AN AMERICAN VIEW

Holy cities in Oregon hills

Fred Bruning January 14 1985
AN AMERICAN VIEW

Holy cities in Oregon hills

Fred Bruning January 14 1985

Holy cities in Oregon hills

AN AMERICAN VIEW

Fred Bruning

Oregon is an exquisite state, remarkably endowed with natural splendor and intelligent leadership. A visitor is tempted to describe the population as unusually civilized—decent, open, accommodating—and the quality of life rare, indeed. Perhaps there is some sort of symbiosis between place and people that makes for generous attitudes. So often surrounded by towering pines and alpine vistas, the resident may come to fancy himself in heaven and behave accordingly.

Paradise has been out of kilter lately, however, or at least that portion of it known as Wasco County. There, on a heave of rugged acreage, followers of the Bhagwan Shree Rajneesh have built themselves a nest—and some nest it is. When the word “commune” is uttered, one may summon images of a rickety farmhouse, a barren plug of land and a assemblage of heavy thinkers—the men hirsute, the women earthy—engaged, generally, in a beneficent plot to overhaul the universe. The spread at Rajneeshpuram resembles none of that.

It is rather a self-contained city, complete with airport, hotel, restaurant, boutique, post office, casino, bookstore, police department and elaborate agricultural apparatus. Majestic hills overlook the complex and the valley is green. Residents tend to be well groomed and nicely dressed—nice, if one is partial to shades of purple, red and orange, which are the official Rajneeshee colors. As for matters pertaining to the universe, followers of the Bhagwan assign top priority to the care and feeding of themselves. The guru has a fleet of 72 Rolls-Royce autos at his disposal, for instance, so you have the feeling the fellow does not consider Mother Teresa a role model.

Down the road from Rajneeshpuram is the City of Rajneesh, a rustic burg that once was known as Antelope, Ore. The Rajneeshees managed to buy most of the property and initiated a crash program of urban renewal—prefab units up on the hill, a vegetarian café called Zorba the Buddha, a street sign that designates Highway 218 as “Mevlana Bhagwan”—and the few remaining townsfolk were left to wonder on what planet all this was happening. A few years ago they were living deep in the boonies, content and undisturbed. Now, when they look out their windows, they are apt to glimpse a disciple in red and purple and orange trekking toward Zorba’s on a tofu break.

Uneasy as relations were between oldtimers and Rajneeshees, things deteriorated significantly in autumn when the guru’s disciples began importing a small army of street people from around the nation. Local residents assumed that the guru was planning an election-day putsch, since the Rajneeshees thus far had not earned a reputation in the field of social welfare. Devotees were expected to run their own candidates, herd street people into voting booths and capture important county offices—a catastrophe in the eyes of Wasco County citizens.

Authorities intervened and the worst never happened, but tensions between Rajneeshee and local resident linger. Although the Rajneeshees do not elicit the kind of sympathy other minorities might, the clash of interests between the larger and smaller cultures is compelling. Sometimes in strong and sassy terms, Rajneeshee leaders accuse Ore-

‘Maintaining a fleet of six dozen Rolls-Royce cars in this land of pickup trucks seems a mite ostentatious9

gonians of being selfish, small-minded, impatient with unorthodox views and prone to violence—hardly the image Oregonians have of themselves. So many death threats are received, disciples say, that the Bhagwan Shree Rajneesh must be protected on his daily auto excursions by a guard with a submachinegun.

Residents, especially those living in the greater Rajneeshee metropolitan areas, say phooey and claim to be as tolerant as the next guy. But, they complain, the disciples are grabby, uncouth, coarse, devious and mean-spirited. One rancher said Rajneeshee security personnel routinely snoop on local residents. “We don’t do that out here,” he said.

To what degree externals account for part of the trouble is difficult to gauge. In their color-co-ordinated outfits, the Rajneeshees look like walking fruit bowls and they have funny names, too— Ma Anand Bhagawati, Swami Krishna Deva, Ma Prem Sunshine. Maintaining a fleet of six dozen Rolls-Royce cars in this land of pickup trucks seems a mite ostentatious. And there has been an

awful lot of publicity about “free love” — funny in a way because the Bhagwan currently is on a hygiene kick and wants his disciples to wear rubber gloves whenever erotically engaged. AIDS weighs heavily on the guru’s mind, is the explanation.

Certainly, some anti-Rajneesh sentiment can be traced to the group’s peculiar tastes and strange excesses. William Hulse, the top administrator in Wasco County, acknowledges that there are issues of civil liberties involved and agrees that local residents who claim to oppose the Bhagwan mostly on questions of land use may be kidding themselves. Hulse, 64, is the archetypal Oregonian—a quiet, candid straight shooter—and when he speaks about the situation at Rajneeshpuram he seems genuinely troubled. The Rajneeshees can be provocative and local people feel threatened. Smoothing things over won’t be easy, Hulse acknowledges. “It’s just plain a scary son-of-a-gun,” he says. People claim, of course, that the Rajneeshees are cult members—scary and how. But disciples maintain that they are much too intelligent for any Jim Jones mumbo-jumbo. In fact, one of the Bhagwan disciples is Shannon Jo Ryan, 32, daughter of Congressman Leo Ryan, the Democrat from California who was slain in 1978 by followers of Jones. “We’re not being led blindly by a madman,” says Ryan, now known as Ma Amrita Pritam. “We’re not brainwashed, we’re not under somebody’s control, we’re not dangerous.”

Touring Rajneeshpuram, a visitor quickly comes to doubt that the people in red and orange are in the mood for Armageddon. The disciple who purchases a wine-colored blazer at the haberdashery or savors meatless enchiladas in the chic shopping centre restaurant may be understandably reluctant to toss back a vial of poison Kool-Aid or raid the adjoining ranch.

Impolite these folks sometimes may be and, in no small way, inclined toward assertiveness. Yet if the people of Oregon find such deportment remarkable, it is only because they have been sheltered too long. They need badly to drive the San Diego Freeway or try crossing the street in downtown Boston or hailing a cab in Manhattan. As they struggle with the mysteries of Rajneeshism, what citizens of this grand state require most is perspective.

Fred Bruning is a writer with in New York.

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