Modern understanding of Tibetan religion

Modern understanding of Tibetan religion and culture owes considerably to the efforts of a few itinerant scholars who have left their studies and libraries to travel long distances on foot across the hidden ‘country of snows’. The first European scholar of the Tibetan language, the Hungarian Csoma de Koros, traveled extensively in Ladakh in the early nineteenth century before publishing his groundbreaking dictionary and conspectus of Tibetan literature in 1834.

Ekai Kawaguchi, a Japanese Zen Buddhist monk, endured remarkable suffering until, disguised as a Chinese, he arrived in Lhasa in 1901, where his extensive linguistic studies allowed him to enroll in one of the renowned monastic universities. He returned to Japan with an impressive collection of texts.

Alexandra David-Neel, a French Buddhist adventurer dressed as her lama’s mother, arrived in Lhasa early this century, when earlier explorers had failed to reach the capital. Her firsthand observations of meditating monks’ psychophysical yogas have long interested Tibetan experts. Few have ever had such close touch with the yogins. And let us not forget Sir Francis Younghusband, whose distinctive worldview, Preface xi, prefigured in many ways present spiritual pursuits, was heavily influenced by his personal experiences in Tibet. Since the 1930s, scholarly travelers in the Himalayas and western Tibet have made significant contributions.

Lama Anagarika Govinda, a German scholar, Guiseppi Tucci, the chief interpreter of Tibetan religion, and David Snellgrove of the London School of Oriental and African Studies have all written travelogues as well as detailed accounts and translations of monastic ceremonies, spiritual texts, and ancient biographies.

In Ladakh, Marco Pallis, a British Buddhist researcher, blended climbing stories with a careful study of local Buddhism. We try to gain a current understanding of the practices of the hermits who still live in the interior Himalayas through travel and contact with these men in their distant retreats, rather than only textual research.

Previous scholars have also highlighted the profundity of philosophy and spiritual practice found in the Tibetan tradition. Recently, the harm done to the earth by Western technology, along with alienation from their own religious traditions, has driven many educated people in both East and West to an agonizing search for new ideals, and hence a deeper study of Eastern thought.