THe place of Awakening, Part I
As followers of Buddha Shakyamuni, we make the journey to Bodh Gaya. As followers of Guru Padmasambhava, we make pilgrimage to the caves of Asura and Yangleshö. Masters such as Kathok Rikdzin Tsewang Norbu (1698–1755) have emphasized that these caves are as important as Bodh Gaya for practitioners of the Vajrayana, so vast was the Mahaguru’s attainment here. This extraordinary place, the single most sacred site connected with Guru Padmasambhava outside the land of Tibet, lies just beyond the Kathmandu valley’s southern rim, not far from the village of Pharping. For centuries, devotees have traveled to the two main caves here, Asura and Yangleshö, to offer homage at the place where Guru Rinpoché gained the siddhi of mahamudra.
There are two caves where Guru Rinpoché engaged in his intensive retreat on two of the eight Kagye deities—Yangdak Heruka and Vajrakilaya. Guru Rinpoché began his retreat focusing on the deity Yangdak Heruka a wrathful form of Buddha’s wisdom mind, later combining this with the practice of Vajrakilaya, a deity associated with the Buddha’s enlightened activity and renowned for the removal of obstacles to awakening.
The first, Asura Cave or the Upper Cave of Yangleshö, is poised in the thick of a forest on the hill immediately behind Pharping village. Kyapjé Tulku Urgyen Rinpoché (1920–1996) and his consort Sangyum Kunzang Dechen founded a monastery and a three-year retreat center here, now known as Guru Drupné Pema Ösel Ling. The second, for which you will find a detailed on the next page, is known as the Lower Cave of Yangleshö or simply Yangleshö, and is located just below the village.
Words from the Masters
The significance of this site is captured in the following works:
How to get there
Pharping is a small but expanding village on a hillside above the main valley, about 16 km southwest of Kathmandu. Tibetan call it by the Tibetan name ‘Yangleshö’ given to the holy place.
The easiest way to reach Pharping is by car. No matter where you are in Kathmandu or in the surrounding valley, you can simply take a taxi to Pharping. The ride from Kathmandu, depending on where you are, will take approximately one to two hours.
If you prefer a more adventurous trip to Pharping, you can take one of the local buses leaving from Ratna Park. Once you are at the bus park, you can simply find the bus by saying “Pharping?” Any of the Nepalis there will quickly direct you to the right bus. The bus ride can take up to two and a half hours, but is much cheaper than a taxi (at around 30 NRS).
Way to Asura Cave
From the football field, you can either drive (if you are in a taxi) or proceed on foot into Pharping. Take the paved road to the right, leading uphill through the village. Following the main street uphill, you will be able to see Kyapjé Tulku Urgyen Rinpoché's monastery from the road. Still on the road, you will pass the Sakya Tharik Monastery on your right, and soon after this the steps that lead up to Ralo Rinpoché’s Monastery on your right and a small Tara shrine on your left. These same stairs will lead all the way up to Asura Cave.
Alternatively, you can ask the taxi driver, if he is familiar with the area, to drop you in front of the Vajrayogini temple. This marks the second access point to the Asura Cave. However, the road leading to the Vajrayogini temple—a small road to your right about half way through Pharping—may easily be missed if you are not familiar with the area.
food and accommodation
On the main road leading uphill through Pharping, you will find cafes, restaurants, shops, and supermarkets. If you plan to stay at either of the sacred caves itself, it is wise to take some food with you. Asura Cave monastery offers food and accommodation for people wishing to do a personal retreat. Since there are not many rooms available, it is important to come in advance and reserve a room.
It is also possible to book retreat rooms in the nearby Benchen Monastery or in Khenpo Namdrol’s retreat center near the lower Yangleshö Cave. There are also some hotels on the main road that runs through Pharping, and these usually have rooms available at short notice. The Yangleshö Cave and its nearby monastery do not offer accommodation.
Asura Cave: 27°36'47.7"N 85°15'37.0"E
Clearly visible on the left side of the entrance to the cave, is a hand-print. The hand-print was actually made by a student of Kyapjé Tulku Urgyen Rinpoché's father, Chime Dorjé. The student immediately regretted making the imprint, saying that in future everyone would think it to be Guru Rinpoché’s handprint.
Images inside the Cave:
The three main images enshrined inside the cave are those of Guru Rinpoché in the middle, Shri Heruka to his right and Vajrakilaya to his left. These were built by Kunzang Tekchok Tenpai Gyaltsen, a student of the three Jamgöns (Khyentsé, Kongtrul, and Mipham Rinpochés), who came here and practiced these two deities, and had direct visions of them.
Tulku Urgyen Rinpoché explained: “In the innermost recesses of the Asura Cave is a tunnel that connects the Asura Cave to the Yangleshö Cave below, about half a mile away. It is not a big hole. Wind passes through this passage and you can feel the draft when sitting near it. Although Padmasambhava could traverse freely through solid matter, he used this narrow tunnel to move between Yangleshö Cave and the upper Asura Cave.”
Naturally arisen “A” Syllable:
There is a naturally arisen “A” syllable found in the rock on the left side of the cave, just below an electric light bulb that has been installed.
Kila rock formations:
Further to the left of the cave, in the small passage between the monastery and the bare rock, small blackish kila formations can be seen. When Guru Rinpoché accomplished Vajrakilaya, a rain of kilas fell from the sky, and some remain visible to this day as kila-like rock formation.
Self-Arisen Tara Image: 27°36'45.4"N 85°15'36.1"E
Following the main street that leads uphill through Pharping, towards the end of the village, you will reach a staircase leading up to a monastery complex. This is Ralo Rinpoché's monastery. If you wish, you can enter the temple to your right, which contains a beautiful statue of Guru Dorjé Drolö.
Immediately to your left is a small shrine, which contains an image of Ganesh. In the rock to the right of Ganesh are two small, naturally-arisen Tara images. In 1979, Drubthob Rinpoché recognized the self-arisen Tara images and built a small and beautiful temple to protect them. Only one of the self-arisen images is clearly visible now. The other comes and goes. The shrine protecting the images also hosts statues of the twenty-one Taras and provides retreat rooms for monks focusing on Tara practice. If you wish, you can make offerings here of butter lamps or other precious substances, like milk or flowers. Drubthob Rinpoché also build a small monastery near Thamel: 27°42'34.9"N 85°18'36.0"E (see Central Kathmandu for more details).
Pharping Vajrayogini: 27°36'49.3"N 85°15'42.3"E
The Pharping Vajrayogini Temple is one of the four yogini temples of the Kathmandu Valley. It is said that Marpa Lotsawa visited this temple three times, on his way back and forth between Tibet and India. At this temple, the caretakers also keep a fire perpetually burning. In the unlikely event that the fire goes out, it is lit again with fire brought from the Sankhu Khada Yogini temple.
Following the main street that leads uphill through Pharping, you will find a small road on the right that also leads uphill. This road will take you to a second staircase leading up to Asura Cave, and the Vajrayogini temple is at the foot of these steps. Once you have entered the main gate, the Varjayogini statue is found on the first floor of the temple, reached via a small staircase to your left. The shrine is often closed, but if any of the caretakers are present they will happily open it up for you. It is prohibited to photograph the image. If you wish, you can offer some money to the caretaker, which will be used for offerings and maintenance.
The Four Yogini Temples of Kathmandu
Sankhu Khadga Yogini: 27°44'39.0"N 85°28'01.6"E
Pharping Vajrayogini: 27°36'49.3"N 85°15'42.3"E
Bidhjeswori: 27°42'50.2"N 85°18'02.9"E
Mandala of the Hundred Peaceful and Wrathful Deities: 27°36'55.4"N 85°16'03.2"E
Following the wish of Khenpo Jigmé Phuntsok Rinpoché, Khenpo Namdrol has built the ‘Mandala Temple of the Hundred Peaceful and Wrathful Deities’ (referred to in Tibetan simply as the Shitrö Lhakang). This unique temple is one of only two of its kind in the world, the other being found in Tibet. The temple perimeter may only be entered by those who have received an empowerment of the Hundred Peaceful and Wrathful Deities.
Kyapjé Chatral Rinpoché’s reliquary stupa: 27°36'37.2"N 85°16'08.4"E
This temple is found at the home of the late master Kyapjé Chatral Rinpoché (1913~2015). His relics are enshrined in the golden stupa within the main temple, just to the right of the entrance.
Chagdud Tulku Rinpoché’s reliquary stupa: 27°36'05.0"N 85°14'45.4"E
In the hills above Pharping, Chagdud Tulku Rinpoché established a small three- year retreat center. Regularly, monks enter three-year retreat here. This is also the site where Chagdud Tulku Rinpoché was cremated and his relics placed in the sacred stupa here. The stupa can be reached in 45 minutes from Pharping, via a footpath that leaves from the back of Pharping (27°36'33.1"N 85°15'36.0"E). The footpath continues through some small villages (27°36'17.2"N 85°15'21.4"E), and leads up to the monastery (27°36'01.5"N 85°14'43.4"E). Since this is a remote place dedicated to three-year retreat, please respect the site and remain quiet when you enter.
Giant Guru Rinpoché Statue: 27°37'47.3"N 85°15'46.4"E
An amazing, giant-sized Guru Rinpoché statue has been built in the neighboring village of Dolu. This small village has become home to several great Nyingma monasteries, and it is definitely worthwhile to pause here, either on your way up or down from Pharping. There is a small Vajrayogini cave (some call it “the Yeshe Tsogyal Cave”) in the valley behind the statue: 27°37'55.6"N 85°15'46.7"E.
Dakshinkali: 27°36'18.2"N 85°15'46.2"E
Dakshinkali is one of the most important sacred sites for the Hindus of the valley. They come here to offer blood sacrifice to the wrathful goddess Kali. It is not permitted for non-Hindus to enter beyond the perimeter of the lower site, known as the “Dakshinkali Chorri”, which means “daughter”. Tibetan Buddhists consider this site to be one of the old charnel grounds of the valley, and home to the protector Durtrö Lhamo, Goddess of the Charnel Ground.
Vajrakilaya Protectress temple: 27°36'16.8"N 85°15'44.1"E
The upper temple at Dakshinkali is known as the “Dakshinkali Mata”, the mother, and here there is no blood sacrifice allowed. Meanwhile, several masters have identified this smaller temple, situated on the hill above the daughter Dakshinkali, as the residence of one of the protectors of the Vajrakilaya Mandala. The hill can be seen and easily recognized from Asura Cave, since it has a distinct, blue-colored house on top. Just next to the blue house is the site of the main temple, wherein the protectress resides.
“A”-Syllable Pilgrimage Route:
Jamyang Khyentsé Chökyi Lodrö described Asura Cave as lying on a naturally-formed “A”-syllable – the shape of the surrounding mountains. To walk the mountain ridge is to follow the “long” pilgrimage route, a circumambulation of all the sacred sites of Pharping. Going clockwise, the route has two entry points.
The first, on the ridge, is marked by a stupa. It is reached by following the road past Asura Cave for about 15-20 minutes: 27°37'37.7"N 85°14'56.3"E.
The second entry point is accessed by following the stairs and trail uphill, past Asura Cave monastery on the left, and past a small Hindu shrine. The top of the mountain is known as Champadevi, and here you will find another small stupa and another Hindu shrine: 27°38'46.0"N 85°15'13.6"E.
On the way down, the trail passes Kyapjé Dudjom Rinpoché’s retreat center (27°37'55.7"N 85°15'57.6"E), then leads back into the valley at Hattiban Resort (27°37'40.2"N 85°16'34.8"E). Here, at the end of the walk, you will find plentiful food and drink. And, on cloudless days, you will see the Himalayan peaks in the far distance, looking magnificent.
Although this hike may sound inspiring, please be cautious. This pilgrimage route can take up to five hours! Furthermore, the terrain is also somewhat dangerous and should never be attempted alone, but always in a group. It’s quite easy to get lost, and the path follows the ridge, meaning that there aren’t always trees to provide shade. If you do intend to follow this path, please bring a hat, sun protection, and sufficient food and water.
On the way to Pharping
Chobar Avalokiteshvara: 27°39'57.0"N 85°17'28.8"E
Chobar Avalokiteshvara or Adinath Lokeshvara is one of the four temples in the Kathmandu Valley dedicated to Avalokiteshvara or Macchendranath. It contains a duplicate of the Avalokiteshvara statue of Arya Bukham in Patan. This duplicate was used to replace the original Arya Bukham statue during the Gorkha invasions, so as to prevent the attackers from damaging the original. Since the duplicate had to be consecrated in order to be placed inside the temple, and since it remained unharmed, once the invasions were over and Arya Bukham itself was removed from hiding and returned, the duplicate was moved to Chobar – where a new shrine was built for the statue. Close to the temple, you will find Tsoknyi Rinpoché’s nunnery: 27°39'54.5"N 85°17'30.9"E.
Chobar Gorge: 27°39'38.0"N 85°17'37.0"E
Chobar Gorge is the place where, in prehistoric times, Manjushri cut a gash in the mountainside, creating a gorge that would drain the Kathmandu Valley of its lake. Here, one can hire a guide and visit the underground caves and tunnel system. One of the caves contains a small lake, and it was in these caves that Ra Lotsawa and Guru Goraknath once meditated.
Two Sacred Lakes:
There are two sacred lakes in the Kathmandu Valley which are of particular significance: Lake Taudaha (27.6487°N 85.2820°E), on the way to Pharping, and Lake Nagdaha (27.6246°N 85.3331°E), near Patan. These are the two sacred lakes which are said to have remained when Manjushri drained the great lake that once filled the whole valley. They are said to be the home of the naga king Karkotaka. The only clean water lakes in the valley, they are visited annually by migrating water birds.