Filming Expedition to Guru Rinpoche’s Hidden Land of Yolmo
In October 2019 we were honoured by the visit of Khenpo Nyima Dondrup Rinpoche to the Pathgate Dharma Centre in the UK. During his stay, Khenpo Nyima Dondrup Rinpoche made a request to Lama Dondrup Dorje Rinpoche for his support with the filming of a documentary about Guru Rinpoche’s Hidden Land of Yolmo.
To the north of Nepal on the Himalayan borders of Nepal and Tibet, is the hidden land of Yolmo, enclosure of snows, also known as Padma Tsal, ‘lotus grove sanctuary’. This area is commonly known within Nepal as Helambu and the Langtang Himalayan mountain range. It is a place visited and blessed by Guru Rinpoche of Odiyana and his consorts. They filled the mountains and valleys with religious and material treasures. (excerpt from Khenpo Nyima Dondrup Rinpoche’s film trailer script)
Khenpo Nyima Dondrup Rinpoche has written and published a book called: Guide to the Hidden Land of the Yolmo Snow Enclosure. It’s his wish to produce a film that documents this precious land with its sacred sites, retreat centres and villages.
Khenpo Nyima Dondrup Rinpoche was planning to film in April 2020. April is spring in Nepal and many of the retreat centres and villages that are snowbound in the winter months become accessible by road. At this time of year the area is very beautiful, there is snow on the mountain peaks and fresh vegetation and flowers in the valleys.
After speaking with Khenpo Nyima Dondrup Rinpoche about his plans to film in some remote areas, which included remote caves, it was apparent that there would be no access to electricity for many days, so there were a number of technical challenges to overcome for filming at these locations. For example, we would need to charge camera equipment using portable solar power units.
Lama Dondrup Dorje Rinpoche kindly sponsored all the costs associated with the trip including travel and camera equipment.
I arrived in Kathmandu on 28th February 2020, and Khenpo Nyima Dondrup Rinpoche kindly greeted me at the airport. Lama Dondrup Dorje Rinpoche had given me a generous offering to make to Khenpo on my arrival.
On 1st March 2020 we left Kathmandu to travel by road to “Melamchim-gyang ” a remote village in Yolmo on the edge of the Himalayas. The following day Khenpo would be leading a three-day practice of reciting the Vajra Guru Mantra. It was a 6-hour journey by 4x4 Jeep winding through mountainous roads. Many of the roads are dirt tracks the width of just one vehicle and accessible only for part of the year.
On our journey, when the sun began to rise, we saw the spectacular sight of the Himalayas, a wall of snow-peaked mountains illuminated by the golden morning light.
Khenpo Nyima Dondrup Rinpoche saw this as Guru Rinpoche's blessing, as these were exactly the conditions Khenpo Nyima Dondrup Rinpoche had been hoping for.
The last part of the journey to Melamchim-gyang is very dramatic. There is a very steep rocky road that climbs high from the river that runs through the valley floor. The village sits dramatically high on the side of a mountain with a wall of snow-peaked mountains towering in the distance. Guru Rinpoche described the mountain like a Queen with a flowing robe. Guru Rinpoche practised here 1,200 years ago and according to Khenpo Nyima Dondrup Rinpoche’s book: Guru Rinpoche declared that an Amitabha temple and a great centre for the pursuit of virtue should be established here. The 4th Yolmo Tulku Zilnön Wangyal Dorje (1647-1716) founded such a chapel at Melamchim-gyang in the 7th or 8th decade of the 17th century.
Within and around Melamchim-gyang there are many relics and practice sites of Guru Rinpoche and his consorts. You do get a strong sense that Guru Rinpoche’s blessing is infused into the landscape. Apparently just seeing or hearing about Yolmo valley has enormous benefits.
After our first night in Melamchi-gyang, the following morning Khenpo Nyima Dondrup Rinpoche started the Vajra Guru mantra practice by beginning with prayers and teaching. Attending was a small group of lamas, monks and a large following of lay practitioners. The Melamchi-gyang temple was destroyed by an earthquake in 2015. The local people are extremely resourceful, they have a small temporary temple made from corrugated iron and the practice took place under a corrugated iron roof. The surrounding landscape was incredibly inspiring for the setting of this practice.
Guru Rinpoche’s Jewel Millstone is found within the temple. According to Khenpo Nyima Dondrup Rinpoche’s book, the biography of Yolmo Tulku Tendzin Norbu (1589-1644) records that during his visit to Melamchi-gyan, he showed that Guru Rinpoche’s Jewel Millstone was not turning spontaneously (as people thought), but he made it shake, as witnessed by all present, this was one of the great blessings of the Yolmo valley.
In the afternoon Khenpo Nyima Dondrup Rinpoche arranged for a guide from the village to take me to the Tharepati pass where we would spend the night in a lodge.
We had a 5-hour hike up the side of a mountain to 3,700 metres. We walked through rain, then hail and finally thick snow. As we climbed higher the snow got deeper. The air is thinner at this altitude which makes it much more physically challenging. I began to struggle with the exertion and recited mantras while walking, which gave me the determination I needed to reach the lodge where we would spend the night.
A relation of Khenpo Nyima Dondrup Rinpoche runs the lodge, he went out of his way to look after us that night and the following morning.
The following morning I started filming before sunrise to catch the breath-taking view of the first light over the Himalayas and the Yolmo valley. As well as shooting aerial footage, we used time-lapse photography. After filming, we set off to climb higher up the mountain, but there had been fresh snow overnight and the snow was sometimes up to my waist, which prevented us from going much further.
Early in the afternoon, we headed down the mountain back towards Melamchi-gyang. On the way down we could hear the Vajra Guru mantra being accumulated in the village, as the chanting echoed around the valley. This was profoundly inspiring.
On our way to Melamchi-gyang Khenpo Nyima Dondrup Rinpoche instructed us to film “Brang Tshang” which is where Guru Rinpoche’s self-manifested stone throne is located. Local legend says that it was here that Guru Rinpoche taught the dharma to dakinis and beings of other realms.
Also on the rock face are seven self-manifesting stone water offering bowls.
On the upper edge of Melamchi-gyang is one of Guru Rinpoche’s caves known as the Nyin-da Rang-jung Drug-phug, or Meditation Cave of the Self-arisen Sun and Moon, because of the naturally manifested image of the sun and moon on the stone roof of the cave. This was where Guru Rinpoche stayed on retreat before travelling to Tibet.
In the earthquake in 2015, the statues inside the cave were damaged. New statues are being made under the support and guidance of Khenpo Nyima Dondrup Rinpoche. Before the statues are completed they need to be consecrated.
In the early morning, Khenpo Nyima Dondrup Rinpoche led a consecration ceremony. After preliminary prayers, the assembly of Lamas and lay practitioners recited the Seven Line Prayer to Guru Rinpoche, while Khenpo Nyima Dondrup Rinpoche performed the consecration by inserting a central channel and many precious objects and sacred items into the statues.
During my stay in Nepal I was fortunate to visit Melamchi-gyang three times and witness the work of statue-making within the Guru Rinpoche cave. The statues are carved out of clay and left to dry for several months before they are painted.
This was the final day of the Vajra Guru mantra accumulation practice, concluded with Khenpo Nyima Dondrup Rinpoche leading a Shower of Blessings practice. There was heavy rain throughout the practice, which was an auspicious sign, a manifestation of the shower of blessings.
Leaving Melamchi-gyang village early the next morning we travelled by road to other remote villages and retreat centres.
The roads are very steep dirt tracks. Some of the retreat centres that Khenpo Nyima Dondrup Rinpoche wanted to visit had become unreachable, as the roads had become damaged and inaccessible.
We visited Tsuti Gonpa, a small, very peaceful retreat centre. This was the practice place of Shakya Sangpo, who was the 15th-century treasure revealer who came to open the door of the Yolmo Holy Secret Land.
Here we went inside a small retreat hut. As we entered I experienced a strong sense of quiet settledness and blessing. Khenpo Nyima Dondrup Rinpoche told me Taklung Tsetrul Rinpoche was invited to stay here; he was the Sixth Supreme Head of the Nyingmapa.
Inside the retreat hut Khenpo Nyima Dondrup Rinpoche looked through a very old Tibetan text that was over 100 years old and written in gold. In the retreat hut there was a glass box with the skull of an ox inside. I was told that this ox had worked hard to help build the retreat centre.
Towards the end of the day, we visited Kachung, where the great Tibetan yogi Milarepa meditated for three years in the Lion Fort Tiger Cave under the direction of his master, Marpa, and planted the banner of spiritual attainment, and perfected his realisation.
We spent the night in a small village. There was a power cut so we had to find a hotel with backup electricity so we could charge our camera equipment for the next day. Out of respect for Khenpo Nyima Dondrup Rinpoche, the hotel manager allowed us to use all their backup power to charge our batteries.
The next day we travelled and filmed at many more locations. We arrived at Palri Padma Odsal Ling. This temple has a giant Guru Rinpoche statue seated on a mountain, with a stunning backdrop of valleys and distant mountains. The practitioners here were also engaged in a three-day Varja Guru mantra retreat.
I felt very honoured to be travelling with Khenpo Nyima Dondrup Rinpoche; many people extended their kindness to us and went out of their way to be of support.
Khenpo Nyima Dondrup Rinpoche had made plans for us to use a helicopter to film and travel to more remote locations. One of Khenpo Nyima Dondrup Rinpoche’s friends is a very experienced helicopter pilot, and we went to see him many times in order to plan the trip, and we monitored the weather forecast for suitable conditions. On 16th March 2020 when the conditions were favourable, we travelled to the airport early in the morning. Khenpo Nyima Dondrup Rinpoche was very keen for us to set off early because the weather gets cloudy later in the day. Khenpo Nyima Dondrup Rinpoche explained that the local protector did not want us to be there.
Once we cleared airport security I had very little time to prepare. Fortunately, there was a GoPro camera bracket on the outside of the helicopter so we could attach our GoPro camera. I sat in the front passenger seat from where I could open a tiny window, which was just big enough to push a camera lens through.
Taking off from Kathmandu airport, we flew across the city and then north across the surrounding mountains towards the Himalayas.
We landed at Melamchi-gyang village to drop off fuel for our return journey. This lightened our load so we could gain higher altitude on the next flight. We then took off and flew to the top of Yang Ri Khang mountain. Guru Rinpoche mentioned it is a holy mountain. It is also the place where the land protector Amayangri resides. There is a temple that is currently under construction on the top of Yang Ri Khang Mountain. Previously there had been other temples here, but they were destroyed by lightning.
Taking off from Yang Ri Khang mountain, we flew north up the valley to the site of two caves. The first is the Yangdak Chok meditation cave, the meditation cave of Guru Rinpoche and his consorts. The second cave is Tongshong cave, a cave of Guru Rinpoche’s that was reopened by Khyabje Chatral Rinpoche.
His Holiness Pema Norbu Rinpoche set foot in this hidden valley and bestowed his blessings.
We had planned to land and film at these caves, but the snow was very deep, which made it impossible for us to land safely. Instead, we flew over the top of the valley and west, high over snowy mountains to a sacred lake. The lake was frozen and submerged in snow. This made it impossible to land safely, not knowing what was solid land and what was frozen water.
Flying on, we landed on a helipad next to the lodge on the Tharepati pass to do some filming, before flying back, and briefly landing at Melamchi-gyang village to refuel, and then flying over southern parts of Yolmo and back to Kathmandu.
Whilst staying in Kathmandu we worked on re-recording some of the audio of the Tibetan dialogue for ‘The Life of Guru Rinpoche - the New Edition’ to provide higher quality audio for the sound track. I set up a makeshift recording studio in a spare room at Khenpo Nyima Dondrup Rinpoche’s residence.
Khenpo Nyima Dondrup Rinpoche played the role of Guru Rinpoche in the original Guru Rinpoche film, so we re-recorded Guru Rinpoche’s Tibetan dialogue for the new edition.
Khenpo Nyima Dondrup Rinpoche also arranged for the help of two local Anis (nuns) from Namdroling Monastery to re-record the audio of Dakinis in the film.
Khenpo Nyima Dondrup Rinpoche explained that when they filmed the original Guru Rinpoche film, they had to re-record most of the audio after filming because the audio did not record well on set. His Holiness expressed to Khenpo how important it was to get this right, as it is the words that carry the meaning. Khenpo Nyima Dondrup Rinpoche explained that Namdroling is one of the best Buddhist Institutes in the world, with extremely high standards. Everything that goes out with Namdroling Monastery’s name on it has to reflect those standards.
One day, Khenpo Nyima Dondrup Rinpoche invited 19 Lamas to do an all-day Puja. The Lamas were from Namdroling Monastery and currently staying in Kathmandu. I had the opportunity to record audio of them reciting the Seven Line Prayer to Guru Rinpoche and the Vajra Guru mantra. I also took pictures of the Lamas’ faces, to use in creating digital characters to take the place as extras in ‘The Life of Guru Rinpoche - the New Edition’.
Khenpo Nyima Dondrup Rinpoche was continuously flexible and accommodating in adapting our travel plans due to changing conditions with the coronavirus. During the last three weeks of my stay in Nepal, the country was in full lockdown, so non-essential travel was no longer permitted. As a result, we were unable to continue with our filming plans; and further travel to Yolmo was not possible.
All outward-bound international flights from Nepal were quickly suspended. A few weeks later I was fortunate to be repatriated by the British Embassy, who arranged my return flights to the UK on 8th April 2020.
I feel extremely fortunate to have had this opportunity to travel with Khenpo Nyima Dondrup Rinpoche to Guru Rinpoche’s Hidden Land of Yolmo. I find it reassuring that during these turbulent times there are so many retreat centres with practitioners that are dedicated and committed to the pursuit of Dharma activity.
Out of Khenpo Nyima Dondrup Rinpoche’s compassion and kindness, he wishes to make this film in order to share the blessing and benefits of this precious land with others. I am also inspired by Khenpo Nyima Dondrup Rinpoche’s determination and commitment to fulfil His Holiness’ wishes to uphold and propagate the Dharma within this sacred land.
Since returning from Nepal I find it helpful to remember some advice that Lama Dondrup Dorje Rinpoche gave me when I returned from my previous trip to Nepal in 2019: “You do know that Guru Rinpoche is everywhere.” It is very inspiring to visit Guru Rinpoche’s holy sites. But we don't need to be at a sacred place to benefit from Guru Rinpoche. If we have Guru Rinpoche in our heart and mind then Guru Rinpoche’s blessing is with us everywhere.