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From Barnes & NobleThe Barnes & Noble Review
When you arrive in a foreign country, you are routinely asked the nature of your visit. Normally, you have two choices: business or tourist.
When your Royal Nepal flight deposits you in in Kathmandu, however, you have a third choice.
Robert Thurman has been a pilgrim for many years. A leading light of the American Buddhist movement, he teaches in the Department of Religion at Columbia University and is director of its Center for Buddhist Studies. Readers know him as the author of Inner Revolution and translator of The Tibetan Book of the Dead, among other works. His Buddhist buddies call him Tenzin, which means "Upholder of Teaching."
In 1995, Thurman led a small group of people on a pilgrimage to Mt. Kailash in the Himalayas. One member of the group was Tad Wise, a former student and longtime associate of Thurman, and author of the novel Tesla.
Together Thurman and Wise have written Circling the Sacred Mountain, about that pilgrimage. In alternating sections, Thurman provides the meditations and Wise the travel narrative.
Mt. Kailash is, in Thurman's words, "the axis mundi, the cosmic pillar that upholds the vault of heaven...the most magical site on earth...the magic gemstone," and the campsite on the north face is "like a spiritual megaphone. Whatever prayer you make there is automatically transmitted instantaneously throughout the planet and even beyond."
Here's the plan, in Thurman's words: "Well, then, fellow pilgrims! If all goes well our preparations will bring us to a most magicalplace,together with the opportunity to become a more enlightened being. For a thousand years, Kailash has been a magnet for Tantric practice, the special, accelerated path designed for the extremists of the Dharma.... On our way to the mountain, we will work on meditation themes from the Tibetan Lamrim tradition, the Systematic Path of Enlightenment.... When we get to the mountain, we will turn to the Blade Wheel [The Blade Wheel of Mind Reform, an ancient text Thurman has been working on]. We will also perform a fire-offering ceremony at the heart of the mountain, dedicating all our merit and virtue to the transformation of the whole world for the sake of all beings. If all goes well, after the mountain, we will touch the wheel of bliss."
Wise's part of the story is bluff and direct. For example: "We go for dinner to different yak-butter-and-beer holes, where the greasy food is terrible. A four-man mountain-climbing team of mad Frenchmen barges in, soon filling a table with beer liters, wine bottles, and smoldering ashtrays."
The completion of their journey around the mountain coincides with an eclipse. Wise has the last word: "Tenzin sits tight, quietly reciting mantras as the eclipse roaches full darkness. The mountain people bang and shout in the distance. Some of our group get up and look through pinholes in the cardboard. I stay put, sending out waves of new resolve through the dark silver gap between the dimensions."
So, have the strenuous spiritual efforts of Thurman and his friends four years ago made a better place of the planet? And even beyond?
If you are seriously interested in Buddhism, Thurman offers an interesting and very personal take on the subject.
If you are only casually interested in Buddhism, Thurman will not win you over.
If you are interested in the travel literature on the Himalayas and "the carnival called Kathmandu," you will find Circling the Sacred Mountain a lively and vivid account. You can almost taste the yak butter.
And if you skip Thurman's meditations entirely and read only Wise's travel narrative, nobody will be the wiser.