Searching for paradise in the hidden Himalayas


At moments of dislocation and intense social uncertainty people will appear offering the possibility of another land where people will be blessed, liberated and genuinely at home. In this case, it was not 'Brexit' but a hidden land of actual immortality, enfolded within the mountain ranges around Mt Kanchenjunga on the Nepalese/Sikkim border. Unlike Shangri-la, Beyul Demoshong was not simply a physical space, carefully hidden (as imagined in Hilton's Lost Horizon) but an occulted place spiritually hidden.

The person offering this journey and opening the way to it was the 'crazy lama', Tulshuk Lingpa. Lingpa was a 'terton' a finder of 'terma' which were texts magically hidden until discovered at the right moment for them to be of maximum usefulness to people's spiritual development. They were often hidden by Padmasambhava, the robust wonder-working bringer of Buddhism to Tibet; and, Tibetan Buddhism is alive with such discoveries (though undoubtedly pedestrian scholarship is more sceptical)!

Tulshuk Lingpa became obsessively focused on finding his way to Beyul Demoshong and on opening one of its four gates and ushering in his followers to a balming life of ease and peacefulness. There was, however, a catch. The gate only opens for the pure in heart of singular intention and as news of his quest seeped out dozens of people, selling all that they had, followed him. But it is one thing to surrender everything outward, another to fully do so inwardly. This was to be the expedition's undoing in which Lingpa loses his life. There is a point in the narrative when he and one other, exploring on ahead in the high mountain snows, do apprehend yet something other, an alluring promise of welcoming light but step back thinking to bring others in. This was a hesitation that was the undoing of him, at least in this incarnation!

We know of this extraordinary quest because of the American author and photographer, Thomas K. Shor, went in search of its surviving actors - including Lingpa's son (Lingpa was of the older Tibetan Buddhist lineage where lamas can marry) and other participants. He tells the story, vividly and in telling detail, in 'A Step Away From Paradise: The true story of a Tibetan Lama's Journey to a Land of Immortality'. It is told with just the right balance of intelligent and sympathetic credulity with veins of appropriate scepticism running through.

The principal events take place in the late 1950s, when Tibet has been invaded and the world is darkening. All the participants tellingly see it, even in apparent failure and alleged foolishness, as the great moment of their lives. A moment where they ventured (and wagered) on ultimate fulfilment - and even if they 'lost' in their loss was a victory. You cannot imagine, says one woman who sold all that she had to follow Lingpa, the freedom of having, even once, forsaken everything for a peaceful ideal!

It is well to ponder this. Both the positive dimension of the centrality of meaning to our lives. We are made to make threading patterns of sense and that is what reveals our wholeness. And, the shadow side, the way such yearning can lead us to easily accept a proffered, ready-made pattern, not our own.   Lingpa undoubtedly intended the former - this is a discipline, a path that you needed to tread yourself so that communally we might enter in - but you can imagine a distorting, disillusioning version in lesser hands. All those marketers of 'end times' that conflate with the seller's own ego and power lust that break in tragedy at worst and profound disillusionment at best.

The book also creates a telling picture of Tibetan Buddhism as actually practised and engaged with across the social spectrum. This is not the refined Buddhism of scholarly text and long meditation retreats (though both can be present) but also a Buddhism of wonderworking saints (of whom Lingpa is undoubtedly one), struggles with ambivalent or hostile spirits; and, simple faith. There is a remarkable story of how Lingpa cures a whole village of a creeping, leprosy-like illness - and many of his most devoted disciples will come from there.

But not everyone is impressed. For example, the king of Sikkim is hostile to Lingpa: for would he not, if successful, rob his kingdom of its inhabitants? So he demands a miracle to prove Lingpa's status. Lingpa performs one - burning the imprint of his foot into the rock at the monastery where he is staying (it is there even now and people are still alive who witnessed its appearance). Unfortunately, the timing was off, the royal representative was delayed and so did not see this for himself, further complicating Lingpa's strained relationship with Sikkim, prompting a search for the west gate on the Nepalese side!

There is a coda to the book that adds another dash of 'strangeness'. With Lingpa's death, would he return? After all lineages of high lamas are set down through reincarnational streams. There does appear to be a claimant, the author discovers, but Lingpa's 'original' family is disinclined to support the author's seeing him, deflecting his enquiries with gentle obfuscation. Yet Shor does finally met him - and leaves you with just the right impression at the end of this magical book that it may be so, it just may be so!

Meanwhile, the hidden land continues to await a rightful entrant. Or, yet who knows, perhaps quieter focused souls enter all the time, unnoticed by the world's bustling egos?




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