A JOURNEY IN LADAKH is a tale of travel in a far foreign land. However, this delightful story is much more than a mere travel book, due in large part to the exceptional writing skills and lucid perceptions of its young author, Andrew Harvey.
Born in India and as a young man already a traveler to such distant places as China, Indonesia, Malayasia and Burma, Harvey was in Sri Lanka when he first began to think seriously of visiting this remote Himalayan Buddhist country because of his conversations with an elderly German painter who had become a Buddhist monk. To begin with, the old monk was insistent that his young friend try to visit Tibet because he was convinced that Harvey had "an inner relation with Tibet and Tibetan philosophy," but if he failed to reach Tibet because of current travel restrictions, he must at least visit little-known Ladakh. Here also there were travel restrictions, but not such rigorous ones, and he would at least see some "last part of Tibet." Although himself a Theravadin, the old monk was entirely without prejudice and described the "rich" Tibetan path to enlightenment as "a path that excludes no energy and banishes no perception."
Impressed though he was and by now a self-admitted seeker for something that would give his life a deeper meaning, it was some years before Harvey, his work-year divided between All Souls College at Oxford and teaching at an upstate New York college, really got up the courage to travel to Ladakh. The courage he lacked was moral, not physical. As he confessed to an elderly woman Buddhist friend while they wandered in the museum at Sarnath that honors the Great Asian Teacher, what he feared was "disappointment." Did he, did anyone, really want to change? "We imagine we want to transform ourselves and our lives. But do we really? Do I? I am not sure." Dismissing his qualms, his elderly friend exacted a solemn promise that despite any misgivings he would definitely go to Ladakh in the near future.
One year later Harvey found himself in Ladakh. He immediately realized that he knew nothing truly vital about the place in spite of all his reading and study. He knew only a few facts such as that it is the highest, most remote, most sparsely populated region in the Republic of India; that its present importance to India is strategic, bounded as it is on one side by Tibet and China and on the other by Pakistan. It is politically a part of Jammu and Kashmir State and it has been a focus of constant strife for 20 years, not only between central and state government, but also between Muslim and Buddhist factions, for although Ladakh is n ancient Buddhist state, Kashmir is predominately ruled by Muslims. The Muslim Kashmiri feel superior to the Buddhists and seem easily able to dominate the simple peace-loving, non-materialistic people who make up the sparse population of this land of an ancient dying culture; a land first inhabited by Tibetan nomads belonging to the pre-Buddhist Bon religion.
From his first day, in spite of the hardships and hair- raising perils of travel by broken-down bus with a drunken driver, Harvey is enraptured. He has been persuaded not to fly by a Frenchman (one of the many chance encounters with other travelers and "seekers" which enliven his journey). The Frenchman has said that the bus trip is "essential" even though it takes two days to travel from Srinagar to Leh as compared to only a few hours by air. But the temptation to fly must be resisted at all costs. The Frenchman is eloquent on the subject: "I have been down the Amazon; I have walked across the Kalahari; I once spent five weeks in the Sahara . . . and they are nothing to those two days going up from Srinagar to Leh, up the Kashmir valley into the mountains of Ladakh. Find a patron saint and pray to him; don't look too closely at the side of the road or you'll faint or be sick; pray you don't get the same drunk dishevelled unshaven Kashmiri driver I did who swigged from a bottle of gin and sang and giggled to himself the whole way. You'll be all right. You're British, you have the stiff upper lip, you'll be all right. Take opium if you can get some. It helps."
Harvey did not take opium for his trials, but he found every dire warning of the Frenchman completely accurate, including the drunken driver. He also found that nothing had prepared him for the splendor and majesty of the mountains and for the immensity and wonder of their silence. This silence, in fact, completely captured him and in its utter vastness he felt something curious beginning to happen to him. Everything he saw, from the passage of a lonely bird across a ravine to a wash of wind through a field of small purple flowers, children at play, horses running, "happened within me also, within my mind that had become as large as the landscape, as airy, as silent." What he was experiencing on that very first day was the transforming power of high mountain silence, "its genius of giving everything back to itself." This silence cannot, says Harvey, be conveyed in words, but his descriptions of it and its effect on his sensitive mind are one of the rare pleasures of this engaging book.
A great many people, natives as well as travelers, have been eager to tell Harvey that there is literally "nothing to do in Ladakh." And in a way this is true: there are no cinemas, television or radio, no recreation halls. There is nothing to do but walk in the hills, read, take dusty tea with old lamas in cloud-hung monasteries, look with endless pleasure at apricots ripening on all the rooftops, observe rainbows winding their luminous scarfs across mountain faces "made young again" after a morning's heavy mist.
Harvey soon sees that the average Ladakhi does not seem to fear monotony or boredom as Westerners do and gradually he finds himself recovering from his European desire to be stimulated. "In Ladakh, I found myself increasingly able to be empty, to wait without any expectation." Yet there is plenty of good talk in A Journey in Ladakh; much of it profound, for Harvey is, after all, on a serious search; much of it very down to earth, some of it hilariously racy.
Overwhelmed as he is by the country's extraordinary beauty and the innate goodwill of its people, he is not sentimental about the Ladakhis and the way they live. When one of his two good intermittent traveling companions and fellow-seekers asserts, "I've been here for three weeks and I have not seen anything ugly in Leh," Harvey counters with a paragraph that will sound all too familiar to any traveler to the Far East:
"But there is ugliness in Leh. There are the two great rotting green billboards outside the post office; there are the open lavatories in the bus station and along the wall of the Muslim cemetery on the way into town; there are the holes in front of Pamposh's, filled with potato peelings, slops and newspaper; there are the mangy flea-ridden dogs nosing for food in the gutters; there are the sheep sprawled crumpled and bloody and stinking under the bridge; there are signs of poverty, too--the wall eyes, the shaking hands of half-blind, stumbling old women with spectacles stuck together with cellotape, the old men with only a few black teeth left and open ulcers on their shins."
Harvey is, however, quick with his own explanation for these conditions: What otherwise can be expected in a country so desperately poor and without resources, so uncertain of its future within the far-flung Indian republic which so far has failed to offer local people the promised "secure progressive future"; where unsympathetic Kashmiri officials run the show and even the Ladakhi language cannot be taught in the schools beyond the fifth grade; where the ancient monuments and monasteries of the Buddhists--whose history began with the great third-century Indian monarch, the missionary king Ashoka--are perishing, slowly, day by day, from neglect and lack of funds?
Nonetheless one of his new friends assures him, "The old Tibet is still here: it is in some of the monks, some of the families, it is in the children, in the mountains, in the old women. Ladakh holds fragments of it in its old hand."
Harvey's adventures would seem to corroborate this statement. Perhaps it is because he finds himself suddenly able to allow life to move him at its own will. He still makes plans to be sure, but he can easily forsake them for others at a moment's notice. Whatever happens seems appropriate to the time and place. On his constant walking, or quiet sitting, however, wherever he goes he is looking, asking and listening as never before in his life.
Deserted and awesome as the landscapes so often were, he never felt the absence of humanity as he would have, he felt sure, in the Antarctic or the Sahara. There were signs of the human spirit everywhere: piles of white stones mark the passage in difficult places for pilgrims or mere mountain travelers; tattered prayer flags wave in the most unlikely and inaccessible spots, and always, on any possible flat surface, the carefully painted sacred words of Tibet's great mantra, OM MANI PADME HUM--Homage to the Bodhisattva of Compassion, Avalokiteshvara. Once on a solitary mountain walk, sheltering from the wind to eat his lunch in a deserted and roofless shepherd's hut, Harvey found the four weathered walls painted over and over by a rustic hand with the single word, "OM' and even rough attempts to depict the face of the Buddha. Their religion was obviously deeply embedded in the very hearts and lives of the Ladakhi.
Early on in his stay Harvey had observed that among Ladakhi there appeared to be no strict line of demarcation between everyday life--even the profane, one might say--and the sacred. Life is a totality to these people; they accept it in its wholeness just as it comes. These characteristics so puzzling and upsetting to many Westerners are to Harvey curiously reassuring. His openness leads him to many unusual encounters ranging from the profound to the bizarre. One of the most bizarre occurs with another Frenchman (the Frenchmen in this book seem particularly lively) who offers to show Harvey his "most prized possession." This turns out to be a highly decorated Tibetan skull, part of a collection he keeps in his bedroom in Paris. He asserts that these skulls have an unusually gratifying effect "on all the girls." Pointing out the exceptional delicacy of this macabre memento gives the young Frenchman a chance to expatiate on his real attachment to Ladakh and its inhabitants: beneath all "these sweet smiling people there exists the sense of horror and grotesque comedy of life. Forget all those bland blancmange Buddhas," he advises Harvey. "The really interesting thing about this Tibetan business is not the calm, the S,er,enit,e . . . it is their belief in the crazy wisdom, la folle sagesse."
Harvey finds himself an entranced onlooker, even a timid participant (seeking a "cure" for a friend), at the periodic manifestation in a human being of the supernatural powers of the so-called Oracles. The Oracles themselves are chosen from among the monks of a certain monastery when, out of all the monks' names whirled around in a bowl, two names fall out. These two monks then go into a one-year meditation retreat, during which they observe special rites of purification. At the end of the year, after a prolonged trance, they are considered worthy to be entered by the Oracles, who through them then perform many ancient, time-honored fertility rites and even seeming miracles. The Oracles may also enter any chosen human being (sometimes against his or her will) who then in turn temporarily become workers of miracles, mostly cures for the sick.
Harvey goes with some friends to an ordinary humble village house with nothing special about it except the numbebegar of prayer flags on the roof. There he finds about 60 onlookers crowded into a small room. They were of every age and kind, including even a Muslim Kashmiri, all kneeling on the cold stone floor. The Oracle performing in this instance was an old woman, dressed in worn green and orange brocade wearing a helmet that covered her face. She shook and writhed, she screamed and whirled, laughed demonically while at the same time attending to the long queue of kneeling sick suppliants. Her method of curing seemed to be sucking a greenish blue fluid from each patient's breast: "Evil forces being sucked from the body," explained a friend to Harvey who was finding her sustained non-human violence almost unbearable. At last after everyone had been "blessed" she turned to the altar, fetched a drum from inside her robe and began wildly to play it, louder and louder, faster and faster. Finally there was a last long scream and after a few diminishing gyrations she collapsed into the arms of two attendants. Then quite as suddenly she sat up. The trance was over.
"I looked at her. The transformation was complete. For nearly an hour she had been hysterical and commanding, even terrifying. Now in a small exhausted heap in the corner, there was only an old woman smiling weakly and wiping the sweat from her forehead with a rag."
Harvey's encounter with the Oracle brings him to a fundamental insight:
"Back in Leh, I realised that it was the Oracles' violence that had frightened me, her flashing, brutal violence, far more than any power she may have had . . . For years, out of a dread of confronting the fearful in myself, I had wanted to repress the violence that I knew came from my mother and grandmother; by repressing that violence I was also repressing the wisdom that was hidden in its fire. I understood, too, that part of my love for Eastern philosophy had been a desire to have done with that inner violence once and for all, to live beyond it in a harmless serenity. But no true transformation can be achieved by a neurotic refusal of a whole side of the psyche; I could not progress, I saw, until I no longer used my love for the East as a way of pretending to myself that I was not violent and not destructive. I began to understand that night, for the first time, the inner usefulness, the psychological value, of the Terrible Deities painted for meditation purposes on the walls of the gompas. I saw that in their frank portrayal of the horror of anger, desire, greed and lust for power, they did not merely terrify the onlooker, they gave him an opportunity to confront those parts of his energies which he was repressing, to confront, understand and master them, to turn them, as the Oracle had turned her hysteria, into a power to heal."
As the days pass, in spite of encounters which could easily have shaken his faith in the real importance of what has assumed for him the vague shape of a "pilgrimage," Harvey begins to glimpse something of the real faith that sustains these people, that keeps them, for the most part, so warm and childlike and full of joy. He, too, begins just to "see" and to "feel" and to be--for at least brief moments of peace and calm--freed from the necessity to "fling names at things." Yet the day comes when he is able to admit to himself that he needs more than "this good silence and solitude . . . more than this rock, this light, these birds. I need to be taught how to work with what I have begun to know here. I need to find a man or woman who has learnt the language whose first, simplest words I am stammering."
He is, in short, for the first time in his life ready for a "teacher." And Harvey does indeed soon meet a spiritual master destined to change his life. His name is Thuksey Rinpoche. Once the head of several of the most important meditation abbeys in pre-Chinese Tibet, he is now in exile. There is nothing in the least melodramatic or "religious" about their several early encounters. They quietly take tea together, sometimes they all just sit in prolonged, easy silence.
When Harvey comes alone to Thuksey Rinpoche's monastery to spend a whole day, he finds himself instead staying a week. Hour after hour he simply sits watching the Rinpoche presiding like an all-wise Father at the heart of his monastery and his people. To everyone who approaches him he is tender, loving, humorous. The monastery doors are open at all times to any who wish to enter. The Rinpoche treats with equal courtesy and acceptance boisterous children, noisy foreigners, even barking dogs. "He apparently wants no barriers between him and others." Only occasionally does Harvey catch in the gentle Rinpoche a glimpse of the man who sat ten years in a cave in solitary meditation.
"When, in the ritual, he sounds the bell and holds the vajra in the other hand, his face has an expression of extraordinary remoteness. For those moments, he is no longer the tender and welcoming Father, the good Father; he is something stranger, more uncanny, further away from anything or anyone I have ever known. There is a fierceness in the way he holds the sacred sceptre and stings the bell and sounds the drum that could be frightening if afterwards he did not relax immediately, look around the room, as if to see if everyone is still with him, still safe."
When finally Harvey and the Rinpoche begin to have their long-awaited personal talks together, many wise words about Buddhism are uttered by the old Master; far too many to be repeated here, or even adequately suggested. What moves Harvey most in these talks with the Rinpoche (and his translator) was "their faith in man, their belief in the innate and possible perfection of the human spirit. It was that faith that illuminated everything they said and did . . ." The last words of one of these long talks contained for Harvey what seemed "a key." The Rinpoche quietly says to him:
"And if you truly love all things, you will renounce your own salvation for the joy of continually working for the liberation of others. This is the ideal of the Bodhisattva. The heart of the Bodhisattva is so great that it cannot be content until the whole of creation, even the small insects and the blades of grass, have entered into Nirvana . . . This is the true feeling--to love all things so much that you wish to bring them into Nirvana, to love all created things so much that you want to become perfect, so that you can be of help to them. You should meditate on this. It is the beginning."
A Journey in Ladakh is an exceptional book, one whose magic is compounded--as the author's own experiences in Ladakh were--by a singular blending of the wondrous and the commonplace, the sacred and the hilarious.