Anthem for the Awakened One
“Once you see a certain truth, you cannot do anything other than obey it. But it has to be your seeing, your perception, your realization.”
— Bhagwan Shree Rajneesh, “From Ignorance to Innocence”
Rajneeshpuram awaited roughly four hours northeast of Albany, down a twisting stretch of Highway 218. Once you hit Antelope, you knew you were close. Its aura was unmistakable, even from 19 miles away, in a miniature prelude to the commune-city itself.
As you drove further, you felt it coming. If you were a stranger, someone had already noted your presence in Antelope. Beyond that point was a series of four two-man observation posts, each apprising the other of approaching unknown vehicles. A guard took down your license plate number. By the time you reached Rajneeshpuram, the proper authorities were aware of you. They knew how many people were with you.
Tourists may have been indifferent to such precautions, but government officials were not. They endured meddlesome welcomes, their movements shadowed, blocked or coaxed in less intrusive directions.
As Graham Kislingbury and Nancy Anderson drew closer, they passed a sign bearing a Rajneesh litany, one which may have also served as a guideline for visitors:
“I go to the feet of the Awakened One
I go to the feet of the commune of the Awakened One
I go to the feet of the ultimate truth of the Awakened One.”
As explained in “From Ignorance to Innocence,” going to “the feet” meant surrendering one’s ego, first in the presence of few, then in the presence of many. The “ultimate truth,” of course, was a little more difficult — it involved expunging a lifetime of preconditioning, and accepting, with all one’s heart, a new set of values.
There were 1,700 such souls at Rajneeshpuram in September 1984, although a sign at the border announced a modest 1,222, with 4,000 predicted by century’s end — a number it actually eclipsed within a year. Kislingbury and Anderson, however, were curious about only one: Shannon Ryan.
They paid a couple of bucks for the commune-city tour (“They were very entrepreneurial,” Graham quipped) and heard its many selling points. Graham took copious notes. The Rajneesh International Meditation University — where one could enroll in such workshops as the four-day “Harmony: Opening the Heart” and the month-long “Training Course in Rajneesh Psychic Message and Energy Balancing” for $150 and $3,000, respectively — was declared one of the world’s largest growth centers. The Rajneeshees recycled 70 percent of everything and even maintained a “sewage lagoon” that reclaimed water for irrigation.
Parts of Rajneeshpuram, however, were very much off-limits to visitors. Some required personal searches, armbands or day passes. Despite the presence of a hotel, overnight stays were discouraged; non-sannyasins were redirected to Madras, about 30 miles southwest, for accommodations.
Kislingbury, Anderson and Shannon Ryan caught up over lunch. Labor, Graham learned, was considered integral to worship. Some, like Shannon, worked more than 12 hours a day. In fact, she had two jobs, one, in an administrative position of sorts that also involved cleaning; the other, as a Zorba the Buddha Restaurant employee. The woman who assembled holiday crafts in 1978 had abandoned art altogether by 1984. She also lost contact with her family, having last spoken with them some nine months earlier.
Around 2 p.m., their visit was interrupted. “I have to leave now,” she reportedly said. “We’re going to create a song for the Bhagwan.”
Kislingbury and Anderson followed to observe.
Disciples began gathering, instruments in hand, to practice in a grassy area. Their leader was scheduled soon, riding inside one of his many Rolls Royces. It was his daily ritual. Shannon carried a toy xylophone. “Look,” she announced, “I can play ‘Happy Birthday’” and tapped out the evergreen. Soon a song had formed. “Bhagwan,” sang his people, “we love you, we love, we love you … ”
Shannon said her goodbyes and vanished into the mass forming along a road leading from the Bhagwan's palatial home. A police force member approached Graham and Nancy, bidding them out of the way. The procession was coming, and they’d been standing on the wrong side — the “private side” — of the street.
First came a man with roses for sale at $3 apiece. Then the fleet rolled through. Petals rained in tumbling showers. Voices rose in harmony. Graham watched the Bhagwan as he passed. The Bhagwan, seated in comfortable luxury, did not look back. Instead, he watched the road ahead.
Graham turned to his wife.
“Nancy,” he said, “let’s get out of here.”
A mid-September Sunday, 1984
After his sermon, Mark Reid couldn't stay. The regional minister for the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) in Oregon was recovering from pain in one of his arms. It had been bad enough to warrant brief hospitalization. So he graciously declined the Pendleton church group’s lunch invitation and headed home to Beaverton with his wife, Susie, and their teenage sons, Jay and Eric.
A couple of hours later, the Reids reached The Dalles. Hungry, they stopped at the Portage Inn, which overlooked the Columbia River, The Dalles bridge and the ruins of an old Indian settlement. (Today its restaurant is called the Columbia Portage Grill, within the Shiloh Inns. The view, you’ll be glad to hear, is the same.) The first thing Susie noticed was the small, sad salad bar in the main dining area. It was a sickly display, loaded with items exposed to the elements since that morning.
“We all sat down and ordered from the menu,” she said. “My husband ordered a taco salad. The boys ordered club sandwiches. I ordered a dinner that came with a dinner salad.”
She hoped her salad would be prepared in the kitchen. However, before their food arrived, she caught their waitress making it at the salad bar. Nevertheless, the Reids dug in. Jay and Eric worked on their sandwiches. Everyone sampled Mark’s lunch. Then Eric reached over to his mother’s plate, playfully plucked a crouton between his fingers and popped it into his mouth.
I can’t miss work, she thought.
I can’t miss work, she thought.
I’ve got to get to work.
Something was wrong.
The second she stood, it was too late.
She began vomiting.
But she had to get to work. They were counting on her. Congregation Beth Israel in Portland. There were deadlines to hit.
Her boys had already gone to school. Mark was en route to an out-of-town meeting. His aunt was the only other person left in the house, and together they worked to prepare Susie for the day. They were successful. Susie called the office. “I’m really not feeling good,” she warned, “but I’ll be in.”
And she was, arriving at 10 a.m. in her stick-shift Pinto station wagon. When she entered the building, a coworker offered her 7-Up, but it had zero effect. She kept leaving her desk and returning. Leaving her desk and returning. Leaving her desk and returning. Finally, she announced, “I need to go home.”
Home was a 14-minute drive away. But getting there proved dangerous.
“I had two stoplights,” Susie recalled, “one right there in Northwest and then one out by the hospital. Those two stoplights. I turn the corner at the stoplight and start up the hill. And I just threw up all over the car. I was driving up the hill; I couldn’t stop. I was in traffic just throwing up. I couldn’t control myself.
“I get all the way home, drag myself out of the car and get into bed. Then the phone rings.”
“Mrs. Reid,” said the voice on the other end, “your son is sick.”
Retrieving children from school can be inconvenient — logistically impossible, sometimes — but Susie Reid improvised a plan stuffed with variables and required the least exertion. She’d barely made it home and now, within minutes, she had to stagger back into traffic. She called her doctor, who issued a prescription. She called the drugstore with said prescription and a strange request. She called Sunset High School with a similar request. This was how it had to be.
“Walk him out to the street right now,” she said in her call to the school. “I’m on my way. There’s no way I can walk into the school and get him. There’s no way.”
“There’s no way I’m going to be able to walk into that drugstore and get the medicine,” she said in her call to the pharmacy. “Can you bring it out to the car?”
Somehow, they made it home with minimal incident. But they weren't finished being sick. Eric lost 10 pounds in two days and wouldn’t return to class for another two weeks. Susie went to her doctor that Thursday. Her headaches were intolerable. She didn’t seem to be improving. He administered a shot and sent her home to sleep. She did not sleep. No, not at all. Back she went, at his behest, on the condition that he knock her out so she could finally get some rest. “It helped,” she said, “but I don’t think I was totally ever rid of the pain.”
Everyone was at a loss for an explanation. But the doctor figured it out.
“You haven’t happened to have been in The Dalles lately, have you?” he asked.
A poisoned town
“The outbreak was clearly associated with food consumption at restaurants. Almost all case patients either worked at a restaurant in The Dalles or reported eating at 1 or more restaurants located in the town during the week before onset of illness. Many culture-confirmed cases occurred in nonresidents who had a single restaurant meal as their sole exposure.”
— The Journal of the American Medical Association, “A Large Community Outbreak of Salmonellosis Caused by Intentional Contamination of Restaurant Salad Bars” (Aug. 6, 1997)
Paper-trail warfare continued between Rajneesh leadership and Wasco County. The sect wanted to keep building, but their permits kept getting denied. The only way to override this stalemate was to purge the system, to oust nonbelievers for more cooperative officials. But how to ensure victory on Election Day?
Ma Anand Sheela announced “Share-a-Home,” a program that recruited some 4,000 homeless people from across the country in an apparently humanitarian display of compassion. They were given lodging in exchange for labor. Of course, a cynic might deduce it was also an attempt to bolster voting power through an easy loophole: at the time, Oregon residents could register in a county to vote and vote on the same day. And who better to populate a community than a cross-section of forgotten — and grateful — humanity? (Bonus: With no fixed address, you can bounce 'em just as quickly.)
Whatever plans they’d formed in that regard were thwarted when Wasco County Clerk Sue Proffitt, advised by Oregon Secretary of State Norma Paulus, blocked further registrations until voter qualification hearings could be held, an excruciating and arduous process for all involved.
This also prevented a counter-maneuver from an Albany group intent on the same purpose, albeit in reverse: voiding Rajneeshee votes with their own. Talbott "Robbie" Robinson and Joanne Boies led that drive, although both seemed to feel differently about Proffitt’s decision. “We accomplished what we set out to do,” Robinson told the Salem Statesman Journal in November 1984, ”and that was to prevent the Rajneeshees from taking over any county in Oregon.” “We’ve decided it’s absolutely worthless to go up there and not be allowed to vote,” Boies said. (Robinson died in 1998, Boies the following year.)
Another ploy had been launched as well. This one was quieter yet more devastating, and no one would quite know for months who was responsible.
It came in two waves: from Sept. 9-18, followed by another between Sept. 19 and Oct. 10, 1984. The plot involved, among others, Ma Anand Sheela and Ma Anand Puja (birth name: Diane Yvonne Onang), the Rajneesh Medical Corp.'s secretary/treasurer.
A team of Rajneeshees visited 10 restaurants in The Dalles, the Wasco County seat, each concealing bags filled with a salmonella strain — they called it “salsa,” although the liquid was brown — that they poured over open salad bars. The conspirators hoped to incapacitate enough local voters to steamroll their handpicked candidates into office. This was the trial run, to see if it could work.
It could. In fact, it remains the biggest known bioterrorist attack on our shores in the last 70 years. The outbreak resulted in 751 cases, 692 of which were traced to restaurants in The Dalles with salad bars. Susie Reid was one of 45 people hospitalized. Somehow, miraculously, no one died. Those numbers were insane for a town of roughly 10,000 people; the state as a whole recorded, at most, about 400 incidents in a single year.
Health officials were stumped. Food and Drug Administration investigators checked food suppliers and wholesalers but found no commonalities. Surrounding towns weren’t affected at all. There was no “ground zero,” either, so to speak. The outbreak just exploded: this restaurant, this restaurant, this restaurant. About 325 food handlers were interviewed multiple times. Many of them had been infected too, concurrently with customers. And it originated from salad bars. Dressing, fruit, macaroni and potato salads — all contaminated. Yet the only conclusion authorities could draw was that food handlers were responsible. Nothing else made sense.
That was the official explanation, until Feb. 28, 1985, when Oregon Congressman Jim Weaver took the floor for an hour at the House of Representatives in Washington, D.C.
“Mr. Speaker,” he began, “I have a strange and terrifying tale to tell the House. It is about a town that was poisoned.”
Raise the alarm
“Is there a madman lurking in The Dalles? The poisoning was an insane act, an act of violent hatred, carried on with subtle means. There must be such a person or persons with the motive and ability to assault this town, for it actually happened.”
— Congressman Jim Weaver, “The Town That Was Poisoned” (Feb. 28, 1985)
As Weaver explained his theories, some couldn’t help but think them ludicrous. It was one thing to dislike the Rajneeshees, quite another to cast them as soap-opera villains. Ma Anand Sheela may have relished playing a media heavy, who took delight in shocking pronouncements, but bioterrorism for ballots was beyond the pale.
Weaver enjoyed — or, rather, he didn't — an interesting reputation among colleagues and nemeses alike. They accused him of wallowing in doomsday prophecies. His bombastic style inspired revulsion. Oregonian editorial page editor Robert Landauer described him to The Washington Post as “one of the least effective members of Congress. He is often so far out. By and large he’s futile.” (Weaver was less civilized in his assessment of the Portland-based organ, calling it “the rottenest, most vicious paper imaginable.”)
Weaver pressed on nevertheless. What had convinced him of Rajneesh involvement was a similar incident in August 1984 at the ranch itself, a story he heard from Wasco County Judge William Hulse.
Hulse and two county commissioners had gone to Rajneeshpuram to conduct an inspection. When they arrived, they were asked to exchange their car for Rajneesh-provided transportation. Ma Anand Sheela came to see them off. Instead of “Hello,” “Welcome” or “Be safe,” she reportedly said, “Snakes should sit in the back seats.”
They came back to find one of their car’s tires had gone flat. While they waited for repairs, someone from the Rajneeshpuram medical laboratory offered them water, which they graciously accepted in the summer heat.
“Within about eight hours,” Hulse said, “I became violently ill, with some sort of stomach and bowel upset. Later I went to the hospital. I was in the hospital two days. The doctor said I might have died. Another county commissioner came down with what appeared to be the same thing, though he was not hospitalized. The third commissioner was considered by us to be sympathetic to the Rajneeshees. He did not get sick.”
“I conclude my story,” Weaver said, “by calling for an extensive police investigation of the salmonella outbreak in The Dalles.”
Former Corvallis Gazette-Times editorial page editor Jackman Wilson remembered Weaver’s speech as a pivotal juncture in perception of the Rajneeshees.
“He was roundly criticized by people in the state, including in newspaper editorials, for inciting fear of this invading force,” said Wilson, now the Eugene Register-Guard’s longtime editorial page editor. “They thought he went way overboard. But he was one of the first people of any prominence to sound the alarm. It was early enough that people said, ‘Oh, that’s just Jim Weaver.’ But it turned out he was on to something.”
As a matter of fact, he was absolutely right. That October a task force appointed by state Attorney General Dave Frohnmayer searched a Rajneeshpuram laboratory and discovered vials of a salmonella strain. Samples were sent to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Could these somehow be related to the outbreak in The Dalles?
The results came back with a clean, definitive answer.
They were an exact match.
Happy place in Instant Town
“Our religion is about celebrating life.”
— Swami Anand Anshumali, June 1985
Like Graham Kislingbury, Jackman Wilson visited the ranch, too, though his was more impulsive than deliberate.
In June of 1985, he and his wife, Heather, were driving through Central Oregon with her parents, William and Norma McClenaghan. William taught in Oregon State University’s Department of Political Science, with an emphasis on American state and local government. He also helped with election oversight during the infamous 1984 voter-registration controversy, as did Albany attorney Meredith Wiley and Corvallis attorney Robert Ringo, known more affectionately as “Benton County Bob.” Ringo, in fact, featured prominently in a Salem Statesman-Journal photograph, verifying a Rajneeshee’s information. (His 2017 obituary lists his participation, for which he received a Wasco County Peace Prize from Norma Paulus, as one of his proudest achievements. McClenaghan died in 2010. Wiley did not respond to requests for comment.)
“We were in the back regions of Crook and Wheeler counties and then found ourselves in Fossil, not far from Antelope,” Wilson said in a recent telephone interview. “It was kind of a lark. My father-in-law was interested in the sudden emergence of this community out in the middle of nowhere. I’d heard enough about it to be curious to see it with my own eyes. So we went.”
He described the trip in the June 9 edition of the Corvallis Gazette-Times. He marveled at its size, a rarity in a section of the state so dotted with tiny towns. Its citizens seemed uniformly if bizarrely happy, swathed in a beatific sheen. “Our religion is about celebrating life,” Swami Anand Anshumali told them as he whisked them about the sights.
“It was striking,” Wilson recalled. “A lot of money was being poured into the place. People were putting up barracks for people to live in. There were public buildings. Water lines were being installed. It was clear that they were spending millions of dollars and burning through a lot of people’s inheritances. It was a very ambitious project. The people we encountered were energetic and enthusiastic and kind of blissed-out. After a while I asked myself, ‘Doesn’t anyone around here ever have a bad day?’ They very much wanted to communicate that this was the best place on the planet to be, and I think a lot of them believed that.”
He reflected further upon his adventure in a column later that month, exploring the world’s growing suspicion of the sect, which by this time was crumbling from within under the dark weight of fractured factions, increasingly hostile acts matched by equally aggressive media coverage and government pressure, and the beginnings of a seismic rift between the Bhagwan and Sheela that would doom both them and their failing utopia.
“[It] strengthened my opinion,” Wilson wrote then, “that the Rajneeshees themselves are mostly to blame for the public’s hostility. And they are not just victims of their own inept public relations. Rather, the Rajneeshees’ provocative public statements, their heavyhanded political maneuvers and their inability to admit error are manifestations of their view of the world and their place in it.”
When read the passage, Wilson didn’t hesitate in his response.
“I feel pretty much the same way,” he said. “It was clear to me that they thought they were a special group of people who deserved a special kind of treatment. They had a sense of superiority and a sense of condescension, which was directed most intensely toward their immediate neighbors, and also Oregon in general. They felt they had a key to understanding the universe and no one else did. Those poor, ignorant Oregonians couldn’t take their blinders off and join them in their happy place.”