We Will Never Be Gurus

Bruce Wagner’s “The Empty Chair,” self-centeredness, and nihilism

Posted Jan 31, 2014

I finished Bruce Wagner’s The Empty Chair shortly after hearing Lorde sing “Royals” at the Grammys. I couldn’t help but compose this song in honor of Wagner’s book, which I ended up liking, after a rough start: 

We Will Never Be Gurus

But every day’s like trouble in the sangha, trouble with the dharma,
tea stains, tea lights, forgettin’ ‘bout the Buddha,
We don’t care, we’re driving through bardos in our dreams.
But everybody’s like retreats, seva, gettin’ through samsara
Meditation cushions, fakin’ a nirvana
We don’t care – it’s like our love affair.

And we’ll never be gurus (gurus)
It don’t run in our blood
I think you would agree
We all think too much of “me".
Because “me” is the ruler (ruler)
You can call me Queen Me
And baby I’ll rule, I’ll rule, I’ll rule.
Let me live that fantasy.

Seriously, though, I nearly stopped reading the book several times. I was put off by the vulgarity of the narrator in the first of the two novellas that comprise the book; there were not only grotesquely sexual references that I found distasteful, but also distracting riffs that seemed unconnected to the rest of the story. Moreover, Wagner had a bead on egotism in the religion most philosophically opposed to it, Buddhism (“competition for humility was dog eat dog”), which at times was hysterical and sharply satirical, and at other times left me feeling he had totally misunderstood the enterprise and the people engaged in it. I hadn’t read any Wagner before, so was unused to his style. The novellas were essentially two long (impossibly long) monologues delivered to a fictional Wagner, and I just didn’t like the first narrator much at all.

But by the time I finished the book, out of sheer discipline, curiosity (was I crazy for not liking this from the get-go?), and respect for the reviewers who seemed to love the book (most prominently Michiko Kakutani of the NYT, linked above, and whose review made me take notice of this spiritually-themed endeavor in the first place), I was quite impressed with the author’s gifts as a storyteller. These interwoven tales made me think, about Gurus, spirituality in the West, and the quest for enlightenment vs. nihilism, heady topics indeed, and well worth taking on. 

Ultimately, even the empty chair is full – full of all the life that has passed through it. We are interdependent with all of that. Nothing is truly void, if we can truly see through the illusion. Perhaps we should assume a sacred, or at least meaningful, provenance for everything within and around us, indeed, and not treat the world so lightly.

I do recommend the book, particularly to anyone interested in Eastern spirituality and Buddhism. 

(Spoilers from here on out. Read only if you have read the book or never plan to.)

Bruce Wagner

The “empty chair” is the bit of coincidence or fate that Wagner uses to bring his tales together. In “First Guru”, the chair is tragically used by the 11-year-old son of a Buddhist teacher to hang himself. Steeped in his mother’s spiritual quest, his final note reads “Gone to Boodafield,” a rather nihilistic, and I would say corrupted, vision of transcendence.  The boy does not betray any signs of morbid preoccupation or depression – he simply vaults off the chair into nothingness.

“Second Guru” was to me a far more interesting and welcoming tale, as the burnt out junkie hippie Queenie tells Bruce of her gangster hero Kura’s quest to meet the Great Guru in India.  Unfortunately, he arrives at the noble Guru’s storefront ashram a month after the Great Guru has dramatically died in the chair from which he has given teachings all these many years. On this day, in his place, the Guru’s apprentice, the blond-haired American, takes his seat – in what we soon will find out is “the chair”.  Kura serves the American for seven years, and then the American disappears, breaking Kura’s heart. Years later, Kura manages to find him again, in the North of India. The American appears to have finally transcended his ego, having freed himself from the daily grind of Guru-ship that his master had impishly bestowed upon him, and therefore freeing himself from any pride of attainment, recognition or special status. Yet he has placed himself in a cave above a village that adores him, in some remote facsimile of his prior position, but one perhaps not so inflated as the crush of the ashram and its insistence to be wise on demand. What happens next between Kura and the American, in dark echo of what happened between the American and his own Great Guru, says a lot about hero worship, wherein the teacher is adored beyond the teachings – a mistake that is all too human but bound to disappoint. I was reminded of the documentary Kumare, in which a man impersonates a Guru and finally reveals himself as a fake, proclaiming the motto “the Guru is within you,” and not to trust anyone outside oneself. There is some truth to this, but it’s also true that some people do need gurus. I found the documentarian’s hoax to be cruel to people achingly in need, and not enlightening as he might claim.

Similarly, one could say the original guru, the Great Guru, played his role magnificently: He was an authentic teacher. Subsequent recipients of the chair devolved precipitously, recapitulating the Old Man of Crete's decay from Golden Age splendor. The American became so attached to his own “enlightenment” or freedom that he was blind to the needs of the people literally at his feet. Ryder, the son of the American Buddhist, similarly wanted some kind of freedom for himself but was blind to even the preciousness of life, not to mention the love of his parents. As the dharma of the chair travels West, it acquires self-centeredness, which ultimately becomes solipsism, which naturally turns to nihilism. Wagner also explores the ultimate existential question in how each occupant of the chair faces death. The Great Guru seems to leave his body as a shell, seated in the chair as if he had been a ventriloquist’s dummy for “The Source” all along. The American departs kneeling before the chair and the specter of his guru, the eternal seeker, perhaps a bit empty himself, in all the wrong ways. To him, the Guru is always in the chair, externally reified and never embodied.  And Ryder takes his own life from the chair, echoing Ramana Maharshi’s words quoted by Wagner:

“Creation is like a peepul tree: Birds come to eat its fruit, or take shelter under its branches, men cool themselves in its shade, but some may hang themselves on it. Yet the tree continues to lead its quiet life, unconcerned with and unaware of all the uses it is put to.”

The peepul tree, the same tree under which the Buddha came to enlightenment, becomes the tree on which a young boy hangs himself. Perhaps, Wagner is saying, this is how impartial the universe is, and how inescapable and incomprehensible fate. I would offer that another message is that we can live our lives from the extremes of self-centered nihilism to world saving selfless compassion. 

I have to believe that this is a choice we make, and keep making with each and every thought, action and relationship in our life. If there’s a novelist at work, he or she sits in our hearts.

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