It is not often that I allow myself to take some time off from work for more than just one or two days (i.e., during the weekend). That’s not because my work doesn’t allow me to do so, but rather I enjoy the things that I do so much that I don’t even consider it to be ‘work’ at all. But, of course, no matter how much you love your job, everyone still needs a holiday from time to time. So, this summer I decided to go to Nepal for a short vacation.
Although personally I didn’t know much about Nepalese culture prior to my trip, yet with a little bit of research I figured there were some very interesting places I wanted to visit. One of the places I read about and that caught my attention in particular, was Pharping in the Kathmandu Valley. Though it’s only a small village, it has a rich socio-religious and cultural history.
Legend has it that the eight-century Indian Buddhist saint Padmasambhava (also known as Guru Rinpoche) realized final awakening (Sanskrit: nirvāṇa) in the so-called Asura Cave (literally “the demon cave”) in Pharping. The hand- and footprint embedded in the rock near the entrance of the cave (see picture above) serve as proof of the master’s enlightenment.
After a quick but tranquil meditation in the cave I continued my way through the forest (see picture above) to the top of the mountain (2000m). At that point I virtually didn’t know anything about this tantric deity yet, though I felt inclined to follow the local custom to hang some prayer flags at the Vajrayogini Stupa (see picture below) when I finally reached – out of breath – the mountain’s peak.
Still in awe of the serenity I sensed at this sacred site, I descended the mountain along a narrow, slippery path that lead me to the ancient Vajrayogini Temple (see picture below). Inside the temple there was a small group of people praying downstairs in front of a large statue; thus I had a unique opportunity to enter the temple from the side entrance, so that I could go upstairs to check out the small shrine on the first floor with nobody else around.
Unfortunately, no photographs are allowed inside the temple. However, considering the fact that this ancient temple actually is still being used as a public place of worship (rather than an old monument or heritage site which no longer serves the practical purpose it was originally designed for), a stringent policy like this certainly helps preserve the temple’s authenticity, whilst at the same time saving it from becoming just another tourist attraction.
As usual, I performed a silent prayer on the spot, and took the opportunity to do some meditation real quick (who said spiritual practice can’t be paradoxical?). Similar to my meditation in the Asura Cave earlier, I could almost instantly feel the prāṇa energy rising up my spine, resulting in strong waves of rapture marked by goosebumps. Shortly thereafter, a beautiful, youthful female spirit (or so I thought) appeared to me by means of a vivid nimitta (vision). The nimitta was so bright and clear that I automatically opened my eyes, only to be absolutely stunned by the face of the deity’s statue in front of me, which was staring right back at me with three real eyes. The very moment direct eye contact was made I felt a light electric shock passing through my body; and sure enough, seconds later the light bulb hanging above the statue started flickering until it suddenly went out due to a power cut (something which happens regularly in Nepal).
That night I had a similar experience in my dreams, but unlike in the vision I had earlier that day at the altar when this female spirit’s body appeared in red color, she now had a dark-blue, black body which appeared fully naked. With her bulging eyes the wrathful spirit gazed at me, after which she started dancing fiercely while rapidly moving in my direction. But (fortunately?) just before she reached me I woke up…
It’s been a while since I experienced these kind of phenomena, so I decided to do some more research about the tutelary deity of Pharping; i.e., Vajrayogini. Hence, the next morning I went to a bookstore in Kathmandu, where the bright red cover of a book called ‘Vajrayogini: Her Visualizations, Rituals, and Forms’ by Elizabeth English almost immediately caught my attention. Later that day, when I started reading the book, it didn’t take long before I realized the significance of her contribution to Studies in Indian and Tibetan Buddhism. But what struck me the most, was that Vajrayogini’s iconographic depictions and descriptions in this book were highly similar, if not identical, to what I had seen during my personal encounter with this deity the day before.
Thus I was able to identify the youthful red and wrathful black female apparitions with Vajrayogini and Vajravarahi respectively. And, more importantly, it turned out, that, based on past encounters with spirits, I falsely assumed Vajrayogini/Vajravarahi to be a spirit, whereas in fact Tibetan Buddhists consider this “sky dancer” (Sanskrit: ḍākiṇī) to be a female Buddha of the Highest Yoga Tantra (Sanskrit: anuttarayoga tantra) class.
Inspired by this encounter I brought a small Vajrayogini statue (see picture above) back home with me from my short journey through Nepal, so that by having it placed on my home altar I can continue exploring the intriguing experiences associated with this fascinating deity.