When someone told my dad that Rod Serling, creator of the Twilight Zone, had died, my dad quipped, “He’ll be back!” I feel like maybe that joke would work for Ram Dass’s death too.
Ram Dass was the biggest guy in the American spiritual celebrity business. He was kind of The Beatles of this business — a spiritual superstar of the first magnitude. Like him or not, you had to deal with him if you were in this biz. You couldn’t help but be influenced by him even if you didn’t want to be.
I was influenced by Ram Dass. I found a used copy of his book Be Here Now in a dusty little store called Shelly’s Book Bar in Kent, Ohio during my first year as a student at Kent State University. This was before I met my first Zen teacher, Tim McCarthy.
I was really into that book for a brief time. It was a perfect period piece from when the swingin’ sixties turned into the groovy seventies. Ram Dass uses the phrase “far out” unironically several times in that book. It was also about Eastern spirituality, which I was just getting interested in at the time. And it was about LSD, which I was itching to try.
In case you haven’t read the book, it’s basically the story of how Richard Alpert, a Harvard professor and friend of Timothy Leary, another Harvard professor, took loads of LSD, had a spiritual epiphany, went to India, met a guru, got renamed Ram Dass, and returned to the USA to lead the youth of America to a far out, far Eastern Nirvana.
Reading Be Here Now was a big part of the reason I took LSD and of the reason I signed up for Tim McCarthy’s class on Zen Buddhism.
Looking over Ram Dass’s work now he strikes me as one of those guys who was at once really smart and really stupid. It’s funny how often those go hand-in-hand. He’s also one of those guys who was absolutely part of the cultural elite, yet managed to convince everybody that he was just a regular guy. He was super rich, super privileged, and super well-connected right from the start, and remained so until the end of his life. Although he also added super famous and super spiritual to the list of super things he super was.
Spirituality, it seemed, was yet another way for him to be super. He was one of those driven Type A personalities who wanted to be number one in everything he did. So when he got into spirituality, he got into it with the same mindset. And he achieved his goal. He was the most famous and most spiritual of all the super famous, super spiritual guys.
He had lots of groovy sounding theories about higher consciousness, which were mostly bullshit. He pretended to be extremely well-versed and experienced in a whole bunch of Eastern philosophical and religious traditions, but he never really was. He bounced around from tradition to tradition as it pleased him, in ways only a rich, well-connected jet-setter like him could do. He sampled bits of this and bits of that and acted like he knew all about every tradition he dabbled briefly in. He was well spoken and could make folks believe he knew what he was talking about.
I sometimes wonder if he ever noticed how much he was being used all the time. See. Because he was such a bigwig in the spiritual celebrity business, all the lesser wigs in the business wanted to hang out and have their pictures taken with him. Because getting your pic taken with Ram Dass and getting your center talked about by Ram Dass was great PR and could turn into big revenue.
On the occasion of his death, all the spiritual celebrities who were on the rungs below him rushed to social media to try to be the first one on their block to announce Ram Dass was dead and flash their followers a photo of themselves with him. With Ram Dass out of the way, everybody gets to move up one step on the totem pole. There was a veritable feeding frenzy on the spiritual celebrity social media pages yesterday. It reminded me of a school of piranhas going after a corpse.
As for Mr. Dass himself, he seemed like an OK guy. I don’t know of any scandals around him, apart from his association with Bhagavan Das (Kermit Michael Riggs). Bhagavan Das got some praise in Be Here Now. He was another American spiritual seeker and former acid head who, although he was a bit younger than Ram Dass, got to India ahead of him. In India, Bhagavan Das introduced Ram Dass to his teacher Neem Karoli Baba who gave them both their spiritual names.
Kermit… sorry! Bhagavan Das then used the fame granted to him by Ram Dass to get as much tail as possible. He called himself Lord of the Yoni. Yoni means vagina. There’s a movie about him called Karmageddon. To his credit, Ram Dass expressed some regret at having sprung Bhagavan Das upon the world.
After reading Be Here Now and its follow-up Grist for the Mill when I was in my early twenties, I never followed Ram Dass’s exploits very closely. His writings were OK for giving newbies a quick overview of what’s out there as far as eastern spirituality, but there was no real depth to them. I was turned off by the way he never transcended the drug stuff. He never stopped using psychedelics, even after all of his meditation experiences. He wasn’t able to figure out what that stuff was about in spite of his extensive and expensive education.
I guess he was probably a nice enough guy. But I never got my picture taken with him, so I’ll never know for sure.
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