Thursday, May 21, 2009

Martha Sherrill's "The Buddha from Brooklyn": Book Review

From the title, I figured an Allen Ginsberg-goes-to-Katmandu spiel. Far from it. This deserves wide attention for its insights into how a cult of personality may evolve into a sincere religion. A half-Italian (quarter-Jewish) gal from Brooklyn, although she moved to Florida at 14 and spent her time since in the South, Midwest, and now Maryland, the soon-to-be four (or five) times-divorced mother of many defies expectations of whom a "tulku," or reincarnated holy one in the Tibetan tradition, would be.

Is she genuine? The question perhaps lies beyond Western ways of verification. Gurus have been notorious before. Sherrill constructs a story about this sometimes sleek, sometimes frumpy, Lee Press-On Nails and black leather-clad mother that spirals downward and inward as hints early on expand, halfway through this brisk, intelligent book. As if for dazzled children, the lady in question exerts considerable appeal for adults as she exhibits the wonder of the spirit. The aura she creates energizes the channeller-healer and her New Age followers into Buddhism after a lama visits their center. He recognizes Catharine Burroughs (already changed from Alyce Zeoli) as the return of a 17th c. Tibetan holy woman. She will take the name Jetsunma Akhon Lhamo and command an increasingly devoted, in the full sense, congregation. It includes her friends and family, who now venerate her as a guru in Tibetan fashion, prostrating before her.

Meanwhile, while the monks and mostly nuns at what becomes America's largest and most stable Tibetan Buddhist monastery work themselves ragged to build the temple and then the forty-foot stupa (sacred monument; if they said prayers for the bugs killed in the construction, why did they have to cut so many trees down for it, and why destroy a sixty-five acre grove across the road for their temple?), Jetsunma takes on a combination of consumerism and confrontation that unsettles a few of her charges. Two nuns were her lovers; so were two monks, both of whom marry her more or less sequentially. She loves and leaves them in quick time; she also tells members to divorce their spouses, and takes on one member's child as her own adopted one while coveting another couple's child. The community winds up giving half its income to her, tax-free $10k monthly, even as the monastics live spartan lives full of sacrifice and unending toil to serve her and her plan to build the stupa and expand the monastery. They also help fund her hair-care product scheme and its infomercials, which fail to capture the public.

Jetsunma claims the stupa's building trumps finding a cancer cure or running a soup kitchen. The romantic love that attaches so many to join her monastery and temple proves her charismatic power over often professionals and well-educated folks seeking her insights, from around the DC area. Sherrill, as a Washington insider used to profiling celebrities, struggles to understand her charm. The vowed members of the temple must obey her, as a guru's commands cannot be denied, under "samaya" that instills in Tibetan practice a total obligation to a lama as part of the demanding and punishing way a follower finds enlightenment by endless abnegation.

The followers fear losing karma and creating bad energy among other "sentient beings" if they disobey her. A visiting monk warns that such a system distorts the dharma teaching just as the Tibetan forms have warped the original dharma of the Buddha's message, but he doubts if reform can come in their lifetimes. The Asian models instill obedience, and by "any means necessary," Jetsunma will even use seduction if it lands her followers who will then be open to dharma, in her logic, and the way of the Buddha.

Such reasoning lures Sherrill to relate stories she tells from within the circle-- Jetsunma's third husband, her attendant, male and female consorts, and a nun who wavers in her commitment. The children appear less vividly. Sherrill seems to have been prevented in talking to the earlier two-exes and Alyce's mother so as to have access to Jetsunma. (I note that my hardcover book lacked the small picture of the guru on the paperback cover; surprisingly or not, no photos of the KPC temple or its members are shown.) Sherrill appears, late in her quest, to veer away from the increasingly complex imbroglio into tangents, talking with Deepak Chopra, Tammy Faye Bakker, Dr. Laura Schlessinger in her attempt to comprehend how charisma and money combine for certain purveyors of self-help coupled with spirituality. She's on to a great topic, but this distracts her from the Tibetan Buddhist adaptation to the West that needs elucidation.

This lack of follow-through examination of Tibetan practices in one instance left the narrative less than complete. I sensed that the lamas allied with the one who "recognized" Jetsunma were about to rescind that judgment when a lawsuit threatened; the sudden withdrawal of the case left me wondering if indeed a guru's "recognition" could ever be in error. The trouble, or the blessing, for those truly convinced of "guru devotion" is that "Correct View" allegiance allows one even to lie if a guru's involved, from what Sherrill tells us, and this whole predicament seemed less than clear in her treatment of the attempt to get Jetsunma's bonafides withdrawn by the lamas in charge. The dangers for a Westerner of explaining, or following, absolute conviction that a guru will guide one to enlightenment no matter how bizarre or extravagant their behavior, as in the case of Chogyam Trungpa's "crazy wisdom" alluded to in this book, complicates the matter considerably.

The temple increasingly takes on an aura familiar to those who know of religious domination by powerful leaders, and certainly Jetsunma embodies such magnetism, turned towards confusing and contradictory directions. She seems to retreat from Tibetan fidelity after the mid-90s, and in her mid-forties may have tired from such intense scrutiny, moving her core group again-- to the New Age bastion of Sedona, Arizona.

Yet, Sherrill does not end her story with a pat moral. I leave out the latter episodes, but the last seventy-five pages marvelously increase the suspense that this author creates out of this subject. One time, she fears that "there was no emptiness," that all around Jetsunma betrays only desperation, not aspiration. Then, she reconsiders, in the tradition of earlier cults turned respectable faiths.

I leave the relevance of the dog's tooth as the decoy Tibetan tale and her interpretation for you to find out. Sherrill takes on a great challenge personally and journalistically, and I admire her tale-telling skills in her intricately arranged construction of the facts, and her own exploration of spiritual appeal amidst material temptation. The lesson she learns may elude our rational expectation, but "the lotus has its roots in the mud" proves an relevant and appropriate phrase.

(See my related review of Jeffery Paine's 2004 "Re-Enchantment: Tibetan Buddhism Comes to the West" posted 6-28-09, here, on "Blogtrotter," and on Amazon U.S. He has a chapter on Jetsunma. My regular blog, "Blogtrotter," has many reviews related to this wider topic as well.)

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