It’s been established that American yoga practitioners don’t go in for critical thinking, much less a little history. I find both to be vital to self-reflection and hope a least a few readers agree. Next time we might be back to trauma.
The highlight of Prisoners of Shangri-La is the chapter on T. Lobsang Rampa. It’s the remarkable story of the most-read book about Tibet, The Third Eye (1956), albeit told through the lens of an academic distraught (traumatized, even) by his own irrelevance. His work will never have the reach of New Age crackpot Rampa. Yes, I understand that rankles. Most people are not interested in facts and history, and this drives me crazy too. And the New Age influence on my profession? Staggering. Though not quite as staggering as the blind bias of academics full of disingenuous political correctness. Lopez looks to establish authority in this chapter (itself a dubious ground for argument), but instead defends his class privilege. And that privilege is precisely why he should know, and do, better.
“This chapter considers notions of embodiment and possession in an effort to raise the question of what authorizes the author of a book about Tibet. The occasion for these reflections is provided by three books published [by Rampa]…” (Lopez p87). Frankly, I find it a little embarrassing that a leading scholar feels compelled to compare his own authority to that of an occult writer popular in the 1950s. I’ve taken a Tibetan religion class or two and I’d never heard of Rampa, even though these books are still in print today. And rightly so. They’re pretty fantastic.
T. Lobsang Rampa was born Cyril Henry Hoskin, a disenfranchised English nutter whose books about Tibet have sold more copies than any other. He is what academics most despise. He is popular. Even worse, he is eccentric, popular, and of the wrong social class (Lopez 107). His 19 books have sold millions of copies, many still in print over fifty years later. As of last week, Amazon ranks sales of The Third Eye (1956) at #27,559. Prisoners of Shangri-La (1999)? #239,020.
Indeed, Rampa claimed to be a Tibetan Lama who possessed the body of Englishman Cyril Hoskin, and his books were fantastically fictive. But Rampa doggedly claimed that his books were absolutely true and autobiographical. This outraged the Tibetan experts (Western scholars, diplomats, etc. Tibetans had bigger concerns, ie, China), especially the mountaineers, one of whom hired a private investigator to suss things out. Plenty of evidence suggests that Rampa genuinely believed his story, and even Lopez agrees (p111). This sparks my curiosity about the illustrious fellow, who believed he was a Tibetan Lama with a surgically implanted third eye. Alas, perhaps this is because I’m a plumber’s son myself (literalists: this is a metaphor. And my bias). But Lopez has only wrath thinly veiled in sarcasm and condescension.
Lopez completes an exhaustive task of putting three books about Rampa’s life into a chronological summary. This is the highlight of the chapter. A shorter but less fun summary by Lopez can be found here. Summary is Lopez’s forte, as demonstrated in the first chapter on Lamaism.
Early in the story, Rampa received a “surgical procedure designed to force clairvoyance, after which Rampa could be instructed hypnotically. The operation, performed on Rampa’s eighth birthday, involved drilling a hole in his skull at the point between his eyes to create the third eye, an eye that allowed him to see auras, ‘to see people as they are and not as they pretend to be.’” He soon used this skill “to learn the intentions of the Chinese emissaries to the Dalai Lama. The Chinese were filled with hate, their auras showing “the contaminated hues of those whose life forces are devoted to materialism and evil-doing” (pp 88-89).
Rampa became a trappa, or medical priest, and was brilliant enough to suggest “design modifications to the monastery’s kite master to improve their air worthiness” (Lopez 88-89). On first seeing an Englishman he noted: “Occasionally the man would hold a white cloth to his nose and make the sound of a small trumpet, which Rampa took to be a form of salute to the Dalai Lama. He assumed that the man was crippled because he had to sit on a wooden frame supported by four sticks” (p89).
In short, Rampa is creative, hilarious and a great writer. Does Lopez appreciate his talent? No. He’s miffed that Rampa insists his works are absolute truth and doesn’t bow down to the Tibetan experts, and so sets out on a cringe-worthy crusade to denounce Rampa’s authority and trumpet his own. As Matthew Kapstein of The University of Chicago notes in his review for The Journal of Asian Studies: “The ruminations on power and authority with which Lopez concludes this chapter however are uncharacteristically labored and Lopez’s remarks on material and symbolic capital (“by accepting this power the professional authority [derived from Lopez's University of Virginia doctorate] I had to forever disavow any interest in the possible commercial profits that might derive from my work”) seems disingenuous or, at best, just plain silly” Kapstein, 105). At best, indeed. Later in chapter six, Lopez whines that this PhD program at Virgina, completed 20 years earlier, left him with the education of a twelve-year-old monk. But never mind that for now.
Let’s be clear. Rampa was a nutter. He was no threat to the establishment. One of his books, Living with the Lama is the autobio of his Siamese cat dictated to Rampa telepathically, a cat he took for walks on a leash. Does this invite your scorn? Does it threaten your authority? Your sense of what is right in the world? Or is your interest piqued? Who was this guy, writer of almost 20 books of incredible imagination, still in print (in several languages) fifty years later? This fellow who donated the profits from My Visits to Venus to the Save a Cat League of New York** and willed his handsome royalties to several cat organizations in Canada and the US***? His first book, The Third Eye, was published as non-fiction and was widely believed, bestselling in several countries to rave reviews.
Richardson, Britain’s leading expert on Tibet, offered to review the book for the Times Literary Supplement. But the Times had already found a reviewer, who concluded, “There is no doubt that this book was worth publishing, since, though it would be a matter of extraordinary difficulty to say whether it is a work of truth, it comes near to being a work of art….[E]ven those who exclaim ‘magic, moonshine, or worse’ are likely to be moved by the nobility of the ethical system which produces such beliefs and such men as the author.”
The European Tibetan experts who’d recommended it not be published were not so moved. They were flabbergasted. “There is a series of wholly un-Tibetan obsessions with cruelty, fuss and bustle, and strangely, with cats” Richardson review, p98. You can’t blame them, really, the world being so ridiculous, but The Third Eye is totally fantastic. It’s incredible someone could put it together having never left England, given the few books available on Tibet at the time. Hoskin/Rampa was really a piece of work. I am beyond charmed.
How Not to Be an Asshat Academic
You’d think that 40-some years later, Lopez could see the humor and elegance, too. But no. To Lopez, Rampa is the son of a plumber, ergo holds no right to authority whatsoever. In an ad hominem attack, Lopez writes:
Hoskin’s father kept a plumber’s shop in the Ridgeway, Pympton, Devon…(private investigator’s report, p99).
Hoskin was then employed by a Surgical Goods Manufacturing Company and described as a Works Manager” (private investigator’s report, p99).
…[he is] a man who grew up in a rural village, the son of a master plumber…(p100).
…held a variety of jobs, including that of making “surgical fittings” (corsets, trusses, and other unmentionables)…(p100).
…they are the works of an unemployed surgical fitter, the son of a plumber, seeking to support himself as a ghostwriter (p103).
…what is it about The Third Eye that so enrages the expert, apart from the fact that Cyril Hoskin was of the wrong social class to qualify as an authentic English eccentric (p107)?
…the son of Devon plumber could become the scion of the Lhasa aristocracy…(p110).
…a man who made surgical fittings could become a surgeon…(p110).
This trashing even made wikipedia. Their entry on Lobsang Rampa states succinctly: “To Donald S. Lopez, Jr., an American Tibetologist, the books of Lobsang Rampa are “the works of an unemployed surgical fitter, the son of a plumber, seeking to support himself as a ghostwriter.”
How is this blatant, grotesque, ad hominem classism acceptable? How does it pass for scholarship? Lopez isn’t even a Brit. He teaches at a public American university. I do hope that no children of plumbers dare to take his courses less they be scarred by his ignorance. Though at least he’s direct. Most professors wax poetic about the less privileged while at the same time subtly and not-so-subtly alienating students who come from “the wrong place.” The hypocrisy is nauseating. And not one reviewer called him on it. Most agreed. They picked up the “son of a plumber” line and, through its use, endorsed the ad hominem argument.
Lopez slurs Hoskin/Rampa further by calling him a lazy and spoiled child, as well as a disappointment to his parents (pp 99-100). This is all entirely hearsay. I have a hard time imagining the writer of 19 successful books to be lazy, but obviously I have different standards. Honestly (and I fully admit, conjecture), Rampa’s eccentricity and imagination remind me of public figures like Ellen Gould White and Bertha Pappenheim, people who survived difficult lives by escaping into fantastic imaginary worlds. The first paragraph of The Third Eye features a four-year old being “thwacked” (Rampa, p1) and the second page describes a father who was large, bulky, tall and strong. “Often he would give way to bursts of anger for no reason that we could see (Rampa, p2). Above Richardson noted Rampa’s “un-Tibetan” obsession with cruelty, and there is mention of Rampa’s ill health throughout.
So, we could call him lazy or we could wonder why a child was cranky and bedridden. Was Rampa just naturally so, and deserved the labels “lazy” and “disappointing” in some spineless fabrication about why a child should not grow up to write books? In most of the reviews of Prisoners of Shangri-La, the critics referred to Rampa as a surgical fitter, the son of a plumber, or, incorrectly, a plumber (as does wikip). Only does one reviewer, an Aussie, refer to him as a writer. Apparently it’s acceptable in the American academic world, in the 21st Century, to label someone by the working-class occupation of his parent. Unbelievable.
Lopez further muddles his argument and somehow defends his judgments of Rampa by adding that his father was a master plumber in a rural village (one Prisoners reviewer calls Hoskin/Rampa “provincial”) and “thus a member of the working gentry and financially comfortable” (p100). “The son seems to have been something of a disappointment, especially compared to his sister who married above her station.” Again, hearsay. Now the father plumber is of the working gentry? This puts Rampa above the position of the poor, and so malignable as a ghostwriter and the son of a plumber? Lopez takes issue with a comment Rampa made about poverty, but shames him for writing to support himself and working odd jobs:
It was necessary that I renounce any self-interest in the economic value of my work, exchanging such capital for something higher and more noble because it was severed from crass material interests. This was symbolic capital, which in its own way would provide for my financial security by insuring that I would never have to offer my services to a publisher as a ghost writer in order to support my wife and my cat, as Cyril Hoskin had done (Lopez 105).
Or all the homeless cats of New York and a good chunk of North America, as it turned out. Yes, this is the disingenuous, silly bit Kapstein commented on earlier. It’s a clusterfuck of ad-hominem argument, one that seems to pass in academia without the blink of an eye.
Lopez continues his argument by pointing out that there is in fact consciousness transference (‘pho ba) and body possession in Tibetan Buddhism, Rampa was just off on the details. Less dramatic about them, even. He also suggests Rampa could have argued, had he known enough, that his work was in the tradition of a newly discovered text, a technique of legitimation (pp 105-107). It galls Lopez terribly that Rampa wasn’t interested in these arguments. He just insisted his works were true. Somehow this does not make me think less of Rampa, but more. How close he was, while so far away!
Next Lopez imbibes Max Weber and traditional vs charismatic authority: “But Weber is less helpful on how charisma is lost, and that is perhaps the more mystifying question in the case of Rampa.” He then rambles on about Roman law and Tibetan lineage, totally ignoring the fact that no one cared about what the experts thought. Rampa did not lose his charisma. He was caught out when his book sales were at a few hundred thousand, if that. They went on to sell into the millions. Years later, according to Michael Buckley, he also had something of an entourage following him in Canada. What Lopez and many of his ilk seem to not understand (should they care to), is that fans of Rampa, fans of the disenfranchised, you know, sons of plumbers, love Rampa, the occult, and 92oz cokes partly in defiance of The Experts condescending, insulting, ignorant insistence that they are wrong to do so. They defy the pretense that The Experts know better than they can know for themselves.
“It is not simply that the scholar needs the dilettante to define his identity” (p111). Ah yes, that’s me! How am I doing? Let’s continue. There’s more.
In his next tenuous argument, Lopez suggests that Rampa is like the lü (glud): “[T]he ransom offered to the demons in a Tibetan exorcism ceremony in exchange for the spirit of the possessed. The officiating lama, the person authorized [authority again!] to perform the exorcism, makes a doughy effigy of the person possessed…. And so Rampa, invested with the wealth of his royalties, which the scholar must renounce, is given to the public as a Tibetan” (pp 111-112).
It’s a nice attempt to control the situation (i.e. Rampa) symbolically, but it’s flawed. The experts, Lopez’s authorities in this analogy, did not create Rampa. He was self made. The self-made millionaire son of a plumber. As Lopez himself states, the making of the lü by the officiating lama, the authorized person, is essential to the ceremony. The lama did not make Rampa. He cannot be the experts’ lü. Another fail.
In the last and perhaps most painful argument of all, Lopez calls upon Freud. He tells us that many European Tibetologists first came to their interest in Tibet through the works of Lobsang Rampa. (American academics, wisely, deny having read him.) “In order to become professional scholars, they had to renounce any interest in that which had served as the precondition for their eventual scholarly identity. It is, indeed, the very reading of Rampa that ultimately brings about the death of Rampa” (p113).
That is so profound.
“Some might see this as a case of killing the father [seriously?], but it might be more accurately described in the Freudian sense as a disavowal or denial (Verleugnung), a mode of defense in which the subject refuses to recognize the reality of a traumatic perception: in this case the scholar fondly remembers Rampa for his “good effect,” refusing to acknowledge that he represents everything that the scholar most loathes, that it was this fraud that brought them to their profession” (p113).
A traumatic defense? Are you kidding me? Let me posit this, Dr. Lopez: Perhaps European academics do not suffer Verleugnung from their past relationship with Mr. Rampa. Perhaps they do not take themselves so seriously, do not have their have their heads quite so firmly up their asses. Even more, perhaps they have a sense of play, a sense of humor. Perhaps they simply have no shame regarding their early relationship with the brilliant, adventurous three-eyed lama. Maybe they even enjoy it.
What is most mystifying is that Lopez never makes the most important argument, the argument which strongly supports the thesis of Prisoners of Shangri-La. It might have been a subtext of his arguments, but it was never stated. For almost sixty years now, the most commonly read book on Tibet is a fraudulent biography of a Tibetan Lama by a Westerner, a work of New Age fiction. And no one cares. We love it anyway. What demonstrates our romanticization, our spiritual and occult projections, and our disregard for Tibetans’ actual reality better than this?
And it’s nothing at all to do with Rampa’s father.