During his freshman year in college, Adams Morgan resident Jeffery Paine trumped run-of-the-mill Hemingway and Fitzgerald enthusiasts by announcing that his favorite writer was the 19th-century Indian mystic Sri Ramakrishna. “Not only was it pretentious, it was also inaccurate,” Paine says now. “Ramakrishna was illiterate. His disciples wrote down his words.” Around the same time, Paine recalls, he sat cross-legged under a tree while his classmates were at a football game and penned a short story called “The Bible.” The opening sentence? “I was once a reader of the Bhagavad Gita.”
Despite this inauspicious beginning, Paine, 54, went on to study, and teach, religion. This February, he published a new book, Re-enchantment: Tibetan Buddhism Comes to the West. “The goal,” Paine says, “was to create wonder.” Accordingly, Paine, a former literary editor at the Wilson Quarterly, spent five years interviewing several hundred people. On the basis of these interviews, he crafted lively vignettes of individuals who helped popularize Tibetan Buddhism in the West, from Alexandra David-Neel, a Frenchwoman who traveled extensively in Tibet in the early 20th century, to Thomas Merton, an influential midcentury Catholic intellectual, to the Dalai Lama himself.
Although he spent time interviewing monks in Dharamsala, India, the Tibetan government’s headquarters in exile, Paine made no attempts to go to Chinese-ruled Tibet. “I think it would be very depressing,” he says. Skirting the thorny subject of Sino-Tibetan politics, Paine advances the idea that Tibetans were able to gain worldwide support for their tiny country’s struggle against China in large part by commodifying their religion for Western consumption.
“Buddhism is Tibet’s cash crop,” Paine says. He points to Tibetan Buddhism’s ability to “when necessary, dispense with religion” altogether as a key reason why the religion resonates with the kind of Westerners who like to say, “I’m spiritual but not religious.”
The book also analyzes the peculiar phenomenon of the religion’s popularity in Hollywood, “where you can be a Tibetan Buddhist if you think the Dalai Lama is cute,” Paine notes. Nonetheless, the book defends actor Richard Gere’s seriousness as a Buddhist and concludes, “In Buddhism, what is called the self resembles less a thing than, in fact, an actor who can assume different shapes, depending on circumstances.”
In conversation, Paine delights in juxtaposing stories about Westerners in Tibet with stories about Tibetans in the West. Describing an influential monk, he says, “Lama Yeshe would do anything to understand the Western mind….Nobody’s a hypocrite in their pleasures, as Johnson says—so he’d go to all kinds of places: beaches, nightclubs, gay bars…” In contrast, Paine cites Tenzin Palmo, who was born an Englishwoman: “She grew up never hearing about Buddhism in the 1950s, but she was attracted to it, and eventually, she could settle for nothing less than what the great legends of Tibetan Buddhism had done…so she lived in a cave for 12 years….When she left the cave, instead of the wild woman you’d expect, she was perfectly composed…as though she’d just left charm school.”
Not all of the people Paine interviewed are as serene as Lama Yeshe and Tenzin Palmo, however. He also narrates the story of Catherine Burroughs, aka Jetsunma, a Westerner who was recognized as the reincarnation of a Tibetan saint. During Jetsunma’s divorce party, Paine says, “There was an effigy of [her ex-husband]. People started stabbing it with knives and forks. His penis was a banana, and she smashed the banana. It was perhaps a catharsis, but not a catharsis you’d expect from a person of infinite compassion.
“Actually, some of my own spiritual practices may take a feather from Jetsunma’s cap,” Paine admits with a twinkle. He declines to elaborate further. —Bidisha Banerjee