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Observations placeholder

David-Neel, Alexandra – The Tibetan monastic system in the early 1900s



Type of Spiritual Experience



The Great Assembly Hall Depung/Drepung monastery




This is background information, and shows what an extensive and well organised system was in place before it was destroyed by the Chinese Communists.

Although partially reconstructed, as can be seen from the photos, it is a shadow of the former glory of the system.







A description of the experience

My Journey to Lhasa – Alexandra David-Neel

Sera today

Several important monasteries are situated in Lhasa itself, amongst them the two famous colleges where tantrism, magic, ritual and occult sciences are taught.

The three great lamaseries whose fame attracts thousands of pilgrims and where young lamas come to study from even the farthest regions of Mongolia and Manchuria, are not in Lhasa, but in its vicinity.

Sera, already mentioned, stands about four miles behind the Potala; Depung is about six miles away on the road to India; and Galden is hidden in a circle of mountains twenty miles distant.


These three, even if they are the largest and the most powerful, being state lamaseries, are not the only ones which Thibetans hold in high esteem. Amongst others, one can name Tashilhumpo, the monastery of the Penchen Rinpoche [Tashi lama, the equal and even superior from the religious point of view of the Dalai Lama but with no temporal power].

 It is located at Shigatze, in the Tsang province, and is considered to be the highest seat of learning in all Thibet. Several days march from it stands the old historical monastery of Sakya, where lives the head of an important "Red C" sect. It contains an unique library of old Sanskrit and Thibetan manuscripts. Besides these, there exist many others, such as Lhabrang Tashikyil in Amdo, Kum-Bum in the same province, Zogchen in the solitudes of northeastern Thibet, and countless others.


Thibet is essentially a monastic country. While in the West our important buildings are generally schools, hospitals, factories and other products of worldly activities, in Thibet the gompas are the only edifices offered to the attention of the traveller. Standing on the summits, silhouetted against the azure sky, or else concealed in the recesses of the mountains, all over the country, they symbolize a lofty ideal but one little understood nowadays even by their inmates.

Assembly hall

The religious communities of Thibet form little states within the state, of which they are almost entirely independent. All are possessed of lands and cattle. As a rule, they carry on commerce of some kind. The larger gompas rule over a considerable territory peopled by tenants whose condition resembles that of the serfs of Europe in the Middle Ages. They cultivate, for their own profit, the land belonging to the monasteries and in return they pay each year a definite quantity of cereals, forage, and so forth. The families who devote themselves to rearing cattle pay their debt in butter, cheese, wool, and dried cow dung for fuel, and the surplus produce of the doks also goes to them.


All these serfs are obliged to undertake certain statute labours, such as the transport of the baggage of the lamas when they travel, and of the goods sent for sale to other regions by the managers of the monastery's temporal affairs, also the repair of the monastic buildings and various other menial offices. They are also forbidden to leave the country without obtaining permission, but this is rarely refused to anyone who wishes to absent himself for the purpose of trading, studying, making a pilgrimage, or any other good reason.

However restricted the liberty of these tenants may be, their situation is infinitely preferable to that of their compatriots established upon the domain of some great lay lord, and especially of those who are directly dependent upon the central government. It is rare for the heads of the monasteries to be hard upon their subjects, and, in return for the tax they pay, the peasants are really and effectively protected by the high religious dignitaries upon whom they depend.


In spite of all the criticism that may justly be directed against the gompas, they afford an excellent retreat for the student, the thinker, and anyone else who desires an intellectual or spiritual life. Almost entirely free from material cares, the humblest lama may give himself up to a leisurely study of the religious and philosophical literature of his country, and if he succeeds in learning Chinese or Sanskrit and thus extending the field of his researches, he is greatly admired by his colleagues.

Kum bum

It is very true that many lamas do not seem to possess any of the qualities which a religious vocation demands, but the way in which they have been brought into the monasteries often affords sufficient excuse. Every Thibetan family esteems it an honour for one or more of its sons to adopt the religious habit; and, to this end, the boys destined to the priestly state are taken to the gompa at the age of eight or nine, and handed over to a master charged with their education.

Life vows do not exist among the Buddhists, who believe in the fundamental impermanence of all things, and these children may, therefore, return later on to the world and live as laymen without incurring the disesteem of their compatriots. Some of them do so; but many, not feeling sufficiently courageous to apprentice themselves to any other career, maintain the habit of the Order without respecting it as they should. As a rule, these drones of lamaism, somewhat lazy and gossiping, a trifle too gluttonous and especially too greedy of gain, are charitable and hospitable folks in spite of their faults. We may add to their credit, moreover, that however feeble their morals or limited their intelligence, they do maintain a reverence for learning and saintliness, being always ready to venerate those of their companions who rise above them by virtue of erudition or loftiness of character.

Kum Bum

A large monastery in Thibet is a veritable town, the population of which sometimes amounts to as many as ten thousand persons. It is composed of a network of streets and alleys, squares and gardens.

Temples in larger or smaller numbers, the assembly halls of the different colleges, and the palaces of the dignitaries rise above the common dwellings, their gilded roofs and terraces surmounted by banners and divers ornaments. In the gompa every lama lives by himself in a house of which he is sole proprietor, whether he has had it built at his own cost or bought or inherited it. This dwelling may be bequeathed by the lama to one of his pupils or to a relative, but the legatee must himself belong to the religious Order. No layman is allowed to possess a house in a monastery.


Certain high monastic palaces are veritable museums, full of artistic treasures. In them have been accumulated gifts received by a long line of Grand Lamas, or precious things acquired by themselves, over a period of several centuries. Enamel, lacquer, rare porcelain, marvellous embroideries, and the paintings of Chinese or Thibetan artists are to be seen there. To find such manors isolated in the midst of the vast steppes, or hidden in immense virgin forests, seems like a fairy tale. But is not everything a fairy tale in this extraordinary country, even to the name it gives itself, that of Khang Yul, "the land of snows"?

I have had the privilege, unique in these days, of living in several monasteries. After what I have said of them, and of their separate houses, one can understand how it was possible for a woman to live there. Nevertheless, there is a rule against such admission, and only very special reasons-my age, the studies I was pursuing, and, above all, powerful protection-procured me this privilege.


For more than two years I translated Thibetan books in the celebrated monastery of Kum-Bum in Amdo, in the northeast of Thibet, beyond the great Desert of Grass. There, seated on my balcony, on certain evenings, I could hear the lamas' orchestra playing on the roof terrace of the great assembly hall. The concert was being given to the gods. It was they, the Invisible Ones, whom it was desired to charm, attract, cause for a moment to rest, and smile among their younger brothers, the humans! What was asked of them? Nothing . . . nothing but to take pleasure in the music of our world. This was charming in its infantile poetry, and what miscreant would have dared to doubt that the light-footed goddesses did not brush over our dwellings, hastening toward the sweet strains that called them.

Meanwhile, in the vast edifice scarcely lighted by the lamps placed before the magnificent tombs and gilded statues of defunct lamas, the monks were seated motionless, attired in dark-crimson togas. They were chanting in deep tones solemn sentences of mystic import or transcendental philosophy, which raised the mind above captivating illusions.

Above them, the last notes of the bewitching melodies melted away and soon the recitation of the sacred writings itself came to an end. A rapid gesture, symbolising the void, brought the vesper service to its close, and each lama returned to his own abode.

The source of the experience

Tibetan Buddhism

Concepts, symbols and science items



Science Items

Sacred geography

Activities and commonsteps