One from the vaults: The Fantastic World of Lobsang Rampa – II
In this second part of The Fantastic World of Lobsang Rampa I will discuss Rampa both as a “mystifier of Tibet and as a “Demystifier” of the Occult. I will also examine the tension between tradition and modernity, and take a brief look at Rampa’s treatment of homosexuality.
Rampa as a ‘Mystifier’
Donald Lopez characterises Rampa as one of the great “mystifiers” of Tibet – in the sense that he “mystified Tibet, embellishing its various realities with his own mystical fancies” and that “he mystified his readers, playing on the credulity of the reading public” (Prisoners, p86). Agehananda Bharati, never one to mince words, writing in the Tibet Society Bulletin (vol.7, 1974) takes a similar stance:
“Every page bespeaks the utter ignorance of the author of anything that has to do with Buddhism as practiced and Buddhism as a belief system in Tibet or elsewhere. But the book also shows a shrewd intuition into what millions of people want to hear. Monks and neophytes flying through the mysterious breeze on enormous kites; golden images in hidden cells, representing earlier incarnations of the man who views them; arcane surgery in the skull to open up the eye of wisdom; tales about the dangers of mystical training and initiation — in a Western worlds so desperately seeking for the mysterious where everything is so terribly accessible to inspection, where the divine has been bowdlerized or institutionalized, where it speaks with the wagging-finger lingo of moralistic nagging, the less hardy and the softer will seek that which is the opposite of all these turn-off factors.”
Most of the critical scholarship on Lobsang Rampa deals with him largely in relation to western idealisations of Tibet, placing him alongside other “mystifiers” such as Mme Blavatsky . Lopez, for example, in Prisoners of Shangri-La, recounts how he gave The Third Eye to a group of his first year undergraduate students – telling them to read it, without giving any clues to its provenance. The students, Lopez says, were “unanimous” in their praise for the book, finding it “entirely credible and compelling.” Lopez poses the question of just why Lobsang Rampa’s books have been so popular – despite the opprobrium of scholars, and frames his answer in a discussion of authority. So Lobsang Rampa’s initial authority rested in him being accepted as a Lama by his readers. Lopez says that once Rampa was revealed to be Hoskin, his authority would have waned, were it not for the fact that, Doctor from Lhasa and The Rampa Story show how Hoskin has become Rampa. Lopez points out that by the time Rampa released The Hermit (1971) he simply states that his books are True and that “Some people who are bogged down in materialism may prefer to think of it as fiction” to which Rampa adds: “believe or disbelieve according to your state of evolution.”
In closing the chapter of Prisoners which examines the Rampa phenomenon, Lopez says that he has met many Tibetologists and Buddhologists who told him that it was reading the Rampa books which gave them the initial fascination with the world he described that led to them becoming professional scholars and that some said that despite he was a fraud, he had a “good effect.”
Rampa as a ‘Demystifier?’
Having spent the last few months reading through many of Lobsang Rampa’s books, I think there is a good case to make for Lobsang Rampa as a De-mystifier – of both Tibet, and the esoteric subjects that he deals with. One of the things that impressed me – if “impressed” is the right word, here, is that Lobsang Rampa’s writing style is very “commonsensical”; very “down to earth” in a sense. Certainly, he describes a wide range of odd experiences, but he does so in such a fashion as to render them unchallenging. He makes the unfamiliar unthreatening, in a sense. When he explains occult concepts, he invariably does so with recourse to common-sense analogies which would be familiar to a general western reader, and uses very few recognisably occult “technical” terms. For example, in his foreword to The Cave of the Ancients, Rampa expresses his disdain for “mumbo jumbo” and states that “this is “a simple book, without any “foreign words” in it, no Sanskrit, nothing of dead languages in it.” This, I feel, accounts for some of his appeal. The wisdom Rampa presents is remarkably self-contained – given “as is”. He does not back up his statements by quoting other authorities (in fact, one gains the impression that apart from himself there are no other authorities), and although he talks about the importance of learning scriptures and studying esoteric books in Tibet in his autobiographical reminiscences, he does not provide references or refer to specific texts. Only occasionally does he recommend other books to his readers.
Rampa also gives his views on a diverse range of esoteric subjects, much of which seems to be in response to letters he has received. He does not approve of fortune telling, absent healing or meditation in groups, which should be avoided, as it can lead to nervous illnesses due to contamination from other – untrained people’s – thought-vibrations. In fact he recommends that his readers avoid cults or esoteric groups of any kind. Astrology he asserts, is genuine, but most of the people who advertise themselves as astrologers are fakes. Similarly, spirit guides and mediums are the target of Rampa’s scorn – he wryly comments in Feeding the Flame that “if everyone who claimed to have an Indian guide or a Tibetan guide was listed, there just wouldn’t be enough Indians or enough Tibetans to go round” In The Saffron Robe, Rampa is told by one of his teachers “not to bother with yoga” and that it is “just a physical exercise, nothing more. Nothing spiritual.”
Rampa is also rather dismissive of scientists and “experts”. In a rare interview from 1958, he says:
“One should not place too much credence in ’experts’ or ’Tibetan scholars’ when it is seen how one ’expert’ contradicts the other when they cannot agree on what is right and what is wrong…”
In Chapters of Life he states that scientists have little or no imagination, and that the investigation of subjects such as the world of anti-matter should be reserved for occultists, as
“…the competent occultist can leave the body and get out of the body, and out of the Earth as well, and once out of the Earth he can see what this other world is like—as I have done so very, very frequently. “ Rampa reveals that it is the anti-matter world which is responsible for phenomena such as the Bermuda Triangle, or the mysterious loss of Flight 19.
Rampa’s books can be seen as examples of books which glorify tradition and at the same time condemn modernity. The 1950s was a period of great change in British life, with the end of postwar austerity and the rise of the “affluent society” – which the rise of commercial television, colour magazines, cheap paperback books and an increase in advertising of luxury commodities. Also, establishment values began to be increasingly questioned and ridiculed. Individual freedom and choice became an increasing cultural concern. Yet the new freedoms and liberties also brought uncertainties. Rampa’s books, which span a period from the mid-1950s to 1980 (he produced one book a year between 1963 and 1973) articulate and express the tensions between tradition and individualism.
When not recounting his autobiographical adventures in Tibet or elsewhere, or explaining various occult matters, Rampa comments freely on the state of the world and what has gone wrong with modern society. Thus we discover that young people of today are “dimmer” than their parents, and he directs particular scorn for those with “long hair … and scruffy, tattered, rags of clothing.” He blames the state of young people today on television, cinema, and both parents (particularly women) going out to work. He is irrevocably opposed to drugs such as LSD as they can damage the astral body irreparably. Also, Rampa makes it abundantly clear (in I Believe) that he has no time for so-called “Women’s Libbers” – who are not really “women”. He opines that the rot started in the First World War, when women went to work in factories. Women should stay at home, and be wives and mothers – as Nature intended. He recounts that in the Akashic Records there is evidence of a long-vanished civilisation of people “who wore purple skins” which became dominated by women. Men were treated as slaves, or virile studs for the sole purpose of making babies. This matriarchy was “unbalanced” and so ended. In Three Lives, the “Old Author” (Rampa) recounts a dream in which a young woman, killed in an accident, finds out that because she is a “Women’s Libber” she (like media people) is destined for the “hellish regions.” Hell, in this narrative, has special “stockades” reserved for publishers, agents, members of the press, old Etonians and Women’s Liberationists.
Rampa believes that modern society has reached a crossroads, and that the only thing which will ensure stability is the return to a religious life. It should be, he says, a “fresh” religion, as the old ones “have failed so miserably.” In Candlelight, in answer to a question about violence in the world he says: “People are being given false values. Religion is being torn down. People no longer believe in the simple things of life. They listen to the radio, they watch terrible things on television, and they read the gory details in the sensational press.”
Although Rampa is critical of western science, progress and “fallible machines”, it is noteworthy that the ‘core’ of The Third Eye – the “opening of Rampa’s own third eye (chapter 8) is a surgical procedure, involving an instrument “resembling a bradawl”, rather than the result of spiritual discipline, as one might expect. There is a continued enthusiasm for strange machinery running throughout Rampa’s books, and the device for reading auras, first mentioned in Doctor from Lhasa becomes a central refrain – he states on several occasions that his raison d’etre for his writing is to create funds for his research into creating this device, to the benefit of all humanity.
Sheelagh Rouse, in her book Twenty-five Years with Lobsang Rampa explains that in pursuit of his research in Auric photography in Ireland, Rampa held that the female aura was “brighter” than the male – stronger colours – and it was necessary to find female models who were willing to pose nude.
Rampa on homosexuality
Rampa uses characters to flesh out – and give veracity to his opinions. In The Thirteenth Candle, for example, his views on male & female homosexuality are verified through the device of vignette “slices of life” from two sets of characters: Lotta Bull (“the epitome of the masculine woman”) and her lover, Rosie Hipp (“all feminine, fluff, and froth with hardly a thought in her vapid, blonde head”); also Dennis Dollywogga and Justin Towne – who’s purportive letter to Rampa objecting to his remarks on the causation of homosexuality in his previous book Feeding the Flame, in which he states:
“Being born is a traumatic experience, it’s a most violent affair, and a very delicate mechanism can easily become deranged. For example, a baby is about to be born and throughout the pregnancy the mother has been rather careless about what she was eating and what she was doing, so the baby has not received what one might term a balanced chemical input. The baby may be short of a chemical and so development of certain glands may have been halted. Let us say the baby was going to come as a girl, but through lack of certain chemicals, the baby is actually born a boy, a boy with the inclinations of a girl. The parents might realize that they’ve got a sissified little wretch and put it down to over-indulgence or something, they may try to beat some sense into him one end or the other to make him more manly, but it doesn’t work; if the glands are wrong, never mind what sort of attachments are stuck on in front, the boy is still a girl in a boy’s body.
If a woman has a male psyche, then she will not be interested in men but will be interested in women, because her psyche, which is closer to the Overself than is the physical body, is relaying confusing messages to the Overself and the Overself sends back a sort of command, Get busy, do your stuff.’ The poor wretched male psyche is obviously repelled by the thought of ‘doing his stuff’ with a man, and so all the interest is centered on a female, so you get the spectacle of a female making love to a female and that’s what we call a lesbian because of a certain island off Greece where that used to be ‘the done thing’.
The vital thing is that one should never, never condemn a homosexual, it’s not his fault, he is being penalized for something he hasn’t done, he is being penalized for some fault of Nature; perhaps his mother had the wrong sort of food, perhaps the mother and the child were chemically incompatible. However, whichever way you look at it, homosexuals can only be helped by true understanding and sympathy, and possibly with the judicious administration of drugs.”
To which “Justin Towne” replies:
“Most homos are not the little pansies you see on the street, they are not the ones the psychiatrists and doctors write about because those are the emotionally disturbed ones. ‘Being an adventurer I have worked in cities, farms, some rodio work, etc., etc., and I know homos in all fields who are as normal as “blue-berry pie” so to speak. So, they can be very masculine, they can think and act like men and do NOT think and act like women or have any of the feminine characteristics which so many heterosexuals seem to think they do.
‘I wanted to stress TO the homo, what an important part he could play in this world, if he’d get off his behind and quit feeling sorry for himself. I don’t believe in things like this “Gay Liberation” thing where like all youngsters today they think they have to make a big issue of it, but merely go along and do one’s own job well, with the tools they have (Being their own talents etc.).”
In the third, and final part of this essay, I will consider Lobsang Rampa’s influence on the western imagination of Tibet, and briefly examine the ‘UFO connection’.
Books by Lobsang Rampa:
The Third Eye (1956) Doctor from Lhasa (1959) The Rampa Story (1960) Cave of the Ancients (1965) The Saffron Robe (1966) Chapters of Life (1967) Beyond the Tenth (1969) Feeding the Flame (1971) The Hermit (1971) The Thirteenth Candle (1972) Candlelight (1973) Twilight (1975) As It Was! (1976) I Believe (1976) Three Lives (1977) Tibetan Sage (1980).
Peter Bishop, Dreams of Power: Tibetan Buddhism and the Western Imagination (Athlone Press, 1993)
Dodin, T & Rather, H (eds) Imagining Tibet: Perceptions, Projections and Fantasies (Wisdom Publications, 2001)
Christopher Evans, Cults of Unreason (Farrar, Straus & Girard, 1974)
Christopher Lindner, The James Bond Phenomenon: A Critical Reader (Manchester University Press, 2003)
Donald Lopez Prisoners of Shangri La: Tibetan Buddhism and the West (University of Chicago Press, 1999)
Sheelagh Rouse, Twenty-five Years with T. Lobsang Rampa (Lulu.com, 2006)
Agehananda Bharati Fictitious Tibet: The Origin and Persistence of Rampaism
Sarah Penicka Lobsang Rampa: The Lama of Suburbia (PDF, Sydney Studies in Religion)
Lobsang Rampa’s books can be downloaded as pdfs from Dr T Lobsang Rampa Books – there are also some rare audio files of Rampa speaking
Here’s an invaluable index of subjects covered in the Rampa books – Book Index