9.9.21

Over 100 years ago, Dr. Otto Rank explored the commonalities found in the world's Hero myths

 


The Myth of the Birth of the Hero: A Psychological Interpretation of Mythology – Dr. Otto Rank (1914)


            When looking at the list of books I have read and reviewed here on the Intellectual Journey, I find that many of them deal with the topics of Myth and the influence of these myths on human culture through the ages.  This is a topic that has always fascinated me, but which requires extensive background reading.  Comparative Religion studies is a relatively new area of research, having only truly begun in the last 150 years or so.  Before then, the idea of studying religions and myths to see the similarities and common sources for both was heretical, and all people who sought to study this field were dissuaded from it by the church on penalty of blasphemy.  (This makes me wonder how many amazing works of world literature, history and myth sit locked away in the Vatican archives, solely to keep the knowledge from disturbing their very elaborate and lucrative pyramid scheme.)

            In 1914, Otto Rank published a monograph where he explored the specific sources and intent of the Hero myth common to all cultures.  Specifically, Dr. Rank focuses on the parts of the Hero myths that detail the Hero’s birth.  From Sargon and Oedipus to Hercules and Jesus, Dr. Rank details their specific birth myths, working from the most ancient antiquity forwards.  In his introduction, Dr. Rank describes how “prominent civilized nations…all began at an early age to glorify their heroes, mythical princes and kings, founders of religions, dynasties, empires or cities…in a number of poetic tales and legends.”  Initially based on actual events, these stories were embellished and invested with fantastic features as they were passed on from generation to generation.  What struck Dr. Rank, and many others who study such things, is the improbable similarities that arose in each of these Hero’s birth stories.  It is these similarities, analyzed with a psychological view in mind, which Otto Rank explores in this monograph.

            Dr. Otto Rank details the three separate theories that researchers of his time offered to explain why there are so many similarities in the various civilization’s Hero birth myths.  One was the theory that there exists elementary thoughts, universally sourced from our human brain, which manifest themselves as details of our Hero myths.  A second was that of original community, meaning that one ancient civilization first created the details that have become universal, purely through the influence of the civilizations that arose from the initial one.  The third explanation offered, migration, expands on the second one, stating that an original civilization created the myths, and then when they expanded their territory, their myths were adopted by the people with whom they came into close contact.  Dr. Rank disagrees with these theories.  Using psychology, specifically the work of Dr.’s Freud and Jung, he proposes that the source of these myths lays in the human mind and it’s psychological constructs, specifically those that relate to our own birth and the processes of growth into adulthood.  As we are all humans with human psychology, it makes sense that our myths would seem to be of a similar character with similar details.

            It is not possible to go into everything that Dr. Rank discusses, but one detail in particular stands out.  In most of the classic Hero myths, the birth of the hero is followed by the abandonment/exposure of the baby hero in order that it may die, so as not to fulfil prophecy.  Invariably, the hero is placed in a container, which is then put into a river or body of water.  Fortunately, the child is rescued by someone who then raises him or her to adulthood.  Dr. Rank provides ample evidence that these various water stories are actually mythological descriptions of the Hero’s birth.  This is especially evident in the fact that in most of these myths the Hero is born of royalty or a god, and then after being ditched, is raised by simple folk such as shepherds, wet-nurses, slaves, etc.  The second birth helps separate the Hero from his true family and his true societal obligations.  This is necessary as it allows the Hero to seek the Hero’s path, eventually to usurp or replace his original royal parent.

            The creation of myths by humanity is an on-going process.  One of the founding heroes of the United States is the first President, George Washington, who as a General led the forces that defeated the British in the New World.  It has been almost 250 years since that time.  Already, a vast catalogue of fabrications exists that seek to portray President Washington in the heroic light that myth does.  The biggest one is the story where Washington cut down a tree, and when confronted about it, told his parents “I cannot tell a lie.”  This small, apocryphal story has gone on to become the basis of most everyone’s idea about George Washington.  It remains to be seen whether his myth tale will continue to grow.   I think Dr. Otto Rank may be correct in stating that the sources of Myth lie in our very own subconscious minds.  The stories that move us as human have not really changed since the dawn of history.  We all love a Hero.  We all love a story about someone who was taken from lofty heights, brought down to the lowliest of lows, and then re-emerges, like the Phoenix, to greater glory that ever before.  It is truly our human nature.

(This book can be read or downloaded here:  https://ia802205.us.archive.org/12/items/mythofbirthofher1914rank/mythofbirthofher1914rank_bw.pdf )

3.9.21

Alan Moore Took Swamp Thing Where It Needed To Go

 


Swamp Thing: Issues #21-64 – Alan Moore, writer (1982-1987)


            In my youth, I was always on the hunt for new and interesting comic books.  I was very fortunate, as the 1980’s were a great time for innovative storytelling and many comic book creators took the art form to new heights of intensity, storytelling, and beauty.  One of the premier writers in comic books at the time was Alan Moore.  His epic story, The Watchmen, is one of my all-time favorites.  An early work that Alan Moore devoted years to in the 1980’s was the comic book Swamp Thing.  After decades, I was finally able to sit and absorb the full run of Alan Moore penned Swamp Thing stories.  They were even better than I expected.

            Swamp Thing has always been a “horror” comic book.  It sprung forth as a monster feature, and was not too popular with readers.  Headed for cancellation, Alan Moore was brought in to breathe new life into the book, and he did so full bore!  Alan Moore retconned the origin story of Swamp Thing.  Originally, Swamp Thing was a man who, after being doused with experimental fertilizer of some sort, found his way to a nearby swamp where he was turned into the Swamp Thing.  Alan Moore changed that up.  Instead of a man becoming Swamp Thing, an earth elemental spirit took on the human shape of the scientist.  Swamp Thing is tasked with protecting the Green, which is in fact, all plant life on the planet.  The horror comes in the many ways humans treat nature and the revenge that Swamp Thing enacts in the name of The Green.

            Alan Moore never shied away from showing the ugly, evil sides of human nature in his work.  With Swamp Thing he was able to explore ideas and topics that in other mainstream or superhero comics of the time would have been taboo.  Alan Moore shows us true evil, true monsters who look human and nice and normal, but who are ugly and sick inside, as opposed to the Swamp Thing, who is a monstrosity that has a hero’s soul inside.  Seeing as how good “spirits” like Swamp Thing exist in this comic book world, it is evident that a lot of evil would exist for Swamp Thing to fight.

            The horrors and monsters that Swamp Thing battles are just one aspect of the comic book.  Just as important is the internal life of Swamp Thing.  Alan Moore’s genius lies in exploring the true self of his characters.  Swamp Thing is conflicted.  He falls in love.  He feels deep sorrow and pain at the way humans treat Mother Nature.  He seeks to understand his place in the cosmos and why he’s tasked with protecting the Green.  The humans and monsters he fights are the opposite, seeking to either destroy nature or to corral it and wield it like a weapon.  I can see why many superhero comic fans did not appreciate this series.  It is too complex and disturbing for someone that just wishes to see didactic good and evil fighting.  What was more surprising to me was how sad, how deeply mournful Swamp Thing is as a book.  Alan Moore’s fears for what the modern world has done to our Mother Nature are evident.

            While much of the Swamp Thing saga is grim and monumental, Alan Moore also finds joy and humor in Swamp Thing and his life.  One of the most interesting issues is a one-off that explores what happens when a tiny ship filled with cute alien beings lands in the Swamp.  They have travelled for centuries seeking a new, lush, green home after their home was destroyed.  Told in a light-hearted and humorous manner, this story nevertheless becomes one of deep sadness and pathos as the small aliens discover the damage that humans have done to the Earth, and decide to leave in search of another home, one that will not soon be damaged irreparably by its inhabitants.  Heavy stuff for a “comic book.”

            I must mention the artwork of Stephen Bissette and John Totleben.  For a horror comic book, the artwork must not only be appropriately scary, but it should lend a specific visual language to the book.  The naturalistic drawing and minimal inking of the artwork used in these comics speak to the content within.  It is a perfect match.  The visuals of Swamp Thing are some of the best of the era, able to portray not only the physical battles that Swamp Thing engages in, but also the psychic and ethereal battles fought on the Astral Plane.  Comic Books are, when done right, a perfect combination of story, words, and images.  This is one of those successes.

            I highly recommend finding and reading the run of Swamp Thing issues that Alan Moore wrote.  If you are already a fan of his, you will get to experience his early work.  If you are not yet a fan of Alan Moore then this is a good place to start as nearly all of the work he has produced since the 80’s contains many of the elements he first explored in Swamp Thing.  From explorations on the metaphysical and mythic nature of existence, to the re-introduction of nearly-forgotten characters from the history of comic books and much more, Swamp Thing is definitely an early Alan Moore triumph.

24.8.21

A Second Trip to Mars from Damien Larkin


 

Blood Red Sand – Damien Larkin (2021)

 

            In 2019 I was introduced to a young science fiction writer named Damien Larkin after his publisher sent me a review copy of his debut novel Big Red.  Once I read the book and wrote up a review, I wondered when Mr. Larkin would transport me once again back to Mars to catch up on the doings of the Mars Expeditionary Force.  Upon receiving a shipment from the good people at Dancing Lemur Press I knew that time had come.  Inside was a review copy of Damien Larkin’s second novel Blood Red Sand for me to enjoy.

            The world of science fiction is as wide and varied as any other “genre.”  Blood Red Sand like Big Red, is a work of militaristic, alternate-history science-fiction, akin to Heinlein or other well-known sci-fi giants. Every author brings something of themselves to the stories they tell and it is evident while reading Blood Red Sand that Mr. Larkin not only experienced combat, but he understood the true feelings and horrors experienced by soldiers of all types, in all times.  The way he captures this on the page is thrilling and repulsive at the same time.  Mr. Larkin does not ever aggrandize combat or the military for their own sake.  Instead, they are the vehicle for the very large story he is telling.

            As with other novels, I do not wish to give away plot points, or anything that may take away from a reader’s enjoyment of Damien Larkin’s books.  I refuse to provide a synopsis.  Good science fiction needs an air of mystery going in, to let the mind be blown as it experiences the story.  What I can say is that this novel follows the events of Big Red at the same time that it precedes them.  Is that confusing?  Welcome to science fiction!

            One of my favorite writing devices that Damien Larkin utilizes is the way he separates the various “scenes” and chapters.  As we go back and forth between our protagonists and antagonists we see what they think, how they act, and why they feel they are in the right.  This is something that applies to nearly all wars, the idea that both sides are adamant they fight for the “true cause.”  Our heroes, regular men placed in extraordinary circumstances, understand that all that matters is one’s survival and that of your fellow soldiers.  Too often I have read fiction works that portray the military men and women as mindless, as robots trained to kill, not feeling the effects of what they do and what happens around them.  Much science fiction focuses on the bigger picture, not the individual story.  Damien Larkin knows the truth.  He shows those of us who have fortunately never been in combat what it is really like, including the worries, doubts, fears, and most of all the chaos.  There were times when I would read 10-15 pages in a frenzy!  It is an exhilarating read.

The filmmaker Truffaut supposedly once said, “There is no such thing as an anti-war film.”  He meant that any film about a war, even one vehemently against war, inevitably will aggrandize and glorify combat, soldiers, and their camaraderie, even as it tries to decry war itself.  Some may say this applies to books as well.  I think Damien Larkin has succeeded in telling a militaristic tale without forgetting the trauma and horror caused by wars and battles, especially to the innocent people on the sidelines.  I look forward to more stories about Mars and to whatever else Mr. Larkin puts his mind to write!


(This novel is available for purchase here: AMAZON )

9.8.21

Joan Didion captures the rage felt by those who mourn

 


Blue Nights – Joan Didion (2011)


            About two and a half years ago, thanks to the repeated insistence of my beautiful wife Elizabeth, I absorbed Joan Didion’s “The Year of Magical Thinking,” in which she explored the state of her mind reeling from the sudden passing of her husband.  It was as honest and profound an examination of the experience of Loss as I have ever come across.  About seven months after I completed that book, my own mother passed away, over a quarter century after my father left us.  She never stopped mourning my father’s death in her heart, and she remained devoted to him through all things. 

The loss of a partner, which both Joan Didion and my mother experienced, is more of a shock than the loss of one’s parent.  We are supposed to outlive our mom and dad, but our life-partner is supposed to be there with us forever.  The idea of losing a child? Incomprehensible to most parents.  My mother’s mom saw three of her children pass away before her.  Joan Didion lost her adopted daughter soon after losing her husband.  While “The Year of Magical Thinking” details the loss of mental focus and the intensity of memory and grief, “Blue Nights” rages at the loss of her daughter.  My mother once said the worst thing in the world is for a parent to lose a child.  Her own mother, herself a widow, told her this.  I cannot imagine a more true statement.

This is not a grief-stricken book.  It is an anger-filled self-examination.  Joan Didion may be a petite, refined woman, but her heart and mind are of a different type.  She uses her mind as if her life depended on unflinching honesty and truth, which is similar to the many of us who live in mourning or grief every day.  She asks herself questions which, I would imagine, almost all mothers ask themselves but which most mothers would never admit publicly.  Joan does not always have answers.  That is a truth of life.  We all have more questions than we can answer.

Early on in the book, Ms. Didion describes the process by which her and her husband adopted their daughter Quintana.  To them, it was magic.  After communicating their desire to adopt to friends and family, they received a phone call from a Doctor acquaintance stating that there was a beautiful baby girl needing a home.  Joan describes the joy they felt answering the call, shouting in glee, heading over to the hospital to meet their new daughter, waiting to take her home, and then, 6 months later, officially adopting her.  Joan then tells of how this dream of a story was taken by their adoptive daughter. She would ask her parents to please retell the story, the wonderful story of her adoption.  However, for Quintana, this story brought forth questions her mom found unsettling in hindsight.  Quintana would listen to the story.  She would then ask her parents questions such as, “What if you had not been home when the Doctor called?”, “What if you had a car accident on the way to the Hospital?”, or “What if you had seen me and not loved me?”  These questions, which can break a parent’s heart, shed light on an issue many adoptive children have, which can be framed thus, “If my birth parents abandoned me, then how do I know my adoptive parents will not do the same?”  Brutal.  Some questions and ideas are too much for a young developing mind.

As she writes, Joan Didion examines what she felt were the blind spots in her caring for her daughter, for all parents of sick children ask themselves such questions.  What did I miss?  What was my child trying to tell me?  Did my actions make her life worse?  Was she happy?  For Joan Didion, these are not easy questions to ask nor answer.  Quintana had many health issues in life, but she was a strong soul, eventually marrying the love of her life.  The anger Joan Didion feels, which is reflected in her writing, is the rage all those of us who experience profound loss and feel helpless inside.   

People assume grief is about sadness.  It can equally be about rage.  Pure, unadulterated rage at the world, its inhabitants, its rules, and whoever the hell created it all.  Joan mentioned a comment directed at her by caring friends and family in the weeks following her daughter’s death.  “At least you have your memories.”  It sounds nice enough, but only someone who has never experienced true loss and grief would imagine it to be so.  I, like Joan, know the actual truth.  The memories are what HURTS.  The memories are what bring back the loss and the pain and the sorrow like it was yesterday, for in our minds and hearts, it was just yesterday.  The memories are what stops you from living your day-to-day life.  It can be something as inconsequential as a whiff of perfume, or the sight of a specific flower, or running across an item loved by those you lost.  Joan describes this and it is just so very true.  There are no “happy” memories.  There are just memories, reminders that someone who once existed, and who once meant everything to you, is now gone, and we are left behind to pick up the pieces and move on. 

Joan details how, having lost her husband and daughter, her deepest remaining fear is not the end of her own life, but the knowledge that when she dies her memories of Quintana will die with her.  As she states at the end of this book, “The fear is for what is still to be lost / you may see nothing still to be lost / yet, there is no day in her life in which I do not see her.” Some say that we are not truly dead until the last person that remembers us has passed.  Joan Didion understands that burden completely.


(This book can be purchased here: https://www.thejoandidion.com/blue-nights )

2.8.21

An Exploration of Symbols and Teachings from all of Human History

 


The Secret Teachings of All Ages: An Encyclopedic Outline of Masonic, Hermetic, Qabbalistic and Rosicrucian Symbolical Philosophy, Being an Interpretation of the Secret Teachings concealed within the Rituals, Allegories, and Mysteries of all Ages – Manly P. Hall (1928)

             

            As can be surmised from the title above, this is one of those books that appeal to me above all others.  In these collected pages, Mr. Manly P. Hall digs into the lifetime of esoteric and comparative religion studies which he concentrates and arranges for my pleasure.  There is nothing I love more than a human being smart enough to read widely on any given subject, who proceeds to then coalesce everything they have put into their brains into a work of literature.  This is one such book, and due to both the density and depth of the subject, it has taken me a good while to complete.

Writing about such a book is very difficult.  Not only is the subject matter one that requires both rigor and imagination to understand, but Mr. Hall is discussing the entirety of human symbolical philosophy, going as far back as possible into our collective human past.  Even 5 years ago I do not think I was mentally prepared to absorb what Mr. Hall has provided.

This is one of those books used by countless other writers as source material.  It is encyclopedic in scope, and everything is explored with an honest and logical demeanor.  The myths and symbols described by Mr. Hall, whether pertaining to ancient Greek Mystery Schools, the Egyptian traditions, Freemasonry, Hebrew mysticism, or mystic Christian theology are explored without bias, and always with an eye on the hidden truths contained therein, truths which at many times in human development were either scandalous, dangerous, or subversive enough to be jailed or killed for.

Many people of recent times have sought to “discover” these ancient truths, either by personal study, seeking a guru of some kind, or joining organizations like the Freemasons or other fraternal bodies still using the ancient symbology.  While wisdom is to be found in all things, the search for these hidden truths requires a lifelong passion for learning and the ability to see beyond the basic definitions and interpretations offered by other seekers. Manly P. Hall is great at this. 

Often, the truths that must be hidden from the masses are not mystical or supernatural.  They are instead truths about the reality and world we all exist in but which the powers-that-be at any given time in history see as dangerous to either their respective status quo (i.e. the divine right of kingship, the infallibility of religious leaders, etc.), or to the mental “well-being” of the masses, usually treated as ignorant sheep, barely conscious enough to warrant the title Human.

Many of the key “secrets” of the ancient Mystery Schools actually dealt with what we would now call scientific data or mathematics.  For example, the ancient Greeks understood somehow that the Earth was a sphere travelling around our Sun, that human life was in no way separate from animal or plant life and that all life was in its various stages of development, and that the primacy of the “human” is an illusion.  These were not facts you could disseminate on pamphlets or by orators.  These facts lay outside the “truths” espoused by the political, social, and religious powers of the time, (sadly, in our modern world, they still do for many people). 

Shining beacons of human thought such as Aristotle and Pythagoras saw through the lies, and sought to understand the world based on their pure rational thought.  They created schools where hand-chosen successors would be taught these truths, once the veil of ignorance had been removed by proper education.  These students would then become learned “masters” and proceed to teach a select few in the next generation.  By this method, timeless knowledge and wisdom was transmitted secretly, while the masses of humanity remained ignorant.  These “illuminated” humans were so respected that after death they passed into legend and myth, alongside Prometheus, the being who took fire from the Gods and gave it to humanity.

Because of the volatility of the knowledge involved, symbols and allegory became the main methods of transmitting the information.  “For those with eyes to see and ears to hear...” is how many ancient texts begin.  Implied is that, within the text provided, are secret and important truths only understandable to those who have been taught the meaning of the symbols and the history of human understanding.  Using this knowledge, Mr. Hall explores our collective history.  Whole chapters are devoted to Qabbalistic symbolism, the New Testament and Christian mysticism, The Hermetic mysteries, and the development of the Tarot, just to provide a few examples.

Understanding the symbols and myths Mr. Hall describes opens the mind to the interconnectedness of all human thought.  This does not just cover facts and data, but the esoteric studies of human consciousness as understood by our ancient predecessors.  Many religions besides Christianity discuss a concept of the Trinity, or the triune nature of a “god.”  Manly P. Hall describes how this is actually a description of the human being themselves.  According to the ancients and the mystics, each human is composed of three parts.  There is the physical mind and body, built from the same components as the Earth around us (ashes to ashes, dust to dust).  There is the “soul,” which describes the individual ego contained within our physical minds.  There is also the “spirit,” which designates the part of each of us that is imbued with a small piece of the divine, for as we are of the universe, the universe is of us.  As has been stated by many, “we are the Universe seeing, studying, and trying to understand itself.”  This is a deep truth, and something which shatters the dogmatic lies imprinted on much of humanity by religions.  It means we are all part of the divine.  The divine is part of all of us, and it does not stop at humans.  All animals, plants, fungi, rocks, minerals, and chemicals are divine as well, possessing their own path through what we call “life.”  The same applies to aggregations of matter, such as planets, stars, galaxies, etc. 

The cells in your body are alive.  The cells in your body are mostly replaced after 6-8 years have passed.  You are alive, regardless of whether the cells in your body are the ones you had at 11 years old, or the ones you have now at your current age.  Something apart from the physical stayed in your body and keeps it being YOU.  You are not alone in life.  You interact with everything around you in so many ways that the human mind ignores around 99% of all stimuli.  We are filters for the Universe.  The problem lies in that too many of us believe that only the stuff we “filter” out is real.  We rely on our frankly inadequate minds to process an infinite Universe.  The ancient Masters were hoping to improve humanity by sharing this information.  They just understood that one must be ready for learning, for learning is change, and change can be very disruptive, even when for the best.  Even today, in our “modern” world, most people are not ready to receive true wisdom.

I could write on and on about this book, but it is best for you to read it yourself if it sounds interesting.   Quite often, I would find myself reading a passage or sentence which led my mind to connect ideas/thoughts previously unaffiliated. Manly P. Hall has a way of guiding his readers, much like the old masters did their students.  He sometimes does not flatly state things, as much as provide the reader with a starting point for their own exploration.  I love this.  I read to be enlightened, and to have my mind think new thoughts.  In that, this book was a glorious triumph.  I expect to hunt down a physical copy and re-read this work again sometime.  Much like classic literature, there will always be something new to discover about myself, and my fellow humans in this book.

(This book can be read online here: https://www.teerpaakofficial.hu/_files/200000685-62e3262e34/Manly%20P.%20Hall%20-%20TheSecretTeachingsOfAllAges.pdf )

24.3.21

Alexandra David-Neel explores the Mystery of Tibet

 


Magic and Mystery in Tibet – Alexandra David-Neel (1929)


            It is difficult to imagine that just 100 years ago the ancient land of Tibet located between China, India, and Mongolia was as little understood by the Western world as the surface of the Moon.  Its seclusion among the massive Himalayan mountain range led to many fantastic and seemingly supernatural stories regarding the people and gods that inhabited Tibet.  Rumors of forbidden cities, mystical monks, and ever-present deities could not be verified, or proven false, due to the inability of westerners to visit the country.  In the early 20th century, one indefatigable woman, having studied esoteric religions in India and Japan, sought to visit the “Lamaists” as she calls them. These “Lamaists” are the Tibetan followers of Buddhism, a philosophy more than a religion, which was brought to Tibet from India.  Purely through her devotion to learning and her bravery in the face of the unknown, Alexandra David-Neel managed to not only visit Tibet, but also live and study among the monks and Lamas for years.  Amazingly, she did this in her mid-40’s. This book recounts her experience with the magical/mystical side of Tibet and is one of many she wrote on the subject.

            Before digging into the contents of this book, it is good to remember the context of its creation.  The late 1800’s to the early 1900’s saw a huge increase in “spiritualism” and the idea that the dead could be contacted by the living.  Thousands of scam artists and crooks used this to fleece good, although gullible, people out of their hard-earned money.  Many organizations, such as the Theosophists, were created to push the exploration of esoteric thought, and the attempt to gather ancient knowledge forgotten by the “western” world.  Alexandra David-Neel was one such woman.  She explored many facets of spiritualism, theosophy, freemasonry, Hinduism, and finally Buddhism.  As an educated woman, she also understood the role psychology and the workings of the human mind had in determining the experiences we have as we live our lives.  Ms. David-Neel, after traveling through northern India, felt drawn to visit forbidden Tibet, and she succeeded in doing so.  After years of travel in the Orient, she began to write about her experience.  These books, of which Magic and Mystery in Tibet is the second one, were the first non-sensational accounts of Tibet and its people that reached the Western world.  While initially the critics doubted her experiences in Tibet, these books and the ideas contained within helped shape much of the counterculture and metaphysical world that arose in the 20th century.

            My favorite aspect of this book is that it reads not like a travelogue but more like a personal diary of Ms. David-Neel’s experiences and her reflections upon those experiences.  She shares the stories told to her by the many people she meets and explores the development of Tibetan Buddhism as a separate growth of Indian Buddhism.  Her acceptance of those she meets, and the respect and wisdom she brings to those meetings, make a large impression on the monks and Lamas she discourses with.  They accept her automatically as a student who wishes to learn.  This openness is not a result of Ms. David-Neel’s efforts, but instead comes directly from Tibetan Buddhist belief that anyone who wishes to can join a monastery and look for a spiritual teacher/guide. 

            David-Neel describes the ways a Buddhist monastery differs from the western idea of a monastery.  In a Catholic monastery, for instance, everyone is taught the same ideas, and are expected to accept them as literal truth solely because of the authority of “god.”  In Buddhist monasteries, it is up to the individual to determine if teachings have value to them, if they truly “believe” something, or whether they will proceed with the education.  Many regular people join monasteries but keep their esoteric learning to a minimum.  Others go deeper and deeper into the mystic truths of Buddhism, led only by their curiosity, and their master’s individual guidance.  It is truly an individual pursuit, attempting to accomplish a universal goal of oneness with existence.  As many Buddhists believe in the near-eternal cycle of death and rebirth, there is no pressing urgency to proceed with one’s education.  If a student spends all their life pondering basic ideas, it is because he needs to do so to prepare for a future life where larger ideas or more immersive theology will begin to make sense to the student.  The ultimate goal is to stop this round of death and re birth, and to successfully and completely dissolve one’s ego so that, upon death, you join the energy of the Universe, instead of being re-born.  This is called Nirvana.

            Alexandra David-Neel explains that many in the West think that one must endure nearly endless cycles of birth and rebirth before one can achieve Nirvana.  However, learned Lamas do not think this.  They say that everyone, regardless of your spiritual training, has an opportunity after death to go into the light and enter Nirvana, dissolving one’s ego.  Most people, according to the Lamas, see the light and are faced with this decision after death but they experience only fear and doubt.  This drives them to avoid the light and instead head back to our “sphere” and be re-born again.  Part of the spiritual training given to these monks is how to be peaceful and calm so that, upon death, they can dissolve into Nirvana. 

            There is so much more explored in this book.  From describing the day-to-day lives of regular Tibetans, to sharing personal anecdotes of Ms. David-Neel’s psychic explorations, to the descriptions of the beautiful Tibetan countryside, this book has provided me with countless ideas to think about.  I will seek out Alexandra David-Neel’s other works, as I enjoyed this one immensely.  There is nothing quite like a first-hand account from a place strange to me to get my mind flowing.  I would love to visit Tibet one day.  For now, Ms. David-Neel’s books will be my travel.

(This book is available for download as a PDF here: https://www.theosophy.world/sites/default/files/ebooks/magic-and-mystery-in-tibet1931.pdf )