Teachers as sages. Also, Tibet

Filed under: — Alan Baumler @ 6:55 pm

Here is something wonderful from Donald Lopez’s Prisoners of Shangri-La: Tibetan Buddhism and the West1 If you have not read it, it is a very good book on what ‘Tibet’ has meant to the West, written by a leading Tibet scholar. One set of books that he deals with are the works of T. Lobsang Rampa. Rampa was a Tibetan Lama whose 1956 autobiography The Third Eye was an important part of the popularization of ideas about Tibet. Lopez points out that many professional Tibetologists first became fascinated with Tibet after reading this book. Later editions contain prefaces denying rumours that Rampa was actually a Devonshire man named Cyril Henry Hoskin who had never been to Tibet. These rumours do not seem to have hurt sales of his books to Westerners seeking Tibetan wisdom, however. Lopez, who apparently has a sense of humour as well as being a great scholar, assigned The Third Eye to his students at the University of Michigan.

.. having them read it without telling them anything of its history. (The edition currently available in the United States for some reason omits the “Statement by the Author.”) The students were unanimous in their praise of the book, and despite six prior weeks of lectures and readings on Tibetan history and religion (including classics such as R. A. Stein’s Tibetan Civilization), they found it entirely credible and compelling, judging it more realistic than anything they had previously read about Tibet, appreciating the detail about “what Tibet was really like,” giving them “a true understanding about Tibet and Buddhism.” Many of the things they had read about Tibet seemed strange until then; these things seemed more reasonable when placed within the context of a lama’s life. It is not that the things Rampa described were not strange; it was that they were so strange that they could not possibly have been concocted. When I told them about the book’s author, they were shocked, but immediately wanted to separate fact from fiction. How much of the book was true?
With the author unmasked they awoke from their mystified state, and with eyes opened turned away from Rampa and toward me for authority. Each of their questions began, “Did Tibetans really … ?” “Did Tibetans really perform amputations without anaesthesia, with the patients using breath control and hypnotism instead?” “Did monks really eat communally and in silence while the Scriptures were read aloud?” “If a monk violated the eightfold path, was he punished by having to lie motionless face down across the door of the temple for a full day, without food or drink?” “Are the priests in Tibet vegetarian?” “Did priests really only ride white horses?” “Were horses really only ridden every other day?” “Did acolytes really wear white robes?” “Did cats really guard the temple jewels?” 23 “At the New Year’s festival, did monks really dress as giant buddhas and walk through the streets on stilts?” “Were there really  man-bearing kites in Tibet?” And of course, “Did they really perform the operation of the third eye?”
The answer to each of these questions was no. But by what authority did I confidently make such a pronouncement? I had not lived in old Tibet and so could not contradict Rampa’s claims with my own eyewitness testimony. It was, rather, that I had never seen any mention of such things in any of the books that I had read about Tibet-in English, French, or Tibetan. From reading other books, I had learned the standards of scholarly evidence, the need for corroboration by citing sources in footnotes.24 And because I had read a sufficient number of such books, I was awarded a doctorate some years ago, and with the proper documents in my possession to prove my identity had been given the power to consecrate and condemn the products of others, and the power to initiate others into this knowledge. This power, the power to speak both with authority and as an authority, that is, the power to bestow value, had been passed on to me by my teachers, who had in turn received it from their teachers. It was this power that was embodied in my “no.” But this power had come at a price. For by accepting this power I had had to forever disavow any interest in the possible commercial profits that might derive from my work. 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 would in its own way provide for my financial security by insuring that I would never have to offer my services to a publisher as a ghostwriter in order to support my wife and my cat, as Cyril Hoskin had done. The work of scholarship, like the work of art, retains its aura only when it is not reproduced too widely. Were it to sell a million copies, its aura of authority would fade.


This is a nice bit of writing that says a lot about the nature of teacherly authority. Obviously, Lopez needs to follow this up with a blazing example of his expertise, and he does.

It is not that Rampa’s claims can be dismissed because they are too strange. Had his research extended to include Evans-Wentz’s Tibetan Yoga and Secret Doctrines, he would have learned about ‘pho ba, or “transference of consciousness,” one of the six teachings of the tenth-century Indian tantric master Naropa (Na ro chos drug), whereby one can transfer one’s own consciousness into that of another being  (preferably a well-preserved corpse). The most famous case of consciousness transference in Tibetan literature is found in the biography of Marpa (Mar pa, 1012-1096), the teacher of Tibet’s great yogin Milarepa. Marpa’s son, Darmadoday (Dar rna mdo sde), after fracturing his skull in an equestrian accident, transferred his consciousness into the body of a recently deceased pigeon, since no human corpse could be found on short notice. The bird was then given directions by Marpa for flying across the Himalayas to India, where it discovered the fresh corpse of a thirteen- year-old brahman boy; the bird transferred its consciousness into the boy and then expired. The boy rose from the funeral pyre prior to his immolation and grew up to become the great yogin Tipupa (Ti phu pa). 26 Compared to this a Tibetan taking over the body of an unemployed Englishman seems rather mundane.

  1. University of Chicago Press, 1999 []


China becomes air-minded

Filed under: — Alan Baumler @ 10:11 am

So, I presented a paper at AAS in San Diego. Obviously the high points were meeting Konrad Lawson in person and eating really good fish tacos, so I could taunt the kids when I got back. The paper was on air-mindedness in China. Air-mindedness was the interwar idea that aircraft were about to lead to a transformation of human affairs. This was a big deal in Europe, the U.S. and Soviet Russia, among other places. I dealt a little with how the idea was imported into China before the war, especially after the bombing of Shanghai in 1932. While there were some air-minded writers who talked about how air travel would lead to universal peace, China was more influenced by those who foresaw a new form technological warfare that a modern nation would have to learn how to cope with. My paper mostly looked at wartime efforts to deal with air-raids, but the best reactions I got came from some of the pre-war pictures. If you are the type who only reads scholarly journals for the pictures this post is a good substitute for going to AAS.

Here is a map showing the WWI bombing of London, superimposed on the city of Shanghai, to give the Chinese people an idea of the scale of modern war. In 1932 only a handful of places in Shanghai had been bombed, and part of the purpose of pre-war propaganda was to convince Chinese that they needed to be ready for a new type of war.


How do you prepare? Well, you have to become a different sort of person, as the picture below suggests. I’ve seen this reproduced in a few places. It shows how, based on American experiments, you can tell what size bomb made the crater you are looking at. Your natural reaction to seeing the building next to you turned into a smoking crater might be to panic, but the air-minded citizen will climb into the hole and report the event to the proper authorities

Bomb Crater

You also have to become a different sort of society. Here is a map, based on European models, that shows a proper modern air defence net for a city, going from the observers far away (all linked by modern communications) to the layers of defence of the city.


How well did the Chinese do at all this? Well, as the picture of an air defence net below, taken from a wartime journal, suggests, they had the idea, but the execution was lacking, at least in the early part of the war. Diagram

A lot of the pre-war modernity was pretty vague, like these fliers urging the Chinese people to pay attention to air defence, but not really explaining what that might meanFAngKong

Modernity was also not very evenly distributed in the pre-war period, with most of what was being done happening in Nanjing. That changed during the war of course. It was not much of a paper, but I did like digging around and finding some of this pre-war stuff on air-mindedness and tying it into the more familiar narrative of the wartime bombings.




When the Chinese went out for Jews

For the benefit of our Chinese readers, as well as anyone else who has not seen this excellent piece, I would like to introduce Scott Seligman’s “The Night New York’s Chinese Went Out for Jews: How a 1903 Chinatown fundraiser for pogrom victims united two persecuted peoples.” For our Chinese readers I suppose I should explain the joke in the title. Americans went out for Chinese a lot. Chinese restaurants were popular in the U.S. for a long time. Jews in particular went out for Chinese on Christmas. Christmas was the day that every single goy in America had a family meal, and so Jews were left all alone, like Americans in China at Spring Festival. I suppose Jews could have stayed in and had a family meal of their own, but they tended to make a point of going out, and the only place that would be open was a Chinese restaurant.1Not as a rule a place that non-Jews would visit on Christmas, but a place where Jews and Chinese could commiserate on their common lack of American-ness.

Given this bond between Jews and Chinese, it is maybe less surprising than it seems that a sort of Pan-Asian solidarity led Chinese to mobilize in support of the victims of the Kishinev pogrom. Chinese donated money, marched through the streets, and attended “a Chinese-language drama entitled The 10 Lost Tribes. Its subject, however, was not the destruction of the kingdom of Israel in Biblical times, but rather the subjugation of the Chinese by the Manchus in the early years of the Ch’ing Dynasty.” It’s a very good article, and rather than my summarizing it, you should go read it.



  1. Yes, the connection between Jews and Chinese restaurants goes beyond Christmas. It’s just a blog post. []


Bald Chinese

Filed under: — Alan Baumler @ 4:37 pm

There is a nice post up at the Atlantic (by ) on Colombia, the image of the USA before, like Guanyin, she became male. The thing I found most interesting is the picture of her defending a Chinese immigrant.



What I find interesting about this is his head. Is he a subject of the Qing who shaves his pate, or just a modern person who suffers, as I do, from male pattern baldness?

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