My Life in a Buddhist Cult with “The Master”
On Diving Deeply Into the Past, To Write and Remember
To be fair, even before my parents found the Master, I had a sense of God. An elemental, gut feeling. I remember being given the word by my mother when I was very young, as we peered through hay grasses at eye level.
My parents revered classical music, nature, and the counterculture of their generation. Beauty in music and nature were godly, so was early organic gardening. They cultivated condescension toward TV and radio, with the exception of Robert J. Lurtsema, in the morning, to whose Mozart and Beethoven I danced ecstatically, aware of my parents’ approval.
They were mystically inclined, which is where I must have got the feeling that the hayfield shimmered with cosmic questions. Their acceptance of the unknown unsettled me until I considered God might be the mediator between little me and mind-blowing mysteries.
* * * *
I began writing this essay with the idea of aiding my novel of the same title. After ten years spent grappling with the fictional version of the spiritual master in my childhood, I wondered if the fiction had sort of snowballed, obfuscating the original kernel of truth. In my novel, a ten-year-old boy is witness and victim when his parents fall for a guru. I was five when my parents found their Crazy Wise Man, all follicles and cells Orgasmic with Awakenment and Realization. The Master was a writer. He had caloric names for himself. “Giver of Life,” “Universal Life-Current,” “Unyielding Paradox that finally Outshines the souls of all beings, every part of the body-mind of Man, and all possible places in the worlds of experience.”
He was living with devotees in California. It was 1979 or ’80, and my parents were already well versed in spiritual searching. Entire adult conversations seemed to me conjured of proper nouns that were at once person, place, and state of being: Rajneesh, Gurdjieff, Tassajara, Alan Watts, Lama Foundation, Suzuki, Trungpa, Eselen, Ken Wilber, The Farm in Tennessee, Yogananda, Muktananda, Vivekananda, Rudrananda, Ramana Maharshi. I took it all in solemnly. I would not have known to accuse them of name-dropping.
They were quintessentially, for their generation, estranged from their parents. Conveniently, attachment is hindrance in Buddhism. They were empty vessels. Optimistic. Energetic. They perceived themselves as outsiders, but they had each other. It’s easy enough to look back and stereotype: lots of people were going around checking out gurus. But as a child, I felt that my parents were true originals.
They left behind the farm in Maine where they had started out as off-the-grid newlyweds, and the house on the cold, blue coast where they had recently been chopping wood and carrying water for a stringent, sleepless Zen master. I’ve moved across the country twice with my own sons, at the ages my sister and I were when we made our iconic pilgrimages between Maine and California. It seems suspiciously self-aware of me to miss Maine as deeply as I remember missing it. But my parents changed in California. They seemed suddenly lightheaded, and inaccessible. Where in Maine my mother had stayed home, growing gardens, weaving, and sewing, now she went out to work for the Master. I understood that God had a referent: love. But I wasn’t prepared to lose my parents’ love to the Master. In my novel I call him the Guru. It’s a little sluttier, fiction. In nonfiction: my parents believed that this charismatic leader, this “brilliant thinker,” this funny, charming, lover-of-all-humans from Long Island, was God.
* * * *
Everybody believed he was God, born November 3, 1939. The mothers and fathers of the families with whom we shared houses, the teachers at the school, the lady devotee with the same name as my mother who became my very own “confidante.”
Still, I was resentful, rebellious. I was wary of worship. Was it just a basic instinct for self-preservation? I saw more danger than virtue in vacating the self, dismantling the ego. I hated the dietary restrictions: fruit for dinner left me hungry. Our first Thanksgiving in California was a Medjool date with an almond poked into its cavity. When I complained, I was criticized for being Unattractive. My mother told me you didn’t need to eat much in California.
The children’s yoga teacher was obese, lecherous, touchy-feely. She touched me. My friend Ronnie’s father had stature in the Inner Circle. They lived in a glassy modern house on a private hillside of ponderosa pine and manzanita. Ronnie pressed me into a closet and made me hold the flashlight on her while she masturbated fiercely with an array of drumsticks. “Drumsticks”; later I learned that her father maintained the Master’s dildo collection.
I didn’t like the other adults in our households (we moved constantly) disciplining me. The Master had a child-rearing lieutenant who came down hard on emotionally entangled parents. His name was Churchill. He cut an imposing figure, aristocrat of the Master. The word of the Master wedged itself between all intimate relationships. Of course: You loved the Master more than you loved your parents. Your children. Human love relationships were flimsy and neurotic.
The school was scattered in the one-room cabins of an old hot springs resort, and the smell of sulfur sickened me. We wore uniforms, and in a rare reference to our previous life, my mother sewed my navy blue skirts, one corduroy and one plain cotton. I had turtlenecks in red, white, and yellow—the colors of the Master’s logo. I learned to embroider the same sign on altar cloths and meditation cushions.
We burned books at school: there was a hearth in the same room where we did yoga. I remember bringing paperbacks from home. I remember how the books quivered as if alive when the fire licked the fan of pages. This would be melodramatic in a novel.
The old resort—in my memory it had been abandoned, a ghost town—was at the base of a dry, forested mountain. We spent hours of the school day wandering in the woods, fashioning altars. Sometimes I cried a little in premeditated self-pity as I half-purposely drifted farther and farther away from the teachers and the other children. Other times I succumbed to the pleasure of arranging stones and lichen and pinecones. And if I didn’t manage to elude her at the beginning, Cairo, the self-appointed torturer, would overwhelm me. Sometimes she lay on top of me and beat me, or she would tie me to a tree (it seems outrageous that she had rope, but I remember the sheer strangeness of rope burn) and lit matches in my face, one after another. Again, too maudlin, contrived for fiction.
There was a week-long school trip hiking Mount Shasta: we built altars at campsites on that mountain, too. I was proud of my frame backpack—my father had said it was really heavy for a child—and the novelty of powdered soups rehydrated in campfire water. But there was a sense of danger. Likely it was the longest I’d been away from my parents, but it wasn’t just homesickness. The adult chaperones (male) and confidantes (female) seemed shaky without the Master. As if their bodies were suddenly unmanned. The danger wasn’t bears, or running out of drinking water (the ungodly taste of iodine tablets!), but that the grown-ups would cease to exist without the Master. The farther we hiked, the fainter they became, less decisive.
Later I learned that the Master had called for purification, and our chaperones and confidantes were fasting on Mount Shasta.
* * * *
The Master borrowed liberally from Tibetan Buddhism to describe himself:
Everything this precious guru does,
No matter what it is, is good.
All his deeds are excellent.
In his hands a butcher’s evil work
Is good, and benefits the beasts,
Inspired by compassion for them all. . . .
I remember being afraid almost all the time. Fear felt like having an outline of a body instead of a body.
We were different. We had so much to hide: God. People outside the Fellowship, worldly people, hated us. I felt the fear of exposure. I knew that some of the adults were promiscuous in their ecstasy, and they seemed to me to be asking for it. Some of the Inner Circle had a real religious arrogance, I had overheard my father say, as if they were bulletproof to ridicule and persecution, but I knew I had to answer to the world for such grown-ups.
In one of the houses where we briefly lived, our sleeping bags unrolled right on the carpet, our next-door neighbor was a policeman. His daughters invited me over to play with their fashion-plate paper dolls. I remember the bitterness I felt when I heard my parents scorn the worldly policeman. Afterward I avoided the neighbor girls out of fear I would somehow betray my parents’ judgment.
But in the kitchen of that particular house (the woodsy cul-de-sac; the strange California snow that winter in the abutting scrub forest where we walked our dog; seeing Churchill once, strolling haughtily in the same neighborhood, which I learned was the reason we lived there), I also remember that I baked cookies one afternoon in the toaster oven. I used almond meal for flour and frozen orange juice concentrate for sugar. So there was fear, and there were substitutions, but there wasn’t deprivation.
* * * *
Another scene: a school outing to one of the holy sites, a man-made lake in the gash of an old gold mine. Maybe just a gravel quarry. The Fellowship had built little cedar bathhouses along the shore, and there were picnic tables, which we thought exotic as we customarily sat on the floor to eat in the Japanese style.
We rode in the back of a Fellowship pickup truck, jouncing over dirt roads, everyone close, singing devotional songs and clapping. Even now I can feel the esoteric, exalted anticipation.
We were passing a run-down trailer farm when the owner lurched from a dark garage, waving a rifle. We stopped in the middle of the road. The man trained the gun on the open load of us. He yelled that next time we dared pass by his place he wouldn’t hesitate to shoot. We, the children, were sitting up high, on hay bales.
In my novel the boy resists Surrender. In my essay, I remember the exact moment. Driving home one night from the Sanctuary, my father pulled over at a gas station in the crotch of three dark roads. The single streetlight barely shone through fog. Real life can also be gothic. There was a little cinder-block convenience store, some men lingering in front, smoking in the cool glow of the Bud Light bunker window. I felt their menace. I sunk lower in the backseat.
My father returned to the car and recorded the mileage in a pocket notebook he kept in the glove compartment. (It seems to me now he retained the habit until he got a first-generation Prius in the early 2000s.) I remember his concentration, the overhead light on, my worry it would waste the car battery, and then my realization that my parents were oblivious to my terror.
Anger swelled, at my own fear, at my parents. And at the Master, for the fear in which he traded. How could he pluck me out of the world and then turn the world against me? I was small enough to squat on the floor of the car and tuck my shoulder under the lip of the bench seat. I rounded my back and tried to breathe shallowly. But the men from the gas station would come and drag me from the car into even darker darkness. It seemed inevitable.
And then something took hold of me: a swooning capitulation, an immensely pleasurable if violent sensation of tumbling open. This scene is impossible to write in fiction. It ends up sounding fever pitch, fantastical.
I knew his words by heart: “Surrender to Me. Breathe Me and Feel Me in all your parts. I am here. I will save you from death. I will Dissolve all your bewilderment.”
The Master was with me on the gritty floor of the car. All I had to do was Surrender.
In fiction—evangelical, embarrassing. A child protagonist must always have an edge, an uncanny precocity, a plucky resilience. But here’s the thing. Once you’ve believed in God, once you’ve literally seen him, you are dead to the world. If I lost my narrator to the Guru there would be no novel.
* * * *
I’m visiting my parents in New Hampshire over a crystalline September weekend. The plan was to get some space, to foist soccer games and fencing club and homework patrol on my husband, in order to try one more burnish of the novel. In fact, I’ve never before pulled off such a writing getaway, and I’ve been circumspectly giddy in anticipation, as if productivity were mouth-watering, as if all lost time could be restored by a single weekend.
A few years ago my father built a “retreat” cabin at the edge of a high field, and I’ve dreamed of holing up there to write. But the weekend I choose coincides, at the last minute, with a meditation retreat my parents are hosting, led by a couple of Buddhist monks who are my parents’ current spiritual infatuation.
Writing from the remove of memory is one thing, carefully measured, but here I am in the churning present—I’m going to plunge right in. I wake up early with a cold. By 8:00 am a whole passel of retreatants is alternately sitting in silence in “my” cabin and fanning out like somnambulists in walking meditation.
No surprise, I spend a good part of the morning picking fights with my mother. She concedes that religion is bowed under the weight of current fundamentalist evil, but then insists that Buddhism is not a religion. It drives me crazy. It’s more of a brain science, she claims. Here we go again. Then, remorseful, I offer to make apple pies from the apples in my parents’ orchard for the Buddhists.
My mother and I head out to the orchard together. There are pear trees mixed in with the apples. A lot of poison ivy deep in the hay grass this year, but I don’t say anything. I compliment the gnarly fruit instead, the hell-bent little trees against the hilltop wind. The sun pours down upon us.
I remember when my father planted these trees, the year we moved back east from California. He got them by mail order, and when they arrived they were just leggy little crosses. He put them in that fall, on the last day he possibly could have; one more day and the ground would have been a foam of frost crystals on top, a rock down deeper. He clawed out enormous chilly holes with the tractor. My sister and I bucketed ice water. He worked past dark. I was astonished that he could turn back into a farmer.
My mother and I pick from separate trees and for a couple of minutes we don’t call out to each other. As an adult, I’m mostly unarmed, in terms of rationality, reason. Even after we left the Master my education skewed toward the spiritual, the artistic. From my childhood indoctrination I understood that you can’t feel, you’re without passion if you don’t have spirituality. I think of Virginia Woolf ’s “little atheist” Tansley in To The Lighthouse, tepid fanboy of Mrs. Ramsay’s husband, killjoy, dry in funds as well as spirit. As if atheism were like vegetarianism, bloodless. But it seems to me now that reason is constantly tested, and thereby strengthened, where religion isn’t. Reason must be able to stand up, to start from scratch, over and over. It doesn’t mythologize. And it doesn’t sneak up on you, smoke and mirrors, like the shape-shifting Buddhism of the Master.
In fact, my whole life has been sticky with God, greasy with devotion. Emotion. I was always clutching my parents, Don’t go, don’t go, but God trumped everything. I rush to say I know I’m not unique in suffering. I carry inside me the perspective of the Master: I am fundamentally puny. Insignificant, unenlightened, and as I write in my novel, fundamentally (one of the Master’s favorite words) shitty. Sometimes when I’m writing longhand—like this weekend—the strings of letters and words all look to me suddenly, strangely, armless. I read over this and it sounds fever pitch with unprocessed emotion. I’m not promoting or polishing my novel, after all. I’m going for the homeopathic venom. I’m dialing back to the original snakebite.
* * * *
But the sun pours down through the apples.
Soon my mother and I have overfilled our big stainless kitchen bowls and I say that the way I see it, sin is to Christianity as suffering is to Buddhism. It’s the only thing that will earn me any points all weekend in this argument with my mother.
The two lead monks are swaddled in a hue of saffron particularly unbecoming to Caucasian pallor. Their white-robed young attendant tells me in the kitchen he was deciding between Buddhism and the armed forces. The haircut. The monks can’t touch women or money or food or a steering wheel, so the attendant/butler is important. “We’ve heard they really love butter,” my mother whispers conspiratorially. As if God loved butter.
It’s not permitted to sit at a table for a meal, so my mother locks up the cat at lunchtime and the monks nest themselves in their yards of mustard fabric on the floor of the living room, buttered bread in their begging bowls.
My mother considers herself forewarned that the monks will eat a lot: it’s feast or famine, as they’re prohibited from eating after the noon meal, except for late afternoon “tea” with chocolate and cheese and candied ginger. I can’t help remarking that it looks like an eating disorder. If I were my mother I would counter that we mustn’t project our cultural paradigm on their (adopted) ancient tradition.
All day, there’s a line for my parents’ bathroom.
I’d rather pee in the woods. Is it obvious I burn with offense? The exceptionalism of the monks, my parents’ fawning affect toward them: I find myself hoping my novel fingers Buddhism. I know its practitioners and advocates consider it exempt from the accusations of hypocrisy, righteousness, and violence that are woven in the history of other religions, but I smell sophistry.
* * * *
I take a walk with one of my parents’ neighbors. He’s curious about the retreat, so many cars the yard has become a parking lot. He likes my parents a lot, though. He and my father have conferred about hiking trails; he and my mother talk easily about their shared profession, psychotherapy. Still, he says he chafes at what he calls McMindfulness.
I confess to him that I have a really hard time with the spiritual vanity under those robes. And the shaved heads, the malas, the sandals: Is it a cross-cultural potluck? Or ostentatious code-switching?
I don’t tell him that the whole thing smacks of my childhood.
Once again, I try to rein in my reactions. Don’t I believe in religious freedom? I quip that I believe in freedom from religion.
For instance, if there’s no separate self in Buddhism, how do you explain literal, soul-by-soul reincarnation? Loving-kindness, but what about tiny boys plucked from their homes because someone holier than their mothers has identified them as the literal reincarnation of a specific old lama?
Suddenly I miss my own sons. The older one seems—at thirteen—to have been born free of any God gene. The younger one is named after an Irish saint, for poetic not religious reasons, but he might as well be one. They have both been through years of the Dalai Lama’s empathy training, not by my hand, but championed by one of the software wives from the yummy-mummy crowd at their private school when we lived in Seattle. Despite their inherent differences with regard to religion, my sons seem equally and independently cynical about the acquisition of empathy. When my older son was in fifth grade, a very cute half-Asian baby was volunteered to make regular visits to his classroom over the course of a semester. The girls fawned full bore over the whole situation: some lined up to adore the baby, others stroked the beatific young mother’s hair, while others begged to babysit. A scheme seemed to arise, and the girls began to whisper that the baby was afraid of the boys. Emboldened, they fiddled with the language and escalated their accusation—they claimed that the boys scared the baby. The boys slunk off, hating the girls for winning the baby and for empathizing all that premenses shame upon them, dear Dalai Lama. Buddhism for Western children.
* * * *
Farming was useful for expunging memories of the Master, and my father planted grapes, too, farther down the hill from the apples. They grow in magnificent chandeliers, treasure troves behind curtains of broad, fibrous foliage. But they don’t really keep, and there’s certainly no wine drinking here in New Hampshire, so nothing to do but gorge on them during their brief season. To borrow a Buddhist word, this is where I’ve taken Refuge. I wonder if the monks’ pruned egos sprout with renewed vigor. I stop myself. The late afternoon sun shines upon the vineyard.
* * * *
There was so much energy expended, in my childhood, on passing. On hiding, and passing. Once when we were driving across the country we were stuck in freeway traffic on a bypass around a city. We were listening to devotional songs on the car’s cassette deck, singing along and clapping, as if we were among fellow devotees at the Sanctuary. My mother used to weep spontaneously when she sang. My father, ex-choirboy, harmonized beautifully. We were stopped in a middle lane, and my parents were in full chorus. Suddenly I had that feeling where my body was just an outline of my body. I rolled up my window. I called over the music for my mother to roll up her window. In my novel I wrote, “When ladies clapped, their elbows made devotional circles like jug handles.” I had spent hours in observation of bliss behavior. Now my mother just gazed back at me, her eyes wet for God, radiant.
I looked up into the cab of the semi that loomed alongside us. The driver was staring down at me, just as I knew he would be. For a split second he smiled. Despite myself I smiled back up at him. Then his eyes widened and his smile became a leer, contorted. He took his hands off the wheel and mimicked my mother’s clapping. I couldn’t seem to look away from him, and his expression grew uglier and uglier.
Even a child could figure out that the local guy behind the gun in Clearlake, California, hated us because we were Buddhists. He may have been a xenophobe, declaring holy war on hippies. But we weren’t born Buddhists, or hippies. We were born to seekers, servants, easy converts. I can’t speak for the other children pinned against the hay bales like county-fair targets. I am in touch with none of them. Not even Facebook. Ronnie, Cairo, Trpti, Michelle, Chad, Pan, Ben, Forrest. But I know I understood that someone had put me up to this, and put me in danger.
* * * *
I remember many things that my father, in particular, doesn’t. There are no photographs from California, but there’s the proof of a blurb I wrote when I was seven for one of the Master’s books for children. My first time in print. “When I read What To Remember To Be Happy it makes me feel the Mystery. It helps me to be happy. I feel that I am in God. It tells me the Truth.”
My mother and father and I convene in the kitchen after the monks and the meditaters have finally driven away into the night; some came from as far away as New York City. One guy brought a fresh coconut from Thailand (his claim, at least, when he asked my mother if he could put it in her refrigerator) on the inside intel that coconut water was the monks’ favorite beverage. After all the fuss about food and serving food, there’s a lot of rice and lentil pot left over, and apple pie, too. My mother has a big kitchen job ahead of her. I help a little bit. My nerves are frayed. My cold is getting worse; I apologize weakly although my guilt is strong. I think every half-conscious daughter knows how much her mother hates doing the dishes.
I say it’s interesting how the day spent both avoiding and overhearing the group reminds me of my whole childhood. At first my father professes to have no idea what I’m talking about, but then he says, “Oh, here we go. You’re going to send Mom into a tailspin of guilt again.”
My mother sounds so tired she might cry. But not so tired she isn’t irritated at both of us. “It’s not guilt, it’s regret,” she says and then stops. Her wrists look red in the dishwater.
I try for some humor. Do they remember the workshop for past life regressions they once hosted in the living room? I’m counting on the three of us being able to poke some fun and bond over this one, but their expressions sour in suspicion. Come on! I want to say. Memory itself isn’t sacrilegious! Was I in eighth grade? I blunder onward. I was supposed to stay in my room while twenty regressors were hypnotized and plunged to their old deaths, one after another. I hadn’t yet come into possession of my tape deck, and my bedroom door was no match for the Guatemalan peasant raped in childbirth circa 1890. A Napoleonic soldier screamed as he was blasted through his belly. The Spanish Inquisition was well represented, as were Native American priestesses and horsemen.
But my rendition only exacerbates my mother’s pained expression. My father steps up and says he refuses to believe any of this made any impression on me. He accuses me of dramatizing.
In the silence that follows—just the sound of water in the sink—my father maybe realizes I’m trying, in my clumsy way, to relieve the tension between us. Now that I’m a parent I know how mean it seems to shut down ebullient children: or maybe he just feels sorry for me. As if to keep the conversation going he says, “Do you remember the Master?”
At first I can only sputter. “Well, yeah,” I manage.
“Really?” he chuckles. Suddenly he may even be enjoying himself. As if he hadn’t before thought about my memory as a collective asset. “Maybe you had more access to him than we did!” He playacts a flare of envy, but looks questioningly at my mother.
My mother just pulls up her shoulders.
Now my father’s openly curious. “Did you see him—a lot? Did you sit with him?”
I lift my shoulders just like my mother. We have the same shoulders.
I was a very good little worshiper, in the way I was good at handwriting and spelling. The blurb and all, but I really did love him. In fact, I bought the whole divine package, and when my parents cult-exited, there was a black hole where God had been. No one warned me before, no one explained it to me afterward.
“How could I not love God?” I say lightly.
My father looks dumbfounded. “God?” he says with indignation. “How did you know about God? We never talked about God!”
My mother looks away, embarrassed.
Exercised, he’s thinking about it. And then I can almost see him summon the family folktale. Was I four? Three, even? I cringe. This was the era of the Zen master on the Maine coast, not to confuse things, but another white man born in the 1930s, another passionate, powerful leader unfurling Buddhism for Western children.
The story goes that I walked right up to the Zen master during one of the post-zazen gatherings of intimates he held in his little old farmhouse. It’s as if my father were trotting me out like a dancing bear. A baby bear. I was in my seventies sweaterdress and tights with sandals, although I was not a very girly child. The Zen master took me on his giant lap as he kept talking and laughing with his students. I tapped him on his chest. “What is God?” I interrupted. A hippie child with no manners. He was struck speechless, apparently, and my parents were briefly famous.
I don’t have the energy now to say to my father that it wasn’t contemplation of the divine. I was just curious.
My mother looks around at the floors, which need sweeping, and she can no longer contain her disgust for the chore, and for the conversation. I say, “It’s enough,” meaning the cleanup, and she takes my word for it.
* * * *
The Master seems like fiction, even in nonfiction. Is it because he exists in the theater of memory? Yes, but also because he was an actor. A faker. Nobody is God. And yet the concept, and the possibility, seem hardwired for some people.
There’s great allure in anthropotheism, and the promise of unprecedented intimacy. I’ve tried to resist it. I’m trying to write to my parents. They keep searching, cycling, switching one drama—one spiritual practice, one teacher—for the next one. Is there a way out?
There’s a way through for the boy, in the end, in my novel. He storytells himself to shore with the best of them. It’s a good story. In fiction you can live in a single moment—like looking through hay grasses—as things come into balance.