Review of The Yogins of Ladakh by John Crook and James Low

The Yogins of Ladakh: A pilgrimage among the hermits of the Buddhist Himalayas by John Crook and James Low

Motilal Banarsidass, Delhi, 1997 420 pp, index, photographs. hb ISBN 81 208 14622 £17.50, pb ISBN 81 208 14797 £13.25

Review published in Journal of Consciousness Studies, 6, 118-119

In 1986, John Crook and James Low set off to Ladakh in northern India, to walk in the awe-inspiring terrain of the high Himalayas, seeking out Tibetan yogins living in isolated mountain monasteries or meditating alone in inaccessible caves. Their aim was to discover the yogins’ theory of mind.

The book is part travelogue, and an enjoyable story at that, but more interesting are the questions raised by two Englishmen – albeit well-trained Buddhists and academics – undertaking such a quest. Certainly the task could not have been done without that training. Many of the yogins they met refused to divulge any information at all until John or James revealed their own struggles with meditation or asked for guidance in their Buddhist practice. This secrecy is an integral part of Tibetan tradition. Advanced methods and deep teachings are only given to those with exactly the right practice and lineage. Yet in today’s world, where few monks are starting training, and many monasteries have been destroyed by political oppression, there is a serious danger of whole traditions dying out altogether.

This question of secrecy looms large in one of the central stories of the book. On a previous field trip to Ladakh, John Crook met an elusive lama called Khamtag Rimpoche, who invited him to visit his remote monastery. Feeling that he had been in the presence of ‘one who knew’, John set off – though finding the place with no instructions became a pilgrimage in itself. Eventually a nun guided him and his young Tibetan companion up a remote mountain, climbing dried-up waterfalls through a 400 foot limestone cleft, a few feet wide, to emerge into a wide pasture ringed by snow-capped mountains. In the middle lay a tiny – and deserted – monastery. After several days the Rimpoche suddenly arrived and entertained the visitors to a meal with chang and arrack (the local beer and strong spirit). As the drunken night wore on, the Rimpoche revealed much of his past training and accomplishment, and eventually produced a tattered notebook – one of only three copies of the Mahamudra instructions of his master Tipun Padma Chogyal. He asked the visitors to photograph it and take it to the West, which they did.

Now, five years later, James was preparing a definitive translation, and he and John enlisted the help of an old monk who knew the text well. This man, while helping them immensely, insisted that Tipun’s book was never intended for publication, that his notes were meant only for the guidance of highly trained monks by an accomplished teacher. “You know there is no fundamental doctrine – only words descriptive of it.” he said “Mysterious texts in the minds of amateurs can hardly open the doors of insight into emptiness!” But he did not prevent them taking it – just left John and James with a great responsibility.

In fact the notebook has been used in the West. I have attended two of John’s retreats based on it, and used it for two more solitary retreats of my own, meditating on just a few words from the notebook each day – “How does the movement of thought arise within tranquillity?” or “Abide like a child gazing at a temple”. I am grateful these secret texts were brought into the open, and a great lineage of noble memes did not go quietly extinct. Yet their dissemination must mean an uncontrollable mixing of Eastern and Western ideas. Does this matter? If the value of ancient traditions lies in their purity then of course it does, but if they are all just different ways to the same place then surely it does not – just one more of the big questions raised by this book.

Did John and James answer the questions they set out with? No. At least, they did not come back with a Tibetan model of mind all clearly worked out. The nearest they came was to discover that the yogins were more concerned with a model of illusion.

Like any good book about spiritual practice, this one led me deeper into my own experience. But even so I am left with the strong impression that there is a real world ‘out there’ that I study in my science, and a world of experience ‘in here’ that arises from it. In other words I am still beset by the hard problem. The yogins of Ladakh all agreed on one thing, that after all their training they see that subjective and objective are one. But how? I am left asking this – if James or John or any of us were to complete the yogin’s path and go “beyond the division into subject and object” would we, with our scientific knowledge, have solved the hard problem? Would we have cracked the problem of consciousness?