American-Born Guru, Bubba Free John, Retires
by Jack Garvy
“People want the Guru to be the Avatar. They want that exclusive God-image, whereas God doesn’t exist in the exclusive sense. God is absolute. And the Guru lives as the Present Divine, not because he has attained anything, but because he has been undone. In fact, he doesn’t exist as God in any exclusive sense whatsoever. So there is no Avatar except the whole, if it makes any sense to use such words at all.”
-Garbage and the Goddess
“If the humor of such an undertaking has been awakened in you through the literature, and if you feel prepared to sustain the happiness and the offenses of that sacrificial affair described by Bubba Free John, please accept this invitation.”
Those who actively participate in the San Fransicso community number about four hundred. Seed communities are also springing up in Vancouver, B.C.; London, England; Melbourne, Australia; and Auckland, New Zealand; as well as Boston, New York City, and Denver/Boulder. Of the San Francisco members, most share households in the city, work at ordinary jobs, and, up until recently, would visit Persimmon every Friday through Sunday evening. There they would gather to hear lectures or discussions led by ashram members, study Bubba’s teaching, meet for devotional singing, and celebrate the sacramental occasions of darshan (a sacramental form in which an individual views the guru while contemplating his own blissful nature), prasad (a celebration of the mutually sacrificial nature of the guru-devotee relationship, in which a symbolic gift of fruit is offered by the devotee and then returned to him with the guru’s blessing), and satsang (simply sitting in silence with the guru in full awareness of his teaching and presence)
The greatest attraction of Persimmon, of course, has been the fact that it is Bubba’s residence and fairly breathes his presence; ashram members consider it a privilege to care for the grounds, prepare meals, edit transcripts, or perform other necessary work.
When I first encountered the community through its public center at 1443 Polk Street in San Francisco, I felt as if I might have stumbled across a CIA operation. Out front was a small, orderly, bookstore, smelling of incense and appearing innocuous enough with its glut of books on Middle Eastern religion, but through a pair of double-doors, room upon larger room unfolded, lushly carpeted and crossed and criss-crossed by people carrying papers. A lot of videotape equipment and a large movie screen were in evidence. Thousands of dollars worth of Balinese art graced the walls. Young people came and went, dressed casually, some in Levis and some carrying briefcases. IBM Selectrics clicked away at legal-secretary speeds. A great deal of laughing and communicating, over-communicating, seemed to be going on. Later I learned that this continual communicating, this effort in relationship, is a conscious form of sadhana (service to the guru) that everyone engages in. A newcomer to the Free Community Order (as the secular arm of the ashram is called, in order to distinguish it from the Free Communion Church or religious ministry) will in all likelihood first pass through this Polk Street educational center. Here he will find tapes and video of Bubba’s talks and an open, welcome attitude on the part of the staff. Depending on his willingness and capacity to live what is considered here to be a responsible, mature life, he will be offered gradual inclusion into community routines. this center also houses the Laughing Man Institute, a nonprofit branch of the Free Communion church, responsible for informing the public interested in general religious areas. The center publishes magazines and books, films, and lectures, and slide presentations are regularly available at the center for a nominal charge.
Some advantages of the Free Community Order are an outstanding co-op (the retail store did $250,000 last year in ashram business alone), a garage to maintain the community’s fleet of trucks and cars, daycare centers for the children of working parents, dental and medical treatment, free legal advice, clean, orderly, and inexpensive households where costs of room and board are shared equally, and regular educational activities. Community members are expected to tithe 10 percent of their earnings to the Free Communion Church, as a minimal financial response of gratitude for the teaching and the community order.
The intention of the community, however, is not merely to solve the problems of survival in the world on a cooperative basis, although that function is certainly important and seems to be accomplished reasonably successfully. It is far more important, from Bubba’s point of view, that the community provide an environment in which real human transformation can take place, in which energy is exchanged freely in all communications and contacts.
The dimension of Iife that we communicate through attention to others, unobstructed, is principal food. The food that we take through the mouth is gross and secondary. Many people eat well enough and breathe well enough, but they are depressed, insane, because they do not communicate through the eyes and through the heart. We settle for less than Ife. A smile, a piece of ass, a cigarette, that is sufficient. We don’t really require ljfe of one another, and that is what we need. You cannot survive in your truly human functions without it. If you all were busy truly loving one another, truly being present to one another without complication, without making any assumptions about one another or yourselves, you could live for a long time, and even if you lived for only twenty years, you would be happy, at least on those ordinary human levels. You would be feeding one another, and you could die happily if you happened to have to die someday. Because everybody would be with you. They would be holding your hand and shooting you full of conscious Ife. You would be loved, free, not prevented from Truth, and who cares then?
In actual community life, the conditions for sadhana, or relationship to the guru, are not easy. Bubba has written at length on certain life-level demands regarding money, food, sex, study, and service which everyone is expected to maintain. A newcomer is flatly required to “get it straight on the practical level”, the things he has been failing at are the very areas in which he is now expected to succeed. He must find a job that requires a maximum commitment of energy and involvement; he must adapt to a lactovegetarian diet devoid of tobacco, alcohol, stimulant beverages, and drugs; he must confine sex to marriage and refrain from dramatizing any sort of exclusive, self-interested impulses; he must observe himself constantly in the action of relationship and contemplate the gurus teaching, as well as other spiritual literature, every day; and he must serve others in every moment, primarily by bringing his full life force into all human contacts.
“People don’t live in community anymore, Bubba once remarked, “they live in America.” Bubba’s emphasis on individual and local group responsibility for the survival functions of life places him on the conservative end of the political spectrum. He advocates a return to neighborhood relationships everywhere, but not on the basis of mere geographic commonality. “The community is a specific kind of process. No one can live within the community who is not fitted to it through a real, intuitive, and intelligent response to the teaching and to the guru.” He admits, moreover, that it has taken a long time to establish such a community because there is no surviving strong tradition in the West to realize a sadhana in this form.
Thus, much of Bubba’s work with individuals in the past was not specifically “spiritual” but was aimed, rather, at quickening the process of culturization, of basic transformation to what he considers a minimally human level. Recently, he has been gradually turning over these educational responsibilities to the maturing ashram. For a long time, his stated objective has been complete freedom from all such matters so that the real event of ashram life, satsang with those available to the divine process, could begin in earnest. He said that he was looking forward to a time when he would be at liberty to roam the land, “eating owl sandwiches.”
On Sunday night after Bubba’s return from Hawaii, ashram entertainers put on a show in the Pavilion. The skits were surprisingly good, given that they had been put together on short notice at Bubba’s command. The organizer and emcee was Andy (Andrew Johnson) Johnson, an ex-Marine captain, Vietnam veteran, and graduate of the Columbia Graduate School of Business who had been earning $1750 a week as a comedy writer for Johnny Carson when he decided to chuck it all three years ago. Andy is now one of the community cooks. His day begins at seven, ends late at night, and includes a full round of devotional service; but as he says, “Andy Johnson is nothing but karma and tendencies. When I look at my daily schedule from a conventional point of view, it doesn’t seem like much. But approached in the right way, doing sadhana, you exchange life-force with a person in conversation. And as you get into it, you see how defective you are in these areas. You’re always being tested. It’s very demanding, really.”
Andy’s story is not unusual. Bubba seems to have attracted a great many individuals whose lives, while superficially appearing successful, enviable, or in some way remarkable, were, on a deeper level, fixed in a mood of despair. It is this kind of suffering which, in Bubba’s view, serves as the initial grace that renders a person available to the teaching.
This suffering, however, or the mechanism in the self that constantly produces it, does not vanish simply because a person has entered the community. It is characteristic of Narcissus to ignore signs and omens and to resist change up to the last possible moment. Although Bubba had specifically pre-saged the circumstances and events that would inevitably have to transform the ashram, this tendency to avoid the inevitable manifested as shock when the actual news arrived. On Monday, the morning after the skits, Bubba spent two hours with disciples in a third-floor hotel office dictating spontaneous directives into a tape recorder. At 4:00 P.M. he left for Hawaii, and at 7:15 a general meeting was called in the hotel lobby.
The announcements, made by disciples, created an immediate shock. The gathering became dramatic as individuals tried to evaluate in personal terms the consequences of what they were hearing: How will I be affected? What will happen to my position?
It was explained that, since returning from Hawaii on Saturday night, Bubba had taken his measure of the ashram, including its personnel and financial situation. All too often, he noted, disciples had been absent for long periods, teaching or fundraising in distant cities. Moreover, a disproportionate amount of time and money was being expended to support the education of students in preparation for their mature relationship to the guru. a process of preparation which in many cases might easily take years. or even lifetimes. Bubba did not consider this process to be a responsibility of the spiritual community, but rather a natural function of a healthy society-at-large. Therefore, he was finished, forever dealing with people who were not prepared to deal with him.
He would no longer be available as he had in the past. Sad to say, some of those in the lobby tonight might not see him again, and many would be asked to move to San Francisco. Persimmon would from now on be called Right Whale, after a phrase Bubba had used in referring to a sought after sanctuary in Hawaii, but the main point was that the sought after sanctuary was now to be found right here: it would be a sanctuary in the true traditional mode, where spiritual work could proceed undisturbed, where only those fully prepared for the divine process would be permitted entry. So, again, said to say, no one would be allowed to visit
He would no longer be available as he had in the past. Sad to say, some of those in the lobby tonight might not see him again, and many would be asked to move to San Francisco. Persimmon would from now on be called Right Whale, after a phrase Bubba had used in referring to a sought after sanctuary in Hawaii, but the main point was that the sought after sanctuary was now to be found right here: it would be a sanctuary in the true traditional mode, where spiritual work could proceed undisturbed, where only those fully prepared for the divine process would be permitted entry.
He was now withdrawing.
“Since the beginning,” says Saniel Bonder, who was with Bubba throughout the period these communications were made, “a great deal of personal contact with Bubba has been possible for certain people. But the tendency of followers is to create a personality cult around the central figure, it always happens,and that’s been a liability in the ashram. In the early years, this fixation upon Bubba’s personal, human form served a useful purpose because he was communicating the teaching, not just as an abstract philosophy, but as a living event something visible in the activities of ordinary people. Now, though, the teaching can stand on its own, and a group of disciples is ready for more intense forms of higher spiritual life. As a result, Bubba won’t be functioning any longer as ‘the man,’ as the personal focus of attention in the lives of most of his devotees.
Following the announcements, repercussions traveled through the ashram, bending lives, uprooting households, and bringing people face to face with their narcissistic concerns for personal safety and security. Overall, though, I was surprised to see how smoothly the community adjusted to the guru’s new demands:
for many the pain of separation from Bubba must have been wrenching. He was now insisting that his nature be intuited everywhere and under every circumstance, not only in his physical presence.
Meanwhile, Bubba continued to clarify the ashram’s organizational structure. In a series of communications that made heads spin, the first of these moves effectively divided the community into two groups, those ready for the higher sadhana of “the way of understanding,” and those, the vast majority, who now formed what Bubba began to call “the transitional culture.” Saniel explained:
“Everyone, sooner or later, must pass from a merely karmic destiny into stable availability to the intense demands of conscious spiritual life. Bubba is making it very clear, though, that all the people involved in the ‘transitional culture,’ people now called ‘correspondents,’ are essentially on their own from this point on. They can mature in the process at their own pace, without some outside authority badgering them about getting straight. Of course, people can take on the transitional sadhana anywhere, by themselves, but it’s highly recommended that they involve themselves in one of the seed communities now forming around the world or in the San Francisco community. We are making this work, this teaching available in major centers in the U.S. in the very near future. People should be able to make contact without too much inconvenience, and the importance of that can’t be overestimated because living this process in relationship and established members of Right Whale will help to quicken it quite a bit.”
The purpose of the Free Communion Church has been to make a truthful and humanizing religious form of life available, not only to those in northern California but to anyone, anywhere, who responds to Bubba’s teaching and wishes to assume his conditions of life. A minimum tithe is expected of all correspondents or members, and Bubba has made it clear that while there will be official communicators of the teaching, there will be no priesthood, nor will there be any “institutional edifices.” All sacraments are in the home. No contact with or even personal devotion to Bubba Free John is required. What avails is the presence of grace, the force for siddhi of the Divine, and he has recently stated that his disciples and community are sufficiently founded to serve as channels for this grace in locations distant from the church headquarters in California.
As for Bubba himself, he is gradually becoming invisible. Except for the transmission of certain information to his most advanced disciples and devotees, and the preparation of several manuscripts, including a definitive source text on his teaching, he considers his work done. As he indicated to his disciples not long ago, “Fundamentally, I’m retired!” He has asked that all future communications of the Church place the teaching first that his disciples and community are sufficiently founded to serve as channels for this grace in locations distant from the church headquarters in California.
Nearly two years ago in Garbage and the Goddess, he wrote:
My biography, recorded teachings, photographs, and the like will remain a source of contact with the function of Teacher after my death. And the persons and places I knew in life will also remain as agents of this contact. But I will not remain personally in contact with the Communi-ty or any devotee after my death. Even in death, I will yield utterly to the condition of Siddhi and Person of God, and, therefore, I will remain only Perfectly Present. This Siddhi and Person is the same I have always shown, through and independent of my personal form. Therefore, what will remain behind me will be a community, not a cult. The Divine will remain immediately and directly Present through the agency of my total Community of devotees. Among all future devotees, I may be acknowledged as Teacher, one with the Divine Guru, and recollected along with the body of the Teaching. But no cultic relationship to my possibly continued personal appearance after death will be necessary or appropriate in order for devotees to enjoy the Siddhi and Person of the Divine which will always remain in the Satsang of this Coinm unity.
And after my death, there will be nothing left of my personal influence in the present, but only God. My personal influence will remain only a recollected one, in the form of what I have written and spoken and done. The memory of my unsual appearance will only serve as an agent of Divine Communion. Even the evidence of power that will remain in my Communion Halls, my burial place, and the places of my former residence, will not be personal, for even while alive I have only been an empty agent of the Lord.
I am always working to yield all responsibilities to devotees and to make all my devotees perfectly available to the Divine Work. Therefore, know that your responsibility must, at last, be perfect. At last, this Community must be me and assume all my life functions. For this reason, I have asked for your lives in total, so that you may be assumed by me totally and live only in God to one another. ‘If you accept my demands truly and with humor, then the Siddhi and Person of the very Divine will remain Active and Present in and through this Community throughout the coming age and more.
In effect, Bubba Free John is dying to his community while still alive, thus testing its ability to survive without his physical presence. It remains to be seen what will result. He has never claimed that the spiritual process would be a “success.” On the contrary, he has criticized as dreamy nonsense the notion that heavenly assurances would ultimately bring his teaching some sort of global acceptance. He has made it equally clear that there need be no guru if humanity only maintains contact with the eternally present divine. It was only because men had lost the way, he states, that he was born, manifesting directly from God-light, to communicate the dharma and invigorate the earth with divine humor. Now, apparently, that presence is sufficiently strong in his community to allow him to become obsolete, unnecessary, retired. As this article goes to press, he is off somewhere in the Southwest, traveling through Indian country, possibly munching on an owl sandwich.