I really love movies. I got hooked early. I grew up to some extent on military bases, in an era when the theaters changed films every night and the movies themselves cost all of a quarter. Later, in college, movies were still cheap and at my school they stopped charging after the film had been on for ten minutes, so even if I was broke I could still go to the movies. This habit proved increasingly more expensive as the years went on, but it never really left me. I was a total movie freak, seeing several a week, sometimes seeing the same film many times. I told my friends I was doing this to study them and figure out how the people who had made my favorite films had created the magic that was so obviously up there on the screen. But in reality I saw my faves over and over because I wanted to memorize the best lines in them. I have a weakness for great one-liners, and movies contain more than their share of them.
So imagine my surprise and delight when I ran into Rama and discovered that he was a movie freak, too. He peppered his public talks with movie lines, many of which I had memorized myself. He used movies the way Joseph Campbell used myths, as teaching devices. Campbell used to say that the reason great myths have persisted so long in human consciousness is that the stories themselves were “consciousness batteries.”
A myth is not simply a story. It’s a tale of power, told and retold with skill by priests and shamans and bards for centuries because it really is a consciousness battery. The storytellers have learned that there really is a kind of power embedded in the myths, and whenever they retell them they can see that same power on the faces of the people who listen to the tales and are inspired by them.
A movie is not simply a story. The great ones are myths in their own right — true consciousness batteries — and even the lamest B-movie can contain one or two moments of great humor or light or nobility. Rama used those moments to teach us about different states of attention.
We used to go see movies together. Only they weren’t just movies when you went to see them with Rama. As far as I can tell, he would sit there quietly beside us in the theater, munching his popcorn, and crank the knob up to 11 and shift us into a more interesting state of attention. Suffice it to say that the special effects were not only up on screen. And then afterwards — for years afterward — if it was a good film or if it contained a few cool moments, he could use lines from the movie to shift us back to that same heightened state of attention.
It was a kind of spiritual shorthand. For example, in an elegant dining room at the Pierre, giving a talk to his students about getting their software businesses together, Rama could have talked for hours to a sea of uncomprehending faces about the kind of warrior mindstate we needed to make money here in New York. Or he could do what he often did, and just drop the appropriate movie line from Conan The Barbarian or Full Metal Jacket or Predator into the conversation. Zap! If we had seen the film — especially if we had seen it with him — we were instantly shifted back to that moment in the film, and could take advantage of the power stored in those words spoken onscreen to just put on the mindstate of the warrior who spoke them. Then Rama could just kick back and talk to a roomful of warriors about kicking butt in the software business. No muss, no fuss, no explanations necessary. Spiritual shorthand.
It was really cool. I miss it a lot. So many movies, so many mindstates, so many cool moments. I have many of these films in my personal collection, and I pull them out and watch them again from time to time to remind me of those moments and those mindstates. There are martial arts movies, to remind me to get my butt in gear. There are art movies, to remind me that art matters. There are films about nobility and sacrifice, to remind me that I matter. There are horror movies, to remind me that being a wimp just gets you killed in the first reel. And there's a whole shelf of comedies, to remind me to laugh.
I look at it as a kind of high-tech mindfulness. Whenever I find myself stuck in some unproductive rut, all I need to do to shake myself out of it is to pull the appropriate film off the shelf and watch it. I meditate as I watch, paying particular attention to the mindstates I want to develop. And voilà, I am in that mindstate. It’s the coolest thing. Mainstream America might find it a little weird, but then mainstream America spends a gazillion dollars a year on painkillers and tranquilizers and other mind-altering substances, so I think I’m getting off cheap with my movie collection.
Tonight I watched The Road Warrior. I never saw it with Rama; it was one of those films he discovered on his own and told us about at a weekly Center Meeting in Manhattan Beach. The next week, after we all had a chance to see it, he went on for hours about how it was an extremely Buddhist film. As I sat on my rug watching the film tonight, I tried to remember what he said. It went something like this.
In the flashbacks that start the movie we learn that the main character, Max, is a classic burnout case. He has seen his world fall apart around him and his wife and child murdered in front of him. He spends some time as a rogue warrior, cruising the highways looking for the bikers who killed his family, exacting his revenge. And he learns that revenge is not sweet. As the flashbacks end and the real film starts, we see him for what he has become. He is still a road warrior cruising the highways, but now without even the comfort of anger and revenge to keep him going. He is brainburned and bitter and loveless and his life, as Jewel might say, has somehow gotten stuck on survive.
In the ruins of a post-apocalyptic road society that needs the last precious drops of gasoline to perpetuate itself, the strong rule and the weak…uh…get sucked dry. Max runs into a group of survivors who have managed to start distilling gasoline. They have the 'juice,' but they are weak and are surrounded by the bad guys, who are strong, so they can’t get the gasoline out of the fortress they hide in and to somewhere it will do them some good. Partly to save his own ass, partly to score some of the precious juice for himself, Max strikes a deal with these folks to obtain for them a diesel rig big enough to haul all their gas at once. Much adventure and mayhem ensue, which give Max loads of opportunities to reveal the hero lurking beneath the burnt-out shell. When he succeeds, the folks in the fortress ask him to stay with them.
Max doesn’t hesitate for a moment. He says no. He is a loner, and wants nothing to do with a bunch of people he sees as weak, with not much chance for survival. So he loads up his gas and drives off into the sunrise. He doesn’t get far. A couple of the bad guys waste his car and kill his dog and are about to kill him when one of his booby traps takes out the bad guys instead. Rescued by the fortress folks, he considers his prospects. They ask him to drive the truck himself, but again he says no. It is only when the only strong person in the group gets injured and says that he is going to try to drive the truck anyway that Max steps in and offers his services.
This is the moment that Rama liked. Something happens to Max in that moment. Part of him wants to just wait until the distillers have driven away and then take his chances on foot. He doesn’t need these guys. But another part of him, hidden deep within the burned-out road warrior, realizes that these people don’t stand a chance without him, and that they desperately need him. So he goes against all of his inner urges and volunteers for what he suspects is a suicide mission.
Why? Well, according to Rama, it’s because he’s a Buddhist. And there comes a point in the life of every Buddhist when the welfare of others becomes more important to you than your own.
I think that Rama loved this film because it revealed in that screen moment similar moments that he experienced all the time. Rama didn’t really need his students. But often we needed him. So over and over and over through the years, when it would have been so much easier and more pleasant for him to just pack it in and go his way alone, he didn’t. He reorg’d and started over. He continued to teach.
I have watched The Road Warrior dozens of times, especially when I was teaching meditation classes in an era of anti-cult hysteria and needed something to inspire me to keep on keepin’ on. And every time this scene comes on I pay attention to it. I gaze at Max’s face and try to see the inner strength he is drawing on to make his decision. It has always worked for me. I always come away from the viewing inspired to start over, to reorg my own life and continue doing what the inner me knows should be done, as opposed to what the outer me wants to do.
This is not the only film that I use in this fashion. I saw and discussed so many films with Rama that there is a seemingly endless reserve of them to draw upon when I need inspiration. When I run into obstacles at work and need to deal with them forcefully, I just plop The Seven Samurai into the player and immerse myself in the warrior mindset. When I start losing it, and my self image is lower than a snake’s ass, I put on The Verdict and watch as Paul Newman transforms himself from loser to winner. I see the change on his face and try to see where he is drawing his strength from. And almost every time, when I look at myself in the mirror afterwards, I tend to see more of a winner than a loser. I could go on and on. It’s one of the techniques I learned from Rama that I value most — how to use movies, something I already loved, as a tool for self discovery and change.
So it was with some sense of anticipation that, after receiving my new Sony laptop in the mail, I went out shopping for the first film I wanted to play on it. The Vaio Te Ching has a DVD-ROM drive and huge battery resources, so I was looking forward to being able to watch films on the plane when I flew off to work in different cities. I went to the video store and started perusing the shelves, looking for something appropriate and powerful as my first purchase. I had resolved to buy only one, and because I have so many favorite films I was honestly curious to find out which one it would be.
I searched the stacks, considering many faves and rejecting them one after another as somehow not right, when my eyes lit upon a particular box. It just leaped out off the shelf at me, screaming, “Me! Me! Buy me! I’m the one.” I tried to ignore its screams, because the film was fairly new, and I had wanted to buy something I had actually seen in a theater with Rama. But in the end its pitiful wailing won me over, and I took it to the counter and bought it. What can I say? Sometimes I’m just a big softie.
I took it home, and after fixing some dinner and pouring myself a glass of a good St. Émilion, I plugged my studio headphones into the computer and fired up the DVD. At first I was just captured by the experience, seeing a film in its true wide-screen aspect on my laptop, but then, as the teaser scene faded and the title — City Of Angels — came on the screen, the significance of my choice hit me. Hard. I almost spilled my wine.
I am so dense sometimes. I first saw City Of Angels in Chicago, with my friend Dakota and his young niece. I had been looking forward to seeing it for some time, but with some trepidation. It was a remake, and to make matters even worse, a remake of one of my favorite spiritual films, Wim Wenders’ Wings Of Desire. Remakes are almost never as good as the original, but this one starred an actress I like a lot, Meg Ryan, so I had hope. I needn’t have worried. The filmmakers took some visuals and the basic plot from the original film, but then took off into previously unexplored territory, giving the new version a vision all its own. The three of us sat there transfixed, completely lost in the film — laughing, crying, feeling all of its emotion washing over and through us. It is a film about love and sacrifice and dying, so there was a great deal of emotion to surf. At the end, not one of us could move. We just sat there watching the credits and then the blank screen until one of us managed to get up and leave and the others followed. Dakota saw his niece home and the two of us walked back to his apartment together. I don’t think we even talked about the film; at least I don’t think I did — I was too blown away.
A couple of days later, back in Santa Fe, I was driving to a café where I hoped to run into one of the waitresses, for whom I had developed a major case of the lusties. But halfway there, for some reason, I changed both my mind and my direction and drove to a movie theater instead, paid my money, and settled in to watch City Of Angels for the second time. I was blown away yet again. It’s a powerful film. I drove home and, entering my office, noticed that I had a message on my answering machine. I don’t get that many messages, so I walked over and pushed the button.
It was a short and simple message from Dakota. It said, “Rama died.”
I was hoping it was a joke, but having just come from seeing a powerful film about death and dying, I could feel that it wasn’t. I called Dakota, and he told me what he had heard, that Rama’s body had been found in the bay near his house on Long Island. Details were sketchy, but it seemed obvious that there was something not quite right about it all, because a police investigation was underway. I felt remarkably calm for some reason, and took advantage of it to call a couple of friends and pass the news along to them. The only redeeming moment of this otherwise onerous task was my brother’s reaction. I found him awake at his computer in the middle of the night, and echoed Dakota’s words: “Rama died.” My brother said, without a moment’s hesitation, “Wow…I didn’t think he could.” We both laughed.
I think Rama would have, too. It’s true. He had been so successful at creating an image of strength and invulnerability that few of his students had been able to even conceive of him dying.
But he did. And that’s what this particular story is really about. I kinda suckered you into it by starting light and talking about movies, and if you are offended, I apologize. But just as no tale about Rama and being his student would be complete without a discussion of the cult thing, no tale can do justice to his life without dealing with his death.
In the days following the news that he was gone, more details came out. There seemed to be little doubt that his death was a suicide. The autopsy found a huge amount of Valium in his stomach, and in the stomach of his companion, who had somehow survived. She later revealed that Rama had become addicted to Valium which had originally been prescribed for him, but which lately had become a problem. He had recently attempted to stop taking it, which left him severely depressed and suicidal. After some time trying to talk him out of suicide — a basically impossible task given the force of Rama’s personality — she persuaded him to allow her to join him. So they dressed up in their finest, swallowed a shitload of pills, and went down to the dock to take one last look at the bay. Disoriented from all the pills, Rama fell in the water, and although she tried to pull him out, he “just floated away.”
Reconstructing the timeline, I realized that this had probably happened while Dakota and his niece and I were watching City Of Angels.
Other than that strange synchronicity, it’s not exactly a movie ending.
Especially for a Buddhist teacher, one considered by his students to be fully enlightened. Talk about cognitive dissonance. It just didn’t compute. It still doesn’t, but because I made a promise to myself when I started writing these stories to be as honest as I possibly could with them, I owe it to you to talk about it a little.
I don’t get to talk about it much. On the rare occasions when I get together with someone who studied with Rama, somehow the subject never comes up. I hear through the grapevine that everyone has their own pet theory. They range from acceptance of his companion’s story to claims that he was seriously ill and chose to take his own life rather than waste away in some ghastly hospital room to suggestions that he performed one last noble Buddhist gesture and somehow mitigated the karmas of his students with his own death to statements that he isn’t really dead at all, that if you simply focus on his energy he is as accessible today as he ever was.
Me, I don't know. Given the fact that I had ceased studying with him a couple of years earlier, and had only seen him a few times during those years, I am not really in a position to make statements about his state of mind at the time. When I left, I made all the proper phone calls and asked to have my name taken off all the appropriate mailing and voicemail lists and paid my last month’s tuition, and I just went my own way. Some time later, when Surfing The Himalayas was released, I went to the autograph party in Boston and said hello. He was gracious, as he always was. He smiled and said something to me like, “I’m glad to see you dropped by.” I replied, “I wouldn’t have missed it for the world.”
A few days later, I drove down to New York for another lecture and autograph party there. After the talk, I stood patiently in line with the others to have my copy of the book signed. When I got to the front of the line, Rama looked up at me briefly and then turned his attention to writing in my book. Without looking up, he said quietly, “I miss you.” I didn’t say anything. What could I say? I just couldn’t hack studying with him any more; the direction it had all taken just did not seem to be mine. He knew it and I knew it.
Those were the last words he ever spoke to me.
Some months later, I attended one of his Shakespeare seminars, but had to leave early, so I never got a chance to say hello. The next time I saw him — and the last — was at one of his seminars at SUNY Purchase in New York. I had gone there with my friend Yogini, who had left the study about the same time I did, and was curious to know what it would be like to go back. I don’t know what her experience was, but I was definitely struck by something that evening. It was a semi-public seminar; long-time students had invited guests. Rama was sitting on stage, telling uplifting stories. I had seen him do this many times in the years I spent with him. He would sit there and tell tales of power to inspire us, to shift our states of attention to a higher and brighter place than the one we walked in with. But this time, it felt different. It took me some time to pin down what the difference was, but finally I got it. It seemed to me that he wasn’t so much trying to inspire us as he was trying to inspire himself. It was if he was trying to get it up, in every sense of that phrase. It saddened me somehow. I left without speaking with him.
I split and went back to Santa Fe, and when the next opportunity to see him came up — at a big, free seminar in which he was going to perform a special initiation — I passed. I hear I wasn’t the only one. A lot of the older students, the ones who had been around in the first few years of his teaching, chose not to attend.
Then, a few months later, I got that phone call and learned of his suicide. I have spent some time in the years since thinking about it, trying to come up with my own theory about why he did it, and about the best one I can come up with is, “I don't know.” But in the interest of completeness, I will share some of the first drafts with you.
To some extent, Rama’s death was the inevitable outcome of a self-fulfilling prophecy. Early on, he used to say that spiritual teachers were like stars. “A star burns itself up to give light.” He believed that teachers expended so much energy in the teaching process that it severely cut into their natural lifetimes. And if the stories I hear about his ill health at the end were true, he may have learned that burning out slowly is a bitch and he may have decided to go nova instead. Was he really sick? We'll never know. The autopsy found no indication of serious disease, but if Rama thought he was sick, that's all it would have taken. He would have assumed that his seeing was correct and the doctors were wrong. And if he thought that he was dying, he would have taken things into his own hands. Rama was definitely not a waste-away-in-a-hospital-room kinda guy. But I don't know.
From another point of view, he may have chosen his time and method of dying as a slap in the face to his students and to the world. One last in-your-face, majorly mind-boggling guilt trip for them to deal with and process. On one level, suicide is almost always a kind of passive-aggressive slap in the face, a kind of final “Fuck you!” Could this have been part of what Rama was thinking as he downed those pills? In the last months I studied with him, he certainly seemed to have had a low opinion of his students, and he certainly had that slap-in-the-face, prone-to-expansive-gestures side to his personality.
I remember one night in Amsterdam, meeting him in yet another public restroom after his last talk there. He looked sad and worn. He had good reason. Most of the people we had invited to his talks hated him. They didn't just dislike him or find nothing in his talk that inspired them. They hated him. To this day, I am still not sure why. Anyway, by now used to running into him in such surroundings, I tried to think of something positive to say.
At Rama's talks, there was always a high-tech CD player on the table next to him. He would use it to play Zazen music for the meditations, but he also had a habit of picking one last CD, something to play in the background as he left the stage. It could be anything from Tina Turner to Ministry to Neil Young to more Zazen. I really don't think he ever pre-planned what he was going to play; he just finished all that he had to say and searched through the CDs in his briefcase and selected one that summed up the evening. Never having gotten over a brief stint as a radio DJ in my youth, I considered this habit of his to be High Art; the selections were always perfect. He ended the talk in Amsterdam by selecting Cindy Lauper's Hat Full Of Stars, the last lines of which were still echoing in my mind:
Rama said quietly, "It was a high Buddhist insult to the people of Amsterdam."
So could Rama's suicide be considered a last "Fuck you" to the world? You betcha. He got off on gestures like that. But I don't know.
From only a slightly different point of view cosmically, but far different point of view karmically, he could have really designed his death as one last magnificent gesture, one last sacrifice to serve as a wake-up call to his students and the world. One of his favorite films, after all, was William Peter Blatty’s The Ninth Configuration, in which the main character emulates Christ’s sacrifice and kills himself not out of despair but to save another soul. Rama could have had something like this in mind as he took that last swim. He got off on gestures like that, too. And this is the theory I like best, because I like to imagine Rama slipping into the Bardo with the welfare of others as his intent. But I don't know.
He could have felt trapped, and felt that this was his only way out. In private, he talked often of his desire to just split, to have nothing more to do with any of his students or Dateline or a world that so obviously didn’t appreciate his subtlety. Because above all, Rama was subtle. It’s one reason I love the man and identify with him so much. He was a walking anachronism, a man born into the wrong time and place, a subtle man in a world that not only does not appreciate subtlety but cannot even see it. He must have learned this early, because he played his emotional cards so close to the vest. I can count the number of times he really showed us what he was all about on one hand. If what he said about himself and his various lives was true, he must have been severely heartbroken that the world failed to appreciate him and his incredible sense of humor. At times he must have felt like an up-and-coming comic who bombs on The Tonight Show.
All I know is, for most of the last few years I was around him, I rarely saw him smile. I don’t think he was having fun with the teaching process any more, and he didn’t even seem to be having fun with the forget-spirituality-and-focus-on-making-money philosophy that he espoused. And that’s the saddest theory of all to consider. But I don't know.
Rama was so closed to other people, so protective of his real feelings about things, that I suspect we’ll never know why he killed himself. Knowing him as long as I did, and as little as I did, I don’t think he would have confided his real reasons for leaving this world even to the person he chose to accompany him. My reading of the man is that he chose her for that dubious honor precisely because he could say anything he wanted and know that it would be accepted because her trust in him was so profound and so pure. I have profound respect for her and for that purity. I envy it. Having been pretty much a heretic in all of my incarnations, driven to question everything, I would love to have that level of faith. But I don’t. I seem to have been fated with a lifetime of wondering and wandering.
The bottom line is that I don't know. I have no idea why Rama chose to exit this world when he did, the way he did. I will never know. It was his last koan, and it’s a dilly. It will easily keep me busy for the rest of this incarnation and for many to come. And at times, when I am in the flow of Road Trip Mind and realize that the universe doesn’t make mistakes and that everything happens at the right time, perfectly, I thank him even for this weird final gesture.
But other times, like tonight, I get melancholy about it all, and even the most powerful, mythic film doesn’t seem to help. At times like these, I resort to a recurring fantasy. I imagine that I had actually known Rama’s phone number when I first moved to Santa Fe, when he had a house here too. I would have given him a call and invited him over for dinner. If he had accepted, I would have ordered food from India Palace and we would have scarfed it down and I would have lost abysmally at the hot-chutney-chugging contest. And afterwards I would have brought out my best bottle of tequila and a couple of my Bimbo Club shot glasses and put on a movie and we would have sat there on the Zapotec rug drinking and laughing and enjoying the film. And I’m sure the two of us would have had far too much to drink, but I wouldn’t have fallen asleep, even if Rama did. I would have forced myself to stay awake and watch the movie until the right moment, and then I would have reached over and nudged him and pointed at the screen. And the two of us would have sat there in silence and watched Max offer to drive the truck once again, as he had in every incarnation, in every world, in every time. And Rama would have smiled, and everything would have been different.
But I didn’t, and he didn’t, and it isn’t. Whoever you were, Rama, whatever you were thinking, whatever you intended, you’re gone. And on nights like this one, sitting on my rug watching The Road Warrior alone, I remember your last words to me and I say to the television what I should have said to you then: “I miss you too, man. I really do. Thank you for everything. I wouldn’t have missed it for the world.”