Krisadawan Hongladarom makes a pilgrimage of self-discovery
The noon sun blazed in the cloudless sky. Rugged mountains embraced the horizon. Cars and trucks whizzed by on the asphalt road where a small and delicate woman in chupa, a traditional Tibetan pilgrimage robe, was prostrating herself. The front of her body and face lay flat on the ground.
”It is a fundamental Buddhist practice in Tibet to accumulate merit and compassion for all beings. Above all, it teaches the lesson of humility. The higher you are in life, the more down to Earth you should be,” said soft-spoken Assoc Prof Krisadawan Hongladarom, expert on Tibet and president of the Thousand Stars Foundation, which aims to promote the ancient wisdom and culture of Tibet.
Throughout the 80-kilometre route of the pilgrimage, no matter what the path presented to her, busy road, dark and dusty tunnel or sand sprinkled with animal droppings, Krisadawan proceeded calmly and recited prayers.
”My pilgrimage companion told me to think of the animal droppings as gold,” she chuckled.
Dirt on her face and a pair of worn-out gloves were markers of faith and determination, she said, smiling.
At the launch of her book, Tab thulee din (At Earth Dust), an account of her 18-day prostrating pilgrimage in Tibet in May last year, Sulak Srivaraksa, prominent Buddhist scholar and social critic said, ”Your mind has to forsake ego and pride so as to prostrate with your heart. It’s an Eastern value that people these days hardly do or understand.”
A soft-spoken and unassuming woman, Krisadawan seems far removed from a person who needs an antidote to pride. ”I long had an ambition of becoming a well-known linguist, doing breakthrough research,” she smiled. ”Not any more. I no longer wish to be important.”
Five months after her journey, the linguistics lecturer in her forties resigned from her position at Chulalongkorn University.
”I want to dedicate the rest of my life for the practice. I wish to bring all my passion and resources in linguistics and Tibetan language and culture to benefit others. I think the greatest gift we can give one another is dharma, a genuine happiness,” she said.
Tibet has fostered her compassion, she said, especially her master Gungka Sangbu Rinpoche, whom she met while doing research in Tibet in 2000.
”Even though he has few resources, he would never think about himself. He wanted to use the little money to improve other people’s lives and that made me think we should use our knowledge to do good things for others.”
Tibetans, she added, integrate dharma in their everyday lives. ”They pray while they work. While they are talking, they count prayer beads. Despite their hardships, they pray for and dedicate their merit to all beings. They hardly pray or make merit for their own sake.”
Today, Krisadawan works full-time for the Thousand Stars Foundation, which she founded in 2004.
”As a linguist, I’ve always had a heart for ethnic and rare languages and cultures,” said Krisadawan. ”Tibetan language and culture is not just a treasure of Tibetans. It is part of the world heritage, which all of us can learn and benefit from.”
Tibetan Buddhism, medicine, and knowledge of the realms of death and dying, for instance, she said are knowledge for all mankind. Given the political and economic climate in Tibet, it is even more important to preserve this fading ancient wisdom.
For four years, the foundation has organised over 25 academic seminars and lectures, 10 religious empowerment rituals performed by lamas and rinpoches from Tibet, and training and meditation courses. It also supports primary and nun education in remote areas of Tibet.
”I think Thais can learn a lot from Vajrayana Buddhism. It is complimentary to the Theravada tradition. They are two different doors leading to the same destination,” she said.
As part of her vision, Krisadawan is working on a monumental project on the Shanti Tara Maha Stupa and Tara Khadiravana Retreat Centre in Hua Hin, Prachuap Khiri Khan, her hometown.
”It is my mission in life. The stupa represents Buddhahood and the dharma. It embodies positive energies and goodness that create the structure. Seeing a stupa can transform one’s mind, and that is what I hope for,” she smiled.
For a middle class former state university lecturer, the project is wanting for funds. ”But our major limitation as human beings is not money. It is fear of difficulties. Therefore it is our mind that becomes our own obstacle in any task. Discouragement and lack of faith are major setbacks.”
In order to realise the stupa project, Krisadawan believed she needed to train her mind in order to overcome fear. So she did what she had dreamed of doing for years _ prostrating pilgrimage.
The pilgrimage was a big challenge for a foreign woman, although she has been in and out of Tibet over 40 times in the past decade. For this mission, her Tibetan friend Meu Yontan accompanied her and took care of food, tents and safety.
”This pilgrimage would not have been possible without a kind companion,” she said.
Prostration can still be seen at major temples. But prostrating pilgrimage is becoming a vanishing tradition. Modern-day Tibetans consider it a fashion of uneducated and lower-class people.
”I want to be part of continuing a noble tradition of Tibet and to inspire Tibetans about their treasure,” she said.
The 80-kilometre route was considered short by normal pilgrimage standards in Tibet. She set her plan from Nyethang Tara Temple to the destination at Samye, the first monastery in Tibet.
”At first I thought it was going to be tiring and difficult. Surprisingly, I felt so refreshed and joyful,” said Krisadawan. ”It was faith that put me on the journey and helped me through it.”
At the beginning of her trip, she recalled good advice from a lama who did prostrating pilgrimage for three years. ”He knew that as a beginner, I would feel high and hasty to reach the destination fast. So he told me, ‘Take good care of the body. You need a good vehicle in order to reach the destination. Begin small and increase the limit each day.”’
This really helped, she said. Prostrating oneself 500 times a day can make the arms and legs sear with pain, and being overly tired in the low-oxygen region can be a deadly matter. For her too, prostrating herself through a two-kilometre tunnel got her sick.
To take a break from tiring prostration, Krisadawan rested by trees and any shade along the way. As the days ended, she camped near the road, river, or in a village upon invitation.
”The trip allowed me to live closely to nature and to appreciate virtue in the presence of hardship,” she said.
Krisadawan was never alone on the route. Apart from Yontan who was guarding her against traffic danger, many tourists, Chinese and Westerners, stopped their coaches to take pictures of and with her. Some talked to her and gave her money. But for the Tibetans, Krisadawan signified a religious virtue they want to share and be part of. They lent her support and help and showed their appreciation of her faith.
The tiring trip gave Krisadawan the strength and courage she needed for the daunting task of the Tara Khadiravana Retreat Centre. As on the blueprint, the centre will accommodate simple cells for those on retreat, some pavilions for activities, a library and Tibet and Himalaya Learning Centre, and at the heart of the centre the Shanti Tara Maha Stupa. The stupa pays homage to Tara, female Bodhisattva of compassion and love.
Supervised by Kundrol Dragpa Mongyal Lhasray Rinpoche, a highly revered Dzogchen master, the stupa was designed according to Tibetan tradition with details and symbolism of Tibetan Buddhism.
Although the project has progressed slowly, Krisadawan is not deterred.
”When we do dharma work, no matter whether it is building a stupa, a retreat centre, a temple or carving buddhas, the key is that we must not be stressed,” she smiled. ”We have good intentions, with pure heart and aspiration to work for others; we work happily.”
When money is an obstacle, she finds help in the hearts of many volunteers who offer her their help.
So far, the project has drawn a number of volunteers, architects, painters and artists. ”My goal is not to build a concrete edifice. I aim to build for people, for them to come together, work for the benefit of others and learn to live dharma in their lives.
”Each day we work, each day we travel, is as significant as the destination. Without a destination, each day is like a journey without a goal. The destination and each day we travel are equally important,” she said.