Journalist and former mountain guide Veenhof offers a clearer understanding of the singular man who penetrated the mysteries of Tibetan Buddhism and disseminated the practices to the West.
As the author recounts in this dogged, workmanlike biography, Theos Bernard (1908–1947) learned much of his early study of Tantric Yoga from his father and uncle, Glen and Pierre Bernard, respectively, who had in turn apprenticed under their Lincoln, Neb., neighbor, Sylvais Hamati, an East Indian Vedic guru. While Pierre went on to great fame and riches in the 1920s and ’30s with his Nyack, N.Y., yoga center for the stars—a wild trajectory recently chronicled in Robert Love’s excellent The Great Oom (2010)—Glen traveled to India to study Tantric philosophy, leaving his former wife and son to their own devices in Arizona. A near-death from scarlet fever as an adolescent goaded Theo into mastering yoga practices for health and strength, and after law school he finally met his father and found in him his guru—though Theo never acknowledged him as such. Eventually, Bernard made his way to his uncle’s place Nyack. He began studies in philosophy and anthropology at Columbia University, under Franz Boas, whose “participant observation methodology” Bernard hoped to adapt among the Buddhists in Tibet. Very few Westerners had penetrated Lhasa and its monasteries, and Veenhof, a Buddhist, dwells at great length on Bernard’s extensive 1937 trip, the marvels of which he later publicized in magazine articles, lectures and books such as Penthouse of the Gods (1939). Two visionary institutions organized by him were just getting off the ground in California when he disappeared on a Himalayan trip in 1947. Veenhof does a yeoman’s job of bringing this exalted life back into focus.
A useful study, especially considering the enormous growth in interest in Tibetan Buddhism.