Valley of the Blue Moon

Our birth is but a sleep and a forgetting:
The Soul that rises with us, our life's Star,
Hath had elsewhere its setting,
And cometh from afar:
Not in entire forgetfulness,
And not in utter nakedness,
But trailing clouds of glory do we come
From God, who is our home:
Heaven lies about us in our infancy!
Shades of the prison-house begin to close
Upon the growing Boy,
But He beholds the light, and whence it flows,
He sees it in his joy;
The Youth, who daily farther from the east
Must travel, still is Nature's Priest,
And by the vision splendid
Is on his way attended,
At length the Man perceives it die away,
And fade into the light of common day.

Wordsworth was having a tough day. He writes, apropos the composition of Intimations of Immortality, "I could not believe that I should lie down quietly in the grave, and that my body would moulder into dust". In his poetry he gets very close to suggesting some kind of reincarnation, or at least the immortality of the soul - "life's Star".

Heaven here is the Magic Kingdom of God, whence we trail "clouds of glory" like so many spangled rainbow beams, into childhood. He wrote this many stanza'ed ode in 1804, long before the terrestrial paradise of the Tibetan Shangri-la had been widely publicized in the West where his intimations of reincarnation might have found a better poetic home. While his friend Samuel Taylor Coleridge plundered the East for his Kubla Khan, (Xanadu is the location of Khan's summer palace in Mongolia), Wordsworth's was a classical heaven, influenced by Greece as well as a Christianized Rome and the territory of his poetry remained, for the most part, the windswept landscapes of the Lake District (The Sage Gatherer).

Too bad. Today, Virtual Tibet (the realm created by Western imaginings) has become a kind of free-floating sacred space within the desecrated world of the modern West (Lost Horizon), a magic kingdom that is host to our spiritual longings. Xanadu became a cult movie and a Broadway musical. Intimations of Immortality is stuck in the canon of English Romantic poetry out of which it resolutely does not threaten to break. Location, location, location.

Despite its real-world occupation by China, Virtual Tibet is often seen as the last surviving treasure-house of a primordial wisdom, as the crown-jewel of the Mahayana (the path of seeking complete enlightenment for the benefit of all sentient beings); as an idyllic land hermetically sealed against all the contaminations and pathologies of modernity. But historically, as Harry Oldmeadow notes in his paper, The Quest for Secret Tibet, it has often been viewed as "a feudal and Oriental despotism pervaded by a degenerate Lamaism in which base superstition, devil-dances and (yak) butter statues, mummery and black magic" are endemic; and yet, since the earliest European incursions in the 17th century, Tibet has become a focus of European desire and fantasy.

The earliest sustained visit to Tibet was undertaken in 1716 by the Jesuit Ippolito Desideri who walked from Delhi to Ladakh and across western Tibet to Lhasa, where he remained for five years. A hundred years later, Csoma de Koros, a Magyar nobleman and philologist in search of the roots of the Hungarian language, arrived in Ladakh. Under appalling conditions, he devoted himself to the study of the Tibetan language. He made the first English-Tibetian Dictionary while living at Zangla Monastery in Zanskar which was published in 1824 (Wikipedia). In 2001, as part of a Where There be Dragons trip, in often only slightly less demanding conditions, my then 16 year old son spent six weeks trekking in this same area. Between times, Blavatsky who claimed to have visited Tibet, Alexandra David-NĂ©el who certainly did (mostly on-foot), and the German expatriate, Lama Govinda, author of The Way of the White Clouds (1966) - all contributed to the Western fascination with the area.

Ironically, several of the most influential writers to contribute to the fantasy of the magic kingdom based their work entirely on secondary sources rather than first hand knowledge. Oldmeadow claims that, "...despite the legend which she and her hagiographers propagated, Blavatsky never stepped on Tibetan soil...... Whilst Isis Unveiled (1877) was based on heterogeneous Occidental sources, her second major work, The Secret Doctrine (1888), includes elements that clearly derive from the Vajyarana" (Buddhist Tantras which claim to be the teachings of the supreme personification of the state of enlightenment). He suggests that Blavatsky possessed both considerable intellect and an omnivorous mind, such that the task of deconstructing the work she fabricated out of a synthesis of western occultism and 'Oriental wisdom' has consistently confounded her critics.

The best-selling books on Tibet in the 20th century were T. Lobsang Rampa's "autobiographical" trilogy: The Third Eye (1956), Doctor from Lhasa (1959), and The Rampa Story (1960). Lobsang Rampa was, in fact, the pen-name of Cyril H. Hoskin, the lightly educated son of a British plumber. He claimed, however, that he was born into an aristocratic Lhasa family closely associated with the thirteenth Dalai Lama, and that at the age of eight was given an arcane surgical procedure to create "the third eye", thus releasing various clairvoyant powers and the ability to discern auras. His books continued to sell well into the late 1960's and I assisted in that process whilst employed as a sales clerk at The Bookmark - then Edmonton's finest independent bookstore. The 'Spritual Literature' section was second only to the 'Canadiana' shelves in popularity and I established myself as both the go-to-guy for the former and unmatched in my ignorance of the latter.

The greatest popularizer of the Tibet mystique was, arguably, James Hilton. His 1933 book, Lost Horizon, turned into a movie by Frank Capra four years later, promoted the idea of Shangri-la as the quintessential mystical, pre-modern mountain valley. Hilton never claimed to have visited the Himalayan kingdom and took most of his information directly from Joseph F. Rock an ethnographer, linguist and botanist who operated in North West China and Tibet in ways comparable to John Harrington's obsessive recordation of the lingering traces of Chumash culture and the plant material which played such a large part in their shelter, clothing food and medicine (Yuccapedia). Rock published nine articles for National Geographic Magazine from 1922 to 1935, illustrated by his own photographs, and from these Hilton created his Shangri-la.

While the precise location of this mythical valley based, in turn, on the older, Buddhist mythology of Shamabala is unclear, an area in northwestern Yunnan province, where Rock conducted much of his Tibetan borderland exploration and research, re-named itself as Shangri-la in 2001 in order to promote tourism - an act of blatant opportunism reminiscent of the naming of our mountain valley as Nordhoff in 1874 (Hotel California).

As I pointed out in Lost Horizon, Tibet, and more generally the Himalayas (The Dance of Time) have played a key role in the development of esotericism in Ojai and the town's reputation as a spiritual hot-spot. That Shangri-la is an entirely fictional confection and the mystique of Tibet often founded in self-serving romanticism does not fully negate their power. Our visions of Shangri-La ultimately originate in the Buddhist Tantra of Kalacakra and if we choose to ignore the shadow of destruction that hangs over the idyllic community of Shamabala, (to be substantiated in the year 2425 through a massive assault by demonic, barbarian armies) then we can reasonably equate it with Ojai, similarly filled with glittering (green) palaces, and populated by beautiful and healthy dwellers whose age, like Hilton's romantic lead, a seemingly young Manchu woman, Lo-Tsen, is a mystery (until the novel's epilogue).

If Wordsworth had been privy to the Tantric Buddhist notion of Living Nature where there is...

 "no independent or separately existing external world; where the inner and outer worlds are the warp and woof of the same fabric in which the threads of all forces and of all events, of all forms of consciousness and of their objects, are woven into an inseparable net of endless, mutually conditioned relations" (Oldmeadow) 

...then perhaps this understanding would have entirely transcended his need to write poetry. We would have been denied the sad romance of his struggle with what Thomas would later call the 'dying of the light' and the rare nobility of his fierce determination to find in nature the glowing embers of "the vision splendid".