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Tibet tale is mired in details

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CIRCLING THE SACRED MOUNTAIN, A SPIRITUAL ADVENTURE THROUGH THE HIMALAYAS, by Robert Thurman and Tad Wise; Bantam Books, 2000; 353 pages; $14.95.

This is one of those in-depth books that definitely isn't for everyone. However, the fact that this unusual publication has two authors — representing two very different viewpoints — makes it more appealing.

Thurman, a professor of Indo-Tibetan Studies at Columbia University, offers a wealth of philosophy on Buddhism and meditation. Wise, an English teacher, journalist and actor, is the skeptic who offers more of a layman's view of Tibet's culture, religion and geography.

The premise of the book is that in Tibetan Buddhism, circling Mount Kailash in the Himalayas — a rugged 32-mile or so journey — will wipe away the sins of a lifetime. This mountain is too sacred to climb, but trekking around the pyramid-shaped mountain at 17,500 feet above sea level is said to be a magical experience. The authors and others circled the mountain in the fall of 1995. This is their story.

The cover photograph of Mount Kailash — east of Mount Everest — is spectacular. The book also contains 20 pictures of the trek.

Thurman, using his Tibetan title "Tenzin," provides far too much detail on meditation and "The Blade Wheel of Mind Reform" for my tastes. Indeed, to even half-understand the concepts he examines, I'd have to re-read the book many times. However, he considers these talks an A-to-Z primer on Tibetan Buddhism.

The book is well-written but offers a too-extensive background on the trip's beginnings in the early pages. It moves faster from then on and features vivid descriptions of the city of Katmandu.

The group is stranded by snow early in their pilgrimage, and just getting around in Tibet is a gruelling experience probably not fully understood unless tried for oneself. Mountainous roads with less than a foot of tire clearance are common. Run-ins and hassles from Chinese authorities — most of them teenagers — happen often, too. Tibetan children seeking trinkets from Westerners also show up many times in the book.

Reincarnation is a foundation of Buddhism, and that theme is recurrent throughout the book. "Every person you might hate now was once your mother" becomes a reality when you accept such doctrine.

Perhaps the best religious analysis in the book is how to control anger.

Wise uses a sprinkling of profanity in his writing, whichisn't really necessary, but otherwise he provides the physical and cultural perspectives that make the book a good vicarious trip for armchair visitors to Tibet and the Himalayas.

For example, "The landscapes are awe inspiring, the air is so clear and dry, the heights so extreme, the blue of the sky so deep you can't decide if it's a pale or a dark blue, against the mountains jetting up cragged and snowcapped . . . Here we are high up between heaven and earth."

The book also delves into some Tibetan customs that can be shocking to Westerners. For example, Tibetans don't normally bury their dead, but have a mortician saw or hack the corpse in pieces and leave it for the birds to eat.

In the end, Wise seems to have felt the trip was worth it — if only because this long forbidden land offered the adventure of a lifetime. The religious teachings were a bonus.

E-MAIL: lynn@desnews.com