"The Buddha From Brooklyn"
By Martha Sherrill
Random House, 392 pages
You can almost understand how it happened. In 1984, a small New Age groupin Silver Springs, Maryland, called The Center for Discovery and New Lifebegan raising money for young Tibetan monks. A few months later, theysponsored a visiting lama named Penor Rinpoche on a trip to the United States. He asked the leader--a woman who had recently changed her name to Catherine--what she taught, and she told him of her lectures on the oneness of everything, on "voidness," and "no-thingness." Translated into Tibetan, these must havesounded to the lama like the Buddhist concepts of emptiness and non-duality.
On the last day of his visit, Penor Rinpoche startled the group byannouncing, "You are all Buddhists. And you are already practicingBuddhism." The members had thought of themselves as mystics, or metaphysicalChristians. But a couple of years later, after they had bought a mansion inPoolesville, Maryland, and established a Tibetan Buddhist temple there,Catherine visited India, and Penor Rinpoche recognized her as a tulku, or reincarnate lama, the latest earthly embodiment of Ahkon Lhamo, a saint and student of one of the founders of his order. She changed her name again, to Jetsumna Ahkon Lhamo.
Today, Penor Rinpoche is the supreme head of the Nyingma school, andaccording to author Martha Sherrill, a journalist for the Washington Post, a"lama so revered [by Tibetan Buddhists] in India that people saved the clodsof earth he walked on." He is also the lama who, in 1997, proclaimed actorSteven Seagal the reincarnation of a lama named Chungdrag Dorje. Afterreading "The Buddha From Brooklyn," an in-depth look at Jetsumna's life andher career as a Buddhist teacher, I would put more trust in the wisdom,compassion, and even gentleness of Steven Seagal than that of JetsumnaAhkon Lhamo. As Sherrill vividly illustrates, in the straightforwardlanguage of a seasoned reporter, and drawing on interviews fromformer students, Jetsumna flagrantly abused the power Penor Rinpocheinvested her with and became a headstrong and capricious guru whoseteaching had very little to do with the essential spirit of Buddhism.
Jetsumna--as her students call her--was born Alyce Louise Zeoli in Brooklynin 1949. She grew up in a broken home, was severely abused by herstepfather, and escaped by marrying at the age of 19. Several years later, sheleft that first husband and lit out for Black Mountain, North Carolina, where she began attending meetings at a place called the Light Center andexploring--largely on her own--techniques of meditation and prayer. Shehooked up with a divinity school student named Michael Burroughs, whom shesoon married, and founded The Center for Discovery and New Life, an informalgroup of "twenty or thirty regulars" who met each week to hear "Catherine's"teaching (Alyce had changed her name after meeting Burroughs).
Catherine's teachings were apparently wide-ranging and eclectic, Sherrill'sbook shows. "She talked about the absolute nature of all things," one of herstudents said, "and the focus was always on the power of prayer andbenefitting others.... We were all looking for something to sink our teeth into--and she was talking about compassion and not-self." Other studentscame for "wild talk of past lives and UFO's."
From the perspective of a dharma student, Jetsumna's teachings do soundlike a vague New Agey take on Buddhism. And person after person, includingSherrill herself, testifies to Jetsumna's personal magnetism and to ahomespun spiritual insight that she seems to come by naturally. "She hadwhat the Tibetans would later call ziji--charisma, and a certain kindof energy that made people want to stare at her and spend time in hercompany," Sherrill writes. "Her ability to connect was dazzling." Sherrillwas so impressed, in fact, that she dragged her "sceptical boyfriend" out tohear one of Jetsumna's lectures. "All those Americans with shaved heads androbes running around trying to be Tibetan are annoying," he said, "but she'sgot it--whatever it is. She's incredible."
But in light of the formal hierarchy and scholastic tradition of TibetanBuddhism, it seems highly iconoclastic, and even irresponsible, to proclaimsomeone a teacher of Buddhism--and to allow her to found a center--when shehad never studied Buddhist doctrine or practiced in any formal way. Moreover,the kind of teacher that she gradually became through the 1990s, according to Sherrill's narrative, is unconscionable.
For one, Jetsumna proclaimed herself a living Buddha (tulkus, howevervaunted, do not usually make such claims for themselves) and required herstudents--and her children--to prostrate themselves before her. She ditchedMichael Burroughs and took on a series of younger and younger consorts anddescribed it as "skillful means" of bringing them into the fold. Sheincreased her salary until it was $100,000 a year on top of livingexpenses and spent most of it on a massive wardrobe. And she abused students verbally and--on at least one occasion--physically, all inthe name of "compassionate activity," most notably when a monk and nun broketheir vows by having sex.