The Way to Shambhala…
By Edwin Bernbaum
Published by Anchor Book/Doubleday, New York 1980
This book is a classic for anyone interested in adventure, mythology and spiritual development. Written by Edwin Bernbaum who while teaching in the Peace Corps in Nepal in the mid-late seventies studied Tibetan religion, mythology and art and became interested in Shambhala – a mythical kingdom somewhere beyond the snow mountains north of the Himalayas.
“For centuries the people of Tibet and Mongolia have believed in the existence of Shambhala where a line of enlightened kings is said to be guarding the highest wisdom for a time when all spiritual values in the world outside will be lost in war and destruction. Then, according to prophecy, a great king will come out of this sanctuary to defeat the forces of evil and establish a golden age.
“Drawing on Tibetan and Sanskrit texts, interviews with lamas in Nepal and India, and his own experiences in the Himalayas, Edwin Bernbaum gives a detailed account of this fascination tradition, examining its basis in religion and history and its connection to the archetypal myths that have influenced both Eastern and Western cultures. As he explores the myth of Shambhala, showing how it symbolises an inner, spiritual journey to enlightenment, Bernbaum leads the reader through the actual terrain of the Himalayas, the mist-filled valleys and snow-covered peaks that have helped to inspire the idea of a mysterious sanctuary hidden in the remote mountains of Central Asia.
When filming in the Himis Monastery in Ladakh in the mid eighties we had the opportunity to visit the head lama. After speaking quietly with him and an interpreter for an hour he asked if we had any questions. I asked him, “where is Shambhala?” He waved his hands in a northward direction and indicated it was beyond the Himalayas, somewhere in the Gobi Desert region.
“Something hidden. Go and find it. Go and look behind the Ranges –
Something lost behind the Ranges. Lost and waiting to be found. Go!”
“Behind the ice walls of the Himalayas lie the empty deserts and remote mountains of Cental Asia. There, blown clear of habitation by the harsh winds of high altitude, the plateau of Tibet extends north over thousands of square miles up to the Kunluns, a range of unexplored peaks longer than the Himalayas and nearly as high. Beyond its little known valleys are two of the most barren deserts in the world; the Taklan Makan and the Gobi. Sparsely populated and cut off by geographical and political barriers, this vast region remains the most mysterious part of Asia, an empty immensity in which almost anything could be lost and waiting to be found.”
Although there are differing opinions as to where Shambhala actually is, the lamas all agree that it is a place of majestic beauty. They are more specific about the kingdom itself and give a remarkably clear and detailed picture of it. According to their descriptions, a great ring of snow mountains glistening with ice completely surrounds Shambhala and keeps out all those not fit to enter. The texts imply that one can cross the snow mountains only by flying over them, but the lamas point out that this must be done through spiritual powers and not by material means.
The inhabitants of the kingdom live in peace and harmony, free of sickness and hunger. They all have a healthy appearance, with beautiful features, and wear graceful robes of white cloth. They speak a sacred language and all have great wealth but never have to use it. Tibetans have, in fact, taken the Sanskrit name Shambhala to mean “the source of happiness.”
Many Tibetans insist on the necessity of purifying the mind in order to go to Shambhala. Most forms of meditation used for this purpose tend to cut off, or silence, the habitual thoughts and preconceptions that block the kind of mystic vision, the vision that may actually penetrate into other worlds as solid and as concrete as ours. By clarifying his mind in this way, ridding himself of the mental conditioning that limits his awareness, the traveller to Shambhala may be gaining the ability to see into the fourth dimension and take an actual journey through a strange, but real, landscape of fantastic deserts and mountains that lie parallel to the ones we find on maps of Central Asia.
If the high lamas of Tibet consider this majestic paradise to be symbolic then a powerful symbol like Shambhala can do more than stand for some hidden truth or aspect of reality; it can also act as a window that opens up a view of something beyond itself.
Maybe the “hidden valley” exists in the inner consciousness of the mind, reached only through the practise of disciplined meditation. According to one high priest, reaching Shambhala mentally means that one has reached the innermost mind locked in the heart centre. According to prophecy, the future king of Shambhala will come not only to deliver the world from the external tyranny, but also to liberate its inhabitants from the internal bondage of their own delusions. The main purpose of the final battle and the golden age is to bring about the conditions and teachings needed to attain enlightenment, to help people awaken the innermost mind and know the true nature of reality.
The prophecy implies that the solution of the world’s problems will come from an inner source hidden within each of us. Some of these myths exert a considerable influence on our lives, affecting not only what happens to us as individuals, but also what happens to society and the course of history itself…..the modern myth of progress…..the conviction that science and industry will transform the earth into a material paradise and establish a golden age of prosperity for all. This conviction lies behind much of the push for social reform and economic development that now determines the policies, as well as the fate, of governments throughout the world, regardless of their particular ideology. The myth of progress seems in fact, to have led us into the degenerate period of materialism that is supposed to precede the golden age of Shambhala.
We have come to this quandary in large part because we have lost sight of the inner side of the myth of progress. In striving to create an earthly paradise, we have overlooked the needs and nature of those who must live in it. A fascination with the problem of ever increasing material prosperity has led us to develop a one sided view of the myth that emphasises external progress at the expense of inner development…
We need to recover a balance and perspective that will enable us to use, rather than be used by, the power of the myth of progress. The kind of insights we have gleaned from the Tibetan myth of Shambhala may be able to help us do this by redirecting our attention toward the inner meaning of the myths that shape our lives. We may even be able to use the myths of progress itself as a symbol to awaken the deeper mind and liberate ourselves from the bondage of our illusions.
Ultimately, however, each one of us needs to find and seek his own equivalent of Shambhala, that place, thing, person, or even idea that has the power to inspire us to take the inner journey to greater freedom and awareness. The myth of Shambhala is meant to encourage us to find a form of our own that reveals, rather than replaces, the essence of the kingdom itself.
In seeking the essence of Shambhala through whichever form we find to be ours, we come to realise that it lies hidden right here in the world around us. This realisation opens us to a growing sense of the sacred in everything we see. People and things that we had regarded with scorn or indifference becomes sources of wonder and awe. As we become aware of the sacred nature of all that surrounds us, we cease to see people and things to be abused and exploited. We come, instead, to cherish them for what they are, and to treat them with the utmost care and respect. If we can awaken this sense of the sacred in the world around us, then we may have a chance of bringing about the golden age of so many myths and dreams.
Only exaltation of spirit
Enables one to cross the radiant bridge
Let each one who is illumined by spirit
Walk boldly into the temple