I can’t say I have a love affair with social media. Twitter, Instagram and Snapchat continue to elude me and I remain ambivalent about Facebook. Keeping up with family and friends, through their trips and shifts, carries a fleeting appeal – particularly where photographs are posted – and occasionally there are dashes of humour or referrals to subjects of interest. But when folk begin to pontificate and argue with one another the commentary quickly becomes polluted. I’m sure I’m not alone in sharing this sense of exasperation – not so much because there is anything intrinsically wrong with the medium but mainly the problem lies with the message and how it is delivered.
So it was with some trepidation that I began to read the unravelling discussions occurring within two Facebook groups – Poona One and Rajneeshpuram Residents. Neither group is open to the general public – you need to have spent time as a Rajneesh sannyasin, either in the first incarnation of the Rajneesh ashram in Poona (1974 – 1981) or in the Oregon commune, known colloquially as ‘The Ranch’ (1981 – 1985). As at the time of writing – January 2018 – the former group has 2401 members and the latter a total of 810. Potentially, this suggests an extensive readership and a variety of contributions.
Having now scrolled down the entries and tried to follow the various conversational ‘threads’, I can say my trepidation has been replaced by a sense of appreciation – both for the raw honesty of many highly personal disclosures and for the determined attempts to grapple with some of the issues that arise when one casts one’s lot with a guru or spiritual teacher. At last, I find myself mumbling. At last, a semi-organic and collective effort to shine a light on the events of the past and invoke a discourse that carries the possibility of understanding, clarity, and in some cases – the healing of lingering wounds.
But I have hesitated to join this discourse. It’s not that I haven’t any personal revelations of my own. It’s not because I have had little to say about these matters (as many old friends would attest). It’s not that I don’t have opinions. No, my hesitation has more to do with the nature of the Facebook discourse – a discourse that in rare moments can rise to great heights but for the most part staggers around the ring like a couple of punch-drunk fighters, jabbing ineffectively at one another or ducking blows, imaginary and real.
Even if my metaphor is a bit over the top, you get the drift. And Facebook is just another vehicle – a medium if you’d like – to enable us humans to engage in the delicate art of communication. We often kid ourselves we have mastered this art. We may consider ourselves careful readers or good listeners. We try to express ourselves both clearly and concisely and we are sure – or try to be sure – we are understood. We may have learnt how to be assertive rather than aggressive. We recognise the importance of language – how a misplaced word can give unexpected offence. If we are engaged in this particular ‘sannyasin’ discourse, we have probably meditated – perhaps for many, many years, and we consider ourselves self-aware, at least to a reasonable degree. There’s a fair chance we’ll have done our share of therapeutic work and we understand a bit about denial and projection and the futility of blame. We may even get to the point where we take full responsibility for our actions and not just lug it around as a nice idea.
Why am I banging on about this? I hope it will become clear to those of you who are motivated to follow this meandering contribution, wherever it leads. In short, though the Facebook conversation has provided a wonderful prompt – even an excuse if you like – I think the issues that are raised are incredibly complex and call for a careful and caring exploration into what each of us is trying to comprehend or achieve.
Let me begin by giving some kind of context for my own involvement. In 1977 I’d been married seven years and worked as a lawyer in Fremantle, Western Australia. We owned a house in a middleclass neighbourhood and lived within a short drive of our parents. My wife was a stay-at-home mum. Completing the nuclear family were our two young boys, aged five and three.
Neither Sue nor I were religious or consciously ‘spiritual’. Politically we were armchair left-wingers and socially we’d channeled excess energy into helping set up a Montessori school and a neighbourhood food co-operative (which was run from our garage). Out of the blue, through friends, we met orange-clad folk and heard about an Indian guru who they called ‘Bhagwan’. On cassette tapes we listened to his talks. We read his books – the transcriptions of these ‘discourses’. We attended a centre on the outskirts of Perth where we engaged in a smorgasbord of meditations and group work. Within a year we'd both ‘taken sannyas’ (much to the shock and horror of family and friends). Within another year we made separate visits to Poona; I quit work; we sold our house, donated the net proceeds to Rajneesh Foundation, and caught a plane to India. By that stage we were effectively separated. Our boys came with us.
Fast-forward seven years. I am on a yellow school bus, leaving the cowboy country of central Oregon for the coastal city of Portland. Light snow is falling. I am with my partner of one year. Accompanied by my two boys – now 13 and 11 – we are headed for San Francisco and then on to Sydney. Finally, in Perth, we will attempt to resurrect a life outside the commune. The commune – the magnificent dream – has imploded. Our leaders, with prosecution hovering, have flown the coop. The guru, arrested after attempting to flee the country, has been allowed to leave after some fancy legal footwork known in the trade as plea-bargaining.
Like others whose spiritual voyages will be in some ways similar, we experienced incredible highs, periods of deep stillness, great camaraderie, and challenges to mind and body, as we embraced an unfolding love affair with our guru and all he appeared to represent. The carrot of enlightenment dangled. We envisaged ourselves as the harbingers of a new society – an inexorably spreading community of the ‘awakened’. A ‘New Commune’ that would give rise to the ‘New Man’ (and by implication the ‘New Woman’).
Alas and alack it was not to be. Euphoria gave way to perplexity, confusion, disillusionment and, for some, a profound fear. Our own dark night of the soul, accompanied by perceived betrayal, mistreatment, anguish and heartbreak.
Over thirty years have elapsed. Bhagwan – who became Osho – is dead. His ashram in Poona has morphed into a Meditation ‘Resort’. Sincere folk, mostly from affluent countries, rock up. Some still ‘take sannyas’.
Those of us who were there in the early times have our memories, such as they are. For a significant number these were halcyon days – never to be replicated. Such folk are usually immune to a conversation which endeavours to examine the other side of the coin – the shadow side of sannyas and the guru experiment. It is their right to do so and they are probably not the ones who have followed these threads on Facebook, let alone inclined to contribute their own two bob’s worth.
And then there are those who still have an unyielding belief in the omniscience of an ‘Enlightened One’ and/or a vested interest in holding Osho and his legacy at arm’s length from any criticism or critiquing. It is disappointing yet hardly surprising their voices are largely silent on enduring issues that attract the attention of many of us.
In the aftermath of the experiment, I was relatively fortunate. Initially it was a struggle to ‘return to the world’ but I was in Australia – quintessentially ‘the Lucky Country’. Though we lived for a time only a tad above the poverty line, doing cleaning and gardening jobs for a pittance, I had a profession upon which to fall back. And there was reconnection with old friends and family members with whom I began to mend fences, no longer bound up in a story of ‘them’ and ‘us’. Gradually I weaned myself off the sannyas network, as did my partner. This was not a deliberate rejection of our immediate past but rather an attempt to find our feet and function within the wider community.
Like others with whom we have spoken and shared stories, those years in the protective cocoon of the commune did not adequately prepare us for life on the outside. Suddenly, we faced a multiplicity of challenges – how to earn an income, how to relate to and nurture children who themselves had to readjust to schooling and society, and of course how to evolve and flourish in our intimate relationships. (Changing the restaurant every other week no longer seemed a viable option!) As Jack Kornfield puts it so crisply: ‘After the ecstasy, the laundry’.
For us, there was a lot of laundry as we stumbled and bumbled along in a world we thought we had left behind when the spiritual search kicked in.
Which brings me back to some key questions, the most obvious of which is: ‘What went wrong?’
If you posed this question to 100 current or former sannyasins you would probably get 100 different answers, ranging from scathing accounts blaming everybody and anybody - to saccharine assessments along the lines of ‘everything that happened was meant to happen’ and was inherently perfect.
The vast majority of us, I imagine, do not camp at either extreme on this spectrum. We will have our opinions and make our judgments and if we are prone to re-laundering our linen we will try to have conversations with those who are also keen not to ignore the past but to unravel its significance. The Facebook discourses are testament to that impulse.
Like many of you, I have read and watched numerous offerings – books, articles and documentaries – from those with past or present sannyasin affiliations to commentators who have looked in from outside the tent and arrived at their own conclusions. Unsurprisingly, these portrayals range from rose-coloured hagiographies to savage critiques.
Where does the ‘truth’ reside?
‘Groan, groan’, I hear from the wings. Impossible question. A question that simply accentuates a raft of individual opinions and perspectives. A question that again invites more heat than light.
I agree. Far better to pose something along the lines of: ‘What can we learn?’ Such a question inevitably leads us into examining the past and exploring its significance for our individual and collective futures. In that way we might even marry the ideals and aspirations of youth with the discernment that a more mature understanding can bring. There’s a lot at stake here and it’s worth the effort.
If we take a helicopter view of the Rajneesh experiment we can come up with a number of general propositions, most of which have provoked – and continue to provoke – fervent debate and analysis. Here, I’m apt to use the royal ‘we’ but fully accept these are my opinions – opinions based upon experience and observations within the ashram and commune and developed and honed over the thirty plus years since I left Oregon on that snow-blessed day in early winter.
- For two decades ‘Bhagwan’ Shree Rajneesh exercised major influence if not absolute control over the affairs of the Poona ashram and its successor – Rajneeshpuram in Oregon, USA.
- Legal entities such as Rajneesh Foundation and Rajneesh Foundation International were essentially shams, with the guru fictionally at arm’s length but in practice responsible for core decisions and policy direction. In other words, his role went well beyond spiritual or religious matters.
- At the Poona ashram, until the influx of disciples became too large, Osho – chiefly through his administrative head, Ma Yoga Laxmi – gave explicit directions concerning the lives of individual sannyasins.
- In the Oregon commune, Ma Anand Sheela – who’d replaced Laxmi – interpreted and carried out her Master’s instructions, supported by an inner circle (primarily women).
- From the outset, Osho appeared to deliberately fan controversy – verbally skewering political figures like Indira Gandhi and Moraji Desai and icons such as Mother Theresa and Mahatma Gandhi. This ‘attack-dog’ mode continued when he moved to Reagan’s America, fostering a mentality of ‘them’ and ‘us’ among his followers.
- Though he spoke eloquently and knowledgably about major contributors to various religions and wisdom traditions, he had little time for contemporary spiritual teachers. In his own assessment, he was the ‘Master of Masters’.
- Western disciples – predominantly from Europe, North America, New Zealand and Australia – by and large showed up with scant knowledge or understanding of the concept and traditional role of an Eastern guru. This left them open to exploitation.
- In their quest for spiritual guidance and besotted with a charismatic guru, disciples shucked off the perceived constraints of their upbringing, often abandoning the ethical norms that underpinned their cultures.
- Exhorted to ‘leave your mind at the front gate’, devotees were prone to ignore or laugh off contradictions, implausible explanations, and aberrant behaviours of both the guru and one’s fellow disciples. These were categorised as ‘devices’ – radical methods and means of propelling you towards greater insight and self-awareness.
- Flowing from the above proposition, the notion of ‘surrender’ was misconstrued. Instead of acting from a sense of discernment, we were dealt a card stating: ‘Father Knows Best’. Put another way, the spiritual adept sees things as they are. He’s climbed the mountain; the disciple is stuck in the foothills. So, if you are serious about spiritual growth and inner transformation – do as you’re told!
- Though one was allegedly in a ‘commune’ this conferred no effective right of discussion, consultation or shared decision-making. Hence, anything ‘personal’ was subsumed to the Greater Vision emanating from above.
- If you disagreed with any decision or situation, the choice was stark. Shape up – or ship out. (At Rajneeshpuram, this became the option of desperation for some; other recalcitrants were simply booted from the nest.)
- Love is indeed blind. When questioned about their motivations, sannyasins will often speak in terms of the ‘love affair’ with the guru and of ‘heart openings’ and the like. Certainly that was part of my experience.
- We may also talk fondly about a deep stillness and sublime energy that infused us in the presence of our guru. This ‘energy field’ was both uplifting and addictive. To spiritual noviates, it seemed the presence of the Master was an essential determinant of our present and future wellbeing. It was quite a hook!
- Many of the points raised above contributed to a climate of acquiescence (sometimes accompanied by fear or ignorance) that led to abuses of power, great and small. As those of you who take an interest in this area will know, ‘power imbalance’ comes in many forms – political, social, religious, sexual, physical, cognitive, emotional, and occupational – to name some key categories. And although the idea of ‘power’ can seem straightforward, its exercise can be incredibly nuanced. Some contributors to the Facebook discussion clearly recognise this.
- Scapegoating or blaming others is a strong tendency on the part of those who refuse to accept let alone address any role they might play in a given scenario. When this tendency becomes a hallmark of one’s spiritual teacher – and infiltrates his community – trouble brews. In fact, it’s fatal, no matter how ‘enlightened’ one’s teacher might be.
It is not my purpose here to offer evidence or cite examples to back up the claims I’m making. There is material a’plenty to be found in print and film and in the anecdotes that continue to emerge. There are also contrary or opposing versions especially around where and how responsibility should fall. Some folk place the mantle of blame on Sheela and those around her. They cannot or won’t entertain the notion their beloved guru bears any responsibility. Others in this camp take it further. In their eyes Osho was persecuted by the US and Indian governments and their instrumentalities. He was misunderstood and very much a victim.
I think these folk are blindsided by their love affair at best and in wilful denial at worst. Common sense and an abundance of evidence build a compelling case that Osho was the author of his own misfortunes – and, sadly, the primary instigator of the misfortunes of his devoted audience as well as others in the wider community.
So what can be learnt?
In June 2000 I was up in the Kimberley region of Western Australia with about 50 others. We had completed a silent retreat, walking with camels along the banks of the Fitzroy River and surrounding country. Back in Broome we broke our silence and shared stories. Many of the participants had been with spiritual teachers of one kind or another. As we listened to each other it became clear there were shared themes. We could all talk from experience of the sincerity and innocence that spurred us to forsake our normal lives and cast our lot as seekers. To an amazing extent our journeys mirrored one another. However, the endings were rarely pretty – abuses of power involving the usual trifecta (sex, money and authority) – and a period of confusion often followed by betrayal and bitterness. Osho had his own inimitable style but he was not alone.
Another interesting by-product was that the closer a disciple got to the seat of power, the greater the severity of the burns. And in the aftermath it was often a tangled web of shame, guilt, fear and anger that induced these acolytes to withdraw and stay silent. Around Osho, there were those who were privy to material and instructions that were not available to the majority of commune residents. Some served jail terms for their activities. Some came clean, making depositions and swearing affidavits before the courts. One or two wrote books or were interviewed for documentaries. But none, to my knowledge, accepted unequivocal responsibility for their role in the drama. In at least one instance, ‘brainwashed’ was advanced as the underlying reason for illegal or abhorrent behaviour.
Even if we were far removed from these events, many of us had qualms at one time or another but kept our heads below the parapet. In the early days of Rajneeshpuram I went to Sheela, distressed over our treatment of the (mostly elderly) residents of Antelope. Literally, we used our numbers to take over the town. The party line painted these people as reactionary rednecks but it was clear we were the aggressors. Sheela looked me in the eye and said: ‘It comes from Bhagwan’. Left with no wriggle room, I backed off – as did others when concerns arose.
Mariana Caplan, in her book, Eyes Wide Open lists ten STDs – Spiritually Transmitted Diseases. Most are relevant to the Osho era but one that leaps from the page is ‘The Chosen-People Complex’ – a belief your guru and your community of followers is ‘more spiritually evolved, powerful, enlightened’ than any other. This elitist stance immediately alienates you from everyone outside the group and is allied with another STD – Group Mind – ‘group think, cultic mentality or ashram disease’…..an ‘insidious virus that contains many elements of traditional co-dependence’. Does that resonate with any reader who has been around communes and spiritual teachers?
Caplan quotes from Paramahansa Yogananda, the author of Autobiography of a Yogi. ‘Truth is not afraid of questions.’ I wish this was sewn into every robe, shirt, sari, and jacket worn by spiritual teachers across the globe. I wish it was built into the DNA of every self-proclaimed seeker. And I wish it was honoured to the max. With Osho, apart from the period he went into silence, there was always scope for questions. In fact we secretly delighted in hearing our questions read out in morning discourse. But heaven forbid if we ever questioned our guru or his methods. Forget it.
In my seven years in the commune I can’t recall any public discussion around the exercise of spiritual power. I can remember Osho exhorting his group leaders to ‘do his work’ and making it clear to us the likes of Laxmi and Sheela were there purely to do his bidding (except towards the end when he shovelled all blame onto ‘Sheela and her gang’). If there is any lesson to be learned about spending time with a guru or person of spiritual or even therapeutic authority, then it will be around their willingness not only to challenge those who come before them but to be challenged. Otherwise the wheel of power and control will spin endlessly.
In recent times, with enquiries into child abuse in religious and state institutions, we have seen how silence and denial has impacted upon survivors. Across the community, in show business, politics, media organisations and elsewhere, the conspiracy of silence has allowed (mostly) male perpetrators to inflict sexual harassment and violence upon women. There is now a broad consensus these behaviours need to be exposed and acknowledged if meaningful healing is to result. In the so-called spiritual sphere, where similar dynamics have existed and continue to exist, it is equally important to shine a fierce light.
Nowhere perhaps is this more poignant than in the case of Rajneeshee children. We – the parents – had choice. We elected to become disciples, to abandon family life, and to embed ourselves in communes. Our children – usually quite young – had no such choice. Generally they came with us and were themselves initiated into sannyas and given Hindu names. One could hardly argue they had choice, let alone informed consent!
Encouraged by our Master, our focus was upon individual ‘growth’- the ultimate goal, our enlightenment. Meditation (in many guises) was seen as the pathway, abetted by group and individual therapies (often derived or adapted from the Human Potential practices of California). Within the Poona ashram, children were tolerated – just. Mostly they ran wild, forming close bonds with one another and sporadically attending a sannyasin-run school (of sorts). Some stayed with their parents; moving into kids’ dorms when parents obtained ashram accommodation. In Oregon things were a trifle better organised. Those of school age combined school in nearby Antelope with work in the various commune departments. At night they slept in children’s dormitories, overseen by parents on roster.
Away from the strictures of a nuclear family, many children seemed to flourish under this laissez-faire regime. In the main they led joyful, happy young lives – spending time with their peers and forming healthy bonds with adults including their parents. Others – as has subsequently come out in spades – were not so lucky.
‘It takes a village to raise a child.’ That sounds good on paper and may well influence the thinking of those who want to escape suburbia and raise kids in a wholesome, holistic, supportive and caring community. The problem, as always, is with the nature of the particular community, commune or village. Historically, there have been indigenous societies where the rearing of children was seen as a collective responsibility. But those societies had explicit protocols and customs that governed behaviour, and usually had firm hierarchies as well as consultative processes and decision-making mechanisms involving leaders and groups of elders. Without such structures, developed over long periods, latter-day imitations tend to struggle.
Certainly there is a strong argument we, as parents and as a Rajneesh community, failed our children in many ways. At the outset, Osho discouraged parents bringing children, claiming (correctly, one concludes) they would be a distraction and interfere with the meditative flavour of the ashram. Parents themselves were often split between the duty of care to their young ones and the desire for personal transformation. And within this free-flowing, anything-goes cultural milieu it is hardly surprising there were transgressions, particularly against teenage girls and young women.
If nothing else, the Facebook commentaries have highlighted this sorry facet of commune life and given a voice to those who have suffered hurt and trauma. The exchanges have also brought home how much was unknown, unexpressed or unacknowledged at the time. Within the commune, many of us knew of or experienced things that went against the grain. Sometimes we spoke up, only to be slapped down. But few, if any, understood the extent of the malaise. We might have had access to a handful of pieces but not enough to complete the jigsaw. I say this not by way of excuse but in explanation of general ignorance. Having since spoken to women (now mothers themselves) who were commune children, my eyes have been opened to the depth and breadth of sexual activity and, at times, coercive behaviour on the part of older men. As parents, we should have picked up on this – and acted – but in the main we did not. And neither, as far as I’m aware, did the ashram and commune administrators intervene or respond effectively to any complaints – quite the opposite, according to some accounts. (‘It’s not our problem’.)
So the boil has now been lanced – to the immense relief of some and to the chagrin of others.
Yes, a boatload of anger and hurt will come out. There will be tears. But these will be transitory phenomena. On a deeper level I believe people are well capable of moving on. There is a vast residue of compassion in most of us and a strong desire to reconcile the events of the past.
Hopefully, we can look back on that past with clear eyes. Hopefully, we can be honest with ourselves and with each other. Hopefully, those who cling to fixed positions and inflexible beliefs may be motivated to open to other possibilities.
And hopefully, many of those who have kept away from these issues will be induced to share and participate in a respectful and ongoing conversation.
In my commune days we had a wonderfully disparaging word to dismiss any concerns one might harbour. To be ‘negative’ was a cardinal sin. It makes me chuckle now when I think about it but at the time it wasn’t so funny. I mention this because much of what I have written can be construed as a dismissal of the guru experience and Osho in particular. This is not my intention. When I took that fork in the road it was with the recognition I had no idea where it might lead. In the Rajneesh washing-machine I was upended and came to know myself in ways that would have not been possible had I remained on the periphery. For this I am grateful and have no regrets.
But – and this is a big ‘but’– despite the fact I was a thirty year-old, educated professional, I was spiritually and psychologically immature and unable to maintain the level of discernment necessary to distinguish the wheat from the chaff. Only the passage of time and an evolving psycho-spiritual exploration has helped synthesise experiences and understanding. (And having a loving partner who has shared this journey with me has been of immense value.)
Like others, I am able to look back on the adventures of the 70s and early 80s as a period of heightened states, emotional upheaval, blissful interludes, joy and laughter – a mad and dynamic heart-burster as we embarked on a spiritual roller-coaster. For the most part we were young, idealistic and sincere. We were also unprepared for a guru tradition that went back many centuries. For sure, we were ill-equipped to stand steady in the face of the overwhelming entity that was Osho. Our innocence was bound to come a cropper – and it did.
So what - if anything - has been learnt?
You – those of you who have passed through this fire – will make your own personal assessments. I can only speak for myself. For some years I was too busy getting re-rooted in ordinary life to pay attention to anything that smacked of spirituality. Then, as spiritual teachers began to sprout like mushrooms, I dipped my toes back in the water. Once more, I was nourished and inspired. But something had changed. The urge to find a specific teacher or live in a commune had passed. Guidance was fine but I had to locate my own inner authority and live to the best of my ability from a place of integrity and openness. Yes, fine words. A big ask - meeting (let alone welcoming!) the day-to-day challenges of an embodied existence.
The journey continues. Times have changed. Books have been written about common pitfalls along the path. Philosophers such as Ken Wilber offer theoretical frameworks for making sense of the many wisdom traditions and contemplative practices. Spiritual teachers are challenged by their students. Online interview forums like Buddha at the Gas Pump bring teachers into living rooms throughout the world. Seekers have a far better chance of proceeding with ‘eyes wide open’ but nothing can be taken for granted. Any impulse towards a teacher or teaching needs to be tempered with discernment - moment to moment, on every level.
There’s a slogan doing the rounds: ‘Wake up, Clean up, Grow up’. I smile wanly. If only it was that easy.
Bruce Menzies - January 2018