A diffuse tale of spiritual misadventure.
A supposed holy man, camped with cultish followers in a remote corner of Arizona, dallies with a student/colleague. In a Clinton-esque twist, he maintains that he has not had sex with her, a mortal, but with the goddess she embodies and thus remains celibate. The student/goddess leaves him to take up with a coreligionist. The two leave the community for exile in the nearby mountains, where he dies of exposure. That’s just the barest outline of a tale that becomes stranger with each added detail. Heavily reported in the New York Times, Rolling Stone and other outlets, the story was yet another in a long list of cautionary examples about the dangers of cults. Bringing little new to the account and underemphasizing the guru’s outlier status in the topography of Buddhism in the West, Carney (The Red Market: On the Trail of the World's Organ Brokers, Bone Thieves, Blood Farmers, and Child Traffickers, 2011) adds value mostly in his considerations of what motivates people to yield to the will of potentially dangerous leaders: “Looked at from one perspective, his plunge toward enlightenment is an obvious case of madness. Yet lurking in the shadows of the cave where he died are clues about the idiosyncratic reasons Americans have adapted Eastern mysticism to their own ends.” It’s a potentially fruitful path, but Carney stumbles around on it, the narrative becoming a loosely connected set of observations on how meditation works and how weird true believers can be.
One has the sense that the author set out to write a kind of rejoinder to Into the Wild, but the result lacks Jon Krakauer’s sense of insight into what drives people in their quest of something beyond.