Tuesday, February 20, 2007

Lobsang Rampa Good to Think?

"In the fort of King Tsedé I saw a prisoner holding in his hand a sharpened file. Still, he didn't cut his chains. The necessity of the file was wasted."
— Padampa Sanggyé, Andhran Buddhist teacher in 11th-Century Tibet.

In general I think it's an excellent idea to think outside the box, or at least test the boundaries from the inside from time to time. I get fed up with some archaeologists I know of who narrow in on pottery shards and how they fit into their own typologies (and perhaps *only* their own). I want to tell them to take up scrying for crying outloud, but I keep my mouth shut. Once I had a temp job in a building that held a think-tank full of worldclass physicists (no, I was most definitely *not* part of the group… I have trouble with basic taxform-preparation-level math, let alone those 20-yard-long formulae they left for the janitor to clean off the blackboard). One day they were talking in the hallway, and one of them commented how impossible it would be for any scientist to believe in that astrology crap, and everyone seemed to be nodding in agreement. After the group split up, one of them took me aside and told me what he was ashamed to say in front of his overly cerebral buddies, that he once went to an astrologer, and what she told him was "right on the mark." Him saying that really confused my categorical thinking even as it was heightening my appreciation for the Heisenberg uncertainty principle.

But then I was telling another of the physicists one time about a letter of complaint a physicist wrote to a NYC Buddhist magazine,
Tricycle, in which he said that physicists and Buddhists each have their own very distinctive and complex methods for arriving at truth, and so it is a mistake to try to compare or mix them up with each other. This other physicist again surprised me by saying that that letter-writing physicist lacked imagination.

In Karen Mutton's remarkable new book about Lobsang Rampa there is a section about what could largely be called "extreme prehistory ideas." Here Rampa figures among such giants of widely rejected yet often accepted strains of science as Immanuel Velikovsky (1895-1979) and Erich Anton Paul von Däniken (b. 1935). I won't go into these ideas about catastrophe theories, extraterrestrial visitations, subterranean civilizations and ancient technologies. There are others much better equipped to make the arguments. I just want to suggest that it is not a sin to consider ideas that turn conventional paradigms on their heads. As a student of humanities, at the very least I see great merit in trying to understand how and why humans come up with the ideas that they actually come up with, not just why they come up with the usual ideas that add very little to the body of consensual knowledge. Saying this does *not* mean I personally believe in the authenticity of
Dropa stones. (For those not in the know, these are ancient stone CDs brought in by ETs.)

Even some of your more positivist (or minimalist) scientists have to admit that, even if — to their own minds — it's a longshot that life will be found on other planets in our galaxy, the idea of possibly finding signs of extraterrestrial intelligence can be a great motivator for space exploration that will anyway result in valuable findings of one sort or another. Most of us are not satisfied to sort out the shards (even if we might be forced to admit the off chance that a new shard could result in a big paradigm shift). We'd rather find out something significant about the larger patterns of the universe and how we ourselves fit into it. We may or may not be comfortable with how the society surrounding us 'places' us, more or less against our will, into its ruling cosmological programs. We may (and some of us at least often do) feel driven to look for alternative ways of seeing things. Look at the early
Gnostics for a prime example.

I think one of the main reasons that Tibetologists did and do dismiss Rampa is because most of what he says, his teachings, are told in ways that do not correspond to the ways Tibetans explain Buddhism. One could argue that he didn't receive a typical monastic education while in Tibet, that his teachers were renegade thinkers or the like. But I imagine another way around this (assuming you might be looking for the bypass). Let's say for the sake of argument that he did in fact have a Buddhist Tibetan intelligence dwelling in his English body (leaving the molecular replacement aside), and that one of his main concerns was to present the ideas to his audience in a way that they could understand. And the language he chose was the language of the western occultists popular in his day (I think Karen Mutton shows this quite clearly in her 'Literary Studies' chapter). That could be thought of as an extreme hypothesis, and anyway the differences are not always merely in the expression, but in matters of greater substance as well. Actually the Buddha himself is often credited with the talent of speaking to people in their own language. He could even adjust his presentation of things for people with different preconceptions or perceptions, with different world views (they call this skilful means or
upaya). The compassionate motivation that wishes others could be free of delusions justifies what might itself look (at the moment or in retrospect) like an illusion.
(I'm not sure I'm expressing this well, certainly not well enough. Buddhists do work with this paradox that only complete Enlightenment is delusion-free, while getting there involves going through any number of delusions, one inside or after the other. Which means the path to Enlightenment is indeed made up of delusions. Of course Buddhists do then go on to distinguish delusions that can under the right circumstances be conducive to Enlightenment from those that we'll likely just get stuck in, or that are only going to lead to more and more entangling delusions…)

I personally disagree with those postmodern 'Mythos Tibet' Tibetologists. I think they are reactionaries. By that I mean that they swing the pendulum too far in the direction of describing Tibet as everyday land (the Ronald Macdonald dark-matter counterpart to Shangri La): Nothing but a bunch of more as well as less petty political struggles and squabbles, and hey, let's just forget those stories about levitation, hanging up wet clothes to dry on sunbeams, & the like, all those medieval miracle stories. I like to remind them that even with those particularly nasty instances we might point to (like the squeezing out of Lungshar's eyes, machinations of the Lhasa elite, some evil landlord in Kham, or that one monk that took ordination only as a path to wealth and power, whatever), you search in vain in early Tibetan history for anything the least bit approaching the St. Bartholomew Days Massacre, the Spanish Inquisition or the Holocaust. These latter events, in case I must remind you, happened at various times in several neighboring countries that form parts of 'civilized' western Europe.

(I am also thinking of those international Christian terrorists who breached the northern walls of Jerusalem and promptly massacred every last non-Christian man, woman and child. The First Crusade it's called. We're still waiting for the final results of that one. We can only hope that the seesaw of history will someday soon tilt in favor of resolution at the expense of repercussions.)

I think the shining examples of spiritual enlightenment like Milarepa could never have grown and developed as they did if they had lived in some sort of milky-pure land free of dissatisfaction, disharmony and strife. On the other hand, without their living presence, the society as a whole could have been thrown off orbit resulting in a history full of awesome acts of collective (even sanctioned) violence like you find in Europe in those same time frames. Where do you find the balance, the objectivity, if I may use that truly iffy word, to locate the bigger and fuller picture of what Tibet was? It's all so political, political at every step. Tibet was not everyday land. It was not the serf-owning society Chinese Marxism makes it out to have been. It was not the perfect realm of total peace (or Robert Thurman's ironically named "monastic army of peace"). It was and is a very special place with some hugely exceptional human beings. It has huge problems today, and the situation often seems hopeless, or hopelessly complicated, to those who care to follow what's been happening there in the last 50 years. And finally, Yes, old Tibet has much to tell us and give us today and, we may hope, tomorrow.

In anthropology they have the idea of 'adequate representation' which means you at least have to make the valiant attempt to portray the group of people you're studying in such a way that your audience will see something that does those other people justice overall. Not a clipped off corner of the photograph that people will suppose is a whole photograph. You don't dig up a 19th-century American town, discover the court records and conclude from them that the town was exclusively inhabited by petty thieves and burglers (and Oh yeah, judges and cops). You try your best to fill out the picture from other evidence that has popped up, or might pop up yet. It's likely that the other evidence is out there. Of course if you've already come up with what you think are adequate reasons for hating the U.S., you'll jump on that courtroom evidence & wave it in the air so everyone will have to agree that your spite for those Americans, those thieves and burglers, is justifiable.

(Sorry, that is just too real an example to be a good one, or too good to be real, if you've been following what's happened to the U.S. image in the rest of the world of late.)

I think if you were to think, even for just a moment, of Rampa as an anthropologist, he actually doesn't do a bad job of delivering a wholistic vision of Tibetan society in Lhasa in the early 20th century. Maybe not a perfect job (and of course those middle-aged Tibetologists in the mid-50's were bound to pick out or pick up on different imperfections because of their own different perspectives; well, yes, if temple-guarding cats didn't exist one would simply have to make them up), but I would have trouble coming up with any writer from his time who is as free of colonialist bias — something that after all concerns those postmodernist postcolonialists much more than any factual details — as Rampa is.
You could almost think of him as a kind of Lafcadio Hearn (1850-1904), the Irish-Greek journalist who became a naturalized Japanese citizen. True, Rampa and Hearn included bizarre and sensational elements in their accounts of Tibetan and Japanese culture, but at the same time and more significantly, I think, they brought Tibet and Japan into the orbit of humanity to a degree scarcely known before them. Both engaged imaginations in the world outside their borders, in the process evoking overall positive and sympathetic images of the cultures within them.


  1. You might be interested in reading my Memoire on Lobsang Rampa. It is in French though, but maybe you are able to read French, or to use a translating tool. Your view is interesting and might benefit from the perspectives I brought in my memoire. You can find it on academia.edu (PdF) or on my blog page, at wordpress... indosophic.... relire-t-lobsang-rampa-analyse-dun-mythe-moderne.
    Karl-Stephan Bouthillette

  2. Thanx KXB, It looks interesting. Always interested in gaining new perspectives. I do think the 'teachings' of L.R. are all derivative (derived mainly from western occultism, with scarcely a hint of real Tibetan Buddhist ideas), and that he was a man of little compassion and even less patience. Most of his energy it seems he spent on self-justification. He and his modern followers tend to have a degree of spite for Tibetans, which makes him (and them, to judge from my small experience with them) unsympathetic as far as I am concerned.


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