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Theos Bernard, the White Lama: Tibet, Yoga, and American Religious Life [Hardcover]

Paul G. Hackett

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Book Description

May 1 2012

In 1937, Theos Casimir Bernard (1908--1947), the self-proclaimed "White Lama," became the third American in history to reach Lhasa, the capital city of Tibet. During his stay, he amassed the largest collection of Tibetan texts, art, and artifacts in the Western hemisphere at that time. He also documented, in both still photography and 16mm film, the age-old civilization of Tibet on the eve of its destruction by Chinese Communists.

Based on thousands of primary sources and rare archival materials, Theos Bernard, the White Lama recounts the real story behind the purported adventures of this iconic figure and his role in the growth of America's religious counterculture. Over the course of his brief life, Bernard met, associated, and corresponded with the major social, political, and cultural leaders of his day, from the Regent and high politicians of Tibet to saints, scholars, and diplomats of British India, from Charles Lindbergh and Franklin Delano Roosevelt to Gandhi and Nehru. Although hailed as a brilliant pioneer by the media, Bernard also had his flaws. He was an entrepreneur propelled by grandiose schemes, a handsome man who shamelessly used his looks to bounce from rich wife to rich wife in support of his activities, and a master manipulator who concocted his own interpretation of Eastern wisdom to suit his ends. Bernard had a bright future before him, but disappeared in India during the communal violence of the 1947 Partition, never to be seen again.

Through diaries, interviews, and previously unstudied documents, Paul G. Hackett shares Bernard's compelling life story, along with his efforts to awaken America's religious counterculture to the unfolding events in India, the Himalayas, and Tibet. Hackett concludes with a detailed geographical and cultural trace of Bernard's Indian and Tibetan journeys, which shed rare light on the explorer's mysterious disappearance.

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Product Details

  • Hardcover: 520 pages
  • Publisher: Columbia University Press (May 1 2012)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0231158866
  • ISBN-13: 978-0231158862
  • Product Dimensions: 23 x 16 x 4 cm
  • Shipping Weight: 771 g
  • Amazon Bestsellers Rank: #548,086 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

Product Description


His writing is fluid and at times witty, and the density of the book's detail calls for a close reading...a lively and significant study...

(Michael J. Sweet Buddhadharma 1900-01-00)


(Library Journal)

A 'must-read' book

(Practical Matters 1900-01-00)

A detailed and engrossing story about this enigmatic figure's life.

(David M. DiValerio Journal of Buddhist Ethics 1900-01-00)


This narrative jumps off the page, and Paul G. Hackett is at his best as he tells this story, weaving his account of Theos Bernard's many encounters with exceptional men into the broader context of espionage, diplomatic maneuvering, and political upheaval in the 'Great Game.' The sketches he gives of, among other things, expatriate society in Kalimpong, the wrenching final days of the British Raj, the Chinese takeover of Tibet, and especially central characters in Bernard's adventures are remarkably well drawn. Yet it is always Bernard himself who steals the show.

(David Gordon White, J. F. Rowney Professor of Comparative Religion, University of California, Santa Barbara)

Inside This Book (Learn More)
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Front Cover | Copyright | Table of Contents | Excerpt | Index | Back Cover
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Customer Reviews

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Most Helpful Customer Reviews on (beta) 4.8 out of 5 stars  5 reviews
8 of 8 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Reveals the man, and exposes the myths May 3 2012
By Jaime Andrews - Published on
A deep and scholarly account of the life of one of the first Westerners to introduce eastern religion/philosophy to America. While a book like The Awakening of the West: The Encounter of Buddhism and Western Culture by Batchelor provides an excellent overview to the religious dialogue between East and West, this book hones in on a single key figure: the life and religious fame of Theos Bernard.

Highly recommended for the balanced view it takes of him. Provides plenty of grist for criticism of the man, yet it places him squarely in his historical context. The credulity and escapist mentality of America in his day -- its hunger for ready-made myths -- helps to explain his capitulation to the temptation to exaggerate his accomplishments.

One caveat: this book is NOT for Bernard admirers, unless you are the type who admire him for his "creative myth-building" -- not to say charlatanism. But if you are looking for a balanced view, you should definitely check out this scholarly text.
7 of 7 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Scholarly, but highly readable May 11 2012
By Barbara H. - Published on
Format:Kindle Edition|Verified Purchase
Theos Bernard, The White Lama: Tibet, Yoga, and American Religious Life
is a highly-researched account that makes for an interesting narrative of the life of Theos Bernard, the self-proclaimed "White Lama." His personality is exposed in all its aspects------both "real" and "fashioned"------ by Theos, himself, as he takes advantage of and embraces the mood of the times in America in the early years of the twentieth century.

Granted, Chapter 8 is extremely long, but that is because it encompasses the entire time Bernard spent in Tibet. However, anyone who "skips" reading Chapter 8 deprives her/himself of encountering Theos, "the idealistic inner man" (as opposed to Theos, the charlatan). The chapter reveals his every thought, feelings/sensations and visionary ambitions as expressed in his daily letters to his wife Viola. The chosen selections are a testament to Dr. Hackett's scholarly expertise.

I found Dr. Hackett's account of the political and geographical events that were taking place in India, Tibet, and China as a backdrop to Bernard's travels and endeavors quite fascinating. His narrative flows so naturally (and, at times, almost poetically) that one can easily imagine Hackett confidently sharing the information before an audience of rapt students.

All in all, it is superbly written
(A retired English professor)
11 of 13 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Thoroughly researched and informative; for the truly hard-core reader April 16 2012
By Zenpunk - Published on
Format:Hardcover|Verified Purchase
Paul Hackett's Theos Bernard, the White Lama is the second major biography of Theos Bernard to come out in the past two years (the first was Douglas Veenhoff's White Lama). Having devoured Veenhoff's biography last year, I immediately ordered this new book, and I was intrigued to see how Hackett told the story of one of the first Westerners to pioneer the study of Tibet and yoga. For the most part, the book succeeds in fleshing out more about Bernard's personality and his relationships, through the inclusion of excerpts from correspondence with family, friends and colleagues. Unlike Veenhoff, Hackett uncovers some of the seedier side of Bernard, detailing how Bernard tried to craft an image of himself as a Buddhist adept and yoga master, playing upon the public's thirst for exotic cultures. At times, the narrative can get bogged down with too much detail.
For instance, Chapter 8, which concerns Bernard's time in Tibet, is thick with detail and correspondence excerpts. Be prepared to really get inside Bernard's head.

Overall, I would recommend this book as a supplemental resource for someone reading more about Theos Bernard. My first recommendation for the uninitiated, though, would be Veenhoff's White Lama.
1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars gripping and cautionary tale of the origins of American Vajrayana Buddhism Nov. 30 2013
By Brad Rockwell - Published on
Format:Hardcover|Verified Purchase
Comprehensive, riveting and well-documented story of the first American to popularize Tibetan Vajrayana Buddhism in the West. Theos was a piece of work and appears not to have even understood, let alone mastered, Vajrayana Buddhism. But, perhaps because he was white and had access to lots of money, he was hosted and given some support by significant figures in Tibetan society. Even though he was a fraudfeasor and swindler, he appears to have had significant success in introducing Americans of the value of yoga.
5.0 out of 5 stars His months in Tibet were the great adventure of his life July 19 2014
By June Calender - Published on
Format:Hardcover|Verified Purchase
Theos Bernard was a remarkable man. He was the only westerner invited as a religious student/pilgrim to the "forbidden" city, Lhasa, Tibet. In 1937 he spent three months in Lhasa interacting with the full range of Tibetan society, from the Regent (this was between Dalai Lamas) to nobles, to all the major religious leaders, to the humblest servants. His months in Tibet were the great adventure of his life. But the rest of his life was extraordinary as well. He grew up in Tombstone, Arizona with a doting mother, step-father and three step- brothers -- his father left his mother soon after Theos was born. He became a lawyer but was always drawn to eastern philosophy because his mother was fascinated by it and his birth father was a student of Tantra, as was his uncle P.A. Bernard who ran a secret Tantric society in Nyack, New York which included the first teaching of hatha yoga on the East Coast.

Theos was drawn toward Tantra, moved to New York and began studying at Columbia University. He met his first wife, an heiress and medical student. They traveled together to India. She went home to do her internship and he remained behind studying yoga which would become is Ph.D. thesis and a well respected book. He also met many Tibetans and charmed his way into Tibet. He accumulated many books and artifacts and became a 15-minute celebrity back in the US. He lectured about Buddhism, was called the "first white lama" and taught yoga. He and his first wife divorced; he married another wealthy woman and subsequently divorced her. America's brief interest in Tibet and Buddhism which he was trying to stir up was extinguished by the coming of WWII. Ten years after his unprecedented trip to Tibet, Bernard returned to India to do further research. It was exactly the time of violence at the partition of Britain and India. He was murdered in the mountains.

Hackett has done an in-depth job of research, he has even, finally, after more than 50 years, uncovered exactly how it was that Bernard was murdered. My only quibble, aside from insignificant factual errors (I knew Bernard's first wife) is that the book calls him "white lama" and does not emphasize that that is incorrect and was used by Bernard as publicity, reverting to his family's bad habit of hype about their background.

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