Magic and Mystery in Tibet

by Alexandra David-Neel
[Claude Kendall, $3.75]
THIS is not a travel book. There are no descriptions of the snowy mountains or of the almost impossible passes. There is no discussion of the privations of life where the only running water is in half-frozen streams and where food is a monotonous diet of tsamba and buttered tea. These things and many more are mentioned in passing. But Madam David-Neel is not a traveler; she is an explorer. Here she is exploring the mind of the Tibetan. Like all true explorers, she equipped herself as fully as possible before she started. She had had a scientific education, she was a Buddhist, she learned the Tibetan language, she wore the garb of a lama and lived as the lamas did, with no attempt to bring anything of Europe to them.
Perhaps the quality above all others that makes the book so readable is Madam David-Neel’s singular insight into humanity. She travels through the strange mental land in which the Tibetans live and sees them as people, sharing their emotions with them. At times her observations seem to pass from the real to the unreal. Then we are brought up short in the very next paragraph with a skepticism that restores our confidence and makes us wonder if there are not more things under the heavens than man has dreamed of. When the Tibetans trade or carry on their simple tasks of living or appear in their family relationships they are as understandable as any people. It is among the unseen things of the world that we have difficulty in following them, and among the values they ascribe to the seen and the unseen. Having minds, they have used them. They know nothing of science. They have only themselves and their mountains to think about. It is no wonder they have evolved amazing systems of thought.
In form the book is a series of pictures, grouped chronologically but capable at times of a peculiar detachment. The episodes are taken from legends, from tales told of people the author knew, and from her own observation. Each illustrates its point admirably and is in itself an admirable tale whatever one may think of the people and the incidents. Some of them will he repeated by people who have no interest in the theology or psychology of the Tibetan, but who love a tale well told. Here is food, however, for those who like theology and psychology, but most of all for those who like to explore the minds of other peoples.