The Blue Eyed Monk

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We leave the Old Town in Zhongdian bright and early on a Thursday morning on a kind of cultural and spiritual exploration.
Because of road construction, we must travel south down to the Yangtze, then follow the river upstream. We finally leave the river’s banks at the bridge to Qi Zhong, where we cross into Weixi Lisu Minority Autonomous County. A new bridge across the Yangtze, slightly higher than the old one, is nearing completion just upstream. We have lunch near the New Bridge Hotel, and the cook and proprietor, Hou Cui Yin, tells us that she is a member of the Malimoso Minority. It is a minority that is not recognized by the government, but just lumped together with the Naxi. Although Weixi is called a Lisu Autonomous County, the population here includes almost as many Naxi, Tibetan, Bai and Han people.
We continue on our way, climbing the sharp switchbacks up to near the top of a nearby mountain. Our top objective is the Dampa Cave (Damo Zushi Dong in Chinese). 2016 is a monkey year, and it is said that the most auspicious year to make a pilgrimage there is the monkey year. From a parking lot near the top, we begin to hike, while Driver Yang continues up with the Landrover Defender. The track is narrow and confusing, with many turn-offs, but our goal is the top, so we just pick the steepest way at each fork, and soon arrive on the pilgrimage route.
We quickly walk clockwise around the peak on the kora trail, which is lined with prayer flags along most of its length. On the north face of the mountain, the forest is diverse and old, with many huge trees. Among the prayer flags, we notice long strings of colorful yarn that stretch around the kora trail among the prayer flags We later learn that it is a Tibetan custom, the aim of which, for Tibetans, is to stay in good health and, for Han Chinese, to find a suitable partner for their child.
After completing the circumambulation of the mountain on the newly paved pilgrimage route, we visit the temples that adjoin the cave. Although recently rebuilt after a disastrous fire, their location is quite impressive; they are built high in the mountain, pressed against the cliff. Tibetans know this holy place under the name of Dampa Cave, since the Great Saint Padampa Sangye is supposed to have meditated in the cave inside one of the shrines.

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Scholars know that Padampa Sangye was born in the 11th century to a Brahmin family in India. He studied at Vikramashila University in what is now Northern Bihar in India where he took the bodhisattva vows. He traveled widely and went to Tibet three times. The aim of his travels was to meditate in solitude. In Tibet, he is known to have stayed twenty years in Dingri, a place not far from today’s Nepali border. It is there that he died in 1117.
Padampa Sangye is also identified with the Chan patriarch Bodhidharma (Puti Damo in Chinese). A Buddhist monk and translator who came to China from India in the 6th century CE, he brought with him the meditation practices that gave rise to Chan in China and Zen in Japan. Because of a mistranslation, he was sometimes said to come from Iran, which may explain why he is often portrayed with blue eyes. Bodhidharma is said to have meditated for nine years on Mount Sung near the then newly built Shaolin Monastery, where he is said to have introduced the practice of certain kung- fu exercises. If Padampa Sangye and Bodhidharma are indeed one and the same, this would give him a lifespan of over 500 years.

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Padampa Sangye is also associated with introducing meditation practices, and is the founder of the Shijé (zhi byed in Tibetan) or “Peace making” school, whose adepts are known as Shijepa (zhi byed pa), “Peace makers”. His main teaching, according to the Tibetologist Dan Martin, “was the Great Sealing, which promises relatively fast, not therefore necessarily easy, achievement of Buddhist Enlightenment”. He was instrumental in the origins of the Tibetan movement called Chöd, or “Cutting,” which was founded by a very famous religious woman named Machig Labdrön (1055-1149). In this meditative practice, generally done in lonely and dreaded places like cemeteries, the object is to overcome all fears as the practitioner visualizes giving her or his own body to the spirits as an offering. The aim is to cut attachment to one’s corporeal form. Padampa Sangye generally taught naked to express the importance of simple living, a matter of asceticism. He is often portrayed with a single topknot and black skin, a reminder of his Indian origin, holding in his right hand the double-headed drum called damaru and in his left, a thighbone trumpet called kangling. His piercing gaze is another constant in Padampa Sangye images. This may explain the blue colour of the eyes of the statue in the Dampa Cave.
We visit the nearby monastery that belongs to the Drigung Kagyu school of Tibetan Buddhism. There are around 150 monks, and among them 5 are in meditation retreat for the traditional time of 3 years, 3 months and 3 days. We are received by Rangchung Rinpoche who explains to us that the monastery was established during the reign of the Emperor Qianlong (1711-1799).
Lastly we are also able to pay a visit to the meditation house that CERS restored at this place. Located directly under a statue of Padampa Sangye and a stupa, the wooden house overlooks the valley below where the Yangtze River can be seen flowing south.
Just as we reach the meditation house, a policeman comes along side, out of breath from rushing to catch up. Oddly, he is accompanied by his mother, who is very friendly and talkative. In spite of our wish to spend the night at this peaceful place, we have to go down to the city of Qi Zhong, since the local authorities do not seem pleased to see foreigners here so late in the day. The policeman seems quite relieved later when he meets us on our way down the mountain to stay at the New Bridge Hotel.