Book reviews by Sangharakshita

 

Prophet and Loss Account

THE SPIRITUAL TOURIST: A Personal Odyssey Through the Outer Reaches of Belief. Mick Brown. Published by Bloomsbury. ISBN 0-7454-3667-8

Original publication date in The Times Higher Education Supplement not known.

'Spiritual Tourism' is really a contradiction in terms, and journalist and self-styled spiritual tourist Mick Brown seems to suspect as much. Probably this is why he has given The Spiritual Tourist a subtitle that characterises this story of his encounters with prophets and divine incarnations in three continents as a spiritual odyssey, as though to invest it thereby with an aura of mythic significance.

The neoplatonist commentators on The Odyssey certainly saw Homer's epic as a symbolic narrative, and even gave detailed philosophical interpretations of some of its more important episodes. One therefore wonders if Brown intends us to see a parallel between the extraordinary characters he meets in the course of his travels and any of the beings, human and non-human, encountered by the wandering Odysseus. Is Mother Meera a kind of mystic Circe whose magic deprives men of their reason? Are the Western denizens of Puttuparthi and Dharmasala the Lotus eaters?

Our spiritual tourist more than once finds himself struggling to steer a middle course between the Scylla of credulity and the Charybdis of scepticism. When a woman he meets at a dinner party tells him that he is too much the journalist, and should stop asking questions and open his heart, he reflects 'It was what people kept telling me. I felt as I always did at such times, stranded between reason and a craving for faith, uncomfortable in the knowledge that while a spiritual life may lead you to believe in anything, a materialist outlook on life will lead you to believe in nothing.'

A spiritual life may indeed lead one to believe anything. The woman at the dinner party no more doubts that Sai Baba himself, the miracle-working avatara of Puttuparathi, is divine, than does Sai Baba himself, who in 1968 told a world conference of devotees in Bombay, 'In this human form of Sai, every divine entity, every divine principle, that is to say, all the names and forms ascribed to God by man are manifest.'

His faith having been exercised by avataras and talk of living goddesses, Brown finds it comparatively easy to believe that a ten-year-old Spanish boy might be the reincarnation of a Tibetan teacher who died in the West. He is also open to the possibility that the Dalai Lama, with whom he discusses the subject of reincarnation, may have a special connection with previous Dalai Lamas - though he reflects that identifying reincarnations seems an inexact science.

Reason is, in fact, called for from time to time and even scepticism is justified. The Crosses of Light that miraculously appear in the windows of a small church in Tennessee, and which have attracted tens of thousands of visitors, turn out to be due to natural causes. Not that it would change anything for the pastor of the church if somebody said they could prove this to him. The belief that they were witnessing a miracle had changed people's lives, and the fact that for the last year he kept the doors of his church open to them means that he became the guardian of their faith.

Our spiritual tourist has a similar attitude. He may even see the writing of The Spiritual Tourist as constituting him a guardian of such faith. However it may be, his account of life on the highways and back roads of spiritual tourism is both entertaining and informative. Vignettes of people and places alternate with potted histories of, for example, Tibetan Buddhism and Madame Blavatsky and theosophy. Who the book is meant for is unclear, but the professional student of contemporary religious trends and the armchair spiritual tourist can both be sure of a good read.