In 1984, followers of the spiritual guru Osho (Bhagwan Shree Rajneesh, 1931-1990) sprinkled salmonella bacteria into the salad bars of ten restaurants in Oregon, sickening 751 people. A few years earlier, Osho had left his commune in India due to pressure from authorities and purchased a defunct ranch in the Pacific Northwest. Thousands of his students moved in, but the land wasn’t zoned for that volume of habitation. They ran into more trouble with the law because of it, and had to find ways to conceal how many people were actually residing there.
Hiding the expansion of the community was difficult as their numbers grew because they wore highly visible red robes – plus they built an airstrip, restaurants, and fire department on the property. It probably didn’t help that they occasionally drove into town in a Jeep with a machine gun mounted on it. They clashed with locals, government officials, and environmental groups, but eventually hit upon a solution: this would all be legal if they could establish the ranch as a city.
There was considerable resistance from the community, however, and this is what led to the salmonella plan. Through what has been called the largest domestic act of bioterrorism in the U.S., they hoped to incapacitate enough voters to secure wins for their own candidates in the upcoming county election. But despite the sickened population, local voter turnout was high enough to keep Osho’s supporters (AKA “Rajneeshees”) from succeeding.
During this time, the guru was observing a long period of seclusion and had ceased contact with all but a small number of close attendants. However, his devotees bought him a collection of 93 Rolls Royces, and each day he would slowly drive one of these luxury cars down a long dirt road where they waited to catch a glimpse of him.
About a year later, Osho himself reported the salmonella attacks to the authorities. The attacks, it turns out, were just the most visible expression of a chaotic fanaticism that had developed in a portion of his followers. Osho claimed they acted without his knowledge or blessing; they said he sanctioned it.
It’s difficult to discern the truth from all the stories, partly because his form of teaching came with an apparent delight in shocking people. He enjoyed cursing, had an irreverent sense of humor, championed free love, and proposed such offensive measures as euthanizing disabled children. He was both scorned and revered. Many intelligent people regard him as one of the greatest contemporary spiritual teachers, and probably millions would credit him with making a positive impact on their lives.
When most people encounter such a button-pushing issue or figure, they feel compelled to take a side. We like things to be black and white. If we can frame something in terms of good and evil or right and wrong, it makes our lives easier. It feels good to have strong, unwavering convictions. But the truth doesn’t usually conform to such convenient categories. Almost everything falls somewhere along the gigantic spectrum between the extremes. And accepting this requires the work of deeper contemplation and possibly the discomfort of admitting that our position isn’t completely correct.
A recent study showed that people who know the least about a subject are the most likely to take a strongly polarized position on it – perhaps even a zealous, foaming-at-the-mouth position. The corollary to this finding is that the more we really understand a person or issue, the more neutral our position becomes, and the more accepting we tend to be of different viewpoints.
In the case of Osho, my opinion is that he was charismatic, brilliant, enlightened, and also manipulative, self-serving, offensive, and extremely eccentric. I also think, as is so often the case with powerful people, he attracted followers who believed they were living in accordance with his teachings and acting on his behalf without really understanding what he stood for. They were intoxicated by his mojo and used that feeling of power to justify their own convoluted drives. My intention isn’t really to pick on Osho and his disciples as much as it to point out the dynamics that occur on the inside and outside of such a phenomenon, which I’ll summarize here:
Tapping into power tends to amplify not just the presentable aspects of ourselves, but our shadow side, too. It partly explains why so many high-level teachers, artists, and executives end up sleeping with their students and employees, or succumbing to some other vice. Perhaps it’s why a guru might enjoy having 93 Rolls Royces. And it’s also why many traditions, such as yoga, emphasize purifying or balancing one’s mind, actions, and senses before attempting the practices that are likely to unleash a bunch of energy. (Did your yoga teacher introduce you to the yamas and niyamas that traditionally come before undertaking asanas or “poses”?)
Potent ideas tend to be degraded as they are transmitted through human minds. It’s like the children’s game operator. Moreover, we like latching onto such ideas – whether we find them enticing or horrible, or both – and running with them, even though the trajectory they carry us on may not be altogether healthy for us. And again, we favor positionality, even though (or maybe because) it implies conflict. That is, taking a fixed, polarized position necessarily engages us against the opposite position. In order to maintain such positionality, we’re best served by keeping ourselves ignorant.
In light of all these analyses of human behavior, I offer you this homework assignment for the week: Innocence. Be innocent, open, and humble. Feel the compulsion to take positions, and instead, be innocent, go deeper, and learn more.
Dr. Peter Borten
P.S. For those who haven’t encountered any of Osho’s teachings, I’ll leave you with an excerpt from Undone Tao, a series of talks he gave on one of my favorite books, the Daoist classic, Dao De Jing:
“Enlightenment is not a search, it is a realization. It is not a goal, it is the very nature of life itself.
As life is, it is enlightened. It needs nothing to be added to it to improve it. Life is perfect. It is not moving from imperfection to perfection. It is moving from perfection to perfection.
You are here to attain something – that is functioning as a barrier. Drop that barrier. Just be here. Forget about any purpose. Life cannot have any purpose; life is the purpose. How can it have any other purpose? Otherwise you will be in an infinite regress: then that purpose will have another purpose, then that purpose will have another purpose… Life has no purpose and that’s why it’s so beautiful.
Hindus have called it leela, a play. It is not even a game. Now in the West, the word “game” has become very important. Hundreds of books have been published within two, three years with the word “game” in the title: The Master Game, The Ultimate Game, Games People Play, and so on. But there is a difference between game and play. Hindus have called life “play,” not “game,” because even a game has something as a purpose: a result to be attained, victory to be achieved, the opponent has to be conquered. When play becomes a game, then it becomes serious.
Grownups play games, children only play. Just the very activity is enough unto itself. It has an intrinsic end; there is no goal added to it. Life is a leela. It is a play. And the moment you are ready to play, you are enlightened.
Then you start a totally different way of life. You start being playful. You start being alive moment to moment with nowhere to go. Whatsoever life gives, you accept it with deep gratitude. Grace happens to you.”