Seven Meditations of the Myth of Shangri-La

Peter Bishop. The Myth of Shangri-La: Tibet, Travel Writing and the Western Creation of Sacred Landscape.
Berkeley, University of California Press, 1989.


The dress of a woman of Lhassa,
In its place,
Is an invisible element of that place
Made visible.
(W. Stevens, "Anecdote of Men by the Thousand")


Sacred places help to orient the world; they are part of the social fabric. Regular journeys can, and must, be made to and from such places so the bearings can be taken, guidance received and communication occur with the gods. (Bishop, p.216)

There are books in my neighborhood store that map "sacred places" as if they were vacation tours. By visiting them do we take from them more than we are able to give, pumping money into economies while draining off numinous blood? Or is the power of "sacred places" merely a condensation of who we really are: Beings who exchange ourselves for ourselves continuously. Tourist and Axis Mundi, sipapu, temenos...each one of us both path to and site of Shangri-La.


Home is where our boots stand in a corner, unscuffed by the world. How many of us leap over the fence and step happily into the void? How many climb the bare cliffs of his or her Vision, reaching for the infinitesimal mindholds that trace hope onto otherwise sheer walls of Faith?

Travellers and explorers at the turn of the century poignantly swore that the globe was shrinking, that a closure of the earth's previously imagined boundless space was imminent. As (Sven) Hedin put it, the blank spaces were disappearing. (p.171)

I remember, not many years ago, seeing on a classroom wall a map with large regions marked Unexplored Territory. That is why I left home, giving up formal education. What more is there to learn? Here was my religion, my catrography, the errant nature of my mind.

"But that comes later." Do events seed one another? Is reality a daisy chain of the daily news? Is cause and effect metaphorically correct? Or is it only our need for coherency, for "making sense," and for legitimizing our view of things, that creates a chronology, with its topos of properly placed names and dates.

By selecting and encouraging one style of travel and reporting. Whilst discouraging others, the British exerted the power of the fantasies over "the Himalayas" and "Tibet", creating a very specific type of place. (p.73)


Begin on Death's threshold. By unfolding a map of the Terra Incognita, one side of our face becomes numb with frostbite, while skin peals off the other. Birds fall from the sky: their wings are gravity's revenge on the sincerity of our flight. Tread cautiously, here symptoms are exposed as wormholes, avenues of insights into other possibilities of being.

Being what? Nature is passionate beyond belief?

The first object that strikes you as you go down the hill into Tibet, is a mount in the middle of the plain. It is where the people of Par-jong expose their dead. (p.40)

Beyond, a flat gray plateau sprawls past the pale, a horror vacui coterminous with the theology of our ambitions. What do we seek so rapaciously, like harpies beating galvanized wings over blood-smeared post-uterine skins?

Desolation and solitude combine with an overwhelming immensity of landscape confusion to produce a sense of dismal savagery. (p.68)

Here we are pitifully small, yet we dream like giants.

In midst of cold nerve steam rises from the blush of one's heart. There is no turning back. What remains of distance is only in words: stories collected, memories tricked into echoing their report.

Shangri-La was the last great cohesive echo that reverberated from Tibet before it fell into ruins. As an echo should, it began life well defined, clearly shaped by its immediate connection with the place, but as its sound radiated further from its echoing source, the form became more diffuse and vague. It still survives as the faintest of echoes, but for most people it has long since lost any connection with a specific place. (p.251)

Each step is another way of augmenting the baggage. While secular movements of earth brace mafic light, we are like monks sworn to own nothing, hurrying to a fire sale with a list of particulars. However, "those items that do not appear on the list are as important as those that do." (p.30)

The "visible matter, the one that sends light to us, is only 10 percent of the total matter. Ninety percent of the total matter of the universe is what is now called dark matter—dark because we don't see it, dark because we don't know what it is." (New York Times Review of Books, Feb. 16, 1989, p.10)


Even before crossing the border we sense something is wrong. There are no crosses here, no Stars of David. The sky lifts itself into a different orbit from that which instruments allow. Our rituals are of no use. So, for the moment, this border is closed to us. Frustrated, we retreat to survey from a distance, defining evections as fractally monstrous shapes.

Distance brings order to to irregular chaos; a variety of forms redeems barren sameness. The early accounts of Himalayan travel are full of "grand prospects," "solemn majestic" views, picturesque scenes and, of course, "glorious landscape." (p.70)

The familiar ground of conquest: history rehearsed by rote. Recognizing in each other parts of ourselves, reveling that our vocal cords vibrate to similar pitches we can see who we are everywhere. Yet before each sound there's a corresponding silence. Paint brushes quiver as they're pulled from rucksacks. Definite colors are mixed with apprehension. Stiff canvases, aroused to the romance of imagination, are forced into perspective. Pictures, valued like tiger skins and elephant tucks back home, somehow strike a false note.

The precise forms of the place were incidental, only a platform for the intensification of individual experiences. It is these experiences that were being acclaimed in early Romanticism, rather than wilderness landscape. (p.70)

Thanks to Darwin, the Himalayas are a taller version of the Alps; Snow Leopard is cousin to Egyptian lion, thus the British throne. Time is figured from Greenwich, leading directly to these eminencies, downbuckles, outcrops, scree from Victoria Falls, slumps like Singapore's crepuscular rocks. Is this the Brahmaputra or the Nile? The golden aura of the Potala palace is a reflection off Jerusalem's holy domes.

Remoteness became a measurable and empirical fact as Greenwich moved to the centre of the global map. Tibet became remote from, yet connected to, Britain. (p.37)


In the middle of the 19th century "it seemed as if all roads, both real and imagined, led to Lhasa. Yet simultaneously, every entrance was denied." (p.123)

Lhasa is where we don't need credentials to go. It is the anima that draws blood from one's imagination, the point of the magi's conical cap. Somewhere at the end of the yellow yak road Lhasa sits waiting on a hill. In sight of it, the Western Ego shifts into low. An arsenal of the latest technology is delivered into hands as birds into their nest. These weapons, like all weapons, are the visible means of death we carry within ourselves.

...the belief that magic charms would stop bullets, and that painted symbols on rocks would stop the British army, one can understand Grenard exclaiming: "thus is Tibet made to spin distractedly, without rest of truce, in religion's mad round." (154)

Boots split down to the bone, toes curled and bled; but Lhasa was to be seen not in the platelets, nor in the plasma, but in the drama of the wound. Horses stamp their hoofs into the frozen ground, while poking their snouts into buckets of still-warm entrails. Equine piglets fitted with blankets woven from the sky's astonishing colors, "a unique luminosity" that dyes sensibilities the hues of reality. But whose reality?

(Gabriel) Bonvalot even reported that his small Tibetan horses were carnivorous, feeding "on raw flesh." What powerful metaphors of primal vitality for the horse-worshiping Victorians! (p.158)


Yam-dok-tso, Samtam Gamcha, the hidden valley of Khembalung, Guria Pass, and Dawa-Dzong Valley, or Shambhala (Shangri-La), itself. The wealth of imaginal words spawned or supported by this land! A home grown pharmalexicongraphy. Drugs that spin the Wheel of Life. Drugs that scratch into thousands of rocks Om Mani Padme Hum! (The Jewel in the Lotus). Drugs that tirelessly run hundreds of miles without running down, that chant in three octaves at once, that heat naked bodies in the middle of winter. Drugs that move anchorites to seal themselves in tiny cells.

Perceval Landon, The Times's special correspondent, in 1904 visited Nyen-de-kyi-buk monastery, where he asked to see one of the immured monks who spent from six months to life meditating within a small dark cell just large enough for one to sit.

"The abbot was attended by an acolyte, who tapped three times sharply on the stone slab...Then very slowly and uncertainly (the stone door) was pushed back and a black chasm revealed." After a pause of about thirty seconds, "a hand, muffled in a tightly-wound piece of dirty cloth, for all the world like the stump of an arm, was painfully thrust up, and very weakly it felt along the slab (for its daily ration of bread and water). After a fruitless fumbling the hand slowly quivered back again one ineffectual effort, and then the stone slab moved noiselessly again across the opening." (Perceval Landon, quoted by Bishop, p.136)

This drug, this word, this incorrigible "I."

And "Hairy wild men," the geresun bamurshe, yeti trudging over the ice of disbelief, waving hands at extinct worlds, with grins that open black holes whose horizons span the whole of creation.

Exist or don't exist? What can these terms mean? At this altitude peaks gnash their therianthropic teeth. The sun goes down in the bat of an eye. We are the shadow and the body it casts, "the tug of darkness and the breath of snow." (L Eiseley. From, "Toward Winter.")



Is "sacredness" an instinct, that which sent our nomadic ancestors returning again and again to the grave of their dead, like shamans to their initiatory tomb? The contradictions of human life with its forbearance of extinction, of nothingness tempted by somethingness. The paradox of being "gods who shit" displacing something bigger than the burden of ourselves, as we fear the consequences, the Terra Incongnita that defines the limen of our soul.

This is not the utopia we hoped to annex. There's too much madness here, to much decay. There are monks, thousands of them, who do nothing but chant; sitting in filthy robes, their breath stinks. While the laity grubs for scrawny dogs, their children playing in the cloister's open sewers. This is not the Shangri-La I dreamt. This must be someone else's dream I'm in.

And Lhasa, that holy city of the mind:

If one approached within a league of Lhasa, saw the glittering domes of the Potala, and turned back without entering the precincts, one might still imagine it an enchanted city, shining with turquoise and gold. But having entered the illusion is lost. (E. Chandler, quoted in Bishop, p.172)

By the 1940s Lhasa had telephones and dancehalls, and the Dalai Lama owned an Austin, license plate TIBET 1. What was going on here? What is this world?

There are men of the East, he said,
Who are the East.
There are men of a province
Who are that province.
(W. Stevens, Ibid.)


(c) The San Francisco Jung Institute Library Journal, 1992