by Charles Carreon
Viewed through the lens of modern media the American involvement with Tibetan Buddhism seems a recent affair, that began in the nineties with the lionization of the Dalai Lama by the Hollywood elite. That was, however, but the tip of the iceberg. A vast mass of dangerous material remained hidden beneath the surface of the Tibetan Buddhist tradition, concealed under His Holiness’s steady stream of spiritual nostrums, phrased in ecumenical pidgin. For decades, His Holiness shed a tranquil glow over the world scene, but his role as the sole and supreme exponent of Tibetan Buddhism could not last forever.
The dark and dangerous side of Tibetan Buddhism has been known since the eighteen-hundreds, when explorers from various nations entered the Forbidden Kingdom, and published accounts that almost uniformly described a benighted society out of the European Middle Ages, when the Church of Rome and its Inquisitorial henchmen ruled Christendom free of the constraints of reason. For, as had been in Europe during the days of the Inquisition, likewise in modern Tibet, indictments for witchcraft were supported by fantastical proofs, brutal tortures and executions were presided over by holy men, and society as a whole pronounced the carnage just.
If we in the US, Europe, Australia and other targets of the New Age spirituality onslaught, had known what was hidden below the surface of Tibetan Buddhism, perhaps we would have been more cautious, more questioning. If students had been less gullible about the motivations of Tibetan lamas, they might have refused to engage in feudal obeisance to please people who were trained to sit on thrones, and expect bows, prostrations, and offerings. If students had refused to abase themselves, they would have rejected pressure from criminal-gurus like Sogyal, Trungpa, and Osel Mukpo to sacralize abuse, denial and deceit under the guise of crazy wisdom. If they had not been built into criminal enterprises, the Rigpa and Shambhala organizations would not be staving off final dissolution.
Gullibility has always been a feature of the American psyche, as noted often by Mark Twain in Huckleberry Finn, where a group of gullible small-town people are easily deceived by two scoundrels who claim to be a duke and a king, and accordingly are given royal treatment. Huck reads up on royalty, and shares his knowledge with Jim:
We may laugh at this, but our attitude toward Tibetan lamas was no more sophisticated than Huck and Jim’s knowledge of European royalty. And like Huck and Jim fall for the faux-nobles, the entire world has fallen at the feet of the Tibetans. As Huck recounts, the first scoundrel begins by announcing himself to be “the rightful Duke of Bridgewater … degraded to the companionship of felons on a raft.”I read considerable to Jim about kings and dukes and earls and such, and how gaudy they dressed, and how much style they put on, and called each other your majesty, and your grace, and your lordship, and so on, 'stead of mister; and Jim's eyes bugged out, and he was interested.
He says: “I didn' know dey was so many un um. … How much do a king git?”
“Get?” I says; “why, they get a thousand dollars a month if they want it; they can have just as much as they want; everything belongs to them.”
“Ain't dat gay? En what dey got to do, Huck?”
“They don't do nothing! Why, how you talk! They just set around.”
The Tibetan lamas were presented to Americans as noble and worthy of reverence because they were from Shangri La. They sought assistance in their plight, and assured us they were bringing us a treasure beyond measure. Well, what can you do for a fallen noble bearing a spiritual treasure, but pick him up, dust him off, and place him above you? As Huck, moved by the duke’s self-pitying soliloquy, said, “We tried to comfort him, but he said it warn’t much use, he couldn’t be comforted; said if we was a mind to acknowledge him, that would do him more good than most anything else; so we said we would, if he would tell us how. He said we ought to bow when we spoke to him, and say, ‘Your Grace,’ or “My Lord,’ or ‘Your Lordship” – and … one of us ought to wait on him at dinner, and do any little thing for him that he wanted done.” In similar style, we Americans were taught that, should we desire the blessing of receiving the teachings, we should erect a throne for the lama, bow to him, take care of all his needs, make donations to the temple, and show generosity to all the members of his entourage. The justification for all this? “That’s how it was in Tibet!”
The Shambhala philosophy of monarchy-as-Buddhism is the most fulsome fruit of this type of naievete. Destined for early senescence, like its founder Chogyam Trungpa, Shambhala and its predecessor-entity, Vajradhatu, was infected with the crazy wisdom virus from day one. It destroyed Osel Tenzin and Osel Mukpo for the same reason – no one can handle being the holder of the explosion of ego that is unleashed when a crazy guru and a crazy sangha try to do crazy wisdom. As the second incarnation in a newly-minted “lineage” of “enlightened rulers” known as “Earth Lords,” aka “Sakyongs,” Osel Mukpo suffered a launch-pad explosion that terminated prospects for future Sakyongs. The Shambhala brain trust has to figure out how to retire the Sakyong they’ve got, the one who made a mockery of an authority and capital structure predicated on him being bankable. To be fair to Osel Mukpo, he was a victim of changing social norms, just like Harvey Weinstein. One day, his whole business model was built around his abusive behavior, and the next day, it became verboten. Who was to know?
It might have been known, and prevented, by a simple inoculation of unbiased information into the Dharma student population. Suppose American students had known that, in Tibet, lamas used their version of Buddhism to extort wealth from vulnerable believers and maintain an indolent lifestyle – would that alter our view of their worthiness to be our gurus? To receive veneration and obedience? We could have gotten the information from reliable sources – nineteenth century travelers [Three Years in Tibet, by Shramana Ekai Kawaguchi; The Buddhism of Tibet, or Lamaism With Its Mystic Cults, Symbolism and Mythology, and in its Relation to Indian Buddhism, by Laurence Austine Waddell, M.B., F.L.S., F.R.G.S.; Seven Years in Tibet, by Heinrich Harrer]. These previously well-known sources have become virtually unknown to modern students of Old Tibet, because they contradict the current expurgated version of Tibetan history that is used to garner sympathy for the Dalai Lama as the mindful-compassionate leader of the Tibetan Government in Exile. These sources have been buried in the usual ways -- censored by non-publication, removed from lists of reliable sources by scholars, and denounced as biased accounts by participants interested in the political events of the day. It is hard to imagine how or why Kawaguchi would have been motivated to fabricate the stories of brutal flogging with hundreds of lashes, sure to be lethal in many cases, crushing of skulls to force out eyeballs, amputation of the hands, and other horrors. Even more awful than the sheer physical cruelty is the demonic malice shown by powerful Tibetans, usually actual Tibetan lamas, in imposing punishments that will deprive individuals of spiritual benefit, as they conceive the scheme of reincarnation and soul-evolution. For example, a person who is blinded or maimed loses more, in the Tibetan Buddhist scheme of rebirth advantages, than just the use of their sight or limbs. They also lose their “precious human body,” which is the prerequisite for being able to practice Buddhadharma and make progress to emerge from cyclic suffering. So blinding or maiming a person is deliberately inhibiting their progress out of the realm of cyclic suffering. Similarly, Kawaguchi reports the Tibetans had a practice of decapitating the head of an executed person, displaying it for public revilement, then imprisoning it in a jar in a special building, to prevent the executed individual from incarnating again as a human. This evinces a very cruel intent, a will that the person be deprived of a fortunate human rebirth in which great progress towards liberation can be made, and forced instead to incarnate in the lower realms, as an animal, demon, or ghost, where little spiritual progress can be made. These ritual flourishes for imposing afterlife punishment show extreme malice, the opposite of the Buddhist rationality, kindness, and sympathy typical of the Dalai Lama’s teachings. https://www.dalailama.com/books
The false image of Tibetan Buddhism that was provided to Americans was not contrived by accident. Tibet had long been the repository of fantasies, a congenial place for Blavatsky to imagine a Theosophical utopia with Westernized Ascended Masters like Koothoomi and St. Germaine. They were up there – way over there – in a place where mountain ranges appeared that no white man had ever seen, a place with a lost horizon – the last glimpse of a mountain range with a signature profile – and in a mystic valley, a place beyond time. That’s the image of Tibet that James Hilton, author of Lost Horizon, planted in the minds of millions of readers.
Hilton later wrote for Hollywood, so he flew his readers to Tibet on the impossible pretext that the plane was hijacked in Pakistan and refueled in a mountain pass by some friendly peasants with jerry-cans full of fuel. This plot twist is about as probable as the rest of the story, that posits that the Shangri La valley is ruled over by a supreme lama who is actually an old Catholic monk who has lived for two-hundred and fifty years and never lets his visitors leave. He mind-controls the local Tibetans, and they don’t care that he’s a Christian. He is very hospitable, served excellent food and drink, and the layout of his temple is like that of a very nice AirBnB, with breathtaking views of soaring snow-peaks. The protagonist is her Majesty’s man on the spot, Hugh Conway, a British Foreign Office public-school man who exudes studied noblesse oblige. We’re not surprised when the long-lived Grand Lama offers Conway his secrets and dominion, but after this pregnant disclosure, the plot runs aground. Conway is abruptly enlisted one night by his aide to help him escape the valley with his beloved, a beautiful female resident of Shangri La. The story then breaks off, and we learn only that Conway somehow left Shangri La, and was found wandering without his wits and nursed back to health by a fellow who writes down the story. Conway recovers his memory, but his ultimate end is unknown, and Hilton fails to tie up other loose narrative strings.
You’ve got to wonder how Lost Horizon became so popular, and why it has been produced on radio so many times. I give it two stars. Its meaning is too inconsequential to warrant the required suspension of disbelief. The book has an unusual place in publishing history that gave it unprecedented impact on a couple of generations of readers. When Pocket Books published Lost Horizon in 1933, Hilton was not yet famous, but he enjoyed wide success in 1934 with Goodbye, Mr. Chips, a short, emotional novella about an English schoolmaster. Piggybacking on that success, Pocket Books published Lost Horizon as “Pocket Book #1,” the first in a long line of softcover, low-priced, mass market editions suitable for carrying in purse or pocket. Lost Horizon was published more than forty times by Pocket Books alone, running into millions of copies just by the 1960s. The concept of Shangri La, the secret place outside of time, gained universal currency. During the Second World War, when Gen. Doolittle was asked by the press where the bombers that raided Tokyo had taken off from, he answered, “Shangri La.” In 1944, the US Navy commissioned the USS Shangri-La, that saw service in the Pacific and Vietnam. FDR named his retreat “Shangri La.” Eisenhower renamed it “Camp David.” Frank Capra directed a movie version of Lost Horizon in 1937. A musical movie version was made in 1973. Orson Wells and Norman Coleman both produced radio versions. Leading men seem to like to adopt Conway’s persona as a spiritual man of action.
Those in charge of Western statecraft in the US and Britain had been planning to use Tibet in their geopolitical maneuverings, and with the emergence of the Chinese communist threat, the Dalai Lama became a religio-political personage of great significance. The image of Tibet as Shangri La, and the Dalai Lama as its godlike leader, could now be deployed. His doctrines had been prepared for consumption by Western elites, seeking a new religion, having burned out on Christianity. Buddhism had already been worked into an acceptable form by the Mahabodhi Society and the Theosophical Publishing House. It only awaited the Dalai Lama to gaze upon and approve the new, sanitized Buddhism extracted from the multifarious doctrines Buddhism has generated. In turn, the new, generally-approved Buddhism would cover over the history of Tibet’s lamas and warlords, with their demonic punishments, dismal doctrines, and crushing taxation.
The Dalai Lama was the man in the robe at that inflection point in history when people still have faith in faith, and are looking for a good horse to back. His Holiness stepped out of Tibet’s medieval frame and into the dawn of the new century. He was not doctrinaire, and engaged with rationality as the model for human problem solving. The new Buddhism – pragmatic and adaptable – suited him and his presentation style. Cryptic, humorous, lively, interested – these characteristics of his were more convincing than doctrine or logic. But the fact that the Dalai Lama was able to teach this new, sanitized Dharma did not mean that the toxic old behaviors seen in Tibet had disappeared. The heirs of that bad tradition made the leap to our land, and made their impression on our culture.
We have now made the whole trip with the Tibetans. We started by embracing ignorance, relying on naivete, trusting to the goodness of strangers with a special reputation. We began by flying through the clouds, on a hijacked airplane, looking for the profile of a magic mountain, and when we landed there, we would never come back. We would make Shangri La reality. We were fools. We stayed attached to our illusion as long as it endured, and we strove to maintain it like someone trying to hold onto a dream. But the morning comes, and the dream ends, and reality presents itself.