FinalPaper - John Szmyd Literature and the Mountains...

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John Szmyd Literature and the Mountains 1/30/2008 Tibetan Buddhist Mountain Culture Alexandra David-Neel was the first foreign woman to enter the holy city of Lhasa, the capital of formerly forbidden Tibet, renowned for its spirituality and magnificence. Around the gilded monasteries, however, live the majority of impoverished, disillusioned people. After gaining internal authority under China’s rule in the early 1900’s, Tibetans were depicted as violent savages in need of government by the Chinese. David-Neel covertly reveals truth between the extremes of the idyllic, peaceful kingdom of the Dali Lama and the land of a desperate and vicious people; the wild mountainous land is the home of simple, generous people who live in indifference to the corrupt government. When David-Neel attempts her endeavor in 1923, the borders of Tibet were sealed off to all foreigners except British military troops. This prohibition of travel, the allure of what was not allowed, piqued the interest of travelers worldwide. Peter Hopkirk writes in the introduction of David-Neel’s novel My Journey to Lhasa , “The Tibetans, alarmed by the vast and growing empires of Britain and Russia so close to their borders, decided to seal the kingdom off from the outside world. By the turn of the century, a race of sorts had begun among travellers from some nine different countries to be the first to reach Lhasa,” (x). Soon after, British forces led by Sir Francis Younghusband invaded 1
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and subsequently signed a treaty recognizing Chinese laissez-faire rule over the independent government of Tibet. No foreigners could legally enter Tibet, but these regulations did not keep out those longing to venture into the spiritual and spectacular mountains. Robert MacFarlane writes in Mountains of the Mind , “The unknown is so inflammatory to the imagination because it is an imaginatively malleable space: a projection-screen on to which a culture or an individual can throw their fears and their aspirations” (175). David-Neel did not want to explore the mountains themselves, but how the mountain landscape has affected the culture of Tibetan citizens. Her goal of the trip was to investigate the religious and theoretical perceptions, exploring “the Tibetan mind rather than the terrain” (David-Neel xv). She occasionally notes the beauty of her surroundings—British surveyors having described them already—for her mission was to delve into the culture that had previously been described with either British or Chinese bias. To prepare for her quest, David-Neel studied how to assimilate herself into the Tibetan culture to avoid being marked as an outsider. She spends a year in a Tibetan monastery just across the Indian border, reasoning that the more time “spent improving her Tibetan and learning more of the religion and customs of the country, the greater her prospects of success” (xiii). Later, after crossing into Tibet from the Chinese side, she lives in “the great Tibetan monastery of Kumbum […] studying Tantric Buddhism,
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This note was uploaded on 04/07/2008 for the course ENAM 1015 taught by Professor Malstedt during the Winter '08 term at Middlebury.

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FinalPaper - John Szmyd Literature and the Mountains...

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