Saturday, March 24, 2012

The Search For The Karmapa and The Mystical Tibetan Snow Frog

"This way, this way," said the monk who had led us up three flights of the steepest, narrowest staircase I'd ever negotiated.  Our guide monk was a short man with closely cropped grey hair.  He walked with his back hunched forward like a man carrying the weight of life on his shoulders.  He was probably only about fifty years old, but had a weathered, leathery brown face with two small slits of eyes--the results of a lifetime of hard Tibetan elements.  I was giddy and excited here at the tail end of our quest. I wanted to ask the monk questions about this place, but I was sucking wind badly and the only English words the monk knew were "this way, this way."  The monk walked slowly, but deliberately up the narrow wooden steps.  Two people could not pass on this stairway without turning sideways and squeezing by.  He kept one hand on his maroon colored monk's robes and bunched them up to avoid tripping over them.  As slowly as he walked, I was still far behind and needed to stop every ten steps to catch my breath and avoid fainting. We were at nearly fifteen thousand feet in Gurum Town, nearly three hours rocky drive from Lhasa, the capital city of Tibet.  With each step the altitude made my head pound and my legs burn and shake.  I was hurting, but I pushed on.  This quest was in the homestretch.

Will you be having your yak shit
fried or aldente?
I'd spent four weeks in remote Eastern Tibet  spending only one or two nights in each town where we worked.  We were running a large mobile eye hospital and churning out hundreds of surgeries from sun up to sundown.  When the surgeries were over we moved on.  Most nights were spent in ugly, box-shaped, piss yellow  Chinese government hotels.  The hotel rooms were the size of  jail cells and smelled like a combination of public restroom and old cheese.  Most of the villages were too small to have hotels. In these places I slept on floor mats with twenty other people a large community rooms.  The rooms were  heated by yak dung stoves that burned dried yak shit throughout the night.  The smell of pressed, burnt yak shit combined with the smells of twenty guys with high-altitude flatulence did not contribute to a restful sleep. Towards the end of the trip I couldn't handle the smells anymore and opted to put up a small tent in any nearby open field.  Despite the cold it was nice to sleep  under the cool, sweet Tibetan air.  Around midnight wild dogs and yaks would show up, growl and  run in nervous circles around the tent.  I had to do a quick survey of animal threats every time I left the tent to relieve my bladder.  This was still better than sleepless nights immersed in burnt yak shit and fart.

Buddha in the sky with diamonds
For four long weeks I lived like this surviving on packaged noodles, cans of Chinese beans,  hard Yak cheese and fresh Yak milk yogurt.  The yogurt was tasty, but  pulling  five inch Yak hairs out of the bowl before eating the yogurt ruined the culinary experience.  I ate, I survived, I lost twenty pounds.  I saw and experienced things that only a handful of people get to see in a lifetime.  I met children who, upon seeing the first white man in their lives, went screaming in horror yelling about ghosts.  I saw clouds that magically formed images of  Buddhas and magnificent deities in the sky. They would show up in the sky every day appearing and disappearing in two blinks of the eye. It took me less than a week to know that Tibet was not a normal place where normal things happened.  The Tibet I saw earned it's mystical reputation.  We heard about some things there that were so supernatural and so particular to Tibet, that the reluctance to talk about them to outsiders was inherent in Tibetan DNA and culture. The greatest example of this is the legend of the Tibetan White Snow Frog.

"White Snow Frog?  Nope,
never heard of it (wink, wink)."
Dr. Ken had somehow gotten the information about the Tibetan White Snow Frog from our translator.  Our translator was half Chinese, so we assumed it was either the Chinese part of him that was giving up Tibetan secrets or he was drunk and chatty on Tibetan Chaang.  After hearing about the White Snow Frog it became a mini-quest of ours to find one in the five weeks we would spend in Tibet.  Once our group of Tibetan hosts became aware of this quest we ran into nothing but hurdles, obstacles and misdirection in our search.  The more we found out about the Tibetan White Snow Frog, especially the female of the species, the more we understood why.  According to Tibetan legend  the fleshy back of the female White Snow Frog is the single most powerful "virilification" medicine known to man.  A single millimeter sized piece of White Snow Frog flesh has the ability, in both men and women, to make Viagra seem like a baby aspirin.  This is well documented in thousand year old Tibetan medicine texts.  Even more versatile than Viagra, it can be eaten or applied directly to the genitals.  The sickness from this frog flesh, if used without first  removing the toxins, is also well documented.  For us this made local intel on Tibetan White Snow Frog preparation just as important as finding this mythical amphibian--especially if it was going to be applied to the genitals. Our Western thinking had led us towards a very non-Buddha-like thought process.  Imagine the possibilities.  Why wouldn't you share this secret with the world?  To understand this you have to think like a Tibetan.  Every direction, every action and every intent of Tibetan thought is designed to keep a person on the long winding path towards Buddha-hood.  How does the Tibetan White Snow Frog fit into this path?  Follow this closely:  Tibetan White Snow Frog flesh is so powerful that under it's influence  two people will experience the most supernaturally blissful union and most pleasurable sexual experience possible to a human being.  In fact, the euphoria will be so powerful and so pure that the ultimate empty nature of sexual desire will be finally realized.  The striking clarity of this emptiness will cause a person to drop desirous activity like a bad habit.  Once desire is finally removed, it will no longer be an obstacle towards reaching the altruistic state of Buddha-hood.  Knowing a little bit about Buddhist theology, I'm sure its a little more complicated than this, but it remains a potentially life changing message.  The depopulation effect of too many people rising to Buddha-hood could be staggering.  Still, Dr. Ken and I were willing to verify the myth. We also recognized that in Buddhist theology, you must ask an important question three times in order to get an answer.  If you stop after first request, the question could be interpreted as a passing fancy and unworthy of attention.  If you only ask a question twice it shows lack of commitment.  The third time asking is the charm proving persistence and dedication to your curiosity.  We were completely shut down after asking at least thirty locals about the frogs.  We got the "not a clue" headshake each and every time our translator checked with a villager about the local Snow Frog stash.  This quest had officially failed. This was disappointing, but we weren't disheartened.  As practicing Buddhists we knew that if we didn't find a White Snow Frog now, there was still a good chance we'd find it in the next lifetime.

The endless lengths one will go to 
find a Tibetan White Snow Frog   
Each day in remote Tibet felt like the most memorable day in my middle-aged life.  Each day was more surreal and mystical than the next. But as great as the days were I had a sense that there would be a Tibetan experience of Indiana Jones-like proportion coming my way.  And it would happen before we left the land in the clouds. 

I had come to work in Tibet as much for the Buddhist experience as I had for the charity work (which a good Buddhist might argue is one and the same).  I was a practicing Buddhist for quite a while by the time I made it to Tibet.  When people  ask me how long I've been Buddhist I only answer: since creation.  When they roll their eyes I clarify that officially and technically it was in the 1990's.  I (along with seven hundred other Los Angelenos) participated in a formal Buddhist induction ceremony at UCLA's Pauly Pavillion given by Tenzin Gyatso, His Holiness, The Dalai Lama.  There was blessed milk and blessed strings and Talismans given at the massive ceremony, but it was only a technical confirmation of what I'd already believed.  Belief is a very personal and powerful thing, but when it comes to religion, you choose your poison. I had chosen this one.

In Buddhism, much like in major league baseball, being in the presence of the great ones is a glorious and memorable experience.  You feel a transformation afterwards that can last anywhere from a week to a lifetime (depending upon the immenseness of the hero you  meet).  In Tibet, seeking out the great Buddhist masters is like standing on the playing field during the All-Star Game.  It is going to the source.  In the 1990's in Tsurphu Monestary, deep in the hills of Gurum Town, three hours drive from Lhasa, lived The Karmapa.  The Karmapa had been living in the snow-capped peaks of Eastern Tibet for nine hundred years.  You read that correctly:  nine hundred years.  He is currently in his seventeenth reincarnation.  The first Karmapa, around the time of 1190, was the first Buddhist master to leave clues to his followers that would lead them toward finding his reincarnation after he died.  This streamlining of the reincarnation process seemed to make sense to the other masters, including the Dalai Lama, who still practice this method today.  When we sought out the Karmapa he was only fourteen years old and in his training to become the spiritual leader for Tibetan Buddhists accross the world.   In the late 1990's Karmapa was the highest Buddhist master still living in Tibet.  In 1959, the Dalai Lama had escaped in the night as a young man and made his way to India to avoid assassination by Chairman Mao.  The Chinese wanted complete control of Tibet and figured that cutting off the head of the snake was the best way to get control of the body.  They were unsuccessful.  The second highest Tibetan master in Tibet is known as the Panchen Lama.  Once reincarnated and recognized by the Dalai Lama in 1989, the six year old Panchen Lama was taken to Beijing by the Chinese government and kept in custody ever since for "his own protection."  He is still there under lock and key.  This left the fourteen year old Karmapa as the spiritual leader of a nation that was being systematically, piece by piece, usurped by China .  He was free to roam about the beautiful monastery of Tsurphu and the surrounding beautiful peaks and forests of Gurum, but kept under military and secret watch.  It was the Chinese government's plan that he would never leave Tibet in this reincarnation's lifetime.  His captivity was the key towards taking ultimate control of the hearts and minds of Tibet--thus, control of the country.  This convoluted political mess must have been a pretty heavy concept for the fourteen year old reincarnated master.

The Karmapa
We figured there was a very slim chance that two wayward Westerners on a whim would get to sit down with The Karmapa without lots of strings being pulled and lots of advance notice.    The Chinese government was incredibly protective about foreigners interacting with The Karmapa.  Nothing good could come out of it as far as they were concerned.  Westerners would fill his mind with silly Western ideas and plots of escape and freedom.  That's what Westerners do.  Dr. Ken and I decided to make the trek to Tsurphu anyway and try to meet The Karmapa.  Four weeks of charity work in Tibet had to have made a decent sized deposit in our collective Karma banks. We had nothing to lose by trying.  We'd been regularly monitored by a low-level spy since we arrived in Tibet and deemed (as far as we knew) acceptable, well-behaved Westerners.  The spying on foreign charity workers is standard operating procedure.  We had done all that our Chinese government hosts has requested.  Nothing to fear from us.  Nobody tried to stop us as we left our translator and spy behind.  We walked to the city center of Lhasa and hired a local taxi to Tsurphu Monastery.

The road was decent for a change.  It wound around the foothills outside of Lhasa ever upward into the clouds.  Every few miles a twenty foot golden drawing of Buddha could be found on a large flat rock on the roadside.  In lieu of  a GPS this seemed to be the way to find Tsurphu.  Once at the great white gates of the monastery our taxi driver stopped and pointed forward.  Tsurphu was in front of us.  It was a giant village cut into a wide mountain plateau with a great red temple in the center.  As we left the car our driver parked and decided to follow behind us to see what we were up to.  Only a handful of Westerners make this trip.  I'm sure he was just curious, but four weeks of being spied upon made me twitchy and a little more paranoid than usual.  Dr. Ken and I decided to split off and walk different directions.  After successfully ditching the driver we met up at the great steps to the Temple.  We stood and stared at the steep pyramid-shaped steps that led inside.  I know I must have smiled the smile of someone whose dream was about to transition into reality.  This must have been the Buddhist equivalent of what it felt like to enter Yankee Stadium when Babe Ruth was still playing.  I knew that whatever happened next would stay with me forever.

You could feel and smell nine hundred years of existence in the walls of the great temple.  This was not just a tourist icon of a temple, but the center of Buddhist development for one of the most sacred cities in the world.  Hundreds maroon robed monks from ages five to eighty went about their day cleaning floors or sitting in class or chanting mantras that echoed from wall to wall.  We stood in the middle and watched all the activity circle around us.  It smelled of cold stone, sweet burning butter lamps and dusty  cloth.  We sat down to meditate and pray with some of the monks in the back.  When we were finished a   monk approached us.  He was old, but his closely cropped hair was still brown.  He spoke surprisingly good English and asked us why we were here.  We told him the story of our visit to Tibet and about our four weeks of travel and work through Eastern Tibet.  We told him that we'd worked in the prefecture of Kham and in the cities of Markam, Chamdo and others.  We talked for a few minutes, but it was the kind of conversation that only passes the time until you ask what is really on your mind.  I think it was Dr. Ken who finally said,

Tsurphu Monastery.  Where the
magic happens.....
"Sooooooo, Is The Karmapa here today?"
"Oh yes," said the monk.  "He lives here, you know.  He is very busy in study."
"Oh,"  said Dr. Ken, "I'm sure he's always busy. I understand, but please give him our regards."
"I will.  Thank you for coming to Tibet to help Tibetan people.  Too-jee-jay (thank you in Tibetan)."

And with that he placed his hands together, bowed his head and walked away.  We felt a little dejected for a moment, but only as dejected as you can feel in a nine hundred year old sacred temple of your dreams.  This may have not been the quest, but it was still a quest.  We'd made it Tsurphu.  It was unlikely we'd ever be back.  Not in this lifetime anyway. We wandered around the temple for another half hour in the shadow of twenty foot, hundred year old carved deities. This was a once in a lifetime chance to experience a living, breathing, ancient museum.   As we left the temple we saw the English speaking monk waiting on the steps.

"Tashi delek, doctors.  I am glad I found you.  Are you leaving to go back to Lhasa?"
"In a little while," I said.
"Can you spend a little more time at Tsurphu.  The Karmapa would like to meet you."
I don't think we could speak through the smiles on our faces.  It happened just like that.

The monk led us to the back of the temple through a long, dark, winding hallway.  I was thinking that we should be memorizing how many left and right turns we were taking, but then again finding our way out after getting lost in Tsurphu could be  fun.  We stopped at an old red door and waited.  An older monk met us here.  He looked at us for a minute trying to sort us out in the dark hallway.  He said,

"This way, this way."

Yak Burger:  Before
We climbed two flights of the narrow stairs.  At the top the old monk met a younger monk carrying two white ceramic tea cups.  He barked a few commands to the younger monk, pointed at us and grunted.  The younger monk nodded and squeezed past us down the stairs.  We went slowly up another flight of steps and into a room with small Chinese style table, yellow painted walls and old hand printed weathered Tibetan "thangkas" hanging on the walls.  The thangkas must have been over three hundred years old.  I motioned at them  with my eyes to Dr. Ken and he nodded his head.  We were both too excited to speak.  Do we even speak at all?  We'd never really considered the protocol when speaking to a nine hundred year old Buddhist master in the form of a fourteen year old Tibetan boy.  I never imagined we'd get this far.   The monk pointed to the floor and we obediently sat down at the small table.  Then he left through a second door in the back of the room

Yak Burger:  After
We sat silently in that room for about twenty minutes.  The room was losing its light as the mid-afternoon sun headed down through the cloudy sky.   The sun sets early in Tibet and driving back to Lhasa at nighttime was going to be twice as dangerous on the mountain roads. It didn't matter.  It was getting dark and we were hungry, but were staying in Tsurphu for as long as it took.  You don't drop a quest because you might miss dinner (though we had already discussed getting a legendary Yak Burger at the Snow Lion Pizza restaurant in central Lhasa. Highly recommended).

The old monk appeared at the door again and stared at us.  We stared back at him.  After about twenty seconds he motioned for us to follow him.  He walked into a short dark hallway and stopped at a door at the end.  As he walked to the door he stopped and pulled the second door open towards us.  There behind the door was a snarling Tibetan Mastiff on a short rope tied to a hook on the wall.   As soon as he saw us he went crazy.  He was vicious and he was angry.  The dog was about three feet tall with matted, dusty brown fur and he was pulling on the rope so hard that his front legs were off the ground.  He was growling and snapping a pair of foaming jaws into the air.  The rope that tethered him to the wall was exactly long enough to let an average sized person slip between the dogs crushing teeth and the doorway, but only if that person turned perfectly sideways.  Beyond the door was a narrow dark stairway.  The monk was a tiny old man.  He slipped by without regard to the dog, like he'd done this hundreds of times. He dissapeared up the steps beyond the dog.  I had a long string of white, bone prayer beads around my wrist.  I pulled them in close not only to pray, but to keep anything from dangling down low for the dog to bite.  I looked at Dr. Ken and said:

"Damn.  He looks angry."
"We better hurry up.  The longer we stand here the angrier he's getting.  I don't like the look of that rope either.  You go first."

"May I please know your intentions with The Karmapa before I chew your leg off?"

I quickly, instinctively decided to pass through with my back to the dog.  That way I could cling to the wall and avoid being castrated.  As I got close to him he went even crazier.  I turned sideways, slowly stuck my leg past the dogs nose and planted it on the first step past the door. I could feel the heat of his breath through my pants.  Then I pushed off hard with the leg still in the room and slid by quickly. I jammed myself up against the staircase as far away as possible.

"I"m in!"

I walked up the steps far enough to make room for Dr. Ken to follow.  He came flying through and slammed against the wall.  We whooped and high-fived.  The old monk was at the top of the next stairs looking both bored and impatient.  He walked through a door and we followed.  And just like that, there at the front of the large room was The Karmapa.  He was wearing a golden jacket over his robes and sitting in front of a simple red table.  Though he was only fourteen years old, the light, the shadows and the moment made him seem eight feet tall.  We walked slowly into the room, bowed and prostrated to The Karmapa and took a seat on the floor in front of him.  

stay tuned for part II.......................................

In the sacred hallows of the Master


  1. Erik, you're killing me with the "cliffhanger", lol. Im really looking forward to reading part 2!

  2. Erik! I am so thankful for your experiences as this is possibly the closest I'll ever get to such extraordinary experiences! Never stop!!! I love your writing skills! You are very funny and engaging! xo Wendy D Lloyd