Theos Bernard, the White Lama: Tibet, Yoga, and American Religious Life

Overview

In 1937, Theos Casimir Bernard (1908—1947), the self-proclaimed "White Lama," became the third American in history to reach Lhasa, the capital city of Tibet. Durgaing his stay, he amassed the largest collection of Tibetan texts, art, and artifacts in the Western hemisphere at that time. He also documented, in both still photography and 16mm film, the age-old civilization of Tibet on the eve of its destruction by Chinese Communists.

Based on thousands of primary sources and rare ...

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Theos Bernard, the White Lama: Tibet, Yoga, and American Religious Life

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Overview

In 1937, Theos Casimir Bernard (1908—1947), the self-proclaimed "White Lama," became the third American in history to reach Lhasa, the capital city of Tibet. Durgaing his stay, he amassed the largest collection of Tibetan texts, art, and artifacts in the Western hemisphere at that time. He also documented, in both still photography and 16mm film, the age-old civilization of Tibet on the eve of its destruction by Chinese Communists.

Based on thousands of primary sources and rare archival materials, Theos Bernard, the White Lama recounts the real story behind the purported adventures of this iconic figure and his role in the growth of America's religious counterculture. Over the course of his brief life, Bernard met, associated, and corresponded with the major social, political, and cultural leaders of his day, from the Regent and high politicians of Tibet to saints, scholars, and diplomats of British India, from Charles Lindbergh and Franklin Delano Roosevelt to Gandhi and Nehru. Although hailed as a brilliant pioneer by the media, Bernard also had his flaws. He was an entrepreneur propelled by grandiose schemes, a handsome man who shamelessly used his looks to bounce from rich wife to rich wife in support of his activities, and a master manipulator who concocted his own interpretation of Eastern wisdom to suit his ends. Bernard had a bright future before him, but disappeared in India during the communal violence of the 1947 Partition, never to be seen again.

Through diaries, interviews, and previously unstudied documents, Paul G. Hackett shares Bernard's compelling life story, along with his efforts to awaken America's religious counterculture to the unfolding events in India, the Himalayas, and Tibet. Hackett concludes with a detailed geographical and cultural trace of Bernard's Indian and Tibetan journeys, which shed rare light on the explorer's mysterious disappearance.

Columbia University Press

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Editorial Reviews

Practical Matters
A 'must-read' book
Journal of Buddhist Ethics - David M. DiValerio
A detailed and engrossing story about this enigmatic figure's life.
Asian Ethnology
Hackett's sympathetic account is a page-turner, meticulously documented over a number of years... Well-written... A readable intellectual account of the life of an ambitious Tibetological pioneer.
Buddhadharma - Michael J. Sweet
His writing is fluid and at times witty, and the density of the book's detail calls for a close reading...a lively and significant study...
Robert A. F. Thurman

Paul G. Hackett presents the compelling story of the early years of the American exploration of Indian and Tibetan Buddhist spirituality through the figure of one of its most colorful but forgotten adventurers -- a real-life 'Indiana Jones'! Early twentieth-century counterculture, Tibetan Buddhism, and the birth of yoga in the West makes for a rich field in which persons and stories abound, and Hackett masterfully paints a picture of that world in very human terms. Part mystic, part explorer, and part con man, Theos Bernard comes to life in a tale that is both captivating and enlightening. It is a must read for anyone interested in Eastern religions in America.

Buddhadharma
His writing is fluid and at times witty, and the density of the book's detail calls for a close reading...a lively and significant study...

— Michael J. Sweet

David Gordon White

This narrative jumps off the page, and Paul G. Hackett is at his best as he tells this story, weaving his account of Theos Bernard's many encounters with exceptional men into the broader context of espionage, diplomatic maneuvering, and political upheaval in the 'Great Game.' The sketches he gives of, among other things, expatriate society in Kalimpong, the wrenching final days of the British Raj, the Chinese takeover of Tibet, and especially central characters in Bernard's adventures are remarkably well drawn. Yet it is always Bernard himself who steals the show.

Heather Stoddard

Well-written and lively, integrating with apparent ease the alternative American religious scene in the first half of the twentieth century and the unfolding of events in the Indian subcontinent, the Himalayas, and Tibet.

Randall Balmer

Building on prodigious research, Paul G. Hackett has produced an utterly fascinating account of Theos Bernard, the spiritual adventurer who introduced the mysteries of Tibet to America and the world. This book, by a skilled historian and an engaging writer, significantly enhances our understanding of America's religious turn to the East in the latter half of the twentieth century.

Robert A.F. Thurman
Paul G. Hackett presents the compelling story of the early years of the American exploration of Indian and Tibetan Buddhist spirituality through the figure of one of its most colorful but forgotten adventurers — a real-life 'Indiana Jones'! Early twentieth-century counterculture, Tibetan Buddhism, and the birth of yoga in the West makes for a rich field in which persons and stories abound, and Hackett masterfully paints a picture of that world in very human terms. Part mystic, part explorer, and part con man, Theos Bernard comes to life in a tale that is both captivating and enlightening. It is a must read for anyone interested in Eastern religions in America.
Library Journal
Little known among today's Buddhist community, Theos Bernard (1908–47) was one of the most outrageous characters to have graced the early Western pursuit of Tibetan Buddhism. Hackett (editor, American Inst. of Buddhist Studies, Columbia Univ.; A Tibetan Verb Lexicon) examines that extraordinary life in this revision of his 2008 dissertation. Influenced by an eccentric father and uncle who dabbled in the esoteric arts of yoga, Bernard sought both life's meaning and his share of fame and fortune through academic study and his 1936–37 travels to India and Tibet, both endeavors funded by wealthy women. In spite of British opinion that he was a charlatan, Bernard was able to parlay his extended stay in the Tibetan capital into claims that he had been initiated into the secrets of Tantric Buddhism and to the title of "white lama." Bernard produced two books based on his adventures, Heaven Lies Within Us and Penthouse of the Gods, both published in 1939, and completed his Ph.D. at Columbia before disappearing in the Himalayas in 1947. VERDICT Well written and about as friendly a read as a revised dissertation can be. Recommended for students of the migration of Buddhism to the West. Douglas Veenhof's White Lama: The Life of Tantric Yogi Theos Bernard, Tibet's Lost Emissary to the New World is a recent trade title on the same subject.—James R. Kuhlman, Kentucky Wesleyan Coll., Owensboro
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780231158879
  • Publisher: Columbia University Press
  • Publication date: 12/1/2013
  • Pages: 520
  • Product dimensions: 5.60 (w) x 8.70 (h) x 1.30 (d)

Meet the Author

Paul G. Hackett is an editor for the American Institute of Buddhist Studies and teaches Classical Tibetan at Columbia University. He is also the author of A Tibetan Verb Lexicon and numerous articles on Tibetan language and Buddhist philosophy. He is the author of A Tibetan Verb Lexicon and numerous articles on Tibetan language and Buddhist philosophy.

Columbia University Press

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