Printed from WriteWords -

Trekking The Path

by  MikeSmith1949

Posted: Friday, October 17, 2008
Word Count: 7865
Summary: True story about a high altitude trek across 9 passes in 21 days through Zanskar and Ladakh. The book decsribes how a reluctant trekker experienced hardship both physical and mental and relates this to 'practical' Buddhist philosophy.



The Beginning

As with any journey of exploration, either spiritual or physical, it all starts with that very first step. Sometimes this first step is voluntary; sometimes it is accidental and sometimes you are pushed. This is the story of my own experience as a reluctant trekker on the path. In this context, the path, I describe is both spiritual and physical as will be seen as the story unfolds. Both paths intertwine and both were undertaken with reluctance. There are parallels with both journeys.

One path started in India many years ago, and after 30 years it isn’t finished yet. The more recent one was also undertaken in India, in the form of a trek across the Himalayas through Kashmir, Zanskar and Ladakh and ending in Himachal Pradesh.

So why write about two journeys? From my own perspective the similarities between them were remarkable, both were arduous and both were taken with an element of reluctance and scepticism. Yet as both journeys unfolded, there were lessons to be learned, issues to be resolved, obstructions to be overcome and prejudices to be confronted. The world as we view it, (both mental and physical), is not necessarily as concrete as we think it is, we have preconceived ideas and in-built reactions to situations based upon years of habitual response. We seem to make the same mistakes over and over again as our patterns of behaviour are repeated over and over again, and as we slip and slide along the path it often seems that we have little control over our so called destiny, yet there are moments throughout our lives where there is clarity, direction and control and just as we think everything is going smoothly, that great cosmic boot kicks us in the butt and we sit there dazed and confused wondering what on Earth we did wrong. I shall attempt here to describe my own journey of spiritual adventure as well as my reluctant wandering across the vast Himalayas, by drawing parallels and sharing the experiences, successes and failures, I try to make some sense of it all.

I would probably describe myself as, ‘the worlds worst Buddhist’, because spiritually my path is based upon the teachings of the Buddha, however, putting these teachings into practice is not easy and I fail miserably at times, yet for me, it is not so much about failure, but more of a learning experience. You can’t learn to ride a bicycle without falling off and even when you are an accomplished cyclist, you will still get hit by the cosmic boot, but you get back on and persevere, albeit bruised and battered. I am not suggesting for one second that I am in any way an accomplished practitioner, but I am a practitioner of sorts and the journey along the path is worth sharing in the hope that it will bring some benefit to living beings, O.K. maybe not all, but that is the aspiration, cosmic boot not withstanding. Using my journey across the Himalayas, along with what little Buddhist philosophy I have learned over the past 30 years, there are incredible parallels and lessons to be learned, more importantly perhaps, how to put into every-day practice, the principals of Buddhist philosophy that will hopefully make our transit through life happier, more relaxed and stable rather than crashing along, experiencing the extremes of ecstasy and depression, love and hatred, like and dislike, in fact all the elements that cause us suffering. Of course, it would be naïve to think, or even assume, that by reading through my own experiences you will never again suffer, suffering is a part of life as I will attempt to explain later, but as the Buddha described 2500 years ago, there is suffering, there is a cause to suffering and there is the ability to prevent suffering by following a specific path. This philosophy is known as the Four Noble Truths, more of which will be explained later.

My journey across the great Himalayan range was definitely in the category of that, ‘pushed’, first step. I was definitely over-estimating my abilities and under-estimating my resolve. My first and only trekking experience was in 2006 in Nepal, a relatively short amble from Pokhara to Poon Hill comprising of 5 days in total. Looking back in comparison to trekking across Zanskar, it was a walk in the park, although at the time I recall it was hard, extremely tiring and accompanied by much swearing and ill tempered behaviour interspersed with moments of ecstatic accomplishment as, yet another arduous clamber up an impossibly steep hill was completed. I guess I should have left it at that, but our memory is short and selective and after the passing of time we only recall the good bits and forget the bad. I definitely forgot the bad bits and finally succumbed to my girl-friends request to go on a, ‘real’, trek, (Poon Hill was for pussies!) with real high altitude mountain passes, rugged trails, boulder fields, (at the time I hadn’t a clue what a boulder field was – although one can work it out from its rather emphatic title) river crossings and shale slopes. There would be camping in a tent (I hadn’t done that since my military days 40 years ago!) eating outdoors, bathing in rivers and walking….lots of walking…huge amounts of it in fact, mainly uphill and of course downhill, but very little on the flat. It all sounded very adventurous, very ermm, ‘outdoor’.

The trek would be in two stages starting in Pahalgam, Kashmir, comprising a six day trek through the Kashmir valley ending in Sonemarg. Then a twelve hour jeep ride to Padhum in the remote Zanskar valley. From Padhum a ten day trek over nine, high altitude, passes to Lamayuru in Ladakh. From Lamayuru another jeep to Leh, the capital of Ladakh followed by a two day bus journey across the highest road in the world to Manali. Finally another bus from Manali back to Dharamsala in Himachal Pradesh where I currently chose to live. It all sounded, ‘interesting’, my enthusiasm being slightly tempered by my inbuilt hatred of physical exercise in any shape or form. However, not wanting to end up a complete blob, I decided, with some reluctance, to accept the challenge and so, armed with a brand new rucksack, sleeping bag, Ipod (well one has standards after all), trusty old hiking boots, (that actually fell apart halfway across the Himalayas), various items of warm clothing, thermal underwear and a walking stick, the adventure would begin on the 23rd August 2007.

The other journey started 26 years earlier in Goa whilst undertaking another voyage of personal discovery. I won’t elaborate too much about that here, suffice to say I ended up, as did any traveller of note in the 80’s, in Calangute south Goa. I had rented a modest little hut on the beach. One evening whilst walking along the beach at sunset, I happened upon a small Tibetan restaurant. I cannot recall what I ordered, but I do remember clearly the events of that night. On the wall of the restaurant was a picture of a Buddhist monk, his wonderful smile seemed to gaze directly at me from the picture itself. I remember asking the young Tibetan waiter who it was in the picture. He told me with some surprise that this was, of course, a picture of His Holiness the Fourteenth Dalai Lama, the spiritual and political leader of the Tibetan people living in exile in Dharamsala, Northern India. At the time I was completely ignorant as to all things Buddhist or Tibetan, but something inside of me wanted to know more, the waiter told me that if I really wanted to learn more about His Holiness, Tibetans and Buddhism, there was a young Tibetan man living in the forest, he was an ex-monk who had himself escaped the Chinese occupation of Tibet and had given up his robes to help many other Tibetans escape across the Himalayas to India. The waiter assured me that this man spoke good English and that he would be able to tell me more. I finished my meal and headed back to my hut on the beach. Upon arriving back I realised I had forgotten completely about the waiters recommendation and had not taken either the Tibetan mans name or details of where he lived. That evening I sat in my hut and was attempting to play an Indian drum called a Tabla. Being a musician of sorts my sense of rhythm was quite good even if my skills were limited. As I beat out a steady rhythm on the Tabla, I heard the distant sound of a flute. The flute appeared to be playing in time with my rhythm and as I changed the pattern, so the flute accompanied the beat. The sound of the flute was hypnotic; a deep resonant sound that grew louder as the player approached my hut. Eventually the playing stopped and there was a bang on my door. Surprised at the late hour, I opened the door and there stood a tall young Tibetan man, his long jet black hair hung loosely down to his waist. He wore a sarong and traditional Tibetan shirt and held a large bamboo flute.

‘Hi, I’m Nawang’, he chimed in accented English, ‘you the guy who wants to know about Buddhism?’ he asked as if it were the most natural question in the world.

His full name was Nawang Kechog and although I had no idea who this young man was, I invited him in to my hut and we sat and talked virtually all night long, that encounter lasted five days. We sat and talked non stop, occasionally breaking for sleep and food. He told me about the plight of his people, about the atrocities the Chinese inflicted upon the Tibetans, the massacres, the torture, the imprisonment without trial, the relentless hostility towards religious freedom and horrendous breaches of human rights. It was a horror story almost too unbelievable to absorb in this so called enlightened age. He told me about the escape of His Holiness the Fourteenth Dalai Lama from Tibet, the government in exile in Dharamsala and, most importantly, he taught me the basics of Buddhist philosophy, starting with the Four Noble Truths, the law of Karma and the Buddhist view of reality. It was an amazing experience and despite his broken English, Nawang was a good teacher with a clear understanding of Buddhism and he had a wonderful ability to be able to communicate the philosophy articulately. Nawang became a very dear friend and I am still in communication with him to this day. He now lives in the USA and is a very famous flautist having made many recordings and played with many famous artists throughout the world.

I am forever indebted to Nawang for the time he took and his concise explanation of Buddhist philosophy. From that moment onward, although perhaps I didn’t realise it at the time, I had stepped onto the path and have been walking it ever since. It was Nawang that suggested to me that I visit Dharamsala and that I should request a personal audience with His Holiness the Dalai Lama. Shortly after that encounter, I left Goa and headed North to Simla and then onward to Dharamsala and eventually McLeod Ganj. I stayed in a small guest house with a Tibetan family in McLeod Ganj and shortly after my arrival made my way to the residence of His Holiness. I knocked on the main door, which was opened by a monk dressed in bright saffron robes. I told him that I wished an audience with His Holiness the Dalai Lama if it were possible and that I had been recommended by Nawang Kechog. Looking back at events, it all sounds rather unfeasible now, after all who was I? A complete nobody, requesting to see a living Buddha! Never the less I was told to come back the following day when I would be able to see His Holiness. These days this would be almost impossible, I have since managed to be part of a public audience, but personal audiences are extremely rare indeed, I can not believe how fortunate I was at the time.

The Tibetan family that I stayed with were completely in awe that I was to meet with His Holiness and they told me what a great honour this was and what wonderful Karma I must have to be able to have this opportunity. They also insisted that I learn how to offer a Kata. A Kata is a traditional Tibetan offering of a white silk scarf, which is offered by hand. The scarf is rolled in a specific way so as to sit across the hands. When offered, the scarf is allowed to unfold and then it is handed to the recipient, if this is a Lama, the scarf is then placed back over your head and around the shoulders as a blessing. I practiced this Kata offering several times until I had it down pretty well.

The following day I turned up at His Holiness’ residence and was escorted to the audience room. Again upon reflection there was very little security at that time, now of course the security is intense with armed soldiers, X-Ray machines, and personal searches and so on, but at that time, I do not recollect anything other than someone checking my passport.

I waited in the audience room and after a short while His Holiness entered accompanied by his secretary and a translator. With hardly any formality His Holiness approached me with a beaming smile and outstretched hand. Completely forgetting the Kata offering, I shook his hand firmly, I recall he held my hand for a while looking into my eyes with that wonderful disarming smile. His Holiness is a person who is completely attentive when he meets with you. You feel like he is a close friend completely absorbed in the moment. Some people are never quite there with you, their attention always partly straying and their eyes never completely focused with yours, but His Holiness is right there, like nothing else is important except this meeting with you and him alone. I was mesmerised by his presence as he continued to hold my hand.

After a short while, I realised that I had the Kata in my pocket. Apologising, I fumbled in my pocket for the silk scarf as His Holiness looked on with interest. I located the Kata and withdrew it from my pocket, something did not feel quite right, silk is light and hardly weighs anything, yet the Kata felt heavy as I placed it across my hands ready to offer it in the traditional way I had learned. As the Kata unfolded, and to my horror, I saw that my heavy apartment keys had somehow managed to get caught in the fine threads of the scarf. As I handed it to his Holiness, the Kata shot out of my hands weighed down by the keys and hit the floor with a metallic clatter. I instantly bent down to collect the scarf and, at the same time, His Holiness also did the same. With a resounding crunch our heads collided as we both tried to retrieve the Kata.

His Holiness rubbed his head and, laughing in his distinctive chuckle, he said, ‘Maybe better we greet Western style, safer yes?

I was instantly made to feel comfortable and instead of being highly embarrassed, as I should have been, with a wide grin he invited me to sit and have tea with him.
We talked about many things, His Holiness speaking in English and always giving me his undivided attention, when pondering the correct English word he would consult his interpreter who was standing nearby, but in the main he spoke fluently and with great enthusiasm. He asked why I was interested in Buddhism, what I did in the West, why I was in India? I asked all the, ‘stupid Westerner’, questions such as, ‘can you recall your previous lives’, I recall that he did not flinch at the question, but answered that he was living this life and that any relationship to a previous life was not really important; although when he was very young he did have some recollection of his former life and that there were some specific meditation practices he could do so that he could recall events if it were useful to do so. The answer came as naturally as breathing and I was privileged to have heard these personal recollections of who the Tibetans believe is a living Buddha. He also took time to explain the basics of Buddhist philosophy and at the close of our meeting he gave me some books to read. Before saying our farewells, he mentioned that I should meet with Mrs Kalsang Takla the administrator of the Delek hospital and see the Tibetan hospital and maybe I could consider helping if I wished.

With a light heart, I prepared to leave and His Holiness bowed then clasped my hand in both of his and again we touched heads as he giggled. That meeting will stay with me until I leave this earth and I can honestly say it was a life changing experience, just how much it would change my life I would not at the time, understand fully, but looking back now it was the start of a very long journey.
I did indeed meet Mrs Takla and decided to stay and work at the Delek Hospital for over eighteen months. The hospital did not have a medical laboratory and as this was my speciality, I took on the task of developing a basic laboratory. Mrs Takla identified two young and enthusiastic English speaking Tibetans and I developed a one year intense course in basic chemistry, physics, maths, biology, physiology, microbiology and basic laboratory medicine. I returned to the UK to raise interest in my small project to set up a diagnostic laboratory at the Delek Hospital and after a few weeks in the UK, returned to Dharamsala with enough equipment to set up the laboratory with basic diagnostic facilities. I spent a very fulfilling and happy eighteen months in Mcleod Ganj and I am happy to report that, 25 years on, the laboratory has grown and now provides an extremely valuable service to thousands of Tibetans under the management of Sonam Dorje and one of my original students. His son also works in the laboratory having completed his graduate course in medical laboratory science.

In early 2006 my fourth marriage dissolved, and even though my ex-wife and I are, to this day, very good friends, I decided that I wanted to leave England and retire to live in Dharamsala. I left the UK in March 2006 and arriving in Dharamsala, I found a small two room apartment, a far cry from my old ten roomed, four bathroom house, Porsche, Jeep Cherokee and Mercedes. Life here in Dharamsala was to be very different for me from this point onward. I entered a three month retreat at Tushita Meditation Centre situated in the forest high above Dharamsala. The retreat was to ‘kick-start’ my new life. Meditation was eight hours a day starting at 4 a.m. with no food after midday. This was maintained for 90 days and every day was an incredible journey of self-discovery.

Every journey begins with a single step and for me, that auspicious meeting with His Holiness was in effect my first step and I’m still walking!!


To Trek or not to Trek

I am convinced that my meeting with His Holiness was no coincidence, but a Karmic event manifesting due to all the causes and conditions that were in place at that particular time and as a result, placed me firmly on the path. Karma is not an easy phenomena to explain, so I will attempt to do so from a Buddhist perspective and then I shall attempt to describe it in terms of practical application.

What is Karma? In the Buddhist sense, Karma is translated as ‘action’. Many Westerners interpret Karma as some divine intervening force waiting in the side-lines and ready to kick your butt if you do something wrong. For example, ‘I got hit by a truck, it must have been my Karma’, well in a some sense this is true, but there was no divine force directing the truck in your direction for the sole reason of hitting you. In reality you happened to be crossing the road, you were thinking of a nice cold beer and meeting your friends and did not take much notice of the truck, which was doing what trucks normally do and simply driving on the highway. You were distracted and stepped off the kerb and wham! The next thing you know you’re in a hospital bed wondering how you got there.

So how is this related to Karma? Everything we do and indeed every action of body, speech and mind, no matter how minute, is preceded by a previous cause, nothing can happen spontaneously by itself, everything in the universe happens because of a prior cause. Some actions, of course seem to be unconscious, like breathing for example, but never the less, all actions have causes. Karma is action and all of our actions are based upon conditions and causes, how we respond to what we see, hear, smell, taste, touch and think creates Karma, in Buddhist philosophy it is said that as many as 60 Karmic actions occur every second. It is now thought by modern neuroscience that everything is recorded by the subconscious, everything we have heard, seen, touched, tasted, smelled and thought has been recorded and absolutely nothing is lost. It is also thought that recalling data from the subconscious can be activated by entering the same ‘state’ of mind in which the event was recorded. This is why certain sounds or smells can trigger memories from many years ago. You can recall names, faces even telephone numbers in what appears to be a micro-second.

In Buddhist terms Karma is action, this action forges an imprint on the consciousness, it can never be erased and can not be destroyed, however when conditions are optimal and given the right cause, this ‘imprint’ can manifest, again giving rise to yet another effect or action. For example, someone in your school when you were young called you by a horrible name, you reacted badly and were offended, and then responded by calling that person a bad name as well, just to get your own back, your reaction was confrontational and reactive. This action created a Karmic imprint on the consciousness, acting as the basis of a habit. Later in life someone else calls you a bad name, your response will most likely be similar because of the Karmic imprint. Repetitive response to similar circumstances results in habituation. We often form habits simply by repeating an action, like an eye twitch or facial expression, even certain phrases and mannerisms are habituated responses.

Therefore when the right circumstances prevail, or in other words, when the right causes and conditions occur, we revert back to those responses with which we have become familiar.
This is the way Karma works, we create a response to an input from our senses, and our reaction to this input creates another effect, which in turn becomes the cause of another action. Some Karmic imprints stay hidden for years, some for seconds and some for lifetimes. It was an ancient Tibetan Buddhist scholar Lama Tsong Kapa who once said that if Karmic action was instant people would never commit a single bad deed. He gave examples of someone stepping on a cockroach and crushing it, if the instant this happened a huge foot appeared out of the sky and crushed the person who crushed the cockroach, then this action would soon cease as no-one wants to experience pain or suffering. From the Buddhist perspective all life is suffering, even when things go well, it’s still suffering because when things go well, they never last and as soon as the things that are going well start to go bad, we suffer. Suffering is part of life from birth to death, there seems to be no escape from suffering, we suffer as children learning through trial and error, we suffer the pain of falling over in the playground, or being told off by a strict parent or teacher, we suffer when we want something and don’t get it, we suffer when we have something and lose it or break it, we suffer from illness, we suffer from pain, we suffer from not getting our own way, or we suffer from being subject to someone else demands, we suffer when we are sad or angry, we suffer from a bad relationship, from getting old, from losing a loved one and we suffer from death itself. There is no escape from this perpetual suffering it seems, yet over 2500 years ago, a normal human being called Siddartha discovered that suffering had its causes, there were reasons that we suffer, he also discovered that by understanding the causes we could eliminate suffering and ultimately there was a state where there could be no suffering. This may sound very esoteric, but it is very logical. Take our example of the man hit by a truck because he was distracted when he crossed the highway. By concentrating fully on the action of crossing the road and not being distracted, the man would see that a truck was heading his way so he would stop until the truck had passed and cross the road safely. There are of course more subtle Karmic consequences and it could also have been that in a previous lifetime the person hit by the truck caused some harm to the driver of that truck, but that is a difficult concept and the consequences of our actions are not always clear cut. Certain physical phenomena are not subject to Karma, for example, the relationship between plants and trees and the environment, or the explosion of a super-nova, this is cause and effect and not to be confused with Karma. Karma relates to what causes us suffering therefore our actions based upon our motivation perpetuates Karma.

Most of the time we rarely see reality in its true sense, we view phenomena from our own perspective, we rely entirely upon our senses, what we see is what we get, or is it? Buddhist philosophy embraces what is called ‘emptiness’, all things are empty of inherent existence, in other words nothing can exist separately from a dependent cause, everything physical or mental is a projection of our own perspective. For example let’s say we have a four sided block of wood, at each side sits a person and they can not see another side of the block, they can only see what is in front of them. On each side of the wooden block is painted a different colour, one side, red, another blue, another yellow and another black. Ask each person what they see and each will tell you a different version, one will see and describe a red block of wood, another a yellow block another a blue and finally one will see a black block. It’s not that they are telling lies or that what they see is not real; it’s just that they are only seeing the block of wood from their perspective. In life we view everything like this; we do not see a projection, but something solid, concrete, never changing. This is why our minds scramble and constantly search for something new. The beautiful car we desire, or the house we want, we see it the first time as something beautiful that will give us huge pleasure, yet as time passes the object of our desire changes, imperceptibly every second changes occur, after time the car no longer looks as wonderful as we first saw it, the house needs constant repair and maintenance, changes have occurred imperceptibly, almost unknown to us, until one day the very thing that gave us pleasure, now causes suffering. Hence the Buddha said that all life is suffering. The concept of ‘emptiness’ will be a recurring feature throughout this narrative and will be investigated in more depth later. Suffice to say at this point, is that all life in Samsaric existence is suffering and suffering has its cause, if the cause is known one can eliminate suffering and there is a method by which one can do this. This constitutes what are known as the FOUR NOBLE TRUTHS as described by the Buddha 2500 years ago. In fact many of the Buddha’s observations have been ratified by modern science including quantum physics a subject very interesting to His Holiness Dalai Lama.

What is the Path? – On a spiritual level, the Path can be best described by the fourth Noble Truth, a method by which happiness and contentment can be achieved, its ultimate destination being enlightenment, or escape from the cycle of birth and death called, ‘Samsara’. In different cultures there exist two principal schools of Buddhist philosophy, the Theravada, being the path to enlightenment, or liberation for oneself. The Mahayana, referred to as the greater vehicle, is the path to enlightenment with the intention of becoming enlightened so that one can assist other sentient beings (all living creatures) to also be free from suffering and help them along the path to enlightenment. Tibetan Buddhism and Zen Buddhism are both Mahayana systems. Thailand and Sri Lanka practice Theravada Buddhism. The main difference could be summed up as the motivation for enlightenment, Theravada for self liberation and Mahayana for the benefit of all sentient beings. Tibetan Buddhism was originally brought from India and is the only system that has the ability to formally recognise incarnate Lamas’. Highly advanced practitioners have the ability to choose their re-birth after death and often give an indication of where they will be reborn prior to their death. The system of identifying a reincarnation is complex, but once identified, a reincarnate Lama, called a Tulku, is removed from the family at a very early age of four or five years old and taken to a monastery where they are brought up as a monk and are educated in Buddhist philosophy. As they become older, they are often referred to as a Rinpoche, or Precious One, and will remain as a monk for the rest of their lives, giving teachings or entering into solitary retreat.

On a more physical level the ‘Path’ also describes the physical journey through life and, as a Buddhist practitioner, one adheres to certain principals or moral values, these values are divided into three categories, those of the body comprise refraining from killing, stealing and sexual misconduct, those of the speech comprise refraining from lying, harsh speech, derogatory language and idle gossip and finally those of the mind comprise, avarice, wishing ill towards someone and wrong view.
From my own experience I was brought up in a strict Christian home so many of the moral values were fairly well established, however for me, I could never believe in the concept of a creator or God and I guess this is why Buddhist philosophy provided more answers than questions. Certainly once I had decided to embark upon the Buddhist path there was no turning back, of course there were, and still are, obstacles on the path, a great deal of falling over and stumbling about, but the philosophy provides a clear and concise navigable route, a practical manual if you like for life.

So what has trekking got to do with any of this? The experience I had during 21 days of trekking through the Himalayas, highlighted many parallels with the Buddhist Path and much of the philosophy that I had read, and pretty much relegated to the text books, became very transparent during those 21 days or hardship, relaxation, euphoria, depression, physical exertion, pain and anxiety. Looking back it was a remarkable journey of exploration through the most dramatic and awesome scenery in the world, as well as a journey of self exploration. The first time I had experienced, ‘trekking’, as such was in Nepal, this comprised a short five day hike starting in Pokhara and walking a short circuit through some beautiful landscape to Poon Hill at an altitude of 3210 metres. Daily walks were relatively short in duration of about four or five hours and at the end of the day I stayed in small hotels. I use the word loosely, primarily small basic rooms with either solar showers or cold water and basic meals of rice and vegetables. In comparison to the 21 day trek, this was a walk in the park with luxury accommodation and often solar showers. What was to come was a world far away from the niceties of Nepal.

The opportunity to undertake the trek through Kashmir, Zanskar and Ladakh came about mainly because of my girl-friend Natasha's influence; she was a seasoned and keen trekker having undertaken several hard treks and she had also walked to Everest base camp. When the suggestion to undertake a 21 day trek through some of the most remote and high altitude areas of Northern India and Kashmir was first muted, my first reaction was, shall we say, ‘reluctant’, knowing from my limited experience in Nepal what I felt like just walking those five days to Poon Hill in Nepal, frankly I hated the idea. There were times in Nepal when I could have easily throttled my guide, I am fundamentally a lazy slob and the idea of exercise has always been hard for me, I only have to look at chocolate and I put on weight, so I have always had to exercise or at least control what eat, to avoid becoming a balloon. Walking uphill for five hours a day was hard, at times I just wanted to sit down and grow roots. I craved meat instead of rice and vegetables every day and would have probably committed a heinous crime for a beer; however the rewards of seeing the highest snow capped Himalayan peaks at altitude, the beautiful verdant forests and raging rivers, were definitely worth the effort. But the thought of 21 days through even harsher territory, higher passes, longer walking hours and sleeping in a tent, filled me with horror. I hadn’t slept in a tent since my days in the military and I remember only too well the sleepless nights, the damp and the cold, the discomfort and pain, and that was over forty years ago. So it took some convincing, but ego took over, as it generally does, and I thought, no problem, I can do this and it’s only just less than four weeks, surely it can’t be that difficult, this was to be the understatement of the century.

The ego can be a strange motivator, Buddhist philosophy describes the ego as, ‘empty’, we often see ourselves as something very solid and permanent, yet the person we were five minutes ago is not the same person we are five minutes later, there are minute changes, you only have to see how we were as a child and compare to how we are now to see that change takes place over time. Our perception is that there is no change, yet how did we become an adult? What we thought and aspired to as a child, is completely different to what we think now and probably will again be different in another 20 years time. We view phenomena from our own perspective and everything we see, feel, touch, smell, taste or think is a projection of that perception. Our perception of, ‘self’ is also a projection. If the self really existed as we think it does, where does it exist? Is self part of our brain; is it part of our body, our arms or legs? If it was, then if we remove a part of the brain, as is done in some brain surgery, are we any less of our self? If we lose our eyesight, an arm or a leg, are we any less of our self? Of course not, so our perception of our self is just a projection, it’s a comfortable way to view what we are, but it is misguided, because in viewing our self in this way we also view the world in a similar misguided way. This perception of reality, according to Buddhism, causes suffering, we see what we want to see, we categorise phenomena into boxes, we like this, we don’t like that, we want this, we don’t want that, we love this, we hate that.

In viewing phenomena in this way we respond from an already misguided viewpoint. Suffering is caused through contaminated action caused by underlying disturbing emotions. The disturbing emotions are attachment, anger, greed and hatred and the contaminated actions are the thoughts we think and the actions we take based upon our false perception of reality. That’s not to say things don’t exist, of course they do, you walk into a tree and it will hurt, it’s harder and bigger than you, but it’s the way that we perceive the tree that’s important. What we see we call a tree, we tend to make it permanent, solid and unchanging. Yet the tree didn’t just appear, it grew from a seed, it ages and it dies, it undergoes change dependent upon causes and conditions. All phenomena in the universe are dependent upon causes and conditions, our very thoughts also derive from causes and conditions.

How we view the world and all phenomena drives our emotions, if our view is incorrect then our emotional response will also be influenced accordingly. So what is the correct view? The correct view is to understand that everything changes, nothing is static, everything is dependent upon something else, our very lives are dependent upon other factors, just a fractional change in our environment can cause us to be sick, unhappy, euphoric or depressed, because we see things as unchanging and permanent and we then exaggerate their qualities and attach our selves to this view, hence when change occurs, as it of course will, we become agitated, anxious, disappointed, angry or sad. If we view phenomena from a correct standpoint we will at least understand that change is inevitable and be prepared for it. Therefore the expression, ‘suffering is derived from contaminated action underlying by the disturbing emotions’, stems from this contaminated view of reality.
My view of reality was certainly contaminated when I agreed to go on a 21 day trek through the Himalayas, I thought I was fit and wasn’t, I thought my resolve was strong, it wasn’t, and I thought it would be rather cool to bathe in mountain rivers, it wasn’t, and overall I didn’t think it would be that bad a trip, it was!

I never quite believed just how much you actually need for a 21 day hike! At least ten days would be crossing nine passes through very remote territory, remote as in, no shops, villages or hot water and no shops meant no food, so what you ate, you carried. Now unless one specifically has the desire to drag a rucksack the size of Tesco’s, it’s best to have someone else carry your stuff, an easy thing to organise one may think, but it turns out its not so easy at all. First you need a guide, unless you want to find yourself dragging your tired sorry ass halfway up the wrong mountain. By a guide, I actually mean someone experienced in all things outdoors and not some guy who ‘tells’ you he is experienced, for a trek of this intensity you do not want to put your life in the hands of some moron who just happens to charge half the fee of the guy who actually knows what he’s doing. One also requires ponies or horses to drag all the kit you need to take with you, food, water, tents, sleeping bags, cooking gas, the guide’s tent, the cook’s tent and all manner of things that you would most likely forget to take if you tried to do it yourself. One also requires transport between locations in the form of a jeep to be able to transport all the stuff you need for the next leg. Certain parts of the trek had no walking trails and unless dodging roaring trucks, angry Yaks and wayward motorcycles is your thing, you will need to be transported to the new trail by Jeep. Faced with the daunting task of organising such an expedition, I did the only sensible thing and paid for someone, more experienced, to do it for me.

Within a few days an itinerary, although somewhat flexible, was organised. A jeep would take us from McLeod Ganj to Pahalgam in Kashmir. At Pahalgam we would stay in a hotel, with a real bed and even more real hot water. From Pahalgam a two day, ‘walking orientation’, in actuality, I think this was more for my benefit so that our guide could verify if my walking skills were up to it and that I wouldn’t keel over with exhaustion after just five minutes. Following this orientation we would start the trek properly, with tents and stuff. The first day we would walk to Aru, then day two to Lidderwat, day three, Kalahoi glacier, day four to Seikwas, day five to Tar-Sar lake and then finally day six to Sonemarg where we would pick up transport to take us to Kargil and then on to the next trekking point called Padum in Zanskar. From Padum we would trek for ten days all the way to Lamayuru, crossing nine passes and reaching altitudes in excess of 5500 metres, that’s almost 17,000 feet.

The basic itinerary would be from Padum to Lamayuru via Karsha, Pishu, Hanumil, Purfi La, Hanuma La, Lingshet, Singue La, Sirsir La, Hanupatta, Wanla and finally Lamayuru. Overall the trek would cover a distance of 85 miles or 136 Km. A long way certainly in my book and looking back now, I was totally unprepared both mentally and physically. That is precisely what I meant by a contaminated view of reality, or was it simply inexperience? Perhaps it is actually both. Firstly, inexperience because I had never before undertaken an arduous trek such as this. And secondly, a completely contaminated view of my capability.

As with all journeys; one needs a goal or plan, adequate preparation, the correct equipment, a competent guide and, of course, the enthusiasm to undertake the journey. The same applies to the Buddhist path, the goal may differ from person to person depending upon their aspiration and ability, but essentially one aspires towards achieving stable happiness, escape from suffering and ultimately enlightenment the highest goal. Perhaps the most important aspect of such a path would be to have an experienced guide, this would usually be a Lama if you follow Tibetan Buddhism, you can of course attend teachings by experienced teachers, or read books and there are literally thousands of extremely good and well written books available, but without a guide, it’s easy to get stuck or even lost. The texts emphasise the importance of a spiritual guide and often go to great lengths to describe how to identify one, but perhaps the simple advice would be to first find someone with whom you feel a connection and then observe them over a period of time, some texts suggest observing a potential teacher for many years, however my own experience shows that you know when someone is right for you.

Again the parallels of trekking and Buddhism become apparent and there are certain rules to observe. When trekking you don’t wander out of sight of the guide, you adhere to a safety code so that you minimise risk, for example you don’t veer off the trail or try to take an unknown or untried shortcut. On the spiritual path you do pretty much the same, there are many who will claim to have found shortcuts or alternative paths and, trust me on this, there are some oddballs out there in all spiritual undertakings. The Buddha described a path, which has for all intent and purpose, remained unchanged for over 2500 years, it is tried and tested and, although there maybe different schools of Buddhist practice, and some of the differences are often difficult to understand, but they are all in principal similar. All Buddhist schools adopt the Four Noble Truths as well as the Four Seals. The first seal being that all compound things are impermanent, meaning that everything, either physical or mental, are dependent upon other factors and as such are impermanent or changing, the second Seal is that all emotions are pain, even those emotions perceived to be good such as happiness, exhilaration, ecstasy, etc. all are suffering because eventually they change, the third Seal is that all things have no inherent existence, meaning that everything we observe, think and feel are empty of inherent existence from their own side and they are dependent upon circumstances, causes and conditions for their existence. The last and fourth Seal is that Nirvana is beyond concepts. To describe a state, which cannot be experienced until enlightenment is beyond description. These principals plus a life of non-violence, observation of a moral code, meditative contemplation and the aspiration to achieve enlightenment all are adopted regardless of the Buddhist system.

My decision was made and the, ‘To Trek’, won over the ‘Not to Trek’. Equipment was purchased, guides were hired, and the day drew nearer when I would actually put into practice the art of trekking. To be honest, I was terrified and I remember the tiredness and muscle pain of the Nepal mini-trek, I recalled with anxiety, the precipitous drops and seemingly endless plodding ever upward, yet there was a certain level of exhilaration and anticipated excitement that, at least for the time being, overcame the anxiety. I was going to some of the most beautiful parts of India, I would be climbing the highest peaks and traversing the most spectacular scenery on the planet, how could this be bad?

The day finally arrived, it was 4 a.m. on the morning of the 23rd August 2007, Natasha and I left the relative comfort of our small apartment in McLeod Ganj and, armed with full rucksacks, we climbed the stone steps behind the apartment and headed towards the place where our jeep was waiting to take us on our journey. By the time we arrived at the meeting point, approximately ten minutes away, I was knackered, if I was this unfit after only a short walk, how on earth was I going to manage walking at high altitude for up to nine hours a day? The journey had begun, my fit girlfriend was brimming with anticipation and energy, and I was brimming with trepidation, tiredness and fear!