Prisoners of Shangri-La: Tibetan Buddhism and the West

Prisoners of Shangri-La: Tibetan Buddhism and the West

by Donald S. Lopez Jr., Donald S. Lopez Jr

View All Available Formats & Editions

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


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

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.

Product Details

University of Chicago Press
Publication date:
Edition description:
Product dimensions:
6.00(w) x 9.00(h) x 1.10(d)

Read an Excerpt

Prisoners of Shangri-La

Tibetan Buddhism and the West

By Donald S. Lopez Jr.

The University of Chicago Press

Copyright © 1998 The University of Chicago
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-226-49310-7


The Name

It hardly seems necessary to remark that the term Lamaism is a purely European invention and not known in Asia.


Altogether, therefore, "Lamaism" is an undesirable designation for the Buddhism of Tibet, and is rightly dropping out of use.

L. A. WADDELL, 1915

Lamaism was a combination of the esoteric Buddhism of India, China, and Japan with native cults of the Himalayas.


A 1992 exhibition at the National Gallery of Art, in Washington, D.C., entitled "Circa 1492: Art in the Age of Exploration" contained four rooms devoted to Ming China. Commenting on one of the Ming paintings, a well-known Asian art historian wrote, "The individual [Tang and Song] motifs, however, were woven into a thicket of obsessive design produced for a non-Chinese audience. Here the aesthetic wealth of China was placed at the service of the complicated theology of Tibet." The painting was of an Indian Buddhist monk, a disciple of the Buddha. The non-Chinese audience for whom the work was produced perhaps included Mongol or Tibetan Buddhists. However, the complicated theology that China's aesthetic wealth was made to serve was not identified as Buddhism, or even Tibetan Buddhism. The art historian used the term "Lamaism," an abstract noun that does not appear in the Tibetan language but has a long history in the West, a history inextricable from the ideology of exploration and discovery that the National Gallery cautiously sought to celebrate.

"Lamaism" is often regarded as a synonym for "Tibetan Buddhism." The terms, however, have different connotations. "Tibetan Buddhism" suggests a regional version of a world religion, as distinguished from Japanese Buddhism or Thai Buddhism, for example. "Lamaism" carries other associations. The art historian's comment echoes the nineteenth-century portrait of Lamaism as something monstrous, a composite of unnatural lineage devoid of the spirit of original Buddhism. Lamaism was seen as a deformity unique to Tibet, its parentage denied by India (in the voice of British Indologists) and by China (in the voice of the Qing empire), an aberration so unique in fact that it would eventually float free of its Tibetan abode, and that abode would vanish.

In the discourse of the Christian West, we find, among its many associations, a rather consistent pairing of "Lamaism" with "Roman Catholicism." For example, a 1992 book review in the New York Times said of Tibetan Buddhism, "It has justly been called the Roman Catholicism of the East: ancient and complex, hierarchical and mystical, with an elaborate liturgy, a lineage of saints, even a leader addressed as His Holiness." The reviewer seemed unaware, however, of the long history of this particular comparison, one that began centuries before Ogden Nash reminded us that "A one -l lama, he's a priest. A two -l lama, he's a beast." It is as if a certain amnesia has set in, under which the association of Tibetan Buddhism, called "Lamaism," with Roman Catholicism seems somehow free, somehow self- evident, even to be construed as somehow also objective by recourse to theories of causation, influence, borrowing, and diffusion. But the association of Lamaism with Catholicism, like all associations, is not free.

Europe refused to identify any legitimate ancestors of Lamaism in Asia; it seemed unlike anything else. And it is in this state of genealogical absence that Lamaism was most susceptible to comparison, that it could begin to look like Catholicism. The use of the term "Lamaism" in European discourse as a code word for popish ritualism, and as a substitute for "Tibet," is, in its own way, not unrelated to the recent disappearance of Tibet as a nation. During the nineteenth century Tibet's existence was both threatened and contested by Britain and China. And during the twentieth century Tibet's absence became manifest in art-exhibition catalogs and maps of Asia as it was forcibly incorporated into China. The history of these effects begins with the particular vicissitudes that led to the invention of the term "Lamaism" through a process that the nineteenth-century philologist Max Müller might have termed "the decay of language."

This chapter will trace this process of decay. It will begin with the term "lama," which today conjures the image of a smiling, bespectacled Buddhist monk, but in fact is derived from Tibet's pre-Buddhist past. Only during the ninth century did it become the official Tibetan translation of the Sanskrit term "guru." From Tibet, the term traveled to Mongolia and to China, where it eventually came to signify not simply a Tibetan Buddhist teacher but also his teaching. It was perhaps from Mongolia, perhaps from China, that Europeans derived the abstract noun "Lamaism," which would name the religion of Tibet, and by the late eighteenth century the term was being used to serve a wide range of agendas. One of the constants during this period was the comparison of Lamaism with Roman Catholicism. The comparison was first drawn by Catholics, who felt constrained to account for the many similarities they observed between this form of heathenism and their own true faith. The comparison would later be drawn by Protestants seeking to demonstrate that the corrupt priestcraft observed in Tibet had its counterpart in Europe. With the rise in Europe of the academic study of Buddhism, Lamaism was the term used to describe the state to which the original teachings of the Buddha had sunk in the centuries since his death. As with much European discourse about Tibet, Tibetans have been largely absent from the scene: the term Lamaism has no correlate in the Tibetan language. It was only after the Dalai Lama and thousands of Tibetans fled to India in 1959 that they confronted the term, which they have generally regarded as pejorative, suggesting as it does that their religion does not deserve the designation "Buddhism." Yet the term, so deeply engrained, persists (especially among those who fear that the very use of the term "Tibet" would occasion the wrath of the People's Republic of China, into which Tibet has now been subsumed), "Lamaism" sometimes serving as a substitute for "Tibet," and "Lamaist" for "Tibetan." This chapter will trace some of the trajectories of the term.

THE TIBETAN TERM "lama" (bla ma) is derived from two words, la and ma. The notion of la, generally translated as "soul," "spirit," or "life," predates the introduction of Buddhism into Tibet. The la is said to be an individual's life force, the essential support of the physical and mental constitution of the person. It is mobile; it can depart from the body and wander or be carried off by gods and demons, to the detriment of the person it leaves, who will become either ill or mentally unbalanced as a result. There are therefore rites designed to call the la back into the body. Even when the la is properly restored to its place in the body, it may simultaneously reside in certain external abodes, such as a lake, tree, mountain, or animal. The person in whom the la resides is in what Sir James Frazer would call a sympathetic relationship with these phenomena: if the la mountain is dug into, the person will fall ill. In an attempt to conquer a certain demoness, the Tibetan epic hero Gesar of Ling cuts down her la tree and empties her la lake; he fails because he does not kill her la sheep. The identity of these external la is thus commonly kept secret, and portable abodes of the la, usually a precious object of some kind (often a turquoise), are placed in special receptacles and hidden by the person who shares the la. Perhaps in relation to the concept of this soul, the term la also has the common meaning of "above" or "high."

With the introduction of Buddhism in the seventh, eighth, and ninth centuries, Tibetan monks and visiting Indian panditas undertook the task of translating Buddhist texts from Sanskrit into Tibetan, in the process inventing hundreds of neologisms. When these exegetes came to decide upon a Tibetan equivalent for guru, the Sanskrit term for teacher, they departed from their storied penchant for approximating the meaning of the Sanskrit and opted instead for the word "lama" (bla ma). Here they combined the term la with ma, the latter having at least three meanings: as a negative particle meaning "no" or "not," as a substantive indicator (as in nyi ma, "sun," or srung ma, "protector"), and as the word for "mother." Subsequent Buddhist etymologies, drawing on the meaning of la as "high" rather than its pre-Buddhist usage as "soul," were then construed, which explained la ma as meaning either "highest" (literally "above-not," that is, "none above") or "exalted mother." Lama came to be the standard term for one's religious teacher, a person so significant as to be appended to the threefold Buddhist refuge formula: Tibetans say, "I go for refuge to the lama, I go for refuge to the Buddha, I go for refuge to the dharma [his teaching], I go for refuge to the sangha [the community of monks and nuns]."

The other common use of the term lama is as a designation of incarnations. The institution of incarnation (sprul sku) has existed in Tibet since at least the fourteenth century, when the then recently deceased Karma pa monk Rangjung Dorje (Rang byung rdo rje, 1284–1338) was identified in his biography as having been the incarnation of Karma Pakshi (1206–1283). Since then, every sect of Tibetan Buddhism has adopted the practice of identifying the successive rebirths of a great teacher, the most famous instance of which being, of course, the Dalai Lamas. But there are several thousand other lines of incarnation in Tibetan Buddhism. In ordinary Tibetan parlance, such persons are called lamas whether or not they have distinguished themselves as scholars, adepts, or teachers in their present lives. To ask whether a particular monk is a lama is to ask whether he is an incarnation, and the terms bla chung and bla chen refer to minor and major incarnate lamas. The ambiguity in usage between "lama" as a religious preceptor and "lama" as an incarnation has led the current Dalai Lama in his sermons to admonish his followers that a lama (as one's religious teacher) need not be an incarnation and that an incarnation is not necessarily a lama.

One Western scholar has argued that "guru" was translated as bla ma to mean "mother to the soul" in order to "facilitate assimilation of the 'role' of the guru in Buddhism into the existing shamanic beliefs of the Tibetan people." Whether Tibetan beliefs were "shamanic" or not, the more likely possibility is that lama meant "one endowed with the soul." What is noteworthy, however, is that this meaning is lost in the Buddhist etymologies, that as Buddhism was introduced into Tibet the archaic meaning of la as "life" or "soul" disappeared.

As the la would sometimes leave the body, Tibetan lamas would leave Tibet, traveling to the courts of Mongol khans and Manchu emperors. And it was in these realms, beyond Tibet, that "lama" would become "Lamaism." But this process took time, for when Tibetan Buddhist teachers made their way from Tibet to the Mongolian and Chinese centers of power it seems that they were referred to not as lamas but by terms derived from the languages of their hosts. Marco Polo, for example, refers to the Tibetans at the court of Kublai Khan as Bacsi (bakshi, the Mongolian word for "teacher"): "The sorcerers who do this [prevent storms] are TEBET and KESIMUR [Kashmir], which are the names of two nations of idolaters. ... There is another marvel performed by those BACSI of whom I have been speaking as knowing so many enchantments. ... These monks dress more decently than the rest of the people, and have the head and the beard shaven." At the Chinese court of the early Ming dynasty, Tibetan monks were simply called seng, as were Chinese monks, and the religion of Tibet was called Buddhism (fo jiao).

In 1775 during the reign of the Manchu Emperor Qianlong we find perhaps the first official usage of the Chinese term lama jiao, one of the sources from which "Lamaism" seems to derive. Jiao is the standard Chinese term for "teaching," being employed in terms such as dao jiao (the teaching of the dao, "Daoism"), ru jiao (the teaching of the literati, "Confucianism"), and fo jiao (the teaching of the Buddha, "Buddhism"). By the reign of Qianlong, "lama" had come to be used as an adjective to describe Tibetan religion in contexts that in the past would have simply used the term "Buddhist." In 1792 Qianlong composed his Lama Shuo (Pronouncements on Lamas), preserved in a tetraglot inscription (in Chinese, Manchu, Mongol, and Tibetan) at the Yonghe-gong (today known to tourists as the "Lama Temple") in Beijing. Here Qianlong defends his patronage of a Tibetan sect the Chinese called the "Yellow Hats" (the Geluk) from his Chinese critics by claiming that his support has been merely expedient: "By patronizing the Yellow Church we maintain peace among the Mongols. This being an important task we cannot but protect this (religion). (In doing so) we do not show any bias, nor do we wish to adulate the Tibetan priests as (was done during the) Yuan dynasty." Here are some of Qianlong's comments on the term "lama":

[Buddhism's] foreign priests are traditionally known as Lamas. The word Lama does not occur in Chinese books. ... I have carefully pondered over its meaning and found that la in Tibet means "superior" and ma means "none." So la-ma means "without superior," just as in Chinese a priest is called a "superior" (shang-jên). Lama also stands for Yellow Religion.

Qianlong had clearly learned the standard Tibetan Buddhist gloss of the term as "highest." He seems determined to place the term "lama" at some distance from his reign, to declare to the subjects who speak the four languages of his realm that lamas are foreigners and that his patronage of them has been motivated by political expediency. We also see in Qianlong's discussion an example of the implication of the term "lama" and, later, "Lamaism" in Manchu imperial projects directed toward Tibet. In this case, Qianlong, who had been a generous patron and dedicated student of Tibetan lamas, sought to assure his Chinese subjects that foreign priests exercised no influence over him. As the term "Lamaism" gained currency in Europe, it would gain further implications and associations from other imperial projects, as during the nineteenth century Tibet would become an object of European colonial interests. European ideologues, however, would be far less explicit than the Manchu emperor about the political connotations of their use of the term.

BEFORE MOVING to Europe and the nineteenth century, it would be useful to have some sense of what Europeans knew about Tibet. By the middle of the eighteenth century, knowledge of the world, gathered from the accounts of explorers, traders, and missionaries, was compiled in works like Bernard Picart's The Ceremonies and Religious Customs of the Various Nations of the Known World, published in London in 1741. His description of Tibetan Buddhism follows, although nowhere do the words "Tibet" or "Buddhism" appear. Instead he describes the religion of the Mongols (called Tartars) and the Kalmyks ("Calmoucks" — Mongols living in the region of Russia between the Black Sea and the Caspian Sea), suggesting that this knowledge was gained from travelers to those regions rather than from travelers to Tibet. Picart describes Tibet's religion as Marco Polo described it almost five centuries earlier: as idolatry. During the seventeenth century, only four religions were identified: Christianity, Judaism, Islam, and Idolatry. And here we see the seeds of the association of this form of idolatry with Catholicism, in terms like "convent" and "pontiff," and in the glossing of "lama" as "priest."

The Mongolian Tartars, Calmoucks, and others, according to them, have, properly speaking, no other God but their Dalai-Lama, which signifies, as we are informed, Universal Priest. This Sovereign Pontiff of all the Tartarian Idolaters, and whom they acknowledge as their God, resides toward the Frontiers of China, near the City of Potola, in a Convent, situate on the Summit of an high Mountain, the Foot whereof is inhabited by above twenty thousand Lamas, ... who have their separate Apartments round about the Mountain, and, according to their respective Quality and Function, are planted nearer, or at a greater Distance from their Sovereign Pontiff. ... The Term Lama, in the Mongolian Language, signifies Priest; and that of Dalai, which in the same Language implies vast Extent, has been translated in the Language of the Northern Indians, by Gehan, a Term of the same Signification. Thus Dalai-Lama, and Prete-Gehan are synonymous Terms, and the Meaning of them is Universal Priest.

There are two Monarchs, one Temporal, and the other Spiritual, at Lassa, which, some say, is the Kingdom of Tanchuth, or Boratai, or Barantola. The Spiritual Monarch is the Grand Lama, whom these Idolaters worship as a God. He very seldom goes abroad. The Populace think themselves happy, if they can by any Means procure the least Grain of his Excrements, or Drop of his Urine; imagining either of them as infallible Preservative from all Maladies and Disasters. These Excrements are kept as sacred Relicks, in little Boxes, and hung around their Necks. Father Le Comte imagines Fo [the Chinese term for "Buddha"] and the Grand Lama to be one and the same Deity; who, according to the Idea of these Tartars, must for ever appear under a Form that may be felt or perceiv'd by the Senses, and is supposed to be immortal. He is close confined, adds he, to a Temple, where an infinite Number of Lama's attend him, with the most profound Veneration, and take all imaginable Care to imprint the same awful Ideas of him on the Minds of the People. He is very seldom expos'd to View, and whenever he is, 'tis at such a Distance, that it would be morally impossible for the most quick-sighted Person to recollect his Features. Whenever he dies, another Lama, who resembles him as near as possible, is immediately substituted in his Stead; for which Purpose, as soon as they perceive his Dissolution drawing nigh, the most zealous Devotees, and chief Ministers of the imaginary God, travel the whole Kingdom over, to find out a proper Person to succeed him. This pious Intrigue is carried on, says he, with all the Dexterity and Address imaginable. The Deification of the Lama, if we may depend on the Veracity of Father Kircher, was first owing to the extraordinary Trust and Confidence which those People repos'd in their Prester-John.


Excerpted from Prisoners of Shangri-La by Donald S. Lopez Jr.. Copyright © 1998 The University of Chicago. Excerpted by permission of The University of Chicago Press.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

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.

Customer Reviews

Average Review:

Write a Review

and post it to your social network


Most Helpful Customer Reviews

See all customer reviews >