It used to be that Australians initiated themselves into adulthood the old fashioned way: drinking their way around Europe on a Contiki tour. Now that Insta-wellness is all the rage, we’re just as likely to book into an ashram as enjoy a misadventure with an inebriated tour guide. But just as horror movie Hostel was every Euro traveller’s worst nightmare, ‘spiritual travel’ has its own predators. I met one.
At the tender age of 19, fresh from a month long Buddhist retreat in Nepal, I stepped into a crowded square in Kathmandu feeling the kind of vulnerable you feel after a month meditating on emptiness.
As a six foot westerner, I was not inconspicuous. Moments later I was surrounded by jostling people shouting offers of cabs, food and guides.
After the silence of the monastery, the noise and chaos was overwhelming. As someone grabbed my arm and tried to pull me towards their taxi, suddenly my skin began to crawl and everything seemed to stop. I looked across the square and had chills – I was being watched by the most hypnotic pair of eyes I’d ever seen.
He looked like Antonio Banderas if Antonio was also a warlock. Dressed in head-to-toe black, dark hair cascaded down his shoulders like black lava. The man seemed to have some kind of force field that blocked everything else out.
It felt like my brain was being scrambled, while my soul was coming home.
Within seconds a well-dressed western woman was by my side. She exuded a calm, aristocratic elegance and introduced herself as Claudia.
“My master, he recognised you,” she said. Her master? “He says you are about to get very sick, physically and mentally. My master says he can help you.”
Across the square ‘The Master’ nodded. If I saw it in a movie I would have laughed, but in that moment if someone told me he could wrap the square up into a ball and toss it over his shoulder I would have believed them.
She asked me to go and talk to him. Frightened, I promised to meet them there the next day instead. Seconds later they vanished into the crowd.
That night I couldn’t sleep. At 20, my aunt Freda travelled to America, and was also feeling a bit lost. Do she did what the locals do – went to a shopping mall. She was stroking a cashmere kaftan in Macy’s when a well-dressed woman complimented her outfit and invited her to ‘an exciting weekend with artists and dancers’ in the country.
Three days later Freda was running through a field at midnight, trying to guess how far it was to the nearest road.
Freda’s near-kidnapping by the Moonie cult was a cautionary tale, but I’d just spent a month trying to get special attention from the head Lama (teacher) at the monastery, to no avail. Being ‘chosen’ made me feel special. I was pretty much willing to go with the first person who offered a solution.
And what if Warlock Antonio was right? What if there was something gravely wrong with me?
The next day wandered out of the tourist area and into the labyrinthine backstreets of Kathmandu when it suddenly occurs to me that I was very, very lost. A man leant in the doorway of a decrepit looking shop front.
“You like gems, mademoiselle?” He asked. I asked him directions back to the main part of town but waved inside the shop. “You come in, we talk.” There was a trade in Western tourists taking gems back to their countries, and some of these tourists ended up on the prison list. I started to walk away and he called out so I walked faster. The lanes were narrow and grey, not even the beggars went there.
Like moths summonsed to the flame of panic, a rickshaw turned into the alley with two familiar figures in the back. I was so relieved it was hard not to run to the rickshaw and hug them like parents. But it is well past the time I told them I would meet them and I felt full of remorse.
But when they drew closer, they looked thrilled to see me. The master flicked a hand at Claudia, but she doesn’t need to be told.
“How fortunate to see you!” she exclaimed, gliding from the rickshaw and taking my hand. How could I have thought they were like Freda’s Moonies?
The master sat calmly in the back of the rickshaw and no longer seemed threatening. He smiled at me while Claudia spoke, his eyes like deep pools of recognition, as if he knew me better than I know myself. It didn’t seem strange that Claudia spoke for both of them – it was like I can already hear him in my mind. Right now he wanted to be unintimidating, as if to say ‘Yes, I can stop time and motion, but I choose to let them continue because you seem to like them.’
“He said you didn’t meet us? He waited for you.” But she said it with such kindness it didn’t sound like an accusation.
I made a weak excuse which is immediately brushed aside. “Well, we are here with you now,” she said warmly and smiled. “That time in the square, then again here now in this place … it is more than just coincidence, don’t you think?” It wasn’t a question.
There was something so rarefied about them, I want to tell them to get off this dirty street. And they’re such chameleons, it feels like no one can see them but me. In turn, they paid attention only to me.
“My master is leaving shortly for a tour of Europe. He says you must join us for dinner tonight.” I started to make another excuse but they just smiled as if I were a willful toddler and they were indulging my need for self-assertion.
Claudia told me the name of the restaurant and gave me directions back to my hotel. Then they were gone.
I arrived at the restaurant and was ushered to a private room upstairs. Elaborate tapestries decorated the walls. As my eyes adjusted to the dim lighting I saw dozens of women in expensive western clothes seated around low tables. I suddenly feel self-conscious in my ragged t-shirt and pants I’d been wearing for a month.
Although the women chatted amongst themselves, their attention seemed silently focused on the corner of the room where ‘the Master’ sat on a low platform. He saw me and snapped his fingers at Claudia. She immediately broke off her conversation and hurried over.
“We are thrilled that you came,” she said. I feel a flush of pleasure.
The master watched me silently, his eyes like deep pools of recognition. Why bother with ‘how are you?’ when he could tap into my brain and download that information directly?
Sensing I was nervous he broke into a slow smile.
“You have courage,” he said in an accent I couldn’t place. I was impatient to know who he was and what he did, but he brushed off my questions and spoke about fate. “You felt it too, yes?” I blushed and he laughed.
“You have that quality. I sensed it immediately,” he said, eyes boring into mine. “But you know this already, yes? I recognised you as somebody who can learn from me.”
His ‘teachings’ were apparently part of a sacred lineage that could only be taught by certain teachers to certain students. And he didn’t waste time with people who didn’t have a rare and special quality.
Ignoring my instincts, I told myself to hear him out.
“You have such a seed of potential, you must not waste this. It is not everybody who has it – look around you.” He waved his hands at the women sitting on the floor. “It is rare …”
As we spoke, a steady stream of women bent in deference, interrupted to kiss his hand. Some had tears in their eyes.
He acknowledged each woman with a slight nod, but kept his attention firmly on me. He started promising things, new understandings, worlds opening up and old ones left behind.
Yet something felt off.
One of our teachers in the monastery, Lama Lhundrup had warned us never to blindly accept what they taught us, but always to test everything against our own experience.
But questioning Warlock Antonio seemed to irritate him. Again, he told me I was in danger. He has chosen me because he recognised my potential but I am in danger.
I pressed him on his techniques and he was vague about his method, saying only that it was a physical practice of devotional worship which was made up of a mixture of Tantra and ‘a vast array of esoteric practices’ that promoted an ‘erotic gait’. Sexy stuff in the guise of ‘ritual’.
He told me he was a Rinpoche, which is a title given to senior Buddhist teachers who other teachers recognise as an auspicious incarnation. Except, much like Rinpoche Steven Segal, Warlock Antonia had apparently recognised … himself.
Please, I prayed. Don’t let me have been recognised as special by the L. Ron Hubbard of Buddhism.
I persisted in questioning him until his eyes start to resemble a snake prodded once too often, preparing to strike.
You will never get anywhere, he insisted. You will get very sick. You are missing out on an unimaginably rare opportunity. “If you leave, you will regret it,” he says. “I leave tomorrow, pfff!” He waves his hands in the air. “The chance will be missed.”
As much as my ego craved specialness, I knew that special teachers don’t need to use fear.
As I walked out of the room, I caught him snapping his fingers again at Claudia.
She caught up to me in the darkened corridor. “You’re going?” She took my hand. “Surely you can stay longer?
She looked at me hopefully. I would go to Europe, travel. Maybe she’d let me borrow her clothes from, when I imagined she had been some kind of European royalty.
She praised the rare and precious value of her master’s teachings. All I had to do was say yes.
I wondered what opportunities she had passed up to be there. I wonder what fear had been preyed upon.
Right on cue reiterated that I was in danger.
Maybe the master was offering me something wonderful, which I was incapable of appreciating. But just maybe I was no more special than the next person, and if I listened to anyone who says otherwise, one day I’d be in her place, trying to recruit fresh blood for my master and calling my parents from all-night petrol stations.
“It’s not a cult,” I would insist. “It’s a fringe religion.”
Outside the restaurant the rain had washed the streets clean and a weight I didn’t know I’d been carrying was lifted.
One day in the monastery I had gone to visit one of the monks. I was trying as hard as I could to meditate, but all I felt was lonely.
Looking back, it strikes me how common it is to feel lost at that age, and how easy it is to be taken in by someone who singles you out a special (embarrassing as it is to admit now). And the monk was right. Now, whenever that lost feeling arises, instead of looking outside for a solution, I close my eyes and try to follow his advice. It works.
*Charlatan or not, Warlock Antonio was right. A week later I did get sick, ended up losing a quarter of my body weight and spent six months getting better. Go figure.