Ram Dass Revival: Frail but Vibrant, He Gets a Library

When the religious history of our time is written, maybe there will at least be a footnote for an ebullient

When the religious history of our time is written, maybe there will at least be a footnote for an ebullient ceremony that took place on Sept. 18 at Omega Institute, the New Age center in Rhinebeck, N.Y.

Sunlight amid tall pines. A large meeting hall pulses with a chant. Pretty girls jump up and down in ecstatic transport. Fancy grownups sway under a portrait of the Hindu god Hanuman. Sarongs, sitar, piercings, weird smoke, Nalgene water bottles, hairy bellies. And at the center of it all, seated in a wheelchair and wreathed in a lei and incense, is a bald man of 70 with a sweet smile and electric blue eyes, wearing a jean shirt, right side paralyzed by a stroke: the writer and teacher Ram Dass.

The occasion was the dedication of a new library named after Ram Dass. Leading figures from Omega’s realms-yoga, meditation psychology, past-life theory; people like James Hillman, Brian Weiss, Sharon Salzberg, SharonOlds,even_Laurance Rockefeller-had contributed to the library. It opened with 4,000 books. It is to be a place for scholarship and an archive.

“I really like having this here instead of Harvard,” said Ram Dass, who now lives in California, even as a singer friend bent in tears to kiss his feet. “They’ve got Widener, and we’ve got the Ram Dass.”

The celebration had an epochal flavor. The once-nimble Ram Dass is now feeble. It has been 40 years since he departed the establishment explosively and lit out for the territory, summoning so many others after him.

“I am a Western, Jewish boy from Boston who has studied Hinduism,” Ram Dass once explained himself. He was born Richard Alpert to a prominent family. His father was a railroad executive who had helped to found Brandeis University. The boy became a psychologist and taught at Harvard. He had published one book, Identification and Child Rearing , when his mind got blown. His Harvard colleague Timothy Leary got him into mushrooms and acid, and before long the Freudian descriptions of consciousness and identity in which he was schooled began to seem one-dimensional, and he embarked on a search for alternative understanding with the likes of Allen Ginsberg, Aldous Huxley and Alan Watts. Then, famously, Harvard fired Richard Alpert in 1963 for telling students to drop acid.

Everyone trooped off to India, but Richard Alpert, more than any of them, got the message. He came back as Ram Dass and wrote Be Here Now , a compendium of Eastern practices for transforming consciousness. “I think it sold as many as Doctor Spock,” Ram Dass said at Omega.

Ram Dass’ gifts were his intellectual fearlessness and enthusiasm. He was highly intelligent, and ideas did not scare him. So he soaked up his Indian guru’s teachings on yoga, meditation and astral planes-and understanding that they worked, he wasn’t going to sit on those teachings. He had a huge ego (as he readily admitted). He came back to the States and, mingling the faculties of the scientist and the divine bullshit artist, explained Eastern ideas to young Americans.

“In a culture such as ours, the subversives are the most important people, the smugglers,” says James Hillman, the esteemed Jungian analyst. “Ram Dass is one of the great smugglers. I respect all he has done and gone through, and I was happy to send books to the library.”

“He was the first Western-trained psychologist to embrace and understand Eastern spiritual psychology,” says Mark Epstein, the psychiatrist and Buddhist and author of Thoughts Without a Thinker: Psychotherapy from a Buddhist Perspective . “To study with Ram Dass meant listening to him perform. But it also meant tasting the various practices. He could tell stories about the Bhagavad Gita so you’d understand. He could talk for three hours, and he could make you laugh and cry …. He showed how the Eastern disciplines of yoga and meditation are ancient techniques of psychotherapy.”

At one of those talks in 1970, Ram Dass explained that LSD was a technological breakthrough because it allowed materialistic Westerners to alter their consciousness. As this culture developed, he predicted, psychedelics would bring in “another set of cognitive-consciousness possibilities … so that they would become researchable, they would become studyable and explorable; and yoga, which was a dirty word seven years ago, can now be a highly respected and thoughtful science.” Just what Ram Dass predicted has happened: Eastern mysticism has gained a place in any number of disciplines-medicine, psychology and the arts, to begin with. And certainly for the privileged, New Age practices have transformed religion.

Sharon Salzberg, a best-selling writer of books on meditation: “I met Ram Dass at a meditation retreat in India in 1971. I was just 18 at the time. I wanted something really practical. I didn’t want dogma or religion in any abstract sense, because that was already available, and it just wasn’t the transformation I was looking for. Ram Dass became the champion of the movement because he said, ‘You should participate; you shouldn’t leave it to someone else.’ It’s that American strain of pragmatism.”

Krishna Das, the musician: “I was 22 years old in 1969 and driving a school bus and living in New Paltz on land owned by Jungian acid-head mountain-climbers. They knew Ram Dass from other acid heads. I didn’t want an American, I wanted the real thing-I wanted Indian swamis. I was a fucking asshole; I was lost. I didn’t know how to connect with people in a deep way. These guys drove from New York to New Hampshire because Ram Dass was there, at his father’s place, and when they came back, my friend stepped out of the car, and there was like a light around him. I said, ‘Tell me where this guy is-I’m going.’ When I met him, I knew that what I was looking for existed in the world. I didn’t know that before; I only hoped. I thought it was stuck in books, that it was tremendously remote. Today, yoga and meditation and all that stuff are out there. Then, it wasn’t there.”

The other day in Rhinebeck, everyone was waiting for Ram Dass to speak, and that opportunity soon came. His speeches used to be flowing and rapid. A stroke five years ago has left him fumbling for words and connections. It has also given him a sweetness that he never had before, stripped him of his trickiness. He never cried publicly before. Now he cries when someone else cries, and smiles angelically when someone makes him an offering.

“When I got thrown out of Harvard, nobody would have expected that I would get a library named after me,” Ram Dass began. He paused and said, “Huh.”

He continued: “You must wonder what it feels like to have been a person named after a library. Huh. It feels peculiar. Very strange. Because I only know the other side, through my father’s eyes, when he was the chairman of the board of Brandeis, and people would say”-lapsing into Jewish dialect for a moment-“‘Do you vant a library, for you and your vife?’ And then the Nixon Library. But there’s the Kennedy Library, too.”

Then he stopped talking for a while and seemed to weep. He was quiet for a minute.

“See, that’s what it’s like having a library named after you-just the silence.”

He started out again on his story.

“Sure, I escaped from academia. But I haven’t lost respect for books. Back then there were books that I would not read in the library, because they were tomes that were dusty. But then I took mushrooms and the books looked delightful, and that led me to India and that led me to God. Funny, isn’t it? And here we are in a library.”

The story still wasn’t working, and Ram Dass came at it a third time.

“I have never thought of myself as an author, but I look at all the books I wrote, and yet those books have kept me alive. They helped people, and I’d rather be a helper to relieve suffering, and an author along the way.

“But when I went to take mushrooms with Tim, we were presented in our project with the Tibetan Book of the Dead. That book was read to dying monks by other monks; it was how they should die, and going through the dying process-and it just happened that the previous Saturday night, before we were given that book, I was having an acid session, and it was the exact same thing. That’s when I got the clue that the East held the maps for what we were experiencing in our drugginess-”

He waved his left hand in the air psychedelically, making fun of the time when they were drugged out.

“There were so many things in our heads, and here was a book-but there were no books in Western psychology, no books at all were helpful. So after that, I started the Gita, the Ramayana. These were steps along the path. Steps. Books, books, books, books. And I hope this library is a step for everybody in their path.”

He stopped again and seemed to understand that he had gotten the story right. “Yeah!” he said.

After that, there was a jubilant procession 100 yards or so down a hill to the library itself, a wood-framed many-sided building painted mustard with green trim. People carried incense and a statue of a guru, and other things you couldn’t be sure of. The singer Krishna Das led a chant of a Sanskrit phrase he’d first heard from Ram Dass himself at a gathering at a sculpture center in New York City 30 years ago, and then Ram Dass sat outside the library and met visitors.

I had a brief audience, crouching by the wheelchair. I asked Ram Dass whether Jewishness had any call on him anymore.

He said, “In my training in conservative Judaism, they introduced us very little to mystical Judaism. There were mystical experiences, but they wanted them to be left in the hands of historical figures. Later, I had a conversation with the rabbi who was performing my mother’s gravesite ceremony. I had just come back from India: I was wearing a long beard and beads, and a white robe, and my father was on the board of the temple. I had never met the rabbi before. He took me by the elbow-”

Ram Dass grabbed me roughly by the elbow with his good hand.

“He said, ‘Well, what have you been doing these days?’ So I told him about my maharaji and all kinds of mystical things. We were leaning against two tombstones and talking, and he said to me, ‘I had an experience when I was in theological school. I was taking No-Doz and not sleeping. Well, one day the book fell away as I was studying, and suddenly the desert was there.’ I said, ‘Boy, that must have influenced your congregation.’ He said, ‘No, I kept it to myself.’ ‘Well, you told your wife, didn’t you?’ ‘No,’ he said.”

Ram Dass shook his head sadly.

I asked him about status. He was from an establishment family. Harvard had thrown him out. Now he had a library named after him. It was a form of recognition. Was that important to him?

“This library is a love statement,” he said. “And my soul knows that. Every one of them who gave-like Laurance Rockefeller, he calls and says, ‘I’m going to give you all the books in my library.’ He can’t do enough. All these people have given and given and given. They’re giving for a feeling that they have, and it’s a spiritual feeling ….

“And yet, this recognition is also a salve to my ego.”

It was intriguing to think that someone as enlightened as Ram Dass still has attachments, and still bears the wound of his expulsion from Harvard. My audience was over, and I got up and went into the library Ram Dass Revival: Frail but Vibrant, He Gets a Library