Columbians Ahead of Their Time
Theos Bernard in Tibet
"Far reaching changes, little short of cataclysmic, threaten the land of Tibet and Lhasa its capital. Lhasa, the Forbidden, the Mysterious, is in danger at no distant date of losing its unique place on this planet"

Tibet in the late 1930s was a country struggling to maintain its independence in the face of increasing pressure from the surrounding empires of Great Britain, Russia, and China. The object of much political intrigue, the Tibetan government attempted to maintain a strict policy of border control. Few Westerners, and fewer still Americans, were able to breach the borders of Tibet. Theos Bernard, with his knowledge of literary and spoken Tibetan, coupled with papers of introduction from his Tibetan teachers—and the friendship of the Tibetan cabinet minister, Tsarong Shapé—was one of the few ever to reach Lhasa.

Although his journey from home lasted 16 months, only four were spent in Tibet. During his stay in Lhasa, Bernard was privy to unprecedented levels of access to Tibetan ceremonies and resources. Documenting his experiences in pictures, Bernard left a historical record of an age-old civilization on the brink of political upheaval.

"No film could possibly convey its majesty."
Bernard at Drebung
Bernard at Drepung Monastic University, c.1937

In traveling to Tibetís "Forbidden City," Bernard followed the route established by his British predecessors from Sikkim, up through the Chumbi Valley, to Gyantse, from where he petitioned for entry to Lhasa. When approval for his visit finally came, Bernard set out with his party. Upon entering the Lhasa valley, the first site he came upon was Drepung Monastic University. "It was but a short distance before we came around the bend which sheltered the great monastery of Drepung, the largest in the world, holding in the neighborhood of 10,000 monks. It was a startling sight: white masonry studded over with the black spots, which indicates the endless series of chambers, gloomy cells of meditation. ... I had seen endless pictures of this sanctuary, yet it was wholly unlike such preliminary impressions. The truth is, no film could possibly convey its majesty. There is a sense of immaculateness about it which eludes the camera, so faithful in capturing external forms".

Attempting to visit all the notable locations in the Lhasa valley, Bernard also visited Ganden monastery, requiring a journey up into the hills surrounding Lhasa. "Dressed in a Tibetan robe, and accompanied by my bodyguard, I headed towards the sacred monastery of Ganden, situated on top of the mountain. . . . Here, to my mind, was the ideal monastery, tucked away as it was in a hidden corner in the bend of one of the higher ridges which juts out into the valley. For could there be a more ideal place for a monastery than among the gathering clouds of heaven yet remain completely hidden from everyone passing up and down the valley? I vow that any human being dwelling in a like place would be unable to think of anything else; the country hereabouts surely awakens all the religious awe that any soul might possess".

"Each of the large wooden blocks was carved by hand, and its printing as perfect as that done by our machinery."

Zhol Publishing House
Zhol Publishing House, Lhasa

A priority for Bernard in his journey to Tibet was the acquisition of a complete set of the Tibetan Buddhist canon in 338 volumes. This he managed to acquire along with many more volumes of the collected works of numerous Tibetan authors provided him by the Regent, Reting Rinpoche. These books were to serve as the focus of Bernardís efforts over the subsequent ten years as he attempted to establish a research center for their translation into the English language.

"Tsarong had finally decided to give me his Kangyur and Tengyur, because he feared I would take the chance of leaving Tibet by way of China. His attitude was that my life was precious and that I should not take any chances".

"Anyone coming to my room would have thought that I had opened up a tailor shop to see yards upon yards of silks strewn around the room, and the tailor and his assistant marking it off. The custom for taking care of the precious sacred volumes is to wrap them in large pieces of silk, after which each book must be marked and indexed from the outside, so that one might find the desired volume without having to unwrap each one".

"I found the Tibetans the most gracious people on earth, and never before had I such friendship extended me by foreigners."

Of the many volumes of books brought back from Tibet by Theos Bernard, Yale University acquired more than two hundred volumes of his Tibetan texts including his copy of the 63-volume Treasury of Revealed Teachings for its library in 1963. The remainder of materials brought back from Tibet serves as the core of the Theos Bernard Tibetan Collection at the University of California, Berkeley.

Submitted by Paul G. Hackett

Theos Bernard with Reting Rinpoche
Bernard and the Regent of Tibet, Reting Rinpoche. Lhasa, 1937.

On the life and works of Theos Bernard.

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