“I felt so fortunate that this story fell into my lap. As a writer, how often does that happen?” says Thomas K. Shor. In Sikkim, Shor was introduced to an elderly Bhutanese woman whose story would, he was told, make him question his sense of reality. In 1962 she had left her land and everything she owned to follow a lama who was promising to open a hidden paradise on the side of Kanchenjunga, the world’s third highest peak. Soon after hearing the story, Shor met the lama’s son and embarked on a seven-year journey in pursuit of the rest of the tale. Moving between Tibet, Tso Pema, Lahaul, Kullu, Darjeeling, Sikkim and Nepal, A Step Away from Paradise is part page-turning adventure, part spiritual allegory, and part rambunctious biography of a quite unusual lama.
Born in Golok in eastern Tibet in the early 20th century, as a boy Tulshuk Lingpa was recognised as a terton, or treasure revealer, and became a nagpa in the Nyingma tradition. He was also fond of the ladies, eloping to India at the age of about 18. He set up at Pangi in Chamba, later moving to Simoling in Lahaul and Pangao in Kullu. His claims to fame included pulling an ancient Buddhist manuscript from a temple wall following a relentless drinking session, organising an armed expedition against an invasion from Kashmir, and curing an entire village of leprosy. His first name, Tulshuk, means ‘crazy’ or ‘mutable’ in Tibetan.
“Up to this point there was nothing unusual about my father,” says his equally mercurial-sounding son, Kunsang, who guided Shor through much of his research.
In the 1950s, Tulshuk Lingpa started having visions telling him to go to Sikkim and open a place known as the Beyul Demoshong, a hidden land described in ancient scriptures. Tradition held that the beyul would open at a time of crisis, when the Tibetan people needed a place of refuge. With the Chinese invasion in full swing, that time seemed to have arrived. The beyul would be a wonderland of abundant food and lush nature, where people could lead a life of ease. With a band of followers, Tulshuk Lingpa set out for Sikkim in 1962 to find the hidden land, gathering more devotees along the way until 300 were hoping to step through what Shor calls this “crack in the world”. Some were Buddhist adepts seeking a place where they could perfect their practice; others were farmers looking for a comfortable life.
There are a lot of reasons to recommend this book, one of which is the author’s ability to recount, with clarity, humour and a tight sense of drama, a story packed with improbable twists. More interestingly, Shor suspends his scepticism to get inside the minds of the Tulshuk Lingpa’s followers. Tracking down his family, associates, devotees and lovers, the writer lets them tell their own stories – extraordinary, uplifting, painful, unforgettable stories. Whenever possible, he finds multiple corroborations for events that seem, on the face of them, unbelievable. The beauty of this book is its skilful navigation of the line between belief and scepticism, allowing the reader direct access to a culture that, to the Western mind at least, can often seem fantastical or opaque. The book is well designed with a handy glossary and lists of characters and places; its main flaws are its title and cover image, which presumably were the publisher’s choice.
Alongside the Tibetan perspectives Shor recounts some of the folk tales of Sikkim’s indigenous Lepcha people, which also tell of a hidden land of plenty, and a rational, scholarly dissection of the tradition by an Oxford academic. In other words, he covers his bases; it’s up to the reader to pick their own reality.
INTERVIEW WITH THOMAS K. SHOR
What attracted you about this story?
For me it was always the edge that I felt in it between fiction and nonfiction. That it’s a true story of a journey to a fantastic land. You think of people actually going into another crack in the world. It was that these people actually went on this journey to this fantastic land, trying to go through a crack in the world and that they were expecting never to come back. One of the prerequisites of the whole thing, as I explained in the book, is that you’ll never come back so you have to be willing to leave everything behind. So it’s a metaphor of the spiritual path in itself. You have to give your family away, you have to give everything away to go, and these people did it in a very physical way, it’s not that you go off into the cave and you could always come back down the hill and have a Sunday meal with Mom or something. You have to be completely committed to it, theoretically, before you even set out.
Yet they didn’t make it.
They didn’t make it. It was not successful.
Does it strike you as a tragedy, the whole story?
Strangely enough, it doesn’t. I guess because the people who went and came back, they still have this complete faith in it. They say why it didn’t work – there were too many people, and it was too public, and not everyone’s motivation was correct – you know so that the whole idea isn’t in their eyes condemned by what happened… I see it as a story of great hope, right to the very end. That human beings can have this concept and can go for it – I really admired the people for it.
Were you attracted to Tulshuk Lingpa’s craziness, the fact that he was a maverick, a drinker, a ladies’ man?
At first I was interested in the story of them going but very quickly it came to the character of Tulshuk Lingpa, who he was. Very normal people are kind of boring sometimes, because the world does encompass so much more. And in the set religious forms I think it gets dried out also. I think the founders of the various religions, they were taking from the living stream, but if you take it and put it into a cup it’s just a cup of water. And then you put a form around it and you start elaborating and you start worshipping the cup. Like sometimes I think people going to Bodh Gaya to worship the tree that that guy sat under – you don’t get it! Sit under your own tree!
It sounded like you started out fairly sceptical of the whole thing but as you met more people you became more sympathetic or willing to take at face value what people were saying.
I always saw the wonder of it, and also the total absurdity of it at the same time, and that’s the edge I try to keep in the book. Not that it’s absurd but to show honestly what these people felt and experienced and not really be there to pass judgment on it. Does this land exist? The closest formulation I could come to was that if you believed in it without a shadow of a doubt, it’s there. I’m not at that point, and I don’t really know if any of his disciples were.
One of the impressive things about the book is that sense of obectivity. How do you achieve that detachment?
A lot of what I was writing in this project was about interviewing people, and my stance with them was very open, and they picked up on that and they were very open with me. I never pretended that I was a card-carrying Buddhist at any time. I was just an open human being asking, so what happened? And then I think if you have that human openness then people will be really open to you and they really appreciate that. And I had the blessing of his family and when we came to Kullu Valley and to Lahaul to meet his oldest disciples, his son had called ahead and said, there’s this guy writing a book about my father so help him in any way that you can. So that really helped also.
Did you get a sense that people were keen to tell the story after all this time?
Totally keen to tell it!
Do you have a background in Tibetan Buddhism?
I have lived with Tibetan Buddhists a long time. My first time to India I ended up living with a lama in Almora, that was in ‘81. And then I lived in Darjeeling for many years, mainly around Tibetan people, so I had quite a bit of background in Tibetan Buddhism, but for this I did quite a bit of research also. My wife was studying Tibetan anthropology at Oxford at the time, so I had access to some of the leading scholars in Tibetan Buddhism, who were friends.
– Angus McDonald