Theos Bernard – Beezone


Taken from Chapter IX – ‘I Escape With My Life’

pp. 230-233

“The Rise and Spread of Buddhism” – Theos Bernard

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 61 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 dispose 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 Kings heart. Then the dancer fled on his horse, which was covcered with soot. When the rider came to the Lhasa River he removed 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 (Regent) Rinpoche with Theos Bernard
(before the discovery of the 16th Dali Lama) – 1938

The fifth Reting Rinpoche, Thubten Jamphel Yeshe Gyaltsen (1911–1947; Tibetan: Wylie: thub-bstan ‘jam-dpal ye-shes rgyal-mtshan), played a significant role in Tibetan history as the one-time regent of the present Dalai Lama. He was replaced in 1941 and subsequently is alleged to have organized an uprising against his replacement. He died in 1947 in the prisons of Lhasa’s Potala, apparently the victim of poisoning.

 

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.- 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).

Barbarian lands: Theos Bernard, Tibet, and the American religious life. Ph.D. Thesis, Columbia

University, 2008. 1102 pp.- Hackett, Paul Gerard

 


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