Review by Douglas J. DurhamThere is an old German saying: What is the use of running, if you are not on the right way? Circling the Sacred Mountain, like Robert Pirsig's Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, has this question as its theme. The two books are similar in many ways a small group is on a journey, there is a description of the journey itself, and there are serious talks interspersed. The millions who responded strongly to Zen upon the publication of Pirsig's book will remember that Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance caused them to address two questions: What journey am I on? and, Is it the right one?In Circling the Sacred Mountain, Thurman and Wise are on the journey to Mount Kailas, both in the physical and metaphorical sense. Thurman, whose daughter Uma is a well-known movie star, is a professor of Tibetan Buddhist studies at Columbia University. A close friend of the Dalai Lama and a highly visible Tibetan Buddhist scholar, Thurman provides the serious talks. Tad Wise, author of the novel Tesla, was a student of Thurman's in the 1970s and, like Thurman, is a native of Woodstock, New York. Wise provides the description of the physical journey, lasting 25 days going from Nepal to Tibet and back to Nepal. He also provides his own responses to Thurman's talks.
Located in remote Tibet, Kailas represents for each man the long-sought-after goal of profound personal transformation. As in Pirsig's book, the physical journey is away from the familiar habits and responses of home and provides the setting for the metaphorical journey. Its objective is to achieve the dissolution of the ego and achieve freedom from socially conditioned and personally constructed bonds. The serious talks all deal with aspects of dissolving the ego and achieving such freedom.
This book differs from Zen in that the serious talks in Pirsig's book were based on a combination of Zen Buddhism and classical Greek thought and were delivered in a relatively accessible fashion. The serious talks in Circling the Sacred Mountain are based on a Tibetan Buddhist text, The Blade Wheel. They are, in parts, not something that most people are used to reading. Substantial portions, however, are accessible and might possibly help you find your own Mount Kailas.
Douglas Durham has practiced under a Theravada Buddhist monk for seven years.