Go West, Young Lama

According to Arnold Toynbee, the arrival of Buddhism in the West “may well prove to be the most important event of the twentieth century”: clearly taking a long view that has yet to be proven (although Cardinal Ratzinger takes the “threat” seriously: “In the 1950s someone said that the undoing of the Catholic church in the 20th century wouldn’t come from Marxism but from Buddhism. They were right.”) A new book, Re-enchantment: Tibetan Buddhism Comes to the West, by Jeffrey Paine, describes at least part of this story, and explains (among other things) how Tibetan Buddhism came to influence, among others, Thomas Merton, Jack Kerouac and my favourite composer, Philip Glass.

The book observes that in 1968 there were only two Tibetan Buddhist centers outside Asia: in Scotland and Vermont. By 2000, nearly every sizable American city had one, with eight in Washington, D.C., 25 in Boston, and about 40 in New York. One of every 35 French citizens is a Buddhist. Buddhism is the fastest-growing religion in the United States, with the Tibetan variety drawing the most converts.

This enthusiasm has drawn to a great extent on a very romanticised image of Tibet (described in Prisoners of Shangri-La: Tibetan Buddhism and the West, by Donald Lopez and published in 1998). There has also been some renegotiation: many of the Buddhist Westerners I know try to take the vegetarian bit seriously, but the sexual restrictions less so. I once asked a gay follower of Tibetan Buddhism what he thought of the Dalai Lama’s views on homosexuality. He shrugged and said, “well, the guy was brought up in a monastery in the middle of nowhere. What can you expect?” On the other hand, it has been fun to see sympathisers appalled that Steven Segal could just buy the status of reincarnated lama: surely Martin Luther told us religion was not supposed to be like this!

One element of the story that I think deserves to be better known is the hilarious case of Lobsang Rampa. Rampa’s real name was Cyril Hoskin, and he was a surgical truss salesman from the west of England (here (scroll down)). Once his true identity was discovered, he claimed that he had merely possessed Hoskin’s body, and explained away his inability to speak Tibetan as due to a hypnotic block he had put on himself to prevent himself from revealing secrets to the Chinese. Rampa/Hoskin wrote many books, the most famous of which was the first, The Third Eye. In it he explains how he had the front of his forehead opened up, revealing a third eye capable of seeing auras. Although scholars of Tibet were dismayed, a few intellectuals were taken in and massive public interest followed.

Still, I suppose if it made people aware of the Chinese occupation some good was done. I urge everyone who wants to give a bit of cash to the cause to buy this CD, which features a very nice reggae version of the prayer Om Mani Padme Hum.