March 18, 2009

Book Review via Henry Schliff: Prisoners of Shangri-La: Tibetan Buddhism and the West (Donald S. Lopez, Jr.)

I am always excited to find a book that can simultaneously broaden my perspective and challenge pre-existing notions, Prisoners of Shangri-La: Tibetan Buddhism and the West by Donald Lopez is just that kind of book. Lopez writes, “even among partisans of the Tibetan cause, the focus remains largely on the unsited, on the ethereal and the transhistorical, on Tibetan religion as the sole legacy, even the irreducible essence, of Tibetan culture. There is not now and never was Tibet…Tibet is nowhere to be found.”

This commentary concludes the first chapter of Prisoners of Shangri-La and illuminates the dynamic Lopez sees in interactions between America, Europe, and Tibet. The loss of national identity through the processes of romanticism, cultural appropriation, scholarly misrepresentation, and colonization. The author handles all these issues as he looks at seven cultural icons, some brought to the West from Tibet, some projected on Tibet from the West. These seven are: the term Lamaism (not actually from Tibet but a means of characterizing Tibetan religion), The Tibetan Book of the Dead, the visions of Rampa, the mantra Om mani padme hum, Thangka painting, Tibetan Buddhism in the Academy, and Shambala.

Lopez’s style will not be for everyone, his writing is never dry but it is exhaustive, a quality that is most likely to capture those with a previous interest in the books subject matter. I came across Prisoners after reading an online article lambasting the romanticism swirling around Tibet, its religion, and culture. The article Friendly Feudalism: The Tibet Myth by Michael Parenti initially struck me as an over the top propaganda piece, but it also caused me to question my own knowledge about Tibetan culture and the Western perception of the Tibetan people. What Prisoners of Shangri-La provides is an honest analysis of the Tibet we do not know and likely will never know. Unlike Parenti’s article Prisoner’s is a social commentary disinterested in painting the world black and white. It is a work that does not seek to place blame for cultural stumbling and misunderstandings but acknowledges the complexities of our myths around Tibet.

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