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Finding the Inner Kora

By David DeFranza

February 6, 2009

Tibetan Buddhists believe that Milarepa, one of Tibet's most famous poets and Buddhist teachers, traveled to Mount Kailash to challenge Naro Bön-chung, a powerful leader of the Bön faith. It is said that the two fought a battle of sorcery, terrible to behold. It lasted for days but no clear winner emerged. Frustrated by the stalemate, the two agreed that they would race to the summit of Mount Kailash. The winner would gain dominance of Tibet.

Today, hundreds of pilgrims travel to Mount Kailash, the site of this legendary race. Some walk so quickly they complete a single loop, 32 miles, in under a day. Others prostrate themselves after each step, extending their trip around the mountain for a week or more. Many pilgrims come with the intention of dying in the process, while others strive to complete 13 greater kora, or circumambulations, so they can attempt a single inner kora.

Of course, many people who are not Buddhist, Hindu, Bön, or Jain come to Darchen, the dusty hamlet at the base of the mountain, with the intention of walking a circle with the religious pilgrims. I was one of them, but I did not complete a circuit around Kailash.

The race began and Naro Bön-chung took off, riding atop a magic drum. As he sped towards the summit, Milarepa sat in meditation at the mountain's base. Milarepa's followers, the minority in Tibet at that time, became nervous and begged him to begin moving. In response, he simply sat, silent and motionless.

Days of food poisoning had left me weak and bedridden in Darchen. I had come nearly a thousand miles across western Tibet with the intent of walking a kora, maybe two, but it had become a challenge simply trekking to the latrine outside.

So, instead of walking around Kailash, I sat in a toasty guest house, talking with the few pilgrims returning in the month before winter. They told me that the snow was getting deeper, knee high in places, and that the nights between the passes were bitterly cold. Some wore leathery boots lined in fur, common among Tibetans, while others wore tattered old running shoes, or worn, canvas, slippers.

Every morning, after a cup of yak butter tea, I stepped out of the warm, spruce-scented, guest house and looked up towards the mountain. I longed to be on that trail, yet I knew it could not happen.

The race continued and now Naro Bön-chung was more than halfway to the summit. His drum was moving at an unwavering speed and it was clear that in a few moments he would win the race and reassert his dominance over Tibet. Milarepa's followers had become distraught and anxious. They shouted at him to begin moving and pleaded with him to have mercy. Milarepa sat in silence, seemingly oblivious to their cries or to his opponent's near victory.

One night a young Japanese man returned. He was thin and looked weary from the cold and wind. He told me, in a mix of Japanese, English, and Mandarin, that he had just completed his thirteenth kora; that in the morning he would set off for his fourteenth. I was jealous. He had accomplished more than I had even dreamed of. Still, his achievement was undeniably impressive. We shared a pot of yak butter tea and then another before noticing the candles in the guest house had burned out.

In the morning he walked west, towards the mountain, and I walked east.

By now, Naro Bön-chung had nearly stepped on the summit. Suddenly, Milarepa arose from his meditation. Taking immediate action, he hopped upon a passing ray of light. Within an instant he had overtaken Naro Bön-chung and was standing victoriously on top of Mount Kailash.

A half hour on wobbly legs took me from Darchen to the main road. Soon, I had flagged down a passing jeep headed towards Lhasa and my eastward journey continued. As we rattled down the unpaved road, Kailash shrunk below the horizon behind me. I rubbed my tired legs, looked forward, and realized: I had just completed my own inner kora.

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