Classic EssaysRevilo P. Oliver

On the Roof of the World

Novel provides insight into religious feelings and the nature of the real and ideal worlds

by Revilo P. Oliver

OUR RACE’S religiosity has determined so much of our tragic history and today so afflicts us with a desperate crisis, that a study of religions necessarily holds an abiding interest for us. Some of my readers may wish to take an opportunity pleasantly to acquaint themselves with a major but little-known religion in a part of the world that is remote and was indeed inaccessible to White men before the end of the Nineteenth Century.

Mipam is a thoroughly enjoyable novel written by a Tibetan holy man, Lama Yongden, translated into English by Percy Lloyd of Pembroke College in Oxford, and published in London in 1938. It has just been reprinted by the State Universities of New York in Albany.

It is a well-written novel which conforms structurally to the canons of literary criticism established for the genre by Saintsbury, Forster, and Muir in the days when literature was still a part of our culture. They would have approved the form of the narrative and its style, however little they would have endorsed the story.

Lama Yongden professes to give in his fiction an authentic description of the religion we call Lamaism and of daily life in Tibet. So far as my very limited knowledge permits me to judge, he has done so about as successfully as Trollope portrayed the Anglican Church and British life in the series begun with Barchester Towers — and within the same limitations. You will have noted the date of publication: it antedates the Suicide of the West, the several invasions of Tibet by the Communist régime in China, and the wholesale massacres of Tibetans, which elicited no sympathy or interest from the tender-hearted Americans whose souls are convulsed with righteous indignation whenever a Jew yammers about how persecuted he is. Lama Yongden has described conditions that no longer exist, and it is to Tibet before it was devastated that I refer in what follows.

The Tibetan title ‘Lama’ corresponds to the American ‘Reverend’: it is given to anyone who claims to be a holy man. There are certain Great Lamas, the heads (abbots) of the many large monasteries: each Great Lama is the reincarnation of his predecessor and, when he dies, will be reincarnated in his successor, who will be identified in childhood by certain signs that are verified by complicated tests and rites. The greatest of the Great are the Pantshen Lama, who is the religious arbiter, and the Dalai Lama, whose position as abbot of a huge monastery on the outskirts of Lhasa, the capital city, enabled him to make himself the political master of the nation and, indeed, to call himself its monarch.

‘Lamaism’ is a peculiar religion. I shall not cite here treatises on it, but I shall suggest that you may discern something of its essential spirit by inspecting the iconography of its gods. If you have an aesthetic sense, you will learn much intuitively from inspecting the hundreds of excellent plates in Two Lamaistic Pantheons (Harvard University Press, 1937; reprinted, New York, Paragon, 1965).

In the sixth century B.C., Gautama, an Aryan princeling on the northern frontier of India, formulated a bleakly pessimistic philosophy that markedly resembles Schopenhauer’s. This high doctrine of negation, for reasons that would require an extensive historical explanation, became extremely popular, but was variously interpreted by at least eighteen rival schools, each of which claimed alone to preserve the true teaching of Gautama the Buddha, and Gautama’s austere atheism was gradually contaminated and obscured by the usual theological techniques, so that a philosophy that was intended to supplant religion was converted into just another elaborate and learned superstition.

Under the Emperor Asoka in the third century B.C., a form of Buddhism became the official belief of India, retaining some of its philosophical substance, but becoming in effect an evangelical religion that sent its missionaries throughout the known oecumene. From the work of missionaries in Asia Minor, some elements of the religion were copied in the Jewish mish-mash of the Essenes and early Christianity. The official Buddhism of Asoka’s time corresponds with fair approximation to the great division of the religion known as Hinayana, which now survives in Ceylon.

In northern India, Buddhism, in competition with the worst aspects of Hindu religion, multiplied and vulgarized gods and absorbed most of the doctrines of the Tantraic cults which so horrified our Victorian ancestors, and which could still give hints to the most vicious of Jewish pornographers in Hollywood. This Buddhism became a grotesque religion, called Mahayana, which was exported by missionaries to Tibet, where it further incorporated most of the hocus-pocus of the local shamans.

This form of the religion, which became ever more corrupt in both theology and practice, still survives in Tibet, where its professed clergy are distinguished by garments (at least hats) that are red, which was the sacred color of Buddhism when it flourished in India (where, as everyone knows, all forms of Buddhism have been virtually extinct for centuries). How extensive this survival of the old cult is, I do not know; it is barely mentioned in the novel.

In the Fourteenth Century, a learned lama, Tsongkapa, undertook a drastic reform of the religion, reviving as much as he could of the Hinayana, but necessarily having to accept a compromise, retaining what he regarded as the less objectionable doctrines of the then dominant cult. The Tibetan Reformation swept the nation and was accepted, sooner or later, by all of the Great Lamas and imposed on their monasteries and on the new monasteries that were founded by the renewed religious fervor. Its holy men are distinguished by yellow apparel. The religion reformed by Tsongkapa is what we mean by ‘Lamaism.’

With so much of an introduction, you may turn to the novel. Its protagonist is Mipam, the younger of the two surviving sons of a moderately prosperous middle-aged Tibetan, a veteran of the improvised Tibetan army which futilely resisted the British troops led by Colonel Younghusband when he forced his way into Tibet and to Lhasa in 1904. (1) Mipam’s mother is the younger of his father’s wives, the widow of his father’s eldest son.

(1. Before you let “intellectuals” yap about “imperialism,” remind them that Great Britian was countering a Russian penetration of Tibet and intrigues that had acquired influence over the Dalai Lama, and that in 1904 the Jews had not yet ruined Britain, although they had already begun their covert drive to destroy the British Empire and to degrade and eventually abolish the British people. The yet virile Britain of 1904 was determined to retain possession of India, and the spirit of its gentlemen was well depicted in Kipling’s finest short story, “The Man Who Was.”)

Mipam’s birth was attended by portents — a supernatural light in the sky, rain that ended a disastrous drought, strains of celestial music heard by his mother, and a large and perhaps inspired leopard that benignly watched the birth through a window. Although Mipam will not suspect his identity until years after he becomes adult (at sixteen), he is the reincarnation of the Great Lama of a large monastery in a remote and relatively isolated part of Tibet.

We follow Mipam’s life from his childhood in a society that is ably portrayed. One mark of his sacred heredity is one that he does not recognize. Leopards and bears neither fear nor attack him, but on occasion bear him company because they sense his compassionate love for all living beings. (2) His career passes through various vicissitudes and some of his adventures put him in perils that he eludes by luck and his wits. Although he is drawn to a religious life, he eventually becomes a quite prosperous merchant, still unaware of his previous existence and the sacred vocation it imposes on him.

(2. Some form of Buddhism is the source of the most un-Jewish notion (originally Sumerian) that “the lion shall lie down with the lamb” in Christian myth. That Utopian dream-world appeals to Aryan sentimentality, and not unnaturally, since Gautama was an Aryan, a Ksatriya, a member of the ruling warrior caste, and his turn from aristocratic life to philosophical speculation is traditionally attributed to his horror of the universal suffering of all mammals, including men but perhaps more emphatically centered on mammals who are innocent of conscious malice. He conceived a dream-world to be measured, as Plato would have done, against the real world, in which, whenever lions meet lambs, the lion will not lie down until the lamb is inside him, and Gautama, being a rational Aryan, understood that suffering can be ended only by abolishing sentient life. If our squawking pacifists were rational, they would perceive that war can be ended only by abolishing the several species of mammals called human; our spacecraft have shown us that Mars and Venus are perfectly warless worlds.)

Every novel must include an amatory intrigue, and a large part of its plot must concern the obstacles that at first prevent the union of the lovers and the way in which those impediments are eventually overcome, if the novel is to have a “happy ending.” At the age of nine, Mipam, as he is destined to do, falls in love with a girl of six, the daughter of a rich merchant. The obstacles, however, are of a kind to which Aryan readers are unaccustomed. When the girl has attained the proper age, her father is quite ready to marry her to Mipam, but the difficulty arises because Mipam does not want to share her with his elder brother in the polyandry that is the normal form of marriage in Tibet.

Polyandry, by which all the brothers of a family marry and share one wife, is an eminently practical form of marriage: it prevents excessive expenditure in marriage settlements, conserves intact and undivided their inheritance, and promotes coöperation and brotherly love, since none of the brothers can tell which of the children he sired. Monogamy is available for those who can afford it and can persuade a father to entrust his daughter to a marriage in which she may so easily become a widow, but men who can afford monogamy usually and quite naturally opt for polygyny, as do most of the very wealthy with luxurious tastes. Mipam is so eccentric, however, that he wants only one wife (and would want only one, even if he could afford more), but insists on exclusive possession of her. The girl’s father prudently reasons that marriage to only a younger brother, and one with quite odd notions at that, would be too precarious an establishment of a daughter of whom he is fond.

For the solution of this dilemma and the dénouement of the story, I refer you to the novel, for I would not further impair the suspense that is so large a part of the pleasure of reading good fiction.

The novel will be richly rewarding to connoisseurs of spiritual things. It will delight all who feel an urge to ameliorate the life of all mankind. Christians who dote on gospels about Love will find in the Great Lama’s discourse a more complete and coherent doctrine than any with which they are familiar. Pity for the unfortunate and compassion for all sentient beings who suffer are emotions that spring from one of the noblest tropisms of our racial psyche; they are not to be denied or suppressed, although sane men moderate them by prudence. Our idealists must own that their velleity to abolish all suffering is most fully expressed in the Fifth Wisdom of Lamaism, the doctrine that teaches that “no durable happiness, nor yet security, for any sentient being can exist while others are a prey to suffering.” That truth cannot be questioned and you may take it to heart: in practical terms it means we got ourselves born on the wrong planet — in the wrong universe.

December 1987

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