White Lama

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

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.

Conclusion

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.

Other Readings

  1. 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.
  2. Barbarian Lands: Theos Bernard, Tibet, and the American Religious Life doctoral dissertation of Paul G. Hackett.
  3. 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,)
  4. Alan Robert’s lecture on You Tube on Tibetan Book of the Dead–Suggest to start with 2nd part, hyperlinked here

Comments

    • Sheila–appreciate it–the book is a real compendium on the events of these very early years–if you can get the time to even just read the first several chapters–it will give you some good ideas on the background of the historical roots of Hatha Yoga in this country

  1. Good book review, concentrating, as is appropriate, on his yoga practices. The Veenhof book claims much about TCB’s Buddhism, but, in fact, it was tantric yoga that was most important to him. I read Veenhof’s book with great interest. He did a very good research job and added detail unknown to me. I have been very familiar with TCB since I worked part time as an assistant to his first wife, Viola Wertheim Bernard and was the first person in 50 years to read TCB’s Tibet diary — a document of great important because of the picture it paints of a culture that has not been disappeared [using hte word as a verb as was used about Argentinian youth who were disappeared]. I believe Veenhof has done a great service by publishing his book. I’m unhappy that it seems not to be publicized much. Love’s book about Pierre Bernard, The Great OOM, is also very important although by no means as well done as Veenhof’s.

    Little is said about TCB’s practices of tantric yoga after his return from Tibet because, like his father and uncle, he felt it was a secret practice and what he wrote for publication after his return to the US is not at all reliable. Secrecy was important to all the Bernard men, as, I believe it is to many [maybe most] sincere tantrics. While TCB wanted to make texts of Tibetan Buddhism available to American scholars he never managed to accomplish much in that direction because, I believe, his own practice was more important to him. I believe TCB was a more vibrant and charismatic and complex person that is revealed in Veenhof’s [probably necessasrily] rather dryly factual book.

    • Thank you for your comments. I find that amazing that you were an assistant to his first wife. What a treat to have read his Tibetan diary. Until Veenhof wrote this book, I was unfamiliar with Theos Bernard. I really was intrigued by his father and would have loved to hear more of his explorations with the Indian adepts he met and trained with during his travels.

      There seems to be a wealth of archival materials. Also people like you can also provide some pretty interesting perspectives.

      Thanks again for stopping by.

    • I helped take care of “elderly lady”, in 1989, who in turn took care of: Glen Bernard. Later, in 1993
      we both attended Maha Mudra Retreat, w/ Thrangu Rinpoche, at Big Bear. Was in touch with her
      until 1988. She left in 2000. I met Veenhof, He came to my house. I showed Him Bath robe “she”
      gave me, that belonged to Theos. Plus, 14 K. Gold Mechanical Pencil, w/ his name on it. I AM the
      One who got Doug Veenhof started on his book, back in 2004. I saw the Collection. I saw his
      diaries. I saw the actual movies, Theos and Viola took, on the 16mm. reels. I saw the Letter from Charles Lindbergh, asking Theos to find “him” a landing spot, for his plane…in Lhasa”,
      dated: 1937. I also met his family from: Arizona, who, by chance were staying with their son,
      in Santa Fe, N.M. in 1991. Thank you very much for your interest and input.

      Had Theos made it back, He was heading to San Bernadino, to set up headquarters for young
      Buddhist Monks he had all lined up to come here and help teach the Vajrayana Path of Tibetan
      Buddhism. This would have been 1948. He would have preceded Chogyam Trungpa Rinpoche
      by a good 20 plus yrs. (for when Chogyam was in Boulder, early 1970s). You have no idea about Theos at all. I traveled twice to India to do research on him, in 1987-1990.

      • Thanks Julio for taking time to add your comments.

        This history is very fascinating to me. If you have written about your research on Theos, It would be wonderful to share that.

        Do you have a URL for other information

        thanks again–peter

  2. Good one Peter,

    It’s interesting to find out about the extraordinary lifes of those who have dedicated themselves to these teachings and practices.

    Makes me want to know more about him.

    Keep it up!

    • Thanks Pierre

      I find it also very interesting–all three Bernards had an impact it seems–and his dad was very interesting sounding–as he seems to have spent a lot of time in India researching and training.

      • Ah well Peter, who knows!… someone might write a book on you a hundred years from now and title it: WHITE YOGI, THE AMAZING LIFE OF PETER FABIAN!

        Seriously, I think more work should be done in bringing out the stories of these amazing people, about their dedication, hard work and intensive practices, to give a little inspiration to all of us unworthy seekers!!

        • OK Pierre–it looks like you have your work cut out for yourself—seriously, these people are us and that includes you and me.

          So you’ve lived in India for 5-6 years and we would love to hear and learn from you also–so dust off that keyboard–you can write a guest article here if you want–let me know

          your unworthy scribe–peter

  3. Hello Peter,

    and a big hello to all the people here in the blog. Thank you very much for this great conclusion
    about T. C. Bernard and the circumstances.

    You wrote: “There is not enough information on his understanding of these disciplines in this book.”
    I think yes you are right but on the other hand it is difficult to talk about his understandig without doing a little step away from the explanation of the facts to speculation. You have quote serious people or books who give information an qualification to the level of the understanding and realisation to his understanding.

    I would have liked too to see a try or a pretty versed opinion about the understanding of T. C. Bernard in the book The white Lama.
    The outcome of the research is very expanded but somtimes a more deepen revelation of his understandings may be would give the book a vertical drive and would mean a complimentation of the story. The author of the White Lama does not talk about the ‘spiritual impacts’.

    But on the other side it is up to us to understand and to experience the spiritual impacts.

    When we take the people for granted and sincere who meet T. C. Bernard and all the gifts given to him he must have had a pretty good and deep understanding.

    S. D. Huber

    P. S Sorry, may be here are to be found some grammar or other kind of mistakes – but sorry I am from Germany Bavaria, near Munich, the land of the thousand cangs.

  4. Hello Peter,

    I have got the intention and please let me correct some mistakes. One sentence in my last comment I want to write down better as follows:

    You have TO quote serious people or books who give information AND qualification to the level of the understanding and ABOUT the realisation of his understanding TOWARDS THE GOALS AND LEVELS
    WITHIN THE SYSTEM AND THE RELIGIOS TRADITION.

    You write: “Even the fruit of returning from Tibet with such great experiences and a wealth of information is left undisclosed”. I my opinion Mr. Veenhof talds a lot about the fruits, for example the Dissertation, i do not know but may be the first disseration about High-Level-Self-Experianced-Yoga and Wisedom and Philosophie. In our days it es much easier, quite common to write in certain faculties a disseration about “It es me the object and the subject” – and here the object and subject T. C. Berand is talking about is high advanced knowledge and experiance in Tantra-Yoga, Hinduism and (tib.) Buddhism. What these mysteries are and how the felt and are experienced remains to be the job of every human beeing on his own how it is said in the Philosphie of Samkhaya. Another fruit is the establishment of a School of Yoga and the lectures all around the U.S.A.

    Or are these facts no fruits to you but results?

    Nice greetings
    Steven

    • Hi Steven

      Thank you for your comments. My apologies for not responding sooner. I have just returned from an extended trip to India. The internet can be a challenge over there.

      TC Bernard seems to be quite an explorer, both in the physical and metaphysical realms. When one has been gifted with such rich experiences in these realms, sharing becomes such a natural result. The fruit that was described as being brought back was a wealth of artifacts and information. Much of it now seems to reside in a variety of archives–not readily available to us.

      Now there is another fruit from his experiences that has never been commented on in much detail. His explorations have probably given him perspectives that could be shared. At this time they are also not available. Of course each of has to do our own work–which can never be done by another. The beauty of a guide thought is to simply point out from “their perspective” some of the markers (and jewels) along the way.

      I was so thankful to the author for providing such a wonderful exposition on the life of a truly remarkable explorer.

      Wishing you the best in your path

      peter

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