Ram Dass is a contemporary pioneer in the exploration of inner space. Through psychology, drugs and spiritual disciplines he has explored the states of mind and being, and returned with maps for the rest of us. There have been some wrong turns, but his honesty and ability to laugh at himself have enabled us all to learn from his mistakes. As a clear translator of Eastern wisdom, especially Hindu dharma, and as a man dedicated to community service and helping others, Ram Dass has been a teacher and inspiration to many. There is a large sangha in the West for whom, without Ram Dass, the journey would be more difficult and far less enjoyable.
The primary focus of his spiritual life has been the Hindu practice of guru kripa with his teacher Maharajji (Neem Karoli Baba), whose basic message was to love people, serve people, and remember God. Nevertheless, Ram Dass has also been a regular practitioner of Buddhist vipassana meditation. He began studying vipassana with S.N. Goenka in the winter of 1969–70 in Bodh Gaya, India, and over the years he has done several intensive retreats, some of them at the Insight Meditation Society in Barre. In June of 1984 Ram Dass sat for a month at Barre with the Burmese meditation master U Pandita. His retreat was cut short by the illness of his father, but Ram Dass was attracted to the method and wanted to continue, so he applied for a visa to go to Burma to practice further under U Pandita’s guidance.
This interview took place on June 1, 1985, at Dominican College in San Rafael, California, on the occasion of the annual board meeting of the Seva Foundation. Seva is a service organization involved in many worthy projects, but primarily dedicated to ending unnecessary blindness in the world, beginning in Nepal and India. At this meeting Ram Dass was chosen as chairman of the Seva Foundation Board. Two days later he flew to Burma to sit in intensive retreat for two more months with U Pandita. When he returned from Burma we talked by phone to Ram Dass at his home in Massachusetts for a brief update, and that conversation is included at the end of the interview.
Inquiring Mind: Begin by talking about your experience with vipassana meditation. How does vipassana fit in with your devotional practices with your guru, Maharajji?
Ram Dass: I remember when I first started practicing vipassana in Bodh Gaya with Goenkaji fifteen years ago. After forty days or so, I remember escaping from the retreat and rushing back to Maharajji for a bhakti hit—for a shot of love. I felt that the vipassana method was so dry, and really lacking heart. Then a year and a half ago I was at Dhammagiri sitting with Goenka for about a month. I went in feeling that I was in such a good bhakti space that I could handle the dry up. By the end of the month, as my mind got quieter, I felt a deeper quality of devotion to Maharajji than I had ever felt before. I thought, isn’t this interesting, it took fifteen years but I’m in a different space and, therefore, the vipassana method is serving me in a different way. Then when I sat with U Pandita at Barre last year, that process continued and intensified.
IM: You found that the training of the mind can lead to an opening of the heart as well.
RD: Right. My basic method is guru kripa, devotion to the guru, the grace of the guru. I surrender my life to him to lead me to God. I realized that the quieter my mind, the more clearly I can hear that part of me, that higher part of me that is Maharajji and I in dialogue.
So you could say I am going to Burma to sit with U Pandita again, in order to get closer to Maharajji. You see, I am extremely attracted to U Pandita’s method as a way of extricating myself from identification with thoughts and sensations which are increasing my distance from the source. Without conceiving of the source as anything. My relationship to Maharajji is no longer in form, even in my fantasy life. I mean, I play with that, I can see him as the man in the blanket, but that really isn’t it. Now I don’t find any contradiction between anicca and anatta, and being with Maharajji. I don’t have a problem with that. I don’t need to think of Maharajji as a being in a concrete sense. I can think of my having known Maharajji as patterns, as changing patterns, as karma in our relationship, and I can see that it’s just the relationships among forms that are always changing. I realize that behind that, in what I guess you would call the nibbanic state, is where the meeting is, and it’s not a meeting because it’s not a relationship anymore. It’s not experiential even, it’s behind that one too. I found once I got over that emotional contradiction I could go full blast.
Then what I saw was that U Pandita was an absolute master, analytic technician, scientist of the mind. When I was with Goenkaji I did not get an individual interview every day for fifteen minutes, and that is the way U Pandita works and that is what I’m going to Burma for. I’m going to Burma because I work best under some kind of social pressure to keep me going. I am not that inner-directed. Otherwise, I’d just sit in my house and do it. It’s not meditating with other people, that isn’t it. It’s the form—the form of the reporting to the teacher—that is very important to me. First you’re under the vow of truth, then you walk in and the first thing you’re asked is, in the past twenty-four hours since our last meeting how many hours did you sit and how many hours did you walk? And there is an accepted number of hours, which is sixteen hours or something like that. If you didn’t do it, there’s just a raised eyebrow, and that’s enough. It’s like, well, if you took a nap, or took a walk, or things like that and didn’t play the game all the time, then perhaps you’re not sufficiently motivated to do this method. It’s a fierce sadhana, four hours of sleep, no food after noon, and all those hours of sitting. But when you really want to go into your mind, what else have you got to do anyway?
Then there is U Pandita himself. You see, I am so used to conning people, I’m so used to being so charming and charismatic, and people always want something from me, they want something, it can be just a smile, but they want something. U Pandita didn’t come out of this culture. I was just another fifty-year-old guy with a mustache and a mind. That’s what he saw. He didn’t see Ram Dass. So when I met him, it didn’t work. I couldn’t charm him. It was so delicious to me. You don’t know how desperately I wanted that experience of not being able to charm somebody. Because the minute I charm, that paranoia begins—they don’t really know the real me.
IM: What about the technique itself, the precise observation and labeling? Did you find that difficult?
RD: Yes. Very difficult. At first I felt I should proceed very fast, so I kind of conned myself into thinking that I was staying with my primary object longer than I was. I reported it and both U Pandita and the translator laughed at me. I was glad they busted me. They busted me within two days. That was wonderful.
But then I got increasingly agitated because the pressure was so intense. I couldn’t get my mind to stay on the primary object enough. I couldn’t stay more than twenty, thirty, forty seconds, in truth, before my mind would flick somewhere. The reporting was so exact, for example: I’m going to report on a sixty-minute session that happened at 6 p.m. last evening. I was following the rising and falling of my breath. I brought my awareness to the arising, I noted it as “rising,” it had the quality of elasticity, I brought my awareness to “falling,” I noted it as falling, it had the quality of fluidity. After thirty seconds my awareness was drawn to the sound of a bird. I noted it as “listening.” He breaks in and he says, did you hear the bird on a rising or a falling? and I say, I didn’t notice. And he says, well, please try to do better. There’s an example of the game. I couldn’t get in tight enough. It was like going into a tighter and tighter space. I couldn’t get in there. For three weeks I got more agitated until I would go into the bathroom and I would be biting my hand to keep from screaming I was in such agony. I was like a cornered rat. At one point I ran out in the woods screaming the Hanuman Chalisa—as an act of rebellion, you understand that. I mean I longed for a bhakti hit. Then I ran back so I wouldn’t lose much time. I was caught in just that bind. Then what happened was, at some point I was sitting in the dining room, just alone sitting there, and I thought, what the hell am I doing, I’m on the wrong side of this game. I’m fighting him and the method and myself. Why don’t I surrender, what is it I’m fighting, why is it I’m identified with the mind that’s going off instead of the mind that’s staying with the primary object? It was as if there was some release at that moment and by the next sitting I was starting to be twenty, thirty, forty minutes on my primary object. I walked in and he says, well, I think you’re beginning now.
IM: And after that breakthrough the process became easier?
RD: Then I began to see that it was now an effortless method. Whole niches started to open before my eyes with no effort at all, and I realized what he had been saying in his lectures. That once you get neighborhood concentration, once you stay with your primary object a little bit, it will all happen automatically, you don’t have to do anything anymore. I had been so busy doing, and now I was just along for the ride. It was a whole different orientation towards the process, which I assumed all the other meditators were all well into. But for me this was a major breakthrough, because there was no more struggle in meditation. About four days later, when it was just opening like a lotus flower for me, my father fell and broke his back and I had to leave. I went to U Pandita and said, you’re my teacher, whatever you say I will do. My father has had this accident and he needs me, and I can treat that as another attachment. He said, no you must honor your father, you should go.
IM: It sounds as though you were surrendering to U Pandita just as you would to Maharajji, relating to him as if he were your Hindu guru, rather than your Buddhist meditation teacher.
RD: Yes, but at that moment, when you take on a course you surrender to the teacher. He was my teacher and I wouldn’t have gone if he hadn’t given me his permission. In my gut I felt I should do it but I didn’t trust my gut—he knew my mind at that point better than I knew my mind. I really felt he was a master, he had been listening to minds for thirty-five years. I saw that what he saw in me was like a computer printout of mind. He saw where my mind went—memory, fantasy, planning—the structure. He was just following, and he’d look back over his pages to see what I had been doing two weeks before. I had never had that intimacy with a teacher. I mean, I had the intimacy with Maharajji, of course. But it was a different quality.
IM: Perhaps with U Pandita you had “impersonal intimacy,” or some such crazy contradiction.
RD: Yes. Incredible. It was an intimacy with the mechanics of my mind and not the content, and that was the difference.
IM: One of Maharajji’s fundamental messages to you was to love and serve others, and you have always been involved in some kind of service: the Dying Project, the Prison–Ashram Project, your recent book, How Can I Help? and currently your work with the Seva Foundation. How does vipassana meditation practice affect your work in the world, the quality of your service? Is there any connection there?
RD: It affects all of my relationships in the world. For example: When I go to Burma, people will say, send me love, think of me now and then. I say, I hope not. I was just chosen to be chairman of the board but I hope not to think of Seva at all. When I sit in Burma, my business is extricating myself from forms, from thoughts, from sensations. That’s my business when I’m there. My assumption is that truth waits for eyes unclouded by longing. That if my mind is quiet, then when I’m back in the existential situation where I’m honoring that part of my incarnation, I will be able to see more clearly and serve more purely and it will all happen automatically. My dharma will be defined by my karma. Much more, as my meditation gets deeper, I feel much less that I’m doing stuff. It’s just like my heart is beating and there is this work that is appropriate to do. I’m even amazed at how much less ego there is recently in giving talks and lecturing.
IM: It always seemed as though you were a relatively clear channel when you were giving talks.
RD: I’ve achieved that effect through drugs. I mean I’ve smoked grass to give lectures for years and years and years. Because I always felt that I wasn’t enough without it. That people expected me to be way out there and I had to get there, and I wasn’t. Now something’s changed, where I’m saying, whatever it is, it is. It’s more of a trust. And when I’m doing the vipassana practice intensively, I feel like I can let go of the world to be in the world. Instead of feeling if I let go of the world I’m going to lose the world, which is an interesting distinction. It’s like trusting at the mythic level.
IM: Talk a little more about your understanding of the interplay between social action and spiritual practice. What are some of the pitfalls of karma yoga?
RD: There is so much suffering in the world—it’s the first noble truth—and with a little awakening you begin to appreciate what it means to be dharmic in the way you live life, and you begin to want to be an instrument for the ending of suffering. Then you see that a lot of your naive desires to end suffering merely perpetuate suffering, or they create more suffering. And often you’re suffering yourself while you’re trying to end suffering for someone else. And you see that the game is much more subtle than that. That there’s a way of working with the suffering that you see in the world. The usual technique is to close it off, deny it, push it away, and say, well I’m going to have pleasure and happiness in spite of all that suffering. Most people can’t imagine doing what they’re doing in life in the presence of somebody who is starving to death, or in the presence of someone who is blind, or in the presence of someone in pain. So what they do is they block off that part of the world in order to live their lives. But there is a tremendous cost in doing that. You have to close your heart down, and if you close your heart down, it’s like deadening the life experience.
The question is how do you stay open to the suffering of the universe and live life? Often the first reaction is that you begin judging God, as if suffering is an error. But suffering is part of the dance of form, it’s the dark and the light of it all. You need to understand that your act to alleviate suffering, and the suffering itself are all a part of the dance. And you just really want to hear how you play your part of the dance. When you allow for that meta-level of understanding of the process, then it takes you out of the feeling that you’ve got to do it all.
In the Bhagavad Gita it says that one pitfall is being identified with being the actor, thinking you’re doing it, and the other pitfall is being attached to the fruits of the action. So I will be part of Seva and I will work to end unnecessary blindness, and I’ll do it as impeccably as I know how. We’re faced in Nepal with the fact that there are 26,000 more cases of blindness every year, just demographically. And we’re not even keeping even with the game yet. Now we could feel a tremendous sense of pain and futility, and feel more and more frustrated and blocked. But what I feel in this organization is the consciousness that says, we are doing what we can do, we will increase as we can increase, we are keeping our goal in mind, we are moving towards it, but we are doing it with a lightness, with a joy, with a delight, even though we recognize the pain of blindness and all of that. It’s being able to look suffering in the eye, keeping your heart open, and do what you can without getting burned out by the attachment to the goal. That’s a very subtle point. That’s the whole issue of whether service is light. The other part of it is the recognition that service is a part of, if you will, your own mental health, or your well being; the deeper recognition of the fact that we are all one, that it’s one family, that we are the children, we are the world. That can be an interesting intellectual concept, but you live your life as “me,” and they’re “them,” and “I’ll do something for them.” The Seva organization isn’t coming out of that sense. We are trying to take the feeling of “we are the world” and live within that realm. So that the people that are blind in Nepal are the family, and they are serving us by allowing us to help them. It’s a way in which we feel served by the process of service.
On another level, Maharajji said serve people to know God. For us to remember that link, that we are doing this as a vehicle to become closer to God, to be more an instrument, as Christianity would say, of Thy will, not my will. So we have to listen carefully because we are impure instruments. Not impure in the negative sense. We are human, and Seva is that interface between the human and the divine. And it’s bringing out the divine in everybody in this organization . . . it’s touching the highest places in each of us.
IM: That sounds very inspiring. But let’s make a distinction here for a minute, between social action and political action. The Seva Foundation projects are social action, very positive and constructive, working to cure blindness and giving aid to Native Americans, but most often political action involves placing oneself in opposition to something, such as nuclear weapons or racism or totalitarian governments. Isn’t it more difficult to keep that lightness and detachment when you are involved in that kind of political action?
RD: It requires the same degree of consciousness to be in political action against something as to be in social action for something. It requires the consciousness that transcends for and against inside yourself, so that it’s all us. The fact that we are building bombs, they aren’t building bombs, we are building bombs, we are a collective consciousness. As any part of any of us changes, the whole thing starts to change. That’s the whole idea of the way Seva fits into the whole system. You can change the nuclear predicament by confronting it directly. But you can also change it by extricating yourself from your own fear. Because as you are a fearless person, in love, you generate fearlessness in love, you generate a quality out from yourself that starts to affect the root cause of why the bombs are built in the first place. This is the dialogue I’ve had with Dan Ellsberg for the past three to four years. In fact we prepared an entire manuscript to publish which got to the final stages. Then Dan decided not to do the book with me because he felt that I was undercutting his work. Because I wasn’t perpetuating the fear and urgency that he felt. I said that I felt that the fear was the root cause, and that I wasn’t going to perpetuate it. I’ve had the same dialogue with Helen Caldicott as well.
IM: What do they object to? Perhaps your detachment and light approach make it seem as though you don’t really care whether we save the planet from destruction or not.
RD: I say, I live with the paradox. The paradox is that it doesn’t matter and I will do everything I can to keep it from happening. Because that’s my part. Whether it happens or not. . . . I’m not going to judge God, how do I know whether it’s supposed to happen or not. From a human point of view it looks terrible that it’s happening. It looks terrible that we’re building bombs and there are blind people. But I’ll tell you, I work with dying people. I do that a lot, sitting with dying people. I meet a person who has an ego that is solid, rock-solid ego. I watch the suffering of cancer and horrible things and I watch through that process spirit emerge, and I watch them transcend. So how do I know what the meaning of a life incarnation is about, how do I know, how do I weigh it? I wouldn’t give them the suffering, but I do understand the sense in which suffering is great. I will work to end suffering, because that’s my part; at the same point, if suffering doesn’t end, it’s not my problem. Can you hear that? It’s not a hard attitude, but it’s a very difficult thing for people to hear who are acting against suffering out of a sense of righteousness. Because they feel this view is a threat to the way in which they are acting. Because they are so angry, and they’re so frustrated, and they see the opponent as so stupid. I mean, I recognize that Caspar Weinberger is doing the bidding of part of my consciousness. I hate to say it, but when I drive down a new highway, when I live in this country that has its affluence at the expense of other people, and I just keep, automatically, jumping on an airplane or using the materiality of the culture and enjoying it all, there is some part of me that is saying to Caspar, go, baby, go. It’s horrifying. I don’t want to acknowledge that. But until I acknowledge that he’s not an evil guy, he’s doing a lot of evil stuff, there’s no doubt about that, but that’s our humanity. It’s our lust, and our greed and our fear, it’s our hindrances, it’s our fetters, it’s our ignorance. It’s our ignorance, it’s not his ignorance, it’s our ignorance. But also, my working with Seva and developing that compassion and that love and that unification, that’s our compassion. And he has that compassion, just like I do. The idea of Seva is to fan that quality in all of us. Not to fan it in the good guys so they’ll oppose the bad guys. But to fan it in all of us.
Four Months Later: An Update
Upon his return from Burma, after practicing vipassana for two more months with U Pandita, we talked to Ram Dass by phone at his home in Massachusetts. He told us that his experience in Burma had given him some profound new insight into his own nature, and perhaps altered his whole approach to his spiritual practices.
RD: What my work in Burma forced me to see, what it confronted me with, was the degree to which my spiritual practices were in the service of my psychological needs. I think that a lot of my devotional practice was colored or tainted or limited by the way I was dependent upon it, psychologically. When I go back to consider the drugs in the ’60s, I know I always assumed the drug did it—I couldn’t do it. Then when I met Maharajji, I assumed Maharajji could do it—I couldn’t do it. And when I got to Burma I found that this was definitely the Way of the Warrior, that you do it for yourself. And I could feel that rubbing where I kept keeping the picture of Maharajji out and saying, well, if it’s your grace, I will do well here. And at one point, after about two weeks, I started to hear this chanting in my head, this Hindu chanting, the Sri Ram chant, and it went on day and night, all day, every day, for over two weeks. And I couldn’t get rid of it, except when I would focus on my breath absolutely. But even if I stopped between an in breath and an out breath it would come back. It was that persistent. When I told U Pandita about it, he said, if I took refuge in the Triple Gem it would go away. I suddenly realized I was using Buddha to get rid of Ram and the humor of that struck me, but at that point, I decided to put away the Maharajji pictures and all of the ideas of that practice and just do this one perfectly. I stopped offering food to Maharajji, which is the first time in eighteen years that I did that. And I experienced this almost scary confrontation with my own fear of my own power. I always knew that I pushed away the concept of Right Effort. And when Trungpa Rinpoche said we have to accept responsibility, I said what do you mean, God has all the responsibility. Trungpa told me I was copping out. And I saw again that whole issue coming to light—that I was not quite willing to say that I was going to do it for myself. So what I discovered is that any practice we do, we tend to fit it in with our psychology and only later, when you maybe juxtapose another practice against it or try to shift practices, you get a chance to see how much that practice is serving your psychology as well as your journey to enlightenment.
IM: It’s the distinction between soul work and spirit work, and perhaps the two are inextricably bound together.
RD: Exactly. And what happened was that by the time I came back to the States and reestablished contact with Maharajji and my devotional practices, they were very different. My relation with Maharajji was much more like a relation with Shiva rather than Ram—much more, if you will, fierce, less of the kind of romanticizing of it, more austere, if you will. And I really feel that the vipassana did that, it changed that quality of practice. Because guru kripa is still my basic sadhana.
IM: Do you intend to continue to practice vipassana?
RD: Yes, although I don’t know to what extent. Hopefully at some point I will be able to do another intensive retreat with U Pandita. I saw that whole method as being exquisite—as absolutely brilliant. What I saw is that it was giving me the first chance to begin to see some of the subtle mind states that permeate my whole universe that I would never even recognize as existing, because I could never get the edge around them. U Pandita’s total focus on the mechanics of the mind rather than the contents of the mind didn’t give me any leverage to hold on to those states, so I was able to push them back to the sidelines. I didn’t wipe them out completely and the minute, of course, I stopped, they’d come back, because I didn’t get far enough on the path of insight to really transform them thoroughly. But I got a good leverage to see them for what they were. I came away with nothing but awe at the method, even though I’m not sure it’s my method or that I will proceed with it. But I was awed by what I got from it. I saw the nature of my mind much more clearly than I’d ever seen it before.