One from the vaults: The Fantastic World of Lobsang Rampa – III
In this final part of The Fantastic World of Lobsang Rampa I will discuss the Rampa books’ portrayal of Tibet; briefly explore the UFO-related themes in his writings, and round up with some general conclusions.
Romancing Tibet – The Third Eye as travelogue
Cyril Hoskin/Lobsang Rampa was not the first case of an author becoming his literary personality. One might think of notables such as T.E. Lawrence or Richard Burton assuming the disguise of the native, or indeed Alexandra David-Neel disguising herself as a Tibetan in order to explore the forbidden kingdom. There is also “Grey Owl” – Archibald Bellaney – who was a best-selling author and public lecturer in the 1930s (now hailed as one of the founders of the conservation movement), exposed, after his death as an Englishman, rather than a Native American. When Rampa’s narrative turns to his life in Tibet, he is clearly drawing on what we would now recognise as cultural primitivist assumptions about the exotic nature of Tibetan culture – stereotypes existing in European popular culture, drawn from the writings of Theosophists such as Madame Blavatsky and Alice Bailey, and James Hilton’s “Lost Horizon” – although Rampa always claimed that he had never read any Theosophical works.
The Third Eye paints a rather idealistic picture of Tibet as an idyllic utopia, untouched but cautiously aware of the materialism and progress of the west. Tibetans do not have wheels (p86) for example, because wheels represent speed, and “so-called civilisation”. Similarly, in Doctor from Lhasa, Rampa recounts with amazement his first encounter with a “spring bed”; running tap water, people smoking, and later, an aeroplane, which he first believes is “one of the sky-gods”.
Donald Lopez’s comments (see part 1) regarding scholars taking an interest in Tibet due to their reading of Rampa’s books is interesting. In researching this lecture, and trawling internet search engines in search of how Rampa is treated on the worldwide web, I found several instances of Tibetan aid foundations and organisations where members stated that their interest in Tibet had been sparked by reading the Rampa books. In addition, I found that several of the large Rampa “fan sites” also had information about current events in Tibet and carried links to sites such as Tibet Online and the UK-based Tibet Foundation.
The Third Eye was written after the Chinese invasion of Tibet, but before the 1959 Uprising and the subsequent diaspora of Tibetan religious leaders to India and the West. To some degree, one might argue that the popularity of Rampa’s works, and the late-1950s controversy around it, heightened public interest in, and the desire to access, Tibetan Buddhism. It could also be argued that Lobsang Rampa also provided a window into events in occupied Tibet. Although Rampa does portray a romanticised picture of life in Tibet, he at least does not depoliticise the country’s history – The Third Eye mentions both the 1904 Younghusband expedition and the Chinese military attempt to control Lhasa in 1910. The Rampa Story contains some retellings of astral visions of Chinese brutality against ordinary Tibetans and executions of monks, and recounts stories of nuns being raped and burned alive. However, I have been unable to find any reference to the Tibetan resistance movements or the 1959 Uprising in his books.
In Feeding the Flame, Rampa opens chapter three of the book with an account of what life in Lhasa is like under the “terror” of the Chinese. He describes the “genocide” being practised upon the Tibetan people by the Chinese. However, he also takes this opportunity to express his dissatisfaction with the Tibetan government-in-exile. He had hoped to “speak as a representative of Tibet before the United Nations” but he feels that “high-ranking” Tibetans, now “living in comfort in India” are afraid to support him, because of the way he has been portrayed by the press. In As It Was there is a long section dealing with “predictions” made about Rampa’s life by the “Chief Astrologer” which at one point extols Rampa’s own skill at predictions, which include:
“He had made the prediction that there would be no real Dalai Lama after the Thirteenth had gone to the state of transition; there would be another but he would have been selected as a matter of political expediency in an attempt to assuage the territorial ambitions of the Chinese.” The Chief Astrologer says (of Rampa): “It will be considered to the benefit of a people as a whole that he be disowned, that he be not supported by those who should support him, by those who could support him, and I say again that these are probabilities because it is quite possible for our own people to support him and give him an opportunity to speak before the nations of the world, so that first, Tibet may be saved…”.
It appears that the apparent refusal of the Tibetan government in exile to recognise Rampa as a spokesman for Tibet rankled deeply. In As It Was he comments that “it is mainly the lower orders (my italics) of refugees who seem to be opposed to me.” He also claims to have a letter saying that the Dalai Lama is praying daily for his health.
His followers sometimes claim that the present Dalai Lama’s “public denial” of knowing Lobsang Rampa is a sham, because he is “playing the political field, prosituting (sic) his religion trying to appease too many people who wouldn’t support him if he did”.
The UFO connection
Lobsang Rampa also had an influence on the UFO scene. In 1966 there appeared My Visit to Venus – an “unauthorised” anthology of Rampa’s early writings from the mid-1950s published by Gray Barker, author of They Knew Too Much about Flying Saucers (1956) and now recognised as the person responsible for introducing the “men in black” component to UFO folklore. Rampa gave Barker “permission” to continue to publish the book, provided he made some minor alternations to the ms, and send 10% of his profits to the “Save a Cat League” of New York and the second edition of Venus also contains a foreword from John Keel. In Venus, Rampa recounts how he and six fellow lamas encounter a race of giant, telepathic humanoids in a lost city, which they discover, half-frozen in a glacier. These humanoids, it transpires, have been overseeing the development of humanity, and they take Rampa and his fellows to Venus, where they experience so many wonders that Earth seems a tawdry, drab place, in comparison.
UFO-related themes continue in Rampa’s books throughout the 1960s. There are, for example, “the Gardeners”, a race of aliens who colonised earth billions of years ago, and who periodically come back to check on humanity’s progress. The Gardeners ‘seeded’ Earth with the human race, and although they are largely benign, they do occasionally abduct people and experiment on them in order to “improve the race”. Humanity regarded them as “gods from the sky.” There are also a race of advanced beings who live inside the earth, but who sometimes explore the surface using advanced technology, and interdimensional entities which can only be perceived (by humans) as patterns of lights. Also, in The Hermit, as Rampa recounts what we would now recognise as a ‘classic’ abduction experience, complete with telepathic interchanges and bizarre experiments performed on him, there is a description of the now-familiar gray alien:
“There I saw a most extraordinary thing, a dwarf, a gnome, a very very small body, a body like that of a five-year-old child, I thought. But the head, ah, the head was immense, a great dome of a skull, hairless, too, not a trace of hair anywhere in sight on this one. The chin was small, very small indeed, and the mouth was not a mouth the same as we have, but seemed to be more of a triangular orifice. The nose was slight, not a protuberance so much as a ridge. This was obviously the most important person because the others looked with such deferential respect in his, direction.”
Rampa’s books have undoubtedly influenced contemporary ‘alternative science’ – themes relating to lost technologies, underground cities, “lost lands” such as Lemuria & Ultima Thule; and “time capsules” as well as ‘conspiracies’ to suppress or guard against secret wisdom becoming common knowledge are all featured in his books. Whilst some of these themes may not have originated with Rampa, he certainly helped popularise them, years before the publication of Von Daniken’s Chariots of the Gods and later works. Indeed, the work of contemporary “alternative science” authors such as Graham Hancock is seen by adherents of Lobsang Rampa as validation and proof of his ideas.
Some final thoughts
Lobsang Rampa is often written off as a fraud, whilst those who follow his teachings believe him to be the psychically-adept Lama of his books, the ‘truth’ of whose writings has been suppressed by various forces – such as the current Dalai Lama, various governments, the scientific establishment, or western “occult secret societies” who didn’t like the truths Rampa was revealing. The impression I have of Rampa – from reading his books, and the testimonies of those who knew him – is that he genuinely believed that he was who he said he was – or rather, that he was “host” for the spirit of Lobsang Rampa. Sheelagh Rouse describes how that the body originally owned by Hoskin, was over time, completely replaced Rampa’s body – and explains that Rampa suffered from the tortures he had received at the hands of the Japanese. Her picture of Rampa is of a spiritual adept, disinterested in having followers and disciples and somewhat reclusive, due to the persecution of the press and critics, yet willing to help the people who wrote to him with their problems and questions.
Rampa’s works stand at the dawn of the 1960s, when Western fascination with Tibet, ‘Eastern mysticism’ and other forms of esoteric wisdom took on new heights of popularity. It is rather ironic that Rampa’s first book, The Third Eye, has achieved something of an iconic status as a key text for 1960s counter-cultural mystical enthusiasts, since Rampa makes it plain in his later works that he had no time whatsoever for hippies, young people, or the changes sweeping through Western culture during his own lifetime. The Third Eye remains to this day, one of the most popular and widely-read books on Tibet, despite continued scholarly opprobrium. At least some of the appeal of Rampa’s texts is his ability to present ‘esoteric wisdom’ in a familiar, uncomplicated fashion, eschewing either complex terminology or conceptual formations; rendering both beliefs and practices into a simple approach that reduces uncertainty:
“Occultism is no more mysterious or complicated than the multiplication tables or an excursion into history. It is just learning of different things, learning of things which are not of the physical. We should not go into raptures if we suddenly discovered how a nerve worked a muscle or how we could twitch a big toe, they would be just ordinary physical matters. So why should we go into raptures and think that the spirits are sitting all around us if we know how we can pass etheric energy from one person to another? Please note that we say here “etheric energy” which is good English instead of “prana” or any other Eastern terms; we prefer when writing a Course in a language to adhere to that language.”
You Forever, p102
All the reader has to do is follow Rampa’s guidance – and believe that the exercises he recommends will work – and he or she too, will be able to begin to access the abilities that Rampa displays in his books. Rampa’s books also appeal to readers who are suspicious of authorities – ‘experts’ (such as scientists, or occultists) often draw Rampa’s disdain. He uses his cast of characters not only to illustrate his worldview (and demonise the targets of his ire, such as Women’s Libbers and members of the Upper Class) but also to provide ‘independent’ assertions within the text that he is a sympathetic listener and can be helpful to those who feel at odds with their position in society. The interchange in The Thirteenth Candle between Lotta Bull and Rosie Hipp establishes that Rampa’s opinions about homosexuality have helped Rosie understand herself – prompting Lotta to ask “Is he … ONE OF US—Homo?” Which of course, Rampa isn’t, yet is deemed capable of offering useful advice.
Rampa’s books also act to provide readers with a ‘privileged access’ to Tibet (and other countries). His is not the world of the ordinary Tibetan, but the special insight of a superhuman elite – he repeatedly uncovers an aspect of Tibetan wisdom which is inaccessible to ordinary people or so-called ‘experts’; a Tibet that makes explicit the romantic imagination of an exotic, yet ultimately familiar locale. At times, Rampa’s autobiographical adventures in different parts of the world take on epic proportions; he could be likened to James Bond in his ability to move around the world freely, fighting the various forces of evil (such as the Japanese and the Chinese) and deploying special abilities and technologies. Like Bond, Rampa’s adventures are set against the backdrop of the Cold War; both visit exotic locations and uncover secret schemes and technologies. 1 Both belong to an elite class which grants them privileged access to secrets and intrigues. But whilst Bond’s touristic adventures are set within exotic locations such as the Caribbean and the Mediterranean, Rampa provides a touristic gaze into spiritual geographies – hidden Tibet, the Akashic Records, other worlds. Places which are inaccessible to ordinary travellers – perhaps all too conveniently so.
Given the scope and breadth of Rampa’s adventures in various parts of the world, his eventual arrival in postwar Britain – into the body formerly occupied by Cyril Hoskin – is something of an anti-climax. The writing of The Third Eye seems to have been a ‘last option’ for the transmigrated Rampa, as his adventures in England are rather less exciting than fighting, flying aircraft and performing medical miracles; they are mostly concerned with his attempts to secure employment and his problems with the Labour Exchange. Rampa the international adventurer is replaced by Rampa the reclusive author and teacher.
It would be easy to judge Cyril Hoskin/Lobsang Rampa as a ‘hoaxer’ however I feel this is too simplistic. For one thing, he appears to have genuinely believed himself to be a Tibetan Lama inhabiting an Englishman’s body. Moreover, his books were, and remain, popular, for reasons that are more complex than mere credulity on the part of a supposedly uneducated and uncritical audience. Rampa’s work played a key role in the formation of both the New Age movement and contemporary occultism. His place in history in the Western imagination of Tibet has already been assured. He also deserves more attention in his attempts to make the world of the occult explainable in everyday terms.
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
- Some of Rampa’s character’s names – such as Lotta Bull and Rosie Hipp for example, are reminiscent of Fleming’s Pussy Galore and Honeychile Rider. Thanks to Brian Paisley for drawing my attention to this. ↩