Scholar, Artist, Monk: Three Views of Mount Kanchenjunga

When I accompanied several of my young scholars on a trek in Sikkim a few years ago, one of the most consistently inspiring sights was, of course, the mountains, especially when they were either cloud-girt:

or illuminated by the morning sun:

However, by far the most impressive sight we encountered was Kanchenjunga, the third-highest mountain in the world, standing along with its fellow peaks in a range of awe-inspiring splendor. As a scholar acquainted with the history of this region of the Himalayas, I was always deeply moved by the sight of Kanchenjunga, and my heart still soars when I look at photographs taken during our trip.

It will not surprise readers, then, to learn how delighted I was recently when I discovered that another traveler had been as enchanted as I was by Kanchenjunga more than sixty years before I first viewed it. Yoshida Hiroshi (1876-1950) was a Japanese woodblock print maker, who traveled widely and created consummately lovely images of the sights which most impressed him, including Kanchenjunga:

"Kanchenjanga, Afternoon" 1931

Somehow I am more deeply moved by this print than I am by the many photographs of Kanchenjunga in my personal collection, and it makes me yearn to return to Sikkim, to put a pack on my back, and, in the company of like-minded companions, to wander among verdant hills and along mountain pathways.

Another man with a temperament quite different from mine or Yoshida’s also fell under Kanchenjunga’s spell and created his own record of the experience. Sangharakshita (born 1925) is an English Buddhist monk, teacher, and writer, and for a time he lived in a small cottage that he called “The Hermitage” in Kalimpong, India. His experiences there informed a series of books he wrote called “Facing Mount Kanchenjunga,” from which this passage is taken:
“I was inspired by the bamboos and the orchids, by the haze-softened foothills, gashed red here and there by the landslides, by the changing cloud formations, by the breadth and blueness of the sky. Above all I was inspired by the snows . . . Except for Kanchenjunga and Lama Yuru, a pyramidal mountain so called from its resemblance to a meditating monk, I did not know their names. Nor did I care to know them. For me it was enough to sit there in that intense stillness, five thousand feet above sea level, simply contemplating those silent white forms. Contemplating them in this way . . . I could begin to understand why the Himalayas had such a hold on the imagination of the people of the subcontinent and why they occupied so prominent a place in the religious and cultural life of Hindus, Buddhists, and Jains alike.”

Since he gave form to the same feelings in his magnificent print, I know that Yoshida Hiroshi would have perfectly understood those sentiments – as do I, a scholar sitting in his study. I feel my heart rise as I recollect the misty foothills, the snow, and the mountains – above all one mountain – and then the vision fades and I return to my mundane life. Or most of me does – because tugging at my imagination from the deepest, most treasured recess of memory, ever and always there is . . . the mountain.

At the base of Mount Kanchenjunga with my wonderful students

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