Heinrich Harrer vs. Lobsang Rampa

Booknotes looks at a peculiar Tibetan literature relationship

Heinrich Harrer (left) and Cyril Hoskins

Heinrich Harrer (left) and Cyril Hoskins

Mike Selby

“W ith the invention of the airplane, the world has no secrets left.”

This was stated by a British Army officer to mountaineer Heinrich Harrer, an Austrian national who found himself interred in British India (present-day Pakistan) at the outbreak of the Second World War.

“However,” the officer continued, “there is one last mystery. There is a large country on the Roof of the World, where strange things happen. There are monks who have the ability to separate mind from body, shamans and oracles who make government decisions, and a God-King who lives in a skyscraper-like palace in the Forbidden City of Lhasa.”

Harrer was about to find out first hand if any of this was true. After escaping from British internment, he and a fellow mountaineer (Peter Aufschnaiter) made their way into Tibet — a country closed to all foreigners. Yet instead of being turned away, they were welcomed not only into Tibet, but also into the forbidden holy city of Lhasa itself. Why were two Austrians welcomed into a place which had been closed off for centuries? Simply because the people of Tibet felt sorry for them. The two Austrians entered Tibet in filthy clothes, half-starving and suffering from exposure.

Harrer would spend the next seven years in Lhasa, working as the official tutor of the Dalai Lama, who later in life found it amusing that he was taught English by an Austrian. Harrer wrote about it his time there in his highly successful book, ‘Seven Years in Tibet.’ First published in 1952, it immediately sold just over 3 million copies, and was translated into 53 languages.

Harrer’s book did much for Tibet. Not only did he shine a light on Tibet’s struggle for freedom (he left just as China’s People’s Library Army invaded), but he also dispelled many of the bizarre beliefs people held about it.

All of this was reversed in 1956, with the publication of a book titled ‘The Third Eye.’ Subtitled ‘The Autobiography of a Tibetan Lama,’ ‘The Third Eye’ was a memoir written by Lobsang Rampa, who had relocated to London after the Chinese invasion of Tibet. This book was, and continues to be, one of the most popular books about Tibet ever sold.

Which is odd, as the book is a complete fabrication. As soon as it hit the shelves people noticed that was none of the geographical descriptions corresponded with the actual Tibet. Another was the author’s complete lack of knowledge of Tibetan Buddhism. Most striking was the numerous references to occult practices, the book’s description of Yetis, and the use of large box kites to travel across the Himalayas.

‘The Third Eye’ really rubbed Harrer the wrong way. He felt the popularity of this “obvious fiction” was a step back for the people of Tibet. So after being unable to track down Lobsang Rampa himself, he hired a private investigator, who found Rampa living in Ireland.

Except, and as Harrer had predicted, Rampa wasn’t Tibetan Lama at all. He was a a plumber’s apprentice from Liverpool, named Cyril Hoskins. Although he had shaved his head and was dressed as a Lama, he had never even been to Tibet. Shaken by his confrontation with Harrer, Hoskins claimed to have written ‘The Third Eye’ while being possessed by the spirit of Lobsang Rampa. The possession began after he had hit his head falling off of a ladder.

Hoskins was a fraud, and Harrer published his overwhelming evidence in the February, 1958 edition of ‘The Daily Mail.’ Having his deception exposed, Hoskins relocated the Calgary, and astonishingly had another 24 books published before his death in 1981, including one about his visit to the planet Venus.

Heinrich Harrer passed away in 2006, living to be 93. Hearing of his death, the Dalai Lama remembered his former teacher the one who “had the unique opportunity to experience life in Tibet for seven long years before Tibet lost its freedom. We Tibetans will always remember Heinrich Harrer and will miss him greatly.”

Mike Selby is Reference Librarian at the Cranbrook Public Library