What does the town of Twin Peaks have to do with the peaks of the Himalayas? Why does Special Agent Dale Cooper feel connected to Tibet and its people? Twin Peaks: The Return just aired its finale, but there’s still more to discover at the Rubin! Read up on the connections between the mysteries of the small Washington town and the artwork in the Rubin’s collection, then join us for a Twin Peaks tour on Friday, September 22.
Warning: Spoiler alerts lie ahead!
Tibetan Buddhist Divination in Episode 2, “Zen, or the Skill to Catch a Killer”
The first reference to Himalayan traditions in the series is a memorable scene in Episode 2, titled “Zen, or the Skill to Catch a Killer.” After hitting a roadblock in the murder case of Laura Palmer, Agent Cooper lectures the Twin Peaks Sheriff’s Department on the culture of Tibet and why he feels it will help him solve the mystery. He explains:
“Following a dream I had three years ago, I have become deeply moved by the plight of the Tibetan people, and have been filled with a desire to help them. I also awoke from the same dream realizing that I had subconsciously gained knowledge of a deductive technique, involving mind-body coordination operating hand-in-hand with the deepest level of intuition.”
What is the technique he dreamed of? As Sheriff Harry S. Truman reads a list of suspects aloud, Agent Cooper throws a rock at a glass bottle after each name. When Sheriff Truman names Leo Johnson, Cooper hits the glass bottle, shattering it. Cooper is certain that his next move is to investigate Leo’s connection to Laura Palmer’s murder.
While Cooper’s deduction technique isn’t actually Tibetan in origin, the cultures of the Himalayas have a long tradition of using divination to help make important decisions. In the Rubin’s exhibition Masterworks, one of the Museum’s newest acquisitions relates directly to this tradition: an impressive illustrated manuscript of the White Beryl, a seventeenth-century text written for the 5th Dalai Lama that combines Chinese elemental divination with Indian and Nepalese astrology, creating an incredibly complex system to help guide future decisions.
The Origins of Tibetan Buddhism in Episode 9, “Coma”
The next reference to Tibet in Twin Peaks happens in the second episode of the second season. While having breakfast at the Great Northern Hotel with fellow FBI agent Albert Rosenfield, Agent Cooper explains how Buddhism came to Tibet.
“Buddhist tradition first came to the land of snow in the fifth century AD. The first Tibetan king to be touched by the Dharma was King Hathatha Rignamputsan. He and succeeding kings were collectively known as the Happy Generations. Now some historians place them in the Water Snake Year, 213 AD. Others in the year of the water ox, 173 AD. Amazing isn’t it? The Happy Generations.”
Unfortunately, Coop’s enthusiasm for the story didn’t make him accurate. Most Tibetan historians date the first introduction of Buddhism to Tibet to the seventh century, during the reign of King Songtsen Gampo. But Buddhism did not become established in the Himalayas until the arrival of the great Indian Buddhist saint Padmsambhava, who was believed to subdue the local spirits that didn’t want this foreign religion to invade their territory. Though Dale Cooper’s story uses a different name, it does seem to reference to the fifth-century King Thothori Nyantsen. According to legend, during this king’s reign, a Buddhist text fell from the sky. Recognizing its importance, the king kept the text without truly understanding what it contained.
The Tibetan Book of the Dead in Episode 16, “Arbitrary Law”
After Leland Palmer realizes that he killed his daughter Laura while possessed by the evil spirit BOB, Agent Cooper holds the distraught and dying Leland and says these words of comfort to him:
“Leland, the time has come for you to seek the path. Your soul has set you face-to-face with the clear light, and you are now about to experience it in all its reality, wherein all things are like the void and cloudless sky, and the naked, spotless intellect is like a transparent vacuum, without circumference or center. Leland, in this moment, know yourself, and abide in that state”¦ Look to the light, Leland. Find the light.”
This speech pharaphases the most famous Tibetan book in the West, The Tibetan Book of the Dead. Known as the Bardo Thodrol in the Tibetan language, the book is considered a “treasure text,” written by Padmasambhava during the eighth century but not revealed until the fourteenth century by the treasure revealer Karma Lingpa. The text describes what happens to someone’s consciousness between the states of death and rebirth. Below is the original text that parallels Agent Cooper’s speech:
“O, nobly-born [so-and-so by name], the time hath now come for thee to seek the Path [in reality]. Thy breathing is about to cease. Thy guru hath set thee face to face before with the Clear Light; and now thou art about to experience in its Reality in the Bardo state, wherein all things are like the void and cloudless sky, and the naked, spotless intellect is like unto a transparent vacuum without circumference or centre. At this moment, know thou thyself, and abide in that state.”
The Rubin’s latest exhibition The World Is Sound contains an immersive installation where you can lie down, listen to a section from the Bardo Thodrol, and imagine you are moving from one life to the next.
Have you found any other references to Himalayan cultures in Twin Peaks? What other mystical traditions can you find represented in the show? Let us know!
Illustrated White Beryl Elemental Divination Manuscript Central Tibet; mid-eighteenth century Pigment on cloth Rubin Museum of Art C2015.7
Padmasambhava; Kham Province, Eastern Tibet; nineteenth century; Pigments on cloth; Rubin Museum of Art; Gift of Shelley and Donald Rubin; C2006.66.127 (HAR 74)
Peaceful & Wrathful Deities of the Bardo Tibet; nineteenth century; Ground mineral pigments on cotton; Rubin Museum of; Art Gift of Shelley and Donald Rubin C2006.66.539 (HAR 1015)