About

Columbia University Press Pinterest

Twitter

Facebook

CUP Web site

RSS Feed

New Books

Author Interviews

Author Events

Keep track of new CUP book releases:
e-newsletters

For media inquiries, please contact our
publicity department

CUP Authors Blogs and Sites

American Society of Magazine Editors

Leonard Cassuto

Mike Chasar / Poetry and Popular Culture

Erica Chenoweth / "Rational Insurgent"

Juan Cole

Jenny Davidson / "Light Reading"

Faisal Devji

William Duggan

James Fleming / Atmosphere: Air, Weather, and Climate History Blog

David Harvey

Paul Harvey / "Religion in American History"

Bruce Hoffman

Alexander Huang

David K. Hurst / The New Ecology of Leadership

Jameel Jaffer and Amrit Singh

Geoffrey Kabat / "Hyping Health Risks"

Grzegorz W. Kolodko / "Truth, Errors, and Lies"

Jerelle Kraus

Julia Kristeva

Michael LaSala / Gay and Lesbian Well-Being (Psychology Today)

David Leibow / The College Shrink

Marc Lynch / "Abu Aardvark"

S. J. Marshall

Michael Mauboussin

Noelle McAfee

The Measure of America

Philip Napoli / Audience Evolution

Paul Offit

Frederick Douglass Opie / Food as a Lens

Jeffrey Perry

Mari Ruti / The Juicy Bits

Marian Ronan

Michael Sledge

Jacqueline Stevens / States without Nations

Ted Striphas / The Late Age of Print

Charles Strozier / 9/11 after Ten Years

Hervé This

Alan Wallace

James Igoe Walsh / Back Channels

Xiaoming Wang

Santiago Zabala

Press Blogs

AAUP

University of Akron

University of Alberta

American Management Association

Baylor University

Beacon Broadside

University of California

Cambridge University Press

University of Chicago

Cork University

Duke University

University of Florida

Fordham University Press

Georgetown University

University of Georgia

Harvard University

Harvard Educational Publishing Group

University of Hawaii

Hyperbole Books

University of Illinois

Island Press

Indiana University

Johns Hopkins University

University of Kentucky

Louisiana State University

McGill-Queens University Press

Mercer University

University of Michigan

University of Minnesota

Minnesota Historical Society

University of Mississippi

University of Missouri

MIT

University of Nebraska

University Press of New England

University of North Carolina

University Press of North Georgia

NYU / From the Square

University of Oklahoma

Oregon State University

University of Ottawa

Oxford University

Penn State University

University of Pennsylvania

Princeton University

Stanford University

University of Sydney

University of Syracuse

Temple University

University of Texas

Texas A&M University

University of Toronto

University of Virginia

Wilfrid Laurier University

Yale University

April 10th, 2012 at 8:58 am

An excerpt from Theos Bernard, the White Lama: Tibet, Yoga, and American Religious Life, by Paul G. Hackett

Theos Bernard, the White LamaThe following is an excerpt from the preface to Theos Bernard, the White Lama: Tibet, Yoga, and American Religious Life, by Paul G. Hackett.

“How few ever think that there will be one around to check up on them.”— Theos Bernard

Before he had even set foot on his home soil on his return from Tibet in the fall of 1937, Theos Bernard declared to a reporter for London’s Daily Mail, “I am the first White Lama—the first Westerner ever to live as priest in a Tibetan monastery, the first man from the outside world to be initiated into Buddhists’ mysteries hidden even from many native lamas themselves.”

Over the weeks and months that followed, Theos’s account of his life and the events that befell him in Tibet would grow greater and greater in proportion, coming to nearly obliterate any trace of his actual activities. By March of the following year, having called in a few favors back home, he arranged an alumnus lecture at the University of Arizona, and arriving in Tucson, he pulled out all the stops.

When the curtains parted before a packed house, all in attendance saw Theos Bernard, religion scholar, explorer, and mystic, seated in a chair on a dais in the middle of the stage, next to a movie projector and surrounded by ritual artifacts and Tibetan robes. “Come with me,” he invited the audience, “in a flight in the Clipper Ship of the imagination from San Francisco across the vast Pacific . . . into the heart of Asia, the Land of the Lama—Tibet!” and with a carefully practiced grandiose style, Theos Bernard, “the White Lama,” unfolded his story, explaining how he had fulfilled an ancient Tibetan prophecy and become “the first white man ever to live in the lamaseries and cities of Tibet . . . initiated into the age-old religious rites of Tibetan Buddhism [and] . . . accepted by the Tibetans as one of them”—or so he claimed.

As the evening progressed, Theos provided even more details of his “recognition” by the Tibetans as a reincarnation of the eighth-century master Padmasambhava. He told of his dark retreat “in the dungeons of the Potala Palace” where midway through his internment, Buddhist monks descending into the black depths of those catacombs were astonished to find him bathed in a “white light” where none could possibly exist, thereby confirming his fulfillment of the prophecy of the coming of the “white lama,” a man who would herald and bring about the spread of the truths of Buddhism to the Western world.

With each of Theos’s descriptions, the assembled audience was held rapt with attention to every detail. His old grade school principal, Mary Price—who had made the journey from Tombstone to Tucson to hear him speak—recounted that throughout his lecture, Theos walked in his robes through the aisles of the auditorium that was “absolutely quiet except for Theos talking and the sound of your neighbor breathing.” It was “the most emotionally packed thing and best talk” she had ever heard in her life—so emotional, she recalled, that Theos was a long time coming down from the stage, surrounded by many people, including four or five of his old law school professors.

After the evening had wound to a close, Theos joined his mother, brothers, and Mary Price for the long drive back to his old home of Tombstone. As the car traveled along the dusty road south toward the Mexican border, Mary asked Theos, privately, if what he had said on stage was actually true. “Every word,” was his response.

While Theos Bernard had gone to Tibet, had met various lamas, and had participated in rituals there, beyond those simple facts, little more of what he said on that spring evening, or afterward, had the slightest ring of truth to it. Nonetheless, from the practical standpoint of what he was attempting to accomplish, that lecture in Arizona was a success. Theos received endorsements sufficient enough to secure a contract for a major lecture tour from a public relations firm in New York, and while the details were being arranged, returned to California to spend time with his father, Glen. There, with Glen’s help, he began to refine a public persona that would capitalize on the prevailing moods and interests in 1930s America and to no small degree, establish a personal mythology that would serve as a foundation for his life in the years to come.

What actually happened to Theos Bernard over his forty years can only be pieced together from the fragments left in his wake when he disappeared in the fall of 1947. In the following months and years, his friends and family struggled to make sense of his life as well as their own role in it, some with greater or lesser success—even passing on this obligation to others. The end result was a scattering of primary and secondary source documents across North America, from Arizona to New York and California to Florida, as well as in parts of India and Tibet, each locale holding different pieces of a puzzle offering glimpses into his life. This book is the result of my attempts to collect those pieces and put together that puzzle. This is the story of Theos Bernard.

Post a comment