Peaks and Lamas is one of the classic early 20th century accounts of travelling in the Himalayas on the borders of Tibet. It is, in its way, on a par with the more famous Mystery and Imagination in Tibet by Alexandra David-Néel (also available on Dharma Audiobooks). It describes two journeys in the 1930s, one physically active and one more of spiritual investigation. It starts as the title suggests, as a mountaineering adventure, when a group of English climbers set out to climb unconquered peaks in the Himalayas. Marco Pallis (1895-1989), of Greek and English parentage and schooled at Harrow, was wounded at Cambrai in 1918, but took up climbing on his return. His first expedition was in 1933, with the goal of climbing the peaks and it dominates his account of the journey. But he became increasingly intrigued by Tibetans, the Tibetan way of life, and Tibetan Buddhism. Like David-Néel, this became much more than a traveller’s interest, and in 1936 he returned with one companion, his close friend Richard Nicholson. They went first to Sikkim, (a strongly ‘Tibetan’ country though with political affiliations to India), where he met the abbot of Lachhen and learned directly the very specific ‘Vajrayana’ version of Buddhism. Having started learning Tibetan in England, Pallis became increasingly fluent in the language, both spoken and written. Unable to obtain permission to go to Tibet’s capital, Lhasa, Pallis travelled to Ladakh instead, – politically part of India, but very much (as now!) a Tibetan country. There he adopted the chuba, the Tibetan dress. While never losing his European identity, Pallis felt at one with Tibetan culture and religion, and his account of his time in Ladakh is one of clarity and pervasive warmth. No uncritical idealist, he was acutely aware that lamas can vary from the saintly to highly secular. He cast a discriminating eye on the traditions of Tibetan art, in their thangkas and rupas; he noted the poverty of the people, but also their kindness. This extended noticeably towards animals, he reported, though he also acknowledged the violence that existed, as demonstrated by the necessity to have fearsome chained mastiffs to guard households. In Peaks and Lamas, he devoted chapters to explaining Vajrayana Buddhism and though it is now one of the most prevalent forms in the West, his summary generally still holds up, and even offers insights. Above all, his generous and warm personality shines through this account. And endearing details emerge. As a former student of early music in England under the famed Professor Arnold Dolmetsch, Pallis often travelled with his viols, and (on his first mountaineering journey) played viol consorts with his companions to villagers high in the Himalayas. The book ends with a warning of the deleterious effect of Western culture on traditional art and values, and an idealistic polemic on education. But Peaks and Lamas is a most engaging account, and undeniably a classic of its kind.
Available on audible: audible.co.uk, audible.com, audible.de, audible.fr, audible.com.au: : £3 or on subscription.