Theos Bernard, the White Lama

Tibet, Yoga, and American Religious Life

Paul G. Hackett

Columbia University Press

Theos Bernard, the White Lama

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Pub Date: January 2014

ISBN: 9780231158879

520 Pages

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Pub Date: May 2012

ISBN: 9780231158862

520 Pages

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Pub Date: May 2012

ISBN: 9780231530378

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Theos Bernard, the White Lama

Tibet, Yoga, and American Religious Life

Paul G. Hackett

Columbia University Press

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. During 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.

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.

David Gordon White, J. F. Rowney Professor of Comparative Religion, University of California, Santa Barbara

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.

Heather Stoddard, Head of Tibetan Studies, National Institute of Oriental Languages and Civilizations

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.

Randall Balmer, author of The Making of Evangelicalism: From Revivalism to Politics and Beyond

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.

Robert A. F. Thurman, Jey Tsong Khapa Professor of Indo-Tibetan Buddhist Studies, Columbia University

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, Buddhadharma


Library Journal

A 'must-read' book

Practical Matters

A detailed and engrossing story about this enigmatic figure's life.

David M. DiValerio, Journal of Buddhist Ethics

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.

Asian Ethnology

Hackett's work is excellently detailed... [his] construction of Theos' story is so interesting it reads both as a novel and as an academic biography.

Nova Religio
List of Illustrations
1. Life in the Desert
2. New York and New Mexico
3. Two Parallel Paths (I)
4. Two Parallel Paths (II)
5. On Holy Ground
6. Pretense and Pretext: Studies in India
7. A Well-Trodden Path: Studies in Darjeeling and Sikkim
8. Tibet, Tantrikas, and the Hero of Chaksam Ferry
9." The Clipper Ship of the Imagination"
10. Yoga on Fifth Avenue
11. Tibetland and the Penthouse of the Gods
12. To Climb the Highest Mountains
13. The Aftermath
14. Postscript: The View from Ki, Sixty Years Later

About the Author

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