"Show Us Your Lotus Ass, Rennie!"
(Bliss and Fear in Berkeley)
by Michael Rossman
I have a recurrent nightmare. I'm in a great hall filled with people and turbulent energy, everyone's shouting and waving signs. Some cry FOR!, the rest cry AGAINST! I'm kneeling on the floor with a broken pencil and a small scrap of paper, my finger is bleeding, I'm still trying to write "No two of us know the same reality," but the blood gets in the way. I look up. Everyone is staring at me. A dreadful silence settles, and the signs begin to fall …
I had it again the night after Rennie Davis came to town, bearing the message of his new Perfect Master, the fifteen-year-old guru Maharaj Ji, known to his detractors as "that fat kid." The story of Rennie's sudden conversion was already a legend of our time: en route to Paris to meet with Madame Binh to celebrate the end of the Vietnam War, a series of "coincidences" diverted Rennie to India, to receive illumination while watching the Perfect Master do perfect wheelies on a motorcycle, spattering mud in the faces of his disciples. Barely two months later, the gossipways of what still could be called the Left in America were buzzing with the news, and would have been even if Rennie were not an old hand at playing the media and doing it again for all he was worth. Who could resist it? Venerable Movement organizer, one of the Chicago Eight, pillar and celebrity of antiwar activism, embraces Bliss Consciousness! What could it mean? Quickly Rennie hit the road to tell us: I saw him at his third stop in a tour of twenty cities, in between interviews.
Berkeley, for a decade the Mecca of the Movement. By 1973 it was as disoriented as anywhere else, a carnival of swirling currents. A thousand people jammed into Pauley Ballroom to see Ronnie in the flesh. The Perfect Master's local followers -- vigorous, blissful -- bore Easter lilies to surround the white-draped throne on which they placed His image while the Jesus freaks scowled; then they sang and danced in His praise. It felt like a revival meeting, high energy and good cheer; but when the singing stopped there was scant applause, and the tension stood revealed. I don't know how many there had risked their skulls in street action in the 1960s and hated Nixon still. But as I sorted out the anonymous hair and jeans, I recognized comrades from ancient strata of conflict, along with current campus activists, all slightly hysterical -- a decade of Movement history come out of hiding, and come to judge.
Rennie stepped to the mike, natty in new threads, close-cropped, smiling, smiling; alluded modestly to his revolutionary credentials; began to tell his tale, or tried to. The brief silence would not have been so electric, nor the crowd so large, had he come only as a deserter, simply to testify for transcendental bliss. But Rennie was here as a heretic. The story of the funny thing that happened to him on the way to meet Madame Binh is in fact marvelously entertaining, but as he tried to embroider its wonder a sullen impatience began to break into heckling shouts. "C'mon, Rennie, don't lay a rap on us," someone yelled, "we fought the pigs to keep your ass out of jail!" Smiling, he asked again and again for time to come to the point, finally blurted it out, still smiling, his hands shaking as they clutched the microphone amid cries of disbelief.
The Perfect Master teaches perfection, and will bring, perfection on Earth -- not after the Millennium, but right now, in three years. A revolutionary perfection, realizing all our ideals of peace and justice, brought about not by struggle and conflict but by the perfect working of a perfect organization. Nothing in his Movement experience had prepared Rennie to imagine such an organization, but here it was, working in perfect harmony, already building a Utopia in India, embracing millions of people in dozens of countries he has jetted around to visit himself, reaching out to him, to you, to me, to everyone in America this year, to China in 1975, then quickly to bring the entire world into consciousness of bliss and into secular harmony. Chairman Mao himself may already have received Knowledge at the hands of the guru Mahara Ji. You can't understand this by hearing about it, you can only understand by experiencing His illumination, you owe it to yourself to check it out And you will get your chance, soon.
I hadn't been in such an angry room since the night after Nixon mined Haiphong harbor, when 3,000 people heard an open meeting of the Berkeley City Council vote down a pro-Hanoi measure, and then stormed the stage while the council fled. This time there were tomatoes with the catcalls, but the crowd was not of one mind: around me the guru's devotees squirmed in indignation and fear for Rennie's safety. I thought him in little danger; we don't beat pacifists in public in Berkeley. But heretics may be different, and the previous three years of bitter impotence while watching greed and death march on had left their mark. As the anger took on an ugly edge, the devotees hastily doused the lights and applied a media cooler. For half an hour we watched The Story of the Perfect Master, from infancy to adolescence, projected ten times life size in dazzling color, as slick as you could wish and with a real rock score. "The Organization has 150 centers in America already," Rennie had said, "they're all linked together by Telex systems and WATS lines. In the City we're building there's a full recording studio, full facilities for radio and TV production, printing presses … The guru is God on Earth."
When the lights came on the anger was still there, though somewhat dazed, and Rennie came back to face it, still wearing the smile. Questions, accusations. When he got the chance to answer them, he kept falling back on what he had said before, as if there were nothing else to say, imploring us to check it out. But in some way the focus had passed beyond him and into one of those surreal theaters of debate that erupt from time to time here when reality is coming apart at the seams. Some attic scholar analyzed Rennie's retrogression from Marxian to Hegelian dialectic, and the core inadequacy of the latter. A woman from my Tai Chi class testified about what it had meant to her to come out as a lesbian, and the warmth of her reception in seeking circles. The man near the mike who witnessed for Jesus could bear it no longer, denounced all parties and spoke of the antichrist. But the most acclaim was stirred by the old street bum or prophet, no one knew which, who rose again and again in grizzled beard to entertain us with irreverent koans. By the third time, when he came to the punch line that promised us the secret of the world, he had us all in silence. "Know thyself," he bawled, "and go to bed!"
An hour more passed, I got a chance to ask Rennie the questions about his state I thought were useful. The theater was still going strong, but downhill; I rejoined my buddies and we split. Outside the air was spring-night cool; we walked down Telegraph Avenue and decided to get ice-cream cones. An old ex-Red who did acid; a G.I.-coffeeshop radical who got Rolfed; a free-university organizer who saw Maharaj Ji's aura, felt the Perfect Master trying to suck his mind; and me, getting ready for a nightmare. In the ice-cream shop we joked around a bit, then clung to each other, shaking.
As for Rennie, I didn't doubt that his inner reality was intense and mysteriously luminous to him, indeed genuinely (if perhaps not superlatively) transcendent; but I saw it from a different angle. Just then Rennie was the Ancient Mariner, who "stoppeth one of three" to unload his Story, obsessive with significance. It was early yet to tell how he would adapt to discipleship; so far as I could judge, he was still caught in the first moment of his conversion, amazed at the event, flying around to tell the story to everyone he could get to listen, living it over and over. He could not explain it to himself, but it was; and he was brave enough, or needful enough of transferring his reality to the world, to explain it to those who didn't yet share it. (He spoke as if Berkeley were his first hostile reception; but I didn't think that would daunt a man so experienced in facing unbelievers.)
More important, I thought, was the fact that Rennie was innocent of transcendental experience until he met the guru. The rigidity that had kept him at odds with the acid mania of Jerry Rubin and Abbie Hoffman at the '68 Democratic Convention had softened; he had taken to health foods and yoga while the antiwar movement languished, but that still wasn't much preparation for coming up alongside such high voltage.
When Rennie met the guru, I imagine he received two sorts of knowledge. He got zapped into heavy transcendental experience: not your usual trivial "mescaline" trip, but ongoing consciousness of the Light that floods, the Sound that builds the universe. The experience broke wide open the frames in which he understood reality.
To replace them, against the terror of the naked void, I imagine he took at a gulp the other knowledge offered by the Master and the society of his devotees: a new frame by which to interpret all, both this experience and the realities and contradictions of his past secular life and of human society, dovetailing neatly if weirdly with his allegiance to some revolutionary values. In Berkeley he was clutching this new frame rigidly, accepting it absolutely, to the point of proclaiming its Three Year Plan for human salvation.
To those who could not pardon him, this much at least should have been understandable. And to write Rennie off as petrified, as many did, was simply foolish: a strong and questing consciousness recovers from its shocks in time. Rennie's past record of devotion to cause, and the way he was using himself and being used in high-level service to spread the gospel, suggested it would be a while before we heard a new line from him, spiritual or political -- though we might be aware of increasing radiance, from the cultivation of inner illumination he accomplished between appointments. But I preferred to believe in his untapped reserves of flexibility, and to bet that he will move beyond this experience, integrating it rather than repressing it (perhaps after a period of painful break and reassessment if his motion carries him at odds with devotion, though there is no assurance that it will).
All this was my interpretation of basic facts that Rennie reluctantly admitted: his prior transcendental virginity, the compulsive repetition of the first understanding he grasped to pull his mind back together. But Rennie was irritated by the implications that I thought were there to be drawn by comparison with other people's experiences. "It's not like some hippie acid trip," he insisted (as if this were the only competitive illumination abroad). He preferred to discuss inner radiance and imminent earthly harmony, convinced that his experience was superior and definitive. And who could know that it was not, save those who had shared it? We are past the time when we could afford to dismiss such claims lightly. Still, I think it fair to report what I recognized later that night, helping interview Rennie for KPFA.
His outward aspect seemed much as it had five years earlier when I met him in Chicago in ‘68, organizing with a still-tiny band for an apocalyptic convention. He was rushing, all business, taut with the energy of being at the center of things, consumed with strategic designs. Then as now he seemed unable to laugh at himself, caught in the role of elite spokesman, projecting a vision of great demonstrations unfolding in every part of the metropolis, in clockwork harmony. I thought this unlikely (and the vision irresponsible), and suggested that reality held surprises beyond the expectations of his frames; he took me for a spaced-out Berkeley freak in Chicago and no doubt did again this time.
To observe that he was leading a similar outer life so far this time raised some question about the completeness of Rennie's transformation. Yet to dismiss him this way was too cheap. As Carl Oglesby remarked, Rennie had always had an instinct for locating the center of the radical thrust by which we transform our lives; and however different Chicago was from his expectations, it turned out significant enough.
But I was less interested in Rennie than in us. Behind the facade of anger, the dominant emotion I sensed in Pauley Ballroom was fear -- fear multiple and confusing, welling from the irrational, fear so deep that no one would confess it. I think few were prepared even to recognize it in themselves or in their friends. "But what was there to be afraid of?" To discuss such fear logically misses some of its point and most of its substance; as with Rennie's illumination, you have to experience it to understand it. But I'll try to sort out some of its appearances, from the perspective of the (somewhat tattered) Movement.
The cleanest aspect was our fear of subversion. In the early days of psychedelics, many radicals saw grass and acid as leading their users into some nirvana of hippiedom, whence no man returneth to lay his body on the line against injustice. I think history disproved this, though some do not. But by the time of Kent State, whatever organizational focus the Movement once had had fallen apart, and the loose common myth that guided the investment of our energies in political change was dissolving. During the early 1970s, years of confusion and repression, our paranoia about subversion spread, with more grounding. Yoga, encounter groups, life in the country, Dianetics, free schools, McGovernism, Jesus -- a multitude of devotional ideologies appeared to sap the energies of political expression, lulling weary activists and hypnotizing the young with blissful panaceas, away from dealing with an increasingly problematic social reality.
In this light, and to people who formed their very identities as part of a movement for social change and justice, Rennie's appearance in Berkeley -- blissfully charismatic, claiming 50,000 American followers of the Perfect Master and promising millions more within the year -- was frightening enough. It hardly mattered that he came the day after the town's lackadaisical radical coalition got out-coalitioned by the right and middle in the elections, and blew the chance to take control of the City Council.
Meanwhile, Paul Krassner's vague allegations about the CIA's links with Rennie and his master (and with Maharishi "TM" Mahesh Yogi), were entertaining, if somewhat irresponsible, and were reprinted widely -- along with more accurate articles linking the Korean CIA to Maharaj Ji's competition, the Rev. Sun Moon's Crusade -- as a logical extension of our paranoia. No one would have been surprised to identify our CIA's hand in a new plot; and this one was diabolical and devious enough to fit the CIA's image and appeal to conspiracy buffs (who were multiplying with good reason). Yet aside from my feelings about the growth of our own brand of witch-hunting, I found such a notion curiously stale, as if our capacity for creative disbelief had gone to pot. It reduced the problem, and our fear, to familiar dimensions; but I was sure there was more to both than this.
For Rennie's presentation raised another specter to haunt us: the image of spiritual fascism, monolithic as of old but riding on wings of new technology. The woods grow increasingly full of bands of believers, their spirits agonized by present social contradictions, seeking an Answer that will make sense of all the confusion and distress and potential we all feel, and tell them what to do -- not simply a personal Answer, but a total Answer, triumphant and unifying, that will extend its dominion over everyone, inexorable and just. So far their factions are many, their influence small. But hasn't everyone had the intimation that our age is growing ripe for the advent of the Leader, someone of the charismatic stature of Hitler or Jesus, whose presence will catalyze all this gathering need in a surge of belief that will sweep through our culture and our lives, transforming them violently? And isn't the intimation growing? We are past the time of a mere spiritual reformation, with business as usual; if the crusade erupts, its target will be secular life as well, and its vehicle will be the Organization. Sophisticated as Synanon, slick as the Maharishi, as adept at politics as at electronics, its aspect will be, as we fear, totalitarian. At present there are no major contenders, political or spiritual, for the lead role in this drama; but the script may be accumulating in the post-Vietnam War craziness, with corruption in the highest offices and the economy out of hand. Whatever other images Rennie wanted to awaken in us, he awoke this one as well.
And there was a more personal aspect to our fears about the Movement's subversion and transcendental imperialism, a root of private terror that I think found soil in many people there. If Rennie, why not me? It was soothing to speculate about what idiosyncrasies of character might have predisposed Rennie to put his consciousness under another's dominion, as many took him to have done in proclaiming the absolute Millennium. But it was threatening to recall that for years Rennie was an exemplary figure of the New Left, his strengths the Movement's strengths and ours: independent, breaking free of mystifications, improvising understanding and praxis from the raw materials of our time and experience. Perhaps so much overtime duty on the high-stakes line, without a certain broader spiritual replenishment, wore through something vital in him? Perhaps media burn and idolatry left him not knowing who he was, as has happened to others? Perhaps after those dogged years struggling for peace, the end of the war left him bewildered, without a mission, vulnerable to this new enlistment? But to dismiss Rennie as a special case did not account for the guru's other eager followers, nor for all the Movement's rank-and-file, people like ourselves, who had turned to embrace this and fifty other Answers.
If Rennie was a heretic, his heresy was not one of ends but of means; and it struck us where our faith is weakest. We have all been struggling for personal fulfillment and the social good in the same brutal climate. Few now can escape the inadequacy of the political metaphor to inspire and guide even our political actions, let alone to fulfill them. It is not just a matter of the correct line; the problem is with process. All is accomplished by organizing. But was there an activist present who had not felt despair, simple and terrifying, at the frustrations and impossibilities of working in the organizations we form: their outer impotence, their inner conflicts and ego games and wasted energy, the impoverishments of spirit which lead us to drop out of them again and again? Here Rennie was, proclaiming the perfect means to our various ends, the ideal, impossible Organization, working in perfect inner harmony and outer accomplishment. Lay down your arms, your suffering, and the Master will give you bliss. And yet to work in the Left, to be of the Left, has meant to bear these arms, this suffering; we have known no other way. Who would I be if I let them go? And what would I betray?
Rennie's enthusiasm touched the deepest longings, evoked the dream of a fulfilling and effective comradeship of work that we called participatory democracy in the early days of the New Left. We failed to accomplish it in practice; it flowered again in the move to collectives, which many felt failed; now it beckoned again -- but somewhat diminished, for all its new glory, promised to us in a frame in which the goals and means and meaning were already seemingly determined, our only choice being to choose them. Who would I be, and what would I betray?
Rennie struck us where we are vulnerable -- for was it not our capacity for belief that moved us to commitment and action, as much as our skepticism? And is this not still alive in each of us, despite the weariness of years, and still unfulfilled? We each believe that a different order of society and realized human potential is possible, even for ourselves, in some way right around a certain corner of consciousness that we do not know how to turn, that we think involves long arduous struggle -- but we are not sure, and the prospect that it does not is tantalizing and terrifying.
For beneath all these fears rooted in our political identities lurks the fundamental terror that confronts us when our systems of belief are breaking down, and we encounter the naked void. In Rennie, each person faced his own private predicament. Not only the political metaphor, but reality itself (or our collective interpretation of it) is coming unglued -- less dramatically and rapidly than for Rennie, perhaps, but as surely. For a decade now, the surface of appearances has been falling apart around us. Nothing is what it had seemed: the stability of the American economy, our concepts of maleness and femaleness, the limits of consciousness, the nature of man. The plants, the whales, the stars, institutions, sanity: all call on us to discard our old impressions of them. Our friends make strange transits; an awesome chasm of possibilities and impossibilities gapes wide; black signals of death hang in the sky.
A world is ending; intimations of the event penetrate our private being, and few can confess the extent to which they feel lost within it. To be able to go on we pull the appearances back together around us, even as we are trying to disassemble them and reassemble something truer; we shut out what we cannot explain or account for, even as we try to grasp what lies beyond it. To not know who we are, to not know what is, is totally terrifying; and Rennie reminded us of this. Yet it is also magnificent and vital and infinite, and so Rennie terrified us also in reminding us how this state is lost in certainty.
So much for my view of the fear people felt, facing a brother who proclaimed an illumination they did not understand, or understood too simply. There were other emotions in the room, obscured by the focus on elite charisma. Without question, many of the guru's devotees had access to a certain radiant high, could pool its energies together and project them out to others, meaningfully to many. Surely Rennie showed a courage vital to us, in leaping through the domain of chaos -- though I think the courage to survive within it and accept it is even more essential for us now. As for the guru, my friend's impression of his aura was that it was unspeakably evil; but I had no doubt that the megawatt power Rennie described was real and tangible and uncomprehended, though perhaps not unique; and hence as awesome in its potential as it was terrifying to some even in its dim reflection through Rennie. I've passed over such positive matters for the sake of focusing on more awkward ones, but they cannot be ignored.
For reality has chambers more extensive and complex than this one we call home, yet interpenetrate and integral with it, affecting each sparrow's fall; and our consciousness is realizing this connection. The social truth or falsehood of Rennie’s claims for his master is no cut-and-dried affair, but will work out; and I think we will find ourselves testing hypotheses that stretch our minds even further, if in different styles. If I'm sitting here now cussing both sides, it's because all the frames they offer me to know by, mundane or heavenly, diminish what I understand of wonder and mystery and terror and knowing itself, diminish who I am, knowing myself as a fragment of the great hologram that some call God and others call I Am.
Which brings me back to my nightmare. Long ago, the Semitic peoples divided into two persuasions: those who held that connection with God could only be accomplished through the mediation of someone more firmly in touch, for which purpose they built temples that one must come to town to attend; and those who believed the God of their heart to be perfectly accessible, His worship and communion immanent everywhere -- in a tent, traveling through the wilderness, even without a tent in the naked elements. I put the matter this way for the sake of clarity, though my bent of mind is no more spiritual now than it ever or always was; the metaphor will serve for political man as well. My persuasion should be clear, for it is strong. Watching Rennie & Co. organize for Bliss, I felt much the same as I had watching Rennie & Co. organizing for Chicago, and very much alone despite my friends. In the nightmare I too am the prisoner of my frames.
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