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Memoirs of an Ex-Sannyasin

Life at Rancho Rajneesh was not what she expected

Matthew Naythons/Gamma-Rapho/Getty

When I received the long-awaited letter from Rajneeshpuram inviting me to come for the summer, to help to build the new city, I was initially stunned, although I had written first, saying that I wanted to go there and be with Bhagwan.

I had been his “disciple” for almost two years, having taken “Sannyas” by mail, feeling that I loved him totally, although I hadn’t gone to Pune (Poona), India, to be in his physical presence as had most of his other followers. Only a few months after I took sannyas, while I was still planning to go to India to see him and trying to get the money together, suddenly Bhagwan and the whole ashram in Pune relocated to the United States, seemingly overnight—although now I see that it must have been well planned for quite some time. Needless to say, I was overjoyed!

His whereabouts, and what was to happen next, were cloaked in mystery for several months. We were told that a lot of land was being purchased for the new ashram-commune, and that there would be a place for each and every one of us to be there living permanently within one to two years. Everyone was instructed to get together as much money as they possibly could—whether it was money they had in the bank already, or from selling real or personal property, or even to beg or borrow from relatives or friends. We all proceeded to do this immediately . . . because the sooner the deal was closed on the land, the sooner the building could start, and the sooner we could all live there and be near Bhagwan!

When it was finally revealed that the property being purchased was in Oregon, it was also made very clear that no one was going to be able to just go there without proper invitation. For the time being, only those with certain skills, such as construction work, farming, etc., could go because of limited space in a few trailers. This seemed to make sense. There was a lot of land, but not much on it! Just one old farmhouse, about four other ramshackle buildings, nothing growing, and winter and snow on their way very soon.

At this time, being thirty-six years old, somewhat overweight, and with no experience camping out or “roughing it,” I was content not going to Oregon for a while. I felt secure in being with Bhagwan very soon; I loved him above all else and gazed at his many photos, which looked back at me from many different locations around my small apartment, morning and evening. I was employed as an electronics assembler, and I kept myself occupied outside of work mostly with reading Bhagwan’s books, listening to tapes of Indian music, and practicing different meditation techniques.

So, spring came and I heard of more people being able to go to the land in Oregon. I wrote Bhagwan a love letter. He wrote me one back. I shall never forget how tender and precious our love affair was in those days. In the neighborhood where I lived, especially at night, there was the odor of jasmine flowers. Whenever I caught the scent, I’d mentally say to him, “To you, my love.” His love kept me totally fulfilled. Since my only goal was to go to Oregon and see him at last, who cared where I lived now, or how, since it was only temporary.

I got up my courage to write to Sheela, Bhagwan’s personal secretary and president of the Rajneesh Foundation, and ask if I could come to the “ranch.” (By now they were calling it a ranch instead of an ashram.) I also left the request kind of open, saying that I would come anytime it was possible . . . if not now, then anytime they allowed me to come. I didn’t want to be too specific or seem demanding, because I didn’t feel emotionally capable of facing a flat “no.” After some weeks, I received a form letter, which said I was invited for the summer, if I was ready for lots of hard work! As I said before, initially I was stunned! This was it—the moment of truth! I guess that what was really happening inside of me was that I envisioned myself going someplace like a traditional Zen monastery or something. I should’ve known better! The handwriting was on the wall in red, but I was wearing rose-colored glasses!

Included with the letter was a list of things I should bring, such as a tent, a sleeping bag, warm clothes, shorts, sun hat, boots, etc. I also had to get six months of health/accident insurance. I gave notice on my job, put my room up for rent, secured my plane ticket, and in general made all the preparations to leave for Portland, Oregon, on May 9, 1982. The nearly $2,000 I had in my checking account went down, down, down. The day I got on the plane, I had a balance of about $400. 1 had burned all my bridges behind me. It was sink or swim! Two days before I left I came down with a severe case of bronchitis, but I went anyway—coughing, sweating, and ears ringing from fever! Oh, what one can do in the name of love!

I imagined being warmly welcomed by the most intimate disciples of my Beloved Master. Beautiful dreams I had, while fully awake! I arrived in the town nearest the ranch, Madras, after five hours on the bus from Portland. Another “Ma” was on the same bus. There was a potbellied Swami, who looked like a prospector who’d been out panning for gold, waiting there to pick her (and her two kids) up with a car like a Volkswagen, and he wasn’t happy at all to see me with all my luggage! In fact, he didn’t even believe that I had really been invited—he thought I was lying and had to call the ranch to check my story before he would even let me in his car! (Here I am, in full orange with mala, and suspect. Of what?) I was later to learn of the tight security at the ranch; it was nothing against me personally.

We drove from Madras to Antelope, then on to the land. It was breathtaking! Miles and miles and miles of virgin land, farther than the eye could see! The hills and the wind chanted a sacred, secret message to me (it was my fever!). I felt on holy ground. I felt chosen, special. I felt Bhagwan’s presence spreading over every inch of this vast desert, permeating even the smallest twig by the roadside—his love and protection encompassing every bird and insect and even every blade of grass and every rock, as well as his own disciples. I could sense that even if an ant was in trouble, Bhagwan would know, and care, just like God. (In India, Bhagwan does mean God.) And of course, he knew that I was now on his property and he was glad to know I was here.

(Little did I know, then, that he didn’t know, didn’t care, and wouldn’t have cared if he had known!)

After about forty five minutes driving (from the beginning of the property line), we arrived at the ranch. I really don’t remember what my first impressions were of how it looked. I was too sick to care. I was aching all over—tired, hungry, wet, coughing, and certainly not welcomed lovingly as I had anticipated. I simply hoped to eat dinner soon and go to sleep early. It was still raining, and all the dirt roads and vicinity were quite muddy. (The old nickname of this place is the Big Muddy!) I just wanted to go somewhere warm and perhaps sit down on a comfortable couch and relax and have a cup of tea.

But I soon found out there was much to do: we had to be “processed.” First thing was to go to a place called “Pythagoras.” Each place had a special name like that. I thought it was kind of cute. Pythagoras turned out to be the name of the medical clinic. Later on I came to realize that a lot of locations had these names as a sort of camouflage. We were not supposed to say “clinic”; we were only to refer to it as Pythagoras because it must not become known to any outsiders that the clinic existed.

The other “Ma” and I filled out some standard looking questionnaires. Then a female sannyasin doctor took us both into a small examining room where we sat down to receive what I imagine is the standard spiel for new arrivals. The first ten to fifteen minutes of the spiel was about sexual hygiene, mainly stressing not to have sex with anyone on the ranch until we had our tests and were “cleared,” which would take at least a week. When it was okay, our names would appear on a special list that would be posted on the bulletin board at Magdalena dining hall. (Oh my God!). And it was strongly advised that we not have any sexual relations with anyone not a resident of the ranch, whether a sannyasin or not. One other issue that was stressed was the number of people living there. We mustn’t be discussing the true number. Later on I learned it was about 1,000. “Officially” it was 250!

Approximately the next ten minutes of the spiel was about devotion to Bhagwan and his work. Especially stressed was “no gossiping.” Especially, especially stressed was to watch your conversation around outsiders, to be careful with what you said over the telephone (it might be tapped), and even to watch what you wrote in outgoing mail. I wondered, Am I at an ashram or am I in a coma hallucinating a scene from a James Bond movie? It was truly cloak and dagger! We then had our VD tests. The doctor never noticed how sick I was.

The next stop was Magdalena dining hall, which wasn’t too far from our temporary tent, so we decided to walk. It was there that I got my greatest shock thus far!

Dinner was served at 8:00 pm. We arrived at about that time. The place was packed beyond capacity, so that the line was out the front door and people were standing in the rain, waiting to get in for dinner. Once inside, all I can say is that it was a mess! People were wall to-wall, pushing and shoving like hungry animals, and talking loudly. In the entrance foyer were hundreds of coat hooks, and the jackets and sweaters that hung there were being knocked down by this mob and trampled with muddy boots! I had never seen anything like it anywhere in my life! It certainly didn’t resemble my idea of an ashram dining hall. The only comparison that comes close is a movie I once saw about prison life. Only this was much worse! People were dirty from the day’s work on the muddy farm, and the stink of sweaty bodies mingled with the smell of the food.

The system was to pick up a tray and get your dinner cafeteria style. When I had picked up my food and inched my way into the eating area, all the tables were filled and there was no place to sit. Others were already sitting down on the floor to eat, so I did the same. For a moment, sitting on the floor like that in the midst of this noisy crowd, I felt like a great yogi in a marketplace somewhere in India. I didn’t realize it at the time, but all of this self-inflicted misery of being a sannyasin was exactly what my ego was thriving on. (Bhagwan’s teaching is to “drop” the ego.)

It was Sunday night, the night for the weekly meeting with Sheela Silverman (Ma Anand Sheela). I had seen a couple of photos of her, but I had never seen her in person, so I didn’t recognize her at first. When the room suddenly became silent, I sensed she must be there someplace. (Of course she doesn’t eat with us!) My attention was drawn to the front area of the dining hall, to a small, cleared area resembling something like a stage, though not that high. There was a special-looking chair with Sheela sitting in it.

Sheela is a small, attractive Indian woman, with a nice, sweet smile. Her hair was done, and you could tell she wore only the best! (She also drives a Rolls-Royce!) That night I wasn’t looking at her objectively, so I enjoyed the meeting and the experience of seeing her for the first time. I thought she was witty and cute. If Bhagwan chose her as his No. 1, she must be very, extra special indeed! She didn’t seem particularly spiritual, but what exactly is that anyway? I rationalized that the more outer display of spirituality probably meant the less one actually had within, which is what counts the most. Being at Rajneeshpuram, I thought even I had arrived. (Arrived where? I had a lot to learn, though I didn’t know it!).

After the general meeting had finished, I wanted to find the tent and go to sleep. It had been mentioned where we were to go to take a shower, etc., but I couldn’t remember that information. I couldn’t find the tent either, in the dark without a flashlight. I had to go back to Magdalena and find my tentmate. By that time there was a disco party happening. She was dancing and having a good time, but was nice enough to leave to show me the way to the tent. She had a flashlight with her. I hadn’t noticed before, but in the tent there was nothing to sleep on, just bare floor. I had considered buying an inflatable air mattress while shopping for other camping items, but decided against it. Since it wasn’t on the list I was sent, I assumed it must be provided. So my bed that night was on a cold, hard, muddy floor. I slept in my clothes in my sleeping bag. It was freezing in central Oregon in May, and it seemed as though I didn’t have a cover at all. I already ached all over, and it was difficult to lie down on a hard floor without a pillow. I bunched up my jacket to make a pillow, but as soon as I managed to get somewhat comfortable, I started coughing! Eventually, somehow, I slept.

So that was my first day at the ranch, Rajneeshpuram, somewhere in the high desert near Antelope, Oregon. The next day wasn’t any better.

Needless to say, I couldn’t have imagined, in my most vivid imagination, the ranch to be as it was. Yes, I knew it was a farming community and there was lots of work to do—and that everything wasn’t going to be convenient—a bed of roses, no, I didn’t expect that. But I did believe I was going to a religious commune, ashram, or whatever term one chooses to use. All I know is that the ranch was as far removed from an ashram as Bermuda is from the North Pole. The only two occasions I was released from work to attend meditation (satsang), the news media was present and filming. We were instructed the day before to “look ecstatic.”

All I knew in regard to myself was that I had better get well quickly, learn my way around, get my tent up and my belongings with me, go to bed earlier and get up earlier, if I were ever going to survive in this situation. I had to be totally self-reliant and my prime concern had to be to fulfill my job obligation, if I never did anything else. After I did this and “proved” myself, I did make a lot of nice friends and didn’t have such a daily struggle. Prior to that, it was a lonely way to go. Not only did I not fit into any of the regular categories of followers (being a summer worker, and not having been to Pune), but neither did I sleep around nor had I recently made a large donation to the foundation. Everything was against me!

Maybe I shouldn’t have tried to hide the fact that I was sick. But I was afraid to say anything because I knew they wanted only healthy people who were able to put in a long day’s work. No one there really knew me, since I hadn’t been to Pune—and I felt that I had to prove myself. I was determined to bear anything for my love for Bhagwan. I remained sick for, I think, about eleven or twelve days before I finally told someone I was sick. I needed to see a doctor because I wasn’t getting any better; in fact, I was getting worse. I could barely walk one block without panting, hardly able to breathe, and coughing. Meanwhile, the daily work schedule was from 7:30 am to 8:00 pm seven days a week—which I somehow managed to fulfill (by the grace of God). I never would have believed that anyone could be sick in the presence of my Divine Master—and I mean that. This didn’t fit! So I had to conclude that it must be a test of my devotion.

I don’t know how I managed the first two weeks. Breakfast was over at 7:10 am, and one must not be late for work, which began at 7:30 am. I considered myself lucky if I had breakfast more than twice a week. Many times (later on) I was able to get myself to Magdalena dining hall prior to 7:00 am, only to find there was no food left anyway. I survived through all this, and more, and felt good about it besides! . . . because this was the proof of my love for Bhagwan. Getting back to Magdalena around 9:00 pm was rough, too. Sometimes the food would be cold, or it would be like “lunches to go” in little brown bags. (I’d like to see Sheela or Arup or Vidya having these!) Sometimes I would decide it wasn’t worth the bother, and go straight to my tent and go to sleep.

Let me explain why I finally decided to leave the ranch: Visits from the FBI and immigration authorities. Being instructed to lie or not say anything. The plans to build a hotel and gambling casino! Sheela lying. Future plans to live in underground cities prior to a six-year nuclear war, which is supposed to begin in ten years and destroy everything.

That last topic was the one that really did it for me. There was just no way I was going to be confined in close quarters underground(!) with these mindless people! If there really were only ten years left, I decided I should get back out in the world and enjoy the life God gave me. There are thousands in this group, and not one enlightened. The realization of the true situation, for me, was sad. I call it “The Death of a Dream.”

I learned a lot in Oregon. I didn’t value my freedom until after I gave it up. I didn’t like the things going on at the ranch, nor the lifestyle, so I left. I simply didn’t want to spend the next ten years of my life working seven days a week, twelve hours a day, because I was already thirty-seven years old.

Getting back to particulars: The surprise visits from immigration (on a regular basis).

As soon as a vehicle crossed the property line, the whole ranch knew. So a surprise visit was not possible, except perhaps by air. When the first immigration raid took place, I wasn’t seeing things the way I do now, so I felt annoyed and protective of the sannyasins from other countries who wanted to stay in the United States and be near Bhagwan. I imagined what it would be like for myself in the same situation in India. I felt very sympathetic. It was also a little bit exciting and broke up the monotony of the job I had (working in a small trailer that had been converted into an electronics repair shop, attempting to fix assorted dirty, greasy, power tools—most of which were beyond repair. Fifty percent of the time there was nothing to do, but I had to stay there until 8:00 pm anyway).

Somehow, I don’t know how, the ranch usually had advance warning that the immigration people were coming. There was a Motorola system of communication in every building, trailer, and vehicle. Some vehicles and locations had CB radios, and there were a good many hand-helds and beepers. With advance warnings of a raid, there was always time to prepare, and to let certain people know of the new code that would be used over the Motorola. All foreigners, those with accents especially, had assigned hiding places, which would vary. They would know where to go (and I suppose other details, if any) by this cryptic message that would come over the Motorola. One such phrase was something like “Send a taxi to pick up Sheela’s dirty laundry.” Occasionally there were private meetings for these people— classes to help them speak American-style and to discuss strategies for the situation.

Soon, these things began to disgust me, because it was such a complicated mess, so shady and cheap for a supposed “religious community.” Someplace else I doubt I would have felt that way. In a sewing factory in downtown Los Angeles it would’ve fit better, you know what I mean?

Basically, what it was about is that all over the United States, sannyasins who were born in this country were marrying sannyasins from various other countries (especially England and Germany) so that the foreign sannyasins could legally remain in the United States, particularly on the ranch in Oregon. Perhaps one in ten marriages were for love. The rest were for the ashram.

One day my department coordinator, Swami Deva, assembled everyone in Gora Dept. for a special, private meeting. It seemed more serious than usual. He began describing various ways we might be surprised by the FBI, and what to do in such an event. I thought he had made an error, intending to say immigration authorities, but he really was preparing us now for the FBI! I was surprised, but nothing at the ranch could surprise me that much anymore. He described a scene where a busload of FBI men would appear one day as we were innocently picking vegetables. In this hypothetical situation, they all had guns too!

I was ready to pack my suitcases and say good bye for sure, except that I had run out of money! I had written to several friends asking to borrow some money and was awaiting their response even before this FBI stuff began.

Deva explained it like this: The FBI couldn’t understand where all the money (millions!) was coming from to run the ranch and do all that we were doing. They suspected it was from smuggling and sales of drugs!

One day, Deva and I were sitting together on the bus going to lunch. I jokingly said to him: “This place thinks of everything! We should have a Department of Defense.” He whispered confidentially back to me: “We do!”

There was literally nothing for me there anymore, but I was stuck until I could borrow some money. It was a nightmarish situation and I had to remain, like it or not. Every afternoon at 2:00 pm Bhagwan would drive through the ranch and we would all wait to greet him. I still loved him, but I stopped going. I couldn’t participate in this fiasco any longer. I felt like a person whose love affair had just gone down the drain. I played the part of doing my job, but my heart was no longer in it. I was really worried what I would do if the money didn’t come.

Then I went through a phase for about two weeks of doubting myself! Everybody else always seemed so happy! A few times I brought up my feelings to someone I felt I could trust to understand and they understood! But they gave me such beautiful advice that I felt ashamed for thinking and feeling the way I did and making judgments. All that mattered was to be near Bhagwan and do his work. I couldn’t disagree, but deep down inside I didn’t believe this was his work! I felt that I had surrendered my life to Sheela and Vidya. The ranch sometimes reminded me of a concentration camp and sometimes a mental institution. I saw a lot of people were not very happy at all . . . but they were afraid to leave, or to even talk about it. It is in a way similar to being institutionalized. After being in India at the ashram for so many years (as long as ten years for some) and having given away all possessions, where to go and what to do now, especially in Oregon, or the United States in general, with no money, no car, no contacts? It must have been frightening. Even one to two years is a long time to be away from the job market.

Sheela and her inner circle lived in a complex of three adjoining, customized, deluxe mobile homes. It was hard to tell that their sprawling, luxurious living quarters had ever been just three mobile homes. The furnishings and accessories were in the finest taste, and the place could’ve been done by a professional decorator.

Twice I had occasion to go there. The first time was to put water in the battery (under the bathroom sink) that was used for her Motorola. (I was surprised to see a box of hair dye! I had been told not to use any soap or anything else that wasn’t biodegradable, because it could ruin the sewage system.)

I hate to admit this, but foolish me, on my second visit I was going to make a donation! I had about $300, so I was donating $200. It was around 9:00 am when I went. Several members of the inner circle group were just getting up, and they were dressed in beautiful sleeping ensembles. Arup was sitting at their elegant formal dining table having coffee, going over some papers with someone else. The table was set with lovely things, just like home! (Well, this was their home.) It was such a warm and inviting scene, I couldn’t help but envy them. Sheela wasn’t in sight. Perhaps she was sleeping. The particular Ma I went to see, Savita, wasn’t up from bed yet and I had to wait quite some time for her. (We peons got up between 5:00 and 6:00 am every day!)

After making the donation I felt good! Didn’t feel like such a nothing anymore. On that day, at that moment, if I had had a million dollars I would have given it all—my love for Bhagwan was overflowing!

By the time I had attended three of Sheela’s special meetings, I could see the general format didn’t deviate. It went something like this: A few jokes, anecdotes. Reprimands. A couple of dirty jokes. Special announcements (“good news”). More dirty jokes, anecdotes. She liked to schedule the meeting for around 7:30 or 8:00 pm. Then she’d be thirty minutes to one hour late and make her entrance. When the meetings were to be held in Magdalena dining hall, it was okay. But later on, after Buddha Hall was built, we had all the meetings there. So, we would leave work early to go to Buddha Hall and wait for the meeting. Sometimes she wouldn’t show up, and after one to two hours of waiting, we’d be told that the meeting was canceled.

July 30 was the Rajneeshpuram First Annual World Celebration. It was hard work for everyone to get things ready for the 6,000 people who would be coming. Some departments worked all night, as well as all day. Sheela promised we all would have three days off after the festival, as a reward for working so hard.

The festival was a beautiful success. Everyone who came for those five days was impressed and wanted to live on the ranch. I’d think silently to myself: “Oh, if only you knew!” I lived only for the mail.

After the festival, I received an order of job transfer to Hakim Sinai, to be the receptionist! The job included coordinating all of Vidya’s private appointments in Rumi Dept. What was this? How was it possible for me to get such a job assignment in Hakim Sinai (which was in the nature of Top Secret/Classified/Authorized Personnel Only)? My imagination was reactivated . . . my hopes to be close to Bhagwan soared! I was on cloud nine!

I was due to have my three days off as Sheela had been promising repeatedly since before the festival. Swami Deva decided I should get only two days. Some got only one day, so I didn’t press the issue.

I was very happy to work at Hakim Sinai. I felt like a human being again, one who was worth something. Did Bhagwan somehow know how very much I loved him and what I was going through? Did I have possibilities, in his eyes, or did Vidya think I had potential? Did she tell him so? I was glad they at least thought I was trustworthy. The ray of hope that I could have a meaningful job and that Bhagwan at least knew I was alive made everything okay. I put my whole being into that job and I loved it! I would be Vidya’s devoted secretary for life!

One day as I was walking around the offices, I happened to notice that several of the secretaries were reading and answering mail specifically addressed to Bhagwan. Momentarily, I wondered about it in regard to myself. I had written him three or four letters, one in particular a very special love note, and he had sent me a loving, personal reply, which I cherished. Or had he? I let that thought go because I did not want to consider otherwise! Everything was going so well for me, and I planned to stay even after the summer was over. (No doubt I’d be asked. I got the position in Hakim Sinai, didn’t I?)

Behind one very innocent-looking, unmarked door was Rumi Dept., where the most confidential of ashram business was discussed. If you set out to find Rumi, you wouldn’t recognize it when you found it because it was not supposed to exist. First there was a tiny foyer, and there sat the paper shredder. Shredding important papers twice a day was one of my duties. I really didn’t see anything worth mentioning, but one thing never ceased to give me pangs: shredding letters written to Bhagwan that he never saw, letters that people believed he received. But I made myself believe that he really had gotten my letters, and that the replies I had received really were his words to me!

For two weeks I was like a bird in the sky, until I was put out of Hakim Sinai in the middle of the afternoon one day, for no reason except that the whole thing had been a terrible mistake! It had just been a mistake, that job was never assigned to me at all, by anybody! It was just one big misunderstanding (perhaps a malfunction of a computer).

Like a dog with its tail between its legs, I took my framed photo of the Master from my desk, picked up my sweater, and headed for my tent. It all happened so fast! Reduced to nothing in less than fifteen minutes! I was supposed to report to my new job, but I didn’t. I didn’t care. I went straight home to my tent ready to die.

This feeling lasted only several hours, and then like a miracle I transcended everything so totally it was like magic. Instead of my ego being crushed and destroyed, I felt alive and new like never before! I really didn’t care about anything here! All this was not necessary for me. Why should I throw my life away, worshipping Bhagwan and serving not only him, but Sheela, Vidya, anybody and everybody? I knew I could connect directly with the divine on my own because I’d done it before!

So I went to Magdalena the next morning (my new job) and played the part, totally detached from everything, trusting the divine to get me out from this ranch and back home to Los Angeles. I didn’t let anyone know I was finished with being a so called sannyasin, finished being a slave and shoved around, having nothing, and eating tofu every day. I was on a different plateau of consciousness, because I had been shoved to the edge of the one I had been on. It was my choice to jump up or jump down. I chose to jump up! If I hadn’t, I’d still be in Magdalena right now swinging that mop on Saturday night, instead of writing this story! (Do-it-yourself lobotomy!)

A few days before I left the ranch, there was a pep talk for everyone from Sheela. It was her usual routine of dirty jokes, her sweet smile as she reminded us all: “You don’t deserve anything. So remember, if you do get anything, it’s a gift.” She instructed us to stop gossiping and stop with our petty complaints, and to think only of working to accomplish Bhagwan’s vision (for the underground city), for we were the “chosen ones.”

I chuckled to myself as I patted the place where I had my money tucked away. Exploitation in the name of love, and unforgivable!

The only haunting memory I still carry with me is of this little two-year-old baby I used to see every day wandering around the ranch by itself; bewildered big eyes, fingers in mouth, no smile, in a diaper and barefoot, dirty, neglected . . . and two skinny dogs with their ribs showing. I feel sorry for them! The others have a choice. Or do they?

Oregon Magazine, October–December 1983

This article was adapted from The Rajneesh Chronicles, published by Tin House Books.