Ram Dass Rides the Holy-Man’s Circuit
This story was originally published in the April 22nd, 1976, issue of “Rolling Stone.”
YOU’D THINK THAT BABA Ram Dass, who had been a Harvard psychology professor and psychedelic drug researcher in his former incarnation as Dr. Richard Alpert, Ph.D., would know all about mind games by now. And yet the toothache had felt real enough, building until the nerve seemed a snaking electric wire, making it all but impossible for him to fix his attention on the tip of his nose and watch his breath go in and out, in and out, in and out, which was pretty much all he was supposed to do from four in the morning until ten at night during the meditation retreat. On the instructor’s advice he tried thinking the pain away, mentally swishing it around his jaw and out his mouth like a swill of water, and when that didn’t work he tried ignoring it. The trouble was that every time Ram Dass began to sink back into the nose yoga he’d get another high-voltage jolt in the jaw and instantly the same home movies would start up again on the back of his eyelids.
They were all related to teeth in one way or another. He’d see a picture of himself, grinning, a gaping hole where the sore front tooth had been, and then find himself ruminating on the social implications of a missing tooth, how odd, and in a way appealing, it would be for a rich kid like himself to have one. Or he’d see his guru, Maharaji, a nearly toothless old man sitting in a blanket in a temple in the foothills of the Himalayas, and wonder if the missing tooth would make the two of them look more alike. Once he recalled his last visit to his mother just before she died of a spleen condition in 1966. Although barely a stick figure in a hospital bed by then, she insisted on holding a small Japanese fan in front of her face to hide the fact that her gums were too sore to support her bridgework. Another time the pain summoned up his brother, who had spent years in one mental hospital or another claiming to be Jesus Christ. The last time Ram Dass saw him he had a new fantasy: He was the King of the Jews, and his vast riches were locked in a Vatican vault.
His brother claimed that the proof of his legitimacy could be found in one of his wisdom teeth.
Strange what you could come up with when all you had to do was clear your mind and concentrate on the tip of your nose. By the time he left the retreat in Guerneville, California, and headed south to Berkeley, Ram Dass had made up his mind not to replace the tooth after it had been extracted. He called ahead to the house he had been sharing with a group of young friends for the past few months and asked one of them to make an emergency appointment with a dentist — an oral surgeon, in fact — for that same day. I had been interested in writing about him ever since I had read his book, Be Here Now. An outsized paperback with the kind of hand lettering designed to coax the TV generation back to literacy, the book chronicled Ram Dass’ transformation from Harvard psychologist to spiritual leader of a fair proportion of the country’s youth. The problem was that Ram Dass wasn’t at all convinced that he wanted to be written about. When I called him he told me that he only meets with people who are “working on their own sadhana, their spiritual growth.” I said, who knows, maybe I qualified there. Finally he agreed to pick me up on his way south from the retreat to a lecture at the University of California at Santa Cruz, and we’d “see if we had any work to do together.” He pulled up two weeks later at noon on the dot — a tall, lean man with sparkling blue eyes and a thin face hidden behind a straggly beard, bald except for a wild fringe of salt-and-pepper hair that looked like organic brillo. He wore wire-frame glasses, a Grateful Dead T-shirt and cutoff jeans. With him in the van was a friend named Krishna Das, a soulful-looking young man who was also a devotee of Ram Dass’ guru.
After the 10 days of confinement, Ram Dass and Krishna Das behaved like schoolboys let out for recess. “We’re doin’ fiiine,” they shouted in unison whenever they took a wrong turn, “stuck inside of Mobile with the Memphis blues again.” In the occasional silences the temple chimes in Ram Dass’ Volkswagen van fluttered in the breeze. The van itself, which Ram Dass drove from lecture to lecture on what he called the “holy-man’s circuit,” was the closest thing he had to a permanent address these days. It was outfitted with saffron-colored curtains and an improvised bunk bed; taped to the ceiling was a huge blowup of Maharaji’s feet. One of the admonitions Ram Dass’ guru had left him with before he died two years ago was never to stay in the same place more than five days. (“A bird and a sadhu are very similar,” he had said, “They both fly freely and collect nothing.”) So these days, whenever someone asked him what he thought his role was, Ram Dass would say, “I’m a wandering sadhu.” Then he would often add, smiling and pointing out the van, “but I’m a pukka sadhu. I travel first-class.”
At the dentist’s office X-rays showed that there was nothing at all wrong with Ram Dass’ tooth. Since by now he had gotten used to the idea of living with a tooth missing, there was an edge of disappointment in his voice when he relayed the news to Krishna Das a few minutes later. Then he perked up all of a sudden. “The whole thing is an exquisite lesson in mental projection,” he said. “In how not to be here now.”
While Krishna Das drove the van to Santa Cruz, Ram Dass dug into the shopping bag full of letters that had accumulated over the past ten days, occasionally reading a passage aloud. If he was not exactly the high priest of the counterculture, he was at least its favorite mail drop, an alternative faculty adviser to a generation of dropouts. He kept up a vast correspondence with people from around the country, although inevitably it became a bit one-sided. Two or three afternoons a week he would dip into the shopping bag and answer his mail for a few hours, trying to fit an appropriate response to each letter onto a single page of a small notepad he carried around with him. Without a secretary or any organizational support the difficulty for Ram Dass was that some of his correspondents came up with new spiritual aches as fast as he could apply balm to the old ones, and he was planning to enclose a mimeographed note with each reply asking them to limit themselves to a couple of letters a year, knowing full well how crass that would seem to them.
There was one letter, an invitation to speak to a yoga class at Vacaville state prison, that Ram Dass lingered over longer than the others. He knew that Timothy Leary, who was serving a 20-year sentence for marijuana possession and a subsequent prison escape, had been transferred to Vacaville, and the thought of speaking before a group of convicts that included the man who had probably been the single greatest influence on his life was understandably a troublesome one to Ram Dass. From the time the two had first met at Harvard in 1959 until well after they quarreled bitterly and ended their partnership six years later, Ram Dass had lived in Leary’s shadow. Even now, long after they had gone their separate ways (Ram Dass to India and Leary to jail), Ram Dass’ name was still inseparably linked to Leary’s in the public mind and he would sometimes self-deprecatingly tell audiences by way of introduction: “You may remember me as Mr. LSD Jr.”
The road now ran along an embankment high above the ocean. On a sudden impulse Krishna Das pulled over to the guardrail and he and Ram Dass raced pell-mell down the steep cliff to the beach, strewing articles of clothing and issuing loud war whoops of physical release along the way. In seconds they were knee-deep in the bubbly surf, eyes closed as they turned pirouettes with their arms outstretched to the sun. Ram Dass had such a peaceful look on his face that I asked him what he was thinking about when we got back in the van. “Ocean… the Divine Mother… destruction… love,” he said distractedly. And then a moment later: “Actually, I’m putting you on. I was thinking about Timothy. Speaking in prison is difficult and dealing with Timothy, who has no use for the whole Eastern trip, is difficult. I don’t know if I’m up to doing them both at the same time. Besides, it’d be his audience.”
In Santa Cruz, Ram Dass had been invited “to take food” by Govinda and Radha, members of a musical group that would play an interlude of ashram rock later in the evening. He pulled up at a small shack in back of a larger house, with the usual assortment of shoes at the entrance (“You can’t wear lace-ups on the holy man’s circuit,” Ram Dass warned me) and, inside, place sets for 12 neatly laid out on a tie-dyed tablecloth on the floor. The guests were healthy, sun-tanned ascetics, the younger brothers of surfers, dressed for the most part in loose-fitting kurtas and jeans. Rain Dass greeted them Indian-style (palms pressed together and head bowed like a timid diver) and sat down to eat. Somebody said grace. Somebody else said the Jewish blessing over bread. We all held hands and Ram Dass intoned: “Om-m shan-n-n-ti…om-m-m-m.” Dinner consisted of spaghetti and homemade bread and our choice of a dozen different kinds of tea, English Breakfast to Lapsang Souchong, all neatly labeled in glass jars on the kitchen shelf. The meal was slow (it is not that easy to eat spaghetti with chopsticks) and the conversation so desultory it seemed like silence was the rule for a while.
Eventually there was talk of various touring swamis, rishis, lamas, even a wayward Hasidic rabbi-turned-folksinger. It was a strange cultural mix: kids named Jeff and Bob and Sue renamed for characters out of the Ramayana while their contemporaries in Indian villages passed around worn copies of Popular Mechanics and dreamed of becoming astronauts. When the meal was over Radha asked Ram Dass if he’d like to “take rest” in the bedroom and he said he would rather go back to the van to “talk with Maharaji for a while.”
“Show time!” he called out when he reappeared an hour later. “We damn’ de Lawd’s work.” He had changed into a rainbow-hued T-shirt with the motto “Children of Light, Unite!” printed on the front, and he asked the musicians, “Is this too funky?” The group started to discuss the program for the evening. “Suppose you get the crowd warmed up,” Ram Dass said, “and then I’ll talk for a while and take some questions and do a couple of mantras with the audience. Then Krishna Das will do a puja and we can all do kirtan. And then…” Ram Dass suddenly noticed that everyone’s jaws had dropped like unhinged puppets. At 45, he is nearly a generation older than his constituency and it often showed in odd ways, such as the fact that he liked to exercise tight control over his appearances while everyone else in the room was more…into the flow. “Now that we have it all planned out let’s go see what happens,” Ram Dass said to dispel the momentary tension. “Yeah,” a young man named Asok agreed. “We don’t want to push the river.”
We piled into the van and drove to the hall where “An Evening with Baba Ram Dass (formerly Richard Alpert)” was to be held, stopping briefly for carob ripple cones at a local ice-cream parlor that claimed to be both organic and kosher. There was a long line outside the hall when Ram bass arrived, carrying a huge bowl-shaped tamboura in a canvas case. One fellow, a new-style autograph hound, came up and asked him if he would “do some Rams on my beads” and a couple of other people in the line followed suit. Ram Dass (a name which means servant of Rama, an incarnation of God in Hindu mythology) worried a few prayer beads between his fingers on each set while chanting silently and handed them back.
Ram Dass, who insists that nobody is turned away who can’t afford the price of admission to his lectures, checked with the organizers to make sure everyone waiting in line would get in. The hall, a university dining room that had been cleared of tables and chairs, looked like a rained-out picnic: Students were sitting in clusters on blankets passing around gallon jugs of Mountain Red and munching multigrain cookies. A few people scattered around the room were immobilized in various contorted yoga positions like exotic garden sculpture. Others were meditating, legs crossed, eyes closed, thumbs and forefingers describing circles. There were turbaned followers of Yogi Bhajan and devotees of Swami Satchidananda, looking like Boy Scouts in drag in their all-white outfits and orange kerchiefs. One bearded, shirtless young man had added a new wrinkle to the time-honored lotus posture: He was sitting inside a pyramid of stainless steel tubing that might once have been the ribbing of a pup tent. “Helps concentrate the energy,” he explained. “You never heard of pyramid power?”
Ram Dass sat cross-legged on a pillow in the middle of the stage and said a few test “oms” into the microphone. He set up a small picture of Maharaji in front of him, took several white carnations from a floral arrangement that decorated the stage and placed them reverently before it. With Krishna Das playing the tabla, he led the audience in a Sri Ram Jai Ram chant — the closest equivalent to the traditional school cheer on many campuses today. He took some deep breaths into the microphone to collect himself and was about to begin, when a heckler in the audience — Ram Dass’ suffering-is-grace philosophy was frowned upon by the few remaining campus activists — yelled out: “What the fuck are we doing here?”
It was as good a cue as any. “I think the gentleman’s question is a fair one,” Ram Dass said, launching into the rambling discourse on Buddha’s Four Noble Truths that he often uses as a kind of introduction to his Beginning Mysticism talk. “You may remember what happened to Buddha after he sat under the bodhi tree and got enlightened,” Ram Dass began. “He wanted to tell the five guys who worked with him what he had learned. So he went back to Sarnath, where these five guys — you couldn’t call them Buddhists yet because he was Buddha and he had just started that game — were hangin’ out, doing their tapasyas, their austerities. Well, they were pretty annoyed that he had quit the whole scene and gone off by himself, so they said, Let’s ignore Gautama because he’s blown the trip and he’s not pure anymore. But the problem was that this light was pouring out of him, right? So they sat around and he said, Fellas, I’m gonna tell you how it is. It’s really very simple when you figure it out.
“It comes down to four things,” he told them. “The first is that life is suffering — a ceaseless round of birth, sickness, old age and death. Even the fleeting pleasures lead to suffering: Like at the moment of sexual orgasm you may transcend yourself, but a minute later you say, wasn’t that great — and you’re back in your body and in time. The predicament here is that you’re in an incarnation. So even if you’re eating only greens or fruit or unpolished rice or living on light itself, you’re gonna die. That’s just the way the game is played.”
Well, it wasn’t exactly an upbeat message that Ram Dass brought to these sons and daughters of middle-class, positive-thinking, sauna-in-every-hide-away parents. Life is suffering, he told the children of the dream, who seemed to take the message in their stride. They gave one another back rubs while they listened and passed around joints and tried to balance the soap bubbles someone was blowing on the tips of their fingers. In fact, their children seemed more in tune with the point Ram Dass was making, bawling so loudly at times that he stopped talking and let them have the floor, twisting his neck and working his jaws in a sympathetic colic fit.
Not that the evening was all doom-and-gloom by any means. Ram Dass is a natural storyteller, a stand-up Jewish comedian in the best borsch-belt tradition (in the days when he was Mr. LSD Jr., he once did a week at the Village Vanguard in New York), and while life may be suffering, the evening was a gas. To illustrate his points he told stories about his own past, about his relatives, about his guru, about a variety of religious figures — and he told them with a disarming modesty and a sense of wanting to be helpful as well as entertaining. (“Since we’re all one anyway, I’m merely that part of us that says it to that part of us that needs to hear it.”) And then just when everyone’s thigh muscles felt like stale pretzels from sitting cross-legged on the floor for two hours, he called for a musical interlude. Ram Dass was clearly a seasoned pro on the holy man’s circuit.
With the band backing him up, Ram Dass started the audience off on a chant that went “Listen, listen, listen to my heart’s song,” and then began folding in other chants round-robin fashion until he had the Top Ten mantras going simultaneously. As the tempo picked up people held hands and danced in circles.
A half-hour later the dancers collapsed in blissful exhaustion and Ram Dass asked, “What does everyone feel like, more music or more words?” Since he hadn’t finished the lecture yet it turned out to be his one mistake of the evening, although he recouped handily. When the shouts for more music died down, Ram Dass simply said, “Well, it’s all music anyway” — and went right on talking.
He talked about the nature of gratification, the “difference between the first and the second bites of the pizza.” He thought that perhaps this generation of Americans, the children of affluence, was in a better position than others to realize that desire was a desert mirage that receded as you approached it, that gratification in the material world was an illusion. “All of which doesn’t mean,” Ram Dass concluded, “that you refuse to eat the pizza and enjoy it. It means that you eat the pizza with full compassion for the predicament you’re in. When it becomes just one more pizza on the Path.”
By now it was nearing one o’clock, when the hall had to be vacated. As the audience filed out, a few dozen people gathered around Ram Dass to ask a last urgent question (Is it possible to have sex consciously? How do you know if you’re on the final round? Can a person reach Nirvana and still be a meat-eater?) or present him with gifts. Most people handed him a single flower or a piece of fruit, but that evening Ram Dass also received a lovely hand-painted scroll, a bagful of organic prunes, a fire opal, a set of tourist place mats from the state of Vermont and a one-hour pocket alarm clock that was ideal for marking the end of meditation sessions, although the manufacturer thought of it as a “parking meter beater.” Ram Dass, in turn, fed a cut up apple section into the mouth of each gift giver.
On his way out of the hall, Ram Dass ran into David, the main organizer of the event, and asked, “What was the take tonight?”
“About $2000 minus a couple of hundred for expenses.”
“OK,” Ram Dass said, “suppose I take $1,000 and you keep $800 here in the community. How does that feel?”
Judging from David’s beatific grin, the unexpected largess must have felt fine. “Where do I send the check?” he asked.
“Send it to Ram Dass, Franklin, New Hampshire,” Ram Dass said, mentioning the small New England town where his father had a summer home.
“No street number?” David asked.
“Don’t worry,” the guru reassured him, “I’m the only Ram Dass in Franklin, New Hampshire.”
OPINIONS DIFFER on just how square and uptight Professor Richard Alpert was in his pre-acid days, with the bleakest view held by Ram Dass himself. Colleagues remember him as being witty and fun-loving, a popular lecturer, a talented administrator more than an original thinker, an obvious corner in academic circles who was likely to end up a Harvard dean or at least a department chairman if he continued to play his cards right. Ram Dass describes himself in those days as “your typical middle-class, upwardly mobile, overachieving, anxiety-ridden, late-stage oral compulsive.”
His father, George Alpert, is a wealthy conservative Boston lawyer who helped found Brandeis University and later became president of the New Haven Railroad. Largely because his father wanted him to become a doctor so badly — had even arranged with the dean of Tufts University for his admission to medical school there — Richard Alpert chose to do graduate work in psychology, first at Wesleyan and then at Stanford. He became a specialist in motivational psychology, writing his doctoral thesis on academic anxiety and devising a set of criteria for determining what sort of person thrived on exams and what sort clutched. Richard Alpert always clutched. Later, when he began teaching at Stanford, he would become so anxious before a lecture that he’d frequently develop stomach cramps, diarrhea and a rash between his fingers so severe it had to be treated with a cortisone salve. He underwent five years of psychoanalysis at Stanford, much of it dealing with the causes of his homosexuality, and when he left to teach at Harvard in 1958, his psychiatrist told him he was too sick to function in the world without therapy.
Since Alpert had been turned down by Harvard on five separate occasions during his academic career, it was an especially sweet vindication to be hired there as an assistant professor at the age of 28. He taught courses in human motivation, child development, clinical psychology and career decision-making, but spent most of his time administering a budding academic empire. Within a few years of his arrival in Cambridge he held appointments in four different departments, each of which came complete with a separate office and secretary. He held research contracts with Stanford, Yale and the National Institute of Mental Health and had as many as 30 graduate assistants working on these projects under his direction. “It was,” he says now, “a completely out-of-control achievement need.”
Outside the ivied walls he led the life of a swinging bachelor circa 1960, Hugh Hefner in academia. He surrounded himself with expensive status symbols an electric blue Mercedes with red leather upholstery, a Triumph 500cc motorcycle, a 22-foot sailboat, a single-engine Cessna 172 and a closet full of custom-made clothes. Expensive but tasteful. His Cambridge apartment was done in a pumpkin-and-dark-blue color scheme and contained a collection of early American antiques that would have done Martha Washington proud. He gave elegant dinner parties and went scuba diving in the Virgin Islands on vacations. He drank heavily but discreetly, sipping himself into unconsciousness while Vivaldi played on the stereo. He was also a closet homosexual, living at one point with a man and a woman in two different parts of Boston, a situation he describes now as “a nightmare of hypocrisy.”
Looking back, Ram Dass sees Richard Alpert as a fake — a fake Jew, who would cross the street whenever he saw a black-robed Hasid walking toward him; a fake lover, sleeping with women mostly for show; a fake intellectual, getting ahead by spouting other people’s ideas. He was almost as hard on his colleagues, psychologists of different persuasions, as he was on himself, and enjoyed citing a study to them which demonstrated that no matter what kind of treatment patients received, one-third got better, one-third got worse and one-third remained about the same. “I worked hard and the keys to the kingdom were handed to me,” he later wrote about that time. “But there was still that horrible awareness that I didn’t know something or other which made it all fall together.… In off-hours we played Go or poker and cracked old jokes.”
Timothy Leary came to Harvard a year after Alpert and the two quickly became drinking buddies and co-lecturers in a course on game therapy called Existential Transactional Behavior Change. Leary was an early dropout, an ebullient, charming Irish rogue who had also become disillusioned with the prevailing white-rats-in-mazes school of academic psychology and quit his teaching job at Berkeley to wander around southern Europe, passing bad checks when he ran out of funds.
Totally unflappable, boundlessly heterosexual, a carefree extrovert, Leary represented much that Alpert found wanting in himself. He could also make some claims to being a serious research scientist, having written a well-received psychology textbook and devised a personality test, called “The Leary,” that was used by the CIA, among other organizations, to test the qualifications of prospective employees. But more importantly for Alpert, hanging around Tim Leary in those days was fun. He was well connected in New York’s cultural underground of poets and jazz musicians. He thrived on chaos, enjoyed teetering on the edge of disaster. For a while it must have seemed to Richard Alpert that he would win the game without playing by the rules.
In the summer of 1960 Leary ate a handful of wizened black mushrooms beside the swimming pool of his rented villa in Cuernavaca and the “psychedelic revolution” may be said to have begun. Back at Harvard in the fall, he organized a program of volunteers to experiment with psilocybin, the chemical derivative of the mushrooms, and later with a colorless, odorless, tasteless compound known as LSD-25. The following spring, the chairman of the social relations department asked trustworthy Richard Alpert to keep an eye on Leary and his Psychedelic Project. And thus it happened that one wintry evening in early March Alpert took his first psilocybin trip.
In the next few hours, he had a hallucination that turned his life around. Sitting in the living room of Leary’s house in suburban Boston, Alpert saw a figure in academic robes standing a few feet away and recognized himself in his role as Harvard professor. The figure kept changing to other aspects of his identity — musician, pilot, lover, bon vivant — that had somehow dissociated themselves from his body. And then to his horror he watched his body itself disappear as he looked down on it — first his forelegs, then all his limbs, then his torso — and he knew for the first time that there was “a place where ‘I’ existed independent of social and physical identity…beyond Life and Death.” About five in the morning he walked the few blocks to his parents’ house in a driving snowstorm and began shoveling the driveway, laughing aloud with joy. Now Richard Alpert knew. He knew.
BY THE MID-SEVENTIES, of course, many people besides Ram Dass knew and a lot more wanted to find out. When he arrived in the Bay Area in early March, Ram Dass intended to give a lecture or two at local colleges and then lie low for a few months, but he quickly received so many speaking offers that he had to hire a booking agent to deal with them. Between lectures he stayed close to the sprawling stucco-and-brick house in the Berkeley hills that he shared with a shifting number of younger people who were either followers of Ram Dass’ guru or of Ram Dass himself, the distinction sometimes being hard to maintain.
He would spend the morning in his tiny room on the second floor, sitting before a puja table that looked like a souvenir stand in Benares, with pictures and figurines of various Hindu and Buddhist incarnations of God as well as photographs of Indian gurus, including several of Maharaji at different ages in his life. He meditated for a half-hour in the early morning and then spent several hours reading commentaries on the Bhagavad Gita for a summer course he would soon teach on the Hindu text at a Buddhist university in Boulder, Colorado. The university was recently founded by a 37-year-old Oxford-educated Tibetan lama named Trungpa Rinpoche, to whom Ram Dass had become close in the past few years. “He’s my new buddy,” Ram Dass said of Rinpoche. “He’s my new Tim Leary.” But he was also wary of Rinpoche, who had a reputation for being a rather eccentric spiritual leader, one who slept with his female devotees, appeared drunk in public and played ego-deflating jokes on his closest associates. Ram Dass was afraid he might be heading for just such a fall, particularly since his course had attracted many more students than Rinpoche’s course on alternate days. So he did what any good Jewish boy would do to save his ass — he studied hard.
In the afternoons Ram Dass would see visitors, sometimes friends but more often young people who came to seek his advice. On this particular day, about a week after the Santa Cruz lecture, he met first with his booking agent, a young man who also represented Allen Ginsberg and other counterculture figures on the holy man’s circuit. “This is Ron,” he said to me by way of introducing a bearded, dark-haired young man with a happy-button smile and a two-handed greeting. “He’s in transition. He wants to be part of the family but he also wants his 15 percent.”
They talked about several complaints that Ram Dass had recently received for charging a rather high fixed lecture fee, usually $1,000, instead of some looser arrangement like passing the hat. The reason for the higher fee was simple enough — Ram Dass was broke. He had lost a considerable amount of money producing a weekend program at Winterland that failed to draw the expected audience and he also intended to travel to India again in the fall. But it was a difficult adjustment for some of Ram Dass’ admirers to make. Not for nothing had his guru told him to avoid two things like the plague — money and sex.
Visitors began arriving in the early afternoon, kicking off their shoes at the entrance and walking into the airy living room, with its high ceiling, wooden beams and baronial fireplace. First to come was Jackie Leary, Tim’s 27-year-old son, who had his father’s good looks, intense dark eyes and jutting Irish jaw, but seemed shy, almost diffident, by comparison. He embraced Ram Dass and introduced him to Margaret, the pretty, blond-haired young woman he had brought along. “What’s that?” Ram Dass asked her a moment later, catching sight of a tattoo on her left thigh that was visible beneath her jean cutoffs when she sat down. It was a butterfly, Margaret explained, that she had gotten tattooed on her thigh after reading about a dream of Lao Tzu, one that seemed so real to him he couldn’t be sure afterward whether he was a Chinese sage who had dreamt about a butterfly or a butterfly that had conjured up a Chinese sage. “Sometimes I’m not sure,” she added, “whether I’m a girl with a butterfly on her thigh or a butterfly on a girl’s thigh.”
At that point Bhagwan Das walked in — made his entrance, rather — yelling out, “Hey! Who’s got the boo?” and giving everyone a back-thumping bear hug. He was an extraordinary-looking fellow, 6-foot-7 and as broad-shouldered as a fullback, with long blond hair under a knitted cap, a reddish beard and rimless glasses that made his rugged face look oddly professorial. He had been Ram Dass’ original guide in India, the two of them having met in a restaurant called the Blue Tibetan in Katmandu and then traveling together on a circuitous temple pilgrimage that ended with a visit to Maharaji. In Be Here Now, Ram Dass had given Bhagwan Das his ultimate compliment, describing him as “someone who knew.”
But there was a competitive edge to their friendship these days. Part of the problem was simply that their roles had become reversed back in this country, where Ram Dass was a well-known figure and Bhagwan Das had gained his reputation on the holy man’s circuit through Be Here Now. Adding to the difficulty was a matter of changing lifestyles. Bhagwan Das was a talented musician and he had begun to earn his livelihood by chanting Hindu devotional songs and playing the single-stringed ektara in public, touring often with his friend Allen Ginsberg. (It was not a combination to suit everyone’s taste. Bhagwan Das would sing his love songs to Brahman, his eyes closed in rapture and his voice an eerily melodious sob, and then Ginsberg would come onstage and recite one of his latest Whitmanesque “suck” poems, which generally began something like: “I’m from Jersey City and I wanna suck you off…” A few people in the audience inevitably left at that point.) Under the influence of Trungpa Rinpoche, Bhagwan Das was enjoying one of the prerogatives of the touring musician — flocks of admiring groupies, in this case no less willing for being otherworldly — and some of his friends, including Ram Dass, had found his latest enthusiasm somewhat unseemly for a married man and a recent father.
About three o’clock Zalman Schachter showed up at the house with two plump young women, Susan and Rebecca, and the whole group moved out to the back lawn. With his black horn-rimmed glasses, dark rabbinical beard, blue jeans and sandals, Schachter looked like the eclectic figure he was — a middle-aged Hasidic rebbe from Winnipeg who had taken acid, left his wife and begun conducting a one-man crusade to bring errant young Jews back to the fold. When Schachter called earlier in the day Ram Dass suspected he was on a recruiting mission and would ask some variant of a question that constantly plagued him as the chief spokesman for the growing band of Jewish Hindus roaming the country: what was he doing with prayer beads and knitted Tibetan caps when phylacteries and yarmulkes were so near at hand? The question elicited very little guilt from Ram Dass, who realized that he would eventually have to come to terms with the fact that he was born a Jew in this incarnation but felt vaguely embarrassed by what he considered the self-pitying, “weepy-waily” aspects of Judaism.
As soon as blankets were spread and shirts removed, Zalman Schachter got down to business. “I got a shtikale input for you, Ram Dass,” he said. “I think you should have maybe more than the Shma Yisroel in your repertoire.”
“I’d like to, Zalman,” Ram Dass said, “but it just hasn’t connected yet.”
“So, I’ll connect you,” Zalman said. He and the two girls started singing an uptempo Hasidic melody with a yeah-yeah-yeah chorus right out of Fiddler on the Roof, while Ram Dass twisted his neck around in time to the music as if he were working out a bad crick, and Bhagwan Das, by now down to his underpants in the hot sun, strummed along on the ectara.
“That’s terrific, Zalman,” Ram Dass said, “but where’s the weepy-waily? They’re gonna drum you out of the rabbinate.”
Zalman Schachter spelled out the Yiddish words of the song for Ram Dass phonetically. Usha, one of the young women living at the house, brought out a bowl of fruit, which immediately led to a heated discussion about the proper way to serve an honored guest, with Zalman claiming that the host ought to taste the food first to see if it was good enough and Bhagwan Das pointing out that in India the food would become impure if the host sampled it — or in some cases even looked at it — before serving his guest. Ram Dass said he didn’t think it mattered as long as the food was offered with the right intentions.
“Speaking of food,” Zalman said, “soon is Succoth, when we give thanks for a good harvest. Maybe you’d all like to come to synagogue. God says, ‘I don’t demand the first fruit, just that you dig on it at my house so I can groove on your enjoyment.'”
Usha came out to tell Ram Dass that someone wanted to see him on an urgent matter. “Okay,” Zalman said, “time to do hugs.” He pulled Ram Dass’ beard affectionately and said, “Behind this ferocious is a cuddly.”
“Zalman,” Ram Dass said, “you and I have great love for one another but I’m not sure we have any work to do together.”
When Ram Dass came back inside a young woman named Joan was waiting for him in the living room. She explained that her boyfriend, Gabe, had just left her to join a group of Jesus freaks, followers of a man who claimed to be the reincarnated Christ. It happened that Gabe played the trumpet and had always nurtured a fantasy of being connected somehow to his Biblical namesake, Joan said, so he was drawn to the group in part because they promised to let him sound the End, when the time came. Joan was close to tears by this point in her story, and Ram Dass put his hand under her chin and looked deeply into her eyes until she calmed down, “You have to let Gabe live his own life,” Ram Dass told her. “Just let him know that you’re available if he wants to return.” A Persian cat that Joan had been nervously petting on the couch suddenly growled and jumped to the floor. “You can’t scratch a cat unless he’s into it, too,” Ram Dass added. “You both have to be into cat scratching, the scratcher and the scratched.”
A couple of dozen people were milling around the living room by the early evening, when Ram Dass decided to send out for pizzas. Just about then Paul Krassner called to ask Ram Dass if he’d consider writing an introduction to a book he had just completed entitled Tongue Fu — a satirical fable about the misadventures of a young spiritual seeker. Ram Dass said he would have to stretch his imagination to top the last book blurb he had given Krassner — “the Kahlil Gibran of the Seventies” — but that he’d try. A half-hour later Krassner arrived at the house, manuscript in hand. “So you want an introduction to your book,” Ram Dass said. “Whaddya mean my book?” Krassner answered. “I’m just the vehicle.” Later he offered to introduce Ram Dass at an upcoming Berkeley appearance in return for the favor. “I’ll just say, ‘And now… straight from a long run in heaven… hee–ee–re’s Ram Dass.'”
Before dinner Ram Dass announced aarti, the Hindu evening prayer, by blowing on a conch shell which was kept — along with a photograph of Maharaji, a picture of Hanuman (the monkey god) and a candle — on the fireplace mantel. The group gathered in front of the fireplace and began to chant: Om Jaya Jagdish Hare, Swami Jaya Jagdish Hare… A number of people came up to the mantel to offer the candlelight to Maharaji and Hanuman, and then Ram Dass carried the candle around the room so that everyone could share the consecrated light. In the meantime, Bhagwan Das had taken up the chanting alone, and accompanied by the beat of a tabla he had worked himself into a devotional frenzy that was oblivious of time and the people seated around him and even the smell of pizza wafting in from the kitchen. His eyes were closed, his torso and head pivoted on independent axes and spittle covered the top half of his beard like hoarfrost. After 15 or 20 minutes of this, Ram Dass brought out a veggie special and practically pushed it against Bhagwan Das’s nose before he came to.
Pizza had been the common fantasy among the group of Americans that had gathered around Maharaji in India, a collective toehold to a more familiar world. And now a dozen of them were stacked in boxes on the kitchen table and these same people were making up for lost time. Bhagwan Das, clearly a young man of extremes, ate one and then went upstairs in the company of a female admirer, coming back a half-hour later for another of each. When he returned to the kitchen for the second time Ram Dass asked, “Had enough?” Bhagwan Das laughed and hugged Ram Dass playfully. “You’re five years too late,” Ram Dass said, blushing slightly.
A few minutes later Bhagwan Das mentioned another young woman who was constantly fussing around him, asking if he wanted more tea or his back rubbed or his chillum filled until it reached the point where he felt uncomfortable around her. Krassner listened for a few minutes and then quipped: “Visiting the holy men is just like visiting the Hearsts — you’re both obsessed with the servant problem.” There was an embarrassed hush around the kitchen table. “Well, thanks for the pizza,” Krassner said. “Guess be movin’ along.”
A FEW DAYS LATER, Ram Dass headed into San Francisco himself to attend a birthday party for Swami Muktananda, an Indian yogi who had just kicked off his second American tour. On route he stopped at a Berkeley health foods store called Wholly Foods to buy an assortment of organic pineapples and coconuts as a gift. The proprietor tried to interest him in a pair of specially designed orthopedic sandals he had recently stocked, and when Ram Dass didn’t seem tempted he said, “Look, suppose I give you a professional discount.” On the way over the Bay Bridge Ram Dass told Krishna Das, “It’s just like crossing the river to have darshan with the holy man in his mountain cave,” but by the time they arrived at the elegant colonnaded entrance of the Fairmont Hotel, where the party was being held, he had changed his tune. “Boy,” he said, “Muktananda sure knows how to adapt.”
The fact was that Ram Dass had agreed to come to the party somewhat reluctantly, since he and Swami Muktananda were not on the best of terms. Ram Dass had acted as Muktananda’s advance man on his first American tour four years ago, and then went on to Australia and India with him, ending up at Ganeshpuri, the Swami’s ashram near Bombay. Since Muktananda was a siddhi (or power) yogi, Ram Dass had some interesting adventures including, he claimed, several out-of-the-body experiences. But it soon became clear that Muktananda wanted Ram Dass to become his chief Western disciple and felt slighted when he refused to leave Maharaji. The tension between the two of them was compounded by Ram Dass’ reluctance to help Muktananda organize his current American tour, a job that fell to Werner Erhard and EST.
The party was held in the hotel’s Grand Ballroom, decorated with huge glass chandeliers and gilt fleurs-de-lis. Outside the doorway, pictures of the Swami were selling at “$2.88, tax incl.” A banner above the stage read “Happy Birthday, Babaji” and a cake big enough to feed all the beggars of Bihar occupied stage center. Ram Dass was greeted by Professor Jain, the Swami’s Indian translator and chief drum beater, who asked him if he’d sit onstage with several other honored guests. Ram Dass demurred, explaining that he had to leave early for a dinner appointment and didn’t want to embarrass Babaji.
“We don’t embarrass,” Professor Jain said.
“Okay,” Ram Dass agreed. “I’ll sit on the stage.”
“Would you like to speak?”
“No, I’d rather not.”
“Baba would like.”
“Okay, I’ll speak.”
But before Professor Jain could usher Ram Dass toward the stage, a young woman came up and introduced herself as a member of the Foundation for Revelation. Would Ram Dass like to meet Father? she asked, pointing out a distinguished-looking elderly gentleman who resembled an Indian Colonel Sanders with his snow-white hair and neatly trimmed beard. She went on to explain how a group of Westerners attending a spiritual conference in Calcutta several years ago had met a beggar who told them that they looked like gods and goddesses. They followed him to his hovel in a village outside the city, stayed with him for a time and eventually raised the money to bring him to San Francisco, where he headed a kind of spiritual commune. “Father likes to cook for us and read us bedtime stories,” the woman said, before darting off to bring him over. “He’s Lord Shiva.”
As Ram Dass milled around the room he encountered a number of familiar faces. One young woman thanked him for having agreed at an earlier lecture to talk to her mother, who had been critically ill with cancer at the time, and explained that she had never called him to set a date because her mother had died the next day. Ram Dass had long considered it part of his sadhana to visit with the dying and even planned to start a center where people could come to die “consciously,” without drugs or the false comforts of friends and relatives — all of which made his response to this particular bit of news less crass than it might otherwise have seemed. He smiled and said, matter-of-factly, “Well, that’s far out.”
When Swami Muktananda entered the room, followed by a procession of sari-clad young women, each carrying a single candle on a silver tray, Ram Dass quickly took his seat onstage. The swami, who was dressed from head to toe in orange and wore dark green sunglasses, looked younger than his 66 years and seemed possessed by an overflow of nervous energy that made his hands move in short, spasmodic motions throughout the proceedings, as if he were crocheting an invisible shawl. During the welcoming remarks by other speakers Ram Dass sat with his eyes closed, working his beads and silently repeating a Hindu mantra which translates: “All evil vanishes from the life of him who keeps the sun in his heart,” one that he often used to quiet himself in situations where he felt somewhat put upon.
When it became Ram Dass’ turn to speak, Professor Jain introduced him by saying: “During our tour together a few years ago I used to introduce Ram Dass and he would introduce Babaji. Now I have forgotten all the nice things I used to say. We haven’t seen him for a long time.” Ram Dass greeted Swami Muktananda by kneeling and touching his feet, then told a few pleasant anecdotes about their experiences together, proving the efficacy of his mantra. The audience laughed hesitantly at each anecdote. Professor Jain finished whispering a translation into the swami’s ear. He grinned from that ear to the other and the audience laughed again, as though the incident had taken place on seven-second delay. At the end of the evening Ram Dass was presented with a basket of fruit for his good behavior.
One thing Ram Dass didn’t need, however, was more fruit, and so the next day, when he had promised to have dinner at a Christian commune in Berkeley, he brought along the basket as a gift and made a quick stop at Wholly Foods for good measure. “This is going to be a little goody-goody,” Ram Dass said on the way there.
The commune, it turned out, was affiliated with the Reverend Sun Myung Moon’s Unification Church and was presided over by a Korean woman known as Mother. Ram Dass was met at the door by Charity and a half-dozen other pink-cheeked young people — the men in ties and jackets, the women in long dresses, all of them wearing Perma-Prest smiles on their faces — who had been delegated to take him to meet Mother in her private residence.
Ten minutes later we arrived at a kind of Japanese-style ranch house in the Berkeley hills — a low-slung building with translucent glass ceilings, sliding paper panels for walls and a large swimming pool in the central courtyard. It was owned by Dr. Mose Durst, an English professor at Laney College in Oakland, who greeted Ram Dass at the door. Everyone changed into terrycloth slippers in the hallway and Dr. Durst, a short balding man who served as a kind of Dutch uncle to all the brothers and sisters, showed us around. “It must be hard to think of the formless with all these beautiful forms out there,” Ram Dass said, looking out the dining room window at a panoramic view of San Francisco Bay. “Yes,” Dr. Durst admitted, “sometimes we have to close the blinds to reach inward.”
Mother walked in — shuffled, actually — from the kitchen, an attractive woman in a tight pink silk kimono. She looked at Ram Dass sternly and said: “I have a message for you. This is a turning point in your life. You can choose to serve God more fully or you can go on as you have been.” Ram Dass, who had a pretty good notion of what Mother had in mind, answered noncommittally: “Many people come to me with messages and I honor them all.”
During dinner Dr. Durst talked about the commune. Its members supported themselves by running a flower business as well as a maintenance and custodial company. “Our purpose is to serve perfectly,” he said, “because we realize that as we lift others up we lift ourselves up.”
“We’re so anxious to serve,” a fellow named Matthew added, “that we wake up in the morning and jump out of our sleeping bags.”
“We sing all night when we clean a building,” his friend Jeremiah said. “People are always telling us they’ve never seen happy workers before.”
“I always knew the Buddha could come in all forms,” Ram Dass said, glancing down at his red T-shirt with the sage’s face stamped across the front, “but I never figured him for a janitor.”
After dinner the group adjourned to the living room, which was dominated by a framed photograph of the Reverend Mr. Moon, his dour face and conservative suit making him look like the owner of a successful funeral parlor. Before a blazing fire we held hands, exchanged loving looks and sang “You Are My Sunshine,” “America the Beautiful” and “Onward Christian Soldiers.” On a nearby coffee table I noticed a mimeographed sheet headed “Prayer Requests.” The third item read: “Please make Dr. Durst dean of Laney.”
At the first available opportunity Ram Dass announced that he had something to do very early in the morning. Our hosts helped us change back into our shoes at the doorway, where we hugged and said long goodbyes. By the time Ram Dass got the van started, they had followed him out and surrounded it. Holding hands and circling the van so that everyone could have a moment in the headlights to wave a final farewell, they sang “So Long, It’s Been Good to Know You.” Sitting there somewhat impatiently, Ram Dass muttered, “After all that I guess we can’t run them over” — and then added hopefully, “Or can we?”
BY THE SPRING OF 1963, when Harvard decided that matters had gone far enough, Leary and Alpert were already the center of a rapidly mushrooming drug cult. All manner of hallucinogenic chemicals were being sent from Sandoz laboratories to the Psychedelic Project c/o the good auspices of the university, then handed out to students with considerable abandonment and a questionnaire. Leary acid Alpert themselves would participate in the formal psychedelic sessions and whenever their colleagues raised the old bugaboo of scientific objectivity, Alpert would say that they were not collecting data anymore, they were the data.
Many of the people involved in the project lived together in a succession of houses that Leary would rent until their owners came back from academic leaves, took one look at their beloved abodes and called their lawyers. In one instance Alpert’s father, much against his better judgment, stymied an attempt by the outraged citizens of Newton to evict the group for zoning violations by claiming that a single family unit might be as large as the dictates of the heart allowed, might even include the whole world for particularly liberated souls.
Clearly, the Psychedelic Project was not your typical university-sponsored program in those days. And yet, typically, Harvard finally lowered the boom on Alpert over a question of principle, the academic equivalent, according to a former colleague, of “imprisoning Al Capone for income tax evasion.” Giving psychedelic drugs to graduate students was one thing — graduate students along with white rats being standard scientific guinea pigs — but Alpert had agreed to stay clear of undergraduates. When an irate parent charged that he had violated the agreement, Alpert claimed somewhat weakly that he hadn’t given drugs to undergraduates in his official capacity as co-director of the Psychedelic Project but, rather, privately as a friend, a distinction which didn’t wash with the dean of students, who fired him on the spot. Needless to say, Richard Alpert’s parents were appalled. Getting fired from Harvard for Wing in an incident reported on the front page of The New York Times wasn’t exactly what they had in mind for their favorite son. “For a long time they sat shiva,” Ram Dass recalled, referring to the Jewish ritual for mourning the dead.
Since Leary had already turned on, tuned in and been dropped out, they decided to move their entire entourage — which included various graduate assistants, girlfriends, boyfriends, children and animals as well as the essential ingredients — to warmer climes… Zihuatanejo, Mexico, to be exact. The hotel they rented was a splendid place for an international psychedelic training center, all right, with its 40 rooms laid out in tiers above the ocean and a funicular to carry the staff to research meetings in the surf. The trouble was that Leary decided to buy a fancy motorboat with the “public relations” kitty, so that when the local police came sniffing around there were no more pesos left to smooth matters over and consequently the group was thrown out of Mexico before the summer had hardly warmed up.
Those were magic times, though, and whatever was needed always seemed to turn up. In this instance Peggy Hitchcock, heiress to the Mellon fortune, suggested that the tax write-off her twin brothers had recently purchased in Millbrook, New York, might provide suitable quarters for a drug research center. Indeed it did! Set on a 2,000-acre walled estate, the Big House looked like the last crenelated fling of Mad King. Ludwig and in fact had been built (by a German-born gas-lamp magnate in the 1890s) to resemble a Bavarian chalet, all towers and turrets and gingerbread gimcrackery. The grounds were a maze of twisted paths around algaed ponds and sun-flecked glades of intricate stone bridges over rippling brooks and artificial waterfalls.
“Millbrook in the early years,” Ram Dan recalled recently, “was a feast of everyone’s desire systems.” It was indeed a kind of space-age Arcadia, a polymorphously perverse community that reflected the larger society through a fun-house mirror lightly (“Take LSD and See,” read the sign on the kitchen tea jar). It was Charles Lloyd playing his flute to a squirrel hopping among the branches or Charlie Mingus anticipating the pings in the water pipes on his bass. It was the day Tim Leary married his third wife, Nena — a beautiful Swedish baroness who was prominently displayed on billboards at the time as the Eric Cigar Girl — when everyone was high on acid and one of the women had baked a seven-tiered wedding cake that looked like the best effort of the finest Italian confectioner in the Bronx, except that at the very top a sugar-glazed Shiva and Shakti were rapturously fucking. It was an endless parade of philosophers, alcoholics, socialites, theologians, junkies, poets, mental retardates, yogis, scientists, artists, prison parolees — all come to take the Ultimate Cure at this Baden-Baden of the hip world.
It was also a tourist trap of sorts, luring thrill-seeking lumpen bourgeois at $75 a head to weekend “experiential workshops” in drugless highs, where they spent hours staring at candle flames, watched mixed-media light shows and sat down to meals of purple-tinted scrambled eggs and black milk. In short, Millbrook as an institution was adept at juggling extremes, as was its principal proprietor. Those were the days when Leary would read his morning mail and rate each letter on a scale of one to ten for his secretary’s guidance in responding to them, one calling for an officious “regarding yours of the 23rd” reply and ten for a more intimate “we are all one” tone.
Alpert’s homosexuality was a major source of tension in his relationship with Tim Leary, who felt so strongly about the matter that during one acid trip he ripped his clothes off and offered himself to his friend. (According to Ram Dass the two merely rolled around on the floor playfully for a few minutes.) It was after Leary had returned from a prolonged honeymoon in India with his beautiful Swedish baroness that they had their final blowup and Alpert left Millbrook for good. He would see very little of Leary in the ensuing years, although their relationship continued to reverberate in his mind, as a Freudian slip-of-the-tongue that he made during a talk at Winterland not long ago may or may not indicate. Describing Leary’s wedding at Millbrook Ram Dass said: “I was the bride, ah, I mean best man” — and then added after a confused pause filled by titters from the audience, “We’re all brides, I’ll tell ya.”
Although psychedelics had been crucial to his personal development at one time, they also contributed to Alpert’s growing depression in the period after he left Millbrook. He earned his living largely by lecturing to groups as diverse as chambers of commerce and the Hell’s Angels, and began to realize that although he had certainly learned something from his LSD sessions he still didn’t know enough. The experiences themselves were becoming repetitive and superficial, “like putting on a groovy T-shirt for a few hours.” At one point, in a near-desperate attempt to stay high, he took 400 micrograms of LSD every four hours for three weeks — and when he finally came down it was frustrating to find that he was basically unchanged. “Psychedelics had become illegal by then and I was earning extra money by pushing and smuggling,” Ram Dass said about those days. “I simply didn’t have any idea of what to do with the rest of my life.” He had a recurrent fantasy during that period of hiring himself out as a chauffeur, seeing himself seated in a black limousine outside Bergdorf Goodman reading holy books while he waited for some rich matron to finish her shopping, comfortable in the knowledge that someone else was programming his consciousness for a change. In an odd way, he wasn’t that far off.
ON THE DAY OF RAM DASS’ lecture to the prison yoga society we drove up to Vacaville together. Ram Dass was in an expansive mood, having just returned from a conference on death in Santa Barbara where he spoke during the day to general acclaim and wooed a pretty, young humanist psychologist that night with equal success. Although the experience had been “very light and lovely,” he couldn’t help wondering whether his desire to sleep with a woman for the first time in months wasn’t prompted by the anticipated reunion with Leary, around whom he always felt constrained to prove his sexual normality.
Neither did the irony of meeting Leary at Vacaville escape Ram Dass, for Vacaville was the one California prison where drug experiments on inmates were carried on — experiments not totally unrelated to the attempt to rehabilitate prisoners through psychedelic drugs that he and Leary organized around Boston in the early Sixties. “I’m still working through my drug karma,” Ram Dass said as we passed a sign that pointed to the Vacaville State Medical Facility.
Inside, Ram Dass told a small group of inmates gathered in the Vacaville chapel that prison life was a perfect monastic setting and solitary confinement a total support system that could be viewed as a privileged opportunity to work on one’s spiritual growth. The audience laughed and applauded when he said: “Imagine a cellblock in which the prisoners thought they were in an ashram and the guards thought they were in a prison. Who’d be doing time then?” During the talk Ram Dass peered into the gloomier recesses of the chapel looking for Leary, but since he doesn’t wear his glasses in public he couldn’t be certain whether his old friend was there or not. When Leary failed to come up after the lecture Ram Dass felt both puzzled and hurt by what he took to be a deliberate snub. Later he learned that Leary had been transferred to a federal prison in Southern California three days before his talk in the chapel. He wrote me a note: “Thought you might like to know the end of the story,” it concluded. “What a fantastic lesson in mental projection — in how not to be here now!”
But on the way home that day Ram Dass talked bitterly about Leary (“Wherever he goes he leaves a trail of disaster in his wake”) and somewhat glumly about life on the holy man’s circuit. He thought perhaps the time had come for him to give up public appearances and “make my statement by going off to meditate in the woods somewhere.” He said that recently he had been asked to compose his own obituary for a magazine called the Obituary Quarterly and he had begun in a standard manner — listing his degrees and titles and jobs — and ended up by writing: “In the first part of his life Alpert strived to become somebody, but then he went to India where he realized that his work was to become nobody.”
WHEN RICHARD ALPERT FIRST WENT to India in 1967 it was rather more in the nature of a joy ride than a spiritual quest. A wealthy friend had invited him on a first-class junket to the East, all expenses paid; the two met at the Tehran Hilton, imported an expensive Land Rover, stocked it with canned food and bottled water, and set off in search of high times and cheap hash. By the time he met Bhagwan Das in Katmandu three months later he had taken some 1300 color slides and seen almost nothing outside his range finder.
There is no denying the profound impact Alpert’s experience in India had on him. Maharaji managed to read him like an open book the first time they met. Richard Alpert was uptight about money and possessions; his guru asked to be presented with the Land Rover as a gift five minutes after they met. Richard Alpert was puzzled about the value of LSD in his own life; his guru proceeded to swallow a hefty dose of the “yogi medicine” without its having the slightest noticeable effect on him. Richard Alpert had been thinking about his recently deceased mother the night before; his guru told him so, adding without any prompting that she had died of “spleen trouble.” At that point, Alpert wrote in Be Here Now, “I cried and I cried and I cried… I felt like I was home. Like the journey was over. Like I had finished.”
During the ten months he was in India that first trip Ram Dass estimates that he spent a total of an hour and a half with his guru. The rest of the time he meditated, read Hindu texts, practiced raja yoga and deep breathing exercises, ate a strict vegetarian diet, went without sex, rose every morning at four a.m. — and not infrequently wondered what the hell he had gotten himself into. But when he came back to the United States — bearded and barefoot, wearing his best yoga whites and carrying a tamboura — he was changed in more than name only. According to Ram Dass the first words his father said to him at the airport were: “Get in the car before anyone sees you.”
Being a sadhu is one thing in the Himalayan foothills and quite another on your father’s plush estate on Webster Lake in New Hampshire. But Ram Dass gamely ignored the three-hole golf course, the tennis court, the speedboat moored at dockside, the carpentry shop and darkroom. He lived in a small cabin in back of the main house, making his tea on a Bunsen burner and meditating several hours a day. Sometimes when his father entertained friends — often fellow members of the Presidents’ Club, an informal group made up of past presidents of large organizations — he’d call Ram Dass in to regale them with miracle stories about his guru. “I don’t understand a word of it,” George Alpert would always say at some point in the evening. “But if it makes Rum Dum happy, it’s okay with me.”
One day, as Ram Dass tells it, he drove his father’s new Cadillac to the grocery store in Franklin. When he came out of the store a few local hippies approached him and asked if he had any acid to sell, explaining that they had heard a “connection” was due up from Boston that day. Ram Dass ended his renunciate’s life for good by saying, “I’m not that kind of connection.” Within weeks he was running a full-fledged ashram on his father’s estate, with all-night chants in a newly built darshan house on the hill and regular Friday night Sufi dances on the third-hole green and as many as 50 kids living in pup tents and tree houses all over the place. It didn’t take long before Ram Dass was lecturing across the country, or much longer before he began giving up his Indian dress, his vegetarian diet, his abstemious ways. During one particular lecture in Los Angeles he was conscious of looking over the audience to see who he could hustle for money and who he might be able to seduce that night. It was time for another trip to India.
This time Ram Dass spent more than a year there and grew much closer to Maharaji. He served as a kind of guru in training to the small circle of Americans who had gathered around Maharaji in the intervening years, most of whom had found their way to the remote North Indian village Through hints Ram Dass had inadvertently divulged in his lectures. They spent their days in the temple meditating and doing asanas, bathing in the nearby river and meeting briefly with Maharaji in the mornings and evenings to feed him apple and orange sections and be fed in return. It soon became clear to Ram Dass that a special role had been planned for him all along to continue his guru’s work in the West. At times he felt an uncanny sense of identity with the playful old man who seemed to own nothing but the blanket wrapped around his body. “It was like Don Juan’s description of Death,” Ram Dass explained. “A presence always hovering over his shoulder but gone the moment he turned around to look at it.”
By the time Ram Dass returned to the United States in the spring of 1972, Be Here Now had already been published and he was a genuine hero of the counterculture in his own right, no longer just Tim Leary’s sidekick. Ironically, his personal metamorphosis from ambitious young academic to countercultural guru had gone full circle, for he was much more celebrated as a holy man than Richard Alpert ever would have been as a Harvard professor. His life had become a kind of reverse Horatio Alger myth for a whole generation of middle-class American kids in revolt against a materialistic society — the cautionary tale of a rich boy who managed to make good.
THERE WERE, FOR EXAMPLE, more than a thousand youthful seekers willIng to travel to the Naropa Institute in Boulder, Colorado, from all parts of the country and pay $70 each for the privilege of listening to Ram Dass lecture on a maddeningly obscure Hindu text in a steaming downtown warehouse with no windows and a metal roof. That’s clout on the holy man’s circuit! Not that Ram Dass confined his lectures to the Gita. In fact, he talked so much about the state of his own soul that much of the five-week course became a kind of pilgrim’s progress report. The rest was an all-purpose Guide to the Path. That it was somewhat eclectic could hardly be helped under the circumstances, for as Ram Dass explained in his opening lecture, “This is a course on a Hindu text in a Buddhist university taught by a Jew who has great love for Christ and Allah.” Inevitably, the course lost in depth what it gained in breadth. “That’s it for death,” Ram Dass said after one lecture. “Saturday we’ll do reincarnation.”
Besides the main lectures there were smaller discussion groups that developed around course material. By far the most interesting and best attended of these — a women’s consciousness-raising group — was formed halfway through the course, much to Ram Dass’ surprise. It was probably the first time the women’s movement and the spiritual movement had met head on, although the confrontation was inevitable sooner or later. Like most religious organizations, the Naropa Institute was dominated by men. And, like most religious texts, the Bhagavad Gita did not display an extraordinarily high level of consciousness on the subject of equality between the sexes. “If even a woman and an untouchable can reach God, imagine what a Brahman can do,” one offending passage stated, while another recommended that women should be beaten regularly, like drums.
Nor was the issue of feminism exactly Ram Dass’ strongest suit, either. In fact, a couple of illustrated lectures he gave back-to-back sparked the protest to begin with. The first was a lecture on the Divine Mother that was accompanied by a slide show depicting woman in all her many guises, and just like the slide show Richard Alpert had used under LSD to reprogram his own sexuality, this one included some rather raunchy porno shots of women spread-eagled on unmade motel beds and the like. Ram Dass met the murmur of discontent that rose from some of the women in the class by saying that the Divine Mother rejected nothing. Then a few days later he gave a similar slide show on saints. Well, it did not take a Redstocking to notice that nearly all the saints were male and not a single one of them went unclothed. The first women’s discussion group met the next day.
Actually, the women’s protest was but a summer squall on the Ocean of Tranquility compared with the tempest that had blown up concurrently between Ram Dass and Rinpoche. Part of the trouble was a question of philosophical allegiances, since Rinpoche’s form of Tibetan Buddhism was akin to Zen Buddhism in its attention to paradox and the concrete workings of the mind, while Ram Dass’ form of Hinduism centered around service and the promptings of the heart. But it must also be said that the argument between the two gurus was not always conducted on such a lofty plane. The naked truth was that while Ram Dass recognized Rinpoche as his teacher (“I’m just the chicken soup, showbiz, warmup comedian and he’s the real thing,” he had said before the summer began), he had drawn many more students to the Gita course than Rinpoche had attracted to the lectures he gave on alternate days — a turn of affairs that did not seem conducive to the Tibetan lama’s peace of mind. The result was that Rinpoche took verbal potshots at Ram Dass throughout the summer, once going so far as to call him an “arrogant, confused charlatan who has lost his way.”
By the time his course ended Ram Dass had pretty much broken with his former mentor in his own mind, and when Rinpoche asked him at a farewell dinner to remain affiliated with the Naropa Institute in the future, he refused. In fact, an incident that occurred during Ram Dass’ drive back to his father’s estate in New Hampshire caused him to change his life drastically, albeit temporarily. While meditating in a motel off the Pennsylvania Turnpike he suddenly realized that there was no need for him to travel to India again on the first anniversary of his guru’s death, as he had planned to do in September. because “the light is everywhere, even in a motel off the Pennsylvania Turnpike.” Instead, he canceled all his lectures and decided to stay quietly by himself in Franklin, meditating more and desiring less. Ram Dass remembered something his guru had told him shortly before he left India: “There will come a time when you will not need to lecture anymore.” He thought perhaps the time had come.
LESS THAN A MONTH LATER, however, two unrelated, equally bizarre telephone conversations brought Ram Dass out of his self-imposed isolation. The first was a call from a couple of independent Hollywood producers who wanted to make a feature film out of Ram Dass’ life and had already interested Christopher Isherwood, the leading Hollywood authority on Hinduism, in the project. In the following weeks Ram Dass was by turns disbelieving, skeptical, mildly intrigued and genuinely excited about the prospect of a movie based on his life, and he finally decided to fly to Los Angeles to talk the matter over with the producers.
The other call was from Jerry Rubin and concerned a much less enticing proposition. As Ram Dass had learned last spring when he stopped off at Vacaville prison on his way to Boulder, Tim Leary had been transferred to federal custody in Southern California a few days before his lecture to the prison yoga society. What he didn’t know then was that the reason for the transfer had been Leary’s agreement to turn state’s evidence in hopes of obtaining an early parole. Over the summer, word of Leary’s cooperation sent a cold shiver through the drug and political underground in California, the more so when it learned that ‘ his extensive records had fallen into the government’s hands and that he had made a videotaped “confession” in which he had denounced the use of psychedelic drugs and called the FBI agents he had been talking to “the best friends I ever had.” Early in September Leary had testified before a Los Angeles grand jury that one of his former lawyers had smuggled hashish to him in prison, and others of his former friends and colleagues were more than a little anxious to learn what he would say about them. A few of them decided to form an ad hoc organization called PILL (People Investigating Leary’s Lies), whose sole purpose would be to stage a press conference in San Francisco (billed, for media interest, as the final gathering of the counterculture in the city where it all began) in an attempt to publicly discredit Leary’s testimony and thus hopefully forestall any possible indictments. Before contacting Ram Dass they had already recruited Jerry Rubin, Allen Ginsberg and Jack Leary, the latter being so anxious to denounce his father with a flourish that he offered to do it on the steps of the Chicago courthouse where Leary was then testifying before another grand jury.
When Ram Dass received Rubin’s call asking him to participate in the press conference, he at first demurred, saying that he had always carefully avoided airing his grievances against Leary in public. Rubin insisted that too many people could be hurt by Leary’s self-serving testimony for him to remain silent now. In the end Ram Dass agreed to stop off in San Francisco the following week on his way to his meeting with the film producers in Los Angeles. “I’ve been trying to get out from under Timothy’s influence for ten years,” he told Rubin. “Maybe this is the time.”
Upon his arrival at the San Francisco airport he was driven to a posh townhouse where last-minute preparations for the press conference the next day were being discussed in the living room. Jerry Rubin and Jack Leary were already there. Allen Ginsberg arrived late, looking like a ruffled, slightly myopic owl with his large brown eyes peering out from behind black horn-rimmed glasses. He brought along his friend Peter Orlovsky, who wore a red bandana around his head. Ginsberg, it turned out, hadn’t fully made up his mind to appear at the press conference and was annoyed that his name had been attached to a PILL press release without his permission. “That’s exactly the tone I wanted to avoid,” he shouted upon entering the room. “Leary lying. Why couldn’t it have been called PISS — People Investigating Leary Snitching?”
“That’s P-I-L-S, Allen,” one of the PILL organizers said.
“Well, something else. People Investigating Leary Lovingly. He may think he’s telling the truth, Christ-like, even unto his enemies. That could be interesting.”
“I agree with Allen,” Ram Dass said. “Maybe we should wait until we know what Timothy’s saying. Some of you people seem too one-pointed about this thing.”
“Isn’t there anything that gets you angry?” another PILL organizer asked. “Napalm, Kissinger, Watergate?”
“Frankly, no,” Ram Dass answered. “I just feel compassion for the horrible beauty of the incarnation.”
After a long lull in the conversation Ginsberg finally said, “Well, maybe we should go through with it as long as we’re all here. Like the old Chinese proverb says, ‘Flow along with the natural error of things.'”
Soon the talk turned to other matters. “Do you still answer all your mail?” Ram Dass, who was quite proud of the fact that he did, asked Ginsberg.
“Try to,” Ginsberg said, “but I’m like 250 letters behind. Now I have priorities: family letters first, then poetry letters, then contracts.”
“I can’t make priorities,” Ram Dass said. “I just put one letter behind another, except for really urgent ones like the suicides.”
“Oh, really,” Ginsberg said. “I always wait a month before I answer the suicides.”
Over coffee and cognac Ram Dass told a story about a spiritual adviser from Brooklyn he had visited several times during the summer. She’s an otherwise perfectly ordinary, somewhat overweight Jewish housewife who started doing breath yoga in her bathtub every night at the suggestion of her diet clinic. Soon she found herself going into deep spiritual trances, according to Ram Dass, and “all these incredible astral beings with strange-sounding names began to appear before her. One of them was Maharaji, who told her, ‘Go find my son in New York.’ That’s how she eventually got to me.” When pressed by others Ram Dass said he couldn’t tell people the woman’s name or where she lived because her husband was already a little suspicious of all the time she was spending in the bathtub. “I don’t want to spoil her scene,” he said. “She’s a really incredible far-out being. She’s my new connection.”
After the press conference the next day Ram Dass and I spent a pleasant afternoon walking around North Beach. He said that he was going through a transitional period in his life and was “listening to hear what the next stage would be.” Naropa had been “the Harvard of the spiritual scene” and he was now more certain than ever that he had finished with lectures and public appearances for good. “The time has come when I can just sit up in New Hampshire meditating by myself and make a statement with my being that will help people,” he said.
Toward evening I drove him to the airport, where he would catch a plane for Los Angeles. On the way he read me the rough scenario he had outlined for the filmed version of his life that he would shortly be discussing with the two Hollywood producers. I couldn’t help thinking that it is not an easy job to be a holy man in America.
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