Pico Iyer Journeys

The Perils of Faith

This makes for a kind of double standard that globalism intensifies: Billy Graham, for example, tells us to think of others, and most of the people I know will write him off (if only because he comes encrusted in so many of the associations and affiliations they’ve spent their whole lives trying to escape); the Dalai Lama says the same thing and they write it down as gospel. This is, you could say, an argument for the virtue of observing “foreign” traditions-that they enable us to hear what we are deaf to in our own-but it does make for curiosities. Many of us in the West might feel a little strange if a group of Tibetans suddenly donned Benedictine monks’ robes, renamed themselves “Aelred” or “Isaiah” and recited prayers to the Virgin Mary in a language they couldn’t follow. It’s happened for centuries, of course-India is full of Johns and Thomases-but the fact remains that a Mormon in a village in China, or a Catholic in Hanoi, is facing all kinds of challenges that his counterparts in Utah or in Rome don’t have to think about.

This all becomes relevant here because Jetsunma, not untypically, began to demand that her followers treat her as Tibetans might treat their guru. In Tibet-Jetsunma’s students learn-it’s not unheard of for disciples to be beaten with logs and clubs, and in certain circles just to step on the shadow of a teacher is to consign yourself to one of the eighteen hells; yet in an America where even rapping a fifth-grader on the knuckles is frowned upon, and where the governing myths are those of democracy, it all gets more entangled. Jetsunma, to take a trifling example, would throw snowballs at her students, but they were not allowed to throw them back at her. Was this a training in humility, or just an exploitation of their trustfulness? The students-perhaps Jetsunma herself-did not have the background or context to know for sure.

The paradox at the heart of all spiritual communities-poignantly acute in a tradition that stresses going it alone-is that the commitment to the impersonal generally takes shape around a personality; and generally it is a personality so strong and powerful that what began as a community begins to look like a cult. In Poolesville, as so often, the hardworking, deeply devoted students were not, it seems, reminded of the Dalai Lama’s frequent injunction: “Students should make sure that they don’t spoil the guru.” They started collecting Jetsunma’s discarded acrylic fingernails as students sometimes do in India, tufts of her cut hair, and even a discarded toilet seat from her house; one of the disciples flew to Chicago, at her own expense, to rescue a mail-order coat that had got stranded in a warehouse. “Ideally, if you saw a dakini walk down the road and cut the head off a sweet infant child,” one especially loyal student says, “your only thought should be, Oh what a lucky child.”

None of this, of course, reflects on Buddhism as it is known in most places, and none of it, either, says that the students were wrong to act on what moved them. But it did set up a situation that Buddhists of every stripe, and members of any idealistic circle, can surely recognize. When things start looking strange, some students may do everything they can to give the teacher the benefit of the doubt, and use the new terms they’ve picked up to justify the community (or, more, to justify their commitment to it); some may just jump to another group, in the philosophical equivalent of the “rebound.” Some may hang on because they know that their alternatives in the “real world” are all a kind of defeat, and some may turn away because ideals never look so good when they’re put into earthly practice. But all of them, at some level, face the same agonizing question: What do you do when your heart is shaking so hard you feel it’s going to shatter?

The Tibetans who came to inspect the goings-on in Poolesville were not slow to give Jetsunma herself a training in humility; besides, they were shocked when they found, for example, that she used an electric zapper to kill insects around the property. At the same time, not surprisingly, they were stunned by the energy and devotion of the students, who committed themselves without complaint to twelve-hour prayer vigils. And the questions for all parties only intensified when Jetsunma, in the style familiar from male teachers, started elevating her young lovers, one after another, to consort status, only to drop them again just as quickly, leaving everyone to wonder whether what they had witnessed was an affair of convenience or of the heart. How much was the teacher just gratifying herself, and how much was she really trying to woo people to the dharma?

In Sherrill’s rendering, all this came into focus around the stupas Jetsunma wanted her students to build. A stupa, she felt, was the best way to spread a beneficent current of healing and goodness around the world at large. Yet in the process of constructing one, funds were depleted, students were badly injured, and plans kept getting so out of hand that Jetsunma might have been charged with what, in the Philippines of Imelda and Ferdinand Marcos, was called an “edifice complex.”

By the time The Buddha from Brooklyn approaches its climax, fully fifty percent of the center’s operating expenses are going to Jetsunma’s salary and students who are slow to pay their rent are condemned as “anti-Buddhists.” In the book’s most horrifying section, when Jetsunma learns that a monk and a quiet nun are growing intimate, she humiliates them publicly, slaps the young nun (who has been in a hospital, earlier that same evening, after being involved in a car crash), and virtually pulverizes them with a terrifying poem of hellfire that combines spiritual blackmail with near-obscenity. Previously, when the same nun had had her virginity stolen by a Tibetan monk in India, Jetsunma had virtually denied the incident (and on another occasion, too, when she had had a falling out with one of her own husbands, she had got her students to stab effigies of him). Though Jetsunma’s explanations of everything continue to be sensible and even humble, by book’s end she and Sherrill have almost switched places: It is the journalist who is practicing a form of Buddhist prayer, while the teacher talks marketing and media (excited as she is by a proposed movie about her life, and contemplating a $4,500-per-month P.R. person to push the hair-care products). If power corrupts, spiritual power corrupts at the source, the soul.

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