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A Day in Tashi Jong with Dancing Monks and Hillside Deities

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In a small stone courtyard fronting the Khampagar monastery, monks in flowing maroon robes rehearsed for the annual Snow Lion dances while His Holiness the 9th Khamtrul Rinpoche watched. Although we had hoped to interview His Holiness, we settled for an afternoon in his company, watching dancing monks embody ancient sacred rituals rooted in shamanism.

Later, we hiked the mountain behind Khamtrul Rinpoche's monastery. Following a narrow, winding path marked by Tibetan flags torn by wind-blown prayers, we passed sacred stupas and several small private retreat houses before reaching a peak overlooking the Kangra valley. Tashi Jong is Tibetan for "Auspicious Valley", and if this name refers to the favorability of the land to spiritual practice, it isn't difficult to imagine why--the land, the air, even the sky itself seemed to ring with a note from a source that was at once all around us and impossible to locate, like an unending call to prayer.

Before we left on our walk, we'd been told about the meditation oracle living on this hill, helping monks and nuns with their spiritual practices. The primary function of Tibetan oracles is to protect practitioners and the Dharma, and to channel wisdom from the deities. This particular oracle is quite revered by the local community and the stories we heard of him in trance added a mysterious element to our walk, for we couldn't help but hope for a chance meeting on the trail and even wondered about etiquette if such an encounter were to occur.

In addition to the oracle and the monks in retreat, this unique locale hosted a group of highly-realized Togdens or yogis living for years-on-end in secluded huts along the hillside, and we had the rare opportunity to see one coming out of his retreat hut in the distance. When they do appear, the Togdens are easy to spot with their matted, piled hair, wearing the white robes of Milarepa's tradition. Watching him walk steadily down the hillside in the distance, we felt as though an ancient symbol of wisdom had emerged from our unconscious and into everyday life.

More than that, it was the promise of being in the vicinity of a contemporary realized master; someone who had renounced the world to reach ultimate truth and only appeared in public for short periods of time to share what has been found in the depths. We longed to approach him and take advantage of the opportunity to hear the secrets of life, death, and the cosmos, but with strained self-control we respected the yogi's privacy and savored the moment instead.

Aside from the Togden and a solitary monk, not a single person was to be seen, but we certainly weren't alone on this mountain! The silence surrounding us wasn't the quiet of a place long forgotten, nor of a memory of what used to be. This was a silence alive with deities and devas, oracles, and monks in meditation. Indeed, it may well have been the loudest silence we'd ever experienced, dynamic and interactive, resounding in a language just beyond the limits of normal perception.

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