Tibet, more than any other part of the world, has suffered from a spate of misrepresentations, distortions and downright invention in Western literature which is almost unparalleled at any time. Reading the supposed travels of armchair authors, the strange tales of magic, mystery and spiritual wonders that are supposed to make up Tibetan life, one is reminded of the fanciful maps of ancient geographers. When they were uncertain of the features of some place or other, they would fill the space with such legends as "Here be Dragones".
Tibet, it is true, is one of the last countries where Buddhism flourishes without much interference from outsiders. Its Buddhist history, however, shows that in cultural development it is far behind such places as Bamiyan in Afghanistan, where (before Islam replaced it) much of the extra-Indian development of Buddhist art and theology took place. Again, Tibet is certainly not impenetrable. It is far easier to enter and gain the confidence of the Lamas than it is to get into Mecca—as I know from experience—or to take photographs of the Mahdi's Tomb in the Sudan.
Dozens of non-Buddhist Westerners have travelled in Tibet: not one non-Moslem has been allowed into Mecca.
The second thing to remember about Tibet is its size. Those Westerners who have been there have, in almost every case, spent most of their time in Lhasa or within what a Tibetan would call 'easy reach' of it. They have travelled from India, Bhutan, Nepal and China. Some have gone in by the Kashmir route. Very few—if any at all—have been through the eastern and north-eastern areas, to Eastern Turkestan and Mongolia. Yet it is in those very parts that the most important aspects of Lamaist and Bonist magic prevail.
Buddhism is a relatively recent import into Tibet. There are, it is true, vast and richly endowed monasteries, millions of devotees. In the western parts of the country, one person in eight is said to be a monk, nun or acolyte of the Jewel in the Lotus. This part of the population have been deeply affected by religious ideas through Buddhist propaganda during the fifteen hundred-odd years since the religion came from India, and since their numbers were increased by the migrations of Afghan monks during and after the Moslem conquest of Afghanistan.
Yet, though Tibet is called the 'Most Religious Country in the World', this, too, is in a way a misnomer. The country, from the purely anthropological point of view, is far from being a unity. There is, in the first place, the constant struggle between three elements within the Buddhist fold: the 'Pure Buddhists', who constitute the established priesthood, the lay public, and the Tantrics, which latter have been gaining in power for the past thirty years.
The established church of Buddhism, here as in all countries professing that faith, has little time for magic and supernatural thauma-turgy. Life is given over to contemplation and the perfection of the soul as a prerequisite to reincarnation. There are no short cuts to Nirvana, and the ambitions of this world are not for the devout orthodox Buddhist. Why, therefore, should he indulge in magic? On the contrary, magic in all its forms is not only frowned upon in Tibet among the established clergy, but is distinctly forbidden. And the true Buddhist takes his religion very seriously. This is why you must steadfastly discount any alleged stories of the wonders of the Lamaseries of ¿he Buddhist faith in Tibet.
The laity, on the other hand, is still permeated to some extent by beliefs which are partly derived from the primitive, pre-Buddhist animism of the country (Bonism), and partly by the tantric form of Lamaism—an offshoot of the orthodox rite. Lamas, of whatever persuasion, tend rather to look down upon the uninitiated: leaving them to follow the magical practices which are contained in the few books at their disposal. Access to books of higher learning and esoteric meaning is restricted—not only by their scarcity but by the obtuseness of their meanings.
Probably by far the greatest part of the country is under the 'spiritual' ministry of unorthodox Lamaism and particularly Bonism. Bonism may be said to resemble closely the Taoist and shamanistic religion which has been treated in this book under China. Believing in the possibility of raising demons, in the powers of darkness and good, in the importance of words of power and the supernatural powers of its priests, Bonism is perhaps the world's best organized magical cult. Like the Buddhists against whom they wage physical and psychological warfare, Bonists have their own Grand Lamas, their armies and their temples.
Many of their places of worship, their monasteries and palaces are embellished with a luxuriance that would make even a Dalai Lama's palace seem ordinary. Unlike the Buddhists, they repeat the creed (Om Mani padme hum!) backwards: Muh-em-pad-mi-moi Again, unlike their neighbours, they believe in taking life, and have from time immemorial practised this and human sacrifice in their propitiation rites. Their priesthood issue talismans against disease and demons, even to make the crops grow or wither, to cause and annul love, to make the wearer invincible and rich. These, like those of the savage peoples of High Asia, are often consecrated pieces of ordinary bone, hair, teeth and metal. Divination and the taking of auguries is widely practised, both by the initiates and the laity. There is a strange resemblance between their rites of propitiation of the Spirit of Hades (Yama) and dragon-worship, and the rites of the Black Mass in European witchcraft.
At a typical ritual of the Bon magician-priests, the chief sits in a lonely clearing, surrounded by his lesser associates. In the middle of the place, surrounded by small bowls of burning incense, the altar is raised, offering meat, wool and a yak-skin to the Spirit that it is intended to conjure. Three blasts are given on the bone horn. The congregation chants the invocation to the demon and his fellows, following the lead of the High Priest: Yamantaka!—thrice repeated, then thrice again. Everyone is supposed to concentrate upon the image of the deity, which is generally to be seen in huge and frightening effigy in Bon temples: a bull-headed monster, with fangs and horns, trampling human bodies underfoot, with skulls and human heads as ornaments, and surrounded by licking flames.
It is believed by Bonists that the deity will appear and partake of the nourishment, which is a sign that their homage is accepted. The Chief then addresses a prayer to the spirit, telling him of the desires of the people, and these will be fulfilled. Those who do not exert their utmost to contribute their own particular share of the spirit-force to the gathering will suffer terrible pains, and may even lose their sight or some other faculty.
Bonism, like Lamaism and Buddhism in general, does not seek to make converts. If one is not of the initiated, one does not matter in
n the least. There is an interesting account of one Bon gathering preserved from the sixth century of the Christian era, which is typical of those dark rites: "The (Tibetan) officers assemble once a year for the lesser oath of fealty. They sacrifice sheep, dogs and monkeys, first breaking their legs, and then killing them Sorcerers having been summoned, they call the gods of heaven and earth, mountains and rivers, Sun, Moon, stars and the planets " (89).
With the enormous pressure of this kind of devil-propitiation current throughout much of the country, ordinary, devout Buddhism of the Lhasa variety finds itself surrounded by the tantric and magical rites. There have been several attempts to combat this menace, which was started—it is said—by Asanga, during the sixth century, and embodied in the widely-read work Yogachara Bhumt Sastra. Devils and lesser gods of the lower heavens are invoked and adapted from orthodox Buddhism to serve as genii of the tantrics. Reincarnation, as understood by the devout but unlettered laymen of Buddhist Tibet, is very often far from the ideal which their followers in the West imagine. You will frequendy come across some person in the process of performing a hostile (hence forbidden) act against another, amply reassured by the belief that he would not have had such an uncharitable thought, even, had not the other individual done him an injury in a former life.
The orthodox Buddhist contribution towards oriental magic insofar as it affects our study is far more philosophical than the familiar rites of magical thought elsewhere in the East—with the exception of Sufism. Dedication, for a start, is held in common by Tibetan Buddhism and occultists as essential for attaining the thought-concentration which all desire. Like other supernatural thinkers, the Tibetans emphasize mental (though not so much physical) hygiene.*
The mind must be purified until it can receive impressions which will enable it to become ever more suitable for eventual absorption into Nirvana, or annihilation into the Spirit of All. Whence does this power come? Partly from inside, that small entrapped piece of the psychic force of the mysterious 'wireless station' in some far mountains, to which all spirits must return, and from which they are destined to re-emanate, in the form of incarnate beings, until the purification process is complete, and perpetual Nirvana is the reward.
These vibrations, which are to guide the anchorite, are perceptible all over the world. They guide the initiate, while leaving the ignorant
* The seeker must always purify himself before undertaking any magical operation. Sometimes he has to ensure that this step has been taken even by his servants. At times it is for nine days, which includes the tabu on contact with women, and abstinence from fish or venison (Ref. 90).
in his ignorance. It is no real part of the dedicated man's function to spread this doctrine, or even to enforce it, unless his station in life be such as to make this necessary.
Those who attain near-perfection are presented with a ring by Lamas of high degree—Doctors of Buddhism. They must not think, however, that they will reach perfection itself in one lifetime: that happened only in the case of the Gautama himself. At this stage it is possible to apply for release from the monastic life, in order to wander far and wide, to acquire merit which will outweigh sin.
He is generally warned, however, before he leaves the Lamasery, that he is sure to return broken and distressed, to relearn much that he has lost through contact with ordinary mortals. Here, the esoteric philosophy of Lamaism differs radically from Sufism: although superficial orientalists delight in asserting a close identity of thought between the two systems.
At the time of 'returning from a life of perfection to the life of imperfection', two stones are removed from the ring by his mentor. The first to signify the loss that he will undergo, as already stated, the second because he is supposed to have 'doubted the advice given' to remain in the Lamasery. When the lessons are learned, and the monk returns to the fold, the stones are replaced, and then never leave the finger—'even in the fire of cremation'.
If, however, the Lama rises to such perfection that he is embalmed and gilded, and placed behind a lattice screen for all time, the ring is placed above him. Then 'all who gaze at the glorious remains, and especially at the ring, have shamefacedly to hang their heads in humiliation, before such power and such greatness, and utter a prayer that turns the prayer wheel that the soul may continue to hold that which it had so painstakingly and slowly attained in this most scourging of all worlds, compared to which the first twelve years of monastic study were light as a feather'.
There is more than a hint of the elusive idea of a secret worldwide priesthood in the explanation of the Path of the Great Masters, which was transcribed by Mme Morag Murray Abdullah from a Tibetan original in one nunnery which she visited, and which she has kindly allowed me to quote here (91):
"The masters of mystical powers, who choose to remain away from the world, are able to assist through contemplation the affairs of other peoples, far away. While those who have returned as missionaries and failed, for any reason, and so returned to the source of all earthly knowledge, are often debarred from assisting further in the world. It is but forgetfulness for them. And they are content, must become content, with the inconsistencies of the world. Having successfully trod the Path of Forgetfulness, which may take many years, the traveller is able to see all the world laid out below him. He will be able to see what will develop into earthquakes, wars, famines, and he can start in advance to mitigate by his thoughts the human suffering engendered thereby "
Part of the training for this sort of spiritual diagnosis of the patient's ills, is to stay out on a hillside, day and night, for a week—an exposed hillside, and during winter. Thrice a day the trainee is obliged to steep a sheet in icy water and wrap it around himself. It is then allowed to dry, by the 'inward heat generated by his concentration'. If the cloth does not dry, or the Lama feels the cold, his concentration has been at fault, and the process has to be repeated. The rigors of this training are not such as would appeal to our more impatient magicians or even philosophers of more westerly cults. Where such patience and endurance reign there is, conversely, little room for the briefer rituals which are directed towards producing power rapidly. The training does result in a gentle and very dissimilar creature from the ferocious Bonist who may be lurking not very many miles away.
"True Lamas of Tibet count among their number some of the last true followers of their master's teachings." One would expect them to be sceptical of foreigners and, shut away in their mountain fastnesses, unresponsive to friendly gestures. Instead I found them like friendly children, trusting and willing to hear all that I had to say about the world beyond. At first, coming from the West, where diplomacy is not confined to the diplomatic service, one doubted their sincerity; they seemed altogether too confiding, as though they kept politeness on the surface to hide something less tractable under neath. That, of coursc, was a personal feeling, until I found that inside as well as out they seemed to have no ungracious thought concerning anyone. In this I refer to monks of a decade's standing. If they heard of the wonders which they will never see, in our world, they showed no signs of jealousy, or even disbelief: although I was to learn that they had very definite ideas about the West. In my experience, they would no more think of breaking a promise than they would of being inhospitable—which latter is carried out almost like a religion, as among the Afghans and Arabs.
"Tibetan lamas are convinced that they can, by the mere power of prayer, overcome any invasion, whether spiritual or otherwise: it is the power of the magical words om mani padme hum." When I spoke to them of war, they said that only those with unhappy spirits go to war, and that hence they deserve it, and it is something which is decreed for them to undergo: "If we who have so little can accomplish the little we do, surely you people beyond the seas, who have everything material, as you say, can create beauty."
One of the most absorbing things about Tibetan wonder-working, from the magical point of view, is undoubtedly the fire-walking rite. The apparent ability to walk across glowing coals is demonstrated in India, Polynesia and other parts of the Far East. But since my personal experience of a demonstration is confined to Tibetans, I will comment only on this, and refer readers for corroborative material to others who have reported their own experiences in full.
Both the Bonist (animist and devil-propitiating) and Lamaist priesthoods regard fire-walking as an important part of their rites. Why does this activity figure in Buddhist circles, where magic is not encouraged? Because it purports to show the heights of self-discipline that the initiate can reach. A man who can so overcome his natural disadvantages as to be able to tread glowing coals is clearly one who has established the rule of mind over matter. The Bonist theory—if not practice—is very different. Fire-walking is a propitiation ceremony, first and foremost. It is done because the fire-god demands homage. And, in return for this homage, he gives the power to endure the heat to those who believe in him.
In both instances it is probable that some sort of mental dissociation akin to hypnosis is induced: though there seems to be some other factor; for while a person hypnotized in the normal way would, perhaps, be able to endure the pain of the fire, there is the question of actual physical hurt to be considered. Not one Lama or Bonist priest who indulged in fire-walking while I watched seemed to suffer any pain or wound. This leaves only the possibility of mass-hypnosis:
<j ri hjn ta .li magic of which one has heard a lot, but can prove little—as in the case of the Indian rope-trick.
At one Bonist ritual, in addition to the priests passing through the flames, a number of candidates for 'holy orders' were led through the fire. None of these laymen was harmed; it may be that there is some trick by which the whole thing is accomplished. In common with parallel rites elsewhere, this amounts to a testing of applicants for ordination: a form of the ordeal thesis.
Another small fact that may be of interest here is that it is reported that in many cases fire-walkers are seen to have scorched hands and faces, frizzled hair, and so on—but no marks on the soles of their feet.
The experiment that I saw was performed in a large clearing: the actual site of the fire being a trench three feet deep by thirty feet long and about ten feet wide. After rounded, smooth stones had been placed in the trench, a vast quantity of wood and branches were piled on the top, set alight, and kept burning for about six hours. Then the charcoal was scraped off, and the surface swept flat.
There was a crowd of about two hundred people watching the display. A wizened Bonist priest, hung with amulets and characterized chiefly by the raggedness and apparent filth of his face, hands and sheepskin cloak. Under the skins, which he peeled off", there was a loincloth wrapped round the body and between the legs. In his hand he carried a wand: a stick about fifteen inches long, which ended in a clump of small feathers. He walked about the fire, first three times clockwise, then five times in the reverse direction, at the same time raising and lowering his hands towards the blaze—which was still very hot. Muttering prayers or incantations, he began to strike his legs, first one, then the other, with the wand.
At the signal of a bone horn, ten men walked slowly through the crowd, and lined up in front of the magician. As each one bowed, he was tapped first on one shoulder, then the other, with the stick. Not a sound was to be heard. There almost seemed to be something uncanny in the air. The heat from the fire and the sun above was overwhelming. Several people in the audience, overcome by the heat or emotion, fell where they stood. Nobody took more than passing notice of this, and all eyes lingered on the sinister figure of the priest.
In single file, while the sorcerer kept up a high nasal chant, the men crossed the white-hot mass, stepping off through a small bowl of water as they reached the end of the course.
Now the old sorcerer followed, and performed a dance in the centre of the trench. He then called for people—not being initiates— who would like to take part in the rite, telling all and sundry of the great powers that were conferred by the Sun God for this act of devotion-
Three men and two women only accepted the challenge: one of each sex being clearly of an Indian, rather than Mongolian, cast of feature.
The same performance of running round the fire, the same salutations and raising of hands, the incantations, and this time the first ten
Talisman of victory
added their singing to the sorcerer's voice. Led by the two women, who were almost pushed ahead by the sorcerer, the five negotiated the fire without mishap. I noticed that their faces were covered with sweat, and they seemed deadly afraid. As they stepped off the track, I examined their feet: I could hardly escape doing so, for they were showing them to all and sundry, and such was their relief that it was almost touching.
There was no sign of burning, either on their feet or on any part of their cotton or yak-skin garments.
I was unable to get any further information about how this was accomplished. Another person, who saw the rite performed in a similar way in an Indian State, where four Britishers took part, wrote:
"The quartette of Britishers—a Scot, two Irish and an Englishman . . . were showing their feet to the other guests for days afterwards.
They begged the ancient to tell them the secret, and I joined in their request. He would not even accept £$oo for the knowledge, but said if the four cared to attach themselves to his temple he would teach them everything . . . none of the four was able to accept. The only thing that the old man would confide was that only those with developed psychic power would be able to do the experiment unharmed by themselves. This power was something that 'you' would one day accept as natural, 'though you hope in your heart not to be obliged to do so'. This power was practically unknown in most places (especially 'materialist India', as he called it) owing to a lack of real faith, as opposed to hypocrisy.
Talismans and charms, he said, could be given to those who had no power, and these would enable them to fire-walk and do many other things: but why should they have them, if they did not benefit the soul?" Evidently this particular priest belonged to the established Buddhist cult of Tibet.
With these talismans "the ignorant, being then able to concentrate their lower minds on something tangible, because they could not get really absorbed in spiritual things, could derive power from the symbols and secrets (in the talismans) because there were some sort of spirits which should help them".
When questioned about the 'real' power which made talismans unnecessary, this authority says: "Concentration and meditation were able, in time, to achieve all that was needed. The mind must first be taught to think of nothing. This is another way of saying that there must be no conscious thought at all. This is the most difficult part. When it was achieved, help came to the student. Many people at this stage got mental impressions, which were nothing more than phantasies of their minds, trying to re-establish the thinking process. If these were not identified for what they were, and 'thought away', then they would remain for life with the person, and kill his spirit. They would also seem to give messages, and that these might even be from evil demons." When asked how one knew when one had become enlightened, he replied that one saw and felt it, and that hence the invisible world became something which was in fact reality, only a different reality from the one in which the laity lived: but it had a substance and a host of analogies.
Contrary to the idea widely current in some circles in the West, there is no parallel among the Tibetans to the practice of 'spiritualism'. There is, it is true, a form of Shamanism (witch-doctoring) among the
Bons, or animistic demon-propitiators of whom I have already spoken. Their 'séances' are in some ways similar to the Taoist ones, and do purport to conjure spirits. But the content of the spirit revelations are entirely different, in general, from those which are produced in the West. There is far less of the materialization of the dead, and more contact with what are called 'spirit entities', which have not, apparently, had an incarnate form. Again, communication with the spirits is used for different purposes : for the encouragement of crops and casting out demons of disease, such as plague; for the realization of worldly ambitions, and for advice as to what to do in one's career. There is never a suggestion of the kind of well-meaning and generally insignificant greetings which are exchanged between relatives in the West and those that have 'passed on'. One reason for this is that the belief in reincarnation and transmigration is so universal that it is assumed that dead relatives are already in all probability in process of another life on earth, and out of contact by spiritualist (spiritist) means.
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