"The Buddha From Brooklyn"
By Martha Sherrill
Random House, 392 pages
You can almost understand how it happened. In 1984, a small New Age group in Silver Springs, Maryland, called The Center for Discovery and New Life began raising money for young Tibetan monks. A few months later, they sponsored 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 have sounded to the lama like the Buddhist concepts of emptiness and non-duality.
On the last day of his visit, Penor Rinpoche startled the group by announcing, "You are all Buddhists. And you are already practicing Buddhism." The members had thought of themselves as mystics, or metaphysical Christians. But a couple of years later, after they had bought a mansion in Poolesville, 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, and according to author Martha Sherrill, a journalist for the Washington Post, a "lama so revered [by Tibetan Buddhists] in India that people saved the clods of earth he walked on." He is also the lama who, in 1997, proclaimed actor Steven Seagal the reincarnation of a lama named Chungdrag Dorje. After reading "The Buddha From Brooklyn," an in-depth look at Jetsumna's life and her career as a Buddhist teacher, I would put more trust in the wisdom, compassion, and even gentleness of Steven Seagal than that of Jetsumna Ahkon Lhamo. As Sherrill vividly illustrates, in the straightforward language of a seasoned reporter, and drawing on interviews from former students, Jetsumna flagrantly abused the power Penor Rinpoche invested her with and became a headstrong and capricious guru whose teaching had very little to do with the essential spirit of Buddhism.
Jetsumna--as her students call her--was born Alyce Louise Zeoli in Brooklyn in 1949. She grew up in a broken home, was severely abused by her stepfather, and escaped by marrying at the age of 19. Several years later, she left that first husband and lit out for Black Mountain, North Carolina, where she began attending meetings at a place called the Light Center and exploring--largely on her own--techniques of meditation and prayer. She hooked up with a divinity school student named Michael Burroughs, whom she soon married, and founded The Center for Discovery and New Life, an informal group 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's book shows. "She talked about the absolute nature of all things," one of her students said, "and the focus was always on the power of prayer and benefitting others.... We were all looking for something to sink our teeth into--and she was talking about compassion and not-self." Other students came for "wild talk of past lives and UFO's."
From the perspective of a dharma student, Jetsumna's teachings do sound like a vague New Agey take on Buddhism. And person after person, including Sherrill herself, testifies to Jetsumna's personal magnetism and to a homespun spiritual insight that she seems to come by naturally. "She had what the Tibetans would later call ziji--charisma, and a certain kind of energy that made people want to stare at her and spend time in her company," Sherrill writes. "Her ability to connect was dazzling." Sherrill was so impressed, in fact, that she dragged her "sceptical boyfriend" out to hear one of Jetsumna's lectures. "All those Americans with shaved heads and robes running around trying to be Tibetan are annoying," he said, "but she's got it--whatever it is. She's incredible."
But in light of the formal hierarchy and scholastic tradition of Tibetan Buddhism, it seems highly iconoclastic, and even irresponsible, to proclaim someone a teacher of Buddhism--and to allow her to found a center--when she had 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, however vaunted, do not usually make such claims for themselves) and required her students--and her children--to prostrate themselves before her. She ditched Michael Burroughs and took on a series of younger and younger consorts and described it as "skillful means" of bringing them into the fold. She increased her salary until it was $100,000 a year on top of living expenses and spent most of it on a massive wardrobe. And she abused students verbally and--on at least one occasion--physically, all in the name of "compassionate activity," most notably when a monk and nun broke their vows by having sex.
According to Sherrill's account, narrated to her by the students in question, Jetsumna was incensed. "'You fool' she shouted at the monk, as she ran toward him, then struck him hard on the head with her open hand.... 'I brought you into our hearts!' Jetsumna yelled at him, then bent down to punch the monk again hard on the side of the face. 'We took you into our homes! And this is how you repay our kindness? I should throw you through that sliding glass door but you don't have the merit.'
"This is not Buddhism!" I kept saying to myself as I made my way through the book. I wanted to slap a sticker to that effect on every copy I could find. In the Theravada and Zen traditions, teachers are not regarded as infallible beings to be followed no matter what. They are guides who lead students on the path of spiritual practice. The practice--not the person who teaches it--is at the center of things. And even in the Tibetan tradition, no less an authority than the Dalai Lama advises that, "Should the guru manifest un-Dharmic qualities or give teachings contradicting Dharma, the instruction on seeing the spiritual master as perfect must give way to reason."
I don't think Martha Sherrill was positing the strange tale of Jetsumna Akhon Lhamo as representative of Western Buddhist teaching. She came to this story as an investigative journalist for the Washington Post and developed a genuine interest in Buddhism, eventually taking the Refuge and Bodhisattva vows that serious lay practioners of Tibetan Buddhism commit to, with none other than Jetsumna. But at the time of her research, Sherrill lacked the background in Buddhism to see how unusual Penor Rinpoche's identification of Jetsumna as a tulku really is, and how little her group was grounded in genuine Buddhist practice and teachings. As a result, she never points out that Jetsumna's activity is, in fact, not in line with Buddhist teaching or practice. What Sherrill does offer is a fascinating book that does its bestto see the story from every possible perspective.
Since Sherrill set out to write her book, Jetsumna has moved to the more pleasant climes of Sedona, Arizona, with a handful of her students; the ordained monks among them wear robes now only at ceremonial occasions. In 1998, Jetsumna came to embrace certain Hopi prophecies and predicted that floods and famine and earthquakes would nearly destroy the United States in 1999. The temple in Poolesville is still active and growing, but is no longer run by the board of directors she appointed. Jetsumna's is an age-old story of an insecure person with a charismatic gift who acquires power and runs amok. In fact, she has more in common with a cult leader like Rashnish than with authentic Buddhist teachers.