His Holiness the Dalai Lama appears on “Larry King Live.” Martin Scorsese directs film biography of the Dalai Lama. Thousands jam Golden Gate Park for a “Free Tibet” rock concert. Tibetomania is sweeping the world.
To the Western imagination, Tibet evokes exoticism, mysticism, and wonder; a fabled land, removed from the grinding onslaught of modernity and spiritually endowed with all that the West has lost. In this timely book, Donald Lopez provides the first cultural history of the strange encounter between Tibetan Buddhism and the West. Lopez reveals fanciful, even ludicrous, misconceptions of Tibetan life and religion. He examines, among much else, the politics of the term “Lamaism, ” a pejorative synonym for Tibetan Buddhism; the various theosophical, psychedelic, and New Age purposes served by the so-called “Tibetan Book of the Dead” and the unexpected history of the most famous of all Tibetan mantras, “om mani padme hum.” More than pop culture anomalies, these versions of Tibet are often embedded in the most scholarly and learned sources, constituting both an odd union of the popular and the academic, and a disturbing indictment of much Tibetan scholarship.
“Prisoners of Shangri-La” is a provocative analysis of the ways in which the romance of Tibet, even as it is invoked by Tibetan lamas living in exile, ultimately imprisons those who seek the goal of Tibetan independence from Chinese occupation. Lopez unveils the mirror-lined cultural labyrinths that have been created by Tibetans, Tibetophiles, and Tibetologists — labyrinths that we may map but in which we must also wander.