scenes of mourning, incredulous and unhappy. In all probability the soul of the corpse was probably wandering right here, facing the absence of life and physical form for the first time, puzzled and lonely.
The images of the papier mâché bardo deities came to mind. Suppose there was a wandering soul here, tortured by the bardo’s cruel distortions — those snake-wielding goddesses, the blood-drooling monsters?
At first the soul is unconvinced the body is dead. It returns, calls out, but no one responds. Instead, there are friends and relatives weeping. As the awareness of death dawns, a profound loneliness sets in.
During that time, monks recite passages to liberate the deceased from another painful birth in the chain of rebirths. A popular prayer to Avaloketishvara calls for this compassionate deity’s help: “When I’m wandering friendless and alone in the bardo, please guide me with your light.”
It is reassuring to think of a priest in a nearby monastery, reciting prayers and guidance on behalf of the travelers in the bardo. There is solace, too, at the time of absolute loss, to imagine an escape and a liberation, a type of heaven.
As a slight breeze fanned the coals, traces of smoke rose, animated and brief. Tibetans watch the smoke from burning incense. It is possible to tell whether or not a god or goddess is pleased with the scented offering by the way the smoke rises. Perhaps a slow and lazy curling signifies a calm pleasure; a cloudy, thick flurry indicates impatience. I’m only guessing. I watched now as the smoke dispersed congenially, reminding me of the smoke from the bidis that rose through the floorboards of the lama’s room.
I counted the spirits: the ogress whose menstrual blood nourished the poisonous tobacco plant, the spirits of the dead, the wandering souls, the gruesome inhabitants of the bardo. Though the flesh had long since burned away, surely some foul-mouthed spirits were hovering nearby, relishing the stench of the corpse.
The sun had already set behind a distant peak when I returned to my blanket. Robert had packed up his few things. We followed the path back to the monastery.
Under the influence of mescaline, my thoughts skipped from celebrating the divine providence and convenience of a wayside fire pit that provided warmth on a hostile, windy, treeless ridge, to a meditation on death and after-death.
To beautify the commonplace was an attribute of the drug. If I hadn’t been “high,” I would have realized sooner that the site was a cremation ground; I never would have stirred coals of human bones.
Now I think about death whenever I gaze into a fire or warm my hands over hot coals. Inevitably, the Himalayan fire pit and memories of exotic Tibetan spirits come to mind. I still see the porous beauty of red-hot bone.
Twenty years later and that much closer to a confrontation with my own death, the thought of cremation ash blowing in high winds appeals to me. After death, I want my body cremated on a high ridge in the Himalayas, so the smoke can rise and offer sustenance to those feasting spirits. Where only wind is left to disperse the final dust, there will be no fanfare, no lingering flowers, no monument — only ashes set adrift by the high, sporadic Himalayan winds.