1998-09-27 - South Florida Sun Sentinel - Chasing Miracles like Grasping for Ash
NONFICTION Chasing miracles like grasping for ash THE SPIRITUAL TOURIST. Mick Brown. St Martin's Press. $24.95. 256 pp. By JAMES D. DAVIS Religion Editor A cloud of fine ash falls from a Sri Lankan swami's fingers proof, his devotees say, of his divinity. Crosses of light appear in every window of a Baptist church in Tennessee one of them appearing to be 30 feet tall and hovering over the street outside. In Germany, a young woman stares into a reporter's eyes and lays her hands on his cheeks. He feels the handprints burning on his face for two hours. Tlie Spiritual Tourist is a brave book for someone who lives by journalistic journalistic dispassion. Mick Brown, a British free-lance free-lance free-lance journalist, pours himself into this travelogue of the miraculous and mystical. Where others might hang back, fearful of their image, Brown touches, tastes, feels, thinks, wonders. If only he had found something to hold onto. onto. Starting in his own backyard of London, Brown meets Benjamin Creme, the ebullient, elderly scholar who says the Maitreya the Buddhist version of a messiah is on Earth and is using him as his herald. Through Creme, Brown learns of Sai Baba, an Asian Indian revered by many as an avatar, or manifestation manifestation of God able to create such wonders wonders as vibhuti, a holy ashen substance, from his fingertips. Brown meets Sai Baba's followers in London, London, then resolves to meet the god-man god-man god-man in India. He never gets a private audience, but he sees enough to make him consider whether whether a human really can embody the divine. From there he hears of a 10 year-old year-old year-old Spanish Spanish boy at a monastery in India, believed to be the reincarnation of a revered Tibetan Buddhist lama. In another trip to the subcontinent, subcontinent, he visits the remnants of the Auro-bindoSweet Auro-bindoSweet Auro-bindoSweet Mother movement, and thence to Germany for an encounter with Mother . Meera, a young Indian woman said to be her successor. He then launches into a discussion of the "feminine principle" in Eastern religion, and how it affects Western yearnings too. This is typical of Brown's skillful interweaving of historical material, providing his spiritual travelogue with depth and context. He has done a daunting amount of homework his bibliography includes 65 volumes, many written written by gurus themselves. As part of his visit with the headquarters of the Theosophical Society, for instance, he launches into a two-pronged two-pronged two-pronged inquiry. He examines examines the spread of Eastern spirituality into into the West, as shown by Theosophical protege protege Krishnamurti. He also traces the mingling of religion and occult metaphysical practices: from Theosophy founder Helena Blavatsky, to Alice Bailey, to modern New Age movements. The book shows a tourist's eye for detail: the colorful chaos of Indian marketplaces, the dreary trailer parks of eastern Tennessee, Tennessee, the thick neck and arms of the Dalai Lama. Brown also captures the peaks and valleys of extended travel. At times, he feels lost in his surroundings, as when he was awed at the play of light and ocean one day at Madras. Other times, he can recall only a hard seat during an all-night all-night all-night bus ride, another another rider snoring on his shoulder. He visits as many sites, and meets as many of the leaders, as possible. And in the interviews, interviews, he does not stand apart. He touches, touches, chants, prays, meditates, even admits to vivid dreams of "blue-faced "blue-faced "blue-faced gods and phan-tasmagorical phan-tasmagorical phan-tasmagorical characters" drawn from Indian postcards. But for all the color, each segment of the w -, -, fy, -$pu -$pu UVM- UVM- rk k f Mick Brown book takes on a depressing similarity. Brown gets a distant rumor of a miracle or pre-eminent pre-eminent pre-eminent pre-eminent personage. He hustles off to meet the leader and his or her followers. He gets a tantalizing taste of the numinous. He envies the followers for their faith, but he cannot share it. He gives up and follows the next lead. Discussing Sai Baba with a new devotee, Brown sounds a frequent refrain: "Once again, I found myself feeling almost envious of somebody else's certainty." Part of his problem, as he confesses, is the lack of a sure yardstick for miracles. "Mystical "Mystical experience, like faith itself, is not amenable amenable to reason. But then, nor are most of the defining experiences of being a human being: being: love, loyalty, self-sacrifice, self-sacrifice, self-sacrifice, the feeling of being inexpressibly moved by a piece of music, music, a painting, a smile." Brown is not blind to ironies along the way. He is struck by the many Western goods and services flooding India, even as weary Westerners flood India in search of spiritual values. He is also honest about failures of the luminaries: luminaries: their pride, their frequent oblique comments, their officious deputies. Though he clearly admires the Dalai Lama, he mentions mentions other Tibetans such as Sogyal Rinpoche and the late Chogyam Trungpa, both accused of sexually preying on their disciples. The book has a sad ending, for it has no proper ending. As it closes, Brown is on retreat retreat at a Tibetan monastery in Scotland. But he still has found no answers. The closest is the Buddhist concept of finding joy in detachment, detachment, of living in each moment, then releasing releasing it to embrace the next. "I see how thoughts arise and fall away, how they have no permanence," he writes. "So feelings come and go. So everything comes and goes. Negativity, self-pity, self-pity, self-pity, despair. We can choose to cling to them, or to let them go." These are not answers; this is surrender to an endless stream with no destiny. All his knowledge and experience leave Brown much as he started: an observer of all, a member member of none. He relates a telling comment by a French-Canadian French-Canadian French-Canadian pilgrim in India. "I sometimes think I've come to be as lost as I ever was but in more interesting surroundings." That could be said of Brown himself. The question is whether a constant change of scenery perpetual spiritual tourism is a decent substitute for a spiritual home.