In 1985, Catharine Burroughs, a twice-divorced suburban American mother running a New Age prayer group, was told by His Holiness Penor Rinpoche, one of the highest-ranking lamas in Tibetan Buddhism, that she was "a great bodhisattva of many lifetimes." Later, he officially recognized this charismatic Brooklyn-born woman as a tulku, an enlightened being, and the reincarnation of a sixteenth-century Tibetan saint, Ahk÷n Lhamo.
In this compelling profile of the first Western woman to become a tulku in the male-dominated hierarchy of Tibetan Buddhism, Washington Post reporter Martha Sherrill conveys the dangers and excesses of Guru Yoga, where zealous individuals surrender themselves completely to one person. Jetsunma, as Burroughs is renamed, goes on to establish the largest Tibetan Buddhist center and monastery in America in Poolesville, Maryland. Sherrill first met her in 1993 and was intrigued by this spiritual leader's version of New Age Buddhism. Jetsunma told her followers "the future of the Dharma in the West is riding on us."
Using interviews with the monks and nuns of the monastery, Sherrill uncovers the extent of their loyalty and devotion to "the Buddha from Brooklyn." They handed over large sums of money to her, tolerated her sexual relationships with students, suffered public humiliations, and even retrieved scraps of her hair and a discarded toilet seat from her house as sacred relics. Here is a perfect example of individuals so lacking in self-esteem that they must give the gold of their own souls to someone they consider perfect.
Buddhism is known as a path where the ego is diminished. Not so in the story of Catharine Burroughs. Although the center and monastery she founded still exists, she and some of her most devoted followers have moved on to Sedona, Arizona. Sherrill's investigative reporting shows how zeal can turn religion into a cult. She also reveals how American-born Buddhism can be a world apart from Tibetan Buddhism.