The laughing stopped and their faces turned solemn: he wasn’t joking anymore, he was struggling in earnest to get through the U-shaped hole in the cliff, and he was beginning to panic.
What had his sister done differently? What had his mother done differently? He was bigger than his sister, yes, but smaller than his wide-hipped mother. Yet, both had taken less than a minute to easily negotiate themselves through the hole and out the other side.
His stern-faced father came into view above him, reaching down with two big hands to yank the boy up by his collar until he could manage the final steps to free himself. His sister released a giggle, and the family’s faces softened again.
The boy sulked to one side while his father, easily twice his size, slid through the hole like butter, as if it’d changed size to accommodate him.
Pilgrimage sites across Tibet have “merit testing” trials such as this one at Namtso Lake. According to local belief, it is not your physical size or shape that determines the ease with which you’ll make it through, but the weight of your karma.
Negative karma from bad deeds in previous lives is carried like baggage around you, adding invisibly to your size when it comes to squeezing through tight gaps or holes. However, if positive karma outweighs the negative, it can invisibly take size off you, allowing even the largest of men to make it through a child-sized gap in the rock.
Aside from discovering the weight of their karma, many pilgrims enjoy these trials as a form of light-hearted entertainment on their journey, a place to stop for a break or a signpost of their progress. These interactive activities are usually found around the kora, a pilgrimage walk that follows the outer border of a sacred place.
On your journey to central Tibet, keep an eye out for these four popular places with merit testing trials, and, if you’re bold enough, go ahead and test them yourself.
Namtso Lake, Tashi Dor Peninsula Kora
A day’s drive north of Lhasa city
The family in the story above were busy testing their merit through one of the many rocky trials around this kora. Note that the trials are not compulsory, and you can simply walk around them if you’d rather not take part!
As you reach the western point of the peninsula you’ll see an unremarkable narrow crack in the cliffs that leads to the knee-high entrance of a tiny cave. Pilgrims enter here on their hands and feet, or bellies if necessary, sliding through the dust to prove their faith and positive karma. Once inside, there’s nowhere to go but back out the way they came – trying to spin around and exit again can be the hardest part!
Once you’re clear of that one, there’s another test right outside at the U-shaped hole in the cliff. Think you can slither through with no problems? Give it a try; foreigners say there’s a trick to it, but Tibetans will tell you the only trick is your karma.
1-2 hours’ drive east of Lhasa city
Ganden is one of the main Gelugpa (yellow-hat) monasteries of Tibet, and a must-see site on any tour. What you may not encounter on most itineraries though is the hour-long walk around the monastery kora.
As well as affording excellent views of the surrounding valleys, mountains and villages, the kora also passes by two important (but strangely unmarked) clusters of boulders on which to test your merit. You may need a monk’s help to spot them, but you’ll be on your own to clamber through them.
If you’re free of karmic baggage, you’ll step between the boulders easily, but if you become stuck … the monks will probably want to take you straight into the chapel to make some offerings.
30 minutes west of Lhasa city
Close your eyes, stick out your finger, and walk toward the wall. It’s not a prank, or a Tibetan version of pinning the tail on the donkey, but rather a trial to find out if your karma is good enough to be reborn as a human again in your next life.
If your finger matches up with a small hole in the wall, you’ll make it safely to a human rebirth. But if not? Too bad, you might be looking at life as a mouse or an elephant instead.
This one isn’t around the outer kora, but actually within the walls of Drepung Monastery, just near the debating courtyard. You can’t miss the crowds of pilgrims lining up to try it, and cackling with glee each time their friends fail to find the hole.
Mount Kailash Kora, Ngari
One of the most revered pilgrimages in Tibet is the multi-day hike around Mount Kailash, the holiest mountain in Tibetan Buddhism, located in far western Tibet.
Many argue that the entire kora is a challenging test of merit, and pilgrims believe that one circuit is enough to cleanse the sins of an entire lifetime. However, alongside the rocky trail there are further testing points to pass for brave and curious pilgrims.
The merit trials begin when approaching the Drolma La Pass, the highest point of the trek. First, pilgrims must squeeze (again with the squeezing!) between narrow rocks, and then wiggle under a flat boulder named Bardo Trang.
Next, pilgrims encounter the dramatically named “mirror of fate”: leaning forward across a small stone, you must lift both feet off the ground and then raise your head to look at a large red stone some distance away. If the stone appears solid red, your karma is positively balanced. If the stone is spotted or blemished though, then your negative karma is dominant.
Finally, at the very end of the kora, pilgrims traditionally visit Tirthapuri hot springs to bathe and undertake one final test, perhaps to see if their completion of the kora really did help their karmic balance.
At Tirthapuri there is a hole in the rock that you can reach into to grab two stones. The colour of these stones reveals whether your karma is good (two white stones), bad (two black stones), or mixed (one of each).
Are you brave enough to test your merit against the pilgrims of Tibet, or to challenge your beliefs of size? Ask your guide to include these four activities on your tour of Tibet, and see for yourself.
Article by Becky Carruthers