White Lama: The life of Tantric Yogi Theos Bernard, Tibet’s Lost Emissary to the New World
A description from inside the book cover:
An amazing, often overlooked story of the man who brought Yoga and Tibetan culture to America. Theos Bernard’s colorful, enigmatic, and sometimes contradictory life captures an intersection of East and West that changed our world.
After years of forcibly stopping foreigners at the borders, the leaders of Tibet opened the doors to their kingdom in 1937 for Theos Bernard. He was the third American to set foot in Tibet and the first American ever initiated into Tantric practices by the highest lama in Tibet. When Bernard left that sacred land, he was sent home with fifty mule loads of priceless, essential Buddhist scriptures from government and monastery vaults. Bernard brought these writings to America, where he achieved celebrity as a spiritual master. Appearing four times on the cover of the largest-circulation magazine of the day, befriending some of the most famous figures of his era, including Charles Lindbergh, Lowell Thomas, Ganna Walska, and W. Y. Evans-Wentz, and working with legendary editor Maxwell Perkins, the charismatic and controversial “White Lama” introduced a new vision of life and spiritual path to American culture before mysteriously disappearing in the Himalayas in 1947.
Biography, travel and adventure, a history of Tibet’s opening to the West, and the story of Buddhism and Yoga’s arrival in America, White Lama: The Life of Tantric Yogi Theos Bernard, Tibet’s Lost Emissary to the West is the first work to tell his groundbreaking story in full and is a narrative that thrills from beginning to end.
Includes 15 photographs shot in Tibet in 1937 by Theos Bernard, part of a collection that has been described as the best photographic record of Tibet in existence.
This book (2011) by Douglas Veenhof is well researched. He took 7 years during which he had access to archives in five states. It contains 53 pages of notes on all sections. It is probably the most complete and compelling rendition of Theos Bernard in print today.
Now why am I writing comments on this book. I would like to try to stimulate some discussion on these topics. I find them immensely interesting. It gives us a historical context of some of the early pioneers who we refer to today in many traditions. Anyone who is looking into the recent historical context of yoga and Tibetan practices brought to the Western world would find this book of interest. I recently finished reading the 480 pages. The partner book on these topics I think is Yoga Body: The Origins of Modern Posture Practice by Mark Singleton (2010). This latter book also is worth a post latter. They do point to the development of Hatha Yoga, especially in the 20th Century in the West. Of course each book stands separately and they do not not cover the same material. I feel they do show aspects that have not been popularly known.
This is not a typical book report. I highly recommend reading the text. It is a well researched and comprehensive treatise of the flowering of yoga and tantra in the USA in the early 20th century. Many of the topics I cover are of interest to me as a yoga practitioner who is interested in the background of these early beginnings as they became known to the West.
Theos Bernard Early Years
Guess where he was born–Los Angeles, California. Definitely a California boy–but the year was 1908. Remember California had it’s great Earth quake in 1906. His birth father, Glen traveled to India soon after his birth. His mother ended up remarrying a Scottish mining engineer in 1913. He and his family moved to Tombstone, a generation after the OK Corral gun fight of 1881.
Interesting Yogic/Vedantic Historical Events in the West Around the End of the 19th and Beginning of the 20th Centuries
- Swami Vivekananda at the Parliament of World Religions, held in September 1893 at The Art Institute of Chicago
- Swami Rama Tirtha came out to California in 1902 and the West for 1 1/2 years lecturing and teaching Vedanta Philosophy
- Paramhansa Yogananda had already come to the USA and then in 1925, established the SRF center in Los Angeles.
Beside Theos Bernard’s many talents as an explorer, photo and video recorder, world traveler, author, etc–his greatest capacity was involved in the yogic and tantric communities of India and Tibet. This life as an early Western explorer of the occult occurred at an interesting time for Yoga and Vedanta in the West. These three great teachers of the late 19th and early 20th century mark a time when the East was trying to provide some guidance to West, especially in North America.
Now back to more of his early chronology. During college, he contracted rheumatic fever which damaged his heart valves. Sadly in those days they treated him with toxic Mercurochrome injections. In spite of such treatment, he was rescued and did recover. He was diagnosed with a weak heart since.
Strengthening his system with his ever evolving yogic practice (pranayama and the various internal washes or classic shat kriyas), restored his health. Climbing through the Himalayas in Tibet proven possible, dealing with amazingly treacherous mountain passes during harsh weather conditions.
Here was someone who schooled himself with the help of his guru-birth father to quite a high level of health and well–being. His resting pulse over years of training was around 42 bpm. When he was climbing the high mountain passes to Khampa Jong (20,000 feet) on his Tibetan travels, his heart was elevated to only 57 bpm. Again he was able to push himself to extremes to complete tasks that many would find very arduous even with today’s modern technology.
Glen Bernard’s Influence
His father, Glen Bernard, who turned out to be Theos’s birth father, was very steeped in Vedantic and Yogic sciences. Glen’s half brother, Peter Perry Baker (aka: Pierre Arnold Bernard) introduced him to Hamati. Hamati was a highly educated Syrian/Bengali Indian teacher. Glen apprenticed for 12 years with him. Traveling also to India to visit him and other teachers. It is Glen who turns out to be most influential to Theos and was the Guru Theos mentioned in his subsequent writings. (although Theos never correctly identified him in his own works, only this book which had access to these archives mentioned before, has clarified this mis-identification)
Tantra came to the West in the most public way through the figure of Pierre Arnold Bernard (Theos’s Uncle). The following is of possible interest to those in the Himalayan Tradition.
Pierre Bernard, or Perry at the time, met this Bengali, Hamati, in the 1888. As Douglas Veenhof (books author), incitefully shows this time to correspond to 5 years before Swami Vivekananda’s World Parliament address in Chicago. (and earlier, RW Emerson’s widow hosting a lecture of an Indian Hindu–really this Veenhof is quite amazing in his research and integration of materials to show such an amalgam of richness of these times). Pierre made his way to Seattle where with Hamati he founded the Tantrik Order of America. They published the Vira Sadhana: International Journal of the Tantrik Order. It was a journal that compiled quotes from many thinkers of times past and present. They also published an interview with Swami Rama Tirtha. Swami Rama was said to have highly endorsed both the publication and Pierre’s understanding of Tantra. (Hmmm!)
Pierre Bernard has been called many slanderous things as well as the “father of Tantra in America”. His greatest impact came from his influence in New York. He established the Clarkstown Country Club. It was here that Theos Bernard met his first wife Viola Wertheim.
In this same year, Theos started his PhD in Hatha Yoga and Tantra at Columbia University. Interestingly, his father, Glen was in India continuing his studies of yoga. He even met W. Y. Evans-Wentz, author of the 1927 book: Tibetan Book of the Dead. Glen spent many years in India trying to find the practical yoga that would lead beyond the ignorance and superstitions that his half brother seemed caught up in. Having been initiated into several Tantric chakras in Calcutta, he went to Bihar working with several Tantric adepts including his mentor Atal Behari Ghosh. Atal Behari Ghosh was the same individual that served as Sir John Woodroffe’s collaborator in his Tantric publications twenty years earlier.
Theos Bernard in Tibet
The sections on his travels to and from Lhasa is fascinating. He was scrupulous in keeping a regular journal. The author (D. Veenhof) was fortunate enough to have access to such amazing recorded accounts from his 1937 travels in Tibet. Theos even taught himself the Tibetan language. Later he wrote a book of Tibetan grammar.
Interesting Historical Events Around This Time
- Thubten Gyatso, 13th Dalai Lama, died in December 1933-predicted the invasion of Tibet by the Chinese
- Tenzin Gyatso, 14th Dalai Lama, born 1935, recognized as the reincarnation of the 13th Dalai Lama at the age of 2-He is the current exiled Tibetan Leader so well known and articulate in today’s Buddhism
Theos never met the Dalai Lama. Many other great Tibetan teachers and masters were introduced to him on his trip to and from Lhasa in 1937. He had unusual access to these remote monasteries, unlike any other Westerner before him. There must have been something that both he and these great teachers saw in each other. He returned with a very large treasure of original texts, manuscripts (specially printed and checked for accuracy at the time for him by resident monk scholars), along with many artifacts of critical historical and scholarly importance.
Before his trip to Tibet he had made several trips throughout India. He was seeking qualified masters who could help in his journey of destroying death and obtaining happiness and Brahman bliss. There were some masters he met. He left a bit disappointed though it seems. Tibet was another story. Much of the book covers these details so well.
He returned in 1947 with his (quasi-) third wife, Helen Graham Park, to India during the turbulent and dangerous time of the Partition of India . He was probably killed in 1947 in the state of Himachal Pradesh.
Theos spent a good amount of time developing his practice of the Shat Kriyas and pranayama practices. (see below in Other Readings #3) These cleansing practices are an important step in balancing the internal organs and energy channels in preparation for raising of the Kundalini. He wrote several books and a PhD dissertation (Columbia University 1943). Hatha yoga, Vedantic philosophy and Tantra were his passions. There is not enough information on his understanding of these disciplines in this book, White Lama. Even the fruit of returning from Tibet with such great experiences and a wealth of information is left undisclosed.
In 1939, Theos established the American Institute of Yoga. Well before anyone else in the country had this thought, Theos’s aim was to teach both the philosophies and practices of Vedanta, Hatha Yoga and Tibet Buddhism. Sadly there were no others to carry on his work directly. So much had been acquired and accumulated. Now only the dusty archives and a few popular works have survived.
These times were extraordinary. The figures of these times were no less so. There are many other leading figures that have not been mentioned. I am pleased to have had an opportunity to at least highlight one of the figures of these times. But also of interest has been the surrounding figures that could lead to a lifetime of historical study and elucidation. From the notes of Douglas Veenhof, there is an immense amount of unexplored archival materials. Maybe in today’s eWorld we could look to being able to explore at sometime these great treasures.
As you come across other accessible materials of these times, please feel free to share them here. Thank you.
- The Great Oom by Robert Love–author of a study of the life of Pierre A. Bernard, the Great Oom–quite an interesting P.T. Barnum type of tantra in America–yet his mansion housed over 7000 volumes of Eastern studies.
- Barbarian Lands: Theos Bernard, Tibet, and the American Religious Life doctoral dissertation of Paul G. Hackett.
- eNotes on Theos Bernard Interesting discussions and even an outline of his daily practice from his book (Bernard, Theos C. (1941, reprinted 1952), Heaven Lies Within Us, London: Rider and Company,)
- Alan Robert’s lecture on You Tube on Tibetan Book of the Dead–Suggest to start with 2nd part, hyperlinked here