“This valley is sacred to us Sherpa,” says Tengboche Rinpoche. “The only way to come or leave here is to climb over a very high pass or to trudge up the steep gorge of the Dudh Kosi river. We live in a protected place.”
Rinpoche then recites Sherpa narratives describing how special spiritual powers were used twice to create a beyul, a sacred sanctuary, in the Khumbu valley — first to sanctify it and then to open it as a sanctuary.
“One of our religious texts foretold that in the future … the religious people would have to run away to secluded mountain valleys described in religious texts.”
When helping to establish Buddhism in Tibet, Guru Rinpoche (founder of Himalayan-Tibetan Budddhism) predicted that there would be times of trouble when some people in the Tibetan region would have to flee their homes. He also sanctified and hid many valleys in the Himalaya to serve as sanctuaries.
Guru Rinpoche instructed some of his pupils to write guidebooks which hid in the rocks and earth. These hidden teachings would offer directions on how to get to the sanctuaries. In times of trouble, various inspired lamas and their devout followers would be able to find these places by following the directions in the books.
The Khumbu valley is one of these hidden sacred sanctuaries, these beyuls.
“When there were troubles hundreds of years ago, we know that the ancestors of the present-day Sherpas left Kham in far eastern Tibet because it was against their religious belief to fight. They moved westward along the north side of the Himalaya.
“They were looking for a beyul, a sanctuary, because the lamas leading them were follow- ing the directions recorded in a religious text. The lamas needed not only the skills to read and understand the book, but also the spiritual power to recognize clues in the landscape, in order to discover the beyul.”
The Sherpa ancestors crossed the Himalaya through a pass to the west of Khumbu. They started small homesteads lower down near present-day Lukla. The first Sherpa to enter the beyul, Phachhen, struggled to walk up the wild canyon, clambering up and down around cliffs, boulders, and trees. Eventually, several families settled on the warm slopes below the present villages in the upper valley, the Khumbu beyul.
“When Phachhen, the first Sherpa, arrived in Khumbu around five or six hundred years ago, the valley was covered by snow and the glaciers were much bigger than they are now. Gradually the snow and ice melted.”
Khumbu is not the first or last beyul to serve as a sanctuary in the Himalaya. Others have been located across the high Himalaya of Nepal, Tibet, China, India, Bhutan, and Pakistan. To the southeast of Khumbu, the beyul of Khenpalung has yet to be opened for the devout.
I ask Rinpoche about an American scholar who organized an expedition that succeeded in crossing several high passes to enter Khenpalung. Rinpoche responds:
“He found the way into Khenpalung, the physical place, but did not see the real inside place. Our friend was not the right person, it was not the right time, and the team did not have the spiritual preparation to see all that was there. For a beyul to be revealed, the directions to find it must be followed by the right group of people with strong faith and pure motives.
“So it is with the beyul: we see and hear part of what is there, but we miss certain things be- cause we aren’t ready or able to perceive them. The inside of the mandala was invisible to them.”
I wonder how to interpret Rinpoche’s remarks. Perhaps being spiritually unprepared is like being tone-deaf; certain notes just do not register. The fact that the Khenpalung beyul has been physically entered but not spiritually found suggests that it is not a place where we must go on foot.
Is a true beyul a place that we find in our minds? We need spiritual power, like Phachhen, to thwart the demons of greed, ignorance, and desire that will obstruct our path. But the path is there. It takes only determination and courage to follow it.
The beyul is an inside place, a spiritual sanctuary. “The most important beyul is in our minds,” says Rinpoche.