Marco Pallis

The following article is from the Autumn, 1989 issue of the Snow Lion Newsletter and is for historical reference only. You can see this in context of the original newsletter here.

June 19, 1895-June 5, 1989

Although Marco Pallis was born in Liverpool of Greek parents, it was perhaps Indian influences that first shaped his imagination. For his father Alexander combined business life in the largely eastern trading firm of Ralli Brothers with scholarship and poetry and the family home contained a variety of oriental artifacts.

Marco survived Harrow with musical and botanical interests intact and, accompanied by his brother and sister, did ambulance work in the Balkan War of 1912-13. In the First World War he joined the Grenadier Guards and after he was wounded in France, good use was found in censorship for his unusual command of languages.

It was after a period at Liverpool University that the three major strands of his life started to reveal themselvesmusic, mountaineering and metaphysics. Pre-war visits to Vevey and admiration for the work of Wagner had kindled his interest in music. This was now to develop into active enthusiam for Bach which in turn led to participation in the revival of early music. He became a pupil of Arnold Dolmetsch in 1925 and met Richard Nicholson, thereafter his devoted and life-long friend, when the latter was still at Oxford University. Together they studied the viola da gamba and harpischord and collected a group of players around themit was the brother of one of these musicians who introduced Marco to mountaineering which was to result in contact with Tibetans and with Buddhism.

Musical and mountaineering projects became more adventurous as time passed and in the 1930s the English Consort of Viols was formed in Liverpool.

There were visits to the Alps and in 1933 and 1936 Marco organized two expeditions to the Himalayas. During this period he fell under the spell of Gandhi and also absorbed the teachings of Rene Guenon; these helped to prepare his mind for his first-hand meeting with Tibetan Buddhism, which he adopted in 1936.

Experiences and thought on these travels are recorded in Peaks and Lamas (1939), a travel book which combines a lucid exposition of leading aspects of Tibetan Buddhism with graphic descriptions of the mountaineering expeditions themselves. It is not too fanciful to suggest that it was at this time in his life that the impulse to climb started to focus at a higher and more spiritual level. But mysticism (a word that he seldom used and perhaps disliked), as with Meister Eckhart, was always tempered with realism and practicality so that, for example, in the 1939-45 war he devoted himself to social work in Liverpool and to study of the Tibetan language.

By the end of the war he was fully prepared for the return to Sikkim in 1947, with permission to visit Gyantse and Shigatse in Tibet. This trip was undertaken with Richard Nicholson alone and was followed by a prolonged stay in India during which Marco continued to make contact with Tibetans and even wrote a book in the Tibetan tongue describing the danger soon to beset their culture and their religion.

After the invasion of Tibet by China he returned to England. The English Consort of Viols was reconstituted in London and continued to rediscover and perform relatively unknown sixteenth- and seventeenth-centry English chamber music.

Musical composition and performance now went hand in hand with essays on metaphysics and with practical assistance to Tibetan refugees in Great Britain. That Marco became not only their friend but also advisor is acknowledged today by Lamas both here and along the length of the Himalayas.

Music from this period included a set of part songs, pieces for viola da gamba, a cantata-like work for solo baritone and orchestra, a string quartet and many essays published in the form of booksThe Way and the Mountain and A Buddhist Spectrumas well as in collections of essays such as Stuidies in Comparative Religion and The Sword of Gnosis, the latter edited by Jacob Needleman. His last years were devoted to writing a full-length opera about the Tibetan sage Milarepa.

It remains to risk a brief comment: that he was and remains a great teacherone might also say a prophetwho made sense of life and of the life to come; in whose presence insuperable difficulties became less daunting; who took endless trouble to help those who brought their problems to him; someone to whom the spiritual quest in prayer was the one thing needful, who by his own life demonstrated the validity and truth of traditional teachings; and that, however emasculated by modernism, these remain the only valid criteria for those who, as he would put it, have ears to hear. His life was a celebration of' 'The Marriage of Wisdom and Method, and which is the title of one of his essays.

Peter Talbot Willcox

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