With a carload of devotees the guru reviewer and fiancee traveled an hour to South Fallsburg, there to endure an entire day awaiting Muktanada’s “Darshan.” Finally, amidst much fanfare, the guru arrives as, “several of the devotees were trying to lead a painted elephant through the side doors. The crowd laughed and chattered and the elephant got freaked and balked. Those leading him could not get him to go any further and ended up turning around and taking him back out.” Separate male and female lines of worshippers were told “Baba’s very tired, please make it quick when you get to see him.”
“Muktananda himself,” Blum reported, “sat there with a bunch of peacock feathers bopping people on the head, two by two, and speaking in rapid Hindi to a circle of close devotees who sat in adoration all around him…Finally, unbelievably, the moment had come. It was my turn. Well, it was mine, but I was sharing it with some woman I had never seen before who happened to have ended up parallel to me in the woman’s line.
“As I touched my forehead to the ground in front of Muktananda, my mind noticed the incongruity, the ridiculousness of the moment…he missed! The peacock feathers glanced off the side of my head and hit my shoulder. Did this mean I was getting lopsided grace?”
During these same years, another Bronx-born original named Alan Gordon, had likewise awoken to the call. Editing, writing, and creating his own illustrations for The Aquarian Oracle and Aquarian Angel, Gordon operated out of Dylan’s old place on Camelot Road, creating a legacy which, despite grainy newprint’s B&W, somehow sparkles to this day. Brilliant and darkly-destined Richard Zarro was imported from the city as Poetry Editor. Peter started out helping as a typesetter, and was soon invited to contribute “Music and Sound as Saddhana.” Before long Les Visable, Lowell Blum, True Light Beaver artist Marty Carey, and numerous other local talents joined the gentle revolution.
The Christmas 1970 issue of The Woodstock Aquarian, for example, featured 20 or so differing chapters from “The Aquarian Gospel of Jesus the Christ Transcribed from the Akashic Records by LEVI;” illustrated with vintage lithographs. An interview with early John Lilly protege Ric O’Feldman (head trainer for the TV show Flipper) described his recently completed sanctuary wherein humans could “interact with dolphins in a natural setting.”
Elsewhere, Woodstock’s generously hip lawyer Jerry Wapner, provided the following holiday announcement in a box: “The 78 foot spruce tree came to our nation’s capital this year from the Black Hills of South Dakota. On route it met with two train derailments. When raised in view of the White House it was toppled by high winds.”
Then around ‘73, Ram Das, himself, passed through town, at least once speaking at the Kleinert Gallery. Peter recalls: “It was a big deal. He was funny and charismatic and felt like ‘one of us.’” Peter’s friend Nina Graboi knew the transformed academic well, as did Michael Green who was “a sort of spiritual center post of a couple of semi-intentional communities: one at Tonesca, out along Woodland Valley Road. The second being the tipi community up at Riverby in Mt. Temper.” Both occupied land explicitly donated for such use by Jerry Wapner.
When Peter’s soon-to-be wife Merrily became pregnant in 1973, they lived in an old army surplus tent at the Riverby community. Pianist extraordinaire, Warren Bernhardt and new wife, Jan, joined the community, as did Surya Das — nee Herbie Grubb, a good old boy from down south — who’d been in India at Neem Karoli Baba’s ashram (from which the LSD-gobbling Richard Alpert emerged as the “pure of mind and sexually continent” Baba Ram Das.)
With a baby on the way Blum needed to make more money, so he walked into the Woodstock Times office [where Woodstock Yoga is today], which “at that time was a kind of anarchic free-for-all. If you wanted a position, you claimed it and learned how to do it.” Peter moved from a first job as typesetter to doing paste-up and lay-out, to proof-reading and copy-editing. “Then I thought, ‘what the hell, I’m a pretty good writer’ so I started suggesting ideas for articles and, since I had an abiding interest in ‘hunting the guru,’ it just seemed to make sense that I would write about my experiences.”
What teachers and teachings did Peter miss? He missed Albert Rudolph AKA Swami Rudrananda, better known merely as “Rudi,” who inspired a briefly thriving community in Big Indian. This awakened-by-God Brooklyn rug merchant, and his 1973 book “‘Spiritual Cannibalism” (adorned with a cover by Milton Glaser — without charge), did indeed impress. It was fast-paced and prescient. Furthermore, an introduction divulged that Rudi had foreseen his own early death, and so made certain his community would end up broke. This providing the guru an inspired guarantee, that only the “truly faithful” would stick around once he was gone.
Peter more casually dropped in on Eva Pierrakos’s Pathworks Center near Phoenicia, presently the home of Robert & Nena Thurman’s Spa, Study, and Meditation center, “Menla.”
Unfortunately, Blum’s chronicles “just miss” the charismatic and infinitely enigmatic John Daido Loori whose 1980 creation: the “Zen Arts Center,” is today’s “Zen Mountain Monastery” in Phoenicia. Blum’s accounts also end shortly before the many followers (known as “Sannyasins”) of that controversial Indian guru, Bagwan Shree Rajneesh, fell under his spell in Woodstock. This being a mass conversion occurring largely through the efforts of an individual I will simply call Samvid. For it was he who was granted authority by Rashneesh in 1978, to bestow Sannyasa (though the extraordinary Buzzy Tischler also fanned bonfires of devotion here.)
Bagwan’s early days as guru in Poona, India — though outrageous — are generally held in high esteem among the spiritual set. However an all pervading darkness soon descended in power struggles accompanying his ashram’s move to Oregon. By now the guru was surrounded by armed body guards, whisked about in one of over a hundred Rolls Royces gifted by devotees, and “sealed off” within an inner sanctum consisting largely of voluptuous — if notoriously avaricious — women. In the end, Bagwan was consuming incalculable quantities of nitrous oxide, while rumors of a conspiracy to poison him eventually resulted in formal charges of attempted murder.
We don’t hear from Blum of Meher Baba’s followers who built “Meher Circle” off John Joy road. My favorite zinger from this gentle Avatar being: “I am God and you are God. The only difference being, I know it.”
Peter also missed Sonam Kazi, the Dalai Lama’s first translator in India who, serving as royal “food tester,” sampled a hit of LSD several westerners suggested His Holiness might try. Afterwards Kazi could not say if he thought such experimentation a good idea for the young, embattled leader of Tibetan Buddhism. For himself, however? He soon quit to become a lay master in the Nyingma practice of “Dzogchen,” sometimes referred to as primordial or “instant” enlightenment.
This incident, in microcosm, aptly illustrates the huge role psychedelics played in “Why Woodstock went Woo-woo.” However, a far more important story — today nothing less than legend — is the anecdote this journalist first heard, spellbound, at age 13, while attending Putney Work Camp. It’s a story which was told, with infinite variations, probably a thousand times by Ram Das, himself. Here it is, synopsized by Peter and myself.
Aldous Huxley’s “Doors of Perception,” had certainly been opened to Timothy Leary and Richard Alpert during their LSD experiments at Harvard in the early sixties. Soon, however, Alpert hit a ceiling in his “progress” and frustrated by such, traveled to India where, under the guidance of a toweringly tall and handsome young “bhagwan Das,” the recent Harvard-exile met Neem Karoli Baba, who would forever change his life.
Neem Karoli was an eccentric, often difficult character, without the slightest interest in “charming” anyone. A few days after their introduction, however, Baba asked Alpert for “the medicine.” Amazed (since the LSD stash had been his “guilty secret”) Alpert complied, providing this blanket-wearing oddity a single but very strong dose. Until Baba signaled for more. Then more. Obeying, America’s future favorite feared he’d poisoned “the poor old man,” who took to hiding and then reappearing only to hide again — under tables, for instance, or up in trees. Finally, after most of a day of this, the becalmed holy man re-approached Richard Alpert and had a translator (perhaps bhagwan Das?) provide an official report. Blum’s summation is a good one: “Yeah,” Baba said, “we know this stuff. This is yogi medicine — been around a long time in the Indus valley and…it’s good to take it occasionally in a cool place…for it allows you to visit Jesus…but you can’t stay.”
Next: The Chronicles of Woo Continue…