A journey into the material nature of thought
We had walked for two weeks over ever more complex and increasingly difficult landscapes. ‘Undulating up’ as our lead Sherpa Gombu had said. We were following in the footsteps of the naturalist George Schaller and the writer Peter Mattheissen, into the heart of the remote Dolpo region of central northern Nepal. The route had been described in Mattheissen’s book ‘The Snow Leopard’. Schaller and Matheissen had been given special privileges to enter this region in 1973 as it was closed to other travellers. They were heading for the remote Phoksundo Lake, the Shey monastery and beyond, in their search for traces both of the illusive blue sheep and the snow leopard itself. In 1989, the Nepalese government decided to allow travellers into Dolpo and three friends and I organised a trek immediately.
Our walk started just north of Pokhara and turned northwest under the tremendous south face of Dhaulagiri, the seventh highest mountain in the world. Gentle walking at first, the route started to cross steeper and higher passes the closer we came to the borders of Dolpo. Owing to shortage of time and our desire not to backtrack we were following a route all the way west to Jumla, and had sacrificed rest days. In one month’s walking we had just two days off. It was the hardest sustained walking I have ever experienced.
The route took us through several villages and points on the trail which, naturally, bore traces of the local Buddhist culture – small chapel-like structures called chortens, prayer flags and piles of engraved mani stones set at significant places and on the summits of passes. The more remote the area became the more numerous and prominent these symbols and structures became. Before entering some villages, we had to walk through chortens which straddled the path. These were in a variety of states of repair, some almost derelict. But others were magnificently and freshly painted with Buddhist images. In some, a thousand Buddhas or Bodhisattvas swarmed on the ceiling. In others the single personifications and emanations of the Buddhist myths stared back at us as we passed under them. In the corner of one fresco, among all the imagined figures, were small portraits not only of the King and Queen of Nepal, but the local donor, in a smart western suit, relaxing on a chair, smoking a cigarette.
After these first two weeks we began to sense a change in the atmosphere of the walk. We were now at a consistently high altitude and maybe the lack of oxygen heightened our sensory awareness of the landscape and the light. About midday, after a very hot morning on dusty trail, we became aware that the dry peaks poking above the horizon directly ahead of us were seemingly further away than this kind of scene would normally allow. There was a disjointed feel to the view. Later the track rose steeply and we entered some farmland. A dry stone wall limited our view until we were standing right next to it and gazing over to the north on the other side. Here the cause of the disjunction sensed earlier was apparent. We had burst out onto the side of the immense Tarap Valley. A huge gulf had opened up between us and the peaks on the far side. The depth below, blue and hazy, seemed immeasurable. At the very bottom of the gorge the glint of the Thuli Bheri River shone silver in the sunlight. Below, on our side, we looked down on the roofs of distant villages jutting out from the steep hillside, becoming smaller and smaller in a plunging perspective.
A sense of unreality had come over us: of being in a world not at all like the one we had trod even that morning. As I raised my eyes I began to scan the great buttresses and ridges on the far side of the valley. No snow here but barren, brown, parched and dusty slopes stretching down to the river below. I couldn’t take in the whole of it in one look and had to lift my head to see the upper slopes. And there, silhouetted on the ridges against the sky, I began to see smudges and movement on the remote hillsides. I pulled out my binoculars and focussed on one of the ridges and slowly made an upward sweep. There! A smudge had become a village. But more, a smudge had become a village had become a monastery – stupas and chortens with a thousand coloured prayer flags draped and fluttering among the domes and spires. I ranged the binoculars over the hillside and could see more settlements and more stupas, all brightly illuminated in the clear and steady sunlight. And from this vision another kind of illumination spread through my thoughts.
The flowers of Dolpo
I came to think that these structures were natural growths, born of an idea that had been born of a landscape. Through the surrounding earth they had emerged as flowers in their natural habitat – that the idea itself had grown as a physical thing into these spires and flags. It produced a growing sense that thought is solid, of the physical world, no matter how ethereal the sensation is to our own sensibilities, and is the result of certain evolved configurations in our nervous systems which cannot but produce these emanations. If a particular conjunction of soil, rain and sunlight produces particular flowers and bird song, so it seemed does the sensual convergence of landscape, environment and formative experiences kick-start electrical and chemical activity in our neurons, leading to motor actions which manipulate the material world. And the temples emerge. It cannot be otherwise. It seemed that what we call thoughts are as concrete a part of the continuum of the material world as any more obvious physical system. The idea that they might be disengaged from the stuff of the world was thus an illusion.
If our thoughts and feelings are not to be placed in some kind of new phlogiston, some invisible ether which floats without a trace within and without our brains, we must admit to the physical origin of these effects, realising that what we ‘feel’ of them is exactly and only that. Our experience of thought is just how these physicalities ‘feel’. I stick a pin in my foot and I feel what we call a pain. We can trace that sequence from the receptive nerve endings in my foot to the areas of registering the act in my brain. I ‘feel’ the pain. It is the way things register, the way the nervous system ‘feels’ when it operates. Why then can I not understand a thought, a memory of sounds heard, – language – sensed and translated into an arrangement of neuronal activity, ‘felt’ to be an idea, in the same way? And this disguised to us only by its profound complexity, its subtlety?
Could it also be then that naturally evolved thoughts become like hybrids in the plant world when distanced from the ‘specie’ thought and its natural habitat? More abstract, conceptual, less ‘real’? If ideas (memes) born of a particular landscape and nurture were removed from their primal site of origin, the hybrid thought would distort under a different environment. The Buddhism of California is a long way from its specie base in the Himalayas.
But further still, I had the sense that all these ideas or memes seem to have a similarity of form and that the underlying and undulating archetype merely cloaks itself in a local habit. The forces which underpin all things are of one limited family of forms. Or one form, infinitely malleable. We just give names – Buddhism, football – to their local and particular manifestations.
The lake at the centre
After three more days we reached the heart of Dolpo – Ringmo village, the Phoksundo Lake and its monastery. This new landscape made us all feel a little dizzy. Maybe it was the altitude although this was not great and we had acclimatised. Maybe the scale of things. The mountains, at this time of year mostly snowless, rose steeply from the lake edge to wonderful heights. The dwellings and the monastery were dwarfed by the vast walls and rock buttresses surrounding them. But it seemed to me to be the lake itself which had this mind wobbling effect. It didn’t fit into normal or expected experience. The colour was a profound pale cobalt blue – or something like that. It defied description. It also seemed infinitely strange, as there were no reflections, almost no ripples. It was as if where a lake should be, there was a blank, a cut-out through which this ethereal blue nothingness could be seen. It was so out of place; so unlikely that I kept coming back to it to try to square this impossible perceptual circle. It reminded me of my belief that works of art need to produce a paradox in perception to knock one off one’s balance and so allow a wider, more engaged experience of the world – one where words and analysis are stilled. The lake did all that. I wondered if long familiarity with it dimmed this effect to those living on its shores or whether one lived with this perceptual vertigo all the time.
We visited the Lama in his monastery the next morning. He was very dirty and looked smoked like an old kipper. He invited us inside to see his holy rooms. It was almost impossible, giving the short time we were there, to adjust our eyes to the darkness and the smoky atmosphere inside. As we stood squinting, the images on the walls began to appear. The large paintings all around were made more obscure in the darkness by their smoked surfaces. But they loomed powerfully in this dreamlike space as supernormal figures in dreams.
I felt this insistent idea that art and religion were of the same base – an attempt to silence analytic thought and to transport us back to some lost garden of feeling, where all was electric and of sensed rather than devised meaning. It seemed to me that the Lama lived in this state all the time, perhaps answering my earlier question about the effect on those who live by the lake.
We had to get on. The sewn up world would not wait and we had a plane to meet in Jumla. I didn’t want to leave so soon after arriving, but that afternoon a walk around Ringmo village made this imminent departure a little easier for me. I heard a call from the flat roof of one of the houses. It was Gombu, our lead Sherpa. I climbed a log ladder to join him and there found several of our porters and a number of villagers engaged in a loud game of cards. Paper money was changing hands. There was even bottled beer. Looking through the group, hands rising and falling, cards slapped down loudly, I could see the lake. Beyond that the monastery sat still and silent upon its promontory.
Emerging – the Kagmara Pass and beyond
We left the next day, retracing our steps for some time until we broke off to the west and started the long climb of the Kagmara Pass. This reaches a height of over 5000 metres. As we stopped for the night below the pass other travellers gathered around us on the flat ground we had chosen for our camp. Some were porters carrying heavy loads of salt and other materials from the Tibetan border. Later we were joined by a goatherd with his small flock of goats.
The next day we woke to a snow covered valley. An early dash for the toilet allowed me to catch a view of Kagmara 1 catching the first of the sun in a glory of red-gold. With the clear sky the morning was crisp and cold. Loads were packed and the porters started to move up. The goatherd and his goats had already left. It was a dramatic sight: the slow, slow march upwards of this long line of heavily loaded men, all silhouetted black against the snow. Initially we couldn’t see the pass as it was tucked around the corner of a buttress. We had no idea of how far we had to go nor how steep the ascent. After crossing and re-crossing several streams, some frozen solid, we started seeing paw prints in the snow – a snow leopard. It seemed to have been sniffing around the tents during the night, no doubt attracted by the goats whose tracks we were following. It must have stalked them almost to the pass as the prints went that high. We could see how, in deep snow, it had changed pace from a walk to a run and a leap. We had been very close to seeing it.
After two hours the whole party was strung out up the route. At last we rounded a corner at about 5,000 metres and could see a reasonable slope leading to the snowy col. A crowd was gathering at the summit. The enormous pile of stones of the chorten was crowned by a large yak’s skull and surrounded by hundreds of tattered, fluttering prayer flags. Our porters arrived along with the Tibetan load carriers. There was much shouting and laughter. The achievement of the gaining of the pass, the thought of the snow leopard, the sun on the great snow peaks and the view down into the next valley gave me a feeling of wild exhilaration.
After resting for a while we began the descent on the far side. The snow was very deep in places and it was difficult going for everyone, especially the porters with their huge loads. Their column disintegrated at one point as several of them toppled over face down in thigh deep drifts. Gombu called out something and everyone roared with laughter, even those struggling to regain their feet. I asked ‘What did you just say’. ‘I said “What are you doing resting?” This mood carried on, with laughter and derision at each man’s stumble and collapse into the snow, they themselves seeming to enjoy the whole thing, to be living brilliantly in this moment.
But Gombu’s joke had started eons back during the evolution of a neural structure, continually transforming itself in the brains of his ancestors, tumbling through the generations. It had been shaped by his birth and upbringing, his experience and his own manipulation of a personal story, the invention of his identity. It emerged from deep in his material brain, struggled upwards through his neural networks towards some form of consciousness and, as the dusty hillsides of Dolpo had flowered with temples and flags, had burst from his body in the form of sound, reverberating on and out through the matter of the world.
The joy of it all flowed through all the responding voices that bounced around the huge ice faces and rock crags. The colliding molecules of air tumbled down the widening valley, their waves fading into nothing, their energy dissipating in the immense space. Following the dying echoes, we were heading towards the stupendous panorama of the Kagmara peaks. We stumbled down below a waterfall which plunged into space from the glaciers above and was blown into fantastic sprays by the wind, a wind perhaps containing the final vestiges of our laughter and Gombu’s joke. Westward the distant streams ran away down the valley across pebble and boulder beds, silver in the late sun, leading us towards Jumla.
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