Think Free


Ram Dass – Bridging East and West

ram dass by ari evergreen

ram dass by Ari Evergreen via Flickr

Ram Dass (1931 – ) Richard Alpert, now Ram Dass, was born into a wealthy, educated Jewish American family. After receiving his Ph.D. in psychology at Stanford he grew increasingly dissatisfied with conventional approaches to understanding the psyche. So he became a full-fledged spiritual seeker.

He traveled to India and found a personal guru. His Indian guide eventually renamed him Ram Dass (teacher), which for many he was to become.

Since the 1960’s Ram Dass has lectured across North America and authored several popular books about comparative religion and spirituality. Ideas like synchronicity and the miraculous are all quite real for Ram Dass. He argues that the Western mind is too linear and pragmatic to appreciate these phenomena.

For Ram Dass, spiritual awareness and the phenomena accompanying it are usually viewed by Westerners as “weird.”

Writing in a kind of 1970’s flower-power hippie style, Ram Dass unfortunately contributes to the misguided and judgmental notion that the East is more spiritual than the West. This shortcoming aside, his work is not without merit.

Interestingly, Ram Dass says his brother lived in a psychiatric hospital. His brother, he says, believes that his way of seeing the world is the only way. So the sane differ from the insane, he implies, in that the former can consider other viewpoints while the latter cannot. This definition seems a bit lacking. It would make, for instance, Catholic priests or any firm religious believers insane.

Concerning the idea of reincarnation, he suggests that it

doesn’t have to be linear…it may well be in terms of past, present, and future all being here simultaneously. There are many ways of thinking about the fifth dimension of infinite repetition and changes¹

Zalman Schachter-Shalomi and Ram Dass

Zalman Schachter-Shalomi and Ram Dass (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Noted for his honesty, Ram Dass once wrote in Yoga Journal that loving one’s enemies, as Jesus Christ taught, is easy to fake but not always easy to do.²

After suffering a stroke in the 1990’s, Ram Dass still holds public engagements. He says that his condition has brought him closer to God. In a 2003 Toronto Star article he remarks that while most people his age are still trying to be youthful, he sits by the window and contemplates the Divine.

Today, his influence lives on, as travelerseeker testifies:

Ram Dass is an amazing person. I had the honor of meeting him many years ago at a metaphysical conference where he was signing books. Got the book, his signature and a hug…will never forget it or him!

For me, one of the more amusing stories comes from a tape I heard back in the 1980s. Ram Dass tells the tale of being stopped by a police officer on the freeway. Apparently the officer was momentarily affected by Ram Dass’ blissful state and gave him a free pass, which reminds me of the scene in Star Wars where Obi-Wan Kenobi gets past security guards by using “The Force.”

On a more practical note, I find that giving out good vibes, for their own sake, often does help in sticky situations—unless the other person is just a creep through and through, which also happens sometimes.

¹ Ram Dass, The Only Dance There Is, New York: Anchor Books, 1974, p. 143.

² I saw this in the early 1990s in a bookstore while buying books by Carl Jung for my PhD. Unfortunately, that’s about as precise as I can be on this reference.

Related articles


1 Comment

Stigmata – signs of holiness or illness?

Francisco de Zurbarán - St Francis of Assisi R...

Francisco de Zurbarán – St Francis of Assisi Receiving the Stigmata – WGA26078 (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Stigmata are physical marks of Christ‘s crucifixion miraculously received on a person’s hands and feet. At least, this is what those who receive stigmata usually believe. Modern critics have suggested that physical or, perhaps, mental illness may come into play in the production of stigmata.

The phenomenon is found mostly in Catholicism, although not all stigmata are authenticated by the Catholic Church. And about 80% of stigmatics are women.

As with any kind of religious, especially mystical, phenomenon, it is difficult to ascertain when someone is just sick or misguided vs. intensely spiritual. Sometimes, in my opinion, the two combine. Physical or mental sickness may be a way of purifying or humbling a seeker. The big question, however, is whether the person gets better and realizes they’re off kilter, or whether they just continue in their nuttiness.

There is no shame in someone admitting that they have made errors in trying to figure out their spiritual life.  It would be very surprising indeed, if a seeker did not make mistakes. We all make mistakes in life. Mistakes in investing, in relationships, in parenting. Why would it be any different with the inner life? In fact, those pursuing the inner life are especially prone to making mistakes because of its subtle and private character.

But to return to the topic at hand, this is not to say that stigmata are false. However, any account that blindly accepts stigmata without a thorough investigation is, in my view, suspect.

Phenomena similar to stigmata occur in non-Christian religions. But it would be wrong to say these are equivalent to Christian stigmata because the Trinitarian doctrine of Christianity, and many more of its features, are unique.

Related » St. Francis of Assisi


Barbara Thiering

Dea sea scroll display is

Dea sea scroll display is (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Barbara Thiering (1930 – ) is an Australian author of several works, including the best-selling Jesus and The Riddle of the Dead Sea Scrolls.

Thiering takes a naturalist approach and believes that the miraculous aspects of the New Testament are just codified political statements. She studied the Dead Sea Scrolls, which mention a “teacher of righteousness” and writes that this teacher existed in the Qumran community, somewhere between 200 BCE and the time of Jesus.

For Thiering, the Dead Sea Scrolls reveal the social conditions and practices of the Qumran community. And she believes the New Testament writings about the nearby Early Christian community can be assessed from the perspective of the Qumran community. For instance, in Qumran all newcomers were apparently initiated, regardless of social standing, with a baptism of water. Members of the inner circle were also given “The Drink of the Community,” which Thiering says was wine.

Thiering argues that Jesus’ first miracle of turning water into wine at the wedding ceremony at Canaan reveals the Gospel writer’s ingenious attempt to symbolically convey Christ’s true message—that group membership is not just for a select few, but for all types of people (John 2: 1-11).

Ad for DSS in WSJ

Ad for DSS in WSJ (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Thiering likewise says that the miracles of the virgin birth (Matthew 1-18-25; Luke 1:26-38; Isaiah 7:14), walking on water (Matthew 14:25; Mark 6:48-51), the multiplication of loaves (Matthew 14:15-21; 15:32-38), the eating of miraculously obtained fish (John 21:1-11) and the raising of Lazarus from the dead (John 11:1-44) represent the Gospel writers’ use of symbolism to depict natural events and Jesus’ political motives.

Jesus, she claims, didn’t walk on water but walked on a “jetty” (a wharf or a dock). She also sees as metaphorical the Gospel account of Peter getting “out of the boat” to “walk on the water” toward Jesus. Peter’s becoming afraid and beginning to “sink” when the wind picked up is said to be purely allegorical, as was Christ’s “outstretched hand” that rescued him (Matthew 14: 25-32).

Common sense says we cannot “sink” while standing on a jetty. But for Thiering Peter’s symbolic sinking represents his fear of being “number two” to Christ. His sympathy with the rite of circumcision, which Paul abrogated, would make him “sink” in stature.

Citing another New Testament passage that claims it’s better to drown with a millstone around your neck in the sea than suffer the consequences of placing a “stumbling block” before one of God’s children (Matthew 18:6), Thiering says this passage relates to supports her interpretation of Peter’s sinking (Matthew 14:30) because “the same verb” is used.¹

But from a broader perspective, her argument seems questionable. Some scholars insist that portions of the Qumran scrolls were, in fact, imported from outside Qumran. Others say that the scrolls might be commentaries on Old Testament scripture.

Near Qumran, where the original Dead Sea Scrol...

Near Qumran, where the original Dead Sea Scrolls were discovered in the 1940s. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Randall Price says that Thiering’s logic sometimes contradicts itself. Price points out that Thiering’s use of the so-called “pesher technique,” that apparently gets at the true meaning of the scrolls, is a false attempt to legitimize what is nothing more than her own individual interpretation, weakly supported (as sometimes happens with overzealous researchers) by a vast amount of illogically applied data.

According to Price, “pesher” simply means commentary.

Florentino Garcia Martinez rather bluntly says:

Thiering’s work is a wholly artificial construction that not only disregards logic and distorts the meaning of events, but trespasses all reasonable boundaries of sound historical reconstruction.²

Poststructural and semiotic approaches suggest that the motif of sinking and being rescued connotes not just one, but a plethora of possible meanings (for instance, losing and regaining faith).

English: Remains of living quarters at Qumran.

Remains of living quarters at Qumran. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Meanwhile, many Christian writers say that the symbolic import of miraculous events need not conflict with their historicity. Instead of reducing the miraculous to the natural and political, the events and teachings in the life of Christ arguably serve a dual function: First, they are actual, for the benefit of those around Christ at the time. Second, they are symbolic for the pastoral benefit of subsequent generations.

If Gospel stories have been exaggerated, we must remember that this was a common technique used in Bible times. Stories were exaggerated for emphasis.  So the details of a big emotional and spiritual event would normally have been exaggerated in its retelling to try to convey the supernatural awe and wonder experienced by actual witnesses.

Another view from depth psychology differs from Thiering’s as well as from orthodox Christian perspectives.

English: Joseph Campbell, late 1970

Joseph Campbell, late 1970 (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Depth psychology makes use of the mythic instead of the historical dimension of Christ. Contemporary individuals don’t undergo physical crucifixion, death and visible resurrection. Instead, thinkers like Carl Jung, Joseph Campbell and James Hillman say the Christ story depicts an archetypal truth about psychological transformation.

Individuals sometimes undergo a symbolic death of outmoded, inappropriate ego-attitudes. In the best case scenario, these are replaced by newer, more comprehensive realizations—a symbolic type of resurrection.

¹ Jesus and The Riddle of the Dead Sea Scrolls, Toronto: Doubleday, 1992: 329.

² Randall Price, Secrets of the Dead Sea Scrolls, Eugene, Oregon: Harvest House Publishers, 1996: 361-369.

Related Posts » Christology, Language



Portugal Fatima

Portugal Fatima by Fr Antunes via Flickr

  1.  Fatimah is the daughter of Mohammed who, among certain Shi’ite Muslim groups, has become an object of veneration, arguably with some similarities to the cult of the Blessed Virgin Mary (BVM) in Catholicism.
  2. In Portugal Fatima is a town with a shrine of the BVM where it’s believed that Mary appeared to three young children in 1917, a claim apparently supported by countless miracle stories.