Br. David Steindl-Rast  

On Lay Monasticism
Bro. David Steindl-Rast O.S.B. and Ram Dass

I touched a part of my being that was full and complete as it was. But I “came down” from that experience, as the terminology is used, and for six more years I tried every device I knew not to “come down,” but I continued to “go up” and “come down.”

This is an edited transcript of a discussion that took place June 10, 1977 in Petersham, Massachusetts. The occasion was a week-long meeting of forty monks, nuns, and lay people of differing religious traditions to discuss their mutual goals. The symposium was organized by the Aide a L'Implantation Monastique, an international Benedictine group concerned with monastic reform. It is a direct extension of a similar 1973 meeting in Bangalore, India, and of the first meeting in 1968 in Bangkok, Thailand, attended by Thomas Merton.

In addition to the main presentation by Br. David and Ram Dass, Abbot Armand Veilleux, Cistercian, served as moderator, and comments were made by Swami Satchidananda, of the Integral Yoga Institute, and Father Mayeul de Dreuille, Benedictine. Others also contributed and are indicated in the text as participants. The tape of the evening session was transcribed and edited by a participant, David G. Hackett, at that time a graduate student at the Jesuit School of Theology, Berkeley, California.


Abbot Armand Veilleux: You remember the scope of our meeting. It is to find the best way to foster the encounter between East and West first in each one of us and then between us. In the context of this general purpose, one of the proposals that has been made in the last few days is how to help the birth and growth of new forms of monasticism. We have spoken of “lay monasticism.” This is a new form of community where people can share in the monastic experience either permanently or for a time in their lives. It would also be a place where there is an encounter between Eastern and Western religious traditions.

In order to help us find an orientation in that line of thought, we have with us tonight Ram Dass and Brother David. They are only with us for one day, so we need to make good use of them this evening. The best way that they could help us might be through first sharing their own spiritual journeys and then we may discuss with them the issues of this meeting.

Ram Dass:   I am honored and appreciative of the opportunity to be here. It touches and awakens me in a certain way because of the nature of the quest we’re sharing. I’ve told my life story so many times that it is hard not to run it off as a tape. But because there are unique needs in this room that will make it a living statement I will gear it accordingly. I will be brief in places where otherwise I would be lengthy. Perhaps the reason I am relevant to you in your considerations, is because in a certain way I represent a very large number of spiritual seekers who are looking for some kind of form that can reveal living Truth for them.

So briefly, my resume:   I was born into a Jewish family. I was circumcised, bar-mitzvahed, and confirmed. Judaism in America, conservative or reformed Judaism, is primarily a social, political, moral structure -- a set of laws for living a moral life. My father was on the board of trustees of the temple and a leading member of the Jewish community. He was head of the United Jewish Appeal, the Joint Distribution Committee during the war, and helped Jewish refugees. He started Brandeis University. He has always played a significant role. I grew up in that context.

I looked at the moment of my bar-mitzvah, which was the most sacred moment of my life in the Jewish tradition, for a living connection, for something to touch me. It didn’t. During my college years I looked to the Quaker religion, because I couldn’t adopt anything more than the quiet space within as a possibility. But I did it more as an intellectual exercise. So I finally did what most people did in the fifties and early sixties. I went toward the religion of the West which was science, in this case social science, and I became a psychologist. I got my Ph.D. and became a professor at Harvard University.

I went through psychoanalysis because I assumed that the malaise or discomfort that I was experiencing inside of myself, even though I was at the top of the heap in terms of what the culture had to offer, was my pathology, because that’s what the culture taught me to do. I was part of a philosophical, materialistic, liberal, cynical space. The courses I was teaching at Harvard were things like Existential-Transactional-Behavior Change Analysis, Human Motivation, Clinical Pathology, Freud, Jung, things like that. And I was a psychotherapist for maybe eight years along the way.

In 1961, through the good services of a colleague of mine at Harvard, I had the opportunity to ingest something called Teonanacatl, a Mexican mushroom, which is a psychedelic chemical or mind-altering chemical. That started a period in my life which went from 1961 until 1967. This was my psychedelic period. During that time I became an active researcher and explorer in the field of LSD and the other psychedelic chemicals. In the course of that I ingested LSD, mescaline, peyote, psilocybin, and the rest, many hundreds of times. The reason I did this was because the first experience I had was a very profound moment for me. I experienced that thing which I had been missing in myself. I experienced a part of my being that had nothing to do with my social-psychological identity. It had nothing to do with who I knew myself to be. I touched a part of my being that was full and complete as it was. But I “came down” from that experience, as the terminology is used, and for six more years I tried every device I knew not to “come down,” but I continued to “go up” and “come down.”

In the course of that I began to study the literature. We had already done a translation of the Tibetan Book of the Dead, seeing the relation between the experience of physical death, spiritual death, and rebirth, and the experiences we were having with these psychedelic chemicals. In the course of this I underwent tremendous social-political changes in my life. In becoming a leading researcher in this field I got thrown out of Harvard for my research and so became a free-lancer. In 1967 I realized fully the limitations of this method of trying to achieve a state of unity with the universe through psychedelics. That is, I just didn’t know how to do it. I didn’t know whether or not it could be done, but I knew we couldn’t do it because nobody I knew could do it, and I was working with people like Aldous Huxley, Huston Smith, and many other very sophisticated people -- priests, rabbis, ministers, philosophers, musicians, and so on.

However, in the course of those years, as I said, I had become aware that there was a body of Eastern literature concerning the nature of the experiences that we were having. So in 1967 I went to India, on to the East, hoping that I would make some connection. In fact I was very fortunate and I did. I met a man who became my guru.

The relation between myself and my guru has stretched now over ten years. I met him in 1967. The initial relationship was augmented by the fact that he had obviously miraculous powers. He could read my mind and so on. He was an awesome being. But he also touched me with a kind of love that I had never experienced before. He was a simple jungle saddhu. He had a blanket, sat on a wooden table, had no possessions. He was not interested in having me around. He threw me out. He threw everybody else out that was around him all the time. He would disappear into the jungle. He allowed me to stay for five months at a temple that had been built by some of his devotees (he had no institution). I was primarily alone for five months. I saw him three times for maybe thirty minutes each time.

I came back after a year. I had been trained by another yogi in India in what’s called Ashtanga yoga, at least the beginnings of it. I started to practice yoga in the West. I tried to recreate my life in India in the West. And I found out that I couldn’t do it. When I started to go out into the world at all, when I left my little cell, I was totally vulnerable to the incentives that the West provided to live the “good life.” And I found myself going under slowly, slowly, slowly.

» next page