Ash describes the events before Zeno was lost (and found) in the Himalayas
I remember Osho often telling a story about an Emperor who dreams of Death visiting him, to prepare him for his death. The king tries his utmost to escape the fateful meeting Death foretold, so he escapes the palace and rides his fastest horse to the most remote and distant part of his kingdom. Finally, exhausted and resting under a tree the king is shocked and surprised by Death who appears to him, saying “I was wondering if you would manage to get here in time, it is so far! You did well!”
Today I continue to feel enormous gratitude to Osho for changing many of my unexamined ideas and beliefs around death. I feel sure that fundamental changes have happened for me, and yet as the death of this body has not yet appeared on the screen of life, it is an unfolding story. I have taken to wishing friends on their body birthday “Happy Earth Day” and continue to examine my concepts around death and dying, and also to ask, “Have I even been born?”
It was in 1996, that Zeno left her body while walking in the Himalayas. Death has had some very different faces for me and Zeno’s death was to be a powerful reminder to live my life more totally, something I felt that Zeno did with aplomb! She knew how to celebrate and she had a gift for making magic happen and her departure from the body in the Indian Himalayan mountains near the town of Manali had all the drama and magic that I had come to know and expect with Zeno. I, and many of her close friends happened to be present, or in the nearby area. Had India called us all back, or perhaps death itself? Is all of life predestined? Is life like a movie and am I acting out a script, with the entire film already shot and in the can? These questions and others arose when I meditated on the circumstances of Zeno leaving her body.
During the Ranch time Zeno was one of the people sent to live in Desidarata. It was shortly after this event that I met her for the first time. I was living in Ashland Oregon and had visited the ranch a few days after Sheela finally and forever left it. Zee was in the restaurant, celebrating with a bottle of Champagne! Later she told me of her time in Desiderata, which was where commune members who had been tested positive for the AIDS virus were housed. Her name had been added to a list of AIDS positive results, but in her guts Zee knew that she did not have AIDS, and was extremely aware of her vulnerability in Desiderata. She said that it was a time of intense aloneness and introspection for her. She definitely had a knack of getting out of tight spots and this was one of the tightest!
Zeno and I had once been lovers and were old friends, having lived in shared houses in California after the Ranch happening ended. Later we separately went with several other close friends to Byron Bay on the east coast of Australia and began to live communally on a large piece of near virgin rainforest, which we called Samasati. Zee, as she was called by her close friends was from New York, very creative, a great photographer and therapist, and a beautiful friend. She told me that her father had invented the Joker character in the Superman comic stories! She was never short of a funny but insightful remark, and the ‘wise witch’ was very alive and well in her! She had a habit, annoying to me, of always being late for her meetings!
Swimming with the dolphins
One day Zee had a strong feeling to swim with dolphins after she had seen a pod of them playing in the waves very close to Watergoes, a beautiful local Byron Bay beach. Watergoes beach is directly below the Byron Bay Lighthouse, the most easterly point of Australia. She invited me to come along and so we drove there from the rainforest, stopping first on the hillside above the beach to check if there were any dolphins swimming nearby that day. It was a balmy summer’s day, perfect for a swim and I remember entering the water from sand so white and clean that it squeaked when I walked on it!
We swam leisurely out toward the spot where we had seen a pod of dolphins swimming. Yes, they were still there playing in the waves! It was an exhilarating experience to swim so close to these wonderful creatures who allowed us to come within meters from them. However, they seemed to move continuously away from us and kept a constant distance. Swimming behind Zee, who was focused on the dolphins, I noticed that we were getting further and further from the beach and well beyond the line of rocks that jutted out into the ocean. I called out to warn her that I wanted to head back and we quickly both turned to swim toward the shore. It took several minutes of determined swimming, looking up and then more swimming to see that I was not getting anywhere!
We stopped and while treading water checked on each other.
Yes, she also felt that we were not getting closer to land!
A cold feeling of dread was threatening to take hold of me. We were completely on our own, quite some distance out in the very large ocean and could not see anyone on the shore to wave to for help! That was when we decided to turn and start swimming parallel to the shoreline in an attempt to get out of the current and with great relief I felt that I was finally able to make some progress!
After swimming about 100 meters parallel to the shoreline Zee and I were able to once again head toward land. Now, however, we were faced with a rocky shore line as there is no beach but only rocks for at least 1 km, all the way up the coast to Tallow beach.
The rocks looked threatening, but we could manage to reach them without getting caught again by the rip current that made swimming back to Watergoes beach impossible. When we were closer Zeno, who had her wet suit on, went in on a wave and just managed to slip up onto the rocks and scramble up to a higher, drier place. I, however, had no wet suit so I tried to time my landing to come in on to my feet. I felt elated when a medium swell carried me up onto a large flat rock and I landed on both feet! But, before I got to the higher rocks a following wave knocked me down and I grazed and cut my arm and shoulder. With a large dose of adrenalin I scrambled up to where Zee was! We hugged each other laughing, both feeling very lucky!
Silent retreat in Manali
Fast forward to 1996, to an ashram in the Himalayan mountains near the town of Manali. That year Mutribo, Purvesh, Baba and I had started doing a 6 month long silent retreat. The idea of giving my time to myself, without any outside distractions was what attracted me to the retreat. I was then in my 47th year and I felt challenged, uncertain, excited and held; all at the same time.
After about four months into the retreat several of our Samasati community members and friends, including Zee, Alima and Puja arrived to visit the ashram which was in a small village in the beautiful Kulu Manali valley, surrounded by snow covered peaks, deodar pine forests and apple orchards. My then partner, Garimo, had also come back to India and was living in the village in a house where she had set up her art studio to paint and meditate every day. An Indian cook called Charan used her kitchen to cook and bring hot food daily to the four of us who were in retreat. We had the opportunity to do Dynamic and Kundalini meditations and also to sit with about 15 other meditators in the mornings and evenings for about 90 minutes every day, if we wished.
Sometimes I just sat in my room on the top floor of the large bungalow style house without going down to the meditation room on the ground floor. Behind the village schoolyard a path led into a steep narrow valley with a rushing creek of melted snow from the mountain above. Here in the mountains this type of small side valley is called a ‘nulla‘ and the river water is used for the village houses and fields. Many of us used to walk there, following the many paths made by the locals grazing their animals and collecting wood. The nulla is wooded with pines and ferns, and has a profusion of flowers and birds. The paths are steep in places and I would roam them almost every day as a break from sitting in my room.
Exploring the ‘nulla’
One day I sent a note to Garimo with Charan, asking her if she wanted to come on a silent walk up the nulla with me. Charan, however, forgot to deliver this note, instead he delivered it the following morning. During the few days since Zeno had arrived, she and Garimo had been going together for walks, but that day Garimo went walking on her own and by chance found a higher path she had heard about which went further into the mountain and across the stream.
When later that evening she told Zee about her discovery they decided to explore this higher path together the very next day. They both liked to move fast when walking and the prospect of exploring a more challenging and new path was very exciting.
In early May the stream was still icy cold and flowing very fast so it was not easy to cross it. The path from the village runs horizontally from behind the schoolyard into the nulla and for some time is an easy walk until it meets the stream tumbling down the mountain. From here the trail climbs up the narrow valley side above the stream as there are several waterfalls in this very narrow part. The trail then rejoins the stream not far along at a place where a large tree had fallen across it. It is easy to cross here on the massive tree trunk and return back down on the other bank of the stream. It’s a lovely short walk that I have often done. The higher walk is more demanding and the trail continues higher up to a second crossing place from where there is also a way back down on the other bank to the nearby village of Sajla.
Garimo and Zeno’s plan that evening was to explore this beautiful circular walk higher up the valley but changed it in the morning when Charan finally delivered my note. So far during my retreat I had had very little time with Garimo, so it felt ok for them to change their plan. Zeno instead left much later, after 4pm, and joined Alima and Puja who were also walking up the nulla. After a short time Zee felt to go ahead on her own as she wanted to walk faster and further than she felt Ali and Puja would like to walk. That was the last time she was seen.
To start out on a long walk so late in the afternoon was a bit foolish, but also she would not have realized how long the higher path took and she didn’t really have a connection to the passing of time, hence her chronic lateness.
By lunchtime the next day Garimo was concerned. Zee was very independent and impulsive but she had not been seen at the evening meditation nor had come to meditate in the morning. Garimo walked over to check Zee’s room in the village that she had just recently moved into. The room was locked. Had she returned late and gone into Manali to visit a friend? Manali was not far away and Zee could easily have stayed there with a friend overnight. Garimo came over to the ashram and told us her concerns.
I remember hearing her call up to my room, which was on the top floor of the large bungalow where the ashram was. It was strange for me to talk after such a long silence but Garimo did not have to say much as I knew that it must be important and worry her enough for her to contact me. Quite soon Baba, Tarika and I headed up the valley to begin searching. Tarika was also concerned and she knew many of the paths as she had been living in the area for a longer time than most of us. Garimo stayed behind to alert the other people.
We set off up the nulla and soon were calling out her name, not really sure if she was even really lost! Perhaps she was still in Manali? Perhaps she had twisted her ankle and was somewhere along the trail?
It was a beautiful warm day and we quickly passed the first river crossing place and then reached the place from where it is not possible to follow the river bank as the valley sides by the river are too steep and rocky. Should we head back looking on the other side of the nulla or continue even higher? There was a steep trail upward from this point to some stone huts used by local Indians for their cows. It began to dawn upon me how easily someone could be missed along one of the many paths in the nulla. We considered the different options and tried to guess what Zee might have done. Somehow the sunny day and the so far easy trails weighed heavily toward continuing upward. I was enjoying the trekking and the three of us headed up this trail to a scraggy dirty place where there were a few cows and a man and his wife living very simply in a stone cottage. There were two stone cow shelters nearby.
Tarika spoke the best Hindi, and after some initial confusion in understanding what they knew it seemed that Zeno had passed by and stopped there the previous evening around 5pm. She had perhaps asked the way to the snow? We mulled over this information. Did we understand them correctly or, perhaps like elsewhere in India, were they just saying what they expected we wanted to hear? I felt confused but did not want to stop looking. Baba said that he would look all night to find her and so did Tarika. In our rational minds we were not even sure if Zeno had come this far.
We continued looking further up the trail, which was now narrow and indistinct. Soon the sun went behind the mountain and the light began to fade and with it going the air temperature rapidly fell. I remember us calling and listening to our shouts echo in the narrow misty valley. We sometimes made jokes that Zee might be sitting in a nice restaurant in Manali enjoying a beer!
I did not want to dwell on the negative thoughts that were coming into the mind every now and then and once or twice we even imagined that we could hear a reply coming back through the pines. The path was now almost invisible in the half darkness. Tarika had a small torch so we continued looking but the batteries would not last long. It became clear that we could not go on so we decided to head back to the stone huts and shelter there for the night. It was cold but we were dry, huddled together on the floor of the hut. I did not sleep much at all as I had visions of Zee somewhere on the trail, cold, hurt and without any shelter or proper warm clothing!
At first light next morning we continued our search higher up above the stone huts. There is a very large waterfall up there which I had never seen before, as in fact I had never been so high up the valley before. Tarika said that she had been all the way up to the snow line and beyond almost to the top of the ridge. Perhaps Zee had tried to reach the snow line, something she had said she wanted to do? We felt that we needed more help to search and so Tarika and I headed down for help while Baba continued looking on his own. Tarika and I took different routes back in case we missed Zeno on one of the many side paths that criss-crossed the steep slopes. When I got back to the ashram at lunchtime Garimo, Mutribo, Purvesh and the others were just about to set out with a large search party of almost the entire village. They and others had already been searching and had also had realized that more help was needed. I grabbed a hasty bite to eat and started back up the path with Garimo, calling Zee’s name.
There were many young and very fit woodsmen in the big search party and with our information they headed up beyond the stone huts where we had sheltered. It was not long before the news was shouted down the trail that Zeno had been found! Zeno had passed the first and then the second tree trunk across the river and had continued for about an hour further upstream! The place where she was found was after she must have waded across the now narrow ice cold stream and climbed up on the opposite bank, possibly looking for a path back on that side, which did not exist this high up the mountain. I have a clear picture to this day of a surprisingly slight Indian woodsman carrying her body slung across his shoulders in the same way that I have seen woodsmen carrying a tree trunk down the mountain. Her body was wrapped in a white cotton shawl and he rested it in the schoolyard under the shade of a large tree. We all gathered around it.
It is so strange to look at the face and dead body of a close friend. My eyes could recognize Zee’s shape and features but no more of Zeno felt to be there! Her body felt empty to me. We all sat silently under the tree for some time. The local Indians were very respectful and mostly kept well back.
The Death Celebration
The celebration and burning of the body happened with a flowing-ness that is perhaps not possible anywhere else in the world. It is a custom that the whole village can’t eat when there is a dead body present. Ali, Puja and Purvesh rode with the body in a local taxi to Kulu, the main town 40 km away.
Kulu is the cantonal administration centre where an autopsy was done, as this was police procedure when a foreigner died. They returned in the afternoon and Zeno’s women friends washed and dressed the body in her favourite clothes and then we sat around it all night in the meditation room of the ashram. The outside veranda of the ashram has a wonderful view up and down the valley and in the morning we all gathered there, singing songs and sitting silently. We then carried a makeshift stretcher with the body on it down to the nulla where I had earlier watched a young local boy climb the nearby tall pine tree to cut off the lower branches for the funeral pyre!
Satyen and I helped spread some ghee onto the stacked branches and Deva Krishna lit it with a burning torch. Krishna had stopped an Indian friend from covering Zee’s face with a cloth and had stacked the pine branches carefully over the body and face. He wanted to leave the face visible, as he remembered Osho had once said to do during a discourse in Poona. I was and we probably all were in an altered state. I felt that she would have loved the scene had she been watching! It felt so final and yet so unreal!
Some days later Baba and I collected the ashes in a small container. They were later sprinkled into the nearby much larger river Beas.
Buddha is reported to say in the final chapter of the Sayutta Nikaya, “It is accompanied only by happiness and joy”. To fully embrace suffering does not increase suffering, but paradoxically enhances your sense of astonishment at being alive. By saying “yes” to birth, sickness, aging, and death, you open your heart and mind to the sheer mystery of being here at all: that in this moment you breathe, you hear the wind rustling the leaves in the trees, you look up at the night sky and are lost in wonder.
Beloved Osho says it so much more poetically:
Yes is all that is meant by prayer. People pray with so many words – meaningless; just one word is enough.
Osho, The Sun Rises in the Evening, Ch 4, Q 8
Ash (aka Ashvagosha) met Osho in 1975 and lived in the ashram until Osho left India. He worked in the audio department and was fortunate to be present at many darshans as the audio tape man. As all of us, he had various jobs back again in Pune II. He lives in Totnes (Devon, UK) and organises tours in the Himalayas: www.ridinghightours.com