The Source Family

Three years after this article came out I heard from someone who was a member of the Source Family who says the documentary I review below was totally misleading. Here is a link to the blog she established to counter what is in the documentary.

Last night I went to the Texas Theater in the Dallas suburb of Oak Cliff, where Lee Harvey Oswald was arrested, and watched a movie called The Source Family. The film is based on a book by Isis Aquarian and Electricity Aquarian called The Source: The Untold Story of Father Yod, Yo Ho Wha 13 and the Source Family. The Source Family was a colorful LA-based cult active in the early 1970s who also produced some of the freakiest psychedelic rock ever made. I’m looking forward to the release of the movie’s soundtrack album in a few weeks.

In many ways the Source Family was a lot like other crazy cults such as the Manson Family, Jonestown, the Branch Davidians and Aum Shinrikyo. They were led by a charismatic spiritual master, took lots of drugs, engaged in tons of sexy sex, wore weird clothes, lived in a commune and had an urgent message for the whole world that was completely incomprehensible to anyone outside of their group. But unlike those other cults I just mentioned, the Source Family’s story didn’t end in mass suicide or mass murder. Though there were scandals and allegations against them, most of the scandalous stuff tended to be fairly mild, at least by comparison. The worst crime they were accused of was harboring teenage runaways. Their brief flirtation with arming themselves never really got off the ground because, as a bunch of vegetarian hippies, nobody ever really wanted to fire any of those guns.

Since I’ve been interested in weirdo religions for a long time I’ve been aware of the Source Family for a while. They used to run a popular health food restaurant on the Sunset Strip, which was featured in Woody Allen’s movie Annie Hall and I remember that. I never knew a whole lot about them until last night, though.

YaHoWhaThe documentary was put together by former members of the Source Family. Isis Aquarian is listed as one of the executive producers of the film. This usually does not bode well for a movie about a group like this. These kinds of organizations tend to want to whitewash a lot of their own histories the way Chogyam Trungpa’s group did in the recent documentary about him. So coming into it I wasn’t sure how much honesty to expect.

I was pleasantly surprised and impressed by just how much the group were willing to reveal about what happened back in those days. The film is open and honest about the sleazier side of the Source Family. Father Yod is not presented as a perfect master nor are his “children” presented as innocent victims to be pitied. Many members of the cult are interviewed and are forthright about both the good and the bad sides of what they went through.

What I noticed most keenly in the film is something I’ve been saying a lot especially in the past couple of years. And that is that having some kind of genuine spiritual revelation or glimpse of God or whatever you want to call it does not necessarily confer any of what one might call “Godlike qualities” upon a person. It does not bestow upon the recipient any sort of moral perfection nor erase any of the nastier qualities that person might possess before the experience happened.

It does tend to make a person powerful, though. Because it’s a powerful and real experience. It’s the experience of the core truth of what we all really are. Since few of us ever get that far, we find those who have attractive. We want to be near them because we all seek to return to that source.

But the kind of power and attractiveness that comes with such experiences can also be damaging in the extreme. This is because the ego can latch on to absolutely anything – including the realization of its own ultimate unreality – as a way to strengthen and enlarge itself.

A lot of people in the movie question whether Father Yod’s spirituality was genuine or if he was a brilliant con man. I have no doubt that his experience was genuine. Yet he was also a con man. He was the ultimate con man in that he even managed to con himself. He clearly believed in what he was doing. That’s what made him so powerful and so attractive.

The problem was that he was only able to teach his followers to depend upon him. Their devotion never translated into anything else. Once he was dead, following a weird hang gliding accident in Hawaii, the family had nothing. He left them only a legacy of dependance, not real spiritual growth. They may have had genuine spiritual experiences within the commune. But their was no foundation to these experiences. And so when the “Father” was gone, his “children” were lost and eventually scattered.

This kind of thing happens a lot with spiritual sects of this sort. It’s not that their leaders are frauds. Well, not always anyway. Sometimes they are. It’s just that these spiritual masters get so caught up in their own experiences and in the ways that others respond to those experiences that they become even more lost than they were before they had their great awakenings. It’s sad when that happens. But it’s a far more common scenario than one in which a person genuinely integrates their awakening with their regular work-a-day life in the real world. Folks who manage to do that are often not nearly as sexy and exciting as people like Father Yod who jet off into the spiritual stratosphere. And so we don’t hear a whole lot about them. But the folks who manage to stay grounded in spite of their so-called “enlightenment” are the ones we really ought to be paying attention to.

I thoroughly enjoyed this film and highly recommend it to anyone interested in the inner workings of offbeat spiritual organizations.

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72 Responses

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  1. Shodo
    Shodo May 15, 2013 at 6:45 pm |

    Brad said:
    “This is puzzling for me too because I do believe Joshu Sasaki was capable of genuine deep insight. So the answer “He must have been a fake” does not work for me.

    Scott Edelstein in his book Sex and the Spiritual Teacher says something like this. Buddhism teaches us that human beings are not unchanging individuals who move about upon life’s stage. It says that we are manifestations of life itself, always changing according to circumstances. Brad at 6:22 AM is not the same individual as Brad at 6:27 AM. There is a relationship between them. But they’re not the same. He says that this could explain why seemingly good teachers can also do bad things.”

    Did you know that Sazaki embezzled 3,000,000 yen and spent it on prostitutes, got convicted for it and spent 2 years in jail back in Japan… In 1952?

    Did you know he got female parishioner(s) pregnant back in Japan and refused to marry them or acknowledge his child(ren)…?

    He has used the females of his sangha as his personal petting zoo since he’s arrived on these shores – whatever his is, “Clear” isn’t it. We may be perpetual change, but this part of him has been the same for half a century.

    I’m sure he was very zenny… he had the koan stuff down. He could shout like Rinzai, cut cats like Nansen and wash a bowl like Joshu… but that’s it.

    Enlightenment = Morality. At best he was a 105 year old half-baked cookie.

  2. Shodo
    Shodo May 15, 2013 at 6:56 pm |

    A good video by Sheng Yen.

  3. Fred
    Fred May 15, 2013 at 7:49 pm |

    Some fine words Shodo.

    And Mark, I really liked your song and performance.

    A lot of talented people posting here.

  4. Texas Swamp Monk
    Texas Swamp Monk May 15, 2013 at 8:53 pm |

    You Shoulda went last night for Tuesday Night Trash!!!!

  5. Shodo
    Shodo May 15, 2013 at 8:59 pm |

    Jundo is doing translation work from old newspapers where he is in Japan, he is researching the past stuff with Sazaki… the link doesn’t work because he is ironing out the details with Kabutsu Malone. There’s a quote at the beginning though.

    and there is this one, by Rinzai-ji ex-Osho, Ginko David Rubin. He’s talked to one of Sazaki’s kids through email, and he’s met another.

    The Sazaki Archive is the go to place for the info…

  6. Shodo
    Shodo May 16, 2013 at 4:48 am |

    Brad said:
    “Those are interesting points Shodo. Where did you get this information from? Is it reliable?”

    Sadly, It’s very reliable, and has been confirmed. A few people have met Sazaki’s kids. Jundo is translating the newspapers clippings, it was a big story back in the 50’s. Sazaki was in such ill repute back in Japan, that he was transferred to some tiny, backwater temple… and that was probably his motivating reason to leave Japan for the States.

    I had posted a bunch of links, but it never showed up.

    1. stonemirror
      stonemirror May 16, 2013 at 4:46 pm |

      Shodo, any comment which contains more than a single link gets held for moderation as an anti-spam measure. I manually approve them at least once a day, all other things being equal.

  7. Brent
    Brent May 16, 2013 at 6:49 am |

    Hi Brad,

    Question about your statement: ” I do believe Joshu Sasaki was capable of genuine deep insight.” What exactly makes you believe that? I’m really curious btw, this is not a set-up by any means!

    Also, just a comment, this scenario is starting to seem a bit like what happened in the Kumare movie for the members of the audience!

    Thanks for keeping up this space,

  8. Mark Foote
    Mark Foote May 16, 2013 at 7:54 am |

    Thanks Fred! As I wrote to a friend, in my video I make an easy thing look hard, on account of which I question myself as to whether I should wait until I can make it look easy. In the end, that I can do it at all amazes me, and I post it in the hope that it encourages me and others in some kind of action that escapes judgement, at least at the time: art?

    On Sweeping Nits, Jundo was holding back putting his translations of those newspaper articles into the Sasaki archive, waiting for response from the Sasaki camp in case he missed something. Interesting to hear the details.

    The issue of the precepts, good one. I am constantly in mind lately of the statement Gautama made, something to the effect that his skilled disciples, when they experienced the things of anger, lust, and greed, also experienced the dissolution of those things, like drops of water on the surface of a hot cauldron. I think this is possible, by realizing the freedom of mind and shift of consciousness like that of falling asleep, together with a detachment, cessation of activity, and relinquishment of volition like that in falling asleep. Falling awake, as it were.

    Clearly, many Japanese teachers who came to this country had difficulty in their relationship with America’s sexually-liberated subculture, a difficulty exacerbated by public expectations. But do we really want teachers who observe precepts that remove them from the culture at large, or do we want teachers more like ourselves, a part of whatever the evolution of culture we are experiencing is (even if that means some of them fall down rather badly)? Traditional Chan teachers don’t marry, do they?- I think part of the attraction of Zen teachers to Americans is that they are not necessarily celebate, in the modern era. It’s interesting.

  9. Shodo
    Shodo May 16, 2013 at 9:29 am |

    Brent said:
    “Question about your statement: ” I do believe Joshu Sasaki was capable of genuine deep insight.” What exactly makes you believe that? I’m really curious btw, this is not a set-up by any means!”

    I also would like to understand the criteria you used to make that determination…

  10. krum41
    krum41 May 16, 2013 at 9:57 am |

    i am curious to what you know or how you see what trungpa’s students covered up in the documentary on him.

  11. Mumbles
    Mumbles May 16, 2013 at 7:25 pm |

    If the dude’s alright with Leonard Cohen, he’s alright by me.

  12. Shodo
    Shodo May 17, 2013 at 7:13 pm |

    Here are translations done of the scandal that happened in 1952…

  13. Anonymous
    Anonymous May 18, 2013 at 11:13 am |

    Hi, Brad. Oak Cliff is not a suburb of Dallas. It’s a part of Dallas. Just an FYI.

    Also, the Maria Kannon Zen Center is in Oak Cliff. Have you ever gone by there? I have, when in Dallas.

Comments are closed.