Desperately seeking something
Spirit of the Age
Paul Vallely is visiting professor in Public Ethics at the University of Chester and a senior research fellow at the Brooks World Poverty Institute at the University of Manchester. He writes on ethical, political and cultural issues. He has a fortnightly column in the Independent on Sunday and also writes for the New York Times and the Church Times. His latest book is Pope Francis – Untying the Knots. He was co-author of the report of the Commission for Africa and has chaired several development charities.
Saturday 17 October 1998
A fine grey film started to form on the portrait of the Indian guru Sai Baba which Mr Patel had hung on the extension wall. It was not builder's dust. It appeared nowhere except on that portrait, and those of Hindu gods and goddesses he had also enshrined there to bless his new snooker room. It was what in Hindu tradition is called vibhuti, a holy ash which takes form from nowhere as a symbol of the permeability of the border between the spiritual and the material.
We could begin there. Or perhaps we could start in Tennessee, where small crosses of light have begun to appear in the window of a fundamentalist church. Or in Germany, where an Indian avatar, an embodiment of the Divine Feminine, gives audiences where she cradles your head in her hands and imparts unspeakable serenity to her followers. Indeed, we could begin anywhere in the various ashrams of India that - along with Mr Patel and all the rest - make up the milestones on the journey which Mick Brown made on his "personal odyssey through the outer reaches of belief" for his book The Spiritual Tourist.
But why should we start in any of these arcane places, when we can begin where he ends - in a room with no furniture but chairs, where words vie with silence to strip away the oriental smells and bells that have marked his search for a spiritual high?
The room here is both literal and symbolic. Physically, it was at the Cheltenham Literature Festival where I last week chaired a session on the modern search for spiritual fulfilment with Mick Brown and two other seekers after truth. They were Stephen Batchelor, author of Buddhism Without Beliefs, and Alexander Norman who has spent the last 10 years producing the English texts of the thoughts of the Dalai Lama, including his forthcoming work Ancient Wisdom, Modern World: Ethics for the New Millennium.
For these two, the room is a metaphor for something greater. It is about the focus on the interior and a search for spirituality that discards all the esoteric externalities of which Mick Brown was so enamoured. For Alexander Norman it is the place in which he engages in dialogue with the man who is the leader of Tibetan Buddhism. For Stephen Batchelor - who was for 10 years a monk, first in the Tibetan and then the Zen traditions, before founding the non-denominational Buddhist community, Sharpham College, in Devon - the room is the place of retreat into the inner self.
This was not where Mick Brown started. Taking as his point of departure the remark by the theologian Matthew Fox that post-Sixties men and women were interested not in religion but in spirituality, he set out to explore its contemporary manifestations. But his journey was not through the mainstreams of Christianity, Judaism or Islam. Rather it was through the weird fringes of belief, mainly in India, on the edges of the stranger bits of Hinduism.
So much so that when he finally arrived at somewhere as orthodox as Buddhism, the brother of the Dalai Lama gently chided him to beware of the Shangri-La syndrome. "You people in the West," he said, "you like the mystery of it all, the magic, the talk of reincarnations, the costumes and the rituals. It's very exotic. But these things aren't important. The real miracle of Buddhism is how a person can change, from a very empty person to a person who is full of compassion."
Stephen Batchelor goes further. Buddhism was not originally a religion at all. At the outset it was a process - a method of coming to terms with the anguish at the heart of the human condition, and of detaching oneself from it. All the rituals and doctrines that the centuries have subsequently accreted to it can be done away with.
A Buddhist does not even have to believe in reincarnation, he says. The orthodox would demur at that though, Alexander Norman reveals, even the Dalai Lama - who is supposed to be the 14th reincarnation of a 14th- century Buddha - privately voices doubts about exactly who he is supposed to have been in his previous lives. Doubt, the hallmark of the post-modern spiritual search, creeps in at the top level too, it seems.
There are problems with Batchelor's reformism. It may make Buddhism more acceptable to the agnosticism of the modern age, but it also runs the risk of turning it into a mere technique which, as he puts it, "could end up being swallowed by something else, such as psychotherapy or contemplative Christianity".
In his beginning was his end. At the conclusion of his long journey, the ever- open-minded Mick Brown met yet another Indian guru - not in an ashram but back in Harrow, where he had started out. If you want to find, he told him, you must stop searching.
Mick Brown ended up in a room, too, at the Samye Ling Tibetan Buddhist centre in Scotland, where he finally experienced a glimpse of the enlightenment he had been seeking, albeit tinged with the sense of "knowing even as I feel it, that this too will pass".
He could have found it nearer home. It was a boring old Christian, St Augustine, back in the fourth century, who warned: "Do not wander far and wide but return to yourself. Deep within man there dwells the truth". But perhaps in our time, you have to go via India before you realise that.
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