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Prisoners of Shangri-LA : Tibetan Buddhism and the West

by Donald S. Lopez Jr.

Buy the book: Donald S. Lopez Jr.. Prisoners of Shangri-LA : Tibetan Buddhism and the West

Release Date: June, 1999

Edition: Paperback


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Buy the book: Donald S. Lopez Jr.. Prisoners of Shangri-LA : Tibetan Buddhism and the West

The Social Construction of Tibet in the West

Lopez is a genius and really gets at the heart of the Western construction of Tibet, the realities of the Panchen Lama and the Shugden affair really hit home that Tibet is real and for as long was we treat Tibet as the ideal Shangri-La, we deny Tibet any real space in history. Lopez writes, 'To the extent that we continue to believe that Tibet prior to 1950 was a utopia, the Tibet of 1998 will be no place' (11). This book is a triumph in Tibetan studies and should be read, written, and discussed. Donald Lopez shows us that from within how to find some way to break free from the carceral community and perhaps 'some may find a file with which to begin the slow work or sawing though the bars' (Lopez 13). Lopez writes, 'This book does not set out to apportion praise and blame. Neither is its purpose to distinguish good Tibetology from bad, to separate fact from fiction, or the scholarly from the popular, but to show their confluence. The question considered is not how knowledge is tainted but how knowledge takes form. This book then is an exploration of some of the mirror-lined cultural labyrinths that have been created by Tibetans, Tibetophiles, and Tibetologists, labyrinths that the scholar may map but in which the scholar also must wander. We are captives of confines of our own making, we are all prisoners of Shangri-La. This book, then, is not written outside the walls of the prison, nor does it hold the key that would permit escape. Hidden in its pages, however, some may find a file with which to begin the slow work of sawing though the bars' (Lopez 13).

This book, in my opinion, is one of the best books around on the social construction of Tibet. This book is effectively a history of the 'Orientalist' creation of Tibet. Lopez give an account of a vast set of creations of Tibet and Tibetan Buddhism that pervade popular western culture. Tsering Shakya reads in Lopez's work that Tibet remained outside the scrutiny of post-colonial discourse because it was never really annexed by a western colonial power. My sense is that the remoteness and seemingly unprofitable conditions that was Tibet insulated it from colonial powers in the past ' not anymore. But the extensive examination of the archive that Lopez undertakes undermines Shakya's reading of Lopez that it was never really annexed ' maybe not physically but certainly was culturally. I have to agree with Lopez in that there are really two Tibets ' the somewhat more authentic one and the one constructed by the West.

In his extensive look at the archive, Lopez digs into a few very key aspects of Tibetan Buddhism that were not just appropriated but rather misappropriated to seem almost representative of the whole of Tibet. In Lopez's examination of the phenomenon of Lamaism, his deconstruction of T. Lobsang Rampa, his examination of the discourse of the Book of the Dead, and the uncritical appropriation of the mantra Om Mani Padme Hum we see how extensive the invention is of Tibet is in the West.

The Dalai Lama himself is quick to point out that Lamaism (which really does not exist) is not a debasement of Buddhism but rather that the reverse is true. Tibetan Buddhists, perhaps more than any other sect, adhere strictly to the Sutras. Translated from the original Sanskrit, Tibetan text and the commentaries are perhaps the 'purest' ' if I might be allowed to use the phrase without overly romanticizing. Lopez continues by outlining what I would call his version epistemic violence that is within the framework of dualities: 'Thus Lamaism may be portrayed in the West as the most authentic and most degenerate form of Buddhism, Tibetan monks may be portrayed as saintly or rapacious, Tibetan artists may be portrayed as inspired mystics and mindless automatons, Tibetan peasants may be portrayed as pristine or filthy. This language about Tibet not only creates knowledge about Tibet, in many ways creates Tibet, a Tibet that Tibetans in exile have come to appropriate and deploy in an effort to gain both standing in exile and independence for their country' (Lopez 10).

The deconstruction of the T. Lobsang Rampa is very telling in that falsification is very difficult. Making all sorts of questionable claims ' akin to the ones made by Madam Blavatsky of the Theosophical Society ' very difficult to disprove (or even prove). The discourse of the Book of the Dead and its publication here in the west and it position as representative and preeminent status as 'the book' (as Lopez likes to call it) is really proven to be the product of western academic fiction. The exoticizing of the mantra Oh Mani Padme Hum only proves that the Orientalist discourse of the self and other and the rendering 'exotic' is alive and well. Lopez compels us to ask the question, 'Who's Tibet'?

Miguel Llora

From Amazon.com

An excellent and informative book

This is a wonderful book describing (to some extent) Tibetan Buddhism, and the western reaction to Tibetan Buddhism.

Here you will learn that the highly influential "Tibetan Book of the Dead" is basically unknown in Tibet itself, that the most influential and best-selling book about Tibet ("The Third Eye") is a fraud committed by a cheap British hack who had never even visited Tibet, that the famous mantra "om padme hum" does NOT mean "the jewel in the lotus" -- in fact, I'm not quite sure if anyone knows "what it means", and that the current Dalai Lama has had serious and ongoing difficulties with members of his own religious sect who are devotees of a grisly supernatural power known as "Shugden."

In sum, there is a lot of debunking in this book, and it's very well done. It is even done kindly and gently. The author is not so much outraged as puzzled. You may come to share this feeling!

Highly recommended!

From Amazon.com

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