Lama of the White Clouds

Yesterday’s quote by Lama Govinda was from his book, Foundations of Tibetan Mysticism.

Lama_GovindaLama Govinda was an interesting guy. He was born Ernst Hoffman in 1898, the son of a Bolivian mother and a German father. He served in the German army during WWI and discharged after two years when he contracted tuberculosis.  In 1928, he went to Sri Lanka where he studied under Nyanatiloka, a German Theravadin monk, and took the name Govinda. A year later, he became a Bhikkhu in Burma.

Although he later was considered an expert in Tibetan Buddhism, originally he was opposed to it. He considered the Tibetan tradition demonic. However, his view changed after a meeting with Tomo Geshe Rimpoche.

He lived in India for thirty years, much of that time spent in seclusion, and during that period he also founded a number of Buddhist organizations, worked with universities, including Tagore University, and published quite a few books. In the 1960’s he lectured extensively around the world, eventually settling in San Francisco area where he died in 1985.

As his interest in Tibetan Buddhism grew, he left Theravada and married a Persian photographer, Ratti Petit, who took the name Li Gotami. He was the first Western Lama, which simply means “teacher”, and it was his teachings that were largely responsible for popularizing Tibetan Buddhism in the West.

In addition to being a prolific prose writer, Lama Govinda was also a poet and abstract painter. He was an extraordinary scholar, and a mystic, yet I have always found his brand of mysticism to be filtered through a practical and scientific view of the various forces and processes of our world, coupled with a forward thinking mindset.

Along with the book mentioned above, some of his other works include, The Way of the White Clouds (the story of his journey through Tibet before the Chinese invasion of 1950), The Psychological Attitude of Early Buddhist Philosophy, Creative Meditation and Multi-Dimensional Consciousness, The Inner Structure of the I Ching, and A Living Buddhism for the West, in which he wrote:

“It is time for people to wake up and realize that the great religions have collected many things at a superficial level in the course of centuries, things that were significant for these religious movements at particular points in their history. But we, as people of our time, should recognize that it is not our task either to imitate the forms of past ages or to take over without question thought patterns that were once valid but are not outmoded. Rather we should try to extract from a doctrine everything that is relevant to our own time. The point is to distill the essence for our own daily practice and meditation, while recognizing what is outmoded for what it is: the record of previous stages that led to the religious, social, and cultural situation of the present time.”

Religions must grow and change if they are to be “living” and relevant to our times. New interpretations should be formed which are based upon evidence of known facts, pointing to the necessity of understanding history properly.  It is easier to see where you are going, if you know where you have been.

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2 thoughts on “Lama of the White Clouds

  1. Talk about a grounded worldview. Lama Govinda speaks to a lot of innate ideas I have involving religion and spirituality. When the one constant is change, things which stay stagnant fall behind. This is particularly visible in religions — which strikes me as odd for a practice supposedly dedicated towards betterment.

    I have not read or heard a lot about Lama Govinda either, but from what you said he sounds like someone worth digging. I did read “A Living Buddhism for the West” a few years back — but had only checked the book out from a local library.

    Your last paragraph, where you point out that “Religions must grow and change if they are to be “living” and relevant to our times. New interpretations should be formed which are based upon evidence of known facts, pointing to the necessity of understanding history properly. It is easier to see where you are going, if you know where you have been.” I really agree with this. In fact, the way I see it, this is already happening to a certain degree: Judaism to Christianity to Islam — Vedic period to Hinduism to Buddhism. Those are rough examples, but there’s clearly influences from one within another. It seems most religions are born out of something that existed before.

    That’s why I agree with you — if history naturally blends and adapts religion to suit the needs of a present culture, then we should strive to continually do so. Don’t fix what ain’t broken.

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