Subtitled: A young woman’s solitary journey to reach physical and metaphysical heights.
This is a fascinating book. Previously, my sparse Buddhism education had only consisted of reading fictional books representing the religion. I really enjoyed them. This is my first one that is a firsthand account of someone living and recounting an authentic Buddhist life.
The author, Amy Edelstein, describes an adventure she embarked upon in 1983 when she was 21 years old. Her pathway is paradigm that is probably as old as human culture – the spiritual pilgrimage. Edelstein set off by herself to walk across Zanskar, India, a place I was not familiar with. It is a sparsely populated at-altitude section of northwest India with mountainous passes that are over three miles high. To traverse the land, she walked over 300 miles which took her almost 40 days. She slept in caves, in nooks under the stars and, at times and by invitation, in villager’s homes. It is, by Edelstein’s account, a land of unparalleled beauty as well as a generous, welcoming population. I was swept up in the descriptions. Along the way, she met villagers, royalty, other pilgrims, high Lamas, and a few tourists. Her overarching goal was to follow her own heart both in her spiritual life and in her walking journey. Her quest was to find a deeper connection with her own Buddhist self. This included practicing mindfulness while connecting with local communities and with nature.
At the beginning of her journey, she found herself going through a process that I would define as “deprogramming.” That is letting go of ingrained cultural patterns. She writes: “My trip, begun in some ways as a macho expedition, in only a few days now seemed like recalibrated to this place, pace, and preoccupation with the journey of the soul. I was on my own. Along here was nothing to prove, nothing to be frightened of. My daily task was simple: head southeast along the valley floor.” (31)
One event near the beginning of her trip stood out for me. Her travel was in its early days, and she fell sick. She was so sick she wasn’t even sure she would be able to spend her day walking. She started out and then as her strength was waning from the fever and dysentery, she came upon six Tibetan men who had a large spacious tent. They invited her into the tent and offered her a sumptuous meal. She ate and then fell asleep. When she awakened, there was a Rinpoche (an honorific title for a highly respected teacher) who was leading the men in chants and prayers.
When they were complete, Edelstein explained her symptoms and one of the men said to her, “you are in luck, Rinpoche is not only a great master, he is also a great doctor.” And sure enough the Lama carried a Tibetan medical kit filled with herbs and potions. He started by taking her pulse and doing some prayers. He gave her some “pills” from his supply. She describes how Tibetan medicine focuses on spiritual aspects before turning to the physical ailments. Here is how she describes the experience:
“Even though I was sick, I still felt held and cared for in these wild mountains. The tensions and doubt that I carried with me ever since I was a child had receded. I felt safe, protected, and loved in a removed, yet very immediate and gentle way. What were the odds of a doctor appearing in the middle of nowhere, tending to me physically and spiritually in a little cocoon of safety and healing, and enveloping me in a field of blessing?” (26)
How many of us have had these type of experiences that seem random and even miraculous? They are more common than we would think. I have come to see them as signposts that we are walking our true pathway. When we can trust our heart and walk along the journey that calls to us personally, the universe does provide. It’s a wonderful lesson and every time I hear stories like this I am inspired anew.
Some descriptions did leave me disquieted. Edelstein looked at the people of Zanskar as if from a paradisiacal set of eyes. For example, on her way into Zanskar she met a small family unit led by Mohammed who was only 21 years old himself. He was married but didn’t like his wife. Another even younger woman was living there who had left her “no good” husband and was facing a traditional life where she couldn’t marry again as she was considered “used and disgraced.” This was dismissed in the book with a note that he wasn’t really Zanskari and anyway “life can be hard.” (18). This description felt to me like there was a chink in the idyll of the people in that area. All in all though, I was left with the feeling that there are more far positive aspects to Buddhist beliefs and practices than negative ones.
I personally love pilgrimages and this one was exotic, adventurous and revealing. I am always fascinated by how the culture intersects with the person and it does appear this culture was one that is especially bent to the spiritual life.
Edelstein has gone on to do some remarkable things with her life. She has founded an organization called Inner Strength Education in Philadelphia which brings mindfulness training to underserved inner city youth. You can read about that from the link below. This book is also a finalist for a Ben Franklin Award of the Independent Book Publishers Association. The Buddhist journey may not be for everyone and for those of us on different pathways this intimate portrait is a particular gift to read.
I will close with Edelstein’s own poetic words in describing her journey:
Everything was open, wide open. I was looking ahead. My hands were as empty as a sackful of snow left out in the hot sun. There was nothing I could hold onto and take out of this valley. I was lighter than when I first came in. I wanted something to clutch, quantify. Tangibles eluded me. When you are changed by something it is no longer outside of you. Like the cup of merit emptied into the ocean, I had both nothing and was swimming in a sea of riches. My heart, stretched wide, had grown new muscles of care. (181)
BIO: Janet Maika’i Rudolph. “IT’S ALL ABOUT THE QUEST.” I have walked the spirit path for over 25 years traveling to sacred sites around the world including Israel to do an Ulpan (Hebrew language studies while working on a Kibbutz), Eleusis and Delphi in Greece, Avebury and Glastonbury in England, Brodgar in Scotland, Machu Picchu in Peru, Teotihuacan in Mexico, and Giza in Egypt. Within these travels, I have participated in numerous shamanic rites and rituals, attended a mystery school based on the ancient Greek model, and studied with shamans around the world. I am twice initiated. The first as a shaman practitioner of a pathway known as Divine Humanity. The second ordination in 2016 was as an Alaka’i (a Hawaiian spiritual guide with Aloha International). I have written three books: When Moses Was a Shaman, When Eve Was a Goddess, (now available in Spanish,Cuando Eva era una Diosa), and One Gods