Circling the Sacred Mountain: A Spiritual Adventure through the Himalayas

Circling the Sacred Mountain: A Spiritual Adventure through the Himalayas

By Robert Thurman and Tad Wise
New York: Bantam, 2000. Paperback, 353 pages.

This is a book of a genre that happens to be a favorite of mine, as I suspect it is for many readers of the Quest as well: a chronicle of travel combining the exploration of exotic realms on both physical and spiritual planes. In this case, the two authors, together with a handful of other companions, journey to remote western Tibet to perform the traditional Vajrayana (Tibetan) Buddhist pilgrimage-circumambulation of the sacred Mount Kailas, and in the process learn much about Buddhism and themselves. Robert Thurman, a practicing Vajrayana Buddhist and former monk, now a professor at Columbia University, is perhaps the best-known Western scholar of Tibetan Buddhism today. Tad Wise, a much younger former student of his, has practiced several trades including stonemasonry and writing: he has published one novel.

The two writers alternate in presenting the narrative; Wise provides the day-by-day account of the journey, and Thurman (under his Buddhist name Tenzin) offers virtually daily sermons on their exercises and experiences. In the process, the two are uninhibited in displaying themselves as they are. Wise comes across as a voluble, witty, irreverent, and sensual, but very likable, young man; only half-convinced of the Dharma, he nonetheless felt a strange compulsion to leave his life behind for a month to join his old pedagogue on this expedition. Thurman is a learned, sagacious, but occasionally overbearing guide to the mysteries. But the real star of the story is Mount Kailas- -the silent, towering, oddly-shaped, yet unimaginably numinous presence always kept to their right as the foreign party, together with countless devout Tibetans, circles the slow trail round her widespread base, stopping for traditional devotions at ancient shrines and temples. The journey is not entirely out of time, however; there arealso unpleasant encounters with Tibet's heavy-handed Chinese overlords.

Circling the Sacred Mountain is sometimes a bit verbose; introspective surveys of other persons' (the two writers') inward sins and salvations can eventually become tiresome. At those moments I would have preferred more cultural description of Tibet's temples, Buddhas, rites, priests, and pilgrims instead, or else a few cuts. But overall the book moves and is a good read, highly recommended to all who enjoy the more adventurous kind of spirituality.


January/February 2002