Nine Questions with the "the Chosen One", Jayanti Tamm
With William Pennington
One day, while walking on the Ave in the UDistrict, you pass a sign in a window saying "Free Meditation Classes", and decide that after years of curiousity, you decide to finally investigate. You visit their very pleasant looking website and submit your name and email address. The following week you get a call saying that they have room for you, on a Saturday morning. You say sure, why not? As you walk in, you see people smiling at you, and they ask that you take off your shoes. In the main room, people are sitting in clean white plastic chairs, staring at a picture of an old bald smiling man, and you join them. Eventually the leader of the meditation will start chanting "Supreme....Supreeeeeme", while you wonder who that guy is. They say he is a great man, a wonderful man. A spiritual master. You leave the center a few hours later and feel refreshed, and amazed at how "new" you feel, and you curse yourself for not going there sooner. They tell you to come back on Tuesday, so you come back on Tuesday, and feel the same way. And the next Tuesday. In between Tuesdays you try and research just who this Sri Chinmoy guy is, again out of curiosity. Information is somewhat scarce, but you stumble upon some warning signs. The word "cult" comes up in an internet search. So does "sexual abuse". The following Tuesday you want to bring it up but feel it would ostracize you even more. Now, what exactly is your next move? Do you continue to ignore the warning signs for eternal bliss, or do you stop going? There doesn't seem to be a middle ground.
They tell you to visit a statue of Sri under the Aurora Bridge in Fremont. And a ceremonial stone at the Seattle Center with a quote from him. Then they invite you to breakfast at their restaurant, Silence Heart Nest in Fremont, where you will again see his warm happy face. After stepping in the Transformation Surprise Laundromat in Ballard, there he is, (or pictures of him, anyway) smiling at you while you fold your sheets. His presence has been all around you and you didn't even realize it. You gather up all the information you can, take lots of pictures, and even set up a Tumblr blog to catalog everything
Jayanti Tamm's parents were two followers of Sri, and she was quickly named "the Chosen One" by the Supreme Master himself, Sri Chinmoy, before she was even born. Her memoir, Cartwheels in a Sari, was written in 2009, and has shared her life from her innocent childhood through her disillusionment with Sri as a teenager. I read this book myself while attending those free meditation classes, and felt like the truth I was reading in Tamm's book was being whitewashed by all of his followers. I asked one of the leaders of the Meditation Center that I had doubts about continuing because of what I was reading in Tamm's book. She was disappointed I read it, because it was "full of lies". When pressed for specific lies, she told me she didn't know any specific lies because she hadn't even read it.
While Tamm has moved on from him and the Center completely, she was still gracious enough to answer a few of my questions about "him" and his presence still felt in Seattle. Technically not a Seattlite, Tamm has a history in a cult that does expand to cities all over the world, including Seattle. Sri Chinmoy died in 2007, but his meditation centers and followers live on.
It feels, when reading, that you really wanted Sri to read this book. Did you purposely wait until his death to begin writing, or did it just happen that way?
Random House bought the proposal for the book and gave me 12 months to write it. I was still is the process of writing it when he died on Oct. 11, 2007. It just happened that way--that was not the plan to wait until his death at all. I finished writing it in December and then the publisher had already decided the release date.
Have you been to the Meditation Center in Seattle?
I have never been to the Sri Chinmoy Center in Seattle. The disciples that run the group there, however, are long time disciples that I knew growing up. In fact it is run by a couple with two children--one son who is a devoted disciple and the other son fled the group years and years ago.
Why do you feel like people are drawn to join cults in the first place?
Every person has a unique story, but in general, it is a false notion to believe that a person is actively looking to 'join a cult.' In fact, there is not one single group that would ever self-identify as a cult. So, it's not like a person goes into it knowing that it is a cult. What normally occurs is that a person has an interest in something that seems larger and has a mission that seems inspiring. The members are very kind and very welcoming, and most often the full set of rules and regulations is not announced in the beginning--nor it the full time commitment that is usually expected. The person often has a great initial experience and then returns. Eventually, the person is immersed in it, and that's when the person may begin to feel that something is off.
They've built a statue of Sri under the Aurora Bridge in Seattle, close to a large Troll sculpture, a controversial Lenin statue, a local-famous Waiting for the Interurban sculpture, and an empty rocket. I find this interesting.
This is part of the strategy to spread Sri Chinmoy's image and name around the world. He was obsessed with fame and celebrity. He needed to be praised and admired. He longed to be a global superstar like the Dalai Lama or the Pope. This just continues with that idea.
Do you still meditate? I actually found Sri's technique quite helpful and interesting.
No. Even though pure meditation has been scientifically proven to reduce stress and be beneficial for one's overall health, for me, since we were forced to meditate on his picture or on him, the image of him still pops into my head. Thus, it is the last thing that I want to be doing.
I live a few blocks from the Center in Seattle, and am tempted to place your book on its book shelf inside. While I did I stop attending meditation classes after reading your book, I do wonder what they would do with it.
I'm sure they would throw it away. Like all cults, they claim all criticism is simply lies and slander spouted by disgruntled former members. They have been instructed to block out what they call all 'hostile forces'--meaning all voices that don't spout their own propaganda.
What advice would you have for a Seattleite who passes by the Center, notices the "free meditation classes" sign out front, and is curious to learn more?
I would say that meditation can be very beneficial, but I would suggest avoiding any group whose intention is to recruit members. Believe me, these 'free classes' are not free--once one joins, all one's freedom is gone.
The last page or so of your book talks about the death of Sri. Have you thought about writing another book, sort of a post Sri sequel?
I feel I've written all that I wanted to about Sri Chinmoy. I'm done with that topic for good. I'm currently on page 200 of a novel that has nothing to do with cults or me! I'm happily working on fiction!
I've tried looking for an objective biography on him, with little success. Even the Meditation Center can't recommend one. For as controversial as he is, your book seems to be one of the more definitive books about him. Can you recommend one?
As far as I know, none exist. His followers also carefully search the web to ensure that all blogs and testimonials by former members, including true experiences about all the female followers that he forced to have sex with him and with other female disciples in front of him while he watched (many of whom had been raised in the group), are discredited and hidden. It's sad, but the members are afraid of having the pathetic truth about this terrible man, this scam artist, to come out.