please stop tickling me

In which we laugh and laugh and laugh. And love. And drink.

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Location: Portland, Oregon

Otium cum Dignitatae

Thursday, January 04, 2007

Waist Deep in the Big Muddy

(Heh heh heh heh. Y'know that Pete Seeger Song? About how yer followin' a stupid leader who clearly doesn't know what he's doin', and eventually his dumb ass drowns? Heh heh? Here: read a story.)
My stepfather has a pretty good footstool. He bought it at auction for, I'm suspecting, not too much. I mean, it's a perfectly serviceable footstool: swivels, and...All right. It's from Rajneeshpuram. Y' happy?

Oh? And what is/was Rajneeshpuram? Well, it was certainly news in its day. The Big Muddy Ranch in Central Oregon, not all that far from the town of Antelope, had been lying fallow for some years in 1980. Suddenly, it was purchased by an outside concern: the followers of the Bhagwan Sri Rajnish.
Or, the Baagwan Shree Rajneesh. The phonetic spelling gives you a clue as to part of what was happening here: good old nativism was going to be on the march here, against the Outsiders. Thing is, the Outsiders were genuinely bad, and the defenders weren't so hot themselves.

At that time on the streets of Portland, one could often see people clad in purple (generally: orange, red and pink were also acceptable colors), proselytizing and begging cash in roughly speaking the same way the Hare Krishnas would in airports of the day. Along with their mono-spectral clothing, all these people wore long strands of wooden beads leading to a photo-medallion. The medallion was a picture of a beatific-looking older man with a long beard and some sort of headdress indicating either great wisdom (to some) or being One of Those People (to others).
The man in the photo was the Bhagwan (born Rajneesh Chandra Mohan, in 1931), whose organization had recently been kicked out of India for being too fucking extreme. Imagine the odds. Their ashram in Poona had been the center of several rape accusations, as well as dark allegations of not-accidental violence. Like lots of people seeking cheap land, the Bhagwan headed to Oregon.
They purchased the Big Muddy Ranch for six million dollars. At its peak, it boasted 3,000 residents (Wikipedia lists it as 7,000, but the entry was pretty clearly written by a follower). The nearest town, Antelope, had 40 people.

Curiously, the listing over on doesn't mention any of the allegations of wrongdoing in India. They claim that the man and his movement came here due to personal health concerns.
Quite so: I'd never heard this before, but also according to that listing, the Bhagwan was stabbed by 'a religious zealot' shortly before the move to the States. Also, I hadn't heard that the original ashram was in Bombay, which they left due to either community protest or the need for larger facilities, depending on who you ask.

Most Rajneeshees were American or English; the sort of person (based on the few I've personally met) who needed something else post '60's spiritual/political awakening and '70's self-absorption/malaise/coke n' quaaludes. What they found in Rajneesh was a highly comfortable mishmash of partially digested philosophies from all over The East, with just enough Christianity to sound familiar. This is described in some circles as 'syncretic'. I just call it the You'll Buy Anything Syndrome.
So, along with funny clothes and chosen foreign-sounding names (Sheila Silverman, deputy to the Bhagwan and chief spokesperson, became 'Ma Anand Sheela', for instance), the Outsiders were also those liberal cultural elitists, generally from wealthy backgrounds, that folks in Central Oregon were already well on their way to hating a lot.
They also weren't fond of the men in pink jeeps, wearing pink polo shirts, sporting Uzis, who patrolled the perimeter of the newly founded Rajneeshpuram.

Building permits were being denied to the new city on the high plains. They had already made the place a working farm again, and had gone building-crazy, not really bothering with the legal particulars.
Journalists from the outside (both Spalding Gray and Christopher Hitchens have very interesting accounts of their visits there: Hitchens was particularly horrified by the sign that read "Shoes and minds must be left at the gate.") noted the daily parade of the Bhagwan in one of his many Rolls Royces, and the odd servility of the inhabitants. Well, they'd taken that Leap of Faith, and had furthermore paid a lot of money to be there: they'd better believe it, or they'd know for certain what fools they truly were.
Tired of what they viewed as petty harrassment by Wasco County authorities (and maybe it was), the Rajneeshees began grasping for a foothold in nearby Antelope. They started with the only cafe in town, which they named 'Zorba the Buddha'.

I visited the town during this time. Having no love of vegetarian food, and noting that all other items on sale were in vivid shades of red, I purchased a (can of) Coke, and a (red) t-shirt that I wish I still had.
On my order of the demon sody-pop, the incredibly spacy woman at the counter said, "Oh wow...", and turned away, leaving me there. Other, friendlier adults then stepped in, and did me the courtesy of taking my money.
It doesn't surprise me now that they were so friendly (if so very spacy): it was in their best interest to be that way. At the time it did surprise me, since the media in Oregon (and increasingly, the United States in general) routinely portrayed them as being a rabid bunch of Jim Jones-es to be. It didn't help that Ma Anand Sheela was such an awful choice as far as mouthpieces go: she spent most of her time shrieking about what a bunch of stupid people and bigots her fellow Oregonians were.

And were we? Yeah probably at first. But then, they really shouldn't have made their miracle in the desert into an armed compound. The truly awful happenings at the People's Temple in Guyana were still fresh in all our minds.
Then, they tried to expand their purview of Antelope from the cafe to the entire town. Rather than be taken over by this crimson tide of evil, the citizens voted to dis-incorporate.

Worse yet, the Rajneeshees were actively recruiting homeless people in Portland, and moving them to Wasco County, perhaps in order to sway elections. If they'd kept on at the rate they'd been going, Rajneeshpuram would have easily been the largest city in the county. Even worse than that was the whole salad-bar-bioterrorism thing.
Folks eating from salad bars in The Dalles (about 750 of them, in fact) started coming down with salmonella poisoning, which killed none, but sure did make them sick. It has been said that this was a test run for a larger mass poisoning scheduled for election day.
Lots of people don't like zoning laws, but this was spiralling horribly out of control. This was the first bio-terrorism attack in the United States, by the way. Around this time, Sheela and few other inner-circle Rajneeshees were plotting to kill the Attorney General of Oregon, and even began stalking his house.

Somewhere in here, Sheela and some followers fled, taking most of the money with them, to Germany. They started a restaurant and disco. The place was raided, and most were extradited to the United States, though some to England. Rajneesh himself fled to Charlotte, North Carolina (again with the 'health reasons'), where he was arrested and extradited to Oregon.
Later, he moved back to India, and adopted the name 'Osho'. The name, even now, bears a registered trademark symbol, in an unintentionally hilarious twist. The trademark itself is disputed, and disagreements about what 'Osho' even means continue to this day (though the most common translation, from the Japanese, is 'Friend').

If you go to the (re-incorporated) town of Antelope now and ask the locals what they thought about all that, you'll get some pretty justifiable anger about the attempted hi-jacking of their community by Outsiders, along with some ugly Christian Rightist mutterings. It's best not to ask.
There is a clumsy monument at the courthouse in The Dalles to those who got sick defending their right to a salad, and the Osho (R) movement boasts over twenty 'meditation centers' worldwide. I believe The Big Muddy is still empty, but I'm not sure.
The footstool? It's a pretty great footstool.



Blogger disco boy said...

ooh. yeah. the rajneeshees.

i was in short pants when they arrived. i actually had a coupla elementary school friends move away to go live with their grandparents when their folks up and left to join the farm.

i believe that i went out as a rajneeshee for halloween in the third grade. i think it was an easy recycle from my lil' devil outfit from the previous year... same color anyway. kind of funny, looking back on it now.

that bhagwan, for all of his talk of releasing yourself from worldly possession, certainly was a fan of the rolls royce motor company!

11:36 PM  
Blogger speakingwordsofwisdom said...

The Big Muddy is now a Christian retreat/school. you remember driving along the perimeter on a dirt road coming from a ghost town...and being paced by guys with guns? I was rather frightened as it was just the two of us...

9:48 AM  
Blogger rich bachelor said...

Interesting. This suggests that there is indeed another cult living at the Big Muddy, and taking over the town, but no one says anything because they're Christians.

5:06 PM  

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