Thursday, July 16, 2009

Donald Lopez' "Prisoners of Shangri-La": Book Review

How we idealize Tibet as the white man's spiritual treasury, protected by monks within frozen lairs, links seven essays. Acerbic, dispassionate, and unromantic, Lopez demystifies what much coverage of the Dalai Lama and centuries of fables have obscured: Tibet's reality. This book talks little of politics, but much about the predicament that the West has placed Tibet within: we cannot allow it to escape our own fanciful prison, within which levitating lamas, carefree peasants, and many monks pursue beneath rarified skies the mysteries of a higher realm.

This emphasis, despite Lopez's knack for deadpan dismissal of tall tales, can be dispiriting. While I admire his efforts to dismantle the Orientalist construct that freezes Tibet, I wondered why he remained so dispassionate about its current plight. The final chapter, "The Prison," appears to castigate the Dalai Lama for his difficult balancing act between political leader and spiritual director, but it's hard to see why Lopez ignores the destruction of so much of the learning and culture that he, as a professional Tibet expert, would surely lament.

Perhaps the "surely" betrays my own prejudice, however. In professorial mode rather than as gulled tale-teller, he seeks to distance himself from Western stereotypes of Eastern wisdom. He studies how Western reception makes "things Tibetan become not particular to a time and a place, but universal, and in the process Tibet is everywhere and hence nowhere, functioning as an element of difference in which everything is possible." And in this non-historical, non-geographical, nonsensical depiction, Westerners form their own deluded knowledge of what they claim to know.

Chapter One examines at great length the term Lamaism as a definition for what Tibetans believe. Often Protestant or rationalist interpreters sought to taint Tibetan practice and belief as "papist," and while Lopez does not cite Ram Dass' later summation of Tibetan Buddhism as "Roman Catholicism on LSD," this later, and perhaps approving, tie of the Vatican to the lamasary may be a rare instance of a positive spin on the topic. Even early friars visiting Lhasa despaired at finding an eerie funhouse mirror of Catholic ritual seemingly repeated by the panoply they found. It later became justification for the fears of the West that the Church and Tibet both represented, to be conquered by either reforming Christians and/or rational imperialists. He concludes: "The very use of the term Lamaism is a gesture of control over the unincorporated and the unassimilated, used first by the Qing over Tibet, then as a code word for 'Papism' by the British over Catholic Ireland and Europe, and finally by European Buddhology over the uncolonized and unread." (44)

Chapter Two extends the reach of the West through Jung's commentary and the various editors and renderers of the mislabelled (to allude to the 1920s King Tut craze, a point Lopez does not mention) "Tibetan Book of the Dead." Lopez repeats a minor error in recounting the tale of its earliest popularizer, Walter Y. Evans-Wentz. Lopez notes that Evans-Wentz "enrolled at Stanford, where he studied with William James and William Butler Yeats." (52) While W.Y. Evans-Wentz pursued Yeats to his Irish home at Coole in the summer of 1908, and dedicated his 1911 "Fairy-Faith in Celtic Countries" (originally his Rennes thesis, published by Oxford) to WBY, I can find no record in the standard biography by R.F. Foster that Yeats himself taught at Stanford, only that his lecture tour from 27 Jan.-3 Feb. 1904 covered the Bay Area, with a lecture on 29 Jan. at Stanford. ("W.B. Yeats: A Life" 1:305; Foster makes his own minor slip, indexing "William" rather than "Walter.")

Lopez, here and in his edition of the life of Milarepa, appears to borrow the last phrase of the blurb (repeated on Wikipedia) in "Fairy Faith" that's "about the author." This claims: "He received both his B.A. and M.A. from Stanford University, where he studied with William James and William Butler Yeats." In "Fairy-Faith," Evans-Wentz dedicates it to AE (George Russell) and Yeats, "who brought to me at my own alma mater in California the first message from fairyland and who afterward in his own country led me through the haunts of fairy kings and queens." This seems more accurate. The earlier claim repeated by Lopez about the "where" is the point in question; Evans-Wentz came in 1908 to learn from Yeats; Yeats did not come to teach Evans-Wentz per se-- unless a few conversations with WYE-W by WBY during California speaking engagements count as such.

Returning to the main text, I disagree with Lopez' assumption that Sogyal Rinpoche's "Tibetan Book of Living and Dying" too heedlessly sidesteps the idea of the "six realms of rebirth" by avoiding a "literal rendering." (80) As a Californian, I liked Sogyal's analogy of my state as, for "the demigod realm," reified by deluded, "high on meditation," surfers and lounging, affluent layabouts. He, as Lopez glances at only, simply gives us a comparison Westerners can relate to. He later shows in his book much more about traditional depiction of the bardos, but his purpose is not the straight translation (or as Francesca Fremantle later in "Luminous Emptiness" strove to do, the applicability of it to life and not only the afterlife) or commentary that Thurman may have favored--admittedly with his own very contemporary slant. After all, Fremantle & Chogyam Trungpa, Thurman, and Sogyal Rinpoche tried to shift the text from Evans-Wentz's esoteric eclecticism and Jung's archetypes so as to position it for post-hippie, post-lysergic readers today. This mission in the Penguin complete edition (by Gyurme Dorje, Graham Coleman, Thupten Jinpa, with the inevitable if certainly welcome prefaces and comments by the Dalai Lama) continues to strive to overcome Evans-Wentz's Theosophical & New Age bias. And, as Lopez deadpans, if E-W had found in the 1919 detritus of a returning British officer instead a Buddhist logic tract, we'd be telling a far different tale of the dharma in the West today.

Lopez raises an excellent question. Perhaps New Age devotees of Evans-Wentz's Theosophical and willfully eclectic "California Cosmology" (see Ronald Hutton's "The Triumph of the Moon" history of modern paganism and witchcraft) and eager Tibetophiles such as Tim Leary, Richard Alpert (Ram Dass), and Robert Thurman might agree: early Buddhism anticipates later Western physics, regarding deeper levels of consciousness accessible by psychedelics, meditation, tantra, or combinations thereof. Yet, Lopez interrupts, why do we believe Buddhists and their sympathizers? "When we read the claims of Hindu fundamentalists that locomotives and rocket travel are described in the Vedas or that the beam of light emitted from S[h]iva's brow is really a laser, we smile indulgently." Compare to Buddhist claims from the same time and culture for "a universe that moves through periods of cosmic evolution and devolution," for which many may "assume that this is simply something that physicists have not yet discovered." (76)

Such claims permeate those who, as with Lama Govinda, may not even know Tibetan, yet speak as purveyors of hidden wisdom from "treasure texts" long preserved in Shangri-La. By contrast, Lopez is almost gentle in Chapter Three with Lobsang Rampa, the "mystifier" in a double sense, born Cyril Hoskin in Devonshire. He handles the persistently popular New Age assertions that this British man had his "body actually taken over by the spirit of an Easterner"-- to quote him-- and so he "became" a lama, although unable to speak any Tibetan in his Anglicized manifestation, although he could communicate with cats. His many pulp paperbacks recount his adventures in Tibetan and spiritualist realms, and while shelved among "occult" titles today, Lopez notes with a touch of sympathy how many of his professional colleagues first learned about Tibet in the pages of such as 1956's début by Rampa, "The Third Eye."

Chapter Four takes on "om mani padme hum" at much length, equalling that of "lamaism." Again, he delves into how interpretations-- eventually by Tibetans themselves in their explanations-- turn into a rote recital of "the jewel in the heart of the lotus" to sum up this endlessly recited formula as speaking for Tibet.
I found its most evocative, if provocative, exposure near the end of a rather exhausting chapter. It may be that early missionaries quailed at its meaning, if they dared to penetrate its mystery. If the "feminine form of the Sanskrit vocative" for "mani padme" apparently as "O Jewel Lotus" appeals to Avalokiteshvara, who holds both items, why would this masculine figure receive a feminine form? Lopez quotes June Campbell's "Traveller in Space"-- it's unlikely that "mani" means phallus, as "vajra" [often "thunderbolt" in common translations] is "more common." Campbell posits "mani" as clitoris and so the mantra invokes "the deity of the clitoris-vagina," an indigenous deity before the coming of the dharma, who underwent a sex-change by those Campbell deems "the zealous missionaries of Tibetan Buddhism." (133)

The tendency to misinterpret art in Western exhibitions and catalogues takes up Chapter Five; Chapter Six presents a fascinating topic that I have never seen raised in a popular account of Tibetan Buddhism. Jeffrey Hopkins, along with Thurman the pioneer of Western transmission of Tibetan dharma into academia, is also a practitioner. Many of his American Ph.D.'s-- as with Lopez, I gather-- in the field turn "scholar-adepts." Unlike Continental scholars emerging out of Oriental Studies programs, for the U.S., the seminary model influenced the Religious Studies set-up for colleges here. Tibetan Studies Ph.D's often link their study to their practice.

Perhaps, one cannot easily sever study from inculcation, as one seeks "salvation by scholarship" in by collegial tenure rather than as a celibate monk. This intrigued me, for how many other departments may boast this psychic identification by professors? Can one teach communism or Freud or Islam without avowing its tenets? Certainly. Given the transmission that Buddhism relies upon of the teaching in a one-on-one chain over 2500 years, I wonder if this can be adapted to academia, or if the monastic pattern will be substituted in universities. What he does not explore is whether a non-believer in the dharma can truly comprehend Tibetan texts, that need-- if Lopez and Hopkins are correct-- to be taken in by those encountering them by methods defying mere translation or equivalents.

Lopez shows how Hopkins at the U. of Virginia took his students into in-depth re-thinking so they could learn the syllogisms and rationales upon which non-Western philosophy as taught by the lamas rested for their students. This re-orientation of the mindset necessary for understanding Tibetan teaching, due to its difficulty, means that a UVA dissertation may still aspire to the level that, among Tibetans, may be reached by a twelve-year-old schoolchild in a monastery. It's that arcane. Just comparing the Tibetan transliterations to their Western compression shows the challenge of crossing what I imagine may loom as a considerable barrier for those not fluent in Sanskrit and Chinese before tackling Tibetan and its cousin languages.

The final chapter raises how we construct prisons around fantasies. Pico Iyer in "The Open Road" (reviewed by me last year on "Blogtrotter" and on Amazon US) raises the same example as Lopez. How many who revere in stadiums or seminars the Dalai Lama know of the "Shugden affair"? Westerners tend to respond to a secularized, ethical, and non-theistic, non-ritualistic, ecumenical style of Buddhism as packaged for wide audiences. "The Tibetan Buddhism practiced by Western adherents was generally of the Buddhist modernist variety, with an emphasis on meditation on emptiness and on compassion, and did not include ritual offerings of fire from a lamp made of human fat with a wick made of human hair." While Tibetan teachers themselves propitiate this controversial "demon" deity, such veneration to say the least does not constitute the retailed version of what gurus offer to their students abroad.

And, on such contrasts, Lopez ends his uneven but worthwhile 1998 study. This book feels as if he wrote separate essays on aspects of how Westerners interpret Tibetan Buddhism, and then he later linked them, often loosely, and widened them for a broader readership. Unlike Jeffery Paine's popularized "Re-Enchantment," Lopez includes substantial scholarship with complete references; many of the endnotes are essential for complete appreciation of what can be advanced academic discourse. Despite the apparent outreach to a wide readership, this book tells almost nothing about the basics; I'd recommend it after Paine, who while he eschews the learning appended and permeating Lopez, would be more accessible for newcomers. Thomas Laird's "History of Tibet" compiled with interviews with the Dalai Lama would also be a good start for those craving more background. (I reviewed Fremantle, Thurman, the TBoD editions by Dorje et al., Laird and Paine on Amazon US and my regular blog "Blogtrotter"; I also recommend and reviewed Richard Gere's reading of the Fremantle-Trungpa TBoD ed., and Patrick French's disillusioning "Tibet, Tibet" about the aftermath of Western activist enthusiasm for what seems increasingly the lost cause of Tibetan freedom.)

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