February 20, 2018

Book Review || The Spiritual Tourist by Mick Brown

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I took Mick Brown's 'The Spiritual Tourist' out of the library hoping for a sort of introduction to the Asian spirituality with which the Western world has been obsessed with. I have always considered myself a spiritual person, always planning to meditate and do more Yoga but I never seem to get around to it, lacking the motivation that such practices are purported to inspire in those who are regular practitioners.

After last January's trip to the Nanhua Temple in Bronkhorstspruit for its Chinese New Year festival, I was awed by the level of reverence in the quiet spaces of the temple. At the reception, you were welcomed with a stick of incense, which you could take to the altar of 1000 Buddhas and deposit in a massive holder with your own short prayer or devotion. But I found myself unsure of what to ask for and what to say thank you for. Which is not a very good situation to be in.

So I perused the shelves of the library for something to lead me and, while I'm not sure 'The Spiritual Tourist' was the appropriate selection, it ended up in my book bag heading for home. The autobiography was first published almost a decade ago, so it is a little outdated, particularly since some of the spiritual icons he managed to meet or attempted to visit have passed on, including Share International's Benjamin Creme and Sathya Sai Baba, and the Western reincarnation of revered Lama Thubten Yeshe, Lama Osel, rejected his destiny to become a filmmaker instead. But Brown's journey is a reflection of all of those who yearn for there to be something more than the day to day drudgery of faith - something that reaches within us and consoles us in our humanity, fragility, mortality.

Brown's journey begins in London where he suddenly, and perhaps coincidentally, seems set upon by Sathya Sai Baba - he notices portraits of the guru everywhere he goes. The final straw is when he receives a letter from a friend of his with a portrait of Baba inside, but when he tries to find the photograph again, he cannot. He jumps on a plane and heads for Puttaparthi in India, setting off his travels around the world to meet as many gurus and lamas and reincarnations as he can. Lucky him, I say. Not many can meet the people to whom they look for guidance. While he doesn't actually meet Baba, he does meet Lama Osel (still as a young boy) and Mother Meera, the 14th Dalai Lama, and an assortment of people who are more familiar with the search than he is and who possibly give him the most answers. The book is filled with the history of religions and spiritual groups such as Buddhism, Hinduism, Taoism, and theosophy, so in this way it is helpful to set the different movements apart for those looking for something in particular.

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Flickr/Alina Sofia [CC by 2.0]
For whomever Brown met who was familiar with his chosen spirituality, the answers about what our purpose was and how we could transcend the mortal coil were all the same, across all of them: Love of your fellow man, Service to your fellow man, Acceptance of your Own Divinity. A bit tough for many of us to see through as we watch the news, say goodbye to rainforests and animals, and become overrun by the very Western angst.

But what struck me the most in reading this book is the disappointing influence of the West, capitalism, and even the entire touristy experience described. For the latter, the thousands of people who descended on Sai Baba's temple in a single day, placed in lines, praying for the mere acknowledgement of Baba, being disappointed with only a few minutes of just his presence before he leaves, and then seeing the squalor of the local people who live just outside his door, who either beg for help or try to sell trinkets bearing Sai Baba's face - it feels so hollow just reading it. Perhaps it's a different experience being there. But perhaps not:
'In bars and hotel rooms across India you could see the Western ideal being transmitted on Star television, with its shoddy American and Australian soap-operas and glib Hollywood fantasies, its endless cycle of commercials for the products of the global supermarket which few in India could afford, but more nd more now dream of ... with a strident message: 'Your Right to Choose', educating this new, entranced audience in the role of advertising as the lubrican of a consumer society. To the sophisticated eye it had all the crudeness of propaganda. In a Madras newspaper I read an evalutaiton by a government psychiatrist predicting that india would soon be suffering the same incidence of mental illness as the West. The shelves of American self-help books in Madras's largest bookshop, offering advice on maximising the power of positive thinking and contacting your inner-child, suggest the problem was bringing its own 'cure'.
It is a good thing that books like 'The Spiritual Tourist' exist. They give an insight into the world and the thing we seek much more than we could have received and they show us that all the knowledge in the world is at our fingertips, and, possibly, even within ourselves.

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