Title: Roof of the World Tibet, Key to Asia Author: Amaury de Riencourt Read: June 2007
Map of Tibet thanks to savetibet.org
I have always been intrigued by Buddhism. When I first visited Sikkim, I had a chance to visit the Rumtek monastery and was immediately in awe of it. The land too held a spell on me and it has always been hard to return to the humdrum of mundane existence from Sikkim. The visits were short, only a few days, but held for me the promise of longer sojourns and the possibility of long term stay in my later years. Searching for information on Sikkim on the internet, I came across a reference to this particular book. There was also an excerpt which immediately piqued my interest. The book is no longer in print, and I acquired a copy from Amazon.com, the 1950 hardcover first edition published in the US by Rinehart and Co. The pages are worn out, so it needs delicate handling(I ruffled a couple of pages before becoming more cautious).
The book itself is a travelogue but strays into the political history and religious practices of Tibet – which is probably inevitable given how deeply Buddhism is intertwined in every aspect of Tibetan life. It starts with the author’s journey from Sikkim, where he enters Tibet through the Nathu-La pass. He journeys on mule back (Tibet had no automobiles or motor-able roads at that time) across several Tibetan cities to reach Lasha, the capital city – where he spends several months. Geographical descriptions of the landscape intersperse with the distinctive characters of the cities that he passes through. Culture and food habits, initially repulsive, gradually grow on him. Buttered tea, which Tibetans consume by gallons and is a great social lubricator, sounds nice, but once you find out it’s ingredients you may not want to taste it, regardless how it might affect your palate. Here’s the recipe from the author:
“tea, which is grown in China and carried to Tibet in brick-shape, is mixed with a soda that is found on the banks of rivers or margins of lakes. The mixture is thrown into a huge cauldron and tepid water is poured over it. The whole lot is then boiled. Salt and rancid butter, several years old if possible, soon joins this boiling soup and the buttered tea is churned. Very often, the flavor enhanced with the addition of yak dung.”
Tibet also has(or used to have) extremely filthy cities, with little or no sewage systems – a stark contrast to the breathtakingly beautiful sceneries of the isolated lands. The author in general is enamored by the friendly disposition of the Tibetans and their happy, child-like nature, their colorful rituals and customs. He feels that Tibetan farmers are much better off financially than their counterparts in India, China and elsewhere in Asia, although the country is technologically backward and lives in the feudal middle-ages.
It is important to keep in mind that very few Westerners had traveled to Tibet during the time of de Riencourt’s odyssey. Tibet was largely a mysterious land hidden in the clouds of the high Himalayan plateaus. De Riencourt’s account of Tibet’s geo-political history comprises the second phase of the book – and it is surprisingly comprehensive, spanning the timeframe from the pre-Buddha era to the time before the Chinese invasion in 1950. De Riencourt’s concern about Communist China’s dominion proved valid. He finds it surprising that such a strategically important land should be thus neglected by Western powers, as he notes in his epilogue:
“Tibet is now caught between the two great currents sweeping across Asia: the Marxist flood from the north and the east, and Gandhi’s mystical democracy from the west and the south. Tibet has become a border country, standing on the colossal frontier dividing two worlds.
Can the Western powers ignore the dramatic possibility of Tibet being invaded by the Communists? Can they now understand the terrifying implications of selfishly abandoning, of delivering, almost, this fabulous country to the most ruthless and destructive tyranny that has ever existed?”
The last and final phase of the book delves into occult and mystical practices of Tibetan Buddhism. There’s a precursor to this in a chapter entitled “The Wheel of Existence” wherein the author distinguishes western religions(Christianity and Islam specifically) to their Oriental counterparts(Hinduism and Buddhism), and talks about the roots of Buddhism and the significance of karma. The basic evil is suffering, which is caused by ignorance, leading to desire, producing action(karma). One is not free from one’s actions unless free from ignorance. Desire causes rebirths, which is how the Wheel of Existence keeps revolving, enmeshing one in one’s karma, the Wheel symbolizing the world of the senses.
In a private conversation with the Rinpoche of the Dragon Monastery(Duk Ralung), deReincourt hears a first hand account of the wonders of Tibetan Yoga – instantly drying an ice-cold wet blanket with the heat generated from one’s body and transfering one’s consciousness to another body being some of the miraculous acts. However, the Rinpoche notes that these are mere “illusions of the sangaric world” — the final goal being the transendence of the world of phenomenon to ultimate reality(nirvana), and he rightly notes:
“Such transcendental illumination cannot be communicated, it can only be experienced.”
This treatise, although not a literary masterpiece, is certainly a fascinating read for anyone interested in Tibet and Buddhism, and mildly interesting to probably everyone.
© 2007 mystic-wanderer