Power places are the destination of pilgrims, and the sacred ambience of the place, its noumenal energy and the pilgrim's relationship to it, is sufficient to fulfil the pilgrim wishes. 'Power place' translates the Tibetan word né, or nechen, which can also be rendered 'sacred' or 'holy place'. The most momentous power places are the great sacred mountains and the lakes in their proximity, and cover, therefore, large areas, sometimes hundreds of square miles. Within these areas the loci of power are the caves, particular peaks and rocks, springs and confluences, sky-burial sites, any of which, in any location may be power places. Sometimes the natural features have been modified by man and the power place has become inseparable from the structure built at the place - hermitage, gompa, lhakhang, chorten. Regardless of what has been built there, every power place gains its significance primarily from its geomantic location. Secondarily, it is consecrated by divine or human activity.
Geomancy is divination of the landscape. The most common form of geomancy practised in Europe is dowsing, divination of subterranean water courses. The Chinese have developed the art (or is it a science?) of geomancy far beyond any other culture -- fengshui, literally, means 'wind-water' - 'wind you cannot comprehend and water you cannot grasp'. More specifically it is knowledge of the relationship between topography, water courses, natural chi and human modification of the landscape. In practice, fengshui is used to discover a suitable place for building a structure and its ideal alignment. Every new Chinese building in Hong Kong is sited according to the principles of fengshui. Although Tibet received much of its mystic science and art from China, particularly and medicine and astrology, of which geomancy is a part, the developed art of fengshui seems never to have been transmitted to Tibet. Geomancy in Tibet has to be defined in less sophisticated terms than fengshui: it is more the art of divining the place of perfect harmony of the elements in the landscape, or in a more modest definition, identifying auspicious geomantic features in the landscape and locating power places. This function is performed by yogis with visionary insight into the unitary relationship of mind and landscape.
Where the sky meets the earth at the top of a mountain or a hill is a power place. Kang Rimpoche (Kailash), Labchi, Tsari, Nyangchen Thanglha, Bonri, Kawa Karpo and Amnye Machen are some of these most sacred mountains. Every valley has a mountain power-place in proximity. Where the earth, sky and water are conjunct at a lake is a power place. Tso Mapham (Manasarovar), Yamdrok Tso, Lamo Latso, Namtso and Tso Ngon (Kokonor) lakes are such lake power places. Where a major river rises is a power place, like the springs of the four great rivers in the four directions of Kang Rimpoche. Where two rivers meet is a power place, like the confluences of the Yarlung Tsangpo and the Kyichu, and the Tsangpo and the Nyangchu, and the river confluence at Labchi. Where fire and water are mixed at a hot spring is a power place, like the hot springs of Terdrom and Tretapuri, and the flames on the water at Chumi Gyatsa (Muktinath). A particular conjunction of space and rock provided by a cave may become a power place. A mountain pass is a power place providing an altar below a mountain peak.
Certainly there are many places in Tibet that are power places by geomantic definition, but unless they have been consecrated by tradition they lack the association with buddha-mind that endows them with particular sanctity. When both geomantic and human factors are optimised the result will be a great power place, a nechen. Sometimes, however, the geomantic power place will lack any human activity - Tibetan Buddhists, unlike the Taoist Chinese and the Bonpos, do not generally climb mountain peaks. To the contrary sometimes a place most sacred to a religious order will be devoid of visible geomantic features - the birthplace of a saint, or the location of a gompa.
Power places are residences of a buddha-deity, a god or spirit. But identification of such divine abodes imply application of a human mind. Recognition of a geomantically auspicious location and the noumenal energy that resides there is the work of a yogi or adept. The identification is confirmed by the sage's continued presence there, his evocation, or propitiation and worship, of the god. The importance of the power place is determined by the spiritual achievement of that first sage, for his success will draw other yogis to the place. Success will be seen in terms of the attainment of buddhahood or by spiritual powers demonstrated as magic or miracles. Perhaps the first great name associated with the place will initiate a lineage of disciples through successive generations who will further sanctify it. Or if a single lineage does not gain a monopoly of the site then it will become associated with various lineages. Whether of one or multiple lineages the site becomes hallowed by tradition.
In Buddhist tradition, the most powerful sanctifying activity of a human being is Shakyamuni's enlightenment. Shakyamuni's attainment under the bodhi tree in Bodhgaya has marked that place as the centre of the Buddhist world. Located in the middle of the Ganges plains, with no apparent significant geomantic features, Shakyamuni's seat under the bodhi tree, called Dorjeden, the Indestructible Throne, is consecrated as a power place primarily through human activity. Guru Rimpoche's place of enlightenment at Yanglesho (Pharping) in the Kathmandu Valley is a south-facing rock-cave on a ridge. In Tibet, the moment of a yogi's enlightenment is not usually recorded as such and it is simply the places of meditation of the innumerable buddha-lamas that are recalled.
Until a power place has been empowered by a buddha-lama, although it may possess auspicious geomantic features, it is still part of the profane landscape, perhaps a place unremarked and unused. If it is a cave, perhaps goat or yak herders have sheltered in it, their animals leaving centuries of accumulated dung along with the charcoal of ancient fires on the floor. It may have been shunned due to the recognition of a noxious spirit in residence, but this in itself may not be sufficient to keep herders away. Whether or not it is functional, it is basically a hole in the ground or the rock. The place is sanctified by a lama or tantric magician. His presence there is alone sufficient to empower it. But if he stayed there for a significant length of time, then certainly he will be the subject of legend and this legend adds support to the basic fact of his buddha-awareness impregnating the rock and changing the perceived pattern of energy from a chaotic superficial malignity - or potential malignity - to a locus of transcendental awareness at the centre of the mandala. A cave is opened by the yogi whose meditation sanctifies it. A mountain power place is opened by the first adept to circumambulate it. A hidden valley is opened by a treasure-finder who reveals Guru Rimpoche's map and leads his followers into it. The followers of a particular religious order may consider a power place 'open' only if the founder of that order or one of its masters opened it.
The conjunction of auspicious geomantic features and the sometime presence of a yogi who has empowered the place produces an ambience immediately accessible to the pilgrim who approaches that power place with devotion. The feelings that are evoked may be described in terms of power, but through Buddhist devotional and meditational praxis the yogi transforms the latent energy of the place into transcendental awareness and its compassionate responsiveness. This state of buddha-mind is conducive to the discovery of hidden treasure. Power places are by definition places of hidden treasure; but according to the doctrine of the Nyingma order only those places empowered by Guru Rimpoche or his primary emanations contain caches of accessible treasure. When Guru Rimpoche was travelling throughout Tibet, meditating in the innumerable cave and temple power places, he concealed treasures in each for the fortunate beings of future generations, and these places are called treasure power places (terne).
From The Sacred Life of Tibet, Part Five.