Killing the Baba: Not Exactly a Book Review of Killing the Buddha
How to Review a Book
“Put it in front of you, close your eyes, and try
to perceive what may interest you about it.
Then write about yours
—Pierre Bayard, Comment parler des livres que l’on n’a pas lus (How to Talk about Books That You Haven’t Read)
This is not a book review in the usual sense, since I read little more than one chapter of the book in question. Like most book reviews, though, it’s an excuse to present my own thoughts related to a subject treated, albeit briefly, in the book: Meher Baba. (See the complete chapter on Meher Baba here.)
The title of the book is Killing the Buddha: A Heretic’s Bible by Peter Manseau and Jeff Sharlet, and it was published in 2004. (Clearly I haven’t been in a rush to offer this commentary; but now that, with this blog, I have a place to publish it, I am motivated to do so.)
First some background. Several years ago, when I was an editor at Shambhala Publications (a position from which I’ve retired as of July 2007), I came across an online publication at killingthebuddha.com (recently updated, so that the material quoted here is from the original site, now archived). Its “manifesto” reads in part:
Killing the Buddha is a religion magazine for people made anxious by churches, people embarrassed to be caught in the "spirituality" section of a bookstore, people both hostile and drawn to talk of God. It is for people who somehow want to be religious, who want to know what it means to know the divine, but for good reasons are not and do not. If the religious have come to own religious discourse it is because they alone have had places where religious language could be spoken and understood. Now there is a forum for the supposedly non-religious to think and talk about what religion is, is not and might be. Killing the Buddha is it.
The idea of "killing the Buddha" comes from a famous Zen line, the context of which is easy to imagine: After years on his cushion, a monk has what he believes is a breakthrough: a glimpse of nirvana, the Buddhamind, the big pay-off. Reporting the experience to his master, however, he is informed that what has happened is par for the course, nothing special, maybe even damaging to his pursuit. And then the master gives the student dismaying advice: If you meet the Buddha, he says, kill him.
Why kill the Buddha? Because the Buddha you meet is not the true Buddha, but an expression of your longing. If this Buddha is not killed he will only stand in your way.
Why Killing the Buddha? For our purposes, killing the Buddha is a metaphor for moving past the complacency of belief, for struggling honestly with the idea of God. ...
Since part of my job was to be on the lookout for publishable projects, I contacted the founding ktb editors, Peter Manseau and Jeff Sharlet, to see if they might have a book manuscript in the works. As it happened, they had already been signed up by another publisher. The book they were writing would be based on a cross-country road trip in which they explored various religious groups. We exchanged a few friendly e-mails and that was that.
Returning later to their site to see what was new, I encountered an announcement of the book project as the ktb guys launched their road trip. Since they encouraged readers to invite them to a particular church or religious group along their route, I e-mailed them, suggesting they stop in
At some point they sort of interviewed us about Baba, but I don’t remember what I told them. I guess I imagined that they would want to attend one of the Center weekend meetings and find other people to interview there, but they didn’t seem to go to those events. Actually, what they really wanted to do was go to a bar and talk to the locals about the Center. They told me later that to their surprise they hadn’t succeeded in digging up any scandals about the Center.
Time passed, and then the book was released to a fanfare of endorsements. Publishers Weekly even called it “some of the most original and insightful spiritual writing to come out of
I wonder if they really forgot to give me a copy, or did they feel a little embarrassed to send me the drivel they’d written about Meher Baba after they’d supped at my table? Not that I expected them to write in praise of Baba—we all know that’s not what journalists do. But I hoped for something better researched, displaying more curiosity and thoughtfulness, and less ... well, ignorance.
The Baba chapter is largely centered on their meeting with a “pretty young blonde” waitress at a bar called Dick’s Last Resort in
Much is made of her having expressed an interest in trying astral projection. Is the reader supposed to think that was an activity recommended by Meher Baba? Since Meher Baba explicitly discourages indulgence in “occult” practices, either the ktb guys did not do their homework, or they were deliberately misleading the reader by implying an association of Meher Baba with weird new age practices. My impression is that the authors didn’t think this chapter through carefully and were just filling up the pages with some commonly held prejudices against Eastern gurus to make themselves and their readers feel superior. They had places to go and people to see, and how can you nail Meher Baba down in a few days, when those of us who have been with him for decades are still clueless?
The authors state that there is “not much to do” on the Center. Are they not familiar with the concept of a spiritual retreat — “for rest, meditation, and renewal of the spiritual life” (the stated mission of
Once, the late Jungian analyst Harry Wilmer told me he was working on a book about silence (which he subsequently published under the title Quest for Silence) and was interested in silent retreats. I described Meher Baba’s silence to him and suggested he might want to visit
Here is part of the ktb guys’ take on Meher Baba hims
We’d pulled into town a few days before to check in for a week’s stay at the
There were at one time as many as a million devotees of Baba in
One generation removed from their master’s physical presence, the loose community built around the
The Baba world looks like the world the rest of us see, with a slight but significant difference: If it’s all Baba, it’s all good. Baba Lovers don’t want the world, they just want the world to be more than it seems. More meaningful. More intentional. Just plain more. Keep turning pages in “Baba, Baba Everywhere” and you’ll find Baba as the air you breathe, Baba as the ground beneath your feet. Look down and he’s looking up: eyes, nose, mustache, and an impish grin on a globe shaped like his head. It would be scary if it wasn’t so cute. Or maybe it’s the other way around.
This vivid writing wins praise for its “insights,” but no one bothers to check the quality of the research behind the reporting. While Meher Baba has inevitably been labeled a cult figure by some people, most writers treat him as a highly respected world spiritual leader. See, for example, the articles on him in the Encyclopaedia Britannica, the Encyclopedia of Religion (a project headed by the famous scholar of religions Mircea Eliade at the University of Chicago), and the entry I wrote published by SkyLight Paths Publishing in Spiritual Innovators: Seventy-Five Extraordinary People Who Changed the World in the Past Century.
It’s hard to understand why the ktb guys would attack Baba so vehemently, when they clearly knew and understood so little about him. Their denigration of him relies heavily on a simple device of maligning by association, unsupported by any examples from the literature or interviews with credible people. The style is reminiscent of tabloids from the 1930s that made fun of the “dumb” guru who visited
For one thing, the ktb boys gratuitously mock Baba’s physical appearance. Why mention that his body is “barrel-wide” unless they are trying to imply some moral weakness such as overeating? (Are the two fit young men aware that it’s not unusual for an elderly man to have put on weight in the abdomen, especially when his activity has been curtailed by being disabled in automobile accidents? Did it occur to them that there could there be other health issues that might explain the distension of Baba’s stomach while his arms and legs remain thin?)
Baba with his large mustache is likened to Stalin, thus associating him in the reader’s mind with an evil dictator, suggesting an authoritarian guru. Many recalls the story from some thirty years ago, about how
It’s beyond me to figure out why anyone would make fun of an aquiline nose typical of the blend of ethnic groups in the region of
The likening of Baba’s alphabet board to a “ouija-board-like slate” again discredits Baba by associating him in the reader’s mind with the occult. I wonder if Peter and Jeff read the Center directives, which include the fact that “divining cards, the Ouija Board and I Ching are not to be used at the Center” by Meher Baba’s directive.
Baba is described as twirling his alphabet board “like a Harlem Globetrotter,” a reference to the famous comedic basketball team. Baba would have loved this team, being fond of both sports and humor. However, the reference doesn’t seem positive, owing to the clownishness and the way the “smooth” sleight-of-hand ball handling hints at trickery.
In an article of December 3, 2006, posted at killingthebuddha.com, Peter Manseau states that “I write about religion for a living, and so by necessity I enter into religious worlds that are not my own on a regular basis.” Apparently that doesn’t include Indian religions, since neither ktb guy recognized—or learned through research— that “pulling a hard candy from his pocket and winging it at one of his followers” is not a “silly teaching” but is rooted in the tradition of prasad. In Hinduism, the term prasad refers to offerings to a deity at a temple, which are shared with the devotees afterward as a blessing. Among Baba-lovers, prasad refers to gifts distributed by Meher Baba, whether at mass darshan programs or more intimate meetings, often in the form of a sweet. Baba, of course, imparts his prasad in a most natural way, as a warm and human exchange, without making anyone feel as if they are engaged in a religious ritual.
I know I’m going on and on; yet I am not disturbed by what the ktb boys wrote in the sense of being concerned about what people will think of Baba or of Baba-lovers. It does not matter what people say or think of Meher Baba. Meher Baba does not want us to be concerned with praise or blame of hims
“He tut-tutted around with a jolly gait that seemed to forget the heft of his barrel-wide body, and this, combined with his oversized eyes and long, sloping nose, gave him a resemblance to both Charlie Chaplin and the Hindu elephant-god, Ganesh.”
I have a strong feeling that the “jolly gait” and Chaplin reference are allusions to the opening scene of the classic O Parvardigar film in which Meher Baba walks through the garden at Guruprasad in his pink jacket and sadra. (I might have even shown them the video.) The original version of this film (1976?) was restored and expanded in 2004 (the same year the Killing the Buddha book was published, incidentally), and at the first showing of the DVD at
About 45 years ago, a gay high school buddy told me this joke: A young gay Jewish man vacationing in
Peter and Jeff remind me of this naive Jewish observer in a Catholic church. They view a smiling, elderly spiritual leader in pink, walking with difficulty, and what they see is a clownish or a funny-looking character like an elephant king in a children’s book. I think the problem is that Meher Baba is simply beyond their frame of reference.
But the Chaplin reference makes me stop and think ... Baba loved Charlie Chaplin films. In a weird way it kind of makes me feel that that the ktb boys are unwittingly pleasing Baba even while they’re putting him down. I think of the two of them enjoying the beauty and comfort of the Center as guests of Meher Baba, the Perfect Host, during their road trip, and then turning around and writing so ignorantly of the Divine Beloved, who loves them more than they can ever love themselves. There’s something strangely touching about it. The boys were just doing their job, and apparently they went away thinking they had done a fine one, and so did the reviewers. In the end, I can’t really fault them for just doing their honest duty as they saw it.
Woody Allen once joked in a comedy routine that he was caught cheating on his college metaphysics exam — he looked into the soul of the boy sitting next to him. Obviously I can’t look into Peter’s and Jeff’s souls and judge their degree of spiritual development. As a Baba-lover, I can only sit back and admire how Baba somehow got them to the Center and imparted his inscrutable grace to them, without their realizing it. It’s quite a trick, typical of Baba.
Let me go back to Peter and Jeff’s conclusion about Baba-lovers, which I quoted above: “Baba Lovers don’t want the world, they just want the world to be more than it seems. More meaningful. More intentional. Just plain more.” Now compare this conclusion to their web site mission statement, which I also quoted: “Why kill the Buddha? Because the Buddha you meet is not the true Buddha, but an expression of your longing. If this Buddha is not killed he will only stand in your way.”
It appears to me that when Jeff and Peter looked at Baba and Baba-lovers, they saw exactly what their preconceptions dispose them to see: spiritual beliefs as an expression of human desire or longing. This attitude is as old as the hills. The reasoning seems to be: people believe in God because they want God to exist, because they need a crutch, not because God really does exist.
What if the Buddha that Jeff and Peter met — the Baba they killed — is an expression of their longing: the longing to see what they want to see, which is the same thing they saw when they wrote their previous articles; the longing to have their intellectual concepts comfortably confirmed? This, unfortunately may be what stands in their way, not another “Buddha” to be slain.
This is exactly the meaning of the “killing the Buddha” Zen koan, which in the original goes like this: “Zen Master Lin-chi spoke thus: ‘If you meet the Buddha, kill the Buddha. If you meet a Patriarch, kill the Patriarch.’" The koan suggests that forming a mental concept of the Truth (which the Buddha embodies) as something external to one’s own self is an obstacle to realizing that Truth. Obviously it doesn’t mean that if you encounter a real Buddha (which is exactly what Meher Baba was and is) you try to kill him, even just figuratively through arguments and words of ridicule.
The Buddha repeatedly emphasized that the realization of truth comes from one's own inner experience, not through external forms of worship. Meher Baba, in his "Internal Conviction" message (Lord Meher 12: 4243), distinguished between internal and external experience as follows:
There are two kinds of experiences — one external and one internal. The external experience can be had by gross means. What we actually see of the gross world with the gross eyes gives us a sort of conviction, but at times even this conviction is based on false analysis. Just as when we happen to see a man drinking milk in a bottle under a toddy tree, we feel convinced having seen this that he must be drinking toddy [liquor], which is false. But what is seen with the inner eye gives absolute and definite conviction which can never fail and be false.
When one actually sees God with the inner eye as the Omnipresent Existence, he then only needs to become that Infinite Existence himself. So what is actually needed is not mere theorizing and reasoning, but actual experience which would give eternal conviction, and this can be had only through love.
Interestingly, in order to become receptive to this love that imparts the experience and conviction of God, Meher Baba advises that we cultivate longing by focusing our love on the God-Man, who is worthy of love because he is Love personified. Baba says:
Desires and longings are the root cause of suffering.
The only Real Desire is to see God, and the only Real Longing is to become one with God.
This Real Desire and Longing frees one from the bondage of birth and death. Other desires and longings bind one with ignorance.
To desire the Real Desire and to long for the Real Longing you need my Grace; and you cannot have that until you surrender all other desires and longings to me.
Your love for me will help you to surrender these desires and longings; and my Love for you will help you to desire the Real Desire and long for the Real Longing which are by my Grace.
[See Manija S. Irani, 82 Family Letters, p. 265.]
One who can grasp even a hint of this profound spiritual teaching will not find the content of Rob and Jean Narke’s children’s book Baba, Baba Everywhere either “cute” or “scary,” as Peter and Jeff did, but quite understandable in the light of Baba-lovers’ sincere efforts to follow Baba’s instruction to love him, remember him, and see him in everyone and everything, as one of the highest roads to God for our time.
The ktb manifesto declares an intention to “struggle honestly with the idea of God.” Maybe it’s that word “idea” that’s the problem. Intellect can never attain God; only love can. It’s the difference between seeing a clownish old man and seeing what Arnavaz Dadachanji saw (just one of many who have beheld in Baba the Christ or
When I remember Baba at Ashiana [her home], one moment stands out among all the others, and I think He must have wanted me to have a glimpse of His divinity that would remain etched in my heart and mind forever.
Very early one morning He was alone in the open doorway of the back verandah. As I passed on my way from the sitting room, I saw Beloved Baba's form illuminated from behind by the rays of the rising sun. I was transfixed by the glorious sight of His beauty as the light radiated from His body and sparkled through His flowing hair. [Gift of God, p. 164]
If I were ever to have the opportunity to give advice to the ktb guys, I might suggest that when they witness people, such as Baba-lovers, expressing love for God or a sense of God’s presence that makes no sense to them and seems delusional, instead of rushing to judge or make fun of those people — or exploit them as material for their “journalism” — they might turn within and say: “God, if You exist, please reveal Yours
If the request is really honest and sincere, an answer must come, in time. This one silent prayer could ultimately be worth more than all the columns and books they could write about the Buddhas and Babas they’ve killed....