American-Born Guru, Bubba Free John, Retires
by Jack Garvy
Three days after the full moon in May, while I was visiting his ashram, then called “Persimmon,” Bubba Free John returned unexpectedly from an extended trip to Hawaii. Word of this event had spread through the ashram in midafternoon, but his plane wasn’t due in San Francisco till 9:10, and the ashram was a three-hour drive north from there, so I had gone to bed.
It was a little after midnight when shouts, laughter, and the Persimmon bell awakened me. I hurried into clothes and across the grounds to where a crowd of about two hundred devotees was gathered at the entranceway to Bubba’s private residence on the land. He was due any moment.
Suddenly lights turned in at the main gate. In that moment, no matter how preposterous my mind might consider this phenomenon, I was swept away in the excitement. Although paradoxical and implausible, it was nevertheless a certainty that eveyone around me believed that a perfect incarnation of God, the Very Divine, was traversing these last few hundred feet, to pass within our reach.
The crowd broke and formed two lines through which Bubba’s white Mercedes slowly rolled. However, I didn’t peek inside for my first glimpse of the guru. Instead, my eyes were fixed on the face of a student opposite me, Peter Roberts, known in the ashram as “Godfree.” A handsome, sophisticated, and articulate Australi an, he had been quite close to Bubba for years, having served as his cook and driver. As the car’s headlights passed him by, Peter’s face was radiant with unself-consciousness.
No matter how preposterous my mind might consider this phenomenon, I was swept away in the excitement. Although paradoxical and implausible, it was nevertheless a certainty that everyone around me believed that a perfect incarnation of God, the Very Divine, was traversing these last few hundred feet, to pass within our reach.
We crushed in behind and pushed up to the gate as the Mercedes swung round and halted near the front walk. On tiptoe and from a distance of thirty yards, I could not be sure whom I saw was it Bubba or another passenger? In the briefest of glimpses, perhaps half-tricked by the meager light, I thought I saw a man dressed entirely in black, his hand raised in a wave, caught motionless in midstride as though, like a camera lens, my eye had clicked in on the image. Then he was gone inside the white frame house.
I waited. No one seemed inclined to leave. Would he emerge from the house for an impromptu talk, or just a mere hello? After five minutes I decided he would not, and was walking away when the gathering broke into song. A peace and stillness seemed to blanket Persimmon and merge in the voices of Bubba’s devotees, now welcoming their guru and hoping for some sight of him.
“Lord, in your company your ecstasy has come to me so gracefully.”
The voices trailed away, filled with the ageless longing of humanity under the quiet stare of the moon.
At that moment no one present suspected that this might be the last time such a scene would occur in Bubba’s ashram. For his arrival that night set in motion a train of events that culminated, over the following days and weeks, in a startling transition in the nature of his work and the structure of the community. Though this transition has been presaged in Bubba’s talks and writings since the beginning of his formal work, none of his devotees could have foretold the form it would take and the speed with which it would now be accomplished. What was still in many respects, a personality cult was about to become a church; and the source of it all, Bubba Free John,was about to retire from the center of the community’s life.
In spiritual history, a few names stand out above the rest: Krishna, Buddha, Jesus – these men who have influenced many hundreds of millions. A little further down cluster a score of secondary luminaries; Fu Hsi, Ashoka, Akhnaten, et al. Below these are arrayed thousands of saints and sages who have helped illumine shadowy passages in the maze of humanity’s quest for God. Especially in our own time, shamans, priests, and healers seem to abound. And charlatans. Some of them have attained a degree of “enlightenment” that, for a fee (or sometimes for free), they are willing to share. But so far, no American-born spiritual teacher, has professed to have attained an ultimate form of divine realization such as that claimed by Bubba Free John. He is, he says, a siddha-guru descended directly from the God-light, one whose teaching completes the partial paths delineated by Krishna, Buddha, and Jesus:
I am not the one who, finding himself awake, does not know who he is. I am not the one who, finding himself in dreams and visions, thinks he has returned to his deeper self. I am not the one who, enjoying the bliss of deep sleep and meditation, thinks he has become free and should not move to any other state.
I am the one who is with you now. I am the one who speaks from his own silence. I am the one who always stands present in his own form. I am the one who always and already exists, enjoying his own form as all conditions and states. I am the one about whom there is no mystery and no deeper part. I am the one who always appears exactly as he is. I am the one who is always present. I recognize myself as every thing, every one, every form, every movement. I am always only experiencing my own bliss. I am neither lost nor found
……I hold up my hands.
Bubba’s claim to divinity is offensive to most people. Almost everyone with whom I have spoken, including the vast majority of those in his ashram, has experienced enormous resistance to him upon first encountering his teaching, usually through reading his books.
Four works by Bubba Free John have been published to date: The Knee of Listening, The Method of the Siddhas, Garbage and the Goddess, and No Remedy. Two magazines, a movie, and hundreds of video presentations have attempted to make other materials available. Considering that only five years have elapsed since his original ashram opened, this creative output is quite impressive.
The first of his four books, The Knee of Listening, published in 1972, may be the most remarkable spiritual odyssey of the twentieth century. In a tone of factual understatement, as if the author were reporting the increasing tonnage movements of a growing harbor facility, Bubba describes how total illumination was completed in his own case over thirteen years. Born of middle-class parents on Long Island in 1939, Franklin Jones (‘Free John” is a rendering of this name) completed what appears to have been a standard, academically successful stint at Columbia, followed by post-graduate work at Stanford; he then studied with several spiritual teachers, including Swami Muktananda. The few friends and students who were with him then comprise the core of his close disciples today, and the fact that they have lived at close quarters with him all this time, have suffered and enjoyed his whims and humors, yet still revere and love him with unswerving loyalty, represents one minimal argument for the truth of his claim.
wo of these long-time intimates, Frank Marrero and Sal Lucania, were formerly directors of a multimillion-dollar drug rehabilitation program in New York City. I met them early in my visit to the ashram and enjoyed their sincere, undogmatic style they didn’t have the air of followers who need to be constantly striving for converts in order to validate their own convictions. Both grew up in East Harlem, learned the code of the streets, and, in their later high-paying positions, fought corruption in government and industry. In their original approach to Bubba, both were watchful for the first indication of fraud. They are now fully committed disciples. Frank Marrero puts it this way: “I haven’t stayed here out of choice, but because I have no choice.”
Another initially dubious observer of Bubba was the popular Zen scholar Alan Watts. Not a man to be caught with his comments out on a limb, he wrote a carefully worded foreword to The Knee of Listening which would leave him unbesmirched if Bubba subsequently turned out to be a charlatan. However, a year later, when he was invited to contribute a foreword to The Method o the Siddhas, he had an opportunity to study Bubba on videotape. The encounter left him shaken and in tears overwhelmed by the gestures, voice, and humor of what he felt was an obvious godman. “It looks like we have an avatar here,” Watts is said to have commented. I can’t believe it, he is really here. I’ve been waiting for such a one all my life.”
Bubba is not readily accessible, and he (disdains public appearances or travel around the spiritual circuit. Those who are able to be near him, however, are always deeply affected. One day, I happened to be at work on this article, seated on a small stone fence bordering the patio of Persimmon’s hotel, when Bubba and Sal Lucania sat down a few feet from me. Both were barechested in the warm sunshine. Bubba, not physically prepossessing at five-ten or so, was sporting a newly grown beard. After having been on a fast for a couple of months, he looked trim and healthy. His hands were busy with one another, massaging fingers and cracking joints.
Within minutes, a score of people had joined us and were seated in a semicircle in front of Bubba. Someone brought the morning mail. A silence settled over the watchers as Bubba opened letters and exchanged comments and laughter with Sal. I moved a little closer in order to see more clearly, then was overcome with a sudden unreasonable dread. The terror that gripped me, I realized after a moment, centered on fear that Bubba might glance my way or, worse still, say something to me that would require an answer. Nothing so idiotic had happened to me before. “I know how he got his nickname,” I told Frank Marrero later. “I’m sure if I’d had to say anything just then, it would have been ‘bu-bu-bu-bu-bu……”
Frank laughed, “What you were feeling was your own inability to be open in the presence of his absolutely perfect love. Some people are immediately blown away by his presence, but others find their problems intensified. They become upset and can’t figure out why. They’ve never met anyone who lived perfect love to them before.”
After a while Bubba rose and entered the hotel, where the administrative offices of the Free Communion Church (as the federally tax-exempt religious organization is familiarly known) are housed. Windows were open to the warm spring breeze, and as Bubba passed from room to room, his unabashed, almost maniacal laughter floated out among the pith oak trees. One thing I quickly learned to expect in his presence is nearly constant laughter. It is distractingly infectious as it bubbles up and down through octaves. Only someone completely mad, or truly divine, could find so much humor in everyday life. Aptly, the new Free Communion Church film currently being shown around the country is titled Laughter, and Bubba once warned his students, “The only perfectly acceptable mantra in this ashram is . . . laughter.”
His speech patterns and cadences, so compelling to Alan Watts and in fact to most people who view him in person or on videotape, are remarkable for their literary quality, but he always talks off the cuff and professes to have no idea beforehand what he is about to say. Although transcripts of his taped talks seem to reveal new depths of meaning the more they are studied, humor is always breaking through his discourses, which are liberally interspersed with cusswords and hyperboles.
According to Billy Taikanos, a disciple and editor of the Dawn Horse magazine, a Church publication, Bubba’s teachings offer the possibility of living with God to the point of realizing God: “You have to understand that Bubba’s entire life, everything he does, is a form of sacrifice. He invites all men to enjoy what he enjoys, which is perfect understanding, this God-knowledge. At the outset of this ashram’s history, for example, he had to work with people in very basic areas, money, food, sex, that sort of thing, simply to establish the teaching in the lives of some individuals. So there was a lot of outlandish ‘Bubba theater’ in the early years, parties, and so forth. But those occasions were always lessons designed to make us see, not just intellectually, how our tendencies, our karmic inclinations, were always pulling us away from a responsible, open relationship to the divine under all the circumstances of life.”
Another of Bubba’s disciples, Saniel Bonder, emphasizes that the lessons of this “theater of life” have been generated out of ordinary daily routines as well as parties. “The appropriate way to live, according to Bubba, is always in a mood of celebration,” Saniel Says. “Humor is the discipline here, no matter what’s going on outwardly. You have to remember that the basic form of life has always been a matter of work, strict natural diet, and so on, with these occasional, sometimes extended, party celebrations occurring from time to time. It’s easy to see how there’s something offensive here for everyone. The yogi types in the community, who are always tending or trying to become pure, are offended by drinking and meat-eating, while the more hedonistic types are annoyed with a steady regimen of grains and greens at dinner. So, in general, everyone sees both kinds of tendencies in himself over time. Another important point to remember is that it’s not only Bubba who creates this ‘theater.’ Members of the community constantly create it for one another, usually playfully, often unintentionally, but in any case constantly. It seems to happen in the course of our daily interactions.”
Stories of “Bubba theater” abound, some of them outrageous, many of them profoundly touching. Every casual or formal gathering of ashram people that I attended focused on Bubba and was marked by humorous stories or rueful insights. Like the time he tossed a firecracker within earshot of an aggressive meditator and then scolded, “Who do you think you’re kidding?” Or the time he spent an entire day at the bedside of an ashram woman who was sick, teasing her with discussions of illness as a form of self-dramatization but also healing her with his hands. Or his accepting nearly a quarter of a million dollars as a contribution from a student, Dennis Duff, for purchase of the 520-acre Persimmon facility, a former hot springs resort, only to prohibit Dennis from living there for several months,
In early 1975 he suddenly abandoned Persimmon, ostensibly going into exile for a year, reminding the ashram how Swami Nityananda, one of Bubba’s gurus, had simply walked away from his own ashram one fine morning and never returned. Bubba reappeared in less than two months, but the awareness grew in everyone’s mind that the time would soon arrive, the time Bubba had been saying for years would be necessary, when he would withdraw from his prior forms of contact and conventional friendship, weaning the ashram from dependence upon his physical presence.
The most famous ashram episodes of almost continuous “theater” occurred over a six-month period, now known as “the garbage and the goddess days,” when Bubba created continued amusements in the form of all-night parties, powerful kundalini experiences within his students, and startling external miracles, including violent thunderstorms and a corona around the sun. (This last was captured on film, and a stunning color shot of the phenomenon is reproduced on the back cover of Garbage and the Goddess, the book that chronicles this tumultuous period in the ashram’s history.) Under Bubba’s influence, many students experienced kriyas (autonomic purifying movements), mudras (spontaneous yogic postures), visions, revelations, and samadhi (bliss) galore. For an entire week Sal Lucania and a close friend, Anielo Panico, as well as a number of other disciples, were lost in raptures of enlightenment during which they were able to communicate powerful shakti forces to others in the ashram.
But all the shaktis and shake-ups, the continuing dreams of “Bubba theater,” are meant only as lessons. In No Remedy, the most recent book and perhaps the most informative to the general reader, Bubba summed it all up this way:
What I do is not the way I am, but the way I teach.
What I speak is not a reflection of me, but of you.
People do well to be offended or even outraged by me. This is my purpose. But their reaction must turn upon themselves, for I have not shown them myself by all of this. All that I do and speak only reveals men to themselves.”…..