Eckhart Tolle—one of the greatest spiritual teachers of our age, or perhaps the anti-Christ in a beige sweater vest—has left the door ajar. He greets you in the foyer of his Vancouver condominium with a quick smile and a soft handshake, and leads you inside. He is trim and compact, and—thanks, he says, to near total absence of stress—he looks younger than his 61 years. With his sandy fringe of beard, and aura of inviting calm, he seems, let’s be frank, as threatening as a garden gnome.
But his spiritual teachings are another matter: they are seismic. He has a global audience numbering in the tens of millions. They read his books, absorb his musings via DVDs and the Internet. They flock by the thousands to his lectures. He sits at the right hand of Oprah. He is a heretic. He is God, if only in his sense that the divine rests in all things. “I don’t believe in an outside agent that creates the world, then walks away,” he will later explain. “But I feel very strongly there is an intelligence at work in every flower, in every blade of grass, in every cell of my body. And it is that intelligence that,” he says, “I wouldn’t say created the universe. It is creating the universe. It’s an ongoing process.” As for the world’s established religions, he feels they have all lost their way—the purity of their message long since twisted into rigid ideology and buried under edifice, ritual and ego. All he has really done, he says, is rediscover their essence. “I have great respect for the truth that is, one could almost say, hiding, concealed, in the great religions.”
A refreshing liberation from doctrine, or dangerous stuff? “He gives a certain segment of the population exactly what they want: a sort of supreme religion that purports to draw from all sorts of lesser, that is, established, religions,” says John Stackhouse, a professor of theology and culture at Vancouver’s evangelical Regent College. “In fact [he] so chops, strains and rearranges the bits that it borrows that it ends up as a nicely vague spirituality that one can tailor to one’s own preferences.” James Beverley, a professor of Christian thought and ethics at the evangelical Tyndale Seminary in Toronto, has read Tolle’s books “in gory detail,” and finds Tolle denies “the core” of Christianity by claiming there is no ultimate distinction between humans and God and Jesus. “From a Christian perspective, Tolle misquotes the Bible to assert his strange mix of Hinduism, Buddhism and New Age pop,” he says. “He misrepresents the teaching of Jesus about the self and ignores the clear claims of Jesus as Saviour, Lord and Son of God.”
Evangelicals, Tolle concedes, are among his harshest critics. “Yes, there is a certain interpretation of the Bible that people have where every word is literally true and anybody who doesn’t share that particular interpretation actually becomes an opponent,” he says. He calls it a throwback to the bloody Crusades of medieval times. “Five per cent of his beliefs are different so he’s evil, you must burn him,” Tolle says with a chuckle. “It’s completely insane and so we still have remnants of that, unfortunately.”
Author and Vancouver Sun writer Douglas Todd is one of the few mainstream religion and ethics journalists to seriously look at Tolle’s work. “I think Eckhart is a very smart guy, but whether he deserves the attention he gets is a whole other matter,” he says. “I don’t think he’s the devil incarnate or anything. I just want people, if they’re going to read him, to read 10 more books in the same vein by people who don’t get nearly as much attention and are probably more mature and deep.” That asks a lot in an era of growing spiritual illiteracy and plunging church attendance. (The Anglican Church in Canada, for example, has lost half its membership in the past 50 years.) Tolle and his ilk fill a hunger for a kind of replacement secular spirituality, a subject explored in Cascadia: The Elusive Utopia, a recent book of essays edited by Todd on the unchurched spirituality of the Pacific Northwest. Civil religion, Todd calls it.
But enough with the theological heavy lifting. Let’s look at the impact of the man himself. Eckhart Tolle is hotter than Hades (the existence of which can be debated another day). The two foundational books of his teachings, The Power of Now, initially published in Vancouver in 1997 with a press run of 3,000, and its follow-up, A New Earth, have North American sales alone of three million and five million copies respectively, and are sold globally in 33 languages. The latter, an Oprah Winfrey book club choice, warranted both coveted appearances on her daytime talk show, and an unprecedented 10-week “webinar” last year in which Tolle and Winfrey explored its teachings, chapter by chapter. Total number of times the series has been accessed from her website: more than 35 million.
“It’s been the most rewarding experience of my career to teach this book online,” Winfrey would later write, prompting American Internet evangelist Bill Keller to dub her “the most dangerous woman on the planet” and Tolle a purveyor of “spiritual crack.” The webinar also inspired Chuck Norris, the bare-knuckle movie action hero and Christian columnist, to lay a verbal beating on the two. “To me, it is more evidence of the paradigm shift in our culture from its moral absolute and Judeo-Christian basis to a relativistic world view in which anything goes and everything is tolerated,” Norris wrote, using more big words in one sentence than he’s uttered in his entire movie canon.
Time magazine has kissed off Tolle’s books as “awash in spiritual mumbo jumbo,” but his influence is not so easily dismissed. Consider the company Tolle kept at the recent Vancouver Peace Summit—an event top-heavy with five Nobel laureates among a stellar cast. Tolle was on stage Sept. 27 for the summit kickoff with the Dalai Lama, winner of the Nobel Peace Prize, for a discussion on personal peace. Two days later, he was on a panel, Educating the Heart, again with the Dalai Lama, and Murray Gell-Mann, winner of the Nobel in physics, among others—an A-list event that can only enhance his spiritual credentials.
This month, California-based New World Library released Tolle’s thinnest, but perhaps most accessible work: Guardians of Being. It is an unusual collaboration featuring the Zenlike thoughts of Tolle, illustrated by the colour cartoons of Patrick McDonnell, the New Jersey-based creator of the syndicated Mutts cartoon strip. It is a meditation on the divinity of pets and the natural world, and of their ability to draw humans into the “Now,” a central tenet of Tolle’s teaching. “Millions of people who otherwise would be completely lost in their minds and in endless past and future concerns are taken back by their dog or cat into the present moment, again and again, and reminded of the joy of Being,” Tolle writes. Guardians distills Tolle’s teachings into fewer than 1,000 words. “It’s such great thoughts but he’s able to tell it in a way that is simple and direct,” says McDonnell, a long-time devotee. “I guess as a cartoonist I admire that—not to compare what we do.”