In Part 1 of 5, Surendra recalls the captivating years at Osho Ko Hsuan School in Devon, England.
Although I played and worked as an adult at Osho Ko Hsuan for more than six years, I feel a bit uncomfortable writing about such a vast phenomenon. It is too alive and kicking in everyone of us who was there to be confined to an account by one person. My writing is inevitably partial, biased by individual perspective and distorted memory. Not only that, any singular description cannot do justice to the unique experience that each one of us had there. For the benefit of clarity and for those who may not know much about Ko Hsuan I have attempted an overview as well as personal anecdotes. Hopefully, it will start a ball rolling as so many participants have tales to tell!
At the time when Rajneeshpuram was developing, there were many thriving Osho communes in Europe and around the world. One of these was Medina Rajneesh in Cambridge where a school was established to provide an education for children whose parents were living in the various communes. When Medina closed in 1984 the children (kids) wanted the teachers (adults) to create another boarding school so that they could all continue learning together. So it began, fuelled from the beginning – and ever after – by the love the kids had for their exciting adventure in education. Whatever their parents planned, Ko Hsuan only accepted kids who wanted to be there. Although we were about the cheapest independent boarding school in England, sannyasins did often struggle to raise the fees. Faced with imploring offspring, many parents worked very hard to ensure their kids could come to Ko Hsuan and continue being there every term.
I had been to the school already, several times: for a week or two as a handyman and as a parent visiting my son, Suchet. On a break from Pune 2, during the Ko Hsuan winter holiday of January 1991, I went to do some house painting. By then the school was well established and flourishing. It had grown from small beginnings into a thriving independent boarding school with around seventy kids and sixteen adults. Now, a new wing was being completed. It had skilfully been connected to what was, originally, an old farmhouse with three floors by sannyasin builders and a few were still around. I joined the team to add the finishing touches. Towards the end of my stay one of the teachers was taken ill and a vacancy popped up. I began to wonder if I could fit the bill. The kids had not arrived yet and my ‘if’ was about whether I could cope with them and they could cope with me. When their tornado of energy arrived, I might have been a bit shaken but I loved it and stepped forward.
I winced when I overheard the adults debating my merits. “How can a fucking painter teach maths?” A couple of the core adults did know me fairly well and probably convinced those who did not that I might not be too bad. That was how I started. Using my connection with gloss paints I stood in for the art teacher who was arriving a bit later and we marbled paper. The kids loved it. They were so engrossed they would not leave the art room at the end of the lesson in spite of the bell for afternoon tea. Quite something, as this meal was a favourite with this bread-devouring species – white bread, of course, only adults ate brown bread. When the last kids finally left, the art room was in a total mess and I was exhausted. While I was still in a lengthy recovery with cups of tea in the recreation room, a friend quietly told me that he had cleaned the whole place.
Another lesson did not go so well. There were teachers that the kids loved whatever they taught, those they cooperated with because the subject was important to them, and those they tolerated. One of my colleagues divided teachers into information givers and entertainers. You can imagine which ones the kids liked best. Of course, the knack was to be both, but we mostly had our natural, and mine was to focus on facts. Either way, you had to be an exceptional adult to reach the popular category in your first term. A fire test usually came in one form or another.
English as Second Language was not an attractive subject whatever we did to dress it up. Most of the kids, though not native speakers, learned the language very quickly and were in a regular English class. There were six teenagers who did not manage so well. They were in this ESL class instead. I had taken over from a very popular entertainer/teacher who was also my friend. He had been playing games in English and getting the kids out and about in the minibus, even for Devon cream teas. In my first lesson I created a powder keg when I kept the kids in the classroom with pen and paper on a sunny day. It finally exploded in shouting and ended with one of the boys and I screaming, “Fuck you!” at each other, face to face, noses almost touching. During the lunch break that followed, we spontaneously approached each other, had a big hug and all resentments dissolved.
I do not remember how I continued that class for the rest of the term. Certainly we would have sat down and talked about how to go on from there: how to use the time productively but not too seriously. We probably had a cream tea or two as well. At the end of each term, the kids were given school reports with gentle pointers to any issues and praise where it was often due. After they were written, the adults went off to the pub to write school reports on each other. I remember the final line from my first one: “Surendra, maybe. Surrender, never.” As well as being able to make viable connections with the kids, adults needed a lot of tenacity. It was also acknowledged that I could teach maths. That was not such a difficult task as kids went at their own pace in the world of this subject which, unlike life, was predictable. They enjoyed the mental satisfaction of solving problems with definite answers.
Whenever we placed a telephone order with a new supplier, we had to spell the whole address, usually more than once. ‘That’s O-S-H-O, K-O, new word, H-S-U-A-N, Chawleigh, spelled…. Chulmleigh, spelled…..’ This part of remote mid-Devon had been designated by a government body as an Area of Rural Tranquillity which meant it was in the middle of nowhere. It was quiet, green and beautiful. Major trunk roads were far away and our one-rail link provided a tiny, limited service. Even the name of our local station, Eggesford was not easy to spell. It was more than a thirty minute walk, probably much less on a skateboard but only a few of the kids could vouch for that. Osho Ko Hsuan was a world of its own, away from the usual distractions and interference from society. To remind us, every Saturday we hired a coach to take kids to Exeter. Those twelve or over could go on their own, younger kids had to be with an adult or a trusted older kid. As the kids developed in the commune, they became more luminous in their beings. When they did go out to our local community, even at the few shops of nearby Chulmleigh, residents were treated to a big dose of exuberance. Mostly they joined the laughter of the brimming energy.
The property included fields and sizeable woodland, later a pond was added. The main house contained a dining room and the kitchen with an old, very warm Aga, laundry room, food store and small library. Down a corridor, on the ground floor were the old hall and the office. Above that was the adult sitting room and bathroom. Some adult bedrooms were on this floor and there were dormitories for kids here and on the floor above. The new extension had a huge hall on the ground floor with a stage, theatre lighting and professional sound equipment. There was a series of double rooms and a central study above for the teenagers. Out in the grounds were purpose-built but draughty classrooms equipped with boards for chalk and talk. They included a science lab which later got upgraded. A very large, converted barn housed the art room, small music room, two dormitories for the younger kids and a couple of adult rooms.
Each adult had their own room. Most were in the main building, more or less in the centre of activity. In addition to the two in the barn, a trailer stood adjacent to the football pitch and there was a shed further away in the corner of the property for those who really wanted to be in the countryside. There was another single room in the middle of the courtyard. Made of stone with a slate roof, it had probably been a fuel store originally and in spite of being so central, it tended to go unnoticed as it blended into part of the wall. There seemed to be a pattern for those of us who stayed for a fairly long time: we started off in the main house and then gradually moved further away. Finally, we packed our bags and headed off into the sunset. By the time I was ready for the outback, the trailer had been replaced by a beautiful, purpose-built A-frame with two adult rooms. My start, however, was in the smallest room on the large, first floor landing in the main house. It was probably the noisiest adult room in the place as everything seemed to go on above, below or around it.
My first two years at the hub were amazing. The best way to be at Osho Ko Hsuan was to dive right in, as deep as you could and let go into the waves. New teachers were kindly given a sort of settling-in period by the other adults, so my duties were fairly light. I had time and energy to participate in anything and everything that was going on. Adults were invited for spontaneous games such as hide and seek that suddenly erupted in the evening and the old farmhouse was wonderful for that. In the winter and beyond, table tennis went on and on, as did badminton and volley ball in the good weather. Much later, we even added tennis courts. In summer term, water fights were allowed outdoors and every available plastic or metal container was put to use, the bigger the better. Watch out if you had to cross the courtyard, nobody was exempt!
Kids, fourteen or over, are allowed in English pubs (fizzy drinks only) and there were regular trips to the quieter ones for darts, crisps and pool. A couple of us adults once took four or five of the older kids to one of the busier pubs that had the best pool table. Two hardened, expert players, probably in their early thirties, were dominating the table but not for long. Two of our party, fifteen year old girls, dressed very glamorously challenged them with bright smiles. These novices could only just about hit the ball when they were lucky. However, their beauty was highly distracting and on top of that, the girls waved their hands above the table pretending to cast magic spells whenever the men took shots. These seasoned guys were no match for that. They lost the game and stayed off the table for the rest of the evening while the kids honed their skills. Ko Hsuan rules, OK! Kids planned their own birthday parties well in advance and most adults were chuffed to be chosen to drive the minibus to the selected destination. This could be a meal out, cinema or picnic on the beach. Ambitious ones might try to do all three, if they and their friends could raise the money.
Running around with the kids was wonderful but did take its toll. Adults were buoyed by their energy. Their immense vitality rubbed off, enabling us to keep up. By the end of term, after the kids left, for a few days we moved slowly around the empty property like zombies in the Night of the Living Dead. Adults staying longer were allowed to go off once a year for three months to Pune. We continued to get our salary and a school flat awaited us there to house us. We had to raise the money for everything else including flights and food or any sessions or groups we wanted to take. The school flat did change a couple of times. When I first went during the English spring, it became known as ‘The Oven in the Sky’. It was on the top of a five-storey block and had a flat roof that was baked all day by the hot sun. Whatever the temperature, it was such a great treat to have this break and the link with Pune was strong and refreshing. After arriving on my first break, I went to see friends in Publications. One of them told me about a new band she was involved with: the Hari Bol Orchestra. A big smirk crossed my face. I answered her puzzled look with, “I’m in Ko Hsuan now and it sounds too much like Hairy Balls to me.”
Text and photos by Surendra
Articles of the same series: Osho Ko Hsuan School
A former Reichian therapist, British Surendra took sannyas in 1976. He lived in Osho’s communes in India, USA, UK and Japan from the early 1980s on. In Pune 2 he looked after the painting work in Lao Tzu House, and then worked in Osho Publications. From 1991–1996 he taught at Ko Hsuan in Devon, UK, and after a sojourn again in 2001 he also became a passionate photographer. In 2013 he relocated to the Japanese Alps with his partner, Amrapali. All articles by this author on Osho News. surendraphoto.com