Rosicrucian Writings Online

Three Years in Tibet

By Raymund Andrea, F.R.C.
Grand Master, AMORC, Great Britain
[From The Mystic Triangle October 1928]
LAFCADIO HEARNE, the author and journalist, who went to Japan, adopted the Buddhist religion, became naturalized under the name of Yakumo Koizumi, and for several years held the post of English lecturer at the University of Tokio, records that he once submitted to the graduating classes, for a composition theme, the question: "What is eternal in literature?" The discussions proved very interesting and lofty in character, and revolved around ideas such as these: "The great thoughts and ideas of our ancestors"; "Books which rightly explain the phenomena of the Universe"; "The holy books of China, and of the Buddhists". And becoming thoroughly immersed, as I read on, in the atmosphere of wonderful Japan and the reverence shown in its schools for the teachings of Buddhism, I fell to thinking of the first Japanese priest to explore Tibet for the purpose of making a reliable translation of a collection of Buddhist books, into Japanese in an easier style than the difficult and unintelligible Chinese. Thereupon I took down to read once again "Three Years in Tibet" by Ekai Kawaguchi, the Rector of Gohyakurakan Monastery in Tokyo, who was the first Japanese priest to explore Tibet. Some of our members may have met with his book, so what I say about it they can corroborate; while the many who have not read it may be interested in this reference to it.
Kawaguchi says that he was reading the Aphorisms of the White Lotus of the Wonderful or True Law in a Sanskrit manuscript under a Bodhi-tree in Benares, and whilst doing so was reminded of the time, some years previously, when he had read the same text in Chinese at a great Monastery in Kyoto, Japan, a reading which determined him to undertake a visit to Tibet. In 1891 he gave up the Rectorship of the Monastery of Gohyakurakan in Tokyo and left for Kyoto, where he remained living as a hermit for about three years, totally absorbed in the study of a large collection of Buddhist books in the Chinese language; his object being to fulfil a long-felt desire to translate the texts into his native language. Subsequently, however, he came to the conclusion that it was not wise to rely upon the Chinese texts alone, without comparing them with Tibetan translations as well as with the original Sanskrit texts which were to be found in Tibet and Nepal. Many of them had been discovered by European orientalists in Nepal, and a few in other parts of India and Japan; but those texts which included the most important manuscripts of which Buddhist scholars were in want had not yet been found. Moreover, the Tibetan texts were reputed to be more accurate translations than the Chinese; not that the Tibetan translations are considered superior to the Chinese, merely superior as literal translations; but for their general meaning, the Chinese are far better than the Tibetan translations. However, Kawaguchi's intention was to study the Tibetan language and Tibetan Buddhism, and then endeavor to discover manuscripts in Tibet.
He accordingly left Japan in June, 1897, and returned in May 1903. In October 1904 he again left Japan for India and Nepal, with the object of studying Sanskrit and the hope of penetrating into Tibet in search of more manuscripts.
So great was the enthusiasm in Japan at this first exploration of Tibet by a Japanese that leading papers published Kawaguchi's articles every day during 156 issues. Later, the articles were collected and translated into English, and published under the above title. The book therefore contains a highly interesting narrative, giving the point of view of an Asiatic having first hand knowledge of the customs, manners and intimate life of the Tibetans; it is also thrilling in character because of the remarkable incidents and adventures, and the many dangers and difficulties the writer had to pass through during his journey.
What immediately strikes one on reading this narrative is the simplicity and the singleness of mind of the narrator, and the strong sense of personal detachment in everything he recounts. This is almost surprising at first sight, until we recollect that we are reading into a character of an exceptional cast, and a mind that had risen above the personal idea long before his arduous mission, and had experienced the strength, beauty and peace of inner illumination. Not that there is any very direct reference to this in the book, we are left largely to conjecture this from the manner and action of the man. For there are some things done by men, whether at home or abroad, which can never be accounted for in the ordinary way, and which point unerringly to certain developments not enjoyed by the majority. And it is conclusive enough that no ordinary person would have had the soul to face and surmount the cruel hardships, for the sake of even the highest scholastic triumph, which fell to the lot of this single-handed priest in his desire to bring the light of Asia to his fellowmen. They thought he was mad to venture upon such a mission. A certain judge came expressly to tell him that he would become a laughing-stock of the world by meeting death out of foolhardiness, and would do far better by staying at home and engaging in his ecclesiastical work. "Suppose you lose your life in the attempt? You will not be able to accomplish anything." To which the priest replied: "But it is just as uncertain whether I die, or I survive the venture. If I die, well and good; it will be like a soldier's death on the battlefield, and I shall be gratified to think that I fell in the cause of my religion." Judges are not priests--their laws differ.
The next day Kawaguchi left Japan, and we have a sketch of his solitary figure standing on deck clad in his robes, with hand uplifted above his bare and unshaven head bidding his friends farewell. The monotony of the voyage was relieved by religious controversies in which he engaged with an Englishman who was an enthusiastic Christian, to the edification of themselves and all on board; also in preaching much before the officers and men of the ship, the most willing and interested audience he had ever met. The judge he had left behind was not the only authority he put to silence and reflection. Encountering the Japanese Consul at Singapore, who had heard about him from the captain, he was asked about his programme, as there were only two possible ways of accomplishing his purpose: either to force his way by sheer force of arms at the head of an expedition, or to go as a beggar. Kawaguchi replied that as he was a Buddhist priest the first course was out of the question, the latter the only possible way, and that he had no definite programme. Exit the Consul in deep meditation.
He remained a week at an hotel in Singapore and did much preaching whenever and wherever an opportunity presented itself, which greatly pleased the proprietor. Accordingly he was treated with special regard, but just before leaving Kawaguchi narrowly escaped a mortal accident. Every day, when the bath was ready, he was the first to be asked to have the warm water ablution. On this particular day the usual invitation was extended, but just then he was engaged in reading the sacred Text and did not comply. The invitation was repeated, but somehow or other he was not ready and remained in his room. Then he heard a great noise and a thud that shook the building. There had been a collapse and fall of the bathroom from the second floor to the ground, with bath, basin and all other contents, among which was a Japanese lady who had accepted the invitation to take her bath first. This lady was buried under the debris and later taken to hospital with little hope of recovery.
Arriving in Calcutta he placed himself under the care of the Mahabodhi Society, and was advised by the Secretary to become a pupil of Chandra Das in Darjeeling who was at the time compiling a Tibetan-English dictionary at his retreat, Lhasa Villa. This scholar proved very hospitable to his visitor and took him to a temple called Ghoompahl, where Kawaguchi was introduced to an aged Mongolian priest, renowned for his scholarly attainments and as a teacher of the Tibetan language. Under the guidance of this old priest he studied the language, daily walking three miles from and back to the retreat. A month had barely passed when the Mongolian proved to be the third authority to persuade the priest from his mission. "I would advise you to give up your intention of going to Tibet. It is a risky undertaking and chances are against you. You can acquire all the knowledge of the Tibetan language you want, here, and you can go back to Japan, where you will be respected as a Tibetan scholar." But it was of no use. Kawaguchi told his tutor that he was more anxious to teach Tibetan Buddhism than the Tibetan language. With the aid of his kindly host he changed schools and was provided with a private teacher in addition to receiving a regular schooling. He became one of the household of a Lama in which he learned the vernacular, and at the same time matriculated into the Government School of Darjeeling where he received systematic lessons.
At the close of the year 1898, after 12 months hard study, Kawaguchi was satisfied with his proficiency in the use of the Tibetan language in its literary and vernacular forms, and had to decide upon a route for entering Tibet. The most advantageous one appeared to him to be by way of Nepal, which abounded in the footsteps of the Buddha and in which were complete sets of the Buddhist Texts in Sanskrit. These were strong inducements even in the event of failure to actually enter Tibet. Moreover, no Japanese had hitherto ever been in Nepal. To prevent betrayal it was given out that he was obliged to go home at once, and thereupon he left for Calcutta. In Calcutta he obtained letters introducing him to an influential gentleman in Nepal. On the 20th of January, 1899, the famous Buddhagaya, sacred to Buddha, was reached, and the night was spent in meditation on the Diamond Seat under the Bodhi-tree. Kawaguchi was a poet at heart and his language is often touched with beauty and vision. Many a poem is interspersed among his pages. The feeling he experienced during this night of meditation was indescribable:
"Whilst seated on the Diamond Seat, absorbed
In thoughtful meditation full and deep
The lunar orb, suspended o'er the tree--
The Sacred bodhi tree--shines in the sky.
I wait with longing for the morning star
To rise, the witness of that moment high
When His Illumination gained the Lord
The Perfect Buddha, Perfect Teacher Great."
After a critical encounter with certain travellers who put to him the most searching interrogatories he discovered the gentleman to whom he bore letters of introduction, and was granted a pass to the Nepalese frontier as for a Chinaman living in Tibet. At this point of the narrative we find Kawaguchi well on his way. His book, however, is a formidable one, consisting of over 700 pages, so that I can only hope in this article to convey some impression of the great interest of the narrative, the extreme difficulty of the quest and the character and temper of the man who made it. There is one point I would emphasize here: The reader is not to expect that he will find in this book accounts of interviews with Masters or any wonderful experiences of an occult character. Kawaguchi wrote his narrative for the public and has not told all he might. I have no doubt that the conversations he had with the many remarkable characters he met would make a very different kind of book. These holy men were most likely well aware of his approach and his mission, and did much to assist him. A Buddhist knows his brother all the world over.
When bidding farewell to his friends in Japan on the 26th of June 1897, Kawaguchi had said that he would be able to enter Tibet in 3 years; on the 4th of July, 1900, he was on the frontier of Tibet. Three days previously, when nearing the frontier, he dismissed his guide and journeyed steadily on, a solitary traveller in one of the untrodden depths of the Himalayas, loaded with a weight of 65 pounds. The sketches in the book depicting him crossing these vast solitudes enhance the impression of profound loneliness and desolation which the narrative forces so vividly upon the imagination. After tramping some 5 miles, often through snow 15 inches deep, he observed several tents pitched ahead. Here he was doubtful what route to take; whether to risk encountering the occupants of the tents which lay in his path, to follow a declivity in another direction, or to negotiate a succession of high mountains. It is interesting to note his common practice of arriving at a decision when faced with imminent danger. He entered upon a meditative process which in Japanese-Buddhist terminology is called Danjikwan Sanmai, in which the self is abnegated and then a judgment formed, a method which borders upon divination or an assertion of instinctive powers. He decided to go by way of the tents; he met a kind dame and her son from whom he received much hospitality, after which the son accompanied him to the abode, a day's journey onward, of a Lama, Gelong Rinpoche, the very holiest of all the priests in the western steppes. This holy man was held in great reverence by his followers, which included natives living within a 100 mile radius of his cave. Approaching the white cave with the crowd of expectant devotees, who came every morning to receive instructive precepts and personal blessing, Kawaguchi made himself known to the venerable priest and in the course of a conversation said to him: "You are saving the souls of the multitude, and I wish to learn the grand secret which serves so well for your purpose." To which the holy man replied: "Friend, you know that well enough yourself. All Buddhism is within you, and you have nothing to learn from me." Kawaguchi was loaned a sacred volume of Buddhist instruction to peruse before resuming his journey.
After leaving the Lama many hardships were undergone, but these were softened a little at one juncture by a real romance; a young damsel, belonging to the party of pilgrims Kawaguchi had joined, conceived a passion for him. Kawaguchi treats this phase of his experience with rare modesty and inimitable delicacy. So perfectly did he conceive the workings of this child's heart, and so consecrated was his own heart to the spirit of Buddha, that in a little while "instead of an object of love, I had now become an awe-inspiring Lama to my little Dawa. As such, I counselled her with a good deal of earnestness, and finally succeeded in subduing her passion, and conquering the temptation."
Many sacred temples and holy places were visited in the region of Lake Manasarovara, most of which are described in detail; whilst the scenery here was so magnificent that Kawaguchi's pen again and again forgot to prose and, touched with poetic fervour, surrendered itself to the rhythm of nature.
"Like to the Milky Way in heaven at night,
With stars begemmed in countless numbers decked,
The Brahmaputra flashes on the sight,
His banks, fit haunt for Gods, appear
In gorgeous splendors from the snowy height."
In the month of November, accompanied by other travellers, he was far within the interior of the forbidden country. They were on the outskirts of Lharche, the city which is third in importance in Tibet, only five days' journey from Shigatze, the second Tibetan city, and soon reached the imposing monastery of Sakya. Later, the Nartang Temple was visited where valuable information was acquired on Buddhism. Arriving in Shigatze, Kawaguchi stayed for a while at the famous Tashi Lhunpo Temple where over three thousand priests were in residence. To some of these he preached on the Buddhist virtues and aroused in them a real zeal for Buddhism--a fact which he considered a sad commentary on the ignorance of the average Tibetan priests.
Then on to Lhasa where preparations were made to visit the palace of the Grand Lama. In the meanwhile he entered the Sera monastery. One day a young priest dislocated a bone in the upper arm and Kawaguchi, who possessed a good deal of medical knowledge, thereupon set it. Other healing ministrations which he performed soon made him famous in the locality, and shortly after he received an invitation to attend the Royal Palace--not that the Dalai Lama was in reality ill, but wanted to see what the new doctor looked like. An interesting description follows of the interior of the palace as seen by Kawaguchi, of his audiences with the Dalai Lama, and of frequent subsequent interviews with him. He was invited to the chief physician to talk of medicine, with the result that the latter wanted to recommend Kawaguchi as a Court physician. This was declined on the ground that his object was not medicine, but to study Buddhism; against which the physician plausibly argued that as it was the ultimate object of Buddhism to save men, Kawaguchi might as well stay in the city as a doctor and practise medicine. "I might heal them of their diseases," was the reply, "but I could not give peace to their souls, while a priest could free them from the most painful and durable of all diseases. It was more urgent to study how to heal this. Buddha was the greatest doctor, who had given eighty-four thousand religious medicines to eighty-four thousand mental diseases, and we, as His disciples, must study His ways of healing."
Here he met with many remarkable personages, one of whom was the highest priest in Tibet, who taught him Buddhism in its true form. While his close observation and study of Tibetan life in all its phases are demonstrated in the wealth of detail in some of his chapters, such as those on wedding ceremonies, punishments, Lamaism and the Tibetan Hierarchy, government, education and castes, trade and industry, printing, festivals, and Tibetan women and amusements.
Although some of the distinguished scholars Kawaguchi was in with knew him to be a Japanese priest, it appears that during the whole time he stayed at the Sera monastery studying Buddhism, and ministering to the sick, his secret was well preserved. There is every indication that had his identity been revealed and his purpose in entering Tibet known, he would have met with an untimely end. On several occasions, just prior to his departure for home, matters nearly reached a climax as a result of the sharp interrogations he had to face from persons who shrewdly suspected him. An extended account of these incidents is given. At last the secret was out and return inevitable now or perhaps never. "Must I now leave," thought I, "this quiet land of Buddha to which I have become attached; must I steal out of this beautiful country without telling who I am, just as a spy would do? Are there no means to say that I am a Japanese, without causing harm to others? Death comes to all sooner or later. Why should I not run the risk of death, presenting the letter to the Pope? When I have made such a good composition, how sorry I am not to show it to him."
The letter to the Dalai Lama referred to came to be written in this way. When Kawaguchi found that it was known he was a Japanese priest and was doubtful what the outcome would be, he resolved to write a letter and make a clear statement of his mission. This epistle took three nights to complete, when his fellow priests were fast asleep within the monastery. Its contents he summarises thusly: "My original intention in coming to this country was to glorify Buddhism and thus to find the way of saving the people of the world from spiritual pain. Among the several countries where Buddhism prevails, the only places where the true features of the Great vehicle are preserved as the essence of Buddhism are Japan and Tibet. The time has already come when the seed of pure Buddhism must be sown in every country of the world, for the people of the world are tired of bodily pleasures which can never satisfy, and are earnestly seeking for spiritual satisfaction. This demand can only be supplied from the fountain of genuine Buddhism. It is our duty as well as our honor to do this. Impelled by this motive, I have come to this country to investigate whether Tibetan Buddhism agrees with that of Japan. Thanks be to the Buddha the new Buddhism in Tibet quite agrees with the real Shingon sect of Japan, both having their founder in the person of the Bodhisattva Nagarjuna. Therefore these two countries must work together towards the propagation of the true Buddhism. This was the cause that has brought me to this country so far away and over mountains and rivers. My faithful spirit has certainly wrought on the heart of Buddha, and I was admitted to the country which is closed from the world, to drink from the fountain of Truth; the Gods must therefore have accepted my ardent desire. If that be true, why should your Holiness not protect me who has already been protected by the Buddha and other Gods; and why not cooperate with me in glorifying the world with the light of true Buddhism?"
He yet hesitated whether to have this letter delivered or not. His friends who understood the posture of affairs better than he, were against the idea. He would surely be imprisoned and secretly poisoned. So in the Great Hall of the monastery before the image of Buddha he read his prayer of farewell and passed out into the Dharma garden, his favorite resort, where the peace and loveliness of nature inclined him to postpone his departure. Suddenly a voice "Go back quickly" came to him from somewhere in the garden. He paused, investigated, but detected no one. It must be imagination! A few steps further and the same voice, louder and clearer, reached him. He interrogated the voice and searched again, with the same result. Again and again the same strange voice admonished him until, fully resolved to obey, it ceased.
With the kind and skillful assistance of friends Kawaguchi's return journey was rendered safe but not without many memorable events. The most important were the three audiences he had with the King of Nepal who presented him with a collection of rare books containing 41 parts of Sanskrit text, which he had specially desired of the King.
One's closing reflection is that Kawaguchi's mission was a wonderful achievement and his narrative a most fascinating record of it. It was possible and was a complete success because the man was so selfless, so perfectly attuned with the Divine life, that he was as one of nature's forces and encountered her on equal terms. The very hardships and dangers, before which the strongest physical prowess would have succumbed, established him the more firmly in that spiritual consciousness which led him to renounce the peaceful precincts of temple life in Japan that he might bring greater peace to his fellowmen. I confess to a peculiar affection for this intrepid priest.
Webmaster's Note:  The book "Three Years in Tibet" by Ekai Kawaguchi is available online here (external link).

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