This is a terrific book. Many of the reviewers here have commented on the virtues and flaws of the spiritual leader of this group, Catharine Burroughs, known to her community as Jetsunma.
I was interested in the other side of the equation that Martha Sherrill explored: the behavior of the folks who became her devoted students. Some people joined this group when they were very young, and it is not surprising that some of these young converts later concluded that they had made the wrong decision in choosing this person as their teacher. But many of the people who joined came to KPC as mature adults - intelligent, often well educated. Many had all the indications of a good life - they held responsible jobs, were married to someone they loved, were good parents to their kids. And yet they made the decision to abandon their own autonomy and hand over decision-making about personal matters in their lives to their teacher. They were prepared to follow her directions not only with respect to spiritual matters, like whether they were World Prayer Center members or actually Tibetan Buddhists, but also with respect to the decisions in their personal lives, like whether they should separate from a spouse and how they should raise their children.
And yes, they were prepared to work fingers to the bone so that they could contribute as much money as possible to KPC, even though they knew that much of the money was going to support their teacher's extravagent lifestyle. They could believe themselves to be compassionate because their teacher told them that prayer for the world made them so, and yet- apparently without reservation - join the mob mentality in attacking anyone she condemned.
Every human, including individuals like Catharine Burroughs and Steven Seagal, both of whom have been identified by Penor Rinpoche as Tibetan lamas in a previous life, has a dark side as well as a light side. The people who chose Catharine Burroughs as their teacher endorsed her opinion that she was a divine being, perfect in all ways - someone without a dark side. And we all know what happens to us flawed humans when we fail to recognize our own dark side: we end up projecting it. It doesn't disappear, it just re-emerges in other ways. Is it so surprising then that this teacher, who was herself sexually active, would turn with such venom on a young nun who had engaged in a much more innocuous relationship?
In one of his book - Path with a Heart, as I recall - Jack Kornfeld discussed the reasons why spiritual teachers in the Buddhist tradition (and others for that matter) can end up going astray, and having problems with alcohol, sexual involvements with their students, money. Students have a role to play in discouraging inappropriate behavior by teachers. People who seek the spiritual path should not blindly follow a teacher. They should use their own talents - wisdom, intelligence, discernment, common sense - when there is a dissonance between what the teacher teaches and what she does.
It seems to me that becoming a Buddhist shouldn't mean retreating into immaturity and allowing, or expecting, your teacher to tell you whether to become ordained or not, whether to separate or stay married, what colors to wear, whether to eat white bread or whole-wheat.
I recommend this book. Martha Sherrill's description of the relationship between teacher and students is informative. The people who consented to let this teacher dominate their lives are not the only people in America who have surrendered their own autonomy to another person. It is useful to consider what leads people to make this choice, and what leads them away from it.
It is with a heavy heart that I write this review. Months ago I ordered this book with excitement thinking it would be a good read in addition to the inspiration I usually feel upon reading biographies of buddhist leaders/practicioners. What ensued was dissapointment. The book is well written and the author is not at fault however, I could not help but feel dissapointed with the story that unravelled within each page. I also hope that anyone who is interested in learning more about buddhism will not read this book and become discouraged. I should also note that if someone reads this book and finds great enjoyment from it, good for them! but I was left shuddering. Throughout the book it is noted how "Jetsunma" is no ordinary leader. Tales of manicures, hair salons, designer clothes and her selective phone calls/visits left me feeling sad. I do not wish to condemn anyone who takes part in the above listed activities/things, but in reading a book on a spiritual leader I don't approach it hoping to hear of someone who matches the shade of her lipstick to her manicured nails. I find that a lot of this book reinforces Western Principles that people seeking buddhism hope to change in their life. Yes, buddhism in the west will develop quite differently than in the East. This does not mean that we can throw all Eastern teachings out the window. There is something to be said for a spiritual teacher who empasizes a life of simplicity and non-adorment so for "Jetsunma" to be a walking model of the complete opposite just does not work well for me. Instead of "Buddha from Brooklyn", I highly recommend "Cave in the Snow", a much more inspiring, less questionable story; one that is full of true practice, hard work and meritorious activity.