Madame Blavatsky’s Baboon: Theosophy and the Emergence of the Western Guru by Peter Washington, Secker & Warburg, 1993, pp. 470 h/b, £20.00

Riding the Tiger by Lama Ole Nydahl, Blue Dolphin Publishing, 1992, pp. 496, £14.95 p/b

Zen In America by Helen Tworkov, Kodansha Globe, 1994, pp. 268, £13.99 p/b

Reviewed by Vishvapani

In 1848, two sisters, Katherine and Margaret Fox, started to hear rapping noises in their house in upstate New York. These noises, they claimed, were messages from the spirit world: they had broken through. The Fox sisters’ celebrity was instant and it quickly grew into the vast Nineteenth Century vogue for spiritualism. More than this, as Peter Washington argues in his excellent study of Western gurus, Madame Blavatsky’s Baboon, these contacts with immaterial reality heralded an early attempt to fill the void at the heart of modern Western religious life.

This void haunted the Nineteenth Century imagination and was the product of the split between the contrary claims of science and of religion. While the Bible was being discredited by geology, biology and higher criticism, the séance appeared to offer tangible evidence of a spiritual dimension. Madame Blavatsky (whose system of Theosophy was a development of spiritualism) celebrated the counter-attack on materialism by installing in her house a large, stuffed baboon, bespectacled, standing upright dressed in wing-collar, morning coat and tie and carrying under his arm a copy of The Origin of Species. The animal was a lampoon on Darwin’s pretensions to have defined man as a purely material creature. Blavatsky knew better, and what is more, she could prove it.

The aims of Blavatsky’s Theosophical Society expressed a desire to be true to both science and religion by promoting ‘the investigation of unexplained laws of nature and the powers latent in man.’ But was this to be an objective, rational investigation, deriving its authority from the prestige of scientific method? Or was it a more subjective, ‘spiritual’ investigation, whose authority would depend on the experiences and occurrences it evoked? Was this study or spiritual adventure?

In practice there was far more of the latter, but the question of authority turned out to be central. The spiritualists’ inchoate encounters with ‘the other side’ were gloriously trumped when Blavatsky claimed to be in direct communication with a brotherhood of Spiritual Masters who, dwelling apart from mankind, had chosen her as their channel. They ‘precipitated’ letters into her possession, dealing, on the one hand, with such subjects as metaphysics and cosmology, while on the other they intervened in the continual feuds between their emissary and her colleagues and rivals. While Blavatsky was alive the Masters’ testimony made her virtually unassailable within the Society (in spite of the fact that the messages and the psychic phenomena which surrounded her were repeatedly exposed as fraudulent). After her death, as Blavatsky’s heirs squabbled for power, the masters mysteriously resumed their communication with the various parties, invariably delivering the good news that the recipient was indeed in the right and should be granted ascendancy.

Washington suggests that Theosophy and the other movements he discusses appealed to the desire for the mysteries of religion to be tangibly present in the world. The Bible and the Church, after all, had been relativised; God had been removed to an abstract transcendence; and the various world religions now appeared as historical accidents, dimly reflecting an older and deeper path to wisdom. What, then, could connect the spiritual seeker with the realm of authentic meanings? The evidence of the séance and the testimony of the Masters were fine, but perhaps they were still not enough to excite fully spiritual sensibilities. The stage was set for the emergence of the Western guru who would embody the lost realities in his very person, one whose utterances (however far-fetched) were authorised not by tradition, precedent or scripture, but by the attributes with which – at least in the eyes of his disciples – he was endowed.

The Theosophists themselves produced the first major Western guru in Krishnamurti whom they groomed from boyhood as the ‘Next World Teacher’. After Krishnamurti’s rejection of Theosophy (and, indeed, of all claims that there was a path by which the Truth might be approached) he occupied the paradoxical role of a Teacher without a teaching. This did not, however, make him teach any less or forego the wealth and celebrity which his position brought him. This combination made him the object of countless projections: romantic, maternal, filial and oedipal. He was formed in the mould of Western images of an Eastern sage, and adapted himself to the task even whilst he was forswearing it.

Like Krishnamurti, it was often remarked that no two pupils of Gurdjieff could ever agree on exactly their teacher had said. Gurdjieff himself urged that his teaching – with its injunction to ‘know less and be more’ – was not capable of systematic formulation. ‘The Work’ (as the process of following his teachings was known) was essentially a function of Gurdjieff’s character. So, was everything he said a teaching? Washington describes an emblematic encounter between Gurdjieff and a new acolyte. The master placed an orange on the table between them, fixed the pupil with his gaze and declared: ‘This is the most important thing in the Universe.’ What choice does the poor spiritual aspirant have except to submit his rational faculties or else be cast as a sceptic and materialist? Those who seek certainty will find it in such encounters, but at what price?

Gurdjieff’s behaviour towards his pupils was certainly imperious and capricious, but was he skillfully challenging their egotistic limitations, or was Gurdjieff, himself, the real monster of egotism? Was the Work a path to freedom, or was it simply creating further dependency? And in the end, for all his extraordinary personal magnetism, was Gurdjieff as dependent on the submission of his pupils as they were on the dominance of their teacher? Were Washington’s gurus, in general, sincere or were they willfully manipulative? All of these questions are raised by Madame Blavatsky’s Baboon.

Washington’s previous book was a highly entertaining polemic against the cults and dogmas of modern literary theory, but something of his earlier verve is lost here in his desire to keep a straight face. He has not quite enough sympathy with the power of his subjects to make their appeal fully comprehensible, and his irony is too heavily veiled fully to expose their failings. For all that, the story told in Madame Blavatsky’s Baboon has much to say about the excitements and dangers of religious life loosed from the moorings of tradition or social context, about our aspirations and about our credulity.
In addition to the guru-syndrome, a number of other developments in modern religion can trace their origins back to Theosophy These include the ‘New Age’ movement as well as Western interest in Buddhism. Many Western Buddhists will doubtless be curious whether their view of Buddhist tradition has been coloured by such influences. But I rather doubt whether Lama Ole Nydahl has had time to engage in such reflections. Riding The Tiger tells, in hectic fashion, the story of the establishment of the Danish Lama’s network of over 100 Kagyupa centres, mainly located ‘between Vladivostock and the Rhine’. He gazes out from the book’s innumerable illustrations with the physique and energy of a marine, but he has no doubt of the source of all the energy: his own teacher, the Karmapa. ‘Feeling the potential constantly unfolding in his powerfield beat any drug’ and the book is full of semi-miraculous happenings in the Karmapa’s presence. This is all doubtless highly attractive, but there is little in the way of reflection on the projections that may cloud the students relation to the Karmapa or, indeed, Nydahl himself. There is scarcely a hint of self-doubt, or self-analysis in the book and the ‘shadow’ is reserved for dark hints about other teachers, including one or two stories about Trungpa Rimpoche which one can only hope were first checked with Nydahl’s lawyers.

Quite a different picture of contemporary Buddhism emerges from Helen Tworkov’s Zen in America, which was first published in 1989 and is now reprinted with a new ‘Afterword’. Since writing this book Ms. Tworkov has gone on to edit the excellent Tricycle: the Buddhist Review, but already this book had established her as one of the acutest observers of the Buddhist scene. Her subject is precisely the difficulty of reconciling the absolutist claims to authority which accompany the status of a Zen roshi with the complex and messy reality of modern America.

The book features portraits of five American Zen teachers and it was written at a time when scandals involving prominent Buddhist teachers (including one or two of the subjects of this book) had raised innumerable questions about the relationship between teachers and students. Tworkov’s analysis of the problem starts with distinction between the ‘role’ of the teacher and their ‘personality’. In traditional societies the former predominates and personal failings are secondary matters, while modern sensibility tends to conflate the two. The first generation of Zen teachers in the West who were Japanese, subordinated their personalities to their role and consequently were idealised by their students. But the trouble started in the next generation who were Westerners and the projections broke down. Baker-roshi’s spectacularly successful development of San Francisco Zen Centre in the 1970’s was clearly an expression of his personality as much as the fulfillment of his role. For him it was a ‘giant social experiment’. The result was that others felt their lives had been subordinated to the pursuit of one man’s ambitions, and when sexual scandal revealed that Baker’s personality was not infallible, the whole edifice was called into question.

Tworkov is a demystifier and all of her subjects appear as fallible individuals, who are doing good work in difficult circumstances. She is also a cool judge who makes her interpretations from within the terms of her training as an anthropologist. But as a Buddhist herself, Tworkov cannot help being deeply involved in the issues she raises. The new ‘Afterword’ redresses the balance in important ways, being a strong argument against those who would respond to the dangers posed by the status of teachers by formulating codes of ‘ethics’ to police their behaviour, particularly in the area of sex. In the end this is an attempt to translate the Dharma into the secular and democratic values of American liberalism: an attempt to make the Dharma ‘safe’.

Tworkov argues that this approach is a potential betrayal of the principle of Enlightenment which lies at the heart of the Buddhism. She is surely right: the Dharma, gurus, teachers and indeed the whole process of spiritual life are intrinsically dangerous, because they demand change and because they take one into unknown territory. And yet one should not excuse the excesses of teachers who use the opportunities afforded by their students’ naivety and the absence of a regulating social context to give full rein to the various currents of their personality. The only way to mediate these relationships – role and personality, teacher and student, guru and disciple – is surely a renewed emphasis on Buddhist ethics, for only this offers a framework for human relationship which expresses the perspective of Enlightenment and speaks to the whole of our lives.

This article first appeared in Golden Drum magazine