Maui Connections

Forty steps . . .

pause for breath . . .

Forty steps . . .

pause for breath . . .

Ten steps . . .

pause for breath . . .

Ten steps . . .

pause for breath . . .

That’s how it was for 24 Americans, including more than a dozen from Maui, as they spent three days this summer hiking 33 miles at altitudes higher than 18,000 feet on the pilgrimage path around Tibet’s Mount Kailash, regarded as one of the most sacred spots on earth by four major Eastern religions.

Indian-born Tibetan Buddhist teacher Lama Gyaltsen, spiritual director of Paia’s Maui Dharma Center (not be be mistaken for Tibetan Venerable Lama Dhondup Gyaltsen, who died on May 25), was one of them. He’ll talk about the adventure and show his slides at “Journey to the Center of the Universe,” a benefit presentation for the center at 7 p.m. Saturday in McCoy Studio Theater at the Maui Arts & Cultural Center.

The evening also includes a screening of “Kailash — Return to Tibet,” a movie by Emmy Award-winning Maui filmmaker Dr. Tom Vendetti, who organized this summer’s expedition. That earlier film chronicles the return of the ashes of the Maui Dharma Center’s former director Lama Tenzin to the mountain’s kora, or rim, accompanied by renowned flutist, the late Paul Horn.

Other Mauians who made this June’s challenging trip — and all survived in good shape — were Nancy Vendetti, Cindy Shenk, Doug Shenk, Naomi Crozier, Judity Hall, Annette Courshene, Alida Murray, Jack Morris, Laura Morris, Lali Groth, Georgiana Cook, Govinda, Tashi Lhamo and Charlotte Raible.

Weeks after returning to Maui, Lama Gyaltsen and Georgiana Cook, longtime Dharma Center board members, were still high from the trip of a lifetime. Their eyes sparkled with memories of what the Tibetans call “Gang Rinpoche,” or “Precious Snow Mountain.” Also known as the Center of the Universe and the Navel of the Planet, Mount Kailash is revered in the Hindu, Jain and Bon spiritual traditions.

“To visit there is very important,” says Lama Gyaltsen. “Everyone has their own reason, their own story. It just inspires.”

The mountain draws “so many devotees with pure intentions . . . to heal . . . to recover. . . . The Dharma teachings are internal, but they need to connect to the external. Divinity comes into the practice,” adds Georgiana.

After arriving in Tibet, Lama Gyaltsen’s first adventure came when he was detained at the Chinese Consulate in Kathmandu and was grilled by officials. Tibet, home of the exiled Dalai Lama, is still a political hotspot for the Chinese, especially regarding Buddhist lamas, and the group worried that he would be prevented from going farther.

Once he was released, reaching Mount Kailash entailed a long bus journey across the Tibetan plateau high in the Himalayas, passing through small towns along the way.

“It was beautiful, fabulous, otherworldly,” says Georgiana. “The Tibetans looked very ancient in their native dress.” There were no trees — “It was like Death Valley, but it was cold.”

The trek itself, never below 15,000 feet, entailed three days and four nights. The hikers were accompanied by guides, yaks and horses.

“It was amazingly hard and arduous, but Lama made it look easy,” she continues. “He got very energized and was a great example of how a pilgrim would behave.”

The trip pitted the hikers against their own limitations, unleashing discoveries and epiphanies in a realm reputed to inspire mystical visions. There were some of those, too.

Sharing the adventure at the MACC on Saturday will also illuminate the mission of the Maui Dharma Center, which celebrates is 44th birthday in December. Based on the teachings of Lord Buddha Shakyamuni, it is known for its Paia Peace Stupa, a striking white structure containing a large prayer wheel, whose construction was supervised by Lama Gyaltsen between 2004 and 2007. It was consecrated by His Holiness the Dalai Lama during his visit to Maui in 2007.

Maui Dharma Center is open to “people from our local community, and the world at large, whether Tibetan Buddhist or not.

“It’s a center for Tibetan Buddhist studies, but Buddhism is a religion or philosophy that appeals to people of many persuasions,” says Georgiana. “It addresses everyday things, the way we think or talk, for a better understanding of how we live.”

Buddhism has many faces and takes many forms on Maui, where obon season continues with colorful dancing at hongwanjis, or Buddhist temples, across the island every summer weekend. As the Rev. Kerry Kiyohara said, inviting everyone to participate in last weekend’s bon dance at Makawao Hongwanji, “It’s a gathering of joy. Some fools dance, some fools watch. We are all fools.”

Obviously there are many paths to Buddhist understanding.

On Saturday you’ll be able to travel the one at the top of the world.

* Rick Chatenever, award-winning columnist and former entertainment and features editor of The Maui News, is a freelance journalist, instructor at UH-Maui College and documentary scriptwriter/producer. Contact him at rickchatenever@gmail.com.

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