When I went to India to learn meditation, in 1970, I had already heard Ram Dass lecture and was intrigued by Eastern Spirituality in part because of him. When I entered my initial intensive 10-day meditation retreat, in January of 1971, the place where I first drew a conscious breath, he was there. Ram Dass had been to India before, he had been a professor, he had already played a pivotal role in cross cultural exploration of Eastern teachings, he had written a book (the boxed version of Be Here Now arrived while we were in Bodhgaya together), so we all regarded him as something of an elder, and respected him as such. It was only later that I looked back and realized that at the time I considered him so old and experienced and venerable, he was actually about 39!
We became friends, and I, and many generations of seekers, owe a lot to him. Through his connection with Neem Karoli Baba, his guru, he opened up a vision of a path of love and devotion. Through his dedication to service he reminded us that spiritual practice is never for ourselves alone, but for the world. We often say that he gave Joseph Goldstein his first job, thereby laying a foundation for the Insight Meditation Society, the countless people influenced by Joseph around the world, and the unfolding of my life.
Joseph had come back from India about 6 months before I did in 1974. On a trip across the country, he stopped in at the Boulder office of the soon-to-be-open Naropa Institute, the first Buddhist University in the US. He asked if they might be interested in having him teach there, and they said no. Joseph then went on to California, where in a total fluke he ran into Ram Dass, whom he had known in India, at a café in Berkeley. Ram Dass was about to go to Boulder, to teach a very large course at Naropa (see his book, Paths to God: Living the Bhagavad Gita) within which there would also be sub-sections on various topics. He asked Joseph if he might be interested in leading the meditation sub-section, and Joseph said yes. That was the beginning of all the rest that followed, right up until now.
After Ram Dass’s stroke in 1997, at the age of 66, he was not expected to live. But he did, pioneering for many of us a life spent with the challenge of receiving as well as giving, as he suddenly needed help doing the smallest tasks like walking, getting in and out of bed, or going to the bathroom. He continued to be an amazing teacher.
Years of traveling and lecturing despite being in a wheelchair, and with uncertain speech patterns at times, followed. That took its toll too, and a couple of years ago he settled on Maui after finding himself there, very ill. He is now so much better.