Make-believe lama Lobsang Rampa’s Saint John year

He was a Tibetan lama, a bestselling author, and — to his many critics — a complete fraud.

There’s no question Tuesday Lobsang Rampa was a fascinating character with a huge following.

And he may have been running from those critics when he moved to Saint John in 1969.

It was one of at least a dozen moves Rampa and his tiny entourage made after fleeing the British Isles in the 1950s to escape “unfavourable publicity and press persecution.”

Rampa, who invented his persona as a Tibetan lama, had earlier become famous with the publication of his memoir The Third Eye.

There he describes his childhood in a prominent family, getting his name Tuesday in the Tibetan tradition based on the day of the week he was born. And, at the tender age of seven, being sent to a lamasery, where an operation was performed to open a tiny hole in the middle of his forehead, allowing him to see the aura of others, a window into their true selves.

According to his account, he fled to Europe after the invasion of his mountain country by China.

The memoir, published in 1956 at his new home in England, was a hit with readers but condemned by scholars and others familiar with life in Tibet.

Grew up in Britain

A private detective later revealed his true name was Cyril Hoskin, a man who’d left school at 15 and had never in his life travelled outside the British Isles.

The information was handed to a British newspaper, which immediately exposed him.

Despite that setback Rampa went on to carve out a large space for himself, growing his following and publishing more than 20 books along the way.

He edited his original life story, adding the claim his British body and self had been taken over by Tuesday Lobsang Rampa, a genuine lama in Tibet, and steadfastly continued to refer to himself by that name.

Always on the move

But life could not have been easy for Lobsang Rampa, the man.

He was constantly pulling up stakes, moving at least a dozen times in Canada alone. 

Throughout he was accompanied by his wife, Mama San Ra’ab Rampa, and his devoted personal secretary, Sheelagh Rouse, known as Buttercup.

“Belongings were never allowed to accumulate because it would have meant a pretty awful upheaval when time for the next move came along,” Rouse later wrote in her own memoir. “Sometimes we moved within the town or city, sometimes we moved further afield, but it was all the same when it came to picking things up and putting them down in a new place.”

A small classified ad in the Saint John Telegraph-Journal of Sept. 18, 1969. Rampa, his wife, Ra’ab, and personal secretary Sheelagh Rouse (Buttercup) were staying at the Admiral Beatty Hotel at the time. (Telegraph Journal)

A small classified ad in a September 1969 edition of the Telegraph-Journal marked the arrival of the Rampas in Saint John.

“Wanted! by author and family,” said the heading. “Apartment or House furnished or unfurnished. Preferably near the sea. One year lease first. Family of three adults and two Siamese cats (very civilized). Phone Mrs Rampa, Suite 622 Admiral Beatty Hotel.”

Cats held a special status in the Rampa home. One, Mrs. Fifi Greywhiskers, even gets the author credit for one of Rampa’s books, Living with the Lama. Greywhiskers, he claimed, transmitted the text to him via mental telepathy.

It is the cats that brought the Rampas into the life of the late Rothesay veterinarian Hank Lemckert, who grew up in Holland.

“Cleo [one of the cats] often finds amusement in remembering an incident which occurred while we were living in New Brunswick,” wrote Ra’ab Rampa in her own memoir Autumn Lady. “After examining the thermometer intently for a few seconds, the vet exclaimed ‘It must be pneumonia. Look at this, it’s about a hundred and five’… She didn’t look all that sick to me — and then I remembered — she was sitting on a hot water bottle.

“Fortunately, the vet from the Netherlands possessed a sense of humour so we all laughed, including Cleo. Throughout the years, since she was little more than a baby the incident has never ceased to amuse the dignified Cleopatra.”

“Oh, yes, they were very interesting,” said Lemckert’s wife, Veronica, in a recent chat with CBC. “They were very different people.”

A monument to Tuesday Lobsang Rampa, with cat Fifi Greywhiskers, in Kemerovo, Russia. (lobsangrampa.org)

Veronica Lemckert said her husband would indeed make house calls to the Rampas’ home in Fort Howe Apartments. 

On returning he would describe “extensive” conversations with Rampa on a variety of topics.

Assumed he was rich

Although she personally never met the Rampas, her husband brought home gifts from the couple, a large section of bright orange cloth that was later used to make a variety of objects, and a clock from Birks, which remains in the family to this day.

A fascination with the calming effects of tropical fish brought Lobsang, his secretary Rouse, and a chauffeur to the Gondola Point home of 10-year-old Elizabeth Miller.

“We just assumed he was rich because he had a secretary and a driver and a fancy car,” Miller said recently in her Germain Street shop, Good Fibrations. “I do remember him wearing a very interesting hat … Well, I know now that’s a Nepalese-style hat, they’re almost like a wedge style.” 

At that time, Miller’s late mother, Shirley, sold tropical fish, tanks and supplies from a shop in the family home. 

Rampa ordered a column-like octagonal tank, with all the supplies and fish, and paid to have Miller install it in his roomy Fort Howe Apartment. 

Elizabeth, who accompanied her mother to the Rampa’s, remembers it as a bright and modern-looking unit, furnished sparely in the Scandinavian style. 

Knew former mayor Sam Davis

She spent time chatting with Buttercup while her mother assembled the tank and added the fish.

Later Rampa would give Shirley Miller a complete set of his books, something she dutifully read.

“Those books were around the house forever, I remember that,” said Elizabeth Miller.

Rampa also formed a bond with shoe shop owner Sam Davis, who would go on to become mayor of Saint John.

The author presented Davis a copy of The Third Eye, which his son Alan Davis said he would certainly have read.

Elizabeth Miller was 10 years old when she and her mother, Shirley, visited Rampa in his Fort Howe Apartment in Saint John. (Connell Smith, CBC)

“It’s just a small paperback book, as I recall,” said Davis. “It would sort of move around in the house. It would be somewhere for a while and somewhere else for a while.”

While his father would have been interested in Rampa and his ideas, Alan Davis said it is unlikely he bought into the author’s beliefs.

“I think probably he compartmentalized it the same way you would watch a fantasy cartoon or something. But it’s possible he took it a little more seriously than that. I would say with a lot of confidence he was never convinced by it and never wanted to be convinced.”

Donald Lopez, a professor of Tibetan Studies at the University of Michigan, described Lobsang Rampa as a fascinating figure, “very much a phenomenon.”

He included a section about him in his book, Prisoners of Shangra La, about the west’s fascination with Tibet. 

“It’s a strange combination of factors because given his background and his education one would not expect a book like this,” said Lopez. “In many ways, it’s quite well written, it’s compelling. It’s a bestseller for some literary reasons as well as the subject matter.

“How he came to write this is really unknown because, of course, his own claim was that he was this person.”

Piqued interest in Tibet

Lopez said Rampa’s fraud likely caused little hurt and may even have done some good by drawing people into Tibetan studies.

“The irony about it is that we have this book, which is, a lot of it is, simply nonsense, well-written nonsense in many ways. And yet it inspired people to learn about Tibetan Buddhist and Tibetan culture in much more authentic ways.”

The Rampas’ stay in Saint John likely ended sometime late in 1970. 

“They regularly came with their cats, and then all of a sudden they were gone,” said Veronica Lemckert.

Lopez suspects the moves were attempts to keep ahead of his critics.

“I am not sure if it was his nature to be always on the go or if circumstances dictated it,” wrote Rampa’s secretary, Rouse. “He seemed to be hurrying to get done what he had to do, as if time were running out.”

The three eventually settled permanently in Calgary, where Tuesday Lobsang Rampa died in 1981.