Ram Dass has died. He is setting out on his greatest adventure.
STARS IN BLACK TURTLENECKS
Ram Dass’s obit in The New York Times by Douglas Martin
Baba Ram Dass, who epitomized the 1960s of legend by popularizing psychedelic drugs with Timothy Leary, a fellow Harvard academic, before finding spiritual inspiration in India, died on Sunday at his home on Maui. He was 88.
The death of Ram Dass, who was born Richard Alpert, was announced on his official Instagram account.
Having returned from India as a bushy-bearded, barefoot, white-robed guru, Ram Dass became a peripatetic lecturer on New Age possibilities and a popular author of more than a dozen inspirational books.
The first of his books, “Be Here Now” (1971), sold more than two million copies, and established him as an exuberant exponent of finding salvation through helping others.
He started a foundation to combat blindness in India and Nepal, supported reforestation in Latin America, and developed health education programs for American Indians in South Dakota.
He was particularly interested in the dying. He started a foundation to help people use death as a journey of spiritual awakening and spoke of establishing a self-help line, “Dial-a-Death,” for this purpose.
When Mr. Leary was dying in 1996 — and wishing to do it “actively and creatively,” as he put it — he called for Ram Dass. Over the years, Ram Dass had alternately been Mr. Leary’s disciple, enemy and, at the end, friend. In a film clip of the two men preparing for Mr. Leary’s death, Ram Dass turns to Leary, hugs him and says, “It’s been a hell of a dance, hasn’t it?”
A year later, Ram Dass suffered a cerebral hemorrhage that left him partly paralyzed, unable to speak and needing a wheelchair. From his home in Maui, Hawaii, he learned to “surf the silence” at first, he said, but over time and painstakingly he reacquired a halting form of speech and was able to lecture on the internet and make tapes.
Richard Alpert was born in Boston on April 6, 1931. His father, George, a lawyer, was a founder of Brandeis University and president of the New Haven Railroad. Richard had a bar mitzvah, but said he had no religious convictions as a youth.
A “spit and polish” son of a corporate executive, as he described himself, he graduated from Tufts University as a psychology major in 1952 and studied for a master’s degree in the subject at Wesleyan, only to flunk the oral exam.
Nevertheless, Mr. Alpert, as he was known then, was accepted as a Ph.D. candidate at Stanford and earned his doctorate, staying on afterward to teach. That was followed by twin appointments, in psychology and education, at Harvard.
He was soon riding high, with an apartment full of exquisite antiques, a Mercedes sedan, an MG spots car, a Triumph motorcycle and his own Cessna airplane.
It was at Harvard where he crossed paths with Mr. Leary, who was lecturing there in clinical psychology. They became drinking buddies. Mr. Alpert admired Mr. Leary’s iconoclasm, telling Tufts University Magazine in 2006 that Mr. Leary was “the only person on the faculty who wasn’t impressed with Harvard.”
Mr. Leary, while working at the University of California, Berkeley, had done research on psilocybin, the main psychoactive ingredient in some species of mushrooms, and he continued the work at Harvard. Psychiatrists were interested in mind-altering drugs as clinical aids because they mimicked schizophrenia, but Mr. Leary wanted to see if they could be beneficial.
He invited some friends — including Mr. Alpert and the poet Allen Ginsberg — to his house in Newton, Mass., on Saturday, March 5, 1961. In his kitchen, he distributed 10-milligram doses of psilocybin.
After taking his, Mr. Alpert recalled, he felt supreme calm, then panic, then exaltation. He believed he had met his own soul. “It was O.K. to be me,” he said he had realized.
The Harvard work led to many articles in newspapers and magazines, but it also provoked criticism. A Harvard dean suggested that psilocybin, LSD and other psychedelic chemicals could cause mental illness.
In May 1963, both Mr. Leary and Mr. Alpert were fired — Mr. Alpert for giving drugs to an undergraduate, and Mr. Leary for abandoning his classes.
In the fall of 1963, after visiting Mexico to sample psychedelic mushrooms, the two men and a group of followers moved to Millbrook, N.Y., finding quarters in a 64-room mansion on a 2,500-acre estate provided by Peggy Hitchcock, an heiress to the Mellon fortune.
Residents took lots of LSD, which did not become illegal for recreational use until 1968. Don Lattin, in his book “The Harvard Psychedelic Club: How Timothy Leary, Ram Dass, Huston Smith and Andrew Weil Killed the Fifties and Ushered in a New Age for America” (2010), called the commune “a Disneyland of the Psychedelic Sixties.”
But Mr. Alpert found that after coming down from a high, he was depressed. As his tolerance to LSD increased, the thrill had diminished. And as the drug experience deteriorated, tensions between Mr. Leary and Mr. Alpert rose. One issue was Mr. Alpert’s acknowledged bisexuality.
Mr. Leary accused Mr. Alpert of trying to seduce his 15-year-old son, Jack, whom Mr. Alpert often took care of while Mr. Leary, a single parent, traveled.
“Uncle Dick is evil,” Mr. Leary told Jack, according to Mr. Lattin’s book.
“Oh, come on, Dad,” Jack replied. “Uncle Dick may be a jerk, but he’s not evil.”
Mr. Alpert went to India in 1967 more as a tourist than as a pilgrim. Events led him to a twinkly, old man wrapped in a blanket: Neem Karoli Baba, who was called Maharajji, or great king, by his followers. Maharajji appeared to read Mr. Alpert’s mind by telling him that his mother had recently died of spleen disease — information he had told no one in India, he said.
The experience sparked a spiritual upheaval in Mr. Alpert, who forever after considered Maharajji his guru. It was Maharajji who gave Mr. Alpert the name Ram Dass, or servant of God, and added the prefix, Baba, a term of respect meaning father.
Ram Dass gave Maharajji some LSD, but it had no effect. Ram Dass surmised that the guru’s consciousness had already been so awakened that drugs were powerless to alter it.
In 1968, Maharajji told Ram Dass to return to the United States. When he got off the plane in Boston — barefoot, robed and bearded — his father, he said, told him to get in the car quick “before anyone sees you.” He moved into a cabin on his father’s estate in New Hampshire. Soon, as many as 200 people were showing up to chant with him.
Ram Dass hit the lecture circuit, his presentation a mix of pithy wisdom and humor, often joined in the same sentence. “Treat everyone you meet like God in drag,” he said in one talk.
Wavy Gravy, the eccentric poet and peace activist, once said, “Ram Dass was the master of the one-liner, the two-liner, the ocean-liner.”
Ram Dass’s biggest public success came in 1971, when the Lama Foundation published “Be Here Now,” originally issuing it as loose pages in a box. It has had more than three dozen printings, with total sales exceeding two million.
Here, in its entirety, is Page 2: “Consciousness = energy = love = awareness = light = wisdom = beauty = truth = purity. It’s all the SAME. Any trip you want to take leads to the SAME place.”
By the 1980s, Ram Dass had a change of mind and image. He shaved off the beard but left a neatly trimmed mustache. He tried to drop his Indian name — he no longer wanted to be a cult figure — but his publisher vetoed the idea. He said that he had never intended to be a guru and that Harvard had been right to throw him out.
He continued to turn out books and recordings, however. He started or helped to start foundations to promote his charities, several to help prisoners, and to spread his message of spiritual equanimity. He made sure his books and tapes were reasonably priced.
The old orthodoxies slipped away. He said he realized that his 400 LSD trips had not been nearly as enlightening as his drugless spiritual epiphanies — although, he said, he continued to take one or two drug trips a year for old time’s sake. He said other religions, including the Judaism that he had rejected as a young man, were as valid as Eastern religions.
In a 1997 interview with the website “Gay Today,” Ram Dass said he had always been primarily homosexual, despite earlier statements that he was bisexual. “I always had a front to go to faculty dinners and things like that,” he said. He said he had had thousands of clandestine homosexual encounters.
In 2010, he received a letter from a man, a stranger, saying that Ram Dass might be the father of the man’s brother. DNA tests proved that Peter Reichard, a 53-year-old banker in North Carolina, was indeed Ram Dass’s son, the offspring of a liaison with a Stanford graduate student.
RAM DASS QUOTES
“We’re fascinated by the words, but where we meet is in the silence behind them.”
“Unconditional love really exists in each of us. It is part of our deep inner being. It is not so much an active emotion as a state of being. It’s not ‘I love you’ for this or that reason, not ‘I love you if you love me.’ It’s love for no reason, love without an object.”
“You are loved just for being who you are, just for existing. You don’t have to do anything to earn it. Your shortcomings, your lack of self-esteem, physical perfection, or social and economic success – none of that matters. No one can take this love away from you, and it will always be here.”
“The universe is an example of love. Like a tree. Like the ocean. Like my body. Like my wheelchair. I see the love.”
“Maharaj-ji, in my first darshan, my first meeting with him, showed me his powers. At that point I was impressed with the power. But subsequently, I realized that it was really his love that pulled me in. His love is unconditional love.”
“I remember my first visit with my guru. He had shown that he read my mind. So I looked at the grass and I thought, ‘My god, he’s going to know all the things I don’t want people to know.’ I was really embarrassed. Then I looked up and he was looking directly at me with unconditional love.”
“I hang out with my guru in my heart. And I love every thing in the universe. That’s all I do all day.”
“I’m not interested in being a ‘lover.’ I’m interested in only being love.”
“If I go into the place in myself that is love, and you go into the place in yourself that is love, we are together in love. Then you and I are truly in love, the state of being love. That’s the entrance to Oneness. That’s the space I entered when I met my guru.”
“The most important aspect of love is not in giving or the receiving: it’s in the being. When I need love from others, or need to give love to others, I’m caught in an unstable situation. Being in love, rather than giving or taking love, is the only thing that provides stability. Being in love means seeing the Beloved all around me.”
“When the faith is strong enough, it is sufficient just to be. It’s a journey towards simplicity, towards quietness, towards a kind of joy that is not in time. It’s a journey that has taken us from primary identification with our body and our psyche, on to an identification with God, and ultimately beyond identification.”
“Pain is the mind. It’s the thoughts of the mind. Then I get rid of the thoughts, and I get in my witness, which is down in my spiritual heart. The witness that witnesses being. Then those particular thoughts that are painful – love them. I love them to death!”
Part One of Seven Parts of a conversation between Ram Dass and Allen Ginsberg.
Ram Dass’s obit in Tricycle by Joan Duncan Oliver
If there is an enduring figure emblematic of the consciousness revolution of the 1960s and 70s, it is arguably the Harvard professor and LSD researcher-turned-spiritual leader born Richard Alpert but known the world over as Ram Dass. With Timothy Leary, his colleague in the Harvard psychology department, he forever changed a generation of Americans through his explorations with psilocybin, LSD-75, and other psychedelics before reinventing himself as a spiritual teacher and humanitarian—a bhakti yogi with love as his path. When Ram Dass died on Sunday evening, one of the most beloved voices of the counterculture fell silent. He was 88 years old.
It was Leary who famously exhorted American youth to “Turn on, tune in, drop out,” but it was Alpert who became a model of awakening that wasn’t dependent on drugs. Fired from Harvard in 1963 for giving LSD to an undergraduate, Alpert moved to Millbrook, New York, with Leary, who had been fired ostensibly for not showing up for his classes. In Millbrook, the two continued their psychedelic experimentation with an ever-changing cast of psychonauts and acidheads. But in 1967, Alpert, still searching, left for India. There he found his guru, the Hindu sadhu Neem Karoli Baba, known as Maharaj-ji, characteristically wrapped in a blanket and seated on a wooden tucket, a low Indian bed. Curious to see how a spiritual adept would react to LSD, Alpert gave Maharaj-ji a whopping dose. It had zero effect on the holy man. Over the next few years until Maharaj-ji’s death in 1973, Alpert—by then renamed Ram Dass, or Servant of God, by Maharaj-ji—periodically returned to be with his guru. Resettling in America in 1974, he started a new life based on a different kind of turn-on—meditation—and his own synthesis of Buddhist, Hindu, Advaita, and Sufi teachings, and later, Jewish mysticism.
In Be Here Now, Ram Dass‘s first book for the masses, which has sold over 2 million copies since publication in 1971, he offered seekers an engaging, unconventional, slightly zany roadmap for finding a spiritual path and a more enduring connection to higher consciousness than a tab of acid could bring. From then on, in close to a dozen books and countless teachings, retreats, and podcasts, Ram Dass continued to share the wisdom of a journey that had long gone beyond personal transformation to embrace a cosmic worldview and social agenda.
Much of the compassionate service for which Ram Dass became known was in collaboration with others. He launched the Hanuman Foundation to further practical application of the principles and teachings of Neem Karoli Baba—work that continues today through Ram Dass’s Love Serve Remember Foundation. Through Hanuman he also set up the Prison Ashram Project, offering counseling and spiritual practice to the incarcerated, many of whom had contacted Ram Dass after reading Be Here Now.
Related: Already Free: A Swim with Ram Dass
Inspired by the humane approach to death and dying he had seen in India, Ram Dass was instrumental in co-creating the Living-Dying Project to support caregivers, healthcare professionals, and individuals dealing with terminal illness, and in establishing a hospice and training center in Santa Fe, New Mexico. In 1979, with epidemiologist and Hanuman board member Larry Brilliant and others, Ram Dass founded the Seva Foundation, which works to combat blindness in the Himalayas and provides healthcare there and in other underserved areas of Asia and the Americas. He also helped set up the Social Venture Network to explore ways to bring spiritual awareness to business and served on the board of Creating Our Future, an organization for teens who wanted to lead more spiritual lives. On Maui, where he has lived since 2004, Ram Dass co-founded Doorway Into Light, which helps people prepare for dying. “Sitting by the bed of the dying is sadhana [spiritual practice],” he said. For his unwavering commitment to helping others, Ram Dass has been called “a model of selfless service.”
“My life has been a dance between power and love,” he observed after the massive cerebral hemorrhage in 1997 that left the charismatic, preternaturally articulate teacher groping for words. “First part, till Harvard: power, power, power, power. Up until drugs, I thought power was the end all and be all, because I was a little individual. Then drugs: love, love, love, love. My first mushroom trip was so profound that I saw radiance was inside, and I said, ‘I’m home, I’m home, I’m home.’”
Born Richard Alpert on April 6, 1930 in Boston, Ram Dass was the youngest of three brothers. His father, George Alpert, a prominent lawyer, was president of the New York, New Haven & Hartford Railroad and the first board president of Brandeis University. The family was Jewish and Richard was bar mitzvahed, but he later called the ritual “hollow” and claimed to have had no interest in religion until he took psychedelics. After graduating cum laude from Williston Northampton, a prep school in Massachusetts, he earned a bachelor’s degree from Tufts, a master’s from Wesleyan, and a PhD from Stanford–all in psychology. In California he met psychologist David McClelland, who became his mentor and brought Alpert with him to Harvard. At Harvard, Alpert was a star, with appointments in the Psychology and Social Relations Departments, the Graduate School of Education, and the Health Service, where he served as a therapist. He also had research grants from Yale and Stanford, and was publishing academic books. “In 1961, at the beginning of March, I was at the high point of my academic career,” he wrote in Be Here Now. “I was making a great income, and I was a collector of possessions,” among them an antiques-filled Cambridge apartment, a Mercedes-Benz, an MG sports car, a Triumph 500cc motorcycle, and a Cessna 172 airplane. “But what it all boils down to is that I was really a very good game player.”
All that changed on March 6, 1961, the day he took psilocybin for the first time. Psychedelics led to his second great awakening: his encounter with Maharaj-ji and spiritual transformation. Then in 1997, as Ram Dass was finishing Still Here, the second volume of his spiritual memoirs, he had his third great awakening, the stroke that began the final phase of his life. He was given only a 10 percent chance to survive.
Long an outspoken advocate and support for the sick and dying, shortly before his stroke, Ram Dass told an audience: “Something has happened to me as a result of my meanderings through consciousness over the past 30 years that has changed my attitude towards death. A lot of the fear that denial of death generated has gone from me. Death does not have to be treated as an enemy for you to delight in life. Keeping death in your consciousness as one of the greatest mysteries and as the moment of incredible transformation imbues this moment with added richness and energy that otherwise is used up in denial.”
After the stroke, those observations seemed hopelessly naive, he said. The stroke had given him a far deeper understanding of what the suffering of aging, infirmity, and dying really means. Characteristically, he viewed it in spiritual terms: “I don’t wish you the stroke, but I wish you the grace from the stroke,” he said in Ram Dass, Going Home, a 2017 documentary by Derek Peck. “The stroke pushed me inside even more. That’s so wonderful.”
It also meant that the man who had spent much of his life helping others had to let others help him. Noting that before the stroke, he had co-authored a book about service called How Can I Help?, “after the stroke I would have titled it How Can You Help Me?” he said. “In this culture dependency is a no-no. The stroke showed me dependency, and I have people who are dependable.”
Following a near-fatal infection in 2004, Ram Das was largely confined to his home on Maui. A sprawling, light-filled aerie with lush vegetation and a panoramic ocean view, it was a gift from devoted friends. One of his pleasures was his weekly swim in the ocean, accompanied by a clutch of neighbors. After being wheeled to the shore in a dune buggy with enormous yellow balloon wheels and orange floats as armrests, he would launch himself into the sea. There, buoyed by a large black life jacket, he would paddle gently with yellow webbed mitts, a look of delight on his face.
Rum Dum to his father, RD to his friends, Ram Dass was a true original. He lived out loud, with a rollicking laugh and seemingly irrepressible esprit de corps. Even when his stroke rendered him virtually immobile with halting speech, he could summon his far-ranging mind to be totally present for his weekly podcasts and the friends and followers who gathered around him, some coming to Maui for his thrice-yearly retreats. His door was open to a steady stream of visitors, many of them strangers, seeking comfort, inspiration, or advice.
Ram Dass’s spunk and determination were the energetic benefits of years of spiritual practice and a bodhisattva-like commitment to sharing it with others. Mirabai Bush, a “guru sister” from their days with Maharaj-ji in India and his collaborator on his last book, Walking Each Other Home: Conversations on Loving and Dying, summed up his life’s work in her introduction. “Ram Dass’s journey has been a search for love and for finding a way to stay in the space of love once he experienced it,” she wrote, adding, “Ram Dass was always loving, but now he is love.”
Unsinkable, Ram Dass survived great challenges to remain one of the most colorful and memorable spiritual leaders of his age. When he finally surrendered to death, it was with what filmmaker Mickey Lemle, in his 2001 documentary about RD, called “fierce grace.”