What the Lotus Said: A Journey to Tibet and Back

Overview

Yes, it’s about Tibet, but not the mystical wonderland of Western imagination. There is magic, to be sure — saints who pass invisibly among prison guards, ceremonies that stop torrential rain, and a ferocious landscape that inspires uneasy reverence. But the country described in these pages is incontestably real, harsh, and shocking.

What the Lotus Said is the story of Eric Swanson’s journey through East Tibet in the company of a Tibetan lama and several other Americans. The ...

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Overview

Yes, it’s about Tibet, but not the mystical wonderland of Western imagination. There is magic, to be sure — saints who pass invisibly among prison guards, ceremonies that stop torrential rain, and a ferocious landscape that inspires uneasy reverence. But the country described in these pages is incontestably real, harsh, and shocking.

What the Lotus Said is the story of Eric Swanson’s journey through East Tibet in the company of a Tibetan lama and several other Americans. The ostensible purpose of the trip is humanitarian supporting fledgling schools and bringing medical aid to nomads—but Swanson, a self-confessed “spiritual shopper,” nurses private hopes of enjoying a peak experience in a cave once inhabited by the eithth-century mystic who transcribed the classic Tibetan Book of the Dead. Through episodes alternately comic and harrowing, Swanson gradually discovers the liberating power of disenchantment, and in a startling turn of events, at last deciphers his lama’s cryptic statement that Tibetan Buddhism offers Westerners a way to die.

Written in a fragmentary style evocative of the classic text that inspired Swanson’s journey, What the Lotus Said introduces the reader to the irreducible complexities inherent in the search for spiritual solace.

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Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly
After studying with his lama for three years in the U.S., Swanson (The Boy in the Lake) accompanies him to Tibet, where he begins his spiritual journey. Swanson writes beautifully of the Buddhist saints who left their civilized countries to bring Buddhism to a people known for their "demons, ogres, dragons... and mountains that gleamed like white fangs." He experiences the usual revelations about bad food, miserable bus rides, lodgings, poorly clothed people and poverty. A doctor traveling with them finds many cases of Tibetans complaining of heart pain, very troubling medically until she discovers that they are describing their depression. Swanson and the doctor realize that he word for "heart" is the same as the word for "mind." The author nicely documents the stories of the saints and Tibetan history in general. The popularity of Tibetan Buddhism, the success of the Dalai Lama's books as well as a growing awareness of the Tibetan plight under the Chinese will deposit this successfully on the growing shelves of Tibetan travel memoirs. (Apr.) Copyright 2002 Cahners Business Information.
Library Journal
This is the narrative of an American novelist and playwright's encounter with Tibetan Buddhism and subsequent journey to eastern Tibet. Traveling with others, including an American doctor on a medical mission and a Tibetan lama, Swanson (The Boy in the Lake) enters from Xining and proceeds to Kham, Yushu, and ultimately to a cave, hoping to find an answer suggested by the title of the book. What he finds is lost luggage, diarrhea, filthy toilets, repulsive food, and grinding poverty. Whether he loses his faith or not is not clear to this reviewer. He does provide catchy dialog and crisp description, but the book will make little contribution to the understanding of either Tibet or Buddhism. More seriously, it is flawed by a lack of a map or any other illustrative matter. With so many excellent travel books on Tibet available, this one can be passed up by most public libraries. Harold M. Otness, formerly of Southern Oregon Univ. Lib., Ashland Copyright 2002 Cahners Business Information.
Kirkus Reviews
A grumbling, finely attuned voyage-both keen and keening, pilgrimage and good-works project-into Tibet. More than a casual spiritualist-the disciplines he has browsed comprise "a list like Homer's catalogue of ships," and once, "during a visit to Berkeley, I had my aura cleaned"-Swanson (The Boy in the Lake, 1999, etc.) has been a student of Tibetan Buddhism since 1995. His journey with his lama combines his own medical and logistical work with the personal agendas of his mostly American traveling band of half a dozen. Except for digestible forays into Tibetan Buddhist philosophy, to duhkha and trishna and shunyata, and neat little re-creations of a time when the adept Padmasambhava resided in a cave in the mountains of Nangchen in Tibet's Kham region, Swanson focuses on the particulars of his journey. While he would love to reach the cave where Padmasambhava stayed, he is just as riveted by the night sky on the Tibetan Plateau-with its air that tastes almost metallic, its piercing green valleys, and its people-though he is not so joyous about the food or a certain pervasive stink. He is always aware of the irony of his spiritual quest in a land posted with signs warning "Recognition of Reincarnated Individuals Strictly Prohibited," and having the Carpenters blaring from a boom box when he enters the sacred precincts of Kham on a bus he first encounters as it "coughs and lumbers, dragonlike," from the depot. His spirituality, though lightly worn, is heartfelt, and his forlornness at not reaching the cave is palpable. Swanson lives this journey like a Tibetan Buddhist, on the boundaries between here and there, at one with the everyday shuffle of finding toilet paper as he moves through thedreamscape of a land that could be "the Moon, the South Pole, the Antipodes of legend."
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780312283735
  • Publisher: St. Martin's Press
  • Publication date: 5/2/2003
  • Edition description: First Edition
  • Edition number: 1
  • Pages: 208
  • Product dimensions: 5.06 (w) x 7.98 (h) x 0.56 (d)

Meet the Author

After years of flirting with a variety of spiritual traditions, Eric Swanson became a student of the Kagyu lineage of Tibetan Buddhism in 1996. He was educated at Yale University and the Juilliard School, and worked as an actor for several years before publishing his first novel in 1990. It’s quite possible that he lives in Brooklyn with several cats.

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