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Prisoners of Shangri-La: Tibetan Buddhism and the West

Prisoners of Shangri-La: Tibetan Buddhism and the West

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Prisoners of Shangri-La: Tibetan Buddhism and the West

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Feb 27, 2018


To the Western imagination, Tibet evokes exoticism, mysticism, and wonder: a fabled land removed from the grinding onslaught of modernity, spiritually endowed with all that the West has lost. Originally published in 1998, Prisoners of Shangri-La provided the first cultural history of the strange encounter between Tibetan Buddhism and the West. Donald Lopez reveals here fanciful misconceptions of Tibetan life and religion. He examines, among much else, the politics of the term “Lamaism,” a pejorative synonym for Tibetan Buddhism; the various theosophical, psychedelic, and New Age purposes served by the so-called Tibetan Book of the Dead; and the unexpected history of the most famous of all Tibetan mantras, om mani padme hum. More than pop-culture anomalies, these versions of Tibet are often embedded in scholarly sources, constituting an odd union of the popular and the academic, of fancy and fact.

Upon its original publication, Prisoners of Shangri-La sent shockwaves through the field of Tibetan studies—hailed as a timely, provocative, and courageous critique. Twenty years hence, the situation in Tibet has only grown more troubled and complex—with the unrest of 2008, the demolition of the dwellings of thousands of monks and nuns at Larung Gar in 2016, and the scores of self-immolations committed by Tibetans to protest the Dalai Lama’s exile.

In his new preface to this anniversary edition, Lopez returns to the metaphors of prison and paradise to illuminate the state of Tibetan Buddhism—both in exile and in Tibet—as monks and nuns still seek to find a way home. Prisoners of Shangri-La remains a timely and vital inquiry into Western fantasies of Tibet.
Feb 27, 2018

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Prisoners of Shangri-La - Donald S. Lopez Jr.

The University of Chicago Press, Chicago, 60637

The University of Chicago Press, Ltd., London

© 1998, 2018 by The University of Chicago

All rights reserved. No part of this book may be used or reproduced in any manner whatsoever without written permission, except in the case of brief quotations in critical articles and reviews. For more information, contact the University of Chicago Press, 1427 E. 60th St., Chicago, IL 60637.

Published in 1998

Paperback edition 1999

First edition, with enlarged text, published 2018 by the University of Chicago Press

Printed in the United States of America

24 23 22 21 20 19 18     1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9

ISBN-13: 978-0-226-48548-5 (paper)

ISBN-13: 978-0-226-48551-5 (e-book)


Library of Congress Cataloging-in-Publication Data

Names: Lopez, Donald S., Jr., 1952– author.

Title: Prisoners of Shangri-La : Tibetan Buddhism and the West / Donald S. Lopez, Jr.

Description: Twentieth anniversary edition, with a new preface. | Chicago : The University of Chicago Press, 2018. | Includes index.

Identifiers: LCCN 2017032242 | ISBN 9780226485485 (pbk. : alk. paper) | ISBN 9780226485515 (e-book)

Subjects: LCSH: Buddhism—China—Tibet Autonomous Region.

Classification: LCC BQ7604 .L66 2018 | DDC 294.3/923—dc23

LC record available at

This paper meets the requirements of ANSI/NISO Z39.48-1992 (Permanence of Paper).




Donald S. Lopez, Jr.





Preface to the Twentieth Anniversary Edition












Preface to the Twentieth Anniversary Edition

The term Shangri-La was coined by James Hilton to name a mythical land in his 1933 novel Lost Horizon. Twenty years ago, when Prisoners of Shangri-La was first published, Shangri-La still remained a domain of the imagination. Yet the search for Shangri-La has not ceased, and some claim to have found it, even putting it on a map: in 2001, to encourage tourism, a Tibetan town in Yunnan Province in China was officially renamed Shangri-La.

In April 1944, just a few years after Hilton’s novel was made into Frank Capra’s classic film Lost Horizon, the renowned Austrian mountain climber and SS Sergeant Heinrich Harrer escaped from a British detention camp in India. Making use of their alpine skills, he and his fellow mountaineer Peter Aufschnaiter crossed the Himalayas into Tibet, where they planned to stay until the end of the Second World War. Instead, they remained there much longer; Seven Years in Tibet would become the title of Harrer’s bestselling 1952 memoir, itself made into a film in 1997, starring Brad Pitt as Harrer.

Writing in his diary on February 13, 1946, Harrer reports that at a party in Lhasa, he met a Mongolian Lama, who spoke English and who is doing translations and who is also writing poetry. His name is Chömphel. Harrer says that Chömphel told him that he had recently been paid by the British to translate a biography of the thirteenth Dalai Lama and that the translation had been sent to Sir Charles Bell (1870–1945), the long-serving British political officer in Sikkim who had retired to Canada. Harrer was wrong about the ethnicity of his interlocutor. He was from Amdo, and his name was Gendun Chopel (1903–1951). He had returned to Lhasa in the summer of 1945 after twelve years in India.

The translation of the Tibetan biography, entitled Wondrous Garland of Jewels (Ngo mtshar rin po che’i phreng ba), and its dispatch to Charles Bell is confirmed by Bell himself in the preface to his famous biography of the thirteenth Dalai Lama, Portrait of a Dalai Lama. There, Bell explains,

A biography of the late Dalai Lama was compiled under the orders of the Tibetan government. It was completed in February, 1940, between six and seven years after the Dalai Lama’s death in December, 1933 and is entitled The Wonderful Rosary of Jewels. The Regent was so good as to give me a copy of it, printed from the wooden blocks made in Tibetan style. Sir Basil Gould, the Representative of the Government of India in Tibet since 1935, kindly arranged for the translation of the relevant parts. This translation was supervised by my old friends Raja and Rani S. T. Dorji. This biography, which reached me after I had completed mine, deals with the Dalai Lama’s life on typically Oriental lines.¹

Bell then goes on to disparage that style, concluding that it portrays the Dalai Lama as a deity rather than a human being and so would not appeal to many Western readers. He concedes, however, that it contains many authentic and interesting facts, some of which are suitable for a biography on Western lines. I have found room therefore for a selection of these.²

It seems that the translation was supervised by Sonam Tobgye Dorji, the representative of the king of Bhutan in Kalimpong, and his wife Chuni Wangmo (they carried respectively the titles Raja and Rani from the Viceroy of India). What is not acknowledged and was likely not known by Bell is that the translation was done by Gendun Chopel and perhaps Dorje Tharchin, the editor of the Tibetan newspaper Melong.³ The typescript of the translation resides today among Bell’s papers in the British Library.⁴

Portrait of a Dalai Lama was published in London in 1946, the year of Harrer’s conversation with Gendun Chopel. That same year, in Paris, Georges Bataille (1897–1962) began work on a series of essays that would be published in 1949 as The Accursed Share (La part maudite), in which he argues that the economies of all societies generate an excess that cannot be put to productive use and must therefore be somehow wasted, most often in weapons of war but also in luxury goods, religious spectacles, games, and massive monuments. He offers a number of case studies, including Aztec sacrifice, the potlatch of the Pacific Northwest, Soviet industrialization, and the Marshall Plan. Part 3 of The Accursed Share is entitled The Society of Military Enterprise and the Society of Religious Enterprise, with the first represented by Islam and the second by Tibetan Buddhism, or, as he calls it, Lamaism. In a chapter of eighteen pages, Bataille offers an analysis of Tibetan society. He does this based on a single source: Sir Charles Bell’s Portrait of a Dalai Lama.

Bataille’s audacity in providing a grand analysis based on so little must immediately be acknowledged. As the 1998 edition of Prisoners of Shangri-La notes, the chapter’s title The Unarmed Society: Lamaism is itself dubious; it places Tibet in a system of fantastic opposites—bellicose Islam versus pacific Lamaism. Bataille’s focus, however, is a specific moment in modern Tibetan history, when the thirteenth Dalai Lama, having fled a British invasion in 1904 and a Chinese invasion in 1910, returned from exile in British India in 1913 with a plan to develop a modern army to repel future invaders. The plan failed, largely because of opposition from the monasteries of his own Geluk sect. Calling Tibet a peaceful civilization, incapable of attacking others or defending itself, Bataille dispenses with the argument that Tibetan pacifism somehow derives from Buddhist principles, noting correctly that other religions condemn war, and the people who profess them obviously still manage to kill one another.

Bataille offers a brief sketch of Tibetan history, explaining that Tibet chose monks over a king, creating a system in which all prestige was invested in lamas and military force was abandoned. The Dalai Lama, although head of state, was politically weak: A sovereignty is precarious that does not command both the religious enthrallment of the people and the half-mercenary, half-emotional obedience of an army.⁶ As Bataille notes, the thirteenth Dalai Lama’s attempt to raise an army and devote resources to that purpose was met with firm resistance from the monasteries, even when it was argued that an army was needed to defend the dharma.

For Bataille, the effort was doomed from the start. Using what he acknowledges are very rough estimates from Bell, he states that one in three adult males were monks and that between 5 and 10 percent of the population of Tibet were religious persons. Citing Bell’s estimate of the annual expended revenues, he finds that, "in theory, the total budget of the Church would have been twice as large as that of the state, eight times that of the army" (italics in the original).⁷ Even if these figures are unofficial, for Bataille they prove that no society that expends such a huge segment of its economy on monasticism can have an army. Still, one needs to explain what caused a whole country to become a monastery.

This brings him to the accursed share, the surplus that all economies produce (or strive to produce); the use that a society deems to make of that surplus defines the character of that society. Although monasticism was hardly limited to Tibet, what Bataille finds unique is that it became the primary outlet for Tibet’s accursed share. Given its large geographical area and small population, Tibet had no need to expend its surplus in military expansion. It could therefore be consumed by devoting the entire surplus to religion. Tibet became a closed container unconcerned with defending itself, taking comfort in Buddhist prophecies that Tibet would occasionally be invaded but the invaders would not stay long. Tibetan Buddhist monasticism was thus an internal construction so perfect, so free of controversion, so unconducive to accumulation, that one cannot envisage the least growth of the system.⁹ This suppression of growth was further ensured by the large portion of the population that was celibate, living in monasteries that generated revenue that was expended by the monks themselves, a mass of sterile consumers.¹⁰

There is much to question in Bataille’s argument. In the years both before and after the thirteenth Dalai Lama’s death in 1933, Tibet was a far less closed society than Bataille presents it to be. Yet it is the case that much of the Tibetan economy was controlled, in one way or another, by Buddhist institutions—from the massive generation of wealth by monasteries, to the state appropriation of funds for the performance of rituals and the maintenance of temples and the icons they housed, to the fact that monasteries served as major landholders and lending institutions in much of Tibet.

Bataille published The Accursed Share in 1949, one year before troops of the People’s Liberation Army crossed into Tibetan territory. Although he alludes, almost mockingly, to Buddhist prophecies of invasion, he does not cite the thirteenth Dalai Lama’s own prophecy, which was translated in Bell’s biography. There, warning of the threat of Communism, the Dalai Lama writes (in Bell’s translation),

Unless we can guard our own country, it will now happen that the Dalai and Panchen Lamas, the Father and the Son, the Holders of the Faith, the glorious Rebirths, will be broken down and left without a name. As regards the monasteries and the monks and nuns, their lands and other properties will be destroyed. The administrative customs of the Three Religious Kings will be weakened. The officers of the State, ecclesiastical and secular, will find their lands seized and their property confiscated, and they themselves will be made to serve their enemies, or wander about the country as beggars do. All beings will be sunk in great hardship and in overpowering fear; the days and nights will drag on slowly in suffering.¹¹

Like the prophecies mentioned by Bataille, this one came true; foreigners conquered Tibet. As was not prophesied, the foreigners have stayed long. In the period since the Chinese annexation of Tibet, does Bataille’s theory retain any purchase? If so, what has become of Tibet’s accursed share?

In 1961, two years after the Dalai Lama’s flight into exile, there was an extraordinary meeting in Dharamsala of many of the high-ranking lamas who had escaped from Tibet. There is a famous black-and-white group photograph that records something that had never occurred before in Tibetan history: the Dalai Lama, the Karmapa, Sakya Trizin, and a high Nyingma lama (in this case, Dudjom Rinpoche) seated side by side. Behind them are many of the most renowned figures to have escaped from Tibet, including Kalu Rinpoche and Dilgo Khyentse. This was a highly significant event and one deserving of full study. One of the purposes of the meeting was to decide how best to preserve Tibetan Buddhism in exile.

One proposal, apparently not adopted, was for each sect to establish in exile something that it had not had in Tibet, a ma dgon, a mother monastery or ecclesiastical headquarters. Another proposal, apparently adopted, was to stop recognizing incarnate lamas, to stop finding tulkus. Until any documents remaining from the meeting can be studied and until any of the surviving lamas who attended can be interviewed, a host of questions remain about how this decision was made. Was it that it would be too hard to find new incarnations in Tibet from a position of exile? Was it that the institution had grown too large and cumbersome in Tibet and the situation in exile was sufficiently desperate that resources (at a time when there was no surplus) needed to be directed to more important things? Was it that with the labrang (bla brang), the estate, now lost, the institution of the lama made little sense? These questions become all the more fascinating when we note that the majority of those present at the meeting, including three of the four luminaries seated side by side, were tulkus. When the greatest lamas and tulkus of twentieth-century Tibet had a chance to shut the system down, they did, or at least they tried to.

The ban was agreed on and observed for some years, perhaps as long as a decade, until someone broke it, and then everyone eventually followed suit. Yet there was a period when tulkus were not found. What does this mean? If we think of the tulku system from the perspective of missionaries like Ippolito Desideri (1684–1733)—who ascribed the poise of young tulkus to demonic possession—perhaps Satan had done enough to Tibetans that he no longer needed to bedevil them.¹² Having turned their country into hell, he could now turn his attentions to China. If we think of the tulku system from the perspective of the Qianlong Emperor (1711–1799), the devoted disciple and friend of the Jangkya tulku (1717–1786), the system could end because there were no longer any labrangs; the emperor himself had not closed the labrangs because doing so would impoverish so many monks. But in 1961, all the monks were impoverished. If we think of the tulku system from the doctrinal perspective, the decision raises many questions: How does one stop a tulku from being reborn? During that decade, was the Akaniṣṭha heaven mobbed with sambhogakāyas surveying the world for the appropriate time, place, and parents for their birth, and finding none in Tibet? Or were they reborn in Tibet and never identified? If a rainbow appears over the house where a child is born and no one sees it, is the child a tulku?

Since the breaking of the ban, scores of tulkus have been identified in the exile community, as if a surplus, finally accrued, needed to be expended. In the twenty years since the publication of Prisoners of Shangri-La, many of these tulkus have come of age. Today, one finds the various glossy Buddhist magazines replete with advertisements for the teachings of this or that tulku, many of whose names are preceded by the letters H. E. (for His Eminence), a title that does not have an obvious correlate in Tibetan. The tulkus have been the drivers of a new economy with its own surplus, derived largely from the support of foreign disciples. One of its products is the seminary (shes grwa) where many of these disciples have learned Classical Tibetan and Buddhist doctrine well, leading to a sociological phenomenon that might be called the dharma translator, someone with the ability to translate Tibetan texts and the oral teachings of Tibetan lamas without the imprimatur of the academy, their translations filling the lists of dharma presses like Wisdom and Shambhala (which purchased Snow Lion Publications in 2012).

In Tibet, the situation for Tibetans and their religion has deteriorated over the past two decades. This does not mean that Tibetan Buddhism has ceased to generate excess wealth. The period since 1998 has seen a movement away from foreign tourism to Tibet and a significant increase in Han Chinese tourism, facilitated by a high-speed train dubbed the Lhasa Express, which made its inaugural pilgrimage in 2006. The wave of Han tourism, in many cases motivated by the myth of Shangri-La, was made possible by the surplus wealth of many Chinese. No longer closed, at least economically, Tibet has finally become a source of wealth that can be expended outside, not by Tibetans but by Chinese, as the mineral wealth of Tibet is exploited amid protests by Tibetans who fear the destruction of their environment and fear for the well-being of the deities who inhabit it.

A wave of crackdowns on the advent of the 2008 Summer Olympics in Beijing sparked nonviolent protests across the Tibetan cultural domain; they were strongest not in Lhasa and the Tibet Autonomous Regions but in Kham and Amdo, in what the Chinese call Tibetan Autonomous Prefectures. This led in turn to further repression. Indeed, in Tibet the most important and tragic events of the past two decades have been a far more corporeal form of expenditure: the sacrifice of the lives of over one hundred Tibetans (150 as of August 1, 2017) who have died by self-immolation.¹³ Self-immolation is not a traditional form of suicide in Tibet. Unlike in Chinese Buddhism, it is not considered a scripturally sanctioned act. There is not even a word for self-immolation in Tibetan; new words, like rang lus mer bsregs (literally, burning one’s own body in fire) had to be invented. Although not all of these Tibetans left a suicide note or spoke before setting themselves on fire, the most common expression among those who did has been a call not for Tibetan independence but for the long life and return of the Dalai Lama. One of the most detailed statements was that of the monk Sonam Wangyal, called Lama Sobha, who died on January 8, 2012. In a statement recorded prior to his death, he declared,

I am giving away my body as an offering of light to chase away the darkness, to free all beings from suffering, and to lead them—each of whom has been our mother in the past and yet has been led by ignorance to commit immoral acts—to Amitābha, the buddha of infinite light. My offering of light is for all living beings, even as insignificant as lice and nits, to dispel their pain and to guide them to the state of enlightenment. I offer this sacrifice as a token of longlife offering to our root guru His Holiness the Dalai Lama and all other spiritual teachers and lamas.

The reasons for the self-immolations are many, and it has been noted that they originated in the People’s Republic of China not by Tibetans to protest Chinese repression of Tibetan culture but by Han Chinese as a form of protest against the seizure of property. One of the elements unique to the Tibetan cases, however, is the evocation by some of the butter lamp (mchod me; literally, offering fire) to describe self-immolation; one is combusting one’s own body for the cause of Tibet because there is nothing else to offer in a culture that is no longer able to produce its own accursed share.

Still, the state of Buddhism in Tibet over the past two decades has not been unremittingly bleak. With so many Tibetan monasteries and temples razed to the ground since 1950, the distinguished Nyingma lama and treasure discoverer (gter ston) Jigme Phuntshok (1933–2004) sought to find Tibetan Buddhism beneath the earth, discovering numerous treasure texts and the remains of the palace of the mythical king, Gesar of Ling. Jigme Phuntshok’s followers established not a monastery but an encampment (sgar) in Garzê Tibetan Autonomous Prefecture in Sichuan Province. The encampment was ostensibly something more temporary than a monastery, yet it was populated by tens of thousands of monks, nuns, and lay disciples who seemed to have emerged from underground like the bodhisattvas in the fifteenth chapter of the Lotus Sūtra, building all manner of makeshift dwellings from plywood on the surrounding hillsides. Painted in the maroon color of monastic robes, the site became a photographer’s dream. Called Larung Gar (bla rung sgar), it was destroyed by the Chinese authorities in 2001, only to rise again, like the stūpa that emerges from beneath the earth in the eleventh chapter of the Lotus. In 2016, the Chinese authorities ordered a drastic reduction in the size of Larung Gar, destroying thousands of dwellings and evicting thousands of monks and nuns.

.   .   .

Georges Bataille describes Sir Charles Bell as the first white man to have a sustained relationship, what he calls a kind of friendship, with a Dalai Lama.¹⁴ He is correct, but Bell was not the first white man to have such a relationship with a Tibetan Buddhist hierarch. The Scotsman George Bogle (1746–1781) joined the East India Company and arrived in Calcutta in 1769, at the age of twenty-two. Learning Persian and Hindi (or Hindustani, as it was called at the time), he rose through the ranks, gaining the attention of Warren Hastings, the governor-general of Bengal. In 1774, the third Panchen Lama sent a letter and some gifts to Hastings. The third Panchen Lama, Lobsang Palden Yeshe, was a beloved figure in the long line of incarnations, renowned as a scholar. Because the eighth Dalai Lama was in his minority, the Panchen Lama held particular political authority as well as religious authority.

Hastings promoted Bogle, then registrar of the Court of Appeals, to the position of envoy to the Lama of Tibet, dispatching him to his seat at Tashilhunpo Monastery. After four months in Bhutan, Bogle and his companion entered Tibet on October 23, 1774, the first Britons to do so. They stayed for about six months, returning to India in June 1775 after two more months in Bhutan. Bogle’s purpose was to establish trade relations with Tibet and to pursue the possibility of a British delegation to the Qing Court.

Bogle and the Panchen Lama seem to have developed a genuine friendship, enabled in part by the fact that they were able to converse easily in Hindi, a language that the Panchen Lama had learned from his Ladakhi mother. In a time of Occidental suspicion of Oriental intrigue, Bogle had nothing but praise for the Tibetan potentate: I will confess, I never knew a man whose manners pleased me so much, or for whom upon so short an acquaintance I had half the heart’s liking.¹⁵

The Panchen Lamas are considered to have a special connection to the kingdom of Shambhala and to the Kālacakra Tantra. The third Panchen composed perhaps the most famous of the guides to Shambhala, called the Shambha la’i lam yig, in 1775, the year of Bogle’s visit. In this work he provides a detailed description of the route but declares in the end that one needs more than a map in order to arrive in the kingdom; one needs also the power of mantra and the power of merit, otherwise one will meet with certain death along the way. Describing one of their last conversations before his departure for Bengal, Bogle writes, He then showed me the images and the dress which he intended to send down to Bengal . . . in order to put up in the temple which he proposes to build on the banks of the Ganges. He desired me to inquire particularly about the situation of a town called Shambul, about which he said the pundits of Bengal would be able to inform me.¹⁶

What is noteworthy, and poignant, here is that the person most learned in the Kālacakra Tantra in his day, the Tibetan lama who that very year would complete his guidebook to Shambhala, did not think that Shambhala was located somewhere in Tibet. He did not, in fact, know where it was and turned to a foreigner for help in locating a town called Shambul, hoping perhaps that he might hear of it in his travels or, if not, that he might know whom to ask.

Although he could not understand it, the Panchen Lama apparently liked to hear Bogle speak English; Bogle reports that he would recite passages from Thomas Gray’s Elegy Written in a Country Churchyard, published in 1751. It is a meditation on death, the equal of any chapter on the uncertainty of death (’chi ba mi rtag pa) in a Tibetan Buddhist text:

The boast of heraldry, the pomp of power,

And all that beauty, all that wealth e’er gave,

Awaits alike the inevitable hour.

The paths of glory lead but to the grave.

Five years after Bogle recited the poem to the Panchen Lama, they would both be dead, the Panchen Lama at age forty-two, Bogle at thirty-four. In 1778, the Panchen Lama had accepted an invitation to visit the Qianlong Emperor at his summer palace in Chengde, where replicas of Tashilhunpo and the Potala had been built. The Panchen Lama was received with great pomp, and, according to the detailed account by Konchok Jigme Wangpo (1728–1791), the Qianlong Emperor showed great respect and fondness for the Panchen Lama.¹⁷ From Chengde, the Panchen Lama proceeded to Beijing, where he died of smallpox on November 12, 1780. His body was placed in the lotus position inside a golden stūpa, which was in turn placed inside a copper stūpa that was suspended on poles and carried on a journey of seven months and eight days from Beijing to Tashilhunpo, where it was entombed. Five months later, on April 3, 1781, George Bogle died in Calcutta. He is buried there in the South Park Street Cemetery.

Governor-General Warren Hastings was determined not to lose the relationship that the East India Company had established with the Lama of Tibet. Thus, in 1783, he dispatched Lieutenant Samuel Turner (1759–1802) from Calcutta to Tashilhunpo. Prior to Turner’s return to India he was granted an audience with the recently discovered fourth Panchen Lama (1782–1853). The toddler was seated on a throne, and Turner was instructed to address him directly, being assured that although the child could not speak, he could understand. Calling him the Teshoo Lama (from Tashi Lama), Turner described the child’s reaction: Teshoo Lama was at this time eighteen months old. Though he was unable to speak a word, he made the most expressive signs, and conducted himself with astonishing dignity and decorum. His complexion was of that hue, which in England we should term rather brown, but not without colour. His features were good; he had small black eyes, and an animated expression of countenance; altogether, I thought him one of the handsomest children I had ever seen,¹⁸

Later that day, Turner was visited by two of the Panchen Lama’s attendants, They assured Turner that should the Panchen Lama, when he began to speak, happen to have forgotten it, they would early teach him to repeat the name of Hastings,¹⁹

Hastings’s name would soon be repeated in the halls of Parliament as he faced charges of mismanagement and corruption in a long impeachment trial that began in 1788. The prosecution, led by Edmund Burke, would fail, but Hastings would suffer financial ruin, Others in our story would also meet sad fates. Before leaving Tibet, Ippolito Desideri wrote sophisticated refutations of the doctrines of rebirth and emptiness in excellent Classical Tibetan.²⁰ He would return to Italy at the time of the suppression of the Jesuits; his works were placed on the Index of Forbidden Books. In Tibet, over the course of the nineteenth century, a series of Dalai Lamas died young.

In 1946, the year that Georges Bataille began writing The Accursed Share, Gendun Chopel was arrested by the Tibetan authorities in Lhasa and charged with treason. He emerged from prison a broken man, providing several explanations for his arrest. According to one, after his translation of the biography of the thirteenth Dalai Lama, the British approached him about remaining in India and doing other translations for them. When he refused, the British representative in Lhasa, Hugh Richardson, spread rumors about him among Tibetan aristocrats, leading to false charges against him and to his arrest. He died in 1951, a month after watching troops of the People’s Liberation Army march into Lhasa.

The lineage of Panchen Lamas continues into the present day, but the whereabouts of the current Panchen Lama—at least, the Panchen Lama identified by the current Dalai Lama—remain unknown. The eighth Panchen Lama, the most recent incarnation of the man who befriended Bogle and the brown-skinned child who enchanted Turner, disappeared in 1995. In 1998, he was called the world’s youngest political prisoner. In 2018, he is still a political prisoner, no longer the youngest. The cause of Tibetan independence is proclaimed less often than it was twenty years ago. The Dalai Lama has not yet given the Kālacakra initiation in Beijing. And so, in this realm of saṃsāra, we continue our search for a town called Shambul.


The greater part of this book was written at the scholars’ Shangri-La otherwise known as the National Humanities Center, where I held the Benjamin N. Duke Fellowship, which is endowed by the Research Triangle Foundation of North Carolina. I received additional support from the Office of the Vice President for Research at the University of Michigan.

The writing of this book would have been much more difficult without the support of excellent staff at the National Humanities Center, under the direction of Robert Connor and Kent Mullikin. I would especially like to thank two of the librarians, Eliza Robertson and Jean Houston, whose indomitable efforts gave me access to scores of obscure books, long unread. That the resulting book may sometimes appear to be little more than a string of potent quotations is due to the riches they provided me with such skill and dedication. Susan Meinheit of the Library of Congress kindly provided photocopies of a number of Tibetan texts that would have otherwise been unavailable to me.

The days of writing were punctuated by stimulating conversations with my fellow fellows, among whom I would like especially to thank David Armitage, Paul Berliner, George Chauncey, Constantin Fasolt, Jane Gaines, Jacquelyn Hall, Joy Kasson, William Ray, Charles Stewart, and Paul Strohm.

For reading the manuscript in whole or part, I am grateful to Janet Gyatso, Clare E. Harris, Elizabeth Horton Sharf, Robert Sharf, and especially to Catherine Bell. Alan Thomas of the University of Chicago Press provided patient and wise counsel throughout the project.

One of the pleasant coincidences of my fellowship at the National Humanities Center was that the Center is located near Chapel Hill and the University of North Carolina, where my wife, Tomoko Masuzawa, serves on the faculty. Thus, my fellowship provided the rare opportunity, understood only by other commuting couples, to live with my spouse. This book is dedicated to her, with my heartfelt gratitude for the many ways she has sustained me over the ten years of our partnership.


At the Opening Ceremonies of the 1996 Olympic Games in Atlanta, a work entitled Call to Nature, by Mickey Hart, percussionist of the Grateful Dead, was performed. It began with the chant of a Tibetan monk from Gyuto monastery. In 1993 chants of Tibetan monks from the same monastery were broadcast at deafening volume by agents of the Federal Bureau of Investigation in Waco, Texas, as part of their psychological assault on the Branch Davidians. The 1995 film Ace Ventura: When Nature Calls finds the protagonist living in a Tibetan monastery, doing penance for having failed to rescue a raccoon. He is dressed in the red robes and yellow hat of a Geluk monk, seeking to attain a state of omnipresent supergalactic oneness.¹ On June 16, 1996, fifty thousand people gathered at Golden Gate Park for a Free Tibet benefit concert, which featured performances by Smashing Pumpkins, the Red Hot Chili Peppers, the Beastie Boys, Yoko Ono, and John Lee Hooker (among others). Prior to performing, the bands were blessed by Tibetan monks. The 1992 Christmas issue of Paris Vogue had as its guest editor the Dalai Lama. In the 1990 series Twin Peaks, Special Agent Dale Cooper tells the local police force, Following a dream I had three years ago, I have become deeply moved by the plight of the Tibetan people and filled with a desire to help them. I also awoke from the same dream realizing that I had subconsciously gained knowledge of a deductive technique involving mind-body coordination operating hand in hand with the deepest level of intuition.² In the better grocery stores one can purchase Tibetan Root Beer: gently invigorating cardamom and coriander in a Tibetan adaptation of Ayurvedic herbs. In a 1991 episode of The Simpsons, Mayor Diamond Joe Quimby tells the assembled citizens awaiting the arrival of Michael Jackson, This is the most exciting thing to happen to our fair town since the Dalai Lama visited in 1952. And so, I hereby declare that Route 401, currently known as the Dalai Lama Expressway, will henceforth be known as the Michael Jackson Expressway. Thus when we see advertised, under the heading Booty, Spoils & Plunder, a Tibetan Shaman’s Jacket (for women, $175) in a 1995 J. Peterman catalog we are not surprised to read the accompanying copy that says, It’s official. Crystals are out, Tibetan Buddhism is in.

But Tibetan Buddhism has been in for some time. In the 1983 film The Return of the Jedi, the teddy-bear like creatures called Ewoks spoke high-speed Tibetan. In 1966, when the Beatles recorded Tomorrow Never Knows, which begins Turn off your mind, relax, and float downstream, John Lennon asked the recording engineer to make his voice sound like the Dalai Lama on a mountain top. In 1925 the French poet Artaud wrote Address to the Dalai Lama, which begins We are your most faithful servants, O Grand Lama, give us, grace us with your illuminations in a language our contaminated European minds can understand, and if need be, transform our Mind, create for us a mind turned entirely toward those perfect summits where the Human Mind no longer suffers. . . . Teach us, O Lama, the physical levitation of matter and how we may no longer be earthbound.³ In 1948 the presidential campaign of Progressive Party candidate Henry Wallace (vice president under Franklin Roosevelt, 1940–44) foundered when it was revealed that he had written letters to a Russian Tibetophile that began Dear Guru. And in The Adventure of the Empty House, Sherlock Holmes accounts for his whereabouts during the years he was assumed dead—after plunging with Professor Moriarty over Reichenbach Fall—by telling Watson, I travelled for two years in Tibet, therefore, and amused myself by visiting Lhassa, and spending some days with the head lama. You may have read of the remarkable explorations of a Norwegian named Sigerson, but I am sure that it never occurred to you that you were receiving news of your friend.

On September 6, 1995, the Raleigh, North Carolina, News & Observer carried on the front page a color photograph of the Dalai Lama being embraced by Senator Jesse Helms, under the headline Buddhist Captivates Hero of Religious Right. The next day the photograph appeared on T-shirts in Chapel Hill. But by then, the words below the picture seemed redundant. They read Anything Is Possible. This book is an attempt to understand how it is possible.

Tibet and Tibetan Buddhism have long been objects of Western fantasy. Since the earliest encounters of Venetian travelers and Catholic missionaries with Tibetan monks at the Mongol court, tales of the mysteries of their mountain homeland and the magic of their strange—yet strangely familiar—religion have had a peculiar hold on the Western imagination. During the last two centuries, the valuation of Tibetan society and, particularly, its religion, has fluctuated wildly. Tibetan Buddhism has been portrayed sometimes as the most corrupt deviation from the Buddha’s true dharma, sometimes as its most direct descendant. These fluctuations have occurred over the course of this century, at its beginning as Tibet resisted the colonial ambitions of a European power and at its end as it succumbed to the colonial ambitions of an Asian power.

Typical of those who have held the negative view is Susie Carson Rijnhart, a medical missionary who traveled in Tibet from 1895 to 1899. In her account of her journey, With the Tibetans in Tent and Temple, she writes:

But nothing could be further from the truth than the belief entertained by many occidentals that the lamas are superior beings endowed with transcendent physical and intellectual gifts. On the contrary, they are mere children in knowledge, swayed by the emotions that play on the very surface of being. During all our four years’ sojourn among the Tibetans of various tribes and districts, we did not meet a single lama who was conversant with even the simple facts of nature . . . , for the great mass of them we found to be ignorant, superstitious and intellectually atrophied like all other priesthoods that have never come into contact with the enlightening and uplifting influence of Christian education. They are living in the dark ages, and are themselves so blind that they are not aware of the darkness. Ten centuries of Buddhism have brought them to their present state of moral and mental

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    This is an excellent guide to fallacies regarding Tibet made by Western writers and travelers. Occasionally, Lopez lapses into the laxness of Foucaultian irony; however, these languors are made up for in bursts of startling original thinking. I relished his meditation on how authority to speak for foreign cultures is granted to some writers and not to others. This topic has been discussed elsewhere, but here Lopez provides a context in which an obviously fictional "true story," The Third Eye by Lobsang Rampa (actually Cyril Hoskin from Devon), became an inspiration for a generation of Tibetologists. In another interesting chapter, the author describes the distortions applied to Tibetan Buddhism as it became disseminated in the West, changing monastic practice to suit a laity of individual worshipers steeped in Christian tradition. He also shows how the political and social needs of the Tibetan diaspora have driven further misconceptions.