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A Journey in Ladakh: Encounters with Buddhism - Andrew Harvey Ladakh is a windswept mountainous region of Jammu and Kashmir, bordered by the Himalayan Mountains to the South and the Kunlun Mountains to the North. Although Ladakh formerly was a thriving trading crossroads, with the Chinese government’s closing of borders to Tibet and Central Asia, it declined in prominence. From that point on, it has been known primarily as one of the centers of Tibetan Buddhism, due to its proximity to Tibet and its substantial Tibetan population. As pictures reveal, Ladakh is beautiful in a harsh way, with rugged mountains, desert regions, and bursts of wildflowers where one might least expect them. {For some especially beautiful photographs, see }


Leh, Ladakh

With the collapse of the old trade routes running through Ladakh, tourism has been the main focus of the economy for decades now. Tourists, especially from the West, come to Ladakh in search of Tibetan Buddhism. They are driven by different motivations for their journey -- bragging rights over visiting a region that is off the beaten path; a trip back in time to Tibet before the Chinese takeover; an “authentic” spiritual experience -- based on whatever unspoken standards they may have for spiritual authenticity. In many cases, tourists seem to be searching for a past, preserved in amber, that may only have existed in the imaginations of other disaffected Westerners.

Monastery, Leh, Ladakh


Andrew Harvey's book is much more a spiritual memoir than a traditional travel book. In three sections, he recounts a trip he took to Ladakh, a region in India close to Tibet in which Tibetan Buddhism was still flourishing. He had been drawn to the idea of visiting Ladakh for many years. An Englishman who lived in India during his childhood, but who was writing as a poet in Oxford at the time of his trip in the summer of 1979, Harvey described himself as a man who was so frightened of following through on his pilgrimage for spiritual insight that he almost talked himself out of using his plane ticket that summer. He was not a practicing Buddhist, but he felt drawn to the spirituality of the religion, the combination of pragmatism and wisdom, which he found in his studies.

As he enters Ladakh by bus, Harvey first is struck by the beauty and majesty of the mountains:

Nothing I had read or imagined prepared me for the splendour and majesty of the mountains that day; that was the first gift Ladakh gave me, a silence before that phantasmagoria of stone, those vast wind-palaces of red and ochre and purple rock, those rock faces the wind and snow had worked over thousands of years into shapes so unexpected and fantastical the eye could hardly believe them, a silence so truly stunned and wondering that words of description emerge from it very slowly, and at first only in broken images -- a river glimpsed there, a thousand feet below the road, its waters sparkling in the shifting storm-light, the path below on the bare rocky surface moving with sheep whose wool glittered in the sunlight, small flowers nodding in the crevasses of the vast rocks that lined the road, rocks tortured in as many thousand ways as the mountains they are torn from, sudden glimpses of ravines pierced and shattered by the light that broke down from the mountains, of the far peaks of the mountains themselves, secreted in shadow, or illumined suddenly, blindingly, by passing winds of light.

Harvey gives himself over to the landscape, to the mountains, as he turns his back on his Western heritage and prepares to open himself to Ladakhi society and spirituality.

Mountains with Prayer Flags

The central theme of Harvey's book is the limits of the Western perspectives on religion and spirituality, which he describes throughout as being too divorced from everyday life, too sterile and isolated. The beauty he finds in Ladakh's Buddhist communities comes not only from the power he perceived in the Rinpoches and monks whom he meets, but more in the profound connection between spiritual practice and everyday life. Rituals make way for children's laughter as well as for the awkward late entry of a group of tourists -- a disruption that annoys Harvey, but that the monks greet with gentle laughter:

We walked up the steps to the main shrine. There, too, everything had changed, The first time that I had seen it, it had been empty except for two short lines of monks, the Rinpoche, and a handful of flickering lamps; it had been hard to make out anything more than a few dream-like faces of Buddhas on the walls. Everything, that evening, had seemed ghostly and hieratic, a trance of ritual I could be moved by but not enter. Now, the room was flooded with morning light. From all sides, the brilliant reds and greens of Buddhas in meditation shone at me and I could see plainly their quiet faces, raised hands, haloes of green and red and yellow light. On the far walls huge whirling mandalas flanked two large wooden structures, full of holes for books, whose silk bindings shone in the gleam of a thousand butter lamps and the sunlight from open windows in the roof. And this time, too, the building was full, so full I could hardly find a place to sit down, full of Ladakhis, at least three hundred of them, mothers and small children, old men, young men, the whole of Shey and its surrounding villages, talking and praying and singing and whirling prayer wheels and walking up and down greeting each other. And at the centre of all this brilliant, noisy, exuberant life was the Rinpoche, seated cross-legged on a small throne.

Enlightenment can be found just as easily in a westernized coffee shop or a muddy ditch as in a gompa. Harvey makes a strong case for Tibetan Buddhism as a spiritual path that requires true immersion in the world -- instead of walling themselves off from material temptations, Tibetan Buddhists choose to walk in the world, to serve people in their local communities, and while doing so to resist the hollow call of material possessions and wealth. At the same time, there is great power associated with Tibetan rituals and practices -- Harvey devotes some passages to eerie descriptions of an oracle’s possession, as well as of the power he sees exhibited by rinpoches during monastic rituals.

Ladakh Monastery

Monks at Hemis Gompa, Ladakh

Harvey devotes the third section of the book to a description of his studies with Thuksey Rinpoche toward the end of his visit. In the Rinpoche, Harvey finds the Master for whom he had been searching, sometimes fearfully. Harvey is especially clear and detailed in his discussion of the barriers he has erected against spiritual change, including fear and distrust. In a conversation with Harvey, the Rinpoche provides insight into the value of spiritually enlightened people still living in the world, rather than secluding themselves in monasteries:

'The man who really helps is the man who is in the world but not of it, who loves the world but is not attached to it, who lives in the world but is not stained by it. A lotus arises from mud, doesn't it? But it is not made of mud and it has no mud on its bud or petals. A lotus arises from water, but it arises above the water. If it flowered under the water, no one could see it and get pleasure from it. A man who is suffering can have compassion, can be intelligent and humane--but he will not have the power to help others. It is necessary not merely to feel for others, not merely to win a certain kind of wisdom from the trials of living, but also to live the life necessary to acquire the good powers, the healing powers, that can save created beings from torment.'

Although Harvey includes some moving and detailed passages outlining his conversations with the Rinpoche, he learns as much from some of his fellow travelers. An Indian couple introduces him to the Rinpoche, and also provides him with two very different perspectives on the value of a spiritual quest. A Swiss Buddhist who at first seems pedantic opens up to Harvey and provides him with a perspective on how Buddhism can be practiced in the West. Harvey’s descriptions of his discussions with his varied spiritual guides provides the book with its sense of movement -- his most important journeys are deep into himself, rather than to farflung areas of Ladakh.

Thuksey Rinpoche

Shey Monastery, Ladakh, where Harvey met Thuksey Rinpoche

Drukchen Rinpoche, whom Harvey also meets at Shey Monastery

Harvey concludes his book with some preachy, albeit heartfelt, passages on the ways in which Buddhism can be adapted in the West. As a whole, though, his writing throughout the book is moving, heartfelt, and honest. He uses his talents as a poet to draw evocative pictures of the landscape and the people of Ladakh. He doesn’t describe his journey as one that led to a final destination, but as one that opened up a new spiritual practice, one that he has adapted throughout his life.

A final, personal note: I picked up this book (electronically) yesterday when I was feeling restless and worried, unable to focus on anything for very long. I was captivated by Harvey's prose. There are lovely passages in which he is describing the scenes around him, or focusing on a few insights he has gained. Reading those passages gave me some moments of tranquility when I most needed them. I also appreciated his humanity, his clear-eyed view of his own limitations, and his ability to describe his spiritual transformation in a way that seemed honest as opposed to saccharine. I'm grateful that I picked up this book when I needed it.

Monks Creating a Mandala


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