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Buddhadharma : Summer 2012
SUMMER 2 0 1 2 BUDDHADHARMA: THE PRACTITIONER’S QUARTERLY 67 facts that Bernard himself never alludes to in his memoirs. After a series of unsatisfying encoun- ters with Indian yogis and scholars, Bernard went to the eastern Himalayan hill station of Kalimpong, the seat of the Tibetan community in India, because he had heard that the real secrets of tantra could be found only among the Tibetans. In Kalimpong he met men who were to prove pivotal in his life: Gergen Tharchin, an important figure in Tibetan cultural life and publisher of the first and, at that time, only Tibetan newspaper; Geshe Wangyal, a Kalmyk Mongol graduate of Drepung monastic university in Lhasa; and former monk Gendun Chopel, perhaps the foremost Tibetan intellectual of the past century. Bernard began his study of Tibetan with Tharchin and Geshe Wangyal; according to Hackett, Bernard became quite proficient in the colloquial lan- guage, but he never fully mastered liter- ary Tibetan. At the same time, he engaged in brilliant networking with Tibetan aris- tocrats and British officials that enabled him to get a seldom-granted permit to visit Gyantse (the main British entrepôt in Tibet). There, he secured an even rarer privilege—a passport to Lhasa, the Tibetan capital. In June 1937 Bernard arrived in Lhasa, the second Western Buddhist pilgrim to do so (not the first, as both books have it; that distinction went to the indomitable French Buddhist, Alexandra David-Neel, who reached Lhasa in 1924). During his intensely busy three-month stay, Bernard (accom- panied by his interpreter and invaluable aide, Tharchin) made an extensive film and photo record and amassed a vast and choice collection of Tibetan Buddhist texts and ritual art. Both Veenhof and Hackett discuss the fate of these signifi- cant collections; for the most part they remain uncataloged and inaccessible to the public and even scholars. As soon as he returned to India, Bernard began the work of promot- ing his plans for a Tibetan Buddhist institute and other projects, including with the mythical Shangri-la of James Hilton’s wildly popular 1933 novel, Lost Horizon, and the movie based on it. The eventful life of Theos Bernard, an ambiguous personality—“part mys- tic, part explorer, and part con man,” as Robert Thurman put it—contributed to the movement of Asian teachings and practices from the counterculture fringe to the American mainstream. Born in 1908 to parents immersed in Eastern spirituality, much was expected of the son they named Theos, Greek for “god.” When he was a baby, his father, Glen, abandoned the family to pursue yoga studies in India, and Bernard grew up with his mother and stepfather in Tombstone, Arizona, where the rug- ged desert hills prepared him for his Himalayan treks. The handsome and athletic Bernard was a hero to other boys and a charmer to many girls. He glided through college in Tucson with a C average, later got a law degree, a master’s in anthropology and a doctor- ate in religious philosophy (the last two from Columbia University). He reunited with his father in Los Angeles in 1931 and Glen, who had studied with Indian teachers and read the available English literature on Hindu tantra, became his son’s yoga guru. In 1933, unemployed in the midst of the Great Depression, Bernard read an article about Uncle Pierre’s ashram– resort in Nyack, New York, which is described at length in Veenhof’s book. Upon learning that it was attracting famous and wealthy followers, Bernard hurried east with dreams of becoming his uncle’s successor. The attractive yogi made a favorable impression (his aunt “swooned” on first seeing him) and he became involved with Viola Wertheim, a young heiress. They married and embarked on a luxury honeymoon tour of India. Bernard stayed behind when she returned to America, supported by $500 a month from his wife, a vast sum in India in those times. Hackett’s book is especially detailed about the financial underpinnings of Bernard’s enterprises, Reviews the impossible task of rapidly translat- ing the entire Tibetan Buddhist canon, with the aid of one or two Tibetans. He told reporters he was “the first White Lama—the first Westerner ever to live as a priest in a Tibetan monastery, the first man from the outside world to be ini- tiated into Buddhists’ mysteries hidden even from many natives themselves.” These statements, which formed the basis for his highly fictionalized memoir, Penthouse of the Gods, and his lecture tours, were wholly untrue, as Hackett clearly shows. Bernard never lived in a monastery, received no esoteric secrets unavailable to others, and would not have been regarded by any Tibetan as a lama. What Bernard had done in Lhasa was use his wealth to sponsor teach- ings, for which he received initiations, including tantric ones (commonplace today). He may have thought that these exaggerated tales (and his often repeated claim to be the incarnation of Padma- sambhava, the legendary yogi saint who helped establish Buddhism in Tibet) were necessary to gain support for his work from a public that craved the mar- velous. Alternatively, given his grandiose personality, he may have come to believe his own fabrications. Returning to the States, Bernard and Wertheim had a disappointing reunion; she found him to be erratic and possibly mentally disturbed, and divorced him, granting a large financial settlement. Bernard then embarked on successful Theos Bernard ca 1934 ARCHIVES&SPECIALCOLLECTIONS,COLUMBIAUNIVERSITYHEALTHSCIENCESLIBRARY