Words get stuck to us like thistles or ticks as we move through the underbrush of culture. Being a writer, or “primarily a writer, largely on the subjects of art, music” according to Wiki, I may be extra sensitive to the words that I keep trying pull off me before they get too permanently attached. When we are defined by others we get categorized and filed and that’s the kiss of dearth. (Yeah, dearth.) Terms limit what we are and what we can be. I like the old Kosuth maxim: Self defined and self-described. You’ll know you’ve gone too far when they call you “self-proclaimed.” But fuck ’em.
Maybe I’m lucky to be considered “style guru” but the style thing is definitely a limited category, and one that might suggest that you are superficial, petty, and not concerned with the big picture. I mean maybe I’m lucky not be the weight-loss guru or the self-help guru. At least I’m not a fashion guru, although that sounds like it might pay well. But actually the guru thing is kind of amusing after a while. I can picture myself dressed like the Maharishi except in cashmere. I picture some guys in tweed with moustaches sitting at my feet waiting for me to speak. “We are carnations in the lapel of the divine. Ah, but what color?!”
On this last day of the year that the world ended, for the Mayans anyway, I’m feeling reflective and my instinct (or as Jets coach Rex Ryan puts it, “my gut”) tells me that if everyone says I’m a guru, so be it.
And being “style guru” isn’t all that bad. Gives me a bigger audience that “semiotics guru” probably. Anyway it got me thinking about gurus. It’s not a bad gig, for the most part. You have a lot of devoted followers and you keep your own hours. So I’ve started observing the lives of other gurus looking for tips.
My house in the woods, where I am sitting right now watching the last day of the year go by, was once the property of Swami Abhedananda. The Swami was a disciple of Ramakrishna Paramahansa. He was sent to the United States in 1897, where he headed the Vedanta Society and he started America’s first yoga camp right here. There’s a boulder by the driveway engraved in Sanskrit. At the beginning of the 20th Century he had a lot of Park Avenue ladies (and some gents too) camped out up here looking inward and doing asanas. The Swami lived up the road from me, in a house now inhabited by a famous actor and his family. He was quite a good looking fellow and was apparently a remarkable orator. He was also a scholar and a prolific writer. I have his complete works in a 12 volume set and I’m working on it.
I think Abhedeananda had great style, even though style was probably not something he gave a great deal of thought to. Undoubtedly he considered style a visual attribute of intelligence. But he sure knew how to make his turban turn out right.
The Swami certainly knew a lot about form: “Whosoever knows Thee as formless and with form knows the eternal truth.” In his youth, at the monastery he was known to avoid work, often spending days in a room without speaking. He said he did not wish to work. This caused jealousy from some of the other students to object, but Vivekenanda said that if they didn’t want to work, they shouldn’t either, that he would do all the work himself. Vivekenanda said: ‘As long as you have been born on this earth, leave an impression on it.’ His fellow students would laugh when Vivekenanda would say that they were making history, but he’s still a big star.
I’ve seen a few gurus in my time. I once went to see the 16th Karmapa, head of the Kagyu order of Tibetan Buddhism, perform the Black Crown Ceremony, certainly the most evocative religious rite I have ever witnessed. As the long Tibetan horns blew something out of late Coltrane, I noticed the joint filling up with what I can only describe as light, the kind that needs no bulbs.
I guess the first guru I saw was the Maharishi. I was skeptical about him, since he didn’t seem to do much for the Beatles, and it seemed like Transcendental Meditation didn’t entirely supplant their need for drugs. Also his hair was a mess. And I didn’t care much for his dress.
Out of curiousity I went to see the Maharaj Ji when he arrived in the United States in 1971. Hailed as a “perfect master” he was a fat fourteen year old who had been groomed to replace his popular Indian guru dad by his mom, the ultimate stage mother who proclaimed him to be divine. (My mother did the same thing after a few drinks.) He had a huge following in America, but he didn’t impress me. He was wearing a very large Rolex and it didn’t seem right. If he was a perfect master, shouldn’t he know what time it is. Then in 1973 he got an ulcer. Very unperfect. But I did like his vegetarian restaurant on 42nd Street, although the service was a little blissed-out. In 1974 the kid married one of his followers, a California girl, and his mother removed him as “perfect master” because she was a shiksa, or whatever the Hindu version of that is. Once he wasn’t perfect anymore I sort of started to like him. Especially when he’d wear a tie.
My friend Eric Goode once took me to see Sri Chinmoy. I had known about him for some time. I considered him to be the person who turned John McLaughlin from the best jazz guitarist in the world to the heavy metal version of Kenny G.. Mahavishnu Orchestra my ass. Miles Davis would have fired him for playing that shit. Anyway Sri Chinmoy blessed everybody and then started lifting people up on chairs. The guy was no David Blaine. I noticed that the audience seemed to consist of mostly middle aged white ladies in saris who looked on him with unquestionable adoration. I wondered if he was lifting more than chairs back at the ashram. Sri Chinmoy is also an extremely prolific painter. Something kind of late DeKooning and Hallmark Joan Mitchell about them. He might have had a career except that he flooded the market, having made about 15 million of them.
That Sri Chinmoy was a fast worker. He died in 2007. And John McLaughlin seems to have recovered somewhat.
I remember Rajneesh had a lot of followers in New York at one point. We called them The Red People. It was a sort of swingers religion. Rajneesh looked sort of like Leon Russell and wore ski hats. In the 1980s he started a commune in Oregon. (which is an anagram of Orgone!) The neighbors were concerned about having a large number of horny, possibly Mansonoid followers around and grew extra suspicious because Rajneesh was a big collector of Rolls Royce automobiles. In 1985 his followers were charged with poisoning the food of the neighboring town and he was deported and died in 1990. But you’ve got to say that for a guru he had a pretty hip style, kind of a precursor of Snoop Dog.
I guess the exception is L.Ron Hubbard who founded the immensely successful Church of Scientology. He took the ideas of the Catholic Church, Aleister Crowley, the great British guru of Ceremonial Magick, science fiction and J.Edgar Hoover and he invented something that attracts millions (of people and dollars) in today’s crazy mixed up world. You have to give him credit for being eclectic.
Hubbard clearly had style, but later he began wearing troubling neckties and sporting a yachtsman’s cap. But he knew enough about image to realize when it was time to sail off into privacy.
Really we haven’t had a good guru in quite a while. I mean who is there? Carson Kressley?
Jimmy Kimmel. Better than Maharaj Ji or Oprah!
Kim Jong Un? Interesting….
Lady Gaga? I’m not going to underestimate her. She’s like if the Maharishi was in the Beatles.
If people are going to continue calling me Style Guru, maybe I’ll have to accede to public demand. I guess it will be a cult based on culture. I don’t think a uniform would be appropriate, so I’ll have to go with “look different.” But one of the saints of the cult, Beau Brummell (1778-1840) put it best. “If people turn to look at you on the street you are not well dressed.”
For rituals we can start with breakfast, lunch, cocktails, and dinner. I’m not going to give blessings, like the typical guru. I’ll stick to toasts. Ritual garb? Black tie. Sacraments–baguette and champagne, caviar. Holy day: New Year’s Eve.