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Circling the Sacred Mountain: A Spiritual Adventure Through the Himalayas    by Robert Thurman & Tad Wise order for
Circling the Sacred Mountain
by Robert Thurman
Order:  USA  Can
Bantam, 2000
Hardcover, Softcover
* *   Reviewed by Hilary Williamson

This book promised a great deal. The cover describes it as being in 'the tradition of The Snow Leopard, the wonderful, lyrical account by Peter Mathiessen of a journey to the Land of Dolpo. Circling the Sacred Mountain is similar to Mathiessen's work in that it is an account of travel to Mount Kailash ('the most magical site on Earth') in Tibet, a part of the world that has fascinated Westerners for centuries. This story also has a spiritual side in that it describes a Buddhist pilgrimage by people in search of spiritual transformation - an equally intriguing topic for many. However, it is not in the same league as The Snow Leopard.

Co-author, Robert Thurman called Tenzin by the group, is a renowned Buddhist scholar and teacher. It is his idea to lead a group of students to perform a ceremony at Mount Kailash. The ritual is intended to aid the pilgrims' own spiritual development and to empower their wishes to improve the welfare of the world. The second author is Tad Wise, Thurman's former student and current friend. Tad joins the group and struggles with both altitude sickness and with Thurman's teachings. The reader is intended to follow Tad's development and perhaps emulate some of it.

The point of view is not shared by the authors, instead the narrative switches between them. This leads to a choppy writing style for the reader. It is an unfortunate style for travel writers to choose, with the result that it is easy to lay down the book and forget about it. The spiritual aspect of the story is more interesting, but written in an abstruse fashion, accessible mainly to those who enjoy Buddhist tracts as light reading. One wonders if sentences like 'This mind reform moves you onto a subtle plane where you abandon your habitual investment in the world of ordinariness ...' might not have been written in a clearer fashion. But persisting through Thurman's lectures did give me the sense of being in the Himalayas with the group - the resulting headache was a typical result of altitude sickness.

Seriously, there is good depth and content shrouded in the complicated language of Tenzin's Blade Wheel lessons. Those who have had a previous introduction to Buddhism will find much of interest here. The rest of us will resonate with Tad's struggle to find the wisdom inherent in his name as he deals with the highs and lows of altitude sickness along with Tenzin's sermons, and even sympathize when he cries 'Mantras, Tantras'! Don't read Circling the Sacred Mountain if you're looking for a great travel story like Snow Leopard, do if you are interested in Buddhist teachings.

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