Can an Authentic Teacher Be Rich?

The Power of Now by Eckhart Tolle.  New World Library.  235 pp.

It seems strange to write about a book that not only came out many years ago, but that became an international bestseller and made its author a spiritual superstar.  But a few weeks ago, when I felt on shaky ground because of some things that have happened lately, something compelled me to pick up this book, written long before the man was known, and I was overwhelmed at, and extremely grateful for, the brilliance of it.

The feeling I had this time—also all the other times—is that the things he’s saying seem intuitively right, but he’s proclaiming them boldly, not as hunches but as bold truth.  He cuts across the lines of all religions, seeing the truth in all of them and also where they have solidified into lifeless doctrine.  I was struck this time, for instance, when he said the primal unease that the Buddha spoke about, what he called dukkha, is basically the same as what Jesus meant by sin, a concept that has been ruined by religion if one ever has.  It’s because of our failure to be in touch with our essential being that we do the “sinful” things we think will bring us fulfillment, but they never do.

Tolle is not really a religious teacher, not only because he doesn’t subscribe to any religion but because his teaching transcends religion.  He’s speaking about the ultimate questions of life as if no one ever addressed them before.  He speaks with the authority of a prophet and the clarity of a math teacher.  He makes someone like Krishnamurti—the most comparable previous figure—sound positively inarticulate.

I didn’t remember to what extent he talked about the body, and how going into the body is a way of finding truth.  His chapter on “The Inner Body,” is the basis of everything he says, the doorway to Being and to the Now.  He doesn’t speak of meditation; as far as I know he’s never taught it.  It’s as if he’s inventing meditation out of whole cloth, the way he’s done everything else.  He appeals only to his own authority.

By now everyone must know the story of his miraculous transformation, the way he suffered from excessive thinking and depression for years until he had the thought, “I can’t live with myself anymore,” and realized what a strange statement that was, as if there were two of him.  Following that, somehow, his thinking ceased, and he saw the world from the other side of his brain.  Everything was just what it was, beautiful and perfect.  It seems strange that such a moment could come out of the blue, but really it didn’t; his long period of anxiety and depression set the stage.  The whole thing could have gone another way.

For a period of years he sat around on park benches enjoying life.  That seems to have been the temptation of every realized person.  The Buddha faced it himself.  But eventually Tolle began to help other people, and the number grew. Finally he put some teachings together in The Power of Now, published it with a small press and found readers by word of mouth.  Oprah read the book and made him a superstar.  He’s recently taught with Deepak Chopra.  Paris Hilton was carrying his book when she went to prison.  These things can make his work sound like a load of crap.  And of course there’s nothing easier than making fun of this kind of teaching.  Deep truths always sound like platitudes, the same things many others have said.

But as I sit with this book night after night, reading only a few pages but taking plenty of time, I’m struck by how clear and how true they seem.  As much as I love the tradition I practice in—Soto Zen—a lot of the teachings, especially those of the founder, Eihei Dogen, are impossibly hard to understand, however true they might be.  The intention may be to take you into another part of your mind, but I usually just get annoyed.  Tolle leaves me relaxed and at peace.

But recently I came across this article, by Christopher Titmuss, in which he excoriates Tolle for the prices he charges for his retreats.  The numbers are damning, and Titmuss points out that, at this point (probably even right after he wrote The Power of Now) Tolle could charge much less, even give talks for free, if he wanted to.  The man is worth $15 million.  He’s set for life.  Titmuss, who lives on dana from places like Spirit Rock, is not happy.  How come he don’t have no Vancouver penthouse?

Tolle wasn’t rich when he had his revelation, or when he wrote The Power of Now.  It’s also true—and rather fascinating—that there was a period of years—from ’79, when he had his revelation, until ’97, when he wrote the book—when he wasn’t doing much of anything, teaching friends in his living room.  During those years when he spent the days in bliss sitting on benches in the park, he was often sleeping on the couches of friends.  I don’t think we can say the man didn’t pay his dues, or that he wrote this book in the lap of luxury.

These teachings would perhaps be more authentic if they came from a barefoot man wandering the dusty roads of India, but if they did we would never have heard them.  It sounds as if, in order to get the word out, Tolle made an industry of himself (you wonder who’s making money behind the scenes), and then things got out of hand (by which I mean he became an overwhelming success).  Supposedly—though he does have that penthouse in Vancouver—he still lives modestly, isn’t running around Hollywood in a limo.

For me the teachings still seem authentic.  I would enjoy hearing what other people think.