Monday, March 16, 2015

A Death on Diamond Mountain: A True Story of Obsession, Madness, and the Path to Enlightenment by Scott Carney

Is internal bliss at the expense of outward oblivion desirable? If we lived in a world reminiscent of that which Keanu Reaves faced in The Matrix, are we better off living in ignorance? And why does it seem that there is a fine line between religious fervor and religious fanaticism? Are they even mutually exclusive?

These questions and more are tackled in A Death on Diamond Mountain, the story of several people's search for enlightenment under the auspices of Tibetan Buddhism. Carney's background as an investigative reporter serves his readers well with this carefully researched book. If you don't know anything about Tibetan Buddhism, like me, (or Buddhism in general), you'll be, well, enlightened yourself on the subject after this 250-ish page book.

Carney opens with the suicide of one of his own students while they were in India on a ten-day silent meditation retreat. His student's journal held a declaration that Carney questioned as the bold pronouncement of a legitimate religious breakthrough or the ramblings of a mentally disturbed individual. His own search for enlightenment marred by this experience gave him not only an academic interest in, but also a personal stake in the story of Ian Thorson, who also died seeking spiritual truth.

Carney takes his reader through the history of Buddhism, specifically Tibetan Buddhism. You've probably heard terms like, yoga (...pants), dharma (remember LOST?), tantra (Finch from American pie...anyone?), and Nirvana (RIP Kurt Cobain). Words like these are amazingly ubiquitous and popularized. In fact, the reach of Buddhism and Tibetan culture is more pervasive than you probably realize (did you know the Ewoks speak high speed Tibetan?). Yet most people who aren't Buddhists don't really understand their true meaning. You'll get schooled in that by Carney.

He'll also introduce you to ancient holy places like Bodh Gaya, where Buddha acheived enlightenment, and help you understand how Tibetan Buddhism was born in India, took hold in Tibet, exiled back to India, and popularized in the west. This migration led to places like the Diamond Mountain University in Arizona, founded by Michael Roach.

Roach, a well-respected practitioner, who received the title of Geshe (basically the equivalent of a PhD in Buddhist parlance) started his spiritual journey traveling abroad. He took on a lama, or teacher, in the states and eventually began teaching others in a public park. His following grew and he rented a small commercial space for lectures. One thing led to another yada yada yada and he and his followers ended up in yurts in the Arizona desert for three years in contemplative silence.

Roach's brand of Buddhism, although supposedly Tibetan, slowly showed signs of divergence. His taking of a wife, his belief that she was a goddess, and the tantric, or secret teachings he espoused created a divide among his followers. But his education in religion at Princeton and a successful career in the diamond industry gave him important tools that fostered his influence in the Buddhist sphere. These also didn't hurt in enabling him to gain many well-funded sponsors for his cause.

While Carney takes us through Roach's evolution from spiritual pilgrim to guru, he also keeps track of Thorson, who has a tangential affiliation with Roach. Thorson too traveled the world on a spiritual pilgramage, and like Roach went to Tibet and sought a worthy teacher in the states to follow. The spiritual consensus in Tibet for both these men was to send them to the holy city of New Jersey.

So what brings this relationship from tangential to a more solid collision course? Well, like many good stories, it's a woman, namely the aforementioned resident goddess, Christie McNally. Together, she and Thorson set a path for themselves that clash not only with Diamond Mountain University, but with the sustainability of life in general.

From meditative visions, to a religious intervention, to conflict diamonds, to the Apache Indian wars in the southwest, this book is an epic journey. Like his first book, The Red Market, this is an intriguing read on some potentially obscure subjects. Carney's book may not provide the spiritual brand of enlightenment his subjects so desperately sought, but it illuminates in many other ways.

Full disclosure: I received this book free from Carney's publisher with a request for a review. But I liked it anyway.

Sunday, March 8, 2015

Horns by Joe Hill

In a series of strange incidents, a man with a goatee finds himself in hellish heat, surrounded by snakes, and holding sharply pronged lawn equipment. If that is too subtle for you, there's the fact that he's also sprouted horns overnight.

Horns is a slowly unfolding story told from different perspectives. I haven't quite figured out if I love or hate the literal horns part of the story, but if I press the "belief suspended" button, I can get around that dichotomy. And really, I think that's a part of what this tale is about.

Iggy Perrish is a twenty-something guy whose life has brought him to a distinct point (points?) when we meet him. He wakes up one morning, after a drunken night of desecrating the place of his former girlfriend's sexual assault and murder, with two horns on his head. Seeking advice from his current girlfriend, the medical profession, as well as his family proves fruitless as the horns seem to hypnotize those around him. Instead of figuring out his own dilemma, Iggy learns the dark, secret desires of those he encounters.

While he's still trying to figure out if this is a blessing or a curse, Perrish learns details about his former girlfriend's last night that leads him on a path of revenge (that's not a spoiler, BTW, as the book cover says, "when it comes to revenge, the devil's in the details"). While he's slowly gaining new insight into those he loves and the world around him, he's also slowly gaining, uh, a very particular set of skills, that seem to be related to his latest predicament.

There is a lot to like about this book. Hill's story of Perrish, his best friend, girlfriend, and brother is interesting enough without the horns thrown in. Hill backtracks and changes perspectives to give us insight akin to end-of-life flashbacks. Small details, words, and scenes reveal significance that can only be seen with hindsight. And Perrish's transition, we learn, is not an overnight one. Perhaps his entire life pointed to this inevitable, literal, reminder of evil that has now manifest itself upon him. Perhaps, we learn, good and evil isn't quite so red and white.

Hill's playful writing is both figurative and literal. Through liberal and, at times playful, use of religious imagery including a lot of fire, horns, crosses, and thinly vieiled biblical references, we learn about contrasts. Hill explores literal good and evil, sure, but he also shows how two people can experience the same thing and walk away with completely different meanings. Could both people have been right? Can this same contradiction occur within an individual too? Or are we all completely good or bad?

Perrish's evolution to literal devil is a slow one, complete after a baptism by fire. But understanding his life gives you insight into the true question of whether he is blessed or cursed. But you have to read the book to find out, because as we've already been told, the devil's in the details.