Beliefnet
Excerpted from "Prisoners of Shangri-La: Tibetan Buddhism and the West," with permission from the University of Chicago Press.


It could be argued that the national culture (and nature) of Tibet was unified in the discursive sense only once the Dalai Lama had gone into exile in 1959. Introduced by Western supporters to the notion of culture, Tibetan refugees could look back at what Tibet had been. But this gaze, at least as it would be represented to the West, saw the Land of Snows only as it was reflected in the elaborately framed mirror of Western fantasies about Tibet. It was only through this mirror, this process of doubling, that a Tibetan nation could be represented as unified, complete and coherent. It was as if a double of Tibet had long haunted the West, and the Tibetans, coming out of Tibet, were not confronted with this double. In this sense the Tibetans stepped into a world in which they were already present, and since their belated arrival--often encouraged by the devotees of Tibet, missionaries of a different stripe--they have merged seamfully into a double that had long been standing. (In a recent visit to London the Dalai Lama was taken to Madame Tussaud's to inspect his wax image.)

In 1880 the master of the Great White Brotherhood, the Mahatma Koot Hoomi, described Tibet in a letter to A. P. Sinnett that materialized in Madame Blavatsky's [founder of the Theosophical Society] cabinet. It read, in part, "For centuries we have had in Thibet a moral, pure hearted, simple people, unblest with civilization, hence--untainted by its vices. For ages has been Thibet the last corner of the globe not so entirely corrupted as to preclude the mingling together of the two atmospheres--the physical and spiritual." From her we can trace a process by which Tibet becomes increasingly symbolic, ethereal and epiphenomenal, a surrogate society, even a sacrificial victim.

[For Westerners,] Tibet has become increasingly symbolic, a surrogate society.

In the preface to "My Life in Tibet" (1939) by Edwin J. Dingle (founder of the Science of Mentalphysics), Louis M. Grafe, in keeping with Hilton's vision of Shangri-La described in "Lost Horizon" just a few years before, portrays Tibet as a preserve of ancient wisdom, a place where Orientals safeguard the wisdom of the white race: "Amid all these changes, was the great original wisdom saved? Yes--thanks to the land which was free of strife and war--Tibet, protected by Nature herself with barriers insurmountable to the greed and war lust of surrounding nations. Here, men of Mongolian extraction were to preserve for the Indo-European the original wisdom of his own white race, to be given back when he showed himself ready for it, or when, as now, the barriers of Nature seem no longer sufficient to protect the sanctuary. Tibet is thus a service society for the white race, preserving a wisdom that originally belonged to it but in the meantime had been lost.

In 1966 the esoteric wisdom of Asia was once again in fashion. But by this time China had overrun Tibet, and the wisdom, held in safekeeping for so long, was in danger of being lost forever. Lama Govinda [a German student of Tibetan Buddhism who helped popularize the Tibetan cause] portrays Tibet as symbolic both of the ancient wisdom that all humanity laments and of the salvific knowledge it longs for in the future:

"...Why is it that the fate of Tibet has found such a deep echo in the world? There can be only one answer: Tibet has become the symbol of all that present-day humanity is longing for, either because it has been lost or not yet been realised or because it is in danger of disappearing from human sight: the stability of a tradition, which has its roots not only in historical or cultural past, but within the innermost being of man, in whose depth this past is enshrined as an ever-present source of inspiration."

In 1991 these sentiments could be reiterated. By this time, however, the cause of Tibet had entered more fully into popular culture and the contrast between the old and the new Tibet could be more sharply drawn. To be preserved, Tibet's wisdom must now be integrated into the world's culture, for the inspiration it provides. Thus, perhaps the most famous of the Western adherents of Tibetan Buddhism, Richard Gere, echoing Madame [Helena] Blavatsky [founder of the Theosophical Society], [Walter] Evans-Wentz [the first Western translator of the "Tibetan Book of the Dead"], and voices from a century ago, describes Tibet as everything that the materialist West wants. It is Tibet that can save the West by showing us, prophetically, what we can be by showing us what it had been. It is Tibet that can save the West, cynical and materialist, from itself. Tibet is seen as the cure for an ever-dissolving Western civilization, restoring its spirit.

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