In the PBS series, In Search of Myths and Legends, historian Michael Wood seeks to discover if the legend of Shambhala ever had a basis in physical reality. Did Shambhala–the Shangri-La of the novel and movie Lost Horizon–actually exist?
As the story goes…
…Shambhala can be found somewhere over the Himalayas–a place of peace and plenty, where the knowledge of mankind is kept and preserved. After war and greed have ruined our world, we will seek out this hidden wisdom and use it to rebuild civilization.
In his search, Wood travels to Nepal and then into Tibet, witnessing grand vistas and stopping in villages that seem to be from another time, if not another world.
In a sense, he does find the Shambhala of legend–he comes upon a poor mountain village where numerous Tibetan Buddhist texts were transferred during the Chinese invasion of Tibet. The wisdom has been tucked away and only waits for the madness to cease.
But unlike some who seek physical, geographical proof for legends and myths, Wood seems to understand that the imagined Shambhala can not actually be found out there, in the exterior world.
Such legends present us with a tantalizing paradox: Shambhala does not exist and yet it does. To imagine Shambhala gives us a sense of peace and harmony. Shambhala is hope. Shambhala promises that humankind can survive its own violence and craziness. The legend tells us, that though we may nearly destroy civilization, in the aftermath of such destruction, we may actually arrive at a better world.
But on a deeper level, I believe we understand that the apocalypse must occur on an inner level. Mythology and religion tell us, again and again, that we must die to our old self to be born anew. Myth tells us that any journey back to Shangri-La, back to that place of wisdom, back to paradise, must be harrowing, must be filled with tests that demand our greatest courage.
But if it was easy, wouldn’t that be disappointingly dull?