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Review Essays of Academic, Professional & Technical Books in the Humanities & Sciences


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Review Essays of Academic, Professional & Technical Books in the Humanities & Sciences



The Americanization of Tantric Pilgrimage.

CIRCLING THE SACRED MOUNTAIN: A Spiritual Adventure through the Himalayas by Robert A. F. Thurman and Tad Wise ($25.95, hardcover, 384 pages, Bantam Doubleday Dell Publications; ISBN: 0553103466)

In the autumn of 1995 nine westerners, inspired by the promise of spiritual transformation, took the trek of a lifetime: a month-long-journey through the snow-covered Himalayas to Mount Kailash, the most magical and holy place on earth according to Tibetan Buddhists. Led by Robert Thurman, the charismatic and highly respected Buddhist scholar who was named by Time as one of the 25 most influential people in the world, they met in the teeming third-world sprawl of Katmandu, had tense moments with Chinese border guards in Tibet, took in panoramic views among the jagged peaks of the world’s tallest mountains, and visited sacred sites few westerners have ever seen. Their ultimate goal, however, was Mount Kailash, for it has been said that circling this holy mountain at 17,500 feet above sea level can wipe away the pilgrim’s sins of a lifetime. CIRCLING THE SACRED MOUNTAIN is an eloquent introduction to the tenets of Tibetan Buddhism and a true tale of spiritual adventure amid the breathtaking vistas of the Himalayas.

The book is rich with the "Dharma talks" Thurman gave on the trip, intended to provide his fellow travelers with an A-Z primer on Tibetan Buddhism and the path to enlightenment. His imaginative psycho-technological metaphors for Tantric practice should inspire and confuse many who are not otherwise familiar with the thick intricacies of Tibetan Buddhist practice. Throughout, he imparts wisdom and insight gained from years of study with the Dalai Lama and other teachers as it relates to the journey around the mountain. And in alternating chapters, Wise, an old friend and former student of Thurman’s, details the arduous yet awe inspiring physical trek to and around Kailash, as well as his own spiritual journey. Serving as Thurman’s foil on the sojourn, Wise questions the teacher’s views as well as his own, while struggling to acclimatize both physically and spiritually and achieve the peace of mind that Tibetan Buddhism can bring.

Chronicling the inner as well as the outer journey, confrontations both physical and metaphysical, CIRCLING THE SACRED MOUNTAIN is an exciting account of travels through one of the earth’s most wondrous yet foreboding regions, as well as an inspiring metaphor for the challenging passage to enlightenment open to everyone.

Definitely one of our picks of the season for adventurous reading and as an introduction to Tibetan Buddhist religion.


Robert Thurman, Ph.D., professor of Indo-Tibetan Studies at Columbia University, is an internationally recognized scholar, translator and author of books about Buddhism and Tibet including The Central Philosophy of Tibet: A Study and Translation of Jey Tsong Khapa's 'Essence of True Eloquence', The Tibetan Book of the Dead, Essential Tibetan Buddhism, and the recently published Inner Revolution. Ten years ago, he co-founded Tibet House New York, and now serves as president of the successful nonprofit cultural center dedicated to the preservation of Tibetan culture. He is co-curator of two important exhibitions of Tibetan art that are traveling internationally, Wisdom and Compassion: The Sacred Art of Tibet and Mandala: The Architecture of Enlightenment. Dr. Thurman, who received B.A., A.M. and Ph.D. degrees at Harvard, was named one of Time magazine’s most influential Americans in 1997. He resides in New York City with his wife, Nena, managing director of Tibet House. New York.

Tad Wise, author of the biographical novel, Tesla, lives in Woodstock, New York.

WALKING TO THE MOUNTAIN: A Pilgrimage to Tibet’s Holy Mount Kailash by Wendy Teasdill ($16.95, paper, 207 pages, maps, glossary, Asia 200, dist, University of Washington ISBN: 962716027X)

This is the story of a pilgrimage made on foot across Tibet to Mount Kailash. The "Jewel of the Snows" has been a sacred destination for pilgrims of Hindu and Buddhist religions for over a thousand years. Only recently have Westerners, many inspired by Tibetan Buddhist sacred stories and Shaivite stories that place Shiva here as his earthly home, have begun to hazard the difficult journey there.

Tibet was officially closed to individual travelers by the Chinese in 1988 so as to better conceal the cultural and human destruction from foreigners. Some trips were allowed if one paid thousands of dollars to the Chinese government for an official guide and escort. Teasdill skirted such bureaucratic obstructions by hitch-hiking from Lhasa and walking the last 400 miles. She took the Southern route, usually prohibited for political reasons because the rivers were so swollen with Summer rains, no motor vehicles could get over them. She walked unescorted over the plains of Brahmaputra, Between the Himalayan and the transhimalayan, living on hardtack biscuits, noodles and nettles. She survives to tell us her adventure in this delightful traveler’s tale. She gives us insight into the terrain, the people and culture, the magnificent landscape, the dangers and delights she encountered along the way. It offers a pragmatic perspective to Thurman’s and Wise’s more culturally introverted account of the sacred mountain. Recommended

THE CULT OF PURE CRYSTAL MOUNTAIN; Popular Pilgrimage and Visionary Landscape in Southeast Tibet by Toni Huber ($65.00, hardcover, 297 pages,Oxford University Press ISBN: 0195120078)

What Thurman offers as pop Americanized psycho-spiro-techno-babble, Huber painstakingly maintains a nearly fastious abstract documentary decorum that may scare away most adventurous readers. It is too bad that she chose this tone as her study is one of the most vigorous historical and documentary accounts of visionary practice of circumambulating mountains. How this Tantric practice becomes part of a vital bridge of salvific practice is better guessed from Thurman’s popular account. Huber however offers details and context that ethnologically situates this tradition in a way worthy of study rather than skepticism.


What is assumed to make any particular ritual activity worthy of performance according to its specific method; in what terms is it considered to operate and be efficacious by the participants themselves?

Turning to the bulk of ethnographic and historical studies, one finds a more or less universally accepted system of underlying ideas in Tibetan culture that both justify ritual behavior and explain its effects. For Tibetans the meaning of ritual practice is constructed in terms of an extensive set of beliefs about the world and about the person as a psychophysical and moral entity, as well as the powers, vital forces, and laws that animate, sustain, are embodied in, and determine them. The Tibetan vocabulary of ritual’s operation and efficacy more commonly invoked in oral explanations and written texts includes notions such as "action" or "karma", "auspiciousness/ good luck", "causal connections", "defilement/ pollution", "good fortune", "honor", "life-energy", "longevity", "merit", "personal power", "purity", "sacred power/energy", "sin/ transgression", "soul/vitality principle", and so on. For the most part, these forces, powers and properties are assumed to be contingent, embodied, and contagious, or related in some way to the activity or disposition of non-human beings. Nonetheless, they each have their own discrete range of meanings and usages subject to both social location of interpreters and historical and regional variation. Despite the fact that they originally derive from various distinct cosmologies (Indic, ancient Tibetan, and probably Chinese, among others) that sometimes stand in contradiction (e.g., classical Buddhism does not admit the notion of a "soul"), in Tibetan religious life they are not treated as being mutually exclusive. Different ideas and principles have been theologically accommodated by the elite, while in popular expression they can at times be freely compounded, interchanged, and elaborated in relation to one another, even when there is an explicit knowledge of the possible divergences between them.

Similarly, empirical studies also reveal a common set of themes, often expressed in the narratives that accompany rituals, that explain and justify ritual practice. These include, in particular, certain "models" of concern with: defilement and purification; illness and healing; influencing the course and processes of physical life, death, and future life (e.g., rebirth and final liberation from it); gaining efficacy in the phenomenal world or powers to influence its operation; the extension of perception beyond the mundane limits of space and time; the coercion and conversion or destruction of that which is perceived as an obstruction or a threat; and maintaining advantageous contacts and identifications with nonhuman forces in both the local and universal cosmos. These themes and the forces believed to be attendant on the ritual activity they enjoin are what gives meaning to and coordinates the application of the huge array of different practices in circulation in Tibetan religious life. They also frequently become compounded such that a ritual tradition can not be understood in terms of a discrete liturgy. Especially in the case of popular cults, one is often witnessing not one ritual but a complex combination or ensemble of different ones accommodated by tradition. This is certainly the case with Tibetan forms of pilgrimage...

The mountain cult in Tibet is analogous in many respects to social and cultural processes associated with the systematic integration of Buddhism in other regions of Asia. The Niri tradition should be regarded as a complex product of the syncretism stimulated by the agency of so-called universal religions. Although the niri mountains represent only one specific type of Tibetan pilgrimage site, I would argue that the features that characterize their development and traditions are of wider relevance for understanding all Tibetan pilgrimages and holy places.

The Category of Niri Mountains

The site of Dakpa Sheri or Pure Crystal Mountain at Tsari is generally classified as a niri, a term that can be translated literally as "mountain abode." For most Tibetans, such mountains are "abodes" in the sense of being considered the places of residence and activity of certain important deities. This call mean that not only is the deity thought to dwell in the vicinity as a separate entity, but also that it is identified or equivalent with the actual mountain, the physical form of which can be regarded as a divine embodiment. In a secondary and more specialized sense, usually acknowledged only by scholars and associated with specific sites. This refers to a type of Tantric cult place featured in the Indic texts and traditions that were utilized in the creation of the Tibetan niri cult. In common Tibetan usage, the classifying reference niri is often incorporated into the full proper names of this category of mountain to distinguish them from other types of sites...

Although a great many mountains throughout Tibetan areas are considered to have resident deities, most peaks are not classified as niri. In his classic work on tile cult of Tibetan protective deities, Rene de Nebesky-Wojkowitz described niri as mountains that are the residence or embodiment specifically of the "defenders of Buddhist religion," a class of deities that constitute a large section of the Tibetan pantheon. While this description is correct in many cases, the main Tibetan niri are in fact far more complex, being identified as abodes for different classes of deities simultaneously, often arranged in a complex hierarchy. These nonhuman beings can range from quite low-ranking local spirits right up to the yiddam, the highest "chosen meditational deities" involved in the most advanced forms of Tantric ritual. Thus, major Tibetan niri mountains can often be the focus o complex cults that encompass a wide range of ritual practices and orientations.

The niri class of mountains should not be identified only with Tibetan Buddhism, for niri have also been an aspect of the systematized Tibetan Bon religion for as long as they have been important to Buddhists in Tibet.

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