by Jonathan Spence

Prisoners of Shangri-la: Tibetan Buddhism and the West
by Donald S. Lopez, Jr. University of Chicago Press 275 pp $25 May

Nine years ago, in his comprehensive overview of travel writing about Tibet, The Myth of Shangri-La, Peter Bishop remarked that, in the late nineteenth century,

Tibet was not just any place, not just one among many within the Western global imagination. For a few years at the turn of the century, it became the place.... It was as if Tibet touched some fundamental surface of the era's imagination."

Near the end of the twentieth century, the reader might feel this quotation applies with equal force to contemporary Western attitudes toward Tibet. As films like Seven Years in Tibet and Kundun attest, the Dalai Lama's homeland enjoys a vogue like that of no other Eastern land in the popularor rather, pop-culturalimagination.

In Prisoners of Shangri-La, Donald Lopez, a professor of Buddhist and Tibetan studies, provides a cautionary tale of the perils of Tibet fascination. In Lopez's view, a set of alluring, but fanciful, notions about the country has come to overshadow the complex realities of Tibetan politics, history, and religion. What's more, this mythmaking is not confined to popular culture. It thrives in the romantic image of Tibet constructed by some of her most distinguished scholars; and it can even be discerned in the rhetoric of the Dalai Lama himself, who upholds pacifism as the true center of Tibetan Buddhism while maintaining a discreet silence about its more violent legacies.

Lopez writes to counteract the waves of miscomprehension, simplification, and sentimentalization that have so often accompanied Western interest in Tibet, from the explorers of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, through Madame Blavatsky and her Theosophist followers, down to the film stars, gurus, and scholars of more recent times. His book furnishes a timely and courageous exploration of how we got caught up in what he calls a "lingua franca of the fantastic." To his credit, however, Lopez does not offer a potted history of Tibet in place of these mystifications. Like Foucault, he seeks to show "not how knowledge is tainted but how knowledge takes form." The result is less a polemical corrective than a ruminationlearned, discursive, and criticalon our ways of seeing Tibet.

Lopez takes his title from the Buddhist texts themselves. As he explains early on, the vision that Westerners since James Hilton's 1933 novel Lost Horizon have called "Shangri-La" originates in the Buddhist Tantra of Kalacakra. According to this Tantra, the mandala of the Buddhist Kalacakra was preserved in the mythical capital of Shambhala, a kingdom north of the Himalayan mountains. Shambhala looks to be an idyllic community, "shaped like a giant lotus," filled with glittering palaces, and populated by beautiful and healthy dwellers whose souls are overseen by benevolent, ever-watchful monks.

Yet according to the Tantra, two shadows hang over this idyll. The first is the knowledge that in the year 2425 barbarian armies in league with demons will launch a massive assault on Shambhala. The second is the presence of a potential fifth column: Shambhala's thirty-five million brahmans, who were converted from Hinduism to Buddhism by fear and trickery, lest they aid the barbarians in the future war. The joyful inhabitants of the kingdom of Shambhala are therefore also its prisoners.

Lopez presents the tale of Shangri-La/Shambhala as an allegory that finds strange present-day echoes. He believes that in imagining Tibet in accordance with their fantasies, the nation's friends have become "prisoners of Shangri-La...captives of confines of [their] own making." He guides his readers toward this dark climax by taking us on a tour of the "flights of fancy and imagination" and "mirror-lined cultural labyrinths" bequeathed to us by Western writers on Tibet.

Consider, for instance, Lopez's dissection of the term "Lamaism," which has emerged from various sources to stand for Tibetan Buddhism. ("Lama" means guru, and la in Tibetan refers to the soul.) Lopez regards Lamaism as a foreign construct, devised by Chinese expansionists and Western Orientalists in the late eighteenth century. By implying that Buddhism established itself in Tibet only as an addendum to earlier animist or primitive forms of Tibetan religion, Lamaism misconstrues the Tibetan faith as something distinct from pure Buddhism. Although Lopez does not deny that preexisting folk religions helped shape Tibetan Buddhism, he thinks the term "Lamaism" vastly exaggerates their influence. By Victorian times, Lamaism had become one of the era's "historicisms...a fundamental trope in the history that late Victorian colonialism wrote for itself." The trope made it "easier to portray Tibet as entirely other and hence incapable of its own representation."

The most mischievous, as well as the most entertaining, stop along Lopez's journey is his discussion of the 1956 international best-seller The Third Eye by T. Lobsang Rampa. At first, Lopez faithfully recounts the Buddhist's tale of the extraordinary realms through which seekers of truth sometimes pass. He then proceeds to inform us that T. (for "Tuesday") Lobsang Rampa and his odysseys were entirely drawn from the fertile brain of Cyril H. Hoskin, the lightly educated son of a British plumber.

The Third Eye sold 300,000 copies during its first eighteen months in print, despite the early warnings of scholarssoon confirmed by a British private detective agencythat Rampa was a fraud. In a subversive aside, Lopez asks whether we can truly prove Rampa/ Hoskin to be false. For if Hoskin truly believed he was Rampa, could he be considered a fraud? Here Lopez turns for support, abruptly and not altogether convincingly, to Pierre Bourdieu's reflections on cultural production and symbolic capital. Lopez suggests that it is only his own acquired "authority" as a scholar with a Ph.D. that enables him to challenge Rampa's authenticity. Hoskin's "authority," by contrast, lay in the eighteen works he wrote subsequently to protect his reputation as Rampa the lama rather than as Hoskin the fabricator. In any case, Hoskin clearly enjoyed a richly populist triumph over the experts: By the time of his death, he had racked up an astounding total of four million books sold. The fact that one of these later works was dictated telepathically by Rampa/Hoskin's cat, Mrs. Fifi Greywhiskers, by no means dampened the public's enthusiasm.

In the prison, to return to Lopez's metaphor, it is not always easy to tell the file from the bars, or to tell what we will be escaping into. Lopez explains the origins of many of the ideas that buttressed false interpretations of Tibetan reality. But in turning to the present, he finds that neither contemporary scholars nor Tibetan leaders have fully succeeded in freeing themselves from captivity. In making his critique of Tibet scholarshipa field that remains deeply divided despite the calming presence of His HolinessLopez is nothing if not audacious. He is particularly critical of Buddhist scholars like Marilyn Rhie and Robert Thurman, who credit Tibetan Buddhism with transforming Tibet "from a fierce grim world of intrigue into a peaceful, colorful, cheerful realm of pleasant and meaningful living."

More controversially, Lopez argues that, since the Dalai Lama's flight from Tibet in 1959 in the face of Chinese violence, Tibetans have become locked into a similar set of misrepresentations. As Lopez notes, the Dalai Lama's universal message of peace is only one part of Tibetan identity, not its core. In fact, the pacific and the violent are richly intertwined in Tibetan practiceso much so that meditation, emptiness, and compassion cannot be truthfully separated from the "ritual offerings of fire from a lamp made of human fat with a wick made of human hair." According to Lopez, such elements have been rejected, or glossed over, in the name of a new national identity only after the nation's leaders "have fled the land that they regard as the site of the nation of Tibet." The architect of this identity, the Dalai Lama, has offered a "beatific the West, hoping perhaps to get his country back as part of the exchange." The danger, in terms of understanding Tibet, is that with his rhetoric of universal love and environmentalism the Dalai Lama risks converting Tibet into a theme park to suit his Western followers' needs. In seeking to liberate his country, he may have "allowed Tibetan Buddhism, like Lamaism before it, to float free from its site." The way that the Dalai Lama and his followers are now presenting Tibet to the world may thus be "ultimately antithetical to the case for an autonomous Tibetan state."

Such remarks are clearly intended by Lopez as a challenge to a pattern of action and belief paved with good intentions that may have all the wrong consequences. But like any good scholar, he mainly wishes to incite us to think. His book will sharpen the terms of the debate over what the Tibetans and their observers can or should be doing about the place and the idea of Tibet. And that alone is what will give us all back our Shambhala.

Home | Editorial Content | Where to get it | Ordering Information | Advertising

Copyright © 1997 Lingua Franca,Inc. All rights reserved.