Pico Iyer Journeys

The Perils of Faith

It would be easy-too easy-at this point just to dismiss the whole project, or to write it off as an aberration. Sherrill, thankfully, refuses such simplifications. She has witnessed much too much cruelty and heartbreak to say, blithely, “Better to have cared and lost than never to have cared at all”; and yet she cannot deny, as she frequently tells us, that the world of devotion is “a generous place. An unselfish and forgiving and unconditional place.” And Jetsunma had shown an admirable confidence and trust in opening herself so fully to a journalist (perhaps because she was so sure she could win her over). The “spiritual world,” says Sherrill, “was in many ways as brutal as the newsroom I came from” (and I, having spent time around both newsrooms and spiritual communities, would agree); yet she also recognizes that, in the context of the bustle and striving she knows in her usual environment, the peace and pointedness of Poolesville have a particular glow. Above all, she cannot deny the possibility that the people she met in the community were in many cases leading lives of much greater selflessness and purpose and depth than they had led before or might in other circumstances.

Those who are deeply immersed in Buddhism in America may well respond to the challenge of this book by reducing it all to politics and personalities: Penor Rinpoche, after all, who all but endorsed this unorthodox project, is the same lama who named Steven Seagal as a terton, or “treasure-revealer,” in 1997, surprising the world. And those close to Jetsunma, as well as those once close to her, will doubtless find much to quarrel with in Sherrill’s account, because it is even-handed. But for me it is precisely because her life was not on the line in Poolesville that Sherrill could rise above sectarian differences and raise questions that anyone should consider: how much is the students’ reluctance to question Jetsunma a reluctance to question themselves? How much is their devotion the result not of hopefulness but fear-or loneliness or need? When Jetsunma, towards the end, seems chastened and quiet-talking of her fears and feelings of worthlessness (and of the fact that her students won’t let her acknowledge them)-how much is she, in a sense, as much a prisoner and victim of the situation they’ve set up as her students are? For once, the journalist, not fully inside the conflagration-yet not entirely out of it-has a useful vantage point.

Sherrill underlines the sense of the book as parable by going off, before drawing conclusions, to talk to Tammy Faye Bakker and Laura Schlessinger, and to consider the parallel stories of groups in every tradition, not least the Mormons, who, out of beginnings no less eccentric, have built “the richest and most successful church” in America. Anyone who joins a community of hope, from Brook Farm to Castro’s Cuba, is committing herself, essentially, to living with contradiction, and to forsaking easy answers for ever deepening questions. And if conviction is what separates us, as Peter Ustinov has said, doubt, at some level, is what brings us together. The Dalai Lama, faced with the proliferation of incarnations of Tibetan tulkus around the world, told me that he found many of them “a little incredible”; yet, much more importantly, he said, as he always does, that if a teacher is of benefit to even one human being, who are we to write her off? Sherrill concludes her story, courageously, by conceding that she felt “kind of humbled and encouraged and uplifted” by all the kindness and devotion she’d seen around the stupa, even though much of it had led to disappointment and hurt; her life has clearly been changed by the experience, and not for the worse. An outsider, looking at such a place, might talk about the dangers of “brainwashing”, an insider would say that if her brain has been made clean, that’s surely all to the good.

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