Can you be religious and not belong to an organized religion? Can you believe without claiming allegiance to a guru or spiritual leader?
Vikram Gandhi’s film Kumare: The True Story of a False Prophet humorously (and scarily) puts a point on our fervent desire to find meaning and belonging and order in this chaotic universe—so dearly that we’ll suspend common sense.
(Kind of the way people fall in love, ascribe perfection to a beloved, and imagine that he or she will “save” you. And then, get angry when time passes and, zowie, that object of your affection is a mere mortal.)
Filmmaker Gandhi takes on the persona of a made-up spiritual leader (see photoos) and amasses devotees, then wrestles with the consequences of having their spiritual lives in his hands.
When Mark Kellner of the Washington Times wanted to write a column about my mid-life stirrings of religious belief, I was reluctant. (And while it’s a lovely write-up, I hate that the word enlightenment was used. More like, “stirred.”)
Just as yoga has become commoditized, trendy and a cliche, so, in a way, has Buddhism.
I don’t have a guru, or a spiritual advisor, and I don’t want one. I’m actually reluctant to classify myself, because my beliefs are bigger than a label.
And then there’s the whole intellectual anti-religious belief system, to which I subscribed for years.
It’s not religions that are scary, usually. It’s when they get into the hands of people who abuse the power of devotion.
By talking to Mark, I realized I am drawn to Buddhism because in its purest form, it doesn’t require belonging.
This is why I love studying and sitting with, and learning from. my friend the Buddhist monk, Rev. Kusala. He’d run screaming if anyone called him a guru or spiritual advisor. He just happens to be a man who dedicated his life to Buddhism and expresses it by living and working and serving the community.
Not by amassing followers who pay big bucks to sit on retreats with him, at his feet, soaking up his divine goodness, dearly hoping that by association, they’ll be good, too. Or by living in a cave.
I kind of found this kind of all-in devotion with the Kingdom of Bhutan, and, well, wrote a whole book about the subject. People (myself included) get so sucked in to the beauty and magic of the place that they don’t see that it’s just, well, a place. A special, magical, beautiful place, unlike any other in the world, that is as perfect and imperfect as any other. Just different.
There is no perfect place, just as there is no perfect person. And any one who professes to hold special mystical powers….is someone you should avoid (especially if there’s an implict or explicit request for money.)
That’s kind of the message of the film Kumare, and my book, Radio Shangri-La. Even though reaching that conclusion involves a different path.