|And I took it as a given that the ‘Meaning of Death’ would come up in conversation because it is an integral part of the territory. After all, the Buddha first penetrated its mysteries in the foothills of Nepal, inside the shadow of the Himalaya. And the knowledge of its secrets, recorded in sacred texts such as Bardo Thoedrol (book of the Dead), were kept hidden for centuries in remote monasteries on top of inaccessible mountains inside the Tibetan plateau. And even though I’m still a little fuzzy on the actual logistics of reincarnation, such as, what do I have to do to avoid coming back as a three-legged dog in a third-world country or as a village idiot in Texas? I am comfortable with the concept that death is not an end but another beginning, and that the soul retains its essence after leaving the body. So, intellectually, I was ready for it. But, as I was to discover later, it was one thing to accept something intellectually, and quite another to have the bastard knocking at your door.
But what I could never have anticipated was the emotional burden of being inside hypnotic powers of the Himalaya. Everything, from the dirt tracks, strewn with the rubble of the last rock fall, on which we travelled, to the minute figures working the tiny strips of green terraces clinging to monumental rock faces, carried a psychological weight. Because the awesome and omnipresent peaks were a constant reminder of their own violent birth and the fragility and insignificance of the human lives existing under them. Along with the seemingly endless stream of news about the passing of friends or family members on deathwatches, the shadow of mortality grew longer by the day, until it became almost a constant companion for the best part of the journey.
Yet the mountains continued to amaze us each day with indescribable beauty. And despite the long string of illnesses inflicted on the crew, we continued to be inspired by the vitality and dignity with which the people of the Himalaya conducted their harsh lives against insurmountable odds. In the end, I think it was the combination of this indomitable spirit of the people and the spectre of imminent oblivion that hung all over us like a bad suit that galvanized us to push harder even as our bodies grew weak. To treasure life itself and learn to value every moment.
Being up in the Himalaya has taught me more about myself than perhaps any of the previous journeys. Sometimes I feel as if I’ve been deconstructed and rebuilt again by the same energy that created the mountain range when the plates collided 50 million years ago. And by the time you read this, hopefully you will have gleaned from the pages how much I love and admire its people. This book is for them, a celebration of their beautiful spirit and their breath-taking home, Viva Himalaya!
Basil Pao, June 2004.