Over a year ago I wrote a blog about T. Lobsang Rampa, author of books like The Third Eye and You Forever, that were very popular in the 1960s and 70s. The main point I tried to make in my blog (link below) was that a surprising number of Western students aged 55 plus, attribute their initial interest in Tibetan Buddhism to books by Lobsang Rampa – even though many have come to disbelieve his claims to be a Tibetan lama.
When I published my blog, I had no idea how much interest it would create. Since then, there has been a steady stream of visits to it every week. And a large number of comments – ranging from those with whom my observation chimed, to a number of people who were irate about my scepticism.
I have received several, angry, multi-page rebuttals of my blog, demanding that I see the error of my ways and bow down at the enlightened feet of T. Lobsang Rampa – or Cyril Hoskin as he was also known. Had I done the poor fellow an injustice? Was my blog, based on a skim through one of his books, the result of a prejudicial reading?
In the interests of a fair hearing, I took out two of his better-known books from the local library – The Third Eye and You Forever. Settling into my armchair one evening, I turned the pages …
The strongest, overall impression I had was that I was reading the work of someone who didn’t have much of an education, but did have a sense of humour and a love of cats, and who had somehow come to obtain a lot of information about the social and cultural aspects of life in pre 1959 Tibet. The most likely explanation is that he came across a book about Tibet which he used as a source. Perhaps he had also met someone who had once been there.
Into this information about day to day life in Tibet, which had a ring of authenticity, he had woven a narrative about “Buddhist” practices, which are extremely inauthentic. In fact, they read like a homespun philosophy with few links to Buddhism at all – more like Christianity-Lite with a few shakes of woo woo thrown in. Themes of key interest to Rampa were auras, astral traveling and hypnosis – subjects I have never heard a lama teach on, nor which are covered in any of core texts that I’m aware of. Of course the Tibetan Buddhist view is that we are energetic beings as much as physical ones – but Tibetan Buddhists don’t wander around checking up on the colours of people’s auras. As for astral travelling, only the most accomplished yogis may be capable of directing their consciousness when asleep. It is definitely not a practice relevant or accessible to most people, or something you can pick up from a book.
Rampa gets a number of essential concepts completely, you might say, hilariously wrong. Here he is on inner development: ‘According to Buddhist belief, all animals, all creatures in fact, have souls, and are reborn to earth in successively higher stages.” (The Third Eye, Chapter One). Well, no. There is no concept of a “soul” in Buddhism – but we’ll let that slide as a translation issue. The idea of successively higher stages, however, is just not Buddhist. It would suggest that, irrespective of your behaviour in this lifetime, things for you in the future are going to get better and better. What happened to cause and effect?
Oh – karma? For that you’ll have to turn to Lesson Twenty-Four in You Forever which he begins: ‘People may have heard of the Law of Karma. Unfortunately so many of these metaphysical matters have been given Sanskrit or Brahmin names.’ Huh? Isn’t that exactly what you’d expect given that these concepts originated in India. And as a highly educated Tibetan monk – you told us this bit earlier – whether these terms are in Sanskrit or Tibetan is of no consequence. You have been drilled in them for hundreds of hours, not so?
Let’s press ahead with karma: ‘Karma is a matter which few of us can escape. We make a debt, we have to pay it, we do good to others, they must pay us back and do good to us. It is much better for us to receive good, so let us show good, compassion and kindness to all creatures … It is not for us to question the ways of God.’
God?! Let’s not drag Him into this! He is another concept you don’t find in Buddhism. As for the ‘tit for tat’ account of karma, this doesn’t sound anything like the usual presentation we read in texts. Where are the explanations about how karma multiplies, how causes require conditions to germinate, how we have the opportunity to purify karma, the Six Perfections etc etc?
But perhaps none of that matters, because when you turn to Lesson Twenty Five, apparently this is what happens after you die: ‘After having seen yourself in the Hall of Memories, then you go on to that portion of the “Other World” which you think is most suitable for you. You do not go to Hell, believe us when we say that Hell is upon Earth – our training school!’
Contrary to what Lobsang says, the traditional Buddhist teaching is that our mind may have to endure any number of awful or wonderful experiences, depending on what arises within it. More importantly, this process is driven by our karmic propensities, not by a calm decision to pick our next Other Worldly experience.
As for earth being hellish, it may be for many beings. But Buddha described a precious human birth, of the kind most of us have, as being of the most incredible rarity, something to be greatly treasured. Not a sentiment that comes across in Lobsang Rampa’s books.
I could go on, but I won’t. I don’t know where Lobsang got his ideas from, but not from Tibetan Buddhism. I suspect he made them up, cobbling together his own version of what he’d like Tibetan Buddhism to say, and the only reason he got away with it was because, back in the 1960s and even 70s, there weren’t too many real lamas around to contradict him. He certainly wouldn’t get away with it now.
As much as all the things he got wrong, it’s the glaring omissions which are also striking. The lineage to which we belong is one of the most treasured elements of our practice, and establishing the veracity of the teachings one has received is the traditional preamble to any teachings by a lama. Rampa not only makes no reference to his lineage, nor does he mention any of the great names in the Tibetan Buddhist pantheon – names like Padmasambhava, Milarepa, Tsong Khapa, Shantideva, to name just a few.
Bodhichitta, the heart of Tibetan Buddhist practice, doesn’t get a single mention, nor does sunyata wisdom or “suchness” – arguably, the concept that most strongly distinguishes Buddhism from other traditions. There is no reference to sutra or tantra teachings, or meaningful accounts of any meditation practices.
Again, I could go on, but I won’t. It really is very clear that, whatever else he was, T. Lobsang Rampa was no Tibetan Buddhist, much less a rigorously-trained lama. That said, it’s easy to see the appeal of his ideas. And one thing he did get right is that Buddhists perceive all creatures as being “sem chens” or “mind havers, possessing the same ultimate capacity for enlightenment as humans.
I know this blog will probably prompt more angry emails. But I’d like to be clear that whatever Cyril Hoskin’s motives, both I, and many others, owe him a debt of gratitude for being among the first to stimulate an interest in Tibetan Buddhism decades ago. His explanation of surgically opening the third eye may be complete nonsense. His instructions about auras and hypnosis derived from places other than a Tibetan monastery. It was enough that he planted the seed of an idea that this was a tradition worth exploring further. As one reader of my blog observed: “Made up, fantasy, rubbish? Does it matter? It helped us get to where we are.” As T. Lobsang Rampa may have said, “Amen to that!”
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