Tuesday, January 18, 2011

Shambhala: The Fascinating Truth Behind the Myth of Shangri-La

Book Review: Shambhala: The Fascinating Truth Behind the Myth of Shangri-La by Victoria LePage   (Quest Books 1996)

While this book was quite thought-provoking and filled with unusual and fascinating information it somehow left me a little unsatisfied as to conclusions. The myth of Shambhala in its modern form is rooted in several cultures: Vedic notions of the cosmic mountain (Mt Meru) and various other Vedic symbolisms; the Tibetan Bon and Buddhist cosmologies in terms of legends and secret tantras; Central Asian Shamanism in terms of the world tree; Sufi Lore of Central Asia; and both Western and Eastern (including Chinese) legends of hidden civilizations (Agartha, Aryavarsha, Atlantis, Hyperboria, Shambhala, Olmolungring, Lemuria, etc.)

The author examines the work of many researchers and travelers. Those who wrote on Shambhala: Madame Blavatsky of Theosophical tradition, Rene Guenon, J.G Bennett, and G. I. Gurdjieff regarding Sufic and Mystery School lore, and the traditions of the Kalachakra Tantra as told by Tibetan lamas and researchers. Travelers looking for evidence of a secret Central Asian kingdom included Nicholas Roerich and Andrew Tomas. They also collected much local lore from Tibet, Mongolia, and among the Buriat and shamans of the Altai region.

Theosophists and Gurdjieffians have emphasized a common origin for all the famous esoteric schools. Their doctrines tend to combine esotericism into a unified form across cultural traditions. Often the origin of the traditions are cosmic super beings of enlightened stature called Ascended Masters or Wisdom Masters. Typically famous world teachers of religion and esotericism are set up as part of the same overall system. Many think that Shambhala represents the secret place of these ascended ones, beings of light and wisdom.

She goes into detail about the structure of the city of Shambhala given in the Kalachakra Tantra and compares it to Vedic notions of Mt. Meru and the four continents as well as to the structure of Troy towns and Atlantean legends. The threefold world: spiritual, psychic, and physical is said to be represented by the three regions (in the Bon mandala) as the Shambhala King is said to rule over the three worlds. The Kalachakra Tantra is said to have three levels of meaning (as are many of the Buddhist teachings): inner, outer, and secret. The outer has to do with the natural world, the inner with kundalini yoga, and the secret has to do with non-humans and their non-human realms. The cosmic mountain is also discussed as Mt Kailash, Mt Meru, the Kun Lun and Nan Shan Mountains of China, and various Mountains in the Altai range. Some authors also place the early Vedic homeland in the region of the Pamirs which is a plateau that drops off on all sides and suggest that may be the original notion of Mt Meru, aka. Mt Sumeru. Also of interest are the notions of Ural-Altaic shamans who also speak of a legendary Mt. Symery, or something similar. There is also mention of a Mongolian legend of seven civilizing shaman blacksmiths relating to the seven stars of the Great Bear possibly related to the Seven Rishis of the Vedas and connecting the Vedas to a much more ancient Altaic Bear Cult. In any case, all speculative but much to ponder.

She talks about religious variability, tolerance, and mixing tucked away in the hidden places of Central Asia. I am sure that has been the case off and on in some places but there is much evidence that there is and has been just as much bigotry and cruelty there as anywhere. It is no doubt that the Silk Road areas were a melting pot of peoples, philosophies, and religions. Certainly a factor of the Kalachakra Tantra is the notion of bringing forth an enlightened society of harmony and spiritual power, where religions work together in a more united form to stop practices of cruelty and barbarism. The Kalachakra Tantra was the last of the great Buddhist Tantras and goes into much detail. Some have suggested that it was a last ditch effort to get people to join together with the Buddhists as a more unified society in order to stop the Muslim invasions that were systematically wiping out Buddhist practice in particular along the line of invasions. Thus we see a military purport to be vigilant against barbarian doctrines and there is also a notion of esotericists of other faiths joining the cause. This may or may not be the case but it has been suggested by some authors. 

The notion of this area of Central Asia as some sort of spiritual World Axis is examined. There is, of course, an axis at the North Pole (also imaginary if you think about it). There is the magnetic Axis. She suggest that there is a third Axis here which links the symbolism back to the World Tree and Polar cults. This World Axis would be the Shushumna, or Central Channel, in Yogic terms, of the Earth, that carries the Kundalini of the Earth. Indeed in the Kalachakra Tantra this notion may be examined as Kundalini Yoga is a part of the tradition. There is another notion of the chakras of the Earth – of various power spots frequented by initiates. Indeed many cultures throughout the globe practice a kind of geomancy or feng shui regarding different places and so the idea of the kundalini of the earth is actually fairly common. However, seeing this as one system the world over, does not seem evident. She also mentions the legend of the Chintamani Stone, possibly a meteoric stone, said to have great powers and to be stored in Shambhala. It is compared to the meteoric black stone of Ka’aba in Mecca and the meteoric black stone of Cybele.

Prophesy is another notion of Kalachakra. The similarities with some of these and the return of Vishnu as the Avatar Sri Kalki is examined and found to be very similar. Sri Kalki is even referred to in some Kalachakra texts. Vedic Astrology is also a mainstay of Kalachakra Tantra. To the Buddhists it is King Rudra Chakrin and to the Mongolians it is Gesar-Khan that will return to rule justly in the unjust and uncertian times of the Kali Yuga. These are sort of messianic prophesies that many or most cultures seem to have. There is a notion of a final victory over the barbarians and over inherent evil in the world at large. Some folk have compared this to the Islamic Mahdi prophecies and even have suggested Shambhalic lore as a secret fascist military form of Buddhism that wants to rule the world. There is a rather scholarly sounding book on the subject called something like – The Dark Side of the Dalai Lama – that tries to depict the Dalai Lama as a fascist power-hungry religious fanatic. It is utterly ridiculous of course but speculative legends open up the possibility of these aberrant interpretations.

She examines the idea of – the Hidden Directorate – where a group of adepts sort of runs the world. Again, one can get rather deep in conspiracy theory here. According to J.G Bennet and his teacher Gurdjieff there is a secret Sufi school of enlightened adepts hidden in the mountains of Afghanistan. Higher than that there is a hierarchy headed by the Kuth-i-Zaman, or Axis of the Age. Alice Bailey calls them ascended Masters, Idries Shah referred to them as Guardians of the Tradition. They have many other names. Essentially they are Secret Chiefs. There are other names and manifestations of them according to conspiracy theorists and UFO-based mythologies. This inner circle of humanity is asserted by the theosophists, gnostics, sufis, and most of the esoteric traditions of the world.

Regarding the Axis Mundi she goes through much World Tree lore and makes the important observation that the World Tree/Axis Mundi is very often associated with initiation and access to otherworldly knowledge. She notes a connection of Shambhala with the constellation Orion and ties this in with the Egyptian connection of Osiris with Orion. She notes that the guardians of Shambhala are called Azara and ties this word with the Aesir, the Etruscan Aeser, the Coptic Os (thus Osiris aka Asaru), and although she does not mention it here perhaps the Vedic Asuras as well. She identifies these notions as indicative of the ‘pillar lords’ and sees the ancient pillar/polar religion of the Paleolithic reflected here. Osiris is associated with Underworld initiation as is Odin sacrificing himself to himself on the World Tree. She discusses some interesting lore of the Volute – a shape like scrolled wings at the top of a pillar of which the Old Saxon Irminsul is a well-known form. She notes this form among many diverse cultures: Egyptian, Hebrew, Germanic, etc. She makes further connections with Cabalistic-Masonic lore of the two pillars of the temple, the black and white Jachim and Boaz and the Djed pillar of Egypt and the Pillars of Hercules. I do not think her arguments are particularly enlightening here. Humans utilize pillars as symbolic of initiation (and also of creation as phallic symbols). Initiation may involve a return to the creation-time. That is the basic shamanic cosmology that may have been practiced by many cultures in varying ways but it is hard to see it all connected as one big systematic whole. That is I think the main problem I have with the book and perhaps with some of the notions of esoteric unification professed by theosophists and new age philosophies. I do not particularly disagree that these things were seen in similar ways by different cultures in their psychological/symbological aspects. I just do not see it as a deliberate system propagated from the same source where all the meanings are completely transferable. That being said I do think there is great merit and great possibility working with cosmological principles such as Theosophy. However, I think one needs to be able to sort out the nonsense and unification-deliberate system dogma that seems to pervade.

The Sufi orders inherited much Neoplatonic philosophy regarding the spherical universes and the notions of sacred geometry and the sacred geography that came out of it. I am guessing that perhaps later on the Central Asian Sufis may have combined the Neo-platonic notions with the Vedic and Tantric Buddhist notions of sacred geography.

She spends a chapter talking about Atlantis and the Hyperboreans of the northern lands. There is much to suggests that they were the same people to the Ancient Greeks, although legendary even at that time. She suggests the appearance of Hyperborean Apollo as one who brought shamanistic practices from the north and east. Other legends recounted are those of the Order of Teutonic Knights (heirs to the Knights Templar) regarding a power center in Central Asia and a similar Christian legend of Prester John which talked of a pious community of Christians existing somewhere in the east.

Next she discusses implications of alternative sciences where man has mystical powers and unification with our empirical science tradition. Of course, the most elusive variable is that of consciousness. The interchangable-ness of energy and matter suggested by quantum theory is also examined with regards to yogic light bodies and particularly the Tibetan Yang-Ti, or rainbow body into which great practitioners of Dzogchen are said to transfer at death leaving only hair and nails or nothing at all behind. She also talks a bit about UFO phenomena being a sign of Shambhala in the sense that the so-called alien intelligences have advanced technologies and mental powers. This is all very speculative of course.

Lastly she talks about the future and the possibility of spiritualizing humanity and the search for a new metaphysical model for the world. The Kalachakra texts speak of a future Golden Age where the realm of Shambhala will spread over the whole Earth and Wisdom will dawn. This is supposed to occur when the king of Shambhala changes his residence.

The author pretty much combines legends of all hidden lands and hidden directors of human destiny into the Shambhala myth as a whole. Here is an overview statement she gives:

“Shambhala has had many locations, many names, many forms; over the ages it has beem known as a taboo region of Paleolithic magic, a vast Megalithic sanctuary, a sacred kingdom, an underground Wisdom center, a modern complex of ashrams and training-schools. It has sometimes been accessible to the outside world, sometimes hidden; but no one knows what its real nature is, and Tibetans say no one can reach it except those whose karma is ripe. Shambhala seems to have drawn about itself a cordon of invisibility that no ordinary force can breach, yet it can always be found by the soul’s radar.”

Overall, this was an interesting book with much to ponder but for some reason it left me unsatisfied. Perhaps assuming a unification of esoteric doctrines across vast spaces and times seems a little far-fetched to me. Certainly esoteric schools in the past unified doctrines of differing origins but I do not think to the extent implied here. I know there is much more to the Kalachakra lore that she did not go into and perhaps I was wanting more of that as well.

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