Ram Dass with photo of Neem Karoli Baba

Photo of Ram Dass by Perry Julien

Gate Gate Paragate, Parasamgate, Bodhi Svaha

Before Ram Dass was Ram Dass, he was Richard Alpert — a psychology professor who had been famously kicked out of Harvard with Timothy Leary for experimenting with LSD. Acid-adventurer Aldous Huxley gave Alpert and Leary a copy of the Tibetan Book of The Dead, a Buddhist manual that prepares the reader to leave this lifetime, and travel directions for transcending into what’s next. Within it the mantra, “Gate Gate Paragate, Parasamgate, Bodhi Svaha” is repeated. The duo couldn’t help but notice their psychedelic experience mimicked the process of dying described in the book.

Meeting the Process of Dying

Young Alpert meditated in his mom’s ICU room. She was down to 80 pounds after her enlarged spleen was removed. Ram Dass remembers, “The entire hospital staff and all the visitors seemed to be involved in a huge conspiracy to deny the fact that somebody was dying. I would watch the doctors and nurses come in with that sort of professional cheeriness. ‘You’re looking better. Did you have a little soup? Oh, your color’s improved! How are your teeth? The doctor has a new treatment for you,’ and they would walk out into the corridor and say, ‘She won’t last two more days’.”

The leukemia was peeling off layers of Gertrude’s personality. The nagging Jewish mother concerned with job titles and material accomplishments melted away. She spoke softly, “Rich, you know you’re the only one I can talk to about dying. Nobody will talk to me about it. What do you think death is about?” Richard Alpert answered honestly, “Well, mother, from where I’m looking at you, it looks like a house that’s crumbling or on fire. But inside on the second floor there you are…Our relationship is the same, but this body is obviously falling apart.” She nodded knowingly. He continued, “And from what I understand from my own experiences and my studies, I now feel firmly, deeply, and intuitively that you’re not going anywhere.”

It’s Not Nothing

During their 44 years of marriage, George and Gertrude Alpert exchanged a single rose on each anniversary. As Gertrude’s casket rolled down the aisle, a solitary rose fell to George’s feet. Ram Dass reflects, “We all looked at it. My father, who was a very conservative Boston Republican and philanthropist lawyer; my oldest brother who was also a lawyer; my middle brother, who believed he was Christ; and me on LSD. As we looked at the rose, we all interpreted it somewhat differently but everybody recognized that it’s not nothing. There was silence in the procession vehicle until the brother who thinks he’s Christ finally says, ‘I guess mother sent you a final message’.” Ram Dass remembers, “and everybody in the car, even the sisters-in-law, agreed.”

A year later, Alpert was on pilgrimage in India looking for someone who “knew.” He was already annoyed from the grief, heat, and too much hashish, when his friend insisted they traverse a Himalayan Trail to meet a mahatma. Richard recalls, “We come to this little temple, and he’s crying, going to see his guru, and I’m just like, ‘Let’s get this over with’.”

Meeting Maharaj-ji

The mahatma, now known internationally as Neem Karoli Baba, Maharaj-ji in the honorific and familiar, poked Richard in the places it perturbed him. A borrowed car, his bank account, he talked through a translator. “You were under the stars last night, you were thinking about your mother, she died last year. She got very big in the belly before she died.” He leaned forward and in English said, “Spleen!” Alpert’s imagination ignited with CIA conspiracy theories and spy storylines, until he settled into the surrender.

Ram Dass relives the moment. “I just gave up and he just stayed there looking at me, and I felt this violent wrenching in my chest, and I started to cry. It was like something opened that was very ancient and closed, and I started to sob and sob. I cried for about two days, and don’t even know what it was about. It was like I was home or something like that, and they took care of me, and I didn’t leave that place for five months.”

In this transformation period, Richard Alpert with his well to-do family, fancy degrees, cars, planes, and cellos died his own kind of death. He offloaded the social conditioning that spelled out success, and entered into the cosmic soup. Much like a caterpillar’s body being reduced to liquid, as it changes form. The butterfly that flew out of the cocoon was no longer Richard Alpert, but Ram Dass. A counterculture icon, who is attributed with cracking opening consciousness in the West through his epic, Be Here Now.

Be Here Now

The book has sold more than two million copies, in innumerable printings and languages, over the past 47 years. Each season a new generation of college students, psychedelic explorers and spiritual seekers discovers this compendium. Within it he describes in detail, the metamorphosis from one reality to the next stating, “It’s inevitable. It’s just happening. It’s got to happen that way.” On page 8 of the book, the Lama Foundation artists illustrate the familiar mantra “Gate, Gate, Paragate, Parasamgate, Bodhi Svaha!”

It’s through gaining expertise and insight into these transmutations, that Ram Dass has rejected the prevailing American ideal that death is a failure of the medical community; that it is something to be sterilized, secluded, and feared. Together with friends Dale Borghlum, Ondrea Levine and the late Stephen Levine, the Living/Dying Project was born. A consortium of resources, trainings, and retreats to teach the art of conscious dying. These are ideas Ram Dass has explored at length with legends in the field like Elisabeth Kubler-Ross, Roshi Joan Halifax, Wayne Dyer, and his old Harvard cohort Timothy Leary. Upon Tim’s diagnosis of metastasized cancer, he exclaimed, “You’ve got to approach your dying, the way you live your life, with curiosity, with hope, with fascination, with courage and with the help of friends. I am determined to give death a better name — or die trying.”

Ram Dass teaching on retreat

Photo of Ram Dass by Perry Julien

Cultivating Love

Of course, the light-hearted view is juxtaposed with years of sitting at the bedside of people dying from AIDS during the 1980s epidemic, the unexpected wonderment of San Quentin Death Row inmates, and the thousands who have reached out for advice after the loss of a loved one. On this journey he has endeavored to see everyone he meets as a “soul” and not the role they’re playing, or the label they’ve been given (mother, father, grocery store clerk, criminal, sick person, hospice patient).

Ram Dass reflects, “I’ve sat quietly with many people who were dying amid the often panicked, frightened, confused feelings of their families. All I had to do was keep my heart open and not get caught in my reactions to the situation or deny them. I learned to cultivate certain qualities: fearlessness and, most importantly, love. I learned that when I could bring a quietness, a feeling that everything was happening was all right, we could come to share a piece of intuitive wisdom behind our egos’ fears and resistance. I learned to be a loving rock to push against — listening, giving strength, awake and receptive.”

Rachel’s Work on Earth

Steve and Anita are one of those families who reached out to Ram Dass for strength. The couple had moved out of the city and into the suburbs so their family could be safe. A year later cops, were causing a commotion in and around the college field. Steve was ushered through the stadium gates, up the bleachers, and into the press box. Just a few hours earlier he and his 11-year-old daughter had exchanged “I love you’s.” Now her body was behind police tape. She had been murdered, mid-day. Ram Dass wrote Steve and Anita a letter. It read:

Rachel finished her work on earth, and left the stage in a manner that leaves those of us left behind with a cry of agony in our hearts, as the fragile thread of our faith is dealt with so violently. Is anyone strong enough to stay conscious through such teachings as you are receiving? Very few. And even they would have only the briefest whisper of equanimity and peace amidst the screaming trumpets of their rage, grief, horror and desolation.

I can’t assuage your pain with any words, nor should I. For your pain is part of Rachel’s legacy to you. Not that she or I would inflict such pain by choice, but there it is. And it must burn its purifying way to completion. For something in you dies when you bear the unbearable, and it is only in that dark night of the soul that you are prepared to see as God sees, and to love as God loves.

Now is the time to let your grief find expression. No false strength. Now is the time to sit quietly and speak to Rachel, and thank her for being with you these few years, and encourage her to go on with her work, knowing that you will grow in compassion and wisdom from this experience. In my heart, I know that you and she will meet again and again, and recognize the many ways in which you have known each other. And when you meet, you will, in a flash, know what now it is not given to you to know: Why this had to be the way it was.

Our rational minds can never understand what has happened, but our hearts — if we can keep them open to God — will find their own intuitive way. Rachel came through you to do her work on earth, which included her manner of death. Now her soul is free, and the love that you can share with her is invulnerable to the winds of changing time.

Om Gate Gate, Paragate, Parasamgate Bodhi Svaha.

Death is Perfectly Safe

A Spring, 2018, Ram Dass & Friends Retreat in Maui oriented itself around seeing each other as souls, cultivating one’s own loving awareness, and becoming comfortable with the words of Emanuel, “Death is perfectly safe.”

Upon touchdown back on the mainland, community member Jared Gagan Levy received word his 35-year-old brother Gavin had unexpectedly left this world. Jared says, “In my heart I know that my brother is at peace, but it is with Ram Dass’ help that my mind can actually come into a state of peace in working through the attachment and accompanying sadness. With Baba’s help I’m able to transform heartbreak to heart opening grace. I miss him terribly, but the tight bond with my brother continues to grow now that he’s ‘taken off the tight shoe’.”

Ram Dass on Retreat with Krishna Das and friends

Photo of Ram Dass on Retreat by Perry Julien

Escape from Central Jail

Now 87 years old, Ram Dass is approaching his own pending “escape from central jail” with his signature pioneering spirit. He speaks matter-of-factly to a captive audience, “The individual soul is the jivatman and the big soul, the supreme soul is the atman. Jivatman is finite and conditioned. While atman is infinite and eternal, the indestructible divine existence. As a soul, I am part of the atman, but also individual. I am identified with my soul. Yet I am still a separate entity. At the end of my life, my soul will fully merge with the atman and become one with it. The next step is for me to dive into the ocean, to become one with All.” These days he spends some of his time preparing for the deep dive. He sits at his home in Maui, facing the Pacific visualizing his own consciousness merging with the infinite, like the individual waves becoming absorbed by the vast ocean.

He quietly chants, “Om Gate Gate Paragate, Parasamgate Bodhi Svaha…” It is the mantra he intends to use as an astral GPS address, for traversing this life into the next. It means “Gone, Gone, Beyond, Gone Beyond Beyond, Hail The Goer….!”

And Hail Ram Dass for always leading the way.

Read more about Walking Each Other Home

Ram Dass and Mirabai Bush’s book Walking Each Other Home: Conversations on Loving and Dying is available from Sounds True: soundstrue.com.

Learn more about Ram Dass and his work on meditation and on dying at: ramdass.org.

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