July 23, 2013

Shangri-La

        I had always assumed that Shangri-La was an ancient mythical place, like Atlantis or Eden.  But I learned when D and I watched the documentary "In Search of Myths and Heroes" that it was actually invented by James Hilton in his 1933 novel Lost Horizon.  That's pretty impressive for one author to have made such a huge cultural impact - and the more so when you consider that I've never even heard of him!  Obviously Hilton hit a chord with his tale of the discovery of a hidden paradise.  However, while Shangri-La itself may be a modern invention, it was based on a variety of ancient sources.  The idea of Shangri-La has been part of mythology for a long time.
        Shangri-La is a place where the inhabitants dwell apart from the rest of the world, untroubled by the wars and sicknesses of others, in a state of blissful perfection.  The location is a hidden valley, always green and flowering among forbidding snowbound crags.  These fantasies have existed for cultures around the world, often as destinations in the afterlife, but sometimes possible for the occasional living hero to reach.  Shangri-La adds to the general concept of a hidden paradise the flavor of Oriental mystery and mysticism.
        Many areas of China and Tibet have laid claim to the title of Shangri-La, mostly for tourism purposes, of course.  One county in China even officially changed its name to Shangri-La.  The Hunza Valley in northern Pakistan is another likely source of inspiration for Hilton's Shangri-La.  However, I'm more interested in the deeper roots of this mythical place.
        Shambhala is a pure kingdom in Buddhist mythology dating back even before the beginnings of Tibetan Buddhism.  It represents a spiritual place, but also a physical one, albeit reachable only by those with the adequate karmic merit.  Its physical location is often thought to be in central Asia or the Himalayas, but possibilities stretch from northern India to southern Siberia.  Of course, in Buddhist thought Shambhala represents states of body and mind, but in fantasy terms it's easy to see the allure of such a physical place.  If Atlantis gives us ways to think about the destruction of powerful nations, Shambhala and Shangri-La give us ways to think about ideals of perfection and refuges from the imperfections of real life.
        It's no accident that Shangri-La is hidden in the midst of difficult terrain, because its hold on our imagination comes not just from its perfection, but from the fact that its perfection lies elusively somewhere in the midst of hardship.  Shangri-La invites us
to imagine What does paradise look like?  How do the people there live?  But perhaps even more importantly, What does it take to get there?  Intrepid exploration, tenacity through hardship, spiritual enlightenment, sheer lucky chance, or grace?  I imagine it will probably take all those things to find Shangri-La.

[Pictures: View of Shangri-La, set design by Stephen Goosson from the movie "Lost Horizon,"1937 (Image from Cinema Style);
Map of the Kingdom of Shambhala, thangka (painting on silk) by anonymous artist, classical (I don't know what that means by way of date);
View of Shambhala, concept art by James Paick from the video game "Uncharted 2," 2009 (Image from Scribble Pad Studios).]

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