THR Web Features   /   May 26, 2023

Rancho Rajneesh

The road to enlightenment has many surprising way stations.

James Conaway

( THR illustration.)

I cross the Columbia River in the neighborhood of Dalles Mountain and drop south through the rain shadow of the Oregon coastal mountains. The country looks as parched as the basaltic flats of Washington state, with the big snowcaps of Hood, Jefferson, and Washington mountains lording over buttes and badlands marching off in different directions, all under broad western skies. There’s an alien quality in the hard shadows cast by sage and low cedar, corner fence posts of stone piled in wooden cages, eroded cliffs, and circling redtails.

The road sign says “Rajneesh,” an odd name for an American town, yet one that fits the landscape. Someone tried to spray it out and replace it with the word Antelope, but the paint had run down like streaked mascara.

Rajneeshpuram lies nineteen miles farther on, a much larger community in a lost valley of the John Day River, founded four years before by the disciples of the Indian entrepreneurial mystic who also took over Antelope. This Rajneesh—also referred to reverentially as Bhagwan—named his sixty-four thousand acres of marginal range land Rancho Rajneesh.

The Rajneesh’s space happens to contain a considerable amount of property of the United States of America managed by the Bureau of Land Management. The commune has for years been trying to effect a land swap with the BLM in which the public land in Rajneesh’s domain will go to him and some riverfront property belonging to Rajneesh will become the government’s. But the swap involves a holy man with a reputed stable of ninety-one Rolls Royces who has been accused to trying to pad the voting rolls and poison the water supply of a neighboring town.

An octagonal guardhouse appears in the middle of nowhere, with big glass windows and police in burgundy-colored caps, maroon ties, and lavender shirts. They wave me on. The valley opens up under brown, charred hills, the town a congeries of pre-fabs gleaming in the light of the setting sun, some landscaping, and well-surfaced roads above the steep banks of the Big Muddy.

I get out of the van and enter the Mandir Reception Center, all blonde woodwork, deep sofas, carpeting, and drapes in the same sunrise colors. The reds, pinks, and purples extend to the clothing worn by the Rajneeshees working behind the counter. A young woman with dark hair offers her hand and tells me she is a “twinkie,” one of a cadre of public relations specialists who wear pink pants suits and beaded necklaces with pictures of Bhagwan—“The Blessed One”—in tiny frames.

She assists me with the complicated entry process, which includes signing three damage release forms and allowing my van to be searched. I can’t afford the Hotel Rajneesh and so pay fifty bucks for a night in an A-frame up a side canyon known as Alan Watts Grove, not far from the Walt Whitman Grove. The price includes three vegetarian meals at the Magdalena Cafeteria and as many meditation sessions as I care to attend. My credit card is accepted and a blue plastic band attached to my wrist, denoting an outsider.

The twinkie drives me into “town” in her new Suburban, along the Big Muddy, a name belied by recent willow plantings and clear pools full of cattails. Rajneesh’s air force—two transport planes—sit on fresh tarmac. Rajneeshpuram has the look of a boom town with community housing of the Aspen and Sun Valley variety. Sunrise colors are worn by all citizens strolling and riding bicycles along the path and over cunning little bridges.

Operation of town and commune is the responsibility of various authorities, the twinkie tells me, all housed in separate “temples.” There’s a food temple, a construction temple, even a sewage temple. But no one works in Rajneeshpuram. They “worship.” Worship includes grading roads, plowing fields, pursuing the many lawsuits brought by Bhagwan in Oregon, publishing the newspaper, frying soy patties in Rajneesh Burgers and Fries, dealing blackjack in the disco, and manufacturing galium arcinite for use in computer chips. In return a sannyasin—a disciple—may live, eat, and meditate indefinitely in Rajneeshpuram.

An interview had been set up for me with the head of the Resources Temple, a slight, bearded, intense young man who gets into the car outside Devateerth Mall. He’s Swami Anand Videh, Harvard ’74, an American who prefers his former name go unmentioned, as did the twinkie. He earned an academic degree in visual and environmental studies and then traveled around the world, encountering the Rajneesh in Poona, India. He joined the sannyas—the collective sanyasin—and worshipped there as a carpenter. When Rajneesh, a.k.a. Bhagwan, decided to move to America, Videh came ahead to help prepare a proper setting on the banks of the Big Muddy.

Bhagwan developed back problems in India, Videh explains, which is why he came to the United States. But first he sent the controversial president of Rajneesh Foundation International, known simply as Sheela, to buy some suitable real estate in America. I later learn it is my good fortune that Sheela is away because otherwise I might not be granted an audience with the Bhagwan.

The Big Muddy ranch cost Bhagwan three million dollars. And when he first arrived, according to legend, he stepped out of a Rolls Royce, and asked, “Where are the trees?”

We drive through Tao Crossing. Rajneeshees stand at the row of outdoor telephones, talking long distance, or hugging on the bridge. Hugging seems to be a very important part of life in Rajneeshpuram and people all around are being hugged whether they want to be or not.

“We’re better managers than the BLM can be,” Videh is saying. “We use only half the Animal Unit Months allowable, the minimum required to keep our grazing allotments. Oregon is pretty much the Third World, early dominated and exploited by outsiders.” He means the cattle barons and the railroads. “The local population is under-educated and the economy’s dependent upon tourism and subsistence agriculture. We stepped in with technical people, money, and artists, trying to turn the land around. And they don’t like it.”

Treated sewage is pumped down the valley and pushed out through giant sprinklers over the hay meadows. “We’re interested in the whole picture. Seventy percent of our garbage is recycled. We’re very careful about what goes into the wastewater—things like detergent and shampoo. We have a waste stream flow chart. People know that what goes into the toilet eventually comes back to you.”

The head twinkie is Prem Isabel, a French citizen born in Santiago. No one would guess this unassuming young woman was formerly Maria Isabel Megret de Serilly, d’Etigny et de Teil de Chapelaine, or that she has entertained reporters from all over the world. She took me out for pizza, past Jesus Grove. In the nonsmoking section of the deck we enjoyed the view of awakening lights strung along the creek, no one else around. But far up the valley, near Lao-Tzu Grove and the home of Rajneesh, powerful floodlights lent the cliffs a powerful, ethereal majesty.

“The people who come here are accustomed to beautiful things,” she says. They can buy beautiful things in the Noah’s Ark Rajneesh Men’s and Women’s boutiques and pay for them with a currency card from the Rajneesh Financial Services Trust. They can fly out on Air Rajneesh, having had their hair done at the Chiyono Rajneesh Hair and Beauty Salon. They can even get hot fudge sundaes at the Zorba the Buddha Rajneesh Ice Cream Parlor.

Five types of meditation were offered every day, and sannyas may choose the sessions they wish to attend. Meanwhile they worship at some job that uses the particular talents they brought to town. Many also give money directly to Rajneesh.

Rajneeshpuram supposedly receives 25,000 visitors a year, many attending one of the four festivals. They stay in tents and not only pay for room and board but also bring things and services from the two dozen corporations operating under Rajneeshpuram’s patchwork umbrella.

Meanwhile, Isabel says, Rajneesh spends three hours a day in the bathtub, playing. “He’s a profoundly lazy man,” she added.

His daily exercise consists of driving a Rolls Royce for about half an hour in the afternoon on a road built in a remote part of the ranch for that one purpose.

A tumultuous din awakens me shortly after dawn. Dynamic Meditation is being held in the valley below, and the shouting goes on for at least fifteen minutes. I feel the chill in the air, a reminder of the deceptive altitude of eastern Oregon, but by the time lemony sunlight strikes the opposing hills the noise has subsided and the air grown warm and fragrant.

Isabel meets me up in the road below, and we go to the Magdalena Cafeteria. Sannyas in fresh sunrise outfits pour in for yogurt and granola, first pausing while a sannyasin stationed at each entrance spray their hands with alcohol. We are sprayed as well. “We live closely here,” Isabel explains. “We have to fight germs.”

We help ourselves to yogurt from steel drums and granola from great piles. Rajneeshpuram’s self-sufficient in everything except for bean curd, but a tofu factory is under construction.

Something called Discourse draws hundreds to a hall originally built as an organic greenhouse. We leave our shoes outside and cross carpeting laid over the concrete floor. A rock band plays while people dance alone. Most are in their thirties, but there are younger sannyasins and a number of older ones. Guards in a glass box built high overhead sweep the crowd with binoculars, and two men in Sam Brown belts, matching mauve shirts and caps, and armed with Uzi submachine guns stand on either side of the stage.

Over the noise I can hear the pulse of a helicopter patrolling the route down from Lao-Tzu Grove. The music stops and an expectant ripple passes through the crowd: Bhagwan Shree Rajneesh is expected. Then he is stepping onto the stage, accompanied by clapping and shouting, in a caftan and a cap woven of acrylics by sannyasins because Bhagwan has allergies and no wool or cotton is allowed near him. Air conditioning is an environmental imperative and vents have been arranged around the stage to envelope him in a “lotus flower” of refrigeration.

A white beard lies smoothly brushed on his chest. His heavily lidded, protruding eyes reflect the sleep from which he has recently been roused. He smiles benignly and shakes big hands in time with the music, the diamonds in his watch reflecting the lights, then lowers himself into an upholstered chair with microphones built into the armrests.

He begins in a soft, mellifluous voice. “The religions of the world have done incalculable harm to human beings. They have turned man against himself.” He goes on to list schizophrenia and homosexuality as some of the casualties of religion, citing Tamerlane, Genghis Khan, Alexander the Great, Stalin, and Khomeini as its avatars.

Drugs, he says, are not: “They can lead to psychological health, and do in hours what takes years in psychiatry.” These being the early days of Acquired Immune Deficiency Syndrome, Bahgwan explains that AIDS “lurks in human tears. You cannot wipe away someone’s tear for fear of catching a disease that will kill two-thirds of the world’s population.”

Then the band’s playing again. Bhagwan gets to his feet, shakes his hands in the air, smiles broadly, nods to the shouts, laughter, chants, even dances a bit, and is gone.

The head of the farming temple, Swami Neehar, is a heavily bearded Australian who grew up on a fruit ranch in New South Wales. In India he met Bhagwan, who gave him his present name. He is taking me on a tour in his pickup, past the dairy barn, fields redolent of irrigation sewage, and a vineyard expected to produce fourteen tons of grapes that Bhagwan intended to turn into a distinguished wine.

The ranch has twelve miles of frontage on the John Day River and contains fifteen thousand acres of BLM land. “The family that owned it before ran seventy thousand sheep through here. If it hadn’t been trashed we probably wouldn’t have been able to buy it. I think of it more as a mined out area than an agricultural one.”

Neehar’s temple has created an oasis with the help of millions of dollars invested in water systems, topsoil, equipment, and free labor. Forty-five hundred people are now fed with milk from cows requiring a hundred acres of pasture and five hundred acres of grain. They are fed with fifty different vegetables grown on sixty acres. That includes three hundred pounds of sunflower sprouts a day and five hundred pounds of tomatoes.

The farming temple can rely on a scale of human of quick mobilization that would be the envy of farmers throughout the Imperial Valley. In one day in the year before I visited, eight hundred Rajneeshees defeated the threat of a severe frost by picking eighteen tons of peppers, twenty-five tons of tomatoes, thirty tons of zucchini, and forty tons of eggplant.

Beef, Neehar quite rightly announces, is not an efficient use of farmland. “For one cow you need three hundred acres a year. Say a steer dresses out to two hundred and fifty pounds and feeds about a quarter of a pound of beef to three people every day. That doesn’t even come close to what you get from milk and vegetables.”

Neehar opens a tin and takes out a breath mint, a common sight at Rajneeshpuram. Cleanliness is everywhere, even in lovemaking with one’s own partner, and so is inequality. Industry (“worship”) is for most, and sanctioned laziness for a privileged few. Unpaid labor helps greatly with the Bhagwan’s bottom line, as does insistence upon wearing Rajneeshpuram’s synthetic clothes and bling. I mention this and suggest those nineteen are excessive, but Neehar just laughs. “You don’t understand.” It’s true, I don’t. Nor the condescension with which Rajneeshees in general speak of locals, local government employees, even living holy men. Nor the giggles accompanying tales of Bhagwan’s skill in avoiding federal and local taxes. 

Neehar drops me off at the mall, where I am to telephone Isabel to find out if Bhagwan will be interviewed this evening. I have a few unsupervised minutes to wander through the shops, where my blue wristband stands out. The Zorba the Buddha Rajneesh Ice Cream Parlor is doing a land-office business on a hot afternoon, and I join the line. The servers wear plastic bags over their hands and insist that customers use napkins to take their cones.

In the men’s boutique, racks are full of acrylic jackets, sweaters, and designer jeans in the now familiar sunrise hues. Three women working there gather behind the counter to discuss their latest product, the Love Kit, a pink plastic heart that opens to reveal neatly folded rubber gloves, alcohol, cotton swabs, a jar of ointment, and condoms. I ask what is in the little jar.

“Nonoxynol-9,” she says. “It kills the AIDS virus.”

They plan to sell the kits in the boutiques and the deli. “If it’s popular, we’ll go for it on the outside. We’ll make Love Kits available to the world.”

“You don’t put all that stuff on every time, do you?”

Of course!” they shout in unison.

The interview request is granted and will be held in the Rajneesh International Meditation University, videotaped, and recorded like everything Bhagwan does. This means a live audience and a band. Since I have no acrylic clothes, I return to the Clothes Temple, which agrees to rent me the required outfit, but my color choices appear not to please the twinkie assigned to this transaction. I end up in a peach turtleneck, mauve pants, and a deep purple blazer, to which the twinkie adds two pairs of orange socks “to guard against the air conditioning.”

Driving me back to Alan Watts Grove, she says, “Don’t forget to shower.”

Isabel meets me in the road below the Rajneesh International Meditation University and drives me to the interview in my ludicrous new wardrobe. She looks stunning in a long white gown accented with a silver mala. “Don’t ask Bhagwan about the Bureau of Land Management,” she advises on the way up. “He doesn’t know what that is.”

The faithful kneel along both sides of the walk leading to a canopied entrance. Every sannyasin’s hair is squeaky clean, and warring fragrances do battle in the long shadows of the hills. A carpet has been unrolled to the door, but we have to walk in the bushes to avoid disturbing roses strewn in Bhagwan’s path.

The throb of the helicopter draws all eyes heavenward. This high desert entry also involves a stretch silver Rolls that hoves into sight and pulls regally up to the canopy. Bhagwan emerges in a silver acrylic robe with black trim, on his head the acrylic cap knitted by one of the young women twirling before him like Sufis.

He moves along the carpet, beaming, moving his hands in time with guitars, tambourines, and weeping violins, flanked by bodyguards. More flowers are thrown at his feet. Then the music and chants cease, and he enters the building, palms pressed together. Clapping and shouting greet him. Isabel steps forward and formally presents me. Bhagwan’s eyes are moist and his smile full of lovely teeth and he offers what proves to be a soft, beefy hand but no words.

He takes his richly upholstered lounger with microphones built into the arms and I am offered a seat next to him. What, I nervously ask, is his opinion of the role of public lands in all this?

His palms go together again. “The philosophy of democracy,” he begins, “is totally against the idea of government owning anything—land, schools, libraries, universities. That idea is basically Communist.”

Individuals should own everything, he adds, echoing the ethos of the Old West. “Every individual should be free in every possible way from government rule and domination. The government has no business interfering in peoples’ lives in any way.”

The most obvious question would be about Rancho Rajneesh’s de facto communism, but the Uzi-wielders nearby are looking displeased, as do members of the audience in their sumptuous robes and jewelry. So I ask about neighbors who oppose Bhagwan and accuse Rajneeshees of using intimidation, including the poisoning of wells, to acquire more land.

Bhagwan is unfazed. “Either you love me or you hate me, there is no third way.” He excoriates other famous proselytizers—“Fairy Falwell, Pope the Pollak, Mother Theresa the Terrible”—and gets a warm response from the audience. “All are against humanity. They want abortion to be illegal, and birth control. The Pill is the greatest revolution man has ever known, the only thing that can make the woman free.”

“What does the American West mean to you?” I ask, thinking of independence and the notion that the American character is forever being remade at the frontier.

“It does not mean anything to me. This is my paradise. I have my people, I don’t want to get mixed up with sad, miserable suffering. That is my whole approach: Squeeze the juice of every moment, so that you have never to repent that a moment went by unlived. Don’t bother about the past, don’t bother about the future. The present is all there is.”

I ask about the Rolls Royces, and suddenly Bhagwan gets serious. “For many years I sought relief from my painful back. Then one day I sat for the first time in the driver’s seat of a Rolls Corniche. It fit my back perfectly!”

“And what’s going to happen to Rancho Rajneesh in the future?”

“Anyone who tries to make arrangements for when he’s gone is a criminal because he wants to rule even when he’s dead. Jesus says, ‘I am the only begotten son of God, so don’t listen to anybody else. Only I am the Savior.’ So even when he’s dead he’s dominating half of humanity. Even Buddha tried to dominate the future. I find this disgusting. I don’t want to dominate even when I’m alive, I simply express myself and leave to the people to decide on their own.”

Abruptly he stands and the violins and clapping resume. He presses his fingertips together, bows and walks out, thronged by sannyasins. This manufactured oasis in the desert, along with the obsession with cleanliness, the hypochondria, the expensive machines, the women, and the money, all makes Bhagwan, to my mind, the successor to another mythic Westerner, the eccentric Howard Hughes who walked around a hotel suite with Kleenex boxes on his feet. Rancho Rajneesh is a pretend spiritual Las Vegas with boutiques. It even has blackjack tables.

I say goodbye to Isabel, who has arranged for me to be driven back to the Mandir Reception Center. She smiles. “Tomorrow this will all seem like a dream.”

It does. And within a few weeks Bhagwan will be charged with violating emigration laws and ejected from Oregon and the United States. Within months Rancho Rajneesh will be deserted.