We stopped in the Oregon community of Antelope last week and my thoughts turned to the Bhagwan Shree Rajneesh. The town is located in a remote region of eastern Oregon. It’s a cowboy and sagebrush kind of place. Belonging means you display an American Flag out front and a horse out back.
The small community is not where you would expect to find people wearing saffron-colored robes and practicing meditation at the feet of a guru from India who specialized in owning Rolls Royce cars and dispensing enlightenment.
But that is exactly what happened in the early 80s when the Bhagwan appeared with his legion of devotees and bought the sprawling 60,000-acre Big Muddy Ranch, soon to be renamed Rajneeshpuram. As might be expected, the two dramatically different cultures immediately clashed with each other.
The utopian dream of the Rajneeshans ended abruptly in 1985 with the arrest of the Bhagwan, the sale of Rajneeshpuram and the scattering of the flock. Bad things had happened including food poisoning attempts at local restaurants and internal wiretapping of commune residents.
Regardless of the scandals, many of the people who came to Rajneeshpuram to find enlightenment still swear by their experience 25 years later. The dark side of what happened is blamed on overzealous staff, not the Bhagwan.
I have a friend who went off to Rajneeshpuram in the 80s and still retains her commune name and connections today. Her mother and father were initially distraught by their daughter’s decision and shared their anguish with me. They had pursued their own radical paths as young people, however, and eventually came to accept their daughter’s decision.
Having your own Guru in the 70s and 80s was an in-thing that the rich and famous, young people, and mystically inclined signed up for in droves. Another friend of mind tried to recruit me to the secret world of George Gurdjieff and Peter Ouspensky.
I took her backpacking down into the Grand Canyon once and was eager to share the beauty and isolation of the numerous side canyons. We took a short hike and soon found ourselves in the midst of towering, awe-inspiring cliffs.
M’s reaction was much different than I expected. Dangerous spirits inhabited the area and we were disturbing them. We needed to leave quickly.
On one level, I could understand her unease. In our twenties, we had both been influenced by Carlos Castaneda’s journeys through the Sonoran Desert. Don Juan had taught his young apprentice that mysterious and powerful beings from different realms inhabit remote regions. Some of these beings were really bad dudes, prepared to pounce on the unwary.
Given my African introduction to pantheism, it wasn’t hard to populate the Canyon with spirits. But I had spent years wandering in isolated wilderness areas and had yet to meet a spirit that had caused me any damage, or for that matter, even stopped to chat.
I shared my perspective and was met with a rather cool response. Apparently I lacked the necessary perception to understand the danger. I had the irreverent thought of ‘out of sight, out of mind’ but kept it to myself.
M was serious. After her bout with Castaneda, she had moved from Iowa to Texas where she was introduced to the work of George Gurdjieff and his pupil, Peter Ouspensky.
Gurdjieff was an early 20th Century mystic who taught that the vast majority of humanity is asleep, little more than robots. Given proper training, however, individuals can awaken and reach higher levels of consciousness. I assumed that it was at these higher levels that one became aware of the malevolent spirits.
Gurdjieff called his training the Fourth Way. He, Ouspensky, and other followers set up esoteric schools to teach people the path to awakening.
One such follower was Robert Burton. Burton was working as an elementary school teacher in the San Francisco Bay Area during the 60s when he became captivated by Gurdjieff and Ouspensky. In 1970 he persuaded a number of his acquaintances that he was a person of higher conscious, the stuff that gurus are made of.
By 1973 he and his group had purchased property near the small town of Oregon House in the Sierra Nevada Foothills and were clearing land to establish a Fellowship to propagate Gurdjieff’s teaching and grow wine grapes. M and her husband moved from Texas to California to join Burton in his efforts.
By the time I met M in the late 70s, she had left her husband and Oregon House but was still an avid follower of Gurdjieff and Ouspensky. I suspect she was continuing to financially support and participate in the Fellowship. When she learned of my fascination with Castaneda, she gave me a couple of books on the Fourth Way and suggested that there was a local discussion group I might enjoy joining.
In some ways, I was a good candidate for what Burton was offering. Eastern traditions, especially Zen Buddhism, had a strong appeal. Meditation gave me the same sense of wholeness and connection that wandering in the woods did.
I wanted to believe that humans were capable of reaching higher levels of consciousness, of becoming more civilized in the broadest sense of the word. Self-actualization, to utilize Maslow’s term, seemed like a highly desirable goal and I always had myself on some self-improvement plan or the other. I need lots.
Burton had drawn a number of bright, well-educated and accomplished individuals around him. In ways, his success at recruiting followers was quite similar to that of the Bhagwan. Both had strong appeal to individuals who were seeking meaning in life that they weren’t finding in post Vietnam, post Watergate, super-materialistic America. The acceptance of a Teacher or Guru for help in finding the way was a legitimate and time-honored tradition in many Eastern oriented practices.
Ultimately, I lack the capacity of becoming a true believer, however. Regardless of the appeal, I am not willing to commit the trust required to place myself in another person’s hands. This means I can never quite understand the value that people derive from joining someone like Burton or the Bhagwan.
You have to go there to get it and I won’t make the trip.
Anyone interested in gaining significant control over my mind frightens me, regardless of his or her motivation or whatever benefits will supposedly accrue. The best of folks, from my personal experience and historical reading, have flaws.
Giving someone god-like status hides these flaws… both from the giver and the getter. Rational justification of action is not required. God or Whatever wills it. A multitude of bad things can hide out under this umbrella. Every day brings new examples.
So I had passed on M’s original suggestion to join a discussion group on Gurdjieff and Ouspensky and now found myself unable to recognize dangerous spirits from another realm. I honored M’s concerns, though, and we returned to camp. We spent our afternoon painting watercolors of the Canyon and hiked out the next day.
No bad spirits captured my soul, at least as far as I know.