During a recent meditation retreat, the senior teacher played this video of the Guru. I was troubled. Didn’t the teacher, holder of a hard science PhD, or anyone else, for that matter, feel uncomfortable? Embarrassed? It exoticizes Tibet to an extreme. Is it okay, unquestionable, because the Guru is of Tibetan descent? I went home and asked an anthropologist friend who studies the Tibetan diaspora. She replied, “Of course they do! culture is a commodity in our times.” Well, yes. What isn’t? I’d forgotten. In the yoga world this commodification is usually undertaken by the Other.
She recommended two books, the Comaroffs’ Ethnicity, Inc. and Lopez’s Prisoners of Shangri-La: Tibetan Buddhism and the West. I read the latter almost immediately. It was not as revelatory as I’d hoped, but the two parts I liked, I loved.
The first was in the review of Lamaism, the pejorative term that Europeans used for Tibetan Buddhism until the 20th C, an appellation that implied that it was not Buddhism at all. Further, from at least 1255 to the early 1900s, Tibetan Buddhism (Lamaism) was compared to 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….[then] later by Protestants seeking to demonstrate that the corrupt priestcraft observed in Tibet had its counterpart in Europe” (Lopez 17).
William of Rubruck, a Flemish Franciscan monk, wrote of Mongolian Buddhism (a descendant of Tibetan) in The Journey Of William Of Rubruck To The Eastern Parts Of The World, 1253-1255, as Narrated by Himself (if you are not familiar with the Catholic tradition you may not appreciate this):
They (the idolators) place their temples east and west ; on the north side they make an alcove projecting out like a choir, or sometimes, if the building is square, it is in the middle of the building. So they shut off on the north side an alcove in place of a choir, and there they put a coffer as long and as broad as a table, and after that coffer to the south, they place the chief idol, and that which I saw at Caracarum was as large as we paint Saint Christopher. And a Nestorian who had come from Cathay told me that in that country there is an idol so big that it can be seen from two days off. And they place other idols around about (the principle one), all most beautifully gilt. And on that coffer, which is like a table, they put lamps and offerings. Contrary to the custom of the Saracens, all the doors of the temples open to the south. They also have big bells like ours : ’tis for this reason, I think, that the eastern Christians do not have any. The Ruthenians, however, have them, and so do the Greeks in Gazaria.
All the priests (of the idolators) shave their heads, and are dressed in saffron color, and they observe chastity from the time they shave their heads, and they live in congregations of one or two hundred. On the days when they go into the temple, they place two benches, and they sit in the region of the choir but opposite the choir, with books in their hands, which they sometimes put down on these benches; and they keep their heads uncovered as long as they are in the temple, reading in silence and keeping silence….Wherever they go they have in their hands a string of one or two hundred beads, like our rosaries, and they always repeat these words, on mani baccam, which is, “God, thou knowest,” as one of them interpreted it to me, and they expect as many rewards from God as they remember God in saying this.*
(Rubruck 144-146, guided there by Note 26 at Lopez 219-220).
Five hundred years later, in 1741, Picart asserted that the similarities between Catholicism and Lamaism were due to the Tibetans’ allegiance to Prester John, the mythological Catholic priest-king who presided over Muslims and pagans in Asia (or Africa, or wherever he was needed to justify Catholic righteousness). Some claim that Prester John was the first Dalai Lama, others that the Dalai Lama, in the “fraud and deceit of the devil” took power in a classic form of demonic plagiarism (Lopez 22-27).
In 1844, missionaries Huc and Gabet believed that Tsong Kha pa had been the disciple of a grand Catholic missionary whose premature death caused Tsong Kha pa’s education to be incomplete, resulting in the practices of Lamaism. As Lopez points out, had “the Catholic missionary lived longer, Tsong Kha pa would have received full instruction in the dogmas of the Church and so could have converted Tibet to Christianity” (26).
These assertions by Catholics were not curtailed by the enlightenment, and by the 1700s, Protestants joined in. “How could there not be similarities!” they cried. “The Catholics are idolators as well!” This line of reasoning provides my favorite comparison of the religions. From Thomas Astley’s A New General Collection of Voyages and Travels Consisting of the Most Esteemed Relations which Have Been Hitherto Published in Any Language, Comprehending Everything Remarkable in Its Kind in Europe, Asia, Africa, and America, as quoted in Lopez (29):
We find, in this religion, every individual article, great and small, in which the Romish system is composed: Such as the Worship of Images, praying to Saints, and for the Dead; Purgatory, Pardons, Indulgences, Confession, Absolution, Penance, Exorcism, the Treasure of the Church, Merits and Works of Supererogation; the Pretense to work Miracles, a Hierarchy, or different Order of Priests, with a Pope at their Head. Monks and begging Friars, Nuns, in short, every thing in Speculation and Practice down to Holy-Water and the Beads. They have not, indeed, a Wafer-God, which they first adore, and then devour, but they have a living Divinity in human form [the Dalai Lama] transubstantiated, or transformed, as they believe, from Time to Time; who dwells among them personally, and is therefore, we think, a much more rational Object of Worship.
Protestants further argued that Catholics had no luck converting Lamaists because they had nothing new to offer. Rhys Davids found the similarities, e.g. services in dead languages, choirs, processions, creeds, incenses, spectator-only laity, mystic rights and ceremonies performed by shaven priests in gorgeous robes, ruled by a pope with a triple tiara on head and sceptre of temporal power in hand, “one of the most curious facts in the history of the whole world” (Lopez 33).
These comparisons continued even into the 20th century, when J Strunk, a Nazi, wrote in 1937, On Judah and Rome-Tibet: Their Struggle for World Domination (Lopez 40).
All this strikes me as historically fascinating, maybe partly because I was raised Catholic. Next time I’ll fill you in on my favorite bit, The Eye, and offer more of my take on it. Festooned with bottle caps.
*Chapter Four, “The Spell,” in which Madame Blavatsky makes an appearance, is about scholars’ (and others’) gross misinterpretation of the mantra “Om Mani padme hum” which Lopez concludes is “a vocative invocation of Avalokiteśvara….based on the Tibetan sources and on an analysis of the grammar, it appears that the mantra cannot mean “the jewel in the lotus” and that the endless variations on this misreading are merely fanciful” (133).