Friday, March 09, 2007

Who Was That White Lama?

"Who, in India, has not heard of the Banda-Chan Ramboutchi, the Houtouktou of the capital of Higher Thibet? His brotherhood of Khe-lan was famous throughout the land; and one of the most famous 'brothers' was a Peh-ling (an Englishman) who had arrived one day during the early part of this century, from the West, a thorough Buddhist, and after a month's preparation was admitted among the Khe-lans. He spoke every language, including the Thibetan, and knew every art and science, says the tradition. His sanctity and the phenomena produced by him caused him to be proclaimed a shaberon after a residence of but a few years. His memory lives to the present day among the Thibetans, but his real name is a secret with the shaberons alone."

— H.P. Blavatsky, Isis Unveiled.

Sometimes it looks as if the 'Tibetan' (?) words used in Madame Blavatsky's works were first pronounced in a northeastern dialect, transcribed in Mongolian, then Russian, and finally spelled according French ideas about phonetics. Banda-Chan Ramboutchi is of course the Panchen Lama (Ramboutchi being Rinpoche). Peh-ling (phyi-gling, 'outer continent') is a normal word for 'foreigners' of the less familiar kind. I was especially curious what 'shaberon' means (from the appearance, it ought to be Mongolian, like 'Houtouktou,' more often spelled Huthugtu or Hutuktu, most certainly is). An official Theosophical Society webpage gives the following explanation:

"Shaberon zhabs dpad blon (shab-pe-lon) (Tibetan) [from zhabs dpad lotus feet cf Sanskrit padmapada a title of respect + blon, blon po officer, minister] Exalted officer; often the head of a Tibetan monastery. The Shaberons are mentioned as occasionally possessing wonderful powers, but are not necessarily tulkus of the Buddha (as the Dalai Lama and Tashi Lama are generally believed to be)..."

The Shabpé (Zhabs-pad... this, not Zhabs-dpad, is the correct spelling) is a common official title meaning a member of the Kashag (Bka'-shag), although it literally means 'lotus feet.' I haven't any idea that it is ever combined with Lonpo (Blon-po), which means 'minister' (of state). I think this Tibetanizing understanding is a forced one, and therefore unconvincing. Both Zhabpé and Lonpo are terms for secular political functionaries, not persons of any particular spiritual standing, most certainly not the head of a monastery (the common word for 'abbot' is Khenpo — Mkhan-po).

Theosophical webpage, apparently independent of the first, gives this explanation, which seems more likely, although I cannot understand what reasons they have for thinking it is a Tibetan word:

"Shaberon (Tib.). The Mongolian Shaberon or Khubilgan (or Khubilkhans) are the reincarnations of Buddha, according to the Lamaists; great Saints and Avatars, so to say."

And I was unable for the life of me to figure out what the name of that mysterious brotherhood, Khe-lan (or Khe-lang), ought to be in Tibetan. We are led to believe that their existence would have been a secret to almost all Tibetans. Another passage in Blavatsky's Modern Panarion offers some more helpful (?) clues about them:

"But the two are even more closely related to a third and far more mysterious community of religionists, of which nothing or next to nothing is known by outsiders: we mean that fraternity of Tibetan Lamaists, known as the Brotherhood of Khe-lang, who mix but little with the rest. Even Csoma de Körös, who passed several years with the Lamas, learned hardly more of the religion of these Chakravartins (wheel-turners) than what they chose to let him know of their exoteric rites, and of the Khe-langs he learned positively nothing."

Lucky for science, I had the presence of mind to consult with my friend Vladus. He solved the problems of Shaberon and Khe-lang with ease. According to what he told me, Khe-lang must be Khas-len (or its past form Khas-blangs). It just means someone who makes (or has made) a promise or vow. Of course its mysterious nature remains, since Tibetology doesn't know about any group with this name. Shaberon has to be Zhabs-drung (pronounced in Central Tibetan something like Shabdrung). Vladus sent me a quotation from a famous book by the Russian Mongolianist Pozdneev, Sketches of the Life of Buddhist Monasteries and Clergy in Mongolia. (This book was translated into English and published by the Mongolia Society in Bloomington, Indiana, although I don't have it on hand.) On page 249 of the original 1887 Russian edition, it says:

"What concerns the young hubilgans [= Tib. sprul-sku] they do not bear any titles in their first, second and even third reincarnation; moreover, they are rarely even called the "hubilgans", but more often they are known by the name 'shabron' which really means 'a young hubilgan'."
Of course, there may be some other philological problems to be worked out (the confusion of -n and -ng endings always occurs when Tibetan words move northward into Mongolia, and from there into Russia), but what this says is that, at least in the areas north-northeast of the Tibetan plateau in recent centuries, there is an idea that reincarnate Lamas in their 2nd and 3rd rebirths ought to have a lesser title, and that title is Zhabs-drung (a word literally meaning 'in front of the [honorific] feet,' that, in its origins, denotes a subordinate status). (The Shabdrung Incarnate of Bhutan is probably the best known by this name, but mentioning him only seems to complicate matters unnecessarily... especially since the current Bhutanese Shabdrung is the 10th incarnation. Bhutan is a long way from Mongolia.)

But perhaps the biggest puzzle of all, Who might that very knowledgeable Buddhist Englishman, who came to Shigatsé in the early part of the 19th century, have been? I haven't the slightest idea. By now you may be getting the idea that this blog is meant to expose my lack of knowledge much more than my knowledge, and there may be something to that. But I'm hoping that some of you will feel inclined to help me out with some of these puzzles by posting your comments. It really is not difficult, although you may have to type in some weirdly shaped letters and wait for a day or two until it appears in the blog. Unless you are selling something or trying to be offensive without any reason, you can be sure your comments will be posted. No need to reveal your identity if you don't want to.

Years ago, in the '70's, I was studying Tibetan with a Tibet-born Lama in North America. His identity doesn't matter much, and I'd rather not expose it at the moment. Most of us probably think of filing things away in folders as a very basic clerical skill. (Secretaries in old Tibet would fold and refold the documents until they became stick-shaped and then hang them from the ceiling with strings...) After the Lama had lost some irreplaceable documents, I rather unmeekly suggested to him that he make use of the filing cabinet he already had by getting some file folders to put in it. I explained that he could write in the tabs of the folders something, in any language he might prefer, that would say what was inside, and so forth and so on. He did get some folders, but I believe he never actually used them. I only tell this story because in the middle of my filing lecture he started making fun of me for collecting all kinds of useless papers, but then he added, with only a slight air of regret, "I once had a lot of papers about the White Lama, but I just threw them all away." I of course wanted to know whom he meant by "White Lama," but he didn't want to go into the matter any further and I just let it drop. Now I wonder, Who was that White Lama?

It probably doesn't help us in our quest, but it is curious to see that there was an English Jew named Maurice Vidal Portman who founded in 1882 an order called "Grand Lamaistic Order of Light." The group also had a Latin name, "Fratres Lucis." However, they seemed to be largely inspired by Qabala and Masonry, while their altar was devoted to Mahadeva (Sanskrit for 'Great God,' it's surely an epithet of Shiva, hardly a favorite among Tibetan Buddhists). Everything I know about this "Lamaistic" group is what I read in in volume 1, pp. 543-4, of a curious book by Lady Queenborough (
Edith Starr Miller) entitled Occult Theocrasy, "published posthumously for private circulation only," printed in France for I.S. Susenberg (New York City 1931 or 1933?). Aside from the name there would seem to be no connection to Tibet whatsoever. We would no doubt be barking up the wrong tree in pursuit of the real White Lama here, in England, after all. According to the book their headquarters is "still" at Bradford, Yorkshire.

Being a White Lama isn't quite as special as it once was. There are now many westerners (and yes, Malaysians, Australians, Lebanese, etc.) willing and eager to dress up as Lamas. You can find plenty of evidence for this phenomenon in internet Dharma sites;
here for example (I ought to emphasize that my providing this link is not an endorsement). In recent years the shops in Kathmandu have helped matters greatly by making extremely colorful brocade Lama hats available at affordable prices for anyone who walks through the door. If you need a hat to mark yourself as a supreme head of this or that hierarchy, the terms are simple: cash and carry. With or without the traditional authority, wearing one of these hats will certainly lend a sense of authority among the good people back home in Wichita. But let's leave this line of thought and try to think back to simpler times.

I hardly read comic books as a child, but not because of not wanting to. It happened that a few times I had the chance to borrow some from a neighbor kid. I didn't know there was a comic book series entitled "White Lama."

But I believe these comic books were composed during the eighties, so they didn't exist yet. It's true, there was a Green Lama comic book from way back in 1944:

Once I was wasting time tossing through a big university library when I came across something I thought quite remarkable, perhaps the answer to my big question. An old periodical called Open Court, vol. 26 (February 1912) had an article by Paul Carus entitled "A Buddhist Prelate of California," and it included something by one S[wami] Mazziniananda entitled "Order of the Buddhist High Mass, with Music." I once had a photocopy of this, but seem to have lost it. Perhaps I'm not all that great at filing away useless things after all. If I remember correctly, Mazziniananda is here referred to as White Lama.

Amazingly little seems to be known about this fascinating character Swami Mazziniananda. Even his name is an interesting problem. In 1930, The San Francisco Chronicle had a piece on him which said:

"E. Leodi Ahmed Mazziniananda, bishop of the American Buddhist Church of Dharma, with headquarters at 1245 Market St. in San Francisco, is 104 years old and expects to live many more years. The bishop was educated by the Dalai Lama in Tibet and claims that people there sometimes live 150 years. He has smoked for 87 years and thinks Prohibition is foolish."

What's not to like about him?

Staying in Oakland California, he was billed as PASTOR, REV. SRI BISHOP MAZZINIANANDA MAHA THEKO, M.A., M.D., PH.D., D.SCI. LIT. Count them, four religious titles at the beginning (plus the Maha Theko at the end making a total of 5 religious titles) and five academic titles at the end. What's not to trust about this guy? He evidently gave periodic lectures on spiritual astronomy. The following appeared in the Oakland Tribune in around 1930:

"Bishop Sri Mazziniananda, oldest Buddhist priest in the world, graduate of Oxford and Asiatic and European universities with high honors, for years a student of occult science and a self-styled protégé of the reputed mystics of the Himalaya monasteries in Tibet, came forward today with the remarkable assertion that he has made four visits to the red planet which tonight and tomorrow will be closest to earth it will come in many decades."

But alas! Unexpected even by himself, he seems to have passed into the beyond very soon after these stories were written. Time Magazine, December 21, 1931 carried his obituary:

"Died. Dr. Sri Leodi Ahmed Mazzini-ananda, 106, Bishop of the American Buddhist Church of Dharma, friend of the late Sir Arthur Conan Doyle with whose spirit he tried to communicate in July 1930; in Oakland, Calif."

At first I thought he might have been an Armenian, but I changed my mind. I've been able to find out no more about him than what I've put here already. It's interesting to think about his name in its various forms. Ignoring the titles and abbreviations for the moment, and starting with the name in the obituary, we may see that it is a truly enviable combination of Gaelic, Arabic, Italian, and Sanskrit, and in that order. It seems quite likely that the "Mazzini" segment of his name was taken from Giuseppe Mazzini (1805-1872), a well-known Italian political exile and for some time a member of the secretive society called the Carbonari. If you think it odd that the Sanskrit word for 'bliss' should be attached to the name of a political revolutionary (with doubled 'z's that don't exist, not even singly, in Sanskrit), you are not alone.

But just as the comic book hero is too recent to be the Lama's White Lama, Mazziniananda would seem to be too early, the more I think about it. I haven't heard that there was any society to carry on the venerable Swami's work there in California, so why would people be writing to the Lama about him decades after his death? Does anyone even know his original name or place of origins?

Who was that white lama? Now thanks to the power of the internet search engine, I believe I've found my answer to the puzzle. See
this link

But hell, I'm not sure even this is all that sure.

Read more:

Martin Brauen, Traumwelt Tibet. Westliche Trugbilder, Paul Haupt (Bern 2000), now available in English translation. Try doing a web search for it if you want.

Hugh Urban, The Omnipotent Oom: Tantra and Its Impact on Modern Western Esotericism, Esoterica: The Journal of Esoteric Studies, vol. 3 (2001), pp. 218-259. This is about Pierre Bernard, Theos Bernard's uncle. Available online HERE.

Theos Bernard (1908-1947) — You can find brief biographies here and here.
A Simplified Grammar of the Literary Tibetan Language, Tibetan Text Society (Santa Barbara 1946).
An American in Lhasa, Asia and the Americas Magazine (=Asia Magazine), vol. 39 (1939), pp. 139-147.

Heaven Lies Within Us (New York 1939) 326 pp.

I Became a Lama, Asia Magazine, vol. 39 (1939), pp. 206-11.

Land of a Thousand Buddhas: A Pilgrimage into the Heart of Tibet and the Sacred City of Lhasa, Rider (London 1940) 320 pp. 

The Peril of Tibet, Asia Magazine, vol. 39 (1939), pp. 500-4.

James Cooper, Theos Bernard: Fact & Fiction, Tibetan Review (Delhi), vol. 21, no. 4 (April 1986), pp. 11-15.

§  §  §

Added Note:  Since writing this blog, issues of The Open Court with articles on Mazziniananda have been archived on the internet.  Including "Order of the Buddhist High Mass (Pontifical): As Celebrated in the Great So Monastery of the Dalai Lama's Palace at Llhassa, Tibet, and at the Monasteries of Himis and Leh in Ladak, Tibet."   Try pressing HERE.

"Yes I have been in Llhassa. I was taken there in 1835 as a little child destined for the life work I craved from my cradle, that of the life of a monk in the service of Our Lord Buddha, as it was for this holy purpose I returned to the Earth plane, my previous work not being completed. I remained studying at the feet of the Holy One there, the late Dalai Lama, until 1853 — 18 long years in the seclusion of the Himalayas, and was received into the Holy Sangho in 1847 at the age of 20, and was made a priest. I continued my priestly duties till the early part of 1853 when in company with three other monks, two Russians and a Tibetan (since gone to the higher expression of life) I started for India preaching and spreading the Dharma."

Let me see.  He got to Lhasa in 1835.  That would have been two years before the death of the 10th Dalai Lama, and three years before the birth of the 11th.  1853 was two years before the death of the 11th Dalai Lama...

He says he was born in Isfahan, Persia, and his mother, a Benares-born Bengali, was living in England when he left Tibet the first time (he went there twice, for a total of about 30 years, he says).  I'm still trying to work out both the geography and the math, but it all seems rather plausible, doesn't it?  

Well, except him saying he's a "poor Jain monk."  Oh, and his Buddhist Mass as performed in Llhassa, includes some distinctively Japanese (Nam myoho renge kyo), Pali and Hindu elements (among the latter we can identify the Gayatri Mantra and verses from the Rig Veda), and no visible residue of 'Tibet' with the single exception of the Six Syllable Mantra.  The elements at the beginning:  the Refuge and Precepts and the Ye-dharma and  the Three Characteristics are genuinely Buddhist in origin.  Their translations are poor, sometimes completely off the mark, but the passages are real enough.  It's in the later parts where you find out that the ritual is addressed to God who is "the cause of the universe" and "Creator."  This will be fascinating news for Buddhists everywhere.

Some might enjoy puzzling their heads over this Buddhist Hymnal, also.


  1. Yes, Dan, I'm sure Theos Bernard was your "White Lama" - American,not English. Surely you've Googled him and see that there's a lot of info. A biography is in progress by one Paul Hacket of Columbia U. I know a great about TB having worked for the woman who was his wife at the time of his trip to Tibet 1936]

  2. His mansion and compound are on the current site of the Nyack College, they have an extensive resources of his life there. They recently bought a second house from the surviving relatives a few years ago. Shuman Administrative building was his mansion with many secret rooms and tunnels. Mosley Hall was a dorm/hotel for his guests. They even have an elephant buried underneath the soccer field. He began to get into trouble when he was caught ferrying prostitutes from NYC into the county through the massive drainage system under Nyack Ny.

  3. Dear Pastor,

    You mean Theos' uncle the Omnipotent Oom's place? I thought it was turned into a country club, not a Christian school, but have no way of deciding at the moment. Somebody's writing a book (see preceding message), not me. There was a great deal of imaginative "yellow" journalism about what went on there. The newspapers took special delight in passing along titillating gossip in which repressed imaginations ran wild (as they still do today). Dragging prostitutes through sewer drains sounds a little unnecessary, don't you think? The buried elephant story, at least, appears to be well verified. Now I'll let you go care for your flock. Don't you need to be working on your Sunday sermon?


  4. Just a note here:

    The long awaited translation of the Crystal Mirror of Doctrinal Systems by Thuken (Thu'u-bkwan) has just reached me.

    Here are the biblio details:

    Thuken Losang Chökyi Nyima, The Crystal Mirror of Philosophical Systems: A Tibetan Study of Asian Religious Thought, tr. by Geshé Lhundub Sopa, ed. by Roger R. Jackson, Wisdom Publications (Boston 2009).

    on p. 377 it says how Gushri Khan (1582-1654) was only thirteen years old he led his troops into battle with an army of 10,000 Gokars, or 'White Heads,' and defeated them.

    The footnote no. 1578 attached to the word Gokar reads: "That is, Turks."

    I really doubt this. I don't think Gokar (Mgo-dkar) has ever been used for any Turkic people. In any case, it doesn't 'simply' mean Turks as the footnote would seem to imply.

    I think if the Oirats were battling anyone in the year 1595 or so I think it would probably have been Russians. This is about the time of the great Oirat migration that resulted in the Kalmuck Mongol settlement in Russia.

    Someone ought to look into this more closely. It's also possible that Thuken intended to speak about Gushri Khan's battles against the Kazakhs in 1634-5 CE. The Kazakhs are of course a Turkic people.

    Anyway, Thuken's is another interesting instance of the use of the ethnonym Gokar.

    Sorry if it sounds like I'm thinking aloud. I am.

  5. Another note from myself to myself: There is a nice detailed discussion of Gokar, and the spelling Desideri preferred for it, Mgo-skar, 'Head Star,' in the new book by Trent Pomplun, Jesuit on the Roof of the World: Ippolito Desideri's Mission to Tibet, pages 264-265 and footnote no. 107. It appears likely, as Pomplun argues, that Desideri purposely misspelled the word in order to give it a different etymology. Given he was native to Tuscany, I'm still not sure it makes sense to argue what the chances are he was blond, but Hey, he surely might've been. I didn't see anything describing his own actual hair in Pomplun's otherwise very informative book. Perhaps Desideri didn't appreciate being on the receiving end of an ethnonym that emphasized his hair color?

  6. I've read that, this White Lama, comic book is inspired in the life of Jetsun Milarepa

    Cuz the same food was used in the two histories.

    please just read the history of jetsun milarepa and u will take aware of the similarity.

  7. ∂ear ∂hyan,

    I am hoping you could clarify what you mean. Are you saying that the White Lama, like Milarepa, became green from excess nettle soup? So there was a transformation of the White Lama into the Green Lama?

    My trouble is I've read the history of Milarepa quite a few times, in different versions, but I'm not as familiar with the comic books. Are there other things besides food that connect the stories?

    I apologize for answering questions with questions. I'm happy to hear your questions, and hope you will be happy to hear mine.


  8. Hi people, I just finished reading a fairly lengthy and interesting book, one very relevant to this particular blog posting, entitled "White Lama: The Life of Tantric Yogi Theos Bernard, Tibet's Lost Emissary to the New World." It's by Douglas Veenhof, and published by Harmony Books, New York. I recommend it, although other and possibly even better books on the subject ought to be coming out before long. It has some interesting photos, but not nearly enough of them, considering how many Bernard took when he was in Tibet. Does anybody know if anything will become of his film footage? Is it too far gone for salvage?

  9. At the Amazon page for Veenhof's book somebody put up a review accusing the author of plagiarism. This is all very interesting. I wished the reviewer would have given specific examples, otherwise it sounds like it could be a baseless charge. How are supposed to judge in the absence of the evidence?

  10. Well, just to announce that, at last, the book we've been waiting for, has arrived!

    Paul G. Hackett, Theos Bernard, the White Lama, Columbia University Press (New York 2012).

    I didn't say I've read it yet, but I will. As soon as I finish that book about the Dead Sea scrolls I started.


  11. Another announcement! There's a very interesting piece about Swami Mazziniananda at this page:

  12. Dear Dan, you ask "Who might that very knowledgeable Buddhist Englishman, who came to Shigatsé in the early part of the 19th century, have been? I haven't the slightest idea."

    It certainly wasn't Theos Bernard, as the time frame is all wrong, plus Bernard was heavily into Hatha Yoga (from what I gather) and Madame Blavatsky's books, as well as the letters from the Masters in Tibet who were behind her and the Theosophical Movement, are all highly critical of Hatha Yoga and any physical Yoga practices, including pranayama - "to which all our Masters are unanimously opposed."

    Might I suggest that the mysterious white Lama was a Captain Remington, referred to briefly by the Master Koot Hoomi in a letter c.1880 or 1881 which is published in "The Mahatma Letters" by Theosophical University Press:

    "There is a distinct group or section in our fraternity who attend to our casual and very rare accessions of another race and blood, and who brought across the threshold Captain Remington and two other Englishmen during this century."

    I've searched on Google at some length but can't find any details about an English Captain Remington visiting Tibet in the 19th century but maybe you might be more successful than me if you decide to pursue this line of enquiry. The white Lama may well be one of the "two other Englishmen" referred to by the Master but equally may be Captain Remington, whoever he was and is.

    I don't know whether you're familiar with details regarding the Master Koot Hoomi, the Master Morya, and others of the Trans-Himalayan Brotherhood with which Blavatsky was/is associated but I've assembled some of the facts in several articles on my site, particularly "Morya and Kuthumi: Fact not Fiction."

    I hope this may all be of some interest!

    Best Wishes,

  13. Someone on an internet discussion link suggested that the re-Tibetanization of Khe-lang is an easy matter. It's just Tibetan Gelong (Dge-slong), the word for fully ordained monk. I'm intrigued at the possibility, but I'm not sure of it. She seems to have intended something much more arcane. But then that other explanation supplied in the blog is sounding a little too far stretched, so another solution would be welcome.

  14. I just came across writing and a youtube video that says the count of St. Germain was the white lama. Not sure if you're familiar with the stories surrounding this man but many of them sound like the actions of a Tibetan Buddhist despite the fact he lived in Europe for many many years.


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