(creators: Alexandra David-Néel and Lama Yongden)

The authors
Munpa Des-song Is the servant/disciple of a Lama who lives in a primitively equipped cave on the Chang Tang, the plains of northern Tibet. Munpa "had been ordained as a monk (so) belonged to the clergy". He had been given his name when he had been ordained, and had "reached the rank of trapa, in the small monastery where his father took his last and superfluous son. The name means 'he who off passed through the darkness' and is an appropriate reminder of the one who, supposedly, longs for nothing but the divine light." A well- built young man, "he knew how to fight" if necessary, and proves a brave and determined pursuer of his guru's murderer.

Alexandra David-Néel (1868-1969), who was born Louise Eugénie Alexandrine David, was a French opera singer who became an explorer, anarchist, spiritualist, and Buddhist, and who wrote over thirty books. She was much influenced first by Theosophist ideas then by Buddhism. She married railway engineer Philippe Néel in 1904, but spent most of her time happily away from, but still financed by, him. She travelled extensively in India, China, and Tibet, and was even permitted to question the Dalai Lama about Buddhism. She was later accepted by the Tibetans as a "lady-lama". In 1916 she was living in a cave in Sikkim near the Tibetan border with a young monk, Aphur Yongden, who became her lifelong travelling companion and whom she eventually adopted. He was to become the co-author of her three novels, one of which was The Pursuit of Nothingness, published when Alexandra David-Néel was 86. This originally appeared under Lama Yongden's name. The translator, Janwillem van de Wetering, credits Yongden with the plot and characters, although the story was based on a real murder that Alexandra had heard about in Sikkim.

At one stage in her travels, Alexandra had even managed to create her own tulpa, a phantom-being in the form of a fat, jolly monk, whom it proved very difficult to get rid of. In 1924, she and Yongden, after an arduous three year journey, spent two months in Lhasa, disguised as pilgrims, with her as an apparently harmless old crone. Yongden died aged 56 in 1955, but Alexandra, who never really recovered from the blow of losing him, lived until she was almost 101. Her ashes were scattered into the Ganges at Benares. Talk about truth being stranger than fiction! For more information about this extraordinary woman, see The Secret Lives of Alexandra David-Néel: A Biography of the Explorer of Tibet and Its Forbidden Practices by Barbara and Michael Foster, available from Amazon (see below).

The Power of Nothingness (French publication1954; English translation 1982)
The Power of Nothingness describes how Munpa finds his guru lying murdered in his remote hermitage in a cave in northern Tibet. Missing is the precious reliquary containing a magical "large turquoise, as blue as the sky, unbelievably luminous". This could provide "penetrating insight which can measure the substance of all things and discover the laws that direct them". Munpa finds a wooden tobacco container lying at the scene of the crime that he recognises as belonging to his fellow disciple Lobsang, so he realises that Lobsang must be the thief and murderer. Munpa then sets off on a long, arduous and dangerous pursuit of Lobsang that takes him right across Tibet and eventually to China.

It makes an interesting story with a very vivid portrayal of the Tibetan background: "Outside all was silence. An inexpressible peace held the impassive earth, spread out over the vast solitude of the landscape, indifferent to the busyness of beings who are born from it and who, after some vain activity, return to be dissolved into their source."

The fleeing Lobsang Is pursued by voices in the wind and by demons. Munpa too seems to hallucinate: "Waves of devotion lifted in Munpa and made him float in a whirlpool of ever-increasing bliss until he imagined that his very spirit came apart in the ultimate blessing of complete annihilation." But he soon comes down to earth: "Overcome by emotion, he stretched out on the ground and fell asleep."

His first reaction to a Chinese city rings true: "The nomad, raised in the remote highlands where all is quiet and any meeting is a memorable event, wasn't prepared for the turmoil of a real city, and he wandered about in a haze, bumped by the jostling crowd", but he still has the enterprise to find himself a job working for a local innkeeper.

He ends up in prison but, although "demons undoubtedly interfered with his plans", he eventually finds refuge at the Temple of Transcending Wisdom of Supreme Serenity. It was the abbot here who told him to return to his cell and "Look at the wall". It was on the wall that Munpa found frescoes that began to move and involve him in the action. "The Zen master had wanted to teach him that the world is no more than a play of images, rising up in one's mind, escaping for a while, only to be swallowed back into their souls in time."

It was explained to Murpa that "Each of us has ten souls, three houen, of a superior nature, and seven p'o, which are much inferior. At death the ten souls disconnect and each follows its separate way, according to its allotted time span. In the end, they all dissolve into their source to become part of the unformed again." Some sages "reach the state of chen yen, the truly free, and become immortals .... but most men allow themselves to become sidetracked and die before they have been able to liberate themselves, having wasted the number of years allotted to them. Their inferior souls, the seven p'o, remain attracted to the rotting physical corpse and float around cemeteries. The three superior souls, the houen, unable to reach the level of immortality, are taken to the heavenly court and judged by the ten magistrates, who decide how long each of them will have to exist in pleasant or unpleasant spheres, depending on the original individual's deeds during his life on earth."

However, the actual behavior of Buddhists can be far from exemplary: "Most of the Tibetan clergy, including the venerable priests of high standing, prefer to be incognito while travelling so as not to be hindered by the rules of chastity and sobriety. Munpa was no exception."

The translator, the well-known writer of Dutch detective stories, Janwillem van de Wetering, explains that his translation "included, I am sorry to say, some rewriting. Madame David Néel tends to repeat herself and a modern reader may object to reading similar passages in successive chapters. I also incorporated her footnotes into the text to make the information more lively."

Although we know the murderer's identity right from the start, and little real detection is involved, the exotic settings and the not-always-too-attractive Buddhist background (complete with spirits and demons) hold the interest. The demons, by the way, as Munpa is told, "have no existence outside your own mind. If you pay them no attention, they will fade away to themselves. This is what the Buddha meant when he told us to liberate ourselves from a world where we force ourselves, through ignorance, to be born, to suffer, and to die .... Your adventures are no more than dreams. Do not allow them to trouble you."

And the story ends with a reminder that Murpa "was no more than a small insignificant shadow, dressed up like a merchant, moved by a power emanating from a nothingness, a nonexisting turquoise. But this particular phantom wanted to live, to complete its dream merchant's act. Munpa cracked his whip and set out happily for Mongolia to paint the images of his new career on the transparent backdrop of the Great Emptiness." What you might call having your cake and eating it! Recommended.

Alexandra David-Néel has her own very comprehensive and very well illustrated website in both English and French versions, set up by the Alexandra David-Néel Cultural Centre for Franco-Tibetan Cultural Exchanges. This includes a biography. There is also an informative article about her in Wikipedia. Also see the Mysterious People site and the New York Times obituary, and there is even a Myspace page.

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Above: the authors.
Alexandra David-Néel in her opera days.
Alexandra David-Neel
The Pursuit of Nothingness cover
Above: the cover of the original French edition, in which only Lama Yongden gets an author's credit.
Below: Jan van de Wetering's English translation.
The Power of Nothingness cover
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