Mick Brown

The spiritual tourist

A personal odyssey through the outer reaches of belief

London: Bloomsbury, 1998, 309 pp., ISBN 0 7475 3667 8

Book review by Anthony Campbell. Copyright © Anthony Campbell (1999).

It's characteristic of the late twentieth century that any Westerner in search of spiritual enlightenment should automatically seek for it in the East. Despite one or two rather unconvincing attempts to find timeless wisdom in the New World, the East, and especially India, is regarded by many Westerners as the chief source of such things, and Mick Brown, a freelance journalist in search of "an adventure of the spirit", naturally cast his eyes in that direction. Too young to have taken part in the hippy migrations of the sixties (he was born in 1950), he comes to all this with a fresh eye and makes an agreeable enough travelling companion.

We are confronted with mysteries and miracles even before we leave London. Brown visits two Indian families where vibhuti (sacred ash) is appearing in large quantities on pictures of Sai Baba, the Indian guru who is said to be an avatar (divine manifestation) and who reputedly performs all kinds of miracles for his followers. Bemused and unable to explain how the vibhuti is produced, but satisfied that there is no evidence of fraud, Brown sets off for India to see Sai Baba for himself. The visit isn't an entire success; he fails to obtain a personal interview with Sai Baba and has to glean what he can from his disciples. He departs, feeling rather disillusioned.

Next he tries Tibetan Buddhism; he visits a village in southern Spain where lives a young boy who is said to be the reincarnation of a renowned Tibetan lama who died in 1984. Brown seems rather impressed by the boy. A moment later we cut, rather confusingly, back to India, where we meet more Tibetans, including the Dalai Lama and a monk who gives oracles while in trance.

There also are encounters with female gurus and their disciples, notably Mother Meera, a young Indian girl living in Germany. She takes his face in her hands, gazes into his eyes, and makes him feel she is searching his soul. He finds this a profoundly disturbing experience. Later, he goes back for a second visit, by which time far more people are coming and it is difficult to get an interview, though, when he does so, he once more has what he feels is an important experience as she holds his face in her hands.

Back in India again he visits more ashrams. This part of the book contains a fair amount of historical material about the origins of the Theosophical Society and its connection with Krishnamurti; this is less interesting, being third-hand. Then to the USA, where he visits a church whose windows appear to have golden crosses in the glass; these are found to have a natural explanation. Returning to England, we experience more encounters with gurus and conclude with a visit to yet another Tibetan Buddhist monastery, this time in Scotland.

As will probably be apparent from this summary, Brown goes in for a cinematic technique, continually cutting back and forth in place and time; this makes it difficult to sort out a narrative sequence, which is no doubt deliberate. He doesn't reach any final illumination, but he is confirmed in his conviction that "the world is more of spirit than of matter; that what is unseen is more important than what is seen. The things we most value are felt with the heart more than viewed with the naked eye." Even if you don't entirely agree with this, you may still find the book of interest, but don't expect any ultimate answers.

%T The Spiritual Tourist
%S A personal odyssey through the outer reaches of belief
%A Brown, Mick
%I Bloomsbury
%C London
%D 1998
%G ISBN 0 7475 3667 8
%P 309 pp

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