As a devotee to mysticism and practitioner of mystical arts for 33 years, I found this book not only fascinating but
confirming of truths I have long believed, but have been lost on most members of modern society. There such a vast quantity of intriguing material here, that
the most difficult aspect of writing this review was deciding what and what not to include!
Published in 1929, David-Neel tells the story of her travels in and around Tibet, the forbidden land (forbidden at that time by the British), and other area of the Far East, a journey that lasted fourteen years. Though originally from Paris, she was a historian of religion and became a practicing Buddhist. Doing what few Westerners would probably find appealing, or worth risking, this lone woman gives an absolutely fascinating account of her travels, from visiting remote monasteries and living in caves as a hermit, she paints a vivid picture of life that many would consider far-removed from civilization. She meets a whole realm of interesting people along the way, as she learns the language, culture, and religion of these peoples of the "Land of Snow."
David-Neel has the privilege of being in the company of princes, lamas, scholars, ascetics, and sorcerers (gomchens). We learn there is a socially accepted hierarchy of power which may not be a true reflection of skill. In one of her early experiences, she meets a naljorpa who looks upon the Dalai Lama and his followers with disdain, and mocks his high position. When questioned, he responds, "Would the Precious Protector (Dalai Lama) need soldiers to fight the Chinese and other enemies if he possessed such a power?" David-Neel also personally witnesses him "strike" her interpreter in the stomach and knock him against the walls without physically touching him.
Her first chapter gives an overview of her travels and experiences, and each subsequent chapter delves deeper into the magic and mystery of these unique and isolated peoples. She makes it clear that, as in all religious or spiritual practice, there is a whole range of giftedness and mastery, from those who are truly fraudulent to others whom David-Neel herself observes performing feats beyond the realm of normal physical activity. She relates a variety of tales, from those she knows are dubious, to others that, seemingly unbelievable, were eye-witnessed by her personally. And her stories are not without humor. She tells of a lazy Grand Lama who spent his life in idleness, then died. At the time, there was a well-known miracle-worker by the name of Dugpa Kunlegs, who wandered the villages incognito. It happened one day that he approached a brook where a girl was drawing water. He suddenly attacked her, but, being a hearty young lady, she escaped and ran home. She related the incident to her mother, who recognized by her daughter's description, that this was Dugpa Kunlegs, and instructed the girl to return and submit to him, which she did. He told her he had no interest in women, but at the time he saw her, he also saw the spirit of the late Grand Lama looking for a womb in which to reincarnate. After the girl escaped, he saw two donkeys in the field coupling, and knew that the lazy Grand Lama would get his just reward in his next life, by incarnating as an ass!
In A Famous Tibetan Monastery, David-Neel tells of her time spent as a guest, and how those who are pursuing the spiritual life spend their days. Unlike life in a Catholic monastery, where there is a rigid set of rules, discipline, and routine, Tibetan Buddhist lamaseries do not provide opportunities for group worship, nor do they teach a particular doctrine. Each student chooses their own spiritual goals, and decides what they personally believe. Also unlike the Catholics, entering a monastery does not provide material support. Each is expected to live by their own means, in their own house or apartment. Married lamas live outside the monastery—no wives are allowed in.
David-Neel also points out a common misconception many Westerners have about Tibetan Buddhist beliefs in reincarnation. They believe that the original Buddha cannot reincarnate because he reached the level of Nirvâna and "has been freed from the cycle of birth and death." A Grand Lama tulku is the head of a monastery. Tulku means a form created by magic. These types of beings, along with Dalai Lamas and other types, do reincarnate. When one dies, the astrologers and clairvoyants are consulted to find the boy that is the reincarnation. David-Neel witnessed one such child, who proved himself true when he requested a certain china cup, and also suddenly remembered where it was stored, when no one else at the monastery was aware of its existence.
(David-Neel also makes it clear that there are fundamental differences in the beliefs of Tibetan Buddhism, compared to other branches of Buddhism.)
But the nitty-gritty of this book really begins in chapter four, Dealing with Ghosts and Demons. David-Neel points out that Tibetans are not particularly deep or learned, in general, so there is a mixture of pure fantasy along with truly metaphysical phenomenon. In this particular chapter, she deal with rites, many of which we would find repugnant or downright disgusting. The question put to all who are students of mysticism is "are the demons real, or are they created by one's own mind?" In any case, the goal is to become fearless. Yet for those who have not been fully prepared, death is always a possibility.
In the next chapter, Disciples of Yore, and Their Contemporary Emulators, David-Neel relates tales of famous mystics who, opting for the "Short Path" (the goal of reaching buddhahood in one lifetime) go through years of the most miserable and trying conditions. Naropa was one such person, who, condemned to purgatory by a fairy for killing another, was determined to change his fate. He was advised to study with the Sage Tilopa. Tilopa himself had achieved mastery through a phantasmagoric journey to a fairy queen. By continuing to mutter the magic mantra he was given, he arrived to his goal, when he tore the queen off her throne and violated her. But he achieved mastery. Naropa, however, went through a much longer struggle, suffering abuse and neglect from Tilopa until finally reaching perfection.
If I may insert my own opinion here. . .it is interesting how mastery of mind is the main goal, and the means for reaching all other goals. Unlike other religions that might stress love, compassion, charity, or worship, Tibetan Buddhism is a very personal and solitary journey of self-mastery. Yet, many of the feats which these adepts were able to perform are much like the goals of modern mystics such as myself, which is why I found this material so appropriate. I have believed for decades that the original Earth Beings did have mastery over the physical world. Still, most modern humans scoff at the idea. Perhaps these Tibetans are a last remaining remnant of who we used to be, and what we used to be capable of doing. Perhaps it is because these people inhabit such a barren land. Loneliness doesn't seem to be in their vocabulary. It is not out of the ordinary for hermits to spend years in a cave in utter darkness, doing nothing but meditation and mastering the mind. David-Neel says, "They have no fixed ideas about the laws of Nature, or what is possible and impossible. . ."
In the remaining chapters, David-Neel delves even deeper into psychic phenomena, not only what she observed, but what she was able to do herself, such as creating a phantom, and witnessing the phantom creations of others. She also witnessed hermits, practitioners of tumo, who had learned to create their own inner heat, enabling them to live naked in the snow. She discusses, in Psychic Sports, students of lung-gom-pa, which enables them to move very quickly, covering a vast area in a short period of time. She experienced seeing one. "He walked, as if in a trance—bounded, barely touching the ground."
I cannot begin to stress how highly I recommend reading this book. Certainly for anyone who is currently on a metaphysical journey, this book is a must-read. But even those who enjoy adventure or travel stories, here is one that is highly entertaining. It will leave you spellbound!
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