Sunday, January 2, 2011

BkRev: The Book of Enlightened Masters

Andew Rawlinson, The Book of Enlightened Masters: Western Teachers in Eastern Traditions, Chicago, Open Court, 1997, 650 pp.

The Book of Enlightened Masters is not a book for general readers. However, it might interest a variety of specialists. One example is a scholar (or activist) who wants to identify the fundamental nature of Western culture today, particularly the state of Western culture in the USA. Another example is a pro-reason activist who wants to predict the culture's trajectory partly by identifying past trends on fundamental issues. A third example is anyone who wants a case study in the timing and mechanics of cultural change, answering in particular this question: When a culture changes because new ideas enter it, what are the stages of introducing and embedding those new ideas?

Andrew Rawlinson's subject in The Book of Enlightened Masters: Western Teachers in Eastern Traditions is the very broad movement that has brought ancient Asian worldviews into Europe and the USA beginning around 1875. (For the meaning of "movement," see the July 5, 2008 post on Making Progress.)[1] Those worldviews -- all characterized by a metaphysics of supernaturalism, an epistemology of mysticism, and an ethics of altruism -- include Buddhism, Hinduism, and Sufism. (For the Islamic version of Sufism, see the Nov. 3, 2010 post, "Imam Rauf and Sufism," here on The Main Event).

Rawlinson, formerly a lecturer on Buddhism and other religions at both the University of Lancaster and the University of California, writes in a clear, flowing style. Equally important, Rawlinson brings enthusiasm to his subject. The book is a fulfillment of Rawlinson's ambition, begun at age ten, to someday write a one-volume encyclopedia. (p. xiii) That enthusiasm enlivens a subject that would, for many advocates of reason, be a dreary investigation.

Rawlinson knows that individuals as well as books carry ideas from one culture to another. Rawlinson's approach accordingly is two-fold. He notes the avant-garde role played by European translators and other writers in the 1700s and 1800s in bringing Asian sacred texts to Western culture. His main focus, however, is on the role of teachers who traveled from Europe and America to Asia and North Africa, studied religious worldviews there and then returned to the West to teach.

Part I of this two-part book explains "How to Understand Spiritual Teachers." The first chapter, "The Phenomenon: What Westerners are Doing in all the Eastern Traditions and Independently," describes the main sub-movements appearing in the West: Buddhism, Hinduism, Sufism, and "independents," that is, movements started by individuals who detached themselves from the rigid traditions of Asia and began teaching their own versions of mysticism. This chapter is the taxonomy of Eastern mysticism in the West. It describes the wide variety of types, subtypes, and mixtures appearing in the West.

The main themes of the book emerge throughout Part I. First, the many sub-movements of the East-to-West flow of mysticism all exist side-by-side as they continue to seep into Western culture. Second, a uniquely Western, generalized movement -- which Rawlinson calls "spiritual psychology" -- is still forming as it quietly permeates the Western world. (p. 136)

Chapter 2, "The Story: How Westerners Have Become Spiritual Teachers," is the history of the movement, mainly in four stages: "Sowing the Seed: 1875-1916"; "First Growth: 1917-1945"; "Propagation: 1946-1962"; and "Full Bloom: 1963 Onwards" (to the mid-1990s). These stages apply to the whole movement of Westerners bringing Eastern mysticism to the West. Within that very broad movement, there have been many smaller movements; some have remained isolated from the others, and others have intermixed. The results are a complex diffusion of a variety of forms of mysticism into Western culture.

In Chapter 3, "The Issues: The Meaning and Significance of Western Teachers," Rawlinson identifies four characteristics shared by almost all teachers in the movement to bring Asian mysticism to the West. That set of four characteristics is "spiritual psychology." The four characteristics are these four beliefs: (1) understanding humans means understanding their consciousness and how they can modify it; (2) the way to modify consciousness is through "spiritual practice"; (3) gurus (or "masters" or "teachers") have learned spiritual practice; and (4) gurus can teach it to others who want to modify their own consciousness. (p. xvii) Rawlinson's insight here is that "spiritual psychology" as a generalized phenomenon has appeared only in the open society of the West, but did not arise and could not have arisen in the nationalistic and narrowly tradition-bound cultures of the East (for instance, Japan, Tibet, India, and China). Thus, Eastern mysticism has been partly transformed into a unique Western form of mysticism.

Chapter 3 also describes, in great detail, Rawlinson's classification of the types of sub-movements. He uses labels such as "structured, unstructured" and "cool, hot." (I skimmed over this area as being outside my area of interest.)

A more valuable section, for advocates of reason, is "Part II: A Directory of Spiritual Teachers." This part is a catalogue in form but nevertheless readable and sometimes amusing as well; it includes nearly 500 pages (in large format) of descriptions (with some photos and diagrams showing lines of influence) of the many major and minor individuals who have led the various sub-movements. They appear in alphabetical order. (In some cases, Rawlinson describes groups as groups, such as the Sufis and the Hare Krishna gurus.)

Alyce Zeoli, featured on pp. 152-155, is an example of a teacher. From the age of 19, she had dreams that taught her to meditate. She gave spiritual "readings" to individuals she met. A group gathered around her; they called it "The Center for Discovery and New Life." Residing in Washington, D. C., Zeoli met a traveling Tibetan Buddhist monk who was seeking funds for a group in Tibet. Alyce Zeoli officially became Jetsunma Akhon Norbu Lamho, a reincarnated Buddhist teacher who had lived in Tibet in the 1600s. The Center then bought a large house in Poolesville, Maryland and erected Buddhist statues and buildings on the property. One building was a school open not only to the children of local Buddhists but to other local children as well. Meanwhile, Alyce Zeoli taught Buddhism directly to adults. This is only one of many thin streams of Asian mysticism diffusing into US culture.

Again and again in the mini-biographies that Rawlinson presents, the alert reader of this large book sees Eastern mysticism making inroads into what remains of Western Civilization -- with almost no resistance. Each inroad is narrow. Collectively they cover a lot of area.

The persistent pro-reason reader of Rawlinson's biographical profiles of Buddhists, Hindus, Sufis, and new "independent" sub-movements is akin to a biologist standing on a coastland watching an incoming tide slowly filling first all the creek beds, marshes, and other low spots, and then gradually covering everything. There is no tsunami here, only a shallow but gradually rising pool of mysticism that is joining the historically deeper pools of Judaism, Islam, and Christianity that are already part of the culture.

Burgess Laughlin

Author, The Power and the Glory: The Key Ideas and Crusading Lives of Eight Debaters of Reason vs. Faith, at


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