INTEGRAL WORLD: EXPLORING THEORIES OF EVERYTHING
An independent forum for a critical discussion of the integral philosophy of Ken Wilber
Publication dates of essays (month/year) can be found under "Essays".
David Christopher Lane, Ph.D. Professor of Philosophy, Mt. San Antonio College Lecturer in Religious Studies, California State University, Long Beach Author of Exposing Cults: When the Skeptical Mind Confronts the Mystical (New York and London: Garland Publishers, 1994) and The Radhasoami Tradition: A Critical History of Guru Succession (New York and London: Garland Publishers, 1992).
Father Yod and the Source Brotherhood
My First Encounter with a Self-Appointed Guru
So what Father Yod and the Brotherhood finally taught me about religion is that discrimination is the essential key to any mature development, spiritual or otherwise.
My first encounter with a self-appointed guru occurred when I was sixteen years old. A friend of mine, Joe Maria, came into our religion class at Notre Dame High School excited about a longhaired yogi he met at the Source Restaurant on Sunset Blvd in Hollywood. Joe said the older man, who later turned out to be in his early fifties, was adept at accessing cosmic energy. Since Joe had some confidence in my judgment of things spiritual, he asked me to go along with him to meet the head of the Source Brotherhood. I am not sure if it was that afternoon or a few days later when I went with Joe to meet “Father Yod,” but I do remember my first visit with the mystic vividly. It was in the afternoon on a school day, perhaps around four or so, and Father Yod was sitting in the table closest to the entrance of the restaurant. He had two very young women sitting next to him. All of them were dressed in white robes, with headbands around their long hair.
My first impression of Father Yod was of intense dislike. He tried to imitate an Indian accent (most likely a bad imitation of Yogi Bhajan, who was his spiritual teacher), but his intonations made him sound almost cartoonish. He had a tendency to divert his eyes upwards to the back of his eyebrows, giving one the scary impression that he was about to have a seizure. We almost immediately got into an argument about religious ideas.
Since I had just read the Bhagavad Gita, I arrogantly proceeded to talk like I knew something about Hinduism. Father Yod, not entirely without cause, began to upbraid me, saying something to the effect that when he was sixteen years old he thought he knew something too. Naturally, I didn't like the put down, and our conversation turned from bad to worse.
In the midst of all this sat Joe mesmerized by his soon to be guru. I left that afternoon both disgusted and intrigued. I was disgusted primarily because Father Yod appeared to be the epitome of the 1970s guru pose: white robe, long hair, adoring women at your disposal, and clichéd Indian wisdom mixed with bad Theosophical musings. I was intrigued, however, because Yod said some things that struck a chord with me: vegetarianism, interior meditation, hatha yoga, etc. My friend Joe, on the other hand, seemed to be fascinated by the oversized guru and liked the attention that was lavished on him. Surprisingly enough, Joe and I went back to the Source restaurant almost every day for about two months. Why?
Well, there are lots of reasons, but I think having a self-proclaimed prophet just over the hill who runs a first-rate vegetarian restaurant and pays unexpected attention on teenagers is very enticing indeed, especially if one is already on a spiritual quest. In the back of the restaurant was a tiny temple; it was, in fact, a loft designed for small groups to meditate. Every night there was a yoga or meditation talk given by one of Father Yod's young disciples.
There was one young man who was particularly impressive; his adopted spiritual name was "Abraham" (I think his real name was "Ted"), and he must have only been twenty-two or so. He had a magnificent face, framed as it were with long brown locks, and intertwined with emerging gray streaks. Given his deep set but luminous blue eyes he looked as if he was Biblical sage from the Old Testament; he was clearly more impressive to me than Father Yod. And on top of it, he didn't have the routinized false pretenses of his "Father." Abraham was, to be sure, a nice young guy, trying his best in a hippie style commune that was better in serving the whims of its founder than in improving the lot of its numerous naive followers.
What did Father Yod, alias Jim Baker, teach? From hearing him on a number of occasions and from direct interaction with him personally at his mansion, I discovered that Yod's teachings were still evolving. My first impression was that he was teaching kundalini yoga along the lines that his guru Yogi Bhajan had taught him. This first impression, though, was not entirely correct, since Yod also believed in things that Bhajan apparently did not: like the daily smoking of "sacred herb" (aka marijuana). An outside observer wouldn't know about this aspect of Yod's teachings since it was kept somewhat hidden. In fact, I didn't discover it until about two months later at which time I immediately stopped interacting with the group. Yod was a dabbler, taking some Egyptian mysticism, some Hindu yoga, some American self-help jargon, and tying it all up into pre-Shirley MacLaine New Age hype.
But I don't want to sound too harsh here; I have to admit that it was terribly intriguing to learn about all this mysterious stuff when all I was privy to was the ritualized Catholic Church. At least Yod was eccentric and at least Yod claimed to have all the inside secrets to cosmic knowledge. However, I didn't like Father Yod on any level. He and I just didn't click; in fact, I found him to be overly pompous and I think he found me to be too critical. Joe Maria eventually formalized his relationship with Yod and took on a spiritual name, "Tat," as a sign of his discipleship. I couldn't accept Yod as a guru and he proceeded to criticize me in public whenever he had the chance. Nevertheless, I did like Abraham and continued to attend the nightly meditations.
However, because I was not interested in adopting Jim Baker as my guru, it created a bit of a rift between myself and others at the Source. While Abraham kindly championed my cause, Father Yod himself took umbrage at my lack of devotion towards him. It all came to a head one Sunday when Joe Maria and I visited the large mansion where Father Yod and the family were living. I still vividly remember the day, since the moment I walked into the compound I immediately noticed Father Yod going to the bathroom with four or five women in tow. While I realized that Yod had a number of consorts, I didn’t know that they also followed him when he had to urinate as well. All of his disciples, apparently without exception, were very devoted to him, so much so that they tended not to think for themselves but rather parroted whatever teachings and advice Father Yod provided.
In front of the assemblage (numbering around a 100 students or more) as Father Yod was pontificating about secret wisdom and how the new Source Band was going to be more popular than Elvis and the Beatles (since they were bringing in a new masculine sound to popular music), he apparently choked on something and had a severe coughing attack which lasted several minutes. A woman disciple put a large towel in front of Yod’s face so that we couldn’t witness how severe his coughing attack was. After it was over, Father Yod tried to explain that he didn’t want his sons and daughters (the terms he invariably used to address his devotees) to see him suffering.
One hapless “son” offered Father Yod a sip of his orange juice. Father Yod went into a tirade and yelled, “Are you trying to kill your father? Don’t you know you should never mix liquids with solids? Have I not taught you that one should never combine drinking with eating? It poisons the system.” Father Yod continued his rant at the young man and proceeded to give a mini lecture about health and food combining. I felt sorry for the disciple, who must have been only five or six years older than myself. However, Father Yod wasn’t done. He then directed his gaze over to Joe Maria and me. Father Yod then began to praise Maria as being one of his great new disciples and then gave him the spiritual name of “Tat”, making a somewhat silly rhyme with “and that’s Tat.”
Father Yod then went into a rant about how bad a person I was because I didn’t accept him as my guru. He got very animated and I must confess that I felt exceptionally embarrassed and humiliated, being only 16 and having everyone look at me as if I were a Judas in training. I explained that I couldn’t regard Yod as a guru, but I was impressed with Abraham and that I would continue to attend the meditation/yoga sessions with him. This was a bit too much for Yod who then railed about how I could never be a good disciple since I didn’t even go to the LAX airport to say goodbye to Abraham who had left for a short trip.
Later when Abraham returned and I did accompany Yod and his family in various VW vans to LAX I learned for the first time that their entire family was smoking “sacred” herb before their morning meditation sessions. When I voiced my surprise and obvious disapproval, I was again met with a series of put-downs. I finally explained the situation to Abraham at the airport, but Yod was so irritated by my obvious affection for Abraham that he refused to give me a ride back in his van. Thankfully, another couple took me under my wing and gave me a lift home.
I say all of this because it gave me a deep and unforgettable glimpse into the controlling nature of a cult leader who seemed overly concerned with his own image and his unremitting control of his ever-growing membership.
I do have some fond memories of the Source, besides the excellent food that was served at the restaurant. Doing yoga and meditation for two months straight had its own benefit and it was fairly enjoyable watching old movies at the Family home. One time we watched Sabu in the Jungle Book and Yod went on to explain the value of the tiger’s tooth.
Although I was a bit too young to really understand all the ins and outs of what was transpiring at the Source, Joe and I did take note that there seemed to be lots of young and beautiful women trying to hook up with the Father Yod’s self-appointed sons. I also had the occasion to listen to the Yod’s new band, which I thought was ruined by Yod’s truly awful singing. Indeed, his vocals were so bad that I had the sneaking suspicion that he was singlehandedly trying to sabotage his more talented “sons” who obviously had some musical talent. Father Yod seemed not to relish competition and I remember one night at the Source restaurant (I think it was shortly after Cat Stevens had come to inquire about his philosophy) when he got very indignant about Guru Maharaji, the boy guru, who was gaining a lot of publicity in America at the time.
The last time I met with Father Yod he tried to convince me that the world was going to undergo a dramatic change in 1975 (which he connected to the advent of the comet Kohoutek) and that many people and lands were going to be wiped out. He was going to move the entire family to Hawaii and encouraged Joe Maria and I to do the same. Shortly thereafter I formally departed company with Yod, Abraham, and the Source brotherhood. Joe too left, but since his family owned a couple of flourishing Italian restaurants so evidently Father Yod didn’t want to let his young disciple leave (sensing perhaps a new source of income). I remember Maria telling me that some of the Family would show up at his house unannounced trying to either encourage or intimidate him back to the fold.
I talked to Joe this past year and he told me that he once brought his mother to meet Father Yod at the restaurant. His mother was appalled by Yod and his manipulative ways and felt he was harboring evil intentions.
Ironically, Father Yod died just two years after I met him. I say ironically because Yod died the same he said world was going to undergo massive destruction. Needless to say, the prophesied event never did occur, except, strangely, for Father Yod himself, who met his tragic demise after crashing his hang glider on a secluded beach on the southeast side of Oahu. Apparently, he did not seek medical assistance (one close female disciple claimed it would have gone against his teachings, even as he writhed in agony) and died several hours later. It is clear from various reports that Yod had broken his back from the fall and most likely would have survived if he had been taken to the hospital. A short time later, one of Yod’s chief disciples, Mercury, also died from a hang gliding accident. Both deaths caused irreparable harm to the Brotherhood and the group dismantled into several different factions never regaining the unity they once had in the early 1970s.
Reflecting now nearly forty years after my brief encounter with the Family, it seems clear to me that Father Yod represented both the best and worst of religion and spirituality. He was a guru who demanded absolute obedience and yet was accountable to no one except himself. Moreover, he never took criticism lightly and constantly surrounded himself with disciples who only said yes to his unending whims. However, Yod did teach some things that I feel were helpful and perhaps this is why he is still fondly remembered by some of his former “sons” and “daughters”.
Outstanding among his teachings, at least in my estimation, was a healthy respect for vegetarianism and the daily practice of yoga. But one can argue that this exactly the problem with most new religious movements and their authoritarian leaders: they provide valuable information that is inevitably intertwined with cultic junk. Honest seekers, no doubt, want the spiritual jewels, but some feel that the only way they can receive them is to buy into all of the accompanying paraphernalia—paraphernalia, I should add, that invariably confuses and misaligns the interior quest. No doubt it is beneficial to be partake of a healthy vegetarian diet, to meditate, and to think kindly of one’s neighbor, but such virtues don’t have to be connected to blind obedience or silly rationalizations.
So what Father Yod and the Brotherhood finally taught me about religion is that discrimination is the essential key to any mature development, spiritual or otherwise. I do think some new religions occasionally have something useful to offer us. However, I also think that whatever they provide should be scrutinized and analyzed with as much care as we can muster. Frankly, we are far too gullible when appraising the pros and cons of gurus like Father Yod.