Great Symbols Series @ Theosophy Trust


Behind the ice walls of the Himalayas lie the empty deserts and remote mountains of Central Asia. There, blown clear of habitation by the harsh winds of high altitude, the plateau of Tibet extends north over thousands of square miles up to the Kunluns, a range of unexplored peaks longer than the Himalayas and nearly as high. Beyond its little-known valleys are two of the most barren deserts in the world: the Takla Makan and the Gobi. Farther north more ranges – the Pamir, the Tien Shan, the Altai, and numerous others – break the horizon until they give way to the great forests and open tundra of Siberia. Sparsely populated and cut off by geographic and political barriers, this vast region remains the most mysterious part of Asia, an empty immensity in which almost anything could be lost and waiting to be found.


 Wandering in a hidden valley beneath the snow-wrapped shoulders of Dhaulagiri, a lone hunter from the region of Dolpo hearkened to the echo of lamas chanting and the beating of drums. Tibetans tell the story of how this simple transient followed the sound of the music towards its source, which brought him to a doorway in a great cliff. Passing through it, he found himself in a beautiful valley adorned with verdant rice fields, villages and a gracious monastery. The people who lived in this valley were peaceful and happy, and they extended to the hunter a warm welcome, urging him to stay. He was delighted with their blissful existence but soon became anxious to go back to his own family and bring them to enjoy the beautiful valley. The residents there warned him that he would not be able to find the way back, but he was determined to leave. As he made his way out through the cliff door, he took the precaution of hanging his gun and his shoes beside the entrance to mark it. Confidently he went to fetch his wife and children, but when he returned to the hidden valley, he found the gun and shoes hanging in the middle of a blank rock wall.

 It is not easy to find such places, but it is almost impossible to find them again. The hero of James Hilton's saga found the fabled Shangri-La only because he crashed whilst flying over the Great Snowy Range. He was not expecting to discover such a place, and it is difficult to know what peculiar combination of qualities he possessed that would have permitted him entrance into such a lost world. But he was imbued with that which enabled him to record with appreciation and awe the conditions that he found. He described the austere serenity of Shangri-La. "Its forsaken courts and pale pavilions shimmered in repose from which all the fret of existence had ebbed away, leaving a hush as if moments hardly dared to pass." A place out of time, it seemed, where timeless wisdom prevailed; such an aura of wisdom and peace is rarely and only dimly reflected in the world. When the High Lama there asked the hero if the Western world could offer anything in the least like Shangri-La, he answered with a smile: "Well, yes – to be quite frank it reminds me very slightly of Oxford." But of course one need not fly and come close to death in order to find Oxford, for despite its inspiring eminence, it is a child of the world and only points to greater visions of a pure and perfect land.

 Who can find such a place? Many dream of going there, and old Tibetan records tell of long and difficult journeys undertaken by some who are vainglorious but successfully accomplished only by Adepts who have the eyes to see it. Having heard stories of a celestial temple atop a mountain in India, a British expedition in the nineteen thirties climbed the sacred peak and, having seen no golden temple, mentioned this to a holy man, who smiled and said, "No, you probably wouldn't have." As such places have been called the birthplace of the gods, it is small wonder that sceptical men would find it difficult to see them. The Greeks believed that only the gods and great heroes guided by Hermes could know Elysium and "only those mortals were translated thither who had come through a triple test in life". This was the Hyperborean land that answered to the pure land of Shamballa where, it is said, the Masters of the Snowy Range assemble every seven years. To find one's way into the presence of such beings must be difficult indeed, and yet many have wondered and dreamed and risked all they had in their efforts to discover the way.

 How can anyone begin to find the way to Shamballa? In 1775 the Panchen Lama wrote a detailed guidebook inspired by the vivid experiences and instructions he had received in dreams. This Shambhalai Lamyig describes many ordeals and is considered by those who pursue these mysteries to be one of the main sources of information about the place and the journey to it. The other major sources are the Kanjur and Tanjur, a three-hundred volume set which is considered the sacred Tibetan Buddhist canon. These palm leaves contain the earliest known mention of Shamballa, the Pure Land whose name in Tibetan is bde'byung or 'Source of happiness'. The Buddhists say that the Pure Land is not a paradise but a land only for those who are on their way to nirvana. They believe that whoever reaches it or is reborn there can never fall back into a lower state and that it is the only pure land that exists on earth. The Pure Land Doctrine or Sukhavati teaches that a Bodhisattva may make a vow of compassion that after he has obtained supreme Buddhahood he will establish a Buddha-field wherein conditions will be conducive to enlightenment. Sukhavati is one of the names of the Buddha and is not nirvana itself but a symbol of it, and Japanese Buddhists assert that to be reborn there is to achieve enlightenment. Thus Shamballa is not an end in itself but rather an exalted stage leading to something even more incomprehensible beyond.

 The Sanskrit sham (happiness) bhal (to give) has the same meaning as the Tibetan and this happiness is born of the shedding of illusions. Popular Tibetan tradition suggests that many who reach there are not immortal nor fully enlightened. They retain some of their illusions and failings, but they continually strive to become free of them as they move closer towards rebirth in that blissful place. The kings of Shamballa are enlightened and believed to be an incarnation of a Bodhisattva who is in essence a source of happiness. The Panchen Lama was a king there and will be reborn as such in the future as a channel through which the Buddha-state manifests in the world, as though that office was a reflection of an eternal truth which asserts itself cyclically in time. Just so do other centres appear and disappear like the seven sacred localities where the Kabiri created fire on the island of Samothrace. Such places are reflections of Shamballa which manifest, ripen and become forgotten by humanity. They remain in the world as islands or mountains, but their power is doubted and the aura of transcendence which hovers around their floating headlands and barren peaks is sensed only by the very few.

 The most complex and sacred teaching of the Tibetans is the Kalachakra (Wheel of Time), which is known only to those initiated into its mysteries. Some have pointed out that in recent years the elaborate enactment of the rituals performed in the presence of uninitiated laymen amounts to a degradation of the teachings of the Kalachakra and to the idea of initiation itself. But High Lamas have pointed out that those simple peasants or Westerners who witness such proceedings are indeed initiated at a very rudimentary level. So great is the power of these teachings that even their symbolic ritual enactment is believed to bestow a gift of insight, although it is one which marks only the beginning of a course which will be more fully pursued by very few. It is said that just before his death and final entry into nirvana, the Buddha took the form of the Kalachakra deity and gave his highest mystical teachings to sages and gods. These teachings remained hidden in Shamballa for a thousand years until they appeared in Tibet around the tenth century or after the spread of Buddhism from India to Tibet. Since then they have become the subject of study of those who, like the Dalai Lama, spend their lives as transmitters of the Bodhisattvic source lying at the heart of the kingdom of Shamballa. Their arcane secrets about the final measurements of time and the mode of attaining liberation from the illusions of this world are like the guidebooks to Shamballa itself, difficult to locate and thrice difficult to follow. Like the Pure Land, they can only be found through a process of becoming.

 The Greeks spoke of Asteria, the Island of Divine Kings, where the gods were born, and Annwfn, Avalon and Elysium are other names given by ancient races to that place which is the source of divinity and bliss. H.P. Blavatsky noted that all the dwipas, continents, lokas, globes and islands referred to in occult traditions are, in essence, the same as those 'Islands' or 'Lands' constantly referred to in mythology. Understanding mystical geography requires an intuitive and flexible application of the analogical approach involving a broad but imaginative perception of correspondences. One's understanding of time and space must be refined and rendered capable of reflecting the subtleties of patterns emanating from a Buddhic level of consciousness. Thus when anyone asks where Shamballa is, it is not easy to answer. There is a story which illustrates this difficulty in telling of a young man who set off on a quest to find it. He crossed many mountains and finally came to a hermit's cave, and when the hermit asked him where he was going across these wastes of snow, he replied, "To find Shamballa." "Ah well, then," said the hermit, "you need not travel far. The kingdom of Shamballa is in your heart."

 Now over the trackless snowy range I wend my lonely way to Bhota, elsewhere called Tibet, where Dharma's glorious sun pours forth His light and melts the cheerless snows of doubt and pain and sorrow vexing mortal men.

Nineteenth Century Japanese Monk

 The Mahabharata describes Uttarakuru, the land of enlightened Sages, as lying to the north of Mount Meru, although some say it is to be found in the Tarim Basin or in Siberia. Arjuna is described as travelling to Lake Manasasarova and then to Mount Kailas before crossing the Tibetan Plateau leading on to the Kunlun Mountains and Khotan. Some guidebooks place Shamballa far to the north of this, mentioning the polar regions and the North star. Chinese and Tibetan records identify it as the Sacred Island of Adepts which continues to exist in a place well known to them, whether the surrounding topography changes or not. The changes and flow of the earth's history are thus acknowledged, whilst at the same time the changeless nature of Shamballa is suggested.

 In the guidebooks the directions look easy, but when you try to follow them it's difficult: either you lose your way or you get covered with mist.

A Lama's Warning

 As in the story about the hunter who happened to be at the right place and the right moment to see the door in the cliff, René Daumal showed how the voyagers trying to find Mount Analogue had to wait and watch in the open sea for a mysterious channel to open up in the waves which, if breached at the precisely correct moment, would reveal the island mountain for a fleeting second and enable them to steer their ship in the right direction. The only people who could find it were those who had heard of it and who, despite the fact that it could be found on no map known to geographers or navigators, believed totally in its existence. Some have thought that Shamballa lies on the edge of physical reality as a bridge which connects this world to that which lies beyond it. But as the traveller draws near to it, the directions become increasingly mystical and difficult to correlate with the physical world. Most of the guidebooks establish a physical link between the ordinary world and that of Shamballa, and they start off from well-known places like the caves of Ajanta and Ellora or the Hollow Hills of Celtic tradition. There is a physical entrance where people go from time to time and where, as so many traditions would have it, people disappear from ordinary sight. In the Tibetan view, however, the belief persists that everything conceivable could and probably does exist somewhere in the world, whether it has been seen or not. Most lamas firmly believe that Shamballa exists in this world and that the Kalachakra may be seen as a symbolic representation of it that can be used to spark the soul's memory rather than as a description of what the place actually looks like.

 In The Secret Doctrine, Shamballa is said to be an 'island' which still exists as an oasis surrounded by the Gobi Desert, and that this is what is left of a vast inland sea which extended over much of Central Asia. Such an island is linked with each of the Root Races that preceded our own, which were compared by Siddhartha to Four Islands "which studded the ocean of birth and death". But does this mean that Shamballa exists on the physical plane? Is it merely a Utopia, which literally means 'no place', or does it have its roots on earth and its summit (or centre) in heaven, as is said of Mount Meru? If Shamballa is a community of mystics, it may be a secret society scattered around the world, or it may be found only in the heart, as the old hermit suggested. But the idea persists that there is a Shamballa and that it can be found by one who has the eyes to see it. Even so, as the old Tibetans warn: "If the time to go there has not come, everything, houses and all, will be covered by thickets and trees, and all will be of the nature of forest and grassland."

 So powerful and tenacious is the idea of Shamballa that some political groups have used it to give a spiritually idealized focus to their otherwise worldly promises. Sukhe Bator, the founder of the modern Mongolian People's Republic, introduced a battle hymn to the simple herdsmen and nomads that he gathered into the mundane fold of twentieth century nationalism. Its refrain urged them: "Let us die in this war and be reborn as warriors of the King of Shamballa!"

 The prophecy of Shamballa describes a situation similar to that of Ithaca in Homer's story of Odysseus. Both involve the idea of returning to the source and both places are threatened with barbarian invasion. This prophecy tells of the thirty-two kings that will rule in Shamballa and of the rise of brutal materialism in the world. It says that when the dungans have become more troublesome than ever, the Panchen Lama will be born as the son of the king of Shamballa. The dungans will lay waste to Tibet, and the people, following the Dalai Lama, will abandon their homeland to set off for Shamballa, where they will be received by the new king. The dungans will subdue Asia and Europe and will even try to invade Shamballa, but they will be defeated by the forces of the king and driven back into their own country. This great final battle represents a confrontation between the desire-ridden personality and the Higher Self, where the true 'king' extends his rule over the vestures of the outside world. But the details of the prophecy are so closely mirrored in the shadowy struggles of recent history that it cannot but remind one of the Tibetan world-view which assumes that everything conceivable probably exists in the world. The great battle between truth and ignorance rages at the gates of Shamballa as it does in the human heart, and whole nations and their armies simply galumph along hideously, acting it out on the gross physical plane.

 Going home to Shamballa is like the 'journey to the East', to the birthplace of Apollo and Hermes. It is the home of the Sons of Will and Yoga who lived on as remnants of the Third Race, and all of the avatars of Vishnu are said to have sprung from its centre. In the Hindu tradition, Kalki will be the last of these avatars, and according to Tibetan calculations, he corresponds to Rudra Chakrin, the last king of Shamballa. Just as Rama possessed the aid of Hanuman in the Ramayana as he fought the barbarian demons, so the king will possess a General Hanumanda who will assist him in that final great battle foretold in the prophecy. The link between Vishnu and Shamballa is also forged in the mysterious teachings of time and cycles, which must be understood at some level in order even to enter upon the battleground. This is inextricably interwoven with the mystery of the Earth itself, who demonstrates these cycles in all her shifts and flows. It is said that at the beginning of human life, only the North Pole of the earth was motionless and dry. This island is a 'skull-cap' which prevails during the entire manvantara of our Round. It is the head of the mother from which pure waters flow, to become foul at her feet. When they return to her heart, they are once again purified, for her heart beats "under the sacred foot of Shamballa". This heart also lies beneath the Sea of Knowledge, which existed where the sands of the Gobi Desert now stretch in desolation and throw up miraged outlines of lost cities as though it were a graveyard yielding forth its ghosts.

 The most secret aspects pertaining to the location of Shamballa and the path leading to it have never been conveyed in written form. Gradually these mysteries are revealed orally to those who pass through stages of initiation. The obstacles on the way are many and deadly in their potential to eliminate the seeker from the quest. The Tanjur says that "the water from the Mountains of Gold causes death, the water from the Mountains of Silver drives men mad, and the water from the other mountains brings sickness and the loss of skin and hair. But the seeker with the power of mantras will find the waters of these springs beneficial to drink." Even if one can bring about this extraordinary internal alchemy, the great snow mountain wall surrounding Shamballa acts as an inner barrier thrown up by the deeper levels of the mind to keep out the impurities of lower Manas. The peaks take on the wrath of demon guardians and inspire the overwhelming fear that the limitations of the mind might not be transcended. This must be seen through so that the Master within can carry one, soaring over their awesome height. There are many stories concerning the flight of Adepts to Shamballa. Most of them tell of a flight made possible by a wonderful horse, the symbolic nature of which represents the power of transcendence. It is this power which breaks through the bondage of the last doubt, and it is the only way possible to cross over the encircling ring of mountains which engulf an even higher range within. The journey is said to consist of dismaying setbacks long before these mountains are reached, but still some persist, moving ever closer as they catch the signs and omens and make fewer and fewer mistakes.

 There are seductive maidens and sirens along the earlier parts of the way to Shamballa, and these must be avoided initially whilst the seeker slowly develops control of the centres of power within him. These are the Calypsos and Dakinis who, in their alluring or monstrous forms, have the ability to side-track a pilgrim indefinitely or to turn him into frozen stone. Thus in the efforts of Perseus to reach Hyperborea, the horrid threat of Medusa had to be overcome, but it was only when Odysseus and Perseus, as well as numerous other heroes, could control the negative side of these feminine energies that they could enlist their necessary aid in helping them to realize their goal. In this way, Perseus outwitted the Graiae sisters, who alone could give him the information he needed to slay Medusa. She guarded the edges of the world, the limits of reality that mark the beginning of the Hyperborean realm and paralysed the progress of any seeker who approached and knew not the secret of her nature. Such are the unconscious forces within man which can rise up unexpectedly and cripple him or blind him or even destroy him as he reaches closer within himself towards the goal.

 Just as Hermes guides Perseus to Hyperborea, so a tutelary deity guides the pilgrim to Shamballa. One lama who had a succession of vivid dreams detailing the journey to Shamballa early on experienced the inability to proceed without a guide. Thus in his dream he sent forth a visualized yogi messenger with this request: "Take this message and go to my father in Shamballa. May my words of Truth, conquering the mountains of dualism, guide you along the way and help you to overcome the obstacles that lie before you." It is difficult to know here who is actually giving assistance to whom, but when one considers that the messenger is actually a counterpart of the lama's Higher Self, it begins to appear that the dialogue between Self and non-self can proceed to a very subtle and abstract level. But the way to Shamballa is dangerous, and the checking and waiting, the devotion and trust, all characteristic of the nature of the Guruparampara chain, are essential to getting there, perceiving the great gates and approaching the palace of the king.

 The Kalachakra states clearly that perfect balance, coordination and a guide are required to follow this Path. And one may move along it, whilst fulfilling these requirements, at different rates of speed. One way of understanding this by analogy is to say that the Hinayana pilgrim shuns poison, the Mahayana pilgrim takes it in small doses to build up immunity, but the Vajrayana seeker drinks it neat, realizing that it is an illusion. In this way the Vajrayana follower attempts to control and make use of the passions and illusions that keep most people bound to the world of delusion. This is the Diamond Way, the shortest and most dangerous route to Shamballa, pursued only by the foolish or by persons of invincible courage and unwavering clarity of understanding. This mode places emphasis on the control of the vital airs (winds), which at the deeper level of interpretation refers to the prajna-upaya or the inseparable unity of wisdom and compassion which constitutes the essence of Enlightenment.

 In the Kalachakra work Vimalaprabha, Tsong-Kha-Pa wrote that the Mahayana has two divisions: prajnaparamita, the 'causal' side, and the mantra or side of 'effects', which involves initiation in the Kalachakra mandala. These are like two wings of the Mahayana, both sides composing the Bodhisattva vehicle capable of soaring. Tsong-Kha-Pa wrote: "Holding the form of the void is the cause; the fruit is the adherence to incessant compassion. The indissoluble union of voidness (sunyata) and compassion (karuna) is called 'mind of enlightenment' (Bodhichitta). " To achieve this realization of and blending of the masculine and feminine sides, the Tantra called the Vajrapanjara teaches that: "If the void were the means (upaya), there would be no Buddhahood, because the effect would be no different from the cause." Contemplation of Voidness has been taught by the Buddhas to ward off the adherence to a lower self, but this must be joined to the awakening of the means in the mandala initiation so that the disciple may begin to realize within himself the thirty-two characteristics of the Master and the eighty minor marks of the Lord. In this way the means, or awakened powers, are under the tutelage of the Guide but can provide the energy necessary to complete the journey to Shamballa.

 In the Kalachakra initiation the disciple stands at the eastern gate and is reborn into the mandala. He is purified with water and begins to merge, in stages, with the central deity. One is reminded that everything in a mandala exists in relation to its centre. The passage through different dimensions symbolized by a series of concentric circles and squares has meaning only in its movement towards the centre. Each circle represents a stage of initiation, a level of consciousness, and the initiated identifies completely with each part of the mandala pattern as he advances. Finally, "when the yogi identifies himself with the deity of the central syllable, the features that issue from it come to symbolize the hidden parts of his mind. The mandala spreads his inner world out before him where he can recognize and become aware of it." Such a person then synthesizes these elements back into the centre, awakening a flow of awareness and energy within himself.

 The gates of Shamballa in the Kalachakra mandala face the cardinal points. The eastern gate represents shraddha (faith) which is preliminary to all the rest. The southern gate is virya (the four right eliminations or strivings). The western gate is that of dharma-pravicaya (mindfulness generated by knowledge of the doctrine and the four bases of magical power). The northern gate represents samadhi (control of the five faculties and powers). As one moves through these gates, the Diamond Line (or turning of the wheel by the power of mantra) awakens soul recollection and strengthens the practice of dharma. At each stage all of the ornaments represent collections of virtues enabling a closer approach to the central palace, which symbolizes knowledge and the erection of an edifice of consciousness. All of the myriad details in the mandala pattern can be interpreted as orifices, organs and chakras within the human body, every one of which is the seat of passion and illusion or potentially alchemized energy.

 Like a lotus opening, the mandala of Shamballa symbolizes the macrocosmic and microcosmic, the awareness of power and the power itself. In an exoteric interpretation it represents the cosmology of the universe whilst teaching the mysteries of time, astrology, mathematics and the cyclic pattern of forces. From a more esoteric point of view it demonstrates the flow of the masculine cause and feminine effect merged in an active realization of balance. The passage of time becomes identical with the flow of energy in the body. At its highest level this leads to the unification of wisdom and compassion and the potential to create, at some level, a Buddha-field. Having transcended the fear of losing himself, the disciple discovers a gem-like awareness in the depths of his mind. The ego becomes a transparent window transforming the view of the world, enabling a glimpse of the Pure Land that looms ahead. As one approaches closer to the goal, the eight noble pathways leading to the lotus centre increasingly converge into the disciple's consciousness. Like psychic channels, they merge into a powerful basis for Buddhic wisdom and the horse and the rider become as one, soaring over the last obstacles to the Sacred Isle where the deer is ever safe.

 In Tibetan tradition it is said that the Water Eye can see the world, but the Flesh Eye only a distance of eighteen days' walk. The God Eye reveals hidden things and places, like the door in the cliff, whilst the Wisdom Eye penetrates to the core of things and is capable of opening the Buddha Eye that can discern the ultimate reality. Before the pilgrim can find the beginning of the way to Shamballa, he must be filled with the light of the God Eye. At the end of the great journey, the gates, the palace and even the king may merge as a drop into the Great Void, but the idea, the mandala, the raft, cannot be abandoned until the island shore is reached. Like a window on the edge of the world, the glorious and serene kingdom of Shamballa waits. Veiled in mists and hidden beyond all the snowy ranges with their precipitous passes and laboured chasms, it looms and waits for those who have the eyes to see it. The door in the blank cliff wall, the opening in the mind, offer themselves only for a moment. Grasp that moment and move onwards.

The way appears but fleetingly,
The vision lasts not long.
But lifetimes lived in time
Are as ashes to this flame.
O dreamed-of Shamballa,
I come to thy Pure Land.