Review-Summary by Michael John Plato
The Guru Next Door
Probably the most famous person to live in my home town was a Tibetan lama by the name of Tuesday. It’s a fairly small town in rural Canada, with strong farming and factory roots, so he wasn’t hard to miss. People would occasionally see him ambling down the street to the post office or the greasy spoon, his saffron robes fluttering in the breeze or damp with winter snow. One lady who struck up a conversation with him was surprised to learn that, at least according to him, he was the best selling English author in Latin America.
I never actually got to see him. I was too young at the time that he lived in town. His house was right next to the bowling alley. Occasionally, when going to some other kid’s birthday bowling party, I would see tour buses parked in front of the house with groups of people going inside. Years later I learned more about its former occupant.
His full name was T. Lobsang Rampa (The ‘T’ stood for Tuesday; as everyone knows, Tibetan lamas take their name after the day of the week on which they were born). In a previous life (and no, he wasn’t talking metaphorically) he had been the abbot of the Chakpori medical lamasery in Tibet. In Canada, however, he lived as a reclusive but prolific writer. He shared his home with his wife San Ra’ab, his personal secretary, a woman named Buttercup, and a Siamese cat named Mrs. Fifi Greywhiskers. Mrs. Greywhiskers, it was alleged, had authored several of Rampa’s books, which she did by sitting on his head and transmitting them to him telepathically. It was not your average household.
In reality Rampa was an Irish plumber named Cyril Henry Hoskin. One day, after falling from a tree and hitting his head, he awoke from his concussion with the identity he claimed for the rest of his life. Whether he actually believed he was this T. Lobsang Rampa, or was perpetrating a willful fraud, was open to public speculation for years. In his new guise he wrote twenty-four books, many of them relating the events of his former incarnations. Actual Tibetologists such as Heinrich Harrer, who wrote the book Seven Years in Tibet (and was played by Brad Pitt in the movie), claimed that Rampa’s depiction of Tibet was nothing like the real place – especially the parts about Yetis and flying monks. Also, Harrer pointed out, Tibetan lamas do not in fact take their names from western days of the week.
Rampa was eventually hounded from his home in England by the tabloids, and he spent the last two decades of his life moving between various small Canadian towns, of which one was my own. Though he rarely made public appearances, his books sold in the millions and even today he still has thousands of followers world-wide. When the Dali Lama criticized Rampa’s teaching for being not exactly sound Tibetan Buddhism, it was the Dali Lama who suffered the backlash from Rampa’s admirers, many of whom thought that their Irish sage had a much deeper understanding of Buddhist wisdom than the fourteenth incarnation of the bodhisattva of compassion. And his popularity still seems to hold on pretty strong. Recently I was in my local alternative bookshop rummaging around, and I asked after some used copies of Rampa’s books. “Oh no we never have those,” the beatifically serene store keeper informed me. “People never give them up.” At the time I didn’t think to ask for any books by Fifi Greywhiskers.
While the life and legacy of T. Lobsang Rampa is unusual and certainly in many ways extreme, the religious figure he represents is not altogether uncommon. In his most recent book, American Gurus: From American Transcendentalism to New Age Religion, Arthur Versluis charts the lives, teachings and popularity of a number of similar individuals. Versluis, who is professor of religious studies at Michigan State University, is something of a specialist in esoteric religious history and a number of his earlier works have explored the impact of alternative spiritualities on American life. In this book he explores the phenomenon of the independent spiritual teacher who is not authorized by any discernable religious tradition, or the “contemporary North American guru” (1).
Perhaps the most successful current exemplar of this phenomenon is Eckhart Tolle. Tolle, a German-born Canadian who spent several years living in a public park after having had a mystical experience, was rocketed to fame when he was endorsed by Oprah Winfrey in 2006 on her show. His most important books, The Power of Now: A Guide to Spiritual Enlightenment (New World, 1999) and A New Earth: Awakening to Your Life’s Purpose (Plume, 2006), have since sold in the millions and he has been described by major news outlets as the most spiritually influential person in the world.
Tolle is of course not alone. There have been so many spiritual teachers over the past few decades that by the end of the twentieth century an encyclopedia of them had been compiled, The Book of Enlightened Masters: Western Teachers in Asian Traditions (Open Court, 1997). Along with Tolle, some of the most famous of these include Richard Alpert [Ram Dass], Frederick Lenz [Rama], Andrew Cohen, Franklin Jones [Adi Da] and the supercilious Ken Wilber.
In American Gurus, Versluis attempts to explain the origin of such a figure on the American religious scene and the cause of his (and it is almost always a ‘he’) popularity. As Versluis sees it, there have been three important traditions which have fed into its creation: western esotericism (which he sees as essentially various forms of Platonism), Christian mysticism and eastern traditions. Some scholars, such as the literary critic Harold Bloom, have defined this strange hybrid as a kind of American Gnosticism, but Versluis sees this as only partially correct. A key feature of the Gnosticism of late antiquity was its “world-rejecting perspective” which led many of its adherents to live highly ascetic and often reclusive lives. The material world was something that was abhorrent to a true Gnostic. Yet its American incarnation bears no such traits. Here the only attribute the term implies is what Emerson describes as “the possibility of immediate, direct spiritual knowledge and power” (3). Versluis further develops on this to what he sees as the essential spiritual feature of the guru, what he calls “immediatism.” He defines this as follows:
Immediatism refers to a religious assertion of spontaneous, direct, unmediated spiritual insight into reality (typically with little or no prior training), which some term “enlightenment.” Strictly speaking, immediatism refers to a claim of a “pathless path” to religious enlightenment—the immediatist says “away with all ritual and practices!” and claims that direct spiritual awakening or enlightenment is possible at once. Immediatism is, in other words, a claim that one can achieve enlightenment or spiritual illumination spontaneously, without any particular means, often without meditation or years of guided praxis (2).
Later in the book Versluis tells us that he had been playing with other terms, but “immediatism” captures a key component of this kind of spirituality, namely the clear “rejection of practice and training.” In a sense what he is saying is that a major attraction of the guru figure for many Americans is essentially the offer of spiritual instant gratification. One of the hallmarks of the guru, as he will also point out later in the book, is that he is typically a westerner who has had a brief period of “training” in the east, or was taught by some eastern teacher, before returning and commodifying and packaging this learning for western audiences. Many Americans may be quite fond of the idea of “eastern wisdom” and think it much deeper and profounder than anything from the west, but they don’t actually want to go through the whole rigmarole of learning all its tedious practices. Americans, it would seem, want their transcendence to be like their Dominos Pizza orders, in thirty minutes or for free.
Yet this whole question of immediate spirituality leads Versluis to a remarkable observation, and one which I had never myself considered before. He notes that, when it comes to early western esoteric traditions, we know absolutely nothing about how they were actually practiced by their adherents. He writes:
What practices did this or that figure undertake in order to realize transcendental or nondual consciousness? We almost never know. This is true of almost the entire history of Western mysticism. When we look at a figure like Plotinus, whose Enneads represent and extraordinarily comprehensive metaphysics…we simply do not know what contemplative practices Plotinus engaged in. He left no meditation instructions, no indication of whether he sat in lotus posture or stood like a pillar, no detail of how he came to those realizations…The same is true of the texts in the Nag Hammadi library…[and] when we look at the work of Meister Eckhart, Johannes Tauler, to give two examples, or Marguerite of Porete, to give a third, they write from a perspective of having realized a nondual kind of consciousness, but they do not instruct the reader/hearer on how to achieve it. This is also true, for that matter, of Jacob Boehme, the illuminated cobbler. How was he illumined? A flash of light from a pewter dish, a glimpse of the lumen naturae… (12−13).
From this he concludes that “[i]t is possible that something like immediatism is characteristic of much of western mysticism” (13). Speculating further on this, Versluis argues that since the predominant religious traditions in the west (read: orthodox Christianity) were largely doctrinal and “rationalistic,” any mystical upstarts must have been largely ad hoc affairs that could not rely on sustained traditions of teaching as they were in the east. They had to be practical and “immediate” of necessity.
Though these larger historical dimensions are alluded to, Versluis limits his investigation in this book to the history of immediatism in North America only. He begins with who he sees as the central precursor to the movement and a name that may be surprising to many, namely Jonathan Edwards. Edwards is described as a “natural mystic” who was heavily influenced by the Cambridge Platonists, such as Henry More. Though he quotes George Marsden to support his claim, it appears that Versluis is working from Perry Miller’s largely debunked view of Edwards as a mystical sage. I found this inclusion of Edwards to be specious at best – he uses only two quotes of Edwards, and both of these are the usual and only quotes that are ever used to prove Edwards was a mystic – and as such, the least convincing component of this history.
To be fair, Versluis does not consider Edwards a true founder of the movement in any case, but merely an early figure who hinted at its possibility. For Versluis the real founding fathers of the American guru are a triumvirate of nineteenth century figures: Ralph Waldo Emerson, Amos Bronson Alcott and the poet, Walt Whitman. All three writers are described as ardent admirers of the philosopher Plato and are referred to as Platonists throughout. As such, it is perhaps necessary to present Versluis’s definition of Platonism, since it is perhaps the term most often used throughout the book:
Platonism, as reflected in the work of these poets and creators of culture, is not a set of specific doctrines, though it might include those. It is, rather, at heart, a set of approaches to knowing that include an emphasis on direct intuitive individual knowledge of transcendence; on dialogue as an expression of and means to such knowledge; on nature as divine expression and as conducive to realizing transcendent knowledge; and on a metaphysics that emphasizes the originally unfallen or divine nature of man, as well as the possibility of recovering that original state (23).
In this definition we can see many features of contemporary New Age spirituality that might be familiar to us: the high premium placed on intuitive spiritual knowledge, the role of dialoging or conversation in spiritual activity, the valuing of nature as a place spiritual regeneration, and the assumption that one can achieve divine status through one’s own efforts. Versluis claims that all of these features can, to some degree, be found in the work of Emerson, Alcott and Whitman. Whitman in particular is cited as a figure of tremendous importance to the rise of the guru. According to Canadian author and friend of Whitman, Richard Maurice Bucke, in his book Cosmic Consciousness (1901) (which also spawned the term ‘cosmic consciousness’), Whitman’s poetry was a form of “spontaneous mysticism” (71). In his poems, Versluis adds, “we see the inception of the American religious tradition of inclusive mysticism, of the expanded ego as including the cosmos, and of evolutionary spirituality, which we see recurring in the works of many late twentieth-century American mystics, authors, and gurus” (78).
Throughout the rest of American Gurus Versluis charts the various incarnations (as it were) and developments of the guru figure, from the Beat generation of Jack Kerouac and William S. Burroughs to the psychedelic sixties of Timothy Leary and LSD, to the Islamic influenced perennialism of Renée Guénon and Frithjof Schuon and their American followers, to the media superstars of our own day such as Tolle and Wilber. In each case we see how “individual spiritual insight” of an immediate and personal nature trumps “faith in a historical narrative promising a religious or secular millennium somewhere ahead” (155).
What value can be gleaned from a book such as American Gurus? The author, Arthur Versluis, though a very competent and skilled historian of religion and culture, is no friend of orthodox Christianity. A number of his previous works have been written as severe critiques of mainline Catholicism, Protestantism, and Evangelicalism and he regularly champions fringe groups and movements. While this in and of itself does not mean that his arguments are invalid, it does lead him to sometimes puzzling and frustrating formulations, and one must be wary. For example, in this present work he postulates a model of what he calls primary and secondary religion, where “primary” religion is experiential and “illuminating” and “secondary” religion is derivative and doctrinal (8). Aside from an obvious and implicit hierarchism which favours personal and esoteric spirituality, it suffers from the fallacy that the one must necessarily follow from the other, when in fact it might just as easily be the reverse. He actually assumes, for instance, that Gnosticism existed prior to orthodox Christianity.
Nevertheless there is still much insight to be gleaned from his work. Here for instance, we have the first truly thoughtful history of an important aspect of religion in North America. While there have been many studies of “organized” groups, such as Scientology, the Mormons, Jehovah’s Witnesses, and various cultic groups, studies of highly individualistic forms of spirituality have been generally fewer and harder to find. And in many ways, this sort of thing may prove more influential overall in our society than any organized religion or cult. Plus, American Gurus acts as a handy source of short intellectual biographies of some of the movement’s lesser known figures of whom there has previously been very little publicly available information. As such, it is a valuable source for religious studies researchers. As it is already a pricey purchase, this is a book that will in any case be most likely bought primarily by specialist scholars or institutions.
From American Gurus I can note two prominent insights that are of value to a Christian audience, especially for those who are concerned about the growing influence of gurus in the culture. First is the importance of immediatism to their success and popularity. The guru is a figure who promises immediate and pain-free transcendence. All it takes is reading a few books or sitting around in an ashram for a weekend in guided discussion with likeminded fellow seekers and transcendence is yours. This is a tempting proposition for people with hectic schedules and little aptitude for long-term commitments.
The second thing to note is that while many followers of the guru may think that they are being fed the distilled wisdom of the east – with all the antiquity and exoticism that that term suggests – in reality they are being sold a bill of goods. For there is in all likelihood not much that is very eastern about it at all; and true eastern religion was not what they really wanted in any case. Like the followers of T. Lobsang Rampa and his pleasant and fantastical teachings, they get upset when a Dali Lama comes along and attempts to set the record straight.
This leads to a third observation about the guru, and it is one that Versluis does not consciously address anywhere in his book, but it is nevertheless there under the surface throughout: that is, people will quite readily and easily settle for a colorful fabrication or lie over the truth. This, ultimately, is the real appeal of the guru.
A final consideration, and this is nowhere presented in the book, is just how much the figure of the guru has been appropriated by some in the Church. Versluis sees the guru as an entirely non-institutional or organization kind of figure, yet I can’t help but think how easily that line could be crossed. After all, so many churches already preach a spirituality of immediatism, enlightenment and self-gratification. Many already prefer “conversation” to preaching and they agree with Versluis that doctrine is only a “secondary” order of religion, and personal experience should be the foundation of our faith. For such teachings to be directly equated with a particularly charismatic individual wouldn’t be hard at all. I’m not saying that Rob Bell wears a telepathic cat on his head, but then again, I wouldn’t be surprised.
PS: For those interested in the full story of T. Lobsang Rampa, a memoir of his life has been written by his secretary Buttercup (Sheelagh Rouse), Twenty-five Years with T. Lobsang Rampa (Lulu.com, 2006). Also a more academic account of his life and influence can be found in Prisoners of Shangri-La (University of Chicago Press, 1999) by Donald S Lopez.
Michael John Plato is professor of film, cultural studies and world religion at Seneca College in Toronto. He is also Book Review Editor for Contemporary Religion and Culture here at Books at a Glance.
Note: You may also enjoy reading Michael Plato’s summary-review of The American Soul Rush: Esalen and the Rise of Spiritual Privilege.
Buy the books
American Gurus: From American Transcendentalism To New Age Religion