I, too, nearly succumbed to the yak tea effect

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The Independent Online
Who are the Little Tibetans? They are members of a secret clan that encircles the globe. They live in ignorance of each other and seldom make eye contact, let alone communicate, yet they form an unwitting masonry of Walter Mittys. If there were a spiritual equivalent to Mensa, the Little Tibetans would all be members.

Little Tibetan is the epithet given by real Tibetans to those whose interest in Tibetan Buddhism has spilled over into cultural fascination. Though usually unable to speak the language, Little Tibetans are fully conversant with the idiosyncracies of Tibetan life. They dream about barley cakes and butter tea. They romanticise this rugged Asian race, they yearn for the vast skies and sweeping plains of the Land of Snows. They mistakenly regard Tibet and Buddhism as synonyms: instead of navigating the Himalayas of the soul, they send postcards of the Potala Palace,

Citizenship of that foggy territory - known as Little Tibet - is conferred without pomp or ceremony. It occurs surreptitiously, overtaking one by stealth, rather like old age. If you are lucky, your friends will come right out and say that sandalwood incense makes them gag, and you will wake up to your predicament. The unfortunate can remain oblivious to their new nationality for years. And this might have been my fate, were it not for the book covers.

It started on a flight back from America, when I looked up from my copy of Death and Dying: The Tibetan Tradition and noticed the couple across the aisle. Clearly, they were aghast, not only at the title but also the cover illustration, depicting a sardonically, grinning skeleton seated in the lotus posture, third eye open, engulfed in flames of the bardo, the intermediate state between death and rebirth. A nightmarish image, it really deserves to be painted on the back of a black leather jacket. (The tattooed forearms of the fiercest Hell's Angels have nothing on the spiritual iconography of Tibet.)

Anyway, this reaction pleased me so much that on arriving home I gave the book pride of place on my shelves, cover out. Contemplating it at length, I was reminded of Philip Rawson's scholarly Sacred Tibet, with its similarly fearsome jacket design, so I put that on display, too. By now I could see a theme developing and decided to pursue it. I selected various other works, including my battered copy of Fosco Maraini's 1952 photo-reportage travelogue Secret Tibet with its Picture Post-style monochrome cover of a pretty Asian girl in a fur hat. Then I dug out my first edition of Chogyam Trungpa's Born In Tibet with its elegant geometric rendering of the so-called knot of eternity.

At this point, I still could not see the wood for the trees. It was simply an aesthetic game, to choose and display the best covers from my collection of Buddhist-related literature. By now all the best designs were on show, the top row dedicated to those tomes with symbolic or geometric covers, while a lower shelf hosted the tantric images of "wrathful" deities in sexual union with their consorts, swathed in flames, eyes wide and dilated. No prizes for guessing which I found the more attractive.

Then I noticed, lurking in the background, the Tibet Handbook, a present from Ed on my last birthday. This doorstop of a book describes the exact geographical location of every single rock in Tibet and was clearly written with pilgrims in mind. Frightened that I might find myself seduced into a frost-bitten foray, I had stuffed it away in the travel section. And now it seemed to be winking, as if to taunt me. Of course: I was turning into a Little Tibetan.

Little Tibetanism is a fairly harmless condition, but vigilance is important. A Little Tibetan can all too easily become a guru groupie, and start loitering outside Town Hall function rooms waiting for a glimpse of this or that particular Tibetan lama. Guru groupies are rather sad. They have this train spotter thing about swapping anecdotes and comparing their knowledge of the guru's biographical details. They like to boast about their familiarity with spiritual teachers, in the same way that young girls fantasise about getting off with their favourite member of Take That.

Anyway, a problem shared is a problem halved, that is what I always say. And now that you are all aware of my problem, I imagine you will want to catch up on the reading. So, next time I want to discuss non-meditation as the mindful realisation of the arising of thought without the dualistic distinction between perceiver and perceived, I can assume you are all up to speed, OK?

Actually, since I do not really know what that means, I will be sticking to recipes for yak broth for a while. Do let me have yours.

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