Imagine.. A ledge, high, very high, more than three miles high above the waters of the nearest sea... High above the clouds, where shards of ice fly like witches on brooms in winds that howl like banshees and where snowy glaciers still carve out morraines like they have since time began... Looking down on all of creation, from the roof of the world sits that ledge...
And on that frozen ledge sits a man.. the high winds and the sun have carved their own story on his craggy features. He sits with his eyes closed and his long dark hair piled into an untidy mop on his head. Now imagine that on in those frigid and giddy heights, he sits naked in the snow, wrapped in a coarse blanket. But that blanket does not keep him warm for it has been dunked in the icy waters of nearby river. To wrap that blanket around one’s body is to feel the cold congeal into a blade that seems to saw through bone... through every bone. But if you are there already and can see him there on that cliff then you must also see the steam rising from the blanket that covers the man’s body... You stare in amazement as the steam rises like mist from a river. You wonder what fire burns in this man’s core that can dry a blanket like it was wrapped around not flesh and blood but an industrial oven.
Most of us would have died of hypothermia while the frost bit through our extremities. But here this man sat on his seat on the crag, calm and serene while ice turned to smoke all around him. Is that a miracle, you ask. And answer is it is not, for there are many monks that wander in the frigid wastes of the Himalayas, both in India and in Tibet, who are adepts at the art of raising a fiery storm through their yogic powers that would keep them warm on the coldest nights. This drying of a wet cold blanket is almost a rite of passage for yogis and monks across many orders. The Tibetans call it ‘tumo breathing’ and some Western explorers have learnt this art too.
It is said that Alexandra David-Neel, one of the first Western women to travel to Tibet in the early 1900s, learnt this ancient technique of generating internal heat from the monks. During her 12 years in Tibet, Alexandra found many opportunities to be grateful to those from whom she had learnt this art for without it, she too might have perished in cold vastness of Tibet’s passes where many explorers, unable to meet the harsh demands of this beautiful yet unforgiving landscape, have given up and left to meet their maker. Alexandra David-Neel’s accounts of her journeys to the roof of the world are replete with accounts of yogic masters performing miracles every day. I came across these accounts while digging up stories to validate the claims made by the subject from last week’s column – The five Tibetan rites of rejuvenation.
Another miraculous feat that these monks from the mountains seem to have mastered is the art of ‘lum-gom’ trance walking. Trance walkers have trained their bodies to cover long distances in effortless leaps. Explorers to the Tibetan plateau, even Western scientific research teams have claimed that they have seen these yogis bounding across the rugged mountains in long leaps in a manner that seemed to suggest that they were floating through the air. Both ‘tumo’ and ‘lum gom’ are techniques that are taught in monasteries on the high passes. They involve special breathing and visualization techniques. And unlike stories of masters from other cultures, these miracles aren’t restricted to a few individuals and are relatively common across different sects.
Perhaps the most popular legends that have floated out of these secretive mountains that kept Tibet secluded from the rest of the world have been tales of amazing longevity. At a 100, it is said these masters have merely entered their youth. Early explorers to Tibet have claimed that they have met masters who been around for more than 200 years. Unfortunately, there aren’t very many gerontologists who have studied these yogis but if you were to look to go to places like Dharamshala and meet the oldest lamas who have made India their home, you will see 80 year olds walking up the steep mountain trails with the kind of vigour that would do men half their age proud. They may not live well beyond the ‘usual 100s’ but these Tibetan yogis definitely live their years well. I don’t know if it’s the mountain air, their Spartan lifestyle or their yogic practices that give them this youthful constitution, but whatever it is, it really works.
But these are miracles I have only read about or heard. Except for the rather fit octogenarian lamas I came across in Dharamshala and Mcleodganj, there isn’t much I can personally vouch for. But there is one miracle that this Tibetan meditative life path has given ample evidence of to all who chose to ask and it is this…
When the Chinese army invaded Tibet in 1949, it did what invading armies do. Resistance was crushed. Defenseless monks were tortured and killed and a cultural and religious purge was followed by attempts at Hanification of Tibet. More than a million people lost their lives, perhaps brutally. Every Tibetan home would have lost a loved one or more. Tibet should be a country seething with anger.
And yet, every Tibetan I have met in my travels has spoken of the Chinese invaders with a degree of compassion. Some have said that they hold no ill feelings towards the Chinese even though they suffered at the hands of the invaders. Some lost loved ones, others lost homes and livelihoods. And yet they feel that they had earned this suffering through their actions in another life. The Chinese were mere puppets in the hands of their own karmic fruits. In a film about the yogis of Tibet, I saw a young monk admit that he felt a degree of anger and resentment towards the Chinese. His family had suffered unspeakable atrocities and had seen libraries and monasteries destroyed. But then, the monk added that (unlike his elders) he perhaps felt this anger because he hadn’t progressed enough in his practice.
In an interview in the same film, Tenzin Gyatso, the 14th Dalai Lama, recounts this story about a monk who had been jailed and tortured by the Chinese. After his release, the monk escaped into India where he met His Holiness. One day, the Dalai Lama asked him about his time in prison and the monk replied that there were times when he felt that ‘he was indeed in danger…’. And when His Holiness asked about the nature of this danger’, the monk replied that at times while he was being tortured, he was indeed in danger of losing compassion for the Chinese
I had met the Dalai Lama for an interview about two years ago. And the words that I still remember from that day were in response to a question about what should one’s response be to an oppressor, be it a nation or an individual like let’s say, an Osama or a Hitler? The Dalai Lama had just smiled and said we should remember that it is the oppressor who needs compassion far more than the oppressed because while the latter has already endured a karmic cycle, the former has only begun to sow the seeds of his sins.
And this approach of treating one’s enemy like a teacher and forgiving him or her all his sins is perhaps the greatest miracle that has emerged from those passes in the mountains. Heat that vaporizes ice, leaping across miles or living a very long life might all be miracles worth chasing.
But can anything compare with the power of resolute compassion when it comes to making this world a better place? Imagine how much more beautiful the world could have been if every individual or community that today feels oppressed or persecuted, instead of picking up arms or hurling bombs had instead chosen to practice heartfelt compassion instead. And also imagine how much more hellish our world would have become if even the Tibetans had chosen the path of sustained and indiscriminate violence to hit back against those that have persecuted them.
I have tried this path and it seems infinitely more challenging than it might be to try and learn how to dry wet blankets. My compassion is fickle but it grows a little stronger every day, and I believe I become a little better every day. On our own on this path, we may stumble and fall, but if those we know and love share this quest and are with us when we get tripped by pain and ego, maybe they’ll hold our hands and help us find our feet… and then indeed, a miracle may not be beyond us.