19 September 2007

Killing the Baba

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 yourself.”

—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 Myrtle Beach and spend a few nights on Meher Center. I was a little surprised, but pleased, that they took me up on it. During their stay, we had them over to our house for dinner, along with our friend Jacob Morris, and enjoyed our conversations with them. They were very likable, more-than-bright, cute guys in their late twenties or early thirties.

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 America since Jack Kerouac first hit the road.” I wrote and reminded Jeff and Peter of their promise to send me a complimentary copy. They said they would, but they never did. So I did the logical thing: I ordered the book from amazon.com, read the Meher Baba chapter and skimmed a few of the other chapters, and then returned the book for a refund.

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 North Myrtle Beach. (I’ll leave it to you to speculate on how important those three quoted words were in determining their choice of interview subject.) The blonde is the daughter of Baba-lovers but says, “I never thought Baba was God.” She is also quoted as saying, “It’s true ... Baba is everywhere. I just don’t know why we have to talk about him so much. Okay, maybe people think he’s God; great; move on, you know?” It seems a little strange that someone who is apparently a non-Baba-lover would be the only person remotely connected to Baba quoted in the chapter.

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 Meher Center)? As the Center website notes, “Meher Baba said that he had come ‘not to teach but to awaken,’ so the Center has no structured teachings or classes. There are, however, a variety of programs available. These offer many opportunities for experiencing more about Meher Baba and his message of love and truth.” I’ve always felt that the absence of required workshoppy activities is one of the best things about Meher Center. But in our culture, a spiritual master doesn’t make the list of spiritual possibilities (note Baba’s absence on beliefnet) unless he or she’s linked with an expected offering of organizations, classes, and products.

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 Meher Center. “It’s very different from other retreats,” I said. “We don’t rise at dawn and do yoga or anything like that.” Sometime later, Dr. Wilmer sent me a proposal for the manuscript, which included a mention of Meher Center (which he had not visited) as a place where “retreatants rise at dawn and do yoga.” Hilarious! It seemed he couldn’t absorb the idea of a spiritual center that didn’t fit his idea of what it should be.

Here is part of the ktb guys’ take on Meher Baba himself:

We’d pulled into town a few days before to check in for a week’s stay at the Meher Spiritual Center, the “home in the West” of the late Indian guru Meher Baba, believed by many to be the “Avatar of the Age,” the latest in an endless parade of “corporeal manifestations of the divine.” Baba “dropped his body” in 1969, but as seen in the videos frequently shown at the center, he’d been a manifestation with a kind, almost silly manner; one of his most popular teachings consisted of pulling a hard candy from his pocket and winging it at one of his followers. 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. He heightened his mystique by communicating through a ouija-board-like slate, which he twirled and bobbled as smoothly as a Harlem Globetrotter and on which his long fingers could spell words nearly as fast as they could be spoken. In response to questions about his spiritual identity, Baba tap-tapped things like, “I am God in human form. Of course many people say they are God-incarnate, but they are hypocrites.” To which a Dick’s employee might have replied, “Thanks for clearing that up, Babar.”

There were at one time as many as a million devotees of Baba in India and thousands in the United States. Their numbers had dwindled, but several hundred still lived right there in Myrtle Beach, by day running alligator tours and sea captain carving emporiums, by evening walking the winding paths of the compound, an exquisite piece of land with oceanfront, woods, and a freshwater lake, given to Baba by a wealthy follower decades ago and now valued at $50 million. Baba had been fond of tooling around the lake in a Venetian gondola donated by another fan, but besides boating and strolling there’s not much to do there, and very little ritual to partake in. Devotees make due by trading Baba stories, modeling Baba scenes in clay and making Baba pictures, in oil or charcoal or colored macaroni. Baba Lovers, as they call themselves, believe with the sincerity if not the fervor of first century Christians. Bereft of the teacher but still enthralled by his memory, they are touched as deeply by his image as they are by the words he left behind. A portrait of Baba hangs on every wall of every building at the Meher Center. Baba’s eyes don’t need to follow you as you walk across a room; there are so many pairs of them that he never misses a thing.

One generation removed from their master’s physical presence, the loose community built around the Meher Center is now engaged in a tricky negotiation between its desire to spread Baba’s message and his directive that his teachings not be used to start a religion. How do they do it? Easy, they act like nothing’s wrong. Baba saw all this coming, after all, so they just keep hoping he will work it out. In the meantime they sing Baba songs; do Baba dances; sit in Baba rooms filled with Baba chairs and think Baba thoughts. Like any religion that doesn’t want to be seen as “merely” a religion, they start teaching Baba early on, so the word and the man will be bred in the bones.

In the Meher Center library there’s a children’s book called Baba, Baba Everywhere, the first page of which shows a kid’s drawing of a brightly colored cup of alphabet soup. “Baba, Baba in my soup,” the book begins. On the facing page, Baba’s features float in a dark broth: two intense black eyes, a great big nose and a mustache that would have been enjoyed equally by Frank Zappa or Josef Stalin, all surrounded by little yellow Bs and As. The next page reads: “Baba, Baba, on my stoop.” Here’s Baba on concrete stairs watching two girls play hopscotch. “Baba, Baba in my hair.” There’s Baba peeking out from a forest of wild brown and blond strands. “Baba, Baba Everywhere!” Baba as wide eyes on a wildflower, as a hooked nose on a water bug, as a smiling sun, as a whistling cloud, as a mustache on a breaking wave.

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 Hollywood. (What really cracked up one writer was the fact that Meher Baba’s spiritual career began with a kiss from a 120-year-old woman. Eeee-yew!)

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 John and Yoko drew a Hitler mustache on Baba’s face on a “Don’t Worry, Be Happy” card presented to them by their waiter, a Baba-lover.

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 Iran where Baba’s ancestors are from. (I once read a book-length history of the ridicule of the Jewish nose, though.) Even after the accident injured Baba’s nose, did it really look like an elephant’s trunk? Yet the comparison to the elephant-headed Indian god Ganesh is amusing, considering that Meher Baba indicated that symbolically Ganesh is equivalent to the Ancient One (Adi Purush, the Original Person), that is, the Avatar himself (see Bhau Kalchuri, The Nothing and the Everything, pp. 143–149).

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 himself, and in fact on many occasions he even seemed to encourage opposition. (He said that "all spiritual work is strengthened by opposition.”) But while I am not disturbed, there is a twinge of hurt, as anyone would feel when seeing a loved one slighted. Also, there is disappointment. You would want others to feel Meher Baba’s love as you feel it. Instead, you see them looking at Baba and seeing something silly and ridiculous (yet possibly frightening as well). Take this passage:

“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 Myrtle Beach, Richard O’Casey explained to us what the restoration meant. Among other things, it meant speeding up footage originally shot at slow speeds between 13 and 16 frames per second, bringing it up to 24 and 25 fps, which would give a natural tempo to Meher Baba’s gait. Richard pointed out that in the restored version, we can more clearly see how painful Baba’s movements are, the severe physical suffering resulting from the 1956 automobile accident that shattered his pelvis.

About 45 years ago, a gay high school buddy told me this joke: A young gay Jewish man vacationing in New York City went sightseeing and visited the famous St. Patrick’s Cathedral — his first experience of a Roman Catholic service. When Francis Cardinal Spellman (known as “Franny” to some who rumored he was gay) proceeded down the aisle in his robes, swinging the incense burner back and forth on a chain, the Jewish boy leaned toward Franny and said, “Honey, I love your outfit, but your purse is on fire!"

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 Krishna of our age):

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 Yourself to me.”

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....


Jeff Sharlet said...

Dear Kendra,

First, of course, many, many apologies for offending you so. Second, just plain many apologies for failing to send you a book. That, I assure you, was a bureaucratic error on our part -- we had well over 100 books we owed to those who'd helped us along the way, and I'm afraid some got lost. As for your comments, I'll start with the positive -- at the time of writing, yes, we did see "spiritual beliefs as an expression of human desire or longing," as you paraphrase our words. I'm not sure if I'd make that generalization now, but it's a fair assessment of our state of mind at the time.

Beyond that, I'm afraid we may have failed to make clear our project -- perhaps if you had read more of the other dispatches, you'd have seen that it was never to offer reporterly accounts of various spiritual traditions, but to find stories on the "margins of faith," as we call it in the introduction. We've never been as interested in the official story as we have in the lives of believers, unbelievers, and those somewhere in between. The "pretty young blonde" we wrote about was in that last category, which we find most interesting. We didn't set out to write about Trader Dick's; but that's where we stumbled upon the story that spoke to our hearts, minds, and -- who knows -- personal desires (there is, as it happens, another "pretty young blonde" in the book at a Pagan gathering in Kansas, but the attractiveness quotient, male or female, goes down sharply from there. For what it's worth, though, I think Baba was a very handsome fellow. We thought our description, which used the word "jolly", WAS jolly, like the man as we saw him. He may have been shaped like a barrel, but I got no gripe with that -- why, since we met I've attained that happily rotund status myself, and I happen not to think it's a "moral failing," as you say, at all.

Not sure what else to say. I like the joke, which does indeed express a lot of truth, I think. "Killing the Buddha" is inherently a heretical approach -- it's not about seeing things in all their formal glory, but a little bit off kilter. I like to think that Baba -- cute, but not scary -- would have appreciated that approach.

Kendra, I do apologize deeply for so offending the Baba lovers. Please don't take us seriously, or, rather, so literally. No, wait a minute -- do. When we say "there's not much to do" at Baba's place, we mean that there's, you know, not much to do. Which is why we loved it, and much preferred it to the mini golf apocalypse of Myrtle Beach's main drag. When we said his mustached looked to us a bit like Stalin's, we met that it, um, reminded us of Stalin's. And that this was funny in the cultural context of the early 21st century, when we're so saturated with historical images that a figure as benign as Baba -- and I challenge anyone to find a note in our depiction that sounds other than benign -- could appear in our troubled minds as linked to Stalin. We're all victims of white noise, as Don Delillo points out. Even -- after the fact -- Baba. But there was no malice involved, nor dislike for anyone at Baba's place, nor any intent to wound. We wounded almost no one in the book, I think, including a witch named Debra Floyd, who provided us with a few yuks and a profound story and remains our friend, or Cowboy Preacher George, who provided us with the obvious gag of his vocation and understood why we thought it was funny and remains our friend, nor Crone Elowen Graywolf, at whose rather large naked self beneath a Kansas moon (which we were ritually calling down) we laughed, and who laughed at our equally ridiculous over-clothed selves, and who remains our friend. I think we probably pissed off the Broward County D.A., and the bloodthirsty church that provided him allies, but that's ok. But pissing you off is not ok, and I'm sorry.

Sorry, too, about the book -- but it sounds like you don't want one.

Anonymous said...

Dear Kendra, perhaps Meher Baba says it best:

"I am equally approachable to one and all, big and small,
To saints who rise and sinners who fall,
Through all the various paths that give the divine call.
I am approachable alike to saint whom I adore
And to sinner whom I am for,
And equally through Sufism, Vedantism, Christianity,
Or Zoroastrianism and Buddhism and other isms
Of any kind and also directly through no medium of 'isms' at all."
--Meher Baba, 20 July 1952

Anonymous said...

Fabulous piece, Kendra (as are most all that you write)!

I especially liked: "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?"

...and this: "...they saw exactly what their preconceptions dispose them to see: spiritual beliefs as an expression of human desire or longing. ... 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," which describes my brother to a 'T'.

After your piece, I also enjoyed reading Jeff Sharlet's response. It seems that their goal was to write a collection of "zany" stories about their travels in America much in the mold of Kerouac (sp?) as opposed to serious, substantive descriptions of their religious encounters.

As a Baba-Lover, it would not offend me at all if I came across a description like that quoted from the book and I'm a little surprised that Jeff thought that you were "offended so" - and certainly not "pissed off." Criticism is rarely indicative of offense. As long as we've been at this game, for every person who "gets" Meher Baba, we know that there will be a thousand who don't. And, the authors weren't looking for substance anyway - they were looking for iconoclastic and humorous experiences "on the margins" of American religious expression. Within that framework it's not surprising that they describe Meher Baba himself in such a "zany" manner.

One editing item: One of their quoted statements says, "Devotees make due by trading Baba stories, modeling Baba scenes in clay...". Isn't the proper expression "to make do", as a colloquial phrase using the verb 'to do'? I've never seen that phrase used with 'due'.

Anonymous said...

This article is actually helpful in promoting/addressing conversations between non-Baba lovers and Baba lovers. How do we address the skepticism? How do we respond to others' perception of Baba's being a ludicrous imposter? Thanks for bringing this up.

My own perception so far has been that some people see a scheister/opportunist, some a teacher...and that reflects who they themselves are. Didn't Baba say that to the ant, he appears as an ant? It would follow that the writers of the book are irreverent people, wouldn't it?

I am happy, Ms. Kendra, that you don't attack them. They are to be loved as being part of Baba's plan, as you mentioned. Yet at the same time, I am happy you are critical of their arguments, because it helps me conjur responses to those around me who scoff and ridicule or barely tolerate my beliefs in Baba as the God Man.

Vaya con Dios.

Anonymous said...

Dear Kendra
I just saw this and what a great essay you wrote!! I loved the last part. Honestly speking, I am offended at this time. My heart is not accepting Jeff's apologies nor looking at his perspective at least at this moment. It is heartbreaking to see such articles on our Beloved Baba.
Time heals the pain and I will be ok tomorrow...

Great Essay!!

Anonymous said...

Great article. I'm not offended either.

Anonymous said...


The KTB boys - Jeff and Peter are good natured goofs. If they didn't rip into whatever they decide to "research" they wouldn't have a website or book. No more and no less.

sonia meher said...

Jai Baba dear Kendra.
I went through your post on Peter n Jeff's less-reserched and irresponsible comments on Meher Baba. I felt amused to see the way you put forward counter arguments against their views in a very humble and controlled way.Honestly speaking initially i too felt offended and hurt reading the cruel and ridiclous words they used to mock Baba, but then as you only mentioned that Baba encouraged opposition and rated it as an important ingredient in the path of spiritual progress, I calmed down and felt sad for these two writers! It is definitely Baba's divine game that even after spending so much time at Meher Centre and being in close company of Baba lovers, they could only write such words for Him...I accept that their livelihood is based on writing such articles...but they must know that they are now dealing with the Avatar of the Age and He is not to be understood, He is to be loved!!!
I hope i am not being over emotional! Congratulations to you Kendra for a brilliant piece of writing.
Jai Baba

Ben Leet said...

I enjoyed your account, and Jeff Sharlet's apology. The buddhas they killed repeatedly were multiformed. They were so accustomed to killing them they were obviously shooting from the hip. But some Buddhas don't get killed so easily, as they may be fortunate enough to find out. Let's send a prayer. "Better to ask a madman with a sharp knife in his hand to sit on your chest than to accept a false master as your guru." That is a Meher Baba quotation that I am paraphrasing. "Better to deny God than to defy God." An interesting piece, thanks.

BT said...

He who knows everything
displaces nothing.
To each one I appear to be
what he thinks I am.

--epigraph to Meher Baba's Life At Its Best (1957)

Mehera Arjani said...

I just came across your blog dear Kendra, and am enjoying my journey through the posts. The best thing I can say about the book and the comments is the line from the Hindi Arti composed by Madhusudhan where he says, "Apney ko jab jo nahin janey, mahima tumhari kyaa pehchaney. Jo kuch bhi kehtey anjaaney gun gaatey tumharo." When we don't know even ourself, how can we understand your glory. Whatever anyone says (good or bad), unknowingly they are singing your praise. Baba Himself said (referring to Col. Irani) that all his slander and his angry talks, articles, etc. were infact his work for Baba. Because of him, many heard of Baba who wouldn't have done otherwise. Col. Irani's name is on the memorial tower as one of Baba's loved ones!

All quotes of Meher Baba © Avatar Meher Baba Perpetual Public Charitable Trust unless otherwise indicated. Writings by Kendra are © Kendra Crossen Burroughs unless otherwise noted.