Jonestown "The Strange Case of Franklin Jones" by Scott Lowe
"The Strange Case of Franklin Jones," by Scott Lowe describes the life of a typical cult member in the 1970s. In this personal account, Lowe gives a worm’s-eye view of what it was like to be a foot soldier in the community of Da Free John. We include it on this Jonestown website because it presents a startling contrast to the lives of Peoples Temple members; and because it reveals the much more common, and less dramatic, experience of people who join New Religious Movements. Studies show that the majority of people who belong to NRMs participate for a period of months to several years, eventually opting out of the "totalism" of communal living none the worse for wear. If you have a similar story of participation in a religious organization, we would welcome hearing from you: email@example.com. You may contact Professor Lowe directly at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Scott Lowe, "The Strange Case of Franklin Jones," in DA: The Strange Case of Franklin Jones by Scott Lowe and David Lane (Walnut CA: Mt. San Antonio College, 1996).
When I was asked by David Lane to write an account of my brief period as a member of the community centered around Franklin Jones (AKA Bubba Free John, Da Free John, Heart-Master Da, Da Love Ananda, Da Kalki, Da Avabhasa)1, I was initially reluctant, for several reasons. I had been involved with the guru for only a few months back in 1974, and since that time we had followed widely different paths; I had taught middle school and eventually gone back to university, earning a Ph.D. in the History of Asian Religions, with a special interest in Classical Chinese texts. He had gone on to become a moderately notorious "cult" leader, living on a secluded Fijian island with nine "wives" and a small group of male disciples, supported by the earnings of a community of followers, mostly in the San Francisco Bay area, and the income generated by a string of increasingly monomaniacal, eccentrically written books, books that I had occasionally glanced through but had not read. Though I still regarded Da Free John as an intriguing and fascinating teacher, I had not bothered to keep up with his publications and exploits and was hardly current on his end of the guru business. It was not clear to me that I had any particularly interesting insights to offer or that my academic expertise gave me special qualifications to analyze the life and oeuvre of this puzzling man. Though my memories of my time in the community were colorful and potentially entertaining, I was never especially privy to dark secrets and my role in the ashram’s history was utterly insignificant.
Furthermore, the methodological problems underlying this enterprise struck me as thorny, for while I am now a professional scholar of religion, I most certainly was not one in 1974. Back then I was a young university graduate embittered by the hypocrisy shown by an America at war with "communism" and its own children. I was not pleased at the prospect of a middle-class existence (assuming I survived long enough) and, like millions of others, was desperately trying to discover new ways of understanding that might make it possible to actually live the idealistic values with which I had been raised. The hopeful optimism of the late sixties was long gone by the dark days of 1974; it was time to stop browsing in the spiritual supermarket and get on with the serious work of inner transformation, before it was too late. The world was in dire straights and nothing short of a revolution in human consciousness could hope to save it, desperate times requiring desperate measures. Like many of my apocalyptically anxious fellow-travelers, I was fairly immature, reasonably cynical in a generic way, but at the same time quite naive and impressionable in specific instances. I suppose I was reasonably representative of an entire generation of individuals, who despite their many differences shared similar attitudes of frustration, despair, and longing. For many, the answers were no longer to be found in the failed theologies and empty religious practices of the West. We looked East for the ecstatic awareness that would halt the mad march of consumer "culture," heal the planet, and restore our souls. What made sense to us then may seem very strange in the 1990s. In the process of mulling over my experiences, I have been reminded again and again just how subtly, but significantly, my current frame of reference differs from that of twenty years ago; the same must be true for nearly everyone, which leads me to suspect that projecting oneself into one’s own past is nearly as perilous an undertaking as predicting the future.
What finally convinced me to write this essay was the realization that my experiences of Da Free John, though brief, occurred at a time of unusual openness. Although the guru has been extraordinarily reclusive for many years now, when I was in the community he was relatively accessible, and his activities were in plain view. With hindsight, it is clear that in 1974 Da Free John was planting the seeds of behaviors that would grow into luxuriant, noxious weeds in the tropical isolation of his Fijian hideaway. With luck, my narrative of the early days of his community in northern California might shed some light on the later developments that were at least partially revealed in a series of investigative articles published from 4 to 16 April, 1985 in the San Francisco Chronicle.2
The most intractable methodological question may be this: how does an academic in the 1990s reconstruct the experiences had by an alienated, naive spiritual seeker nearly two decades earlier, without taking advantage of hindsight and the information and understanding gained in later years?3 A secondary question concerns the proper tone and style for presenting this account. Should I pretend to be a "serious" scholar and write in formal academic prose? Would this not be absurdly pompous and inappropriate, given the material? Should I simply report on my memories, fighting down the urges to editorialize, moralize, and analyze? (in that priority!)
It seems to me that for this account to have any value whatsoever I will have to be as open and direct as possible. This will preclude any pretense of academic distance or "objectivity," especially since pretending to be a disinterested observer, when it is obvious I was not, will not fool anyone and will give an eerily detached tone to the essay.4 At the same time, I will not be satisfied merely to report my experiences without comment or self-defense, especially since I am bound to look pretty foolish in these memoirs! As a compromise, I will present a straightforward, albeit impressionistic, account of my experiences in the Dawn Horse Communion (as Da Free John’s community was then known), trying to interpret and present events as they appeared to me at the time, and follow with my analysis. When I cannot refrain from commenting, I will try to restrict myself to the notes, though some in-text editorializing will be unavoidable. Can this be justified on rigorous methodological grounds? Probably not, but perhaps the tale will prove entertaining and have some cautionary value.5
As a final methodological concern, I should address the issue of the ad hominem argument–not in order to make deep theoretical points but simply to clarify what my operating framework will be. It is an unquestioned axiom in graduate school that the ad hominem argument is invalid; you cannot refute a person’s logic by attacking his or her character, race, religious beliefs, etc. One can think of many examples to illustrate this point. The Nazis dismissed Einstein’s theories because he was a Jew; while this turned out well for the Allies, it was bad science and bad logic. We presumably all agree that the sexual mores of a chemist will not necessarily affect the results of her laboratory experiments, and the truth of an astronomer’s cosmological speculation is largely independent of his personal hygiene; however, on entering the arena of normative pronouncements, statements of what is ultimately true, the questions get stickier.
If a Belgian academic claims that texts have no meaning other than that imputed to them by their readers is it relevant to note that he wrote Nazi propaganda during WWII? Does the ad hominem argument have bearing on this academic’s truth claims? Obviously, being a Nazi propagandist does not invalidate one’s theories on texts and their meanings; the logic of the claim is not refuted in any way by the ad hominem arguments leveled against its proponent, however is it improper to wonder about the psychological motives that might lead this particular academic to make the claims he does, claims that appear to absolve authors from any responsibility for what they write?
In the field of religion, especially when considering the role of charismatic, authoritarian religious leaders, the validity of the ad hominem argument becomes an even more important consideration. While character examination may never undermine the logic of a spiritual leader’s positions, I suspect it may well be the mostappropriate means to evaluate a guru, or any other teacher claiming divine inspiration for his or her actions. In other words, I believe that the ad hominem argument is potentially the most useful (though perhaps the most misused) means for evaluating religious or spiritual claims. Why?
In all of the world’s major religions there are sub-traditions that emphasize the paramount value of the spiritual preceptor (guru, rebbe, murshid, shih fu, roshi, etc.) These traditions claim that the spiritual preceptor can greatly accelerate the development of the disciple who submits completely to the preceptor’s will.6 In addition, they generally caution that the right preceptor is necessary for growth; a fraudulent or deluded preceptor is disastrous for the disciple and can literally ruin his or her spiritual life. Since the choice of preceptor is so important for the disciple, the traditions have cautioned the spiritual seeker to be highly critical when selecting the man or woman to whom he/she will entrust his/her life and have taught criteria by which true teachers are to be recognized. Besides emphasizing the importance of common sense and intuition, the criteria usually include a critical examination of the moral quality of the preceptor’s life. As Jesus is quoted as saying in a related context, "By their fruits you shall know them."7 What these traditions seem to understand (or perhaps never had to consider) is that the distinctions modern persons make between spheres of action–physical vs. mental, spiritual vs. material, academic vs. personal, intellectual vs. moral, etc.–are both arbitrary and inappropriate when considering spiritual teachers. As these teachers usually claim, there is no spiritual world divorced from everyday life. The preceptor, or guru, claims the entire life of the disciple as his/her field of action; there is no area of the disciple’s life free from the scrutiny and correction of the guru. Taking this claim at face value, it only follows that every aspect of the guru’s life is also open to the critical examination of the disciple; there is no life of the spirit divorced from everyday human interactions and mundane concerns. The intellectual work of an English professor may be separate from his sex life,8 but a guru’s is not. Given the inseparability of spirit and matter, the cosmic and mundane, what more relevant way is there to evaluate a teacher than by his or her relationships with persons, possessions, and the environment? While I will do my best to avoid all questionable, unsupported allegations, I will not hesitate to discuss actions taken by Da Free John that seem to bear directly on the question of character.9
It is my belief, or bias, that spiritual liberation does not free one from all rules of conventional morality. Though it is obvious that social mores are made up, the creation of particular human societies, and may well be hypocritical, inconsistent and arbitrary,10 does it necessarily follow that the individual who is "liberated" is free to indulge in what appear to be egocentric, hurtful, and damaging actions in the name of spiritual freedom? I personally think not, while acknowledging the subtlety and complexity of the ongoing debate.
In March of 1974 when I arrived in San Francisco, the Dawn Horse Communion was in a period of rapid change and growth. The community had recently moved from Los Angeles, was acquiring a more formal structure, and, on the strength of Franklin Jones’s first two books, was beginning to attract new members from areas outside California. (Even so, the group was still quite small, numbering fewer than two hundred, I would guess.) Within a day or two of my arrival from Colorado, a Canadian appeared, having hitched rides all the way from Ottawa. As trivial as this may sound, the appearance of new prospective members, coming from distant cities, was interpreted by the rank and file members of the Communion as a strongly confirmatory sign and a harbinger of growth to come–their guru was finally being recognized by the outside world and spiritually receptive people were being drawn across the continent.
The timing of my arrival was quite fortuitous. Da Free John had recently begun the process, apparently still evolving, of distancing himself from the rank and file of his ashram. New members were required to pass through a probationary period of six weeks or more before being allowed into the guru’s presence. For some reason, the persons who arrived the week I did were immediately accepted into the community and were allowed to join full members on the weekend pilgrimage north to "Persimmon," formerly Seigler Springs, the down-at-the heels hot springs resort that was then the home of Da Free John and his select inner circle. Individuals who arrived only several days after I did were required to pass through a trial period of several weeks or months before being allowed to see the guru, and if I remember correctly there were even several luckless souls who had arrived before I had who were still held to the requirement of a probationary period. To this day I have no idea why the rules were relaxed for several of us, unless it was the feeling of exhilaration and unfolding destiny that gripped the community when we arrived from thousands of miles away. In any case, the rules were soon to be reasserted; by the time a few months had passed, all the "privileged" newcomers had either been expelled or demoted to the level of probationary members.
The contact point for spiritual seekers interested in learning more about Da Free John was the Dawn Horse Bookstore on Polk Street in San Francisco. This was where the other new arrivals and I met with more established members of the ashram and found housing in the community. I do not think that there was any master plan dictating this role for the store, rather events unfolded in an organic, ad hoc manner–the store was highly visible, staffed by community members who were friendly and desired to assist newcomers, new housing arrangements were being made as members moved up from L.A. to the Bay area, etc.
I was soon living in an apartment with an older couple (both were approaching thirty!) who had been students of Swami Satchidananda for most of the previous decade, sharing a room with the aforementioned Canadian, an ex-follower of Yogi Bhajan. In this arrangement, the Canadian and I were clearly junior partners; the older couple had been around the spiritual scene far longer than we had and knew the gossip on gurus and spiritual teachers up and down both coasts. More importantly, they were apparently fairly close to Da Free John. While not quite members of his inner circle–those privileged individuals who lived in his house or at least got to stay full time at Persimmon–they were still regulars at the guru’s parties and seemed to have an inside track on the gossip about the guru on which the community throve. Besides tantalizing us with titbits of information we really should not have been told, the older couple also helped us adjust to the rigorous diet and hygiene requirements imposed by Da Free John on the rank and file.
Da Free John was apparently fascinated and persuaded by the claims of various health food enthusiasts, so much so that he often stated that the neurotic symptoms of modern Americans, rather than pointing to deep underlying existential concerns, are merely trivial, the byproducts of bad diet and its accompanying metabolic disturbances. "Your deepest worries and spiritual traumas are just ‘lunch’" was his metaphoric way of phrasing it. Furthermore the guru had no reservations about experimenting on his followers.
When I arrived, Da Free John’s favorite diet authority appeared to be Paavo Airola. All members of the community11 were required to follow Airola’s prescriptive routine of a strict vegetarian diet, complemented by fasting one day a week, with a monthly three day fast thrown in for good measure. Once a year, the community was expected to fast for a week, their only calories coming from watered fruit juice.12 To accelerate the cleansing process, those fasting were also expected to take daily enemas, a novel experience for most of us. While this strict diet and periodic fasting were being observed in San Francisco, the guru and his fluctuating, but small, inner circle appeared to be engaging in increasingly riotous, drunken parties.13
Members of the community were required to write spiritual journals in which they recorded their experiences in meditation, doubts, hopes, growing love for the guru, feelings of surrender, etc. These journals were collected weekly and read by a "big brother" or "big sister," assigned to each member by someone higher up in the organization. I do not remember, or perhaps never knew, how these assignments were made, but do recall noticing that that the men and women responsible for reading the journals and socializing newer members seemed to be selected from among the most loyal and unquestioning members of the"old guard," disciples from the ashram’s Los Angeles days. It quickly became apparent that honesty in our journals was not a virtue to be rewarded; any expression of doubt, confusion, or uncertainty led to long, unpleasant probing from the higher-ups and the suggestion that perhaps we were not "mature enough" as disciples to deserve the experience of spending weekends in the master’s presence. Our entries soon became formulaic and unrelentingly enthusiastic, loaded with the jargon of surrender and grace. It was also suspected that really powerful journal entries, if sustained long enough, might lead to improved standing within the community and eventually lead to greater contact with the guru, the goal of all good disciples. In this manner we were encouraged to express our love and devotion for the guru again and again, in many different ways.14
Meditation, practiced twice daily, posed another demand on our time, though it was one of the more enjoyable parts of our routine. We were instructed to sit before a picture of Da Free John–a great number of them were available for purchase–periodically asking ourselves "avoiding relationship?" The practice was not supposed to degenerate into mechanical repetition, but, for me anyway, it did not lead to ecstatic states of consciousness or even a strong sense of connection to the guru. What it did for others, I cannot say; when I earnestly enquired what the point of this practice was supposed to be, senior members of the community seemed baffled and questioned my devotion, so I quit asking before I had an answer. In any case, it was pleasant enough to sit quietly for a stolen half hour of rest.
Overall the mood was exciting, fraught with anticipation of the profound spiritual revolution beginning before our very eyes. There was a strong sense that we were on the vanguard of a new spiritual order, that personal transformation was occurring all around us, by the grace of the guru. Since Da Free John worked his transformative magic by means of a mysterious process of osmosis, or transference of enlightenment, the highest priority of everyone was to gain access to the guru. This led to utterly embarrassing attempts to ingratiate ourselves with those in power. The greatest power lay with those who controlled access to the master, so nearly every member of the community vied to please these sternly right-thinking individuals by appearing to be the most surrendered, pious, obedient, hard-working, etc., devotee of all time.15
One result of this attitude was that a great deal of work got done. In addition to holding full time jobs, community members were expected to spend every evening from Monday to Friday at the bookstore, where work, talk, and inspiration went hand in hand. We built and finished a warren of offices and meeting rooms in the leased space adjoining the bookstore in San Francisco and worked weekend wonders on the decrepit buildings of Persimmon, rebuilding them when possible, demolishing them when not. Safety was never a concern since it was understood that the guru’s grace was protecting his disciples at all times. We ripped out asbestos tiles and threwthem into great dusty piles; we stood on steeply sloping roofs, tearing shingles loose like madmen. It worked out well for a while, though I was saddened to hear that one of the most ardent and surrendered disciples fell from a ladder, to his death, soon after I left. Even this tragic event held a strange salvational lesson for the community; Da Free John placed his hands on the dying boy and directed his soul through the stages of the afterlife, presumably securing liberation or at least a better rebirth for him.16
At the end of a long day of work, meditation, and lectures, there was still time for a bit of fun; after all, Persimmon had been a resort in several of its earlier incarnations. A favorite amusement was to run off to the hot springs, actually a series of pools, varying in temperature, in separate dimly-lit rooms, housed under one roof. Here my friends and I felt constrained by our liminal standing in the community (and our aesthetic sensibilities). Probationary members were expected to maintain celibacy, while full members were allowed to engage in "mature, responsible sexual relations" (apparently a euphemism for exuberant promiscuity). My cohorts and I fit neither category and never clearly knew where we stood, though it was obvious that remaining celibate was the safest course. In any case, despite its sybaritic possibilities, cavorting naked in the hot springs proved to be no more erotic than same-sex bathing at a seedy summer camp. Given the intense sexual/spiritual charge permeating nearly all aspects of ashram life, this seems almost inexplicable, but it is true. In dozens of hours of nude bathing, I saw nothing more sexual than occasional displays of affection. Perhaps the decaying, vaguely unsanitary, mildewed atmosphere of the baths kept things under control, by reminding everyone of junior high school swimming lessons. More important may have been the fact that my friends and I were actually repelled by most of the women in the community, who despite being former hippies managed to project a cloying, saccharin air of pious guru-devotion. I felt like I was skinny-dipping with nuns. Late at night, I was told, the guru and his senior disciples occasionally staged drunken orgiastic revels at the baths, but by then we worker bees were safely tucked into bed and lost in dreamland.
Between jobs, commuting, housekeeping, hygiene (remember the enemas!), meditation, and work on the bookstore, our days were very full; most of us had little time for sleep, and I recall that I was hard pressed to do the reading and writing demanded of a new community member. In fact, I was hardly able to read at all during this period, despite my own inclinations and the guru’s expectations. Whether this was the intended result of our schedule, I do not know. Perhaps the needs of a growing community dictated our excessively long workdays; possibly Da Free John wanted his followers to be too busy to think. One can imagine motives, both benign and nefarious, for encouraging our frantic lifestyle; while the effect of all this busyness was to forestall critical thinking, who can say what the guru’s intentions might have been?
The Inner Circle
The first fact I should state about the inner circle is that I am not really qualified to speak about it, or rather that I have no first-hand observations to report about what went on inside the guru’s home. What I can detail are my own observations of the dynamics of the guru’s household, as seen from outside, and my remembered conversations with those who had direct access to the guru in his less public role. As already mentioned, I also had an earful of guru-centric gossip, a source that is not to be disparaged in ashram settings.17
Da Free John was in his mid-thirties in 1974, tending towards obesity but still muscular and fit. While not strikingly handsome, he was reasonably attractive and dressed with a free-spirited flair. His most intimate associates were roughly his age or perhaps a bit older. He appeared to be especially close to two men; the core of the inner circle seemed to be formed by the three men and their wives, though even members of this tiny elite were not immune to periodic banishment into the outer wilderness of the rank and file.18 In addition to this core group, there were usually several single men, notable mostly for their arrogance and expensive sunglasses, who flanked the guru like bodyguards when he went out, and a half dozen or so attractive, ethereal younger women, collectively known as the "gopis," making up the inner circle.19 The members of the inner circle did not appear to work, at least not at the heavy demolition and construction that occupied most weekend hours for the rest of us, and were greatly envied by everyone else. However, it appears that they paid a heavy price for their relative ease.
Like many gurus, Da Free John worked to undermine all attachments between individuals; ultimate allegiance is to the guru alone, for other relationships are driven by unhealthy desires, insecurities, cravings, and the like, that must be transcended before liberation can dawn. To this end, Da Free John ruthlessly separated couples he deemed too attached to one another, sometimes dissolving marriages or dictating that new relationships be formed.20 The guru also had sex with a large number of attractive women. This was hardly a secret, especially since many of the women so favored had no qualms about telling others the details.21 It was my distinct impression that Da Free John was already physically abusive towards women, pushing and slapping them around on occasion. This is hard to document, of course, since the apparent abuse was always interpreted and reported in the context of shaktipat, the imparting of divine energy or grace through physical contact, among other ways.22 One woman in her first trimester of pregnancy told me how Da Free John had ordered her to down a drinking glass full of Aquavit, a vile Scandinavian liquor; he subsequently punched her swelling abdomen. She experienced this as a blessing given to her unborn child. Not surprisingly, the unusual sensations she felt were interpreted as the working of the shakti, or spiritual energy.
While the inner circle remained relatively constant during my stay at the ashram, I did see two women make the big leap into the limelight, in dramatically different ways: one quite unintentionally; the other through audacity and guile. The first instance occurred several weeks after my arrival, when the restrictions on visiting Persimmon and seeing the guru were being tightened. A recently graduated physician with a long-standing interest in meditation and eastern spirituality brought his young blond girlfriend into the bookstore one evening and enquired about seeing Da Free John. Officially, of course, this was now impossible; all new members had to adopt the prescribed diet and lifestyle changes, demonstrating their spiritual maturity for many weeks, before they were deemed adequately prepared to meet the guru. However, quite inexplicably, someone thought to call Da Free John and consult with him on the matter. After hearing the beauty of the girlfriend described in glowing terms, an exception to the new rules was suddenly granted, and the couple joined the weekend caravan to the hot springs. By this time I had had an opportunity to converse with the young woman, discovering that she had little or no background, or even interest, in eastern spirituality, meditation, and the like, and was only going along to humor her boyfriend. The next time I saw her she was wearing a sari and wandering glazed-eyed in the garden fronting Da Free John’s house.23 As it turned out, upon their arrival the visiting couple had been ushered into the master’s home, where a party was being held, apparently in their honor. By Saturday morning, she had become one of the resident "gopis," and the young doctor was gradually being eased out of the house. On Monday he was back in San Francisco, presumably contemplating the spiritual anguish that inevitably arises from sexual attachments and failure to surrender wholeheartedly to the guru.24
The second case involved a rather nondescript, but not unattractive, woman who came to the community in the aftermath of a divorce. This woman quickly realized where the power and status in the ashram were concentrated and began plotting to become one of the guru’s consorts. To those of us who observed her pathetic maneuvering–new makeup, flowing silk gowns and saris carefully selected to mimic gopi-wear, rushing to sit in the front row during meditation and talks by the guru, pushing to be near the guru on his daily strolls, outrageously fawning behavior, etc.–her apparent failure to attract the guru’s attention was gratifying; perhaps the guy really was omniscient, or at least had good taste. Although posturing and positioning are integral aspects of guru-based community life, this woman brought a new level of transparent desperation to the process. One week, back in San Francisco, we noticed a change in her behavior; everywhere she went she carried a pen and paper and was observed writing and rewriting with great intensity, working on a manuscript the length of several term papers. It soon got out that she was composing a letter to Da Free John, a letter through which all the love and devotion in her heart could flow directly to the guru, unimpeded by the censoring tiers of ashram bureaucrats that separated ordinary community members from their lord and master. Somehow the letter was delivered–no mean feat in itself, for Da Free John’s house was strictly off-limits–and the guru was moved by her great sincerity; the next weekend she was wearing her own sari and had moved into the guru’s house, the oldest of the gopis. By the time I left the community it appeared that her blissful smile was a bit forced and she was showing signs of strain, though no one knew its cause.
When discussing Da Free John there is strong temptation to use that much debased word "charisma" to explain his personal magnetism.25 To say that he has enormous charisma tells us little, however, since the apparent power and magnetism displayed by certain gifted religious and political leaders cannot be scientifically measured and will not be subjectively perceived in the same manner by different observers. How many of us would have come away from a face-to-face meeting with Jim Jones convinced that he was God? Yet for some individuals he had that level of persuasive power, and even his critics reported being swayed by his charm. In a similar fashion, Da Free John projected an almost palpable aura of certainty and self-confidence that seemed utterly remarkable in one so young. Whereas everyone else I knew was baffled by the big questions of human existence–Who are we? Why are we here? What does it all mean?–Da Free John was a man with answers, all the answers, and he was not simply a glib talker. His answers made perfect sense, fitting together like the pieces of an exquisitely crafted puzzle, once you accepted his basic underlying suppositions. I suspect that for someone hostile to Vedantic teachings and their assumption that souls reincarnate for lifetime after lifetime, until escape is won with the dawning of the supremely ecstatic experience of enlightenment, Da Free John’s talks would have little power or appeal. For seekers already steeped in Indian spirituality, Da Free John’s early talks are astonishingly well reasoned, encyclopedic in their breadth, impeccable in their logic, and, most importantly, clearly grounded in deep personal experience. When he gave his masterful lectures, without notes or other signs of advanced preparation, I was absolutely positive that he was speaking from his own experience, not parroting memorized lines.26 To this day, I remain convinced that Da Free John could have spoken with the authority he displayed only because he was discussing vivid personal realizations.
On a sweltering afternoon in late spring, Da Free John might set out on a leisurely walk around the grounds, surrounded as always by an adoring crowd of dewy-eyed disciples. Despite being a healthy young man, the guru usually carried one of his collection of walking sticks, perhaps because many Indian sadhus walk with staves. Besides his designer sunglasses, he often wore nothing but sandals and a shawl; in a more modest mood he might wear colored bikini-style briefs, but nudity was his norm in the heat. Sometimes, after strolling a few hundred yards, he would sit down on a chair or blanket and appear to enter an ecstatic state of open-eyed trance, staring fixedly into the eyes of his followers, one after another. Soon others would enter altered states of consciousness, apparently drawn by the force of the guru’s meditation. On occasion, individuals would assume difficult and contorted yoga postures, as the energy surging through their bodies compelled them to move and writhe. At other times the mood would grow incredibly quiet and still. An hour might pass like this before the guru would look up and ask, "Any questions?" Someone would then ask a silly question (soon forgotten)27 and the master would launch upon a brilliant explication of some obscure technical point in Kashmiri Shaivism, or western occult theory, or his own superior understanding of Truth, or whatever; it really did not matter. We all loved to hear his spellbinding, illuminating, and eminently sensible descriptions of the real spiritual life that dawns with the end of seeking and suffering, for that was the ultimate destination of most of his talks. Da Free John’s best discourses were reserved for formal meetings in the meditation hall, where his words could be taped for eventual publication, but even in the most impromptu settings he never seemed to stumble, make mistakes, lose a train of thought, or display ordinary human weakness. In my opinion, his act would be almost impossible to imitate.
When he was scheduled to speak in the ashram’s lecture hall, we would assemble early, most people struggling to get as close to the guru’s chair as possible, several of us with attitude problems sitting in the back row, as if still in school. We would usually meditate quietly until Da Free John made his dramatic entrance, encircled by the fluttering gopis. The effect was often startlingly electric. These were strange days, even by ashram standards, and the shakti, or spiritual energy, seemed wild, almost uncontrolled. Individuals would writhe or cry out with eerie animal voices as waves of delirious exultation swept through the room. Suddenly, Da Free John would quiet the crowd and, seating himself on his elevated throne, begin his discourse. To get a sense of the structure and content of these talks, one need only glance through The Method of the Siddhas or Garbage and the Goddess. So far as I can tell, Da Free John is unique among gurus, in that his books present his discourses in a completely unrevised, unedited form.28 What you read is a word-for-word transcript of his talks.
During his lectures, Da Free John repeatedly, eloquently, and humorously attacked the narcissistic self-absorption that he claims has overshadowed our original enlightenment and become our habitual state of consciousness. Only by understanding and transcending our petty attachments, dropping our egos, and free-falling mindlessly into the sheltering arms of God can we recover the ecstatic, unreasonable happiness that has been our true condition all along. The way to reach this state of supreme happiness is to surrender to the guru at all times and in all situations.
As Da Free John spoke, his eyes would rake the crowd. Curiously, he appeared to make extended eye-contact with every member of his audience, no matter how many individuals were present.29 On occasions when the mood hit, he would enter a silent state of meditation that would then flood over the assembly. When he had finished speaking and answering questions, he would abruptly rise and walk out, followed by his scrambling entourage. The rest of us would slowly collect our wits and trickle out into the warm, dark night.
Although Da Free John was most impressive, he was not at all approachable; he had no friends. Everyone was his student and everyone needed to be prodded, poked, cajoled, tricked, and even tortured into surrendering the attachments that prevented them from living the blissful enlightenment that was their true, already existing state. At the time I wondered what it would be like to have no peers, to be beyond correction, to admonish others but never to be admonished oneself, and concluded that one could only remain sane if one were "fully enlightened." Anyone less than a "perfect master" would be certain, I reasoned, to end up like one of those looney, sadistic pedophile emperors from the declining years of Rome.
In retrospect, I suppose that Da Free John was already losing his balance; he certainly seemed to enjoy stripping persons of their "attachments" with an enthusiasm that might seem cruel. Soon after my arrival, a middle-aged woman, one of the oldest members of the community, related how she had been liberated from her sense of bodily shame by the guru. While she had apparently recovered from the experience, which had taken place several months earlier, it definitely seemed more traumatic than therapeutic to me. On one of the first nights when Da Free John was allowing his followers to drink alcohol, smoke, and dance,30 Da decided that this overweight, insecure woman was too uptight about her body. As her guru, he ordered her to strip. As a devotee she could either defy her guru and leave the community or take off her clothes. She obeyed the guru and then spent the next half hour dancing naked to acid rock music on top of a table, watched and cheered by the entire community. Was this an example of skillful, compassionate teaching, an exploitative act of sadistic voyeurism, or something else entirely? I honestly do not know, though I am certainly glad I did not have to witness the incident and even happier that I was not placed in her situation.31
Another troublesome point concerns Da Free John’s sources of legitimacy. On the one hand, he claimed that his insight was unique; others in the past had shared his profound understanding, but no living gurus and masters had reached his level of realization. Therefore no one now living could judge, evaluate, or criticize his radical insights and actions. In his formal talks Da Free John would often discuss various famous teachers and explain where their evolution had stopped. (Almost every potential competitor had become trapped by yogic experiences of bliss, thereby falling short and failing to realize the prior enlightenment beyond all changing, temporary yogic illuminations.) Yet Da Free John had also been the student of several powerful practitioners of shaktipat yoga32 and spoke freely and fondly of his relationship with these teachers.
Swami Rudrananda (usually simply called Rudi), an American yogi who had studied the Gurdjieff work, practiced Subud, and spent time in Ganeshpuri with Swami Muktananda and Muktananda’s guru, Nityananda, still commanded Da Free John’s admiration, even though the two had broken contact before Rudi’s recent death. Da Free John especially admired Rudi’s wild energy and lust for experience. In a sentimental mood, Da Free John once mused "Rudi loved men and I love women. Together we could have fucked the world."
Da Free John’s relationship with Swami Muktananda is more problematic. A close reading of Da Free John’s autobiography, The Knee of Listening, suggests that Da Free John fully expected his final teacher, Swami Muktananda, to endorse Da’s enlightenment and role as guru.33 When this did not ensue, the two began a feud that was in full swing when Muktananda visited the Bay area in 1974. Da Free John claimed to have a letter, written in Hindi, that confirmed him as a successor to Muktananda. Whether this is true or not, it reveals clearly that Da Free John felt the need to have his spiritual qualifications confirmed by a recognized authority and suggests that his claims to be beyond the evaluation of others were at least partly defensive in origin. In his evening talks, Da Free John frequently referred to Muktananda as a "black magician." Muktananda spoke of his former student in similar terms.34 During our weekdays in San Francisco, several of us clandestinely visited Muktananda at his ashram in Oakland. His "presence" was quite similar to Da Free John’s, if not more powerful; when he entered a room behind your back, you would involuntarily swivel to see him, as if alerted by a tingling sixth sense; yet his lectures lacked the depth and comprehensive understanding we saw in our guru’s.
Towards the end of my stay I began to realize that Da Free John was gradually asserting a claim to be an avatar, an incarnation of God on earth. He actually sets it out in his first book, The Knee of Listening, when he describes his childhood experience of basking in "the Bright," his childhood term for the divine light that he experienced from birth.35 The claim is not that all children are naturally enlightened before they are socialized into our deadened daily awareness; the claim is that little Franklin Jones was uniquely enlightened from birth and is, in fact, God in human form. An avatar does not need the imprimatur of a mere swami or a western yogi.
While establishing his status as an avatar, Da Free John claimed to produce a number of miracles. Most of these "miracles" slipped right by me, unnoticed, but one in particular was especially baffling; since it may have led to my expulsion, I will explain it as best I can.
One Saturday, after an exuberant night of partying and laughter, we passed the day in some sort of celebration, at least I do not remember doing my usual work. The entire community enjoyed the well-earned break, wandering around outdoors, talking and lolling about. Several days later, the community was buzzing with increasingly dramatic tales of the astronomical marvels Da Free John had wrought on that lazy afternoon. Apparently, among other things, the guru had caused the sun to be ringed by a bright purple corona that had been clearly visible for many hours.36 Devotees vied to describe the miracle in increasingly dramatic terms. Now here is where things get truly puzzling.
I had been outdoors all that afternoon. Not only had I seen nothing out of the ordinary, but no one within my earshot had mentioned anything at all about the miracle at the very time it was supposedly happening! I was not trying to be difficult or obtuse, but this proved too much for me. If a great miracle had occurred, why was it not mentioned at the time? I asked a number of devotees what they had seen and why they had not called everyone’s attention to it, but received no satisfactory answers. It slowly emerged that I was not alone in missing this miracle; my skeptical cohorts on the community’s fringe were similarly in the dark.
Within several days, we were drawn aside, individually, for somber meetings with the ashram authorities in which we were told that it had been a mistake to accept us into the community without testing; we were welcome to remain as probationary members of the Dawn Horse Communion, but it was unclear when, if ever, we would merit another visit to Persimmon. Several of the skeptics blamed themselves for their lack of spirituality and accepted their punishment. My Canadian roommate and I said farewell to the West Coast and were soon sharing a delirious thirty hour nonstop drive across the U.S. with two Native Americans we had met through a Haight-Ashbury ride-board. This was the end of my brief involvement with Da Free John, though I kept up with his writings until his word use and capitalization became intolerably idiosyncratic.37
There will be no great summing up of my experiences; the pieces cannot be made to fall neatly into place. To be honest, I do not really have any conclusions, in a scholarly sense, to offer. Rather I would like to present several hypotheses that have helped me get some grip on an otherwise baffling and elusive man whose words and actions I find too fascinating to ignore.
In retrospect, the "miracles" and, most importantly, individuals’ reactions to them may provide a key to interpreting the group consciousness that Da Free John was constructing in his community. It seems most likely that no one actually saw the marvels the guru claimed to have produced, but the erstwhile devotees’ responses to Da Free John’s claims provided a litmus test to determine who had or had not fully surrendered to the guru’s version of reality, thereby giving a reliable criterion for weeding the ranks of the rapidly growing community. One is reminded, of course, of the story "The Emperor’s New Clothes," with the significant twist that the bratty kid who notices that the Emperor is naked gets punished, and the compliant, self-deceiving officials are rewarded. The motive for purging the community at that particular time seems clear; the following weekend an independent film crew was scheduled to visit Persimmon to film Da Free John and his ashram.38 It must have seemed imperative to remove all potential dissidents from the set.39
Although Da Free John was vociferous in condemning "cultic" behaviors and blamed his ashram members for repeatedly falling into the trap of blind guru worship, the entire organization of the community was designed to inculcate and enforce the very behaviors the guru ostensibly despised. Our "spiritual journals" provided an efficient means for monitoring individuals’ attitudes and spotting ideological or behavioral deviations as soon as they arose, in addition to their previously discussed value as tools of self-imposed indoctrination. While it is possible that a controlling, totalistic ideology, with an accompanying "brain police," is almost certain to develop at some point in the life of any tight, committed religious community, it is my opinion that Da Free John was fully conscious of the intense, self-regulating socialization taking place in his community and was most likely the principal author of the systems of control. It seems that there were few areas in the management of the ashram that fell outside the guru’s scrutiny. No matter what he said about the spiritual pitfalls of the "cultic mentality," Da Free John insisted upon a community that embraced the most slavish and unquestioning traditions of Indian guru worship.40
Any discussion of "cults" or new religious movements soon turns to the titillating topic of "brainwashing." Enquiring minds everywhere love stories of mysterious Rasputin-like gurus whose dark, hypnotic eyes can reduce big-men-on- campus into mindless zombies who annoy people at airports and turn Sunday school-teaching valedictorians into grovelling sex-slaves. Even the currently respectable Jesus once commanded a group of fishermen to "cast down your nets and follow me"–and they did it.41 This is pretty exciting stuff, and we can understand why the popular press exploits a topic that excites such strong reader response. Unfortunately, the reality is often more prosaic.
First off, we should consider the term most often used to describe the process of conversion to non-mainstream religious beliefs. "Brainwashing" is not a descriptive term for a recognized, systematic process that can be performed on demand; it is a metaphor.42 Even those scholars who believe that individuals can be transformed against their will through coercive mind control concede that physical isolation is a necessary part of the process; without imprisonment it cannot be done.43 In California, Da Free John could not imprison anyone; rather than holding individuals against their will, he made them plead for admission.44 Given the constant scrutiny directed upon new members, it is fair to suggest that we were intensively socialized, but the pressure to conform came from within at least as much as without. The guru claimed to offer access to profoundly ecstatic spiritual realization, and the only way to gain access to that experience was by playing his game. The better you played the game, by showing your devotion and obedience, the greater your contact with the guru and the more frequent your opportunities forgrace. We were all willing, ardent competitors in this game, though some of us came to resent the rules. In the case of new religious movements that use deception and high-pressure manipulation in recruiting, we may be observing a different process, but the Dawn Horse Communion was always clear about what was required to remain in good standing. The Dawn Horse Communion was, and probably still is, far more interested in the commitment of its members than the size of its following.45 In fact, so far as I know, the community has never gone in for active recruiting, preferring to let people be drawn by Da Free John’s writings.
The other "techniques of manipulation" to which new and prospective members were subjected were really quite mild. The restricted vegetarian diet and accompanying fasting can hardly overpower anyone who has a will to begin with, as witnessed by the hundreds of millions of vegetarians worldwide who appear to have control over their decision making. Similar arguments can be made for the practice of daily meditation on the guru’s picture. Obviously, the community had an absolute focus on the person of Da Free John, and he figured in nearly every conversation; members became saturated with an atmosphere of devotion and idol-worship, but there was little more coercion in this than one would find among a group of Elvis worshippers on a charter bus pilgrimage to Graceland. The bottom line is that I feel that most of the socialization I experienced was the product of my own will and desires; Da Free John was a splendid salesman, to be sure, convincing hundreds of us that he was the only true master of our time and the only route to liberation, but we coaxed, enticed, and cajoled ourselves and each other into accepting his claims. We are responsible for that choice; no irresistible outside force ran off with our intellects.46 However, the guru also bears responsibility for his skillful, well-orchestrated processes of manipulation, especially since he presumably knows what his real motives and purposes are. I still do not.
The portrait that emerges from the San Francisco Chronicle articles is disturbing and plausible. Da Free John appears to have become a reclusive, binge-drinking misogynist, still brilliant and charismatic, but violent and sadistic towards his most committed and dependent followers. That one of the two men closest to him in 1974 was, in 1985, contemplating a lawsuit for "seventeen years of emotional stress" does not bode well.47 At the very least, it suggests that Da Free John is an ineffective teacher, since seventeen years of discipleship ought to be long enough for a follower to achieve some of the positive results of meditation, like stress reduction. It is even more alarming to realize that the guru’s closest long-term followers felt that they had been manipulated and abused. After all, these are the persons who have been most intimately involved in Da Free John’s work of transformation over the course of several decades. If in this time they have not benefited spiritually, could anyone else have?
Yet there is the problem of Da Free John’s teachings: they are almost flawlessly constructed, seemingly too brilliant to be the product of an egotistical sociopath. And although most post-modern thinkers must suspect that extraordinary verbal skills are not necessarily associated with spiritual insight and responsible behavior, this gives one pause.
Furthermore, I still cannot dismiss Da Free John’s aura of absolute certainty. What is the source of Da Free John’s powerful insights and personal confidence, if not an experience of "enlightenment"? Is it indeed possible that Da Free John is what he claims to be: a "fully enlightened" adept? (Leaving aside for the moment what this might possibly mean.) If we provisionally assume that this is true, what are the implications? One would be that an "enlightened being" is not particularly benign. Enlightened sages are not necessarily kind, compassionate, altruistic, courteous, concerned, environmentally aware, politically correct, or any of the wonderful things their publicists proclaim them to be. They are definitely not saints. Would the world be a better place in any conceivable way if everyone experienced this sort of "enlightenment"? (Probably not.) What positive value does enlightenment hold? (Apparently none other than the bliss enjoyed by the enlightened being.)
This brings us to a main point made by Agehananda Bharati in his polemical book on mystical experience, The Light at the Center. Bharati claims that the point of mystical experience is the enjoyment of the experience itself. Though the experience of being "One with the universe" seems pregnant with meaning, in fact, the experience does not necessarily confer any particularly deep insight into ontological questions nor does it transform the ethical, intellectual, academic, interpersonal, or spiritual dimensions of the experiencers’ lives no matter what mystics may subjectively experience, ardently believe, and publicly assert.48 Enlightenment may be a wonderful experience, it may provide an intense subjective sensation of understanding the meaning and purpose of life, but in the final logical analysis it is simply an overwhelming experience; claims that the experience reveals truth just cannot be proven.49 Therefore those who imagine that the insights of their mystical experiences are objectively "true" may be deluding themselves.
My best guess is that Da Free John might have had one, or a dozen mystical experiences of being one with the divine. He may even be, as he claims, in a continuous state of "god-intoxication." (Sahaja Samadhi is his term for this state.) If this is true, it seems unavoidable to conclude that the subjective experience of being one with the divine does not, in and of itself, elevate the ethical level of the mystic’s interpersonal relationships; if one is abusive, manipulative, and self-centered before the experience, one may well remain that way during and after it.50 A person experiencing divine union can be filled with certainty, but this divinely-inspired confidence may have few points of contact with daily life, leaving the mystic "divinely deluded." This is my best explanation of how Da Free John can project his atmosphere of absolute knowledge, without being insane or a self-conscious fraud. (I should stress that he was not insane in any obvious clinical sense in 1974, and I do not believe him to be a charlatan, as the term is commonly understood.) Though this hypothesis could be developed further, I have already exceeded the bounds of my expertise.
I will end with the overused, but veracious, platitude that "Power corrupts and absolute power corrupts absolutely." In 1974, Da Free John appeared to be experimenting with his power over his community of devotees. Though he may well have thought that he was leading his following to a state of liberation, he was also removing every potential challenge to his absolute control over the flock. His motives are inscrutable and may never be known, but his behavior is relatively well documented. On the basis of his actions, I suspect that Da Free John has become a grotesque parody of the supremely selfless enlightened being he imagines himself to be. Believing that the liberated being is free from all social rules and religious regulations, he has become a fat, boozy tyrant, abusing his nine "wives" and his inner circle, who interpret Da’s every action as a lesson from the divine (as channeled through the guru’s human form.) The only individuals who could possibly curb Da Free John’s excesses are those who most believe in his divinity, and they blame themselves for their lack of understanding when his behavior seems unreasonable. Ironically, the self-obsession that he has diagnosed as the basic human predicament is reflected in everything he now writes; he has become the Narcissus he so forcefully critiques.
Of course, I might be wrong.
In the nearly two years since "The Strange Case of Franklin Jones" was written, I have had occasion to reflect on some of the tentative conclusions reached during the week I spent composing the essay. Working rapidly, I had allowed the essay to pour out; it basically wrote itself. Once it was done, I did not spend much time reworking the ad hoc, spontaneous analysis, largely because further pondering did not seem to bring greater clarity to the initial observations. However, recent correspondence, particularly with Dr. Georg Feuerstein and John White, has led to the correction and modification of some of my earlier positions. Now that the essay is being republished, I have decided to take advantage of this opportunity to update the manuscript, by attempting a reappraisal and correction of several of my initial assertions.
There have been a few new developments on the Da-watching front in the last few years, ranging from the predictable (a new name, Adi Da, "the Primal Da"?) to the unlikely (Saniel Bonder, one of the most ardent of the guru’s devotees and publicists, has set himself up as an enlightened successor to Da, apparently without the approval of the Master). The community continues to exalt Da as the "World Teacher"; his "Emergence" is now being touted as the greatest event in the history of our galaxy, perhaps even the most spiritually significant occurrence since the Big Bang. In video presentations, the Guru rarely speaks–officially this is because he is now devoted to his "blessing work" and presumably is engrossed in radiating enlightened energy throughout the universe–but looks brooding and obese. The Guru’s lifestyle has put some serious miles on his odometer.
Healthy or not, Da Free John is continuing his ambitious publishing agenda. The current venture is the publication of repackaged, edited, expanded, and sanitized versions of his entire corpus. His first book, The Knee of Listening, has grown from an original two-hundred seventy-one pages to a mammoth six-hundred five page text. Not only have new prefaces, appreciations and appendices been added, but the descriptions of early phases in the Guru’s life and spiritual search have been significantly rewritten. One suspects that a serious study of the alterations might reveal a great deal about the ways in which Da is reshaping his image for posterity. Ironically, the altered, revisionist texts are being labeled the "New Standard Editions." In addition to the biblical associations evoked by the name, there are delightful Orwellian overtones, for it is one thing for classicists and biblical scholars to examine the oldest extant texts of the Bible, compare the variant readings, consult the commentaries, and then produce authoritative translations of the foundational texts of Judaism and Christianity, and quite another to issue heavily revised versions of books one recently wrote oneself. It is hard not to get the strong feeling that, even more than before, Da is busily creating his own hagiography and working with dogged energy to establish a teaching and community that will carry on after his death.
While on the topic of editing, I should retract my earlier claim that Da Free John’s talks were published as originally given. Georg Feuerstein, writer, yogi, and former editor for the Dawn Horse Press, has informed me that all of Da’s talks were edited to some degree before publication. In the early days, the editing was done largely by Nina, Da’s wife; in later periods, a group of editors reworked the lectures. The extent of editorial emendation varied greatly from talk to talk. With some, the corrections were limited to the deletion of occasional obscenities and impolitic asides. Other talks were thoroughly restructured and revised. The talks that I heard in person were among the least altered, but then most were published in Garbage and the Goddess, a book that has been "recalled" and expunged from the Guru’s bibliography. Apparently, Garbage and the Goddess was the result of a failed experiment in open communication, one soon repudiated. In any case, even the lectures presented in that frank book were not wholly unexpurgated, since especially outrageous remarks were excised. Given the great emphasis most gurus seem to place on controlling their public image, I should have known better.
Recruitment is another issue. Based on my experience, I concluded that Da Free John was not especially interested in dragging new members off the streets or out of the shopping malls. Certainly he was a man with a message and a mission, and both human effort and cash were needed to spread the word, but I saw no big push to convert the masses, unless we consider the movie "A Difficult Man" to be a marketing tool. According to Dr. Feuerstein, this is correct as far as it goes. What the new members did not see was the Master’s interest in enlisting the assistance and allegiance of the rich and famous. Though Georg is always discreet in his remarks, he implies that the attempts to recruit highly placed persons of influence were often awkward and clumsy, resulting in embarrassment far more often than success.
For the record, I should note that Georg feels that I was too hard on the "miracles" so prized by the community, though he does not explain what he thinks actually took place. His feeling seems to be that devotees desperate for confirmation of their Master’s divinity exaggerated the significance of minor synchronisms, atmospheric irregularities, and the like. Rather than making much ado about nothing, as I imply, they were apparently making mountains out of molehills. Caveat lector.
In an excellent unpublished paper on Da Free John, the well known author, editor, and consciousness researcher John White makes a simple, obvious point about "service" that struck me with great force. What White notes is that our planet is in desperate straits, largely due to the insensitivity and blundering of human beings. Despite what the "feel good" scientific illiterates of the New Right seem to believe, there is a tremendous amount of work to be done if we are simply going to survive through the next century, much less thrive on a healthy, biologically diverse planet. Even if the earth should prove more resilient than we have any right to expect, there are still vast numbers of vexing social and economic problems that need to be addressed, the sooner the better. What then is the focus of the selfless service promulgated by Da, a man supposedly in profound harmony with the entire spectrum of suffering life forms? The answer is straightforward and simple-minded: all service, from beginning to end, is to be dedicated to satisfying the personal needs of the Guru. Few students of religion would take issue with the necessity, found in any new religious movement, for building an infrastructure and setting up a reasonably permanent and enduring base. All new movements can seem self-absorbed in their initial days. What White objects to is the insistence that Da is essentially the only living being who should be served. Forget the blue whales, the blind Nepalese, and the losers eating out of garbage cans in any American city, serving Da with heart, mind, and soul is the highest, and perhaps the only, good.
Strangely enough, there may be some truth in the Master’s claim: devoted service really is liberating. Once again, my worry is with the motives of the Guru. Can’t the devotees serve Da Free John through serving the needy, much as Mother Theresa serves Jesus by helping the poor? How do the devotees serving Da differ from those Evangelical Christians who pay lip service to Jesus while doing absolutely nothing to alleviate the suffering of those around them? In fact, the Evangelicals are responsible only for their slanted interpretation of the Christian message, whereas Da, by laying claim to the hearts, souls, and energies of his flock, seems guilty of the most monstrous egotism, unless of course he is truly an avatar, and it turns out that catering to the sexual, financial, and emotional needs of an avatar is of greater cosmic significance than helping the homeless and hungry.
This brings us to the last unanswerable question to be considered in this short piece: what is enlightenment? In my original essay, I entertained the suggestion of Agehananda Bharati that enlightenment, or the "zero experience" as he calls it, is by definition temporary. It cannot be clung to, and anyone experiencing it is basically incapable of normal functioning, for as long as it lasts. Doesn’t this go against nearly everything "enlightened" masters have claimed? Not exactly, at least not as Bharati explains it.
Bharati’s most effective argument hinges on the distinction between emic and etic modes of speech. Though the nuances of these technical terms drawn from anthropology are not always clear in Bharati’s work, basically emic refers to the encoded private language of "in-groups," while etic refers to the language of the "objective" outside observer. Bharati contends that the emic speech of Indian sadhus is governed by complex, unspoken codes, codes that are rarely noticed, much less understood, by outsiders, no matter how clever or perceptive. One of the unwritten rules is that gurus must never acknowledge being in any state other than that of full realization.
"Master, how often do you enter that state of highest bliss and realization?"
"My child, I am in that state even now."
Bharati’s claim is that because of the rules governing the speech of Indian mystics, the guru has no choice but to assert that he is always enjoying satchitananda, even when he knows perfectly well that he is not. Further, according to Bharati’s understanding, the very fact that the guru is exerting himself by speaking in public proves that he is not, in that moment, enjoying the state of enlightenment. If he were, there would be no motive to speak. Most importantly, from the emic perspective of insiders, there is no dishonesty in this claim to permanent enlightenment, despite the undeniable fact that it is objectively false.
Bharati asserts that a dispassionate look at the evidence will suggest, though not prove, that enlightened states are by their very nature temporary. The great mystics are those who frequently enter transcendent states and make the cultivation of the zero experience the dominant focus of their lives, but no one is permanently in the state of highest illumination. The very idea that one can experience enlightenment twenty-four hours a day is the product of a too literal etic understanding of the emic speech of professional mystics, who not incidentally benefit from this linguistic confusion.
If, and this is a very big if, Bharati is right, then one must wonder if the search for ultimate bliss, cosmic closure, and the end to all effort might not be part of the problem, not the solution. If all living creatures are engaged in an ongoing process of growth and change, then no one being can ever have all the answers, no one can possibly have reached the end of the path. In traditions where the belief in, and search for, a final realization is a dominant motif, there seem to be marked tendencies towards self-deception, grandiose ego-inflation, and antinomian excess–in short, all the problems that appear to be manifested by Da Free John. My fear is that "permanent enlightenment" is too close to the most private (and selfish?) dreams of most of us to be anything more than a particularly transparent instance of "spiritual" wishful thinking.
Of course, the preceding argument relies heavily on reductio ad absurdum. In fact, one cannot assail the logic of a position by pointing to the evil consequences attendant upon acting out its most extreme implications. While it may be true that the spiritual traditions that strive for a final enlightened state, a state that obviates the need for all further work, growth, and morality, tend to produce deluded individuals, this doesn’t necessarily give us cause to doubt the existence of the enlightened state. Perhaps a state of "permanent" liberation is, in fact, possible. I don’t know.
As I read the New Standard Edition of The Knee of Listening, I get the overwhelming impression that Franklin Jones was desperate for some sort of final, ultimate realization, a realization that would provide closure to the search, end the need for any further work, and eliminate the necessity for the struggle and growth that seem to characterize all biological life. Da claims to have reached some sort of supremely enlightened state–despite his own continuing phases of transformation and "emergence," each of which, in turn, has been touted as a final, ultimate, and permanent development. I suspect that Da Free John’s insistence on the eternal, unchanging, and incomparable nature of his realization stems more from the personal and all-too-human psychological needs of Franklin Jones than from the uniquely deep illumination of a "World Teacher"; however, even if I am right on this account, it does not prove that Da Free John is not a highly evolved individual.
From the time of the Upanishads to the present day, spiritual teachers have warned that the path to liberation is narrow and precarious, with many alluring side tracks, byways, and dead ends. The farther one progresses, the easier it becomes to fall off the path, which is, by all accounts, "narrow as a razor’s edge." Despite Da’s many attempts to bolster and augment his "spiritual genealogy," it is clear that his later, most powerful realizations, the ones that have convinced him of his unique status and destiny, have never been publicly confirmed by any other living master. This leads me to suspect that Da may not have transcended his "small self" as completely as he thinks and, having dropped his guard, has slipped off unaware into some kind of high-level ego-trip, albeit one that most of us cannot completely fathom. Nonetheless, it seems likely that Da does, in fact, speak from compelling personal experience, even if the content of his teaching is sometimes questionable. His message now is more clear than ever: despite the fact that we are all one and all equally enlightened in our true nature, we should worship only Da, think only of Da, and serve only Da.
Again, in theory, this devotion should be liberating. Yogi Bhajan once said that if anyone could surrender fully and truly to a rock, they would be liberated. If the way to liberation is through shedding one’s limited identification with the mind and body, this may well be true, but then what is the significance of Da and his self-proclaimed exemplary realization? How is an avatar more helpful to a spiritual seeker than a lump of granite?
One answer might be that an avatar, by his or her very presence and example, provides disciples with a living embodiment of full realization, a perfect model for their own transfiguration. Another answer might be that avatars can instruct through personal interactions with disciples, leading each to discover her or his own unique path to Truth. Finally, the avatar might serve as a beacon of enlightened energy, transmuting the gross material of this world into its finer, more spiritual essence. No doubt many other exalted roles can be described for the perfect master. How well does Da fit just these three?
Here I find myself feeling more critical than I did a few years ago. So far as I can tell, Adi Da spends most of his time being worshipped by a handful of especially devoted followers, while he lolls about half-naked in a tropical paradise. This gives the impression that the Guru is pursuing a rather oblique approach to enlightening the planet. The video footage of devotees bowing at his feet provides images more appropriately associated with medieval royalty than selfless saints. One can imagine Da in a previous lifetime as a minor European nobleman, exploiting his impoverished serfs, sleeping with their wives and daughters, and living a splendidly dissipated life of luxury, all in the name of the divine right of kings. As a model for proper behavior in the twilight of the twentieth century, Da seems neither better nor worse than, say, Marlon Brando or Keith Richards.
How does Da measure up as a teacher? Who knows? He appears to be at least semi-retired and relying on his books to carry most of his teaching load, having abdicated the role of personal teacher for all but the select few.
The third function of an avatar is less tangible and inherently unmeasurable. Readers will undoubtedly rely on their own intuition and experiences to judge the transformative power of any guru, spiritual teacher, or religious leader. This is as it should be. As for me, I’ve recently begun collecting unusual and distinctive stones; pending the advent of a more plausible "World Teacher," perhaps I’ll spend my leisure cultivating my rock garden.
19 July 1995
- Franklin Jones is obviously fond of playing with names. For the sake of simplicity I will stick with Da Free John. This is the name under which he seems to have published the most, and I personally find it less obnoxious than some of the others.
- These articles, by Katy Butler, Rick DelVecchio, and Don Lattin, seem overly sensationalistic and a bit superficial, focussing on sex, drugs, and violence, with little or no attention placed on the community’s interpretation of the alleged acts. The documentation is also very weak; all that is reported are the claims of disaffected ex-disciples. (Objective documentation of actions taken on a remote, privately owned, and inaccessible island on the far side of the Pacific is bound to be hard to obtain.) However, I have no doubts that the allegations are essentially true; less extreme but very similar actions have long been a part of the guru’s practice.
- To prepare for writing this essay, I reread the 1985 San Francisco Chronicle articles, revived long-dormant memories, and glanced through Da Free John’s first three books: The Knee of Listening, The Method of the Siddhas, and Garbage and the Goddess. The first two books had convinced me to visit the community in the first place; the last contains written versions of talks I heard in their original, unexpurgated form while part of the community. For better or worse, I have not consulted other sources on Da Free John or the allegations leveled against him, wishing to avoid additional coloring of my initial impressions and, I hope, non-revisionist memories.
- For an example of the confusion that results when a guru’s follower feigns merely academic interest in his subject, see James Gordon’s The Golden Guru: the Strange Journey of Bhagwan Shree Rajneesh (Lexington, MA: Stephen Greene Press, 1987). I am not accusing Gordon of any intentional dishonesty, but it is clear to most readers that Gordon’s existential investment in Rajneesh is far greater that he openly acknowledges.
- It should be obvious that this essay will not be a representative piece of my academic prose. Not only am I exulting in the use (overuse?) of the first person, but I am also striving for a frankness usually censored from scholarly accounts. To counter the discomfort produced by my embarrassing disclosures, I am indulging in a touch of sarcasm and irony from time to time, with the hope that it may prove amusing.
- The requisite degree of submission varies among the sub-traditions. For example, within Buddhism, only the Tibetans require absolute obedience to the guru’s every command; Zen and other Buddhist schools are much less restrictive. However, even the strongest monotheistic religions, Judaism and Islam, have traditions where absolute obedience to the human teacher is the sine qua non of spiritual growth.
- Matthew 7:16.
- This point is obviously debatable, as well.
- We now arrive at the difficult issue of "crazy wisdom." Proponents of "crazy wisdom" argue that certain great teachers are so profoundly liberated from what they have realized to be arbitrary and meaningless social codes that they are free to act in whatever wild, shocking, or bizarre manner they see fit–all in order to shake their followers out of their deadly complacency, of course. The motive of these masters is compassion, or so we are told; their strange, confusing, amoral, or even apparently hurtful actions are really performed for the ultimate benefit of their disciples, though it may be years before the fruits are harvested. There is a compelling power in the claims made for crazy wisdom; certainly few of us can imagine the long-term consequences of any actions, and it is wonderful to imagine that supremely liberated individuals can magically act for the ultimate benefit of their followers; however, it is also true that the claims made for "crazy wisdom" are untestable: they can neither be proven nor disproven. The historical records give a glimpse of thousands of ruined lives left in the wake of unscrupulous "spiritual teachers" who used their "divine" status to justify their apparently capricious, damaging whims. (If we stretch the category to include the deluded leaders of messianic movements under the rubricof "crazy wisdom," the toll of ruined lives reaches into the millions. While this might be too broad a use of the term, I believe that a case can be made for classing Hung Hsiu-Ch’uan, the leader of the T’ai-p’ing movement, with other teachers of "crazy wisdom," though he never used the term.) For an introduction to the modern debate, see Georg Feuerstein, Holy Madness (New York: Paragon House, 1991).
- Why is it bad for individuals to kill their neighbors yet glorious for a nation to launch cruise missiles against civilians, to cite a recent instance?
- I am using the term "members of the community" very imprecisely because, while I was there, the term was not yet clearly defined. A glance through Da Free John’s later writings will quickly reveal how hierarchically stratified and legalistically regimented the community has now become. This is not to say that there were not clear demarcations of status, prestige, and privilege; there definitely were, but for the entire period of my association with the community, my personal position was undefined, as was that of several other newcomers. We were certainly not full members, but we were more privileged than the probationary members. I doubt that such ambiguity existed in later periods of the community’s life, except of course in the case of beautiful women, who were not required to pass through the initiatory stages required of those less well endowed, a topic to be addressed below.
- While in San Francisco, my roommate and I supported ourselves by working as bicycle messengers. As one might imagine, the frequent fasts interfered with our work and seemed downright hazardous at the time. When we complained through an intermediary to the guru about the strain we were experiencing from working during the week-long fast, Da Free John reportedly replied that it was an interesting experiment, and he wanted to hear how we fared. My roommate and I were less entertained by the guru’s "experiment" and finally broke our fasts on day six, after nearly being killed in separate bicycle-bus collisions. For both of us this appears, in retrospect, to have marked the beginning of the end of our enchantment with the guru.
- I was told by one of the guru’s housekeepers that Da Free John and his "intimate associates" had somehow spent $18,000, in one month, on gourmet food items and booze! If true, this represents almost miraculous excess, given the power of the dollar in 1974.
- That repetition of a doctrine or belief, even one that one does not accept, leads to gradual attitude change has long been understood in China, where such repetition is a favorite technique of the officials leading "thought reform" campaigns.
- In retrospect this sycophantic behavior appears nauseating; however, I can happily report that it appeared disgusting at the time, as well. For the newcomers especially, who had far less invested in the community and its belief system, it was relatively easy to keep a level head during those enthusiastic days. Several of us could not refrain from making sarcastic remarks in the face of great acts of "surrender" and self-sacrifice. These remarks may have been a factor in our eventual expulsion.
- Ramana Maharshi is reported to have done much the same thing for his dying mother (and, somewhat unorthodoxly, for a pet cow). Since Da Free John was a long-time student of Ramana Maharshi, he was certainly remembering this incident as he ministered to his dying disciple; however, it can always be claimed that Da Free John was simply doing what all true masters do, not copying one of his role models.
- Generally speaking, in guru-centered communities gossip is the most important means by which ordinary members are educated and socialized in ashram norms. As anyone who has spent time in an ashram will attest, gossip has a paramount role in daily affairs, serving to entertain, uplift, chasten, and motivate the inmates. Who is now closest to the guru? Who is experiencing his shakti? Who is sleeping with whom? What did the master really say to X? These and other similarly intriguing questions are answered by gossip networks; securing good access to juicy rumors becomes an important priority for savvy ashramites.
As in other settings, the Dawn Horse Communion had its share of "goody two-shoes" types who eschewed all gossip as spiritually damaging. They were on solid textual ground in this assessment, of course, but the rest of us savored, nay lived for, the gossip that made daily life in the community so exciting.
- Da Free John seemed to be especially hard on his wife, Nina, often kicking her out of the house, and, if later reports are to be believed, physically abusing her. For the latter see "’Sex Slave’ Sues Guru," San Francisco Chronicle, 4 April 1985, p. A16.
- The original gopis were the cow-herding maidens of Vrindavan, India, who were so entranced by the youthful god Krishna that they abandoned their husbands, children, and family responsibilities to adore their lord. In some renditions of the tales of the gopis, Krishna multiplies himself into thousands of identical forms so that he can dance with (or alternately make love to) every one of the gopis at the same time. While Da Free John reputedly managed to make love to all the gopis, I did not hear that he had ever contrived to manifest more than one bodily form.
- Da Free John was very convincing in his explanation of the spiritual logic behind these machinations; however, it is hard not to notice that the same destruction of significant human relationships has been used by nearly every "cult" leader since the dawn of record keeping to focus the energies of the followers on the guru, who becomes the sole recipient of his, or very occasionally her, followers’ love. Still unresolved, for me, is the question of how, or even whether, interpersonal relationships are to be transcended. Is there spiritual value in traumatically severing human relationships? Is this even the point? Isn’t it more likely that negative attachments will fade away on their own as insight deepens? Is the goal to become a heartless, calculating one-man island, unattached to anyone or anything, able to laugh at the suffering and pain of others? In any case, it seems clear that playing with their followers’ deepest, most profound relationships has long been one of the favored modi operandi of charlatans, frauds, and rascals. For an intriguing parallel see Hugh Milne, Bhagwan: the God that Failed (New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1986), p. 143 and pp. 149-150.
- The openness of women to talk of their sexual encounters with the guru led to some extraordinarily embarrassing moments. Without a doubt, the worst of those moments came when a married woman I knew told me "I’ll never forget the first time I went down on the Lord." Even now, nineteen years later, this line makes me wince!
- I once heard Da Free John claim that Rudi, one of his former teachers, habitually received Swami Muktananda’s shaktipat by literally "kissing his ass." While not a practice commonly described in yogic literature, I suppose this could work, if one goes in for such things.
- Though this astonishingly rapid change in apparent beliefs and values might seem powerful evidence for some sort of sinister "brainwashing" being practiced by Da Free John, I suspect that a simpler explanation will suffice; the compliant young woman was simply overwhelmed by the sudden attention and honor lavished upon her by the guru and his inner circle. In the following weeks, she must have had to undergo the difficult process of restructuring her mental universe to embrace her new experiences.
- Unfortunately, I do not know the ultimate outcome to this story, though I suspect the ending was unhappy for at least one of the two. When reading the Chronicle series, I was hit with an amazed sense of deja vu; an uncannily similar scenario had occurred in 1976, when a Playboy centerfold model and her lover were given similar V.I.P. treatment, with the identical result for the male. Someone in the San Francisco center must have been especially vigilant in satisfying the guru’s every need. For the second instance see "’Sex Slave’ Sues Guru," San Francisco Chronicle, 4 April 1985, p. A1.
- Da Free John has no monopoly on charisma, of course, but he has, or had, an amazingly powerful personal presence. So did Swami Muktananda and Chairman Mao.
- I am not a sucker for all gurus, I must hasten to add. For example, the late Rajneesh always impressed me as a fraud of some sort. Though I do not claim to know the level of Rajneesh’s spiritual realization, he was a brazen plagiarist who played dangerous games with his sannyasins’ lives. This was enough to warn me off.
- Most questions asked in the ashram seemed designed to elicit the guru’s approval, or at least his attention, often by showing off the intellectual or spiritual accomplishments of the questioner. Therefore they tended to be fatuous and self-serving.
- The late Chogyam Trungpa Rimpoche also published impressive "transcripts" of his spontaneous public lectures, but having heard some of these talks in person, I can attest that they have been greatly improved by skillful revision. Rajneesh also expended a great deal of human effort to perfect his "inspired" talks.
- The ability to make apparent eye-contact with a large number of persons simultaneously seems to have been developed by a number of powerful speakers. (Could it be a natural talent?) I once heard a former Hitler Youth leader describe how the Fuehrer appeared to make personal eye-contact with him, during a wartime rally attended by over one hundred thousand young Nazis. He further claimed that everyone at the rally reported having the same experience.
- The arbitrary tightening and relaxing of rules led to great emotional ups and downs; a kind of group hysteria would erupt when, after weeks of rigid asceticism, the guru would declare a party. Within minutes, cases of beer (usually Coors) would appear from somewhere, and everyone would be drinking and smoking "natural" cigarets. At other times, alcohol, caffeine, and tobacco products were strictly proscribed.
- An obvious question that no one asked was "what is the relationship between spiritual liberation and freedom from social conditioning?" Does one produce the other? Might they not function entirely independently of one another? Were the great religious teachers of the past millennia all free from shame, guilt, and socially conditioned morality? (I doubt it!) Here is an instance where the guru defined the terms and established the conditions that gave him absolute control over his disciples’ lives, yet may have been operating from faulty, unchallenged premises.
- Shaktipat yoga is not a traditional technical term. I am using it to refer to those teachers who seek to impart "enlightened energy" directly to their disciples. In a sense, nearly all Indian spiritual teachers claim to transmit energy to their followers, but for some this is the whole of their method. Da Free John’s teachers belong to the latter group.
- Franklin Jones, The Knee of Listening (Los Angeles: Dawn Horse Press, 1972), pp. 122-130.
- With hindsight, it is tempting to conclude that they were both right.
- See Jones, The Knee of Listening, pp. 9-10.
- For a photograph, presumably doctored, of the great event, see the back cover of Bubba Free John, Garbage and the Goddess (Lower Lake, CA: Dawn Horse Press, 1974).
- For a good illustration of Da Free John’s eccentric and apparently self-absorbed writing style, see Da Free John, The Dawn Horse Testament (San Rafael, CA: Dawn Horse Press, 1985). Da Free John’s books are now largely unintelligible to the casual reader.
- The movie shot in the subsequent weeks, "A Difficult Man," was shown on many college campuses when finished. As I recall, it was filled with scenes of writhing, sobbing devotees and may not have proven an effective recruiting tool. Were it available on video, I would like to see it again.
- Even without the imminent arrival of the film crew, a showdown was inevitable. Several of the malcontents had defiantly taken to puffing cigarets behind the dorms (I had been an adamant nonsmoker only weeks before !), drinking forbidden coffee, and developing our own mocking vocabulary (referring to the gopis as "guppies,"etc.)
- Reverence for the guru is an integral part of most Indian spiritual paths; however, the degree of devotion and obedience required by Da Free John, while not outside the range of acceptability in India, places him at an extreme end of the scale.
- See Matthew 4:19.
- It is also a direct translation from the Chinese. Political cadres in the People’s Republic of China are reasonably proficient at inducing behavioral changes in imprisoned subjects through an intensive process of "thought reform." One of the terms they use for this is xi nao, which literally means "wash brains." Needless to say, this term is used poetically, not literally.
- For a persuasive critique of the whole concept of "brainwashing" in new religious movements, see John T. Biermans, The Odyssey of New Religious Movements: Persecution, Struggle, Legitimation (Lewiston, N.Y.: The Edwin Mellen Press, 1986), pp. 23-36.
- The conditions for much more potent manipulation would exist on an isolated private island.
- In 1985 the Communion claimed a total membership of about 1,100. This is quite small for a group with such a high public profile.
- Perhaps I was too peripheral to the community to make this claim. Certainly the pressures brought to bear on fully committed members may well have been many orders of magnitude stronger than the still considerable forces I felt. Though I dislike and mistrust the word brainwashing–especially since it is so often trivialized and misused by both the media and the public–the power of the community and guru to mold and refashion thought should not be underestimated.
- "Guru’s backers say defectors trying extortion," San Francisco Chronicle, 7 April 1985, p. B1.
- Agehananda Bharati, The Light at the Center (Santa Barbara, CA: Ross-Erikson, 1982), pp. 87-111 and elsewhere.
- Please note that I am asserting nothing about mystical experiences other than the obvious fact that thousands of individuals are positive that they have had them and that, logically speaking, the intensity of an experience is no proof of the truth value of its content. Whether there is "really" such a thing as being "One with the divine" is beyond my knowledge and the aims of this article.
- Bharati not only makes this claim, his own actions provide a living testimonial to its truth! See Bharati, The Light at the Center, p. 91.