“WELL, then, it is understood. I leave Dawasandup with you as interpreter. He will accompany you to Gangtok.”
Is it a man who is speaking to me? This short yellow-skinned being clad in a robe of orange brocade, a diamond star sparkling on his hat, is he not, rather, a genie come down from the neighbouring mountains?
They say he is an “incarnated Lama” and heir prince of a Himalayan throne, but I doubt his reality. Probably he will vanish like a mirage, with his caparisoned little steed and his party of followers, dressed in all the colours of the rainbow. He is a part of the enchantment in which I have lived these last fifteen days. This new epi sode is of the stuff that dreams are made of. In a few minutes, I shall wake up in a real bed, in some country not haunted by genii nor by “incarnated Lamas” wrapped in shimmering silk. A country where men wear ugly dark coats and the horses do not carry silver inlaid saddles on golden-yellow cloths.
The sound of a kettledrum makes me start, two hautboys intone a melancholy minor tune. The youthful genie straddles his diminutive courser, knights and squires jump into their saddles.
“I shall expect you,” the lama-prince says, smiling graciously at me.
I hear myself, as if I were listening to some other person, promising him that I will start the next day for his capital, and the little troop, headed by the musicians, disap pears.
As the last murmurs of the plaintive melody die away in the distance, the enchant ment that has held me spellbound dissipates. I have not been dreaming, all this is real. I am at Kalimpong, in the Himalayas, and the interpreter given me when I arrived stands at my side.
I have already related the circumstances which had brought me to the Himalayas. Political reasons had at that time, led the Dalai Lama to seek refuge in British terri tory. It had seemed to me a unique opportunity, while he was stopping at the Indian frontier, of obtaining an interview and getting information from him about the special type of Buddhism that prevails in Tibet.
Very few strangers have ever approached the monk-king hidden in his sacred city, in the Land of Snows. Even in exile, he saw no one. Up to the time of my visit, he had obstinately refused an audience to any woman except Tibetans and I believe, even to this day that I am the only exception to this rule.
As I left Darjeeling, in the early rosy dawn of a cool spring morning, I little guessed the far-reaching consequences of my request. I thought of a short excursion, of an interesting but brief interview; while, actually, I became involved in wanderings that kept me in Asia for full fourteen years.
At the beginning of that long series of journeys, the Dalai Lama figures, in my dia ries, as an obliging host who, seeing a stranger without the walls, invites him to see over his domain.
This, the Dalai Lama did in a few words: “Learn the Tibetan language,” he told me. If one could believe his subjects who call him the “Omniscient,”2 the sovereign of Tibet, when giving me this advice, foresaw its consequences, and consciously directed me, not only towards Lhasa, his forbidden capital, but towards the mystic masters and unknown magicians, yet more closely hidden in his wonderland.
At Kalimpong, the lama-king lived in a large house belonging to the minister of the Rajah of Bhutan. To give the place a more majestic appearance, two rows of tall bamboo poles had been planted in the form of an avenue. Flags flew from every pole, with the inscription Aum Mani Padme Hum!, or the “horse of the air,” sur rounded by magic formulas.
The suite of the exiled sovereign was numerous and included more than a hundred servants. They were for the most part engaged in interminable gossip, and quiet reigned round the habitation. But on fête days, or when visitors of rank were to be received, a crowd of busy officials and domestics poured out from all sides, peering at one from every window, crossing and re-crossing the large plot of ground in front of the house, hurrying, screaming, agitated, and all so remarkably alike in their dirty, greasy robes, that a stranger could easily make awkward mistakes about their rank.
The splendour, decorum and etiquette of the Potala were absent in that land of exile. Those who saw this road-side camp, where the Head of the Tibetan theocracy waited for his subjects to reconquer his throne, could not imagine what the Court at Lhasa was like.
The British expedition penetrating into the forbidden territory and parading his capi tal, in spite of the sorcery of the most famous magicians, had probably led the Dalai Lama to understand that foreign barbarians were masters in a material sense, by right of force. The inventions that he noticed during his trip through India must also have convinced him of their ability to enslave and mould the material elements of nature. But his conviction that the white race is mentally inferior remained unshaken.
And, in this, he only shared the opinion of all Asiatics – from Ceylon to the northern confines of Mongolia. A Western woman acquainted with Buddhist doctrines seemed to him an inconceiv able phenomenon.
If I had vanished into space while talking to him, he would have been less aston ished. My reality surprised him most; but, when finally convinced, he politely inquired after my “Master,” assuming that I could only have learned of Buddha from an Asiatic.
It was not easy to convince him that the Tibetan text of one of the most esteemed Buddhist books3 had been translated into French before I was born. “Ah well,” he murmured at last, “if a few strangers have really learned our language and read our sacred books, they must have missed the meaning of them.” This was my chance. I hastened to seize it.
“It is precisely because I suspect that certain religious doctrines of Tibet have been misunderstood that I have come to you to be enlightened,” I said. My reply pleased the Dalai Lama. He readily answered any questions I put to him, and a little later gave me a long written explanation of the various subjects we had discussed.
The prince of Sikkim and his escort having disappeared, it only remained for me to keep my promise and make ready to start for Gangtok. But there was something to be seen before moving on.
The evening before, I had witnessed the benediction of the pilgrims by the Dalai Lama, a widely different scene from the Pontifical benediction at Rome. For the Pope in a single gesture blesses the multitude, while the Tibetans are far more exacting and each expect an individual blessing.
Among Lamaists again the manner of the blessing varies with the social rank of the blessed. The Lama places both hands on the heads of those he most respects. In other cases only one hand, two fingers or even only one finger. Lastly comes the blessing given by slightly touching the head with coloured ribbons, attached to a short stick.
In every case, however, there is contact, direct or indirect, between the lama and the devotee. This contact, according to Lamaists, is indispensable because the bene diction, whether of people or of things, is not meant to call down upon them the benediction of God but to infuse into them some beneficial power that emanates from the lama.
The large number of people who came to Kalimpong to be touched by the Dalai Lama gave me some idea of his widespread prestige.
The procession took several hours to pass before him, and I noticed that not only Lamaists but many people from Nepal and from Bengal, belonging to Hindu sects, had joined the crowd. I saw some, who had come only to look on, suddenly seized by an occult fervour, hurrying to join the pious flock.
As I was watching this scene, my eyes fell on a man seated on the ground, a little to one side. His matted hair was wound around his head like a turban, in the style com mon to Hindu ascetics. Yet, his features were not those of an Indian and he was wearing dirty and much-torn lamaist monastic garments.
This tramp had placed a small bag beside him and seemed to observe the crowd with a cynical expression. I pointed him out to Dawasandup, asking him if he had any idea who this Himalayan Diogenes might be.
“It must be a travelling naljorpa,” he answered; and, seeing my curiosity, my obliging interpreter went to the man and entered into conversation with him. He returned to me with a serious face and said:
“This lama is a peripatetic ascetic from Bhutan. He lives here and there in caves, empty houses or under the trees. He has been stopping for several days in a small monastery near here.”
My thoughts returned to the vagabond when the prince and his escort had disappeared. I had no definite plan for the afternoon, why should I not go to the gom-pa where he was staying, and persuade him to talk? Was he really mocking, as he seemed to be, at the Dalai Lama and the faithful? And if so, why? There might be interesting reasons.
I communicated my desire to Dawasandup, who agreed to accompany me. We went on horseback and soon reached the gompa which was only a large-sized country-house.
In the lha khang we found the naljorpa seated upon a cushion in front of a low table, finishing his meal. Cushions were brought and we were offered tea. It was difficult to begin a conversation with the ascetic, as his mouth appeared to be full of rice; he had only answered our polite greetings by a kind of grunt. I was trying to find a phrase to break the ice, when the strange fellow began to laugh and muttered a few words. Dawasandup seemed embarrassed.
“What does he say?” I asked.
“Excuse me” answered the interpreter, ” these naljorpas sometimes speak roughly. I do not know if I should translate.” “Please do,” I replied. “I am here to take notes; especially of anything at all curious and original.” “Well, then-excuse me-he said, ‘What is this idiot here for’?”
Such rudeness did not greatly astonish me as, in India also, certain yogins make a habit of insulting anyone who approaches them.
“Tell him I have come to ask why he mocked at the crowd seeking the benediction of the Dalai Lama.” “Puffed up with a sense of their own importance and the importance of what they are doing. Insects fluttering in the dung,” muttered the naljorpa between his teeth.
This was vague, but the kind of language one expects from such men. “And you,” I replied, “are you free from all defilement?” He laughed noisily.
“He who tries to get out only sinks in deeper. I roll in it like a pig. I digest it and turn it into golden dust, into a brook of pure water. To fashion stars out of dog dung, that is the Great Work!” Evidently my friend was enjoying himself. This was his way of posing as a super man.
“Are these pilgrims not right, to profit by the presence of the Dalai Lama and obtain his blessing? They are simple folk incapable of aspiring to the knowledge of the higher doctrines (…)” But the naljorpa interrupted me.
For a blessing to be efficacious, he who gives it must possess the power that he professes to communicate.
“Would the Precious Protector need soldiers to fight the Chinese or other enemies if he possessed such a power? Could he not drive anyone he liked out of the country and surround Tibet with an invisible barrier that none could pass? “The Guru who is born in a lotus had such a power and his blessing still reaches those who worship him, even though he lives in the distant land of the Rakshasas. “I am only a humble disciple, and yet (…)”
It appeared to me that the “humble disciple” was maybe a little mad and certainly very conceited, for his “and yet” had been accompanied by a glance that suggested many things.
My interpreter meanwhile was visibly uneasy. He profoundly respected the Dalai Lama and disliked to hear him criticized. On the other hand, the man who could “create stars out of dog dung” inspired him with a superstitious fear.
I proposed to leave, but as I understood that the lama was going away the next morning, I handed Dawasandup a few rupees for the traveller to help him on his way. This present displeased the naljorpa. He refused it, saying he had already received more provisions than he could carry.
Dawasandup thought it right to insist. He took a few steps forward, intending to place the money on a table near the lama. Then I saw him stagger, fall backward and strike his back against the wall as if he had been violently pushed. He uttered a cry and clutched at his stomach. The naljorpa got up and, sneering, left the room. “I feel as if I had received a terrible blow,” said Dawasandup. “The lama is irritated. How shall we appease him?”
“Let us go,” I answered. “The lama has probably nothing to do with it. You, perhaps, have heart trouble and had better consult a doctor.” Pale and troubled, the interpreter answered nothing. Indeed there was nothing to be said. We returned, but I was not able to reassure him. The next day Dawasandup and I left for Gangtok.
The mule path that we followed dives right into the Himalayas, the sacred land which ancient Indian traditions people with famous sagas, stern magicians, ascetics and deities.
The summer resorts established by foreigners on the border of these impressive highlands have not yet modified their aspect. A few miles away from the hotels where the Western world enjoys dancing and jazz bands, the primeval forest reigns.
Shrouded in the moving fogs, a fantastic army of trees, draped in livid green moss, seems to keep watch along the narrow tracks, warning or threatening the traveller with enigmatic gestures. From the low valleys buried under the exuberant jungle to the mountain summits covered with eternal snow, the whole country is bathed in occult influences.
In such scenery it is fitting that sorcery should hold sway. The so-called Buddhist population is practically Shamanist and a large number of mediums: Bön-pos, Pawos, Bunting and Yabas of both sexes, even in the smallest hamlets transmit the messages of gods, demons and the dead.
I slept on the way at Pakyong, and the next day I reached Gangtok. As I neared this village-capital, I was greeted by a sudden and formidable hail storm.
Tibetans think that meteorological phenomena are the work of demons or magicians. A hail-storm is one of their favourite weapons. The former use it to hinder pilgrims on their journey to holy places and the latter by this means, defend their hermitages against intruders and keep off faint-hearted candidates for discipleship. A few weeks after my arrival, the superstitious Dawasandup confessed that he had consulted a mpa about the unexpected attack of hail upon the otherwise gloriously sunny day of my arrival.
The oracle declared that the local gods and the holy lamas were not hostile to me, but that, nevertheless, I should meet with many difficulties if I attempted to live in the “Land of the Religion,” as Tibetans call their country. A prediction very generously fulfilled!
His Highness Sidkeong Namgyal, hereditary prince of Sikkim, was a veritable lama: abbot of a monastery of the Karma-Khagyud sect and a Tulku believed to be the reincarnation of his uncle, a lama of saintly memory.
As usual, he had donned the monastic garb while still a child, and spent a part of his youth in the monastery of which he was now the head.
The British Government having chosen him, in preference to his elder brother, as successor to the maharajah his father, he was put in charge of an anglicized Indian as guardian and teacher. A short stay at Oxford and a trip round the world completed his heterogeneous education.
Sidkeong Tulku knew English better than his mother tongue: Tibetan. He spoke Hindustani fluently and, also, a little Chinese. The private villa he had built in his father’s gardens resembled an English country house Unposed on a Tibetan temple. The same contrasts were repeated within. The ground floor was furnished according to English taste, while upstairs there was an oratory with Lamaist images and a Tibetan sitting-room.
The young prince was very open-minded. He immediately became interested in my researches and facilitated my task with great zeal.
The first part of my stay in Sikkim was devoted to visiting the monasteries scattered through the forests. Picturesquely situated, usually on the spur of a mountain, their aspect impressed me deeply.
I liked to imagine these rustic dwellings inhabited by thinkers liberated from worldly ambitions and struggles, who passed their days in peace and deep meditations.
I did not, however, find the monasteries quite what I expected. The monks of Sikkim are for the most part illiterate and have no desire to be enlightened, even about the Buddhism which they profess. Nor, indeed, have they the necessary leisure. The gompas of Sikkim are poor, they have but a very small income and no rich benefactors. Their trapas are compelled to work for their living.
Foreign authors call all members of the Lamaist clergy indiscriminately lamas, but this is not the custom in Tibet. The only monks who have a right to the title of lama are the ecclesiastical dignitaries such as the Tulkus, the abbots of large monasteries, the heads of the great monastic colleges and monks who hold high university degrees. All other monks, even those who have been ordained as gelong, are called trapas. Nevertheless, it is usual to give the courtesy title of lama to aged and learned monks when addressing them.
In Sikkim, a number of trapas whom their colleagues held to be learned men were capable of celebrating a few religious rites.
They taught the novices to recite the liturgy and received as fees gifts in kind, more rarely a little money and, often, merely the domestic service of their pupils. However, the exercise of their priestly functions was the main source of their income.
Orthodox Buddhism strictly forbids religious rites, and the learned lamas acknowledge that they cannot bestow spiritual enlightenment, which can only be acquired by personal intellectual effort. Yet the majority believe in the efficacy of certain ritualistic methods of the healing of the sick, securing material prosperity, the conquest of evil beings and the guidance of the spirits of the dead in the other world.
The funeral ceremonies were the principal duty of the Himalayan monks. They cele brated these rites with zeal, even with pleasure; for they include one or two banquets offered by the family of the dead to the monks of the monastery to which he had been attached. The officiating trapas also receive presents of money and in kind at the house of the dead man.
Now, the peasant clergy of these forests are generally poor and ill-fed, and it is difficult for them to suppress a thrill of delight when the death of a rich villager promises them several days’ feast.
Grown-up men usually dissimulate their feelings, but the child-novices who guard the cattle in the woods are amusingly frank.
One day, while I was sitting not far from some of these youthful herdsmen, a far-off sound of wind instruments reached us.
In an instant the boys who had been playing stopped listening attentively. Again, we heard the same sound. The children had understood.
“The conches!” said one of them.
“Some one is dead!” another answered.
Then they kept silent, looking at each other, their eyes sparkling with pleasure. “We shall have meat to eat,” one of the boys whispered.
In many villages, the lamaist priest comes into competition with the sorcerer, though as a rule this leads to no animosity.
Generally, each has more or less faith in the worth of his rival’s methods. Although the lama is held in higher esteem than the Boil sorcerer, a follower of the ancient religion of the aborigines, or than the ngagspa – magician, assimilated to the official clergy-these latter are, nevertheless, believed to be more skilful in dealing with the demons who harm living beings or the spirits of the dead.
An unforeseen incident led me to discover how the spirit of a dead man is drawn out of his body by the officiating lama and directed on the right road in the next world. I was returning, that day, from an excursion in the forest when I heard a sharp brief cry, unlike that of any animal known to me. A few minutes later, the same cry was twice repeated. I advanced slowly and noiselessly in the direction of the sound and discovered a cabin which had been hidden by a slight rise in the ground.
Lying flat between the bushes, I could observe what was going on without being seen. Two monks were seated under the trees, their gaze lowered in an attitude of meditation.
Hik! cried one upon a peculiar abnormal shrill note. Hik! repeated the other after a few minutes. And so they continued, with long intervals of silence, during which they remained motionless between the shrieks.
I noticed that a great effort seemed required to produce this sound, which apparently came up from their very entrails. After having watched them for some time, I saw one of the trapas put his hands upon his throat. His face expressed suffering, he turned his head to one side and spat out a stream of blood.
His companion said a few words that I could not hear. Without answering the monk rose and went towards the cabin.
I then noticed a long straw standing straight up on the top of his head. What did this ornament signify?
While the traps entered the hut and his friend had his back to me, I escaped.
As soon as I saw Dawasandup, I questioned him. What were these men doing; why did they utter this strange cry?
That, he said, is the ritualistic cry that the officiating lama shouts beside a man who has just died, in order to free the “spirit” and cause it to leave the body through a hole that this magic syllable opens on the summit of the skull.
Only a lama who has received, from a competent master, the power of uttering that hik! with the right intonation and required force, is capable of success. After hik! he shouts phat! But he must be careful not to articulate phat when he is only practicing, like the monks you overheard. The combination of these two sounds invariably leads to the separation of body and spirit, so that the lama who pronounced them correctly over himself would immediately die.
This danger does not exist when he is officiating, because he acts by proxy, in place of the dead-lending him his voice, so that the effect of the magic words is felt by the dead man, not by the lama.
Once the psychic power of drawing the spirit out of its corporeal envelope has been conferred, by a competent master, upon a disciple, the latter must practice the uttering of hik! in the right tone. It is known that this has been attained when a straw stuck in the skull stands up straight as long as desired. For by shouting hik! a slight opening in the skull is produced and the straw is placed in it. In the case of a dead man, the opening is much larger. It is sometimes large enough to introduce the little finger.
Dawasandup was much interested in all questions concerning death and the spirit world. Five or six years after I knew him, he translated a classic Tibetan work on the peregrinations of the dead in the next world.
Several foreigners, Orientalist scholars or British officials have employed Dawasandup and acknowledged his ability.
However, I have good reasons to think that none of them knew the real peculiarities of his character as I did.
Dawasandup was an occultist and even, in a certain way, a mystic. He sought for secret intercourse with the Dâkinîs and the dreadful gods hoping to gain super normal powers. Everything that concerned the mysterious world of beings generally invisible strongly attracted him, but the necessity of earning his living made it impossible for him to devote much time to his favourite study.
Born at Kalimpong, his ancestors were hillmen: Bhutanis or Sikkimeeses from the Tibetan stock of the invaders. He got a scholarship and was educated at the High School of Darjeeling, established for young men of Tibetan origin.
He entered the British Government service in India and became interpreter at Baxe Duar, on the southern frontier of Bhutan.
I got some idea of this teacher from the accounts of Dawasandup, who venerated him deeply. He must have resembled many lamas whom I have met later on harbouringin his mind a mixture of learning and superstitions, but, above all, a good and charitable man.
He was distinguished from all his colleagues, however by having had as master a veritable saint whose death is worth relating.
This holy lama was an anchorite who practiced mystic contemplation in a secluded spot in Bhutan. As is often the case, one of his disciples shared his hermitage and served him.
One day a pious benefactor came to see the ascetic and left him a sum of money to purchase winter provisions. His disciple, urged on by covetousness, stabbed him and ran off with the silver. The aged lama was still alive, and came to his senses soon after the murderer had gone. His wounds caused him excruciating suffering, and to escape this torture he sank into meditation.
Concentration of thought is carried so far by Tibetan mystics that it becomes anaesthetic and they do not feel anything; or at a lower degree of power they can thus greatly lessen their pains.
When another disciple of the lama went to visit him a few days later he found him rolled up in a blanket and motionless. The smell from the festering wounds and the blood-stained blanket caught his attention. He questioned his master. The hermit then told him what had happened, but when the man wished to get a doctor from the nearest monastery he was forbidden to do so.
“If the lamas and villagers happen to hear about my condition they will search for the culprit,” said the ascetic.
“He cannot have got far. They would find him and, probably, condemn him to death. I cannot permit this. I wish to give him more time to escape. One day he will, perhaps, return to the right path, and in any case, I shall not have been the cause of his death. So do not tell anyone what you have seen here. Now go, leave me alone. While I meditate, I do not suffer, but when I become conscious of my body my pain is unbearable.”
An Oriental disciple does not discuss an order of this kind. The man prostrated himself at his guru’s feet and left. A few days later the hermit, all alone in his hut, passed away.
Although Dawasandup greatly admired the conduct of the holy lama, such moral summits were not for him. He humbly confessed it.
Drink, a failing frequent among his countrymen, had been the curse of his life. This increased his natural tendency to anger and led him, one day, within an ace of murder. I had some influence over him while I lived at Gangtok. I persuaded him to promise the total abstinence from fermented beverages that is enjoined on all Buddhists.
But it needed more energy than he possessed to persevere. It was impossible for him to resist his surroundings; where men say that to drink, and leave one’s reason at the bottom of the cup, is the proper thing for a faithful disciple of Pad masambhava. Guru, in Sanskrit, the spiritual father and guide. This word is used by Tibetan mystics, especially in book language.
Padmasambhava belonged to the degenerate sect of tantric Buddhism. Yet, nothing proves he was naturally intemperate, as some of his followers wish to make us believe, to justify their drunkenness.)
When I met Dawasandup he had left the Government service to become head master of the Tibetan school at Gangtok. He was too extraordinary for words in this rôle. His passion for reading literally tyrannized the man. Wherever he went he carried a book with him and, absorbed in it, he lost himself in a kind of ecstasy. For hours he would forget where he was. His learned translations, his long conversations with lamas and the celebrating of occult rites constantly distracted him from attending to his school Indeed, he often seemed to have forgotten its very existence.
Sometimes for a whole month he did not set foot in the schoolroom, abandoning his scholars to the care of an under master, who followed his example in neglecting them, as far as he dared without risking his job.
Left to themselves, the boys played and wandered in the woods, forgetting the little they had learned. However, the day would come when Dawasandup, severe as a Judge of the Dead, suddenly appeared before his pupils, who trembled in every limb, knowing full well what they had to expect.
First, they had to stand in a line in front of their examiner, who then questioned a boy at one or the other end of the line.
If the child gave an incorrect answer, or none at all, his comrade next in line might answer, and if his solution was right, he was ordered to slap the ignorant in the face and take his place.
The victim was again questioned. If he did not show more learning than the first time, the third in line was called up, and if successful, would be told to slap his comrade and take his place.
An unlucky urchin, stupefied by these repeated brutalities, reached the end of the row, having received a dozen blows.
Not infrequently it happened that several boys standing side by side, were incapable of reciting their lessons. In that case, the most “erudite” of the group distributed all the slaps, and if all the children showed themselves equally ignorant, Dawasandup himself chastised them all.
Certain pupils hesitated to give a friend a hard blow and only made a presence of striking him, but Dawasandup was on the look out.
“Come up here!” he would say, with a little ferocious laugh. “You do not know how it is done, my boy. I’ll teach you.”
And bang! his large hand would strike the poor lad in the face. Then the boy had to demonstrate, on his friend’s cheek, that he had learned the lesson given by his terrible teacher.
Sometimes the faults to be punished were not connected with the pupil’s work. In that strange school, devoid of all discipline, the inventive mind of Dawasandup discovered transgressions to rules which had never been made. In these cases, he used a specially long and heavy stick, ordering the culprit to stretch out his arm and keep his hand open. Then the boy received on his palm the number of strokes fixed by his master.
As he maneuvered his weapon, Dawasandup executed a kind of savage war dance, marking each stroke with a leap and a wild exclamation of “ban!” So, with the active though unwilling cooperation of the victim, whose pain caused him to stamp, writhe and yell, the punishment looked like a devilish ballet.
Arriving unexpectedly at the school one day, I witnessed one of these scenes, and the children, who became familiar with me, frankly described their teacher’s educational methods.
After a few days of this active professorship, Dawasandup would again abandon his pupils.
I could tell many other stories about my good interpreter, some quite amusing, in the style of Boccaccio. He played other parts than those of occultist, schoolmaster and writer. But, peace to his memory. I do not wish to belittle him. Having acquired real erudition by persevering efforts, he was sympathetic and interesting.
I congratulate myself on having met him and gratefully acknowledge my debt to him. I may add that Dawasandup is the author of the first, and up to now, only English Tibetan dictionary, and that he ended his days as professor of Tibetan at the university of Calcutta.
My joy was intense when the prince Tulku announced that a real Tibetan doctor of philosophy from the famous university of Trashilhumpo was coming to live at the Enche monastery, near Gangtok, and that he also expected another lama – a native from Sikkim, who had studied in Tibet – to return shortly to his country. I soon was able to meet these two men and found them learned and distinguished scholars.
The doctor of philosophy’s name was Kushog Chösdzed, and he belonged to the family of the ancient kings of Tibet. He had been some years in prison for some political offence, and attributed his delicate state of health to poisoned food absorbed during his incarceration.
The prince of Sikkim held men of learning in high esteem. He was glad to receive the refugee and appointed him abbot of the Enche gompa, with the further duty of teaching grammar and sacred literature to about twenty novices.
Kushog Chösdzed was a Gelugspa, that is to say a follower of the reformed sect founded by Tsong Khapa about A.D. 1400, familiarly known as the sect of the “Yellow hats.”
Foreign writers who describe the doctrines and religious practices of the “Yellow hats” as completely opposed to those of the “Red hats” would have recognized their error on finding, at Enche Monastery, a Gelugspa abbot presiding over monks of the Red sect and chanting the liturgy with them.
I do not know whether this lama gave himself assiduously to meditation and should be classed as a mystic, but he certainly possessed extraordinary erudition. His memory resembled a miraculous library, where each book was ready at the asking, to open at the desired page. Without the slightest effort he could quote texts by the dozen, on any matter connected with Lamaism, Buddhist philosophy and Tibetan history or secular literature.
This is, however, not an unusual feat in Tibet, but his perfect understanding and subtle comprehension of shades of meaning was quite uncommon. Whether from fear of being thought obtrusive or from pride of birth, the lama seldom visited the prince at his villa, and only to consult with him about affairs concerning the monastery.
Sometimes he came to see me, but I generally went up to his gompa, which stood on a spur of the mountain that dominated Gangtok.
After several conversations, the lama, suspicious as are most Orientals, devised an amusing stratagem to test my knowledge of Buddhism and the extent of my understanding of its doctrines.
One day when I was seated in his room, he took out of a drawer a long list of questions and with exquisite politeness asked me to answer them at once. The subjects treated were abstruse and had certainly been chosen with the intention of embarrassing me.
I passed the trial honourably, my examiner seemed content. He then confessed that up to this moment he had not believed me to be a Buddhist and that, not being able to discover my reasons for questioning the lamas about their religion, he had feared that my designs were evil.
After this he seemed quite reassured and manifested great confidence in me. The second lama who arrived shortly after this at Gangtok came from the monastery of Tolung Tserphug, situated in the region of Lhasa. He had studied there in his youth, and returned later as secretary to the Head of the sect of the Karmapas, one of the most important “Red hat” sects.
He was called Bermiag Kushog because he was the son of the Lord of that place, one of the rare members of the Sikkimeese nobility who belonged to the aboriginal race called the Lepchas.
Like Kushog Chösdzed, he had received the higher ordination of gelong and was a celibate. He was chaplain to the maharajah and, as such, occupied an apartment in the palace.
Nearly every afternoon he crossed the gardens and went to the villa where the crown-prince lived. There in the sitting-room furnished according to English taste, we had long conversations on topics quite foreign to Westerners.
I like to recall these talks which gradually enabled me to lift the veil that hides the real Tibet and its religious world.
Sidkeong Tulku, always wearing his brocade robes, presided, seated on a couch. A table was placed in front of him, and I sat opposite, in an arm-chair. We were each provided with a little bowl of fine Chinese porcelain, with a silver saucer and a cover shaped like a pagoda roof, studded with coral and turquoises.
At a short distance from the prince, the Honourable of Bermiag, majestically draped in his garnet-coloured toga, had an arm-chair and a bowl with a silver saucer, but without a cover. As for Dawasandup, who was often present, he squatted tailor fashion at our feet and his bowl, placed upon the rug, had neither cover nor saucer. His rank being higher than that of his protector.
The complicated and very strict Tibetan etiquette was thus obeyed. While that learned and fluent orator, Bermiag Kushog, talked, we were lavishly supplied with Tibetan tea, the colour of faded roses and flavoured with butter and salt. Rich Tibetans always have a bowl of this tea near at hand.
A popular expression to describe wealthy people is: “Their lips are always moistened with tea or beer.” However, tea only appeared in these reunions, out of respect for my orthodox Buddhist principles.
A young attendant brought in a large silver teapot. He carried it around shoulder high and lowered it to the level of our cups with studied gestures, as if he was performing some religious rite. A few sticks of incense burning in a corner of the room, spread a penetrating fragrance unlike any I had ever smelt in India or in China. Sometimes, a slow solemn melody, at once melancholy and subdued, reached us from the distant palace temple. And Bermiag lama continued talking, describing the lives and thoughts of some sages or magicians who had lived or were living to-day, in the forbidden land, whose frontier was so near. (…)
To Kushog Chösdzed and to Bermiag Kushog I owe my first initiation into the creeds held by the Lamaists regarding death and the beyond: creeds unknown to most foreigners.
As one of these lamas was “Red hat,” and the other belonged to the “Yellow hat” sect, by listening to both, I was sure of acquiring information that represented the general opinion and not that of any one particular sect or creed.
Moreover, in the years that followed, I had numerous occasions, in different parts of Tibet, of questioning other lamas on this subject. For the convenience of the reader, I will put together some of this information in the following summary.
Death and the Beyond. The profane generally imagine that Buddhists believe in the reincarnation of the soul and even in metempsychosis. This is erroneous. Buddhism teaches that the energy produced by the mental and physical activities of a being brings about the apparition of new mental and physical phenomena when once this being has been dissolved by death.
There exist a number of subtle theories upon this subject and the Tibetan mystics seem to have attained a deeper insight into the question than most other Buddhists. However, in Tibet, as elsewhere, the views of the philosophers are only understood by the elite. The masses, although they repeat the orthodox creed: “all aggregates are impermanent; no ‘ego’ exists in the person, nor in anything,” remain attached to the more simple belief in an undefined entity travelling from world to world, assuming various forms.
The ideas of the Lamaists regarding the condition of man immediately after death differ from those held by the Buddhists of the southern countries: Ceylon, Burma, Siam. They affirm that a certain time elapses between his death and his rebirth among one or other of the six kinds of recognized sentient beings.
According to popular belief, the class of beings in which one is reborn and the more or less happy conditions in which one is placed among them, depend upon the good and evil actions one has accomplished during one’s previous existence.
The more enlightened lamas teach that man – or any other being – by his thoughts and actions, creates affinities which, quite naturally, lead him to a kind of existence in keeping with the nature of these affinities.
Others say that, by his actions, and above all, by his mental activity, he modifies his very substance and so acquires the characteristics of a god, an animal, or of any kind of being.
So far, these views differ very little from those expressed among Buddhists. The following lamaist theories are more original.
In the first place, the great importance given to cleverness by certain Mahâyâna Buddhist sects is still more emphasized by Lamaists.
“He who knows how to go about it could live comfortably even in hell,” is a very popular saying in Tibet. This explains more clearly than any definition or description all that the lamas mean by thabs, i.e. “method.”
Thus, while most of their co-religionists believe that the fate of the dead is mathematically fixed in accordance with their moral character, the Lamaists declare that he who knows the proper “method” is capable of modifying for the better his post mortem fate. In other words, he may cause himself to be reborn in the most agreeable conditions possible.
They say: “as agreeable as possible,” because in spite of cleverness, the weight of past actions has considerable force. In fact, it is often so powerful that all the efforts of a dead being, or of an initiate devoted to his welfare, are unable to stop the “spirit” from precipitating itself into a miserable rebirth. We shall have an illustration of this difficulty a little later.
Starting with the idea that “method,” the “savoir-faire,” is of an essential importance, the Lamaists think that after having learned the art of living well one must learn the art of dying well and of “doing well” in other worlds.
Initiates acquainted with mystic lore, are supposed to know what awaits them when they die, and contemplative lamas have foreseen and experienced, in this life, the sensations that accompany death. They will, therefore, neither be surprised nor troubled when their present personality disintegrates. That which is to continue, entering conscious into the next world will be already familiar with the roads and bypaths and the places to which they lead.
What is this “that” which continues its way after the body has become a corpse? It is a special “consciousness” among the several distinguished by Lamaists. The “consciousness” of the “I,” or according to another definition “the will to live.”
I shall use the term “spirit” for the traveller whose peregrinations in the next world we are to follow.
This term is far from conveying exactly the idea which earned Tibet ans embody in the words Yid kyi rnampar shespa. But it has the advantage of being familiar to Westerners and, indeed, there is none more suitable in any European language.
I said that – according to Tibetans – a mystic initiate is capable of keeping his mind lucid during the disintegration of his personality, and that it is possible for him to pass from this world to the next fully conscious of what is happening. It follows that such a man does not need the help of anyone in his last hours, nor any religious rites after his death.
But this is not the case for ordinary mortals.
By ordinary mortals, we must understand anyone, monk or layman, who has not mastered the “science of death,” and these are, naturally, the great majority.
Lamaism does not abandon these ignorants to themselves. While they are dying, and after they are dead a lama teaches them that which they have not learned while they were alive. He explains to them the nature of the beings and things which appear on their way; he reassures them, and, above all, he never ceases guiding them in the right direction.
The lama who is assisting a dying man is careful to prevent him from falling asleep, or from fainting or falling into a coma. He points out the successive departure of the special “consciousness” attached to each sense, viz. consciousness of the eye, consciousness of the nose, of the tongue, of the body, of the ear. That is to say, he calls attention to the gradual loss of sight, smell, taste, touch and hearing.
Then, the task of the lama is to make the “spirit” spring out of its envelope through the top of the head; for if it leaves by any other road, the future well-being of the man will be greatly jeopardized.
This extraction of the “spirit” is produced by the ritualistic cry of Hik! followed by Phat! Before uttering the cry, the lama must concentrate his thoughts and identify himself with the man who has just died.
He must make the effort which the man himself ought to have made, to cause the “spirit” to ascend to the summit of the skull with sufficient force to produce the fissure through which it can escape.
Initiates who are capable of making the “spirit” rise for themselves, utter the liberating cries of Hik! and Phat! when they feel their end approaching, and so free themselves without help.
They are also able to commit suicide in this way and it is said that certain mystics have done so.
The disembodied “spirit” then begins a strange pilgrimage. The popular belief is that a journey really takes place through lands that really exist and are peopled with real beings. But the more learned Lamaists consider the journey as a series of subjective visions, a dream that the “spirit” himself weaves under the influence of his character and his past actions.
Certain Lamaists assert that, immediately after the “spirit” has been disincarnated, it has an intuition, fugitive as a streak of lightning, of the Supreme Reality. If it can seize this light, it is definitely set free from the “round” of successive births and deaths. It has reached the state of nirvâna.
This is rarely the case. Generally the “spirit” is dazzled by this sudden light. He shrinks from it pulled backward by his false conceptions, his attachment to individual existence and to the pleasure of the senses. Or, else, the significance of what he has seen escapes him, just as a man, absorbed by his preoccupations, will fail to notice what is going on around him.
The ordinary man who has died while in a faint, does not immediately understand what has happened when he becomes conscious again. For several days he will “talk” to people living in his former dwelling-place and he will be astonished that no one answers him or seems to be aware of his presence.
A lama of the monastery of Litang, in Eastern Tibet, told me that some dead men had communicated through the intermediary of pawos the fact that they had tried to use objects belonging to them. They wanted to take a plough to work their fields or to reach their clothes which were hanging on a hook and put them on. They were irritated at not being able to carry on the life to which they were accustomed.
In such cases, the “spirit” of the dead is disoriented. What can have happened to him? He notices an inert body similar to his own and sees the lamas chanting around him. Is it possible that he is dead?
Simple people believe that the disincarnated “spirit” must go to a sandy spot and observe his footprints on the ground. If these footprints are reversed, that is to say if the heels are in front and the toes turned backwards, he can no longer doubt that he is dead.
We may as well ask how a “spirit” can possess feet? – It is not really the “spirit” which is provided with limbs, but the “ethereal double” to which he is still attached. For Tibetans, like Egyptians, believe in the “double.”
During life, in a normal state, this “double” is closely united with the material body. Nevertheless, certain circumstances may cause their separation. The “double” can, then, leave the material body and show itself in different places; or being itself invisible, it can accomplish various peregrinations. With some people this separation of the “double” from the body happens involuntarily, but Tibetans say that those who have trained themselves for the purpose can effect it at will.
The separation, however, is not complete, for a strand, subsists, connecting the two forms. The link persists during a certain length of time after death. The destruction of the corpse generally, but not necessarily, brings about the destruction of the “double” in the end. In certain cases, it may survive its companion.
In Tibet, one meets people who have been in a state of lethargy, and are able to describe the various places in which, they say, they have travelled. Some have only visited countries inhabited by men, while others can tell of their peregrinations in the paradises, the purgatories or in the bardo, an intermediary region where “spirits” wander after death, while waiting to be reincarnated.
These curious travellers are called delogs, which means: “one who has returned from the beyond.” Though the delogs vary in their descriptions of places and events, they usually agree in depicting the feelings of the pseudo-dead as definitely pleasant.
A woman whom I met in a village of Tsarong had some years ago, remained inanimate for a whole week. She said she had been agreeably astonished by the lightness and agility of her new body and the extraordinary rapidity of its movements. She had only to wish herself in a certain place to be there immediately; she could cross rivers, walking upon the waters, or pass through walls.
There was only one thing she found impossible –to cut an almost impalpable cord that attached her ethereal being to the material body which she could see perfectly well sleeping upon her couch. This cord lengthened out indefinitely but, nevertheless, it some times hampered her movements. She would “get caught up in it,” she said.
A male delog, whom my son had met in his youth, gave a similar description of his state.
Evidently, the delog is not really a dead man, so that nothing can prove that the sensations he experiences in his lethargy are the same as those felt by the dead. Tibetans, however, do not seem to be troubled by this distinction.
When the dying man has taken his last breath, he is dressed by putting his clothes on backwards-the front of the gown fastened on his back. Then he is tied up with his legs crossed, or his knees bent and touching his breast. In the villages, the body, dressed in this way, Is usually placed in a cauldron. As soon as the corpse has been taken out for its journey to the cemetery, this cauldron is hastily washed, and soup or tea is often prepared in it for the funeral guests who do not seem troubled by fear of infection from the corpse.
In Tibet, funeral ceremonies occupy many days, and though the high altitude of the central and northern provinces retards decomposition, in the hot and damp valleys, corpses kept for a week, or longer spread a putrid odour.
This does not in the least affect the appetite of the officiating trapas, who continue to advise the dead, signalling the roads he should follow and those he should avoid in the next world. They take their meals facing the departed one. One may even say they eat with him, for the chief monk invites him by names as follows: “Spirit, come here, immediately, and feed yourself.”
In the wooded regions of Tibet, the bodies are burned. The inhabitants of the vast barren northern and central regions, where cowdung is the only fuel available, abandon the corpses to the beasts of prey, either in cemeteries reserved near the villages, or anywhere on the mountain solitudes.
The bodies of high religious dignitaries are sometimes preserved by the double process of salting and cooking in butter.
These mummies are called mardong. Swathed in clothes, their faces painted with gold, they are placed in mausoleums of massive silver, studded with precious stones. A pane of glass is sometimes fitted in these cases, on a level with the head, so that the gilded face can be seen. Other Grand Lamas are incinerated with butter and their bones preserved in rich caskets.
All funeral monuments, in Tibet, take the form of chorten, which are imitations of the stûpas which the ancient Buddhists of India built over their holy dead, or other precious relics.
In obedience to Buddhist beliefs in the excellence of charitable deeds, Lamaists find, in the funerals, a fitting occasion for a supreme act of charity. The dead man wished – or is supposed to have wished – that his body should serve as his last gift, to nourish those tormented by hunger.
A work entitled: “A guide for the ‘spirit’ of the dead in the next world”, expounds the subject as follows:
1. The body is transported to the top of a mountain. It is dismembered, the four limbs being cut off with a well-sharpened knife. The entrails, the heart, the lungs are laid out on the ground. The birds, wolves and foxes feed themselves upon them.
2. The body is thrown into a sacred river. The blood and the humours are dissolved in the blue water. The fish and the otters eat the flesh and the fat.
3. The body is burned. Flesh, bones and skin are reduced to a heap of cinders. The Tisas are nourished by the odour.
4. The body is hidden in the earth. Flesh, bones and skin are sucked by worms.
5. Families who can afford to pay the officiating monks, have the religious service repeated every day, for six weeks following the funerals. After this, an effigy is made with a light frame of sticks, supporting clothes that belonged to the deceased. A sheet of paper represents the face.
The portrait of the dead person is sometimes sketched upon it; more often a printed paper sheet is bought, ready made, in a monastery. There are two models: one being the picture of a man, the other that of a woman. The name of the departed is written under the drawn portrait or the printed picture.
There is one more, final, religious ceremony, at the close of which the officiating lama burns the paper sheet, or face of the dead person. The clothes in which the effigy was dressed are given to the lama as part of his fee.
After this symbolic incineration, the ties which might still have attached the deceased to this world are considered to be definitely severed.
Tibetans keenly desire avoiding any intercourse with the dead. Peasants use especially precise words to get rid of them. Just before the corpse is carried out of the house, a meal is served to him and an aged member of the family harangues him, in these words:
“So-and-so, listen. You are dead, be sure of that. You have nothing more to do here. Eat copiously for the last time. You have a long road to run and several mountain passes to cross. Take strength and do not return again.” I heard an even stranger discourse.
After having duly told the dead man that he no longer belonged to this world and bidding him never to reappear, the orator added:
“Pagdzin. I must tell you that your house has been destroyed by fire, everything you possessed is burned. Because of a debt you had forgotten, your creditor has taken your two sons away as slaves. Your wife has left with a new husband. As it would sadden you to see all this misery, be careful not to return.”
I listened in astonishment to this extraordinary list of calamities.
“How did this series of misfortunes happen?” I asked an assistant.
“Nothing at all has happened,” he answered, smiling maliciously. “The farm and the cattle are intact and the widow is sitting quietly at home with the sons. We invented that tale to disgust Pagdzin so that he will not think of returning to his home.”
The Tisas are demi-gods who feed upon odours; but while some of them nourish themselves with sweet fragrances, others prefer odours which are offensive to us, such as that of burnt flesh.
This seemed rather a naïve stratagem for people who credit the “spirit” with the faculty of seeing what is going on in our world.
In liturgical terms far more solemn than those employed by the villagers, the lama also advises the departed one to follow his road without looking backward. But this counsel is for his own good, while the common people only think of avoiding the occult presence of a ghost which they consider dangerous.
During the celebration of these various ceremonies, the “spirit” travels through the Bardo.
He beholds, in turn, radiant beautiful beings and hideous forms. He sees diversely coloured paths and a crowd of strange visions. These apparitions frighten him, he is bewildered and wanders at random among them.
If he is able to hear and to follow the advices of the officiating lama, he can take a road that will lead him to be reborn among the gods, or in some other pleasant condition-just as the initiate may, who has entered consciously into the Bardo after a careful study of its “map.”
But men who have not learned anything about the Bardo, and who enter it while absorbed in their regret at leaving the material world, can hardly profit by the counsels given to them.
So they miss the opportunity of escaping the mathematically rigid consequences of their actions.
The roads to celestial happiness are behind them. The wombs of human and of animal beings are offered them and, deceived by their hallucinations, they fancy these to be pleasant grottoes or palaces.
Thinking they will find an agreeable resting-place, they enter one or another of them and thus determine for themselves the conditions of their rebirth. This one will become a dog, while another will be the son of distinguished human parents.
According to other beliefs, the great mass of people who have not obtained post mortem spiritual illumination, by seizing the meaning of the vision which arose before them immediately after death, travel like a frightened flock of sheep through the phantasmagoria of Bardo, until they reach the court of Shinje, the Judge of the Dead.
Shinje examines their past actions in a mirror or weighs them under the form of white and black pebbles. According to the predominance of good or of evil deeds, he determines the species of beings among whom the “spirit” will be reborn and the particular conditions that shall accompany this rebirth, such as physical beauty or ugliness, intellectual gifts, social standing of the parents, etc.
There is no question of “skilfulness” in saving oneself here, for the judge is impartial and inflexible.
In fact, even at the time when “skilfulness” may be helpful, it only acts within the limit permitted by the power of past actions. I have already mentioned this limitation and will, now, give an amusing illustration of it which is characteristic of Tibetan humour. A Grand Lama had passed his whole life in idleness. Although he had been given excellent tutors in his youth, had inherited from his predecessors an important library and had, moreover, always been surrounded by men of learning, still, he scarcely knew how to read. This lama died.
In these times there lived a strange man, a miracle-worker and rough-speaking philosopher, whose eccentricities – sometimes coarse – often exaggerated by his biographers, have given birth to a number of stories in the style of Rabelais, much appreciated in Tibet.
Dugpa Kunlegs, for such was his name, travelled under the guise of a vagabond. Having arrived at the bank of a brook, he saw a girl who had come there to draw water.
Suddenly he attacked her, and without saying a word he tried to violate her. The lass was robust and Dugpa Kunlegs was approaching old age. She defended herself so vigorously that she escaped him, and, running back to the village, told her mother what had happened.
The good woman was most astonished. The men of the country were well behaved, none of them could be suspected. The brute must be a stranger. She made her daughter minutely describe the wicked wretch.
While listening to the girl, the mother wondered. The description of the man corresponded, in all points, to that of Dugpa Kunlegs, this eccentric and saintly lama whom she had met during a pilgrimage. There was no doubt possible. Dugpa Kunlegs, himself, had wished to abuse her daughter.
She began to reflect on the strange behaviour of the holy one. The common moral principles which rule the conduct of ordinary men do not apply to men of supernormal wisdom-she thought. A doubtob is not bound to follow any law. His actions are dictated by superior considerations which escape the vulgar observer. (…) So she said to her daughter:
“The man you have seen is the great Dugpa Kunlegs. Whatever he does is well done. Therefore, return to the brook, prostrate yourself at his feet and consent to anything he wishes.”
The girl went back and found the doubtob seated upon a stone, absorbed in his thoughts. She bowed down before him, excused herself for having resisted him when she had not known who he was, and declared that she was entirely at his service.
The saint shrugged his shoulders.
“My child,” he said, “women awake no desire in me. However, the Grand Lama of the neighbouring monastery has died in ignorance, having neglected all occasions of instruction. I saw his ‘spirit’ wandering in the Bardo, drawn towards a bad rebirth, and, out of compassion, I wished to procure him a human body. But the power of his evil deeds has not permitted this. You escaped, and while you were at the village, the asses in that field near by, coupled. The Grand Lama will soon be reborn as a donkey.”
The majority of the dead men heed the desire of their families, as expressed during the funeral, and do not return. The latter conclude that their fate, in the next world, has been definitely settled and, probably, to their satisfaction.
However, some departed ones are less discreet. They frequently appear in dreams to their relatives or their friends and strange things happen in their former dwellings. Tibetans believe that this shows the “spirit” to be unhappy and calling for help. There are lama diviners who can be consulted in such cases. They order the rites to be celebrated, the gifts to be bestowed upon the clergy, and holy books to be read, to comfort the unhappy “spirit.”
Nevertheless, many people, especially in those remote regions near the frontiers, fall back on the practices of the ancient Böns for such cases. They think that the dead man, himself, should be listened to. So a medium, male or female, is summoned to lend his voice to the departed one.
Spiritualistic seances in Tibet, do not resemble those of the Western countries. Neither darkness nor silence are required, sometimes they are held in the open air. The pawo begins chanting, accompanying himself with a little drum and a bell. He dances, first slowly, then faster and faster, and, finally, trembles convulsively. A being of another world, god, demon or spirit of a dead person, has taken possession of him.
In a kind of frenzy, he utters broken sentences, which are supposed to convey that which the invisible being wishes to communicate to the assistants. Since it is of the first importance to know exactly who is speaking through the medium, and what he is saying, the most intelligent men of the village are called upon to listen attentively.
It sometimes happens that different gods or spirits take possession of the medium one after another.
Once in a while, the latter, under the impulsion given to him by one of these beings, will suddenly attack one of the public and beat him mercilessly.
This correction is always accepted without any resistance being offered. Tibetans imagine that it is meant to drive out a demon that has lodged himself in the man without his being aware of it. This undesirable guest has, however, been discovered by the spirit animating the medium.
The departed ones who suffer in the next world usually limit their performances to giving an account of their misfortunes.
At a seance, where I was a spectator, I heard one say:
“I met a demon upon my road who dragged me into his dwelling. He made a slave of me. He forces me to work hard, without stopping, and ill-treats me. Have pity on me! Set me free so that I may reach the ‘ Paradise of the Great Bliss.'”
The mother of the man who was supposed to be speaking, as well as his wife and children, wept bitter tears.
Families who receive supplications of this kind, think of nothing but how to liberate the unfortunate captive.
It is a complicated affair.
First, one must get into communication with the demon and negotiate the ransom of his prisoner.
The chosen intermediary is often a Bön sorcerer. He informs the relatives of the unhappy “spirit” that his demoniacal master demands the sacrifice of a pig or a cow, before setting him free.
Having offered the victim, the Bön enters into a trance. His “double” is supposed to visit the dwelling-place of the demon.
He travels; the way is long and hard, full of obstacles This, the sorcerer indicates by his contortions. But unlike the pawo he remains seated, moving only his head and his bust. A flow of hurried words are uttered telling the various incidents of his adventure.
He is even more difficult to understand than the pawo. The cleverest listeners find it hard to make out the sense of his words.
The Bön has accomplished his task; now he has seized the “spirit” and prepares to take him away. The demon has received the ransom demanded, but he usually breaks faith and tries to hold on to his slave The sorcerer fights him, one can see him struggling and panting, one can hear his screams.
The family and friends of the dead men follow the phases of the drama with the greatest anxiety. They are overjoyed when the sorcerer declares that he has been successful, and has led the “spirit” to an agreeable place.
But the first attempt does not always succeed. I have witnessed several performances where the sorcerer, after having simulated extraordinary efforts, declared that the “spirit” had been taken away from him by the demon. In this case, all rites, sacrifices (…) and the payment of the Bön’s fees, must begin all over again.
When a lama is called upon to save a “spirit” from slavery, no sacrifice is performed for redemption and the rites that are celebrated ignore all negotiation. The lama, who is learned in the magic ritual, considers himself powerful enough to compel the demon to release his victim.
Under the influence of Buddhism, the inhabitants of Tibet proper have given up sacrificing animals. This is far from being true of Tibetans living in the Himalayas who have only a thin coating of Lamaism and have remained practically Shamanists.
The beliefs of the learned lamas and of contemplative mystics differ greatly from those held by the masses about the fate of the “spirit” in the next world.
To begin with, they consider all the incidents of the journey in the Bardo as purely subjective visions. The nature of these visions depends on the ideas the man has held when he was living. The various paradises, the hells and the Judge of the Dead appear to those who have believed in them.
A gomchen of Eastern Tibet told me the following story upon this subject. A painter whose principal work was that of decorating temples, often painted the fantastic beings with human bodies and animal heads, who are supposed to be the attendants of Shinje. His son, who was still a very young child, often stayed beside him while he worked and amused himself looking at the monstrous forms appearing in the frescoes.
Now it happened that the boy died, and entering the Bardo, met the terrible beings whose images were familiar to him. Far from being frightened, he began to laugh.
– “Oh! I know you all,” he said. “My father makes you on the walls.” And he wished to play with them.
I once asked the lama of Enche what would be the post-mortem subjective visions of a materialist who had looked upon death as total annihilation.
“Perhaps,” said the lama, “such man would see apparitions corresponding to the religious beliefs he held in his childhood, or to those, familiar to him, held by the people among whom he has lived.
According to the degree of his intelligence and his post-mortem lucidity, he would, perhaps, examine and analyse these visions and remember the reasons which, during his life-time, made him deny the reality of that which now appears to him. He might, thus, conclude that he is beholding a mirage.
“A less intelligent man in whom belief in total annihilation was the result of indifference or dullness, rather than of reasoning, will, perhaps, see no vision at all. However, this will not prevent the energy generated by his past actions from following its course and manifesting itself through new phenomena. In other words, it will not prevent the rebirth of the materialist.”
My many copy-books filled with notes, showed that I had worked a great deal since I had come to Sikkim. I thought I might allow myself a holiday. Summer was approaching, the warmer temperature tempted me to undertake a trip in the north of the country.
The road I chose was an excellent mule track leading from Gangtok to Kampa dzong and on to Shigatze in Tibet. Rising gradually from the travellers’ bungalow of Dikchu buried in the tropical jungle, on the bank of the Tista, it follows a tributary of this river up to its source, passing through enchanting landscapes.
At about 50 miles from Gangtok, and at a height of 8,000 feet, this road crosses a village called Lachen which occupies a prominent place in my experiences of Lamaist mysticism.
This little group of cottages is the most northern in Sikkim, the last which the travel ler meets on his way towards the high passes of the Tibetan border. It is inhabited by sturdy hillmen, who combine a little farming, in the valley, with the rearing of yaks higher up on the Tibetan tableland, where they spend a part of the year under tents.
Perched on a mountain slope, a humble monastery dominates the villagers’ dwellings.
I visited it the day after my arrival, but finding nothing of interest in the temple, I was about to leave when a shadow darkened the luminous space of the wide-open door: a lama stood on the threshold. I say “a lama,” but the man did not wear the regular monastic garb, neither was he dressed as a layman.
His costume consisted of a white skirt down to his feet a garnet-coloured waistcoat, Chinese in shape, and through the wide armholes, the voluminous sleeves of a yellow shirt were seen. A rosary made of some grey substance and coral beads hung around his neck, his pierced ears were adorned with large gold rings studded with turquoises and his long, thick, braided hair touched his heels.
This strange person looked at me without speaking, and as at that time I knew but little of the Tibetan language, I did not dare to begin a conversation. I only saluted him and went out.
A young man, my general factotum, was waiting for me on the terrace of the monastery. As soon as he saw the lama descending the steps of the peristyle, behind me, he prostrated himself thrice at his feet, asking for his blessing.
This astonished me, for the lad was not usually lavish with such signs of respect, and honoured none, in this way, but the prince Tulku and Bermiag Kushog. “Who is this lama?” I asked him as I returned to the travellers’ bungalow. “He is a great gomchen,” the boy replied.
“One of his monks told me, while you were in the temple. He has spent years alone, in a cave high up in the mountains. Demons obey him and he works miracles. They say he can kill men at a distance and fly through the air.” What an extraordinary man! I thought.
My curiosity had been greatly excited by the stories regarding Tibetan gomchens I had read with Dawasandup. I had also heard a great deal from the prince Tulku and from various lamas, about the way of living of the Tibetan hermits, the curious doctrines they profess and the wonders they can perform.
Now I had, most unexpectedly, come across one of them. This was a lucky opportunity. But how could I talk with the lama?
My boy was utterly ignorant of Tibetan philosophical terms, he would never be able to translate my questions.
I was annoyed and excited. I slept badly, troubled by incoherent dreams. I saw myself surrounded by elephants who pointed at me, musical trunks from which came out deep sounds like those of long Teban trumpets. This strange concert woke me. My room was plunged in darkness. I no longer saw the elephants but I continued to hear the music.
After listening attentively, I recognized religious tunes. The trapas were playing on the terrace of the temple. Who were they serenading in the night? (…)
Whatever might come of it, I wished to risk an interview with the gomchen. I sent a request that he would see me and the next day, accompanied by my boy, I returned to the monastery.
A primitive staircase led to the lama’s apartment situated above the assembly hall. In front of the entrance door was a small loggia decorated with frescoes. While waiting to be invited in, I examined these with some amusement.
On the walls, an artist, endowed with more imagination than professional skill, had represented the torments of the purgatories, peopling the latter with a host of demons and victims who grinned and writhed in the most comical attitudes. In the middle of a panel, lust was undergoing punishment. A naked man, abnormally thin, faced an unclothed woman. Her huge, disproportionate belly gave to this. Later on, I learned that this is the costume of the anchorites who are proficient in tumo “belle” the appearance of an Easter egg mounted on two feet and topped with a doll head.
The lecherous sinner, incorrigible slave of his passions, forgetting where he was and how he had been led there, hugged the infernal creature in his arms, while flames springing out from her mouth and from a secret recess scorched him.
At a small distance from this couple, a sinful woman suffered her chastisement. Bound, in a reversed posture, to a triangle pointing downward, she was compelled to accept the caresses inflicted upon her by a green devil with teeth like a saw and a monkey’s tail. In the background, other demons, variously coloured, were seen running forward to take their turn.
The gomchen lived in a kind of dark chapel, lighted only at one end by a small window, the ceiling supported by wooden pillars painted red. According to the Tibetan custom the altar served as book-case.
In a niche, among the books, stood a small image of Padmasambhâva, with ritual offerings placed before it: seven bowls filled with pure water, grain and a lamp. Incense sticks burning on a small table mingled their mystic fragrance with odours of tea and melted butter. The cushions and rugs piled up for the master to sit upon were threadbare and faded, and the tiny gold star of the altar lamp shining at the back of the room showed up its dust and emptiness.
Through my boy acting as interpreter, I tried to ask several questions on subjects I had discussed with the lamas I had met at Gangtok, but it was useless. If only Dawasandup had been with me. The young man was dumbfounded and unable to find words to express ideas whose meaning he could not grasp.
I gave it up, and for a long time the lama and I sat facing each other in silence. The next day I left Lachen, continuing my journey towards the north.
Here the scenery, which all along the track lower down had been charming, became simply marvellous. The azalea and rhododendron thickets were still decked with their bright spring garment.
A shimmering torrent of blossoms submerged the valley and seemed to be pouring out, on the neighbouring slopes, a resistless flood of purple, yellow, red and pure white waves. Seen from a distance, my porters, whose heads only emerged from the bushes, seemed to be swimming in a sea of flowers.
A few miles farther, the fairy-like gardens gradually grew thin and scattered, till a few rosy patches only remained, here and there, where dwarf bunches of azaleas struggled obstinately for life against the dizzy heights.
The track now entered the fantastic region near the frontier passes. In the intense silence of these wild majestic solitudes, icy, crystalline, purling brooks chatted gently. From the shore of a melancholy lake, a golden-crowned bird solemnly watched my caravan as it passed.
Up and up we went, skirting gigantic glaciers, catching occasional glimpses of crossing valleys filled by huge clouds. And then, without any transition, as we issued from the mists the Tibetan tableland appeared before us, immense, void and resplendent under the luminous sky of Central Asia.
Since then I have travelled across the country lying behind the distant mountain ranges which, at that moment, bound my horizon. I have seen Lhasa, Shigatze, the northern grassy solitudes with their salt lakes as large as seas; Kham, the country of brigand-knights and magicians; the unexplored forests of Po and the enchanting valleys of Tsarong where the pomegranates ripen, but nothing has ever dimmed, in my mind, the memory of my first sight of Tibet.
A few weeks later the weather changed, the snow began to fall again. My provisions were on the verge of giving out, porters and servants grew irritable and quarrelsome. One day I had to use my riding-whip to separate two men who were fighting with knives for a place near the camp fire.
After a few short excursions into Tibetan territory I left the frontier. I was not equipped for a long journey and, moreover, the land that lay in front of me was for bidden ground.
Again I crossed Lachen, saw the gomchen and talked with him about his hermitage that was a day’s march distant, higher up in the mountains. He had lived there for seventeen years. These plain details my boy could easily translate and I myself could follow a certain amount of his conversation.
However, I did not risk mentioning the demons, said by popular opinion to be his servants. I knew my young interpreter was too superstitious to dare to approach this subject and, probably, also the lama would not have answered such inquiries.
I returned to Gangtok, sad at having missed the opportunity of learning things of real interest regarding the mystery world of Tibetan anchorites, which I had skirted by chance. I did not, in the least, foresee the curious consequences of my trip. A little while after this, the Dalai Lama left Kalimpong. His army had beaten the Chinese and he was to go back to Lhasa in triumph. I went to bid him farewell at a hamlet situated below the Jelap pass.
I arrived ahead of him at the bungalow where he was to stop. There I found many noblemen of the Sikkimeese court in great distress. They were in charge of the preparations for the short stay of the Lama king, but, as is usual in the East, every thing had come too late. Furniture, rugs, hangings were not in place and the distinguished guest might appear at any minute.
Everything was in confusion in the small house, with masters and servants wildly rushing about. It amused me to lend a helping hand and arrange the cushions that would serve the Dalai Lama for a bed. Some of the assistants assured me that this would bring me good luck, now and in lives to come.
Here I had another opportunity of talking with the Tibetan sovereign. His thoughts seemed entirely directed towards political affairs.
As usual he blessed the devotees with his duster made of ribbons, but one felt that his mind had already crossed the mountain pass that marks the frontier and was busy organizing the profits of his victory.
The following autumn I left Sikkim for Nepal and, later on, spent nearly a year in Benares. I had made a long stay there in my youth, and returned with pleasure. I gratefully accepted the kind offer of the members of the Theosophical Society to rent me a small apartment in their beautiful park. The ascetic simplicity of this lodging was in harmonious keeping with the atmosphere of the holy city of Shiva and quite suited my taste.
In these congenial surroundings, I assiduously resumed the study of the Vedanta philosophy, somewhat forsaking Lamaism which I did not seem to be able to investigate more thoroughly than I had already done.
I had no thought of leaving Benares, when an unexpected combination of circumstances led me one morning to take a train going towards the Himalayas.