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.