Thomas Ahlburn: About and By

Thomas Ahlburn: About and By November 26, 2008

Thomas Ahlburn was the fourteenth minister of the First Unitarian Church of Providence, which these days I have the honor to serve as the seventeenth minister. He continues to loom large in the life of the congregation now nearly a decade since his retirement and premature death. The following includes the “official” obituary from the Unitarian Universalist Association, a rather sweet remembrance of him published in the local newspaper after his retirement was announced, and what appears to be a sermon, or a large part of a sermon he wrote about his association with the Western Hindu guru Franklin Jones, known by numerous names, most recently as the Avatar Adi Da Samraj.

Obituaries: Thomas Edward Ahlburn

The Rev. Thomas Edward Ahlburn died August 13, 2002. He was 63.

Born on August 4, 1939, in Cincinnati, Ohio,Ahlburn earned a bachelor’s degree at University of Cincinnati and an M.A. from Oberlin College. Ahlburn received a B.D. from Vanderbilt University and did advanced studies in theology at University of St. Paul in Ottawa, Ont.

Ahlburn was ordained in 1968 and served congregations in Ottawa, Ont.; Springfield, Mass.; and Providence, R.I. First Unitarian Church of Providence named him minister emeritus in 1999.

Ahlburn was active in community affairs and was particularly concerned about gay rights and reproductive freedom. He was the chair of the McGovern for President Committee in 1972 and 1984 in Springfield, Mass., and Providence, R.I., respectively. He was a former religion page columnist for the Providence Journal.

His wife, Ruth Lawrence, and two daughters survive him.

Copyright Unitarian Universalist Association Nov/Dec 2002

The irreverent reverend
Journal Staff Writer

He’s a minister who has no use for God.

So right away, that sets people off. Readers of the Rev. Thomas Ahlburn’s newspaper columns have found him “offensive,” “arrogant,” “inane,” “intellectually dishonest,” “sophomoric,” “narrow and simplistic,” “morally bankrupt,” “ignorant” and — they really know how to hurt a Unitarian — “dogmatic.”

Even Mr. Ahlburn’s friends – and those few of his fellow clergy who responded to requests for comment — are unnerved by him. “He’s not my cup of tea,” confesses the Rev. James Blair, pastor of the First Universalist Church of Burrillville, whose own approach to the job is to “preach the Gospel.” He commends Mr. Ahlburn’s honesty, however, “about his faith — or lack thereof.”

Sister Angela Daniels, a Catholic nun who is one of Ahlburn’s good friends, says the public Ahlburn — who she believes is not the true Ahlburn — drives her nuts. “Sometimes,” she says, “I hope no one asks me if I know this guy.” She points to Mr. Ahlburn’s final column on The Journal’s religion page, on Oct. 16, in which the reverend, who retires on Christmas Eve, asserts that mature believers eventually outgrow religion; that the goal of religion, in fact, should be to “ditch itself.”

“I read it about five times and I can’t make sense of it,” says Sister Angela. “I said to him, ‘Were you in the juice when you wrote this, Tom?'”

More than likely, he was in the woods. An “ecclesiastical pagan” with a strong monastic streak, Ahlburn has always found it easier to be alone in nature than just about anywhere else. It was in the woods, in the spring of 1966, that he spent some time talking with Thomas Merton, the late Trappist monk and student of Buddhism — the memory of whom still moves Ahlburn to tears, and haunts his dreams.

Ahlburn’s love for Merton, his interest in Catholic mysticism, his invocation of transcendence as a favorite theme, make some wonder if, in his heart of hearts, Ahlburn is not only religious, but Catholic. Dale O’Leary, a Catholic writer and speaker from Barrington, who respects Ahlburn as “a worthy opponent” and considers him a friend, senses in him “that little bit of desire, you know, for the absolute sureness.”

She’s promised him that, should she ever hear that he’s dying, she will rush to his side with a priest — “just in case.” Ahlburn, a large fellow with a great, ready laugh, dismisses the idea of converting, on a deathbed or otherwise.

He likes his spirituality on the austere side, he says, and besides, “so many things that are critical to my life are condemned by Catholicism.” He counted them up once, in a column which, as if to keep everyone guessing, bid a warm farewell to Bishop Louis B. Gelineau after he announced his retirement in 1997. He will miss the bishop, he wrote, despite their divergence on “gay rights, abortion rights, feminism, marriage, divorce, physician-assisted suicide, revelation, God, Jesus, the Bible, heaven and hell.”

It’s quite a list, considering that Ahlburn began life Catholic. He was baptized in the church and would have attended Catholic school in Cincinnati, where he was born, but his grandmother thought it was across the railroad tracks and didn’t want him risking that walk every day.

So he went to a Baptist church, instead, but that approach to God didn’t take. By the time he was 16, he’d read the mathematician and philosopher Bertrand Russell, and thus began the “theological difficulties” — the tension between religion and science — which would prove persistent throughout his life.

With a questioning attitude he says is common among divinity students, he enrolled in a non-denominational theological school. There, “it finally dawned on me,” he wrote in a column, “that there was absolutely no good historical evidence that anyone even remotely resembling the Jesus of my youth ever existed.” The people of Jesus’s time, he maintained, “so wanted and needed a savior or a deity,” that they turned Him into one. “This dreary process continues unabated today.”

Equipped with such views, the young Rev. Ahlburn found a home in the Unitarian Church.

He served in churches in Ottawa, Canada, and Springfield, Mass., before coming to Providence in 1975 to lead the First Unitarian Church of Providence. The First Unitarian is one of Rhode Island’s oldest, most venerable and, even going back to the 1720s, when it was established as a Congregational church, most liberal establishments. Its rolls include members of such East Side Brahmin families as the Lippitts, Chafees and Sharpes, although Ahlburn says their leadership of the church ended before he arrived.

On Ahlburn’s watch, the congregation grew increasingly diverse — in terms of social class, and also belief. (The membership is still overwhelmingly white.) It also tripled in size, as did the endowment, to nearly $5 million. The number of children in the religious education program increased six-fold, to 300.

The result of all this growth was that the church could no longer accommodate everyone comfortably, and a $2.5-million building campaign was launched last year. In preparing for the project in 1998, Ahlburn promised, “I am committed to our new building. If you need me, if you want me, I will be here. We will do this thing together. I won’t run away if you don’t.” By September, however, the project had accumulated enough critical mass that Ahlburn felt comfortable announcing his retirement: After 24 years — a long tenure for a minister — he and his wife would retire to the woods of Vermont.

“I’’m not going to do any ministerial things,” Ahlburn vows in the stately parlor of the Parish House on historic Benevolent Street in Providence, a few weeks before leaving town in October. “I don’t intend to ever write for a paper again. I don’t intend to ever do a wedding or funeral or any sort of pulpit performance ever again.” He says this with no rancor, but matter-of-factly, like a politician who’s had enough of public life.

At church leaders’ request, he will don his robes and speak from the church’s high pulpit one last time, on Christmas Eve, because he instituted the holiday service when he first arrived here, so to end that way has “a sort of gestalt quality.” The congregation will sing the final song, then exit, candles in hand, in silence — “Nothing said. And I’ll just walk out. That’s it.”

His gift to his successor, he says, will be his forever absence. He will be “gone, gone, gone.” The congregation grieves. “I’ve heard people say they don’t know what they’re going to do without him, what we’re going to do,” says Cathy Seggel, the director of religious education and a 20-year church member, whose most pressing task these days is helping people deal with Ahlburn’s departure.

She tells them this is a good thing for their friend, and that the church will find a suitable replacement, although it may take more than two years to do so Church member Marcia Lieberman says she and others are “very sad, extremely sad” about Ahlburn’s retiring, and are also somewhat shocked by it, although she understands that people who serve on church committees saw it coming.

Lieberman heads the local chapter of Amnesty International and considers herself a Jew, a Unitarian and a Buddhist — a not unheard of mix in this congregation. She first discovered the church four years ago when she gave a talk there and then lingered — out of politeness — to hear Ahlburn speak. When it comes to spinning a yarn, Garrison Keillor has nothing on Ahlburn. His talks — he dislikes the word “sermons” — are full of cinematic detail and humor. Like his newspaper columns, they hang on certain themes: the beauty and indifference of nature, the fact that “the ultimate” is beyond all our categorizing, the importance of kindness and of seeing the world from other points of view.

“I was pretty amazed to hear anything like that in, basically, a house of worship,” says Lieberman. “He doesn’t preach at you. It was challenging.” Whether Lieberman will remain a church member now that Ahlburn is gone depends on who succeeds him, she says. She can’t imagine that the leadership would choose an “overly religious” type — by which she means, the sort who prays.

“A lot of people don’t understand how you can have a spiritual kind of meeting without prayers,” she says, “but you can, you can.”

Ahlburn did not invent this irreligious approach to churchgoing. The term “Unitarian” was born during the Reformation to refer to those who did not believe in the Trinity. The denomination put its roots down in America in 1825, then linked up with Universalism in 1961. It is a liberal religion, one that encourages individuals to keep questioning as they develop their own philosophy of life. It contends that one cannot know absolute truth, that one’s understanding of the truth changes with time and experience.

Each local church is democratically run, answering to no denominational authority. At services, it’s common to hear readings from such secular sources as poetry, drama and fiction, as well as from a range of sacred writings.

Ahlburn’s particular approach to religion has a pronounced Eastern tilt. He is a Tibetan Buddhist. “He’s so fascinated by Buddha, and Buddha keeps coming into his sermons,” says one of Ahlburn’s oldest friends, Harold Talbott, who relates a favorite story about it. “He was standing at the door at the end of a Sunday sermon, saying farewell, shaking hands, and a person stops and says to him, ‘You know, Tom, I haven’t heard the name Jesus in quite a few Sundays.’ “

Politically, too, Ahlburn veers off the usual roads. In the 1960s, he helped women obtain abortions. During the Vietnam War, he counseled draft dodgers. He has joined with the American Civil Liberties Union in asserting that Christmas creches on public property and tax-exempt Bibles violate the separation of church and state.

Ahlburn feels sure he is the first Unitarian minister in the country to have performed a commitment ceremony for a gay couple. That was in 1971. Since then, he has performed hundreds of such ceremonies, raising nary an eyebrow in his congregation.

Which is not to say that Ahlburn’s tenure has been wrinkle-free. Three years ago, a small group of congregants tried to oust him over what they said was his shabby treatment, then firing, of a female assistant pastor. But they could not muster enough support from the rest of the congregation. The group, along with some others, have since left the church. “I feel sorry for them. I wish them nothing but the best,” says Ahlburn, who sees the coup attempt as mere “revenge” for the firing. He adds, in the style of a favorite Buddhist blessing, “I want all beings to be happy.”

It is here, somewhere along the Buddhist path, that Ahlburn dwells. What appeals to him about the philosophy, he says, is that it is more focused on experience, and requires no belief in God. “It’s not getting stuck in concepts. It’s more to do with direct experience of life here and now.” And yet, even Buddhism must take its lumps.

Just as, in Ahlburn’s view, Catholicism is about “control,” and Protestantism, being so focused on the words of Bible, is “spiritually dead,” so, too, are some aspects of Buddhism “just stupid.” In fact, he says, except for the way organized religion galvanizes strangers into a community of people who care for one another, it’s pretty much a useless exercise — just so much “claptrap.”

“I think you don’t really make the kind of spiritual progress that is possible in your life,” he says, “unless at a certain point, you’re willing to let go of what is an impediment.” Belief is the biggest impediment of all, he contends. It is “the problem.” It drains all the wonder out of life.

“If you can believe something, then you’ve settled the issue and it’s dead. It’s dead. It’s gone. . .” “I’m not against God,” Ahlburn goes on. “In a very deep way, I think maybe I would say I’m probably a lot closer to God than the Pope, frankly.” Throwaway lines like that are what prompted so many Journal readers to write the newspaper in outrage in response to many of his columns. But Ahlburn’s friends say he really is a gentle, shy, and rather vulnerable sort — it’s just, he knows not what he does.

“I don’t know whether he realizes the power he has in provoking things,” says the Rev. Fred Gillis, pastor of Westminster Unitarian Church in East Greenwich. “But he does that — in the best sense of ‘provocative.’ He gets people thinking, he gets people reacting. It sometimes surprises him that people react so strongly to him. To him, those things are important to be able to challenge.

“I wouldn’t do it the way he did it,” he adds. “I think that he sometimes asks for it.” Sister Angela Daniels pities her friend, searching so “feverishly” at age 60. “I wish him peace,” she says. Her take on Ahlburn is that he has two sides, public and private. She predicts that when the public man retires, the real Ahlburn will be released.

As it is now, she says, “If Tom were to admit belief in God, or get too close to that area, it would belie his public ministry. He would no longer be who he said he was, a free man.” The nun has put this theory to Ahlburn and finds it significant that “he doesn’t argue with me.”

“I say, ‘Listen, Tom, God has you by the nape of the neck. And you’re not turning around to see him. He’s got you.’ I say, ‘Tom, did you ever hear of the poem by Francis Thompson called The Hound of Heaven?’ I say, ‘Read it, Tom, read it again.’ ” The Hound of Heaven, a 1947 spiritual classic, is about a man who, though he flees a relentlessly pursuing God “down the nights and down the days,” is ultimately no match for Him. That’s Ahlburn, says Sister Angela.

“I say to him, ‘When you go to Greensboro, Tom, you will be free to go out and sit with the geese and really think and not be afraid of the thoughts you may have.’ ” Just what they do up here, Tom and Ruth Ahlburn, in this tiny burg in the mountains, which is even more remote than their former home, in Pascoag, and which is so high, your ears pop as you drive there?

They don’t do much — but then, that’s the point. They live in a sun-flooded hexagonal house, which was built by artists and which looks onto a purple and blue vista of mountains and sky that’s enough to make anyone — practically anyone — believe in God. They watch the weather. Listen to music. Tend their many pets, including a noisy flock of geese. Pick up provisions at the general store a short stretch down the road. Then at night, greet Orion, who hovers very near.

“I find myself beginning to pay attention again in ways that maybe I’d let slip for some years,” says the reverend, relaxing at the kitchen table in a plaid, flannel shirt and cap. His burgundy minister’s robe hangs from a peg in the vestibule, as ordinary as the winter coats, collecting dog hairs. A Greensboro minister has asked him at least 10 times, he says, to speak at the small church — a Church of Christ — down the road.

” ‘We could do away with the Christ — for you,’ ” Ahlburn says the man told him. “But I don’t care if they have Buddha or Mohammed or Rumi. I’m not doing it anymore, no how.” He was happy being a minister, but “the church was never my primary life. It’s an occupation.” He knows ministers who say they’ve been “called by God,” but that never happened to him. He figures the line must be out.

One of the first things he will do in the new year, he says, is embark on a yearlong solo retreat at home, which will put him out of touch with everyone but Ruth — who, by the way, he says, is his real teacher. Just watching her go about her day, he says, “I’ll say to myself, ‘That’s it. Whatever it is, that’s it,’ because there’s an easy, yet focused attention on what is happening, and an investment in that, but also there’s a feedback of grace in the activity, and it’s palpable and luminous, and I see it.”

Mrs. Ahlburn’s eyes widen at this rich compliment, one she’s never heard before.

“It’s true,” he tells her.

They step outside into the cold mountain air to pose for photographs. Ahlburn won’t let his guest go without pressing on her a copy of his latest musical find, a CD by a band called Jump Little Children. There’s a song on it, he says, that makes him “shudder.”

As mountains and fields roll by on the left and right, the song plays, and it’s obvious why it would speak to Ahlburn. A sad, earnest voice offers up a critique of the old forms of religion — all “marble statues” and “peeling” architecture — and celebrates Ahlburn’s approach to life: In the cathedrals of New York and Rome. There is a feeling that you should just go home. And spend a lifetime finding out just where that is.

Thomas Ahlburn

(Apparently from a sermon, circa 1996)

The invitation to meet Adi Da came at the best possible time. It would be an understatement to say that I was going through a rotten patch in my life. Frankly, I don’t ever remember feeling quite so low and lonely. Full of self-pity, and lacking in confidence in myself and others generally, I was razor close to throwing in the towel. Indeed, I think maybe I hit bottom that very day. Sitting alone in my bedroom on the edge of the bed, eyes downcast, hands folded diffidently in my lap, the sun having just set and the darkness gathering around me, I’m sure I looked the way I felt, pathetic. I remember thinking then that I had some big decisions to make, and I was very much dreading the hard days ahead. That’s when the phone rang, exactly then.

The caller was an old friend from the Free Daist Communion, a religious organization that had formed around the teachings of Adi Da Sataraj, a famous guru who used to call himself Da Free John. People who have listened to me over the years know that Da’s teachings have had a decisive influence on me. It’s no secret that I think of Da Free John as one of my primary teachers. I often quote him, but more than this, I frequently make use of Da’s root metaphors and highly idiosyncratic ways of putting things in my talks and writings. If you have ever liked one of my spiritual talks, it’s fair to say that you have Adi Da to thank. I surely do.

Not that I ever seriously considered becoming a Free Daist, I haven’t. If I don’t make it with the safe, mostly plain and sane Unitarian Universalists, I am not going to make it anywhere, surely not in some outlandish cult. Still, I am well known among Da’s faithful. My endorsements appear on the Master’s books (along with distinguished souls like Ken Wilber, Alan Watts, and Elizabeth Kubler-Ross). I have even contributed a forward for a book, and I am good friends with some of Da’s chief disciples. But that’s as far as it goes – or ever will.

Several years ago, Adi Da moved to Fiji. More precisely, one of his wealthier devotees bought him a nice Fijian island, complete with stately palm trees, quaint thatched huts, thriving coral reefs, long sandy beaches, and sheltered lagoons (the island used to belong to the late Raymond Burr). These days, Da meets with serious students there, and usually only there. Indeed, he doesn’t ever meet with individuals unless they have already shown themselves to be serious practitioners, dedicated Free Daists.

This is one of the places where the cultish side of Adi Da’s group shows up. If you like what Da says, and maybe want to meet him, you have to walk the walk and talk the talk before you get to sit with the guru. What’s more, he gets treated almost like a god on his Fijian island; people more than defer to him.

Adi Da didn’t start out this way. He started out as Franklin Jones, a bright young lad from Long Island, a graduate of both Columbia and Stanford, who became interested in eastern spirituality, had a powerful awakening experience, developed a remarkable teaching and writing ability, and, then, a close following. But shortly after this, Da’s teaching style began to shift, more and more, toward dogmatic pronouncements and absolute demands. Which is to say, he seems to have gone the way of almost all gurus, thinking of himself as providing a privileged path to the divine.

Sadly, this is pretty much where things stand today, and though Da is not at all a Rajneesh or Jim Jones, his is not a spiritual practice that I can easily recommend. Nonetheless, his original teachings were incredibly important to me, and I still think that they were right on target. I discovered them at a turning point in my life, and they played a decisive role in changing me and my ministry for the better. As such, I owe Da Free John a forever unpayable debt. But since I would never play his cultish games, I never got to meet him — until two weeks or so ago, that is.

“Are you free tonight?” my friend asked. “Sure, but why?” I replied. “Da’s here on the Cape, and he would like you to come out and sit with him.” “Just give me directions,” I said excitedly, “and I’m as good as on my way.”

In truth, our conversation and the ensuing arrangements were much more involved than I have indicated, but this is pretty much what it all came down to: Da was visiting New England; he was staying on Cape Cod for a few nights with his family and entourage; and he was going to sit and meet with rank outsiders like me; people who weren’t officially approved practitioners. He hadn’t been doing this for years, and, of course, such a unique spiritual opportunity was much too fascinating for me to pass up. Not only this, but my wife was invited to come along.

We were finally going to meet Adi Da! Amazing how fast you can forget even your worse troubles, isn’t it? Most of you probably don’t need to hear that I haven’t quite been myself for some time. I’ve been — what shall I say? — a bit preoccupied of late. But this going to meet Da thing certainly got my attention. All sorts of questions raced through my mind. I wondered what it would be like? I wondered if I might be disappointed? I hoped that I wouldn’t be, though I thought that I might. I was even a little afraid of Da himself (you know, cults and all that stuff). But mostly, I thought how wonderfully serendipitous this whole adventure was, coming when and as it did.

This quality made the adventure seem almost supernaturally purposed; as if intended by the guru somehow just for me. “It sure is strange that after all these years he should turn up right now,” my wife said. “It sure as hell is,” I replied. But soon we drove on to the Cape, and made the final turn toward the little village where Master Da awaited us. “Neato!” I thought to myself. I was feeling much better now.

But unfortunately, my newly found good mood didn’t last very long. It was meeting Adi Da’s disciples that spoiled it. Not that they were cold or inhospitable. To the contrary, they couldn’t have been friendlier or happier to see us. And I mean this quite literally. They were certainly very, very nice people. The problem was they were much too friendly, much too happy, and far too nice. More plainly put, they were all busy breathlessly following their own bliss. Not only this, but unless my eyes were deceiving me, they all looked like maybe they came from the same neighborhood or the same college. It was uncanny really. And very disquieting, as well. I mean, they all looked and sounded almost exactly alike.

My God, they’re pod people, I thought. Alas, serious doubts about our upcoming encounter with Da began to grow in me again. I looked over at my wife, and I could tell by her posture that she had already charted the fastest exit through the nearest door. I had, too. But we didn’t have to escape, because, before we knew it, it was time to go meet Da.

It turned out that Da was in another house, ten minutes or so away by car. So we all climbed into our respective automobiles and drove off through the darkness to a huge, brightly lit mansion by the ocean that a rich supporter had loaned the guru for the week. This in itself was a weird experience. Or at least being part of that long line of deathly quiet cars passing ever so slowly through the sleepy little Cape Cod village seemed spooky to me. It was like being in a secret funeral procession on a very dark night in, say, Transylvania.

Admittedly, I’m pretty impressionable, but things sure did seem to be getting stranger and stranger. We were ushered into the big mansion, instructed in the complicated sacred protocols as to how best to meditate with the sat-guru, and told that he would be with us very soon. Because of my past service to their cause, I was regarded as a bit of a luminary by the Daists, so my wife and I would get to sit right in front of Da in the main meditation hall. Whereas I might have deemed this a great honor in the past, just now I wasn’t so sure.

I could feel something like a rising tide of group hysteria building around me, I could see it on people’s flushed faces and read it in their goggling eyes, and I began to think that it might be better to catch the coming proceedings from the back of another hall, if not on close circuit television. But it was clearly too late to move to another room or get away now, as I sensed that Da’s best buddies all had their eyes on me, undoubtedly expecting the God-man to hit me with his best cosmic zonker and then whisk me right off to Fiji. I wondered if my wife would get to go, too.

I don’t know how long we sat there waiting for Da, but a long time, maybe even as long as an hour. But that’s when the worst thing happened. People began to twitch and moan. Though I had read about this sort of thing, and had seen it on video tapes, I wasn’t at all prepared for it in the flesh. “Oh Da!” someone might wail. And five or six others would answer the devotee, their bodies shaking wildly with ecstasy. Then “Da, Da, Da, Da, Da, Da, Da!” “Oh my God!” I thought to myself. “Where’s the Dalai Lama now that I need him.”

I don’t know how long this twitching and moaning thing went on before Adi Da strode purposefully and quickly into the hall, and took his seat in front of me. I had often wondered what it might be like to sit with someone like Da Free John, but nothing prepared me for the look coming from his eyes. On this level, he was everything people claimed he was. He was a very impressive being, no doubt about it. All I can say is that you had to be there to sense his considerable spiritual presence and power. I know full well that my more skeptical humanist friends might not have seen what I thought I saw and felt radiating from him, but I was very much convinced that Da had seen something profoundly radical or spiritually primordial that the rest of us could only guess might exist.

Though I didn’t twitch or moan, something like a shock of recognition passed all the way through me, and I gasped inwardly when he looked deeply into my eyes. I waited for what might happen next. But nothing did. Nothing else happened to me, nothing at all. I just sat there for a long time with Da and his twitchers and moaners (who never seemed to shut up), all sorts of strange thoughts going through my mind. I just sat there and waited for it all to be over.

Was I disappointed? I suppose I was. But not a lot. I guess I had always expected things to play out this way. In my heart of hearts, I always knew that this guru thing wasn’t really something that could ever work for me. Then again, I have always been much more of a woods walker than a guru follower. “Poor old Da,” I thought to myself suddenly. And with this, another feeling came over me. Sadness. I began to feel a great sadness for Adi Da. In fact, I almost cried. I was so fond of Da, so very grateful for all that I had learned from him, that my heart began to ache terribly for him. Why? Because I began to sense that poor Da, and all his people were stuck. They were prisoners caught in a deadly spiritual trap of their own devising.

Adi Da may very well have experienced an incredibly high awakening, a profound spiritual experience at some point in his life, at least I believed that he had, but I sensed that he had lost his way, and absolutely so, afterwards. Da had seen a great spiritual light, about this I had few doubts, but my guess was that he had tried to capture this light, take its brightness into himself in some way, and then hold fast to it. Tragically, wanting not just to see God, but to be God, Da had tried to own the one thing that can never be owned. As a result, he had gone spiritually blind.

Adi Da was a fallen angel who, long ago, had perhaps been graced with a brief glimpse of the divine, but who had sadly mistaken its meaning, thought that it was somehow his to use or control, and exclusively so. Others, perhaps sensing the afterglow of this bright light coming so wonderfully from his eyes and speech, had been drawn to him (just as I had), like moths to a flame, and they were caught in the same sad trap or dead end.

“Poor old Da,” I thought again, “He’s stuck. He’s stuck just like all the rest of us, only much worse. Like just about everyone I know, I’m stuck in anger, fear, and resentment. But poor Da’s got it much worse. He’s stuck in the very thing that could free him, spirituality itself, the divine, and he doesn’t have a clue. None of them do.”

And I quietly began a Buddhist practice in his behalf, in behalf of us all really. It’s called the practice of exchanging oneself for others; and is a simple way of taking on as much of another’s suffering in one’s own being as one can, and placing all sentient beings and their happiness ahead of your own. It is the basic Buddhist meditational practice of loving-kindness. “Om mani padme hum,” I chanted inwardly, praying that my old friend and all sentient beings might find freedom and peace.

And as I did so, I noticed that Da had finally closed his terrible eyes, and had gone into a very deep, very peaceful repose. For the first time that evening, I felt warm inside, and close to him. Continuing my prayer, I closed my eyes, too, and I began to sense something like a shared peace. Which was rather remarkable really, considering that through all of this the twitching and moaning around us never subsided, never let up.

Then, just as quickly as he had entered, Da got up, and, without a word, he was gone. “So there it is,” I said aloud, though very, very quietly. Leaving wasn’t easy. Da’s people were hot to know what I thought. Taking a cue from Clinton and Dole, I crossed my fingers and vaguely told them what I thought they needed to hear. And why not? After all, I might need to see Da again.

It was almost three in the morning before my dear wife and I were back in our car and finally alone. “Well, what do you think?” she asked. “What happened to you?” “You tell me first,” I replied cagily. “Nothing,” she said. “Absolutely nothing at all.” “Yes, me too,” I said. “But his eyes sure were something else, weren’t they?” “Oh yes, they sure were,” she agreed. “Poor old Da,” I said sadly. “He’s trapped, isn’t he? Trapped in the very thing that should have freed him. And he doesn’t have a clue. None of them do. It’s so sad. But you know, I still love him.” And I do.

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