A Taste of Persimmon: a weekend with Da,
mainly his photos and devotees (experiences at the community of the man now
called Avatar Adi Da Samraj) by DC
by DC -------------- 4/01/04-----------(see links at end)
11-30-08 - Adi Da Samraj aka Da Free John aka Bubba Free John aka Franklin Jones died Thursday Nov. 27, 2008 of a massive heart attack while in his home in Fiji.
The Fiji Times story and copies of Adidam e-mails to devotees - you can learn more about Ada Da by looking around on that site, the Adi Da Archives.
Adi Da official site - Adidam.org
See A Taste of Persimmon by DC which includes other links.
“Quandra Loka #205," 2003, pig-
A Taste of Persimmon: a weekend with Adi Da,
(experiences at the community of the man now called Avatar Adi Da Samraj)
A few years ago I visited the community of the teacher now called Avatar Adi Da Samraj, Adi Da, and even better, Da for short. This came up in conversation with a friend who asked how the visit went. I groaned because I didn’t want to get into it again, but, I said, I’d put it down on my website, cuke.com. When I get tired of one of my own stories, it’s a good time to write it down - that seems to help me to empty it from the brain ram. It starts with the phone ringing.
An old friend of mine who’d been in the San Francisco Zen Center for a number of years, and now has been with Da's group for considerably more years, called me up and said that she missed me and would love to get together. I always like to see her so we made a date for her to drop by my home in Sebastopol. We talked for a while and she mentioned a few times, as she had in the past, that I should come up and be her guest at Persimmon, the Daist community in Lake County where they studied Daism and practiced Adidam, the Way of the Heart. She said we’d have lots of fun and, prompted by my going on about an old girlfriend, mentioned that there were a number of available, attractive women there who might just swoon over me. That’s a sure way to get my interest.
She brought with her an album of photos taken by Da. She said that photography was his focus these days. They were somewhat intriguing black and white photos of - all I can remember is nude women - but there was more. Now she really is a good old friend and she’s funny as heck and interesting, but the way she was relating to me reminded me of someone trying to sell Amway products. Every once in a while when I’m trying to sell something, like a new creation or the Nuclear Freeze, I hit up everyone I can, so I didn’t mind – but I noticed. She came back the following week with her husband who was a cool and down to earth guy whom I enjoyed talking with. There were follow up calls.
I remembered hearing of Da, this man who was born Franklin Jones, way back in the early seventies when he was publishing his first books under the name of Bubba Free John. Why didn’t he keep that name? It’s sorta cool. Some students at Tassajara, the SFZC’s monastery, had a book or two of his. I’d read a few chapters and they seemed pretty solid. I have a hazy recollection of him writing about hovering in some sort of very lofty state when he decided to be born into this incarnation in order to become the World Teacher. That sort of approach didn’t interest me.
But did I want to visit his community? It seemed like such a chore. I definitely wasn’t interested in Da as a teacher or doing more than just dropping by. I knew a little about Da – he’d been a student of the famous Hindu guru, Muktananda, with whom he'd had a split, had been a Scientology Auditor, had written upward of seventy books, had many highfalutin names, and claimed he was the most enlightened person in the history of the West which later would expand to become the whole world which would become the only being in the history of the universe to attain, even in the future, the seventh level of realization or whatever. I knew that a lot of people were extremely impressed with his books, presence, and teaching. I also knew that there were many people including ex-devotees who were awfully critical of him - the way he’d isolated himself and the way he related to students, especially in the more extreme periods of uninhibited sex and intoxicant experimentation. There had been lawsuits about clerical abuse - causing emotional distress, false imprisonment, assault - that resulted in out of court settlements. There had been some exposes, one written for the San Francisco Chronicle by my friend Katie Butler (who has the goods on me as well).
Back in the eighties Ken Wilber had asked me to come with him to a darshan with Da. Da had been in Fiji for years but now he was back in the States and going around doing these public events where people would sit in a room with him just to soak up his vibes. No lecture. There was a charge of $75 but Ken was a VIP and could get me in free. He said he wanted to see if I'd feel anything special being in the presence of the man who was called Da Free John back then - or that might have been when he was called Da Love Ananda. I could join Ken in an official zooming Persimmon limo. There was the lure of excitement, speed, celebrity, privilege, enlightenment, and a grand time to be had. But I told Ken that I surely wouldn’t feel anything special, that I was immune to transcendent vibrations, and tend to perceive everyone as the same. I was busy working on music too and the thought of leaving what I was doing and riding in a car for a couple of hours to sit in a room with a self-proclaimed God-incarnate, just to catch his radiance, didn’t entice me. So I said no, but I always had a touch of regret about not going at least for purposes of sociological research.
Back then Ken had been the recipient of a lot of heat for his praise of Da’s writings, but he maintained that no one had written more vividly about the different levels of consciousness and enlightenment, that Da was the clearest exponent of the perennial philosophy, and that any serious student of higher callings should read his books. Ken wasn’t a devotee. He’d just called it as he saw it and that is a pretty impressive recommendation (Since then he’s asked the group not to use his name for promotional purposes though privately still affirming his immense respect for Da). Ken gave me one of Da’s books, the Dawn Horse Testament, which he’d superlatively praised. They’d shipped him a whole box of them. Almost every noun of any significance was capitalized.
There have been a handful of students from the Zen Center and people I know otherwise who became devotees, who have stayed with Da, and who are enchanted with him as a teacher - even though they have almost no contact with him. They have a strong devotional relationship with him and they’ve had experiences of love and light, samadhi and kundalini that I don’t doubt are real, life changing, and profound. There are many reports, even from his detractors, that he has what appears to be what I'd call the psychic ability to trigger altered states in some people. For one instance, I have a good old Zen friend who went to a Da event long ago cynical and yeah-sure and then Da walked by her and she had the most ecstatic experience of her life.
I've heard first person accounts of deep transcendent experience happening to people associated with various teachers and paths - born again Christians, followers of Hindu gurus like Guru Ma and Papa-ji, attendees of channelers, students of shamans, Sufi dancers, Buddhists. It tends to lock them in and make them think they've found the Only Way. Many people have told me that with the teachers and paths they’re on now they have found the enlightenment or bliss or peace that they’d chased after unsuccessfully with Zen and some say that nobody in the Zen world seems to have much enlightenment or, if they do, to be able to pass it on to others. And in the Zen world, some say that none seem to have less to show for it than the students of my dear teacher Shunryu Suzuki. After all, when Professor Arthur Deikman [see his interview on cuke.com] first met Suzuki in the sixties and questioned him about consciousness, Suzuki said he didn't know anything about it, that he just tried to help his students learn to hear the birds singing.
I’m reminded of what a Christian minister told me once at Tassajara. This was after Suzuki had died. I was the head monk at the time and the minister was there as a student for a week or so. I remember his name – Pierce Johnson. He’d written a book called Dying Into Life and had been a chaplain at the Claremont colleges in Pasadena. He’d spent lots of time with young people on spiritual quests. He asked to speak to me and so we got together and he said, with some frustration in his voice, that he’d participated in the practice of various spiritual communities – born again Christian, Hindu like Hari Krishna, Buddhist, Sufi, Mooney, Children of God, etc. But, he said, there was something he’d encountered with the Zennies at Tassajara that he had never experienced before. With all of the other groups, when he asked the students what they had gotten out of it, they would have a lot to say. They’d gotten enlightened or gotten over all of their problems or were happy or filled with God’s love or something, but that when he asked the students at Tassajara what they’d gotten from their Zen practice, they would respond with, "Oh, I don’t know," or "I’m not sure," or similar uninspiring replies. He wanted to know how this could be and could I explain it? I can’t remember what I said to him but I was quite pleased. Why was I pleased? I don’t know – just my perverse attitude about it all I guess. Or maybe it's that I don't easily trust belief or any final conclusions.
So I chewed on this Persimmon thing for a while and, even though I had plenty of resistance to the idea of accepting my friend’s invitation, I knew I’d at least enjoy being with her and her husband. And I was curious, had the time, and thought, okay, I’ll go check this trip out.
I arrived at Persimmon at the appointed hour of five in the evening and was greeted by my old friend and another woman I’d known well years before - back in the formative days of the incredibly successful Fort Mason Foundation (I was, for the first two years, the host of the SFZC's restaurant, Greens, at Fort Mason). This woman was now in charge of the Persimmon guest program which I was a participant in. The purpose of this program was to expose selected guests to the photographic art of Beloved, as they frequently called Da, and to give us a little of his teaching - just a bit of background so we could have an inkling of where he was coming from when he snapped the shutter.
After dinner, we were asked to stay to get an orientation in Da’s teaching – not to try to convert us the orienter made clear, chuckling and quoting something light-hearted Da had said about not trying to persuade people to become devotees. No, we were there to see his photos which were the direct expression of his eminently transcendent understanding. The orientation went on till pretty late and, by the end, I was one of the only ones, out of about twelve of us, who hadn’t bowed out to go to bed. I enjoyed hearing about Da’s teaching though the fellow was so into it he only stopped when it was clear he’d soon be talking to himself. I can’t remember what was said except for Da being really super-enlightened and a vague recollection of how concerned Da was about world peace. Very good. There was something about him bringing on a storm in the South Pacific to stop something – maybe nuclear testing. That was pretty impressive – and I was also impressed that this was taken to be the unquestioned truth.
I was touched that Da had said that, as he got older, he saw art as a way to deal with all the suffering we endure on this plane. Because of this and especially since he thought he wasn’t getting through to enough people with his writings, he was turning his efforts toward uplifting mankind through art. There seemed to be an idea that this was something the whole world was waiting for. It was obvious that the hope was that the individuals of these guest groups would experience his photos and spread the word far and wide. There was a sense of urgency.
I glanced at some of Da’s books including an encyclopedic set of his (which they write "His") complete works and I noticed that there were a whole lot of books and even more names of Da I hadn’t even heard or seen before.
When we were all still there, we were each given a pad of legal size yellow paper and were asked to write Da a message, for instance, expressing gratitude for being invited to be Beloved’s guest and to experience the gift of his photography in this weekend program - which non-comped people paid upwards of $300 for.
I wrote something like, "Hi there. Great to be here. I’ve got some friends who are students of yours and always wanted to come up and check this place out. Thanks a lot." The fellow read it and sighed and said that they had in mind something a little more – what did he imply? – something a little more polite and respectful and grateful and maybe a tad devotional. The others guests seemed to be more in tune with the expectations of our hosts. But I said that that’s what I had to say and that I wouldn’t change it. He was obviously disappointed but pleasant. People there were always, in my experience, pleasant.
I stayed with my friend and her husband in their charming little house near some other residence facilities and visited with other devotees and drank wine with them and rolled some cigarettes with their tobacco and smoked a little bit of pot with them. I was told that Da had, I think in recent years, said that it was fine for his students to smoke some pot if they wished. He even smoked it for his glaucoma. They are not puritanical at all, which made me feel at ease. I looked at the women and wondered if there might be some possibilities of a different kind, but I realized in time that no woman there would be at all interested in me if my life were not focused on Da, so I dropped that line of hope. Almost all of the talk was about Da or his teaching or photography or what he ate for breakfast. I joked that I was sure if I asked what time it was that I’d be told the time and that then the person with the time would say wistfully, "Beloved has a beautiful watch," or maybe "Beloved always knows what time it is without a watch." Come to think of it, I say that second one about myself. Anyway, when I made this joke, it was taken in good humor.
My friend got me up for optional meditation the next morning. We went to breakfast in the communal dining room. It was good. The people were friendly and fairly tingling with high expectation at how we guests would react to the presentations to come.
The morning started with a tour of the grounds and buildings. It’s a pretty large place, an old resort. Da doesn’t live there anymore. He said that it was too claustrophobic with all his students surrounding him. He started hanging out in the nearby home of one of his devotees and the group bought it for him. The tour was led by a woman who had us all sit in the grass a couple of times to take a break to listen to her read from some of Da’s writings. She made a point that one unique aspect of Adidam is that his students are not to be attached even to him or his teaching. I couldn’t help but make a comment that that was boiler plate spiritual practice attitude and she got a little vexed and snapped a contradiction back at me.
In our first exposure to Da’s photography, we were led to a spacious tent structure with an imposing spiritual name. Da has a distinctive way with words so that I continued to encounter these significant names – though I can’t remember them. It was built of white canvas with an entryway and corridor where we passed by giant reproductions of photos that he’d taken. They were maybe seven feet by four feet, black and white and mainly featured naked women. They were tasteful and serious. Then we went into the main room and sat in chairs and waited. Before long about eight people came out from the right side, each of them dressed in black with white gloves and each solemnly carrying a Da photo maybe two feet high mounted on some sturdy backing, offerings that they then placed on easels so we could admire them from where we were before going up to admire them one by one. We could take all the time we wanted. There was a theme to them consisting of various poses of a naked bearded man, an old SF Zennie and formidable scholar of Korean classics, a middle aged dark-haired naked woman, a younger dark-haired naked woman, a ladder, and an opening in the ceiling. These photographs were in a progression that had some significance but I never much interpret art – I just look at it. And I don’t look at it for too long so after a while I went back to my seat and waited which was relaxing. This guy's really into it, I thought. I especially liked the naked women which I must say made the whole weekend much more agreeable.
So we saw these photos and then were asked to write down our impressions, something we were given ample time to do. And then another group of eight people dressed in black with white gloves walked slowly out and removed the photos. I was just thinking, well that was interesting, when the original eight people in black came out with a new set of photos. Oh, there's more. And then there was more again. This went on and on and on for a few hours and I was getting restless and hungry but they finally stopped coming out with new ones. Then we were given extra time to finalize our comments. My contribution consisted entirely of a large exclamation mark vertically covering the page. My friend who was accompanying me for the whole weekend just giggled at my punctuational comment, but the fellow who was collecting the sheets of paper suggested that I say more and that it wasn’t an impression that he could communicate on the telephone. He said he had to go call Da right away and read all of our comments and that they expected something more. I said that that was my impression and that all he had to do was to say that I’d drawn a big exclamation mark. There was indeed more that I could have written as I had counted the number of photos and groups they were in and could have said something about that. I like numbers.
During lunch some devotees joined us and I think my friend was under minor pressure to get me to write more. She asked me how I liked the program so far and I said that I wasn’t really inclined to be in groups or classes or to be restricted like this but it was interesting and that I’d made a commitment to do what I was expected to do - except write what they expected. She encouraged me to write as much as I could but only what I wished. The lunch was good too - wholesome, natural fare.
After a break there was the afternoon program in another building where there were devotees dancing to some techno music and some sort of light trip. But they weren’t dancing with each other – they were dancing with Da - so to speak. There were big photos of him up on the wall there and they seemed to be pretty blessed out boogying beneath them. These people paid an admission charge of $10.
The music stopped and we all took seats and faced three screens, each with its own automated slide projector. What followed was a several hour slide-noir presentation cum more music of an ever-changing series of black and white photos that Da had done with a carnival theme. What I see now in my mind, and this was several dozen moons ago, is puppets, carved merry-go-round horses, and naked women plus it was all dark and a bit threatening. I thought he must have been influenced by old Orson Wells movies or something existential from back then. It all seemed to be pretty artistic in a shadowy way, but it was hard to think of it as art after it had gone on for a such a long, long time. I was feeling a bit trapped in what was becoming an ordeal. I persevered.
I did write Da a letter that night at dinner on my yellow pad. I said that this to me was endurance art and I pledged that I was in for the duration. It was like being in a Zen sesshin with painful legs and troubled mind and only the vow to stay in one’s seat till the end. "You dish it out, I can take it," I wrote and the message was then collected with the others to be read to Da. Can it be? Yes I think that after dinner there was an evening program of Da’s photography, one that went on for only an hour and a half. But I’m not sure – things were getting a bit blurry as was the line between reality and imagination.
The next morning after breakfast there was another seemingly interminable program with the slide setup and it went on and on, a bit dizzying, but I kept to my seat like a ship captain in a fierce storm bound by rope to the mast.
And then, after whatever we wrote at lunch, we gathered to be briefed on the high point of the weekend, something I’d been hearing about since I arrived. We were to join in with a group of Da’s students in a darshan. My friend was excited because Da has lots of students and, even though she’s been around for some years, she doesn’t get to go to darshan as often as she’d like and on that day she got to go because I was her guest. She and other devotees whom I’d become acquainted with would mention the upcoming audience with enthusiasm. They were happy for me and couldn’t wait to hear my reaction. In the orientation we were told, for one thing, that Da doesn’t perceive the world in the way that we do, that, for instance, when he sees his hand, he doesn’t see the same old solid flesh that we do but a translucent field of energy inter-connected with the whole universe. Hey, I’ve had acid, so I can dig it – though it’s been a long time.
We drove to the staging area. There were people coming and going, on cell phones, standing at doors. There were cars parked there, some expensive large ones that seemed like they were for important people like ambassadors. We sat in a circle on a lawn outside, meditating, preparing for the great opportunity that awaited, and then we walked up a road to a house where there were attendants outside smiling at our good fortune. I entered a room and sat on a cushion with about thirty others pretty much filling the space up. There was a dais in front of us. Then five women came in, his harem, dressed in black. They were strong, confident, attractive women whose ages spanned several decades. I felt a pang of jealousy and thought about equitable distribution. One of them, a young Asian woman, sat in proper Japanese seiza (on shins) by a sliding side door and watched attentively for Da’s arrival. There was moaning coming from some of those who waited. Then she slid open the door and heavy breathing, sighs, and soft calls of "Da!" slowly built. Da entered peacefully and sat down on his dais where he maintained a meditative composure and smiled slightly and benevolently as he looked about the room slowly and deliberately. He's built a little like me - sort of tubby. Balding as well. There was more vocalizing, some people were swooning, maybe even fainting. This went on for about thirty minutes and then he got up and left.
My friend and the other woman I knew, the one who was in charge of this guest program, talked to me before I left. They wanted to know what my experience was of darshan with Beloved and I said it was very enjoyable and peaceful. They pried for more but I said that I was too far gone to be reached by even the most enlightened being in the universe past, present, and future and that I didn't have more to say. They laughed and then changed the subject.
They wanted to know if I could give them the names and contact information of any other people, especially influential people naturally, whom I thought would enjoy spending the weekend being a guest or paying for one of these events. Maybe I could call some of these people up and encourage them to participate in a guest weekend. They had a few names in mind of people they knew I knew. I told them that I would never recommend to anyone that they undergo what I'd just undergone, that I could not submit anyone to this assault. I said they have no sense of limits and they wouldn't get any names from me, that everything's too fanatically centered on Da.
I thought of the lab I'd visited on the tour with so much work going on with his photos being blown up and mounted and added that to everything else I'd taken in and was struck with the enormous amount of help both in terms of people and financing that Da gets. What about everyone else? Do they do anything, any art of their own to deal with all the pain, or is everyone's sole purpose just to attend to Da?
Rather than help them, I said I'd like for them to help me. All that I asked for was that they send one person, just one, to help me with my work. I have tons I want to do and am all alone. They laughed. I asked them if they knew what they, in their overflowing devotion, came across like? I said they were unbearable, like someone in the throws of new love. They laughed again - shamelessly.
I did finally agree to talk to one person very well connected in the art world - he'd been the curator of the Museum of Modern Art in NYC, knew something of Da, and he was someone who could fend for himself. But I told them I'd warn him what he'd be getting into. They were pleased and grateful.
Driving out of the mountainous area where Persimmon is nestled, I felt like a wild animal released from a cage and put a tape of Taj Mahal's Giant Step into the tape deck. I'd done it and I was glad I had, but boy, was I relieved to get out of there.
So that's the story of my visit to Da's community as I remember it. It's been a while so some of the details may not be right - I just told it as ever-changing memory presented it to me. I know that it's not quite fair for me to foist my impression of Persimmon on others - when observed from the outside, the qualities we cherish about many of our most precious moments are not communicated accurately and what comes across is strange and irritating - lovers, men's groups hugging, people with their dogs. The taste of the visit to Persimmon, I'd say on reflection, was a bit acerbic, made my mouth pucker.
A couple of young fellows I'd met at Tassajara during the summer came up to stay with me. We sat in the gazebo in my back yard. They were into a post-Da study group that concentrated on the teaching of Da without Da and were involved with a Ken Wilber study group as well. One of them said that he thought that Da had gone astray and was on the biggest possible ego trip imaginable and gotten paranoid and abusive and he said that even if Da were the World Teacher that he wasn't interested in having him as a teacher. My thoughts exactly. A bird was chirping from a high branch.
On the wall above a desk in my old Sebastopol house was a small flier for an event to expose people to the teaching of Da. It said something like, "The long awaited God man is here." There was a photo of him and his most recent name, and it announced an event where you can learn that – I think I’ve got this right - "Tolerance + cooperation = peace" and in superscript after the word peace was the trademark sign. There was to be a video featuring Da and a presentation on his teaching. There was a charge too – something like seven dollars. I kept this flier when I moved, but it’s packed away somewhere. Must find it and get it back up on the wall.
“Quandra Loka #231," 2003, pig-
mented inks on canvas, 60 x 40".
Relevant Links - there's lots more about Da on these sites and on the web. Just search for Adi Da, Daism, Adidam and other words that seem uniquely pertinent.
Adida Archives - a critical look at Adi Da
Light Mind - is said to be planning to dump either just material on Adi Da material or whole site soon.
Wikipedia on Adi Da - excellent and comprehensive with linksThe Knee of Daism - deconstructing Adi Da - lots here and elsewhere on this large site about Da and Daism pro and con with lots of interaction between devotees and ex-devotees. The Da folks do engage.
1976 Article by Jack Garvy - American-born guru, Bubba Free John, retires.
Katy Butler on Da from 1985 San Francisco Chronicle
Interview with Arthur Deikman - just for the bird-singing story.
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