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Coming Back to Earth
The Central Park Guru Becomes an Old City Jew
copyright © 2004 by Gil Locks Old City, Jerusalem www.thereisone.com
With heartfelt gratitude for the kind
support and encouragement of my
dear friendGolan Ben-Oni
Whatever happened to New York City's "Central Park Guru"? After sitting in the public eye for so many months, one day I dropped completely out of sight. I was sitting on a park bench outside Central Park at the corner of 86th Street and Central Park West. This is a very busy corner in an extremely hectic city, yet people were coming from great distances to experience the calm that mystically radiated from me. People who had no interest in such things were suddenly drawn to the corner to sit on the sidewalk and even to become part of "the Family." I was barefoot, wrapped in a paisley tablecloth. I didn't even look up when people spoke to me. Instead, I just stared at the tip of my nose. I didn't speak. My answers were in hand signs. All this seemed so strange to a city that thought it had already seen everything. New Yorkers will remember me from the daily newspapers and television news and magazine stories. Something different was definitely going on.
It was the summer of 1972 and New York was trying to move on from the hippies to whatever was going to be next. Many young people were already looking toward the East, so seeing someone dressed as an East Indian was not something that merited national television time. Yet, I got New Yorkers' curiosity up and they came to the corner to see if what the media was saying was true. The television reporter stood among the throng of people sitting at my feet asked me, "What is this power we feel coming from ?" Mention mystical power to some people and they will drop everything and run right over. Many people are fascinated by such things, but it is even more fascinating if it right there in full public view. They didn't have to travel away to India or Tibet. They didn't have to climb mountains or fast and pray. Here was someone radiating a mystical power right in their own busy backyard. I wasn't hiding away in an ashram (a guru's camp) with guards where you needed an appointment and a few thousand dollars to get an interview. I was sitting right there, openly at the street corner, looking at my nose, glowing!
Today, some 30 years later, I am living in Jerusalem as a pious Jew. Instead of sitting on a park bench I am sitting in my comfortable apartment here in the Old City.
Why after all these years have I finally agreed to tell the whole story? I have certainly had plenty of requests for this. How did all these things happen? And what, if any, he lessons to be learned from all this?
The Early Years
People ask how I became a guru. How can you answer a question like that? What makes anyone do or become anything? How far back do we look to see why what happened, happened to me and to not you?
If we start with my childhood and look for some unusual training, experiences, special traits or gifts that would have put me on such a path, we won't find any. I wasn't different than anyone else I can remember. The only kind of religious experience I ever had was, as a young child, speaking to God—Who at that age seemed to me to be THE GREAT OTHER who was somewhere up above the ceiling of my bedroom (if you call that a religious experience).
One of the predominate themes I remember that stayed with me throughout my lifetime was that whatever I was experiencing never seemed to be enough. Not that I wanted more of that thing, but by doing what I just did, or by having what I just had, it never seemed to be a good enough reason to be here at all. Somehow I had the idea that there ought to be a very good reason for all that was going on in the world and I hadn't found it.
Whatever sensual pleasures I took, whether an ice cream cone or a boat ride, they left me thinking, as nice as these things were, there must be more to life than this. Could it be that this complicated universe was created just for a boat ride?
The only other thing I remember about being different in any way from other kids was when I would read aloud in grade school. My thoughts would wander as I marveled at how those skinny black lines on the page could be translated into thoughts and then go on from there to be formed into sounds that could communicate complicated ideas across great distances. This seemed truly marvelous to me. Not so to my teachers who, when I stopped reading out loud and just marveled in my head, thought I was slow.
When I was ten years old my family moved out of the city to a small town in upstate New York. How different it was from the city. My first job was the best job I have ever had in my entire life. I was eleven years old. Our neighbor across the street had fields of corn and flowers. In the summertime I would hitch up his pony and cart and fill the cart with gladiolas. I would then drive the cart over to a small grassy park at the edge of the business district by the river. Driving down the street with a pony and cart while everyone else was driving by in cars and trucks gave my imagination a fertile field. It pushed me back in time some fifty years earlier when, I imagined, life was so simple. While I clicked my tongue and softly called out "giddy up," urging the pony to pull the flowers and me slowly down the street, I was in a different time zone than the cars that were buzzing by. I would park the cart under a large shady tree and sit there all day long selling the big beautiful flowers for a dollar a dozen. I just sat there with the pony and cart filled with colorful flowers, slowly selling them until dinnertime. People were always in such a good mood when they were buying flowers.
When I was 18 years old, I was in the U.S. Marine Corps, stationed in Japan. It was a different world then. We're talking about 1955. People still walked down the streets in kimonos and wooden slippers. Not just one or two as a novelty, but almost all of the people were still dressed as they had been for centuries. The bathhouses held both men and women in the same room at the same time! (Certainly unlike anything I had ever seen before.) I studied their language, religion and Judo. Judo took most of my time but the philosophy had a greater impact on me. Up until then life for me, in America, had been 100 percent physical. Japan got me thinking how material stuff is really nothing. I enjoyed the puzzles the monks would challenge us with, like "the sound of one hand clapping." I could see how the "Tea Ceremony" was an exercise in motion meditation. And the rock gardens struck me as being so serene. I was stilled by the peaceful view.
All this was totally unlike the almost entirely materialistic perspective I had grown up with. When I returned to America and was discharged, I considered joining a Buddhist monastery and living simply with a begging bowl, contemplating the nothingness of the world, and how, in fact, the world was something to be avoided.
At that I time, I attended a little Japanese girl's funeral, where they played her favorite Japanese music, burned overwhelming incense, and stoically marked her passing. They then cremated the body and that was it. Gone. This seemed to make so much more sense to me than the crying that people did at the funerals I had attended before. After all, who were they really crying for?
But my Jewish nature was strong enough to tell me that life would be better with a good job. I gave up on becoming a Buddhist monk and instead applied for a job at the corporation where I thought I could make the most money.
"We'd like to hire you, but tell us, which college have you graduated from?"
"College?" I answered, "I barely got out of high school."
"Well," he said, "I'm sorry, but we can't hire you."
I saw there was little chance of landing a good job without a college degree, so I went to the local university and asked which courses I would have to take in order to get a degree.
"In what?" they asked.
"In getting a job," I answered.
It was the late 1950s and early 1960s. I was one of the very few people taking business courses. In those years college students were studying things like, what happens when you feed psychedelic mushrooms to spiders—how do their web patterns change? People today look back on the '60s as being "romantic." I didn't notice. I just took the courses they said I needed to get the degree in order to get the job.
In fact, university was pretty easy for me and except for one or two courses, I was able to fake it and get good grades without even opening a book. But getting the money to live on while I was in school took a little more effort.
I finally landed a scheme where I could work the least number of hours and get the most money per hour. I worked four hours a night, three nights a week, and made enough money to support myself through college. I was the "bouncer" in the toughest cowboy bar in South Phoenix, Arizona. I think I was the smallest guy in the bar, but my two black belts in Judo and the fact that the troublemakers were usually drunk, coupled with a little bit of bluff, got me through it safely. (Come to think of it, there was a lot of bluff.) I was able to handle all of the troublemakers okay until the very last weekend just before college was over. I was about to retire without a scratch. I told the boss I was going away that night when someone came up from behind and hit me on the side of the head. It felt like a ton of bricks, and although I ended up winning the war, I sure …. My eye was cut and I was bleeding badly. I grabbed the guy and ….I dragged him out of the bar by his greasy hair…
…the operation there for a couple of months, I realized that the food they were supplying the people was not to their liking. Instead of it being consumed, it was being stored in warehouses throughout the country. It turned out that the program was almost entirely political. Then came the revolution, which I didn't see as my battle at all. I returned to the States and went to work for a large insurance company in Phoenix.
At that stage in my life I did what everyone else was doing. I got married. We had two sons. I worked as a successful financial consultant. I was driving a long black car and had an office in a glass building on Central Ave. in Phoenix. My picture was in Newsweek magazine as the up-and-coming business professional. In short, I was headed for big things. After a few years in business, following the tradition of American success, I was obligated to buy a new house. I already had a house, a nice little house in the suburbs, so why did I have to buy a new house? But I shopped around and found a beautiful house in the desert, designed by Frank Lloyd Wright.
I was just about to write a check that would have paid for the entire house when I stopped and asked myself, "When I make even more money, will I have to buy a bigger house? And then later, an even bigger house? Is this what I'm in the world for?"
I became very depressed. Every day I would smoke a pack of cigarettes, drink 18 cups of coffee, and make money. It didn't seem to make any sense, yet it was what everyone said you were supposed to be doing. The worst part for me was looking at people as money. Everyone I met I immediately reduced to his or her net worth.
At one point I felt like returning to the university, thinking to get a doctorate in literature. A professor's life and the pleasant Ivy League lifestyle seemed to be as far as you could get from the hard dollar business mentality. I discussed the idea with the chairman of the English department at the local university, and she was quite enthusiastic. Going over the requirements, she said, "You will have to have two foreign languages, but that will be no problem."
"But I only have one," I said.
"That's no problem, because you can always take the test for the second language and get the credits that way."
I objected, "But if I don't have the language, how am I going to pass the test?"
"Don't worry. We have a three-week course in foreign languages that teaches you how to pass the test."
Take a course to learn how to pass a test in a language that I don't know, that nobody thinks I need in order to get the credit to become a professor? I said, "Goodbye."
Then someone told me a great idea. A spiritual teacher was coming to town, someone who knew a special word that he would teach you for only 35 dollars. You say this word over and over again, and it really helps you get high. It detaches you from the world around you and this makes you peaceful. I thought anything was worth a try, so I went to the meeting.
It was an introductory course in Transcendental Meditation. The man and I were alone in a room. He lit some incense, placed flowers and fruit in front of a decorated picture of his guru's guru, and bowed down on the floor in front of the picture. He chanted toward the picture for a while and then seemed to fall into a peaceful state. He gave me the mantra, "Ting" which I was to say over and over again as many times a day as I could. I later learned that the particular mantra they sell you is based upon your age. So all the people between the ages of 30 and 35 would get this mantra. I thought it was pretty good that they could sell a word. I tried using the mantra for a while, but it didn't help at all.
One day, totally frustrated with my empty life, I looked out of my office window and saw a group of young people walking down the street. They were barefoot, scraggily dressed, not too clean, longhaired, and bearded, but all of them were smiling. And I wasn't smiling. I went out of my office and approached them. "Excuse me. Can you tell me something?"
The guy looked up at me as if I were a visitor from another planet. "How come I've got everything and I'm miserable? And you've got nothing and you're walking around smiling all the time? How do you get happy?"
"It's simple, man. Just take some of this and twist it up and smoke it. You'll get happy."
Boy, did I get happy. I laughed so hard my cheeks ached. "Could you believe it, you're allowed to get happy?" I floated up to the ceiling and hung out up there for about an hour, maybe longer. But then I crashed and came back down to the same place I was before. I went right back to the hippie and asked, "What went wrong? How come it stopped?"
"Smoke it again, man."
I smoked it again . . . and again . . . and again. I was like a yo-yo going up and down seven times a day for two weeks. As great as temporary happiness was, I quickly saw this could not be the purpose of life. I took what was left of the bag of dope back to the hippie, complaining, "I don't want to come down anymore."
"Oh, yeah? Try some of these, maybe you won't!"
He handed me a few tiny crystals so small you could barely see them. I thought there was no way something so small could do the trick.
Three days latter, I woke up flat on my back at two o'clock in the morning in a public park that was being irrigated! In that part of the country they flood the lawns to water them and the water gets to be about a foot deep—the water was coming up over my face.
While I was hallucinating, I saw that to keep on going up you had to let go of everything: love, family, money, direction, sanity. "SANITY?" That one caught me and I came crashing back down to earth, yelling, "I don't want to be crazy!" While I was hallucinating, I also saw that the world is round. I know that doesn't seem to be such an amazing discovery, but what it meant was that the world is continuous. I could travel anywhere I wanted. I wasn't stuck in Phoenix, Arizona as a businessman. I could go discover my purpose for being on the planet.
My last job before leaving the business world was to advise my client whether he should sell or retain two plantations he owned in Louisiana. He flew me to Baton Rouge for the weekend, put me up in a four-star hotel, and paid me $5,000 dollars for my advice. This was late 1967. Five thousand dollars for a weekend was a lot of money back then.
After that trip, I cashed out of business and became a hitchhiking hippie. I arranged the best I could for my wife and sons (we were to divorce soon afterward), and I headed up the coastal road of Northern California. In one day, I went from driving my long, shiny Lincoln Continental to standing on the side of the road waiting for the next ride.
Hitchhiking when you're smoked up is great. It doesn't matter if a ride comes or not. A popular song in those days went, "Slow down, you move too fast. You've got to make the morning last." I loved it. It was the first time in my life that I wasn't urgently running after something—that when I finally succeeded and got it, I found out I never really wanted it in the first place.
Northern California is beautiful. The ocean smashing on the rocks on one side, the rolling hills and grassy meadows on the other, and, perhaps most of all, the giant Redwood trees. They seemed so majestic, as if reaching up to heaven. They made me feel like a tiny ant-sized person placed in a land of stately giants. The trunks of those trees are so large, some of them have tunnels carved out for cars to drive through.
One day I was sitting in a hollowed out tree trunk laughing at the tens of millions of people in America who had to take a tranquilizer every morning. Can you imagine a society so screwed up that they had to invent a plastic pharmaceutical to take every day in order to get happy? But wait a minute. What was the difference between them and me? If it was so stupid to live a life that required pharmaceuticals to be happy, what's the difference between that and smoking dope? A drug is a drug.
Out went the drugs and in came the '60s first natural step after drugs: detox and health food. But not health food like you might think. First you start with the two-week watermelon fast. Just to clean you out. Nothing but watermelons. Then there were the coffee enemas (best when taken while hanging from a branch of a tree by the backs of your legs). And when you were ready for food there was vegetarianism or, if you wanted to be very pure, there were the vegans who ate no animal products at all, or even the fruitarians.
It seemed to me that the fruitarians spoke really fast and in high-pitched voices. They would only eat fruit and not vegetables because vegetables are rooted to the ground, so they are still living, and they didn't want to hurt any living thing.
And then there was the guy who lived by the sea and said he had even stopped drinking water, because he could absorb enough through the pores of his skin. And there were the yogis in the Himalayas who claimed to live on air!
Around this time I read an article in a health food magazine announcing the opening of a new organic gardening ashram in Mexico. "That could be it!" I thought, "Organic vegetables." This could be my purpose for being on the planet. After all, what could be better than to bring uncontaminated, organic food into the world? What is more basic and more important than food? I pictured myself hoeing in a garden, wearing just a bathing suit. It seemed to me to be a most natural, unpolluted lifestyle.
I hitchhiked down to Mexico and found the ashram. The little old lady running the ashram was a famous yogi who was highly respected even in the "secular" world. She was known as the "yoga teacher of the movie stars." She took a liking to me and made me her driver.
One day she said, "Come, I want to show you a movie of my guru in India." I saw the most amazing movie, showing this guru in South India. Back then, he had five million devotees; today he claims over sixty million! What made him so popular were his special powers. For instance, he might say to you, "Do you like diamonds?" and if you said "Yes," he would wave his hand in a few quick circles, and a diamond would pop out of nowhere into his hand! "Oh, you like books," he would ask, and then he waved his hand, and into his hand would pop a book, right before your eyes! And then he'd give these things to his devotees!
"That's pretty interesting," I thought, "but really what's the big deal? I can do the same thing. You want a diamond? Here, I'll write you a check and you can go buy a diamond. You want a book? Here, take $10 and go buy a book. Who needs these material things? I was running away from materialism, and here was a guy making even more of it. Not only that, but the stuff he "materialized" was lusted after even more than the rest of the stuff already in the world. To have him materialize something for you was considered a great blessing. His materialized diamonds were worth much more than the regular ones you could buy in a store.
So I really wasn't impressed, but I made a huge mistake. And that mistake cost me eight years of extremely hard labor! I mistakenly believed that since this guru had the power to spiritually control the physical universe, he must also be able to direct me in the spiritual universe, and that's what I was seeking. I was wrong.
That night I went to sleep crashing in the desert outside Tecate, Mexico. I had a vision. A real vision. In this vision I saw this guru's eyes looking into mine. Not his face, just his eyes. And then in the vision, I started to spin in circles. I spun and spun and then, as I was still spinning, I started to go up. I went higher and higher, watching the ground move farther and farther away. The earth became a small ball hanging in the vast black space. I kept floating up until the moon went sailing by. Then the sun went by. Then it started to go real fast. The stars were zooming past me on all sides as I was going farther and farther out into the endless, unknown, empty space, beyond all things.
I freaked out and came back down shaken. "Wow!" I thought, "If this is what happens from seeing just a movie of this guy, can you imagine what would happen if I looked into his real eyes? I know what I'll do. I'll get up in the morning and I'll go to India. I'll be there for just one day. I'll look into his eyes. He is so powerful, he will blow me away and there will be nothing left. Just sparkles. No more ups and downs. I will be free at last. The movie will be over."
In the morning I arranged for my trip. I didn't know where my passport was, so I applied for a new one, claiming that my old one was lost. In a few days I was on a plane, off to the guru's ashram deep in central South India. I landed in Calcutta.
Calcutta is a mind-blower. It makes Tokyo seem like Disneyland. The night I rode through the streets from the airport to the train station, 70 percent of the people in the city were sleeping on the sidewalks. It was a major holiday, so the streets swelled with the villagers who had arrived for the festivals. Many people had certain spots, a few square feet, where they would return every night to lay out a long thin piece of cloth. They would lie on half of it and cover themselves with the other half. There were some third-generation families camping out on the same little spot in the railway station that the grandparents had reserved.
I was a few hours early for the train, so I was close to the front of the line. I was fortunate to be able to grab 18 inches of a luggage rack, which I shared with a goat and two chickens. The ride seemed to take forever, because the train backed up at least 25 percent of the time. The smells and colors on the third-class coach made up a new palette: brightly colored saris wound around dark brown skin, vibrantly colored ribbons tying young girls' very long braids together, dark men in simple white pajamas, all smelling from strong new scents ...
"What is your native place?" the curious passengers would shout out at me, speaking in British, Colonial English. "What is your mission here?"
The old, narrow-gauge train must have been a local, because it seemed to stop or go backwards more than it went forward. People were stuffed in all over the place. They could squat on their haunches for hours. The floor of the train was crammed with women, all with nursing babies, and weathered, skinny, dark-skinned farmers with burlap sacks filled with a few pots and pans or maybe some grain.
The old train made a clacking noise as it went on slowly for three long days and nights. The terrain is flat, desert dry. Villages and small towns popped up and went sliding on by. The train stopped at every other one of them and people squeezed, streaming in and out. At each stop vendors screamed through the windows, holding plates made of large green leaves woven together with small pieces of straw. On them were chunks of greasy, fried vegetables bathed in a spicy green sauce. Those with the small aluminum coins quickly grabbed them up.
Three days later, I was standing in Bangalore, looking for the central bus station. The outdoor bus station is a scene that should be made into a movie. People screaming, throwing meager possessions on top of the bus as they try to be one of the 80 or 90 chosen ones who manage to grab a spot on the 40-passenger bus. Then there's the hardy group who sit perched on top of the mountain of burlap sacks tied to the roof, holding on for their lives. The all-day-and-overnight bus goes through village after village. Not like you might think. In one tiny village the houses were built right up to the road, which was exactly the width of the bus. You had to pull your fingers inside for fear of scraping them on the one-story mud brick rooms huddled together. From the bus you could see right inside. "How could people live like this?" I wondered.
The next day the bus ended its route at the guru's ashram, which was smack in the middle of nowhere. Actually, it was quite beautiful. It was clean and well kept, which certainly was a change from the India that I had seen so far. In the middle of the ashram was a small, two- or three-story white building with a cleared space in front of it. Off to the side were a few rows of small, one-room, single-story, whitewashed mud-brick dwellings. Sitting on the ground in front of the main building were some 5,000 Indians. (Apparently when you give away diamonds in India you are very popular.) There were many long rows of men who were sitting close together on one side of the open space, and the women were sitting on the other.
I went up to knock on the guru's door. Immediately two young boy volunteers came running up to me. They said that the guru was a very important person, and if I wanted to talk to him, I had to take my place, sit in line, and wait for him to come out to choose the people who were to be privileged with the all-important "interview."
I said, "Fine." After all, I knew he would pick me first.
Didn't I come all the way from California, while they only came from New Delhi? And didn't I come for spiritual things, while they came for merely physical things? Certainly he would pick me first.
I sat down in the long line on the men's side and waited. I waited and I waited. This was something you learned very quickly in India. Finally a hush fell over the crowd. They were all sitting neatly in rows, quietly praying that the guru would invite them in. If the guru would just listen to their problems everything would be solved. Some hopeful devotees smoothed the sand in front of them, trying to make it more inviting for the pampered bare feet of the guru.
Suddenly everyone became quiet. The guru stepped out of his door onto the porch, which was filled with his "ooo-ing" closest devotees. His devotees around the world are divided into many Chapters. The Chapter leaders, who were making their annual pilgrimage to see the form of the deity they had learned to love, were sitting closest to his door. The guru leaned on the side of the door and stroked his huge afro haircut. He was short and black-skinned, and wore a crimson-colored dress. In his hand was a white handkerchief, which he used to wipe the red-colored saliva that came from the betel nut he chewed. The betel nut dyed his lips red. Upon seeing his old devotees, he raised his hand in approval. The devotees were in love with this man. Mostly his form, but also his deeds. They loved the fact that they had such visible proof of his spiritual greatness. After all, who else could materialize objects?
The guru was a Hindu Telagu Indian who had demonstrated unusual powers from an early age. He used to cherish the dramas the children put on at festivals, and enjoyed taking the roles of the deities, particularly the female deities. This way, they taught, he was especially able to empathize with both his male and female devotees. Although he was a Hindu, he took the name of a Moslem teacher from the north of India who had died some years before he was born. He added the name "Truth" in front of it, and was called the "god incarnate," the "avatar of the age." Most people called him "Baba." He slid more than he walked, as his dress dragged in the sand along the line of idolizing devotees. When he briefly pointed to a particular devotee, the lucky person would dash for the main building and be directed by the young boy Volunteers where to sit on the floor inside the interview room.
And just as I had predicted, he came right up to me. I knew I was right. He walked right up to me, and then walked right by! He didn't even look at me. "Wow!" I thought, "I came all the way from California for one day to see this guy, and he didn't even look at me! Oh well, he must be busy. He'll get me when he comes out in the afternoon." So I waited. And I waited. And I waited until finally, late in the afternoon, again the hush and the hopes, and again he walked right up to me, and again he walked right by without even looking at me.
"What am I going to do? I came all the way from California! I have no choice. I'll wait one more day." The next day the same thing happened. And then the next day, then another day, and then another day. Each day it was the same thing. Day after day, twice a day, the guru would walk right by and not even look at me.
In the long hours of waiting for the guru to come out, I started reading his teachings. There were plenty of inexpensive paperback books around that explained the general teachings of Hinduism, and emphasized this guru's teachings. The books taught that "you must come to the guru to gain the 'knowledge of God.'" Then, when you gain this "discernment" that you must receive from the guru, "you become a God-realized being. You will have the experiences of God-realization, and you will see that you are, in fact, God yourself, that you are immortal, and you will not die." Coupled with these teachings were those about the "serpent power" that the guru will activate inside of you, and how this energy will bring you to this lofty realization.
Had I only read and understood the first book of the Torah, it would have saved me eight years of wasted searching. In the chapter on the Garden of Eden, there is a discussion between the "serpent" and "Eve," the first woman. The serpent was convincing the woman that by eating from the "tree of the knowledge of right and wrong" (discernment) she would become as God herself. She would not die, but would live forever. The serpent in the Bible teaches exactly what they teach in India, only in India, they make it sound like the serpent is the good guy.
You might ask how anyone could be so stupid as to leave his home and family to go searching around the world in the first place. To go to the far ends of the earth and put up with tremendous discomforts, to live like the poorest people of the world. I agree. And if I had it to do over again I certainly would do it differently, but in those times it was not so unusual. It was the '60s. The leaders of that generation were the Buddhas and the gurus and such; almost all of whom had forsaken their homes and families and, at least for a while, turned their backs on the world to go searching for the Eternal. None of the major religious leaders were married. None of them had a home. Celibacy was definitely the highest path.
But one thing is for sure, whatever you do comes back to you, as you will see as this story unfolds.
Online book sample chapters - from the beginning chapters of the book Coming Back to Earth.
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