In Conversation with Thomas Shor
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Thomas Shor was born in Boston, Massachusetts, USA. He attended Goddard College and the University of Vermont as a student of comparative Religion and literature. It was perhaps his interest in comparative religion and literature that soon inspired him to travel in a quest for spiritual awakening. His travels took him to places that people have seldom had the chance to even look up on a map. His modes of travel are also varied, both tedious and hard, sometimes verging in the extreme. In Vermont, he has traveled extensively in a horse-drawn covered wagons, much like the pioneers. In India, the roads have dusted his feet, often traveling with the likes of an ex-Harvard Professor turned Indian ascetic, or a Tibetan Lama, a practitioner of ‘crazy wisdom’ , both of whom he has written about in previous books. He has also lived atop a high stone mountains in Greece with a Greek Orthodox monk. In the mountains of the southern Mexican state of Chiapas, he mingled with the aboriginal native Amerindians, trying hard to avoid the Mexican Army tailing him.
Shor took to writing when his journeys began to take a turn for the unusual. Certainly, it would have been a sin to have kept the numerous extraordinary experiences to himself. His first book ‘Windblown Clouds’ was published in 2003. The same book being published in India for the Asian market in 2006. His second book ‘A Step Away from Paradise’, published in December 2011 by Penguin and was well received, is about a Tibetan Lama who traveled to Sikkim in the early 1960s and led a large number of his followers into the high snow mountains in order to ‘open the gate’ to a Beyul, a hidden land of immortality was well received..
Shor is also an accomplished photographer dedicatedly photographing various facets of local life and culture, including the nature during his various travels. In June 2006, a three week solo exhibition of his photographs was held at the Nicholas Roerich Memorial Trust Art Center and Gallery in Nagar, in the Kullu Valley of Himachal Pradesh in India’s Western Himalayas. From June through November 2010, a solo exhibition of his photographs entitled ‘The Tibetan World in India’ (Tibetische Welt in Indien) was held at Tibethaus (Tibet House), Frankfurt, Germany.
I caught up with him on the occasion of the release of his latest book ‘The Master Director’ and put up a few questions. You can click here to read my review of ‘The Master Director‘. Excerpts of our conversation have been reproduced below:
Barun Roy: Your books seem to predominantly dwell on philosophical and spiritual issues. How and when did you inculcate an interest in philosophy and spirituality?
Thomas Shor: My interest in philosophy and spirituality arose quite naturally. As a child I had a deep sense of wonder. I’ve simply never lost it.
Barun Roy: Are you a student of philosophy, in that have you pursued philosophy as a subject of study during your college days?
Thomas Shor: Yes, I did study philosophy in my college days, but ultimately I felt the intellectual study of such things can only lead one so far. Understanding cannot come from the head alone. It also cannot come from the heart alone. To be balanced, we must apply thought to the heart and feelings to our thinking. The head and heart are often at odds with each other, so people tend to go with one or the other. For me, the challenge has always been to deal with both. It is like having two masters. Maybe that is why I’ve never been able to follow a single guru. I always ask too many questions to follow. I think this struggle comes across in The Master Director.
Barun Roy:You are also a traveler. In your book, ‘The Master Director’, you expound a Philosophy of losing yourself into the unknown (the nature) in the quest to finding your true self. Could you elaborate on that?
Thomas Shor: I believe we are ultimately not separate beings, though we all live strongly entrenched in that illusion. The unknown stares us in the face every day. We live humdrum existences, even though we know we are on a planet spinning through endless space and that the very existence of the planet is a wondrous occurrence. People often live by routines, and then life can seem dull. That has always amazed me. I believe the essence of spirituality is a big “Wake UP!” But even spirituality can become routine. If you dip a bowl into a river, it ceases being a river, and becomes mere water.
Barun Roy: In your book ‘The Master Director’, you seem to be forever torn apart between your rational self and your spiritual self. The compelling attraction that you felt towards Gurudev whenever you were in his presence and the subsequent questions that propped up in your mind in his absence that he could simply be someone who was just trying to play a part so that he could maintain his ‘presumed Godship’. However, again when you went back to him full of questions you seem to answer your own questions and offer explanations on his part almost suggesting an unconscious psychological longing to be with him or part of his entourage?
Thomas Shor: I think it was the ancient Egyptians that say Mankind is suspended between the earth and the sky. That is how we are, between the earthly and the spiritual. We are comprised of both. So naturally there is a fruitful struggle taking place within us all. We mustn’t shy away from it. So if we doubt, we should doubt with passion. If we believe, we should believe with passion, and be not afraid. I was neither afraid to doubt Gurudev, nor to be blown away by the love he showed to one and all. I tried not to be blinded by either. Who knows if I succeeded?
Barun Roy: The book is very candid and the honesty with which you write is not witnessed in a great number of authors today. However, still, you seem to be critical of the people who offer their patronage to Gurudev, particularly politicians like Subash Ghisingh and Bimal Gurung including the finance and the various gifts that they offered him (Gurudev). But yet apart from the issue raised about the vehicle given by Subash Ghisingh to Gurudev, you seem to give a clean chit to Gurudev rendering him absolved of all charges of corruption and misuse of Government funds?
Thomas Shor: I was never in the position to absolve Gurudev of anything. I can only give my experience as evidence. And I never personally saw Gurudev do anything out of any selfish motive. I can’t say that of anyone else I know. I also act selfishly sometimes. Who doesn’t? Sure I questioned Gurudev. Who wouldn’t? He was riding in a vehicle given to him by Subash Ghisingh. I was riding in that vehicle too. The question was why he accepted it. Was it to have the comfort of the new vehicle? Was it to have leverage on Ghisingh, to somehow teach Ghisingh something? When you are with a guru, the guru runs the show. That’s why I call the book – The Master Director. Gurudev directed everything in his presence. Sometimes that bothered me. Other times I was struck with wonder, seeing how he was manipulating the situation to teach people to be loving and not selfish. Some people around Gurudev were selfish, even dangerous. Yet that needn’t reflect badly on him. He dealt with the roughest people in the Darjeeling Hills. That didn’t make Gurudev a thug. But just maybe his influence transformed the thugs’ nature, and made them think before they acted violently. That is what I tend to believe.
Barun Roy: You write about the Monastery created by Subash Ghisingh in Gurudev’s honour. Millions of Rupees were spent in the construction of his monastery. You also write that after inaugurating the monastery Gurudev never once held court in his monastery. If Gurudev was so concerned about the misuse of Public public Money money couldn’t he have pursued Subash Ghisingh to use the money to build a modern school perhaps in his own village, Tukvar? Were you able to put forward such a query to him?
Thomas Shor: I always thought Gurudev was giving a teaching to Subash Ghisingh by allowing Ghisingh to build him a monastery and then never occupying it. At the time it made me extremely uncomfortable. It was certainly a gift that Gurudev never ‘enjoyed’ as far as I know. Of course the money could have been put to better use. It could have been used to feed the poor or educate the young. Though sometimes it is better to educate a leader, and the rest will follow in order to make life better for the ordinary person. Perhaps this was Gurudev’s thinking. I never knew Gurudev’s thinking on this. I doubt Ghisingh’s thinking was changed much by it. It was a pretty hot topic that I left alone. I simply observed. To be fair, the monastery is on government land and stands next to some sort of amusement park, which was, I believe, is run by the Hill Council, complete with Disney characters. Now I think it is simply part of that. It seems somehow fitting that if you look out from the ‘monastery’ you see Donald Duck and Mickey Mouse! I always liked it that Gurudev had painted figures from various of the world religions on the outer walls of the temple.
Sadly today the Monastery remains vacant and unused, wastage of such millions of dollars that could have well been used in building hospitals, schools and other more important things.
Barun Roy:You are critical of all stories of miracles associated with Gurudev but yet whenever you were with him you yourself seem to propound even the scraps of newspapers lying around you or near Gurudev as those leading to miracles. How would you explain that?
Thomas Shor: I have no doubt that Gurudev is the ‘real thing’ in terms of being a spiritual master. That isn’t to say that I never questioned him, or his standing as a master. I always felt that he could have been of any religion whatsoever. He happened to be born into a tea garden in Darjeeling. So he played the role of a Tibetan master. The form didn’t really matter. I happen to be of a more secular bent. That is simply a result of my upbringing, my conditioning. With me, Gurudev was more of a philosopher than a religious figure. It suited me better, and for me he poured himself into that form. I believe his motive was the same with all: to wake people up! The greatest miracle was always the level of his love. That to me was the mark of his genius. An open channel is bound to flash with little coincidences. The entire world is miraculous: its very existence is completely unlikely. If someone is an open channel, things will reflect that. I did experience many little coincidences in his presence. I’ve also experienced them out of his presence. Everybody has. It often bothered me that people around him apparently needed to believe in constant–to me unbelievable–miracles to keep their faith alive.
Barun Roy: Spirituality and Philosophy philosophy are two different things. How would you explain the Spirituality spirituality professed by Gurudev as well as his philosophy?
Thomas Shor: This is a big question. I think the book answers that question. But to put it in a nutshell, I always felt that Gurudev was a tremendous actor, acting the part of a ritual master, a religious figure. Yet with me he often spoke more philosophically and openly, even pointing out how the rituals were just like playing something on a stage. He often showed me that he understood this. His philosophy? Love.
Barun Roy: At the end of the book, you say that Gurudev is the most brilliant man in the Hills. Are you a convert now believing completely in the powers of man whom you previously thought to possess none?
Thomas Shor: I can only say that but Gurudev is probably the most unusual human being I’ve ever been fortunate enough to spend time with and get close to. I cannot pretend to understand him fully. Far from it. He was a constant riddle to me, and is to this day. Yet he was a riddle that I learned so much from. I cannot say I ‘believe in’ him in the conventional sense. He often deflected praise. Other times he invited it in a way that made me uncomfortable. Yet he seemed unusually aware of what he was doing, the role he was playing, the fact that we are all actors and the world is our stage.
Barun Roy: Thank you very much for your candid answers. Best of Luck for your future literary ventures and congratulations on your book ‘The Master Director’.
Thomas Shor: It is my pleasure, Barun. Thanks to you too!