In a book called ‘The Old Ways‘  Robert MacFarlane explores ancient routes and the stories they tell.  I am reading the chapter on Buddhist pilgrims in Tibet.  By way of contrast it has clarified for me a typically Western poverty of thought: the worldview that seeks to conquer or possess, and in so doing possesses nothing of value.

The Tibetan-Buddhist form of pilgrimage is called kora:

“This worshipful…attitude is not impressed by scientific facts, like figures of altitude, which are foremost in the mind of modern man, nor is it motivated by an urge to ‘conquer’ the mountain… There is a humility to the act of the kora, which stands as a corrective to the self-exaltation of the mountaineer’s hunger for an utmost point… The pilgrim contents himself always with looking up and inwards to mystery, where the mountaineer longs to look down and outwards onto knowledge.”  (Page 262-263)

The mountaineer conquers the mountain, placing himself above it.  The pilgrim conquers himself and thereby appreciates the mountain more fully.

The desire to ‘conquer’ the world around us can be physical or intellectual.  Yet each summit we reach reveals more summits yet to be climbed; and each particle we split reveals more subatomic mysteries yet to be explained.  As our knowledge pushes back the boundaries, it only testifies to the scale of the mystery, and our smallness in the face of it.   I am no enemy of science or mountaineering; I am excited by the adventure of discovery inherent in both.  But, as I scribbled down in the margin of my Bible years ago, ‘The more I learn the more I yearn for something learning never gives me’.

We are misguided whenever we try to reduce the universe to the smallness of our understanding or experience, or imagine that one day we could.  We should embrace as much of the wonder as we can, and wherever it falls beyond our grasp, be content to marvel at the mystery.  Because the place where our souls find most fulfillment is in looking up, not looking down.

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