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Prisoners of Shangri-La: Tibetan Buddhism and the West Hardcover – May 28, 1998


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Product Details

  • Hardcover: 294 pages
  • Publisher: University Of Chicago Press; 1 edition (May 28, 1998)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 9780226493107
  • ISBN-13: 978-0226493107
  • ASIN: 0226493105
  • Product Dimensions: 6 x 1.1 x 9 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 1.2 pounds (View shipping rates and policies)
  • Average Customer Review: 4.1 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (21 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #217,288 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

Editorial Reviews

From Kirkus Reviews

In this fine scholarly work, Lopez (Asian Languages and Cultures/Univ. of Michigan) warns his readers away from romanticized visions of Tibet, which ultimately harm that beleaguered nation's prospects for independence. Buddhism, the religion of enlightenment, takes as its task the dispersal of human misconceptions of reality. It is only fitting that, in the wake of heightened popular interest in Tibet, Lopez should write a corrective to both positive and negative misconceptions of Tibetan Buddhism. Among the sources of misinterpretation he notes are: psychological interpretations of the Tibetan Book of the Dead; The Third Eye, by Englishman Cyril Hoskin, a fantastic (and popular) tale of Tibetan spirit possession published in 1956; mistranslations of the famous mantra, Om Mani Padme Hum; exhibitions of Tibetan art in Western museums; the institutionalization of the academic discipline of Tibetology; increasingly airy spiritualizations of Tibetan culture. What all these acts of interpreting Tibetan Buddhism share, says Lopez, is a whole or partial disregard for the concrete, living contexts of Tibetan religion. Elements of Tibetan Buddhism become abstract symbols onto which Western writers project their own spiritual, psychological, or professional needs. For example, the chant Om Mani Padme Hum, mistranslated as ``the jewel is in the lotus,'' is allegorized into an edifying symbol of conjoined opposites when, in fact, it is simply a prayerful invocation of the Buddhist god Avalokiteshvara. The irony is that Tibetans affirm these Western misreadings in hopes of winning more sympathy for their struggle for independence. The danger, according to Lopez, is that the full particularity of Tibet will be lost in ineffectual platitudes. He is angry about many of the more outrageous manglings of Tibetan belief and culture; he can also be quite witty over the more ridiculous applications by New Agers of ostensibly Tibetan beliefs. As an interpreter of interpreters, Lopez functions here twice removed from the actual religion of Tibet; readers should approach with some prior knowledge of Buddhism. -- Copyright ©1998, Kirkus Associates, LP. All rights reserved.

Review

...Lopez explores with skill, and a barely concealed delight in the debunkings... -- The Boston Globe, Michael Kenney

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Customer Reviews

This is a most interesting account of the reception and influence of Tibetan Buddhism in the West.
Robin Friedman
A thought provoking and well documented look at how Tibet and its people have been reformulated by the media for the West's consumption for nearly 200 years.
EternalSeeker
The book is laid out into seven neat chapters, each bearing a single-word title that feels Borgesian in its cryptic minimalism.
Saul Boulschett

Most Helpful Customer Reviews

24 of 27 people found the following review helpful By Robin Friedman HALL OF FAMETOP 100 REVIEWERVINE VOICE on October 23, 2000
Format: Paperback
This is a most interesting account of the reception and influence of Tibetan Buddhism in the West. Towards the end of his book, Professor Lopez discusses Oscar Wilde's paradoxical maxim that "Life imitates Art" and views this as summarizing in a nutshell the West's attitude towards Tibet. Professor Lopez shows how the West's fascination with Tibet is of long duration and stems from a need to project to this esoteric little-known culture a spiritual search the West, or some people in it, are making for themselves. Tibet and its Buddhism thus become vehicles for the transmission of ideas that sometimes are only remotely related to this source.
Thus, most broadly, in the late 19th century, the Victorians viewed Buddhism as a form of rational religion under which one could live ethically and spiritually without a theology, a frightening God, or revelation. (This remains one of the attractions of Buddhism today for Westerners.) Tibetan Buddhism, with its mantras, its many divinities, its paintings and chants was viewed by many as in derogation of the teachings of "original Buddhism."
Later writers, influenced by Theosophy, the occult, the drug culture, or New Age, found in Tibet materials to support their predelictions, sometimes on the most questionable bases. What was missing in all of this, according to Professor Lopez, was an attention to Tibetans themselves and to Tibetan sources.
Thus we learn about the Tibetan "Book of the Dead", the Tibetan mantra "Om Padhe... Hum", its art, as reflected through different Western eyes. We learn about the Tibetans in exile and about the Dali Lama's attempts to hold his people together while creating a world-wide basis of support.
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11 of 11 people found the following review helpful By John L Murphy TOP 500 REVIEWERVINE VOICE on July 16, 2009
Format: Paperback
How we idealize Tibet as the white man's spiritual treasury, protected by monks within frozen lairs, links seven essays. Acerbic, dispassionate, and unromantic, Lopez demystifies what much coverage of the Dalai Lama and centuries of fables have obscured: Tibet's reality. This book talks little of politics, but much about the predicament that the West has placed Tibet within: we cannot allow it to escape our own fanciful prison, within which levitating lamas, carefree peasants, and many monks pursue beneath rarified skies the mysteries of a higher realm.

This emphasis, despite Lopez's knack for deadpan dismissal of tall tales, can be dispiriting. While I admire his efforts to dismantle the Orientalist construct that freezes Tibet, I wondered why he remained so dispassionate about its current plight. The final chapter, "The Prison," appears to castigate the Dalai Lama for his difficult balancing act between political leader and spiritual director, but it's hard to see why Lopez ignores the destruction of so much of the learning and culture that he, as a professional Tibet expert, would surely lament.

Perhaps the "surely" betrays my own prejudice, however. In professorial mode rather than as gulled tale-teller, he seeks to distance himself from Western stereotypes of Eastern wisdom. He studies how Western reception makes "things Tibetan become not particular to a time and a place, but universal, and in the process Tibet is everywhere and hence nowhere, functioning as an element of difference in which everything is possible." And in this non-historical, non-geographical, nonsensical depiction, Westerners form their own deluded knowledge of what they claim to know.

Chapter One examines at great length the term Lamaism as a definition for what Tibetans believe.
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22 of 25 people found the following review helpful By A Customer on June 30, 1999
Format: Paperback
Lopez, Donald S. Prisoners of Shangri-la: Tibetan Buddhism and the West (University of Chicago, 1998) is a meticulous analysis of the misinformation, disinformation and fantasies promulgated by various people, well-intended and otherwise. They include charlatans like T. Lobsang Rampa, famous for having written a series in the 1950's about his "life" as a lama in Drepung monastery. Trungpa Rinpoche's psychologization of Tibetan Buddhism as exemplified by his version of the Bardo Thodol, and Leary and Alpert's psychedelic-isation of that Nyingma text, as well as Lama Sogyal's well-received edition of the same, are examined. Lopez offers an amusing look (and a fascinating one, to someone who has partaken of all these notions in her own journey of discovery) at a wide variety of topics including the notion of Tibet, itself; of that invention of the West known as Lamaism, of Tibetan art (the implication being whether there is such a thing or not), and the history of the dispute over misconceptions concerning the meaning of the six-syllable Chenresi mantra, among other subjects.
Of particular interest to me was the revelation of Jeffrey Hopkins's methods of teaching traditional philosophical debate at the University of Virginia. This book is an excellent complement to Stephen Batchelor's The Awakening of the West. It will be remembered that Batchelor's final chapters, in which he expressed the idea that the West could never accept Buddhism into the mainstream until concepts and language became more Westernized, created a bit of a stir.
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