by Ernie Diaz
Travelers to Zhongdian quickly discover it is no more Shangri-la than Disney World is a magic kingdom. Still, idealistic souls search for a land, or at least the remnants of one, where the strife of the everyday world is as foreign as peace and contentment are here.
Maybe they’re no more deluded than the smug skeptic. The recent discovery of remains from an Edenic culture in eastern Turkey, some twelve thousand years old, has upended our long-cherished notion that we were butt-scratching hunter gatherers until 4000 BCE, when Egyptians suddenly dreamed up pyramid tech, with all the leisure time that irrigated fields gave them. There’s much that could have happened in the interim, or even before, that we would be lucky to even gather a hint of, due to our ignorance, not our forgotten predecessors’. A recommended read through Bill Bryson’s AShort History of Nearly Everything should convince of that.
The fact that we forget so much of what’s already been recorded doesn’t help. It’s not as though James Hilton dreamed up the name “Shangri-la” on his ownsome. He was mispronouncing what is more closely rendered as “Shambalah”, a mythical land that nonetheless is referred to quite literally in several all-but-forgotten texts. A look at Shambalah reveals a Tibet long lost to the world, further evidence that we don’t even know what we know.
For starters, Tibetans are hardly the sole aboriginal inhabitants of the land that bears their name. The Zhangzhung, an Iron Age culture, predates Tibetan and is thought to have long ago held sway over the rooftop of the world. Up until 1500 BCE, said rooftop was a much more habitable place, a place where the Zhangzhung left citadels, burial complexes, and texts referring to the renowned Shambalah. These texts place Shambhala in the Sutlej Valley in Himachal Pradesh, a region very sketchily explored, Google maps notwithstanding.
How about the Bon religion? Intertwined with but distinct from Buddhism, Bon incorporates shamanistic rituals predating Buddhism by thousands of years. Its oral tradition, one painstakingly memorized by succeeding generations rather than told causally around a campfire, relates that eighteen thousand years ago the founder of Bon, one Lord Tonpa Shenrab, was born in the land of Olmo Lungring. Located just west of the furthest Himalayan vales, Olmo Lungring knew neither strife nor suffering, and its people lived far beyond other mortals’ allotted spans. The Bonpo lamas identify Olmo Lungring as the more commonly-called Shambalah.
Shambalah gets even more cred from Buddhism. Tantric Buddhism, to be exact. The Kalachakra, or “time wheel” constitutes one of the most complex Tantras known. Besides its meditational benefits to the soul, the Kalachakra centers on the Kingdom of Shambalah. These teachings also aver that Shambalah was an actual place, peopled by enlightened and beautiful souls who dwelt in magnificent homes.
They were ruled from the center city Kalapa by a benevolent monarch named Kulika. An embodiment of the Kalichakra’s integrity, this king ensured that there was neither war nor injustice in Shambalah. Kalachakra teachings go on to prophecy that when the world declines into irredeemable greed and warfare, a host will fly forth from Shambalah to vanquish corrupt rulers and usher in a Golden Age. Kalachakra scholars put this date at 2424 CE, so don’t go strapping on the sandwich board just yet.
Ancient texts, oral accounts, and religious myths are easy enough to dismiss, if not disprove. The best case for a real Shambalah is the one that exists as a state of mind, or state of soul, if that doesn’t smack too unscientifically. Many concepts in Vajrayana Buddhism from which the Kalachakra derives have three meanings: outer, inner, and secret. From this perspective, Shambalah could exist physically for those with the karmic prowess to experience it. Otherwise, it is a divine metaphor, one that has parallels in other ancient belief systems such as the Kabalah, in that they both reveal the outer world is but a reflection of the inner.
19th century Theosophist Madame Blavatsky claimed the karmic prowess to have visited Shambalah, and managed to convince a great many with three-digit IQs that a brotherhood of adepts still resided there, chanting for the good of all humanity. This inspired later western spiritualists such as Alice Bailey and the Roerichs to emphasize Shambalah in their works, the thread finally tied off and immortalized with Hilton’s novel.
So for the sake of social standing, best not to speak too credulously of a truly peaceable kingdom having existed at one point in the distant past. Better still, though, not to be too convinced that we have never amounted spiritually to more than the clever apes we are today. Maybe we should aspire to do a little less traveling and a lot more chanting.