The Lost Teachings of Lama Govinda: Living Wisdom from a Modern Tibetan Master

The Lost Teachings of Lama Govinda: Living Wisdom from a Modern Tibetan Master

edited by Richard Power, foreword by Lama Surya Das.
Quest Books, 2007. lviii + 155 pages, paperback, $19.95.

Lama Anagarika Govinda (1898—1985) was a German practitioner and scholar of the highest magnitude of Buddhism and Eastern thought. Few matched his depth and breadth of scholarship, practical understanding, and experiential insight into the intricacies of Buddhism, especially in its Tibetan form. In addition to his eminent autobiography, The Way of the White Clouds, he wrote adeptly on the psychological and transformational significance of early Buddhist philosophy, the symbolic meanings of the stupa, meditation, and the I Ching. With his Indian wife, Li Gotami, he published works on Tibetan art and on consciousness and meditation. Robert Thurman, professor of Buddhism at Columbia University, regards Govinda as "one of the West's greatest minds of the twentieth century."

Lama Surya Das's foreword, written from the perspective of his own spiritual explorations as a young Western seeker in India and Nepal, offers a telling portrait of the great influence Govinda had on him and other Westerners who, from the mid-twentieth century on, became the chief exponents of Buddhism in the West. The editor's broad-ranging introduction traces some of the major events in Govinda's life and shows the extraordinary impact he had on the practitioners and scholars who came under his influence.

The six essays that constitute the central text of the book, several of which were later expanded into full-length books, were recovered from the archives of the Human Dimensions Institute, where they had been delivered in the 1970s. A final chapter consists of question and answer sessions at the institute.

In the first essay, "From Theravada to Zen," Govinda shows how the foundational teachings of the Buddha as recorded in the earliest Pali text (written down some four centuries after the founder's death) shaped Buddhism as it evolved in its journey from India through China to Japan. The author develops the central truth of shunyata (emptiness) as the sine qua non of the highest realization in Buddhism. He calls for practitioners to discover the natural spontaneity of the human mind and to transform the historical Buddha into a direct experience of their own Buddha mind. The dynamic, changing nature of reality is also explored here.

Each of the remaining chapters addresses a particular spiritual, psychological, or philosophical issue of common import in East and West, which, when approached through the perspective of both cultures, results in a more complete, balanced, and accurate view. Govinda writes: "East and West are the two halves of our human consciousness, comparable to the two poles of a magnet, which condition and correspond to each other, and cannot be separated." This being the case, an alternate subtitle for the book might be "The Integration of East and West," or "East and West: How Each Needs the Other."

Drawing on the work of Roberto Assagioli, founder of Psychosynthesis, in the second chapter, Govinda distinguishes between different operations of the human will, for example, egoistic will contrasted with transpersonal will, and emphasizes the importance of the latter in meditation and the life of a realized person.

Pierre Teilhard de Chardin forms the focus of the third chapter. Here Govinda bridges the humanities and the physical sciences, indeed spirit and matter. He writes: "The moment we experience [that] the universe is our 'greater body' and penetrate it spiritually, we experience the great transformation; we have attained liberation, the state of nirvana." He notes further that "the 'spirit' can arise in consciousness only when there is a creative force, which connects all factors of life and consciousness and thus makes them into a unity." For Govinda, wisdom lies in the integration of so-called opposites, the transformation of dualities into polarities.

The fourth chapter distinguishes between drug-induced expansion of consciousness, which can lead to psychic disintegration, and a disciplined meditation practice, which carries the potential for spiritual regeneration.

Though there are many references to meditation throughout the book, the sixth chapter addresses the topic directly. The author develops his central insight concerning the integral relationship of matter and spirit by noting that "the special function of meditation is to reunite the inner and the outer world." Govinda takes to task inadequate forms of philosophy and religion that impose mind-made divisions on reality: "In both philosophy and religion the concepts of oneness, of universality, infinity, boundlessness, formlessness, emptiness, changelessness, timelessness, eternity, and similar one-sided abstractions of a purely conceptual type became the summum bonum and the hallmark of an intellectual spirituality, which tried to isolate them from their counterpoles, namely diversity, individuality, form, materiality, movement in time and space, change, growth, transformation, etc." For Govinda, enlightenment always entails the integration of opposites. He summarizes this insight by noting "that universality cannot be experienced except in the individual and that the individual derives its meaning and value from the realization of its universal background and interrelationship."

In a chapter on the I Ching, Govinda demonstrates how this ancient classic of China is not simply a method of predicting the future, even though it has this use in China as well as in many parts of the Western world. Rather it articulates a comprehensive philosophy of life, and is meant "to help us decide our way from the present into the future on the basis of generally prevailing laws."

The Lost Teachings of Lama Govinda concludes with notes, a selected bibliography, and an index. For anyone wanting practical, transformational teaching from a Buddhist perspective, this book serves well.

James E. Royster

The reviewer is professor emeritus of religious studies at Cleveland State University.