The Way of the White Clouds

by Anāgarika Lāma Govinda | 123,888 words

The Way of the White Clouds as an eye-witness account and the description of a pilgrimage in Tibet during the last decenniums of its independence and unbroken cultural tradition, is the attempt to do justice to the above-mentioned task, as far as this is possible within the frame of personal experiences and impressions. This work is licensed under...


Why is it that the fate of Tibet has found such a deep echo in the world? There can only be one answer: Tibet has become the symbol of all that present-day humanity is longing for, either because it has been lost or not yet been realised or because it is in danger of disappearing from human sight: the stability of a tradition, which has its roots not only in a historical or cultural past, but within the innermost being of man, in whose depth this past is enshrined as an ever-present source of inspiration.

But more than that: what is happening in Tibet is symbolical for the fate of humanity. As on a gigantically raised stage we witness the struggle between two worlds, which may be interpreted, according to the standpoint of the spectator, either as the struggle between the past and the future, between backwardness and progress, belief and science, superstition and knowledge or as the struggle between spiritual freedom and material power, between the wisdom of the heart and the knowledge of the brain, between the dignity of the human individual and the herd-instinct of the mass, between the faith in the higher destiny of man through inner development and the belief in material prosperity through an ever-increasing production of goods.

We witness the tragedy of a peaceful people without political ambitions and with the sole desire to be left alone, being deprived of its freedom and trampled underfoot by a powerful neighbour in the name of 'progress', which as ever must serve as a cover for all the brutalities of the human race. The living present is sacrificed to the moloch of the future, the organic connection with a fruitful past is destroyed for the chimera of a machine-made prosperity.

Thus cut off from their past, men lose their roots and can find security only in the herd, and happiness only in the satisfaction of their ephemeral needs and desires. For, from the standpoint of 'progress' the past is a negligible, if not negative, value, bearing the stigma of imperfection and being synonymous with backwardness and 'reaction'.

What, however, is it that distinguishes man from the animal, if not the consciousness of the past, a consciousness which stretches beyond his short life-span, beyond his own little ego, in short, beyond the limitations of his momentary time-conditioned individuality? It is this wider and richer consciousness, this oneness with the creative seeds hidden in the womb of an ever-young past, which makes the difference, not only between the human and the animal consciousness, but between a cultured and an uncultured mind.

The same is true for nations and peoples. Only such nations are truly civilised, or better, truly cultured, which are rich in tradition and conscious of their past. It is in this sense that we speak of Tibet as a deeply cultured nation, in spite of the primitive conditions of life and the wildness of nature prevailing over the greater part of the country. In fact, it is the very harshness of life, and the unrelenting struggle against the powers of nature, that has steeled the spirit of its inhabitants and built their character. Herein lies the unconquerable strength of the Tibetan, which in the end will prevail over all external powers and calamities. This strength has shown itself throughout Tibet's history. Tibet has been overrun more than once by hostile powers and has gone through worse calamities than the present one, as in the times of King Langdarma, who usurped the throne of Lhasa and persecuted Buddhism with fire and sword. But the Tibetans never bowed to any conqueror or to any tyrant. When the hordes of Genghis Khan drowned half the world in blood and Mongols overran the mighty Chinese empire and threatened to conquer Tibet, it was the spiritual superiority of Tibet that saved its independence, by converting Kublai Khan and his people to Buddhism and transforming this warlike race into a peaceful nation. Nobody has yet entered Tibet without falling under its spell, and who knows whether the Chinese themselves, instead of converting the Tibetans to Communism, may not be subtly transformed in their ideas like the Mongolian hordes of yore.

One thing is sure, and that is, that while the Chinese are trying their utmost to crush Tibet by brutal force, the spirit of Tibet is gaining an ever-increasing influence upon the world, just as the persecution of the early Christians by the might of the Roman empire carried the new faith into the remotest corners of the then-known world, converted a small religious sect into a world-religion and finally triumphed over the very empire that had tried to crush it.

We know that Tibet will never be the same again, even if it regains its independence, but this is not what really matters. What matters is that the continuity of Tibet's spiritual culture, which is based on a living tradition and a conscious connection with its origins, should not be lost. Buddhism is not opposed to change, in fact, it is recognising it as the nature of all life. It is, therefore, not opposed to new forms of life and thought or to new discoveries in the fields of science and technique.

On the contrary, the challenge of modern life, the widening horizon of scientific knowledge, will be an incentive to explore the very depths of the human mind and to rediscover the true meaning of the teachings and symbols of the past, which had been hidden under the accumulated dross of centuries. Much that had been merely accepted as an article of faith, or that had become a matter of mere routine, will again have to be consciously acquired and resuscitated.

In the meantime, however, it is our task to keep alive the remembrance of the beauty and greatness of the spirit that informed the history and the religious life of Tibet, so that future generations may feel encouraged and inspired to build a new life on the foundations of a noble past.

The Way of the White Clouds as an eye-witness account and the description of a pilgrimage in Tibet during the last decenniums of its independence and unbroken cultural tradition, is the attempt to do justice to the above-mentioned task, as far as this is possible within the frame of personal experiences and impressions. It is not a travelogue, but the description of a pilgrimage in the truest sense of the word, because a pilgrimage distinguishes itself from an ordinary journey by the fact that it does not follow a laid-out plan or itinerary, that it does not pursue a fixed aim or a limited purpose, but that it carries its meaning in itself, by relying on an inner urge which operates on two planes: on the physical as well as on the spiritual plane. It is a movement not only in the outer; but equally in the inner space, a movement whose spontaneity is that of the nature of all life, i.e. of ail that grows continually beyond its momentary form, a movement that always starts from an invisible inner core.

It is for this reason that we begin our description with a prologue in one of the temples of Tsaparang, a poetic vision corresponding to that inner reality (or core) which contains the germs of all outer events that later on unfold themselves before our eyes in temporal succession. In the great solitude and stillness of the abandoned city of Tsaparang and in the mysterious semi-darkness of its temple-halls, in which the spiritual experiences and achievements of countless generations seemed to be projected into the magic forms of images, an insight into hidden connections dawned upon me, which gave a new perspective to my life and revealed apparently accidental events and human relationships as being parts of a meaningful interplay of psychic forces. The coincidence of certain happenings and experiences, which are not causally connected and therefore not time-conditioned, seem to have their origin in a time-free dimension, which can be experienced only on a higher level of consciousness.

Indeed, the temples of Tsaparang seemed to be lifted out of the stream of time; preserving in them the concentrated atmosphere of a whole epoch of Tibetan culture. And this atmosphere grew in intensity the longer one dwelled in it, until the images took on a life of their own and an almost supernatural reality. Their very presence filled the temples with the voices of an undying past. What, therefore, may appear to the reader as merely poetical imagination, contains a deeper reality than any matterof-fact description of outer events and situations could ever have conveyed, because these events and facts become meaningful only if seen against the background of inner experience.

Thus the pilgrimage in the outer space is actually the mirrored reflection of an inner movement or development, directed towards a yet unknown, distant aim which, however, is intrinsically and seed-like contained in the very direction of that movement. Herefrom springs the readiness to cross the horizons of the known and the familiar, the readiness to accept people and new environments as parts of our destiny, and the confidence in the ultimate significance of all that happens and is in harmony with the depth of our being and the universality of a greater life.

Just as a white summer-cloud, in harmony with heaven and earth, Freely floats in the blue sky from horizon to horizon, following the breath of the atmosphere , in the same way the pilgrim abandons himself to the breath of the greater life that wells up from the depth of his being and leads him beyond the farthest horizons to an aim which is already present within him, though yet hidden from his sight.

In Tibetan Buddhism the symbol of the cloud is of such far-reaching importance, that a glance upon Tibetan Thankas (scrolls) or temple-frescoes would suffice to convince the beholder. The figures of Buddhas, Bodhisattvas (enlightened beings), saints, gods and genii manifest themselves from cloud-formations which surround their haloes. The cloud represents the creative power of the mind, which can assume any imaginable form. The white cloud especially (or even a cloud shining in delicate rainbowcolours) is regarded as the ideal medium of creation for the enlightened or enraptured mind, which manifests itself on the plane of meditative vision as sambhogakāya, the mind-created 'body of delight'.

Even the earlier Sanskrit-Buddhism speaks of the 'Cloud of Truth' or the 'Cloud of the Universal Law' (dharma-megha), from which descends the rain of bliss and liberating knowledge upon a world burning with passions.

Thus the 'White Cloud' becomes the symbol of the Guru's wisdom and compassion, and therefore 'the Way of the White Clouds' hints at the same time at the way of spiritual unfoldment, the way of a pilgrimage that leads to the realisation of final completeness.

The relationship to the Guru, the highest teacher, is beautifully expressed in the Tibetan Song of the Eastern Snow Mountain[1]:

"On the peak of the white snow mountain in the East
A white cloud seems to be rising towards the sky.
At the instance of beholding it, I remember my teacher
And, pondering over his kindness, faith stirs in me"

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Quoted in Tibetan and translated by Johan van. Manen. Asiatic Society. Calcutta 1919.

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