The Lives and Loves of Zorba the Buddha

Published in the ' in 'Face to Faith' column in the Guardian, 25th February 1995.

1,280 words

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For those who were never involved with him or who have never read his books, Bhagwan Shree Rajneesh is conveniently grouped with the likes of the Reverend Jim Jones or David Koresh. For some of his followers also, events at the 'Big Muddy' commune in Oregon led to a disillusionment and an acceptance of comparisons with the Jonestown, Waco and Order of the Solar Temple tragedies. However there must be thousands, like myself, who owe a debt of gratitude to Rajneesh, and who should not remain silent when these comparisons are raised. Zahra Aftab (Face to Faith 14th January 1995) objects to comparisons between the Hare Krishna and Rajneesh movements, saying that the teachings and practices of the two groups are as different as black and white. For her Rajneesh belongs to the Koresh category, and the Krishnas do not.

She describes what are probably very real difficulties and prejudices against the Hare Krishnas in this society, much of which arises from ignorance. Yet it is ignorance on her part, probably from the same sources of disinformation which work against the Krishnas, that led her to cite drug-influenced "lust-ins" as the main-stay of the Rajneesh movement. In fact drugs and alcohol were specifically prohibited in the ashram in Poona, and even the smoking of ordinary cigarettes was only permitted in one designated area. The Rajneesh movement was, like the Krishnas, vegetarian, and in part also a devotional movement. Unlike the Krishnas, however, Rajneesh did encourage a sexual freedom, which led to much criticism. He did so for two reasons: it was part of an encouragement to search for freedom in the widest sense, but more importantly it was part of his emphasis on going beyond sex and human love. This was crucial to Rajneesh's teachings: to seek divine love, a love that is without object, or, if it has to have an object, one that is named 'God'.

Rajneesh gave something to me as a college-educated Westerner (and I can't believe that I am alone in this): an understanding of what the expression 'the love of God' might even refer to. His much-criticised eclecticism was also a guiding light to me: we live in an era where it is as important to understand and empathise with the religious traditions of other cultures as it is with one's own. Through him I have in fact a deep sympathy for the Hare Krishnas, though it is only honest to point out that Rajneesh was rather scathing of them. Rajneesh was the object of devotion for many of his followers, as is Krishna to the Hare Krishnas, but Rajneesh was a man, warts and all. Amongst his failings was undoubtedly a sort of arrogance and naiveté that, imitated by some of his followers who lacked his other qualities, led to the collapse in Oregon. The West's horror of the devotional cult, fuelled by such rare but highly publicised disasters, has led both to the dismissal of Rajneesh as the great teacher he undoubtedly was, and to some of the problems facing the Hare Krishnas.

Rajneesh also faced criticism for his absurd collection of Rolls-Royces. I am not defending this, but I can give an account of it at least: they were part of his anti-renunciative stance. He was utterly against the traditional renunciative aspect of Indian religion, as exemplified by the Buddha, citing it as the reason for the quite unnecessary filth and poverty of India. He reasoned that while renunciation had a role in a feudal society, it was redundant in a technological age, and proposed a new paradigm 'Zorba the Buddha' - a person both capable of enjoying all that life had to offer (including participation in the creation of wealth) and capable of the transcendence that was traditionally the exclusive domain of the ascetic. The irony is that while Rajneesh went to great lengths to promote the 'Zorba the Buddha' model of man, he was probably far more successful as a Buddha than a Zorba. In contrast, his followers may have tended more to the reverse, but the movement should not be dismissed on those grounds.

While I do not deny that problems do arise with devotional movements (and the recent accusations against Sogyal Rimpoche show that even Buddhist groups are not exempt), is it not as foolish to reject them as it would be to reject, say, the family on the grounds of potential child abuse? I believe that the West as a whole needs to go in to a form of psychoanalysis over this terrible embarrassment over the devotional. Terry Jones' current television series on the Crusades, while both entertaining and informative, is marked by a subterranean and squirming embarrassment over the love for God, the kind of embarrassment that used to be reserved for sex. Perhaps historical events like the Peasant's Crusade and the Inquisition are at the root of our rejection of the devotional, and we do need some kind of collective coming-to-terms with these traumas. After an 'ordinary' love-affair that goes wrong we may seek the help of a therapist, so why not in the case of a love-affair with God? Incidentally, I have long suspected that the gulf between the West and the Islamic world is between those who have in the large abandoned this love affair, and those for whom it is in the large a daily reality.

It would be a mistake however to present Rajneesh as only a proponent of devotion. He was just as comfortable with the non-devotional Buddhist-type paths, and repeated over and over again that the aspirant needs to sort out the right path for them, otherwise they were wasting their time. If you are a non-devotional type born into a devotional religion you are just as lost as a devotional type born into a non-devotional religion. Zen for example is wonderful, but mainly irrelevant to a lover of God. Hence Rajneesh's eclecticism: the seeker needs exposure to as many paths as possible. Because of his eclecticism it is difficult to sum up his teachings, in fact it seems a deliberate part of his method to avoid any codification or summary. There are some five hundred volumes of his recorded discourses and prior to his death Rajneesh began to emphasise that reading them was to be the main access to his teachings once he was gone. While alive he used to emphasise his presence, rather than his words, and often used to say that religious movements are invalid immediately after the death of the teacher. I cannot comment on the position of any official Rajneesh movement, as I have no contact with them, but I do recommend his books - they still speak to me at least. It is through his book on Krishna, for example, that I have come to love Krishna and empathise with the Hare Krishnas, and through other books an empathy has grown for many other religions, including non-theistic ones.

Without wishing to offend lesbians, it seems now that the love of God is truly 'the love that dare not speak its name' for the West. Zahra Aftab is fortunate to find a community where her love of God can grow, but I want to point out that anti-cult feelings directed towards the Krishnas are just as mis-directed towards the Rajneesh following. It is also important to recognise that a devotional path does not suit everyone, though a non-devotional discipline like Zen is equally unsuited to a person with a suppressed devotional inclination.

I would like to finish with a question: might it be possible for the West to recover its buried devotionality, free from embarrassment, and without recourse to various forms of fundamentalism?