The Buddha from Brooklyn
By Martha Sherrill
(Random House, Hardcover, 9780679452751, 416pp.)
Publication Date: April 18, 2000
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In 1985, Catharine Burroughs was a Maryland housewife with two children—and two failed marriages behind her—running a New Age prayer group in her basement. Out of the blue, a monastery in India for which she had raised some money contacted Burroughs and asked her to host His Holiness Penor Rinpoche, one of the highest-ranking lamas of Tibetan Buddhism, on his first visit to America. After meeting Burroughs, and observing her and her followers for a period of five days, he told her that she was a "great, great bodhisattva," and already, unbeknownst to her, practicing Buddhism. Later, in India, he officially recognized this Jewish-Italian woman from Brooklyn as the reincarnation of a sixteenth-century Ti-betan saint, making her the first American woman to be named a tulku, or reborn lama.
The Buddha from Brooklyn tells the complex and fascinating story of how Catharine Burroughs, now known as Jetsunma Ahkön Lhamo, embarked on a journey to build the largest Tibetan Buddhist center in America. With boundless enthusiasm but precious little formal training in Buddhist practices and traditions, Jetsunma and her students bought an estate in Poolesville, Maryland, on the outskirts of Washington, D.C., and founded Kunzang Palyul Choling (Fully Awakened Dharma Continent of Absolute Clear Light). Under Jetsunma's tutelage, the group memorized sacred texts and held all-night prayer vigils. They asked venerable Tibetan lamas to visit and give them "empowerments." Many took Buddhist vows and became monks and nuns. And as word of this remarkable place spread, others came to see the new lama for themselves and joined her community.
Martha Sherrill, a writer at The Washington Post, heard about Jetsunma in 1993. She visited the center and was charmed by both its charismatic lama, the only Western woman in the male-dominated hierarchy of Tibetan Buddhism, and by the monks and nuns (all Americans) living there. They seemed, for the most part, like a remarkably happy group of people whose lives had been transformed by this exotic, imported faith—and by Jetsunma. At the beginning of The Buddha from Brooklyn, as the group is breaking ground for a sacred monument called a stupa, Sherrill commences her own journey to discover for herself what makes this unlikely lama—who enjoys clothes shopping and manicures, Motown music and Star Trek reruns—such a magnetic spiritual leader. And as the story unfolds, so do the secrets of this seemingly idyllic sanctuary.
Compassionate and clear-eyed, Sherrill takes her readers on a breathtaking exploration inside the monastery at Poolesville, a place where idealistic but flawed human beings struggle with their devotion every day. She demystifies monastic life and Tibetan Buddhism, and amends the simplified view that most Americans have of this 2,500-year-old faith. Weaving together the stories of the believers into a narrative structure that is as moving and beautiful as the stupa they are building, Sherrill has created a brilliant work of investigative journalism that raises profound, provocative questions about religious faith and its price. The Buddha from Brooklyn is a monument to the miracles and failures that stem from the deepest human longings.
Martha Sherrill has been a staff writer at The Washington Post since 1989. She has also written for Esquire, Vanity Fair, and other magazines. She lives with her husband and son in the Washington, D.C., area.
"Fabulous. In a single volume, Martha Sherrill provides a road map to modern spirituality, highlighting its immense perils while seeing its possibilities. With deep, often profound human understanding, she goes to the heart of American Buddhism, taking the reader on a surprising, literate, and frequently chilling journey. Sherrill retains her reporter's tough-mindedness and distance, but dares to skate wondrously and unsettlingly close to her subject. The tone and style reminded me of detective Philip Marlowe on the case with all the old frankness, intimacy, and drive."
"The Buddha from Brooklyn is a first-rate investigative report and an enormously engaging read, too. I read it with deepening fascination."
"Martha Sherrill takes the reader on a riveting journey into the seductive and sometimes disquieting world of Tibetan Buddhism. Perceptive and en- lightening, The Buddha from Brooklyn is compulsive reading."
—Sally Bedell Smith