Baba Ram Dass dies at 88: ‘The things he said made sense.’

Islanders recount the New Age guru's friendship and teachings.

Updated Dec. 30

Spiritual guru Baba Ram Dass died late Sunday at the age of 88. He was a 1960s spiritual counterculture leader, LSD pioneer, Harvard graduate and professor, and New Age guru who traveled to India to find enlightenment, later returning to share it with Americans. He died peacefully in his home on Maui, according to an announcement from Dass’ foundation, Love Serve Remember. 

Dass was born in Boston, and had strong ties to Martha’s Vineyard. He was a frequent summer visitor, and longtime friend of Ronni and the late Peter Simon. He also knew Islanders and visitors Nancy Aronie, Perry Garfinkel, Mirabai Bush, and Arlan Wise, among many, many others. 

Many came to know Dass after reading his 1971 book, “Be Here Now,” a spiritual manifesto that became an overnight sensation, dubbing Dass a new hero in the spiritual movement in the U.S., according to the Associated Press.

“I knew him as a teacher and as a spiritual leader, but I also knew him as a friend,” Ronni told The Times in a phone interview. “I had a relationship with both worlds.” 

Ronni first met Dass in New Delhi in 1971. “At the time, I only knew him from his tapes and his book,” she said. “He was staying in some hotel, and you had to walk upstairs to get to his room. He was sitting there in a lotus position, and the first thing he said to me was, ‘How may I serve you?’ That was our introduction. That was Ram Dass.”

Former Vineyard resident Perry Garfinkel (journalist, author, and former MV Times Calendar editor), also recounts a trip to India after reading “Be Here Now.”

“My then wife Iris [Gold] and I had gone to India right after Nixon was re-elected, deciding somehow we would find Ram Dass’ guru, Neem Karoli Baba,” Garfinkel recalled. They never did find him there, but soon after returning to Cambridge, the couple found themselves living in a carriage house behind the home of David McClelland, the head of Harvard’s social psychology department. 

“He was the one who had to fire Ram Dass,” said Vineyard visitor Mirabai Bush, who first met Ram Dass in 1970 at a Buddhist monastery in India. McClelland fired Dass and colleague Timothy Leary in 1963 for giving LSD to grad students as part of an experiment. “[McClelland] didn’t want to fire them. They were friends,” Bush said. “But he was the head of the department. He had to do it.”

“We’d meet [Dass] casually when he showed up for dinner and dance parties and other in-gatherings at the McClelland house,” Garfinkel said, explaining how Dass also spent a lot of time in New York City, “brewing a new kind of East/West consciousness,” he continued, “this time, without the assist of drugs — which we found mesmerizingly irresistible, entirely relatable, and ridiculously funny.” 

Eventually, Dass stayed in Cambridge to continue his experiments. “Our carriage house, with its oversize living room and high ceilings, was perfect for it,” Garfinkel said.
“Psychologists were interested in the philosophy in how the East met the West,” Bush said. “So David invited some of us to live in the house.”

Every few months, a small handful of 30 to 50 people sat in the carriage house, cross-legged, asking questions, and intently listening to Dass, Garfinkel recalled.

“I partook in some of those classes,” said Ronni Simon, who also lived in the Cambridge carriage house. “That’s when I met Peter, and from there, I got to know Ram Dass really well.”

“It was communal in a Harvard-Cambridge sort of way,” Bush said. “Hippy? I guess, but we weren’t living off the land.”

“We all eternally bonded, essentially with Ram Dass as our glue,” Garfinkel added. 

Peter, who died in November 2018, met Dass in Berkeley, Calif., after attending one of his lectures around 1975. “I started doing chanting and yoga and purifying my body by changing the way I ate,” Peter Simon told the New York Times in 1977. “Soon, I saw Ram Dass as almost magically involved in the consciousness I belong to.”

Dass began visiting Martha’s Vineyard, where many of his friends lived. In 1977, one of Dass’ first summers on the Island, he officiated at Peter and Ronni Simon’s Chilmark wedding. He and a small band of friends rented a house overlooking Menemsha Harbor that summer. 

“Ram Dass would sit on the deck when the sun was going down,” Bush recalled. “He would read aloud from ‘The Ramayana,’ a basic Hindu mythic story. He’d read a chapter every night. It was like being kids again.” 

Another summer, he lived in a van outside Peter and Ronni’s Gay Head home. Dass often visited with his father and stepmother.

“His father loved the Home Port, they used to go there a lot,” Bush said. 

“He used to make beach plum jellies,” Simon recalled. “The Vineyard held a very special place in his heart.”

As Dass aged, his health declined, and he suffered a stroke in 1997 that left him paralyzed on the right side, unable to speak. In 2008, he underwent hip surgery after a fall. He later wrote about these experiences to help enlighten others about the universal struggle with aging. His most recent book, ‘Walking Each Other Home,’ was co-authored with Bush.

“It’s about loving and dying,” Bush said. “We worked on it for two years, and it was great to do. But it’s hard. It’s hard to think about dying for two years.”

After regaining his speech, Dass continued teaching, and lived in Northern California before settling on Maui. 

“I last visited him in September 2017,” Garfinkel recalled. “I wondered if he would recognize me after all the intervening years … one look at me, and he said, ‘Oh wow,’ in instant recognition. I was so flattered and happy that I undoubtedly teared up.”

“Peter and I made it out to Maui a couple of times,” Ronni said. “Last year, a friend invited us to stay with them in a house about five minutes from Ram Dass. We wanted to see him. We knew his death was imminent.” But when Peter suddenly died about a month before the trip, Ronni didn’t go. “I couldn’t travel,” Ronni said. “I was still dealing with my own shock and grief.”

The last time Ronni spoke to Dass was that December over Skype. “We spent over a half-hour on the phone, and I felt like I was sitting next to him,” Ronni reflected. “We laughed and we cried, and it was an intense experience I was glad to have with him.”

Bush later told Ronni that Dass sat and reflected for “probably an hour” after he and Ronni hung up. “He didn’t talk to anyone,” Ronni said. “I think he was thinking about Peter.”

“You’d think a person was exaggerating,” Bush laughed, “But Ram Dass is so capable of sitting in silence for an hour. I was right next to him, feeling it too.”

Bush and Dass taught a meditation retreat for the first two weeks of December, right before Dass died. “It had 400 participants, and Ram Dass could barely speak, even at home.”

But Bush recalled a moment when Dass was on stage leading a short meditation. “He said over and over again, ‘I am loving awareness,’ and everyone softly repeated it,” Bush said. “When we got to the end, his head dropped; his body was very frail.” Bush asked if Dass wanted to say anything to the group before they stopped for lunch. “I didn’t think he’d say anything, but he gave me this brilliant, mischievous smile, and he just waved his hand, and all 400 people waved back. So he waved again. And they waved again. And he said, ‘I am conducting a symphony of love.’”

Ronni Simon said she was very sad when she heard about Dass’ death. “It makes me miss Peter very much,” she said. “But Ram Dass is still alive for so many people, and he will be forever.”

“Be in truth and follow your heart,” Garfinkel recalled Dass telling him many years ago. “That, to me, was his skill, his gift, his ability to synthesize the wisdom he’d aggregated from his psychology years, his drug years, and his spiritual years … in a few short words, he could sum up your essence, and guide you to where you didn’t even yet know there was a ‘there’ to go.”

“The things he said made sense,” Ronni said. “He was also very funny. The way he spoke was charismatic and infectious and stimulating, and his smile was to die for. It enveloped you in warmth and love, and it makes you feel like everything was all right in the world. He made you feel like you could handle whatever was happening, which is a very powerful message.”

Bush said she was prepared as anyone for Dass’ death. “He was completely ready, and I knew that,” Bush said. “But there is no getting ready when someone you love leaves, you know? They’re gone. He influenced my life at every level. It’s just a different world without him in it.”

Ram Dass said the secret of dying is the same as the secret of living: “It’s to be fully and lovingly present in the moment.”

This story has been updated with more recounts from Islanders who knew Ram Dass.

25 COMMENTS

  1. I neither understand nor respect the Island-wide adulation for a counter-culture icon who did not embody or respect American values.

    • That’s okay. What’s important is that a majority of Americans neither understand nor respect the the adulation for a racist, sexist, ignorant president who does not embody or respect American values.

    • Well, he was American, and, like everyone, he had values, so I’m not sure what you mean….Oh wait, you mean YOUR American values.

  2. Is this article really about Ram Dass or yet another promotional piece for Ronni Simon? This article is way off balance. Reaching out to others on island who knew Ram Dass should have been done in the first place as there are many people here who knew him. The paper has been used for free advertising, once again.

  3. He aka Richard Alpert and Timothy Leary carried out psychotropic experiments on their own students (under pressure) at Harvard. Nothing he said made sense. Unintelligible phrases designed to appear enlightened make Deepak Chopra and Stephen Hawking voices of perfect clarity by comparison.

    • Andrew–I would imagine that nothing Dass said would not make any sense to a guy who worships a man who died about 2,000 years ago, believes that 2 of every animal in the world crammed into a boat and stayed there for at least 3 months while enough rain fell on planet earth to entirely cover it with water to at least the height of Mt Ararat ( about 17,000 ft).
      No use asking where all that water came from, or where it went to, is there ? No explanation would really make much sense.
      Nor would anything Ram said make sense to a person who thinks our current president has never lied.
      It’s about enlightenment..Something you will likely never come close to understanding.
      He was respected and revered by millions of people world wide. At the age of 21 , I read “be here now”. It helped guide me through a tumultuous stage of life.
      May he rest in peace.

      • d 3–I just want to follow up on my own comment to Andrew concerning things that make sense.
        Specifically, about “the flood”
        So the mythological story goes that after some time, the “ark” settled down somewhere on the slopes of Mt Ararat in what is now Turkey. A team of “evangelical explorers” claimed to have actually found the ark at an elevation of about 13,000 ft. in 2010
        https://www.nationalgeographic.com/news/2010/4/100428-noahs-ark-found-in-turkey-science-religion-culture/
        ok , so lets take a look at some math ( I love math) here.
        According to the myth, god got really mad and she made it rain continuously for 960 hours ( 40 days and 40 nights) without any let up. so let’s just look at that claim that the ark settled on land at 13,000 ft above sea level.
        If that was as high as the water got–presumably it was higher, it would have required rainfall to fall at a constant rate of about 13 1/2 ft per hour,—yes 13.5 FEET– every hour, over every square ft of earth at the same time for 960 hours. And after that , all that water went “somewhere”. I won’t even get into the physics about how much force that kind of rainfall would exert on the deck of a ship, and how quickly it would disintegrate.
        If you have the mental capacity to believe the story of the flood, I can understand how it would be difficult to understand this quote from Ram Dass :
        “It is important to expect nothing, to take every experience, including the negative ones, as merely steps on the path, and to proceed.”

        • ok dondondon. You explain it to me.”steps on the path” and ”to proceed”. What path and proceed where? Garrulous nonsense. As for your Noahs Ark stories you just sound silly trying to argue that when it is not related to the post at all. God can do whatever He wants. Read the Gilgamesh Epic please.

        • No need to cite fairytales, Don, to give examples of what Andrew’s god can do for humanity — the god Andrew says “can do whatever he wants”. Simply refer to any real holocaust, like the one that murdered 6 million Jewish men, women, and babies. Andrew’s god was deaf to 6 million prayers. I guess turning his back on torture is what Andrew’s god wants to do. That’s not nonsense at all. It’s a good thing that Andrew can put down another human being who actually helped a lot of people while his god picks and chooses whose prayers are worth hearing.

    • Unintelligible, nonsensical rants on all kinds of subjects, like windmills, are preferred by people who actually believe Trump is the chosen one. Trump shows more clarity than Ram Dass/Alpert? Haha. Why is Trump’s demented nonsensical stupidity worshiped and admired by deluded people who have never been under the influence of drugs?

    • I don’t understand the jab at Hawking. Was this about his physical inability to speak, or are you claiming his ideas made no sense? He was as close to a voice of perfect clarity as I can think of, on many topics. He was also willing to admit that he did not and could not know everything, which proves his wisdom further.

  4. Lordy, when can we just let the 60s be over with? It’s 2020, folks. This stuff hasn’t aged well. Sure, there were a few nice ideas from these “gurus” about peace and love, but it was conjoined with a lot of dingy narcissism and irresponsibility. However, Fellow Islander, no need to criticize Ronni- that’s an editorial decision, not hers.

  5. Wesley, I’m not wondering at all about who called who to make this article happen. Some people are just more opportunistic, in general. I agree with your other comments, though. You make some good points.

  6. “LSD Pioneer”? Not quite something to brag about. And those suffering from TDS might try a few doses of an appropriate legally prescribed medication to calm themselves down and try to stay on topic for once.

    • notnew– Actually, I think it is something to be proud of.. Lsd was developed and is useful in combating a wide range of mental disorders.
      https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC5603820/
      Here a quote from that government report:
      “In comparison to other illicit substances, epidemiological studies indicate that the use of classic hallucinogens is associated with lower psychological distress, lower suicidality, and lower mental health problems (Hendricks et al, 2015). Long-lasting positive effects were documented in modern studies after controlled administration of psilocybin (Griffiths et al, 2011; MacLean et al, 2011) and ayahuasca (Bouso et al, 2012) but have not yet been reported in modern experimental laboratory studies of LSD. Controlled administration of LSD in healthy subjects increased optimism and trait openness 2 weeks after administration and produced trends toward decreases in distress and delusional thinking (Carhart-Harris et al, 2016b). In addition, the greatest increases in openness were observed in subjects who presented both the highest acute LSD-induced enhancements of ego dissolution during music listening and greater brain entropy in frontal areas (Lebedev et al, 2016). However, the reported increases in optimism and personality trait openness 14 days after LSD administration were observed in subjects with on average already 14 previous uses of LSD (Carhart-Harris et al, 2016b; Lebedev et al, 2016) raising the question of how open and optimistic participants can actually become or whether these effects are rather transient.”
      Note the line that states “and produced trends toward decreases in distress and delusional thinking”
      I think it’s great stuff. While I no longer do drugs, I have taken at least 100 “trips” on various types of hallucinogens.
      Perhaps that’s why I can take a stance against a president with no morality, no regard for the law or the truth, no compassion, and no empathy for others. I can even recognize a lie when I hear one.
      Perhaps a few “trips” would open even your eyes to the obvious. It does have the long term effect of reducing delusional thinking, after all. Talk to you psychiatrist– it might help those with RAD (reality assimilation disorder)

  7. Correct, Two Inch Fangs. He was just another tourist, huge point you made there. I doubt that the initiation of this article was at all driven by the paper but occurred as a result of a phone call to opportunistically solicit this attention. It’s a self-serving fluff piece that’s way out of scale. Good islanders who spent their whole lives here working hard and contributing to the community for years don’t get such attention at the end of their lives. But read closely about who the article is really about, even though one good friend was called in to add to it to counteract the criticism. Even the photo was changed of Ram Dass from the original post to be one of the Simons. Some people need to stop playing this paper’s reporters.

    • Hi- When my reporter pitched this story to me, I thought it was a good idea, and I still do. The idea did not come via Ronni Simon or Perry, or anyone else quoted. Ram Dass visited the Island often, and together with other staff members, we came up with half a dozen people that he’d strongly influenced and affected. We reached out to all of them before publishing this, and as noted in the first version of the story, we planned to add anecdotes and comments as they came in. It was over the holiday weeks, and difficult to reach people, and one of them had already contributed to the other paper. We cannot cover all people, all the time, but we do like to run stories that highlight some point in time, or that explain how people we all know might have learned from something and have lived here on the Island. We aim to do it not only with well-known Islanders, but with anyone with a good story to tell. The challenge comes in finding those people who aren’t as visible, but we certainly do try, and invite anyone to write us and pitch a story or point us in the direction of a good one. We changed the photo because we had one in house, and had asked Ronni if she had any. Once we got one, we switched it. Happy to hear about any ideas you have! Please write me at jamie@mvtimes.com

    • Fellow Islander, every major news source in this country carried a story on Ram Dass when he died. His connection to the island is well known. Envy and anger over a person getting recognized when he dies? What’s up with that?

      • No anger, no envy Jackie………that’s a bit of a simplistic and inaccurate synopsis, and there is no reason for you to call it that if you actually read what the point of the commentary is. The concern isn’t about Ram Dass, may he rest in peace. Read carefully. Thanks.

  8. That all sounds good. Yet, it’s another Simon piece (exactly how many were there in 2019?). There’s a needless photo of John Travolta in this article with no reference to Ram Dass, with a mention with the photo that he was dating Carly Simon. What relevance is that photo, other than to be the glorification of an entitled inner circle? With this newspaper we get a news article to announce that there was a Columbus Day date error in the Simon 2019 calendar and multiple articles about the 2020 calendar. John F. Kennedy, Jr. should have gotten even 10% of this type of sendoff. He barely got a mention, never mind photos in the Times, even though his family lived in Aquinnah and was a far more notable figure. I’m not sure the Times posted a single photo of JFK, Jr, and only a brief article about his passing. Struggling to believe that the reporter decided to present an article with the end result such as this. Still smells like opportunism. Let’s spend the rest of the day going through the paper’s archives on any like-kind tributes to JFK, Jr. at the time he passed. It will be a quick search. Apparently Ram Dass’ passing and his connection to the paper’s prevalent Simons is far more newsworthy.

    • Here you go, fellow Islander:
      https://www.mvtimes.com/2019/07/16/island-remembers-jfk-jr-plane-crash/
      “That weekend in 1999 saw The Times swamped with media inquiries from outlets both national and international, in a time before Twitter, Facebook, and Islanders Talk.

      In his “At Large” column the week of the crash, former Times owner and editor Doug Cabral said the first call to come into the office after the crash was early Saturday morning. It was from a reporter at a morning daily in Sydney, Australia. He found Cabral’s contact through The Times website.

      “We wanted to tell the stories of Islanders,” Cabral wrote, “year-rounders, seasonal residents, and vacationers — involved in the search. We also wanted to describe the effects of the media and government invasion.”

      Cabral credits The Times website with giving a voice to people who were strangers to the Vineyard and strangers to the Kennedy family.

      • James Kalgeleiry – that was just from a piece from this year in July on the 20th anniversary. I’m talking about the piece from 20 years ago when he actually died. What you just linked me to was a big clean up of little acknowledgement two decades later. Actually neither the Times nor the Gazette did all that much when he passed, to my recollection. Having said that, James, you seem to want to dig in to comments of the paper’s readers in a manner here that is rather unusual for someone representing the newspaper. It’s fairly atypical to want to contradict a reader’s comments to this degree in a manner that goes beyond clarifying a point that should require the paper to step in. What’s up with that?

        • Just in case you missed our coverage of JFK, Jr., which revisted our coverage of 20 years ago. I was assuming your comment about our lack of coverage and nefarious reasons behind it came from an honest mistake.

    • fellow– what are you talking about ? The JFK JR. story got plenty of coverage
      Not to disparage the legacy of JFK JR., but really, we only knew of him because of his parents.
      Dass on the other hand, helped and inspired millions of people because of his teachings.
      This story is about Dass–
      What does the reporting of the death of a prominent figure 20 years ago have to do with this?
      And quite frankly, you are wrong to the point of delusion about the JFK JR coverage–

Comments are closed.