Grand tours: Spiritual love on a mountain top

Writers' adventures in literature. This week, the explorer Francis Younghusband finds inner peace in Tibet

Sunday 12 January 2003 01:00 GMT
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Born at a hill station on the North-West Frontier, Francis Younghusband (1863-1942) was schooled in Britain before he went on to utilise his Sandhurst education in the Great Game, the military wrangles between Victorian England and Tsarist Russia for supremacy in Central Asia. Son of a British army major, Younghusband is remembered for his role as bloodthirsty imperialist. However, this is far from just according to Benedict Allen in his anthology of travel writing which features this extract from 'The Heart of Nature', written in 1921. Here we meet Younghusband in the Himalayas, in a moment of meditation and spiritual enlightenment.

It was a heavenly evening. The sun was flooding the mountain slopes with slanting light. Calm and deep peace lay over the valley below me – the valley in which Lhasa lay. I seemed in tune with all the world and all the world seemed in tune with me. My experiences in many lands – in dear distant England; in India and China; in the forests of Manchuria, Kashmir, and Sikkim; in the desert of Gobi and the South African veldt; in the Himalayan mountains; and on many an ocean voyage; and experiences with such varied peoples as the Chinese, Boers, Tibetans and Mahrattas, Rajputs and Kirghiz – seemed all summed up in that moment. And yet here on the quiet mountain-side, filled as I was with the memories of many experiences that I had had in the high mountain solitudes and in the deserts of the world away from men, I seemed in touch with the wide Universe beyond this Earth as well.

After the high tension of the last 15 months, I was free to let my soul relax. So I let it open itself out without restraint. And in its sensitive state it was receptive of the finest impressions and quickly responsive to every call. I seemed to be truly in harmony with the Heart of Nature. My vision seemed absolutely clear. I felt I was seeing deep into the true heart of things. With my soul's eye I seemed to see what was really in men's hearts, in the heart of mankind as a whole and in the Heart of Nature as a whole.

And my experience was this – and I try to describe it as accurately as I can. I had a curious sense of being literally in love with the world. There is no other way in which I can express what I then felt. I felt as if I could hardly contain myself for the love which was bursting within me. It seemed to me as if the world itself were nothing but love. We have all felt on some occasion an ardent glow of patriotism. This was patriotism extended to the whole Universe. The country for which I was feeling this overwhelming intensity of love was the entire Universe. At the back and foundation of things I was certain was love – and not merely placid benevolence, but active, fervent, devoted love and nothing less. The whole world seemed in a blaze of love, and men's hearts were burning to be in touch with one another.

It was a remarkable experience I had on that evening. And it was not merely a passing roseate flush due to my being in high spirits, such as a man feels who has had a good breakfast or has heard that his investments have paid a big dividend. I am not sure that I was at the moment in what are usually called high spirits. What I felt was more of the nature of a deep inner soul-satisfaction. And what I saw amounted to this – that evil is the superficial, goodness the fundamental characteristic of the world; affection and not animosity the root disposition of men towards one another. Men are inherently good not inherently wicked, though they have an uphill fight of it to find scope and room for their goodness to declare itself, and though they are placed in hard conditions and want every help they can to bring their goodness out. Fundamentally men are consuming with affection for one another and longing for opportunity to exert that affection. They want to behave straightly, honourably, and in a neighbourly fashion towards one another, and are only too thankful when means and conditions can be found which will let them indulge this inborn feeling of fellowship. Wickedness, of course, exists. But wickedness is not the essential characteristic of men. It is due to ignorance, immaturity, and neglect, like the naughtiness of children. It springs from the conditions in which men find themselves, and not from any radical inclination within themselves. With maturity and reasonable conditions the innate goodness which is the essential characteristic will assert itself. This is what came to me with burning conviction. And it arose from no ephemeral sense of exhilaration, nor has it since evaporated away ...

An additional ground I have for believing it to be true is that on that mountain-side near Lhasa I had a specifically favourable opportunity of looking at the world from, as it were, a proper focal distance. And it is only from a proper focal distance that we can see what things really are. If we put ourselves right up against a picture in the National Gallery we cannot possibly see its beauty – see what the picture really is. No man is a hero to his valet. And that is not because a man is not a hero, but because the valet is too close to see the real man. Cecil Rhodes at close quarters was peevish, irritable, and like a big spoilt child. Now at a distance we know him, with all his faults, to have been a great-souled man. Social reformers near at hand are often intolerable bores and religious fanatics frequently a pestilential nuisance. We have to get well away from a man to see him as he really is. And so it is with mankind as a whole ...

The conclusion I reach from this experience is that I was, at the moment I had it, intimately in touch with the true Heart of Nature. In my exceptionally receptive mood I was directly experiencing the genius of Nature in the very act of inspiring and vitalising the whole. I was seeing the Divinity in the Heart streaming like light and heat through every part of Nature, and with the dominating forcefulness of love lifting each to its own high level.

And my experience was no unique experience. It was an experience the like of which has come to many men and many women in every land in all ages. It may not be common; but it is not unusual. And in all cases it gives the same certainty of conviction that the Heart of Nature is good, that men are not the sport of chance, but that Divine Love is a real, an effectively determining and the dominant factor in the processes of Nature, and Divine fellowship the essence of the ideal which is working through Nature and compelling all things unto itself.

This extract was taken from 'The Heart of Nature' (1921) published by John Murray. It features in 'The Faber Book of Exploration', edited by Benedict Allen (£25 hardback), which is available to 'Independent on Sunday' readers for £22.50 (including p&p within the UK). To order a copy call 01256 302692 and quote 'Independent on Sunday'.

Follow in the footsteps

The roof of the world

At the spiritual centre of Tibet lies Lhasa, "The Forbidden City". Once elusive and almost unreachable, today the Dalai Lama invites the spirited to visit the majestic abode from which he has been exiled.

Of the 240, 000 people living in Lhasa today, 100,000 are Han Chinese, living mainly in the drab modern sector to the west. The remaining indigenous Tibetans inhabit the colourful old town to the east.

Rising above the high city is the Potala Palace. Housing the tombs of previous Dalai Lamas, the fortress was once the seat of the Tibetan government.

A couple of kilometres east is the Jokhang temple, the holiest and most active of Tibetan shrines. The siteis circled by the Barkhor, a dusty sacred path with prostrating pilgrims, vibrant street performers and eclectic traders.

A few hours south of Lhasa lie the desolate Yarlung Valley, the sapphire Yamdrok Lake, and the secluded Samye, the oldest monastery in Tibet.

Getting there

The best time to visit is between June and November, before temperatures plummet. There are no direct flights into the country, and foreigners are officially required to travel with a tour group.

Trailfinders (020-7938-3939; www.trailfinders.co.uk) offers return flights to Kathmandu for £465, and 11-day tours onwards to Lhasa for £895 per person. The trip to Lhasa is by private coach and Jeep, and includes some light hiking. The return leg is by plane.

Elliot Manches

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