The Himalayas are in trouble thanks to climate change. That should worry us all.

Cyril Christo and Marie Wilkinson

“The secret of the mountain is that the mountains simply exist, as I do myself: the mountains exist simply, which I do not. The mountains have no ‘meaning,’ they are meaning; the mountains are. The sun is round. I ring with life, and the mountains ring, and when I can hear it, there is a ringing that we share.” 

     —Peter Matthiessen, “The Snow Leopard,” 1978

“The power of such a mountain is so great and yet so subtle that, without compulsion, people are drawn to it from near and far, as if by the force of some invisible magnet…this worshipful or religious attitude is not impressed by scientific facts, like figures of altitude, which are foremost in the mind of modern man. Nor is it motivated by the urge to ‘conquer’ the mountain.”

      —Lama Govinda, “The Way of the White Clouds,” 1974

It is called the third pole…the highest place on Earth. The entire Himalayan region emanates an aura unlike anything else. There are a few places left on the planet, where the air so overwhelms, that one is transported, transmuted into an almost different being. In Nepal, even Kumari Devi, the living Goddess, a girl of nine, could not prevent the last great earthquake in April 2015 when 9,000 people were killed. It is the youngest mountain range on earth, barely 50 million years old, with a mystique quite unlike any other mountain range in the world. When the earth does shake, due to the high frequency of seismic activity, the Himalayas feel inhabited. Once in the midst of an earthquake in Kathmandu, the hotel where I was staying vacillated for a few seconds. Houses were strewn with flowers and incense as if devout locals were trying to appease the deities.

There is an insuperable energy that seethes below these mountains. Somewhere between the world’s tallest mountains and the Tien Shan of China, and the Altai of Russia lay what Nicholas Roerich, the Russian explorer of the 1920’s had searched for years, the fabled kingdom of Shambhala. Some have said, that with the near fatal destruction of Tibet by the Chinese over 70 years ago, the energy of the Himalayas had changed, perhaps forever. After the recent early spate of rebel attacks in Nepal a generation ago, it is perhaps not too extraordinary to believe that a magical perfect kingdom still exists beyond the mountains, as depicted in the famous book from 1933 by James Hilton called “Lost Horizon” — made into a film in 1937 by Frank Capra. Some adepts of Buddhism insist that the Kingdom of Shambhala resides within. Very, very few practitioners master the elemental realities of the self. One comes to the Himalayas not always searching, but often found by a quietude, a Buddhic transparency, an equanimity dictated by the weather, the telluric realities unlike any other. And of course some come to climb Sagamartha, the mountain goddess of the world, Mt. Everest which has claimed over 300 lives by climbers obsessed by reaching the summit. 

Maoist rebels looking to overthrow the monarch had a few months before we arrived, launched a campaign that would terrify the entire country. Far removed from the political mayhem of the rest of the world, the dome of the peace pagoda in central Nepal felt like a Utopian temple, a place of refuge for the highest aspirations of the human spirit. A woman worker turned her head towards us holding her shawl in pyramidal form like the shape of the Himalayas behind her. For a brief moment she resembled a deity levitating over the world. Like some of Vermeer’s women, she personified the confidence of an almost transcendent light, but light drenched in the body of the sensuous, like the incarnation of the divine.

With climate change the Mother Goddess of the world and the surrounding sacred peaks are melting at the rate of a quarter of a meter of ice each year, twice the rate they were melting before 2000. Landslides and avalanches are becoming more common. Even isolated monasteries such as Tiangboche in eastern Nepal were not immune to the vagaries of the new weather system now upon us. Ironically the monastery had been destroyed in January 1989, not due to a storm or avalanche but because of an electric heater which hadn’t been turned off. No wonder many of the lamas didn’t want modern technology. In Nepal, chants rise from the monasteries, their sonic power emanating into the rarefied crystalline reality of the peaks surrounding them. The mysteries of the human condition lay locked in the bloodstream and meditations and mind of those praying inside the body of the human mandala. The rhythm of existence and the pattern of the elements as they expressed themselves in the cells were the basis of our conscious evolution and the ultimate measure of our potential. Accelerating the organic process and breaking it down was wreaking havoc on our condition some lamas would say.

Photo credit: Cyril Christo and Marie Wilkinson

A thin membrane of what civilization had discovered over the last 200 years since the Industrial Revolution was not only the surface of all human knowledge, much of it seemed to be going against the grain of what wisdom these peaks were reflecting. It reminded of what Laurens van Der Post once wrote, “We behave as if there were some magic in mere thought, and we use thinking for purposes for which it was never designed. As a result we are no longer sufficiently aware of the importance of what we cannot know intellectually, what we must know in other ways, of the living experience before and beyond our transitory knowledge.”

Indeed we may be the last viable generation to still be able to sense something of the full pulse of the Earth. The irony that so engulfs this time, a time when we are sending space crafts to Jupiter’s moon Europa and beyond, is that half of Earth’s species could be gone by 2050. At one point, walking in the Khumbu region, free of the electromagnetic pulse of the cybernetic world that surrounds us, Himalayan pheasants (Choughs) played in the snow, like sentinel jewels of another order entirely. Their luminescent feathers of cobalt blue against the pageant of the white snow was an unanticipated rapture, like watching the equivalent of peacocks, their lower altitude cousins in India. Here in the Himalayas colors, prayers and rites formed the basis of a technology of empathy which the wider world so desperately needs. Tiangboche, like a miniature Tibet, still held onto core elements which had been the foundation of what constitutes consciousness and mindfulness for millennia. The monastery stood as a mountain of faith pushing back against the forces of gravity, greed, anger and ignorance. And as we were learning, also against the forces of climate change.

Some children we talked to with their ever curious smiles and gallivanting ways, asked our guide why so many people came to the mountains. There was nothing special about them they intoned. In Lumle in a lovely stone village built by the hands of a millennia old tradition, where young children carried their siblings in dirty shawls, I wondered who would carry the message of the irreplaceability of this domain to future generations. Who will tell the children about the meaning of the weeping night and the laughing day?

Our first peak Tamseku glistened in the far distance like a solid white flame in the eastern Himalaya. We walked slowly with our yaks until we reach Pengboche and found a lama who many years ago entertained a yeti as a servant. So he says. Here years ago a supposed skullcap of the creature was once on display but has since disappeared. There is a story of the yetis who would come down to the valley, imitate humans and milk yaks. Once they descended and had a party with the humans but were given alcohol and a knife and killed each other off. Only a few survived. Yet another story, from 30 years ago tells of a young girl who saw a yeti wrestling a yak’s horn apart to feed on its neck. Hundreds of stories cross the Himalayan frontier about close encounters with the yeti. Reinhold Messner, the alpine climber, insists after having seen footprints melting in the snow that it is no more than a Himalayan bear. But the legend continues and with it countless mysteries of monks with supernatural powers far from the increasingly hectic and electrified world.

As we approached Lukla in eastern Nepal, one German had to be airlifted out of the valley back to Kathmandu. Altitude sickness. As the helicopter arrived we felt very fortunate that nothing had befallen us. He could have died. In these extreme elements we felt the barest suggestions that are the thirteen stages on the road to Nirvana. We left a rarefied world where impurities of mind are said to influence the weather, impure thoughts said to cause avalanches. Was the collective mind of the world, the place where civilization had brought humanity today, causing the avalanches? The two seemed to be tied as never before in human history. And yet despite the turmoil of the world, the peaks sound reverberantly with the monumental echo of silence. It is the silence of the heartbeat of time that presses on. Despite the 1.6 billion people that will be affected by the melting snowpack, the Himalayas press upwards still, their vast telluric energies dancing midway between our psyche and our longing for a perfect haven far from the chaos of history and human decay.

In leaving the Himalayas one might ask if accelerating the organic processes of life was wreaking havoc on our condition worldwide. The monks who allowed us into their unique haven, categorically refused to live life as mechanized intelligence. Perhaps humanity’s essential nature too was drying up, desiccating just like the expanding deserts of the world. As the world was drying up, what would happen to Nepal’s 800 species of birds, nearly a twelfth of the world’s total count? How would Nepal fare under the continued menace of Maoist rebels who had launched their offensive against the military and the monarchy. Some 10,000 people had been killed. Almost 10,000 children had been abducted and forced to join indoctrination camps, “democratic people’s education,” with the rebels. Tremors and aftershocks will persist for years. The rebel dream of creating a socialist reality has hurt its population like a renegade nightmare.

The Nyimba people of Helambhu have a prophecy of a hidden valley. When chaos comes to rule the world a lama will lead the people to a hidden refuge in that valley. The lama we spoke to explained that the valley is only there when one is truly prepared. “If one is ready it may not be very far away,” he exhorted. All over the Himalayas, glaciers had started to melt as if crying for a kingdom that used to be one of the great sanctuaries of the world.

Amidst the chaos some say a miracle may have occurred in Nepal. A fifteen-year old some believe to be a boy Buddha had been seen meditating in the lotus position for six months. He lives south of Kathmandu and does not eat or drink. He will meditate for another six years, until he reaches enlightenment. He is being monitored by scientists amazed at his abilities. Who else is keeping watch on this young man who has perhaps already changed our understanding of what it means to be human? Is he praying for world peace? For a new Earth? In his mind new cosmologies were probably being born. Is he truly the new Buddha?

Photo credit: Cyril Christo and Marie Wilkinson

Before we left Nepal, we decided to visit the remote region of the Terai in the far west of the country, to pray and try to witness a tiger, any tiger at all. Prehistoric garial crocodiles basked in the sun on the Karnali River that was slated to be dammed by the Enron groups, a project, thank heaven, and the Himalayas, that never manifested. We had talked to a computer expert from Kathmandu who had never seen a tiger. This was his seventh time in Bardiya and was hopeful he would have luck this time. We asked the guide what one had to do to see a tiger and were told we needed to pray to Bondevi, the goddess of the forest, light incense and give an offering of oranges at the base of the monumental banyan tree. We were put in front of the line on elephant back, Nepal being generally considered one of the more conscious countries in its treatment of elephants in the tourism sector and proceeded forward. We ambled for a good hour and like sudden mystical sound, our elephant trumpeted. Suddenly, out of the bush, crossing right in front of our path, came the mother tigress and her cub. A true vision that flashed in front of us for just a few seconds with the Himalayas in the background. Our disappointed cybernetic expert from Kathmandu asked if he could go at the head of the line after lunch. Of course we obliged him. It was his country. We had had the enormous fortune of seeing our first tiger within a few hours of getting to the Terai. We started walking with our elephants after lunch, but this time at the tail end of the line, just to be fair. And of course, the tigress walked right behind us with her cub and the computer fellow at the front of the line never got to see his tiger.

With challenges facing wildlife around the world, melting glaciers threatening drinking water all over the Himalayas and Asia, and the enormous scourge of the coronavirus fragmenting India to the south, we all need to pray for guidance in this immensely fragile time. A third of the glaciers in the Hindu Kush Himalayan region and more than half in the eastern Himalayan region will disappear by the end of this century. As headwaters for the Indus, Ganges, Brahmaputra, Yangtze and Yellow Rivers, hundreds of millions of people who depend on agriculture in Asia face an uncertain future. But as the fragile snows recede, the Himalayas still stand as sentinels for ascension in the human spirit and what lies beyond this earthly realm.

“An iceberg is water striving to be land; a mountain, especially a Himalaya, especially Everest, is land’s attempt to metamorphose into sky; it is grounded in flight, the earth mutated–nearly–into air, and become, in the true sense, exalted.”

     —Salman Rushdie

Learn more about Cyril Christo and Marie Wilkinson’s work at their website.

WT Trailer cut 4 from Lightningwood on Vimeo.