Ram Dass was one of the most respected and beloved spiritual teachers in the world. His books and lectures have been responsible for exposing many Westerners to Eastern philosophy, and he has been an inspiration to many people, including Carolyn and me. Ram Dass is the author of seventeen books about topics such as personal transformation and compassionate social action— including the classic book of illustrated Hindu revelations, Be Here Now, which was one of the most important books in my, as well as many others, developmental process.
Born Richard Alpert in 1931, Alpert was a psychology professor at Harvard in the early 1960s, who along with Timothy Leary, researched and experimented with controversial methods of consciousness expansion that caused quite a stir at that prestigious university, resulting in them being formally dismissed from the faculty in 1963. Leary and Alpert moved to the legendary Millbrook estate in upstate New York, where they continued their research, and historical advances were made into how to access new states of consciousness, but once again their controversial research methods stirred up added controversy.
Alpert left Millbrook in 1967 and traveled to India, where he met his spiritual guru— Neem Karoli Baba— who gave him the name Ram Dass, which means “servant of God.” Under his guru’s guidance, he began to study yoga and meditation, and this profoundly affected his life. Ram Dass created the Hanuman Foundation in 1974 to spread “spiritually-directed social action” in the West, and in 1978 Ram Dass co-founded the Seva Foundation , an international service organization dedicated to relieving suffering in the world.
Ram Dass had a stroke in 1997, which paralyzed the right side of his body. Despite the difficulty that he had speaking and walking, Ram Dass continued to teach, write and lecture for another twenty-two years. Ram Dass left this world in 2019.
It was such a great joy to have been friends with Ram Dass, and to have spent time hanging out with him over the years. He had a big influence on the development of my spiritual perspective; I carried his book “Be Here Now” around with me everywhere that I went when I was in High School, and, to this day, I still turn to it for inspiration. Ram Dass was a funny, lovable guy, and he has a lot of charisma, but I think that it was his profound honesty, and openness about his own spiritual evolution, that made his teachings so powerful. He had such a beautiful heart and spirit, and once sat on the phone with me for hours, while I sobbed over a lost relationship.
Here’s a story that stands out in my mind. One evening Ram Dass came to Santa Cruz to pick up his medical cannabis from a WAMM meeting that I was also attending. This was after his stroke, so he would speak slowly, in brief utterances, but still gave a talk to the WAMM members about death and dying. After the talk he took some questions, and I asked him, “Ram Dass, how can you speak with such certainty about life after death?”
There was a pause. Ram Dass thought for a moment and then said, “Well, first there was the mushrooms. Then, my guru, and my reading the works of great spiritual masters.” When he finished I said, “But Ram Dass, I’ve had mystical experiences as well. I’ve also had great teachers and read many books too, but I can’t speak with any certainty about what happens after we die…” Ram Dass interrupted me and added, “And chutzpah!”
When Carolyn first met Ram Dass they had an immediate acknowledgment. Ram Dass gazed into Carolyn’s face and said, “I know you,” and she felt the same recognition of knowing him since ancient times. Also, Carolyn met Ram Dass on several other occasions. Her last memory was of him calling Laura Huxley during the last week of her life, when she answered the phone. Ram Dass told Laura, “Everything is brand new,” which she repeated until she departed.
I interviewed Ram Dass on three occasions. Here is an excerpt from one of my interviews with him.
David: What is your concept of God?
Ram Dass: I think it’s a word like a finger pointing to the moon. I don’t think that what it points to is describable. It is pointing to that which is beyond form that manifests through form. A God defined is a God confined. I can give you thousands of poetic little descriptions. It’s all, everything and nothing. It’s all the things that the Heart Sutra talks about. It’s God at play with itself. God is the One, but the fact is that the concept of the One comes from two, and when you’re in the One, there’s no One. It’s zero, which equals one at that point.
David: What do you think happens to consciousness after death?
Ram Dass: I think it jumps into a body of some kind, on some plane of existence, and it goes on doing that until it is with God. From a Hindu point of view, consciousness keeps going through reincarnations, which are learning experiences for the soul. I think what happens after you die is a function of the level of evolution of the individual. I think that if you have finished your work and you’re just awareness that happens to be in a body, when the body ends it’s like selling your Ford— it’s no big deal.