Teachers as sages. Also, Tibet

Here is something wonderful from Donald Lopez’s Prisoners of Shangri-La: Tibetan Buddhism and the West1 If you have not read it, it is a very good book on what ‘Tibet’ has meant to the West, written by a leading Tibet scholar. One set of books that he deals with are the works of T. Lobsang Rampa. Rampa was a Tibetan Lama whose 1956 autobiography The Third Eye was an important part of the popularization of ideas about Tibet. Lopez points out that many professional Tibetologists first became fascinated with Tibet after reading this book. Later editions contain prefaces denying rumours that Rampa was actually a Devonshire man named Cyril Henry Hoskin who had never been to Tibet. These rumours do not seem to have hurt sales of his books to Westerners seeking Tibetan wisdom, however. Lopez, who apparently has a sense of humour as well as being a great scholar, assigned The Third Eye to his students at the University of Michigan.

.. having them read it without telling them anything of its history. (The edition currently available in the United States for some reason omits the “Statement by the Author.”) The students were unanimous in their praise of the book, and despite six prior weeks of lectures and readings on Tibetan history and religion (including classics such as R. A. Stein’s Tibetan Civilization), they found it entirely credible and compelling, judging it more realistic than anything they had previously read about Tibet, appreciating the detail about “what Tibet was really like,” giving them “a true understanding about Tibet and Buddhism.” Many of the things they had read about Tibet seemed strange until then; these things seemed more reasonable when placed within the context of a lama’s life. It is not that the things Rampa described were not strange; it was that they were so strange that they could not possibly have been concocted. When I told them about the book’s author, they were shocked, but immediately wanted to separate fact from fiction. How much of the book was true?
With the author unmasked they awoke from their mystified state, and with eyes opened turned away from Rampa and toward me for authority. Each of their questions began, “Did Tibetans really … ?” “Did Tibetans really perform amputations without anaesthesia, with the patients using breath control and hypnotism instead?” “Did monks really eat communally and in silence while the Scriptures were read aloud?” “If a monk violated the eightfold path, was he punished by having to lie motionless face down across the door of the temple for a full day, without food or drink?” “Are the priests in Tibet vegetarian?” “Did priests really only ride white horses?” “Were horses really only ridden every other day?” “Did acolytes really wear white robes?” “Did cats really guard the temple jewels?” 23 “At the New Year’s festival, did monks really dress as giant buddhas and walk through the streets on stilts?” “Were there really  man-bearing kites in Tibet?” And of course, “Did they really perform the operation of the third eye?”
The answer to each of these questions was no. But by what authority did I confidently make such a pronouncement? I had not lived in old Tibet and so could not contradict Rampa’s claims with my own eyewitness testimony. It was, rather, that I had never seen any mention of such things in any of the books that I had read about Tibet-in English, French, or Tibetan. From reading other books, I had learned the standards of scholarly evidence, the need for corroboration by citing sources in footnotes.24 And because I had read a sufficient number of such books, I was awarded a doctorate some years ago, and with the proper documents in my possession to prove my identity had been given the power to consecrate and condemn the products of others, and the power to initiate others into this knowledge. This power, the power to speak both with authority and as an authority, that is, the power to bestow value, had been passed on to me by my teachers, who had in turn received it from their teachers. It was this power that was embodied in my “no.” But this power had come at a price. For by accepting this power I had had to forever disavow any interest in the possible commercial profits that might derive from my work. It was necessary that I renounce any self-interest in the economic value of my work, exchanging such capital for something higher and more noble because it was severed from crass material interests. This was symbolic capital, which would in its own way provide for my financial security by insuring that I would never have to offer my services to a publisher as a ghostwriter in order to support my wife and my cat, as Cyril Hoskin had done. The work of scholarship, like the work of art, retains its aura only when it is not reproduced too widely. Were it to sell a million copies, its aura of authority would fade.


This is a nice bit of writing that says a lot about the nature of teacherly authority. Obviously, Lopez needs to follow this up with a blazing example of his expertise, and he does.

It is not that Rampa’s claims can be dismissed because they are too strange. Had his research extended to include Evans-Wentz’s Tibetan Yoga and Secret Doctrines, he would have learned about ‘pho ba, or “transference of consciousness,” one of the six teachings of the tenth-century Indian tantric master Naropa (Na ro chos drug), whereby one can transfer one’s own consciousness into that of another being  (preferably a well-preserved corpse). The most famous case of consciousness transference in Tibetan literature is found in the biography of Marpa (Mar pa, 1012-1096), the teacher of Tibet’s great yogin Milarepa. Marpa’s son, Darmadoday (Dar rna mdo sde), after fracturing his skull in an equestrian accident, transferred his consciousness into the body of a recently deceased pigeon, since no human corpse could be found on short notice. The bird was then given directions by Marpa for flying across the Himalayas to India, where it discovered the fresh corpse of a thirteen- year-old brahman boy; the bird transferred its consciousness into the boy and then expired. The boy rose from the funeral pyre prior to his immolation and grew up to become the great yogin Tipupa (Ti phu pa). 26 Compared to this a Tibetan taking over the body of an unemployed Englishman seems rather mundane.

  1. University of Chicago Press, 1999  

1 Comment

  1. Thanks once again for nosing out significant and arresting reading. You sent me back to the Lopez book with great pleasure. One interesting thing in Lopez’ account of this interaction with his class is that he is loath to pull rank or to simply label Hoskin as a fraud. He takes great pain to dissect the nature of his own authority and to compare it to Hoskin’s authority without starting from the position that professional academic expertise is intrinsically superior. It seems to err on the side of permissive relativism, if anything.

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