“Be Here Now” was the logos for a turbulent time. Like many of my generation, I read Ram Dass with great interest, usually in an altered state back in 71. Ram Dass inspired me to pursue the path of spiritual discovery that I’m still on today. Ram Dass aka Richard Alpert and Timothy Leary were professors at Harvard University. They began using and proclaiming the virtues of entheogens like LSD in the 60s in a very public way. Leary assumed the role of psychedelic provocateur, seeking to build and lead a new counter-culture. Both were expelled from Harvard, which only furthered their fame. Richard Alpert traveled to India in search of enlightenment and returned as Ram Dass, advance scout of Western higher consciousness – people like me soon followed.
With the use of psychoactive substances, many of the 60s generation opened up to Eastern religions like Buddhism, Hinduism, and Taoism, not to mention Shamanism and the host of Western earth religions. As time passed, most understandably discarded such esoteric traditions for the allure of capitalism and the values they had once rebelled against. Decades have now passed and quite a lot of us find ourselves in a quandary. Many of us thought we understood what life was all about – but we really didn’t and still don’t. Faced with the basic sufferings of aging, sickness, and death, we find that superficial knowledge and materialism offer us scant practical protection when facing serious illness or in the decay of our twilight years. Death, the great unmasker, is the most formidable reality of all and we don’t have a clue how to deal with it. Ram Dass was there for us when we first embarked on our quest and he’s here for us now with the wisdom of age and transcendental experience. There is the unmistakable ring of truth in his words.
Still Here: Embracing Aging, Changing, and Dying (Riverhead, 2000) is the most important book I’ve read for those trying to understand their own journey into old age and the challenges that come with it. There’s nothing comparable to it in the SGI catalog that I’ve read. Ram Dass, whose name means servant of God, is a Hindu who practices mindfulness meditation, among other things. For Buddhists who get hung up on the idea of God and concepts such as the soul, his writings may seem heretical. Please get over it. Read between the lines and find what you need to advance – and there’s wealth of germane guidance. Wisdom is wisdom, even if you regard it as patently provisional. Once we open up our minds to the insights of other teachings, our life is improved. If you’re reading this blog that’s proof you have openness to ideas out of the mainstream. I’ve found that the really cool discoveries in life aren’t in the mainstream, they’re off the beaten path – but don’t get yourself lost.

One of the most important practical ideas that Ram Dass presents is the Three Levels of Being. This principle is of great value to us because a shift in our psychological perspective enables us to weather suffering, gain from adversity, and find peace of spirit, even at death’s doorstep.
The Three Levels of Being are: Awareness (atman), the Soul (jivatman), and the Ego. Picture a target and its bulls-eye. For most people, the Ego is in the center circle, the soul surrounds the Ego in the second sphere, and the atman of supreme awareness is beyond the border of soul, encompassing all phenomena. This perception is the same as God and heaven is “out there.” The Ego, which constructs the universe around itself from early childhood, is our biggest problem later in life because it obscures who and what we really are – Buddha, God, et al. It’s the Ego, terrified of its own dissolution that causes us to fear death. It’s the Ego that thrives on attachment. It’s the Ego that fortifies individuality and causes us to see our life as separate from the environment and others. Through our practice and study, we learn that all life is connected. It’s the Ego that hates and causes war. With some breakthroughs, we might actually experience this reality of enlightenment in the center, and begin to actually live with that mindset.
“The Ego is the program that runs personality, the body, and interactions with others on the physical plane. It can be a very useful tool. The Ego only becomes destructive when a person identifies the Ego as her or his whole being. That brings tremendous suffering, because the Ego is full of desires the fulfillment of which will never bring lasting happiness. Such as person becomes trapped in time and desires. If you take the perspective of the Ego, then there is suffering as the Ego struggles to preserve its identity in the face of the Soul’s desire to merge with God.” (Riverhead, 2000, pg. 80.)
Ram Dass suggests that to conquer suffering, one needs to shift perspective. Doing so isn’t as easy as snapping our fingers. We’re dealing with a lifetime of conditioning and Ego entrenchment deep and pervasive as the blood vessels in our own body. The natural order of the Three Realms of Being for an enlightened person is atman in the center, the eternal soul surrounding the atman, and the transient, ever-hungry Ego displaced from center stage, into the third realm. When this adjustment is made one realizes that I’m more than Charles (or you); I’m more than my career, more than my body, more than my problems, more than my sufferings, and far more than any illness. Many spiritual aspirants of diverse paths have attempted to purge the Ego, with rare and marginal success. Lotus Sutra-based Buddhism can explain this error of perspective from the standpoint of engyo, or unification of the three truths.
En’yo no santai postulates that the Three Truths of ke-ku-chu are not separate in that each contains the other in a singular truth. Santai is a perfectly round truth and aptly depicts (our) life. Ke is the truth of temporary existence that is physical like our bodies. It also represents the Id, the raging realm of impulses for survival and reproduction. Ke is the realm of the Ego. Ku is the truth of non-substantiality, nonlocality, potential, and the dynamics of karmic effect in our lives. Most people are taught that chu is the middle way and render that superficial representation as a social or behavioral means for living a proper Buddhist life. Chu is a far deeper concept than the term the “middle way.” It seems to me that a more clear definition of chu is supreme spiritual essence.
If we can visualize the above template and view it through the lens of the Three Truths, then we can benefit from this fundamentally sound idea of changing our perspective. When we substitute “ke” for the Ego, “ku” for soul, and “chu” for atman, we have arrived at a better understanding of how to reorient our life so that attachment and selfish craving are moved from the center, where the Ego has always ruled. In the Ego’s place we assert atman or chu. In other words, we move Buddhahood to the center. Encircling this pure center is the soul or ku. Strict Buddhist ontology denies the existence of the “soul,” as rendered in Judeo-Christian mythology. Try and see beyond a narrow understanding of the soul and envision it as our transcendent entity that rides the wheel of rebirth, karmic warts and all.
Each being has a personal energy with unique karmic tendencies. By placing ku or the soul around our center, we are connected with all life. The Ego, which has been displaced becomes like a small child vying for attention from its mother. By consciously maintaining awareness of our new order of being, the cries of the Ego grow more faint and humble – never quite gone, somewhat like an untrained dog on a leash growing weary from barking. Prayer makes this change possible. Because the absolute is not “out there,” but actually inside us, we can transform our life into an enlightened state. The sooner we make this transition, the better. Theory is inferior to practice in this matter and wholly inadequate when facing illness or death.
We all have lessons to learn. A change in perspective can make an important difference in our struggle to win against the assaults of aging and death. Ram Dass has taught me another lesson, beyond “be here now.” I pass it on to you.