Ladakh Himalaya Expedition
Research into High Altitude Meditation,
Chi Kung and Martial Arts in Ladakh 2014
For 20 years, I had kept an old photo in my notebook of mysterious, masked dancers in the mountains of Ladakh.
I had often thought about traveling to Ladakh. Then one day I thought, if not now, when?
So I began to organize the expedition and, unexpectedly, everything fell into place!
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 high mountains of the Himalayas. My plan for Ladakh was to practice martial arts and meditation at several different Buddhist monasteries and explore the high mountains.
Also, I wanted to look for hidden links between the martial art of Pa Kua Chang and the Bon Po Shaman 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.
I have practiced martial arts and meditation at high altitudes in the Himalayas twice before. The first time was in 1989 at Mc Leod Ganj in India 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.
On that occasion, I saw a Tibetan Shaman doing his shamanic dance. The next day, I was invited to the palace of the Dalai Lama with some other travellers for the celebrations. It was wonderful to watch the Tibetan Buddhist dancers. They moved through geometric shapes and were spinning around in a way that was hypnotic and meditative. I had a chat with the Dalai Lama in his rose garden, he gave me a red thread bracelet, said to balance energy and restore the natural order.
The second high-altitude training opportunity was in Nepal 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).
The Buddhism of Ladakh is made even more interesting because it is intertwined with the ancient Bon shamanistic/animist tradition. My interest in the Bon tradition is because its rituals and rites closely correlate to the indigenous shamanic traditions of Siberia and Mongolia. This is where the martial art of Pa Kua Chang originates. More details about this can be found in my book The Training Manual of The College of Chinese Martial Arts.
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 7,000 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. This is why I chose to explore the mountains of Ladakh in July. With the snow 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 travelling light.
I was visiting Ladakh for adventure, to do some spiritual research and to chase my dreams. The snow-capped mountains of Ladakh and its endless azure sky were calling me.
Ladakh is situated in a politically and strategically interesting location. It is surrounded by Pakistan, Afghanistan, Tajikistan, China and India.
Ladakh is shown in purple on the map. The borders indicated on the map are not accurate because all sides continue to make incursions into each other’s disputed territory. The map is only a very rough indicator.
My reason for researching martial arts and meditation at high altitude is that one of the Chinese words for a Taoist Immortal is Xian = Sage living high in the mountains, a mystic hermit/recluse.
For decades, I have been practicing Taoist longevity techniques: Tai Chi Chuan, Pa Kua Chang, Wu Tang Shan Chuan, Chi Kung and Meditation. I wondered if in ancient times people who practiced these methods had found that the benefits were increased if they trained at high altitudes?
So clearly, Ladakh would be the perfect location for me to continue my research into the effects of high altitude on meditation, chi kung and martial arts.
The Taoist chi kung that I practice, contains many different breathing methods. How will they be affected by the reduced oxygen at high altitudes? How will the chi flow be different for the Taoist meditations and martial arts at high altitudes?
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 success, a great adventure and a very interesting research expedition.
I walked and climbed over 100 miles in flip flops across the mountains, visited many monasteries and had interesting discussions with the monks.
Here is what I discovered:
Chinese Healing Arts
When I was approaching the pass at 18,000 feet, I suffered from high-altitude mountain sickness.
I used an experimental Chinese Herbal Medicine formula that I had created before I left. It worked very well, all the symptoms went, and I was able to cross the pass.
Also, in one of the local villages, I set up an acupuncture clinic and treated many people for various injuries. These were 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 martial arts, chi kung and meditation in such a spiritual place at such high altitude was very different and interesting.
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 acclimatisation, 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.
When I was meditating, 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 movements of the martial art of Pa Kua Chang.
This would imply that they both share the same origin: the dance of the Siberian/Mongolian Shamans. Their movements became the Cham dance in Ladakh and the inspiration for the Chinese martial art of Pa Kua Chang.
Many of the dancers were wearing animal masks (wolf, bear, deer, bull) and were clearly expressing the stylistic qualities of the animals’ movements.
They were invoking the spirit of that animal in their movement, just like in the Chinese martial art of Pa Kua.
Another similarity is that just like in the practice of Chinese martial arts, the Cham dancers are trying to be fully present in the moment, in the NOW. They are free from thoughts of the past and future and expressing spontaneously the appropriate move 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.
Nagpo Chenpo / Mahakala is a protector demon and the God of Death.
The five human skulls in his crown represent the death of the 5 negative elemental traits: anger, hate, anxiety, sadness and fear. They are transformed 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, looks within to see and transform the elemental forces.
When comparing Pa Kua and the Cham dance one might think that Pa Kua is a martial art and the Cham dance is a spiritual art form. However, the following prayer clearly shows a martial component for Mahakala who features prominently in the Cham dance.
This is a mask of Mahakala in the Ladakhi Tibetan Buddhism Cham Dance. He is called Great Death – Nagpo Chenpo.
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 Martial Arts. Zhen Wu is the deity who sits in his golden temple on the peak of Wu Tang Mountain. He is the Taoist god that Wu Tang Shan is dedicated to.
I made a pilgrimage to the Temple of Zhen Wu on top of Wu Tang Mountain in China in 2005.
So there are subtle connections that thread through Taoism, Buddhism, Bon Po Shamanism and Siberia, Mongolia, Tibet, Ladakh and China!
NEAR DEATH experience
I had a near-death experience when I was in Ladakh whilst I was climbing in the mountains by myself. There had been a landslide and my way forward was obstructed.
So I had to descend into the valley to 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. I got some cuts and bruises. Thank goodness, I did not hit my head. I could have gone unconscious and been dragged under the water.
Anyway, I realised 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. I pushed with my feet and reached out for the far bank with my hands and dragged myself up onto the rocks. I was very relieved to be alive.
At this point, white butterflies circled around me, which I took to be a good omen.
A Ladakhi Chorten
This structure is called a chorten in Ladakh. Elsewhere, it is called a stupa. They often contain the ashes of Buddhist monks. They are a place of meditation and contemplation.
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 Pa Kua form begins walking in an anti-clockwise direction.
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 individual’s 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 with who I had numerous conversations 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 practiced to the Lama, and he confirmed that the same meditations existed within Tibetan Buddhism. However, he made it very clear that these were high-level secret teachings that were not openly discussed. Only a small number of monks and lamas knew and practiced them. So it was nice for me to get confirmation that the system of Chinese Taoist meditation that I was practicing was mirrored in Tibetan Buddhism as practiced in Ladakh. The Lama also said that the Cham dance was a Bon Po practice that had been incorporated into Tibetan Buddhism.
My last day in Ladakh