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Confused Ideals Make for Spiritual Horror Story

THE BUDDHA FROM BROOKLYN, By Martha Sherrill, Random House, $25.95, 304 pages


Kunzang Odsal Palyul Changchub Choling is the largest Tibetan Buddhist Center in the United States, located in Poolesville, Md. Founded in 1986 by Alyce Zeoli, the community under her leadership attempted to blend classical Tibetan ideas with an almost "anything goes" attitude toward life and spirituality. Zeoli left Poolesville in 1997 to start another community in Sedona, Ariz., and it is the story of her tenure at Maryland's center that is the subject of Martha Sherrill's "The Buddha From Brooklyn." Sherrill's book is less a tribute to the community than a powerful warning against unconditionally following individual or collective authority.

An acute observer and journalist, Sherrill is a staff writer for the Washington Post. Her view of the lives of Americans, such as stockbrokers, filmmakers and other professionals, who are on a genuine spiritual quest is quite fascinating. But none compares with the story of Zeoli, an Italian-Jewish woman originally from Brooklyn who went from leading a New Age prayer group in her basement to becoming Jetsunma Ahkon Lhamo, the highest-ranking woman in Tibetan Buddhism. Jetsunma was recognized by Penor Rinpoche, second only to the Dalai Lama as Tibetan Buddhism's supreme authority, as a reincarnation of a 17th century saint, and he identified her as an emanation of Mandarava, the "peerless princess," consort of Padmasambhava, the legendary founder of Buddhism in Tibet.

Yet she is also a rather complicated, if not thoroughly secular, person, given to certain personal and temperamental indulgences (megalomania, lying, verbal abuse, to name a few). She is also physically violent; in one instance, she hits a disciple in the face. She also accepts a $100,000 yearly salary while her students go into debt to pay her. And, obviously significant to Sherrill because she mentions it so often, Jetsunma has rather "garish" tastes that include ever-present fake red fingernails. Sherrill seems in turn fascinated and disturbed by Jetsunma and the bizarre situation created by a medieval tradition--Tibetan Buddhism--being interpreted in America by a woman whose ideals are so clearly confused.

The first time Rinpoche arrives at Poolesville, he is horrified to learn that bug zappers have been placed all over the rural property. For Buddhists, one of the five main ethical precepts is not to kill, and this includes all sentient life. Jetsunma tells Rinpoche that she has placed Tibetan prayer flags over the zappers; however, he is outraged, and during the night someone cuts the electric cords. Furthermore, Jetsunma also has the community show films of animals being slaughtered to foster compassionate attitudes toward life, yet is quoted as saying, "Red meat. . . . I just can't get enough."

How strange that Rinpoche anointed Jetsunma, and the incongruity of this strange American leading this venerable Buddhist center lies at the center of the book. Yet here Sherrill disappoints, barely hinting at an explanation. A number of questions go unanswered. For instance, when the Tibetans first came to the United States, what was the effect of Americanization on them? Why did Rinpoche name Jetsunma the head of the center? Was he so taken by her charisma and the fact that she had a substantial following when he met her?

Sherrill's account of this community would have been improved had she spent more time on the historical development of Tibetan Buddhism. "The Buddha From Brooklyn" is a gripping story in itself, but comprehending the Tibetan tradition is not as important to Sherrill as depicting Jetsunma's oddities. The book consequently becomes an extended biography of sorts, which paints Tibetan Buddhism in America in a somewhat unfavorable light. Given the cultural accomplishments of the Tibetans and the role they play in helping to define the boundaries of spiritualism today, this seems a curious and unfortunate decision.

Although Sherrill frequently mentions the practice of visualization, she never goes into its full implications. You will not learn in this book, for instance, that visualization is being studied for its applications in such fields as sports psychology, art and music therapy. Nor will you learn about what Buddhist scriptures, perhaps more than any other religious tradition, can teach us about how the mind works. The Dalai Lama is an active contributor at Harvard's Mind Science Symposia.

In the end, Sherrill has written a spiritual horror story. Americans' tradition of healthy skepticism would have better served the disciples at the center. As the Dalai Lama once said, "Make a thorough examination before accepting someone as a guru, and even then follow that teacher within the conventions of reason."


Maria Jaoudi is the author of "Christian Mysticism East and West: What the Masters Teach Us." She teaches in the department of religious studies and humanities at Cal State Sacramento.

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