Not a journey "to," but "in" this Buddhist enclave, before or as it succumbs to the rest of the world's ways, Harvey's quest takes in his own spiritual and existential condition as much, if not more, than his travels. While you gain a sense of how this barren, golden, light-bright landscape looks, Harvey shifts to the appeal of its monastic traditions, as he falls hard for Thuksey Rinpoche, a Tibetan refugee lama. Harvey meets Dilip & Moneesha, two delightfully drawn characters, up from Delhi, who introduce him. Gradually, Harvey's defenses erode and he learns what moves him.
Nature takes up much of the first portion of this carefully composed, often understated narrative. Compared to Peter Mathiessen's "The Snow Leopard" (see my review of this and the overlapping Japanese-oriented "Nine-Headed Dragon River") which takes place over the Himalayas around this same time, sometime in the 1970s, in another monastery also called Shey, "A Journey in Ladakh" does not give as much attention to the mountains climbed. One shortcoming for readers may be this relative attention to the conversations he has (he speaks many languages) and the thoughts he shares. The book turns more inward as it develops, mirroring the shift Harvey makes as his journey turns vision-quest.
Harvey's settled more in a few places and not as much a trekker as he is a pilgrim. Unlike Mathiessen, who comes to these mountains already a Zen practitioner, Harvey's a Cambridge-educated poet with a secular or disenchanted, detached perspective. His erudition's evident, if worn rather lightly, thankfully.
But as his friends and teachers here note, he wants to change from his English-educated, somewhat distant attitude towards the spirit, even if he does not realize it at first. He signals this subtle change as he walks to see a monastery, but he never gets there. Instead he stays in the lovely scenery on the way. "I have no choice but to be alive to this landscape and this light: I must let this light do to my spirit and my words what it has to." (66)
He knows the folly of his mission. Hans, a visiting professor, tells him that by his own academic fieldwork there as well as Harvey's presence, they attest to the erosion of what they seek to document and preserve in Ladakh. If Harvey "bears witness," a last testament for his readers to what's vanishing, Hans reckons: "aren't you inviting them to a rather corrupt party? 'Another moving study of a doomed culture'?" (96) With the Rinpoche, Harvey wonders what Hans'd say about his transformation as he seems to enter his teacher's mind. "In this old man from another, unknowable world the writer has found the perfect way to aggrandise himself, advertise his spirituality." (150) This self-aware skepticism about his own struggle to let go, in the Buddhist sense, enriches this study for the outsider, such as Harvey still is.
Even skeptical Hans and cautious Harvey admit they're moved by the generosity of their hosts. Drukchen, another lama, tells Harvey how the teachings represent the loss of illusion, of the end of "false hope or consolation," as Tibet falls and its teachings spread abroad through its exiled adherents. "Buddhism will flourish in the West," Druckchen predicts, for the West "is coming of age; it is becoming adult, able to bear the radical clarity of the Buddha, hungry for" the wisdom that brings "a practical, severe analysis of things as they are, of the mind as it is," (180) free of salvation unless it comes from within the seeker. Compassion, wisdom, and a hard look at reality's own constructs accompany this vision of absolute change, for those unable to believe in Christ as a god anymore, but only as a man.
A Swiss student, Charles, annoys but then appeals to Harvey's own search: not to use it "as an anaesthetic," to cling to "a great wall of experiences and meditative ecstasies and learning between me and the world," as Charles had done in vain. Instead, hang on to "no insight, no experience, no learning--it is to be simple and unprotected. It is to be practical, in the highest sense, with everything that is around you, with all the energies, good or bad, of the present." (191)
This is a difficult story of inner entry and outer adventure to control, but Harvey succeeds. He tells of a out-of-body experience as he watches a Tantric ceremony, and as he forgets "all my fear and self hatred in those moments," he sees insubstantiality surround him, all "a transitory fiction." (205) Later, Drukchen tells him of his confidence that Harvey must return to the West. The lama warns that "the East is not a large convalescent home for the West," a place to "play at being spiritual," but "it is a place of power, of new power, a new kind of strength which must be used in the world." If Harvey's sincere, he will succeed in sharing his discovery with his audience: "If what you have learnt is true, it will hold." (226)
Finally, as he prepares to leave, he visits the Rinpoche. He takes the Bodhissatva vow not to enter Nirvana until all sentient beings he can assist will precede him there, and he's a Buddhist instead of an "almost" one as his friends had noticed before. He is told: "The true journey is toward the enlightened self, and you are that already. You came, across your life, across Ladakh, to this room, to this morning, to me, and now another journey is beginning, the journey which you have travelled here to begin." (233)
I read this again after two decades, and like "The Snow Leopard," it sustains its energy and compels the reader to follow an outsider's struggle within these mountains to find beauty, meaning, and truth. Harvey's voice controls this compelling, yet modest, presentation of his own nuanced self-awareness. He conveys deftly his own evolution into a wiser, humbler pilgrim who returns with quite a story to tell us. (I reviewed the original 1983 edition; an unread by me 2000 version adds an afterword criticizing some sacred cows which some felt gored by, as Harvey since became a New Age-ish popular author and speaker.)