Courtesy Michael Radalet
Courtesy Michael Radalet

Introduction by Paul E. Brodwin and Roy Richard Grinker

Colin M. Turnbull (1924-1994) was the British-born anthropologist who wrote the best-selling books The Forest People and The Mountain People, humanistic accounts of African societies that have educated generations of Americans about the global threats to indigenous peoples and the cultural riches of the hunter-gatherer way of life. But Turnbull was also an activist—a tireless campaigner against the death penalty and an openly gay man at a time when this carried grave personal and professional risks. Finally, he was a spiritual seeker who ended his life as an ordained Buddhist monk in the Tibetan Gelugpa tradition.

Before his academic studies at Oxford, Turnbull spent two years in India, where he was one of the only Europeans ever to reside in the Brahmin ashram of Sri Anandamayi Ma, one of the most well-known and revered Indian saints and the prototype of the twentieth-century female guru. He also lived for a short time with Sri Aurobindo and his revered wife, the Mother, who eventually founded the international Auroville ashrams. He wrote about his experiences with his Indian gurus in the partly autobiographical The Human Cycle, the title for which was taken from Sri Aurobindo’s own book on life and spirituality. In The Forest People, Turnbull’s classic study of the egalitarian Mbuti Pygmies of the eastern Congo, he thanked Anandamayi Ma for showing him that “the qualities of truth, goodness, and beauty can be found wherever we care to look for them.” After immersing himself in these Hindu traditions, he began his study of Buddhism in 1966 by co-authoring Tibet with Thubten Norbu, the eldest brother of the Dalai Lama.

In May 1989, knowing that he was infected with HIV, Turnbull moved to American Samoa, where he hoped to die quickly and peacefully. But he remained healthy and, at his friend Thubten Norbu’s request, moved to Bloomington, Indiana, to help build the Tibetan Cultural Center, which Norbu had founded. Within a year, he left for Dharamsala, India, where, on April 5, 1992, he was ordained by Lacho Rinpoche Namgyal and given the name Lobsong Rigdol. Three months later he received a Gelong ordination by the Dalai Lama.

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