The Rajneeshpuram Experiment: Utopia Found and Lost

Remembering Here&Now

The story of how Tarun, a deaf and autistic boy of 20, becomes a role model during his months in Rajneeshpuram.

“Hope is but the dream of those who wake.”

Matthew Prior

I don’t know when I first conceived of this wild experiment, but the idea is planted in the fall of 1984 when the Ranch invites new residents to a work program called the Rajneesh Humanity Trust (RHT). Each participant is to pay a small amount of room and board each month to live and work on the Ranch. One of Mark’s dorm counselors, Mary, really wants to go.  A light bulb comes on in my head. This may be our chance to find a place for Mark in the world. Mary is known in the sannyas world as ‘Tantra. She knows sign language, she knows Mark, she needs the money for room and board and is willing to be hired as his companion.

Tarun's 45th birthday and on the coast in 2009

I recap Mark’s first nineteen years in my mind. Mark is born deaf and afraid of the world and withdrawn into himself.  Many labels are stuck on him over the years — mentally and emotionally disturbed, behavioral problems, brain damage, residual schizophrenia, learning disabled, autistic — each one picked up, applied to Mark, found not to fit exactly and most discarded.  Many of these diagnoses in combination probably come closer to constituting the truth. Mark attends the School for the Deaf from the age of four and progresses slowly in special classes until age eleven, when he finally becomes interested enough in the ‘outside’ world to begin to use a bit of sign language. At age seventeen, Mark is admitted to a special twenty-four hour residential treatment program where he begins to learn some more appropriate behaviors and to become a little more self-confident and independent from me. While labels and prescriptions and programs are plentiful, people who genuinely like and love and care for Mark are much fewer and farther between. So I have become too exclusively a source of affection, communication, and much other need fulfillment.

Mark grows and learns in the residential program and, as he reaches nineteen we begin to make plans for his transition to a semi-independent adult life. For a while, things look good — a few months of job training through a vocational rehabilitation facility, placement on a waiting list for a sheltered workshop job, a search underway for a group home. If everything works out, Mark can have guidance, supervision, be safe, yet live independently from me and keep on developing self-confidence and even pride at being a person who can contribute to life.

Then we begin to face again what we have faced so many times before. After filling out reams of paper and forms, after endless numbers of phone calls and waits in offices, we discover time after time that for some reason or other Mark falls though the cracks and has no access to services. “Sorry, Mark’s IQ is too high so we can’t certify him for a group home placement for the mentally retarded. Maybe Mark can find a bed in a home for the emotionally disturbed. Sorry, no staff in those homes knows sign language.  Sorry, there is no appropriate group home for Mark so we’ll try to get funding for one. Sorry, the group home funds didn’t get into the budget. Sorry, Mark’s job productivity has plateaued. He cannot stay in the training program. Sorry, Mark is 80th on a sheltered workshop job waiting list and no places have come open for six months. Sorry, Mark has benefited all that he can so he will have to leave the residential program. Sorry, Mark cannot stay at the School for the Deaf after next year.”

Everyone is sorry. No one can help. Another of many fights for Mark’s future begins. He can’t come home; the temptation to fall into the old dependencies might reverse the slow progress of the years. He can’t be idle and feel useless after tasting the fun and sense of pride available through work.

Then this miracle called the Rajneesh Humanity Trust program presents itself. Mark is accepted after filling out one form, one meeting, one phone call.  So relatively simple. Then I meet with the principal of OSD and talk him into saving a place for Mark at the school if our experiment doesn’t work.  He also agrees that, if OSD gets regular reports from a supervisor, Mark’s work experiences at the Ranch can be counted towards his graduation, well his completion certificate, from the school scheduled for June of 1985. It helps that at present OSD’s principal is a guy I knew at university, as an undergraduate. The people I talk to at the Ranch agree to provide the reports. We pack up Mark’s belongings and drive him and Mary/Tantra, his former dorm counselor, to Rajneeshpuram. Mark arrives there on October 1, 1984.  After a bit of orientation and settling him in his room, Mark and I part, amazingly without any tantrum. This is the first good sign.

Of course, we arrange things very carefully. We dress Mark in a distinctive red jacket and red baseball cap with a large “In Silence” button on his chest, so that people will recognize him and not try to interact with him too much.  We make sure that Mark and Tantra are housed and work close to each other. We provide sign language books so that other Ranch residents can look up words and phrases. We talk about how to handle any crises with two members of the Peace Force. Both of these women know sign language and have worked with people with autism before.

I am nervous about this whole experiment, but it seems like an opportunity not to be missed. I go back to see how things are going about five days later.  Mark is nervous and a bit scared. His body is twitching a little, as it has done over the years when he is anxious, and he sticks pretty close to me. We decide to take things one week at a time. I visit every weekend to see how he is doing and if he wants to leave. The fifth weekly visit reveals such a beautiful change. A new Mark has begun to evolve.

This new Mark walks straighter and taller, seemingly prouder of who he is.  The twitching and nervousness is gone. He sits as calmly and absorbed as everyone else during the nearly two hour evening video of Osho’s discourse. Even though he cannot hear or understand the words, he seems captivated by the face and hands up on the screen and by the atmosphere of silence and happiness which pervades the meditation hall. So much more calm and confident is he that when our visit is over, he hugs me, smiles, waves, signs the word for later and seems to feel entirely secure that he will be well and happy until my return.  I become filled with hope that Mark has finally found his place in the world.

Over the next several weeks, I see some other wonderful things happening for Mark. He hugs a few other people now, even men. The distance, even fear, evinced in the presence of men in the past has subsided a bit.  He allows some others to touch him without pulling back and even invites one or two to scratch his back, his favorite “stroking,” no longer given only by mom. A deaf sannyasin comes to Mark at lunch to sign some words of greeting, a friendly and natural recognition that is also shared by others, hearing people, who wave or smile or touch. How full my heart grows that Mark is now recognized as being of value by so many others. That is such a new and wonderful experience for both of us.

One problem is that while at the Ranch, Mark begins to gain weight again.  He is free to eat what he wants and it shows.  At 5’ 6” and 200 pounds he looks enormous.  But I feel this is part of his growing up, his learning to care for his own body.  He doesn’t do very well with it at first, but the positive tradeoffs seem worth it to me.  Mark’s hair has become dark brown, like his dad’s, and he lets it grow fairly long, but it is still above his shoulders.  And he begins to grow a beard.  It is so amazing how much older that makes him look.  I realize that he is an adult now, a young man.  We arrange for him to have a debit card.  The Ranch was the first place I ever heard of using a debit card.  I put money in his account and he goes to the store for pop and treats and books and stickers.  He even buys himself a soft Teddy Bear.  I guess he is not all that grown up inside yet.  He purchases a triangle, the pitch of which he can hear if he holds it up to his ear.  He plays it at Osho’s drive-by every afternoon and at celebrations.  It seems to transport him to hear this sound in his ear.  He closes his eyes in sheer enjoyment.

Again, I try to hear Mark’s voice in my imagination:  “I love this place that mom and Tantra have brought me to.  I am not sure what is going on, but I feel so free.  I miss mom and really look forward to her cards and letters and visits, but maybe here I can find my way by myself.  Maybe here I can belong.  I can ride all the buses as much as I want for free and they take me all over the Ranch and I can’t even get lost!  Someone will always get me back to the right bus stop for my room. I love working in the cafeteria.  For one thing, there is lots of food.  Also I can make cookies and chop vegetables and make lunches and sweep and work with the big dishwashing machine.  It is all so much fun.

“Lots of people seem to like me here.  They want to teach me things.  And I can go to the store and buy whatever I want.  All I have to do is give them this little red card to put in the machine and out the door I go with my treasured purchases. Yes, there are sometimes problems.  I remember one day when I go back to my little cabin and my roommate has locked me out.  I know he is in there.  I can’t get at my books and toys and bed and sanctuary.  I pound and pound on the door.  I run yelling and screaming.  The chief of the Peace Force finds me.  She can sign. She understands me.  I grab her hand and take her to the cabin.  She pounds on the door for me, but has a voice and words and can talk to the guy inside.  He unlocks the door.  I run to my things, my security things.  I begin to pack everything up.  The Peace Force Chief helps me to move to my own little place in the infirmary.  I have my own bed, my own locker and no room mate.  Soon I am moved to a house with several other people with disabilities and get my very own room by myself.  Someone is there day and night to help me if I have a problem.  I am so happy.  I have a little haven again and know where to find someone to help if I need it.  And all of my clothes and toys and books have found their places in the little room and I am safe.”

In December, Mark amazes me by signing, “I want my mala.”  He makes up a sign for mala, but it is clear what he means.  I have no idea what the significance of this desire is to Mark, but he states it over and over.  Perhaps he just wants to be like all of his newfound friends; perhaps he wants to be accepted truly as one of them; perhaps he just thinks everyone in Rajneeshpuram should be wearing a mala, including him.  We go to the Multiversity to talk to a counselor.  She asks if Mark has been doing the meditations.  I really don’t know.  So we agree that the first step is to ask him to do one of the meditations each morning and another each evening.  We create a little card for him so that he can have the meditation leader verify that he has been there and completed the meditation.

Another surprise!  Mark attends the two meditations every single day that week.  When I come for my visit, he shows me the card.  I have never known him to want something so badly, to be so self-motivated, so disciplined.  So I fill out an application for him to take sannyas.

On a Saturday evening we go to a video of Osho, who has come out of silence and begun to speak.  It is a very long video that precedes the sannyas ceremony.  Mark becomes a bit impatient for his mala, but maintains a remarkable degree of control.  The hall is packed with at least a thousand people.  Finally, Mark’s name is called.  He marches up to the sannyasin handing out malas and sheets of paper with new names.  I go with him.  He takes off his baseball cap, kneels down and shoves his head into the man’s seated lap, as though to say, “Put that mala on my neck already!”  The mala on, I reach for the paper and fingerspell his new name, Swami Prem Tarun, which means Fresh Love.  I think, “Oh how appropriate.  This whole Ranch experience has truly been a fresh experience of love for Mark.  So much caring from people other than mom comes his way each day.”  As soon as this is done, Mark stands up, faces the audience and begins to clap towards each part of the hall.  Soon the entire hall is filled with clapping.  It is such a joyous thing for me to see so many people celebrating with my dear son.  Of course, tears are streaming down my face.  We go back to our places and what does Mark sign to me but, “Now I want pizza!”  I can hardly keep from bursting out laughing during the next person’s ceremony.  We quietly slip out of the hall and, indeed, go eat pizza in celebration.

Another of the most wonderful experiences of our lives together happens one day as we are walking the streets of Rajneeshpuram.  A woman riding by on a bike suddenly comes to a screeching halt.  She backtracks to us and asks if I am Mark’s biological mom.  She says,” I just have to tell you what a wonderful role model Mark is.”  Mark, a role model? Unbelievable.  I ask what she means.  She says, “When he is happy he laughs from his belly, loud and long.  When he is sad, he cries.  When he is angry he yells.  He is so free and clear with his emotional expression that it is a great example for me, a person who has repressed her feelings all of her life.”  I honestly never thought of Mark as a role model for anyone.  What a gift that woman gives me.

And there is more.  Mark rides the buses confidently and alone and to destinations around the Ranch of his own choosing.  This may not sound remarkable at all but he is a young man who has had courage to ride buses alone for less than a year and then only to work and back and nowhere else.  And I finally can breathe easy that he can ride and ride and not be taken advantage of, or lost, or hurt.  He is so safe at the Ranch.

As for work, after wrapping travel lunches and making cookies for awhile, Mark is moved to the dish washing area of the cafeteria.  This is a good move as far as diet is concerned.  Mark has always been a hard worker, but now I notice that he is more careful and alert.  And he smiles a lot.  It is easy to understand why he is so happy in this place.  The people are so interested and caring.  Several ask about how to better communicate with Mark and are glad to know more about writing him simple notes.  I had brought sign language books for those who wanted to talk a bit with their hands and they are actually used.  Sannyasins also ask questions in an attempt to better understand Mark’s emotions and behavior.

Mark’s crew boss is a perfect lesson for him — a very tall man of a size that is potentially scary, but who is the gentlest person.  He comes over to us as we are scrubbing away at utensils:  “Would you sign to Mark:  I don’t know how to tell him, but I feel so blessed that he is here.”  “I’ll just tell him that you like him and are happy to have him here; he will understand that.”  Mark just beams.  I can almost hear him thinking, “People around here really like me.  Wow.”

There are many other beautiful situations over the fifteen months of Mark’s stay in this new utopia.  But the most touching are remarks about how wonderfully innocent and hard working Mark is, implying that others could learn from his example.  Osho talks about making a 180 degree turn in one’s life.  Well, for Mark to be thought of as a role model, now that’s a 180 degree change.  And a wonderful one.

My hope and dream for this dear son of mine is that he can extend his stay on RHT and be surrounded by the loving people at the Ranch for as long as possible.  For the first time in his life, he is beginning to know that there are many other beings in the world who can love him and care about him and not reject him or ridicule him.  He is getting a sort of respect that he’s rarely experienced before and that is giving him such a sense of dignity.  I can see it in his behavior and feel it in his demeanor.

As much as I can I thank all of those who have created such a beautiful place and for sharing it with Mark and so many others whose lives are being transformed.  As I do, there are tears of joy and gratitude welling up, while Mark, I can see, is full of smiles, inside and out.

But, and there seems always to be a “but,” as is so often true of utopias, this lovely place comes to an end, long before we wanted it to.  I have been envisioning Mark living most of his adult life in this wonderful place.  I know we have found him the perfect spot, where he is safe, but encouraged to grow in so many ways.

But by late November, 1985, Osho has gone, deported amidst scandals wrought by Sheela.  The details are best left for another time, another book.  Suffice it to say that there is a lot of turmoil during the time Osho is briefly jailed and during the time after he leaves the country.  Mark has a couple of melt- downs, which I go to the Ranch to handle.  He is so sensitive to the energy and moods of others and sannyasins are beginning to freak out.  In spite of the episodes, I get permission for Mark to stay.  We even talk about he and I becoming full-fledged members of the commune.  I don’t foresee what comes next.  I guess I am blinded by wishful thinking.  I really believe that the community will go on, even without the Master there.  But I am wrong.

The Ranch begins to close down, people having no desire to be where Osho is not.  Our friends, Sunny and Srajan, come to live in our spare bedroom in Salem to figure out what the next step in their lives will be.  As soon as Thanksgiving arrives, Ted and I set out for the Ranch to collect Mark and his things, as well as household items from our summer stay trailer.  We are a day late in picking Mark up due to a snowstorm.  He expected us yesterday.

We arrive at the Ranch and no Mark.  We search for him everywhere.  He is not in his room.  We pack up his things and put them in the car.  He is not at work in the cafeteria.  He is not in the meditation hall.  He is not anywhere.  I begin to get really scared because it is snowy and cold.  We make phone calls around the Ranch.  No one has seen Mark since breakfast.  They all agree to keep a lookout for him.  We get the Ranch’s Peace Force Officers to start a search.  I just don’t know how Mark will cope if he is lost and cold in the snow.  I don’t think I have ever been so afraid for him.

After what seem like endless hours of searching, we get a call from the Hotel Rajneesh in Portland.  Mark is there and they want to know what to do.  My relief is huge!  And then I begin to realize what an illustration this is of how far Mark has come in terms of taking care of himself and engaging in effective behavior.  It seems that after breakfast, Mark took just his backpack and went down to the building where people were busing out to rebuild their lives in the world.  He simply got on a bus to Portland and when he arrived at the Hotel he sat down to read a book.  He was obviously ready to leave and if we weren’t there to pick him up he would just darn well see himself off.

Sunny and Srajan, who are nearer than Ted and I by four hours’ time, go to pick Mark up at the Hotel, bring him back to Salem, and feed him dinner, while we make our way home.  Boy, am I happy to see him when I arrive.  When I go to tuck Mark in for the night, I see that he has hung his mala on a nail on the wall of his bedroom.  After that, he only wears it when we go to sannyasin gatherings.  He has become so wise, my dear little (well, big now) Buddha.

This is an excerpt from Roshani’s autobiography.

Copyright © 2010 Roshani

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