The Book of Enlightened Masters: Western Teachers in
Eastern Traditions. By Andrew Rawlinson. Chicago and La Salle, Illinois: Open
Court, 1997. Pp. 650. ISBN 0-8126-9310-8.
This book surveys Westerners (non-Asians, for the most part) who are teachers, gurus,
masters, or priests in so-called Eastern traditions. The traditions in question are
primarily three: Hindu, Buddhist, and Sufi. The main focus of the book is on
Western Europe and North America during the past 100 years (there are a few exceptions).
The book is divided into two main sections: (1) a lengthy introductory essay in which
the author generalizes about the phenomenon under review; and (2) an alphabetical
directory that discusses nearly 150 individuals, followed by an appendix that includes an
additional thirty "minibiographies" of Western teachers.
To my knowledge, this is the first attempt to cover this subject. The author has
assembled an impressive amount of information about these "masters" and has
arranged it in an easily accessible way. There are many cross-references, and each
individual's entry contains biographical data, some comments on the person's central
teachings or practices, and primary and secondary bibliographical references when
available. Although meant as a reference work, the book can also be read as a
history and survey of the West's appropriation of Eastern religious traditions through
Westerners' direct participation in and leadership of these traditions.
In the introductory essay, Rawlinson makes several important claims. First, he
claims that Eastern traditions have undergone such important changes as a result of their
appropriation by the West that we have come to see the end of the era of self-contained
religious traditions (p. 97). Western teachers have so modified and combined the
Eastern religions that the religions have outgrown their own indigenous categories.
Second, the Western teachers have articulated, more or less in unison, what Rawlinson
calls "a new explanation of the human condition," a "spiritual
psychology." This spiritual psychology, he says, has four aspects to it: (1)
"Human beings are best understood in terms of consciousness and its
modifications"; (2) "consciousness can be transformed by spiritual practice";
(3) "there are gurus/masters/teachers who have done this"; and (4)
"they can help others do the same by some form of transmission" (p.
96). It is Rawlinson's claim that ritual, belief, and custom are all subordinate to
spiritual psychology or consciousness, in greater or lesser measure, in each of the
Western teachers. The emphasis of almost all of the Western teachers is
experiential, he argues, rather than doctrinal or ritualistic.
Needless to say, this description works better for some Western teachers than for
others. In general, the teachers of the so-called Sufi traditions, many of whom are
self-consciously trying to separate themselves from Islamic roots, fit the model well, as
do many Buddhist masters. The ISKCON (Krishna) gurus, however, fit less well,
precisely because their founder, Bhaktivedanta, emphasized the importance of preserving
the distinctively Hindu (Indian) features of Krishna devotion, including a distinctive
style of worship, dress and diet. Some Western masters, to be sure, have stretched
the categories of the Eastern religions. Others, however, have taken pains to
replicate the Eastern traditions in the West in their traditional, Asian forms.
In his introduction, Rawlinson tries to give a comprehensive picture of his subject by
offering an elaborate typology. He places individuals and their teachings,
practices, and methods of transmission within a grid of four quadrants: hot, cool,
structured, and unstructured. Hot is something different from, other than,
the self. It is overwhelming, numinous, and is generally perceived via revelation or
grace. It is definitely beyond one's control. Cool, by contrast, is
identified with oneself. It is "quiet and still, and is associated with
self-realization" (p. 98). Structured means there is order in the
universe, there "is something to be discovered and there is a way of discovering
it" (p. 98). Unstructured means there is no separation between reality
as we experience it and God. "Everything is available now and always has
been" (p. 99). Individuals and traditions usually are combinations of these
The grid is a useful way of characterizing theologies/philosophies, traditions, teachings,
and world views. Rawlinson does place many of the individuals he discusses later on in his
directory on the grid to illustrate how the model works (pp. 111-34). In the second
half of the book, however, the directory and appendix of minibiographies, no more mention
is made of this typology.
In the introductory essay, Rawlinson also discusses the importance of Western women in
the teaching of Eastern traditions. He notes that women in the West have often
insisted on being included in the Eastern traditions as full participants and
leaders. In this sense, Western women have often played pioneering roles in these
traditions, especially the Sufi and Buddhist traditions. In the case of Buddhism, he cites
several cases of women agitating successfully for monastic ordination in traditions where
it is has been lost or forbidden (p. 141).
I have used such terms as "Eastern" and "Sufi" with
hesitation. This is related to another issue that Rawlinson is concerned with
throughout his book, namely, the extent to which it is still accurate to describe the
teachings and practices of some Western practitioners and teachers as Buddhist, Hindu,
Muslim, or Sufi. Some Western teachers/gurus have so altered these Asian traditions
that they are no longer readily recognizable, and the teachers themselves often shun
traditional labels. This raises the basic question of whether we are still dealing
with "Eastern" traditions, the ostensible subject of the book. Rawlinson
seems to think that in almost all cases we are, but I wonder what Asian practitioners of
these traditions might think.
The directory itself is a treat. The biographical details are often rich, the
summary of teachings succinct, and cross-references and bibliography helpful. In
many cases there are photographs. Although the book as a whole tends to be upbeat,
taking a more or less positive and admiring view of most of the individuals discussed,
Rawlinson does not shy away from unsavory details. He gives a detailed description,
for example, of Swami Kirtananda, a Krishna teacher who heads the West Virginia temple and
community at New Vrindaban, and who has been an embarrassment to ISKCON over the years
Rawlinson also treats the reader to several delectable examples of spiritual bragging
by some of the "masters" he discusses. Master Da (born Franklin Jones),
who seems of truly gargantuan ego, and who has changed his religious name on many
occasions (Avatar Adi Da Samraj, Da Avabhasa, Da Kalki, Heart-Master Da Love-Ananda, Da
Free John, and Bubba Free John -- my personal favorite), claims that he is essentially
divine and underwent a "divine descent" whereby he took on human form. In
Hindu terms, he claims that he is an avatara. He says, "This body died,
I left this body. And then I suddenly found My Self [he always uses caps to refer to
himself, and also often refers to himself in the third person] reintegrated with it, but
in a totally different disposition, and I achieved your likeness exactly, thoroughly, to
the bottoms of my feet, achieved un-Enlightenment, achieved human existence, achieved
mortality, achieved sorrow" (p. 227).
Some of the entries are just plain funny. Oom the Omnipotent, mentioned in the
appendix of minibiographies (you have to admire a man who came up with such an
extraordinary name, Rawlinson remarks), founded a Tantric order in New York in 1909,
arranged "a wedding banquet eaten off coffins" and became a millionaire
president of a bank in New Jersey (p. 617).
The directory contains some wonderful footnotes. A long one concerns accusations
of faked "channeling" (as it is called today) made against Madame Blavatsky by
her associates and the results of the Society for Psychical Research's investigation of
her (p. 194n). Another note tells of recent negotiations with Roshi Richard Baker
concerning Rawlinson's account of a recent controversy in Baker's community. The
note suggests that Rawlinson is in direct contact with many of the individuals he is
describing and is up to date on the latest developments.
The book mentions a few movements of particular interest because they combine Eastern
and Western religions or adapt Eastern religions to Western cultural styles. Of
special interest to me were the Rajarajeshwari Peetham in New York (pp. 239-43), run by
three American women authorized to teach by Hindu masters, and Christian Zen as
represented by Father Hugo Enomiya-Lassalle (pp. 256-61). The Rajarajeshwari Peethan
is self-consciously Hindu and Indian, and most of its members are of Hindu
background. Nevertheless, the organization has introduced such American practices as
summer camp, nature programs, and sports. What we have is properly and traditionally
garbed Hinduism in the United States, directed by three non-Asian women who are priests
and teachers (very unusual in Hindu India) in a context of American religious style.
In the case of Christian Zen, we have avowed Christians (often priests or clergy)
practicing Zen as a spiritual preference.
At a few points, Rawlinson seems constrained to make personal judgments, seeming to
step outside his role as objective scholar. For example, about Abhishiktananda (Henri Le
Saux) he concludes, "In short, Henri Le Saux/Abhishiktananda was realized or
enlightened, and everything he wrote and did was informed by this realization" (p.
149). In discussing Roshi Reb Anderson, he doesn't hesitate to say, "There is a
definite need for more openness and democracy in American Zen" (p. 163). In
general, though, Rawlinson is remarkably restrained.
Enlightened Masters represents a remarkable feat. Rawlinson is to be
congratulated on presenting in vivid detail the lives and teachings of a large group of
unusual and complex individuals.