Wednesday, May 27, 2009

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

Not a tale of an Allen Ginsberg-type who finds fulfillment in Katmandu, but an unpredictable, insightful, and nuanced report on how a cult (of personality?) begins and a religion may evolve in exurban Maryland. This book's generated heated discussion on Amazon; I suspect many hostile reviewers have not read the book's last chapters. Here's the subtlety of what happens when an experienced journalist, skilled at Hollywood and D.C. celebrity profiles, decides to challenge herself by immersing herself further in the opportunities for learning the dharma, the Buddhist teaching, that's claimed the foundation of the controversial happenings at KPC temple.

The blurbs tell the background of how a twice-divorced New Age healer-channeler, in her mid-forties in the mid-90s, became "recognized" by a visiting Tibetan lama as a reincarnation of a holy woman from the 17th c. She turns herself into a "tulku" to be venerated as representative of a type of buddha, or enlightened being. Those with whom she once socialized now prostrate themselves before her; her children do so too. She claims that by "skillful means," and "by any means necessary," she will bring the dharma to America and build a "religion." This already may display either a misunderstanding of Buddhism, which technically is not a theistic system of worship, or it may simplify how the complex layers of Tibetan practice may be translated into an American vocabulary. Such indeterminacy permeates this narrative.

Typical ambiguity appears in apparently charismatic presentations by Jetsunma, as she calls herself in her fourth name change in her career. The question of her conduct drives this carefully structured study of religious leadership and social obedience. I learned of this book through James W. Coleman's sociological study of how Americans create "The New Buddhism" (also reviewed by me). The process now unfolding of how Westerners incorporate Asian concepts of "guru devotion" here by Correct View may remind many examining KDP of a cult, yet Tibetan Buddhism demands absolute trust in a guru's commands for a practitioner to instill self-discipline and to gain merit. Some explaining Tibetan customs insist also that many gurus have proven to be equally unpredictable and iconoclastic in their documented behavior, long before Jetsunma's entry as the first female "tulku" in Western Buddhism.

Yet, I ended this book still with a big question that may not be resolved by our Western expectations. Here's what haunts me. Did the Tibetan lama make a mistake by selecting her so early on, before she and her New Age group knew much about dharma? The lawsuit filed later on after Jetsunma repeatedly assaults a fragile nun (just out of hospital that day with stitches) for her infidelity with a visiting monk seems to connect with possible retraction of Jetsunma's "recognition" by other lamas. The lack of central jurisdiction among the many sects in Tibetan Buddhism complicates who's legitimate, I assume. The New Age elements that persist after Jetsunma establishes America's largest and most stable Tibetan Buddhist monastery confounded me, although many observers appeared less confused by this syncretism.

Jetsunma's comprehension of Buddhism, if she is a "tulku," however, appears less than complete despite her study and "recognition." She "channels" what to outside observers does not always fit dharma; is her word to be trusted as a "tulku" even if it challenges the norm? She assures the KDP community that she must be obeyed, and her followers fear karmic retribution or harm for "other sentient beings" will ensue if Jetsunma is not placated. Some divorce their spouses on her instruction. She adopts one child of a follower who becomes a nun, and she covets the child of a lay couple. She uses seduction to win men and women to the dharma. This chaotic atmosphere becomes rationalized by many defenders; a few turn fearful but fewer dare to leave, for they face a loss of the merit accumulated by their devotion, unrelenting work, and spiritual effort that invests a type of romantic love in their surrender, their promise of "samaya" or total devotion, to their spiritual leader.

Their guru comes up with grand projects. Some, like the hair-care business sold by infomercials, fail despite the funds raised by her community. Others succeed. But why Jetsunma builds a stupa, a sacred monument, in a grove that necessitates the cutting down of so many trees even as the workers pray for the bugs they killed frustrated me. I also could not understand why the temple had to expand into the sixty-five acres of woods across the road. Add to this: Jetsunma's taste for red meat, Lee Press-On Nails, black leather, tight jeans, frequent vacations, and the acquisition of crystals and relics. She received an income tax-free of $10k monthly, plus food and expenses, while her monks, nuns and followers mortgaged houses and sacrificed sundries so she could increase the dharma among an accountant or clerk somewhere who'd see her name on the credit card bills she amassed.

Two nuns were her lovers; two monks were her later husbands or consorts. She leaves her third husband during the course of this narrative; I often wondered about her variously fathered children, who follow her faithfully. One restriction of Sherrill's access appears that she could not talk to the first two husbands or Jetsunma's mother; the absence of photos-- the hardcover I read lacks the paperback's tiny cover photo of the guru-- does make this a book dependent on the author's considerable powers of description to enliven the fascinating story that begins to lure her in, despite her journalistic skepticism and authorial objectivity.

Sherrill late in her investigation appears stymied as a movie deal, a documentary, and a feature film of Jetsunma all enter the negotiations. The journalist sidesteps into interviews with Tammy Faye Bakker, Deepak Chopra, Dr. Laura Schlessinger, and Reneé Taylor as she seeks insight into how spiritual marketing collides with religious power. These conversations feel inserted from Sherrill's other commissioned work, and detract from the focus. Better to have compared American Buddhist centers to KDP, as we hear from a visiting monk how KDP differs from the other foundations, but we lack the details that provide a comparison. He warns that Tibetan Buddhism is not the system that KDP incorporates, and that Tibetan Buddhism itself is not the Buddha's teaching anymore, but that in our lifetime, change will not likely occur. This reflection needed more elucidation from Sherrill, as it's a crucial insight often lacking equivalent scrutiny by others who rush to defend every utterance made by Jetsunma.

Sherrill's ultimately divided in her loyalty to journalistic detachment vs. her curiosity about the message of the dharma that, perhaps in her followers more than Jetsunma, impels such childlike trust and sustained wonder. How a cult turns a religion, she reasons: time plus conformity. Now, KDP appears in the earlier stages. Jetsunma claims her stupa's doing more good than finding a cure for cancer or running a soup kitchen. Sherrill bristles at Jetsunma's temper, her rampages, her spending: "there was no emptiness." That is, no renunciation such as the KDP community had to give, but only taking by its leader. This betrays not "aspiration" towards humane progress through the dharma but "desperation" of a deluded leader, but after asserting this, Sherrill retreats from harsh conclusions. She listens to those who insist how much KDP has given meaning to their shallow lives.

How she reconciles her criticism of Jetsunma with an acceptance of the impact her teaching of the dharma has on her followers provoked me towards reactions that she, as with me, did not anticipate. She remembers how "the lotus has its roots in the mud." She also applies, in the closing pages, a memorable interpretation of a Tibetan story of a dog's tooth as a decoy that fittingly ends this engrossing, cleverly constructed, gently spiralling narrative very evocatively.

P.S. Others have mentioned this, however, is not a proper introduction to the often over-romanticized, misunderstood Tibetan Buddhist mindset. Thubten Chodron's "Open Mind, Clear Heart" may help; antidotes or alternatives to the opulence sought at KPC may be found in Dzongsar Jamyang Kheyentse's "What Makes You 'Not' a Buddhist," or former Zen and Tibetan monk Stephen Batchelor's "Buddhism Without Beliefs" (all reviewed recently by me on the blog and as was this last week on Amazon US).

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