I've read in the last six months two biographies of a man barely
known -- although I know a great deal about him. A cache of materials
have at last become available and have been sorted and are enticing to
writers curious about Buddhism in America. Theos Bernard went to Lhasa,
Tibet at a time when it was considered "impossible/forbidden." He was,
in fact, the only American ever invited by the ruling counsel to come
as a religious pilgrim. I have known this for about fifteen years
because I worked for an elderly woman who, in her younger years, had
been his wife and had supported him in his journey. When he returned,
"changed in every way," said she, he promoted himself as the first White
Lama which became the prominent part of the titles of both books. The
first, last fall was by a journalist, Douglas Veenhof; the second which
is just out, is by a religious scholar from Columbia University, Paul
I know that both had to do huge amounts of
research to sort of out complex life, embedded in a complex family.
They had to understand politics of the 1930s in India and Tibet as well
as how wealthy Americans were living while the rest of the country was
in deep recession. They had to understand practitioners of tantric yoga
and Buddhism during that period when those philosophy/practices were
only beginning to be known in America. Both men clearly put their
shoulders to the wheel, did a great deal of traveling, read reams of
material and dug up a lot of information I had not gleaned from his
ex-wife and the letters and materials she had, many of which I sorted
and arranged for an archive about him. I tracked down a copy of his
complete diary from the time in Lhasa and was the first to read it in
over 50 years. So I was fascinated to read the two books.
are very different. Veenhof's is the more readable as he set out to
tell a story. Hackett is searching for truth about the philosophic
findings. Veenhof sees a heroic adventurer with quite a few flaws.
Hackett dwells on flaws -- inflation of truth, egomania, arrogance and
money grubbing, taking advantage of rich women, and more. I'm
fascinated by both men and their approaches. But I do not find a real
person in either book. I think that is because each writer wants his
own Theos -- I think Hackett wanted a much finer man and is writing like
a very disappointed lover.
I think of Theos Bernard as
the man the woman I worked for fell in love with when they were both
young and idealistic. Yes, he used her money but she was a genuinely
generous person, she sincerely believed in the quest that she felt they
both had embarked upon. I believe he truly loved her, perhaps she was
the only one he loved as he said later in his tragically short life.
But there were family flaws, and innate personality flaws. I don't
believe either of these fairly young writers were able to image the
complex person Theos Bernard was. What I have learned from reading
their books is much more about the world he was dealing with, the people
he knew, some of whom manipulated him, others he manipulated. I have
great respect for the work of biographers but these two books show just
how carefully a reader has to weigh what he is reading.
The mid-70s are a surprise! Part of me remains in the 50s -- age, I mean, not decade of 20th century. It's a joy ride, new experiences land in my lap and I've become a better quilter, poet, writer than I expected. It's a rich life for a person never rich financially. Hey, this is what the mid-70s are like!