Arya Sangha or Assembly of the Wise

Fictitious Tibet: The Origin and Persistence of Rampaism

by Agehananda Bharati

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Until a decade ago, good works on these topics were indeed available only to scholars, published by not too handy publishers, and in expensive editions with small circulation. But this is no longer so. A basic library, in English, of works on Tibetan and other Buddhism is now available in any bookstore, and with no greater quest than the works of Rampa and other pseudomystics and gurus. Helmut Hoffmann’s Religions of Tibet, E. Conze’s paperback introductions to Buddhism, and for the more motivated, some of the works of Herbert V. Guenther, David L. Snellgrove, and perhaps my own Tantric Tradition (an Anchor-Doubleday paperback, if I may blow my own trumpet at this opportune moment), are items that can be had for the asking, quite literally.

Now some might charge that mine is a naive assumption: that readers at large will choose good books over inauthentic but interesting books in the quest of truth. But I do not think matters are that simple, and the common reading public is perhaps less dumb than meets the eye. I would think that the initial reading of phony, interesting stuff (Autobiography of a Yogi, Lobsang Rainpa, Castaneda, etc.) prompts most readers to continue with something more authentic in the same line, if what is more authentic is equally available. It now is, as I pointed out, but it is not known to most that this is the case. It has to be, and can be, made known by the book and publishing trade.

Secondly, and perhaps much more importantly, there are now in North America at least two, possibly more, authentic Tibetan Buddhist centers, viz. Chogyan Trungpa Rinpoche’s Karma Dzong in Boulder, Colorado, and his Tail of the Tiger in Bernet, Vt. And Lama Tarthang’s Nyingina center at Berkeley, California. In Britain, there are another two, and I understand something of the kind has recently been created in Switzerland, possibly by the Tibetan refugee settlers in that country.

Now what the inmates of the Tail of the Tiger, etc., do is authentic--it is tedious, serious, yet perfectly positive Buddhist meditation, and a certain amount of basic Buddhist learning, probably not less than for the lower clergy in Tibetan monasteries before the Chinese invasion. Tarthang in Berkeley even teaches Tibetan language and literature to his students. Now here is the main argument for the augmentation of these centers and institutional sequels: since literally thousands of Americans, mostly young, keep thronging to spiritual, mystical, quasi-Eastern centers of meditation, and since they do not know the difference between the genuine and spurious, why not generate more of these genuine centers with a better apparatus of spread, diffusion, and propaganda?

An analogy, which I found in a totally different context a long while ago, immediately comes to my mind: during the beginning of the hippie counter-culture, Ravi Shankar and Ali Abkar Khan, two of India’s best classical musicians, became very popular--marijuana and LSD, unbeknown to these masters of the string, helped the sales of their LP’s in this country, for the sitar and the sarod sound magnificent under these drugs even if you know nothing whatever about the music. Then about three years ago, under the spell of the pathological artistic eclecticism of the rock era, some Indian film music also became available in American record stores. Now to the buying public, the wide-eyed rock lovers and the denizens of the counter-culture under thirty, the content of these records makes no difference at all, and the time has come, unfortunately, when you hear less Ravi Shankar and more and more Late Mangeshkar (the Hindu Doris Day, so to speak) at rock and hash sessions all over the country. But this didn’t have to be so.

Everything Indian was welcome, equally welcome, so if the rubbish could have been screened out, the genuine stuff could have remained intact. Similarly, since the wide-eyed, sickening, gullible public cannot distinguish between phony outfits along the Coast and in New York or elsewhere, and genuine institutions like Tail of the Tiger, etc., why not channel it to the genuine? For this to happen, the genuine has to be more accessible, better known, and of course, better organized.

The main reason for the 15-year-old 19-year-old (the latter being his real age, the former his official age) guru from India, for Maharishi Mahash Yogi and Transcendental Meditation, for Prabhupada Bhaktivedanta and his hopping ISKCON Hare Krishna jokers being so popular and well known is precisely that they have better P.R. services. I think this could be done for the few genuine Tibetan (and other Buddhist) organizations as well.

In summary, then, the answer lies in the enhancement and certification of genuine, and genuinely available, Tibetan Buddhist institutions in this country and in other parts of the Western world, and in the undermining of the phony, in a systematic fashion. The phony can be undermined only by pointing out the genuine and by comparing them with each other. I do not think that the dry orientalist scholars can do that, since the hungry public detests then, ranking them with the worst part of the establishment. But I think that the few lamas in this country who do know English can and must do that.

Once the process has been set going, more learned and competent guides can be invited from the expatriate religious community in India. To get the true lama and his skills in, Lob-sang must get out. He may still be a good plumber, and that is a lucrative, honest job. Or, if he has learned some powers since he abandoned his tools, he could of course rightly set himself up as a curer, or even a teacher of meditation if it helps--but not Tibetan meditation. I never saw why Don Juan must be a Yaqui (which he is not) to teach something important, nor why a Hoskins must be Tibetan (which he is not) if he has something important to teach.


  1. H.V. Guenther, The Tantric View of Life Los Angeles: Shambala Press, 1971.
  2. R.F. Gombrich, Precept and practice: Traditional Buddhism in the Rural Highlands of Ceylon. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1971. Especially chapter 3, "The Buddha."
  3. A.F. Wallace, "Revitalization Movements," in American Anthropologist 58 (1956) , 264-81; A. Bharati, "Anthropological Approaches to the Study of Religion, Ritual, and Belief Systems," in Biennial Review of Anthropology, ed. B.J. Siegel, Stanford university Press, 1972, 230-283.
  4. Khushwant Singh, "The Guru Business," in New York Sunday Times Magazine, April 30, 1973; A. Bharati, "Hindus Ignorant of Hinduism and Phony Swamis Abroad," in Illustrated Weekly of India, Bombay, March 18, 1973.