For many Westerners Tibet is wrapped in an atmosphere of mystery. The “Land of Snows” is for them the country of the unknown, the fantastic and the impossible. What super-human powers have not been ascribed to the various kinds of lames, magicians, sorcerers, necromancers and practitioners of the occult who inhabit those high tablelands, and whom both nature and their own deliberate purpose have so splendidly isolated from the rest of the world? And how readily are the strangest legends about them accepted as indisputable truths! In that country plants, animals and human beings seem to divert to their own purposes the best established laws of physics chemistry, physiology and even plain common sense.
It is therefore quite natural that scholars accustomed to the strict discipline of experimental method should have paid to these stories merely the condescending and amused attention that is usually given to fairy tales. Such was my own state of mind up to the day when I had the good fortune to make the acquaintance of Madame Alexandra David-Neel. This well-known and courageous explorer of Tibet unites in herself all the physical, moral and intellectual qualities that could be desired in one who is to observe and examine a subject of this kind. I must insist on saying this, however much her modesty may suffer.
Madame David-Neel understands, writes and speaks fluently all the dialects of Tibet. She has spent fourteen consecutive years in the country and the neighbouring regions. She is a professed Buddhist, and so has been able to gain the confidence of the most important Lamas. Her adopted son is an ordained lame; and she herself has undergone the psychic exercises of which she speaks. Madame DavidNeel has in fact become, as she herself says, a complete Asiatic, and, what is still more important for an explorer of a country hitherto inaccessible to foreign travelers, she is recognized as such by those among whom she has lived.
This Easterner, this complete Tibetan, has nevertheless remained a Westerner, a disciple of Descartes and of Claude Bernard, practicing the philosophic scepticism of the former which, according to the latter, should be the constant ally of the scientific observer. Unencumbered by any preconceived theory, and unbiased by any doctrine or dogma, Madame David-Neel has observed everything in Tibet in a free and impartial spirit. In the lectures which, in my capacity as professor of the College de France, succeeding my master Claude Bernard, I asked her to deliver, Madame David-Neel sums up her conclusions in these words:
“Everything that relates, whether closely or more distantly, to psychic phenomena and to the action of psychic forces in general, should be studied just like any other science. There is nothing miraculous or supernatural in them, nothing that should engender or keep alive superstition. Psychic training, rationally and scientifically conducted, can lead to desirable results. That is why the information gained about such training – even though it is practiced empirically and based on theories to which we cannot always give assent – constitutes useful documentary evidence worthy of our attention.” Here, it is clear, is a true scientific determinism, as far removed from scepticism as from blind credulity. The studies of Madame David-Neel will be of interest to Orientalists, psychologists and physiologists alike. DOCTEUR A. D’ARSONVAL Member of the Académie des Sciences and of the Académie de Médecine. Professor of the College de France. President of the Institut Général Psychologique.
Immediately after the publication of my account of my journey to Lhasa, many persons expressed a wish, both in articles devoted to my book and in private conversation, to know how I came to live among the lamas, and also to learn more about the doctrines and practices of the mystics and magicians of Tibet. In this book I attempt to satisfy their friendly curiosity. This task is however fraught with certain difficulties, owing to the limited space at my disposal. In order to answer these two questions in the order in which they have been put to me, I have started by describing the events which brought me into contact with the religious world of the lamas and of the various kinds of magicians who surround them.
Next I have tried to group together a certain number of salient points concerning the occult and mystical theories and the psychic training practices of the Tibetans. Whenever I have discovered in the rich store of my recollections a fact bearing on these subjects, I have related it as it came. Consequently the book is not a record of travel, for the subject does no lend itself to that treatment. In the course of such investigations as I have pursued, the information obtained on one particular day is sometimes not completed till several months or several years later.
It is only by presenting the final results of information gathered in various places that one can hope to give an adequate idea of the subject I am describing. It is my intention, later on, to treat the question of Tibetan mysticism and philosophy in a more technical work. As in my previous book My Journey to Lhasa, the Tibetan names are generally transcribed phonetically only. The few cases in which the Tibetan orthography has been indicated will show how the correct pronunciation deviates from the spelling.