A GUEST OF THE LAMAS: At Gangtok I again met Bermiag Kushog. The Lama of Enche had left for Shigatze, in Tibet, and only returned some months later. Dawasandup had been called upon, as interpreter, to follow the Sino-Tibetan political conference that was convoked in India. The maharajah having died, his son Sidkeong tulku succeeded him and, consequently, had less time to devote to religious studies. Unexpected obstacles prevented me from completing the journey which I had planned. Everything worked against my desires.
Gradually hostile forces seemed to gather around me. I seemed to be obsessed by invisible beings who incited me to leave the country, insinuating that I should be able to advance no farther, either in my study of Lamaism or upon the actual soil of Tibet. By a sort of clairvoyance at the same time, I saw these unknown enemies triumphant and rejoicing, after my departure, at having driven me away.
I attributed these phenomena to fever or neurasthenia due to brain fatigue and the annoyance at my plans being upset. Some people would, perhaps, have seen in this the effect of occult activities. Whatever it was, I could not overcome this painful state bordering on hallucination. Calming drugs did not relieve me, I thought that a change of scene might be more efficacious.
While I was racking my brain to think of a place where I might stop without leaving the Himalayas, the new maharajah, the lama tulku, without guessing that he was more than realizing my desires, offered me an apartment in the monastery of Podang, about miles away from Gangtok, in the misty forests.
The apartment consisted of an immense room on the first floor of the temple and a huge kitchen where, according to Tibetan custom, my servants were to sleep.
Two large bay-windows let in all the light of the sky, and with equal hospitality they admitted wind, rain or hail through large gaps on both sides, for the framework was too narrow and only joined the walls at the top.
In one corner of this hall I placed my books upon a wide wainscot. I opened my folding table and chair, and this was my ” work room.” In another corner I hooked my tent to the beams and set up my camp bed. This was my bedroom. The middle of the apartment, too well aired by cross ventilation, became a kind of reception-room for my visitors, when the weather was fine.
The religious music which I heard at Podang twice a day, before dawn and at sunset, enchanted me. The small orchestra consisted of two gyalings (a kind of hautboy), two ragdongs (a huge Teban trumpet) and two kettle-drums.
A bell striking a special rhythm, peculiar to Eastern temples, was sounded as prelude. After a few moments’ silence the deep-toned ragdongs rumbled for a while, then the gyalings by themselves sang a slow musical phrase supremely moving in its simplicity. They repeated it with variations, supported by the bass notes of the ragdongs in which finally joined the kettledrums that imitated the thunder rolling in the distance.
The melody flowed as smoothly as the water of a deep river, without interruption, emphasis or passion. It produced a strange, acute impression of distress, as if all the suffering of the beings wandering from world to world, since the beginning of the ages, was breathed out in this weary, desperate lamentation.
What musician, inspired without his knowing, had found this leit motiv of universal sorrow? And how, with this heterogeneous orchestra, could men devoid of any artistic sense render it with such heart-rending fervour? – This remained a mystery which the musician monks would have been unable to explain. I had to be content to listen to them, while watching the dawn
come up behind the mountains, or in the darkening of the sunset sky.
Beside attending the daily services, I had the opportunity during my stay at Podang to witness the annual Ceremony of the Demons. In Tibet, later on, I saw the same rites celebrated with much greater display of clerical paraphernalia, but, to my mind, this diminished the picturesque character which they assumed when performed in the shadow of the Himalayan forests. Sorcery loses much of its prestige when seen by broad daylight and in a crowd.
First, the trapas took Mahäkala out of the cabinet in which he had been shut up a full year, with offerings and charms.
In every lamaist monastery there exists a temple, or a room reserved as a dwelling-place for the ancient deities of the aborigines or those imported from India. The latter have considerably lost rank in entering the Land of Snows. Unconscious of their irreverence Tibetans have turned them into mere demons and sometimes treat them harshly.
Mahäkala is the most famous among the exiled Hindu deities. His original personality is a form of Shiva in his function of Destroyer of the World. Having become a harmful spirit, he is held in slavery by the lamas who compel him to render them various kinds of services and do not hesitate to punish his lack of zeal.
A popular tradition has it that a celebrated lama head of the Karmapa sect, attached Mahäkala to him as attendant. When this lama was at the Chinese court, he offended the Emperor, who had him tied to the tail of a horse. Dragged behind the animal, and in peril of death, the great Karmapa called on Mahäkala to help him. But the latter did not immediately appear. When the lama had freed himself by means of magic words which separated his beard from his chin, he saw Mahäkala coming toward him too late to be of any use, and in his anger he hit the poor devil such a blow that though several centuries have now passed his cheek remains swollen even to-day.
Of course, the trapas of Podang were not powerful
enough to take such liberties, Mahäkala inspired them with real terror.
Here, as in some other monasteries, grim wonders were said to happen. Sometimes blood sweated through the boards of the shrine where Mahäkala was shut up, and at other times, on opening it, the remains of a human heart or brain were found. These signs – according to the trapas – betoken the occult activity of the terrible deity.
When the mask which represents Mahäkala – and in which he is supposed to reside – was taken out of the shrine, it was placed in a dark chapel reserved for other kindred malevolent deities. Two novices watched it, repeating without interruption the magic words which prevent him from escaping. Lulled by their monotonous chant, the boys fought with all their might against sleep during the long hours of the night, convinced that if they stopped for an instant repeating the mysterious formula their dreadful captive would take advantage of it to free himself and they would become his first victims.
In the neighbouring hamlets, the peasants were greatly perturbed by the slight semblance of liberty given to Mahäkala. They locked their door early in the evening and mothers bid their children not to stay out after sunset.
Less important demons supposed to be wandering around the country, seeking to do harm, were attracted by the incantations of the lamas and compelled to enter a sort of cage woven of light wood and coloured threads. Then this pretty house was solemnly carried out of the monastery and precipitated, with its prisoners, into a flaming brazier.
But the demons are immortals – fortunately for the sorcerers whose living depends upon them. Next year the same rites must be performed all over again.
A learned lama belonging to a wealthy family of Sikkim had just returned from Tibet. He became head of the monastery of Rhumteck in succession to his brother who had died recently. Custom demanded that he should celebrate certain rites meant to assure
the welfare of the dead in the next world, at Podane the chief monastery of his sect in Sikkim.
The late head lama was an old acquaintance of mine. I had met him at Kalimpong where he had come in the train of the heir prince to pay a visit to the Dalai Lama.
He was a jolly fellow, a veritable ” bon vivant “; who did not worry himself with philosophic problems, kept two wives at home, and appreciated old brandy to the extent of drinking several bottles a day. In possession of a large income, he would buy anything he fancied right and left although ignorant of its use. It is in this way that, one day, the big powerfully built head lama came to see me wearing the hat, trimmed with pink ribbons, of a three-years-old girl.
The new abbot, popularly called ” the gentleman from Tibet” – Pöd Kushog – because he usually lived in this country, was quite different from his brother. He had spent his youth studying in various Tibetan monasteries, and even in Lhasa he enjoyed the reputation among erudite lamas of being a distinguished grammarian. He had also taken high Orders and remained a celibate, which is rare among the Himalayan clergy.
The funeral services over which he presided lasted for a whole week. Happy days for the trapas of Podang, who feasted and received gifts!
These ceremonies being ended, in the first month of the year (The Tibetan year begins in February.) Pöd Kushog proceeded to the annual blessing of the monastery. Escorted by a choir of trapas chanting a litany of good wishes, he walked round the buildings and through the corridors, throwing consecrated grain into each room as he passed by.
A few handfuls of barley, cast with a gracious smile and the liturgic wish tashi shog ! (may prosperity be) rattled against my “tent-bedroom” and sprinkled the table and the books in my “study.”
Prosperity! prosperity! . . . Duly exorcised and blessed, the monastery should become a branch of the Paradise of the Great Bliss (Nub Dewachen). Yet the
monks did not feel quite safe. Secretly doubting their occult powers and even those of the learned grammarian they feared that a few devils might have escaped extermination and be waiting in hiding to begin doing mischief again. They begged the help of one whom they trusted more.
One evening, the gomchen of Lachen appeared with all the trapping of a magician: a five-sided crown, a rosary-necklace made of one hundred and eight round pieces, cut out of so many skulls, an apron of human bones bored and carved, and in his belt the ritualistic dagger (phurba).
Standing in the open, near a flaming fire, he drew magic signs in the air with his sceptre-dorje and stabbed the air as he recited incantations in a low voice.
I do not know which invisible demons he was fighting, but in the fantastic light of the leaping flames, he certainly looked like a demon himself.
My remedy had proved efficacious: whether change of place had killed the microbes of fever, or the diversion of new scenes had cured the brain fatigue, or my unyielding will-power had conquered conscious beings of the occult world, I, at any rate, was freed from the obsession that had tortured me.
Yet a strange thing happened during my stay at Podang.
Sidkeong tulku having become maharajah, wished to make his subjects renounce their superstitions in favour of orthodox Buddhism. For this purpose, he had invited an Indian monk, who belonged to the Theravadin philosophic school, to preach in his country. The missionary had to fight against such anti-buddhistic customs as sorcery, the cult of spirits and the habit of drinking fermented drinks. This monk, Kali Kumar by name, was already at work.
The maharajah-lama, as abbot of Podang, had an apartment in the monastery where he stayed on the rare occasions when he officiated at the head of his monks. He came for two days, during my stay in the gompa.
We were taking tea together, late in the afternoon, and talking of Kali Kumar’s mission and the way in
which he might hope to free the hillmen from their inveterate superstitions.
” It is impossible.” I said, “to know exactly what the historical Padmasambhâva, who preached in Tibet centuries ago, was like. But it is certain that his followers have made him the hero of legends that encourage drunkenness and absurd, pernicious practices. Under his name, they worship an evil spirit – even as you do,” I added laughingly, pointing out an image of the great magician standing at the far end of the room with an altar lamp burning at its feet.
” It is necessary,” I continued, when, suddenly, I could say no more. A third invisible presence had interrupted me. Yet no one had spoken, there was complete silence in the room, but I keenly felt the influence of some occult force.
“Nothing you can do will succeed,” said a soundless voice. “The people of this country are mine . . . I am more powerful than you. . . .”
I listened in amazement to these silent words, and I had almost decided that they were only the expression of my own doubts regarding the success of the proposed reforms, when the maharajah replied.
He replied to that which I had not said, arguing with the invisible adversary of his plans.
” Why should I not succeed,” he went on to say. ” Possibly it will take some time to change the ideas of the peasants and the lower clergy. The demons which they feed will not easily become resigned to die of hunger, but, nevertheless, I shall get the better of them.”
He was mockingly alluding to the animal sacrifices offered to the evil spirits-by the sorcerers.
” But I have not said – – ” I began and stopped short, for I thought that, in spite of the brave declaration of war the prince had made on the demons, he was not entirely free from superstition and consequently it was better not to tell him what had happened.
However, I do not wish to leave the reader with this impression of Sidkeong tulku. He had probably liberated himself from superstition more fully than I supposed. According to his horoscope, in which Tibetans place complete faith, the year of his death was noted as dangerous for him. To counteract hostile influences, several lamas – among whom was the gomchen of Lachen – offered to celebrate the rites prescribed for the purpose.
He thanked them and refused their ministry, saying that if he must die, he felt capable of passing into another life without their ceremonies.
I think he must have left the reputation of being an impious man. As soon as he was dead, all innovations and religious reforms that he had started were abolished. Preaching was stopped and beer was supplied in the temples again. A lama informed the country clergy that they should return to their former habits.
The invisible adversary triumphed as he had predicted he would.
Although my headquarters were at Podang, I had not entirely given up my excursions across Sikkim. Thus it happened that I met two gomchens from Eastern Tibet who had recently come to live in the Himalayas.
One of them dwelt in Sakyong, and for this reason he was called Sakyong gomchen. It is not considered polite, in Tibet, to address a person by his name. All who are not treated as one’s inferiors are designated by some title.
Sakyong gomchen was picturesque in his ways and open-minded. He haunted the cemeteries and shut himself up for months in his house to practice magic rites. Like his colleague from Lachen, he did not wear the regular monastic garb, and instead of cutting his hair short he wore it rolled up on the top of his head after the fashion of Indian yogins. For anyone except a layman to wear his hair long in Tibet, is the recognized distinction of those ascetics or anchorites who are called naljorpas and are believed to seek salvation through the mystic ” Short Path.” ( See Chapter VII. )
Up to then, my conversations with lamas had been chiefly concerned with the philosophical doctrines of Mahayanist Buddhism from which Lamaism is derived. Sakyong gomchen held them in slight esteem and more-
over was but little conversant with them. He was fond of paradoxes. “Study,” he said, “is of no use in gaining true knowledge, it is rather an obstacle. All that we learn in that way is vain. In fact, one only knows one’s own ideas and one’s own visions. As for the real causes that have generated these ideas they remain inaccessible to us. When we try to grasp them we only seize the ideas that we, ourselves, have elaborated about these causes.”
Did he clearly understand what he said, or was he merely repeating what he had read or heard expressed by others? . . .
At the request of the prince tulku, Sakyong gomchen also went on a round of preaching. I had the opportunity of watching him delivering a sermon. I say watching rather than hearing, for at that time I was far from being capable of understanding all what he said in Tibetan. In this rôle of apostle he was really very fine, the vehemence of his speech, his gestures, the varied expressions of his countenance proclaimed him a born orator, and the frightened faces, bathed in tears of his listeners was proof enough of the impression he produced.
The gomchen of Sakyong is the only Buddhist I have ever seen preaching in such impassioned way. For orthodox Buddhism excludes gestures and vocal effects as unbefitting in expounding a doctrine which appeals only to calm reason.
I, one day, asked him: ” What is the Supreme Deliverance (tharpa) ? ” He answered: ” It is the absence of all views and all imagination, the cessation of that mental activity which creates illusions.” (That mental activity which Tibetans call togpa, ratiocination in contradistinction to togspa (understanding). )
Another day, he said: “You should go to Tibet and be initiated by a master of the ‘Short Path.’ You are too much attached to the doctrines of the nienthös (the Buddhists of the Theravadin school). I foresee that you would be capable of grasping the secret teaching.” (Secret teaching regarding methods of spiritual training and not regarding a supposed esoteric Buddhist doctrine as a few foreigners unacquainted with Buddhist literature believe. There exists no such thing as esoteric Buddhism. All theories expounded in the mystic circles are extant in books. That which is taught secretly to initiates, are ways to make the mind fit to reach enlightenment or, at lower degrees, ways to develop supernormal powers.) “And how could I go to Tibet, since foreigners are not admitted?” I asked.
” Pooh! many roads lead to Tibet,” he replied lightly. “All the learned lamas do not live in U and Tsang (the central provinces with Lhasa and Shigatze as capitals). One can find other, yet more learned, teachers in my country.” (As it has been said, the gomchen was a native of Eastern Tibet. )
The idea of getting into Tibet by way of China had never occurred to me, nor did the gomchen’s suggestion, that day, awaken any echo in my mind. My hour had probably not yet come.
The second gomchen whom I got to know was of an uncommunicative character and rather haughty in his manners. Even the customary formulas of politeness which he was compelled to utter were tinged with a peculiar icy coldness.
Like the gomchen of Sakyong he was called after the place where he lived – Daling gomchen.
He always wore the regular monastic robes and toga but with the addition of ear-rings of ivory, and a silver dorje studded with turquoises stuck in his hair.
This lama spent the whole summer of every year in a cabin built for him on the top of a woody mountain.
A few days before his arrival, his disciples and the villagers round about would carry into the hermitage enough provisions for three or four months. After this, they were absolutely forbidden to approach the gomchen’s dwelling. The lama had no difficulty in getting them to respect his solitude. The country people did not doubt that he practiced dreadful rites to trap the demons and compel them to give up their mischievous designs against the persons or the possessions of those who worshipped him. His protection greatly reassured them, but they feared that if they
went near his hut they might chance to meet some malignant beings answering unwillingly the gomchen’s summons and not in pleasant mood. Moreover, the mystery which always surrounds the conduct, as well as the character, of the naljorpas, inspired them with prudence.
Little inclined as this lama was to answer my questions the desire expressed by the prince – to whom he owed his appointment as head of the small monastery of Daling – compelled him to depart somewhat from his reserve.
Among other subjects that I approached in my talk with him was that of the food permitted to a Buddhist. “Should we interpret the command not to kill, sophistically and continue to eat meat and fish?” I asked.
The gomchen, like most Tibetans, was not a vegetarian. He expounded a theory on this subject which I heard again in other parts of Tibet and which is not altogether lacking in originality.
” Most men,” he said, ” eat like beasts, to satisfy their hunger without pondering upon the act they are accomplishing nor upon its consequences. Such ignorant people do well to abstain from eating meat and fish.
” Others consider what becomes of the material elements they absorb when eating animals. They know that the assimilation of these elements involves the assimilation of the psychic elements which are inherent in them. Anyone who has acquired that knowledge may, at his risk and peril, contract these associations and endeavour himself to obtain results useful to the victims sacrificed.
” The question is to find out whether the animal elements which he absorbs strengthen the animal propensities of the man, or whether this man will be capable of transmuting these elements into intellectual and spiritual forces, so that the substance of the animal passing into the man will be reborn in the form of human activity.”
I then asked him if this explained the esoteric sense of the belief common among Tibetans, that the lamas can send the spirits of the slaughtered animals to the Paradise of the Great Bliss.
“Do not think that I can answer your question in a few words,” he replied. “The subject is intricate. Animals have several ‘consciousnesses,’ just as we have ourselves, and as it also happens in our case, these ‘consciousnesses’ do not all follow the same road after death. A living being is an assemblage, not a unity. But one must have been initiated by a proper master before being able to realize these doctrines.”
Often the lame cut his explanations short by this declaration.
One evening, when the prince, Daling lame and I were together in the bungalow of Kewzing, the conversation was about mystic ascetics. With a repressed enthusiasm that was most impressive, the gomchen spoke of his master, of his wisdom, of his supernormal powers. Sidkeong tulku was deeply moved by the profound veneration of the lama for his spiritual teacher.
At that time the prince was full of cares on account of his contemplated marriage with a Birman princess.
“I regret very much that I cannot meet this great naljorpa,” he said to me in English. “For he, certainly, would give me good advice.”
And addressing the gomchen he repeated, in Tibetan: “I am sorry that your master is not here. I really need the advice of some such clairvoyant sage.”
But he did not mention the question he wished to ask, nor the nature of his preoccupations.
The lama with his usual coldness of manner asked: “Is the subject serious?”
” It is extremely important,” the prince replied.
“You can perhaps receive the desired advice,” said Daling gomchen.
I thought that he meant to send a letter by a messenger and was about to remind him the great distance that would have to be covered, when his aspect struck me.
He had closed his eyes and was rapidly turning pale, his body stiffening. I wished to go to him, thinking he was ill, but the prince, who had observed the sudden change in the lama, held me back, whispering:
“Don’t move. Gomchens sometimes go into a trance
quite suddenly. One must not wake them, for that is very dangerous and might even kill them.”
So I stayed seated watching the lama who remained motionless. Gradually his features changed, his face wrinkled, taking on an expression I had never seen him wear before. He opened his eyes and the prince made a startled gesture.
The man we were looking at was not the gomchen of Daling, but some one we did not know. He moved his lips with difficulty and said in a voice different from that of the gomchen:
” Do not be disturbed. This question will never have to be considered by you.”
Then he slowly closed his eyes, his features changed again and became those of Daling lama who slowly recovered his senses.
He eluded our questions and retired in silence, staggering and seeming to be broken with fatigue.
” There is no sense in his answer,” the prince concluded.
Whether by chance or for some other reason, it unfortunately proved that there had been a meaning in these words.
The matter troubling the young maharajah was about his fiancée and an affair with a girl who had borne him a son which he did not wish to break off when he married. But, truly, he needed not to ponder over his course of conduct toward the two women, for he died before the day arranged for the marriage.
I happened also to see two hermits of a peculiar type which I did not meet again in Tibet where, on the whole, the natives are more civilized than in the Himalayas.
I was returning with the prince tulku from an excursion to the frontier of Nepal. His servants, knowing that he liked to show me the “religious curiosities” of his country, pointed out the presence of two hermits in the mountains near the village where we had spent the night.
The peasants said that these men had hidden themselves so cleverly that no one had seen them for several years. A supply of food was placed from time to time
under a rock, at a chosen spot where the anchorites would take it at night. As to the huts they had built themselves, none knew where they were, nor did anyone try to discover them. For if the hermits were anxious to avoid being seen, the superstitious villagers were even more anxious to keep at a distance from them and turned away from the wood they inhabited.
Sidkeong tulku had freed himself from fear of sorcery. He ordered his servants together with a number of peasants to beat up the forest and bring the hermits to him. The latter should be well treated and presents promised to them, but great care must be taken that they did not escape.
The hunt was strenuous. The two anchorites, surprised in their quiet retreat, tried to run away, but with twenty men on their track they were finally captured.
They had to be forcibly made to enter the small temple where we were waiting with several lamas – among whom was the gomchen of Sakyong. Once there, no one could get a word out of them.
I have never seen such strange human creatures. Both men were frightfully dirty, scarcely covered by a few rags, their long hair, thick as brushwood, covered their faces and their eyes shot out sparks like a brazier.
While they looked around them like wild beasts newly caught in a cage, the prince caused two large wicker baskets to be brought. These were filled with tea, meat, barley-flour, rice and sundries. He told the hermits that he meant to give all this to them. But in spite of this agreeable prospect they remained silent.
A villager then said that he thought he had understood that when the anchorites came to live on that hill they were under a vow of silence.
His Highness, who was a prey to sudden attacks of truly Oriental despotism, replied that they might at least bow to him as it is the custom and adopt a more respectful attitude.
I saw his anger rising and, to avoid trouble brewing for the wild “holy ones,” I begged him to allow them to retire.
He first resisted my request, but I insisted.
In the meantime I had told one of my servants to bring two bags of crystallized sugar taken from my luggage – Tibetans are very fond of it – I placed one bag in each basket.
” Open the door, and let these animals out,” the prince commanded at last.
As soon as they saw a chance of escape, the hermits pounced on the baskets. One of them hastily pulled something from under his rags, plunged his claw-like hand in my hair, and then both of them flew away like hares.
I found a little amulet in my hair which I showed to my friends and, later on, to some lamas who were conversant in the science of charms. All agreed in telling me that far from being harmful, the amulet secured me the company of a demon who would drive away any dangers on my road and serve me. I could only be pleased. Perhaps the hermit had understood that I begged for him and his companion to be set free, and his strange gift was a token of gratitude.
My last excursion with the lama prince led me again toward the north of the country. I revisited Lachen and saw its gomchen. I was now able to converse with him, but there was no time for long talks as we only stopped for one day on our way to reach the foot of the Kinchindjinga mountain. (Altitude , feet. The altitude of the Mount Everest the highest mountain of the world, is , feet.)
On the way, we camped on the side of a pretty lake in the desolate valley of Lonak, not far from the highest pass in the world: the Jongson pass (about , feet high) where the frontiers of Tibet, Nepal and Sikkim meet.
We spent a few days near the gigantic moraines from which spring the snow-covered peaks of the Kinchindjinga. Then Sidkeong tulku left me to return to Gangtok with his retinue.
He made fun of my love for high solitary places which led me to continue my journey with the young Yongden and a few servants. I can see him, even now. This time he was not dressed as a genie of the
Arabian Nights, but in the kit of a Western alpinist. Before disappearing behind a rocky spur, he turned back toward me waving his hat and crying from far off:
” Come back soon. Don’t stay away too long! “
I never saw him again. He died mysteriously a few months later, while I was stopping at Lachen.
The Lonak valley was too near Tibet for me to possibly resist climbing one of the passes leading to that country. The Nago pass (over , feet) was the most easily accessible. The weather was fair but cloudy and a little snow fell as we were starting.
The landscape, viewed from the top of the pass, did not resemble that which I had seen two years earlier, so gloriously luminous. Now the twilight cast a purple greyish veil over the immense tableland extending, majestically void, from the foot of the mountain toward other ranges standing out indistinctly in the distance. But softly enshrouded in the first evening’s shadows the forbidden solitudes looked still more mysterious and irresistibly attractive.
I should have been content to wander aimlessly across this extraordinary region, but I had a goal. Before leaving Gangtok one of the native officials had called my attention to the monastery of Chörten Nyima.
“The monasteries you have seen in Sikkim are very different from those of Tibet,” he had told me. “Since you cannot travel freely in Tibet, go at least to see Chörten Nyima. Though this gompa is very small, you will get some idea of a true Tibetan monastery.”
So I was going to Chörten Nyima.
The monastic habitations of that place fully justified the name gompa (a dwelling in the solitude) given, in Tibetan language, to monasteries. It is impossible to fancy any more solitary site. The region in which the monks’ houses have been built is not only uninhabited but the high altitude makes a desert of it.
Sandy cliffs curiously carved by erosions, a large valley ascending toward a mountain lake, high snowy peaks, a limpid brook on a bed of mauve, greyish green or rosy coloured pebbles formed around the
gompa an impassable, wholly mineral scenery from which emanated a serenity beyond expression.
Legends and prodigies are naturally in their right place in such a setting. They are not lacking at Chörten Nyima. This very name, which means “Sun shrine,” was derived from a wonder. Once upon a time a Chörten containing precious relics was miraculously transported through the air, on a ray of sun from India to that spot.
In ancient traditions it is related that Padmasambhâva the apostle of Tibet has hidden in the vicinity of Chörten Nyima a number of manuscripts regarding mystic doctrines which he thought it was premature, to disclose, for in the eighth century, when Padmasambhâva visited Tibet, Tibetans possessed no intellectual culture. This master foresaw that long after he had left this world, lamas, predestined by their former lives, would bring these writings to light again. Several works are said to have been found in this region and some lamas are still hunting to discover others.
According to Tibetans, one hundred and eight chörtens and one hundred and eight springs exist round about Chörten Nyima. All of them are not visible. A large number can only be seen by those whose mind is particularly pure. Wishes made beside these springs, after one has placed an offering in the water at the very spot where it wells up out of the earth, cannot help being fulfilled.
Chöd do (stone offerings) either standing up or piled in the shape of cairns bristle all over the country, and when erected by pious pilgrims to honour Padmasambhâva, these primitive monuments are believed to be indestructible.
The monastery, which must at one time have been somewhat important, is falling in ruins. As in many other places in Tibet, we may see here a result of the destitution of the ancient sects which have not followed the reforms of Tsong Khapa, whose disciples, nowadays, form the state clergy. I found only four nuns at Chörten Nyima who belonged to the Nyingma sect (” ancient sect,” the
oldest of the ” red caps “). They lived as celibates but without having been fully ordained and did not wear monastic robes.
Numerous examples of strange contrasts are to be seen in Tibet, but what most astonished me was the tranquil courage of the womenfolk. Very few Western women would dare to live in the desert, in groups of four or five or sometimes quite alone. Few would dare under such conditions to undertake journeys that last for months or even years, through solitary mountain regions infested by wild beasts and brigands.
This shows the singular character of Tibetan women. They do not ignore these real dangers and they add to them by imagining legions of evil spirits taking on thousands of strange forms, even that of a demoniacal plant which grows on the edge of precipices, seizes hold of travellers with its thorny branches and drags them into the abyss.
In spite of these many reasons for staying safely in their native villages, one finds here and there in Tibet, communities of less than a dozen nuns, living in isolated convents situated at a great height, some of them blocked in by the snow for more than half of the year.
Other women live as hermits in caves, and many women pilgrims travel, alone, across the immense territory of Tibet carrying their scanty luggage on their backs.
Visiting the Lhakhangs (houses of the gods, where their images are placed) still existing among the ruined buildings of the monastery, I found a room containing a collection of small images made of coloured clay and representing the fantastic beings which surround the “spirits” of the dead as they cross the Bardo. (See Chapter I: Death and Hereafter. ) Above them, in the attitude of a Buddha meditating, Dorjee Chang was seated naked, his blue body symbolizing space, that is to say, in mystic symbology: Emptiness.
One of the nuns surprised me by explaining their meaning.
“All these are non-existent,” she said, pointing out the monstrous forms of the Bardo’s phantoms.
“Mind evokes them out of the void and can also dissolve them into the void.”
” How do you know that? ” I asked, doubting that the good woman could have evolved this theory by herself.
“My lame has told it to me,” she answered.
“And who may your lama be?” “A gomchen living near the Mo-te-tong lake.”
“Does he come here sometimes?”
” No, never. The lama of Chörten Nyima lives at Tranglung.”
“Is he too a gomchen?”
“No, he is a ngagspa (magician) and a householder, he is very rich and works many kinds of wonders.”
“For instance? . . .”
“He can cure people or animals or cause them to become ill, even at a distance. He can stop, or bring rain and hail at will . . . Listen to what he did a few years ago:
” When it was harvest time, the lama ordered the villagers to cut and store his grain. Some of them made answer that they would certainly store his barley but not until they had lodged their own grain.
“The weather was unsettled and the peasants were afraid of hail-storms, frequent at that time of the year. So instead of begging the lama to protect their fields while they were working for him, a number of them remained obstinate, meaning to cut their own barley first.
” Then the lama used his magic powers. He performed a dubthab rite, called up his tutelary deities and animated some tormas. (Ritualistic cakes) As soon as he had ended uttering the magic words, the tormas flew away and travelling, like birds, through the air, they circled about, entered the houses of those who had refused to obey immediately and caused much damage. But they passed by the houses of the men who had first harvested the lame’s barley, without doing any harm.
“Since then, no one dares to disregard the orders of the lama.”
Oh! to talk with this magician who shot avenging
cakes through space! . . . I was dying with desire to meet him.
Tranglung was not far from Chörten Nyima, the nuns said a day’s march would bring me there. But that day’s march led through forbidden territory. I had, once more, ventured to cross the border to visit Chörten Nyima, should I push on farther and show myself in a village? If it was known, was I not likely to be turned out of Sikkim? There was no question of starting a regular journey across Tibet. I was not at all prepared for this, and as the matter was only one of paying a short visit to a sorcerer, I did not think it worth while compromising my chance of continuing my Tibetan studies in the Himalayas.
So I decided to return after leaving a present for the nuns and another to be sent to the lame of Tranglung.
My regrets were later on wiped off the slate. For two years later I met the sorcerer and was several times his guest at Tranglung.
Autumn was coming on, snow had invaded the passes, nights under the tent became hard. I recrossed the frontier and was delighted to find myself in a house, beside a flaming fire.
The house was one of those bungalows built by the British administration for the convenience of foreign travellers, all along the roads of India and the neighbouring countries under British control. Thanks to them, trips that would otherwise have to be organized expeditions, can be easily accomplished.
The Thangu bungalow, , feet high and about miles to the south of the Tibetan frontier, stood in a pretty solitary place surrounded by forests.
I felt comfortable there and stayed on, little inclined to hasten my return to Gangtok or to Podang. There was not much more for me to learn from the lamas I had been associated with. Perhaps in normal times I would have left the country for China or Japan, but the war which had begun in Europe just as I was leaving for Chörten Nyima, made it rather dangerous to cross seas ploughed by submarines.
I was considering where I should spend the winter when a few days after my arrival at Thangu I learned that the gomchen of Lachen was in his hermitage, half a day’s march from the bungalow.
I immediately decided to pay him a visit. The excursion could not help being interesting. What was this ” cave of the clear light ” as he called it, and what sort of life did he live there? – I was curious to know.
I had sent back my horse when leaving for Chörten Nyima and made the journey on a yak. (The long-haired grunting Tibetan ox.) I expected to hire a beast at Lachen for my return to Gangtok. Seeing me without a horse, the keeper of the bungalow proposed to bring his own. The animal, he said, was i very sure-footed and would climb the rough steep path that led to the gomchen’s cave perfectly well.
I accepted and the next day was mounted on a small, not too ugly, beast with a red coat.
Horses are bridled and bitted but yaks are not, and when one rides the latter, one’s hands are free. I had kept this habit, and thinking of other things, was putting on my gloves, forgetting to hold the reins as I should have done, especially as I was unfamiliar with the horse’s character. While I continued dreaming, the animal rose on his fore feet and kicked his heels at . the clouds. Shot through the air, I fell down on a piece of ground, luckily covered with grass, below the path. The hard blow made me unconscious.
When I came to myself again, a sharp pain in my back made it impossible to get up.
As to the red horse, his fit of kicking over he had not budged. Quiet as a lamb, with his head turned toward me, he watched with attentive interest the people busying themselves about me and carrying me into my room.
The keeper of the bungalow was most grieved at my reproaches.
” This horse has never before acted like that, I assure you. It is not vicious,” he said. ” I should not have offered it to you if I had not been sure of it. I have ridden it for several years.
“Watch me. I shall make it trot a little.”
Through the window I saw the beast standing quite still.
His master approached it, spoke to it, took hold of the bridle, placing his foot in the stirrup and sprung not as he intended, into the saddle, but into the air, where a good kick had hurled him.
Less lucky than I had been, he fell upon rocks.
Men ran to help him. He was badly wounded in the head and bleeding freely, but escaped with no bones broken.
Between his groans, he kept repeating, as he was carried home: ” Never, never before has this horse acted in that way!”
This is very astonishing, I thought, as I lay stiff and bruised on my bed.
While I was pondering on this strange manifestation of an animal supposed to be so gentle, my cook came in.
“Reverend lady, this is not natural,” he said. “I have questioned the keeper’s servant. His master told the truth, the horse has always been quiet. The gomchen must be at the bottom of this. He has demons around him.
“Do not go to his hermitage. Harm will come to you. Return to Gangtok. I shall find you a chair and porters if you cannot ride on horseback.”
Another of my men lighted incense sticks and a small altar lamp. Yongden who, at that time, was only fifteen, wept in a corner.
This stage setting looked as if I was dying. I started to laugh.
“Come, come, I am not dead yet,” I said. “The demons have nothing to do with the horse. The gomchen is not a wicked man. Why are you afraid of him? Send up dinner early and then let us all go to sleep. To-morrow, we will consider what is to be done.”
Two days later the gomchen, having heard about my accident, sent me a black mare to take me to him.
No incident marked the trip. Through mountain paths that wound about the woody height, I reached a clearing at the foot of a very steep and barren moun-
tainside that was crowned by an indented ridge of black rocks.
A little farther up a number of flags showed the place of the hermitage.
The lama came half-way down to welcome me Then he led me through the loops of the winding path not to his own dwelling, but to another hermitage about a mile away below his own.
He had a large pot of buttered tea brought there and a fire lighted on the ground, in the centre of the room.
The word room might prove misleading, for it was not in a house that the gomchen showed me this hospitality, we were in a small-sized cave closed by a wall of uncemented stones, in which two narrow gaping holes less than ten inches high served for windows. A few boards, roughly hewn with an axe, and bound together with strips of supple bark, formed the door.
I had left Thangu late and it was dusk when I arrived at the hermitage.
My servants spread my blankets on the bare rock, and the gomchen took them to sleep in a hut which, he said, was just beside his cave.
Left to myself, I stepped out of my lair. There was no moon. I could only dimly see the white mass of a glacier against the shadow at the end of the valley, and the sombre mountain-tops that towered above my head toward the starry sky. Below me lay a mist of darkness from which ascended the roar of a distant torrent. I did not dare to go far in this blackness the path was only large enough for a foothold and skirted the void. I had to put further explorations off until tomorrow.
I went in and lay down. I had scarcely time to roll myself in my blankets before the light flickered and went out. The servants had forgotten to fill the lantern with kerosene. I could find no matches at hand and being unacquainted with the formation of my prehistoric dwelling I did not dare to move for fear of hurting myself on some pointed rocks.
A bitter breeze began to blow in through the “windows” and the cracks of the door. A star peeped at
me through the gap facing my ascetic couch: ” Do you feel comfortable?” it seemed to say: “What do you think of a hermit’s life?”
Indeed, its ironical twinkling mocked me!
” Yes, I am all right,” I answered. ” Thousand times better than all right . . . ravished, and I feel that the hermit’s life, free of what we call ‘the goods and pleasures of the world,’ is the most wonderful of all lives.”
Then the star left off mockery. It shone more brightly and growing larger, lighted the whole cave.
“That I may be capable of dying in this hermitage And my wish will be accomplished,” (These verses belong to a poem composed by Milarespa in the eleventh century, while he was living in a cave. It is popular in Tibet and means. If I am capable of living in this hermitage until death, without being tempted to return to the world, I shall have reached my spiritual goal.) it said, quoting the verses of Milarespa. And an expression of doubt dulled its grave voice.
The next day I went up to the hermitage of the gomchen.
This too was a cave, but larger and better furnished than mine. The whole ground under the arched rocky roof had been enclosed by a wall of uncemented stones and provided with a solid door. This entrance room served as a kitchen. At the back of it a natural opening in the rock led into a diminutive grotto. There the gomchen had his living-room. A wooden step led to the entrance, for it was higher than the kitchen, and a heavy multi-coloured curtain hid the doorway. There was no aperture to ventilate this inner chamber; a fissure in the stone through which air may have entered was closed with a glass pane.
The furniture consisted of several wooden chests piled up behind a curtain which formed the back of the anchorite’s couch, which was made of large hard cushions placed on the ground. In front of it were two low tables, mere slabs of wood set up on feet, painted in bright colours.
At the back of the grotto, on a small altar were placed the usual offerings: copper bowls filled with water, grain and butter lamps.
Scrolls of religious painting completely covered the rocky uneven walls. Under one of these was hidden the small cabinet in which lamas of the tantric sects keep a demon prisoner.
Outside the cave, half sheltered under protuberant rocks, two cabins had been built that served to store the provisions.
As you can see, the gomchen’s dwelling was not entirely lacking in comfort.
This eyrie commanded a romantic and absolutely solitary site. The natives held it to be inhabited by evil spirits. They said that some men who had formerly ventured there looking for stray cattle or to work as wood-cutters had strange encounters which sometimes led to fatal consequences.
Such spots are often chosen as dwelling-places by Tibetan hermits. Firstly they deem them a suitable ground for spiritual training. Secondly they think that they find, there, the opportunity of using their magic powers for the good of men and animals, either by converting malignant evil spirits or by forcibly preventing their harmful activity at least, simple people ascribe that charitable desire to these ” holy ones.”
Seventeen years earlier, the lama whom the mountaineers called Jowo gomchen (Lord contemplative anchorite) had established himself in the cave where I saw him. Gradually the monks of the Lachen monastery had improved it, till it became as I have just described it.
At first the gomchen had lived in total seclusion. The villagers or herdsmen who brought his provisions, left their offerings in front of his door and retired without seeing him. The hermitage was inaccessible during three or four months every year, for the snows would block the valleys that led to it.
When he grew older he kept a young boy with him as attendant, and when I came to live in the cave below his he called near him his initiated consort. As he
belonged to the “red hat sect” the gomchen was not bound to be a celibate.
I spent a week in my cave, visiting the gomchen each day. Though his conversation was full of interest, I was still far more interested in watching the daily life of a Tibetan anchorite.
A few Westerners such as Csöma de Köros or the French Rev. Fathers Huc and Gabet have sojourned in lamaist monasteries, but none has lived with these gomchens about whom so many fantastic stories are told.
This was reason enough to incite me to stay in the neighbourhood of the gomchen. Added to this was my keen desire to myself experience the contemplative life according to lamaist methods.
However, my wish did not suffice, the consent of the lama was needed. If he did not grant it, there would be no advantage in living near his hermitage. He would shut himself up and I could only look at a wall of rock behind which “something was going on.”
So I presented my request to the lama in a manner that agreed with Oriental customs. I begged that he would instruct me in the doctrine he professed. He objected that his knowledge was not extensive enough and that it was useless for me to stay in such an inhospitable region to listen to an ignorant man, when I had had the opportunity of long talks with learned lamas elsewhere.
I strongly insisted, however, and he decided to admit me, not exactly as a pupil, but on a trial as a novice, for a certain time.
I began to thank him, when he interrupted me.
” Wait,” he said, ” there is a condition; you must promise me that you will not return to Gangtok, nor undertake any journey toward the south without my permission.” (To go southward meant to go to Gangtok or to Kalimpong, where a few foreigners reside, and even if avoiding these places to follow a road sometimes frequented by Western tourists coming to these hills from India.)
The adventure was becoming exciting. The strangeness of it aroused my enthusiasm.
“I promise,” I answered without hesitaating.
A rough cabin was added to my cave. Like that of the gomchen, it was built of planks roughly hewn with an axe. The mountaineers of this country do not know to use a saw, nor did they, at that time, care to learn.
A few yards away, another hut was built, containing a small private room for Yongden and a lodging for our servants.
In enlarging my hermitage, I was not altogether yielding to sybaritic tendencies.
It would have been difficult for me to fetch water and fuel and to carry these burdens up to my cave. Yongden, who had just left school, was no more experienced than I at this kind of work. We could not do without servants to help us, therefore an ample supply of provision and a store-house was indispensable since we were facing a long winter during which we should remain completely isolated.
Now these things seem to me small difficulties, but at that time I was making my “début” in the rôle of anchorite, and my son had not yet begun his apprenticeship as explorer.
The days passed. Winter came, spreading a coat of immaculate snow on the whole country and, as we had expected, blocking the valleys that led to the foot of our mountain.
The gomchen shut himself up for a long retreat. I did the same thing. My single daily meal was placed behind a curtain at the entrance of my hut. The boy who brought it and who later carried away the empty platesleft in silence, without having seen me.
My life resembled that of the Carthusians without the diverion which they may find in attendance at religous services.
A bear appeared in search of food and after its first feelings of astonishment and defiance were over, grew accustomed to coming and waiting for bread and other eatable things that were thrown to it.
At last, toward the beginning of April, one of the boys noticed a black spot moving in the clearing beneath
us and cried out: “a man!” just as early navigators must have cried “land ahead!” We were no longer blocked in; letters arrived that had been written in Europe five months before.
Then it was springtime in the cloudy Himalayas. Nine hundred feet below my cave rhododendrons blossomed. I climbed barren mountain-tops. Long tramps led me to desolate valleys studded with translucent lakes. . . . Solitude, solitude! . . . Mind and senses develop their sensibility in this contemplative life made up of continual observations and reflections. Does one become a visionary or, rather, is it not that one has been blind until then? . . .
A few miles farther north, beyond the last range of the Himalayas which the clouds of the Indian monsoon cannot cross, the sun shone in the blue sky over the high Tibetan tableland. But, there, the summer was rainy, cold and short. In September the tenacious snows already covered the neighbouring heights and soon our yearly imprisonment began again.
What were the fruits of my long retreat? I should have found it difficult to explain, yet I learnt a number of things.
Apart from my study of the Tibetan language with the help of grammars, dictionaries and talks with the gomchen, I also read with him the lives of famous Tibetan mystics. He would often stop our reading to tell me about facts he had himself witnessed, which were akin to the stories related in the books. He would describe people he had known, repeating their conversations and telling me about their lives. Thus, while seated in his cabin or in mine I visited the palaces of rich lamas, entered the hermitages of many an ascetic. I travelled along the roads, meeting curious people. I became, in that way, closely acquainted with Tibet, its inhabitants, their customs and their thoughts: a precious science which was later on to stand me in good stead.
I never let myself be taken in by the illusion that my anchorite’s home might become my final harbour. Too many causes opposed any desire of staying there and of laying down, once and for all, the burden of
foolish ideas, routine cares and duties to which, like other Westerners, I still fancied myself to be bound.
I knew that the personality of a gomchenma which I had taken on, could only be an episode in my life as a traveller, or at the best, a preparation for future liberation.
Sadly, almost with terror, I often looked at the threadlike path which I saw, lower down, winding in the valleys and disappearing between the mountains. The day would come when it would lead me back to the sorrowful world that existed beyond the distant hill ranges, and so thinking, an indescribable suffering lay hold of me.
Besides more important reasons, the impossibility of keeping my servants any longer in this desert, compelled me to leave my hermitage. Yet, before parting once more from Tibet, I wished to visit one of its two great religious centres: Shigatze, which was not a great distance.
The famous monastery of Tashilhunpo lies near this town. It is the seat of the Grand Lama whom foreigners call the Tashi Lama. Tibetans call him Tsang Penchen rimpoche, ” the Precious learned man of the province of Tsang.” He is considered to be an emanation of Odpagmed, the mystic Buddha of infinite light and at the same time, a reincarnation of Subhuti, one of the foremost disciples of the historical Buddha. From a spiritual point of view, his rank equals that of the Dalai Lama. But as spirit, in this world, must often yield precedence to temporal power, so the Dalai Lama autocrat of Tibet is the master.
Foreseeing the possible consequences of this journey I put off starting for Shigatze until I was definitely ready to leave the Himalayas.
I went from my hermitage to Chörten Nyima where I had stayed before. From there I left for Shigatze accompanied by Yongden and a monk who was to act as our servant. We were all three on horseback. Our luggage was placed in large leather saddle-bags, as is customary in Tibet; a pack-mule carried two small tents and our provisions.
The distance was not great. One could easily accomplish the trip in four days. I intended, however to travel very slowly so as not to miss anything of interest on my way, and above all, that I might absorb in body and spirit as much as possible of Tibet whose heart I was at last about to penetrate, but probably might never see again.
Since my first visit to Chörten Nyima I had met a son of the lama sorcerer who sent ritualistic cakes flying through the air to punish his disobedient neighbours, and I had been invited, if circumstances permitted to visit him.
Tranglung, the village where he lived, was no more on the straight road leading from my hermitage to Shigatze than Chörten Nyima, but as I have just said, I intended to profit by all opportunities of seeing interesting things that my adventure in forbidden land might bring me.
We reached Tranglung at the end of the afternoon. The village was quite different from any that Tibetan settlers have built in the Himalayas. It was, indeed surprising to find such a complete contrast at so short a distance. Not only the tall stone houses differed from the cottages made of wood with thatched roofs I had been accustomed to see in Sikkim, but the climate, the soil, the landscape, the people’s cast of features and general look had changed. I was really in Tibet.
We found the sorcerer in his oratory, a huge room without any windows, scantily enough lighted through the roof. Near him were several men to whom he was distributing charms which consisted in toys like small pigs’ heads, made of pink-coloured clay and wrapped in woollen threads of different shades.
The peasants listened with rapt attention to the lama’s endless instructions on the ways to use these objects.
When they had gone, the householder-lama, with a gracious smile, invited me to take tea with him. A long conversation ensued. I was burning to ask my host about the flying cakes, but a direct question would have been against all rules of politeness.
During the few days I remained there, I was told about a peculiar domestic drama and had the rare honour of being consulted by an authentic sorcerer.
Here, as in a large number of families in Central Tibet, polyandry was practiced. On the wedding day of the lama’s eldest son, his brothers’ names had been mentioned in the marriage deed and the young girl had consented to take them all as husbands.
As in most cases, at that time some of the “bridegrooms ” were mere children who had, of course, not been consulted. They were, nevertheless, legally married.
Now the sorcerer of Tranglung had four sons. I was not told what the second son thought about his partnership with his elder brother. He was away in journey and most likely all was right with him.
The third son, whom I knew personally, was also travelling somewhere. It was he who had upset the peace of the family.
He was much younger than his first two brothers being only twenty-five, and he obstinately refused to fulfil his conjugal duties toward the collective wife.
Unfortunately for the lady, this purely nominal husband was far more attractive than the elder two. Not only was he rather better looking than his brothers but he surpassed them in social position, eloquence’ learning, and may be in various other accomplishments that I could not discover.
While the two elders were but wealthy farmers, the third brother enjoyed the prestige attached, in Tibet to clergy. He was a lama, and more than a common lama. He was a so-called naljorpa initiated in occult doctrines, he had the right to wear the five-sided hat of the tantric mystics and the white skirt of the respas who are adepts in tumo, the art of keeping warm without fire in even the coldest weather. (Regarding tumo, see Chapter VI.)
It was this distinguished husband who refused to fulfil his part, and the offended wife could not resign herself to be disdained.
What made the matter worse was that the young
lama courted a girl in one of the neighbouring villages and meant to marry her.
The law of the country permitted him to do so, but if he persisted in this marriage and thus broke up the unity of the family, the young husband would have to leave his father’s house and establish a new home for his bride. The priestly son of my host, indeed, did not shrink from the responsibility, and even relied confidently on his earnings as a sorcerer to make that home comfortable.
But by so doing would he not be setting himself up as a rival to his father? Although the old lama did not express his thought in words, I could read in the expression of his face that he feared a competitor in that obstinate son who refused to please a healthy, sturdy woman of forty, probably not too ugly.
I could not dispute this point, for the wife’s features were hidden under a thick coating of butter and soot that made her as black as a negress.
“What on earth is to be done?” groaned the aged mother of the family.
I had no experience in such matters. Though I had met polyandrist ladies in the west, as a rule no family council was called in to settle the imbroglios that result from their affairs. And in my travels I had only been asked for advice by polygamist gentlemen whose homes had become a seat of war.
Since polygamy is also legal in Tibet, I suggested that the young lama might be persuaded to bring his bride home.
Luckily for me, I was then wearing the respected monastic robe, for only this prevented the jealous, disdained wife from throwing herself upon me.
” Reverend lady,” cried the old mother as she wept, “you do not know that our daughter-in-law wanted to send her servants to beat the girl and to disfigure her. We had a hard task to prevent her from doing so. Think of people of our rank doing such thing! We should be dishonoured for ever afterwards! “
I could find nothing more to say, so I remarked that it was time for my evening meditation and asked per- mission to retire to the oratory which the lama had courteously lent to me for the night.
As I was leaving the room I noticed the youngest son, a lad of eighteen, the husband number four. He was seated in a dark corner and looking at the common wife with a strange half-smile, as if he were saying – “Wait a little, old lady, I have worse things in store for you.”
During the following days I wandered idly from village to village, sleeping at night in the peasants’ houses. I did not try to hide my identity as I was obliged to later on, on the road to Lhasa. No one here seemed to notice that I was a foreigner, or at any rate, no one seemed to attach any importance to the fact.
My road passed the monastery of Patur which appeared to me immense compared with those of Sikkim. One of the ecclesiastic officials invited us to an excellent meal in a dark hall where we enjoyed the company of several monks.
Nothing there, with the exception of the massive buildings several stories high, was entirely new to me. Nevertheless, I understood that Lamaism as I had observed it in Sikkim was only a pale reflection of that which exists in Tibet.
I had vaguely imagined that beyond the Himalayas the country would become wild, but now I began to realize that on the contrary I was coming into touch with a truly civilized people.
Among the various incidents of the journey, the Chi River, swollen by the rains and the melting snows, was difficult to ford in spite of the help of three villagers who took our horses across one by one.
Beyond the village called Kuma extends a long track of desert land. According to the description of our servant who knew the road well I hoped to camp pleasantly near thermal springs, getting a hot bath and warm earth for bedding. A sudden storm compelled us to set up our camp hastily before reaching this desired paradise. First hail attacked us, then the snow began to fall so hard that it soon came nearly up to our knees.
A neighbouring brook overflowed into our camp. I had to spend the night fasting and standing up most of the time on the small island that was the only spot, under my tent, not invaded by the muddy water. So much for the comfortable sleep I had expected.
At last, at a turning of the road where I had stopped to look at a drunken man wallowing in the dust, my eyes suddenly fell on a glorious vision. In the bluish gloaming, the enormous monastery of Tashilhunpo stood in the distance: a mass of white buildings crowned with golden roofs that reflected the last dim rays of the setting sun.
I had reached my goal.
A strange idea had grown up in my mind. Instead of looking for a shelter in one of the inns of the town, I sent my servant to the lama who was responsible for entertaining the monks’ visitors or the native students from the Kham province. How could a foreign woman traveller, unknown to him, awaken his interest, and what reason could she have for requesting his good offices? I had not asked myself this question. I acted entirely on impulse and the result was excellent.
The distinguished official sent a trapa to order two rooms for me in the only house next to the monastery. There I settled myself.
The very next day, according to the protocol the requests for an audience with the Tashi Lama were begun. I had to give details of my native country and satisfied them by saying that my birthplace was called Paris.
Which Paris? – South of Lhasa there is a village called Phagri, that name being pronounced Pari. I explained that “my Paris” was a little farther away from the Tibetan capital and stood westward, but I insisted on the point that starting from Tibet, one could reach my country without crossing the sea and that, consequently, I was not a Philing (stranger). This was a play upon the word philing which literally means a continent over sea.
I had stayed so long in the proximity of Shigatze that it was impossible to be unknown there, and, moreover,
the fact of having lived as a hermit made me somewhat famous in the country. An audience was immediately granted and the mother of the Tashi Lama invited me to be her guest.
I went over every corner of the monastery and, to pay for my welcome, I offered tea to the several thousand monks living there.
The number of years that have elapsed and the chances I have taken, since that time, to visit the large lamaseries, or even to dwell in them, have dulled my impressions, but when I went round Tashilhunpo I was deeply struck by every thing I saw.
A barbaric splendour reigned in the temples, halls, and palaces of the dignitaries. No description can give an idea of it. Gold, silver, turquoises, jade, were lavishly used on the altars, the tombs, the ornamented doors, the ritualistic implements and even on mere household objects for the use of wealthy lamas.
Should I say that I admired this opulent display? No, for it seemed unrefined and childish: the work of powerful giants whose minds had not grown up.
That first contact with Tibet would even have impressed me unfavourably if I had not had ever present before me the vision of its calm solitudes, and known that they conceal ascetic sages who spurn the vulgarities that are the insignia of grandeur in the eyes of the masses.
The Tashi Lama was most kind to me every time I saw him and showered me with attentions. He knew quite well where my Paris was and pronounced the word France with a perfect French accent.
My zeal for the study of Lamaism pleased him very much. He was willing to help my researches in any way. Why should I not stay in Tibet? he asked me.
Why, indeed? Desire was not lacking, but I knew that however great and honoured he was in the country, the gracious Grand Lama had not enough temporal power to obtain permission for me to live in Tibet.
Nevertheless, if I had, at that moment, been as free of ties as I was when I undertook my journey to Lhasa, I might have attempted to avail myself, in some secluded
spot, of the protection which was offered to me. But I had not foreseen such an offer. My luggage, notes, collections of photo negatives (why should one think these things important?) had been left behind, some in the care of friends in Calcutta, others in my hermitage. How many things remained for me to learn, how great was the mental transformation necessary to enable me to become, a few years later, a joyful tramp in the wilds of Tibet.
While at Shigatze, I met the masters who had educated the Tashi Lama: his professor of secular sciences and he who had initiated him into the mystic doctrines. I also came to know a contemplative mystic, the spiritual guide of the Tashi Lama, highly revered by him, who if we must believe the stories told about him – ended his life, a few years later, in a miraculous way. (See the end of Chapter VIII.)
During my visit to Shigatze, the temple that the Tashi Lama meant to dedicate to the future Buddha Maitreya, the lord of infinite compassion, was nearing completion.
I saw the huge image placed in a hall with galleries that allowed the devotees to circle around it on the ground floor on a level with the feet and successively ascending the first, second and third galleries, up to its belt, its shoulders and its head.
Twenty jewellers were setting the enormous ornaments that were to adorn the gigantic Maitreya. They were re-setting the jewels presented by the ladies belonging to the nobility of Tsang, the mother of the Tashi Lama at their head, with the gift of all her sets of precious stones.
I spent delightful days in the palaces of the Tashi Lama in Shigatze and the neighbourhood. I talked with men of widely different characters. The novelty of what I saw and heard, the special psychic atmosphere of the place, enchanted me. I have seldom enjoyed such blissful hours.
At last the dreaded moment came. Taking with me books notes, presents and the robe of a graduate lama that the Tashi Lama had bestowed on me as a kind of diploma of Doctor honori causa of the Tashil-
hunpo university, I left Shigatze, gazing sadly at the immense monastery as it disappeared behind the same turning of the road from which it had first appeared to me.
I went on to Narthang to visit the largest of the printing establishments in Tibet. The number of engraved wooden plates used for the printing of the various religious books was prodigious. Set up on shelves, in rows, they filled a huge building.
The printers, spattered with ink up to their elbows sat upon the floor as they worked, while in other rooms monks cut the paper according to the size required for each kind of book.
There was no haste; chatting and drinking of buttered tea went on freely. What a contrast to the feverish agitation in our newspaper printing-rooms.
From Narthang I sought out the hermitage of a gomchen who had been good enough to send me an invitation. I found the anchorite’s abode in a desolate place on a hill, near the lake Mo-te-tong. It consisted of a spacious cave, to which one room after another had been added, till it looked like a small fort.
The present gomchen had succeeded his master who himself had succeeded his own spiritual father, famous as a wonder-worker. Gifts of devotees to three generations of lama magicians had led to the accumulation, in the hermitage, of a good number of objects affording comfort, and life could be passed there quite pleasantly that is, from the point of view of a Tibetan, born in the wilds and accustomed since his youth to live as the disciple of an anchorite.
Such was the case of my host. He had never been to Lhasa nor to Shigatze, nor travelled anywhere in Tibet and knew nothing of the world outside his cave. His master had lived there for more than thirty years, and when he died the present hermit had walled himself in.
By walled in, one must understand that one door only gave access to the hermitage enclosure, and this door the lama never approached. Two lower rooms under the rock – kitchen, store-room and servant’s quarter all together – opened on an inner courtyard closed in, on the side which gave on to the precipice,
by a high wall. Above these rooms an upper cave was the private apartment of the lama, which was reached by a ladder and a trap-door in the floor. This chamber stood on a small terrace, also closed by walls. So the recluse could take a little exercise or sun himself without being seen by anyone outside and without himself seeing anything but the sky overhead.
The anchorite mitigated the severity of his seclusion by receiving visitors and chatting with them, but he added to its austerity by never lying down to sleep, spending the nights in a gamti.
There exist, in Tibet, special seats which are called gamti (box seat) or gomti (meditation seat). These are square boxes, each side being about or inches long and one of the sides being higher to form the back of the seat. At the bottom of the box a cushion is placed on which the ascetic sits cross-legged. Often he does not allow himself to lie against the back of the seat. and in order to support his body, either while sleeping or during long meditation, he uses the ” meditation rope” (sgomthag). It is a sash usually made in woollen cloth, which one passes under the knees and behind the nape of the neck, or with which one encircles the knees and the back. Many gomchens spend days and nights in that way, without reclining or stretching their limbs to sleep.
They doze sometimes but never fall fast asleep, and except during these short periods of drowsiness, they do not stop their meditation.
I had several interesting conversations with the hermit and then I turned back towards the frontier.
The British resident at Gangtok had already sent a letter by peasants from Sikkim ordering me to leave Tibetan soil. I had not obeyed because I wanted to end my trip as I had planned it, but now I had accomplished my object, and as I had foreseen the consequences of a prolonged incursion on the forbidden territory, I was ready to bid farewell to the Himalayas.
A second letter commanding me to leave the vicinity of the Tibetan border found me already on the road to India en route for the Far East.