Bad Karma

(Note: the KPC has worked very hard to keep this article offline, so much so that I can't even host it blog sites like I alone seem to be immune to "cease-and-desist" letters from this bullshit cult. So here it is, on my own pages, a public service to YOU.)

by Mr. Will Blythe


 (Mirabella, 1998)

Ten years ago, when Jetsunma became the first woman in the Western world recognized as a reincarnated lama, she was hailed as a thoroughly modern Buddha. Hollywood came calling. But now, some followers accuse her of physical abuse and unbridled greed. Has she become a holy terror?

Say this much for Jetsunma Ahkon Lhamo as she lingers backstage at the Let Freedom Ring rally: she may be at least 300 or so in reincarnated lama years, but her hair doesn't show it. Not on this brilliant fall afternoon in Lafayette Square, just across from the White House. This is a good thing, as aging can be hard, even for a Buddhist, and in human years, Jetsunma, now 48, has traveled a few miles down the crumbling highway of middle age. 

Just because it's revealing to understand the ephemerality of all phenomena and the inevitability of suffering doesn't mean you're immune to a mirror. As Jetsunma herself has announced in one of her videotaped teachings, "when it's a good hair day, that always makes a difference." 

Her followers can relate to such a sentiment: it makes Jetsunma more "real," not like some otherworldly bean pole ascetic who's never maxed out the credit card. 

"In response to those who find such vanity in a guru a tad unsettling, I ask: in what sutra is it written that a Buddhist teacher can't liven up her hair with a few classy highlights?" 

Onstage, finishing his speech against the Chinese occupation of Tibet, Richard Gere is enjoying a superb hair day himself. How can a man's hair be so beautiful? The cut is a masterpiece of precision that comes across as conspicuously casual, like a rich man wearing loafers with no socks. The hair itself is a silver that positively radiates blessedness. And he's spiritual, too, and genuine, they say! 

Nothing derails his compassion. Hecklers bounce off his aura like birds off a pane of glass. "No one here would hurt a mosquito," he declares at one point with fetching certainty. "Nice coat," a Buddhist yells from the crowd, unable to stomach the irony of Gere's handsome leather jacket. Picky, picky. 

The audience turns on the naysayer, as if he's the un-cool one who made a sentient being suffer. And maybe he did, maybe he hurt Richard's feelings. 

Jetsunma, meanwhile, is still waiting on the far side of backstage rope, the outsiders' side. For the moment, she seems like an autograph seeker, the suburban fan of the '70s rock star, say, James Taylor. 

She pats her hair into place. She sips from a bottle of Deer Park spring water. She pops a Certs into her mouth and makes a goofy face at one of her nuns. The nun, her hair buzzed as closely as a fighter pilot's, smiles back.

A small band of followers from Jetsunma's own temple about 30 miles northwest of D.C. in Poolesville, Maryland, huddles around. Her longtime student Wib Middleton stands up beside her like a spouse, communicating anxiously on a walkie-talkie. In 1988, he quit a sales job and came to work for her after she had assured him that he would be dead of a heart attack within two years if he didn't. 

Then the crowd roils, a galvanic, shark feeding register of celebrity in the vicinity, and Wib's walkie-talkie crackles to life. Mr. Gere is leaving the area! That's when the reason for Jetsunma's nervousness becomes instantly clear -- she's here on a mission, she hopes to share a little cinematic space with the actor. She needs her aura buffed by a righteous Hollywood celebrity. 

A crew shooting a documentary about Jetsunma materializes, forcing their way next to the ropes. "Richard, it's Jetsunma!" The men shout urgently. "Richard, over here, it's Jetsunma!" 

She leans across the rope toward Richard, who is whipping through the excited crowd, a pretty blonde commanding his ear. Jetsunma extends a white prayer scarf toward him, a traditional Tibetan show of respect. Her red nail polish gleams. She is craning, stretching, about to tip over on her modish boots. She and Richard have met before, she's told her followers, in this very lifetime, on at least a couple of the occasions. Gere is said to have asked her how many thousands of years old she was. Cute, huh? 

But not this time. He swoops by, briefly grazing her hand and the white scarf. "Hi, how ya doing," he says, without breaking stride. And then he's gone. The sound man says, "He didn't recognize her."

It's a mortifying moments. Jetsunma puts on a pair of blue tainted sunglasses. Is she crying? Has she heard the rumor circulating through the Buddhist community that Gere has been warned away from her? The nuns and lay women from the temple rally around her, cooing and clucking, the pep club consoling the homecoming Queen after she's been jilted by the King. 

But there's something indomitable about Jetsunma. She's shrugged off far worse than snubs. She accepts the condolences, takes a swig of water, and heads toward the White House to join the protesters. When the camera goes back on, she begins to chant. 

The Buddhist scriptures teach that we live in a world of samsara, of appearances. The entire universe is smoke and mirrors. This isn't news for Jetsunma. She's a Brooklyn girl, she's come down a hard road to get this far, and she's known forever about the difference between appearance and reality. 

In the world of appearances, particularly that veil of illusion we call the media, Jetsunma is doing very well indeed. She is the spiritual director and resident lama of Kunzang Palyul Choling -- KPC (translation: "Fully Awakened Dharma Continent of Absolute Clear Light"), a Tibetan Buddhist Temple in the Nyingma tradition that she set up in Poolesville. She has 200 or so followers, some of whom have been attached her since the early '80s. In addition, she presides over one of the largest Nyingma contingents of monastics in America -- 34 nuns and monks, at last count. In 1987, she was recognized as a tulku -- the rebirth of an enlightened being -- by Penor Rinpoche, the supreme head of the Nyingmas (or "ancient ones"), who within his tradition is as revered as the Dalai Lama. So far, Jetsunma is the only female tulku -- literally, "emanation body of the Buddha" -- yet found in the West. 

After a highly publicized enthronement in 1988 at the Poolesville Temple (Jetsunma sat on an actual red wooden throne), the press went guru-gaga. Features appeared in People, the Washington Post, the New York Times, and on TV news magazines. The tulku was a broad! Her chants were gender-inclusive! It was all so post patriarchal, so politically enlightened! This bodhisattva liked red meat, red wine, and red lipstick. She loved to dish with the gals about deep hair conditioners and makeup and nice clothes. She was down-to-earth, even a little bawdy, none of the scrawny, delicate navel-gazer about Jetsunma. 

"I just hate the whole prostration thing," she told her students, referring to the way they would bow down before her, Tibetan-style, as a sign of reverence. "It's takes me forever to get through a room. If I have to go to the bathroom it's really intense. I have to put on a blond wig so you won't recognize me." 

Imagine the pope or the Dalai Lama talking this way. Imagine them in blond wigs. 

"I'm a regular person," she told journalist Martha Sherrill. "You could explain your life to me, and I could understand. This isn't common with other lamas." Sherrill subsequently signed a deal with Random House to write a book about Jetsunma.

Byron Pickett, the director of the documentary in progress, regards her as a Buddhist populist: "She's not like Pema Chodron, who only has two robes," he says, referring to a renowned (and simply clothed) Buddhist teacher and author in Nova Scotia. "Pema is from the same background as Peter Matthiessen -- you know, moneyed families on the East Coast. Jetsunma is the opposite. She's bringing people to Buddhism who have never been there before -- there's a lot of blue collar people at KPC." 

Now, in the ultimate sign that re-incarnation can be one hell of a career move (talk about a real comeback), Hollywood has come to prostrate itself at Jetsunma's carefully pedicured toes. Denise De Novi, a producer at Warner Bros., recently signed a reputed $200,000 development deal with the lama, eager to make "The Buddha from Brooklyn," a warm, uplifting, all-American story about what happens when a feisty Babe from the boroughs finds out from Tibetan holy men that she's -- get outta here! -- a more than 300-year-old enlightened being. Word is, Susan Sarandon will play Jetsunma. Soon, if all goes well, her outsize image will be injected into multiplexes across the land -- why, it's Moonstruck meets Gandhi! First, Jetsunma was enthroned by the Tibetans; now, on the cusp of the millennium, it's time for her glittering coronation by American pop culture. Or is it? 

For there are unsettling rumors arising from Poolesville, tales at shocking odds with kooky, feel-good narrative about class and karma taking shape in Hollywood. From many sources connected with the Temple -- several insistent on anonymity for fear of reprisal -- come reports of beatings administered to monks and nuns by Jetsunma, of shady, even illegal financial dealings, of psychic abuse and manipulation eerily reminiscent of the early days of Johnstown. When it became known that Tenzin Chophak, a recently enthroned tulku and a translator for Penor Rinpoche, was talking openly to me about KPC, his electronic mailbox filled with anonymous hate messages and death threats, among them: "You better watch your back." "Testicular cancer will befall you, and in a hurry, I hope." "You will burn in vajra hell for many kalpas for what you are doing." I, too, was warned, by a former Temple member who, while retaining a fondness for Jetsunma, blamed her for the near collapse of his marriage. "She will fuck you royally," he said. "She has these people who think she's God. They might come burn your house down, put a bomb in your car. Or they'll put a hex on you and you'll have bad dreams for ten years." This is not the normal Buddhist policy for interaction with the press. It's a religion that emphasizes compassion and kindness to all beings, even journalists. 

The questions the screen writers of Jetsunma's biopic will now need to consider concern the actual crux of her story. Is she the fully enlightened leader of a Buddhist sangha, as the community that practices the Dharma (Buddhist teachings) is known? Or the tyrannical head of the New Age cult incorporating elements of Buddhism as window dressing? Isn't she a compassionate, nurturing teacher? Or ferocious, self-promoting huckster? If you disagree with her, will you reap bad karma? Is the Buddha from Brooklyn really a Buddha at all? "All it is not well in Mudville, or shall we say, Poolesville," says Lama Surya Das, the American born teacher of Tibetan Buddhism and author of Awakening of the Buddha Within

On even basic points, accounts differ. Jetsunma Akron Norbu Lhamo was born Alyce Zeoli 48 years ago into an unhappy Jewish-Catholic home -- or so she says. (Another source asserts that her maiden name was Alice Parker.) She grew up in Brooklyn, played stick ball, loved Motown. Everyone agrees both parents drank to excess; her stepfather beat Alice and her siblings unmercifully, threw hammers and saws at them, even burned them with cigarettes. At 17, she bolted from home, did a year of junior college in Florida, got married a couple of times, had two sons. She ended up in the mountains of North Carolina, where, in her 20s, a series of dreams let her to concoct her own meditation practices. "I dedicated each part of my body," she has said. "I found out later this is just like the Tibetan practice called chod." 

At 30, some mysterious, "breakthrough" spiritual event occurred. "I didn't hang out a shingle," she said, "but after that people began to come to me." Among them was Michael Burroughs, the man who would become her third husband. "I fell for her hook, line, and sinker," Burroughs told me. "From the very get-go, she had charisma. I mean, this lady could sell milk back to the cows. I always had the feeling of not quite belonging, and she made me feel like I had a place, home." She seems to have been effect on others, as well. 

As former follower and Buddhist monk Richard Dykeman, put it, "People would do anything to get next to her mothering essence." It was as if she could give to others what she hadn't received herself. Perhaps her brutal home life had been a gift, the violent memories pressed by the heavyweight of suffering until they crystallized the diamond of compassion. And if you have the power to help others, certainly you must be healed yourself, right? 

In the early '80s, she attended a reunion with her brothers and sisters, where everyone laughed and joked about the abuse they had all endured. "When we went home," Burroughs says, "she spent many nights crying, saying, please tell me I am not one of them." 

She and Burroughs wedded in July 1982 and moved to the suburbs north of Washington DC, where they formed in informal church that was into flying saucers, crystals, Native American rites, and other esoteric spiritual disciplines. She attracted a flock of lost souls yearning for community, their spiritual aspirations unsatisfied by organized religion. "I was a seeker," says Wib Middleton, who with his wife Jane has been part of Jetsunma's inner circle since the early '80s and now serves as her spokesman. (Jetsunma and declined to be interviewed for this article.) "I was looking for something," Middleton says, and when he looked into her eyes and saw all that "love and compassion, I knew that I had found it." 

Calling herself Catherine Burroughs (she took the names to signal not just a change in matrimonial status but a new persona as well), she started to gain a reputation as a channeler of the occult. She would close her eyes and, in a quavery, high-pitched voice, pipe through the spirits of various old Testament prophets, among them Jeremiah and Elijah. 

One day, a being inhabiting Catherine commanded Michael to read his wife notes he had taken during a college class in Buddhism. "She needs each do this," the voice said, adding poignantly, "she's not very educated." Not long afterward, Catherine began the channelling of "Ms. Buddha." 

There was only one catch: her husband eventually learned that she'd been faking the Oracle. "At first, when she told me, I didn't believe her," Burroughs says. "I mean, it's really, really embarrassing." 

In any event, Catherine quickly picked up the Buddhist lingo, enough to parrot it back at Penor Rinpoche, who was visiting Washington in the summer of 1985. During his trip, he wanted to meet her congregation because they had bought so many carpets from the business manager of his monastery in India, a venture that helped underwrite his monks and Tibetan refugees. At a cookout in the backyard of her Kensington, Maryland, home, where a bemused coterie of Tibetan monastics was served grilled hot dogs, Catherine was ready. She talked eloquently of emptiness, of compassion, and, perhaps most importantly, of her spontaneous recognition of Penor Rinpoche has her long-lost teacher. When she had greeted him at the airport earlier in his visit, she had burst into tears. "I fell like I had met my mind," she later said. 

Catherine seemed strangely familiar to the old Tibetan Lama, too. He recognized her as a likely tulku and considered her followers "baby Buddhists" who had unwittingly been imbibing the tenets of Buddhism along with more in fashion fare from the spiritual supermarket. 

In vision right out of Gone With the Wind, Penor Rinpoche foresaw the group buying a mansion with white columns. Within the year, the fledgling Buddhists located their dream house on the outskirts of Poolesville, on a 72 acre tract in the middle of horse country. Formerly owned by a Republican Party fund-raiser, the house -- now containing a temple, offices, a solarium, and a gift shop selling books such as Reverse the Aging Process In Your Face -- gives off the slightly depressing vibe of a faux plantation mansion. With prayer flags flapping on the lawn and the dharma wheel on the roof, it looks as if Tibetan monks won the Civil War. 

The rapid transition from the free-form experiments of the New Age to the traditional practices of the Nyingma school were disorienting to many of Catherine's longtime followers. 

"When I heard that we were Buddhists, I was shocked," Middleton says. "We didn't like organized religion. There was a whole new decorum necessary with a tulku in our midst." 

In 1987, a Rinpoche invited Michael Catherine to his monastery in India, and there confirmed that she was the re-incarnation of a 17th century Tibetan woman with miraculous powers named Ahkon Norbu Lhamo. Burroughs himself came up with the title Jetsunma, an honorific meaning "very venerated." "How'd she get that title?" Penor Rinpoche asked them, grinning. "That's a better title than mine." 

Jetsunma, however, was crushed that she wasn't recognized as someone more famous! 

An ordained member of the temple who wandered by her private quarters one day overheard the newly appointed tulku "going bonkers." "Nobody's ever heard of this person!" She screamed. 

Jetsunma demanded that another past life be found for her, and Kusum Lingpa, a Tibetan Lama, obliged. Before long, she was proudly proclaiming that she was also the rebirth of Mandrawa, the consort of a famous eighth century Tibetan guru, Padmasambhava. 

Even with the titular aggravations, she quickly cottoned to her new life as a tulku. "I said, 'Catherine, can you hand me a toothbrush?' Or a comb, or whatever was," Burroughs recalls. She said, Don't call me Catherine. I am now Jetsunma." Yes, she is.

Judging from the accounts of disillusioned followers, the crown Jetsunma wore during her enthronement may have gone to her head in more ways than one. In recognizing her as a tulku, the Tibetans appear to have confirmed a sense of destiny and entitlement that she had nursed within herself for decades. In ministering to her followers ravenous needs, she had risen far above them. Her cries to Michael Burroughs that night many years ago had been resoundingly answered: no, she wasn't like them! The corollary to that revelation is: and nobody was quite like her anymore, either. 

Jetsunma expects KPC members to trust her with their children, their money, their marriages, and their lives -- both this life and the ones to come. "Who's the one sitting up here?" She tells them, according to one Temple insider. "It's your karma to be here. You're clueless."

 In 1996, Jetsunma's devoted main attendant, Alana, through whom she often speaks, announced at a meeting that "ideally, your devotion for Jetsunma will reach the point where when you see her come down the road and cut the head off a sweet, innocent, little child, your only thought will be, oh, what a lucky child." 

These expectations of devotion are clearly reflected in Jetsunma's financial arrangements with KPC. "It's all about money," says Bob Denmark, a former temple member who works as a CPA and just this year had a close look at the Temple's financial records. "They are running a serious deficit. Jetsunma is getting paid $10,000 a month, and her followers paid not only that but all of her lodging, her income, and self-employment taxes. They pay her family's health insurance, and for her pool to be cleaned. She's netting $200,000, after taxes. And on top of that, people give her money and gifts outside of what's going through the books." He cites a jade necklace said to be worth well over $200,000 that an older Chinese member of the sangha dreamed he should donate to temple. Instead of being used to help retire the property's debt, the necklace went to Jetsunma, passed onto her by the nuns and monks to increase the temple's karmic merit. 

"I can understand how it's hard for people outside to understand how much she needs," Wib Middleton says. "But her salary is commensurate to anybody who's the head of a large organization."

No financial sacrifice, however, is deemed to too large for the faithful. While tithing is not cutomary in Tibetan Buddhism, KPC members have been asked to donate $350 a month. In exchange for additional -- and what one former member terms "enormous" -- sums, Jetsunma offers to appear in the bardo, the realm of between death and rebirth, to escort the deceased parents of her students toward a fortunate re-incarnation. "I should get as much as Penor Rinpoche for this!" She has angrily declared. 

Although Tibetan Buddhism emphasizes the care of its nuns and monks, the ordained were required to pay at least $300 a month for their rooms at KPC, only to be kicked out when Jetsunma decided she wanted the monastery for herself, according to a former resident. She requested, however, that the ordained continue paying rent on their old rooms. "Nobody could pay double," says the source. But we all felt guilty about it." 

"It always comes back to this: Give more money, get more merit," says Bob Denmark. 

And audio tape backs up his story: on it, members can be heard being encouraged to empty their pension funds into Ladyworks, a hair care business Jetsunma started in 1993, of which she is the sole shareholder. Any profits would go to her; any losses would be deducted from her taxes. If temple members lent money, they were told, they would get good karma; if they GAVE money, they would get even better karma. An advisory board consisting mostly of new members worried that her exorbitant income was endangering KPC's nonprofit status. "She was clearing as much as the CEO of a  major company," says Denmark. "In a nonprofit organization, like a church, people aren't supposed to be benefiting personally." 

The amount of Jetsunma's compensation, in addition to her linking of the Temple's business with that of Ladyworks, could invite IRS scrutiny. But Jetsunma's partisans tended to engage in magical thinking when it came to her potential tax problems. The IRS couldn't touch her, they claimed. As proof, they cited the miraculous time that she been stopped by the cops for speeding and hadn't been given a ticket! 

Matters came to head this past spring, when an internal task force suggested that Jetsunma's salary might be cut in half. Jetsunma, who was on retreat in Sedona, Arizona (as she is now), delivered her response through Alana. "If you want to cut my salary," she had her tell the community, "it's going to force me into bankruptcy. Or, I can get a part-time job, if you want your lama doing that. Or I'll just leave." 

The threat worked. At a meeting to discuss the matter, a temple member stood up and declared: "how dare you! I'd rather pull out my left kidney than cut her salary." 

Individual initiative, then, is not looked on with loving kindness at KPC. Express the slightest doubt about Jetsunma or one of her schemes, or diverge even the slightest bit from the way she has prescribed, and you pay a severe price. Either directly, or through her nuns, especially Alana, she threatens apostates with insanity, death from cancer, and absolute isolation. She promises them they're bound for vajra hell. And sometimes, says ex KPC monk Richard Dykeman, who still says he owes Jetsunma his life for helping him come to terms with an abusive childhood, she'd vows to die herself if she doesn't get what she wants. 

He says, "She'd tell people, 'I had a dream, and I'm going to die.' I finally said, Then tell the phony bitch to die." 

Dissenting spouses were often excoriated as "demons," especially if Jetsunma fancied the other half of the couple. "She'll tell a husband, 'we've been together in past lives, and now you're karma has ripened and we're together again,'" says Dykeman, who counseled one such couple in 1991. 

Another marriage barely survived Jetsunma's so-called "mix and match" propensities when the wife left KPC and Jetsunma tried to set up the husband with another woman. "I bought a ticket on the Titanic," the husband says, while still expressing affection for his former lama. "I like her, but she's damaged." 

In the fall of 1992, the year of Jetsunma and Michael's divorce, sources say members of KPC made an effigy of Michael, with a banana to represent his penis, which is soon-to-be ex-wife smashed. His old colleagues read grievances to the dummy, and then took it outside where one member ran over it with a car. Another urinated on what was left. 

That expression of rage was mild, however, compared to what took place on Feb. 2, 1996, after Jetsunma discovered that an nun and a monk had spent the night together, although they hadn't actually had sex. According to an eyewitness, whose story is corroborated by other sources, guilty parties were driven to another nun's house, on State Hill Road in Poolesville. The two offenders were seated in chairs the setup underneath a bright light, mimicking an interrogation scene from the movies. The 30 or so other nuns and monks present had been told to bring snacks as religious offerings. In her usual capacity as Jetsunma's right hand nun, Alana announced to the faithful: "Everyone, remember, what you're about to see is nothing more than compassionate activity." 

Jetsunma then stormed into the room, launching herself at the 6 ft. 4, two-hundred fifty pound monk, smacking him above the ears hard enough to knock a pair of wrap around glasses off his head. "You fool!" She screamed. She then attacked the nun and struck her twice on the forehead, all the while granting that the two were destroying dharma in the West, as well as shortening Jetsunma's current life span. The spectators, it can be presumed, were munching away on their snacks. 

Within months of the assault, the nun and the monk had quit the temple and had gone into hiding. In the late summer of 1996, Jetsunma was arrested by the Maryland State Police on charges of assault, but the state declined to prosecute -- on the grounds, said the same eyewitness, that Jetsunma's "religious status" would make for difficult case. With the case file destroyed (as his customary after a year), the state confirms only the arrest. 

Although Wib Middleton prefers not to use the term assault, he does not deny that the incident took place. Instead, he acknowledges that "there are times when everything seems paradoxical." But "it's not unusual," he says, "for a teacher not to get strong with a student." He cites as historical precedents the first Ahkon Lhamo: "She was wild and woolly," he says with an affectionate laugh, as if he sees exactly who Jetsunma inherited her qualities from. He's like a parent talking about an unruly child. "Ahkon Lhamo spent three decades in a cave," he says proudly. "People would line up for beatings. Afterward their diseases would be healed." 

Through every scrape, Jetsunma has consistently claimed to the sangha that she has the full and enthusiastic support of Penor Rinpoche, the Nyingma leader. Not so, say several inside sources. Tenzin Chophak translated in October 1996 a letter that demanded that she stop calling herself a Buddha and asked that she be more accessible to her nuns and monks. They should be her first priority, Penor Rinpoche insisted. He also begged Jetsunma not to use so much paint on her face, a phrase Tenzin Chophak rendered as "please tone down your personal parts." "Penor Rinpoche has never told me exactly what he thinks," says K.T. Shedrup Gyatso, a former monk KPC and head of a temple in San Jose, "but other people close to him say that, on some level, he regrets having 'recognized' her." 

None of these allegations fazes Middleton, whose says he hasn't heard of the letter. "I believe in my heart of hearts that Jetsunma is only hard wired for compassion. I believe that if I wait long enough, it'll all make sense to me." 

The difference between a cult and a religion is largely a matter of mathematics and history. Religions are big and enduring, cults are small and new. Both offer their adherents not so much a method of fathoming mystery as a means of transcending it. Faithful disciples in a cult, passionate devotee of religion -- in terms of intent, what really is the distinction? The real issue here is one of good and evil, truth and mirage, and how to figure out which is which. 

Jetsunma's worshippers gaze into her eyes and see the answer that passeth understanding. Her truth is greater than their own. Those who have abandoned Jetsunma have looked into their own hearts and have determined that the truth is widely distributed, that they will trust themselves before all else. That both views require an equal measure of faith is, of necessity, a perverse paradox. 

In the desert now, among the rich, she goes again by the name of Alyce Zeoli, according to the documentary maker Byron Pickett. Wealthy people, too, have spiritual needs. She's there in Sedona on what Middleton calls "semi-retreat," a mere hop, skip, and a jump from the ultimate samsara factory of Hollywood, where privileged lives like Richard Gere's unfold and private splendor. There is always a better life to be had, even on this earth. Accompanying her is a tight group of family and longtime allies, 10 in number, including the ever loyal Alana. Soon it will be Alana's duty to transform unseemly revelations into a narrative of persecution and misunderstanding. She will tell the doubters that they are wrong and her lama his right, that they have not attained sufficient merit to understand. 

The house in Poolesville is occupied, rent free, by Jetsunma's two 20-something sons. One, Christopher, is said to be especially close to his mother, and perhaps is the heir apparent in her line of work. It is said they sometimes practice staring into each other's eyes for minutes on end. 

On Sundays, the faithful of KPC back in Poolesville gather nearby, at the temple, and watch videotapes of their lama's greatest hits. They listen to her say things like "Beauty and youth will fail us, even with the presence of an Estee Lauder in the world." Have they been abandoned? Perhaps not. 

Although the Tibetans are said to be hopeful that Jetsunma's stay in the desert is a long one, Richard Dykeman believes that she'll keep coming back to KPC. "It's her economic base," he says. She has sworn to her family that she'll never be poor again, says one former acquaintance. 

It's beautiful country, the Arizona desert. A holy place. Even skeptics respond to its bare, bone-dry power. Jetsunma is no stranger to the red sand and rock, the scrub, the blue infinity of sky. Back in the '80s, she told her followers, she was forced to make several emergency visits here to help fix a problem with the openings to the other world. "The Hopi Indians, whose job it was to maintain the portals, apparently weren't doing a very good job," says an ex-KPC member. Now, she once again stands at the gateway between two very different worlds -- the world of image and the world of reality. The question that Jetsunma, the Buddha from Brooklyn, must answer is: can SHE tell the difference between them anymore? 

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