Ian Baker, 101 On The Tibetan Buddhism Scholar Who Rediscovered Shangri-La

Historian, anthropologist, explorer, and scholar

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Ian Baker is a historian, anthropologist, explorer, and scholar of Tibetan Buddhism. He is well-known for his studies on Tibetan and Himalayan cultural history, art, and medicine, as well as Tibetan Yoga.

This article will explore:

Who Is Ian Baker?

Ian Baker is known for a distinctly wide variety of skills. After his studies in literature, fine arts, anthropology, and comparative religions within some of the world’s top institutions, Baker’s career has spanned across academia, the arts, environmental, and exploration projects.

In the late 1970s, during his junior year at Middlebury College, an opportunity arose to travel to Nepal for a semester. It was this trip that undoubtedly ignited his passion for the East, and shaped his future endeavors.

For over twenty years, Baker resided in Nepal’s capital, Kathmandu. He immersed himself in both academic study and practical experience of Himalayan traditions and Tibetan Buddhism.

Amongst his many skills and interests, Baker was also an experienced climber. He combined his skills of exploration and disciplined research which led to the discovery of the previously assumed mythical legend of the Shangri-La waterfall of Tibet in the late 1990s.

For his team’s findings, Baker was recognized by the National Geographic Society1 Collections Online | British Museum. (n.d.). Www.britishmuseum.org. Retrieved January 12, 2024, from https://www.britishmuseum.org/collection/term/BIOG248462 as one of seven ‘Explorers for the Millennium’.

Baker found his way into yoga scholarship through his explorations and rigorous studies in Tibetan culture. Through research and personal experience of ancient Tibetan practices, he has become a leader in the field of Tibetan Yoga.

Nepal's capital, Kathmandu, from above
Nepal’s capital, Kathmandu

What Is Tibetan Yoga?

Tibetan yoga is known as ’khrulkhor, or trulkhor2 Trul khor. (2024, January 12). Wikipedia. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Trul_khor, translating to ‘magical movement’. Yogic movements, specifically, are known as tsalung trulkhor, which translates to ‘magical wheel of channels and winds’.

The Relationship Between Tibetan Yoga And Indian Hatha Yoga

Tibetan yoga has some similarities to Indian hatha yoga, including meditation positions, breathing exercises and yoga postures.

Both traditions explore the mind-body connection through energy channels and chakras, however, there are some differences within the chakra and energy systems that the traditions propose. 

The Turquoise Heart Essence

In his book, Tibetan Yoga: Principles and Practices, Baker introduces an ancient Tibetan text, Yuthok Nyingthik, which translates as ‘The Turquoise Heart Essence’.

The Turquoise Heart Essence was written in 1157 by Sumton Yeshe Zung, based on the teachings and writings of Yuthok Yonten Gonpo3 Yutok Yonten Gonpo. (n.d.). The Treasury of Lives. Retrieved January 12, 2024, from https://treasuryoflives.org/biographies/view/Yutok-Yonten-Gonpo-the-Younger/TBRC_P3005, a Tibetan physician and yogi who lived from 1126 to 1202.

Reputedly, The Turquoise Heart Essence was compiled after one of Yuthok’s many visits to India. It is thought that here he was taught the yogic techniques directly from the master’s of Indian Tantric traditions.

The text contains eighteen trulkhor exercises, some of which are comparable to hatha yoga postures such as peacock pose (Myurasana). They are described as practices to refine the body’s subtle energy channels.

an annotated image of a woman wearing black yoga clothes doing peacock pose

Ian Baker’s Notable Publications

Ian Baker has authored and co-authored several books. His most prominent publications include:

The Tibetan Art of Healing

The Tibetan Art of Healing (1997) provides striking paintings depicting the healing philosophies of Tibetan medicine. The paintings are intricate and detailed with the intention to provide the teachings through the images.

Baker’s words explore the information within the paintings in further detail, providing ancient insight into ailments and remedies.

Celestial Gallery

Celestial Gallery (2000) contains images of sacred mandalas, thought to inspire heightened states of clarity and intention merely by gazing at the paintings.

The images are reproductions to reinterpret the Tibetan art traditions containing images of various celestials, including the Medicine Buddha, Green Tara, White Tara, and other traditional Buddhist iconography to provoke spiritual experience in meditation.

a tibetan buddhist mandala

The Dalai Lama’s Secret Temple: Tantric wall paintings from Tibet

With a foreword written by the Dalai Lama himself, Baker received permission to publish images of the tantric paintings on the walls of the Dalai Lama’s private temple. The temple is remotely situated on an island behind the Potala Palace in Lhasa.

The images contain information that, until the publication of this book in 2000, remained highly secret.

It is thought that the paintings contain instructions for secret Tibetan yogic techniques. Interestingly, the Dalai Lama now considers this important information to be shared, rather than kept exclusively for those of his lineage.

The Heart of the World: A Journey to Tibet’s Lost Paradise

In The Heart of the World (first published 2004) Baker recounts his team’s great discovery of the prophetic 108-foot-high waterfall, uncovered after years of dedicated research.

Shangri-La was previously thought to be a mythical hidden land after more than a century of unsuccessful explorations to unearth the secret legend. 

As one of the least accessible and wildest terrains on earth, the book takes you on a thrilling adventure. Not only this, but Baker’s exploration enquires a metaphorical quest through the eyes of Tibetan traditions.

Overall, the book is an engaging read which will leave you with a deeper understanding of Tibetan Buddhism.

Buddhas of the Celestial Gallery

A two-feet tall, hand-bound, book, Buddhas of the Celestial Gallery (2011) is filled with artwork in the Tibetan-style mandala paintings created by artist Romio Shrestha and his team of artisan monks.

The paintings are postmodern interpretations of ancient Tibetan artistic tradition, which involve sometimes painstaking techniques using materials such as malachite, lapis, and marigold flowers, at times painted with three hairs of a cat’s tail.

Tibetan Yoga: Principles and Practices

In 2019, Baker published Tibetan Yoga: Principles and Practices, the first work of its kind to introduce photographs, artwork, and detailed information on the traditions of Tibetan Yoga in a comprehensive but approachable format.

The book covers aspects of yoga that may be familiar to experienced practitioners, such as meditations and visualization practices.

In addition, less familiar practices are introduced, including dream yoga4 https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Dream_yoga, lucid dreaming, sexual yoga, and yogic practices which involve the use of psychoactive plants or minerals to enhance spiritual experience.

a buddhist meditating on a rock in nature

The Discovery Of Shangri-La

One of Baker’s most noteworthy achievements is his contribution to the discovery of Shangri-La, a ‘hidden-land’ in the Himalayas.

Hidden-lands, also known as Beyul5 Beyul. (2024, January 10). Wikipedia. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Beyul in Tibetan, are distant areas in the Himalayas that the eighth-century Tantric Buddhist master Padmasambhava identified as spaces for spiritual growth and rejuvenation.

While in Western culture, these have been romanticized as the mythical realm of Shangri-La, the specific locations marked by Padmasambhava hold significance for Tibetan Buddhists seeking enlightenment.

Additionally, they serve as a foundation for environmental policies in Bhutan, India, and Nepal.

The Beyul Pemako, known as the ‘Hidden-Land Arrayed like Lotuses,’ located in the Tsangpo Gorge region of southern Tibet holds special significance for Tibetan Buddhists who view it as a heavenly sanctuary.

During the late 19th and early 20th centuries, the Royal Geographical Society embarked on expeditions, attempting to unveil the legendary ‘Falls of the Tsangpo’ in this very region.

The search of a long-lost land of paradise had inspired writers and artists for decades. The myth of Shangri-La was behind the stories of numerous books and films, such as 1937s Lost Horizon.

The mystery surrounding the existence and nature of this waterfall persisted until 1998 when Baker successfully reached its base, after around five years of expeditions. This marked a breakthrough in geographical exploration.

Baker details his thrilling expedition of the unexplored territory in his book The Heart of the World: A Journey to the Last Secret Place.

nature of Beyul Pemako
Beyul Pemako

The Dalai Lama’s Secret Temple

Another significant project of Baker’s was the publication and exhibition of the Tantric wall paintings inside the Dalai Lama’s personal temple. Baker received permission from the Dalai Lama to publicise these paintings which had remained highly secret until then.

Baker’s 2000 book published photographs of the never before seen walls of the temple. Later, Baker worked as a curator for ‘Tibet’s Secret Temple’6 Tibet’s Secret Temple. (n.d.). Wellcome Collection. https://wellcomecollection.org/exhibitions/W3Ls-SkAACgAEWMx at London’s Wellcome Collection, exhibiting an immersive experience of the wall paintings between 2015-2016.

The exhibition intended to explore the yoga and meditation traditions of Tibetan Buddhism and their relationship to mental and physical wellbeing in relation to today’s world.

Additionally, more than 120 objects were on display, including scroll painting, manuscripts, statues, ethnographic and ritual artefacts, and archival and contemporary film.

A main attraction of the exhibition were three of the 17th-century murals from the walls of the Dalai Lama’s secret meditation chamber, which were recreated as life-sized digital artworks by photographer Thomas Laird7 thomaslaird.com – Official website of Thomas Laird – Author, Writer, Ethnographer & Artist. (n.d.). Thomaslaird.com. Retrieved January 12, 2024, from https://thomaslaird.com/.

A full-length documentary was produced, so the artefacts of the exhibition can always be experienced digitally:

Alternatively, for a quick insight, the video below will provide you with a taste of what the exhibition offered:

For a small glimpse inside the islanded temple in Lhasa, see the video below, commissioned for the 2015 exhibition:

Ian Baker continues to publish academic work and regularly gives lectures on his research for various Buddhist and educational organisations.

Most recently, Baker co-founded The Vajra Path with Dr. Nida Chenagtsang, a traditional Tibetan medical physician. The Vajra Path intends to present Vajrayana Buddhism within the contemporary world, to merge modern perspectives with ancient wisdom.

Ian Baker and Dr. Nida Chenagtsang also lead guided pilgrimages to sacred Buddhist sites.

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Amy is a yoga teacher and practitioner based in Brighton.

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