Sunday, 12 August 2012

The Third Eye and the Private Eye

"The Third Eye and the Private Eye" was a brilliant afternoon play detailing how, in 1955,  the the highly respected publishers Messrs Secker & Warburg accepted part of a manuscript from a person calling themselves Dr T Lopsang Rampa, who claimed to be a Tibetan lama, medically qualified and now residing in England. Frederick Warburg was on the look out for a book that might have slipped through the net of other publishers, such as George Orwell's Animal Farm. In his book, Cults of Unreason, psychologist Christopher Evans describes how Warburg described Rampa as "short, slim, dark hair cut into a tonsure, penetrating eyes, aquiline nose...a most unusual figure".

In the play, he became so enamoured of the story, and the vision of Tibet "from the inside" that he decided to publish, giving the manuscript the name of an operation conducted in Tibet on the said T Lopsang Rampa to "open his Third Eye".

The manuscript he was offering was his autobiography, an account of his amazing life and upbringing in the land on the `Roof of the World'. To back up his claims to being a doctor of medicine, Rampa flourished a gaudy document allegedly issued by the University of Chungking. At the time the publisher thought it a bit strange that the document was written in English rather than Chinese, but managed to push such thoughts aside.

A reading of the manuscript, which arrived in a series of chunks via the literary agency, A. M. Heath & Co., convinced Secker & Warburg that they were on to something pretty interesting. The story was a fascinating one, written with a distinct literary style, and full of fascinating, not to say fabulous material. It reads like a cross between James Hilton's archetypal novel Lost Horizon and Alexandra David-Neel's travelogue With Mystics and Magicians in Tibet. Similarities to the style of the latter, incidentally, are occasionally remarkable.(1)

However, other Tibetan scholars were not so appreciative of the merits of Dr Rampa's account, and hired a private detective to track down his provenance, and established that T Lobsang Rampa, Tibetan lama, was none other that one time plumber, Cyril Hoskins, who in fact had never left Britain and had no passport, and was unable to understand a word of Tibetan. In the event, Warburg published, and "The Third Eye" became a best seller, even after an expose in the Daily Mail. Within a year The Third Eye was a best seller in twelve countries, netting its author some £20,000 in royalties.

 The reason for the continued success of the book was not perhaps difficult to ascertain.

According to the narrative, the young Rampa, born of wealthy Tibetan parents in Lhasa, was singled out by astrologers at the age of seven for incarceration in a lamasery, there to be trained as a priest-surgeon. A vivid account is given of the hardships of his long apprenticeship within the monastery, during which time the ability to survive extreme physical hardship and develop latent psychic powers was taught. The whole is richly backed by colourful details of the weird Tibetan terrain and the strange social life within the monastery itself.

The atmosphere is packed with tiny, and superficially convincing, items of local detail - the dung fires sending blue smoke into the mountain air, the wooden bowls of tsampa (a kind of barley porridge which was the monks' staple diet), bumpy rides on yaks across bleak mountain tops, bowls of steaming buttered tea, etc., etc. There are also more fantastic episodes, such as terrifying rides in man-carrying kites (`he lost his hold and went tumbling end over end down the rocks five thousand feet below, his robe whipping and fluttering like a blood-red cloud'), the development of various supernormal powers (`levitation can be accomplished and sometimes is, solely for the technical exercise involved. It is a clumsy method of moving around...the real adept uses astral travelling'), spine-tingling encounters with the Abominable Snowman (`It was pointing a hand at me, and uttering a curious mewing noise like a kitten. The head seemed to have no frontal lobes, but sloped back almost directly from the very heavy brows...'), and so on. (1)

And Rama had his own explanations for every weakness in his tale? Why could he not understand Tibetan? His ingenious and irrefutable explanation was that he had been a prisoner of war with the Japanese, and he had been  he was tortured for secret information about his country. But "rather than be forced into betrayal he used some of his amazing psychic powers and put a hypnotic block on his knowledge of Tibetan, which he had of course been subsequently unable to remove."

Also, and briefly alluded to in the play, was "The Rampa Story" published in 1960, "in which Rampa decided to tell all, and confirm rumours that had been circulating for some time. It turned out to be a wonderful story, and a most ingenious explanation for the confusions and inconsistencies of the past." And also provided an explanation for his identity as Cyril Hoskins and his Devonshire accent:

"On 13th June 1949, while perched in a tree photographing an owl, a branch broke casting him to the ground head foremost. Rendered unconscious, Hoskins found himself floating above his body, though attached to it by a silver cord. The world of Thames Ditton appeared to be in suspended animation - he had time to note a horse-drawn baker's cart nearby, quite motionless, one of the horse's forelegs poised in mid air. Then, gliding across the garden in truly spiritual fashion (i.e. several inches off the ground), he saw the figure of Lobsang Rampa. After some discussion in which the astral Rampa told the astral Hoskins that as a reward for giving up his body he would have a sizable Kharmic debt eradicated, the lama severed Hoskins's astral cord and watched as the astral body of the former Devon plumber and correspondence course clerk floated off to God-knows-where. Rampa now severed his own lengthy cord (it stretched all the way back to Tibet), connected the loose end to the end poking out of the body of the recumbent Hoskins, and promptly took over. Thus were the anomalies in the Rampa/Hoskins story explained." (1)

By the late 1960s and early 1970s, the Rampa phenomena had hit the cheap paperback imprints on news stands. By now there were a whole cluster of books, including one dictated telepathically by Rampa's cat to him. One of my great-aunts, who was an absolute cat lover, was wholly convinced by his books, especially the one by his cat! The demand has dropped off over time, and by the 1990s most of his books were out of print.

Yet there is a slow revival. Rampa is still available from Mass Market Paperbacks and in downloadable versions to the Kindle. There's a website devoted to showing that Rampa is telling the truth, despite what the nasty sceptics have dug up. In 2005, Karen Mutton, writing in Nexus magazine, called him a "new age trailblazer" and notes that:

Undoubtedly, Lobsang Rampa was a gifted psychic and clairvoyant. He was able to see auras with ease, predict the future and judge a person's character with great accuracy. He could use a crystal ball, cast horoscopes, read palms and project  his consciousness beyond his body. His knowledge of Western and Eastern occultism was astonishing. Rampa also had the uncanny ability to communicate with his cats telepathically, as his French-language publisher Alain Stanké testified.(2)

Rampa also had a considerable amount to say about prehistoric civilisation in books such as "The Cave of the Ancients". Aspects of the picture which emerges is still one which command widespread belief today:

1.   Tibet was the centre of an earlier civilization when it was a low-lying land.
2.   The earliest humans were extraterrestrial in origin, gigantic in stature and with conical heads.
3.   Humans have been on this Earth for millions of years and there have been many antediluvian civilizations which reached a high level of technology.
4.   These cultures were destroyed by atomic warfare or natural cataclysms such as earthquakes, tsunamis and pole shifts, often without warning.
5.   Another planet once struck the Earth, spilling its ocean of petroleum onto our planet.
6.   Atlantis is really only a generic name for lost civilizations. There were other lost civilizations in Lemuria and the Arctic.
7.   Time capsules were buried by the ancients in Tibet, Egypt, South America and Siberia.
8.   The pyramids and the Sphinx are symbols which point to lost civilizations. Pyramids were also beacons for extraterrestrial vehicles.
9.   Some antediluvian civilizations abused genetic engineering to create amoral beasts and biological weapons.
10. An antediluvian purple race eventually became sterile because the culture became unbalanced by a radical matriarchy

In "My Visit to Venus", he says that:

"Flying saucers? Of course there are flying saucers! I have seen many, both in the sky and on the ground, and I have even been for a trip in one. Tibet is the most convenient country of all for flying saucers. It is remote from the bustle of the everyday world, and is peopled by those who place religion and scientific concepts before material gain. Throughout the centuries, the people of Tibet have known the truth about flying saucers, what they are, why they are, how they work, and the purpose behind it all. We know of the flying saucer people as the gods in the sky in their fiery chariots."

On Venus, a multi-coloured planet with skyscraper cities constructed after the fashion of 1950s science fiction, a visit was paid to the `Hall of Knowledge' where the histories of Poseidon, Lemuria and Atlantis are thoroughly documented.

What are we to make of Dr Rampa and his popularity? Part of the reason why he was so successful was that, like Von Daniken, he tapped into the zeitgeist and told people what they wanted to hear. As Agehananda Bharati noted:

Every page bespeaks the utter ignorance of the author of anything that has to do with Buddhism as practiced and Buddhism as a belief system in Tibet or elsewhere. But the book also shows a shrewd intuition into what millions of people want to hear. Monks and neophytes flying through the mysterious breeze on enormous kites; golden images in hidden cells, representing earlier incarnations of the man who views them; arcane surgery in the skull to open up the eye of wisdom; tales about the dangers of mystical training and initiation - in a Western world so desperately seeking for the mysterious.... (3)

In fact, questions of truth or falsity do not bother the modern day readers of Rampa. A review on Amazon notes that regardless of whether the book is a hoax, ""It made me a more spiritual person, made me respect the souls of others more, and continues to stay with me many years later."

That is very much the way that the New Age is going, which is naturally so irksome to Richard Dawkins. Science is built on a foundation of testing theories to see if they hold water, if they are true. But the New Age takes a different perspective on truth, a much more subjective and existential one - what is "true to me". That the two can coexist is equally possible - people's beliefs are not all of a whole, and they'll happily believe different things in different circumstances. The theologian Rudolf Bultmann notoriously said it was impossible to believe in miracles and the electric light bulb. He was completely wrong.

Evans sees this as a result of the breakdown of organised forms of religion as the main paradigm of belief. This has created a vacuum into which this plethora of strange and arcane beliefs flow. They

do their level best to fill a serious vacuum - a vacuum which man has created by his own diligence and scientific curiosity. The truth is that we have been too clever for our own good, and have let our technical mastery of science move far, far ahead of our philosophical and social expertise. With contemptuous ease Man has kicked away from under his feet the bases of his age-old truce with the unknown - the multiple belief systems which we know of as religion. Now that the truce has been broken, the glowing uncertainties of the Universe and the enigma of Man's existence and purpose are revealed only too clearly. It is little wonder that millions of uncertain souls, appalled by this, have striven to make peace again. (1)

Long before that, G.K. Chesterton, of course, dealt with a similar lack of sceptism and willingness to suspend disbelief in his Father Brown story "The Miracle of Moon Crescent" where a three people believe that something strange and miraculous appeared to occur in the murder of a millionaire:

'Father Brown,' said the spokesman, who was the white-haired Westerner, somewhat sobered with his responsibility, 'we asked you here in the first place to offer our apologies and our thanks. We recognize that it was you that spotted the spiritual manifestation from the first. We were hard-shell sceptics, all of us; but we realize now that a man must break that shell to get at the great things behind the world. You stand for those things; you stand for the super-normal explanation of things; and we have to hand it to you. And in the second place, we feel that this document would not be complete without your signature. We are notifying the exact facts to the Psychical Research Society, because the newspaper accounts are not what you might call exact. We've stated how the curse was spoken out in the street; how the man was sealed up here in a room like a box; how the curse dissolved him straight into thin air, and in some unthinkable way materialized him as a suicide hoisted on a gallows. That's all we can say about it; but all that we know, and have seen with our own eyes. And as you were the first to believe in the miracle, we all feel that you ought to be the first to sign.'

Father Brown explains how the event took place, in a perfectly naturalistic way, but comments:

'By the way,' went on Father Brown, 'don't think I blame you for jumping to preternatural conclusions. The reason's very simple, really. You all swore you were hard-shelled materialists; and as a matter of fact you were all balanced on the very edge of belief - of belief in almost anything. There are thousands balanced on it today; but it's a sharp, uncomfortable edge to sit on. You won't rest till you believe something; that's why Mr Vandam went through new religions with a tooth-comb, and Mr Alboin quotes Scripture for his religion of breathing exercises, and Mr Fenner grumbles at the very God he denies. That's where you all split; it's natural to believe in the supernatural. It never feels natural to accept only natural things. But though it wanted only a touch to tip you into preternaturalism about these things, these things really were only natural things. They were not only natural, they were almost unnaturally simple. I suppose there never was quite so simple a story as this.'(4)

(1) Cults of Unreason, Christopher Evans
(4) The Miracle of Moon Crescent, G.K. Chesterton

1 comment:

Nick Palmer said...

"But the book also shows a shrewd intuition into what millions of people want to hear. Monks and neophytes flying through the mysterious breeze on enormous kites"

Well, the book didn't make me more spiritual but it was one of the things that made me take up hang gliding when it arrived in the UK