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I spent the rest of the day in making a review of the
rise and spread of Buddhism from the time it entered China
in 6i A.D. and Japan in the sixth century, until it came to
Tibet in the seventh, and flowered there in its own fashion.
This event occurred in the reign of King Srong-tsan-Gampo
who, as I have already told, had been converted to Buddhism
by his Nepalese and Chinese wives, both ardent adherents of
the faith. He was given the Chinese princess, Wench’eng, by
the Emperor of China, T’ait-sung of the Tang dynasty, in
order to induce him to forego his military pursuits on the
border. The Nepalese princess, Brikuti, daughter of King
Amsuvarman, was first taken in marriage when he was only
sixteen; so the Tibetan annals report. When the Tibetan King
asked for this princess, he is reputed to have said:

“I, King of barbarous Tibet, do not practise the ten
virtues, but should you be pleased to bestow on me your
daughter, and wish me to have the Law, I shall practise the
ten virtues with a five-thousandfold body … though I have
not the arts … if you so desire … I shall build five
thousand temples.”

The Chinese assert that there was no religion in Tibet at
this time. As a result of his conversion the Tibetan King
sent Thon-mi Sam-bhota to India to acquire the teachings,
and this gave rise to the Tibetan alphabet. The Chinese
princess became the White Tara (“Lady of Mercy”), while the
Nepalese princess became the Green Tara, but this was as far
as it went, and nothing was done for the religion. It was
not until the reign of his powerful descendant,
Thri-Srong-Detsan, in the eighth century, that the real
foundation was laid; it was he who brought Guru Rimpoche,
also known as Padma Sambhava, to Tibet. On the advice of
Guru’s brother-in-law, Santa-rakshita, who was made the head
Abbot of Samye, the first monastery of Tibet was built in
747. The first Lama was Pal-bans, who succeeded
Santa-rakshita, and the first ordained monk was
ByaKri-Gzigs. The most brilliant follower was Vairocana, who
translated many Sanscrit works into Tibetan. This marked the
beginning of the Nyingmapa sect. The same King founded many
other Lamaseries and gave a strong impetus to their literary
efforts. Consequently, his era is looked upon as the
Primitive or “Augustine,” followed by the Medixval, then by
the Reformation and the Modern, to the beginning of the line
of King-Priests of the Dalai Lamas of the seventeenth
century.

It was in the reign of Ralpachan, Thri-Srong-Detsan’s
grandson, that the translation of the scriptures and
commentaries of Nagarjuna, Aryadeva, Vasunbandhu, etc., was
prosecuted. Because of the great devotion of this King, he
was murdered; his younger brother, Lan Darma, on assuming
the throne, did all he could to uproot the religion, and he,
in his turn, was assassinated in the third year of his
reign. His efforts had merely served to give greater vigor
to the faith.

The last-named episode gave rise to the famous Black
Hat

 

dance, of which every visitor to Tibet must have heard.
The

 

story is that a dancer came performing outside the palace
walls

 

to win the interest of the King and the opportunity to
perform

 

within the walls of the court. He had hidden under his
robes a

 

bow and arrow, with which he hoped he would be able to
dis

 

pose of the King who was destroying the religion. It was
not

 

long before his skill as a dancer gained him the favor of
the

 

King, and he was invited within, to entertain and dance.
At the

 

first opportunity that arose he drew his bow and arrow
from

 

their hiding place and shot the poisoned arrow deep into
the

 

‘s heart. Then the dancer fled on his horse, which was
cov

 

cred with soot. When the rider came to the Lhasa River he
re

 

moved the soot, and turned his own black gown inside out,
thus

 

transforming the appearance of himself and his beast and
making escape possible. Since that day to this, the story
has enacted by the dancers of Tibet, who go through all the
tions of the Black Hat dancer in the drama of his rise to
favor his assault on the King, and his escape from
punishment, having saved the religion from destruction.

In 1038 came Atisha, and started the Kadampa sect, which
later developed into the Gelupa and gained the principal
power of the state under the leadership of Tsong-Khapa in
1407. It was not until 1640 that it became the ruling power
with the rise of the fifth Dalai Lama. With the advent of
Atisha and the reformed Kadampa sect came the semi-reform
sects of Kargyupa and Sakya, the latter gaining the
dominating control through the great Chinese Emperor Khubla
Khan, a descendant of Ghenghiz Khan, who captured Tibet in
1206 A.D. In searching for a religion for his people, he
took over Lamaism and made the Abbot of Sakya head of the
church in much the same manner as Charlemagne created the
first Pope. During the Ming dynasty in 1368 the ruler deemed
it advisable to raise the heads of the other sects to the
level of those in Sakya, in order to eliminate quarrelling
amongst them and thereby make it easier to rule the
country.

In the fifteenth century Tsong-Khapa reorganized the work
of Atisha and created the Gelupa sect, which took the lead
in 1640 under the fifth Grand Lama, Nag-wan Lo-zang. He
induced Gusri Khan to capture the country and make a present
of it to him; in 165o he was given the Mongol title of
Dalai, or “Vast as the Ocean.” He held himself to be a
God-incarnate, and built the palace temple on the hill in
Lhasa; it was named the Potala, after his divine prototype,
Avolokita, “The Lord Who Looks Down From On High.”

So we have Buddhism coming to Tibet with its final
perfected Theocracy, which continues to rule the country to
this day. Now its power is on the wane, and the prediction
is that it will not be many more years before the civil
authorities will have taken over the country


The 5th Reting Rinpoche provides Theos Bernard with the
Tibetan Buddhist canon

 

 

The 5th Reting Rinpoche with Theos Bernard

Tibet in the late 1930s was a country struggling to
maintain its independence in the face of increasing pressure
from the surrounding empires of Great Britain, Russia, and
China. The object of much political intrigue, the Tibetan
government attempted to maintain a strict policy of border
control. Few Westerners, and fewer still Americans, were
able to breach the borders of Tibet. Theos Bernard, with his
knowledge of literary and spoken Tibetan, coupled with
papers of introduction from his Tibetan teachers—and
the friendship of the Tibetan cabinet minister, Tsarong
Shapé—was one of the few ever to reach Lhasa.
[…]

 

A priority for Bernard in his journey to Tibet was the
acquisition of a complete set of the Tibetan Buddhist canon
in 338 volumes. This he managed to acquire along with many
more volumes of the collected works of numerous Tibetan
authors provided him by the Regent, Reting Rinpoche. These
books were to serve as the focus of Bernard’s efforts
over the subsequent ten years as he attempted to establish a
research center for their translation into the English
language. […]

 

Of the many volumes of books brought back from Tibet by
Theos Bernard, Yale University acquired more than two
hundred volumes of his Tibetan texts including his copy of
the 63-volume Treasury of Revealed Teachings for its library
in 1963. The remainder of materials brought back from Tibet
serves as the core of the Theos Bernard Tibetan Collection
at the University of California, Berkeley.


“Far reaching changes, little short of cataclysmic,
threaten the land of Tibet and Lhasa its capital. Lhasa, the
Forbidden, the Mysterious, is in danger at no distant date
of losing its unique place on this planet”

Tibet in the late 1930s was a country struggling to
maintain its independence in the face of increasing pressure
from the surrounding empires of Great Britain, Russia, and
China. The object of much political intrigue, the Tibetan
government attempted to maintain a strict policy of border
control. Few Westerners, and fewer still Americans, were
able to breach the borders of Tibet. Theos Bernard, with his
knowledge of literary and spoken Tibetan, coupled with
papers of introduction from his Tibetan teachers—and
the friendship of the Tibetan cabinet minister, Tsarong
Shapé—was one of the few ever to reach
Lhasa.

 

Although his journey from home lasted 16 months, only
four were spent in Tibet. During his stay in Lhasa, Bernard
was privy to unprecedented levels of access to Tibetan
ceremonies and resources. Documenting his experiences in
pictures, Bernard left a historical record of an age-old
civilization on the brink of political upheaval.

 

“No film could possibly convey its majesty.”

Bernard at Drepung Monastic University, c.1937

 

In traveling to Tibet’s “Forbidden City,” Bernard
followed the route established by his British predecessors
from Sikkim, up through the Chumbi Valley, to Gyantse, from
where he petitioned for entry to Lhasa. When approval for
his visit finally came, Bernard set out with his party. Upon
entering the Lhasa valley, the first site he came upon was
Drepung Monastic University. “It was but a short distance
before we came around the bend which sheltered the great
monastery of Drepung, the largest in the world, holding in
the neighborhood of 10,000 monks. It was a startling sight:
white masonry studded over with the black spots, which
indicates the endless series of chambers, gloomy cells of
meditation. … I had seen endless pictures of this
sanctuary, yet it was wholly unlike such preliminary
impressions. The truth is, no film could possibly convey its
majesty. There is a sense of immaculateness about it which
eludes the camera, so faithful in capturing external
forms”.

 

Attempting to visit all the notable locations in the
Lhasa valley, Bernard also visited Ganden monastery,
requiring a journey up into the hills surrounding Lhasa.
“Dressed in a Tibetan robe, and accompanied by my bodyguard,
I headed towards the sacred monastery of Ganden, situated on
top of the mountain. . . . Here, to my mind, was the ideal
monastery, tucked away as it was in a hidden corner in the
bend of one of the higher ridges which juts out into the
valley. For could there be a more ideal place for a
monastery than among the gathering clouds of heaven yet
remain completely hidden from everyone passing up and down
the valley? I vow that any human being dwelling in a like
place would be unable to think of anything else; the country
hereabouts surely awakens all the religious awe that any
soul might possess”.

 

“Each of the large wooden blocks was carved by hand, and
its printing as perfect as that done by our machinery.”

 

Zhol Publishing House, Lhasa

 

A priority for Bernard in his journey to Tibet was the
acquisition of a complete set of the Tibetan Buddhist canon
in 338 volumes. This he managed to acquire along with many
more volumes of the collected works of numerous Tibetan
authors provided him by the Regent, Reting Rinpoche. These
books were to serve as the focus of Bernard’s efforts
over the subsequent ten years as he attempted to establish a
research center for their translation into the English
language.

 

“Tsarong had finally decided to give me his Kangyur and
Tengyur, because he feared I would take the chance of
leaving Tibet by way of China. His attitude was that my life
was precious and that I should not take any chances”.

 

“Anyone coming to my room would have thought that I had
opened up a tailor shop to see yards upon yards of silks
strewn around the room, and the tailor and his assistant
marking it off. The custom for taking care of the precious
sacred volumes is to wrap them in large pieces of silk,
after which each book must be marked and indexed from the
outside, so that one might find the desired volume without
having to unwrap each one”.

 

“I found the Tibetans the most gracious people on earth,
and never before had I such friendship extended me by
foreigners.”

 

Of the many volumes of books brought back from Tibet by
Theos Bernard, Yale University acquired more than two
hundred volumes of his Tibetan texts including his copy of
the 63-volume Treasury of Revealed Teachings for its library
in 1963. The remainder of materials brought back from Tibet
serves as the core of the Theos Bernard Tibetan Collection
at the University of California, Berkeley.

 

Submitted
by Paul G. Hackett


Barbarian lands: Theos Bernard, Tibet, and the

American religious life. Ph.D. Thesis, Columbia

University, 2008. 1102 pp. ISBN : 978-0-549-51538-8

Hackett, Paul Gerard

This dissertation presents the first comprehensive
narrative of

the life of Theos Bernard (1908-1947). As a
first-generation American

explorer in Tibet, Bernard was only the third American to
successfully

reach Lhasa, the capital of Tibet in the late 1930s.
While

there, Bernard amassed what would be the largest
collection of

Tibetan texts, art and artifacts in the Western
hemisphere for more

than thirty years, as well as documenting, in both still
photography

and 16mm film, an age-old civilization on the eve of its
destruction.

In his day, Bernard met, associated and corresponded
with

the social, political and cultural icons of his day, from
the Regent

and leading politicians of Tibet to saints, scholars and
diplomats

in British India, and such notables as Charles Lindbergh,
Gandhi,

and Franklin Delano Roosevelt. Bernard also established a
research

center in California to collaborate with a man considered
“the most

important Tibetan intellectual of the twentieth
century,” Amdo Gedun

Chopel. When they were unable to overcome the turmoil
of

the 1940s, however, their collaboration failed and
instead, within

ten years both men would be dead.

The dissertation examines such issues as Bernard’s
place in

the early history of the American subculture and
counter-culture

informed by Indian concepts of religiosity and the
narrative of the

genesis and spread of Indian and Buddhist religious
traditions in America over the last 150 years. In addition,
Bernard’s life and

writings are examined as a paradigm of an ethnically
American

counter-culture religious experience and his academic
activities are

discussed in terms of their broader implications for the
study of

religion.

The dissertation concludes with a series of appendices
containing

presentations of some of the primary data amassed over
the

course of the research, including: some of Bernard’s
unpublished

works; an overview of American visitors to Tibet from
1920 to

1959; and a photographic essay retracing Bernard’s
trips in India

and Tibet with comparative photographs (1937 and
2006).