Setting aside all preconceptions, if but one exception and consider the 1960s as a special era and time, Bhagavan Das, AKA Kermit Michael Riggs from Laguna Beach, California, who was born May 17, 1945, is considered by many historians and others as being single handedly responsible for one of the era's most crucial happenstances, the introduction of HIS guru, Neem Karoli Baba, to Ram Dass, AKA Dr. Richard Alpert in India, circa 1967. In turn, upon Alpert's return to the U.S., he wrote the ultimate in life style changing books, Be Here Now (1971).
In 1968, my Uncle, a highly regarded albeit extremely low profile and under the radar bio-searcher and mushroom hunter from the desert southwest, who in the end would eventually have seven plant species named after him, called me from Santa Fe implying it was important. He asked me to meet him in Kingman, Arizona, a town he figured was about half-way between where he lived near the Sangre de Cristo Mountains and my place in California.
After a little over a half-day of general chit-chat and getting caught up he gave me a small taped up cardboard box six or eight inches square and asked me to hand deliver it to a man in Laguna Beach, and not to give it to anybody else under any circumstances. Upon my return to southern California I went straight to Laguna Beach to an establishment on Pacific Coast Highway called Mystic Arts World just as my uncle requested. There I asked for the man I was to give the box to and in turn was taken to a remote cave hidden in the hills above Laguna Canyon Road. After brief introductions I handed over the box. The man, Dr. Timothy Leary, Alpert's long time coconspirator in things psychedelic. The contents of the box not known.
The Mystic Arts World, in those days a 1960s head shop but now long gone, was not much more than a front for the operations of an outfit that called themselves The Brotherhood of Eternal Love. The Brotherhood dealt heavily in the movement and sale of 1960s counter culture indulgents such as marijuana, psychedelic mushrooms, and LSD --- reportedly with upwards of $200 million in sales in the late 60s. In that the Brotherhood operated mostly beyond the legitimate confines of the law in a majority of their business transactions they were a little touchy about who they let close. However, it all went down fairly easy for me, that is, being taken to Leary, because I was already semi-known by many of the higher ups and inside-members of the Brotherhood.
In July 1962 a Zen master by the name of Joshu Sasaki Roshi arrived in Los Angeles from Japan, moving into a small rented house in Gardena. He immediately began conducting Zen meetings on weeknights and Sunday mornings, initially using the garage as a Zendo. By 1966 he had outgrown the garage, so the Roshi began holding Zazen in a nearby donated office space. Somewhere along the way my Mentor, who somehow knew the Roshi, introduced me and a couple of times I attended sessions under his auspices with my mentor.
Near the end of the year 1966, a few members of the Brotherhood began attending Zen sessions held at the Roshi's Gardena office space. They asked the Roshi if he would be willing to present a meditation session at their then Modjeska Canyon digs, and much to their surprise the Roshi accepted. It was near Christmas of 1966 and somewhere along the way I heard the Roshi was going to be in Modjeska Canyon, so just for the heck of it I attended that session, coming into a much deeper contact with the Brotherhood.
Little did any of us know that at the time the Brotherhood was in it's heyday, because it wasn't long after that the Brotherhood began to fall apart, first with its leader dying of an overdose of synthetic psilocybin in August 1969 then the Mystic Arts World building burning to the ground in June 1970, a fire widely believed to be arson. In August of 1972 a multi-agency government anti-drug task force raided their holdings and by 1974 most of the remnants of the organization were dispersed, scattered, or on the run.
In 1971, before the government raid and the falling apart of the Brotherhood, the previously mentioned seminal book Be Here Now by Ram Dass was published. In the book, which became a wildly popular best seller in the counter-culture and almost a bible within the confines of the same group, Dass mentioned a highly respected young American he met in India called Bhagavan Das, a follower of the venerated Indian saint Neem Karoli Baba, and who had after several years in India, become fully and deeply ingrained into the spiritual culture of the sub-continent. Das and Alpert traveled around India together partaking of a variety of religious and spiritual undertakings as well as indulging in a lot of LSD. It just so happened Bhagavan Das was originally from Laguna Beach and, although it was known on an underground basis locally because of his stature given him in the Ram Dass book, even though none of them had most likely never met the Bhagavan, he had become a growing sort of hero amongst the local LSD user crowd associated with the Mystic Arts World and the Brotherhood of Eternal Love.
Because of number of vague similarities, real or imagined, but mostly imagined, between me and Bhagavan Das in the eyes of some of the more strung out Laguna Beach crowd, it wasn't long before he was brought to my attention. Around the same time the Brotherhood was disintegrating Bhagavan Das, who left Laguna Beach at age 18 for Europe then into India, had returned from India after six or seven solid years as an itinerant holy man, ending up for a short time in the desert southwest.
In 1970 my father was caught in a fire while on the job. He held on for a couple of years but by the end of 1972 he had fallen into a deep coma and put on life support. Prior to the coma, around the start of the summer of 1972, he called me to his bedside without the knowledge of family or friends, including his wife. He told me he had long rented a small, single-car garage-size storage unit unknown to anybody. Inside the storage unit he said, was a large locked trunk clearly marked with his brother's name and he wanted me to take it to him post haste unopened without anybody's knowledge, even my brothers, and especially so before anybody discovered he had the storage unit.
Adhering to my father's request post haste (my dad's words), put me in Santa Fe unexpectedly on a quick couple of days turn around during late June early July of 1972. I say unexpectedly because as soon as I walked out of the hospital I went straight to the storage unit, picked up the trunk, and drove all night right to Santa Fe. Doing so put me into my uncle's schedule of doing things instead of the two of us designing time around me being there.
During that couple of days in Santa Fe my uncle had to meet up with, for some undisclosed reason, beat poet Allen Ginsberg, who just happened to be in town during the same period and I went along. I wasn't introduced to or meet Ginsberg, staying off some distance milling around the car as requested by my uncle while the two of them talked. However, I was close enough to see Ginsberg was traveling with a couple of hangers-on, one of which was a woman about 30 with ultra-short dark hair the other a very tall young man with full beard and dreadlocks. The young man with full beard and dreadlocks was Bhagavan Das, age 27, only just returned from India.
Several years before, in 1967, the previously mentioned Dr. Richard Alpert, a university professor and cohort of Dr. Timothy Leary, who had been formally dismissed from his academic position at Harvard in 1963 for a number of so-called violations, including the mishandling of research LSD and civilian-based psychedelics, traveled to India and Nepal. During his travels he met Bhagavan Das, who was by then fully and deeply ingrained into the spiritual culture of India. Bhagavan Das, a follower of the venerated Indian saint Neem Karoli Baba, after becoming cognizant of Albert's spiritual quest --- or just wanting to get rid of him depending on who you listen to --- took Alpert to see him. Neem Karoli Baba, following closely Alpert's struggle, dedication, and advancement along the Path, gave him the name Ram Dass, which means 'servant of God.'
After a year and a half in India Alpert returned to the United States and fully immersed as Ram Dass eventually wrote Be Here Now, published in 1971. The book, an unqualified success, became a wildly popular best seller and almost a bible in the counter-culture. The success of the Ram Dass book sent thousands of hippie-era wanderers, including for example even Apple computer genius Steve Jobs, to India in the quest for gurus and spiritual Enlightenment. It also escalated the existence of an unknown Indian holy man Neem Karoli Baba, who died in 1973, into the stratosphere, with the unintended consequence, but karma related, inundation by hundreds and hundreds of spiritual seekers.
AND NOW THIS:
Although Bhagavan Das gets the lion's share of credit for introducing Alpert to Neem Karoli Baba, spiritually or otherwise, for Das it basically ends there. It was through that Neem Karoli Baba-Alpert connection that Alpert exploded onto the world scene as Ram Dass, in turn receiving all the recognition and adoration --- not that Bhagavan Das ever cared about it one way or the other. The unsung heroes in all the going to India in the 60s drama, that is, those who actually trudged before Das and Dass and built the platform for them and almost everybody else who ever followed is, as usual, still to this day two virtually unknown protagonists bracketed on either side of Ginsberg; one a man who goes by the name Ravi Dass, AKA Ron Zimardi, the other a woman named Hope Savage.
In March of 1961 Allen Ginsberg, on extended travels, left the United States, eventually ending up in India in February, 1962. Ginsberg spent the next fifteen months traveling throughout India, leaving May of 1963. After Ginsberg returned to the U.S. he and Zimardi crossed paths, becoming in Zimardi's words, his poetry mentor. Zimardi, born January 3, 1943, in the Bronx, New York. writes the following in his book The Sacred Wanderer: An American Devotee's Story (2010):
"As background, one of the first post 1950s westerners to really delve into the mystery that was India, Allen Ginsberg, my poetry mentor, had been to India in 1961 in Calcutta and Varanasi with Peter Orlovsky. He was instrumental in making me wait to I finished my BA at CUNY and gave me his original backpack as a blessing to return to India."
It was Allen Ginsberg who was instrumental in convincing Ravi Dass (Ron Zimardi) to go to India. In September 1964 Zimardi left for Tangier, Morocco aboard a freighter ending up in Athens, Greece in the winter of 1964, eventually meeting Bhagavan Das. What most people don't realize is that after he and Bhagavan Das met up, it was Ravi Dass on HIS OWN journey a la Ginsberg who, after leaving Athens, for the entire trip overland across Afghanistan and with no money, shepherded Bhagavan Dass, who was tagging along, to India. Again from his book, regarding his role, he writes:
"Bhagavan Das oddly omitted me as his guide or even travel companion to India in 1965 in his book It's Here Now (Are You?) published a few years ago. In Ram Dass' Be Here Now I am not mentioned either. Bhagavan Das made it seem that he only connected with me in Rishikesh(pg. 28)."
Now, while this page is centered on Bhagavan Das and below presents five basically uncensored in-depth YouTube interviews, in my opinion, Ravi Dass notwithstanding, he gets the short shrift in who did what relative to India. In the media driven world, perception is reality. In the end it doesn't matter who did what first or who led who to who because people are the recipients of the information as it comes down to them. That information, fed over and over, rather actual or fiction becomes reality. Just like Pulyan's Teacher, the mysterious woman who was the major catalyst for the total and complete transformation of the American Zen master Alfred Pulyan and still to this day goes unheralded and unrecognized, the true trailblazer in all of this go to India stuff was a totally unknown young American woman named Hope Savage. If Ravi Dass went into India with Bhagavan Das in tow, who in turn introduced Ram Das to Neem Karoli Baba, and Ravi Dass went to India following the advice of Allen Ginsberg, then you should know when Ginsberg arrived in India in the first place, Hope Savage, who he knew and re-met there, had already been in India for years traveling all over the place --- to many and most of the same places Bhagavan Das would eventually go to during his multi-year sojourn through India and Nepal. But, in the end, no matter how you cut it, it was still Bhagavan Das that discovered Neem Karoli Baba and who inturn introduced him to Alpert.
By the time the 60s rolled around and vast numbers of westerners were assaulting India for Spiritual prowess, etc., the absolute top dog in all the Maharshi stuff, the Bhagavan Sri Ramana Maharshi had long since departed his earthly paradise. Of the high profiles floating or climbing to the top, basically only Sri H.W.L. Poonja or Neem Karoli Baba remained, the two of which most downstream eastern religious types in the U.S. currently hang their hats on. Neem Karoli Baba died in 1973 effectively ending the flow of direct disciples. Poonja, however, didn't pass until 1997, in turn releasing on society a whole slew of Poonja clones that have, like protozoa and amoebas, gone off and split and re-split so many times there are more of them, with a few exceptions, than there are recruits to be under them.(see)
As for Bhagavan Das there are two camps regarding who he is and what he has done, and they come from both the Poonja and Neem Karoli Baba side of things (as well as others). First, those in the Enlightenment Field that wish they were Bhagavan Das or did what he did so they could claim it in their own heritage --- but are unwilling to admit it or won't say it; and secondly, those who simply write him off as some sort of a bumpkin --- albeit still secretly wishing they had done what he did. Regardless of what one takes away regarding Bhagavan Das, Alpert took away much more than Das simply being a bumpkin, and I'm in agreement. In his book, referring to Das, Alpert writes:
"(W)hat started to blow my mind was that everywhere we went, he was at home.
"If we went to a Thereavaden Buddhist monastery, he would be welcomed and suddenly he would be called Dharma Sara, a Southern Buddhist name, and some piece of clothing he wore, I suddenly saw was also worn by all the other monks and I realized that he was an initiate in that scene and they'd welcome him and he'd be in the inner temple and he knew all the chants and he was doing them. "
We'd come across some Shavites, followers of Shiva, or some of the Swamis, and I suddenly realized that he was one of them. On his forehead would be the appropriate tilik, or mark, and he would be doing their chanting. "
We'd meet Kargyupa lamas from Tibet and they would all welcome him as a brother, and he knew all their stuff. He had been in India for five years, and he was so high that everybody just welcomed him, feeling 'he's obviously one of us'."
BHAGAVAN DAS: OFFICIAL SITE
OF COBRAS, SCARABS, MASERATIS, AND ZEN
Fundamentally, our experience as experienced is not different from the Zen master's. Where
we differ is that we place a fog, a particular kind of conceptual overlay onto that experience
and then make an emotional investment in that overlay, taking it to be "real" in and of itself.
AWAKENED TEACHERS FORUM
ZEN ENLIGHTENMENT IN A NUTSHELL
ON THE RAZOR'S
There is a fair amount of controversy, at least in some quarters, regarding my visit to see my uncle in Santa Fe during the summer of 1972. The controversy typically circulates around the fact that during that visit my uncle went to see Ginsberg, a visit of which I tagged along, and from a distance saw a man with Ginsberg I reported as being Bhagavan Das. I described him as having long blonde dreadlocks and full beard. Many people say my story is rife with holes because by July 1972 Bhagavan Das' hair and beard had been shaved off by Chogyam Trungpa Rinpoche, hence Das would have been clean shaven and bald.
As to the aforementioned haircut and shave re: Bhagavan Das, three people who claim to be witnesses to the event, or at least immediately following the event, each claims a different location. One claims Vermont, one at the Naropa Institute in Boulder, Colorado, and one at a retreat of some kind in Jackson Hole, Wyoming. They all however, agree it happened following a long night of alcohol, drugs, and debauchery and that it happened in 1973, the year AFTER Santa Fe.
The above three-photo strip was taken at the 1972 meeting in Santa Fe. The center photo has Bhagavan Das and Ram Dass shown together. The third photo shows him with Ram Dass and Ginsberg. Both photos clearly depict Bhagavan Das with dreadlocks and beard. Ram Dass, again, IS Dr. Richard Alpert, the author of Be Here Now, the 1971 book that shot Bhagavan Das to fame. For more on Chogyam Trungpa Rinpoche please see:
BUDDHISM IN AMERICA BEFORE COLUMBUS
It should be brought to the attention of the reader that even though it was Ravi Dass that Bhagavan Das traveled with and followed to India, Bhagavan Das, after parting travels with Ravi Dass sometime after their arrival went on his own to eventually discover Neem Karoli Baba --- the first to do so of the 60s era seekers and well before Ravi Dass encountered him for the first time. Ravi Dass did not meet Neem Karoli Baba until after crossing paths with Ram Dass and had read or at least seen a copy of 'Be Here Now' after which he asked Ram Dass to take him to his guru. In a sense going full circle.
There is a good chance that long before Bhagavan Das ever heard of Neem Karoli Baba, let alone having met him, another American, a less heralded one in the overall scheme of things came ahead of him. He was a man of great spiritual awareness by the name of William Samuel. In that he didn't have a Richard Alpert or anybody else following him around in his footsteps drum-beating his cause, he has to this day, remained virtually anonymous. Samuel writes in his book The Awareness of Self-Discovery, albeit somewhat cryptically, the following:
"Some years ago I was honored to be the first American student of a renowned teacher in India. For fourteen days a group of us sat at the feet of this 'Master,' during which time he spoke not one word—not so much as a grunt—until the final day when he bade us farewell and assured us we had learned much.
"And to my surprise, I had. It took months before the seeds of those silent days began to sprout one by one, revealing that there are indeed many things for which the uptight, recondite babble of books and teachers is more hindrance than a help."(see)
Most Samuel supporters jumped the gun wanting what he wrote about meeting a 'renowned teacher in India' to refer back to the Bhagavan Sri Ramana Maharshi. It just doesn't, at least in how he wrote it. While it is true Samuel did in fact meet Ramana, the above quote by Samuel does not refer to him. Samuel met Ramana for the first time in 1944. By then the Maharshi had already had a long documented legacy of western disciples, among them several Americans, including such notables as Guy Hague in 1938 --- thus then, by Samuel's own words, eliminating Ramana as a potential candidate.
During WW II Samuel had fought all along the Chinese-Burma Himalayan border and was familiar with the topography, peoples, and environment. He had already been to the southern part of the sub-continent and by mid-April 1950 Ramana had died. So hugging up along the northern reaches of India most likely seemed the thing to do. In the process he met Neem Karoli Baba, most likely right after his WW II discharge but before the start of the Korean War. According to most Samuel biographers, and I am in agreement, the eight year period between 1952 and 1960 would have been a much more difficult time for him to have done so.
If such is the case, then not only would William Samuel be Neem Karoli Baba's first American disciple, he would most likely be his first western disciple, a combination of distinctions usually given to Bhagavan Das who showed up under Neem Karoli Baba's grace sometime in 1964 or so.
WILLIAM SAMUEL: A SECRET REVEALED
SRI RAMANA MAHARSHI'S WESTERN DISCIPLES