I met the first lung-gom-pa in northern Tibet. Towards the end of the afternoon, my son Yongden, our servants and I were riding leisurely across a wide tableland, when I noticed, far away in front of us, a moving black spot which my field-glasses showed to be a man. I felt astonished. Meetings are not frequent in that region; for the last ten days we had not seen a human being. Moreover, men on foot and alone do not, as a rule, wander in these immense solitudes. Who could the strange traveler be?

As I continued to observe him through the glasses, I noticed that the man proceeded at an unusual gait and, especially, with an extraordinary swiftness. Though, with the naked eyes, my men could hardly see anything but a black speck moving over the grassy ground, they too were not long in remarking the quickness of its advance. I handed them the glasses and one of them, having observed the traveler for a while, muttered: “Lama lung-gom-pa chig da.” (It looks like a lama lung-gom-pa.)

The man continued to advance towards us and his curious speed became more and more evident. What was to be done if he really was a lung-gom-pa? I wanted to observe him at close quarters. I also wished to have a talk with him, to put him some questions, to photograph him… I wanted many things. But the very first words I said about it, the man who had recognized him as a lama lung-gom-pa exclaimed, “Your Reverence will not stop the lama, or speak to him. This would certainly kill him. These lamas when traveling must not break their meditation. The god who is in them escapes if they cease to repeat the mantras, and when thus leaving them before the proper time, he shakes them so hard that they die.”

Put in that way, the warning seemed to express pure superstition. Nevertheless it was not to be altogether disregarded. From what I knew of the “technique,” the man walked in a kind of trance. Consequently, a sudden awakening, though I doubt if it could cause death, would certainly painfully disturb the nerves of the runner. To what extent that shock would harm him I could not guess and I did not want to make the lama the object of a more or less cruel experiment.

By the time he had nearly reached us, I could clearly see his perfectly calm impassive face and wide-open eyes with their gaze fixed on some invisible far-distant object situated somewhere high up in space. The man did not run. He seemed to lift himself from the ground, proceeding by leaps. It looked as if he had been endowed with the elasticity of a ball and rebounded each time his feet touched the ground. His steps had the regularity of a pendulum. He wore the usual monastic robe and toga, both rather ragged. His left hand gripped a fold of the toga and was half hidden under the cloth. The right held a phurba (magic dagger). His right arm moved slightly at each step as if leaning on a stick, just as though the phurba, whose pointed extremity was far above the ground, had touched it and were actually a support.

My servants dismounted and bowed their heads to the ground as the lama passed before us, but he went his way apparently unaware of our presence. I thought I had done enough to comply with local customs by suppressing my desire to stop the traveler. I already began to vaguely regret it and thought that at any rate I would see some more of the affair. I ordered the servants to remount their beasts at once and follow the lama. He had already covered a good distance; but without trying to overtake him, we did not let that distance increase and, with the glasses as well as with our naked eyes, my son and I looked continually at the lung-gom-pa.

It was no longer possible to distinguish his face, but we could still see the amazing regularity of his spring steps. We followed him for about two miles and then he left the track, climbed a steep slope and disappeared in the mountain range that edged the steppe. Riders could not follow that way and our observations came to an end. We could only turn back and continue our journey.

From Magic and Mystery in Tibet by Alexandra David-Neel as anthologized in Adventures with the Buddha, © 2005 Jeffery Paine, editor (W. W. Norton).

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