Ram Dass calls Lama Foundation "the most interesting experiment that has been undertaken in the community movement over the last 50 years or so," a sentiment echoed by Jack Kornfield, who says, "Lama is one of the most dynamic spiritual experiments I know of in America."    
       
  There is a basic assumption there, that we are all one, and that the human species is a living organism, with the concomitant realization that loving kindness is something worth developing.    
       
 
   
 

The Fire This Time

published in Yoga Journal, December 1996
(Also included, in part, in The 99th Monkey)

Lama Foundation, a residential spiritual community formed in 1967, sits quietly and peacefully, 8,600 feet up the Sangre de Cristo mountains in northern New Mexico, just north of Taos. A central structure — the “Main Dome” — has an octagonal picture window that looks out on the oceanic horizon of the Rio Grande Valley spreading itself below. Other-worldly sunsets in purples and gold join with the orange-clay glow of New Mexico light at dusk. Many people have called Lama their spiritual home since its inception in the late 1960s.

Celebrated in Ram Dass's now-canonic Be Here Now, which was written, designed and produced at Lama, the community grew to be a living, vibrant symbol for an entire generation of spiritual aspirants.

An ecumenical testament to the possibilities of awakened life, Lama has remained remarkably free of doctrines or charismatic leaders, though many well-known spiritual teachers offer retreats or come for their own personal hermitage time. Ram Dass calls Lama Foundation "the most interesting experiment that has been undertaken in the community movement over the last 50 years or so," a sentiment echoed by Jack Kornfield, who says, "Lama is one of the most dynamic spiritual experiments I know of in America."

It has often been said that the real teacher there is the very land itself. Lama Mountain was sacred to the Taos Pueblo Indians, whose elders were among the first of Lama's mentors. A trail that runs through Lama land was an old trading route for the Plains and the Pueblo Indians — it leads down to Mitla, south of Oaxaca, and comes up from Peru. In earlier times, when young boys reached the age of initiation, they would be sent on a solo trek to Mitla, which took about eighteen months, going out as boys and returning as men. The trail was still being used when Steve Durkee, one of Lama’s founders, first arrived: "We'd all clear off and they'd come with their paints on and ceremonial gear and pass invisibly — we weren't supposed to see them, and I never looked."

The Indians were often there the first three summers, teaching the early residents basic skills: how to make bricks, which trees to cut for wood. "They showed us how to kill an animal correctly, in a sacred manner," Noura 'Issa, Durkee’s wife, adds, "and the rhythm of working and the rhythm of rest, and the rhythm of life. And lots of family things — generations living together in ways that many of us had not really experienced because of America being the way it is — and loyalty and friendship and companionship and silence."

One day, early on, Durkee was approached by the elders from the Taos Pueblo: "Little Joe and John Gomez, Tellis Good Morning and Frankie Zamorra came up and said ‘We want to talk to you,' and I said 'Okay,' and they said, 'Look, you're on our land, and that's okay, but we want you to know what's involved, so would you take a little walk with us?'" They spent nearly four hours together walking the land, instructing Steve. "What this is, what that is, take care of this plant, keep this area open, don't block this off, and they'd smoke prayer cigarettes over certain places, and so forth. And then they said, 'Okay, my son, do you understand this?' — I was 28, and I said 'Well I hope so,' and they said, 'Well don't worry, we'll stay around and we'll keep telling you, but there's one thing we want you to understand: we have our way, and that's our way, not your way. You...' — meaning you white people, or you Americans—' ...have lost your way, and you've got to find your way. We're here to help you, we're your friends.'"
Thus began a long and intimate relationship with the land of Lama Mountain, a learning process that has now suddenly accelerated, for on May 5th of this year the mountain burned.

Raging flames swept across New Mexico, ripping through entire mountain ranges, destroying 7,500 acres of forest, along with 32 homes and structures. The residents of Lama Foundation were among those forced to evacuate, most with only the clothes on their back. They had no alternative but to stand by and watch not only their homes but an irreplaceable piece of America's spiritual history be consumed by the conflagration.

When the smoke cleared on the mountain, the once lush, forested terrain had been transformed, overnight, into a sea of black and gray ash interrupted only by those dead, charred trees still standing. But miraculously, although 15 of 20 structures were lost, the Main Dome, which is the very heart of Lama, remained untouched. The fire literally burned everything within inches of the Dome and its adjoining underground Prayer Room, another sacred site. The nearby kitchen structure survived as well. Thus, the buildings which have fed people, physically and spiritually, for three decades, were spared. Prayer flags, created by the community and containing symbols of the world's religious traditions, remained waving in the wind atop poles blackened by fire.

Rabbi David Cooper, author and longtime Lama friend and teacher, paid a visit to the site. "Much of it looked like a war zone," he reported. "It had become a black meadow of ash. Growth was beginning to sprout through, though, and there will probably be a soft green cushion suitable for camping before too long. But it will be years before the trees grow back. The hardest part was walking around and realizing that all the beautiful trails and wooded spots were gone; only a few hollowed-out, burnt trees were left, and those will have to come down as well. I found myself thinking that perhaps, on an esoteric level, it somehow signalled the end of a ‘60s paradigm of spiritual community that Lama represented. And the possibility of something new emerging."

In the Beginning

Originally established as "an instrument for the awakening of consciousness and the unification of the body. heart, and mind," the Lama Foundation was formed in 1967 by Steve (now "Noorudeen") Durkee and Barbara Durkee (now Asha Greer), visionary artists and devotees of Meher Baba who had been traveling around with USCO (The "US" Company), a multimedia, spiritual phantasmagoria in the Merry Pranksterish spirit of the times. Along with their friend and former housemate Richard Alpert, they helped inspire the first Human Be-In in Golden Gate Park, and then, as Alpert was going off to India to become Ram Dass, the Durkees, joined by Zen and t’ai chi practitioner Jonathan Altman, decided to form what was at first conceived to be a "school," then a "spiritual dude ranch," "family monastery," and finally what it became, an ecumenical spiritual community.

The times were propitious for such a venture. Findhorn was getting underway in Scotland, and Michael Murphy and Dick Price were starting Esalen in Big Sur, California. With the help of Stewart Brand (who was in the early stages of creating the Whole Earth Catalogue) and others, the Durkees found the 108 acres that would become the Lama Foundation and commenced building the first structures.

Noorudeen Durkee, now a Muslim and a Sheik of the Shadhuli Sufi Order, recently returned from Alexandria, Egypt where he had been living with his present wife and two daughters for a number of years. "At that time," he remembers "there were only a few places like that in America: Integral Yoga, Paramahansa Yogananda's place in Los Angeles, Meher Baba's in Myrtle Beach." The Hari Krishna movement was also then in its infancy. "I visited Swami Bhaktivedanta in 1964; he was living in the Bowery, on the fifth floor, with one assistant. There was no sangha around him at all."

Along with Richard Alpert, Durkee had been acquainted with Ralph Metzner and the late Timothy Leary as well — he'd been to Millbrook and explored what they were doing with the Castalia Foundation. But he was finally unmoved even by those infamous pioneers of consciousness exploration:

"They had tried to set themselves up as the teachers. But Dick Alpert in those days knew nothing about anything, except psychotherapy." (The Durkees had lived with Alpert for about eight months, and went on tour with him.) "People would say, 'Oh you really know something,' but in the end none of us really knew anything. This was before Alpert's India trip. Hinduism and Buddhism were simply concepts and words for him at that point, rather than a living experience. All he really knew about was Western transactional psychology, of which he was a professor. But the way things work in this country, a lot of people come up to you at these talks and ask you all these questions, and then you start giving answers as though you knew — you give over something you read the night before, but you really didn't know what you were talking about, and Alpert didn't know what he was talking about, and Timothy didn't know what he was talking about. And I met Alan Watts, and I didn't think he knew what he was talking about. I mean, he was a great guy and everything, he had something, yes, but really, no, if you looked at his life."

If the tendency of that circuit was to put one into the role of wise sage, Steve Durkee wanted no part of it. Feeling that what was lacking were real "people of knowledge," he set up Lama in hopes of bringing such people to America. "Frankly," he said, "it was a very selfish idea: I was married then, with two children. I couldn't go to India; I was caught in a certain sense."

It became clear to Durkee that what was needed was a place where one could bring teachers to America who knew what spirituality really was; a place where people could "ask them the kinds of questions that can only develop when you see the teacher at breakfast, lunch, and dinner, for days and weeks, and a different kind of relationship comes into being."

He wished to do this in a setting that was remote and far enough away so that "escape" would be difficult, a place without electricity or a telephone, a setting that was "magnificent enough to bring you back into a more primal feeling and lessen the tendency to slip back." He believed there to be a teaching that emanates from nature that would make people more receptive to spirituality.

Kirtan, Shabbat, Zhikr

Over the years, I have been to Lama as a retreatant, a "summer staff" person, a teacher, and a hermit. The secluded hermitage huts, now lost to the fire, were situated high above the community and were used for solitary retreats. A Lama staff person — the hermitage master — would help carry your supplies and settle you in, and then leave additional food and water at a designated spot. “Looking down on the roads and lights, especially from the hermitage huts, allowed you to have a distant perception of the world,” says Ram Dass.

I have yet to live through a winter there as a resident — to do so requires "passing concensus," the political form which underpins all of Lama's important community decisions. Simply put, everyone in the circle must say "yes" to new residents. Reaching consensus on this and all sorts of other daily life decisions can be an incredibly tedious process. But "the circle" seems to have worked for nearly 30 years, and perhaps it is the most important factor in keeping Lama — for the most part — free from the sort of hierarchical power struggles that can often undermine intentional communities. The Lama community is a series of concentric circles that spiral back through time, with an honored place in the loop for anyone that has ever lived there. This became especially evident in the fire's aftermath, as hundreds of people associated with Lama in one way or another over the years emerged to offer support, supplies, funds and prayers.

Those who spend the winter on the mountain must brace themselves for a direct encounter with the elements. At 8,600 feet, snow is common and temperatures can get down way below zero. Wood stoves provide the only heat, and the mostly one-person, poorly-insulated dwellings — all gone now — were lit by propane lamps; the midnight trip to the outhouse in the dead cold of New Mexico winter was an act of courage. (Lama's outhouses were clean, wooden structures cheerfully decorated with holy pictures, quotes, nature photos and original artwork, some of which offered incredible views. Needless to say, they are near the top of the re-building projects.)

Lately, the winter population has ranged from as few as eight to as many as twenty-four hearty souls (ages one month to seventy-ish). Along with the occasionally sighted bears of Lama mountain, these folks pretty much hibernate until spring. Lama is closed to the public from mid-September to May, as the residents hole up on retreat together, digging in for intensive inner work, often aided by several teachers they invite in for a week or so at a time to offer spiritual guidance. They also actively work on "Flag Mountain," the cottage industry that creates and distributes silk-screened prayer flags depicting images and symbols from the major religious traditions. (The Flag Mountain building was lost, containing all of Lama's historical archives and photos, business records, computers and silk-screening equipment.) Nobody lived on the land during the first two winters of Lama's existence, and it is unlikely the land will be habitable by next winter, except perhaps for a few guardian caretakers.

From the beginning, Lama was both a residential community as well as a public retreat center that, in keeping with Steve Durkee’s vision, attracted a diversity of teachers and teachings, among them, Tarthung Tulku, Kalu Rinpoche, Hari Dass Baba, Pir Vilayat Khan, Sasaki Roshi, and a wild little man named Murshid Samuel Lewis. As Asha recalls, "We went to meet (Sam) at the airport. This little guy walked right up to us and said, 'I know all the secrets of the universe and I've seen the stars in their spirals and I've met all the holy people and we all recognize each other.' He started on a monologue like that which went on for two hours, all the way to Lama, and then he walked right into a room full of people who were waiting for him and continued. He had people rolling on the floor, he was so entertaining."

This was "Sufi Sam," perhaps best known as the creator of the Dances of Universal Peace (or "Sufi Dancing"), a spiritual practice which "combines the elements of square dancing with the Holy Name." “We were being very pure at the time,” Asha says. “No alcohol, drugs, or coffee. Then Sam showed up shouting, ‘Sufis are ecstatics — where’s the coffee?’ So we started serving coffee again.” Visiting teachers often helped shake things up at Lama. Mary-Ann Matheson, a former Lama coordinator, recalls the time Reshad Field announced a gathering in the prayer room to teach a new practice and led the community in a mysterious Sufi chant: “Senz-sov-hu-mor.” “It was exactly what we needed; we had gotten so serious,” she recalls.

But if ever there was a teacher who was linked to the early heart and soul of Lama, it was Sam. His grave remains a pilgrimage spot on the land. (The mound of white stones and quartz have been blackened, but Sam's spirit remains unperturbed, and the stones will be cleaned.) But although several well-known teachers over the years desired to make Lama their home, the community's commitment to an ecumenical perspective prohibited the approach of any one person or path to take hold.

While visitors to Lama are quite likely to wind up Sufi dancing at some point, it is equally likely they might find themselves sitting in a Buddhist-style meditation, chanting Hindi kirtan, blessing the wine and bread in a Jewish Shabbat service, participating in the Islamic practice of zhikr, huddling in a Native American sweat lodge, sipping tea in a Japanese Tea Ceremony, or even attending a Sunday morning Eucharist. These practices weave in and out of the spiritual life at Lama depending on who is living there at any one time: it takes someone rooted in one of the traditions to "hold" the practice and invest it with spirit and energy, and nobody there merely goes through the motions of religious ritual for its own sake.

Kindergarten or Spiritual Feast

I first wandered up Lama's three-mile mud road in 1980 to attend a Ram Dass retreat, camping on the land with some 200 people. I have returned nearly every summer since. Of all the ashrams, monasteries, and spiritual communities I have visited or lived in, Lama remains the place where the heartful life of prayer, devotion and service emerges for me in the most easeful manner. Unlike other communities where I usually feel as if I'm a guest in somebody else's house, from that first moment Lama has always felt like "our home" to me, even when I was a stranger to it. Perhaps this is because the mountain belongs to no one; or, perhaps it is because the community still carries its ancestral links to USCO — the "company of us." It is as if Lama is a family, and everyone is in it. Asha quotes a Biblical source for this tangible spirit of welcoming that pervades the community: "My house shall be a house of prayer for all people."

"In some ways," Asha says, "Lama has always been a spiritual kindergarten. It is a clearing house for people seeking their own spiritual path, through exposure to many methods of connecting with "It," without any doctrinaire, institutional directives. You don't stay at Lama very long if you are not either on, or eager to get on, "The Path." There is a basic assumption there, that we are all one, and that the human species is a living organism, with the concomitant realization that loving kindness is something worth developing."

Although it has since been changed, there had long been a rule that nobody could make Lama their home for more than seven years; most people stay between one and three years. So nobody has ever gotten too entrenched or too attached, the two biggest pitfalls of spiritual communities. Ram Dass reflects that "the problem with most institutions is that inertia grows deep. Lama is one of the few that has retained some living spirit over the course of a long life. The range of 'ways' practiced there, the fact that it is eclectic rather than having a single spiritual, overwhelming model, the turnover of people, which prevents there being any permanent pecking order and helps people learn about the transitional nature of experience, and the beings who are there run the place without making it a stable, permanent home base — these are all pretty unique factors for a spiritual community. Other communes often grow old with their membership, but Lama has always had the benefit of a certain youthful energy, constantly being in the creative mode."

Steve Durkee chose to leave when his own practice began moving in a more traditional Islamic direction and he was unable to steer Lama away from its broad, ecumenical base. Durkee wanted an Intensive Studies Center (ISC) that would be autonomous, where a teacher could stay at least a year, believing that it takes a year to truly “ground people in practice.” "There was a decision made by the foundation in 1969 or 1970," he explains, "where we as a group said, 'Okay, we'll maintain this thing we call Basic Studies, and then we'll have Intensive Studies.' But that was never implemented, and it was the source of a big rupture, a big argument. A lot of people had their agendas and vested interests, and didn't really want something else going on. They wanted every year to be business as usual, with teachers that would come and go. Their fear was that somebody would come and take over."

Durkee left and did not return to visit Lama for 25 years.
"At the end of the day," Durkee concludes, "spiritual teaching is oral. It's from this mouth, through those ears, to that heart. That's what it is, whether it's Jewish, or Muslim, or Christian or Hindu. I meet with religious leaders all over the world and anywhere I go, everybody's in agreement: 'How'd you get it?' 'Well, I knew so and so, and I sat with him or her for four years.' 'And what did you do?' 'I sat with him, I cooked for him, I got tea for him, I got airplane tickets for him, I did his bank accounts, I drove his car for him.' That's what teaching is, it's an oral transmission. Teachers are living human beings who have followed the way and have manifested it within their beings and can transmit that to you."

Nouradeen Durkee’s present wife, Noura 'Issa, also lived at Lama in its early years. "We had seen that an eclectic path was not viable," she comments. "That's the kindergarten aspect — you try this, you try that, but it always happened at Lama that when someone found his or her teacher, they would leave, because they wanted to be with their teacher, they wanted intensive study, so we lost a lot of very, very strong people."

Ram Dass offers a different perspective on this: "The idea of more intensive study at the ISC is a good model, but that doesn't detract from the value of Lama's general eclecticism. Having all the different teachers come and go in the summer doesn't mean the residents necessarily stay in kindergarten. Because once they have their practice, they can go deep with it there, in community, and they don't need a teacher present all the time to do that — of course I've been an eclectic all my life, and Noorudeen hasn't."

Psychotherapist Joseph Jackson (brother of Phil, coach of the Chicago Bulls) who lived at Lama in the early days, agrees with Ram Dass: "It seems to me that Lama is actually fulfilling its purpose the way Nouradeen himself set it in motion — that it was not so much about having one external teacher, but rather, for the first time in history, perhaps, it provided the opportunity to bring many teachings together, to have this feast of spiritual ideas, and then in hearing all of it, one could discover the teaching that comes from within, the 'Spirit of Guidance,' and find your own path. It has been over twenty years since I lived there, and I still consider my time at Lama to be the pivotal spiritual experience of my life. If this teaching, to 'be here now' and listen to the Spirit of Guidance through communal and consensual living is kindergarten, so be it. I haven't mastered it yet."

Purification by Fire

Initially, in fact, there was a vision of both an esoteric and exoteric Lama, and with that in mind an Intensive Studies Center was created apart from "Lama Central," although it was never used the way Steve Durkee had envisioned. The loss of the ISC was perhaps the most painful result of the fire. An exquisite adobe dwelling with twelve living cells adjoining a kitchen and domed prayer room, it was used for more cloistered and deep work in a particular tradition. A beautiful teacher's house had just been constructed, which also succumbed to the flames.

"There's a major spiritual teaching in our face right now," said Aurora Durkee, Lama resident and daughter of Asha and Nouradeen. "The Forest Service told us this needed to happen, eventually; that the forest was completely overgrown because of a policy from the '70s that doesn't permit natural forest fires to burn. The juniper understory was tinder just waiting for a fire to happen. That's why it was so hot and fast — it burned 7,000 acres in one day. So. looking at this charred scene every day and knowing that it had to go through this in order for it to be healthy is a constant reminder of the cyclical nature of the birth and death process."

As of this writing, the Lama residents were slowly reclaiming the land, pitching tents — and Port-o-Potties — donated by the Red Cross, and living together through the immediate survival tasks of rebuilding their lives and the community.

"We're in the nascent stage of rebirthing," Aurora said. "Things are running very similarly to how it was before — we're cooking three meals a day, having daily tuning circles. This summer there are 20 new staff people who are very committed — so it's very much alive, almost as if the fire hasn't happened, except we're living in tents and in a lot of stress because we don't know what the future holds. My father said something interesting: This all started with a trash fire, and now all the trash is gone, meaning everything that was superfluous is gone. In that sense it's a real cleansing, and an opening."

"If it's used well," Ram Dass commented, "it can be a purification process, almost like a Shiva fire ceremony."

For thirty years now, the residents of Lama have remained true to that informal agreement with the Taos Pueblo elders to serve as conscious stewards of a holy native mountain; that it is now a field of charred black ash can only be viewed as an act of God. Lama Foundation has been an exquisite spiritual sanctuary that has provided a safe haven and powerful teaching for a broad diversity of devotees and seekers for three decades, a quiet place of natural simplicity that honors all traditions and paths, and a welcoming community of friendly, loving hearts who demand no adherence to any one prevailing dogma, always with the pervading sense that the Great Spirit of the nearby Pueblo Indians hovers beneficiently overhead. With the dome still standing and the prayer flags waving in the wind, the sacred mystery that is Lama continues to unfold.

 

 

     
 

 

 

 

It became clear to Durkee that what was needed was a place where one could bring teachers to America who knew what spirituality really was; a place where people could "ask them the kinds of questions that can only develop when you see the teacher at breakfast, lunch, and dinner, for days and weeks, and a different kind of relationship comes into being."
   
     
Lama is closed to the public from mid-September to May, as the residents hole up on retreat together, digging in for intensive inner work, often aided by several teachers they invite in for a week or so at a time to offer spiritual guidance.
 
While visitors to Lama are quite likely to wind up Sufi dancing at some point, it is equally likely they might find themselves sitting in a Buddhist-style meditation, chanting Hindi kirtan, blessing the wine and bread in a Jewish Shabbat service, participating in the Islamic practice of zhikr, huddling in a Native American sweat lodge, sipping tea in a Japanese Tea Ceremony, or even attending a Sunday morning Eucharist.