An excerpt from Roshani’s autobiography: her first visit to the Oregon Commune in 1982.
“Research has shown that resilient people stay connected,
are optimistic, spiritual, playful, give back, pick their battles, stay healthy,
actively seek solutions and find the silver lining.”
Bob Davis is my husband Ted’s best friend; they are like brothers, really. Bob, an attorney, worked in state government for many years and now has a lobbying and public relations firm of his own. Since the fall of 1981, Bob has been working with a group of people, many of whom are from India, who are establishing a commune in a valley in Central Oregon, near Madras. They are a bit different, these people. They wear orange and red clothes and a beaded necklace called a mala around their necks. On the end of the mala is a picture of their teacher, their guru, Bhagwan Shree Rajneesh. Even the Europeans and Americans among them have adopted Indian names. They have come to create a kind of utopia on land long abused, formerly known as the Big Muddy Ranch. Although their property is huge, 121 square miles to be exact, only a small portion is inhabited. They are fully 26 miles from the nearest town, Antelope, a small community of about 60 people, most of whom are retired. People in the town and nearby ranchers have become alarmed at these newcomers, whom the media has portrayed as a cult, and a sex cult at that. The so-called Rajneeshees are also vegetarians, which doesn’t sit well in cattle country.
Anyway, Bob has been hired by the Rajneeshees, or sannyasins, as they prefer to call themselves, to provide assistance in federal mediation meetings with the local folk. In 1982, Bob had heart surgery and Ted is on sabbatical shortly afterward, so he begins to drive Bob to the meetings. He comes home with the most interesting reports. He is quite impressed with the sophistication, dreams and accomplishments of these red people. He is fascinated by the culture clash that is occurring with the locals. So once, when I am free, I go along to a mediation session in The Dalles. And as soon as school is out in June of 1982, Ted and I drive up to the Ranch to actually see for ourselves what is happening.
We are two political scientists off to study the creation of a brand new city, a unique opportunity. What a far piece from nowhere it is. It is hard for me to understand why the people in Antelope are so upset, since it isn’t until 40 minutes and more than 25 miles of long, winding, narrow, gravel road have passed that we drop down into the heart of the sagebrush covered hills to what is the site of the old ranch house and is fast becoming the center of a new town.
It is a hot June day. We stop at a trailer to ask directions. There is a German shepherd dog named Bear. Later we discover that he is primarily a drug sniffer and newspaper accounts call him fierce and threatening. But when we visit he shyly ambles up to me and drops a rock at my feet, as though it were a bone, and he asking me to throw it in play. I do and Bear wags his tail and brings the rock back to me. I find this hardly a fierce and threatening encounter. So much depends upon our own behavior towards and perceptions of the environment. I am not filled with fear and apprehension, but am rather curious and open and interested. Bear apparently can sense this.
We are asked to sign in. I can’t remember if it is then or on a later visit that we are asked not to bring drugs, or matches, candles or meat onto the drug free, vegetarian and tinder dry land. But those requests become standard. A dark and lovely South American/French/Polynesian woman gives us a tour of the Ranch. She is one of the “Twinkies,” as the hostesses/tour guides are called, a decidedly American joke! She has a Kitaro tape playing in her air conditioned Rover, music we had long enjoyed. Come to find out, Kitaro is a sannyasin, as are several other popular “New Age” musicians. She proudly shows us the accomplishments of the past nine months. And they are considerable. The improvements include a large solar heated cafeteria, huge office building, trailer houses for residents and a double pond sewage treatment lagoon. There is farm land, cleared and planted with many kinds of crops, from soybeans to wheat to strawberries. There are grasslands, greenhouses, wells, a dairy barn and chicken houses. There is an airstrip with small planes, lots of cattle being raised for sale or milk, horses, peacocks, as well as indigenous wildlife beginning to return to the rip-rapped stream banks and the shade of newly planted trees. There is all of this, about 300 people and Bhagwan Shree Rajneesh, an Indian mystic whose vision of a “New Man” living in harmony with the environment has inspired this creation.
Ted and I had read one or two of Bhagwan’s books, and some parts seemed to be written just for us, lending amazing insights and answering spiritual questions which we had discussed many times. We have lunch at the trailer of the small Indian woman who is Bhagwan’s “Secretary” and seems to be the motivating force behind the Ranch. Sheela’s trailer is unassuming but comfortable and she is gracious, inquiring after our impressions and answering questions. We ask to speak to some sannyasins, which literally translated means seekers, about Bhagwan’s “philosophy.” We spend the afternoon with a beautifully luminescent South African woman who had been raised in England, taught in Canada and had happened upon Bhagwan in India ten years earlier. Her grace and openness touch us and the instant warm connection between us is strong. She drives us around and introduces us to friends.
We meet a wonderful American sannyasin who had wanted to be a Catholic priest, but was far ahead of her time. She had lived in Buddhist monasteries, had known Alan Watts, as had Tom, is an incredibly well-read intellectual with lots of degrees and reminds me of the Sufis, with her big heart and slightly wild eyes. We met an Oregonian who had been active in politics and an ardent environmentalist. She is quite taken aback by the opposition of people in her home state and especially by the land use lawyers, whom she had once supported, to this experiment intended to create an oasis out of the wilderness, an experiment which is obviously working, so far as I can see.
We spend time with an English ex-newspaperman and political commentator. As he and Ted talk of politics, I watch the children playing nearby on the grass. They come over to talk to me, to sit on my lap, touch my hair and lead me off to see the new puppies, about whose birth they are very excited. Their eyes are bright and they are so secure in themselves, confident and open. My heart is captured. I remember thinking, “Omigosh, there are other people like me on the planet! They are interested in living with open hearts, they are awed by the beauty in the world. They are ardent about making the world a better place to live in.” It seems to me as though I have found my long lost spiritual family, my tribe.
After this first visit, Ted and I return to the Ranch many times, sometimes staying overnight or for the weekend and a couple of times for week long summer festivals. The place has a special feel of peace and beauty. The mountain air is so clear, the stars close enough to touch, the people both fascinating and loving. I have never been with so many people with whom I feel such a deep connection. They value what I value and seem to be seeking what I have been drawn to all through my life with deep longing. And then there is the presence of Bhagwan, amid the silence and the music and the celebration, so moving, stirring the longing.
During one summer festival, I have a profound experience, I literally fall into meditation. I had tried to meditate many times before, but had only found in it an arduous physical and intellectual effort which I could not seem to master. In fact the most frequent result was a severe headache. I soon discover that my very approach, my “efforting,” has been preventing the state of being which I somehow have always sensed is possible. Then during a morning satsang, a meditation of music and readings in the silent presence of Bhagwan, I fall deeply into myself, and fall and fall into a space that is utterly empty and, at the same time, so full and rich. It seems so miraculous, such an occurrence in the midst of the louder and louder chaos of the music. I am amazed and joyful and full of tears and gratitude to find myself dwelling in this spaciousness. I know that I have truly come home: home to a Master who can guide me, even in, or perhaps because of, his silence; home to a circle of friends who can teach and stretch and support me on my spiritual journey; and home to myself, a being I can continue to discover in wonder.
I eventually become a sannyasin. I wait for two years, hoping that Ted will join me in this new spiritual journey. He never does. I also wait contemplating what becoming a sannyasin will mean to my marriage and to the kids. I also wonder how it will affect my job, given the intense opposition and bad press the Rajneeshees have drawn. I wear clothes the color of the sunrise (reds and pinks and purples to signify a new dawn) for many months to see how that feels. I finally feel that it would be hypocritical of me not to acknowledge my heart, even though the hostility of Oregonians seems to increase and increase. When I take sannyas, I don a mala and a new name. I become Ma Amrit Roshani, which means Eternal Light. “Such an apt name for a teacher,” I think.
There are many other parts of my personal sannyas story I could relate: what it was like to be an Oregonian wearing a mala in the shopping malls and on the streets of the Willamette Valley; the way that cigarettes and red meat simply dropped out of my life; how my kids responded to my new outwardly manifested spirituality (“Will you greet us saying ‘Love and Light’ every day?”); the experience of living on the Ranch with Tom in a leased trailer for more than two summer months in 1985; the reaction at the university (fear and anger on the part of administrators; and a variety of reactions among students, some of whom disappeared; one of whom asked me if I were “a minion of the Devil,” a bit shocking to my self- concept; new students who arrived out of curiosity; those who could not reconcile what they read in the newspapers with what they knew of me and came to ask questions; and those who offered to “take care of” anyone giving me a bad time).
But the only two further parts of this story I want to relate here have to do with the difference meditation made in my life and the difference the Ranch made in my son Mark’s life. For you see, Mark and I were about to launch an experiment of our own, one of the scariest we had ever undertaken. Little do I know that it will turn Mark’s life around 180 degrees in a positive direction. But I have my hopes, as always.
This is an excerpt from Roshani‘s autobiography. Next month we will read the chapter which follows, called ‘The Rajneeshpuram Experiment: Utopia Found and Lost’.