Washington Post reporter Martha Sherrill takes us on one of the strangest and most entertaining spiritual journeys in the history of American religion in this tale of a big-haired, much-divorced Brooklyn-born Jewish-Italian woman who finds herself recognized as the reincarnation of a seventeenth-century Tibetan Buddhist lama.
When Catharine Burroughs takes on the mantle of a living Buddha and becomes Jetsunma Ahkon Lhama, she commits herself to the creation of the largest Tibetan Buddhist center in America and inspires her disciples to all night prayer vigils and monastic vows. She also indulges her passion for shopping, develops a hair-care product as a way to raise funds, seduces male and female devotees, and divorces another husband. As Martha Sherrill delves into the passions and practice of Jetsunma and her followers, she explores the practices of Tibetan Buddhism and its uneasy fit in the West and reveals how difficult it is to be truly spiritual in America today.
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From the Hardcover edition.
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A stupa is a holy thing, a monument to peace and harmony. It is a place where the Buddha's mind is alive on earth. That's what I was told, anyway, when I first came to Poolesville, Maryland, and what I still believe-in spite of everything else I know.
The moon was rising in the dark blue sky. It was a harvest moon, a warm moon, full and golden. It was the fall of 1996. The next morning a retreat would begin, a bodhicitta or compassion retreat. I arrived on the temple grounds very late, parked my car, and walked past the main building of the temple, a large white plantation-style mansion. The temple looked quiet behind its spread of green grass. Only a few dim lights were still on. Through a window I saw a flash of a burgundy robe inside the Dharma room-a monk or nun was cleaning the altar bowls. I wasn't going inside. Instead, I walked down the long driveway in the direction of the dark woods. I went to the Migyur Dorje stupa when I was confused, when my mind needed clearing, simplicity, a broad brushstroke, a big PICTURE. When I needed to relax.
I'd been told that if you walk around a stupa, clockwise, you will receive blessings. I still believe that, too. There are all kinds of explanations of what a stupa is, of course, and how one works. There are academic tracts with detailed diagrams, discussions of the various types of stupas, and essays about the metaphysical properties of these compelling shrines. You can be as highbrow as you want about stupas-just as Buddhism itself can be terribly highbrow-or you can try to comprehend a stupa simply and forget the details. You can walk around one, clockwise, as the Tibetans do, and just soak up the blessings. I had purchased miniature stupas from the temple gift shop in Poolesville. I collected photographs of stupas and books about them. I became fascinated with the inner chambers of the stupas, and the secret contents. Sometimes my passion was a little hard to explain to my journalist friends. To the unromantic eye, I suppose, a stupa doesn't look like much. The Buddha's mind is just a monolith, really-an obelisk with a pagoda roof and a spire. At the highest point, there was a crystal ball pointing to the sky.
I took the shortcut in the woods and found the narrow dirt road that led to the great stupa. When I had started coming to Poolesville regularly, just a year before, there had been plans to pave the stupa road-but it was still potholed and loaded with hazardous puddles and large rocks. Vines were curling out of the forest, too, dangling down from trees and growing back into the path.
A stupa is a magical thing, seductive and mysterious, but also very simple. Maybe that's what I like about them. There is no debate waging about stupas-no controversies swirling within the rarified world of Tibetan Buddhism about what a stupa really is. A stupa is perfection. A stupa is emptiness, and a stupa can't break your heart.
A tulku is a little harder to comprehend. Like a stupa, a tulku is also a living Buddha and supposed to be perfect. That's what I was told, at any rate, when I first arrived in Poolesville. But a tulku is a human being-a person with a childhood, with parents, with loves and losses, with regrets, with needs and dreams. Which brings me to Jetsunma. She is a tulku. And she is the one who lured me to Poolesville and to this place called Kunzang Odsal Palyul Changchub Choling, or Fully Awakened Dharma Continent of Absolute Clear Light. For a year I had been coming to Poolesville as a journalist, and this mysterious woman called Jetsunma-an American woman and a Tibetan Buddhist lama-was my subject.
I had met Jetsunma in 1993, when I came to interview her for a profile in Elle magazine. She was in her mid-forties at the time and wore her dark hair long and curly. I couldn't help but notice her eye makeup, and the red polish on her nails. She was earthy, worldly, a shade tacky. She cracked jokes and seemed to tell the truth, even if it was unflattering-confessing to me at one point that she'd bought her long, flowery-print skirt on sale at The Limited. I was charmed by her wisdom and good humor. She seemed without pretensions or pious sanctimony. To me, there was some thing very special about her. And, clearly, I wasn't the only one. A tulku is thought to be a reincarnated saint, an enlightened lama who is able to choose the circumstances of his or her rebirth-and return to earth or our human realm, as the Buddhists call it, specifically to help end suffering. Within the hierarchy of Tibetan Buddhism, she held a revered position, particularly for a Western woman. Her long Tibetan name, Jetsunnia Ahkon Norbu Lhamo, carries the honorific Jetsunma-one of the religion's most regal titles. And the Tibetan Buddhist center she had founded in 1986 had quickly become one of the most prominent in the United States. It was crowded with families and lay practitioners-nearly all Westerners-who had come to study Tibetan Buddhism with Jetsunma. She was also running the largest monastery of Tibetan Buddhist monks and nuns in America.
When I ventured there in 1993 to meet Jetsunma, I knew next to nothing about Tibetan Buddhism, apart from what I'd picked up in mainstream media and what I'd witnessed during a childhood spent in California, where the practice of various kinds of Buddhism seems more prevalent, I was naive, I suppose, and pulled toward Jetsunma by something in me not entirely rational. She seemed to have created an enchanted world and a radical place beyond the laws of physics and government. And at the same time it seemed happy in a way that the newsroom world where I had spent the last ten years—did not. Bitterness is rampant in journalism, as is a vague malaise: My desk at the newspaper was surrounded on all sides by the desks of people taking antidepressants. Was there something special about Tibetan Buddhism that made people content, or was it simply the lush temple grounds? At KPC-as it is called by the students-there are seventy-two acres of woods and gardens to walk in, hidden shrines to peek at, prayer wheels to spin, and benches to rest your legs. Everywhere, it seemed, pale-colored prayer flags were blowing softly in the breeze. Outside the main building there were shoes scattered about. Inside there was a funky gift shop selling Buddhist books, crystals, and postcards of His Holiness, the Fourteenth Dalai Lama of Tibet (does he ever not smile?). There was a buzz in the air, a freshness and vitality. The nuns and monks, dressed in long burgundy and saffron robes, were for the most part Americans, and they went about their duties with a playfulness and wit that surprised me. The rooms were crowded with colorful Buddhist icons and artifacts and ritual instruments, but at the same time they had a feeling of warmth and familiarity, a feeling of home.
And there were a number of exquisite spire-topped stupas to circumambulate in Poolesville, too-all conceived by Jetsunma and executed by her students-but nothing compared in beauty and magnitude with the great Migyur Dorje stupa. Early in the summer of 1995, His Holiness Penor Rinpoche had visited Poolesville from India and had given Jetsunma a rare collection of ancient relics, perhaps the rarest and most potent combination of Tibetan Buddhist relics in the West. And Jetsunma had set out to build a stupa worthy of them.
This book begins with the construction of this stupa, during the late summer of 1995. It tells the story of Jetsunma and how her monastery came to exist. It tells the stories of Alana Elgin, Sherab Khandro, and Dechen Grissom-three women who met up with Jetsunma and vowed to devote their lives to her and the Dharma, of the teachings of the Buddha. It also describes my own turbulent first year in Poolesville, which began in the fall of 1995 and which ended in September 1996 at the time of the compassion retreat.
When I arrived in the clearing in the woods where the stupa stood, the moonlight was streaming down on the magnificent monument like liquid from the sky. I could see the roughness of the concrete-it still hadn't been sanded or painted. And the impressive landscaping plans, for an amphitheater and waterfall, for shrubs and well-placed spotlights, were still on hold. The money had run out-or had been spent on other things.
But even so, in the darkness and surrounded by the woods, the stupa had an unworldly loveliness. Neglect didn't mask its power but almost emphasized it. In a way it seemed as natural and alive as the forest. I liked the way the concrete was stained and imperfect. And in the bright moonlight I could see the crystal ball glowing quietly at the top. Standing on the ground and looking up at the stupa's base, I was moved-the stupa moved me like no historical monument in Washington ever had.
I had seen this stupa come from nothing. I'd seen the place in the woods before the trees were cleared. I'd seen a deep hole dug in the summer heat. I'd seen an eclectic young crew of six Americans work tirelessly, selflessly-with the sort of energy and devotion and faith that gave me a kind of hope myself. There had been aching elbows and knees and shoulders, There had been accidents and sleepless nights. They had bent rebar and made molds. They had poured buckets and buckets of concrete. And as the stupa had come to life, inch by inch, and grown taller and taller, I had seen bags and bags of rice and beans passed person by person and then lowered into its belly. I had seen a long cedar tree lying on its side in the prayer room-its branches shorn, its body smooth-and seen it painted red with gold Tibetan lettering. The relics were placed in little clear plastic boxes and carefully tied to the painted tree with silk string. One box contained an ancient fingerbone of Migyur Dorje; another housed a "brain pill" of a great wisdom being. And one small clear box was said to hold the crystallized breath of the Buddha himself.
In the darkness and moonlight, as I began to walk around the stupa, clockwise, a thought came into my mind. It was as though the stupa itself had whispered it to me. There are sacred things. There are sacred towers and sacred texts and sacred teachings and sacred traditions. And the truth is, absolutely everything sacred has some people behind it.
From the Hardcover edition.
What People are Saying About This
Fabulous. In a single volume, Martha Sherrill provides a road map to modern spirituality, highlighting its immense perils while seeing its possibilities. With deep, often profound human understanding, she goes to the heart of American Buddhism, taking the reader on a surprising, literate, and frequently chilling journey. Sherrill retains her reporter's tough-mindedness and distance, but dares to skate wonderously and unsettlingly close to her subject. The tone and style remind me of detective Philip Marlowe on the case with all the old frankness, intimacy, and drive.
The Buddha from Brooklyn is a first-rate investigative report and an enormously engaging read, too. I read it with deepening fascination.
Martha Sherrill takes the reader on a riveting journey into the seductive and sometimes disquieting world of Tibetan Buddhism. Perceptive and enlightening, The Buddha from Brooklyn is compulsive reading.
Most Helpful Customer Reviews
An excellent book, well written, from a personal and professional point of view. I enjoyed reading the book, and learned so much on several different levels. It's truly amazing what we humans can come to believe, and how easily we can be seduced.
I'm Michelle Grissom, formerly Ani Dechen Drolma. I was one of the sources for The Buddha From Brooklyn and my story takes up a large part of the book. I have a great deal of responsibility for the contents, for which I'm sorry. I should never have participated. Martha's an excellent author and journalist, but an author can only work with the facts that they're given, the way that they're given. I wish that I could reach every person who has read or heard of The Buddha From Brooklyn, or who has heard the slander I've spread through blogs and as Longchenpa on Wikipedia -- now helplessly replicated everywhere -- because I lied. There are liars who make things up out of whole cloth. Those lies are easily discovered, easily defended against. Then there are liars who tell the truth selectively with a spin geared to the audience whom they get to know very well, as I got to know Martha. They make a whole truth out of two half truths and weave an entirely new picture embedded with bits of the truth, like glittering bits of broken glass. I am the second type of liar. A liar of this stripe has no sense of the truth. It is all simply fodder for the next story. Truth is multi-valent, isn't it? Multi-layered? Well, I've had no sense of the truth because I've had no self-honesty. From my lack of self-honesty came self-deception -- all stemming from protecting my pride. From self-deception I could convey a genuine sense of sincerity and sweetness. Believability, because I believed my own story, too. For the moment. There was always another layer to it. That's how I explained The Buddha From Brooklyn to myself. I thought I didn't gloss over or leave anything out. There were merely ... other layers. Martha Sherrill caught me changing my story several times but she believed in my good intentions. As did I. A con artist has to con themselves first so they can mimic the right emotional facade to elicit the response they want, wrapping themselves around their audience like a snake. It was almost impossible for Jetsunma and KPC to defend against this kind of lie because it was salted with the truth. Many of us have experienced this sort of lie from an ex-husband or ex-boyfriend during a divorce or bad break-up, where overnight they've been painted as a horrible monster. Just because someone wanted to leave and found a need to give themselves reasons. To defend my pride and my own mistakes, I painted Jetsunma and Kunzang Palyul Choling as a cult, and the Palyul lineage as corrupt and supporting a cult. None of that is true. H. H. Penor Rinpoche would not enthrone and make a cult leader a throne holder of the Nyingma lineage. I said I didn't believe Jetsunma was the incarnation of Mandarava. And how would I know this, exactly? What is my expertise? Of course she's Mandarava. And Lamas with decades of experience and training in Buddhist teachings have examined Jetsunma's teachings and found them to be Buddhist, point to where she's teaching Buddhanature, compassion, renunciation. Martha's an excellent author and journalist, but an author can only work with the facts that they're given, the way that they're given. I wish that I could reach every person who has read or heard of The Buddha From Brooklyn, or who has heard the slander I've spread through blogs and as Longchenpa on Wikipedia -- now helplessly replicated everywhere -- because I lied. Here's the truth: So long as I was pointing out the faults of other people I didn't have to