Buddhism in the West and the Image of Tibet¹

Dagyab Kyabgön Rinpoche

I would like to investigate the genesis of the Western image of Tibet by first employing a historical sketch. Principally, we perceive the other in two fundamentally different ways: How is the other different from us, and how is the other similar to us? In each case, the other is subject to a value judgment. Europeans usually see in Tibet that which seems familiar to them—such as the apparent similarities between the religious customs of Tibet and the Catholic Church. On the other hand, Europeans judge the uniqueness of Tibet to lie either in its backwardness or in its manifestation of that which the West has lost. Until recently, Tibet’s geographical isolation meant that only small amounts of information about its culture reached Europe. Its seclusion lent the country an aura of mystery and magic. For this reason, Tibet offered itself as a screen upon which Western fantasies could be projected. The essential elements of the Western image of Tibet were already fully developed in the eighteenth century. In what follows, I would like to show that these stereotypes have been reiterated without change up to the present day. For example, the comparisons between Tibetan Buddhism and Catholicism and the fascination with the role of lamas in Tibetan society remain unchanged. The only thing that has changed is the associated value judgment.

The image of Tibet is embedded in a dualism of Asia and Europe. Europe defines itself as rational, enlightened, discursive, scientific, active, and democratic. In contrast, Asia is perceived as irrational, unenlightened, contemplative, and passive. Asia is emotional, and tolerant of paradox; it appears as a culture that has deteriorated into pantheism and mysticism. Politically, Asia is despotic; its sovereigns are absolute and its subjects without rights. Thus, the “rule of priests” in Tibet, embodied in the unique role of the lama within his own society, appears to Europeans as a medieval relic. Asians also appear to Europeans as ageless and withdrawn. This notion may cause anxiety in Europeans, who fear the disintegration of individual personality into an undifferentiated mass. This very dissolution into undifferentiated unity is, at the same time, a temptation, in that it often evokes a yearning for liberation from one’s own ego and for the lifting of the separation of the human and the divine, or of man and nature. The paradox that lies between defensiveness and yearning has subliminally determined the European image of Asia up to the present. So writes the German author Paul Cohen-Portheim in 1920:

The European ideal is one of action, individuation, and intellectualization. The West senses that man is separate from nature and is diametrically opposed to her … The spirit of the West is active, since it seeks out power … Passivity, universality, and intuition distinguish the East. There man does not feel himself separated from nature but instead feels himself as a part of nature … He does not seek power but rather harmony with all that lives. He wants to enter into nature, to offer himself to her, to become one with her. Hence I call the Easterner passive, and individualism strives against him.²

Very early testimony to the Western image of Tibet are the entries for “Tibet” and “lama” in Zeidler’s Universal Lexicon of 1744. This gigantic lexicon was the most important reference work in Germany until 1800. The information in these particular entries is based on the travel reports of the seventeenth century, when Western missionaries first arrived in Tibet. Among those missionaries were the Austrian Johannes Grueber (1660), several Italian Capuchins in the years 1707-33, and the Jesuit Ippolito Desideri (1716). As missionaries they all see Tibet primarily in terms of religion. In their reports we see clearly that they understood Tibetan religion only inasmuch as it was similar to their own Catholicism. Tibetans are thus said to believe in a trinity, in heaven and hell, and in exorcisms. Their believers employ rosaries, and their clergy rule the laity. The European missionaries see Tibetan religion not as something separate, but rather as a distortion of their own “culture.”

Europeans saw the worship of lamas, especially of the “great lama” (that is, the Dalai Lama) as idolatry. They considered the tulku system a fraud and believed the discovery of new incarnations a deception meant to ensure the lamas’ power. In the section about the Dalai Lama, Zeidler claimed:

He is called the “great lama.” In order to cause the people to believe that he lives forever, the other priests set another in his place as soon as he dies, and thus continue the deception. The priests babble to the people that the lama has lived for more than seven hundred years and will continue to live eternally.³

To enlightened Europeans of the eighteenth century, Tibetans were unenlightened barbarians. Johann Gottfried Herder called Tibetans a rough mountain people, whose religion is both inhumane and intransigent. At the same time, he saw Tibetan culture as the curious fruit of climate and history. For Herder, Buddhism was a delusion. As a fruit of the Eastern spirit, however, it was a step in the direction of humanism nonetheless, even if Europeans had already reached this stage in their own development. Buddhism, then, had the merit of having humanized the wild Tibetans and having lifted them onto a higher cultural plateau.⁴

Immanuel Kant’s image of Tibet is much more negative than Herder’s. His remarks created the paradigmatic European understanding of the self against Asian conceptions. For Kant, Tibetan religion is the religion of mystics, pantheists, and fanatics. In other words, Tibetan religion is the irrational religion par excellence. Instead of engaging in reason, Asians sit in dark rooms, stare at walls, and brood—as Kant says in an essay called “Über das Ende aller Dinge.”⁵ However, in his treatise “Zum Ewigen Frieden,” Kant asked if certain aspects of Greek mysticism grew from what he thought were similar Tibetan notions. Kant proposed an ancient link between Tibet and the West. Although his attempt seems absurd in this case, it was not without its own significance, for Kant was trying to trace a part of European culture to an Asian origin. Here, Tibet appears as the origin of the wisdom that the West has lost. Perhaps that which the West forgot was preserved in Tibet. This idea that Tibet is a mythical place of origin proved quite successful. Later European authors also looked to Tibet as an Aryan homeland or the origin of Hungarian culture. Similar ideas lay the foundation for the positive myth of Tibet that emerged in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries.

In the nineteenth century, Europe conquered the world—both politically and scientifically. The philological study of Buddhism and the geographical acquisition of the last “blank spaces” on the map of the world went hand in hand with this colonial expansion. Tibet was one of these “blank spaces,” and attempts to penetrate its core were not merely in the interests of science. After the journeys of Bogle (1775) and Turner (1783), the British attempted to open Tibet for trade. These attempts ultimately led to Younghusband’s violent march to Lhasa in 1903-4. The Catholic missionaries Huc and Gabet were the sole Europeans with religious designs on Tibet. In their journals, however, Tibet is portrayed as a backward, archaic country. Compare these with the journals of Bogle and Turner, who in 1775 and 1783 met with the Third and Fourth Panchen Lamas. They are not particularly interested in religious questions, although they do wonder about the similarities between Catholicism and so-called lamaism. They are interested rather in Tibetan politics and trade relations. They remark that the administration of the country is healthy, and seem quite impressed by the lamas, especially the Panchen Lama.

In the course of the nineteenth century, however, the image of Tibet became increasingly negative. The mid- to late-nineteenth-century study of Buddhism led to the deprecation of Tibetan Buddhism. The question as to which form of Buddhism was most authentic was answered by the Western researchers chronologically: Naturally, the oldest form of Buddhism was most authentic. Consequently, “pure” Buddhism was to be found in the Pali canon and the Theravada school. In contrast, all later developments were “degenerations,” among which tantric Buddhism was the worst. Scholars characterized Tibetan Buddhism as “lamaism,” a term with unquestionably negative connotations. Unfortunately, these prejudices have continued unchanged in select publications up to the present day. This view of Buddhism was obviously influenced by nineteenth-century Protestant theology and its historico-critical method. The Mahayana generally, and Tibetan Buddhism especially, appear to these authors as a type of popery in which the priesthood manipulates the people’s superstitions in order to keep them dependent. For Western authors, the prayer wheel (ma ni 'khor lo) was the symbolic embod­iment of such superstitions.

For Austin Waddell, writing in 1895, tantric Buddhism was little more than “devil-worship” and “sorcery”:

The bulk of the lamaist cults comprise much deep-rooted devil-worship and sorcery … Lamaism is only thinly and imperfectly varnished over with Buddhist symbolism, beneath which the sinister growth of poly-demonist superstition darkly appears.⁶

Meyer’s Konversations-Lexikon epitomizes this supposedly “scientific” image of Tibet. Written in 1889, it says:

Cringing servility towards the powerful and arrogance towards the low mark the character of the Tibetan … The population organizes itself socially into clergy and laity; unfortunately, the secular and religious hierarchies of both sexes (!) do not positively influence the people’s morality … The monks are quite uneducated, and thus have loose morals. Their religious habits support superstition, well known is the use of the prayer wheel … For the evocation of spirits, [Tibetans] need Lamas, who manifest their skills of deception at every opportunity. The only real worship, occurring through pageantry, music, and incense, is confusing to the spirit.⁷

Thus, religion has made the Tibetans passive and weak, and they are themselves to blame when foreign powers invaded their country. Francis Younghusband justified his violent expedition of 1904 in this manner.

However, Tibet exerted an especially strong pull on Western researchers and adventurers after 1880. The race to see who could first penetrate the “forbidden city” of Lhasa was highly contested. At this time, Tibet became an embodiment of the hidden and unknown. Many successful writers, such as Rudyard Kipling, contributed to the popularization of this image. A travelogue of the American William Rockhill introduced the “yeti” to the West. The myth of Tibet also came into vogue among Western esoteric thinkers around 1880. For such men and women, Tibet was a mysterious land in which ancient “esoteric” knowledge had survived. Helena Petrovna Blavatsky, the founder of Theosophy, claimed as much when she maintained that her secret doctrines had originated with the mahatmas, who lived in Tibet. Tibetan monasteries supposedly preserved an ancient Book of Dzyan, which was the source for all other holy books. Blavatsky also claimed to have been in Tibet for three years, albeit only in her “astral body.” One of her closest colleagues, the German Theosophist Franz Hartmann, writes in 1898, “Blavatsky actually lay for days in a deathly sleep. Upon awakening, she beamed to her friends that she had been in Tibet, her ‘home.’” The teachings of the Theosophists actually had little to do with Tibetan Buddhism. Theosophy was rather one of the first syntheses of Western esotericism and Hinduism. It was the first attempt to integrate Eastern religions into Western culture. Suffice it to state that the importance of Theosophy for the reception of Buddhism in the West has never really been studied.

In this realm saturated with esotericism, “Tibet” was not a real nation but rather a symbol for an origin. “Tibet” embodied a mysterious tradition, with “spiritual masters” and “preceptors of mankind” directing the world’s course behind the scenes. Not surprisingly, the lamas’ reputation was quite enhanced—they accordingly embodied the archetype of the “old wise ones.” They were the protectors of ancient traditions, and all lamas had supernatural powers. The results of this fantasy continue today. The appeal of “Tibet” and “Tibetan lamas” is most favored in esoteric circles to legitimate their own claims, most likely because such claims are so difficult to verify.

A modest modernization began in Tibet after the Younghusband expedition at the turn of the twentieth century. Young Tibetans were sent to India for schooling, and a telegraph line connected Lhasa to the outside world. In 1921, the Thirteenth Dalai Lama even had a telephone and two cars. In the Western literature dealing with Tibet, none of this was acknowledged, since the West was fascinated more with the magical and mystical aspects of Tibet. In the 1930s and 1940s, Western authors were interested in the search for Shambhala, the description of rare phenomena like the lung gom pa trance walkers and the so-called Tibetan Book of the Dead. For Westerners disillusioned with the world, Tibet became a utopia, a positive counterimage to their own culture. In James Hilton’s bestseller Lost Horizon (1933), Tibet finally became Shangri-la, the last place of refuge for those fleeing an approaching catastrophe.

Tibetan lamas first arrived in the West with the occupation of Tibet by the Chinese in the 1950s and 1960s, and the West established direct contact with Tibetan culture and Buddhism. This should not distract us from the fact that the historic paradigm continues to have great influence: Westerners still see Tibet as either a reflection of themselves or as a symbol of their yearnings. This is especially true in mass media such as the press, film, and television. On the one hand, the negative image of Tibet persists: Leftist critics still accuse devotees of Tibetan Buddhism of practicing a species of Catholicism, wherein the Dalai Lama is worshiped as a “pope.” On the other hand, the myth of Tibet that arose at the end of the previous century also persists: The Theosophists and James Hilton still count Tibet as the place where esoteric knowledge is preserved. The more the Chinese destroy authentic Tibetan culture, the more the West loves this myth of Tibet. Today, the cliché of the wise old lama thoroughly saturates the mass media. In 1995, the German illustrated magazine Bunte wrote about the American actor Richard Gere:

When he went on a trip to the Himalayas, Richard Gere met the Dalai Lama, who is the Tibetan pope of Buddhism. The Tibetans are the preservers of the Buddhist tradition: the old, the wise, the high priests of a religion.

And so forth. Even here, Tibetan Buddhism and its lamas are again compared to the Catholic Church, here in a thoroughly positive sense. Tibet stands for the values of tradition, community, wisdom, religion, and modesty. The concept of “Tibet” becomes a symbol for all those qualities that Westerners feel lacking: joie de vivre, harmony, warmth, and spirituality. For many Westerners today, “Tibet” is the primordial, the actual, and the real. It is their real “home.” Tibet thus becomes a utopia, and Tibetans become “noble savages.” On the one hand, this description of Tibetans is wishful thinking. On the other, it allows Europeans to criticize their own culture.

How, then, have these images of Tibet, both positive and negative, effected the spread of Buddhism in the West? Since the late sixties, exiled Tibetan lamas have taught an authentic Tibetan Buddhism in both Europe and the United States. Numerous groups, organizations, and centers have arisen in the meantime. With all that, the myth of Tibet is a tangible reality for many Westerners. The “great wise ones” can be admired “live.” One can engage them and even enter into a teacher-student relationship. Just imagine what fantasies are projected in these relationships!

After thirty years of dynamic propagation of Tibetan Buddhism in the West, we can see that the romantic image of Tibet still persists and only hesitantly is giving way to more realistic considerations. The persistence with which Westerners cling to the myth of Tibet only shows how urgently they need it to compensate for the inner necessities they lack. Such clinging says more about the condition of Western society than about Buddhism itself. We Tibetans are aware of some Western followers who believe that Tibetan lamas are enlightened buddhas and infallible gurus, despite their all-too-human deficiencies. It is disillusioned Westerners, who in the course of their lives have experienced the total collapse of their ideals, and who cling to the wishful image of a holy and healing Tibetan tradition. Wherever angst, insecurity, and despair are strong, there is a corresponding desire for something superior, and Westerners project fatherly power upon the lamas. A false understanding of Buddhist teachings, especially that of the Vajrayana, has impelled these projections.

The myth of Tibet and the Western crisis of the senses thus work together to make a quick, but rather superficial, spread of Tibetan Buddhism possible. Tibetan Buddhism, however, has quite a bit more to offer than exotic symbolism and mystical sensations. It is a path that one must take seriously: Clear instructions and a disciplined, systematic practice are its foundation. Tibetan opinions diverge on the question of the capacity of Western believers to recognize the path that lies behind their images—and their capacity to walk that path. Two different approaches have emerged over the last ten years. The first approach, which stems from a conscious attempt to abandon the myth, leads to a more realistic and, ultimately, more authentic and spiritual attitude. It is only in this way that the culturally neutral message of Buddhism can be grasped gradually and transformed on the individual level, so that Tibet and its lamas no longer stand in the spotlight, but rather the believers themselves do. The second approach is marked by the persistent clinging to a romantic image of Tibet, and it leads, necessarily, to a neglect of reality. This in turn leads to superstition, sectarianism, and dogmatism, and perpetuates the negative aspects of the myth of Tibet among outside observers. Inner development, as Buddhism teaches, is impossible under these conditions, and stagnation, delusion, and defensive rigidity stand in their place.

We must admit, however, that both approaches have been encouraged, unfortunately, by Tibetan lamas themselves. The special conditions of exile have contributed to the lack of critical reflection among many. Perhaps they themselves have fallen prey to the seduction of the myth and are basking in the light of these projections. Perhaps they, too, are seeking to use the myth for questionable religious goals. Although one can assume that most exiled lamas show a sincere interest in preserving and spreading their religious culture, their integrity and credibility are still endangered when they try to play the “great wise ones.” This makes their work easier—at least at first—and people can easily approach them. With time, however, an unhealthy and ultimately unavoidable dynamic is set in motion. In contrast, the Dalai Lama exemplifies the positive approach with his personal and ideological credibility, especially insofar as he refuses to project certain images.

Historically speaking, one could claim that the Tibetan people idealized and even worshiped lamas. But the Dalai Lama is trying to oppose just such religious and social degeneration with his reforms. Pious Tibetans often listened to a lama teach publicly for days—without understanding a word. They were satisfied with the blessings his presence afforded and practiced Buddhism according to their own level of understanding. Such people were devoted indeed, but also naive and superstitious. Such is unacceptable for long-term growth among Tibetans, much less Westerners. It is my opinion that a progressive, critical investigation of the myth of Tibet and its effects is necessary in order to prevent harmful developments of this sort. After thirty years, we can now see that the positive aspects of the traditional image of Tibet have had rather negative consequences for the long-term propagation of Buddhism, while the negative aspects of this image, at the very least, have stimulated Tibetan lamas and their students to evaluate themselves critically and, in the end, fruitfully.


¹ Original Tibetan-German translation by Dr. Thomas Lautwein and Regine Leisner.

² Cohen-Portheim, 1920: 29.

³ Paraphrased from Zeidler, 1745: 28-29.

⁴ Herder, 1909: 23.

⁵ Kant, 1983: 185.

⁶ Waddell, i895:xi.

⁷ Meyer, 1889: 689.


Dagyab Kyabgön Rinpoche

DAGYAB KYABGÖN RINPOCHE was born in East Tibet in 1940 and at age four he was recognized as the IX. Kyabgoen (protector) of the region of Dagyab. He is one of the highest Tulkus in Tibet.

In 1959 Rinpoche escaped with His Holiness the Dalai Lama to India. From 1964 to 1966 he directed the Tibet House in New Delhi, which is an internationally recognized institute for the preservation and support of the Tibetan culture.

For more than 40 years Rinpoche has lived with his family near Bonn. He came to Germany in 1966 in response to an invitation from Bonn University to work as a Tibetologist at its Institute for Central Asian Studies. A list of his publications—academic works about Tibetan Buddhist art, iconography and symbolism, translations of religious texts from Tibetan into German, introductory explanations for western Buddhists—can be downloaded as a PDF-file.

In the 1980s, due to the explicit request of people interested in Buddhism he began to be active as a spiritual teacher for Europeans.

Dagyab Rinpoche is the originator of the Tibet House in Frankfurt am Main / Germany.

© Dagyab Rinpoche, Thierry Dodin & Heinz Räther, Wisdom Publications

This paper was published in Thierry Dodin and Heinz Raether (eds.), Imagining Tibet – Perceptions, Projections, and Fantasies, Boston: Wisdom Publications, 2001, pp. 379–388.

Most of the essays in this book are based on papers presented at the International Symposium Mythos Tibet held in Bonn, Germany, in May 1996. This symposium was organized by the editors of the book in collaboration with the Art and Exhibition Hall of the Federal Republic of Germany in Bonn.

Offered with kind permission from the publisher, author, and Thierry Dodin.

Header image: © A graduate of ILTK. The Milarepa drawing is from Antonio Pascual.

More papers from the book “Imagining Tibet”:

Buddhism in the West