Meditations of the Myth of Shangri-La
Peter Bishop. The Myth of
Shangri-La: Tibet, Travel Writing and the Western Creation of
Berkeley, University of California Press,
The dress of a woman of Lhassa,
In its place,
Is an invisible element of that place
(W. Stevens, "Anecdote of Men by the Thousand")
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.
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
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
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
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
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
...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)
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.
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
This drug, this word,
this incorrigible "I."
And "Hairy wild men," the geresun
trudging over the ice of disbelief, waving hands at extinct worlds,
with grins that open black holes whose horizons span the whole
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
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
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,
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,
Who are the East.
There are men of a province
Who are that province.
(W. Stevens, Ibid.)
(c) The San Francisco Jung Institute Library