What do diehard travelers, stricken with wanderlust, do when not traveling? Well, they are most likely daydreaming about it. For T. Lobsang Rampa, the line between the imagined and the real was fluid; his "third eye" journeys into Tibet launched a lucrative—and mysterious—publishing career.
In November 1956, British publisher Secker & Warburg came out with a book titled The Third Eye. It proved to be the publishing event of the year, a runaway bestseller. Purporting to be the autobiography of a Tibetan lama and doctor called T. Lobsang Rampa, the book detailed the painful opening of the Third Eye—the wisdom eye, with the power to see things clearly.
In the Tibetan pantheon, there are numerous three–eyed deities, primarily wrathful ones. The third eye is sited vertically on the forehead, between the two regular eyes. One meditation technique used by a Tibetan practitioner is to close the eyes and imagine connecting with the mystical third eye of a particular deity.
Rampa's use of the third eye was rather different: he claimed to use it to read auras. He wrote that when he was initiated in Lhasa, a hole was drilled in his forehead to enable him to see auras. With this insight, he said he could divine the intentions of those around him—a skill put to use in the service of the 13th Dalai Lama. In The Third Eye, Rampa wrote about monks flying around on giant kites, sightings of yetis, and about "temple cats" that protected important shrines from theft.
As Rampa's book was going to press, Austrian climber Heinrich Harrer came into London to see Hart–Davis, the British publisher that was moving great quantities of his true story, Seven Years in Tibet. This bestseller had no competition until Rampa loomed on the horizon. The publisher was very concerned about Rampa muscling in on their turf.
Harrer looked over an advance copy of The Third Eye and declared it to be a literary swindle, and a complete fraud as a documentary report (he later pinpointed more than a hundred slip–ups in the book). He requested a meeting with Rampa to chat with him in Tibetan about Lhasa. The publisher received word back that the lama was in a meditation retreat and could not be disturbed under any circumstances.
Determined to find out more about the mysterious lama, a group of concerned Tibetologists in London hired a private detective, Clifford Burgess, who went undercover and slipped into one of the guru's séances as a student. Burgess reported that Rampa wore a mighty beard, and delivered his talks while lying in bed stroking two Siamese cats. House cats are rare in Tibet and Tibetan lamas do not sport mighty beards.
In January 1958, when The Third Eye was at the height of its success, the Daily Mail revealed that Doctor Rampa was not a Tibetan monk, but the unemployed son of a plumber from Devonshire by the name of Cyril Henry Hoskins. The Daily Mail claimed he was married to a registered nurse by the name of Sarah Anna Pattison. And his experience of otherworldly phenomena seems to have been limited to a stint when he was employed as an accident photographer.
After the Daily Mail story broke, Rampa was hounded mercilessly by reporters from rival newspapers. The "white lama" decamped with wife and cats in tow and took up residence at an isolated cliffside mansion near Dublin. Rampa claimed the move was necessary because of seriously failing health, the same reason he gave for refusing all interviews. He also claimed to have developed a mysterious mental block in speaking Tibetan: he dodged all contact with Tibetan speakers.
To Tibet, via the Library
Had Rampa presented The Third Eye as a work of fiction, there would have been little controversy. But the book was presented as a first–person account by a Tibetan lama—and Rampa stuck to that identity like Velcro, probably for the very good reason that it generated bigger sales. Though he vehemently denied it, Rampa (alias Hoskins) never set foot in Asia, let alone Tibet. The furthest he got in his travels in the 1950s was the British Library in London where he boned up on research about Tibet.
He did all his "traveling" right there—on the shelves of the British Library. And he came up with a book that gave Heinrich Harrer's Seven Years in Tibet a run for the money. Both books continue to be reprinted today, and rank among the most influential travel books on Tibet ever published.
The books are highly inspirational—in quite different ways. Harrer had a fabulous story about escaping to Tibet from a POW camp in India, but he told it in a pedestrian manner, rather like recounting a walk to the corner store. Rampa, on the other hand, captured the mystical and paranormal phenomena of Tibet, a dimension that Harrer missed. And Rampa was eminently more readable.
Another major difference is that Rampa's story was by no means finished. He had an autobiographical trilogy in mind. Shamelessly cashing in on his fame (or notoriety), he penned another tome called Doctor from Lhasa. Then, in 1960, the third volume appeared. It was a remarkable prequel called The Rampa Story, where the New Age guru explained how he had transmigrated from the soul of a Tibetan lama into the body of an unemployed Englishman, and how he traveled back and forth to Tibet by astral projection—in effect, "teleporting" himself there through mystical powers.
He further claimed to have the power to shuttle back and forth in time, at least within the range of the 20th century. While this may sound strange to Western ears, it would sound routine to Tibetans. The concept of astral travel is built into Tibetan legend and common belief. Tibetan deities, demi–gods and high lamas seem to have no trouble flying through space—and transcending time while they're at it. Legendary lamas are credited with magical powers like being in two places at the same time—and being able to direct their rebirth into a specific body.
Our Time–traveling Brains
Travel into space and you're an astronaut. Travel through time and you become a temponaut. Travel on an airplane and you do both, simultaneously—time takes on a fluid quality, speeding up or slowing down. And while sitting on a plane, cruising along at 600 mph and gazing out the window, you might think you are doing nothing—when in fact your brain is doing remarkable things.
Daniel Gilbert and Randy Buckner, professors of psychology at Harvard, are among researchers who are delving into the phenomenon known as the "dark network." Put simply, it would appear that when your brain performs active mental tasks (living in the moment), certain parts of the brain "light up," but other parts go dark. And when you are doing "nothing," this dark network appears to take over.
Doing what? Wandering in time, it seems. Daydreaming, reliving past experiences or traumas, retrieving pleasant memories, contemplating "'what if" scenarios, formulating plans for the future. In fact, some neuroscientists refer to the dark network as the brain's default mode, meaning that we may spend more time away from the present than in it. According to Gilbert and Buckner, "we are a race of time travellers, unfettered by chronology, and capable of visiting the future or revisiting the past whenever we wish."
Rampa indulged in these visits a lot more than most. Some of the visiting got a bit out of hand. A short story he wrote titled My Visit to Venus was picked up by a small press in the US and revamped as a book in 1966. Even Rampa had second thoughts about this stellar voyage, and tried to prevent its publication.
Rampa died in Calgary, western Canada, in 1981. At the time of his death he had some 20 titles on the go: his books had racked up sales of over four million copies and were translated into 40 languages. The Third Eye remained the biggest seller, reprinted more than 30 times.
Death usually puts a crimp in the productivity of most authors, but not Lobsang Rampa. His books just keep on selling. He even came out with a new book, posthumously. In 2003, over 20 years after Rampa's death, a slim volume titled My Visit to Agharta was published by Inner Light–Global Communications, clearly seeking to cash in on the Rampa legend. This is purportedly the long–lost manuscript written by great guru Rampa himself, concerning a trip to the hollow–earth high–Asian subterranean realm of Agharta, which some have linked with Atlantis. Put a picture of Rampa on the cover with some flying saucers and caves and presto! A long–lost classic from the master is born.
Michael Buckley's latest book is Eccentric Explorers, which profiles ten wacky adventurers to the Tibetan Plateau. One of them is paranormal adventurer Lobsang Rampa, who, if not an explorer in the flesh, certainly eclipsed the others for eccentricity. More details about this book and others are on Buckley's website: www.himmies.com.
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