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New age tour-de-farce

If ‘The Spiritual Tourist’ is any kind of travel guide, Westerners don’t have a prayer

By Leigh E. Rich

The Spiritual Tourist: A Personal Odyssey Through the Outer Reaches of Belief
By Mick Brown
Bloomsbury Publishing

This may be a “personal odyssey” for British author and journalist Mick Brown, but for the rest of us it’s a trip through hell.

This “new age” book supposedly about Southeast Asian philosophies and personal enlightenment suffers not only in content, but also in style (or lack thereof). Brown purposelessly meanders from one trite, ‘90s-style spiritualistic anecdote to the next in a lackluster quest which only pretends to delve beyond the superficial. The author demonstrates a giddy enthusiasm but very little respect for his lofty, timely subject.

“Spirituality,” Brown writes in his introduction, “has become a kind of buzz-word of the age. The spiritual search, whatever that may mean, has become a dominant feature of late 20th-century life.” This five-page preamble, the only redeeming element in the book, legitimately whines that “spirituality” is a concept we loosely use and pass around until it advances toward the absurd.

What is a spiritual life? The question may be addressed from several angles, including a cross-cultural look at religiosity in non-Western societies. Brown attempts this, but his flimsy, interminable narrative focusing on the Westerner’s insular view into a culture he doesn’t understand butchers the concept, thus moving spiritualism from a sincere, religious realm—something special and cherished whether private or shared—to page one of a supermarket tabloid.

Brown begins his journey in London, interviewing self-ascribed “messengers” and “associates” of Lord Maitreya, the “great redeemer” who “manifested himself on earth through his disciple Jesus” 2,000 years ago and apparently now resides in London’s East End. These messengers, according to Brown’s contacts Benjamin Creme, Patricia Pitchon and a pharmacist named Mr. Patel, are proselytizers for Maitreya as well as prognosticators of upcoming world events.

Their stories, however, seem straight out of an Oh, God script: “Patricia had duly contacted Mr. Patel, who told her he was a disciple of Maitreya, and that she had ‘work to do.’ This work, it seemed, was to make public the prophecies that Mr. Patel received from Maitreya.” The prophecies, moreover, appear no more than well-educated guesses formed from diligently watching cable TV. Patel, a guru who drives an Austin Allegro, is “any age between 35 and 70,” and rambles at length on “abstruse philosophical points,” sits around in his sari each day, and watches CNN. Yet he claims, “When your eyes are open by the grace of the Lord then you can see what is happening in Kuwait, India, in all places.”

The spiritual leaders Brown describes are neither illuminating nor uplifting. They’re merely laughable. Creme even publishes a newsletter, Share International, which regularly reports Maitreya “sightings” with the same verve and fetishism that Southerners have for Elvis. (“But these miraculous appearances were never, it seemed, recorded anywhere else.”)

From here, Brown travels to North London to see Mr. Shah, a follower of the “legendary Indian swami” Sai Baba, who’s been “producing” vibhuti (a kind of holy ash) on portraits of himself in the Shah’s home. This purported “miracle” has the great effect of causing Shah to abandon his dream to have his very own snooker table, and instead place a shrine to Sai Baba in the spare room. At no point does Brown comment on these fantastic and ludicrous stories, nor does he ever suggest that perhaps Shah just needs a maid.

A hundred pages into the book, Brown finally makes his way to India, where he journeys to Dharmavaram to see Sai Baba, to Sera to visit with a child lama, to Dharamsala to discuss reincarnation with the Dalai Lama, and to Pondicherry and Madras to investigate important spiritual female leaders. In snippets, Brown reflects on his travels in India, a country of mystery and poverty, regrettably brushing past topics that might have proved interesting and educational.

But even the most engaging story wouldn’t rescue this lost “spiritual tourist,” for he has no central figures, no plot, no theme or organization to hold his protracted, embarrassing chronicle together. Brown, like so many of the individuals about whom he writes, has absolutely no direction. He jumps from one topic to the next—and back again—in a matter of pages. One could skim paragraphs at random and be just as informed (or confused) by the book’s content.

And he fails to root any of his discussion on Indian and Tibetan philosophies within their cultural contexts. Sai Baba, Ganesha, the Dalai Lama and Buddha are integral parts of these societies’ cosmologies. But Brown and his book’s intermittent players, rather than learning about these cultures as outsiders, excerpt quaint ideas and mold them into their own Western, ego-bloated, Christian-oriented perspectives, as if sacred components of any belief system could be plucked from one culture and appropriated into another. At times, The Spiritual Tourist resembles a Tom Clancy novel: If you know nothing about the subject—be it military reconnaissance or religion and spirituality—you might willfully suspend your disbelief; the author sure as hell isn’t going to any length to educate you, though.

Every so often, Brown does manage to throw in a pleasing tidbit, like the hoax of the “crosses of light” which appear in the windows of a church in Tennessee; or the spiritual charlatans Guru Maharaj Ji and Chogyan Trungpa, who once lived in Denver. Trungpa, though now known for excessive drinking and coercing his female followers into sex, founded America’s “first Tibetan meditation centre in Colorado, and later, the Naropa teaching institute.” One of his pupils also happened to be the poet Allen Ginsberg. Maharaj Ji, in a similar vein, amassed such a personal fortune he owned 93 Rolls-Royces, and owed the Indian government $4 million in back taxes. However, these textual “treats” (interspersed through the last 50 pages) hardly add to Brown’s search for spirituality. They more curiously resemble articles the National Enquirer might publish.

Are we really so desperate to find meaning in our mechanized, Western lives that we’ll adhere to any rhetoric that plagiarizes other cultures and unconditionally condemns science? Why are “saviors” like Maitreya the most likely candidates to swoop in and solve the problems of the world that we’ve created? Must spirituality be the blind (and dumb) faith that someone else will clean up our mess?

Perhaps this is why these “spiritualists” condemn science: Scientists reveal our problems and mistakes, and begin the dialogue about how we’re to solve them right here in the material world. Scientists take responsibility; spiritualists wait passively, nursing themselves with cable news.

If the difference between humans and chimps is signification (that is, our ability to signify and symbolize), then The Spiritual Tourist would seem proof that as often as not, we grasp frantically for meaning only to end up looking like a bunch of monkeys.

Until the long-awaited end, the book conveys a sense of faith and hope—hope that the author will go somewhere in 300 pages with his mindless chatter. One need not read past page 88, however, where Brown sums up the whole of his work in three sentences: “Once again, I found myself feeling almost envious of somebody else’s certainty. ‘I feel as if I’m in a washing-machine,’ I said. ‘Everything just keeps churning round and round and I can’t get a focus on any of it.’ “ At last, a point on which we can agree.

Rich, L. E. (1998, August 27). New age tour-de-farce: If ‘The Spiritual Tourist’ is any kind of travel guide, Westerners don’t have a prayer. [Review of the book The Spiritual Tourist: A Personal Odyssey Through the Outer Reaches of Belief by Mick Brown.] Tucson Weekly.

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