Research into High Altitude Meditation, Chi Kung and Martial Arts in Ladakh.
I had been thinking about traveling to Ladakh for over 20 years and then in October 2013 whilst walking my dog (Chai) up Parliament hill in north London the idea, fully formed, appeared in my mind. . . I must go to Ladakh NOW, because if not now, when? how long was I going to leave it?
Me and Chai Autumn 2013
So I tried to organize the expedition and everything unexpectedly fell into place! The first available date I could depart was the beginning of July 2014. So I began planning my trip…
Phuktal Monestary Ladakh
I have always been a wandering Taoist both in my life and in my mind. Even when I was living a settled life in London in my imagination I was still traveling. Of all the different environments I have explored, the one that feels like the land of legends and the place where the myths in my mind could be true is the arid high mountains of the Himalayas. So my plan for Ladakh was to meditate and practice chi kung and martial arts at several different Buddhist monasteries and explore the high mountains. Also to look for hidden links between the martial art of Bagua and the Bon Po Shaman spirit dances that are concealed within the Cham dances of Ladakhi Tibetan Buddhism.
In addition to being drawn towards high altitude locations because of their appeal to my imagination there is also the otherworldly feeling one has in that oxygen starved environment. It is a type of spiritual euphoria, as if you could just reach out and touch the sky. The Chinese believe that mountain peaks are where the chi of heaven and earth meet and so they build their temples on top of mountains. I made a pilgrimage to the Temple of Zhen Wu, the Mysterious/Dark Warrior, on top of Wutang Mountain in China in 2005. This experience is recounted in The Journal of The College of Chinese Martial Arts -Volume 5 May 2010
On Wutang Mountain in 2005, it was snowing, it was magical and mystical.
I have practised meditation, chi kung and martial arts at high altitude in the Himalayas twice before, in 1989 at McLeodGanj which is at 5,639 metres / 18,500 feet. It was here that I first met the Dalai Lama of Tibet just after he had been awarded the Nobel Peace Prize. This experience is recounted in my book A Taoist Way of Life.
I saw a Tibetan Shaman doing his shamanic dance when I was there and the next day I was invited to the palace of the Dalai Lama with some other travelers for the celebrations, it was wonderful to watch the Tibetan Buddhist dancers. They moved through geometric shapes and where spinning around in a way that was hypnotic and meditative. I had a chat with the Dalai Lama in his rose garden and he gave me a red thread to wear. To balance my energy and restore natural order, also red represents bravery.
The second high altitude training opportunity was in 1995 at the Temple of Muktinath at an altitude of 3,710 metres / 12,171 feet. (Guru Rinpoche, also known as Padmasambhava, the founder of Buddhism in Tibetan and Ladakh meditated at Muktinath on his way to Tibet and Ladakh in the 8th century).
Ladakh is a small country, Tantric Buddhism has been practised there for the last 1200 years. The Buddhist culture is made even more interesting because it is intertwined with the local Bon shamanistic/animist tradition which is so ancient that scholars estimate it has been practised throughout this region for at least the last 10,000 years and can be traced back to the ancient kingdom of Zhang Zhung. My interest in the Bon shamanistic/animist tradition is because its rituals and rites closely correlate to the indigenous shamanic traditions of Siberia and Mongolia which are the origins of the Chinese martial art of Bagua Zhang (Pa Kua Chang) that I practice. More details about this can be found in my book The Training Manual of The College of Chinese Martial Arts.
There is a very strong Chinese cultural influence to Ladakh because of the ancient trade routes which connected the two countries together for 1000 years. This was until the Chinese closed the boarder in 1960. Today the local Tibetan healing system contains many elements of Traditional Chinese Herbal medicine. Also Chinese martial arts are being taught at the Buddhist Nunnery of Shey in Ladakh which is controlled by the Dragon Sect.
Even though Ladakh is a separate country from Tibet it is sometimes referred to as Little Tibet. It is what Tibet was like before the Chinese invasion of 1949 which changed that country forever. So Ladakh could be considered a window to look through to see Old Tibet.
The capital of Ladakh is Leh which is at an altitude of 3,500 meters / 11,482 feet and the highest mountain peak is at 7000 meters / 23,000 feet. It does not rain in Ladakh, it is dry like a desert and the temperature in winter can drop as low as -30 degrees. The temperature improves in the summer and the high mountain passes become accessible which is why I chose to explore the mountains of Ladakh in July. With the snows receding I would have the ability to see more of the country and not have to carry so much cold weather kit, I have a strong preference for traveling light.
I was visiting Ladakh for adventure, to do some spiritual research and to chase my dreams, all my life there has been the call of the wild. And the vast open spaces of Ladakh with its big open sky and wild untamed mountains was calling to me. There was also some obscure connections between me and Ladakh/Tibet.
In 1876 at age thirteen, Francis Younghusband began his education at Clifton College, Bristol. He was later to become known as Captain Younghusband (Just over 100 years later in 1979, I attended the same school at the age of thirteen). At Clifton I became Captain of the Rifle Team, we used to shoot The Lee-Enfield bolt-action, magazine-fed, repeating rifle which took the .303 British cartridge.
In 1889 Captain Younghusband was dispatched with a small escort of Gurkha soldiers to investigate an uncharted region of the Himalayas in northern Ladakh, where raiders from Hunza had disrupted trade between Yarkand and India the previous year. Younghusband received a messenger at his camp, inviting him to dinner with Captain Bronislav Grombchevsky, his Russian counterpart in The Great Game.
The Great Game was a term for the strategic rivalry and conflict between the British Empire and the Russian Empire for supremacy in Central Asia from 1813 to 1907.
Younghusband accepted the invitation to Grombchevsky’s camp, and after dinner the two rivals talked into the night, sharing brandy and vodka, and discussing the possibility of a Russian invasion of British India. Grombchevsky impressed Younghusband with the horsemanship skills of his Cossack escort, and Younghusband impressed Grombchevsky with the rifle drill of his Gurkhas. After their meeting in this remote frontier region, Grombchevsky resumed his expedition in the direction of Tibet and Younghusband continued on his exploration.
Photo of Captain Younghusband 1904
In 1904, now promoted to Major, Younghusband led a force of 10,000 in the British Military Invasion of Tibet. Over one thousand Tibetans were killed, there were five British casualties. The reason for the disparity in casualties was that the Tibetans were armed mostly with swords and chainmail armour and the British soldiers were all armed with The Lee-Enfield bolt-action, magazine-fed, repeating rifle which took the .303 British cartridge. The British also had The Vickers machine gun which fired the standard .303 inch cartridges used in the Lee Enfield rifle, the Vickers machine gun fired 600 rounds per minute.
Photo of Tibetan soldier in 1904
Photo of British soldiers in Tibet in 1904
They are using The Vickers machine gun
Photo of British soldiers camped in front of the Tibetan fortress of Phari Jung 1904
Photo of Lhasa the capital of Tibet in 1904
Photo of British soldiers entering Lhasa the capital of Tibet in 1904
As well as the Russians and the British trying to have influence over Tibet, the Chinese had also sent their representative known as the Amban. Major Younghusband met him in Lhasa.
Photo of one of the soldiers of the Amban’s Escort, Lhasa, Tibet 1904
The weapon he is holding is called The Hunting Tiger Trident
When Major Younghusband entered Lhasa the few Tibetans who had not fled started clapping their hands, Younghusband thought it was great imagining he was being congratulated as the new Victorious conqueror. In fact the clapping was an old Tibetan ritual to rid a place of evil spirits !
From the perspective of the British his invasion of Tibet was a successes, he made the Tibetans sign a treaty granting Britain great influence over their country. However Major Younghusband was troubled and unsettled so he went for a walk into the mountains of Tibet. Here he experienced a revelatory vision and believed he had acquired a type of telepathic ability.
Younghusband died on 31st July 1942 in Dorset, he was buried in the village churchyard, I spent most of my childhood summer holidays in Dorset and I would be returning from Ladakh to London on the 31st of July 2014.
Photo of Younghusbands grave, Lytchett Minster, Dorset, England
Ladakh is situated in a political/strategic interesting location, it is shown in purple on the map. It is surrounded by Pakistan, Afghanistan, Tajikistan, China and India.
Ladakh is in purple on the map, the boarders indicated on the map are not accurate because all sides continue to make incursions into each others disputed territory.The map is only a very rough indicator.
In 1999 Pakistan and India went to war on the northern boarder of Ladakh, this conflict is known as the Kargil War, both sides suffered similar casualties, about 500 dead and 1000 wounded.
The most recent clash between Pakistan and India was in 2013 when a border incident resulted in about 20 soldiers dead, 10 from India and 10 from Pakistan. Some reports say the Pakistan soldiers cut the heads off the Indian soldiers and took the heads back to Pakistan and refused to return them.
Also in 2013 the Chinese military made an incursion into Ladakh with 50 soldiers of the PLA and Indian troops intercepted them, there was a tense three-week stand-off before they returned over the boarder to mainland China. As a consequence of this Chinese incursion the Indian army has now sent a 40,000 strong Mountain Strike Force up into this part of the Himalayas to repel any future Chinese infiltration.
My reason for researching meditation at high altitude is that one of the Chinese words for a Taoist Immortal is Xian which has several possible translations/meanings in English
1. Spiritual immortal.
2. Celestial Being.
3. Seeker of elixir of life by meditation/chi kung longevity techniques.
5. To get old and not die.
6. Sage living high in the mountains, a mountain-man, a mystic hermit/recluse.
So I have been practicing Taoist longevity techniques
Tai Chi Chuan – Tajiquan
Pa kua Chang – Baguazhang
Wutang Shan Chuan – Wudangshanquan
Chi Kung – Qigong
and Meditation for many years and wonder if in ancient times people who practised these longevity methods had found that the benefits were increased if they trained at high altitude.
Xian = Sage living high in the mountains, a mountain-man.
So clearly Ladakh would be the perfect location for me to continue my research into High Altitude Meditation, Chi kung and Martial Arts.
As part of my preparation I brought a very small backpack, small enough to take as hand luggage on the plane. I have always believed that when going on an expedition it is important to travel light. This back pack was particularly practical because it had a solar panel on it so I could keep my iphone charged, there is no mobile phone signal in the mountains, I was taking my iphone to use as a camera and video recorder. As well as the monks and monasteries, I was hoping to also photograph and film some of the amazing wildlife of Ladakh, it has the worlds largest concentration of snow leopards, there are also lynx, roving packs of Tibetan wolfs, bears, vultures and Golden Eagles.
I also hope to be able to see a Ladakh Mastiff, these dogs are huge and powerful. In the Chyodi Monestary (located in Lo Monthang in another part of the Himalayas) these huge Mastiffs wander freely around the monastery and are trained to attack anyone who is not a monk.
A Ladakh Mastiff
Ladakh is a high altitude cold desert with a low level of atmospheric oxygen.
This environment can cause Acute Mountain Sickness (AMS),
the most serious forms of (AMS) are High Altitude Pulmonary Oedema (HAPO)
and High Altitude Cerebral Oedema (HACO)
The most common symptoms of acute mountain sickness (AMS) are headache,
disturbed sleep and loss of appetite, nausea, coughing, irregular breathing,
breathlessness, lassitude and lack of concentration.
High Altitude Pulmonary Oedema (HAPO) and High Altitude Cerebral Oedema (HACO) can cause coma and death.
View from the roof of Likir Monestary Ladakh
I have found an experimental Chinese Herbal Medicine formula currently being researched by the Chinese Army when they go to fight at high altitude. I have made my own variation
So if I get
Acute Mountain Sickness (AMS)
High Altitude Pulmonary Oedema (HAPO)
High Altitude Cerebral Oedema (HACO)
I will take this formula and on my return I will report on its effectiveness.
Drawing of Bon Po Shaman taken from the book
Buddhism of Tibet written by L. A. Waddell in 1895
In this book he explains the many similarities between Bon Po and Taoism.
Mystic Cham Dance of Ladakh
I practice Chinese Taoist martial, healing and spiritual arts. In Ladakh today they still practice Chinese Herbal medicine within their Tibetan medical system. The Dragon Sect at Shey Nunnery practice Chinese martial arts. Ladakhi Tantric Tibetan Buddhism incorporated the ancient Bon Po Way of the Shaman which shares the same origins as the Chinese martial art of Bagua. The chi kung that I practice contains many different breathing methods, how will they be effected by the reduced oxygen at high altitude ? How will the chi flow be different for the Taoist meditations chi kung and martial arts at high altitude ? So I am going on a journey of discovery to explore all these different and interrelated ideas. I will keep an open mind and see what I find and let you know what I discovered when I return…
Some thoughts before I left for Ladakh
This second section was written after I returned from Ladakh.
Movie of my Ladakh Himalaya Expedition July 2014
My pilgrimage to Ladakh was a great success, a great adventure and a very interesting research expedition. I walked over one hundred miles across the mountains, visited many monasteries and had interesting discussions with the monks.
Chinese Healing Arts
I used the experimental Chinese Herbal Medicine formula on myself when I got mild high altitude mountain sickness and it worked very well. Also I set up an acupuncture clinic in a small village at high altitude and treated many people for various injuries. Mostly damage to their lower backs from carrying heavy packs and also foot, ankle and leg damage from climbing accidents.
Chinese Martial and Spiritual Arts
The practice of Chinese martial arts, chi kung and Taoist meditations was very definitely different and very interesting in such a spiritual place at such high altitude. There was 20% less oxygen so it was not possible to train martial arts for as long as normal I simply became out of breath. Maybe after many years of acclimatization this would no longer be a problem. It was definitely easier to meditate deeper and longer, the spiritual atmosphere of the mountains and the monasteries was inspiring and when I was meditating and practicing chi kung and martial arts there was more shen, more spiritual power.
The Cham Dance
I was very happy to see that the movements of the Cham dancers were the same as the Chinese martial art of Bagua. This would imply that they both share the same origin, the dance of the Siberian/Mongolian Shaman whose movements became the Cham dance in Ladakh and the inspiration for the Chinese martial art of Bagua.
Many of the dancers were wearing animal masks (wolf, bear, deer, bull) and were clearly expressing the stylistic qualities of the animals movements and invoking the spirit of that animal in their movement, just like in the Chinese martial art of Bagua.
Another similarity is that just like in the practice of Chinese martial arts the Cham dancers are trying to attain through a special set of mental intention and physical movement skills the ability to be fully present in the moment free from thoughts of the past and future and also to be expressing spontaneously the appropriate move in the eternal NOW from the clarity of The Empty Mind.
These are the names of some of the movements of the Cham dance….
Ride like a piece of paper on a crashing wave
Walk gracefully like a tiger through the forest
Fly like a mythical bird – beast
Move the head like a lion shaking a human victim in its mouth
They have a very similar quality to the names of many Chinese martial arts moves and sayings.
This is a mask of Mahakala in the Ladakhi Tibetan Buddhism Cham Dance he is called Great Death – Nagpo Chenpo.
Nagpo Chenpo / Mahakala is a protector demon and the God of Death. The five human skulls is his crown today represent the death of the 5 negative elemental traits, anger, hate, anxiety, sadness, fear and their transformation into the 5 positive elemental traits of kindness, love, truth, courage and confidence. This is part of the Taoist Five Elements meditation which is explained in great detail in my book A Taoist Way of Life
His third eye, the vertical eye on the centre of the forehead, is to look within to see and transform the elemental forces contained in the internal organs.
When comparing bagua and the Cham dance one might think that bagua is a martial art and the Cham dance is just spiritual, however the contents of the following prayer clearly shows a martial component for Mahakala who features prominently in the Cham dance.
Praise of Mahakala, a Mongolian Buddhist prayer written in 1305
Let me eloquently praise in rhymes
Your mighty wisdom renowned to all
With three red circular eyes
With teeth grinding an entire human
With a sword in your right hand
You disperse countless doubts
With a skull and spear in your left hand
You crush the others
With a dark snake earring
With a black snake as your belt
Mahakala, who makes quiver from the depths
the hearts of bloody enemies
Though you are of a peaceful spirit
You frighten the demons
Give rest in peace, Mahakala
To all friendly sentient beings
Protecting scholars and the devout
Shatter your enemies bloody
Teachers, ministers, sons and daughters
May all illnesses and demons be pacified
So why am I interested in this deity and happily surprised to find him in Ladakh? Well during the Mongol invasion of China which was began by Genghis Khan and completed by Kublai Khan in the 13th century Mahakala was their protector God of War and Death who led them to victory.
When they ruled China this Mahakala became interchangeable with Zhen Wu The Dark Mysterious Warrior Taoist God of Healing and Martial Arts. Zhen Wu is associated with the Black Snake/Turtle and is the Defender of the North. He is a high ranking Taoist Immortal able to control the elements and is the Chinese Taoist god of the martial arts.
In the golden temple on the peak of Wutang Mountain is a statue of Zhen Wu. He is the Taoist god that Wutang Shan is dedicated to, it was on Wutang that he attained immortality.
As I mentioned earlier, I made a pilgrimage to the Temple of Zhen Wu, the Mysterious/Dark Warrior, on top of Wutang Mountain in China in 2005.
So there are subtle connections which thread through Taoism / Buddhism / Bon Po Shamanism and Siberian / Mongolia / Tibet / Ladakh and China!
This structure is called a chorten in Ladakh elsewhere it is called a stupa, they often containing the ashes of Buddhist monks, they are a place of meditation. It is customary for Buddhists to walk around them in a clockwise direction (with your right shoulder facing the chorten) however the followers of the ancient shaman way of Bon Po walk anti clockwise. Interestingly the Bagua form begins walking in an anti clockwise direction.
A Ladakhi Chorten
With the chorten/stupa, the square foundation represents Earth
the round dome represents Water
the conical spire represents Fire
the parasol represents Air / Wind / canopy of the sky
and on the very top is the Sun, Moon and Star representing space.
So it is showing a movement from Earth to Heaven and is symbolic of an individuals spiritual journey.
I had the idea that it is also symbolic of a person sitting in meditation balancing the elements within their own body. This was confirmed to me in my discussions with a high Lama who I had numerous conversations with when I was in Ladakh. If you would like to learn how to balance the five elemental forces that exist within you own body the techniques are all taught in my book A Taoist Way of Life
I described the very subtle Chinese Taoist meditations that I practised to the Lama and he confirmed that the same meditations existed within Tibetan Buddhisum. However he made it very clear that these were high level secret teachings that were not discussed openly. Only a small number of monks and lamas knew and practised them. So it was nice for me to get confirmation that the system of Chinese Taoist meditation that I was practising was mirrored in Tibetan Buddhism as practised in Ladakh. The Lama also said that the Cham dance was a Bon Po practice that had been incorporated into Tibetan Buddhism.
There were other things practised in the monasteries that I had seen which were so ancient that they even pre-date Bon Po. For example I witnessed a ceremony where a human effigy made of bread dough was covered with red dye and ritualistically dismembered. This is clearly a re-enactment of the practice of human sacrifice.
In the main town of Leh in Ladakh there are hundreds and hundreds possibly over a thousand wild dogs, they are mongrels but with very clear Ladakh Mastiff characteristics. During the day they are all so deeply asleep on the roads that you would think they where all dead. However at night they howl and bark and roam the streets. Last year during the long winter nights two people where out on the streets and were eaten by packs of these wild dogs.
I had a near death experience when I was in Ladakh, I was climbing in the mountains by myself and there had been a landslide so my way forward was obstructed, so I had to descend into the valley and cross the river. I had already forded this river three times without any problem. However this time the river was deeper and the current significantly stronger, I could no longer feel the bottom of the river, it was just too deep, I lost my footing and got washed downstream by the force of the water, I was lifted up and then thrown down against some mid stream rocks, got some cuts and bruises, thank goodness I did not hit my head, could have gone unconscious and been dragged under the water. Anyway I realized that if I was to be smashed into more rocks head first it would be the end of me. At this moment when confronted with the possibility of imminent death I did not have a spiritual insight I just knew that I had to take action. I summoned up all my reserve energy and fought against the current I swam and kicked out and eventually felt the riverbed and pushed with my feet and reached out for the far bank with my hands and dragged myself up onto the rocks and was very relieved to be alive. At this point white butterflies circled around me which I took to be a good omen.
My research into the existence of Chinese iconography in the wall painting of the Tibetan Buddhist monasteries of Ladakh was very successful. I observed the use of the standard yin yang symbol, as well as the triple version representing ching, chi and shen.
They had their version of the Luo River Scroll/Magic Square, I was also very happy to see Chinese style dragons everywhere and they also had the five elements and eight trigrams in abundance as well as numerous explicit examples of Tibetan Yab-Yum known as Dual Cultivation in Taoism.
Through my own research I have deduced that the sound known as the Tigers Roar heard within the head of the Taoist practitioner when they look at their own third eye to form the golden pearl is the same as the OM sound so prevalent within Tibetan Buddhism. The OM from my own experience would also seem to represent the sound/sense/experience of looking into ones own upper tan tien in the centre of the brain from the perspective of the third eye. So there is a possibility that the ancient prayer -Om mani padme hum- which is so prevalent across Ladakh is a reference to this experience. -Om mani padme hum- is on all the prayer wheels and prayer flags and even carved into the mountainsides in large Tibetan letters.
A possible translation is -The jewel in the heart of the lotus- and a standard explanation is that it is a reference to compassion in ones heart. I think it is also possibly a reference to the experience of the wu chi that exists in ones own upper tan tien in the center of ones own head.
Another interesting possibility is that the sound produced by the blowing of the trumpet made out of the conch shell is also a reminder of the OM sound.
The symbol of the conch is one of the eight auspicious symbols (eight trigrams ? ) of Tibetan Buddhism depicted on the walls of all the monasteries in Ladakhi.
It would also seem to me that the deep base sound produced by the large horns that are blown on the roofs of the Ladakhi monasteries are also a reference to the OM sound.
When a Taoist practices leaving their physical body and traveling in their spirit body as they exit through the top of their head they hear the OM sound. This practice was described by one of Tibets greatest spiritual teachers known as Milarepa. He described it as a bird flying out of an open skylight.
I speculate that the large number of symbols prevalent within the monasteries are on the deepest level related to ones own internal meditative work. The standard explanations of these symbols are that they relate to familiar aspects of the external practice of Buddhism. My conjecture is that they are symbolic references to inner practices of Buddhism that also exist in Chinese Taoist meditations.
Here is an example, in this picture the house represents the body, the wheel is the microcosmic orbit also known as the small heavenly circle which is the circulation of the chi through the governing and conception meridians. The two deer are the kidneys which are the storehouse of ching and so important for the process of the transformation of ching to chi to shen which is carried out through the process of the circulation of the chi through the small heavenly circle.
And in the center are the five elements which are the main internal organs with their associated qualities.
Liver – Wood – Eyes/Sight – Kindness – Anger – Decisiveness.
Heart – Fire – Tongue/Taste – Love – Hate – Emotional Wisdom.
Spleen – Earth – Lips/Speech – Truth – Anxiety – Intellectual Creativity.
Lungs – Metal – Nose/Smell – Courage – Sadness – Physical Balance.
Kidneys – Water – Ears/Hearing – Confidence – Fear – Strength of Will.
There is the standard explanation of the mandala, that it is a map of the universe. However it seems to me that the mandalas that I saw on the walls of every monastery in Ladakh that I visited also had a deeper more internal meaning. When you are at the perspective of your own third eye and then go back into the centre of your own head and see the upper tan tien, what you see looks like a moving mandala, expanding outwards towards you.
The upper tan tien in the center of your brain is wu chi, this means it is where the IS that you are connects with the big IS. By IS I mean your existence, not the thoughts that you have but the IS that you are. The thoughts are the mind, but what has the thoughts are your true self. I believe that the difficulty many westerners have with being able to gasp this idea is due to the error made by Rene Descartes 1596-1650. He was a French philosopher best known for the philosophical statement –
I think, therefore I am.
This is of course wrong because it is back to front !
It should be – I am therefore I think.
This is the fundamental difference between
the Mystic East and the Material West
In the West thinking/the mind are who you are
and having and doing are prioritized
In the East the IS you are that then manifests the body and mind
is the point of focus and being and doing are prioritized.
In the West you are a human being having a spiritual experience.
In the East you are spiritual being having a human experience.
I am from the west with a strong interest in the east,
so to have a yin yang balance I look for the best
in both perspectives.
Movie 2 – Ladakh Himalaya Expedition July 2014