We arrived at our campsite an hour and a half later to a welcome cup of warm tea. The sun was beginning to set, and we were both cold and exhausted. The yaks and their herders were still far behind us, and we sat down with the other members of our small group behind a makeshift rock wall that protected us from the bitter wind that was beginning to blow up from the valley. Leaning back against the wall, we had an unobstructed view of the north face of Mount Kailas. From this vantage point the mountain looked like a mammoth arrowhead rising upward out of the ground.
As pilgrims slowly make their way around the mountain, they’re often astonished to see how the snowy pyramid appears to change its shape depending on the place from which it’s viewed. The perfectly shaped pyramid from this morning, with its gently inclined face, was now gone. The face of the arrowhead was sheer and flat with horizontal striations of black rock peeking out through the covering of snow. It reminded me of the uncarved backside of a Haida totem pole that’s never intended for viewing. I felt that if I hadn’t gone through my earlier episode with the small, silver box that I wouldn’t be able to stand looking at the north face. It was too sheer and uncompromising. I looked around at the others huddled together for warmth. Everyone was warily eying the arrowhead.
I saw a grouping of three small stupas on a hill about a hundred feet above us and decided to walk up to examine them more closely. We wouldn’t be able to set up camp until the yaks arrived, and I was beginning to feel chilled. It actually felt good to start moving again, but I had to walk very slowly, and it took me at least twenty minutes to reach them.
The stupas were very primitive and possibly quite ancient. They appeared to have been carved out of mud and stone. Embedded in each stupa and sticking upwards from its top was a vertical pole that had been made out of a branch of a tree that must have been transported from the distant Nepalese valleys far below. As I looked at the stupas, I realized that they were almost miniature replicas of Mount Kailas itself. It was as though an artist had sat down on this spot and crafted a sculpture of the mountain in much the same way as a traveling watercolorist might stop at the side of a country road, bring out an easel and paper, and paint a picture of a landscape scene.
I remembered that Mount Kailas had often been associated with the mythical Mount Meru, the center of the universe in Hindu cosmology. I also remembered that the vertical pole extruding from the top of the stupas was a common feature in primitive stupas, these earliest of Aryan structures. The vertical pole was like a cosmic spine around which the visible bulk of the world of appearances could organize itself and be held together. And then I remembered how the first temples of India had been elaborate renditions of these early stupas which themselves were copies of the great mountains of the Himalayas and of Mount Kailas, the embodiment of Mount Meru, in particular.
My mind began racing as pieces of an elaborate architectural puzzle began fitting themselves deftly together. The stupas were one of the earliest human attempts by migrating Aryan artisans to express the sacred principles that governed their lives. The stupas were copies of mountains. The form of the stupas gradually developed into large structures in the lower, more hospitable lands of the Gangetic plain on which the Aryan settlers would eventually settle and functioned as places of worship, architectural reminders of the forces of divinity at play in the mountains, the natural habitat of the gods. In Ellora in central India, for example, the silhouette of the aptly named Kailasantha temple looks uncannily like Mount Kailas and its surrounding hills viewed directly from the south.
What, then, of the central pole, the spine around which the mass of the stupa was built? It may originally have functioned as an ancient equivalent of the rods of rebar that hold modem day concrete structures together and keep them intact. It may also have served as a kind of symbolism of the Great Tree, the mediator between heaven and earth that joins these two realms together as one. As the tree’s branches reach ever upward in the direction of the sky, its roots sink ever more deeply into the earth. God and humankind become inextricably linked.
In the great Hindu and Buddhist temple complexes of Asia, the form of the mountain was the dominant feature taken from the early stupas. The central pole was never really incorporated into the design and construction of buildings of worship. As the new Aryan consciousness that first was recorded in the Vedic and Upanishadic hymns gradually spread over distance and time and eventually reached what we now call the lands of the West, the master builders and craftsmen would become more interested in the pole. The overt allusions to the mountain were concealed under elaborate designs and ever more sophisticated building technologies. What came to dominate the Western churches were the spires that reached upwards ever higher and higher. The great spires of the gothic churches of Europe were sophisticated elaborations on the simple tree branch that protruded upward out of the bulk of the primitive stupas.
As I stood on this spot with the risen moon providing more light than the sun that had recently set, a vision of how religious architecture had progressed from its distant origins to its most recent expressions in glass, steel, and concrete began to play itself out on the screen of my mind like an historical movie. In the high mountain air this vision made great sense. I remembered back to being a young boy, sitting uncomfortably in the solemn houses of worship that I would enter into. I remembered back to being a young man, so much at home in the high Sierra mountains, feeling a deep core in my body and mind beginning to come open, like a long unused door, as I walked and played so high above tree line. In that moment of fading light I could understand that Mount Kailas was Mount Meru, the centermost and seminal point out of which so much spiritual expression had sprouted and proliferated. I saw the unbroken spectrum of that expression from the primitive stupa at my side to the Kailasantha temple and on to the soaring gothic spires of the great cathedrals at Chartres and Notre Dame de Paris. Standing in the cold, I felt my body relaxing and becoming effortlessly balanced as though it were organizing itself spontaneously around an invisible vertical axis. The mass of my body’s tissues and organs surrounded this invisible pole, and as soon as the outer mass and the inner core became so appropriately related, I was filled with a deep feeling of peace and contentment. I knew that this central pole or core had no anatomical basis. It was, however, exactly aligned with the directional flow of the force of gravity, this mighty power that relates heaven and earth, that perhaps even brings God down to earth. At that moment I too was mountain and pole. I looked up. My head felt as though it were floating on top of my body like a fishing bobber floating on the waves of the lake of my childhood. Like the invisible roots of a tree, my feet felt deeply implanted in the ground. The first stars and planets were already beginning to show themselves. I felt that for the first time in my life, finally, I was back in church.Excerpt from The Sailfish and the Sacred Mountain, by Will Johnson