Like the complicated braids worn by Tibetan peasantry, Orville Schell’s book Virtual Tibet is really several disparate strands of inquiry brought together into a seamless, and seemingly simple, whole. Tibet, it appears, is not just a geographic region the size of Western Europe, hemmed in by the Kunlun Shan, the deserts of Qinghai and Xinjiang Uygur, the Tibetan Plateau, and the Himalayas. No, it is an isolated and inscrutable geographic and psychic territory onto which both individual people and whole countries have projected their deepest spiritual longings, adventurous hopes, and political agendas. Schell traces the quality and tenor of these longings from 779 c.e., when Indian Buddhists brought the teachings of Prince Siddhartha Gautama to Samye, just south of Lhasa, all the way to twentieth century Hollywood, where Tibetan Buddhism, much transformed over the centuries, is so admired by the dream makers and policy shakers of that other great locus of psychic power and mythmaking.
Nothing could be more exotic or desirable to the materialistic and acquisitive West, especially in its periods of self-reflection or economic depression, Schell points out, than a Buddhist theocracy nestled in the last uncharted territory on the face of the earth. The four noble truths of Buddhism—that life is full of suffering, that most suffering can be traced directly to attachment and desire, that it is possible to free oneself from such attachment and desire, and that enlightenment can be had for free through meditation, compassion, and right action—have called to Western seekers over the centuries. From Heinrich Harrer, sitting out the ravages of World War II in Lhasa; to conspiratorially inclined, Hollywood director Oliver Stone; to Steven Seagal, who manages to reconcile a career in violent action-adventure films with recognition of his status as a Buddhisttulku, the reincarnation of Chungdrag Dorje, a revered seventeenth century custodian of Buddhist texts, Buddhism has had its adherents in the West. From Helena Petrovna Blavatsky, who founded the Theosophical Society in New York in 1875 after claiming a seven-year sojourn in Tibet, to Parisian Alexandra David-Neel (1868-1969) who, camouflaged in Tibetan clothes, was the first white woman ever to enter the sacred city of Lhasa in 1927, Westerners have been powerfully drawn to the mysteries of the East, and nowhere more strongly than to the hidden recesses of Tibet. Tibetan Buddhism is an exacting discipline though, so it is often altered rather alarmingly for Western consumption: For example, ersatz gurus of the 1960’s such as Timothy Leary thought it might be possible to just bypass all that wearisome meditation and add instant nirvana to his instant coffee through the use of quicker and stronger stimulants such as LSD. The rich and the famous of Hollywood have hoped to attain enlightenment by simply adding a resident Lama to their roster of personal trainers, gardeners, and bodyguards.
However, as Schell points out, spiritual uplift is not the only kind of uplift that drew pilgrims to Tibet. Harrer, author of the adventure Seven Years in Tibet (1953), was, after all, a celebrated Austrian mountain climber with ambiguous but real ties to the Nazis before he escaped a British prisoner-of-war camp and trekked over the peaks to Tibet to become the unlikely tutor to the Fourteenth Dalai Lama.
For some, it is not enlightenment but Everest that is Tibet’s greatest allure. Mountaineering came of age as a sport in the nineteenth century, and romantics began to place their spiritual bets on nature rather than religion as the winning means to achieve the sacred. The British Alpine Club was founded in 1857, and all over the world hikers were reporting the transports available at high altitudes. In the United States, John Muir was extolling the beauty of the Sierra Nevada in the same year, 1869, that Elizabeth Sarah “Nina” Mazuchelli became the first Western woman to trek to the base of Mount Everest. Everest, towering at 29,028 feet, the world’s highest peak and magnificent beyond words, quickly became the mecca of mountain climbing, making Tibet the number-one destination for adventurers, who sometimes conquered and sometimes lost their lives, but who...
(The entire section is 1733 words.)