THE ONLY THINGS MOVING IN THE VASTNESS OF THE LLÖLUNG VALLEY were two black specks, barely larger than the frost-split boulders that covered the valley floor, inching along a faint track. The valley was a desolate place, devoid of trees; the wind chuckled and whispered among the rocks, the cries of black eagles echoed from the cliffs. The figures, on horseback, were approaching an immense wall of granite, two thousand feet high, from which poured a slow plume of water --- the source of the sacred Tsangpo River. The trail disappeared into the mouth of a gorge that split the rock face, reappeared at higher altitude as a cut angled into the sheer wall of rock, and finally topped out on a long ridge before disappearing once again into the jagged peaks and fissures beyond. Framing the scene, and forming a backdrop of stupendous power and majesty, stood the frozen immensity of three Himalayan mountains --- Dhaulagiri, Annapurna, and Manaslu --- trailing plumes of snow. Beyond them, a sea of stormclouds rose up, the color of iron.
The two figures rode up the valley, cowled against the chill wind. This was the last stage of a long journey, and despite the rising storm they rode at a slow pace, their horses on the verge of exhaustion. As they approached the mouth of the gorge, they crossed a rushing stream once, and then a second time. Slowly, the two entered the gorge and vanished.
Inside the gorge, they continued following the faint trail as it climbed above the roaring stream. Hollows of blue ice lay in the shadows where the rock wall met the boulder-strewn floor. Dark clouds scudded across the sky, pushed before a rising wind that moaned in the upper reaches of the gorge.
The trail changed abruptly at the base of the great rock wall, mounting upward through a steep and terrifying cut. An ancient guard station, built on a projecting tongue of rock, lay in ruins: four broken stone walls supporting nothing more than a row of blackbirds. At the very foot of the cut stood a huge mani stone, carved with a Tibetan prayer, rubbed and polished by thousands of hands of those wishing a blessing before attempting the dangerous journey to the top.
At the guard station, the two travelers dismounted. From here they were forced to proceed on foot, leading their horses up the narrow trail as the overhang was too low to admit a rider. In places, landslides had peeled away the sheer rock wall, taking the trail with it; these gaps had been bridged by rough planks and poles drilled into the rock, forming a series of narrow, creaking bridges without railings. Elsewhere, the trail was so steep that the travelers and their mounts were forced to climb steps carved into the rock, made slick and uneven by the passage of countless pilgrims and animals.
The wind shifted now, driving through the gorge with a booming sound, carrying flakes of snow with it. The stormshadow fell into the gorge, plunging it into a gloom as deep as night. Still the two figures pushed up the vertiginous trail, up the icy staircases and rock pitches. As they rose, the roar of the waterfall echoed strangely between the walls of stone, mingling with the rising wind like mysterious voices speaking in an unknown tongue.
When the travelers at last topped the ridge, the wind almost halted them in their tracks, whipping their robes and biting at their exposed skin. They hunched against it and, pulling their reluctant horses forward, continued along the spine of the ridge until they reached the remains of a ruined village. It was a bleak place, the houses thrown down by some ancient cataclysm, their timbers scattered and broken, the mud bricks dissolving back into the earth from which they had been formed.
In the center of the village, a pile of prayer stones rose, topped by a pole from which snapped dozens of tattered prayer flags. To one side lay an ancient cemetery whose retaining wall had collapsed, and now erosion had opened the graves, scattering bones and skulls down a long scree slope. As the two approached, a group of ravens flapped up in noisy protest from the wreckage, their scratchy cries rising toward the leaden clouds.
At the pile of stones, one of the travelers stopped and dismounted, gesturing for the other to wait. He bent down, picked up an old stone, and added it to the pile. Then he paused briefly in silent meditation, the wind lashing at his robes, before retaking the reins of his horse. They continued on.
Beyond the deserted village the trail narrowed sharply along a knife-edge ridge. Struggling against the violence of the wind, the two figures crept along it, arcing around the shoulder of a mountain --- and then at last they could just begin to spy the battlements and pinnacles of a vast fortress, standing dully against the dark sky.
This was the monastery known as Gsalrig Chongg, a name that might be translated as "the Jewel of the Awareness of Emptiness." As the trail continued around the side of the mountain, the monastery came fully into view: massive red-washed walls and buttresses mounting the sides of a barren granite rock, ending in a complex of pinnacled roofs and towers that shone here and there with patches of gold leaf.
The Gsalrig Chongg monastery was one of very few in Tibet to have escaped the ravages of the Chinese invasion, in which soldiers drove out the Dalai Lama, killed thousands of monks, and destroyed countless monasteries and religious structures. Gsalrig Chongg was spared partly because of its extreme remoteness and its proximity to the disputed border with Nepal, but also due to a simple bureaucratic oversight: its very existence had somehow escaped official attention. Even today, maps of the so-called Tibet Autonomous Region do not locate this monastery, and the monks have taken great pains to keep it that way.
The trail passed by a steep scree slope, where a group of vultures picked away at some scattered bones.
"There appears to have been a recent death," the man murmured, nodding toward the heavy birds, which hopped about, utterly fearless.
"How so?" asked the second traveler.
"When a monk dies, his body is butchered and thrown to the wild animals. It is considered the highest honor, to have your mortal remains nourish and sustain other living things."
"A peculiar custom."
"On the contrary, the logic is impeccable. Our customs are peculiar."
The trail ended at a small gate in the massive encircling wall. The gate was open and a Buddhist monk stood there, wrapped in robes of scarlet and saffron, holding a burning torch, as if expecting them.
The two huddled travelers passed through the gate, still leading their horses. A second monk appeared and silently took the reins, leading the animals off to stables within the encircling wall.
The travelers stopped before the first monk, in the gathering darkness. He said nothing, but merely waited.
The first traveler pulled back his cowl --- revealing the long, pale face, white-blond hair, marble features, and silvery eyes of Special Agent Aloysius Pendergast of the Federal Bureau of Investigation.
The monk turned toward the other. The second figure removed its cowl with a tentative movement, brown hair spilling out into the wind, catching the swirling snowflakes. She stood, head slightly bowed, a young woman who appeared to be in her early twenties, with a delicate face, finely formed lips, and high cheekbones --- Constance Greene, Pendergast's ward. Her penetrating violet eyes darted around, taking in everything quickly, before dropping again to the ground.
The monk stared at her for only a moment. Making no comment, he turned and gestured for them to follow him down a stone causeway toward the main complex.
Pendergast and his ward followed the monk in silence as he passed through a second gate and entered the dark confi nes of the monastery itself, the air laden with the scent of sandalwood and wax. The great ironbound doors boomed shut behind them, muffling the howling wind to a faint whisper. They continued down a long hallway, one side of which was lined with brass prayer cylinders, creaking and turning round and round, driven by some hidden mechanism. The hall forked, and turned again, driving deeper into the monastic depths. Another monk appeared in front of them carrying large candles in brass holders, their flickering light revealing a series of ancient frescoes lining both walls.
The mazelike turnings brought them at last into a large room. One end was dominated by a gold statue of Padmasambhava, the Tantric Buddha, illuminated by hundreds of candles. Unlike the contemplative, half-closed eyes of most depictions of the Buddha, the Tantric Buddha's eyes were wide open, alert and dancing with life, symbolizing the heightened awareness achieved by his study of the secret teachings of Dzogchen and the even more esoteric Chongg Ran.
The Gsalrig Chongg monastery was one of two repositories in the world preserving the discipline of Chongg Ran, the enigmatic teachings known to those few who were familiar with them as the Jewel of the Mind's Impermanence.
At the threshold to this inner sanctum, the two travelers paused. At the far end, a number of monks reposed in silence, sitting on tiered stone benches as if awaiting someone.
The uppermost tier was occupied by the abbot of the monastery. He was a peculiar-looking man, his ancient face wrinkled into a permanent expression of amusement, even mirth. His robes hung from his skeletal frame like laundry draped on a rack. Next to him sat a slightly younger monk, also known to Pendergast: Tsering, one of only very few of the monks who spoke English, who acted as the "manager" of the monastery. He was an exceptionally well-preserved man of perhaps sixty. Below them sat a row of twenty monks of all ages, some teenagers, others ancient and wizened.
Tsering rose and spoke in an English shot through with the strange, musical lilt of Tibetan. "Friend Pendergast, we welcome you back to monastery of Gsalrig Chongg, and we welcome your guest. Please sit down and take tea with us."
He gestured to a stone bench set with two silk "embroidered cushions" the only cushions in the room. The two sat, and moments later several monks appeared carrying brass trays loaded with cups of steaming buttered tea and tsampa. They drank the sweet tea in silence, and only when they had fi nished did Tsering speak again.
"What brings friend Pendergast back to Gsalrig Chongg?" he asked.
"Thank you, Tsering, for your welcome," he said quietly. "I'm glad to be back. I return to you in order to continue my journey of meditation and enlightenment. Let me introduce to you Miss Constance Greene, who also has come in hopes of study." He took her hand and she rose.
A long silence ensued. At last, Tsering rose. He walked over to Constance and stood before her, looking calmly into her face, and then reached up and touched her hair, fingering it delicately. Then, ever so gently, he reached out and touched the swell of her breasts, first one, then the other. She remained standing, unflinching.
"Are you a woman?" he asked.
"Surely you've seen a woman before," said Constance dryly.
"No," said Tsering. "I have not seen woman since I come here" at age of two."
Constance colored. "I'm very sorry. Yes, I am a woman."
Tsering turned to Pendergast. "This is first woman ever to come to Gsalrig Chongg. We never accept woman before as student. I am sorry to say it cannot be permitted. Especially now, in middle of funeral ceremonies for Venerable Ralang Rinpoche."
"The Rinpoche is dead?" Pendergast asked.
"I am sorry to hear of the death of the Most High Lama."
At this, Tsering smiled. "Is no loss. We will find his reincarnation" the nineteenth Rinpoche --- and he will be with us again. It is I who am sorry to deny your request."
"She needs your help. I need your help. We are both . . . tired of the world. We have come a long way to find peace. Peace, and healing."
"I know how difficult journey you make. I know how much you hope. But Gsalrig Chongg exist for thousand year without female presence, and it cannot change. She must leave."
A long silence ensued. And then Pendergast raised his eyes to the ancient, unmoving figure occupying the highest seat. "Is this also the decision of the abbot?"
At first, there was no sign of movement. A visitor might have even mistaken the wizened figure for some kind of happy, senile idiot, grinning vacantly from his perch above the others. But then there was the merest flick of a desiccated finger, and one of the younger monks climbed up and bent over the abbot, placing his ear close to the man's toothless mouth. After a moment he straightened up and said something to Tsering in Tibetan.
Tsering translated. "The abbot asks woman to repeat name, please."
"I am Constance Greene," came the small but determined voice.
Tsering translated into Tibetan, having some difficulty over the name.
Another silence ensued, stretching into minutes.
Again the flick of the finger; again the ancient monk mumbled into the ear of the young monk, who repeated it in a louder voice.
Tsering said, "The abbot asks if this real name."
She nodded. "Yes, it is my real name."
Slowly the ancient lama raised a sticklike arm and pointed to a dim wall of the room with a fingernail that extended at least an inch from his finger. All eyes turned toward a temple painting hidden under a draped cloth, one of many hanging on the wall.
Tsering walked over and lifted the cloth, holding up a candle to it. The glow revealed a stunningly rich and complex image: a bright green female deity with eight arms, sitting on a white moon disk, with gods, demons, clouds, mountains, and gold filigree swirling about her, as if caught in a storm.
The old lama mumbled at length into the ear of the young monk, his toothless mouth working. Then he sat back and smiled while Tsering again translated.
"His Holiness ask to direct attention to thangka painting of Green Tara."
There was a murmuring and shuffling of the monks as they rose from their seats and respectfully stood in a circle around the painting, like students waiting for a lecture.
The old lama flapped a bony arm at Constance Greene to join the circle, which she hastily did, the monks shuffling aside to afford her space.
"This is picture of Green Tara," Tsering continued, still translating at one remove the mumbled words of the old monk. "She is mother of all Buddhas. She have constancy. Also wisdom, activity of mind, quick thinking, generosity, and fearlessness. His Holiness invite female to step closer and view mandala of Green Tara."
Constance stepped forward tentatively.
"His Holiness ask why student given name of Green Tara."
Constance looked around. "I don't know what you mean."
"Your name Constance Greene. This name contain two important attribute of Green Tara. His Holiness ask how you get name."
"Greene is my last name. It's a common English surname, but I've no idea of the origin. And my first name, Constance, was given to me by my mother. It was popular in . . . around the time I was born. Any resemblance of my name to the Green Tara is obviously a coincidence."
Now the abbot began to laugh, shakily, and struggled to stand with the help of two monks. In a few moments he was standing, but just barely, as if the slightest nudge would jostle him into a loose heap. He continued to laugh as he spoke again, a low, wheezy sound, displaying his pink gums, his bones almost rattling with mirth.
"Coincidence? No such thing. Student make funny joke," Tsering translated. "The abbot like good joke."
Constance glanced at Tsering to the abbot and back again. "Does that mean I'll be allowed to study here?"
"It mean your study is already begun," said Tsering, with a smile of his own.
Excerpted from THE WHEEL OF DARKNESS © Copyright 2011 by Douglas Preston and Lincoln Child. Reprinted with permission by Vision. All rights reserved.