Sunday, October 19, 2008

Book Review. My Father's Guru: A Journey through Spirituality and Disillusion by Jeffrey Moussaieff Masson. 1992, 174 pages.

From time to time, commentors and contributors to TMFree have suggested books that they have found relevant. I have recently read a few of them, and thought you might enjoy a few book reviews. This is the third in the series.

In 1947, when Jeffrey Moussaieff Masson was 6 years old, his father brought home "Dr." Paul Brunton, a soft spoken, mild mannered sweet little Englishman. Brunton, a minor author of "spiritual" literature in the early 20th century, was to become Masson Sr.'s guru for the next 19 years. During those years, "Brunton" (the name he gave himself) lectured, philosophized, led, cajoled, encouraged celibacy (leading to mental health problems in the family), supported fasting, advised, taught a form of meditation which brought no results but which the family nevertheless practiced for over a decade, inspired, instructed, lived with and sponged off the Masson family.

He was modest and disarming, underwhelming in appearance. He never took sexual advantage of his disciples, and he didn't always accept the large sums of money Mason Sr. offered him. But what he did do was claim to have a Ph.D., be a Sanskrit scholar, foresee the future, talk with higher beings, have a grand mission to save the human race, remember his past lives, be a sage, be from another planet, and to know the answer to all questions.

He invented a quasi Hindu/ Buddhist/ Theosophical system. He never admitted ignorance on any topic, secular or spiritual. If he didn't have an an answer, he would give a mysterious smile that seemed to say that he had secret knowledge that he was not at liberty to share, or alternately he would invent an answer.

Here are a few of his teachings (paraphrased), to give you a taste of what he offered.

On his powers: "Should you ever feel a hostile force, immediately kneel, then say very firmly, 'I command you in the name, by the power and compassion of Paul Brunton, to come out of my body.' Then make a sign of the cross...No evil force can withstand this."

On reincarnation: "All my incarnations were not on this planet. Life on other planets are inhabited by higher beings. They never come to visit us because we are not worthy."

On evolution: "Man did not evolve from the monkey. The race of apes came from a sexual union between primitive man and female beasts."

On his mission: "Buddha himself foresaw that a new teacher would arise within a few thousand years after himself...with a higher spiritual status than himself, within this current century."

On the family's financial problems: "Either earn more or spend less." (This said in a solemn, sage voice.)

On his teachings: "Any negative thought my disciples may have about this path, their guru and his powers are at best tests and at worst the work of external mischief-makers."

Jeffrey lived a double life. His normal-looking outside life consisted of school, extracurricular activities, friends, etc. Then there was the secret life he, his family, the other disciples and Brunton shared. Jeffrey never told his friends that there was a guru living in his house on and off for 19 years, that his family was specially favored by God, that his parents sometimes fasted for 40 days until they were skeletal, and that the only topics discussed in the house was spirituality and esoterica, filtered through Brunton's philosophy.

After 19 years, the family fell out with Brunton after he inaccurately predicted the imminent arrival of World War III and had his disciples pull up stakes in the U.S. and move to South America to avoid the coming radioactive fallout. Jeffrey made his own escape when adolescent independent thinking kicked in. He studied Sanskrit and Pali, and discovered that Brunton had lied about being a Sanskrit scholar, and that Buddha had never made any predictions about a guru appearing in the 20th century. He broke the family's "gentleman's agreement" of not asking Brunton embarrassing personal questions, forcing Brunton to reveal his inconsistencies. And he caught Brunton in a parlor trick which Brunton was perpetrating in order to convince his disciples that he had psychic powers.

I felt both horror and fascination as I read this book. What, I wondered, would make perfectly intelligent people give their minds, their money, and 19 years of their life to a person and a system so obviously flawed and fraudulent?
Here is some of what I theorize happened to the Masson family. Perhaps as Isaac Newton said, things in motion tend to remain in motion and things at rest tend to remain at rest. Objects continue on their paths until they are met with an immovable object. Continuing to believe in Brunton was the path of least resistance. Brunton combined the carrot and the stick - he appealed to his disciples' pride, desire to be special and to have esoteric wisdom, and to their fear of falling outside the loop of this charmed life. Also, Masson's family lived in a closed system - they socialized only with other disciples, who could reinforce each other's awe for Brunton. And maybe Jeffrey's family and Brunton got caught in a strange unconscious dance, where he craved to be admired and they craved a guru. He offered "proofs" of his specialness, which caused them to put him on a pedestal, and then to demand more extreme proofs of his specialness, which caused him to produce grander and more entrenched lies, until eventually Brunton himself may have come to believe his own lies. And, the longer the Masson family followed Brunton, the harder it became to admit that they had been hoodwinked.

Ever since I left the TM movement after 10 years in it, I have been asking myself how I could have totally believed a system so full of contradictions, and why I found it so hard to leave. An exit counselor once told me that a helpful tool in assisting a person to leave a cult is to educate them about a different cult. The objectivity that comes with distance makes it easy to see the craziness of the other group, and the cult member can then more easily spot the dysfunctional systems holding oneself hostage to ones own cult. As I ponder what held the Massons captive, I am struck by some of the parallels
with Maharishi and the TM movement. Maybe reading about this family will help others gain more insight into their own life journey and become a little more free.

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