Wild Wild Country

This article contains spoilers for the Netflix documentary series Wild Wild Country.

My wife and I recently finished watching Wild Wild Country, a documentary series on Netflix that examines a controversial commune established by Osho (formerly the Bhagwan) and his acolytes near Antelope, Oregon.  Due to the commune’s recent formation, the producers of the show have a stunning amount of archival footage to work with, and manage to get illuminating interviews with many of those who participated.  The series is well worth a watch.  It is a detailed look at how communities form around religious teachers, and some of the sociological dimensions of these kind of communities.

I was not familiar with Osho’s work before watching the show. I was particularly interested in seeing Osho describe his efforts “trying to help people to be awake.”  His desire to freely explore subjects such as sexuality was important and remains so to this day.  He also had a palpable way of being with people which comes through in the documentary.  Not being there, I can only surmise what it must have been like to meet him in person.  Especially in today’s internet saturated culture, where spiritual writings and videos are instantly accessible, it must have been a unique and special event attending his lectures.  He no doubt introduced many to meditation that may not have practiced it otherwise.  

The converse of this is that Osho’s image and mannerisms appear contrived, and his community’s shrewd manipulation of financial currents demonstrated their ability to capitalize on that image.  Osho got his start in India, but after problems with the government, his community migrated to Antelope, Oregon.  There they began functioning in many ways as a religious state.  Christened Rajneeshpuram, it had its own law codes and police force.  One of the most striking images of the show is the commune’s acquiring and practicing with automatic weapons.  From this image emerges one of the most interesting tensions of the show, with reconciling the humane and compassionate teachings of spiritual insight with the exigencies of group living.  

Working at a corporation for close to a decade has impressed on me the need for a hierarchy in the day to day functions of the job.  Without officers within that organization who are managing the time and work of other people, and given the ability to enforce the organization’s rules, many shared tasks would be difficult to coordinate.  It would seem that in many ways we are highly sensitive to the flow of information within that hierarchy, and seek to leverage these situations in order to receive the benefits of power.  There is often a delicate balance in play between our own needs and the need to contribute to group survival, moderated by those in charge.  Those balances are part of the dynamism of group life.    

The questioning of core concepts involved in spiritual practice can look deeply threatening as it undermines the rationales of the group.  Since both leader and follower are connected and inform the other, hierarchies can be seen through as the practicalities they are. It’s hard to reconcile the desires for position within the group with an understanding of the interconnected and equal nature of all phenomena.  As the poet Ryokan has said:

In the landscape of spring there is neither high nor low.
Flowering branches grow naturally, some short, some long.

This is a challenging paradox, and one that is not easily resolved.  I noticed this frequently in the archival footage, as Osho’s group grew too large for the experimental ideas that it was founded on.  Osho seems to have given management of day to day activities to his lieutenant Sheela, and Sheela responded with maximum aggression. She intrusively monitored the commune’s activities, and even conspired to murder Osho’s doctor Deva Raj.  Watching Rajneesh member Mel Shanti B calmly discuss this attempted murder is one of the most chilling moments in the series.  Elaborate plans are implemented that involve giving food poisoning to the residents of Wasco County to influence an upcoming election, and bringing in people off the streets to grow their commune’s numbers to increase their political sway.   Osho was forced to leave the United States in 1985 under pressure from the government.

 

These tensions within the community are one of the most interesting parts of the show. There is a lot of footage of Osho demonstrating his status symbols, from an expensive diamond watch to numerous Rolls Royces. It appears that Osho is a typical human deeply enmeshed in the undercurrents of power that affect all human communities.  Osho seems to be caught in the middle and trying to have it both ways – being able to retreat into silence regarding the workings of his own community, while enjoying its support and benefits.   It’s difficult to see this in a non-abusive light, as the leader enjoys gifts, status, and food through active manipulation of social relationships. Osho did not emerge from silence until after Sheela leaves the community, but by then it was too late to salvage the situation.  In one of the most ironic moments on the show, Osho ordered the tenants of Rajneeshism burned.  This merely fulfilled the promise that helped begin the community in the first place. 

Watching the community grow and hearing its members individual backstories was another show highlight. I’m sure that there are diverse reasons for people wanting to join religious communities.  However, I’m also struck by the sheer amount of people who seem to be hurting, with lives full of suffering and loss, looking for a group and a practice they can call their own.  One of the most moving testimonies comes from Swami Prem Niren, a lawyer who joined Osho’s group.  In one of the show’s later episodes, he says that it was a place where he found “an experience of being loved and accepted totally for the first time in [his] life.”  One of the most interesting things that emerges from meditation practice is the ability to explore and integrate the traumas that afflict all of us.  These deep sufferings are part of all life. The ability to listen, both to ourselves and others who come seeking similar things, is paramount.  Since so many of us have experienced trauma, it can be incredibly meaningful when someone listens to us, responds with compassion, and helps us get to work on the things that need the most attention in our lives.  

Let’s learn from the example of so many religious teachers and not abuse that.

Authority

What is the source of a guru’s authority? He can tell you that he speaks from experience, that he has experienced states of consciousness that have made him profoundly blissful, understanding, compassionate, or whatever. You have his word for it and you may have the word of other people who likewise agree with him. But each one of them, and you in turn, agrees with him from out of your own opinion, and by your own judgment. So it is you who are the source of the teacher’s authority. That is true whether he speaks as an individual or as the representative of a tradition or a church.
– Alan Watts

Wild-eyed prophets, drunk on the Word, and infused with the power of the Book. Channeling the Holy Spirit in solitude, their experiences are displaced with each new revelation. With appeals to intelligences greater than our own, and their own realizations, they come bearing a new Law and standard for all humanity. A group crystallizes around the promise of the divine. The teacher’s mask of sanity begins to slip as the group’s utopian dream begins to devolve into a nightmare. Bearing witness to the leader’s fragmentation, the aspirants begin to question the authority they had invested in their former master.

In seeking the circumference of truth through practices such as meditation, we are thrust back upon ourselves. We may come to discover that we are the very expression of this truth. New coordinates are always being created, shifting in their configurations. Each development is a frontier. Possibilities loom, beckon, and threaten as we run deep into the unknown. Everyone must create their own path, seeking connection to this deeply personal yet universal source within us all. In this process of mutual co-creation we support each other as we explore our own potential.

Through practices such as Zazen or other types of self-inquiry, we may begin to develop a nascent sense of our own authority. This involves exploring questions that have relevance to us, how they resonate, and seeing how these concepts forge diverse connections. Through fear, many of us cling to outmoded worldviews or devalue our own unique contributions in thrall of a teacher or tradition. In this pursuit of our own truths we may not be able to rely on the opinions of others.

As humans, it is natural to look to others during the process of inquiry. It also makes sense to defer to teachers in certain situations and in certain contexts. However, this does not mean giving up on our root moral convictions. The teacher’s own authority is given back by the students, and they could not survive without the students’ continued belief. The body of their tradition is maintained by its constituents continued enacting of their precepts. Unquestioning acceptance of dogma merely perpetuates these flawed systems. This is especially true in spiritual and religious traditions, as the guru needs others to maintain their own internal dynamics of power. In some cases, this becomes parasitic as the teacher begins to feed on the vitality of its members without recourse to their well being.

However, it may begin to dawn on us, the more we reflect, that there is no firm basis on which this authority can rest. It must always be pushed back an extra step, whether in some experience that confers it, a book that delineates it, or a conceptual system that valorizes it, to name a few. We can begin to move beyond and outgrow our beliefs as we realize that the authority that we seek, and the forms of life that we value, rest within ourselves.

The more we test these teachers, examining their own expanses, the more we may get a sense of their unique limits and contradictions. Rather than the shattering loss that we had feared it to be, we are given a chance to discover what we really value. The student begins to move on their own initiative. With time and reflection, we get used to bearing the increasing responsibility for our own growth and development.

Many concepts in Buddhism are experiential and meant to be understood in an engaged, embodied way. We must move past interpretations that are imposed upon us by the external, and check the veracity of Buddhism’s claims against our own experience and in light of our own explorations. We are then capable of moving out of of our safe enclaves of rote habit and thought. In the process, we become authorities unto ourselves, communicating the light of our truth to others.

Anything that is accepted for any reason apart from its being consistent with one’s firsthand experience will eventually become an obstacle.
– Ngakpa Chogyam, Khandro Dechen

We also may discover that the freedom that this entails is inherently painful. It is much easier to accept a pre-packaged or commodified meaning of life than to create one for ourselves, or to admit our fundamental unknowing. It is much simpler to be told what to do, and to pass on this awesome responsibility, than to continually learn, develop, and change. It is all too easy to retreat behind the veil that others throw out to obscure their own deep mysteries. We are riven open by this freedom which asks everything of us.

Intertwined with this pain lies expansion, moving us through our comfort zone. The void of possibility prevents any one perspective or interpretation from becoming absolute, and we no longer fold under the weight of our own intellectualizations. This would confine the potentials of life and its infinite scope. Understanding this intuitively, without recourse to doctrine, is one possible facet of Zen practice. Without an apparent foundation or direction to life, we can grow in new dimensions at any time. This lack of finality applies to the opinions and perspectives of others, and changes how we confer authority on all that we encounter. We reclaim our natural spontaneity, a liquid intelligence that is sensitive and responsive to situations as they develop.

We no longer have to look to others as the ultimate arbiters in our search for truth. The question then becomes: how we can not only delve into and create our own values, but how we can bring them into our own lives? How will we express this? As Eihei Dogen says in the Shobogenzo, “investigate this thoroughly.” We enter into our own participation. A moral sense begins to dawn anew.

Find the seat from which your authority issues forth. This is to drink from the same boundless waters as the matriarchs and patriarchs.