Laurie Hovell McMillin
On the day before I flew from Chengdu to Lhasa in 1985, I made the following account in my journal. ‘I take with me: 1 down vest; 1 What the Buddha Taught; prayer beads given by a rinpoche; 1 Walkman; 1 jar of Nescafé; warm socks; my past karma; a Tibetan vocabulary for hello, turquoise, silver, maroon, yellow, thank you, that’s good, that’s bad; impressions from books I’ve read and half-read; a ticket out.
As a longtime reader of accounts of travel to Tibet, I was (painfully) aware of the baggage I carried as a Western traveller there. From James Hilton’s Lost Horizon to Peter Matthiessen’s The Snow Leopard, something significant was supposed to happen to Western travellers in Tibetan lands. In the following analysis, I trace out the making of the myth that travel to Tibet might bring on a kind of spiritual transformation. Most broadly, this myth-making is part of a larger British project to make sense of selves and others during the colonial era; more specifically, it is intimately connected to how British scholars and travellers imagine religion for themselves and how they perceive the religion of the Tibetans. 1
The text in which this myth of transformation in Tibet is fully fleshed out is a 1910 travel account by Francis Younghusband called India and Tibet. Younghusband’s text draws on various texts that have gone before it, to produce finally a sort of paradigm of transformation with which subsequent accounts of travel to Tibet in English must grapple. And what is striking about Younghusband is that he is not a proto-typical guru seeker; neither is he in Tibet to explore, to write about Tibetan religion, nor even to measure or scale the mountains as many Europeans before him did and continue to do. Younghusband travelled to Tibet with 8,000 Indian Army troops: he was in Tibet to negotiate a treaty with the Thirteenth Dalai Lama and to establish British military and political might in the region at a time when Russia also had designs in Central Asia and Chinese rule in Tibet was on the wane. It is in Younghusband’s text—a 450-page document that recounts the tedious negotiations, polemicizes against the sinister qualities of much of Tibetan religion and clergy, and seeks a justification for British imperialism in Asia—that the first instance of what I call a Tibetan epiphany appears: a moment of spiritual and personal realization and revelation which gives Younghusband a new sense of the world and his place in it. Where does this ‘revelation’ come from? How does Younghusband get there?