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Desperately Seeking Spiritualism

April 2000
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A review of Martha Sherrill’s The Buddha from Brooklyn: A Tale of Spiritual Seduction.

There is a humorous scene in Woody Allen’s Hannah and Her Sisters, when his unfulfilled and neurotically Jewish character fails to find meaning in alternate religious expressions after visiting a Catholic church and returning home with a loaf of white bread, a jar of mayonnaise, and a crucifix. The reason, of course, is that the trappings and facade of a religion will not get you to that deeper place where so many desire to go.

Why do people believe in God? Why have all people throughout history, in all cultures around the world, embraced some sort of spiritual expression or religious impulse? Social scientists have attempted to answer the question scientifically through theories and statistics, but humans are storytelling animals and nothing captures the essence of a belief better than an in-depth story about one group’s religious experiences as they struggle with the messiness of day-to-day living in a secular world.

Martha Sherrill is a masterful storyteller and The Buddha From Brooklyn is a compelling case study in the search for spiritual meaning in an age of materialism. There are no grand theories here, no sweeping pronouncements about “what it all means.” But as the architect Mies Van der Rohr said, God dwells in the details, and it is in this story’s particulars where its value lies. It is the story of Catharine Burroughs, born and raised in Brooklyn as Alyce Louise Zeoli, who was severely abused as a child but found redemption first as a psychic and spiritual counselor in suburban Maryland, then as a Tibetan tulku, or reborn lama (a type of living Buddha — thus accounting for the book’s alliterative title), when she was told by a visiting Tibetan religious leader (His Holiness Penor Rinpoche, who sits just beneath the Dalai Lama himself), that she was the reincarnation of a sixteenth-century Tibetan saint. This conjuncture of events led to her becoming the first American woman to ever achieve such high religious status in this faith.

Now carring the honorific title of Jetsunma Ahkön Norbu Lhamo, or just Jetsunma, Zeoli/Burroughs (name changes are common in this narrative) founded a Tibetan Buddhist center in Maryland in 1986 and quickly developed a cast of loyal followers, which we meet one by one in delicious detail through the sensitive and searching eyes of Sherrill, who is herself seeking spiritual balance. The history of how Burroughs turned to the mystical in response to her tragic upbringing (including cigarette burns on her body and beatings with a radiator brush), however, is not where the power of this story is to be found. The down-trodden boot-strapping themselves into happiness is vintage Americana and not especially interesting outside of the particulars of how it was done.

Where Sherrill’s insight is most valuable is in introducing us not only to the tenets of Tibetan Buddhism, but in exploring the fascinating ways it has been modernized for the 1990s. Imagine a Buddha who wears makeup, paints her nails red, and shops at mall stores who also believes that we will all reincarnate “countless times, as bugs and animals, even descend into the ghost realms and hell realms, before you achieved liberation from the endless hamster wheel of death and rebirth,” as Sherrill puts it so well. One of the reasons the characters in this story continue reinventing themselves is that in Tibetan Buddhism “the student progresses toward enlightenment by practicing intense introspection and retraining the mind, learning to see the world differently. The student is taught, sometimes rather painfully, to abandon the notion of self (it is a delusion anyway) and to go in search of his or her own Buddha nature.”

Tibetan Buddhism, however, is not just focused inwardly; in fact, true enlightenment comes through “being of benefit to all sentient beings,” as Sherrill explains. “Everything in Tibetan Buddhism is about sentient beings — and ending the suffering of sentient beings. You say sentient beings instead of ‘human beings’ because you don’t want to exclude anybody, and sentient is a way of describing all life-forms that are conscious, sensate — all people, all animals, all bugs and fish, including the invisible realms, the ghost realms and the hell realms.” This is not a religion for the spiritually faint of heart. “There are eighteen different hells in Tibetan Buddhism, and there are countless beings there, too, all hoping to be released.”

Are people released from their private hells in this religion? This is the subtext of Sherrill’s narrative as she explores the many ways people deal with the slings and arrows of modern life, and the answer is a highly qualified one. Some do, some don’t. Some leave too early, some stay too long. Some are undercommitted, some are overcommitted. The story of Betsy Elgin (AKA Elizabeth, AKA Alana), is an especially troubling one. Attractive, mid-thirties, happily married with children (but with the usual doubts and wonders about the meaning of it all), Elgin first encountered Zeoli (or should it be Alana met Jetsunma?) when the latter was doing psychic readings for twenty bucks a pop. Occasional meetings became regular rituals, time with the Buddha took precedence over time with the family, and before long, she recalls, “I remember laying in bed thinking, Here I am in my perfect town house with my perfect little kids and my perfect little husband and everything … but why do I feel so empty?”

To find out she consulted a channeled entity named Santu, who told her to divorce her husband, which she promptly did, moving into an apartment with her two daughters. In the sociological study of cults this is what is known as detachment — the individual is removed from her traditional reference sources and isolated into the new group who now controls her life. Elgin later confessed as much: “I was needy and compulsively fixated on her and our friendship. I was trying to make that replace what I had given up. I felt a need to have something.” It still wasn’t enough, as Sherrill explained: “She went through a period of promiscuity, becoming sexually involved with several men at the center and others outside. For nearly two years ‘I was either at the temple,’ she said, ‘or out on a date. It was a bit crazy.’ Her daughters were left alone at night. Eventually the older one moved out to live with her father. Her younger girl, just sixteen, was ‘close to the edge.’” Unfortunately, this is not an isolated incident, and Sherrill considers the sometimes subtle differences between a cult and a religion.

Still, a much more common story is like that of Sherrill herself, a successful journalist at a prestigious publication (The Washington Post), who discovers in her self-searching that “aside from the well-trod pleasures of the quotidian — holidays at the beach, dance parties — you could still feel a greater need for something else entirely. You could feel a hunger and emptiness. You could be tormented by unanswered questions. Modern life leaves many people feeling insignificant and a bit lost. If you were living a spiritual life — and believed you were helping to end suffering — that could make you feel quite potent.”

Indeed, and here we begin to approach that mystery of mysteries of why people believe. Sherrill does not give us the answer, but she does offer one explanation that carries an important qualifier: “There is nobility in sacrifice — any sacrifice. And as much as I didn’t want to admit this, there is in fact a sort of ladder that people seem to ascend in order to be liberated from self-concern and see themselves as part of something larger. And sometimes people do ridiculous things to get there.”

The rub, of course, is in finding that larger something without losing yourself along the way.

(Vintage, 2001, ISBN 0375726489)
This review was originally published in the Washington Post Book World.

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