Friday, August 15, 2008

John Riley Perks' "The Mahasiddha & His Idiot Servant": Book Review.

I'm probably in the minority, coming to Perks' earnest and rambunctious account via my research into Celtic spirituality rather than Buddhism. So, I had no bias really one way or the other starting this brisk book-- regarding the reputation of his idiosyncratic "mahasiddha." Having known only of Chogyam Trungpa's reputation by its coverage in Rick Fields' "How the Swans Came to the Lake," read over a decade ago, Trungpa's hazy to me. Francesca Fremantle, a student in the same era as Perks (although she's unmentioned by him here) and co-translator with Trungpa of the "Tibetan Book of the Dead," mentions him with affection in her preface, but somewhat gingerly regarding "crazy wisdom" in her scholarly commentary on the TBoD, "Luminous Emptiness" (also reviewed recently by me). So, when I found out Perks' current interest in "Celtic Buddhism" via a websearch, I tracked down this autobiography of the servant and the man he served.

It's advisable-- as probably the vast majority of readers will already possess-- surely to know about Buddhism first. As one of the few opening this narrative with rudimentary understanding, it helped that footnotes explain most of the terms. The book does skip about, and it's wise that Perks interspersed short chapters analyzing his earlier escapades from a somewhat more chastened perspective. It's fast-paced, if heavy as many such first-person, small-press tales tend to be, on whatever the author wants to chat with us about at the moment.

As another reviewer found to his disdain, but I thought typically off-kilter for Perks' attitude towards his adventures in its unexpected profundity (but I have an unpredictable mind too), the juxtaposition of a consideration of oral sex with our passage through the birth canal showed how Perks' erotic and spiritual tutelage under one who appeared quite experienced in the sacred as the profane had progressed to fruition. However, Perks' embrace of the promiscuous and the liberated under the guise of enlightenment and privilege also led me into growing unease at the course such an example might have effected the trust of many followers, not only Perks from his intimate level of observation.

Perks, as Elbert Porter's detailed review summarizes, covers his checkered past with vim. Our protagonist's obviously quite a conniver, and he reckoned Trungpa'd be no match for him when he stumbles across him in the early days of hippiedom in Vermont. But how, I kept asking myself, did such an extended lost weekend sustain itself practically? I did wonder, reading the jet-setting flights, the frequent globe-trotting holidays, and the considerable expense that kitting out a retinue of servants and hangers-on as the entourage of "Shambhala" masquerading as the royal retinue of Bhutan cost, as it trundled across the Aquarian Age into the Me Decade. How many students paid tuition for a three-month "seminary" retreat in good faith that these funds would be furthering serious investment in Buddhist teaching in America? I wondered at what seemed to me the play-acting, the role-playing, the debauchery and drinking and drug-taking under such auspices.

Perks does wrestle, as anyone with a conscience, with such dilemmas, even if he does not in the text articulate the ethical conflict as I have. It's more visceral: Trungpa's alcoholism and his decline. I sensed when I read Fremantle's carefully worded longing an echo of the feeling that the master must have inspired in his servants, but I also wondered about the damage done by such a leader in the eyes of those not as skilled as the inner circle of Shambhala's court jesters. Perks circles around this delicate matter, but I wanted him to take it on directly.

Perhaps, like Fremantle as another intimate, Perks cannot do this wholly. The contradictions may be too painful. The moral relativism of the Seventies certainly presents a far different guru than the Dalai Lama's monkish asceticism, and I understand intellectually Perks' struggle to reconcile the hedonistic "holy fool" with his relentless testing and teasing of his self-appointed butler.

Still, there's a jarring gap between ideals and reality here, and no wonder Perks felt he tempted madness in navigating between subservience and dominance of quite an unstable individual. I wonder what ever happened to Max's poor dog, Myson? I get the point of Trungpa's lesson in attachment and renunciation, trust and discipline, but it does appear needless cruelty to a trusting pet to teach Perks his dharma lesson. Did Myson ever return from running out the door into a Vermont chill?

That being said, the narrative does give, in perhaps inevitably uneven fashion, how one gets initiated into wisdom as a devoteé of a guru. It's an unsettling tale for those of us less courageous or daring, but the insider's entry into a heightened state-- with or without drugs-- I found engrossing. Not sure how Perks' respectful if irreverent story compares with Stephen Butterfield's equally controversial version of his stint under Trungpa, "The Double Mirror"!

I was also intrigued by Perks' extended "dream" of Celtic and Buddhist goddesses. I wanted more, given my druthers, on the fusion of these visualizations, and how they came about. But, except for a hint early on that his mother was a Wicca healer when he grew up in Kent around WWII, there's nothing much until very late about Trungpa's encouraging him to look into Celtic parallels. Not even any (if any) significance of why his middle name's Riley. The book does touch upon Celtic matters, but only superficially. A page on an Irish visit and half of that's a guy spewing up Guinness. I'd have expected more clarity and depth here.

Then, suddenly, a few pages discuss "Celtic Buddhism" again-- but only in general terms near the end. However, the blurb tells us that Perks now's writing a book on this subject. I wish I learned why he felt he had to break with the Tibetan teachings to form what appears to be a new grounded in Celtic tradition, but perhaps this upheaval awaits his sequel. I'll be reviewing it, certainly.

(Posted to Amazon US today with the heading "Before P. Diddy, another butler, another celebrity.")

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