Enlightenment Journeys

 Breakfast with Buddha, by Roland Merullo 

Otto Ringling is a happily married, upper-middle-class man with kids he loves. But after his parents are killed in a car accident, he begins to doubt that his comfortable life is all there is.

When Otto has to go back to North Dakota, where he grew up, to take care of his parents' estate, his “flaky” sister contrives to have her guru come along for the ride. The guru is a “Rinpoche” from Siberia. I had thought this was entirely made up: “Rinpoche” is a Tibetan title, and how would Tibetan Buddhism get to Siberia, I wondered. But a bit of research revealed that, in fact, there is a branch of Tibetan Buddhism there, and there was persecution in the Stalinist era, just as the Rinpoche describes.

The triumph of this book is in the characterization. Both Otto, as the first person narrator, and the Rinpoche as his foil are likable, and the Rinpoche is also very funny. We see Otto change from a skeptic to a man who sees that the Rinpoche is offering him something of value. And when Otto has his first experience of “extinction” on a yoga mat (this Rinpoche does a bit of everything!), he finally has to acknowledge that there is a realm of consciousness that the Rinpoche understands but he doesn't.  He is ready to learn.

At the same time as the story is about Otto's inner journey, though, it is also about an outer journey. After a couple of days of verbal sparring, the Rinpoche and Otto make a deal: Rinpoche will show Otto the inner world and Otto will show Rinpoche the United States – at least the part they are traveling through. So we also have a travelogue. And since much of what is seen is through the eyes of Rinpoche, this gives Merullo the chance to present our country as though seen for the first time. For example, in one scene, the two take a boat up the Chicago River, and the announcer explains how they made the river run the other way in order that its filth wouldn't flow into the lake. Rinpoche mumbles, “They made the river run the other way.” Then he wonders why they didn't just clean up the river. “Too hard, I guess,” Otto replies.

There is so much more in this book, but I'll stop here and just say, Read it!

 Enlightenment for Idiots, by Anne Cushman

I love the premise of this novel: a young yoga teacher with a contract to write a book for the fictional "For Idiots" series traipses through India looking for fulfillment in all the wrong -- and a couple of right -- places, while her clueless editor at home keeps emailing, "Have you found enlightenment yet?" The narrator's willingness to share her foolishness with the reader endears her to us, so that we willingly trudge along with her as her spiritual, personal, and professional journeys come to a climax in a trip that turns out to be anything but what she expected.

Sitting Practice, by Carolyn Adderson

An automobile accident at the beginning of a marriage transforms a couple's relationship in this novel by talented writer Carolyn Adderson. From chapter to chapter, the point of view switches among several characters, so that we come to understand how the couple's situation is not just theirs but that of everyone around them.

However, both the title and the empty chair on the cover, suggesting that the novel is about meditation, or the way meditation transforms a character's life or consciousness, are misleading. The main character does indeed get involved with Buddhism but, except for one crisis moment, we never actually see him practicing, and we know he's a believer mostly because those in his life complain about his proselytizing. It's almost as though the novel started out as something else and gradually morphed but whoever thought up the title forgot to change it.

In short, if you're looking for an insightful and interesting novel, I can recommend this one, but if you are looking specifically for Buddhist fiction, I would give it a pass. 

   Sun at Midnight: A Memoir of the Dark Night

by Andrew Harvey

I know little of Andrew Harvey except that he is an English mystic and very involved in organizing people to change consciousness to save the earth from environmental destruction. But this book is about an earlier period in his life.  For fifteen years, he had been a follower of a woman called Mother Meera and had a falling out with her when she told him that she wanted him to stop being gay and marry a woman! Andrew, at this time, had just found the love of his life, whom he was not about to dump, but even if he hadn't met such a man, so Meera's advice was totally outrageous to him. After all, she'd known he was gay from the beginning and he had brought many of his gay brothers to her. But now she was receiving letters from other believers who told her she had to do something about someone so prominent in her organization being gay.

Partly, this book is a testament to how we deceive ourselves when we want to believe something badly enough. Harvey kept construing what Meera was saying as some kind of test, or imagining he'd misunderstood – anything but that she really did not accept his sexual orientation, and therefore did not accept him. But finally he had to admit the truth.

Meera did not take well to his apostasy. Harvey's book recounts many threats against him and his partner – including threats on their lives – by those who could not countenance his departure from Meera. He was also defamed, with many believers stating that what he claimed Meera said about homosexuality was nonsense, and that the conversations he had with her had never happened.

The book is subtitled “A Memoir of the Dark Night” because, in the end, Harvey is forced to confront the ways he brought what happened to him onto himself, the ways he had colluded and compromised in order to make a reputation for himself.

But this is a strange book.  There is something incredibly New Age about it – and so, for me, anyway, it is hard to swallow.  Harvey has rejected Meera, but he still worships The Mother, the “true” Mother, which is the female spirit in all religions, as far as I can tell. He calls on supernatural explanations for much of what happens to him and his partner, all the way from believing that Meera put a curse on him to believing that good spirits will banish her evil in the end. It's all a bit much. I wasn't there – I have no idea what really happened – and my sense is that Harvey is telling the truth basically. But –

I also found the dialogue contrived. I know that no one writing a memoir of events that took place a decade or more earlier is going to remember the conversations verbatim, and I'm sure that Harvey was much more interested in the substance than in authentic-sounding dialogue, but it would be nice to be able to believe that his interlocutors actually used the words attributed to them and I couldn't. A more mundane quibble is that the book is poorly edited. There are numerous errors that some line editor should have fixed – a surprising lapse because the publisher is a major one.

Still, Harvey is a major figure in New Age spiritual circles, and the story is fascinating, mostly as a cautionary tale.  We so easily project our own divinity onto others -- and the results can be catastrophic.

Syd Arthur, by Ellen Frankel

The cleverly named protagonist, Syd Arthur, and her upper-middle-class Jewish housewife friends aren't deep, to say the least. They are consumed with diets, eating, and weight. They also like to shop.  Over time, Syd changes, but one of the problems with presenting a shallow character who will eventually transform is how many pages to spend on the shallowness.  First-time novelist Frankel spends way too much. Allowing one or two scenes to represent a repeated experience is one of the skills of an experienced fiction writer, and perhaps Frankel will do better with this the next time.

Syd becomes interested in various types of Eastern spirituality, and the reader is taken on a tour of each of them. Occasionally, though, I'm puzzled about whose side to be on. For example, when family and friends criticize Syd's new-found spiritual interests, I think we are supposed to root for her. But there is something so new-age phony about the ashram she initially goes to (a thinly disguised Siddha Yoga) that one can't help wondering about a character who can't see this. And when she finally leaves this group, she does so quietly, whereas the scandals she has discovered could have been the source of lots of internal tension: she has, after all, been a believer. It is an opportunity missed.

Some more opportunities are missed along the way as well. For example, there is a tragedy in Syd's neighborhood which could have foreshadowed a tragedy in Syd's personal life but doesn't. Such a personal tragedy might have been an opportunity to give Syd's new-found spirituality a real test. By contrast, throughout the book, Syd's outer world is somewhere between good and great: great husband, no money problems, friends who love her, daughter in college who is no more disrespectful than most kids that age. Frankel may be making the point that people can feel the need for a deeper consciousness even when everything is going fairly smoothly, but fiction works better with more tension than this novel has.

The first person present narration was a successful choice, even if a challenging one for a first-time novelist, making Syd's journey read like a diary. But it also may have allowed Frankel to succumb to the temptation to spend way too much time describing in mind-numbing detail each of the spiritual practices Syd takes up and her responses to them. Again, as with the compulsive eating and shopping, a bit of description with lots of suggestion works better than laying everything out again and again.

The most interesting character in this book is Bodee, Syd's older friend who, in his quiet manner, helps in her transformation. Syd eventually lands in Buddhism, and she finally even integrates Judaism into her spirituality.

In the end, though, I wondered who the readership is supposed to be. The kind of superficial housewife Syd was in the beginning wouldn't be interested. And the serious practitioner of Eastern spirituality would, I think, find it redundant. Maybe a reader who has gone through a transformation similar to Syd's would be interested.

The clever title of the book, along with the cover, are the best things about it. Its humor helps make the length bearable, and the dialog is witty and authentic. But this story could have been so much more enjoyable if only an editor had penciled out about a third of it. Still, none of the flaws in Syd Arthur are fatal, just unfortunate, and it is quite possible that Frankel, who has previous books on the psychology of eating to her credit, will learn from this experience and create a truly excellent novel the next time around.

Turtle Feet: The Making and Unmaking of a Buddhist Monk 

by Nikolai Grozni

A promising career as a jazz pianist wasn't enough for Nikolai Gronzi. He wanted to know what life was really about. So he threw away everything to become a Tibetan Buddhist monk in Dharamsala, India, home of the Tibetan exile community. 

Dharamsala is a small town where Indians and Tibetans live as uneasy neighbors, where everyone is always running into everyone, where people quickly fall into stereotypes.  Gronzni, originally from Albania, had gone to a music conservatory in Boston, so he became a cultural mixture, but for the Indians and Tibetans he was simply an “Engie,” like all the others from the West. 

Grozni dedicates his book to “Tsar,” the Serbian who was his best friend in Dharmasala and around whom a lot of the drama centers. Colorful and nonconformist Tsar doesn't fit in anywhere, both figuratively and literally, because he is from Yugoslavia: with the Serbo-Croatian war is in full swing, his country doesn't exist anymore.  Nikolai spends much time and energy trying to rescue Tsar from one crisis after another, most of them resulting from Tsar's being in India illegally. Still, Tsar has something, some insight into reality, and Nikolai is probably attracted to him for that reason, although it is not until the end, when Nikolai has his own realization, that he recognizes Tsar's true depth.

Despite the difficulties all of the Westerners face in Dharamsala, though, Nikolai does find a Tibetan teacher who, in his gruff and unfriendly way, takes this “Engie” under his wing and tutors him. Nickolai also goes to classes at a Buddhist institute when he is not busy rescuing Tsar. But the teaching seems so abstract, so intellectual, with “Buddhist debate” as the main topic of study, that I was sure that the message of subtitle -- The Making and Unmaking of a Buddhist Monk -- was that this poor young man would go home disillusioned, realizing he had taken his seeking to the wrong place. I was mistaken. When Nikolai's world stops – when he finds what he came to India seeking – I had to admit that there are many ways to Truth.

TURTLE FEET gives the reader an appreciation not only of how broad the spectrum of everyday life on earth is but also of how broad the spectrum of Buddhist teaching is as well. 

Yoga Bitch
by Suzanne Morrison 

A young woman goes on a six-week yoga retreat in Bali, but she isn't just looking for exercise or an exotic experience.  She's looking for enlightenment, a state that she imagines her teacher has already reached.

The story of Morrison's journey is told through a journal the author kept.  How much it was edited, I don't know -- I know that my own journal is not that polished!  But it is a detailed account that records not only Morrison's inner journey but also the beauty and culture of Bali, seen through her eyes.

All is not sweetness and light, though -- far from it.  Worshiping a teacher has its downside, as nearly everyone who has been there knows.  The problem is that we are all human beings, and this means not only that no one can live up to an ideal image but that also, unfortunately, many if not most teachers are tempted to try to match the image their admirer sees.  Although Morrison doesn't specifically say so, I concluded that her teacher did this.  In any case, when Morrison begins to learn her teacher's faults, she is disillusioned.

Morrison also wonders whether she herself fits in with these New Age yogis, who refuse to take antibiotics no matter how sick, who refrain from sugar and cigarettes and liquor -- and from so many things that are not considered pure.  But are her yogamates really as pure as she imagines?  She will find out.

Meanwhile, Morrison is contemplating the issues that she will face when she returns home, most specifically whether she will move to New York to start a new life there with her boyfriend.  She loves him, but does she love him enough?  And then there is the problem that she isn't sure she even believes in a "higher self" or God or whatever one calls it.  Part of her wants to believe but another part doubts that belief is anything but self-delusion. 

Because the journal chapters are interspersed with chapters written some years after Morrison returned from Bali, we learn how things came out, what kind of decisions she ended up making.  We also hear the voice of a more mature woman, still young, but not so naive, looking back on her adventure, seeing it whole now, commenting especially on the commercialization of yoga -- is a theme that runs throughout the book -- and how disillusioned she became with it because of that.  For the teacher she once idolized, though, she comes to feel not judgment but compassion.

The text of the more recent chapters is double spaced, which is a bit unusual, but it works:  we immediately know when we are back in the more recent time, and the double spacing is much easier to read than the italic font we often see to differentiate one time or place from another.

Altogether, I found this book funny, informative and touching.  Definitely a thumbs up.

Enlightenment Blues: My Years with an American Guru

by Andre van der Braak

It's not easy to admit you made a mistake -- especially not an eleven year one. When people feel they've been duped, their reactions vary, but anger is usually in there somewhere. It is to author van der Braak's credit that he has been able to write a book about his involvement with the American guru Andrew Cohen without sounding bitter or self-pitying.

In an on-line interview, the author says that the first version of this book was very angry. Apparently, writing it was therapy for him because by the time the book was published, he had let go of the need to use the book to get even. This is fortunate, because such copy doesn't generally read very well.

Instead we have a thoroughly honest book in which van der Braak doesn't spare himself one bit.  He was a fawning disciple, willing to do Cohen's bidding, no matter how unreasonable, trying to please when there was no pleasing his guru, always wanting that elusive thing -- permanent enlightenment -- and believing that Cohen was the one person who had access to it.

This book is frightening for a lot of reasons but perhaps none so much as that Cohen's ideas all sounded good. "Impersonal enlightenment," he called it -- meaning that all of his students would, through his teaching, finally be rid of their egos and attain a universal love. But as more and more time passed and his students failed to attain the goal, Cohen's methods became increasingly extreme: meditation for hours a day, then push-ups for hours, then this, then that.  He would urge people to get into relationships, then break them up when he felt they weren't serving "the whole." Further, as in any cult, when people were in the doghouse or had been ejected from the community -- which happened a lot and was one of the methods of mind-control -- those who were in Cohen's good graces were not to contact those fallen from the guru's grace.

One of the revolutionary methods Cohen used was having groups criticize members by ganging up on particular people, usually one at a time -- with the idea that they needed a lesson in how indulgent of their egos they were. Usually, Cohen started the ball rolling and then others all joined in the criticism. Even intimate partners were not immune from each other's criticism. Everyone truly believed that they were berating others mercilessly for their own good. It all sounds rather like Communist China's self-criticism groups of a bygone era.  And indeed, as van der Braak repeatedly makes clear, while the stated goal was to "face everything, avoid nothing," in fact there was a party line that could not be questioned. Ever. But gradually as the book rolls on, Doubt (personified in van der Braak's tale) keeps rearing its head and saying all the things the author dares not even think to himself.

One of the hardest things about writing such a memoir is taking yourself back to the time when you actually believed in the guru and all his teachings, back to the time of the initial enthusiasm before you had any clue where it would all lead. Van der Braak is very good at this -- we read the tale as he must have lived it. We understand and sympathize with his love for the guru who seemed so genuine, loving, and enlightened in the beginning.  If I have any criticism -- and it is a small quibble -- it is that the extended dialogue near the end with his former girlfriend, who is still in the community while he has already left, doesn't appear believable and seems merely for the reader's benefit.  It's unnecessary for van der Braak to summarize his position in such a manner: the previous chapters, so adroitly written, give us all the explanation we need.          

I have a particular interest in "enlightenment cults," as I call them. Anyone who is interested in my further thoughts on this topic might want to check out the recent posts on my other blog, Miracle of Awakening --http://www.miracleofawakening.blogspot.com/


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