Trapped by the thing that could have freed him

The invitation to meet Adi Da came at the best possible time. It would be an understatement to say that I was going through a rotten patch in my life. Frankly, I don’t ever remember feeling quite so low and lonely. Full of self-pity, and lacking in confidence in myself and others generally, I was razor close to throwing in the towel. Indeed, I think maybe I hit bottom that very day. Sitting alone in my bedroom on the edge of the bed, eyes downcast, hands folded diffidently in my lap, the sun having just set and the darkness gathering around me, I’m sure I looked the way I felt, pathetic. I remember thinking then that I had some big decisions to make, and I was very much dreading the hard days ahead. That’s when the phone rang, exactly then.

Written by the late Rev. Thomas Ahlburn

The caller was an old friend from the Free Daist Communion, a religious organization that had formed around the teachings of Adi Da Sataraj, a famous guru who used to call himself Da Free John. People who have listened to me over the years know that Da’s teachings have had a decisive influence on me. It’s no secret that I think of Da Free John as one of my primary teachers. I often quote him, but more than this, I frequently make use of Da’s root metaphors and highly idiosyncratic ways of putting things in my talks and writings. If you have ever liked one of my spiritual talks, it’s fair to say that you have Adi Da to thank. I surely do.Not that I ever seriously considered becoming a Free Daist, I haven’t. If I don’t make it with the safe, mostly plain and sane Unitarian Universalists, I am not going to make it anywhere, surely not in some outlandish cult. Still, I am well known among Da’s faithful. My endorsements appear on the Master’s books (along with distinguished souls like Ken Wilber, Alan Watts, and Elizabeth Kubler-Ross). I have even contributed a forward for a book, and I am good friends with some of Da’s chief disciples. But that’s as far as it goes – or ever will.

Several years ago, Adi Da moved to Fiji. More precisely, one of his wealthier devotees bought him a nice Fijian island, complete with stately palm trees, quaint thatched huts, thriving coral reefs, long sandy beaches, and sheltered lagoons (the island used to belong to the late Raymond Burr). These days, Da meets with serious students there, and usually only there. Indeed, he doesn’t ever meet with individuals unless they have already shown themselves to be serious practitioners, dedicated Free Daists.

This is one of the places where the cultish side of Adi Da’s group shows up. If you like what Da says, and maybe want to meet him, you have to walk the walk and talk the talk before you get to sit with the guru. What’s more, he gets treated almost like a god on his Fijian island; people more than defer to him.

Adi Da didn’t start out this way. He started out as Franklin Jones, a bright young lad from Long Island, a graduate of both Columbia and Stanford, who became interested in eastern spirituality, had a powerful awakening experience, developed a remarkable teaching and writing ability, and, then, a close following. But shortly after this, Da’s teaching style began to shift, more and more, toward dogmatic pronouncements and absolute demands. Which is to say, he seems to have gone the way of almost all gurus, thinking of himself as providing a privileged path to the divine.

Sadly, this is pretty much where things stand today, and though Da is not at all a Rajneesh or Jim Jones, his is not a spiritual practice that I can easily recommend. Nonetheless, his original teachings were incredibly important to me, and I still think that they were right on target. I discovered them at a turning point in my life, and they played a decisive role in changing me and my ministry for the better. As such, I owe Da Free John a forever unpayable debt. But since I would never play his cultish games, I never got to meet him — until two weeks or so ago, that is.

“Are you free tonight?” my friend asked. “Sure, but why?” I replied. “Da’s here on the Cape, and he would like you to come out and sit with him.” “Just give me directions,” I said excitedly, “and I’m as good as on my way.”

In truth, our conversation and the ensuing arrangements were much more involved than I have indicated, but this is pretty much what it all came down to: Da was visiting New England; he was staying on Cape Cod for a few nights with his family and entourage; and he was going to sit and meet with rank outsiders like me; people who weren’t officially approved practitioners. He hadn’t been doing this for years, and, of course, such a unique spiritual opportunity was much too fascinating for me to pass up. Not only this, but my wife was invited to come along.

We were finally going to meet Adi Da! Amazing how fast you can forget even your worse troubles, isn’t it? Most of you probably don’t need to hear that I haven’t quite been myself for some time. I’ve been — what shall I say? — a bit preoccupied of late. But this going to meet Da thing certainly got my attention. All sorts of questions raced through my mind. I wondered what it would be like? I wondered if I might be disappointed? I hoped that I wouldn’t be, though I thought that I might. I was even a little afraid of Da himself (you know, cults and all that stuff). But mostly, I thought how wonderfully serendipitous this whole adventure was, coming when and as it did.

This quality made the adventure seem almost supernaturally purposed; as if intended by the guru somehow just for me. “It sure is strange that after all these years he should turn up right now,” my wife said. “It sure as hell is,” I replied. But soon we drove on to the Cape, and made the final turn toward the little village where Master Da awaited us. “Neato!” I thought to myself. I was feeling much better now.

But unfortunately, my newly found good mood didn’t last very long. It was meeting Adi Da’s disciples that spoiled it. Not that they were cold or inhospitable. To the contrary, they couldn’t have been friendlier or happier to see us. And I mean this quite literally. They were certainly very, very nice people. The problem was they were much too friendly, much too happy, and far too nice. More plainly put, they were all busy breathlessly following their own bliss. Not only this, but unless my eyes were deceiving me, they all looked like maybe they came from the same neighborhood or the same college. It was uncanny really. And very disquieting, as well. I mean, they all looked and sounded almost exactly alike.

My God, they’re pod people, I thought. Alas, serious doubts about our upcoming encounter with Da began to grow in me again. I looked over at my wife, and I could tell by her posture that she had already charted the fastest exit through the nearest door. I had, too. But we didn’t have to escape, because, before we knew it, it was time to go meet Da.

It turned out that Da was in another house, ten minutes or so away by car. So we all climbed into our respective automobiles and drove off through the darkness to a huge, brightly lit mansion by the ocean that a rich supporter had loaned the guru for the week. This in itself was a weird experience. Or at least being part of that long line of deathly quiet cars passing ever so slowly through the sleepy little Cape Cod village seemed spooky to me. It was like being in a secret funeral procession on a very dark night in, say, Transylvania.

Admittedly, I’m pretty impressionable, but things sure did seem to be getting stranger and stranger. We were ushered into the big mansion, instructed in the complicated sacred protocols as to how best to meditate with the sat-guru, and told that he would be with us very soon. Because of my past service to their cause, I was regarded as a bit of a luminary by the Daists, so my wife and I would get to sit right in front of Da in the main meditation hall. Whereas I might have deemed this a great honor in the past, just now I wasn’t so sure.

I could feel something like a rising tide of group hysteria building around me, I could see it on people’s flushed faces and read it in their goggling eyes, and I began to think that it might be better to catch the coming proceedings from the back of another hall, if not on close circuit television. But it was clearly too late to move to another room or get away now, as I sensed that Da’s best buddies all had their eyes on me, undoubtedly expecting the God-man to hit me with his best cosmic zonker and then whisk me right off to Fiji. I wondered if my wife would get to go, too.

I don’t know how long we sat there waiting for Da, but a long time, maybe even as long as an hour. But that’s when the worst thing happened. People began to twitch and moan. Though I had read about this sort of thing, and had seen it on video tapes, I wasn’t at all prepared for it in the flesh. “Oh Da!” someone might wail. And five or six others would answer the devotee, their bodies shaking wildly with ecstasy. Then “Da, Da, Da, Da, Da, Da, Da!” “Oh my God!” I thought to myself. “Where’s the Dalai Lama now that I need him.”

I don’t know how long this twitching and moaning thing went on before Adi Da strode purposefully and quickly into the hall, and took his seat in front of me. I had often wondered what it might be like to sit with someone like Da Free John, but nothing prepared me for the look coming from his eyes. On this level, he was everything people claimed he was. He was a very impressive being, no doubt about it. All I can say is that you had to be there to sense his considerable spiritual presence and power. I know full well that my more skeptical humanist friends might not have seen what I thought I saw and felt radiating from him, but I was very much convinced that Da had seen something profoundly radical or spiritually primordial that the rest of us could only guess might exist.

Though I didn’t twitch or moan, something like a shock of recognition passed all the way through me, and I gasped inwardly when he looked deeply into my eyes. I waited for what might happen next. But nothing did. Nothing else happened to me, nothing at all. I just sat there for a long time with Da and his twitchers and moaners (who never seemed to shut up), all sorts of strange thoughts going through my mind. I just sat there and waited for it all to be over.

Was I disappointed? I suppose I was. But not a lot. I guess I had always expected things to play out this way. In my heart of hearts, I always knew that this guru thing wasn’t really something that could ever work for me. Then again, I have always been much more of a woods walker than a guru follower. “Poor old Da,” I thought to myself suddenly. And with this, another feeling came over me. Sadness. I began to feel a great sadness for Adi Da. In fact, I almost cried. I was so fond of Da, so very grateful for all that I had learned from him, that my heart began to ache terribly for him. Why? Because I began to sense that poor Da, and all his people were stuck. They were prisoners caught in a deadly spiritual trap of their own devising.

Adi Da may very well have experienced an incredibly high awakening, a profound spiritual experience at some point in his life, at least I believed that he had, but I sensed that he had lost his way, and absolutely so, afterwards. Da had seen a great spiritual light, about this I had few doubts, but my guess was that he had tried to capture this light, take its brightness into himself in some way, and then hold fast to it. Tragically, wanting not just to see God, but to be God, Da had tried to own the one thing that can never be owned. As a result, he had gone spiritually blind.

Adi Da was a fallen angel who, long ago, had perhaps been graced with a brief glimpse of the divine, but who had sadly mistaken its meaning, thought that it was somehow his to use or control, and exclusively so. Others, perhaps sensing the afterglow of this bright light coming so wonderfully from his eyes and speech, had been drawn to him (just as I had), like moths to a flame, and they were caught in the same sad trap or dead end.

“Poor old Da,” I thought again, “He’s stuck. He’s stuck just like all the rest of us, only much worse. Like just about everyone I know, I’m stuck in anger, fear, and resentment. But poor Da’s got it much worse. He’s stuck in the very thing that could free him, spirituality itself, the divine, and he doesn’t have a clue. None of them do.”

And I quietly began a Buddhist practice in his behalf, in behalf of us all really. It’s called the practice of exchanging oneself for others; and is a simple way of taking on as much of another’s suffering in one’s own being as one can, and placing all sentient beings and their happiness ahead of your own. It is the basic Buddhist meditational practice of loving-kindness. “Om mani padme hum,” I chanted inwardly, praying that my old friend and all sentient beings might find freedom and peace.

And as I did so, I noticed that Da had finally closed his terrible eyes, and had gone into a very deep, very peaceful repose. For the first time that evening, I felt warm inside, and close to him. Continuing my prayer, I closed my eyes, too, and I began to sense something like a shared peace. Which was rather remarkable really, considering that through all of this the twitching and moaning around us never subsided, never let up.

Then, just as quickly as he had entered, Da got up, and, without a word, he was gone. “So there it is,” I said aloud, though very, very quietly. Leaving wasn’t easy. Da’s people were hot to know what I thought. Taking a cue from Clinton and Dole, I crossed my fingers and vaguely told them what I thought they needed to hear. And why not? After all, I might need to see Da again.

It was almost three in the morning before my dear wife and I were back in our car and finally alone. “Well, what do you think?” she asked. “What happened to you?” “You tell me first,” I replied cagily. “Nothing,” she said. “Absolutely nothing at all.” “Yes, me too,” I said. “But his eyes sure were something else, weren’t they?” “Oh yes, they sure were,” she agreed. “Poor old Da,” I said sadly. “He’s trapped, isn’t he? Trapped in the very thing that should have freed him. And he doesn’t have a clue. None of them do. It’s so sad. But you know, I still love him.” And I do.