Prisoners of Shangri-La: Tibetan Buddhism and the West

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Prisoners of Shangri-La is a provocative analysis of the romance of Tibet, a romance that, even as it is invoked by Tibetan lamas living in exile, ultimately imprisons those who seek the goal of Tibetan independence from Chinese occupation.

"Lopez lifts the veil on America's romantic vision of Tibet to reveal a country and a spiritual history more complex and less ideal than popular perceptions allow. . . . Lively and engaging, Lopez's book raises important questions about how Eastern religions are often co-opted, assimilated and misunderstood by Western culture."—Publishers Weekly

"Proceeding with care and precision, Lopez reveals the extent to which scholars have behaved like intellectual colonialists. . . . Someone had to burst the bubble of pop Tibetology, and few could have done it as resoundingly as Lopez."—Booklist

"Fascinating. . . [A] provocative exploration. Lopez conveys the full dizziness of the Western encounter with Tibet and Tibetan Buddhism."—Fred Pheil, Tricycle: The Buddhist Review

"A timely and courageous exploration. . . . [Lopez's] book will sharpen the terms of the debate over what the Tibetans and their observers can or should be doing about the place and the idea of Tibet. And that alone is what will give us all back our Shambhala."—Jonathan Spence, Lingua Franca Book Review

"Lopez's most important theme is that we should be wary of the idea . . . that Tibet has what the West lacks, that if we were only to look there we would find the answers to our problems. Lopez's book shows that, on the contrary, when the West has looked at Tibet, all that it has seen is a distorted reflection of itself."—Ben Jackson, Times Higher Education Supplement

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Editorial Reviews

Jonathan Spence
Less a polemical corrective than a rumination—learned, discursive, and critical—on our ways of seeing Tibet.
Lingua Franca Book Review
Publishers Weekly - Publisher's Weekly
Lopez lifts the veil on America's romantic vision of Tibet to reveal a country and a spiritual history more complex and less ideal that popular perceptions allow. Lopez examines the ways that Tibet was named and defined by non-Tibetans, and he contends that successive translations of The Tibetan Book of the Dead over the past 70 years have reflected the ideas and contexts of the translators as much as they have reflected Buddhist thought. Over the years, Lopez demonstrates, Tibet has fallen in and out of fashion, alternately seen as a paradise that can lead the world or as a debauched society that has perverted true Buddhism. In art, for example, Tibetan works have been lauded as windows to enlightenment and, conversely, as creations preoccupied with ghoulishness. In the West, Lopez argues, Tibetan Buddhism is often so colored by Western preconceptions and misunderstandings that little of the true meaning of Tibetan Buddhism shines through the fog of myth. Lively and engaging, Lopez's book raises important questions about how Eastern religions are often co-opted, assimilated and misunderstood by Western culture. (May)
Library Journal
Lopez (Buddhist & Tibetan studies, Univ. of Michigan) has written this book in response to the current surge of interest in Tibet and Tibetan Buddhism. As Lopez points out, fascination with things Tibetan has a long history in the West, and the resultant body of myth continues to shape not only our expectations but, in some ways, Tibet's collective conception of its own national identity. In seven chapters, each concentrating on a different aspect of Tibet's intersection with the West, Lopez carefully points out how our ideas of Tibet have been formed and how these ideas, left unexamined, muddy any realistic view and can ultimately be harmful to Tibetan efforts for independence. Faced as we are at this time with Brad Pitt representing Buddhism on the cover of Time magazine, Steven Seagal being promoted as a reincarnated lama, and monks playing basketball in TV commercials, this book helps fill the need for more reasoned, factual information. The careful, extremely objective, and scholarly approach limits the audience for this title somewhat, but its thoughtful style and careful documentation make it a valuable work with lasting worth. Recommended, particularly for academic collections.Mark Brooks Woodhouse, Elmira Coll. Lib., N.Y.
An account of the peculiar romance between the West and Tibet. Lopez (Buddhist and Tibetan studies, U. Michigan at Ann Arbor) looks at the travelogues, novels, spiritual guides, and scholarly studies of Tibet and Tibetan Buddhism that have proliferated in Western literature. He argues that both distinguished buddhologists and notorious hoaxters have contributed to the idea of Tibet as the West's surrogate self, a land endowed with the spirituality that the West lacks. Annotation c. by Book News, Inc., Portland, Or.
Kenneth L. Woodward
As Donald S. Lopez Jr., an American scholar of Buddism, shows is his brilliant and timely new study, Prisoners of Shangri La, Western enthusiasts have always tried to imprisonTibet in fantasies of their own creation...Lopez's point is that Tibetan Buddhism deserves recognition for what it really is: a complex religion that merits understanding on its own terms.


Kirkus Reviews
In this fine scholarly work, Lopez (Asian Languages and Cultures/Univ. of Michigan) warns his readers away from romanticized visions of Tibet, which ultimately harm that beleaguered nation's prospects for independence. Buddhism, the religion of enlightenment, takes as its task the dispersal of human misconceptions of reality. It is only fitting that, in the wake of heightened popular interest in Tibet, Lopez should write a corrective to both positive and negative misconceptions of Tibetan Buddhism. Among the sources of misinterpretation he notes are: psychological interpretations of the Tibetan Book of the Dead; The Third Eye, by Englishman Cyril Hoskin, a fantastic (and popular) tale of Tibetan spirit possession published in 1956; mistranslations of the famous mantra, Om Mani Padme Hum; exhibitions of Tibetan art in Western museums; the institutionalization of the academic discipline of Tibetology; increasingly airy spiritualizations of Tibetan culture. What all these acts of interpreting Tibetan Buddhism share, says Lopez, is a whole or partial disregard for the concrete, living contexts of Tibetan religion. Elements of Tibetan Buddhism become abstract symbols onto which Western writers project their own spiritual, psychological, or professional needs. For example, the chant Om Mani Padme Hum, mistranslated as "the jewel is in the lotus," is allegorized into an edifying symbol of conjoined opposites when, in fact, it is simply a prayerful invocation of the Buddhist god Avalokiteshvara. The irony is that Tibetans affirm these Western misreadings in hopes of winning more sympathy for their struggle for independence. The danger, according to Lopez, is that the full particularity ofTibet will be lost in ineffectual platitudes. He is angry about many of the more outrageous manglings of Tibetan belief and culture; he can also be quite witty over the more ridiculous applications by New Agers of ostensibly Tibetan beliefs. As an interpreter of interpreters, Lopez functions here twice removed from the actual religion of Tibet; readers should approach with some prior knowledge of Buddhism.
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780226493114
  • Publisher: University of Chicago Press
  • Publication date: 5/28/1999
  • Edition description: 1
  • Pages: 294
  • Product dimensions: 6.00 (w) x 9.00 (h) x 0.90 (d)

Meet the Author

Donald S. Lopez Jr. is the Arthur E. Link Distinguished University Professor of Buddhist and Tibetan Studies in the Department of Asian Languages and Cultures at the University of Michigan.

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Table of Contents

1. The Name
2. The Book
3. The Eye
4. The Spell
5. The Art
6. The Field
7. The Prison

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