Crook, John and James Low. The Yogins of Ladakh: A Pilgrimage Among the Hermits of the Buddhist Himalayas.
Delhi: Motilal Banarsidass, 1997.

Bristol University professor John Crook had studied the Ladakh region (of northwestern India, on the Himalayan boundary of Tibet) as an anthropologist and sociologist, but his interest in understanding Tibetan Buddhism, both as observer and practitioner, led to a second expedition to Ladakh in the 1980's. He had met fellow scholar James Low, a translator of Tibetan documents and an experienced practitioner, who joined him in the journey.

This book is the felicitous result of the travels they undertook. As Crook puts it, here is a book that is "a map of the cultural landscape" of the Ladakh hermits. Low contributed a chapter, plus a translation of a Tibetan meditation text. Along the way, Crook and Low work together in their journeys by foot and lorry, searching out and visiting yogins in monasteries, villages, and caves, sprinkling the text with conversations, anecdotes, and insights.

Crook acknowledges the work of ambitious travelers before him, beginning with the famous Alexandra David-Neel, whose "first hand accounts of the psychophysical yogas of meditating monks have fascinated scholars of Tibet ever since" their publication in the early decades of the twentieth century. Crook mentions other scholars and explorers, his own effort falling into the same tradition: a balance of travel writing and scholarship.

The Yogins of Ladakh is over 450 pages, complete with 72 photographs (though not of excellent resolution), lots of bibliographical references, a glossary and an index. Contents are neatly divided into three: 1) a short background chapter, 2) the travelogue, and 3) a fine summary of teaching and practice based on the authors' observation, experience, and scholarship. Here is the table of contents: 

  Preface: Hermits and Hermeneutics
  Part I. Background
  1. The Lineage of the Yogins
  Part II. Travelogue
  2. Maintaining the Revolutions of the Universe
  3. Meeting with Rimpoches
  4. Schools for Hermits
  5. The City and the Hills
  6. The Geshe of Saspola
  7. Return to Sani
  8. Light Rays of the Sun
  9. A Home of Ancient Yogins
10. The Hill of the Tigress
11. The Precious Jewel of Pipcha
12. Crossing the Mountains
13. Manali
Part III. Teaching and Practice
14. Teachings of the Yogins
15. Practising Chod in the Cemeteries of Ladakh
16. Privacy and Public Knowledge of the Dharma
17. The Meditation Notebooks of Tipun Padma Chogyal
18. End and Beginning


In Tibetan Buddhism, a yogin is an advanced practitioner, in contrast to the monk whose practice is circumscribed by the exigencies of monastic life. Of course, this is a generalization, for many yogins reside at monasteries. A better way to describe the yogin is in terms of historical origin.

The Buddha's insight can be seen as the realization that the individual could achieve Enlightenment through his or her own efforts, without the intervention of priests. This realization had a profound effect on individual practice (in Hindu India and beyond) but also on social structure, for it rejected the Hindu Brahmins as authorities.

Gautama's individual model of the wanderer, the casteless yogic practitioner, together with the mutual aid of the sangha he envisioned, became the alternative to prevalent orthodoxy, avoiding, Hindu caste byt also the extreme asceticism of Jainism, a contemporary alternative to Hindu orthodoxy. Hence the Buddha's model is similar to Tantric non-priestly Hinduism in its physical rituals (meditation, etc.) but evolving away from sadhu asceticism as well. The result is a holistic and thorough-going method of transforming the self.

Still, the remnants of Hindu Tantrism -- the aura of rituals, offerings (puja), demons, and mystic powers -- cling to the evolved Tibetan Buddhist yogins. To this aura must be added similar remnants derived from the Bon religion and the influence of the hardy landscape of Tibet and the Himalayas, plus the evolution of a largely isolated monastic culture. The yogin is unique even within Buddhist tradition.

Crook contrasts the "wild yogins" and the "scholarly monks" of the orthodox monasteries, whether Hindu or Buddhist. He relates the stories of Naropa and Tilopa (10-11th century), and the successive centuries of unique lay religious practitioners who shaped the yogin model: Marpa, Milarepa, Gampopa, Lingrepa, Gotsangpa, and the strong tradition that emerged in the twelfth century. Other high points in the evolution and history of yogin thought and practice include the work of Padma Karpo (16th century), Drubchen Ngawang Tsering (18th century), and the Shakyashri lineage in western Tibet. In short, Crook clearly demonstrates an establish legacy of yogins that projects into the present -- though cultural, political, ad technological changes to Ladakh have virtually abolished the tenuous link to the living past.

Encounters with Hermits

Crook and Low followed a specific itinerary in attempting to identify and interview yogins. From the first yogins they encounter they learn that there are "a number of yogins hidden away practicing their meditations in the mountains." Crook offers a profile or model of them:

... a psychological assurance, an inner certainty, that was quite different from the scholarly attainments and logically organised faith of even a learned monk. I found it difficult to express in words what this quality was but I was to find it in several advanced meditators: if one word will do it is "freedom."

The author calls the yogins the "commandos of Tibetan Buddhism." For them the basic teachings are essential and the karmic responsibility toward generous laity is taken seriously. Moreover, they are resolved to attain Buddhahood "in one lifetime," to pursue the Bodhisattva vow of liberating all beings to the disregard of personal preferences, idiosyncrasies, or problems.

But it is their methods that interests explorers Crook and Low. As on yogin tells them,

Meditation and academic study and like two partners in a dispute who must interact to resolve problems. Without analysis meditation would be no better than sleeping; without meditation there is defective concentration and lack of experience leading to shallow debate and mere wordy argument.

"Read Chandrakirti!" advises this geshe. Chandrakirti was a successor to Nagarjuna, probably the greatest Buddhist philosopher. Remote and isolated physically they may be, but the yogins are not lacking in intellectual resources!

Crook proposes an outline of the main points of hermit's practice, confirmed to him by one of the higher lamas he meets: 1) original mind, 2) complete openness, 3) absolute spontaneity, 4) natural perfection, 5) everyday practice, and 6) meditation. These categories are not successive but simultaneous in pursuing the success of practice.

But, in answer to Crook's inquiry about practice, the Rimpoche declared, "You can't practice it unless you know it beforehand." "Then how can one begin?" wonders Crook. "Either you see it or you don't," comes the reply, followed by an extensive discussion on the difference between Chagchen and Dzogchen, two schools within yogin tradition. The Rimpoche concludes that they are essentially the same, simply two methods for attaining the same end.

Among the Drikungpa yogins, standard training begins with "preliminaries" or meditations on specific themes, then special preliminaries involving prostrations, mandalas, and visualizations. The main training follows, involving contemplations and culminating in the Bodhisattva vow and the evocation of a protector or visualized being. This is followed by Mahamudra (advanced meditation) and the "six yogas of Naropa" which include more esoteric practice: tummo or heat generation, dream meditation, and the advanced practices called Illusory Body, Clear Light, and Intermediate State. The last of these is a meditation on the bardo or death passage. Finally, the practice called transference of consciousness is mastered. These practices all involve visualized channels of breathing and breathing exercises which the author compares to advanced Taoist practices.

During ordinary "preliminaries," which take at least three months, the monk moves progressively from one category to another based on interviews and examinations by a teacher. Special preliminaries can take up to sixteen months.

On completing the course, the yogin may become a hermit and continue to practise on his own in lengthy enclosed retreats. He has the aim of becoming a siddha, a meditator of exceptional quality. He may however also remain in a community and practice there.

Thus the distinction of hermit and monk at this point is the decision of life style as much as practice.

The esteem enjoyed by the hermit in Ladakh is a universal sentiment., Says Crook:

Sadness was expressed at the fact that so many of the yogins' caves in the mountains were empty. The nobility of the yogins' endeavour was well recognised. ... The yogin was the rare exemplar who showed that liberation was possible. No matter that the methods were not understood, that secrecy was sustained; the monk living in freezing cells in a mountain cave had accomplished something remarkable. He received a curiously reticent respect, for he had "gone beyond" in ways the average man cannot envisage. The yogins were the unsung heroes of the dharmas.

One traditional school of yogins codifies its practice in the "Four Jewels of the Kadampas," namely:

  1. Not to be afraid of meditation alone in a cave.
  2. Not to be afraid of meditating alone in a cave with very little food and getting ill.
  3. Not to be afraid of meditating alone in a cave and dying there.
  4. Not to be afraid of meditating alone in a cave and dying there with no one even knowing your name.

In a small village of Drakung, Crook and Low come across a small hut once occupied by a famous hermit who had died fifteen years earlier. No further occupants used the hut. Nevertheless, the authors enter and describe it.

As the door swung open we peered into a little building which turned out to contain four miniature chambers, a kitchen, shrine room, an area probably used for sleeping and a toilet. ...

The monk told us that the place had probably been empty ever since the last incumbent died. ... I felt sad to think of all those years of practice, now forgotten, with no hermit to take up the inner task.

On the other hand, in the Zangskar valley, the authors come upon a hermitage in the craggy slopes -- a cavity in the cliff face built up with block and boulders. A monk beckoned them inside.

There was a small entrance chamber and then a dark staircase up which we climbed to an upper storey. There we found two small rooms, and, in one of them, sat a second monk, smiling at us over a primus stove with a boiling pot of tea.

Crook offers a lengthy description of the hermitage: a window view of nothing but sky, an aperture in the face of another room through which a spring of fresh spring water trickled.

Of another hermit visited, who lived on the grounds of a cemetery, the author writes:

He was dressed in tattered clothing, wore a filthy monk's hat on his head and a long grey beard. ... His manners were most gentle, welcoming us softly as if we were a sort of interruption to inward contemplation. Yes -- he was a practitioner of Mahamudra -- but his eyes were now a great trouble to him and when they failed he would die. ... My impression was that his entire life was an offering. A deep inward peace and gentleness pervaded all our time with him.

Crook goes on to make an interesting observation on the hermits he encounters:

There is a kindness, a generosity and simplicity about these asked yogins that is extremely impressive and very different from the abrasive uncertain male energy now common in the West. These men are important as fathers. Here are male models supremely well worth understanding.

During the Ladakh travels, Crook and Low were informed that an English woman was in these very mountains, in a cave pursuing a retreat. It turns out that this was Tensin Palmo.

Chapter 14 is a solid summary of the tenets of Buddhism from the yogin point of view. This section is invaluable in providing an authentic perspective based on the original teachings of the yogins. "Tantric practitioners may be monks with ascetic practices," notes Crook, "but may equally well be wandering yogins dedicated to practices that at first sight might be read as self-indulgence."

By self-indulgent is meant simply that they may lead layperson's lives. For while all the hermits have chosen not to be monks in the ecclesiastical sense, there are some who learn the advanced practices and continue them even while marrying and pursuing the life of a lay person, such as a farmer or herder. They are no longer strictly hermits but they further confound the yogin model -- let alone the monastic one.

For the yogins who are hermits, and those who have learned the discipline and now support them as lay people, have both not only transcended a strictly ascetic path, and mastered the "Sutra path" -- that of philosophy and intellect -- but now pursue the tantric path, namely the path toward attainment of "Buddhahood in one lifetime." This is the Bodhisattva vow that the yogins find compatible with different life styles. This characteristic thought has its counterpart with ancient Chinese Taoist practices, with its farmer hermits and hermit married couples. It is certainly a different model of general lay society, and embodies virtues that are both personal and practical.


Crook reflects again on the essential character of the yogins.

The most striking feature of the yogins we visited was equanimity. They seemed to reside within an aura of inner peace and total certainty. They possessed a joy in the dharma which came from having penetrated to its core and made it their own. ... All of them possessed a species of assured happiness rooted in an absence of ordinary attachment as the world knows it: land, wealth, marriage. As renunciants they had become cloud wanderers -- as the Japanese call the Zen monks who drift from monastery to monastery with no premeditated plans.

The author extrapolates on what the yogins could mean to the modern world and its values:

Their disciplined self regulation and understanding is both the cause and consequence of the type of wisdom that a world basing its values on self-indulgent individualism and bloated with material consumption so severely lacks. ... The yogins suggest an alternative way and at the same time reveal the type of discipline that is required to achieve it. The way out of the consequences of gross self-indulgence will not be easy, yet, from the viewpoint of the yogins, most of the pain involved is illusory.