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...

Chapter 31 - A Message from the Past

For myself, rebirth is neither a theory, nor a belief, but an experience. This experience came to me towards the end of my childhood -- however, in a way that I was not able to recognise its nature. It was only much later (at the age of about twentyone) that I realised the actual source of what I had taken for a product of my youthful imagination. I was living at that time on the island of Capri, and among my friends there was the son of a well-known local landscape painter. This friend, as well as his mother, were great devotees of Padre Pio, in whom the miracle of St Francis of Assisi had repeated itself: he had received the stigmata, and though he had done everything possible to conceal the fact that the wounds of his hands began bleeding during every Friday Mass, he had not been able to prevent the news of his miracle from spreading through the whole of Italy. People in Capri were greatly impressed by this occurrence and among the more sophisticated it led to a new interest in occult powers and current theories about them.

One day my friend told me that he and his mother and a few others were holding spiritistic seances, and he invited me to take part in them. As a Buddhist, I did not hold a high opinion about such things -- not because, I denied the possibility of occult powers, but because I found the theories as well as the practices of spiritists, crude and unsatisfactory. On the other hand, I welcomed the opportunity to gain some factual knowledge in this matter. So I accepted the invitation and attended one of these seances.

We all sat around a heavy table in a softly lit room, keeping our hands spread out before us on the table, lightly touching its surface in the prescribed manner, and when the table began to move, one of the participants proposed to put questions about the former lives of those present. The answers were, as often in such cases, too vague to be of much interest and besides beyond any possibility of verification. When the questioner enquired about my past the table tapped out a name that was obviously Latin, and nobody among those present had ever heard it. I too was puzzled, though I had a faint remembrance of having casually read the name in a bibliography as being the pseudonym of a comparatively lesser-known author, whose actual name I could not recall. Anyway, I did not take this answer seriously, nor was I impressed by the whole procedure, because it seemed to me unlikely that any intelligent being, whether in the form of a 'spirit' or any other conscious entity, should stoop to answer idle questions of this kind and to communicate them. In such a primitive and clumsy manner, if they wanted to contact human beings they certainly would be able to discover more adequate means of communication. It seemed to me more likely that the forces invoked by such means were none other than those of the participant's subconsciousness. It therefore seemed to me unlikely that through them anything could be revealed that was not already in them, i.e. in their subconscious or unconscious psyche. About the latter, however, I had not yet a clear conception, as I was not yet familiar with the idea of the ālaya-vijnāna. I therefore dismissed the matter and gave it no further thought.

Some time later, I happened to read to another friend of mine, a young German archaeologist, a story which I had written in my childhood and which I had conceived as part of a mystic novel, in which my religious convictions and inner experiences were symbolically expressed.

My friend was a few years older than myself and I greatly valued his knowledge of art and literature and his mature judgement. After I had been reading for sonic time, he suddenly stopped me and exclaimed: 'Where did you get this from? Did you ever read ---', and there he mentioned the same name that had puzzled me and the other participants of the aforementioned seance.

'Now, this is funny', I said, 'this is the second time that I hear this name'. And then I told him how it had turned up in that seance.

My friend thereupon explained to me that this author had written a similar novel, but had never finished it because he died young, suffering from die same ailment that had led me to a sanatorium in the Swiss Tessin, where we first had met. Not only the background of my story and the ideas expressed in it were similar to those of this author, but even the style, the imagery, the symbols, and the use of certain typical phrases.

I was surprised and assured my friend that I had never read a word of this author. And this was no wonder, because, as I learned now, he had died a century ago and was not popular enough to be included in the normal high-school curriculum. Greatly impressed by my friends words, I decided to order the works to which he had referred. But before I could get them (since they were not available in Italian bookshops) another strange thing happened.

One day I was invited to a birthday party, where, as usual in Capri, people of various nationalities were present. Among them was a German scholar who had just arrived on the island for a short stay and whom I had not met before. When entering the room where the party was held, I noticed an expression of utter surprise on the face of the newcomer, and even after I had been introduced to him, I felt constantly his gaze upon me.

A few days later, I met the hostess again and asked her: 'Who was the gentleman to whom you introduced me during your party. I wonder, why he stared at me all the time. I never met him before and do not remember even his name.'

`Oh, you mean Dr, So-and-so! Well, he has left already. But I can tell you what interested him so much in you. He is writing the biography and editing the works of a German mystic writer and poet who died a century or so ago. When you entered he could hardly master his surprise -- as he told me later on -- because the similarity between you and the only existing portrait of the poet from the time when he was about your age is so striking that it almost gave him a shock.'

But a further surprise was in store for me. When the books I had ordered finally were in my hands, I recognised not only substantial parts of 'my story' but found certain passages literally identical with my own childhood writings! And the more I read, the more I began to realise that, I read my own innermost thoughts and feelings, expressed in exactly the words and images which I myself would want to use. But it was not only the world of my imagination which I found mirrored in every detail; there was something even more important, because it related to what I had conceived as my present life-work, the outline of a morphology of human thought and culture, resulting in a magic vision of the universe, I myself had drawn up such a plan with youthful optimism and had started to work on it in various fields (art, archaeology, religion, psychology, philosophy, etc.), hoping to collect and to co-ordinate the necessary material in the course of my life. But, soon I found that the frame of the plan was too wide and that even a lifetime would not be sufficient to complete such an encyclopaedic work. Thus, I was finally forced to confine myself only to such subjects for which I was best qualified by temperament, training, and inclination. Looking back upon my life, I now know that this was the right thing to do, and that what is left will be continued or accomplished in another life. It is this certainty which fills me with confidence and peace, and allows me to concentrate unhurriedly on whatever task the present demands. No work of importance, that one's heart is bent upon with single-minded devotion, will remain unfinished. This is what Tibet has taught me, where the saints and Siddhas of old kept on returning through ever new incarnations, in ever new forms until the present day -- thus confirming what first came to me as a faint remembrance or message from the past and grew in the pursuance of a distant aim into an inner certainty.

It is not my ideal to be reborn for ever in this world, but neither do I believe that we can abandon it before we have fulfilled our task in it -- a task which we may have taken upon ourselves in some remote past, and from which we cannot run away like cowards.

I knew that it was something greater than merely the desire to escape from the dangers and troubles of life that prompted me when I chose to lead a monks life for twenty years, though I did not bind myself to the vows of the Bhikshu Sangha and its innumerable rules. I have never believed in them -- as little as the Buddha did, who merely said 'Come' to those who wanted to follow him, without ever using the sterile formulas of a stereotyped ordination questionnaire, and who was ready to free the Sangha from the accumulated dross of petty rules, as reported in the Mahāparinibbāna-Sutta of the Dīgha-Nikāya.

When I chose the way of a lone and homeless pilgrim, ('Anāgarika' means a 'Homeless One') I did so in the conscious pursuance of an aim that allowed me neither to make myself at home in the security of a monastic community nor in the comforts of a householders life. Mine was the way of the Siddhas: the way of individual experience and responsibility, inspired and supported by the living contact between Guru and Chela though the direct transference of power in the act of initiation -- which is more than a mere routine ritual of prescribed formulas or a set of prearranged questions and answers, but depends as much on the Guru's spiritual powers or attainments (siddhi) as on the Chela's preparedness or receptivity. While an ordination can be performed, irrespective of the attainments of those who perform the ritual, initiation can only be given by one who has himself realised the power which he wants to bestow, and can be received only by those who have sincere faith and an earnest desire for truth.

It is for this reason that in the Vajrayāna initiation is valued higher than ordination, as may be seen from the famous biography of Tibet's poet-saint Milarepa, who for the sake of being granted initiation by Marpa, his great Guru, underwent years of toil and suffering. While Milarepa was a Yogi of high accomplishments and a celibate (though he never entered the Bhikshu Sangha, nor did he ever wear the robes of this order, preferring the simple, undyed cotton cloth, for which reason he was called Repa, ('the Cotton Clad'), his Guru was a married man, but one of the greatest initiates of his time, being a pupil of the Mahāsiddha Naropa. The latter had been one of the leading lights of the Buddhist University of Vikramasīla in Bengal, a Brahmin by birth, and an honoured member of the Bhikshu Sangha. But in spite of all his learning and his virtuous life, he had not attained realisation! When he met Tilopa, a wandering Yogi and teacher of the Mahāmudrā doctrine, who had attained the state of liberation, Naropa renounced his honoured position and his monastic robe, in order to follow the Siddha and to be initiated into the Mahāmudrā doctrine, and its mystic meditation. The following words of Tilopa may give an indication of its nature:

'When mind has no place where it can stop (and become limited), the Mahāmudrā [lit. 'the Great Attitude'] is present. By cultivating such an attitude one attains supreme enlightenment.[1]

In other words, the Mahāmudrā is the universal attitude of the mind, which by nature is infinite and all-embracing. Therefore Tilopa says: `The jewel-casket of original mind, free from selfish passions, shines like the [infinite] sky'[2]

Thus the Siddhas had rediscovered the direct way of spontaneous awareness and realisation of the universal depth-consciousness, which had been buried under the masses of scholastic learning, abstract philosophical speculation, hair-splitting arguments, and monastic rules, in which virtue was not the natural product of higher knowledge but of mere negation. The self-complacency of negative virtues was a greater hindrance on the way towards enlightenment than the passions themselves, which, through insight into the real nature of the mind, could be transformed and sublimated into the forces of liberation. This is the key to the seemingly paradoxical saying of Tilopa: The true nature of passions has turned out to be the sublime knowledge of emancipation. Only a man who is capable of great passions is capable of great deeds and great accomplishments in the realm of the spirit. Only a man who had gone through the fire of suffering and despair, like Milarepa, could have accomplished the highest aim within a lifetime. It was the protest of the Siddhas of India, the mystics and sages of Tibet, the Chan Patriarchs of China and the Zen Masters of Japan, that rejuvenated the religious life of Buddhism and freed it from the shackles of mediocrity and routine and widened its scope beyond the confines of an exclusively monastic ideal -- because, as Lin Yutang rightly says: The human desire to see only one phase of the truth which we happen to perceive, and to develop and elevate it into a perfect logical system, is one reason why our philosophy is bound to grow stranger to life. He who talks about truth injures it thereby; he who tries to prove it thereby maims and distorts it; he who gives it a label and a school of thought kills it; and he who declares himself a believer buries it.

Footnotes and references:


Mahāmudrapadeśa (Tib. Phyag-rgya-chen-pohi-man-nag).


Acintaya-Mahāmudrā (Tib.: Pkyag-rgya-chen-po-bsam-gyis-mi-khyab-pa). Quoted by H. V Guenther in Origin and Spirit of the Vajrayāna (Stepping Stones, Kalimpong)

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