In the Summer of 1949, the world-famous news commentator and traveller, Lowell Thomas, and his son, Lowell, Jr., received permission from the Tibetan Government to visit their faraway land: "You are invited to Lhasa. Come at once." By radio broadcasts transcribed in "Lamaland," public lectures, magazine articles, and now by a book* replete with photographs, the Thomases have conveyed to a curious public what they saw and heard.
*Out of This World: Across the Himalayas to Forbidden Tibet, by Lowell Thomas, Jr. The Greystone Press, New York, 1950, 320 pp.
This is the journal of a great adventure. It is a credit to Lowell, Jr.'s deft writing that the reader travels with them as a member of the caravan; struggles up the hazardous, roughly-cut trails, sleeps in dak bungalows, crosses the mighty Brahmaputra River in a coracle, and stands captivated with the first glimpse of "Lhasa, far off, under a range of dark mountains — sparkling in the sunset, and the Potala, standing out above the city, its golden roofs beckoning like a far-off beacon." This book, so timely at this critical period in world evolution, has the primary purpose of informing our people what could be learned about present conditions and the dangers threatening the culture and welfare of that land whose influence reaches out over the Central and Eastern Asian Buddhist World.
There are few authentic books on Tibet; most are written by explorers or adventure seekers who have ventured scarcely beyond the borders. Lowell, Jr. follows in the footsteps of his father and does a good job of reporting.
Along with Peaks and Lamas by Marco Pallis, and Tibet: Roof of the World by Amaury de Reincourt, this book confirms a favorable impression of the majority of the people of Tibet. Lowell, Jr. writes:
Although Tibet turns a cold shoulder on modern conveniences, it must not be inferred that it is a primitive, uncultured nation. On the contrary, without benefit of science, the land of the Dalai Lama has maintained a unique and individual civilization of high order for many centuries, especially in art, architecture, religious philosophy, literature and folklore.
Again and again the writer is impressed with their great respect for learning — only things of the mind are of lasting importance — but the learning must have a spiritual motive or background. He briefly sketches Tibetan religion and history, the Four Truths and the Eightfold Path of Buddhism, and scorns the Western misconception of Nirvana as the annihilation of the soul.
When discussing the unrest and turmoil of modern civilization with the abbots of the world's largest monastery, Drepung Gompa, four miles outside of Lhasa, Lowell, Jr. inquired as to their thoughts on world government. The 73-year old Senior Abbot gave in reply an answer that is as old as man:
World government, the abbot spokesman said, is a noble idea. However a study of the Buddhist scriptures indicates that it is not likely to work. India had been peaceful and content in the days of Lord Buddha. And wasn't that tranquillity shattered with the advent of rival kingdoms? No, as long as there are rival powers, world government cannot succeed! Peace will descend upon the world only when men understand their inner minds, when they come to know themselves and, with the death of greed, begin to consider and help others.
Another Drepung abbot contributed the thought that there are many unrecognized incarnate Buddhas in the world, all laboring in the service of mankind.
Basically, this is a travel book, and scholars looking for deeper spiritual teachings and profound studies in Tibetan cosmology will have to look elsewhere. But there are many commendable points: the pages reviewing the visits of those westerners who have journeyed into Tibet; the descriptions of the theocratic government, and the intimate hospitality the Thomases enjoyed wherever they went in the Capitol City; the interviews and photographs of the young Dalai Lama, who, judging by his will and knowledge, promises to become a great statesman; the interesting stories of Reggie Fox, Henry Harrer and Peter Aufschnaiter, Europeans who have chosen Tibet as a home and are devoted to the Tibetans; the beautiful artistry of more than one hundred photographs, presenting in a manner better than words the beauty of the country and the people.
Last, and valuable, are the pictures of the summer festivals. Very few foreigners have witnessed these magnificent spectacles — "Devil Dances," called by some — but actually these plays or performances are not entertainment in the orthodox sense, but are ceremonial dramatizations of religious themes of profound meaning to the devout onlookers.
Through the centuries Tibet has maintained a vigilant withdrawal from world affairs, and although always very sensitive to world changes, this land, about one-third the size of the United States, would brook no outside interference unless forced to submit to military conquest. The problems that faced Tibet in 1949 are problems with which humanity is faced today all over the globe.
Has the example that this tiny defenseless country set before the world failed? I think not, for we must always look beneath the surface.
The horizon was very dark and ominous for Tibet in 1949; yet at the same time the government of Tibet sent a handwritten message to the President of the United States in the hope that from the Thomases the President and the American people would come to know more about their country and their people. No more fitting tribute could be made than to give again this message to the world:
We have learned that unfortunately, throughout this world at the present time, there is an absence of peace and happiness — this because of troubles between peoples, and disturbances and conflicts of many kinds. We, the government and people of Tibet, are much worried, deeply concerned over the present state of the world in which we all live. And we are eager to have it known that here in Tibet, a land that is especially dedicated to religion, all of our peoples, both lay and monk, are earnestly praying that God will grant happiness and everlasting peace to all humanity.
The wheel rolls on...
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At the end of the year it is usual for business houses to take annual or semi-annual inventory of stock on hand, and in process, in order to prepare their operating statements of profits and losses. Individuals, too, take inventory of their receipts and disbursements in order to meet the requirements of the income tax collector. This time also offers the opportunity for each of us to take inventory of those intangible assets that we have acquired during the year as well as to consider the intangible losses so that we too, in a sense, take inventory of ourselves.
All of which reminds us of the story of the bright young negro who worked on a very large estate in the southern part of Virginia, and who did not wait for the end of the year to take inventory. The estate was not located near any populated center, and its provisions and incidentals were supplied by a typical country store in a nearby village. One late afternoon in August this young man, whose name was George by the way, went to the store and the following conversation occurred:
Storekeeper: "Good evening, George, what can I do for you?"
George: "Thank you, Mr. Jones, Suh, may ah please use your telephone?"
Storekeeper: "Of course, go right ahead."
George proceeded to the telephone and lifting the receiver said: "Please, Miss Operator, may ah have the residence of Mrs. Brown? . . .
"Hello, is this the residence of Mrs. Brown? . . .
"It is? . . .
"Mrs. Brown, ah understands you's in need of a handyman . . .
"You has a handyman? . . . Ah see . . .
"Well, is he perfec'ly satisfactory? . . .
"He is? . . . Well, thank you, Ma'am, thank you ver' much, Ma'am."
Whereupon George hung up the receiver and started to leave the store.
Storekeeper: "Say, George, I thought you worked for Mrs. Brown."
George; "Ah does."
Storekeeper: "Well, how come you're calling her up asking for a job?"
George (with a broad grin on his face, brushing off his coat sleeve): "Jus' checkin' up on myself, Suh, jus' checkin' up on myself."