I knew Ram Dass for more than fifty years, longer than practically anyone in my life. He was my spiritual friend. There is a term for that in Sanskrit, kalyana mitra, which means more than a friend: a mentor, guide, inspiration for inner life.
I never knew Richard Alpert. I met him as Ram Dass at the first talk he gave when he returned from India in 1968.
I was in my junior year at Wesleyan University in Middletown, Connecticut, where Richard Alpert had earned his master’s degree around 14 years prior. I expected to hear about the annals of LSD from one of the members of the intrepid advance team of Timothy Leary and Alpert. Instead of the former Harvard professor, in walks a guy with a long beard in a white dress, barefoot in the frozen mud of New England in March.
Forty or fifty people were sprawled around a lounge at the College of Letters. At 7:00 p.m., Ram Dass started speaking about his transformation in India. He had just spent six months learning yoga and meditation in the Himalaya foothills, keeping celibate, mostly in silence. Through those practices, he had built up a lot of spiritual energy. Ram Dass’s words and thoughts flowed like a spring freshet after snow melts and the ice breaks. The concepts he wove were exhilarating, like shooting rapids in a canoe.
After a while someone turned out the lights, and there was just his voice coming out of the darkness, responding to questions. Ram Dass spoke until 3:00 a.m. Something shifted in me—the subtle sense of identity I had lived with since childhood, my self-image, my point of view.
That evening changed the course of my life. Truly, it was a stealth darshan [view of a holy sight] of another reality. Whatever that state of unconditional love and unlimited awareness in which Maharaj-ji [aka Neeb Karoli Baba, Ram Dass’s teacher] exists, it awoke in me that evening. Maharaj-ji came through Ram Dass as clearly as if he had reached through a space-time warp and pulled me through. I, too, was home, home in the heart.
On December 22, 2019, Ram Dass left his body on Maui. He would prefer that transitional expression instead of the finality that he “died.” He was 88. It was the day after the winter solstice. Just as the earth was turning from the dark to the rising of the light, he passed over into the invisible light of the spirit.
Although there’s been plenty of death in my life, it was the first time I’ve been with someone as they actually departed. Ram Dass’s moment of death was more, as he described with others, a rite of passage, a cessation that took a few minutes as he stopped breathing. The breathing reflex continued with a series of gasps after his consciousness had left. That aside, it was a grace-filled exit, an intensely powerful space.
I felt mixed emotions: devastated at the culmination of our shared time, yet joyful that he had escaped the confines of his increasingly painful physical frame. Dassima Murphy, his chief of staff/personal assistant/house manager/medical advocate/garden designer and deep friend of many years, sat on one side of the bed. I sat on the other. Two of his longtime doctors, Mark Haddad and Malik Cotter, were there, as was Christopher Fiorello, one of his caretakers.
Ram Dass had stuck around for more than two decades after the near-fatal stroke in 1997 that wrecked his brain and body. Through the paradoxical forces of his will to live and the depth of his surrender to Maharaj-ji, he remained. I think he stayed to serve others more than for himself.
When another health crisis stopped his travel fifteen years ago, he persisted, living on Maui in the middle of the Peaceful Ocean. As his body declined, he became an extraordinary lighthouse of love, a stationary beacon. People came from all over to visit, or waited years in the online queue for an interview, just to bask in that love.
Over the Maui years, despite zealous care by Dassima and a loving medical and support team, he suffered recurrent infections, constant pain from atrophying limbs and diabetic neuropathy, and decreasing mobility to the point where he needed bodily help for the simplest of functions. He never complained.
I talked him into doing this memoir project in 2009 or 2010, after we had finished another book, Be Love Now. I wanted to write it with him more than he wanted to look back and reexamine his life. After all, his entire being has been about living in this moment. But after we came up with a frame, to see his life through Maharaj-ji’s eyes, he grudgingly agreed.
We shared his understanding that Maharaj-ji is not a person or our dead guru who was that body, but a state of being or presence of infinite awareness and unconditional love. If we have to put a name on it, which we don’t, it comes down to the equivalence made by Ramana Maharshi: that God, Guru, and Self are the same. Whether we fell short is for you to decide, but that is the point of view of the book, and the anchor for Ram Dass’s life.
Though I can confidently say I have been inadequate to the memoir task, it gave me cause to spend thousands of hours with Ram Dass over ten years. I irritated Dassima, who didn’t like my taking up so much of his time, nor my talking with him about his sex life and the drugs. Actually we talked primarily of his (ongoing!) transformation from ego to soul, from the head to the heart.
The foundation that supports Ram Dass’s teaching has held public retreats on Maui since 2004. The 2019 winter retreat ended two weeks before Ram Dass’s death. Already weak, he hardly spoke, though he waved gaily and beamed his oceanic love silently to a crowd of four hundred. In the closing ceremony each person came up and received prayer beads and a personal blessing. The next morning, he swam in the ocean with everyone.
I stayed on for a while to read this manuscript to him. He had started taking medication for yet another opportunistic infection, a strong antibiotic that made him groggy. We did little work. The kirtan musician Krishna Das also stayed for a week, and we hung out sitting by Ram Dass’s bed.
If there was ever someone without fear of dying, it was Ram Dass. He had considered death so deeply and often, had sat bedside with so many dying people, that he saw death as a release more than an end point. His last book, Walking Each Other Home, was an extended conversation about dying with our old friend Mirabai Bush. Ram Dass is home now, home as in no-body home, home in the soul, back home in the heart of being, the formless OM home.
Three weeks after Ram Dass’s death we learned his guru-brother, Krishna Kumar Sah, who had been his translator with Maharaj-ji in 1967 and a dear friend ever since, had left his body in India. Peas in a pod, birds of a feather—K. K., like Ram Dass, no longer had a reason to linger.
A line from the Buddhist Heart Sutra that Ram Dass often quoted is with me constantly: “The form is the form of the formless; the formless is no other than form.” Ram Dass has gone beyond form. He is the final Heart Sutra mantra, which he used to lead people in chanting: Gate, gate, paragate, parasamgate, bodhi swaha! “Gone, gone, gone beyond, gone beyond all going, offering the heart-mind to the fire of awareness!”
During the last year working together on his memoir, Ram Dass said something we didn’t use, because it felt open to misinterpretation. “Recently I have had thoughts of suicide. It’s not that I want to escape, so much as I am feeling pulled toward the Light. I want to go the spiritual route, without the burden of this difficult, compromised body. Like the Tibetan lamas who leave their bodies intentionally or the yogis who turn around three times, sit in the lotus position, and go out the crown of the head. That’s not suicide. I am like a moth attracted to the flame of the spirit. This body is tired of being a moth. The pull toward my soul is like gravity.”
Now as I watch the greening of the season through the sliding door of my basement office, I remember anew how we are each a momentary wave-particle of the great harmonic life cycle. New growth is a slow-motion explosion, and I am again pulling weeds, feeding them to the compost to make soil, adding the ashes of winter’s fires and the neighbor’s chicken manure to this year’s rose bushes and the tomato patch. As humans we may just be a warm slime on the biotic coating of life on the planet’s surface, soon to merge back into the overwarming ocean we have skewed with our emissions. What of this flickering fiction of awareness, this sense of self we make so much of? Where will it go? Where did Ram Dass go? Is he still here now?
The answer comes when the questions stop, when the thoughts cease and the mind sinks into the sun in the heart.
Excerpted from BEING RAM DASS by Ram Dass with Rameshwar Das. Copyright ©2021 Love Serve Remember Foundation. Published by Sounds True.
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