Hell or High Water: Surviving Tibet’s Tsangpo River
Peter Heller
New York: Rodale Books, 2004
336 pp.; $24.95 (cloth)

The Heart of the World: A Journey to the Last Secret Place
Ian Baker
New York: The Penguin Press, 2004
511 pp.; $27.95 (cloth)

In my thirty years as a Buddhist, I’ve meditated a lot, and I’ve studied, and I’ve chopped carrots. But I haven’t done much travel. Only twice have I gone to Asia, to the Buddhist lands, and only once on a real pilgrimage.

It was 1992. The great Dilgo Khyentse, Rinpoche—active head of the Nyingma lineage and the teacher of my teacher, Chögyam Trungpa—was being cremated in Bhutan, high in the Himalayas. Bhutan! I couldn’t wait—for good reason, it turned out. Billed as the last Buddhist kingdom, Bhutan was thrilling. Its mountainous landscapes soared. Its people were attractive and cheerful. There were temples and super-sized Buddhist sculptures. Even the humblest little shop selling stale Indian cookies had knots of eternity decorating the doorways.

At the cremation, the Westerners gathered with King Jigme Wangchuk, hundreds of monks, and fifty thousand Bhutanese, all decked out in their finest robes, in the valley below Taktsang—Tiger’s Nest, the ancient hermitage site, set impossibly on a sheer towering cliff. Twelve hundred years before, Padmasambhava, the Indian master who introduced Buddhism to Tibet, had flown there on the back of a tiger’s skin. Much more recently, Trungpa Rinpoche, while on retreat at Taktsang, wrote The Embodiment of All the Siddhas, his seminal Mahamudra teaching. The ceremony lasted all day. Monks chanted and played horns. The air seemed golden with blessings.

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