One day in the early 1960s, when I was living in India, I received a visit from a 40-year-old English doctor, a disciple of the notorious Lobsang Rampa of Third Eye fame. He had come to my monastery hoping I would agree to teach him how to levitate, to read people's thoughts and to see what was happening at a distance.
Naturally I wanted to know why he was so keen to learn those things, to which he replied, "They will be useful to me in my work." When I enquired as to the nature of that work, he would only say darkly, "You will be told that later."
Subsequently it transpired that he "knew" he was a teacher "with a capital 't'". "In that case you will need something to teach," I pointed out, with a touch of irony that was lost on him. "I suppose I will," he replied. "I hadn't thought of that."
At my suggestion, he embarked on the study of Buddhism. Within a month or two, he was an authority on the subject and writing books and articles. Had he lived (he died a few years later) he would probably have become a successful guru with an international following and might well have found a place in Andrew Rawlinson's The Book of Enlightened Masters.
Rawlinson's 150 enlightened masters (or spiritual teachers, as he also calls them) are a mixed bunch. Not all of them claim to be enlightened, and even among the enlightened there are some who are more enlightened than others. A few were born enlightened, and two are enlightened not as individuals but as a couple. Most of them come from America, and there are more men than women teachers - though one would not suspect this from the book's politically correct front cover.
In terms of traditions, western teachers have entered more or less all forms of Buddhism, Hinduism and Sufism. Besides moving from one tradition to another or entering more than one tradition, they may have established a western offshoot of a tradition or have abandoned traditions altogether and continued as independent teachers. They may even have created completely new "traditions".
The phenomenon with which Rawlinson has to deal is extraordinarily rich and complex, and although the manner in which he has presented "the entire western pantheon of gurus, bodhisattvas, swamis, scoundrels, roshis and self-proclaimed mystics" may not enable the reader to separate the wheat from the chaff quite so easily as one of his back cover sponsors thinks, he does manage to introduce a certain amount of order into the confusion.
He does this in two ways. In Part II, "A directory of spiritual teachers", which makes up the greater part of the book, he explains who the masters are, who influenced them, what they teach, what their personalities and personal lives are like and the strange adventures many of them have experienced. (At this point I had better declare an interest as I am one of the teachers listed.) In "How to understand western teachers", Rawlinson explains what Westerners are doing in all the eastern traditions. He also tells the story of how westerners have become spiritual teachers and discusses the meaning and significance of the phenomenon.
Westerners have become spiritual teachers in four stages. In the initial phase (1875-1916), the first westerners entered eastern traditions, some becoming teachers. That was followed by a consolidation of westerners in eastern traditions (1917-1945); a stage of propagation (1946-1962), when westerners became firmly established as spiritual teachers; and, finally, a stage (1963 to the present) when westerners "do everything", so that "the phenomenon of western teachers and masters is now in full bloom".
Rawlinson believes that these people are changing western culture by making available a view of the human condition that is new in the West. According to this view, human beings are best understood in terms of consciousness and its modifications: consciousness can be transformed by spiritual practice, and there are gurus/masters/teachers who have done this and who can help others to do the same by some form of transmission. Of course, methods will vary.
Despite the links with eastern traditions, this "spiritual psychology" is a western phenomenon. It has come into existence because all the eastern traditions now exist in one place: the West. Because they all exist in one place, these traditions can interact, new questions can be asked, and distinctively western forms of Buddhism/Hinduism/Sufism created. These questions cross traditional boundaries because western participation in eastern traditions is trans-traditional. Rawlinson believes that the era of self-contained traditions is over and that we need something broader and more accommodating to understand the import of western teachers.
He puts forward a fascinating model of experiential comparative religion, the starting point of which is two pairs of polar concepts: hot and cool, and structured and unstructured. These can overlap, can be combined and can be used to highlight the four categories that are fundamental to all traditions in some form or other: ontology, cosmology, anthropology and soteriology. The model can also be applied to a particular tradition or sub-tradition, eastern or western, as well as to individual teachers and their organisations. This gives rise to a whole range of permutations too complex to be summarised but made clear with the aid of diagrams.
Diagrams, tables, lineage trees and photographic displays, together with a chronology of spiritual teaching in the West and 30 mini-biographies of figures of historical significance, are useful features of the work.
Rawlinson, a retired academic who remains a researcher and writer, emerges as a friendly and reliable guide to a multi-faceted phenomenon that he claims is changing western culture. His approach is balanced without being bland, sympathetic without being uncritical. He is not above letting the reader know when his information is incomplete or when, as in the case of an intra-sectarian dispute, he has heard only one side of the story.
Though we may have reservations about the value of the author's model of experiential comparative religion, there can be little doubt that this veritable encyclopaedia of western gurus and their teachings is both useful and timely. Students of sociology and of comparative religion will find it a mine of information. Would-be disciples in search of a guru will be happy to browse through its pages.
As for the enlightened masters themselves, using Rawlinson's diagrams and tables they will be able see just where they stand in relation to one another and to their own traditions.
Urgyen Sangharak****a (D. P. E. Lingwood) founded the Friends of the Western Buddhist Order.
The Book of Enlightened Masters: Western Teachers in Eastern Traditions
Author - Andrew Rawlinson
ISBN - 0 8126 9310 8
Publisher - Open Court
Price - £26.95
Pages - 650