Eastern spirituality comes west – a short history
By Carl Teichrib
Secularism didn’t supplant religion in the Western world, as some Twentieth Century humanists had anticipated. Instead, new spiritual expressions and movements entered the landscape, often with roots firmly planted in the metaphysical soil of the East. This article, excerpted from my book, Game of Gods: The Temple of Man in the Age of Re-Enchantment, explores some of these changes.
“One of the most brilliant pieces of work ever written on how the Judeo-Christian narrative has been abandoned in our politics and culture, replaced by a me-god worldview. A must read… for such a time as this!“
– Cindy Hartline, host of Love For The Truth Radio.
Ashrams and yoga and LSD – Eastern oneness blossomed with Western psychedelic wholeness. But the religious message was not limited to chemical experimenters.
In the 1960s, Maharishi Mahesh Yogi traveled around the world lecturing on Hindu beliefs and Transcendental Meditation (TM). His tours took him into the lofty towers of academia and within the esteemed halls of political power, including a meeting with UN Secretary General U Thant. In the United States his technique of meditation, TM, soon became a sensation.
“It wasn’t hipsters who gravitated to him at first,” explained Philip Goldberg. “His earliest supporters, drawn by invitations from friends or small ads in local newspapers, were… clean-shaven dads with neat haircuts and good jobs, and apron-wearing moms…”
Sold as a way to find “infinite inner happiness,” Maharishi was endorsed by The Beatles, sending the guru’s popularity soaring. And although The Beatles soon distanced themselves from the guru, other notables such as Mike Love of the Beach Boys and television host Merv Griffin embraced his message. Pulitzer Prize-winning author, Alice Walker, recalls her experience with TM: “I was in that state of oneness with creation, and it was as if I didn’t exist except as a part of everything.”
Others from the East traveled to Europe and America. Yogi Bhajan packaged a syncretistic version of Sikhism, teaching Kundalini Yoga and preaching an immanent shift in global consciousness. Sri Chinmoy, arriving in America in 1964, attracted the attention of musicians and politicians with his brand of meditation. Invited by U Thant, Sri Chinmoy convened twice-weekly meditation meetings at the United Nations in New York City. But it was not just the East coming west, affluent and searching Westerners departed for India.
Michael Murphy, a Stanford University student who traveled to the Sri Aurobindo Ashram in India during the early days of spiritual tourism, returned and co-founded the California-based Esalen Institute in 1962. Here, nestled among pine trees and redwoods in the Big Sur region south of San Francisco, visitors and residents could soak in the hot springs, bask in ocean vistas, and explore conscious development through chemical substances, integrated yoga, humanistic psychology, and sensual pleasures. A stream of Hollywood insiders and influential personalities embraced the blending of LSD, group play and Gestalt therapy, sexual adventurism and Eastern philosophy. Over the decades, a steady stream of diverse workshops have covered everything from “Modern Shamanic Initiation” to “Spiritual Psychology” to “Yoga Works” to “Deep Mythology” and “Spiritual Democracy.”
From transformational art to energy healing to leadership development and relationship building, Esalen became the go-to-place to acquire tools for personal transformation and social change.
Early lecturers at the Institute demonstrated the uniqueness and importance of what was transpiring under the pines and in the hot springs. Teachers included Alan Watts, Arnold Toynbee, Timothy Leary, Aldous Huxley, Fritz Perls, Carl Rogers, Abraham Maslow, Buckminster Fuller, Terence McKenna, Joseph Campbell, B.F. Skinner, Stanislav Grof, George Leonard, and Will Schultz. Notable church leaders also contributed. Bishop James Pike of San Francisco’s Grace Cathedral Episcopal Church was a bridge between the Institute and other “theological mavericks.” Pike’s Episcopal colleague, Robert Cromey, lectured at Esalen on homosexual enlightenment.
“By the late 1960s,” explains the Institute’s chairperson Jeffrey Kripal, “Esalen, through Cromey, had helped open up a cultural space to address the intersection of sexual orientation, spirituality, and social justice.”
Pike ended up repudiating Christian tenets and “saw the historical Jesus as a kind of political revolutionary or social critic.” Today these same themes resonate in progressive Christian circles.
Professor Marion Goldman comments on the “sweeping impact on American religion” that emerged through the Esalen experience, opening up spiritual options that were previously in the shadows of culture,
Esalen played a critical role in introducing and promoting esoteric spirituality so that it flowed into mainstream culture…
Innovative approaches to spiritual growth and personal transformation did not spring up suddenly like magic mushrooms in the cultural forests of the 1960s. Instead, they were cultivated on Esalen’s 120 acres in Big Sur, California, and introduced to middle-class Americans through media and word of mouth.
Ken Wilber described it this way: “There is nothing like Esalen anywhere in the world. I truly believe it has changed the course of human history.”
Laced throughout the Institute’s many activities was the Eastern reminder of human perfection: “Esalen promoted the growth and spread of spiritual privilege because its foundational doctrine held that everyone had sparks of divinity that could be connected to a benevolent, distant cosmic force.”
Academic and public interest in Esalen increased and then rocketed. During its 50th anniversary in 2012, the Institute reported that approximately 17,000 people per year had participated in its workshops. Roughly 900,000 people had visited the California location since 1962.
Money interests, too, were watching and participating. Lawrence Rockefeller, whose Baptist father had reportedly been influenced by Vivekananda and whose mother showed interest in Zen Buddhism, provided special funding to Esalen and other related organizations. In fact, Murphy related in a 2012 public conversation that “[Lawrence] has seeded so much, I mean, he’s the single biggest donor we’ve ever had at Esalen.”
“From the early 1970s until his death, in 2004,” elaborated Marion Goldman, “Rockefeller donated millions of dollars to Esalen and three related organizations that promote inclusive spirituality and synthesize Asian and Western traditions: the San Francisco Zen Center, the Lindisfarne Association, and the California Institute for Integral Studies.”
Each of these institutions connected with one another. Each advanced the work of spiritual enterprise and transformation.
By the late 1960s and early ‘70s, this religious riptide was pulling at popular culture. A post-secular mash-up of Eastern devotion and experiential consciousness was put to music. Floating over radio waves from San Diego to London to Saigon came the melodic hit, My Sweet Lord, a tune of affection to Krishna with its overlay of hallelujah and Hare Krishna. The 5th Dimension sang of planetary peace and “mystical crystal revelation,” the dawning of the Age of Aquarius. Moody Blues’ Legend of a Mind toasted Timothy Leary, enticing you to take an astral trip. Jefferson Airplane chased the White Rabbit and Three Dog Night invited everyone to the “halls of Shambala.” John Lennon imagined the world as one.
The spiritual vision initiated by Vivekananda, packaged in a pill and pushed by Leary, and then experienced and externalized at Esalen, had spread far and wide. A revolution-in-mind was taking place.
Philip Goldberg tells of his moment,
“My own story is typical. As a college student in the Sixties, I was a political radical, a determined seeker of truth, and a confused mess who couldn’t figure out how to live happily in society, much less comprehend any higher meaning or purpose. I had no use for religion, but I was disillusioned with Marx and Freud too. As the era’s social tension grew, so did my craving for fulfillment and relief. The descriptions of enlightened yogis and the sublime faces of Buddhist statuary made me think, I want what those guys had. I wanted bliss. I wanted wisdom, infinite love, and union with the cosmos.”
Goldberg’s account is similar to so many others who came of age during that era. Roger Neill’s story touches some of these same themes, but with a different outcome,
“Aimless, morally confused, culturally relative youth like myself found that the socialist revolution didn’t come immediately, as we expected. Evil capitalism didn’t collapse with our dope-smoking, fornicating, Age-of-Aquarius attack on it. The revolution must have been taking place in the empty space between our navel-gazing ears. Over one generation, we retreated from the unsuccessful socialist revolution into the psycho spiritual ‘garden of earthly delights,’ brought about by the products of modern drug labs, eastern religion, and psychological technology.”
Victor Marshall, later to be a Christian chaplain inside Ohio’s correctional services, relates his experience and the emptiness it presented,
“The Beatles made their journey through drugs and Hinduism, and so eventually, would I. From 1970 to 1983, I was immersed in a longhaired culture of psychedelic rock, drugs, New Age theosophy, Eastern religion, pseudo-science, UFOs, and the occult… Psychotropic substances, like the forbidden fruit, promised an enlightened revelation of my ‘god’ nature. Instead, it only produced a terrible nakedness of the soul…
A study of the Bagavad Gita, the Rig Veda, the Upanishads, the writings of Confucius and Lao Tsu, the sayings of Buddha, the life of Muhammad, I Ching, Tai Chi, Kung Fu, pyramid power, astrology, astral projection, Zen Buddhism, the Egyptian and Tibetan books of the dead, primitive tribal religion, shamanism, spiritualism, Greek mythology, Greek philosophy, and a host of lesser dabblings brought me no closer to peace of mind or health of soul.”
Whereas Goldberg turned to the East with its elevated Self, Neill and Marshall saw through the façade and bowed to the Creator of the cosmos – the God who is separate and distinct from creation.
Many more interactions between the religions of the East and the minds of the West demonstrated the growing power of this spiritual riptide. Bhagwan Shree Rajneesh established a frightening and bizarre “dynamic meditation” sex-cult in Oregon. TM made its way into the corporate world, becoming a business in its own rite. Yoga, a technique to realize the universal – “all the potencies of the All” – and a quest for the “Perfection of Man,” was sold as physical fitness and health. The West ate it like candy.
Today’s acceptance of yoga and Buddhist-based mindfulness are popular facets of Eastern importation. Speaking on behalf of the International Day of Yoga – for it has become a global phenomenon – India’s Prime Minister Modi told the United Nations in 2014 that, “Yoga is not about exercise but to discover the sense of oneness with ourselves, the world and Nature.”
From the gleaming white marble-mountain of India’s Oneness Temple, known as the Temple of the Golden Orb – inaugurated in 2008 – to the hundreds of Krishna centers scattered around the world, to the West’s appropriation of Eastern practices, we face a global, spiritually charged context.
Do you live in the United States? Eastern spiritual communities are no longer a feature of the Orient only. For Buddhism, the picturesque City of Ten Thousand Buddhas is located 110 miles north of San Francisco. Or you can visit the Great Stupa of Dharmakaya at the Shambhala Mountain Center, fifty miles outside of Fort Collins, Colorado. Bloomington, Indiana is home to the Tibetan Culture Center, founded by the Dalai Lama’s brother. Or you can go to the Catskill Mountains above Woodstock, NY, and visit the Karma Triyana Dharmachakra.
For Hinduism, you can travel to the Mahalakshmi Temple in Delaware or the sprawling Radha Madhav Dham complex near Austin, Texas, or the Malibu Temple devoted to Venkateswara and Shiva. One of the largest temples in North America, at 43,000 square feet, is just outside of Minneapolis. Temples and communities can be found coast-to-coast.
Of far more importance is that millions of souls embrace the philosophies of Eastern spirituality, often naively blending flavors of Oneness with Christian ideas. Just talk to your neighbors or family.
We are being swept into a vast ocean of advaita.
Maybe Newsweek was right when it suggested in 2009 that Americans are becoming “more like Hindus and less like traditional Christians.”
 Goldberg, American Veda, p.155.
 As quoted by Jack Forem, Transcendental Meditation: The Essential Teachings of Maharishi Mahesh Yogi (Hay House, 2012, revised edition), p.62.
 Murphy was in India from 1956 to 1957, and in 1960 joined the Cultural Integration Fellowship – also known as Asia House – a San Francisco group dedicated to the teachings of Sri Aurobindo. For a retracing of spiritual tourism, see Roy Maclean, Magic Bus: On the Hippie Trail from Istanbul to India (Viking, 2006). For a Christian review and testimony, see Caryl Matrisciana, Gods of the New Age (Harvest House Publishers, 1985).
 Taken from The Esalen Catalog, January-June 1993 edition.
 For more on Esalen, see Marion Goldman, The American Soul Rush: Esalen and the Rise of Spiritual Privilege (New York University Press, 2012); Jeffrey J. Kripal, Esalen: America and the Religion of No Religion (The University of Chicago Press, 2007); and Walter Truett Anderson, The Upstart Spring: Esalen and the American Awakening (Addison-Wesley Publishing Company, 1983).
 Jeffrey J. Kripal, Esalen: America and the Religion of No Religion (The University of Chicago Press, 2007), p.183.
 Ibid., p.185.
 Marion Goldman, The American Soul Rush: Esalen and the Rise of Spiritual Privilege (New York University Press, 2012), pp.1-2.
 Quoted in Esalen Media Kit, “Celebrating 50 Years of Pioneering Leadership in Personal and Social Transformation,” p.1. Wilber is a psychologist and founder of Integral Theory.
 Goldman, The American Soul Rush, p.3.
 Esalen Media Kit, “Celebrating 50 Years of Pioneering Leadership in Personal and Social Transformation,” p.5.
 According to Vivekananda as the Turning Point (Advaita Ashrama, 2013), Lawrence’s father, John D. Rockefeller, visited the swami and was challenged to channel his money to the betterment of the world. “Rockefeller was annoyed and left, but a week later he came and threw on Swamiji’s desk a paper containing his plans to donate an enormous sum of money towards philanthropy and said to Swamiji that he should thank him. Swamiji did not even lift his eyes. He quietly read the paper and said, ‘It is for you to thank me’.” (p.407). “Abby” Aldrich Rockefeller, Lawrence’s mother, was an international art collector and had a special interest in Asian culture. Marion Goldman writes that it was because of his mother’s interest in Zen that Lawrence explored alternative spirituality. After being introduced in the 1960s, Michael Murphy became a trusted spiritual and personal advisor to Lawrence. See Goldman, The American Soul Rush, pp.143-144.
 “Esalen and CIIS,” a conversation between Esalen co-founder Michael Murphy and Robert McDermott of the California Institute of Integral Studies, June 1, 2012. Held at the CIIS Main Campus, Namaste Hall, 1453 Mission Street, San Francisco, CA. The video of the conversation has been placed on YouTube at https://youtu.be/uKkSJU4Qpeo.
 Goldman, The American Soul Rush, p.143.
 Goldberg, American Veda, p.13, italics in original.
 Roger Brian Neill, Revolution in Mind: An Autobiography (Word Alive Press, 2014), p.67.
 Victor Marshall, “From New Age to New Creation,” Persuaded by the Evidence: True Stories of Faith, Science, and the Power of a Creator (Master Books, 2008, edited by Doug Sharp and Jerry Bergman), pp.164-165.
 See Troy Wilson Organ, The Hindu Quest for the Perfection of Man (Ohio University, 1980), pp.315-332. For a Christian criticism of yoga, see Dave Hunt, Yoga and the Body of Christ (The Berean Call, 2006). Hindu sources: The Bhagavad Gita (Penguin Books, 1962), and, Bhagavad-Gita: As It Is, by A.C. Bhaktivedanta Swami Prabhupada (The Bhaktivedanta Book Trust, 1972). See also, A. Avalon, The Serpent Power: Being the Sat-Cakra-Nirupana and Paduka-Pancaka (The Lost Library, orig. published 1918).
 As printed in Common Yoga Protocol: International Day of Yoga (Government of India, Ministry of AYUSH, no date), p.1. Adopted by UN resolution on December 11, 2014.
 It was renamed The Tibetan Mongolian Buddhist Cultural Center in 2007.
 Lisa Miller, “U.S. Views On God And Life Are Turning Hindu,” Newsweek, August 14, 2009 [www.newsweek.com/us-views-god-and-life-are-turning-hindu-79073].