Ram Dass: Being Here

Ram Dass has led a long life of loving and being loved: the patience, humor, and grace of one of our most influential spiritual figures.

Mirabai Bush
13 November 2013

It was 1973 and Ram Dass was giving a lecture at Winterland, the famed music venue in San Francisco. The hall was full, as they always were in those days, and Ram Dass was getting ready to speak. I was walking through, welcoming people and greeting old friends, my toddler son, Owen, holding my hand. There were men and women in business suits, hippies in rainbow clothes, American Sikhs in turbans, and the spiritual gang in flowing white. The center floor was open, and people were setting up their meditation pillows and sleeping bags, knowing Ram Dass would go until morning. After hugging an old friend, I turned to see that Owen was no longer next to me. I looked around. Gone. I panicked. He could wander out into the middle of downtown San Francisco! I found the security guards and told them to watch for him, then I started moving around the room. At last, across a sea of people, I saw him, his little head pressed up against a giant speaker. He, like millions of others over the years, was listening as fully as he could to Ram Dass:

“In a gathering like this, it is no longer sufficient just to talk about it. Now we have to become it…. If we come with the certainty that we already know and that what we have is enough, then even though we hear the words, we will not receive the transmission…”

It was at those gatherings—in what collaborator Stephen Levine calls “the direct, charismatic, air medium of the oral tradition”—that many people heard the teachings that became Grist for the Mill, now newly updated, following closely on the heels of Polishing the Mirror: How to Live from Your Spiritual Heart. Ram Dass, in a style that is part stand-up comic and part Harvard professor, uses stories from his own life to illustrate a truth, often learned though hilarious difficulty and resulting in a new humility. Once I asked him about his use of stories. He said, “Stories break through into heart spaces. And spiritual matters are hard to talk about because they are… you can’t get the concepts across… and, uh,”—a long pause—“stories sort of knock on the door of spirit.”

His biggest teaching came through his stroke, years after the talks in this book, but even then he knew that suffering is grace: “We begin to notice that our suffering awakens us more than our pleasure. ‘Ah, cancer’—as a being in a body, the temple of my soul for this incarnation, I will do my best to heal it, but I will work with the cancer whether I am healed or not, as a vehicle for awakening. A conscious being uses everything.”

I first met Ram Dass at a course taught by S.N. Goenka in 1970, the first meditation course he taught for Westerners. It was a seedpod for Buddhist teachers, including Sharon Salzberg, Joseph Goldstein, Wes Nisker, and others. Goenka told us the story of the Buddha saying to Ananda that spiritual friendship is not just half of life but in fact the whole of life. Noble, admirable friends help us on the path of liberation. Ram Dass became that friend to many, and to me.

When I ran a business with my former husband in Cambridge in the seventies, Ram Dass would come and speak to the staff about right livelihood and karma yoga: “Perform the daily actions of your life so as to come to a clearer state of consciousness or deeper peace or greater enlightenment or whatever metaphor you want to use. You start where you are, not where you wish you were, with certain trainings and skills and responsibilities, and the game is to find the path within all that and use it to work on yourself.” Not every employee thought they were working at Illuminations to become enlightened, but they all loved Ram Dass. When Owen turned sixteen and was eligible to drive, I was sure he’d die on the streets of Cambridge and Boston, hit by one of the world’s worst drivers. Ram Dass, his godfather, my friend, and generous without limit, gave him his indestructible Volvo. Owen survived.

When I visited Ram Dass a few weeks after his stroke at the Kaiser Rehab Hospital in Vallejo, California, he was lying in a bed, paralyzed on one side, pale, looking at a picture of our guru, Neemkaroli Baba, Maharaji, and a batik wall hanging of Hanuman, the son of the Hindu Wind God, the spirit of breath. After a long silence together, he looked at me, trying hard to speak, moving his hand as if he were about to, pointing to his paralyzed side, then trying to express something that he wanted me to hear. It felt very familiar, even in that sterile room through my tears. We had always shared what we had learned. Then he moved his fingers down his arm; like in the Yellow Pages ads, they were walking. This is the path, the journey. “Learning,” he said. Long silence. “Learning… patience. Patience.” Then he closed his eyes. Suffering is grace. And learning is the journey. Be patient.

Some years later, when he had recovered more of his voice after much hard work, Ram Dass asked me a serious question: “Mira, where are we now?” I actually thought that he might be getting Alzheimer’s, and I didn’t know whether to say, “In your kitchen, in Maui” or joke, as I did: “I don’t know.” But later he asked again, and I realized that he meant, Are we doing the right thing? Is this what Maharaji meant? He said he just wanted to be as unconditionally loving as possible for the rest of his time. I said that seemed right. And he’s been doing that ever since.

“Ram Dass is your guru,” Neem Karoli Baba, who was actually my guru, once said to me. What did that mean? That he would teach me more than anyone else about what really matters? That’s been true. And what really matters is love, Ram Dass’s favorite subject. “The path of love doesn’t go anywhere,” he said once. “It just brings you more here, into the present moment, into the reality of who you already are. It takes you out of your mind and into your heart.” With guru-brother Rameshwar Das’s help, Ram Dass published Be Love Now last year, filled with stories about love, including one about Maharaji telling him to love everyone and tell the truth. I can’t, Ram Dass said. I don’t love everyone, so if I say I do, I’m not telling the truth. Maharaji just looked at him tenderly and said, “Love everyone and tell the truth.”

Ram Dass’s house is a temple, filled with statues of the Buddha and Hanuman, Ganesh and Krishna, and photos of the great saints Ramana Maharshi and Ramakrishna and of course Maharaji. There are books and gifts everywhere from friends and students, and two purring cats named for Ram and Sita’s twin sons.

One day, we are sitting at breakfast, eating papayas and bananas from the garden and drinking tea sweetened with agave because Ram Dass can’t have sugar. The intrepid Dassi Ma, who cares for every detail of Ram Dass’s life, is with us. We talk about the sad death of our friend Jonathan Brilliant just a few days before. He was twenty-six and died of cancer. Ram Dass was his godfather, and we both loved him. We knew him from the time he was born. No one understands why Jon got cancer, even his doctors. He was packed with potential, one of the beings you most want on the planet. He had already lived in both Paris and Shanghai, mastering the languages, the thinking, and the affectations of both cultures. He had a cartoon sense of humor, for which he credited his mentor, Wavy Gravy.

Why was Jon gone and Muammar Qaddafi still here, I was asking the universe—Qaddafi, who had just said that the Libyan resistance fighters rose up because Osama Bin Laden put LSD in their Nescafé. It makes no sense. All of the spiritual traditions say that losing a child is the worst suffering we can experience. Why is this happening?

We make a little altar on the table with pictures of Jon. Ram Dass says that Jon was here to do certain things, and when they were finished it was simply time to go. He came like an angel to affect the people in his life, help them see things they otherwise would not. He says he thinks life after death is an infinite space of love, but that our understanding from life will affect how each of us experiences it.

We run out of words and even out of silence after a while, and Ram Dass decides to work on his public talk for the following night with the philosopher Peter Russell. I take a fresh coconut and a straw down to the pool. I swim and think about Jon and about Ram Dass, who is slower and paler than he was and is having trouble with his breathing. There is an empty space around him that he used to fill up, even though he seems surrounded by light. When I see him later, he says, “I watched you swimming.” “Oh,” I say, “how was my stroke?” He pauses. Then he says, “Reliable.” May you always find me reliable, I think. May my spiritual friendship and my love always be reliable.

That night Ram Dass wants to watch a Japanese film, Departures, about a young cellist who trains for a new professional role as a nakanshi, one who prepares the dead for burial. I think R.D. is interested in the cello part, because he used to play the cello, but the movie is really about death and about grief, service, and ritual. I think as I watch this beautiful movie that I want that ritual for my body when I die. I ask Ram Dass where he wants his ashes spread when the time comes, and he says, “In the ocean” and looks out the window. “Out there.”