April 6, 1931 – Ram Dass
“Treat Everyone You Meet as if They are God in Drag.”
He was the 1960s counterculture spiritual leader who experimented with LSD and traveled to India to find enlightenment, returning to share it with Americans.
He started out life as Richard Alpert, born into a wealthy Jewish Massachusetts family; his father was a prominent Boston attorney and a founder of Brandeis University. Despite having a bar mitzvah, he did not consider himself spiritual until he had tried LSD, and then tried it 375 more times, often tripping with his pal Timothy Leary and then getting very spiritual.
Alpert had been studying the nature of consciousness for more than 50 years, and he began his studies specializing in human motivation and personality development. He received a Ph.D. from Stanford University and taught at Stanford and the University of California.
From 1958 to 1963, he taught and did research in the Department of Social Relations and the Graduate School of Education at Harvard University and co-authored the book Identification And Child Rearing (1960). While at Harvard in 1961, Alpert’s explorations into human consciousness led him to collaborate with Allen Ginsberg, Ralph Metzner, and Aldous Huxley in pursuing intensive research with psilocybin, LSD-25 and other psychedelic chemicals. This research produced two fascinating books: The Psychedelic Experience (1964) co-authored with Leary and Metzner; and the imaginatively titled LSD (1966).
I discovered Ram Dass when a favorite Philosophy professor gave me a a small gift wrapped in a page torn from the new book Be Here Now by Ram Dass. The gift was a peyote button. I was so fascinated by the page and the button that I went to the Bodhi Tree Bookstore in West Hollywood and bought the entire book. I also somehow met a guy from Israel there and we went back to his place and got spiritual.
I learned that Alpert was a former Harvard professor of Psychology. He and Leary were fired from Harvard in 1963 for their experiments with LSD. He later revealed that his sexual adventures with male students fueled the fires of the scandal. However, Alpert became disillusioned with hallucinogenics as a key to permanently changing his life. When Huxley gave him a copy of The Tibetan Book Of The Dead, Alpert recognized it as a map to greater consciousness. He then traveled to Asia in search of a guide to teach him to read the map.
In 1967, he found his guru, Neem Karoli Baba, in the foothills of India’s Himalaya Mountains. The guru asked him about the tiny pieces of paper he would sometimes eat. Alpert explained that it was LSD, and then shared a hit with the holy man. To his astonishment, Alpert noted that the acid didn’t change Baba. Occasionally Baba would smile at him as he went through the day, but the LSD had no effect on him. It seemed that Baba lived in an expanded state of consciousness.
Baba taught Alpert Raja Yoga. After years of study, Alpert was renamed Ram Dass, which means Servant of God, and he was told to return to the USA to teach what he had learned. And, that is what he did.
Dass became one the most notable teachers of Eastern Philosophy in the USA. His candor, his humor, and his rascally style fed Americans hungry for spiritual transformation. Be Here Now became the most popular book in English besides Dr. Spock’s The Common Sense Book Of Baby And Child Care (1946) and The Bible.
Dass also was an early champion of environmental causes, hospice care for people with HIV/AIDS, and health care for people in poor countries.
Slowly, Dass cautiously spoke about his relationships with men. In the early 1990s he moved to San Francisco, where he found the liberal environment helped him to open up about his gayness. In 1994, he publicly came out of the closet. Despite the bold move, most people in the Eastern Spirituality communities who knew Dass did not realize he was gay; and most people in the LGBTQ community have never heard of Ram Dass.
In 1997, at 66 years old, Dass suffered a massive cerebral hemorrhage and he was not expected to make it. He was just finishing his latest book Still Here: Embracing Aging, Changing, and Dying. This dramatic and painful event gave him a new perspective on living in pain. He added a new last chapter to his just finished book.
He said that he didn’t want people to be distracted by his sexuality and miss the truth he wanted to share:
“Truth is a fine thing between people. My life and my work have been about truth. All my life has been about teaching the truth. My homosexuality is the one thing I have not been truthful about. Now it is important to be honest. Mahatma Gandhi wrote that ‘Only God is truth. I am a human being. Truth for me is changing every day. My commitment must be to truth, not to consistency’.“
Dass also wrote:
“There is still so much guilt and shame to be found in the gay community. And, there are so many roles that gays get caught in. I still work with my guilt and shame. I was standing in line at the adult movie-theater once. I was in Chicago. And this hippie came walking by and saw me and recognized me. He stopped and started a conversation. As we talked I could see him registering where I was and his brain was scrambling to comprehend that Ram Dass, the spiritual teacher was standing in line at the gay porn theater. In my mind I was trying to decide whether to be honest and go into the theater or to just walk down the street with him to get a cup of coffee. I chose to go into the theater. It took a lot of courage for me to do that. My own guilt and shame were so strong. As for the young gay kids coming out and growing up I say this: ‘Don’t label yourselves. Allow your minds and your souls to connect with everyone you meet.“
Dass studied and taught a variety of spiritual practices including devotional yoga focused on the Hindu spiritual figure Hanuman; meditation in the Theravadin, Mahayana Tibetan and Zen Buddhist schools; plus, Sufi and Jewish studies. He also practices service to others as a spiritual path.
In 1974, Dass created the Hanuman Foundation, which developed the Prison Ashram Project, designed to help prison inmates grow spiritually during their incarceration, and the Living/Dying Project, conceived as a spiritual support structure for dying. He is a co-founder and an advisory board member of the Seva Foundation, an international service organization. He works with the Social Venture Network, an organization of businesses seeking to bring social consciousness to business practices, and his own Love Serve Remember Foundation.
He lived on Maui and hadn’t left Hawaii since 2004, when he almost died from an infection after a trip to India. He needed a wheelchair, but he continued to teach about the nature of consciousness, and about service as a spiritual path.
Leary and Dass grew apart after Dass criticized Leary in a 1974 news conference. But, the friends reconciled at Harvard in 1983, at a reunion for the 20th anniversary of their controversial firing, and they spent time together before Leary’s death in 1996.
Dass published 15 books, including a memoir Polishing The Mirror: How To Live From Your Spiritual Heart (2013), where he writes:
“Now, I’m in my 80s. Now, I am aging. I am approaching death. I am getting closer to the end. Now, I really am ready to face the music all around me.“
When asked if he could sum up his life’s message, he wrote:
“I help people as a way to work on myself, and I work on myself to help people… to me, that’s what the emerging game is all about.“
Dass moved on to the the next incarnation at the end of 2019, the perfect moment to get out of this dimension.
For more, try the documentary films Dying to Know: Ram Dass & Timothy Leary (2014) and Ram Dass, Going Home (2017), a portrait of Dass in his later years, both streaming on Netflix.