Last night I saw the movie Kumare. (go to kumaremovie.com for the trailer & other info) It’s a tremendously important film that I really hope gets a lot of notice. But it’s a movie that will be widely misunderstood. Take, for example, the review in the June 29th issue of Entertainment Weekly. They say:
American filmmaker Vikram Gandhi adopted the singsong Indian accent of his elders, grew his hair long, posed as a guru, and found followers in Phoenix. And while he was at it, he kept cameras rolling to make this dubious Borat-esque documentary. Gandhi tries to dodge criticism of his mocking scam by rationalizing that even a phony wise man can offer real solace. Besides, he says, he learned something about sincerity — not to mention the value of film festivals as fertile ground for publicity stunts.
Now, I like Entertainment Weekly. I’m even a subscriber. But I’m not at all surprised that they were unable to grasp the point of this movie. As they say, this is a movie about a guy of Indian descent who posed as a guru and filmed it. But what Vikram Gandhi did was not in any way a “mocking scam” nor is this film at all “Borat-esque.” As Borat, Sasha Baron Cohen played his character and the reactions it got for laughs. And while there are plenty of funny moments in Kumare, Vikram Gandhi is dealing with a much more serious and important subject. But it’s a subject that I doubt the writers at Entertainment Weekly have much close contact with and so perhaps I can forgive them for completely missing the point.
As I’ve often written in this blog and in my books, I am highly uncomfortable in my Buddhist robes. Even though I am entitled to wear the golden colored sash (called an o-kesa) of a so-called “Zen Master,” I rarely take the damned thing out of the box it lives in, in the bottom of my closet. This is because as soon as you put something like that on a certain segment of the people you meet start reacting to you in ways that I find highly bizarre and off-putting.
Uniforms are powerful and significant. This is why the police, our “boys in blue,” dress in special clothes. It’s why the President of the United States always has a red tie. It’s why priests of all religions dress up in funny outfits. People really respond to that stuff.
Vikram Gandhi had a serious interest in why certain well-heeled middle-class Americans are so easily drawn to pretty much anyone with a funny accent who puts on a set of robes. His first idea was to make a documentary film about actual gurus. But what he found disgusted and deeply disturbed him. He uses a few of the interviews he conducted for this unfinished project in the early part of the movie. And some of them are really chilling.
The one that bugged me most was Bhagavan Das who says, “If I was a twenty year old girl, I would love hanging out with me. What could be more fabulous than having sex with a really spiritual mystical person?” Gandhi cuts this together with shots of a slightly spaced out but very attractive young blonde who says of Bhagavan Das, “He’s the new teacher of this age, of this world. He’s someone who has the answer, I believe.” Yep. And the answer is in his pants.
Bhagavan Das, in case you were wondering, is an old teacher of Ram Dass, the guy who wrote Be Here Now, and has been milking his association with Ram Dass for the past forty years (he even titled his own book It’s Here Now (Are You?)). He was a hippie who went to India and became a yogi then made a lot of famous friends including Jimi Hendrix. Which is fine. But I saw him in that video and it’s hard to imagine sex with a dude that hairy would be all that fabulous for a twenty year old girl.
I don’t want to draw this into yet another of my rants about the matter of spiritual teachers who sleep with their students. I wrote two books that go deeply into that subject (and you can find them both in the store section of this website. How’s that for a plug?). But it’s just one of the things that drove Gandhi to undertake the important social experiment he documents in this film.
By putting on some orange robes and imitating his grandmother’s Indian accent and mannerisms, Vkram Gandhi discovered that there are people out there who are willing to believe just about any damned thing as long as it’s spoken by someone who appears to represent some kind of mystical spiritual tradition from the mysterious East. He has them doing air guitar moves and getting little penises drawn on their foreheads. Not only that, he tells them straight up that the thing he’s drawing on their foreheads is a dick and they still let him do it.
These are not dumb people either. They are intelligent, educated and sincere. Nor does Gandhi try to make them look like fools. Over and over again he takes pains to point out that pretty much anyone could potentially fall for this kind of thing if they were seeking “The Answer” outside of themselves.
But as the guru Sri Kumare, Gandhi has a message. And his message is that the answer is always within each of us. That we do not need to seek it in someone else. He intends to prove that by first luring his followers in with the scam of the guru Sri Kumare and then revealing to them that he’s really just a guy from New Jersey. I won’t give away the ending. But suffice it to say, it’s pretty intense.
The thing is, though, as Entertainment Weekly failed to understand in spite of saying it in their review, “even a phony wise man can offer real solace.” Sri Kumare, phony as he is, ends up doing his followers some actual good. That’s because Vikram Gandhi, the man inside the Sri Kumare guise, is at heart a good guy who truly does want to help — even if that wasn’t what he initially set out to do. He’s not trying to scam these people. He’s trying to make a very important point. Sure he’s also trying to get a hit movie out of it. And I really hope his movie is a hit because a lot of people need to see this film.
It’s going to upset a certain segment of the audience who will see themselves in Sri Kumare’s followers and feel that they’re being played for fools. And you know what? It ought to upset them. That is precisely the point. But this is going to make it tough for Gandhi to get the film seen by the people who most need to see it. It would be sad if the only people who get into the film are those who see Sri Kumare’s followers as a bunch of idiots and who mistakenly believe they’re above all that.
As for me, who very definitely is one of the people who needed to see this movie, it’s got me thinking again about the whole matter of spiritual uniforms and the role of the teacher in the spiritual quest. It’s true that the answer is within each and every one of us. But it’s also true that most of us need someone else to help us see that. The film Kumare demonstrates this in a very concrete — and highly entertaining — way.
The question it raises for me is this; Does it really even matter if the teacher has any sort of grounding? Can anyone at all put on some robes and, if he or she is at least a decent person, act as a guide for others? Why should I insist that anyone I would pass my lineage on to be extremely balanced before I give them the paperwork that lets them wear one of those silly golden colored sashes? My tentative answer is, on the one hand pretty much anyone who is even just a bit balanced can help others find balance. But such a person could only help their followers to a limited degree.
Also, as Vikram Gandhi in the guise of the guru Kumare discovered, putting on those robe can make you act differently. When people start to trust in you, as they trusted in the phony Sri Kumare, any decent person will feel the need to try and be worthy of that trust. This may be why Dogen extolled the virtues of wearing the o-kesa, calling it “the great robe of liberation.”
But those robes can also be a dangerous weapon. Putting on the robe may make a decent person inclined to act more decently. But a less decent person can use its mojo to get all kinds of things like money and sex and power. The movie Kumare only hints at the extent to which one can abuse such power. But the real world provides plenty of examples.
Yeah. I’m talking to you, Bhagavan Das.
I will be once again leading zazen with Dogen Sangha Los Angeles who meet at Hill Street Center tomorrow, and every Saturday, from 9:50 AM until Noon. The address is 237 Hill St., Santa Monica, CA 90405
And if that’s not enough, you can see me once again on Sunday July 29th at 11 AM at Against The Stream 4300 Melrose Ave., Los Angeles, CA 90029.
Also, as I mentioned in the article above, we now have a store on this site where you can purchase all of my books as well as some other items of interest (The posters are very cool and extremely limited. I think there are fewer than 20 left.) Sometimes people ask where’s the best place to buy my books if they want to make sure I get the money. Up till now the answer is that I get pretty much the same rate from every place (about $1 per book). Now that I’m operating as my own store, I’ll actually make quite a bit more per book — but only if people buy the ones I bought from my publishers.
Finally, if you like what you read here, feel free to donate. You don’t have to. But it helps. Thanks!