Saturday, December 29, 2012

Guttersnipe Bookshelf: My Father's Guru

My Father’s Guru:
A Journey Through Spirituality and Disillusion
Jeffrey Moussaieff Masson
Addison Wesley, 1993

Nowadays Paul Brunton is little-known, his star eclipsed by an ever-more sophisticated group of spiritual entertainers, but his “spiritual adventure”  books were once very popular and several remain in print.  Above all, he was famous as the man who introduced Sri Ramana Maharshi to the West, with his bestselling book In Search of Secret India.

I was surprised and pleased to find this book in Tiruvannamalai, South India, in the library of Sri Ramana’s ashram, where it is has been read so many times it looks as though it has been put through a washing machine.  With good reason.  This beautiful book deserves to be found and read by believers, naysayers, and all of us in-between.  For anyone who has ever uttered the words “my guru”, it ought to be required.

This is a compassionate and clear-sighted account of a man who lived almost entirely in the world of his own fantasies -- and who convinced others to live in that world, and to bankroll it.  Though Paul Brunton may have created a full scale interplanetary Tibet-style theme park in his mind, what makes this book brilliant is how ordinary and recognizable Masson shows the underlying process to be – the way in which most us, as children and adults, struggle to construct and believe in worlds in which we matter, worlds where we are central and sometimes even heroic.

The surprise of this book is that, in debunking Paul Brunton’s spiritual adventurism and opportunism, Masson has managed to write a book that is vastly more fun and entertaining than anything Brunton ever managed.  (Here in Tiruvannamalai, I waited impatiently for the library to open each day so that I could continue reading.) 

This is the odd, sad and hilarious coming of age tale of a young man growing up in Hollywood in a wealthy and exceedingly spiritual home, subject to gurus, enemas, fad diets, and rumors of the end of the world.  Masson details all the loopy things he believed – that Paul Brunton was from a distant star, that he had secret powers, that WW III was on its way – and makes it clear how easy it all was to believe.

As he writes, “PB dominated my childhood imagination with a seemingly never-ending supply of magic fantasies, higher powers, adverse forces, other planets, adepts in remote caves high in the Tibetan mountains, occult abilities, Egyptian magicians, Indian sages, astral travel, memories of ancient incarnations.  I wish it were all true.  I wish PB had been the person we all thought he was.  How enchanting it would be to live with such a man, to be part of some master plan for the universe, the author of which shared one’s bathroom.” (p.172)

It is easy to love a writer who, while presenting an account of his adolescence, complete with extracts from the stunningly obnoxious spiritual letters he penned as a teen, writes, “It is hard for me to understand how I could have been such a pedant and prude, combining ignorance with arrogance and not have somebody tell me about it.”

As an enthusiastic student of Buddhist and Hindu traditions, I hope this book will be read by many people who are, like me, “devotee-types”.  First, because we are the ones who need it.  The questions Masson poses are questions we need to be asking, both of ourselves and of our communities.  Second, it is great fun, the best session of teatime spiritual gossip you may ever come across.  Third, his first-person account of India in the fifties – he met ‘the Mother’ in Pondicherry, Swami Ramdas in Kanhangad, Atmananda in Trivandrum – is something no starry-eyed devotee would want to miss.    

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