Lehigh University
Lehigh University


Donald S. Lopez conducts the search for Shangri La at Lehigh

Donald S. Lopez, one of the foremost authorities on Tibetan Buddhism, speaks at Sinclair Auditorium.

With a cast of characters ranging from Franklin Delano Roosevelt to Lost Horizon author James Hilton to the Theosophical Society in America, the story of Shangri La is both very ancient and very modern. And it was told by Donald S. Lopez, one of the foremost authorities on Tibetan Buddhism, to a packed Sinclair Auditorium on Oct. 17 during his talk, “The Search for Shangri La.”

“Perhaps all cultures at some point in their histories imagine a utopia—a perfect society here on earth,” said Lopez, the Arthur E. Link Distinguished University Professor of Buddhist and Tibetan Studies at the University of Michigan and author of over a dozen books on Tibetan Buddism, including The Prisoners of Shangri La: Tibetan Buddism in the West. “The problem is not searching for Shangri La, but finding it.”

Lopez is a controversial figure in the world of Tibetan Buddhism who believes that many Westerners have projected their spiritual desires onto Tibet and psychologized, mythologized, and even dissolved that which is uniquely Tibetan. One of the ways he believes Westerners have romanticized Tibet is through the mythical place of Shangri La.

“This is a story of adventure and mystical fantasy, one that we tend to associate with the 19th and 20th centuries, and those fantasies have persisted through the past and into the present despite the fact that the current location of Tibet as a colony of the People’s Republic of China is all too real,” Lopez said.

He went on to describe “what and where is Shangri La?” In addition to a group of women with a hit song in the 1960s, a golf course in Oklahoma, and a chain of hotels located in lower parts of Asia, Shangri La has come to mean a remote and exotic spot, usually at the beach, an escape from our cares and responsibilities.

Lopez discussed President Roosevelt’s reference to Shangri La, both as a false place from which he claimed aircraft carriers had taken off to attack the Japanese home islands during World War II, and as his name for the presidential retreat that would later be called Camp David. “Shangri La was in the 1940s both a symbol of the freedom of civilization, a stronghold for the forces of good, and a place to strike out against the approaching armies of a tyranny of chaos,” Lopez said.

Because Roosevelt used “Shangri La” as a title for his residence may suggest that it had a long history, “but in fact, Shangri La had been coined less than a decade before in James Hilton’s 1932 novel, Lost Horizon,” Lopez said. “It was an immensely popular book, made into a film in 1937, and becoming the first novel to be published in paperback in 1939.”

Lost Horizon is the story of one American and three British soldiers who attempt to leave a war zone in central Asia and find that their plane has been hijacked. After crash landing somewhere in Tibet, they are housed in a monastery called Shangri La that has been inhabited by Tibetan monks for centuries. The most remarkable thing about the monks is their longevity; with a regimen of drugs and breathing exercises, the brothers of Shangri La can extend their lives to 250 years. “So Roosevelt was being true to the novel when he suggested that Shangri La was a civilization safe from the ravages of war,” Lopez said. “Prepared to revitalize the world in the event of a catastrophe, to that extent, Shangri La, for Roosevelt, if not for Hilton, was America,” he says.

In addition to Roosevelt and Lost Horizon, Lopez also discussed the link between the ideology of Shangri La and the Theosophical Society founded by Helena Petrovna Blavatsky and Henry Steel Olcott in 1895. “The goal of the society included the formation of universal brotherhood without the distinction of race, creed, sex, path, or color, and encouraged the study of comparative religion, philosophy, and science,” Lopez said. From the Theosophical Society came “the mahatmas,” a group of extraordinary men from around the world who had escaped modern civilization and congregated in a secret place in Tibet. “The mahatmas remind us of the brothers of Shangri La,” Lopez says.

Far from a utopia

Beyond the above mentioned and other political and religious origins of Shangri La, Lopez also addressed the term ‘Shangri La’ itself. “‘Shangri’ is meaningless, but ‘La’ means ‘mountain pass,’” Lopez said. “The term ‘Shangri La’ then means the combination of the fantastic and the real.” During the period of European exploration, Tibet—bounded by the highest mountains in the world to its south—could be imagined as a domain of lost wisdom. “Tibet did not become a European colony and as a result, many of the European fantasies about China made their way across the mountains and landed in Tibet,” Lopez said.

Then, when Tibet lost its independence in 1950 and became a colony of China, relations between the government of the Dalai Lama and the People’s Liberation Army in China deteriorated, resulting in an uprising in March 1959 during which the Dalai Lama escaped to India and has lived in exile ever since. Tens of thousands of Tibetans followed in exile, and the ones left behind have suffered, many dying in uprisings against the Chinese.

Thus, the modern Tibet is far from the utopia painted in the picture of Shangri La. “Tibet, which has been regarded by so many as a remote and exotic preserve of wisdom that the rest of the world had lost was destroyed just at the moment when the world seemed most in need of its carefully guarded secrets,” Lopez said. “The ravages brought about by China’s policies in Tibet, which have resulted not only in the destruction of monasteries and texts, but in the deaths of hundreds of thousands of Tibetans, seems to be in contrast to life prior to the invasion.”

In a way, traditional Tibet has come to represent something as mythical as Shangri La. “Today, Tibet continues to function as Shangri La precisely because it does not exist,” Lopez said. “Tibet is a place where people derive strength and identity, representing something that someday we can be—an ideal to which we can aspire, a land free from strife, ruled by the Dalai Lama.” Similarly, “Shangri La is the name of a place in a novel—it is not real,” he said.

Lopez pointed out that many cultures have played a part in romanticizing Tibet, a logic that he called “not only useless, but also harmful.” “During this process of finding Shangri La, Tibet has become a stereotype, and stereotypes establish chosen characteristics as if they were eternal truths…once such an essence has been established, it will sometimes split into two opposing elements, thus Tibetan Buddhism has been portrayed in the West as the most authentic form of Buddhism and the most degenerate.”

--Elizabeth Shimer Bowers

Photo by Kurt Hansen

Posted on Thursday, October 18, 2007

share this story: