Monday, October 3, 2011

Still on a mountain in Tibet

When Thubron was nineteen, we discover, his elder sister, though only herself twenty-one, was killed by an avalanche in the Alps: she was skiing.

This mourned reality gives an edge to the final miles of the pilgrimage trail - grief never passes into history however time modifies it, it lives with us, shape shifting but always present.

Here on the mountain death is always present.

We discover the ill-prepared Indian pilgrims, especially from the South, where Shiva is especially venerated, who are turned back by the altitude and cold, and that has proved fatal to members of their party. We encounter the place where the dead are left - their clothes lie about, piled against each other in the wind, and where people pause to remember the dead or contemplate their own transience.

It is all seen with abiding compassion evoked in Thubron's lean, spare prose. He shows a remarkable ability to let a people's multiple beliefs stand, stark, even elegant, against a background of suspended belief or disbelief: a courteous neutrality - then he allows himself to step back into his own shoes and gently recoil from these beliefs as signifying any personal hope.

There is a wonderful description here of 'The Tibetan Book of the Dead' - as clear an exposition as you might wish, never corrupted by the author's own dismissal. This is what is believed as it is believed.

Except one moment when Thubron gently confronts a Tibetan monk with his own understanding of Buddhist belief that no personal memory persists from incarnation to incarnation (according to the scrupulous metaphysical version of 'no self' this 'must' be true). He is strangely insistent on this - even, as he must know, indeed records, that faith tradition denies it! The Buddha himself in folk tradition recalls his own lives, the Dalai Lama recognises his predecessor's implements from a selection of similar artefacts.

It is puzzling moment as if Thubron must not allow the 'dead' to 'live anew' - the finality of an individual's life, in its unique particularity, must be safeguarded.

It is the only moment when his own need shines through: the uniqueness of a person, actual and in memory is the inviolable reality; and, in his faithfulness to this reality, there is a truthfulness that speaks deeply. It is not a matter of belief but of vulnerability to one's own need that is so movingly compelling.

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