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Orientalism Violence Tibetan Buddhism by Elliot Sperling

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The dragon year of 1640-41, as described by the Fifth Dalai Lama in his autobiography, was marked by some rather unsettling events. Problems the Gelugpa (dGe lugs pa) sect had been experiencing in the Tsang (gTsang) region were ominous in view of the fact that the sect's political position was still not fully secure. The Dalai Lama noted that in the Tiger Year (1638-39) the regions' ruler, the Tsangpa Desi (gTsang pa sde srid), had instigated a variety of problems for the monastery of Tashilhunpo (bKra shis Ihun po). People reported seeing a tired, worn-out Panchen Lama, the monastery's chief hierarch, bemoaning the state of affairs. All sorts of talk about the situation had arisen; people traveling to the Tsongon (mTsho sngon) region in the northeastern reaches of the Tibetan Plateau reported what they had seen and heard of all this to the leader of the Qosot Mongols, Gusri Qan, who was also the most powerful among the patrons and supporters of the Dalai Lama and the Gelugpa. Gusri Qan was incensed. Suddenly, the Dalai Lama records, word came that he was en route to Central Tibet but had taken a route via Beri (Bi ri), in Kham (Khams), where the Gelugpa were also opposed by the local ruler.² A military response to the travails of the Gelugpa was clearly imminent.

In the summer a number of Mongols from Khams began arriving in the Lhasa area. Sidi Batur, one of Gusri Qan's officers, brought a letter from the Mongol king and spoke with the Dalai Lamao noted in his autobiography:

    For our part, [I stated,] "Relying on that particular virtue which encompasses the bodhisattva—i.e., thinking of oneself and others in an equal manner—has not held back strife. Thus, though we might [continue] to act in accord with this sort of pretense, nothing other than shame before others would come of it."³

Furthermore, in relation to the actions of the Tsangpa, he said "Though we might take revenge, I, the last of those of Chongye (Phyongs rgyas), the cleric occupying the seat of the omniscient ones, would not appear as a disobedient monk."⁴ The Dalai Lama then ordered that Beri should be destroyed and that strife (that is, opposition) would not be tolerated.

Another incident throws further light on the Fifth Dalai Lama's thinking with regard to the use of military force to protect the interests of his government and his sect. In early 1660 he was confronted with a situation that he himself described as one of chaotic strife rooted in a rebellion in Tsang. Asserting that he was acting for the sake of beings in the area of Nyangme (Nyang smad), he sent out instructions that were direct and clear:


    [Of those in] the band of enemies who have despoiled the duties entrusted to them:
    Make the male lines like trees that have had their roots cut;
    Make the female lines like brooks that have dried up in winter;
    Make the children and grandchildren like eggs smashed against rocks;
    Make the servants and followers like heaps of grass consumed by fire;
    Make their dominion like a lamp whose oil has been exhausted;
    In short, annihilate any traces of them, even their names.⁵

With his own pen the Fifth Dalai Lama made clear his role in the events just described. With regard to the first of these, he was explicit about authorizing the activities of Gusri Qan, through warfare, which made Ganden Phodrang (Dga' Idan pho brang) the unquestioned center of authority in Tibet. With regard to the second, his instructions evince a clear determination to unleash severe military retribution against those who had risen against his authority. One may say with some confidence that the Fifth Dalai Lama does not fit the standard image that many people today have of a Dalai Lamay the image of a Nobel Peace Prize laureate.

I have purposely couched these remarks in provocative terms in order to emphasize the point that we cannot simplistically mix the actions and standards of different eras. This would seem to be obvious, yet it happens all the time. For partisan reasons one often finds discussions of historical figures from centuries ago framed around arguments relating to human rights values, democracy, and so forth, which were not part of the intellectual atmosphere of the period at issue.⁶ While this is often done with a harshly critical goal in mind, the opposite also occurs, whereby polemical needs lead people into various lines of argumentation in order to prove that such and such a figure, institution, or state organization from earlier times in fact accorded with the standards of our own time and place (with the implication often being that the standards and values in question are positive and admirable ones). Thus my comment juxtaposing the actions of the Fifth Dalai Lama and the image of the Nobel Laureate; for we can in fact find modern writers projecting current ideas concerning the nonviolence associated with the present Dalai Lama back onto previous Dalai Lamas. This in turn makes it seem as if nonviolence of the Gandhian sort were one of the basic hallmarks of Tibetan Buddhism in general, not only in the religious and philosophical sphere, but in the political sphere as well.⁷


I should not be misunderstood here; kindness and compassion toward sentient beings are a significant part of Tibetan Buddhism, as is, of course, the idea of working for the benefit of sentient beings. These are not, however, identical with Gandhian ahimsa; nor are they all there is to Tibetan Buddhism in practice; among those ideas that have played a role in the political history of Tibet are notions about protecting the doctrine. These ideas and the methods for realizing them have, in fact, been of crucial significance in making Tibetan Buddhism a vehicle for power in the arena of world history, first for Tangut emperors, then for Mongol, Chinese, and Manchu rulers: Tibetan Buddhism, from this perspective, was a means toward the attainment of power—in defense of and for the spread of the doctrine, to be sure. It was clearly used by Zhang Rinpoche (1123/24-1193/94), whose disciples made war on his behalf and are said to have experienced religious visions in the midst of battle.⁸ Yuan-dynasty Chinese writers recorded that when the armies of Qubilai swept into southern China, above them in the sky could be seen Mahakala, a result of the propitiation rites performed by the Sakyapa (Sa skya pa) cleric sGa A-gnyan dam-pa.⁹

In spite of this, however, we can easily find descriptions of Tibetan Buddhism that take the present Dalai Lama's views on nonviolence—phrased, significantly, with the Gandhian term ahimsa—and make of them a Buddhist value that has dominated Tibetan political history and the institution of the Dalai Lama for centuries. Thus we come up with simplistic accounts that describe the Mongol adoption of Tibetan Buddhism in the thirteenth century solely in terms of the moral attraction that Buddhism held for the Mongol emperors. This is not to say that morality is not a part of Tibetan Buddhism, but the account we are often given of the conversion of the Mongols is a rather skewed reading of what actually transpired. The Fifth Dalai Lama has been described as having brought about the pacification of the Mongols four centuries later through his charismatic teaching of Buddhism. Lost in such descriptions is the fact that militant Mongol imperial ambitions were only quashed through the bloody extirpation of the Jungar Mongols in the mid-eighteenth century by the armies of Qianlong, who was revered by Tibetans in his own lifetime as an emanation of Manjusri.10 Such nonviolent readings of Tibetan history seem designed to create a historical tradition for the present Dalai Lama's views on the primacy of ahimsa.¹¹

Why is there a need to create this sort of tradition? Given contemporary ideas and expectations, it's easy to see the utility of presenting Tibetan Buddhism to the present-day world as an eternal store of teachings on nonviolence and peace. Nevertheless, Tibetan Buddhism and the Dalai Lama are in and of the world, and (along with our perception of them) have to a certain degree been influenced by general currents in thought in the last decades of this century. They have not stood apart from or above all other things. The present Dalai Lama's views on non­violence, laudable as they may be, cannot simply be ascribed to a largely unchanged, centuries-old tradition.

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To clarify this it is necessary to digress a bit. In the late 1970s Edward Said created a small sensation in a variety of disciplines with his now well-known book Orientalism. Said maintained that the West had constructed an "Orient," a largely imagined and stereotyped realm whose construction as a violent, sensual, objectified "other" was meant to accord with and left the entire colonial enterprise. Said argued that the seemingly "objective" construction of the Orient was, in fact, the product of the specific context from which it had been viewed:

    No one has ever devised a method of detaching the scholar from the circumstances of life, from the fact of his involvement (conscious or unconscious) with a class, a set of beliefs, a social position, or from the mere activity of being a member of a society … I doubt that it is controversial, for example, to say that an Englishman in India or Egypt in the later nineteenth century took an interest in those countries that was never far from their status as British colonies. To say this may seem quite different from saying that all academic knowledge about India and Egypt is somehow tinged and impressed with, violated by, gross political fact —and yet that is what I am saying in this study of Orientalism. For if it is true that no production of knowledge in the human sciences can ever ignore or disclaim its author's involvement as a human subject in his own circumstances, then it must also be true that for a European or American studying the Orient there can be no disclaiming the main circumstances of his actuality: that he comes up against the Orient as a European or American first, as an individual second. And to be a European or an American in such a situation is by no means an inert fact. It meant and means being aware, however dimly, that one belongs to a power with definite interests in the Orient, and more important, that one belongs to a part of the earth with a definite history of involvement in the Orient since almost the time of Homer.¹²

Found guilty in this Orientalist enterprise were not only novelists and colonial officials but just about everyone else remotely involved, including philologists and archeologists.

Said's argument was scathingly parodied by Simon Leys in a critique in which he conceded the point that everyone is influenced in some degree by his or her environment:

    Edward Said's main contention is that "no production of knowledge in the human sciences can ever ignore or disclaim the author's involvement as a human subject in his own circumstances." Translated into plain English, this would seem to mean simply that no scholar can escape his original condition: his own national, cultural, political, and social prejudices are bound to be reflected in his work. Such a commonsense statement hardly warrants any debate. Actually, Said's own book is an excellent case in point; Orientalism could obviously have been written by no one but a Palestinian scholar with a huge chip on his shoulder and a very dim understanding of the European academic tradition (here perceived through the distorted prism of a certain type of American university with its brutish hyperspeculization, nonhumanistic approach, and close, unhealthy links with government).¹³


The point, of course, is that although one is subject to influences, these can still be understood in a variety of (often contradictory) ways and may or may not have the meaning Said finds overriding on the individual level. There is no doubt that there are biases and stereotypes (both positive and negative) that operate among people. However, the manner in which these might be manifested in a given individual cannot simply be reduced to a function of that individual's class, nation, and so forth. As a result, the critique of stereotypical images of Asia that has been spawned by Orientalism is in many instances the product of a large-scale decontextualization: The non-Western precedents for these stereotypes—including those of Tibet itself—are wholly ignored.¹⁴ Most people are familiar with one or another of the Chinese stereotypes of Tibetans and other Inner Asians as "barbarians." An interesting stereotype about tea and its power over Tibetans and Mongols evolved in Ming and Qing times, on the basis of which the directors of Chinese statecraft proposed controlling them by cutting off their imports of Chinese tea.¹⁵ This idea carried over into foreign policy dealings with the British "other" during the late eighteenth century, when it was maintained that the British would find their lives endangered were they to go for a few days without Chinese tea and rhubarb.¹⁶ Might we term this "Occidentalism"?

As it grew, the anti-Orientalist argument came to encompass critiques and attacks on alleged purveyors of both negative stereotypes of the Orient and its inhabitants (dirty, violent, poor, dishonest, etc.) and positive ones (spiritual, hard-working, noble, close to nature, ecological, etc.). These latter images, of course, present the romanticized version of the Orient, and although considered positive stereotypes, are nevertheless still held to be a construction based primarily on Western psychological needs. For a number of years this basic outline of the anti-Orientalist argument has held: The "Orient" is a Western construct meant to further imperial our Western psychological needs. It has even entered into the Western view of Tibet.¹⁷

In an interesting article that appeared in 1993 Amartya Sen, writing about India, pointed out that:

    [U]nless one chooses to focus on the evolution of specific conceptual tradition … "internal consistency" [which Said found underlying "Orientalist" images] is precisely what is hard to find in the variety of Western conceptions of, in this instance, India. For there are several fundamentally contrary ideas and images of India, and they have quite distinct roles in the Western understanding of the country, and also in influencing the manner in which Indians see themselves.¹⁸


It is self-evident that there are any number of stereotypes about the East that are part of our environment; however, their variety and roles cannot be simplified and apportioned as the "anti-Orientalists" would have it. As Sen makes clear, both positive and negative stereotypes have been at work in creating modern notions about India among Westerners and non-Westerners alike, as well as Indians. And in fact it has become increasingly recognized that ostensibly "Western" stereotypes and images of Asia are more universal than was previously acknowledged. The issue is not whether these stereotypical ideas exist as such, or whether they exert an influence on one peoples' view of another or on a peoples' self-image; the issue is whether they need to be understood in the reductionist, deterministic manner that is in evidence in much that has been written about them.

Which brings us back now to our original subject, the notion of the Dalai Lamas as almost uniquely men of peace, love, and compassion. It goes without saying that there are a variety of stereotypical notions associated with Tibet. But as with India, it is no longer possible to dismiss these simply as Western constructs. They have come to play a significant role in the Tibetan presentation of Tibet, particularly among Tibetans in exile. This is perhaps a natural development out of Tibetan participation in intellectual, political, and other facets of modern international life. It is, so to speak, an assimilation of viewpoints that have currency and legitimacy in the modern world, viewpoints that very much want to see a cloistered realm far away where people devote themselves uniquely to spiritual pursuits and not to the aspects of life that breed strife and discord. But these sorts of stereotypical images are not (with due respect to the anti-Orientalists) singularly Western—or even singularly modern. Starting, say, with the Taohuayuan ji of Tao Yuanming, one can make a respectable list of non-Western expressions of comparable yearnings for hidden realms of peace.

In its popular presentation to much of the modern world, the complex mix of ideas and doctrines in Tibetan Buddhism is often reduced (of late, by the Tibetan exile community) to an essential emphasis on love and compassion. As a result, a more balanced picture of the role of Tibetan Buddhism in the political world over the centuries has been lost to large numbers of people along the way. One might almost imagine that Tibetan Buddhism is a rather suicidal sort of faith, one whose adherents would rather see it perish than lift a hand in violence. That, frankly, has not been the case in Tibetan history. It was not the position of the Fifth Dalai Lama, who supported the use of military force in defense of Gelugpa interests. (And we may note that during his time the survival of Tibetan Buddhism in general was not at issue, just the welfare and authority of Ganden Phodrang). It was certainly not the position of the Thirteenth Dalai Lama, who actively sanctioned armed Tibetan attacks on the Qing forces in Lhasa that were attempting to assert Qing rule in Tibet just before the dynasty's collapse.19 Ultimately the reduction of Tibetan Buddhism, as far as its modern, international image is concerned, to a doctrine of nonviolence of the absolutist sort must be seen in light of the Tibetan exile assimilation of common images about the East, in much the same way as was the case with the generation of Gandhi and Nehru.

Indhorse cls.jpg

A fairly clear clue to this is found in the two versions of the Fourteenth Dalai Lama's autobiography My Land and My People (1962) and Freedom in Exile (1990). In both works the Dalai Lama writes of the influence he felt from Gandhi's life and philosophy when he visited the Rajghat. In the later version he specifically notes that the visit left him convinced that nonviolence was the only path for political action. While in the earlier one he states that he was determined never to associate himself with acts of violence, what "associate" means in this context must be tempered by further remarks in both versions of his autobiography. In the second the Dalai Lama tells of his escape and of the protection afforded him by armed guerillas—freedom fighters, he calls them—including at least two CIA-trained fighters. However, in the first he is more specific about his interests and concern for these Tibetan soldiers:

    In spite of my beliefs, I very much admired their courage and their determination to carry on the grim battle they had started for our freedom, culture, and religion. I thanked them for their strength and bravery, and also, more personally, for the protection they had given me … By then I could not in honesty advise them to avoid violence. In order to fight they had sacrificed their homes and all the comforts and benefits of a peaceful life. Now they could see no alternative but to go on fighting, and I had none to offer.²⁰

While the mention of Gandhi in both versions reveals the influence of a general, modern attitude to the Indian leader prevalent throughout the world at the time of the Dalai Lama's visit to the Rajghat, the quote from the earlier autobiography reveals a sentiment largely in line with more traditional Tibetan (and even Tibetan Buddhist) attitudes on political violence. The influences that have led the Dalai Lama to threaten to resign his leadership role if Tibetans act violently toward Chinese in Tibet were not yet there;²¹ indeed, one can hardly imagine the Dalai Lama making such a statement to the soldiers who guided him to safety in 1959.

Frankly, the adoption of ahimsa as an overriding principle represented a significant change in attitude from that of previous Dalai Lamas and from the policies of Ganden Phodrang. Most likely, the Dalai Lama came to adhere to it in a gradual manner. Only in India, in a milieu in which stereotypical ideas about the Orient and India were part of the intellectual environment, did it take on the centrality that people now associate with it. The Dalai Lamas a human being in the world, certainly was influenced by this new environment that postulated nonviolence as one of the primary virtues—if not the highest of them—that an "Oriental" sage could espouse.


This is not necessarily to imply anything cynical or manipulative about the Dalai Lama's adoption of nonviolence as a leading principle. This is simply to place the Dalai Lama in history as a human being and as a party to intellectual and other currents that flow through the modern world. It is the assimilation of images and stereotypes espoused by Westerners and non-Westerners (including Tibetan exiles) that has placed the Dalai Lama within a constructed myth of eternal holy men practicing eternal virtues and eternal verities.

Kindness, compassion, nonviolence: All these have their place in Tibetan life and Tibetan Buddhist doctrine. But prior to the last three or more decades their centrality was nothing like what one sees now. Dalai Lamas have certainly counseled against violence and bloodshed in the past. But they have also found it necessary to sanction force to protect their perceived interests. There are instances in which Tibetan Buddhists have historically sanctioned force in the protection and advancement of the doctrine. This aspect of Tibetan Buddhist doctrine, including the empowerment of worldly monarchs who act to protect and advance the doctrine, is part of the political history of Tibet and of Tibet's relations with neighboring peoples. It is important to remember that Tibetan Buddhism has not always been opposed to the use of violent force under any circumstances. What one sees in recent years, a Dalai Lama threatening to abandon his leadership position if Tibetans use any violence against Chinese, is unprecedented. The extent to which this is so can be appreciated by the fact that it is generally acknowledged that the period since Tibet's annexation by the PRC has constituted a grave crisis for Tibet and Tibetan civilization, far greater than the threats occasioned by the Tsangpa rulers and their allies in the seventeenth century or even by Zhao Erfeng's occupation force in Lhasa in 1910-12, at which times both the Fifth and Thirteenth Dalai Lamas saw force as necessary.

A further interesting fact that I might add at this point relates to the Thirteenth Dalai Lama's reaction to a letter from Gandhi in which the Indian leader—mistakenly making a typical "Orientalist" assumption!—had expressed the hope that the Tibetans would diligently practice the Buddha's teaching of ahimsa. The Dalai Lama replied that he had no idea about what the word ahimsa meant as either an English or mantra term and that he needed further clarification of the term. Knowing of Gandhi's activities in general, though, he did tell him about Buddhism's concept of saving people from suffering.²² If one takes his actions as a guide, however, it is obvious that the Thirteenth Dalai Lama did not consider the use of violent force to be at odds with this idea. Clearly, one can assume that he felt the use of force was sometimes necessary to prevent greater suffering. The corollary to this would then be that refraining from violence under such circumstances can actually engender even greater agonies.


Gandhian ahimsa as a primary Tibetan Buddhist tenet is a new phenomenon. Certainly we cannot speak of it as the overriding principle of political action for all previous Dalai Lamas. If we are to understand the institution of the Dalai Lamae must accept that values and policies practiced by the Dalai Lamas cannot be wholly separated from their contemporary and historical milieu—though it must be emphasized again that we need not adopt a reductionist or ideological approach in order to understand or perceive the workings of such influences. The notion of the Dalai Lamas and the Tibetan Buddhist faith remaining untouched by the currents of time and history, with the former preaching peace and nonviolence to all peoples at all times, is part of a fanciful image of Tibet that unfortunately persists. The historical record contradicts it rather clearly; continuing attempts to present it as historical reality can only impede our understanding of Tibetan history, past and present.

== Notes ==

¹ A longer version of this paper was originally presented in a lecture at the Amnye Machen Institute in Dharamsala in 1994. It will be published in the near future in Lungta.

² Ngag-dbang blo-bzang rgya-mtsho, Za-hor-gyi ban-de Ngag-dbang blo-bzang rgya-mtsho'i 'di snang-'khrul-ba'i rol-rtsed rtogs-brjod-kyi tshul-du bkod-pa du-kü-la'i gos-bzang, vol. 1 (Lhasa: 1989), p. 192.

³ Ibid, p. 193: rang-ngos-kyi cha bdag-gzhan mnyam-brje'i byang-chub-kyi sems dang Idan-pa'i yon-tan khyad-par-can-la brten-nas bde-gzar bshol-ba min-pas de-'dra'i o-zob byas-kyang gzhan khrel-ba-las mi-yong/.

⁴ Ibid, pp. 193-94: gal-te dgra-sha blangs-kyang nga 'Phyongs-rgyas-pa'i mi-mjug [194] thams-cad mkhyen-pa'i gdan-sar bsdad-pa'i btsun-pa zhig ban-log-pa mi-'char.

⁵ rGyal-dbang lnga-pa, Rgya-Bod-Hor-Sog-gi mchog-dman bar-pa-rnams-la 'phrin-yig snyan-ngag-tu bkod-pa rab-snyan rgyud-mang (Xining, 1993), p. 225: gnyer-du gtad-pa'i dam-nyams dgra-tshogs-kyi/pho-brgyud shing-sdong rtsa-ba bcad-ltar thong/ mo-brgyud dgun-gyi chu-phran skems-ltar thong/ bu-tsha sgo-nga brag-la brdabs-ltar thong/ g.yog-'khor rtsa-phung me-yis bsregs-ltar thong/ mnga'-thang snum-zad mar-me bzhin-du thong/ mdor-na ming dang rjes-tsam med-par mdzod/ (the full text of the letter is on pp. 223-25).

⁶ E.g., some (but not all) of the polemics surrounding the five-hundredth anniversary of Columbus' 1492 Atlantic crossing typify this. Cf. Sale, 1990, and its review by Wills, 1990.

⁷ The most recent expression of these views is given by Thurman, 1995: 38-40, where the Fifth Dalai Lama is credited with having created in Tibet a "unilaterally disarmed society. "

⁸ dPa'-bo gtsug-lag phreng-ba, Dam-pa'i chos-kyi 'khor-lo bsgyur-ba-rnams-kyi byung-ba gsal-byed-pa mkhas-pa'i dga'-ston (Beijing: 1986), p. 808: "[T]here were many among his disciples in whom Mahamudra insight was born on the battle lines. The officer Dar-ma gzhon-nu had a vision of Samvara (bDe-mchog) on the battle lines." Cf. Martini 1990: 7.

⁹ See Franke, 1984: 161-62.

10 On the Jungar campaign, particularly the war of extermination in 1757, see Courant, 1912: 106-12. Note the reference, p. 108, to monks taking part in the fighting on the side of the Jungars. See too the reference to the campaigns in Thu'u-bkwan Blo-bzang chos-kyi nyi-ma, ICang-skya Rol-pa'i rdo-rje'i rnam-thar [Khyab-bdag rdo-rje sems-dpa'i ngo-bo dpal-ldan bla-ma dam-pa ye-shes bstan-pa'i sgron-me dpal bzang-po'i rnam-par thar-pa mdo-tsam brjod-pa dge-ldan bstan-pa'i mdzes-rgyan] (Lanzhou, 1989: 363-64). See also the positive comments and reactions of Thu'u-bkwan and ICang-skya Rol-pa'i rdo-rje to the rather bloody Manchu conquest of rGyal-rong in the 1770s, taken from the same work and cited by Martin, 1990a: 8-12.

¹¹ Again, for the most recent expression of these views, see Thurman, 1995: 36-38.

¹² Said, 1979: 10-11.

¹³ Leys, 1985: 95-96.

¹⁴ The best-known whipping boy in this context, the Western notion of Tibet as Shangri-la, is a good example, with antecedents going back several centuries. In the thirteenth century already we find an Arabic description of Tibet that notes: "In the country of Tibet are special properties in respect of their air and water, their mountains and plains. A man there laughs and rejoices continually." See the translation from the Mu'jam al-Buldän in Dunlop, 1973: 313.

¹⁵ For a modern version of this belief, see Gu Daquan, 1982: 49. An early Ming formulation of this idea can be found in Gu Zucheng et al., 1982: 107-8.

¹⁶ Peyrefitte, 1992: 526.

¹⁷ See, for example, the formulation of Bishop, 1989, particularly pp. 191-239.

¹⁸ Sen, 1993: 27-28.

¹⁹ Cf. Bell, 1987: 140-42.

²⁰ Dalai Lama: 190.

²¹ See "Dalai Lama Interviewed," AFP report in FBIS-CHI-89-047, March 13, 1989, pp. 24-25: "If the militant types become more influential and go out of my control and won't listen to my ideas, then my alternative is I withdraw. I oppose violence."

²² See Tsering, 1984: 11-12.


© Elliot Sperling, Thierry Dodin & Heinz Räther, Wisdom Publications