In the 1960s, a wacky Scotsman calling himself Tues day Lobsang Rampa began marketing Tibet. Claiming to be possessed by a disembodied Tibetan lama, Rampa wrote a series of books about life in Lhasa. He described flying monks, a maze of secret passageways under the Potala Palace, and an arcane Tibetan surgical operation which involved making an incision in the forehead and removing the patient’s pineal gland. This, he explained, was done in order to open up the ‘third eye’ which made the Tibetan lamas clairvoyant.
Completely loopy, you say? Of course he was. But his pulp fiction masterpieces like The Third Eye sold by the millions. And things have only moved on since. Today, the number of books on the “land of snows” and its national religion have multiplied to the point where entire bookstore sections are devoted to it. And with musicians like Adam Yauch of the Beastie Boys and Hollywood luminaries Richard Gere, Whoopi Goldberg and Uma Thurman (to name a few) serving as spokespersons for Tibetan Buddhism/independence, Tibet has been hot for a while.
While one can hardly doubt the contribution that the Dalai Lama and other lamas have made to spiritualism in the 20th century, the problem is that the Rampaesque flakiness continues. Consider the following dialogue witnessed in Baudha at the heart of Kathmandu’s Tibetan quarter. The setting is one of the larger monasteries where an incarnate lama or rinpoche, precious one, is teaching his Western disciples:
In the midst of his discourse a middle-aged American disciple arrives panting and sweating. He prostrates and offers a white silk scarf or katag to the lama.
Disciple: (gasping for breath) Rinpoche . . .
Rinpoche: What’s wrong?
Disciple: Last night I- was coming up to Kathmandu from India by bus. (Pant, gasp). And somebody stole my laptop computer which contained all my research work. And (gasp) I knew I had to see you first. I hope you can help me.
Rinpoche: Hmmmm. Did you save it on diskette?
Disciple: The diskettes were stolen too.
Rinpoche: Hmmmm. Did you inform police?
Disciple: No, not yet. I thought I should see you first. Is there anything you can do?
Rinpoche: I think you should inform police.
Disciple: Yes, yes. Thank you so much. (Bows and withdraws from the lama’s chamber, hands pressed together).
What. on earth did this fellow expect from precious rinpoche? That he materialises a laptop, (not to mention his entire doctoral dissertation) out of the ether? Or that he uses his bionic third eye to zero in on some forlorn Nepali thief playing Tetris on his newly acquired laptop?
Kathmandu was once the place where one could meet a real rinpoche. It was home to a number of accomplished lamas who had fled the Chinese occupation in 1959. Tulku Urgyen, Dudjom Rinpoche, Lama Yeshe and Dilgo Khyentse Rinpoche were accomplished Buddhist masters who taught the essence of Tibet’s unique Vajrayana tradition with humour and simplicity.
But the value of a rinpoche has crashed since then. The older generation of simple ascetic lamas has passed on, leaving a younger crop of cellphone-carrying ‘Pajero Rinpoches’ and ‘Disco Rinpoches’. Fattened by the wealth of donations from Taiwanese and Western devotees, they are leaving many Tibetans themselves disillusioned. What is worse is that even’ bad actors like Stephen Seagal now carry the title. Presenting next: Van Damme Rinpoche!
One wonders how His Holiness the Dalai Lama stomachs all this reincarnation and devotion business. This summer, Richard Gere organised a Tibet fundraiser luncheon in Hollywood which raised USD 300,000 for Tibetan autonomy. Surveying the starry-eyed stars before him, H.H. took pains to de-holify himself saying: “Actually, I’m just a human being, and there are no differences between us. You should consider me one of your brothers. Don’t think of me as a living Buddha”
Hats off to H.H., but Hollywood just doesn’t seem to get it. It would have Tibet restored to a homogeneous magical theocracy even though H.H. has made it clear that Tibetans do not want restoration of the Shangrila, but to join the modern world. Ever the realist, the Dalai Lama, though, realises the Tibetan cause’s need for a dharma scene of white, upper middle class post-Christians and post-Jews prostrating at the feet of newfound superheroes.
The moral of the story?
You who have lost faith, find your own inner peace.
You who have lost laptops, go to police.