Saturday, May 5, 2012

A Pair of Biographies

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 Hackett.

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.

They 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.



June -- your post reminds me of the need for readers to think critically if possible. Sometimes it is difficult to know the true story without the background such as you had with Theos Bernard and his wife. Reading his actual diary had to be amazing. Perhaps you could leave a comment about the books on Amazon's comment section. -- barbara

June Calender said...

Thanks, Barbara, reading critically is far too rare, I think. I have left a review of the first book on Amazon and will do so for the second. Actually I plan to write to the second author about a few things as well.

zippiknits said...

In this modern life, we've been speeding through, first at University, then early career, family obligations, etc., and at that speed we get to thinking very linearly.

When we get older we begin to have time to think! I once told a professor that when I became a housewife, I'd have lots more time to just think. It was true.