The Theosophical Forum – November 1940

THE TIBETAN BUDDHIST TRADITION — C. J. Ryan

In regard to the work Peaks and Lamas (1) we agree with Dr Coomaraswamy's appreciation in Asia magazine that this:

is one of those very rare books which it is impossible to overpraise.This is we feel, the book with which every student of Tibet and of Mahayana Buddhism should prepare himself and over and above this it is altogether pertinent to the consideration of the tragic problems with which humanity is faced at the present day, as well in Europe as in Asia.

We would add that to the student of Theosophy it is especially valuable for its confirmation by an unprejudiced and keen observer of the favorable impression of the majority of the people of Tibet and neighborhood given by H P Blavatsky and her Indian Masters as well as by Theosophical scholars like Dr W. Y. Evans-Wentz, and other writers and travelers whose firsthand knowledge of Tibet qualifies them to speak.

Mr Marco Pallis, the author, leader of an English mountain climbing party, came in 1933 into close and friendly contact with certain lamas while he was conducting an expedition to scale the highest peaks of the Ganges-Satlej watershed on the border of Tibet. At Lachhen in Sikkim he received valuable preliminary instruction from a lama-anchorite who seems to be the one mentioned with great respect by Mme David-Neel in her Magic and Mystery in Tibet. Not being able to penetrate into Tibet proper, but seeking more wisdom, Mr. Pallis was advised to travel to the western border of Tibet where later he continued his studies of Tibetan Buddhism under several learned and spiritual-minded lamas.

For some readers his detailed accounts of ascents of the great Himalayan peaks will be the most interesting parts of the book, while others will be attracted by the word-paintings of the sublime mountain and forest scenery. Everyone will enjoy his delightful sketches or studies of the people he met, including high and really holy lamas and hermits as well as distinctly inferior ones, down to the simple peasants and the porters in his expedition. His humor is conspicuous but it never transcends the bounds of kindliness and good taste. In return for the friendliness and consideration shown to all by Mr. Pallis and his associates they received an equal if not greater return in kind. He was so happy as a guest in one monastery in Ladak that he writes under its photograph "If I forget thee, O Jerusalem!" And this reminds us that we must not forget to mention the magnificent and unusual series of photographs of scenery, temples and monasteries, symbolic and other works of art, and interesting people.

During the last few years a number of valuable books about Tibet have appeared, such as Professor Roerich's Shamballa, F. S. Chapman's Lhasa: the Holy City, T. Bernard's The Penthouse of the Gods, Dr. W. Y. Evans-Wentz's and Madame David-Neels scholarly works, and others; all of which treat Tibetan religion and the Tibetans from a thoroughly sympathetic point of view. These books have removed much Western prejudice founded on ignorance. Mr. Pallis, tired of being a mere observer, adopted the costume, food, ways of living and, as far as possible, the mentality of the people of the Tibetan borderland, and was thereby able to make close personal and especially spiritual association with them. His tribute to the Tibetan character in general is high. Honesty, goodnature, and cheerfulness in adversity as well as prosperity, tolerance, politeness, and the absence of servile manners became more conspicuous as he approached the Tibetan border. He quotes the well-known French observer, Professor Jacques Bacot:

The Tibetans impress one at once by the dignity of their persons. . . . The Tibetans are not barbarous, not uncultivated; nor for that matter is their country. Under their rough hide they conceal refinements that we lack, much courtesy and philosophy, and the need for beautifying common things, be it a tent, a knife or a stirrup. . . . Moreover they are gay, these Tibetans, and happy as is not the case elsewhere today, more so than our wretched workers in their wretched factories. . . . The more densely the country is populated, the tamer is the wild game1. The Tibetans have long since lost the taste for killing which we still keep. . . . I love their companionship during the long rides, for they are taciturn, or else they only speak with good sense, originality, and a taste for speculative things.

Kindness to animals is the rule, though the blind and literal following of the injunction to avoid hurting living creatures often leads to unintentional cruelty when an injured or sick animal is allowed to suffer. While many "superstitions" are rampant, such as the fear of demons and the widespread belief in charms and the like, Mr. Pallis points out that with Tibetans superstition does not lead to such horrors as the burning of witches, and he absolutely denies that superstition has replaced religion. He found that "the Doctrine had left its mark deeply even on simple inarticulate souls." In regard to the charge of lack of cleanliness, which, he says, "is a great standby of a certain class of lecturer or writer, when they can find nothing else to say about the people whose hospitality they have enjoyed," he claims that it is greatly exaggerated. He quotes impartial travelers who make no special complaints. The long bitter winters do not encourage indulgence in cold baths and fuel is scarce. Taking one thing with another, he calls the inhabitants of the Buddhist lands where he traveled, "one of the earth's most civilized peoples." Mme Alexandra David-Neel, the famous Orientalist and traveler, agrees with this. Writing in her Magic and Mystery in Tibet, she says: "I had vaguely imagined that beyond the Himalayas the country would become wild, but now I was beginning to realize that on the contrary I was coming into contact with a truly civilized people." Mr. Pallis often "had to whet his intellect to its keenest edge, trying to keep pace with the descant of some contemplative recluse upon a theme of pure metaphysic," after having exchanged elegant and truly expressive courtesies. He found a profound respect for learning ingrained in the average Tibetan: can we say this of the West?

In view of such tributes by Mr. Pallis and the other authorities it is interesting to note the opinion of a still more competent observer, who resides in Tibet but who is also not a Tibetan. We refer to the Mahatman Koot Hoomi who wrote: "For ages has been Tibet the last corner of the globe not so entirely corrupted as to preclude the mingling together of the two atmospheres — the physical and the spiritual." He adds that the Tibetans are a moral, pure-hearted, simple people, untainted with the vices of "civilization." (See The Mahatma Letters to A. P. Sinnett, p. 434.)

To the Theosophical or other student who is looking for more important spiritual values than are contained in the mere technical study of "comparative religion" the main interest of this work will be the admirable exposition of the deeper meaning of Tibetan Buddhism which the author acquired under unusually favorable conditions after he abandoned the rarefied air of the snow peaks to seek the more rarefied heights of the spirit.

Mr. Pallis warns us against "the grotesque travesties of doctrines and customs with which certain persons with obvious axes to grind try to saddle the thinkers of India and Tibet." He strongly protests against the narrowness of too many well-meaning western missionaries in the Orient "whose consciousness of their own righteousness" and of the defects of the "heathen" is still very marked. He contrasts it with the open-minded spirit of the lamas and their followers in general. When he commented on this to Tibetans they told him "we are taught that it is a sin to speak disrespectfully of other religions or to treat their ministers in unfriendly fashion." This is, of course, nothing new. H. P. Blavatsky mentions it in her article "Lamas and Druses" in The Complete Works of H. P. Blavatsky, Volume III, where she describes the respect shown by the Tibetans to other religions and their representatives. She compares the refined courtesy extended by a very high lama at Kum-Bum to the Abbe Hue and his colleague about a hundred years ago, with the gross impoliteness of the "lamas of Jehovah," as they called themselves, to the Tibetan prelate, "a poor heathen." The Abbe describes the unbecoming incident without a qualm, in his Journey through Tartary, Tibet and China.

While Mr. Pallis believes that Christianity has been one of the great "Traditional" (2) avenues for the transmission of the True Doctrine and that the ethics of the Sermon on the Mount and that of the Buddha in the Deer Park are practically the same, he claims that his "meetings with a good many missionaries and the perusal of their literature have led me to the opinion that, on the whole, their activities are disruptive and their methods open to severe criticism."

In saying this Mr. Pallis is not condemning the Christian "Tradition." On the contrary, he devotes many pages to the demonstration of its fundamental identity with the Tibetan Buddhist "Tradition," though outward forms differ in many points. In support of this, he quotes passages from medieval orthodox Christian writers which might be taken from the Tibetan Canon. He claims, as does the Theosophist, that all authentic "Traditions" are united by their "Note" of universality, though it has been trammeled more severely in the West by dualistic and "warlike" mentality than in India, China or Tibet. He shows that even the Doctrine of the "Void" or Nirvana was definitely taught in the fourteenth century by the English Benedictine monk, Father Augustine Baker, but he rather drily remarks that today it would be more intelligible to a Tibetan lama than to the monk's modern Western countrymen!

The "Void" is actual "Knowledge," Reality; to us it may appear to be empty because it transcends the capacity of our ordinary consciousness. But this Reality may be reached through the illumination obtained by initiation. The Gnostics called it the Pleroma or Fulness. Father Baker evidently realized this when he wrote, as quoted by Mr. Pallis:

The nought . . . is God, to whom the soul may be united when she is nowhere bodily, nor hath in her any image of creatures. And when she is nowhere bodily then she is everywhere spiritually; and being in such condition she is fit to be united with the said nothing, which also is in all places . . . our inner man calls it All. . . .

The "Knowledge" mentioned as the Reality is, as Mr. Pallis points out, superior to Reason. It is the fruit of direct intuitive experience, which is not so much a thing acquired by accretion; rather it is a thing already there from the moment that the obstacles to its realization have ceased to be. Our whole problem is, How shall we clear away the obstacles?

Many true followers of the Lord Buddha employ certain ascetic measures for inner development, but the object of these exercises is not personal salvation per se in its ordinary Western meaning. Nor is it, as mistakenly thought by some, the cultivation of psychic powers or occult arts. The wise disciple seeks the power to rise above personal limitations to the high and serene state of Liberation from which poor ignorant, suffering humanity may be effectively helped. Before you can save others you must have freed yourself from the chains of the lower self. Mr. Pallis says that the spiritually high lamas he met — and there were not a few — were hardworking practical helpers of their people who only retired at times to their solitary hermitages to seek further inner growth in wisdom. Of course there were others whose apparent devotion was merely lip-service for worldly ends, and whose monasteries were ill conducted. He frankly describes such cases, but he did not see many. Mr. Pallis gives many pages to the interpretation of the well-known Buddhist Wheel or Round of Life found in every Buddhist Temple, which he learned from his lama teachers. The study of the Wheel is very desirable in order to understand the meaning of Liberation. Under a quaint but expressive symbolism the divisions of the Wheel represent the processes which "gods," "demons," men, and even animals, have to go through while they are bound by illusion. Its "hells" and "heavens" are here and now, and the Agent which keeps this Wheel of Fortune is Karman. (We note that the Sanskrit word Karman is spelt thus in this scholarly though not pedantic work.) The only remedy for the ills caused by seeking happiness in the impermanent and mocking region of Desire is true Knowledge, which of course includes Compassion.

Mr. Pallis, at his first contact with Tibetans and lamas of the Tibetan borderland, found that he "had stepped right out of the circle of influences that had enclosed our lives hitherto," and the lively temperament, bodily vigor, and kindly serenity of spirit of those he met induced him seriously to study the teachings which were able to produce such results. He found that the lives of the people in general have been powerfully influenced by the sublime teaching of the Great Renunciation, the refusal of the bliss of Nirvana, exemplified in Tibetan Buddhism by the self-sacrifice of (among others) the Bodhisattva Chenrezi (Avalokitesvara in India), "the Good Shepherd, the Savior, sinless and all-knowing who offers himself for the Universe in the supreme sacrifice of redemptive love."

Deeply impressed by one of the first lamas he met, and referring to the power of Compassion which he radiated, Mr. Pallis writes:

Our lama's love possessed a note of serenity which seemed to distinguish it from the similarly-named but usually more passionately expressed virtue found among Europeans. I do not believe that this Compassion, said by some to be special to Buddhism, really differs in essence from Christian Charity; but it is . . . consciously linked with a certain intellectual concept, of which it is the corollarya recognition of the relations which exist between all creatures, including man, based on an insight into the true nature of the Universe, and not dependent on a vague emotional appeal. (Italics ours.)

This eternal virtue, Compassion, then, is not an emotional byproduct but is closely linked (or identical) with a scientific understanding of the universe. It is one of the most important teachings of Theosophy that ethics and morality cannot be divorced from other expressions of natural law, because the Kosmos is fundamentally a unity, and as Dr. de Purucker says, "Love is the cement of the universe." Mr. Pallis points out that loving impulses are less likely to be upset by a swing of the emotional pendulum when they are firmly linked with definite ideas. We may rejoice that he is able to show the world that these Theosophical principles are being taught by the lamas.

Mr. Pallis records a rich harvest of teaching he derived from the spiritually and intellectually qualified lamas under whom he studied. It includes difficult problems such as the true nature of man, of gods and of demons, asceticism, "idol" worship, Karman and Reincarnation, the difference between Knowledge and Reason, the perilous Short or Direct Path of initiation or Liberation, and many other cognate subjects. Whenever he asked for the best way to find the Path, the answer never varied — the first thing of all is to find a Teacher. He was warned that though certain Western translations from the Sanskrit are said to contain "practical methods" for seekers toward Enlightenment, any attempt to apply those methods without the watchful guidance of a real Teacher, an adept, is more than foolish, it is dangerous in the extreme. Even in the purely intellectual study of abstruse and condensed doctrinal texts many a Western savant presumes to pass judgments and to write commentaries, though he is ignorant of the vast amount of detail which is left to be filled in by the word of mouth of the Teacher. This is precisely what Col. H. S. Olcott, under H. P. Blavatsky's inspiration, brought to the attention of Professor Max Muller, the great Sanskritist, when he denied that within the outer meaning of the Hindu Scriptures lay concealed a hidden and esoteric one. Mme. David-Neel, rather better informed than Max Muller, while insisting that all the Buddhistic doctrines taught in mystic circles can be found in books, admits that in Tibet certain secret information is imparted to a few — "initiates," she calls them. But she believes that this esoteric teaching merely consists of methods of training the mind or, in lower degrees, of developing psychic or "supernormal" powers. We feel that Mr. Pallis has reached a truer understanding of the kind of "esoteric teaching" given to real disciples, such as H. P. Blavatsky received from her Tibetan Teachers, and which is primarily spiritual and intellectual; not psychic even though occult powers may appear as by-products. She was allowed to give out a few of the hitherto secret teachings in her The Secret Doctrine. Theosophical students of the Hindu sacred literature or the Tibetan Buddhist writings such as the series translated by the Lama Kazi Dawa Samdup and annotated by Dr. W. Y. Evans-Wentz, can see far deeper meanings in such writings than the learned scholars who ignore the key of interpretation she brought from the East.

Considerable misunderstanding has prevailed about certain aspects of Tibetan Buddhist art works, and Mr. Pallis makes praiseworthy efforts to help us understand what the lama artists meant to convey. Everyone knows that the subjects represented in Tibetan religious art are marked by a strong duality. One moiety consists largely of serene and gracious Beings sitting on lotus pedestals in dignified attitudes, the other displays numerous frightful apparitions frenziedly dancing on or torturing men and even animals. The Western traveler or observer of museum pieces who may only be acquainted with medieval pictures of saints and prophets might interpret the Tibetan benign divinities with some approach to accuracy, but, with his recollection of the medieval pictures of Satan and his imps, he would probably misunderstand the symbolism of the Buddhist forms of horror and imagine that the Tibetans worshiped devils and offered sacrifices to them! Mr. Pallis redeems the reputation of the Oriental philosophers and artists by lucidly explaining the significance of this symbolic Duality.

Much confusion has also arisen in regard to the so-called Tibetan "Devil-Dances," and this is explained. These performances are not entertainment in the ordinary sense, but they are ceremonial dramatizations of religious themes of profound significance to the devout onlookers; in fact they are true Mystery Plays. Mr. Pallis speaks with deep admiration for the beauty and magnificence of some of these spectacles. Very few foreigners have seen them.

The author also discusses the alleged objectionable nature of a certain class of paintings of deities which are seldom shown to travelers. He explains that they are merely symbolic, which is no doubt correct, and that their philosophic meaning is pure and profound; but, to speak plainly, we feel that although in the Orient, as in antiquity, the creative aspect of nature is frankly recognised and treated in art without Occidental reserve, yet far too much emphasis has been placed in the East on its emblems. According to Theosophy, sex is merely a temporary expression of Duality, and its symbolism, however pure and philosophic in intent, is liable to serious abuse. Without defending a false prudery we may well protest against the cruder developments in India, and to a lesser degree perhaps in Tibet, of such pictorial or sculptural symbolism of metaphysical concepts. We deny that they have any place in the presentations of the pure teachings of Buddhism. They are seemingly relics of the dark Bonpa magic and the dangerous worship of nature spirits, which is said to have come from ancient Chaldaea and originally from degenerating Atlantis. Mr. Pallis says that the adherents of the old Bonpa Tradition are still feared for their skill in sorcery, but he charitably suggests that "from all accounts they are really harmless enough people." Maybe, but other writers think differently.

In regard to magic, black or white, the phenomenon-hunter will find little to gratify his curiosity in this book. The author was too deeply absorbed in real occultism as we understand it, spiritual wisdom, to spend precious time on side-issues. But his references to Mme. David-Neel's experiences, especially with Tummo, the occult art of keeping oneself warm and comfortable without fuel or winter clothing in the bitterest cold of the ice caves or the frozen wastes, which she studied successfully, and his remarks about the magical doings of the great Tibetan ascetic and poet Mila Repa, show that he does not avoid the subject through ignorance. Moreover, he gives three pages to the mystical subject of the Tulkus, or Incarnations of Heavenly Beings or other Saintly Personages in human personalities which in some cases, such as that of certain Avataras, like Jesus, are acts of White Magic. Mr. Pallis was puzzled by accounts of Tulkus who do not at all times act up to their high reputation; but this is not strange when we learn that the incarnating soul of a superior being, or in some instances a projected Ray, is not always "on deck," as it were, in its chosen physical vehicle. It may withdraw for a while, or even permanently.

There has been considerable misunderstanding in the West about the supposed "sacrifices" made by Tibetan lamas or yogis who retire for long or short periods to mountain retreats. Mr. Pallis explains from personal observation that the Buddhist conception of asceticism is very different from that of the early Christian anchorites who fled from the temptations of the world to the Egyptian deserts in order to save their own souls from eternal destruction. He says:

There is no idea of mortifying the flesh by painful austerities. The Buddha formally condemned the extremes both of luxury and self-torture. . . . Nothing which is calculated to damage health is encouraged, for with impaired health must come deterioration of mental powers which is an obstacle in the pursuit of Knowledge.

Each monastery (Gompa) owns a number of solitary retreats or cells for meditation and inner development free from distraction. No one is expected to intrude during the period of seclusion, be it long or short, but any suggestion of imprisonment or compulsion would be ridiculous. Mr. Pallis corroborates Mme. David-Neel's experiences among the genuine ascetics. They do not suffer from the absence of social intercourse during their retreats. Their days are occupied by methodical exercises in spiritual training, meditation on profound philosophical problems, and efforts to reach higher states of consciousness. Passionately interested in these strenuous investigations and introspections, they are too busy to notice their isolation. Members of the Kargyiitpa Order, who follow the teachings of Mila Repa, sometimes withdraw into icy glacier caves in the high mountain solitudes where a cotton cloth is their only garment! They keep warm by the occult process of Tummo already mentioned. But the general practice is to make retreats under sufficiently comfortable conditions.

The author deals with many highly interesting and instructive matters which cannot even be mentioned, and in every case he throws light on his subject. His point of view is original, and even in the rare cases where we may not agree with him, his conclusions demand careful consideration. He has no hesitation in discussing difficult problems, such as the disputed question of the Tantras, which are so frequently confused with the archaic Bon black magic, yet which did not fall into disrepute until about 400 years ago. In regard to the problem of the Tibetan Deities he has much to say of great interest. Do the instructed lamas believe them to be real Divine Personages or merely metaphorical abstractions? Apparently neither, or both! He quotes the great fourteenth century Adept and Reformer, Tsong-kha-pa, to the effect that from the standpoint of the consciousness which lives in the region of "name and form," to use the technical expression, the conventional Deities do exist, but to the fully Enlightened who understand "Reality" they "simply are not."

But we must not take the words "are not" too literally. A clue to the deeper meaning may be found in The Secret Doctrine (I, 128-32, etc.) where the Lipika, the Recorders or Agents of Karman, are discussed. Mr. Pallis shows that the Tibetan Judge of the Dead, Shindje, is Karman itself, the law of cause and effect, from which none can escape. Karman is real enough! It is reassuring to find that Mr. Pallis was protected by his lama teachers from falling into the common error of regarding Karman as merely retribution for evil doing. He explains that it is not a process of reward or punishment in the ordinary meaning of those words; it is simply inexorable justice which returns to you exactly what you have called for by your thoughts and deeds, be it pleasant or otherwise. Like other laws of this orderly universe it can be absolutely relied upon. To the evil-doers Shindje, the Karmic Judge of the Dead, is naturally a terrible monster, and in order to warn them while there is time to repent he is depicted as such.

The latter part of this illuminating book deals with the present conditions and the dangers threatening the culture of the lands in which the Tibetan Buddhist "Tradition" still holds its own. Mr. Pallis discusses these profoundly important problems with a breadth of outlook and a sympathetic insight rare indeed in a Western writer. "Advanced" social and educational reformers, so-called, will find much that is new to them and much instruction on lines unfamiliar in the West, presented temperately but convincingly.

Among many cultural phases of the Buddhist "Tradition" discussed, but which we have no room to do more than mention, interesting and important though they be, are vegetarianism, non-resistance, war, education and the meaning of "progress," crime and punishment, the social conditions and family life, and many others, all of which supply a solid foundation for judgment.

Mr. Pallis eloquently sets forth the high standard of the "Traditional" arts, music, architecture, painting, handwoven textiles and so forth. He greatly dreads the mechanistic commercial irruptions which seriously threaten to injure or destroy the creative inspiration which has developed these fine results. As one example; the native paints with their harmonious colors are being replaced here and there by cruder (and cheaper) commercial importations, and in consequence the appreciation of subtil shades of color is already beginning to degenerate.

In regard to the knowledge of Man, the Buddhist Tradition has much to teach us, as Mr. Pallis quickly found. Our Western scientists, by hard work directed on materialistic lines mostly, have discovered worthwhile information about the brain and its mechanisms, and have developed some rudimentary theories of psychology, a science admittedly in its early infancy. All this from external observation. By harder work and at enormous sacrifice in another direction — mostly internal observation — generations untold of Oriental researchers have discovered an infinitely larger field of study in man's consciousness and have reduced it to an exact science. Their science has a high moral and spiritual background and aim, which unfortunately ours disregards as of no practical significance. But they get results which the world cannot afford to lose!

The respect for learning is ingrained even among the illiterate, but the learning must have a spiritual motive or background. Mr. Pallis is firmly convinced that the isolation of Tibet has been no misfortune. It has enabled a considerable vestige of the finer atmosphere of the ancient world to survive, a spirit which the West has lost in its competitive race for materialistic commercial domination and in its worship of the Western god of inventive science. He feels that the Tibetans and their neighbors hold something spiritually and intellectually precious in their keeping, and that if they can realize the importance of their trust and preserve it from contamination, it may become the expanding focus from which the Oriental "Tradition" in its purity will spread widely over the earth. But if this fails, he believes, the world may drift into sheer opportunism, out of which it will take almost superhuman efforts to rise. He frankly admits that he would like to reincarnate in Tibet if it remains Tibet and refuses to become a slavish copy of the meretricious civilization of the West!

FOOTNOTES:

1. Peaks and Lamas, by Marco Pallis Alfred Knopf, New York 99 illustrations and maps. 428 pp. $5. 00 (return to text)

2. He employs the word "Tradition" to convey the idea of something wider than any closed system of religion or philosophy Though it includes religion and philosophy "Tradition" embraces a characteristic culture or mode of life, ethical, social and cultural in general, for which such antitheses as "sacred and profane" are meaningless. He prefers to use "the Tibetan Buddhist Tradition" as being more expressive than "Lamaism" which is misleading as well as offensive in its implications. (return to text)


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