David-Neel, Alexandra – Lighting fires using the heat of the mystic
Type of Spiritual Experience
A description of the experience
My Journey to Lhasa – Alexandra David-Neel
Yongden had gone in the direction of the hills in search of fuel, and I found some near the river, in a flat place, which must have been a camping-place in the summer, where travellers from the Po country go to the Dainshin province, either to trade or on robbery expeditions.
I called the young man back, gathered as much fuel as I could, and, certain that nobody was wandering in that wilderness, we decided to pitch our tent in a low place among a few bushes. The flint and steel which, according to Thibetan custom, Yongden carried attached to his belt in a pouch, had become wet during our passage across the snow fields, and now it did not work at all. This was a serious matter. Of course we were no longer on the top of the range and we had only a few hours to wait before the sun would rise; but even if we escaped being frozen, we were not at all certain that we should not catch pneumonia or some other serious disease.
"Jetsunma," said Yongden, "you, are, I know, initiated in the thumo reskiang practice. Warm yourself and do not bother about me. I shalljump and move to keep my blood moving."
True, I had studied under two Thibetan gompchens the strange art of increasing the internal heat. For long I had been puzzled by the stories I had heard and read on the subject and as I am of a somewhat scientific turn of mind I wanted to make the experiment myself.
With great difficulties, showing an extreme perseverance in my desire to be initiated into the secret, and after a number of ordeals, I succeeded in reaching my aim. I saw some hermits seated night after night, motionless on the snow, entirely naked, sunk in meditation, while the terrible winter blizzard whirled and hissed around them! I saw under the bright full moon the test given to their disciples who, on the shore of a lake or a river in the heart of the winter, dried on their bodies, as on a stove, a number of sheets dipped in the icy water! And I learned the means of performing these feats. I had inured myself, during five months of the cold season, to wearing the single thin cotton garment of the students at a 13,000-foot level. But the experience once over, I felt that a further training would have been a waste of time for me, who, as a rule, could choose my dwelling in less severe climates or provide myself with heating apparatus. I had, therefore, returned to fires and warm clothes, and thus could not be taken for an adept in the thumo reskiang, as my companion believed!
Nevertheless, I liked at times to remember the lesson I had learned and to sit on some snowy summit in my thin dress of reskiang. But the present was not the time to look selfishly after my own comfort.
I wanted to try to kindle a fire that had nothing miraculous about it, but which could warm my adopted son as well as myself.
"Go!" said I to Yongden, "collect as much dry cow dung and dry twigs as you can; the exertion will prevent you from getting cold. I will see after the fire business."
He went, convinced that the fuel was useless; but I had got an idea. After all, the flint and steel were wet and cold. What if I warmed them on me, as I had dried dripping sheets when a student of thumo reskiang? Thumo reskiang is but a way devised by the Thibetan hermits of enabling themselves to live without endangering their health on the high hills. It has nothing to do with religion, and so it can be used for ordinary purposes without lack of reverence.
I put the flint and steel and a pinch of the moss under my clothes, sat down, and began the ritualistic practice. I mentioned that I felt sleepy on the road; the exertion while collecting fuel and pitching the tent, the effort to kindle the fire, had shaken my torpor, but now, being seated, I began to doze. Yet my mind continued to be concentrated on the object of the thumo rite. Soon I saw flames arising around me; they grew higher and higher; they enveloped me, curling their tongues above my head. I felt deliciously comfortable.
A loud report awakened me. The ice on the river was rending.
The flames suddenly died down as if entering the ground. I opened my eyes. The wind was blowing hard and my body burned. I made haste. The flint and steel and moss would work this time; I was convinced of it. I was still half dreaming, although I had got up and walked toward the tent. I felt fire bursting out of my head, of my fingers.
I placed on the ground a little dry grass, a small piece of very dry cow dung, and I knocked the stone. A spark sprang out of it. I knocked again; another sprang out . . another . another . . a miniature fireworks. The fire was lighted; it was a little baby flame which wanted to grow, to eat, to live. I fed it and it leaped higher and higher. When Yongden arrived with a quantity of dry cow dung in the lap of his dress and some branches between his arms, he was joyfully astonished.
"How have you done it?" he asked.
"Well, it is the fire of thumo," I answered, smiling.
The lama looked at me.
"True," he said. "Your face is quite red and your eyes are so bright…..”
"Yes," I replied, "that is all right. Let me alone now, and make a good buttered tea quickly. I need a very hot drink."
I feared a little for the morrow, but I awakened in perfect health when the sun touched the thin cloth of our tent.