Searching for Shangri La: Tibet in Comics

by Geoffrey Clarfield (April 2012)

Hero, Villain, Yeti: Tibet in Comics is the latest free exhibit on display at the Rubin Museum of Himalayan Art in the Chelsea district of Manhattan. Curator Martin Brauen has presented more than fifty comics from the early 1940s to the present for our contemplation and enlightenment. The exhibit presents Western comics like Tin Tin in Tibet beside more recently produced comics made by Tibetans, that encourage living according to Buddhist principles. The comics are attached to an extended two-sided reading lectern where you can read many of them from cover to cover, if you have the time.

It is a delightful, exciting and paradoxical exhibit (but wonderfully evocative) for it only mentions in passing that many of the spectacular powers and phenomena described in these comics have a basis in Tibetan culture and a strange, yet recurring but unexplained connection to New York City itself.

So that we may better understand how Westerners have transmitted, distorted and transformed Tibetan culture through comics and popular culture let us list a few traditional Tibetan beliefs and see how they fare in the comic book world and the related world of films, novels, and popular American religion, for the exhibit opens this wider door by also highlighting the work of Helena Petrovna Blavatsky (founder of Theosophy), the reincarnated Tibetan monk, Lobsang Rampa and James Hilton (author of the novel Lost Horizon).

For centuries traditional Tibetan Buddhists have believed in the existence of 84 Mahasiddhas. They believe that these special men have been able to pass through matter, materialize and dematerialize objects as well as move very, very quickly. In addition to making themselves immortal they can read minds, recall past lives, fly, walk on water, speak and understand all languages and communicate with animals. They can also travel instantaneously in their “awareness body” what Westerners would later describe as astral projection or travelling via our “astral bodies.”  Most of these remarkable abilities are featured in Tibetan stories of great and exemplary past Tibetan Buddhists such as Padmasambhava and Yogi Milarepa. 

Some Tibetan deities are depicted with a “third eye” whose purpose is to more effectively perceive “emptiness” although there are no known living or deceased Tibetans known to possess a third eye. Tibetan Buddhism also includes a central belief in the reincarnation of souls, something rejected by Judaism, Christianity and Islam.

In the more delicate matter of sex and religion there has always been explicit depictions in Tibetan religious art that shows male and female copulating. However, there is much debate as to whether this was or still is the key to secret sexual Tantric practices common to the esoteric traditions of both Buddhism and Hinduism or, like the Catholic Church’s traditional interpretation of the very sexual Biblical book The Song of Songs, whether these are metaphors of some greater truth, or perhaps a Buddhist challenge for the overcoming of desire on the route to enlightenment.

Then there is a Tibetan mytheme called Shambhala which describes a near perfect land of no suffering, longevity and the source of great wisdom (all intimately connected) yet depicted as a hierarchical kingdom, reminiscent of King Arthur’s court, although it does have a very non pacifistic apocalyptic sub text of a final battle between good and evil.

Finally, there is the less popular, but ever recurring non Tibetan, Western invention of Tibet as a land of evil, the source or refuge of evil and for some Neo Nazis, a place that promises a second chance at world domination.

A paradigmatic use of Tibetan culture is shown in the comic book character The Green Lama. The character is a wealthy Anglo American adventurer by the name of Jethro Diamont. He had (implicitly) left the violence and turbulence of America to spend years in a Tibetan monastery where he learned the “peaceful ideas of Lamaism.” He is intent on returning to America to spread these ideas.

Together with his Tibetan servant Tsarong he returns to New York where he immediately witnesses the innocent death of a young girl killed by a stray gangster’s bullet. He there and then vows to take on the entire New York criminal establishment by using many of the abilities described above and which he attained in Tibet, such as invisibility and invulnerability to bullets. The Shadow and many other comic book heroes follow a similar pattern. The Green Lama has much success taking out the criminal element of the Big Apple, but his green outfit is more of the spandex prototype of later New York based Marvel comic superheroes. Rabbi Simcha Weinstein of the Pratt Institute of Design, just up the street from the Rubin Museum, in his book Up Up and Oy Vey persuasively argues that these heroes are based on Biblical Jewish stories.

There is a curious family resemblance between Diamant and the late Theos Bernard, the only Westerner to be allowed free access to Tibet in the late nineteen thirties and who brought to the West an enormous treasure trove of Tibetan Buddhist manuscripts. It was his goal to promote Buddhism in pre WWII America and during his hey day, his coast-to-coast lecture tours were probably as popular as those now given by Bob Thurman of Tibet House (also based in New York) or of the Dalai Lama himself. In his time he was an international celebrity. Bernard disappeared mysteriously in the Indian Himalayas the week that country declared its independence in 1948. Unlike the hero of Hilton’s novel who returns to Shangri La, we can assume that Bernard did not make it back to the “roof of the world.”

James Hilton’s novel Lost Horizon and the following hit film by Frank Capra describes a hidden valley somewhere in Tibet presided over by white lamas just before WWII. It is like Shambhala. It is a perfect place. There is no strife, everyone gets along, people live for centuries and it thrives in peace as the world around it thrives on turmoil. Whereas the Green Lama comes from Tibet to New York to fight crime using Tibetan wisdom, the Shangri La of Lost Horizon has always appealed to that utopian streak in American culture; a mystical utopian community without strife. During the nineteen sixties it was so powerful a theme that a former Harvard professor by the name of Timothy Leary recommended that American youth, turn on, tune in and drop out, something that Buddhist monks have been doing for 2500 years and which is the appeal of Capra’s film. No doubt Leary’s latest mistranslation of monastic Buddhism (through his advocacy of LSD) had an effect on the hippies and the short-lived youth driven commune movement of sixties and seventies America. But Leary was not the first Westerner to cotton on to this theme.

The search for Shambhala or Shangri or Shangra La as it later came to be called took up the energies of no less a grandiose historical character as the painter Nicolas Roerich. Born into an aristocratic Russian family close to the Tsar, he painted the backdrops for Stravinsky’s debut of The Rite of Spring. He then spent the rest of most of his life travelling the Himalayas and Central Asia painting beautiful alpine landscapes and mystical pictures. He spent a lifetime looking for Shambhala, believed it existed somewhere, but could not find it. A close friend of Nehru and Gandhi, he was in Himalayan India when Bernard disappeared and believed that bandits killed him. About a third of Roerich’s remarkable work can be seen at a small museum in his name at the corner of 107th Street and Riverside Drive in Manhattan’s Upper West Side. It is itself an oasis of peace and an echo of Shambhala. I live a block away.

Finally there is Tuesday Lobsang Rampa, a Tibetan monk whose mid 1950s book The Third Eye was a runaway best seller. It was the first of a series of books that claimed to describe Rampa’s supernatural adventures. An investigative journalist eventually proved that the author was not a Tibetan Lama but a British citizen named Cyril Henry Hoskin (no relation to Cyril Hoskins) who defended his reliability by saying that the spirit of Lobsang Rampa possessed him when he wrote. He eventually fled the negative publicity that dogged his life in Britain and ended up in Calgary Alberta, ostensibly before his next reincarnation. It is a cold place but not quite Tibet.

Much of the form and content for the use of Tibetan imagery in the Western popular imagination can be traced to New York for this city was once the home of one of the most influential mystics of the modern world – Helena Petrovna Blavatsky. Although born in Russia and having moved to London, in 1874 she lived on 34th Street, about a twenty-minute walk from the site of the Rubin Museum. During her lifetime she received visions of sacred masters who visited her from Tibet called Mahatmas and she transmitted their teachings through automatic writing. She also claimed to have lived in Tibet and studied the wisdom of the masters there, but there is no empirical evidence that she did so. She did later travel to Sri Lanka (and then India) where the presence of her and her colleague Cyril Hoskins triggered a Buddhist revival on that island. You can visit the Theosophical Society to learn more about Blavatsky’s astral Tibetan connections at their head office on 242 East 53 Street, in midtown Manhattan.

Although Blavatsky and her colleagues moved against the Social Darwinism of her times by allowing for the fact that Hindu Aryans and Tibetans were only a tad inferior to white Europeans but not substantially so, this left a doorway of opportunity open for later Nazi pseudo science. Just before the outbreak of WWII, Heinrich Himmler sponsored a research expedition to Tibet to study the racial profiles of the Tibetans. Influenced by various mystical pseudo sciences that had a partial source in the Theosophy of Blavatsky, many Nazis believed that the Aryans (Germans) might have originated in Tibet. We can deduce therefore that the Nazis would not have earmarked the Tibetans for annihilation had they conquered the world, whereas Jews, Gypsies and Slavs just had to go.

And so was born the Nazi and the later ongoing neo Nazi fascination with Tibet, an inverted Shangri La, whose growing number of comics and novels often place Nazi survivors in underground caves (shades of Valhalla?) in Tibet, just waiting to dominate the world once again. Given the traditional non antisemitism of the Tibetans and the Chinese we can feel relieved that life will not imitate art in this instance. Yet these themes are shown very clearly in the comics on display at the exhibit.

Hero Villain And Yeti: Tibet in Comics is really an evocation of a larger work. For those who want a deeper, more exhaustive treatise on the Western perceptions of Tibet, curator Martin Brauen’s Dream World Tibet: Western Illusions  is a detailed and lavishly illustrated history of the perception of Tibet by the West during the last five centuries if not more (for it mentions the late medieval traveller Marco Polo’s reference to Tibet).

Brauen is a Swiss anthropologist and Tibetologist, married to a Tibetan. In his book he points out that only recently have Tibetans been allowed by Westerners to appear in their books and films as authentic spokespeople and representatives of Tibet. He praises Martin Scorsese’s Kundun as a breakthrough film in this genre. This has coincided with a growing movement towards Buddhism by so many formerly Christian westerners and Americans. A culture that was once the object of Russian and British imperialists and potential Christian missionaries, is now one of the fastest growing religions in America. It is estimated that there may be more than 10 million practicing American Buddhists and their numbers grow by the day. (In China there may be up to 100 million returning Buddhists).

Alyse Louise Zeolig (later Burroughs) was born in Brooklyn on October 12, 1949. Troubled daughter of a Jewish mother and an Italian father she was raised as a Protestant. After two marriages she moved to rural Maryland where she intuitively developed a form of meditation that she taught to her followers. Soon afterward she came to the attention of a major Tibetan Buddhist teacher and was declared to be the living reincarnation of a former Buddhist Lama; the first woman in the Western world to achieve this sacred status. Before she formally became a Buddhist she used to channel the spirit of the Hebrew Prophet Jeremiah (echoes of Blavatsky) but clearly she has now tapped into a more satisfying spiritual source.

According to the New York Times, “Another high-ranking tulku, Padma Norbu Rinpoche…is responsible for Mrs. Burroughs's enthronement and is her other teacher. He met her in 1985 when he visited a meditation and prayer center operated by the Burroughs near here. It was nonsectarian rather than Buddhist, and Mrs. Burroughs said that up to that point she had never studied Buddhism…She had been meditating and praying in a self-starting, nonsectarian fashion for nearly 20 years…Penor Rinpoche, after observing and questioning her closely, told her that she was unknowingly teaching her students the basic tenets of Mahayana Buddhism.”

Buddhism teaches us that life is suffering and that suffering comes from attachment and if we can overcome attachment through meditation we will overcome suffering and achieve happiness. In other words suffering is “all in the mind” as we say in the materialist west. So we should expect that Western tests of Buddhist monks should be able to verify their happiness.

Jack Pettigrew is an Australian neuroscientist who wanted to find out if Tibetan Buddhist monks who had spent decades mastering the art of meditation would be able to focus more effectively on positive, as opposed to negative images, when given equal exposure to both. Not surprisingly the monks passed his tests with flying colours. Under laboratory conditions it could be demonstrated that their attention was consciously focused on the positive aspects of the positive image. This was neither random nor accidental and clearly a function of their spiritual training.

New York is known for its vitality, creativity, wealth, sophistication and as in the time of the Green Lama for its greed, corruption and inequality. It is not known for happiness. As I left the exhibit I thought to myself that perhaps the attraction of Tibet to so many New Yorkers and by extension Westerners, is the possibility of finding an internal Shangra La, a place of inner peace and happiness that can be accessed through meditation “far from the madding crowd.” Tibetan monks are now offering us that option and so we should not be surprised that so many North Americans are taking them up on this most tantalizing promise. It is not a comic book fantasy. It happens to be for real.

Geoffrey Clarfield is an anthropologist at large.


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