Dec 16, 2011

The Journey to Shangri-La

Once while trekking through the Himalaya Mountains I thought I had found Shangri-La.

It was high in the Mount Everest region of Nepal, at a wonderful lookout called Gokyo Ri, with a spectacular panoramic view of the surrounding majestic mountains, including Everest towering high over everything. This truly was the top of the world. And just over those mountains was Tibet.

I was looking down on the largest glacier in Nepal, and a few of the mountain passes that wandered through and around these high monuments to Earth’s great upheaval. On my detailed area map I saw that each mountain pass had the word “la,” a Tibetan word meaning “pass.” One of them, not too far from my location, was called Changra-La. "Sounds like Shangri-La," I thought. "Wonder if this could be ... ?" I asked one of the local guides if there was a village or a green valley situated there. “Sorry,” he said, “just an icy pass over a glacier. No one could live there.”

I’m not sure how author James Hilton found the name Shangri-La for the mythical, utopian valley in his novel and film Lost Horizon, but these mountains were teaming with la’s. Through the years, many people have contemplated where his inspiration came from. Some say that he was working with the Tibetan word Shambhala, meaning “pure land” and a utopian legend of a society of worldly wisdom set in Tibet. He was also said to have been inspired by the National Geographic travels of Australian/American explorer Joseph Rock who wrote of the peaceful Buddhist monasteries set in lush, green valleys among high, snow-caped mountains.

Whatever the origin, Lost Horizon and the mythical mountain kingdom of Shangri-La has been a public fantasy for many years. It’s a place of dreams and yearnings, a peaceful place set amongst the snowcapped mountains with a calm civilization of intelligent disposition. A utopian society that has seeped into western culture as an escape from the tense, dangerous, industrialized, polluted world we live in.

The next time Shangri-La came to mind was on a visit to the Ojai Valley in Southern California. Someone told me that the film-makers had used the valley as the location of the mythical Shangri-La in the 1937 film, Lost Horizon.

Recently, I watched an episode in the 2005 PBS TV series called, “In Search of Myths and Heros - Shangri-La,” presented by historian Michael Wood. Wood follows in the footsteps of the 17th century Portuguese Jesuit priest and explorer Antonio de Andrade on his search for the mythical kingdom of Shambhala. Andrade had heard of this sacred place of peaceful worship and worldly wisdom at the top of the world, and he trekked through treacherous mountain terrain to get there. Wood explained that Shambhala and Shangri-La could be one-and-the-same. The legend of Shambhala tells of
a mythical place where a line of enlightened kings guarded the highest of worldly wisdom. Wood’s hypotheses was that the ancient Western Tibetan kingdom of Guge and its fortress capital city Tsaparang, where Andrade ended up, was Shambhala, and perhaps Shangri-La.

There have been many books written and TV shows produced about the quest for Shangri-La. I would highly recommend reading, "Shangri-La - A Travel Guide to the Himalayan Dream" by Michael Buckley. Here Buckley lays out many paths you could take if you wanted to go trekking and searching for yourself. It's a wonderful read on the subject of Shangri-La, if you go or not. There's also a TV series that I recently found that follows English actress Sue Johnston on her quest to find Shangri-La in China, and there she visits Joseph Rock’s home/museum. Apparently Rock’s idea of a worldly paradise was situated in a lush green valley under the sacred mountain Kawa Karpo in the south-east corner of Tibet next to China’s Yunnan province. “This,” Johnston says, “is her Shangri-La.”

There are many places claiming to be Shangri-La, but the real place is still an enigma. Many claim to know, but all are different. Even author James Hilton was coy as to where his Shangri-La was located: Probably in his own imagination. However, whether Shangri-La is a real place or not, it’s a place that is now set deep within all our imaginations. Could it be that we just love the adventurous thought of a Shangri-La? Somewhere where we have to trek across the world to the farthest reaches of humanity, into the highest mountains to find an exotic and hidden value of everything good.

Sue Johnston’s TV program was not just about the physical journey, it was about a mental/spiritual journey of transformation; a search for inner peace. And that, I think, is the essence of our yearnings to find Shangri-La. Shangri-La is more of a concept than a real place, a utopia within our own hearts and grasp. If we could only make the journey inward to find it.

What are we are looking for? What makes the myth and the magic of something like Shangri-La call to us? How do we know that when we arrive we will be happy? Do happy endings only happen in stories? What will make us inspired? These questions have been asked for thousands of years. Even the Buddha and Jesus tried to answer them by advising us to look inside ourselves to find true happiness.

If it’s heaven we’re looking for, most of us have a vastly different concept of what heaven is. For some, heaven is reclining on a cloud listening to harp music played by angels. Others may like a dark, gothic existence filled with black leather, gratuitous sex and heavy metal music. The concept of heaven on earth could be conceived, but perhaps we have it already?

The myth of Shangri-La is supposed to be an elusive place of worldly wisdom, good government, tranquility, green pastures and flowers. So from a practical sense, this can be found in most countries today. I live in Vancouver, Canada, and what could be more like Shangri-La than Vancouver? It is situated on a beautiful ocean inlet and sheltered from the wild Pacific by Vancouver Island. It is beside snow-capped mountains and fertile, lush, green fields. Good food is plentiful. There is peace, relatively good government and worldly wisdom that can be found in abundance in libraries, the Internet and a multitude of intellectual, secular and religious pursuits. There is also a wealth of spiritual wisdom from the local indigenous people and a total connection with the profound beauty of nature. What more could one ask? There is even a semblance of sentience and reason. Is this heaven on earth?

Other cities have great attributes too; parks, theatres, waterfronts, downtown living, good shopping, abundant food choices, libraries, art  galleries, etc. And many of these places we can visit to see for ourselves; San Francisco, Paris, Copenhagen, Sydney, Hong Kong. But while it seems that in this time of civilization we have so much on our doorsteps, we are still not satisfied. Which makes me wonder, perhaps it’s the great intention for some members of the human race never to be satisfied. While we all search for happiness, we seem to have an almost maniacal addiction to unhappiness. And if a place like Shangri-La was ever found, would people really be happy to see it? Perhaps it would have become too run down and dirty, or maybe a tourist trap like Disneyland or surrounded with airports and superhighways, thus compelling some people to retreat in total dissatisfaction and more unhappiness.

At the moment, for some, Shangri-La is still an enigma. It’s a pie in the sky, an untouchable dream. And that’s good.

For the many who dream of greater communities, few will actually travel to the ends of the earth in a search of an earthly paradise or treasure. Some may find their treasure nearer to their home. There is a wonderful novel called The Alchemist by Paulo Coelho, where a young man from Spain goes on a long trek through many countries in North Africa to find treasure in Egypt. The story is about the wonderful adventures he has along the way, but the treasure he is looking for remains illusive. He eventually finds his treasure in his own back yard in Spain. The question is, could he have found it if he hadn’t experienced the journey and the adventure of the trek? This book was the number one best seller in the world, so it seems that even reading about an adventure is the adventure.

How many understand that the journey itself is the goal? In someways we learn so much more from getting there than we do from arriving. For me, a world without travel and journey would be a human tragedy. There’s a great quote from an ancient who said, “Those who travel, know.” So, is the discomfort of climbing over the objects on our way to our goal the real learning?

What is life but a series of moments and journeys, sometime difficult, that we must learn to enjoy. And that’s the key. We must learn to enjoy the things that get in our way and discomfort us. The last place on earth I ever wanted to visit was India. I had seen the poverty on TV and read about it. I just didn’t want to experience it. But in hindsight, India was one of the richest experiences of my life. It thrilled me, but it also humbled me. It beat me down. But the experience helped me to become more alive. I saw the poverty firsthand and I said to myself, if these people could experience such terrible poverty, then who am I to find discomfort in the rain, in the cold, in the heat, in the crowded shopping malls, in a misspoken word?

“When I had nothing to lose, I had everything. When I stopped being who I am, I found myself.” 
- Paulo Coelho.

How we experience the thrill and the magic of life is our own business. But so many lose the magic and the thrill by only seeing the discomfort. So when the distraction and the myth of Shangri-La is presented, we jump at it. Just like the comfort and the intimacy of a religion.

We live in two worlds. The world of perceived reality: the now, the body, science, time, space, things, the five senses, pain, consciousness, philosophy, facts, patterns, math, reason. We also live in the world of the spirit where time and space does not exist. i.e. dreams, thoughts of yesterday, hopes of tomorrow, meaning, purpose, intuition, creativity, knowing, sub-consciousness thoughts, ideas, love, hate, understanding, the psyche, spirituality, sentience.

There are plenty of ways to find our true selves, yet so many of us spend our lives searching, yearning for something other than that which is within. Outside we continue with our misadventures, moods swings, anger at the little things our egos and selfishness destroy. The world doesn’t seem to matter outside of our own perceived discomfort and disconnect. We hate the rain, the cold, the jackhammer down the street; we find discontent in many things that are good. We pollute and contribute to the great degradation of the planet that gives us life.  Still, we dream of a utopia.

If we found the real Shangri-La, would we look after it?  The answer is “no.” The one and best Shangri-La we all have is the Garden of Eden we live on: Planet Earth. How have we looked after it? Yes, I mean us; you and me. We are all in this together. We all have a voice. Yet, who among us speaks for Earth? Our utopia.

Very few.

Surely we can all put our minds together to stop the polluters and the people who desecrate our very own Shangri-La in such a devastating way. It is time for us to wake up and clean the planet, the Earth, our home, or soon the Earth is going to wipe us off its face with a shudder, forever.

This holiday season remember where “Peace on Earth” and “Goodwill to all” really is.

And do something about it.

Watch Michael Wood's "In Search of Myths and Heros - Shangri La"

“If we have not found the heaven within, we have not found the heaven without.” 
- James Hilton

“Who looks outside, dreams; Who looks inside, awakens.”
- Carl Jung

“A horizon is something toward which we move, but it’s also something that moves us along.”
- Hans-George Gadamer  - Truth and Method

If we have no peace, it is because we have forgotten that we belong to each other.”
- Mother Teresa