:: Article

Guruphobia: Satori Salesmen and their Seductions

By David B. Comfort.

Rajneesh (aka Osho)   Photo credit: Ma Vivek, CC BY-SA 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons

Lust, Gluttony, Greed, Sloth, Wrath, Envy, Pride. Most religions agree with Christians that these are the Seven Deadly Sins. Most also agree that the deadliest of the Seven is Pride or, as the Greeks called it, hubris, since it feeds most others. Hence, “To master the pride of defiant selfhood,” preached Buddha, “that in truth is the highest bliss.”

Of all the prides, the most pernicious is spiritual pride—a holier-than-thou, more-learned-than-thou, or more-advanced-than-thou superiority, overt or (more often) under wraps. The most enslaved of the spiritually proud are the self-deifiers of whom there have been more than a few in every faith and cult.

Since all spiritualism, organized or freelance, deals in the invisible and unprovable, while at the same time having unprecedented power over people, it has drawn more pretenders and egotists than most other human endeavors. The irony is that many preach the dangers of pride, encouraging their followers to surrender the burden of their egos and worldly belongings to their own humbled, sanctified selves. As it was first written in the ancient Vedas: “Do not be led by others, awaken your own mind, amass your own experience, and decide for yourself your own path.”

Buddha, the original spiritual soloist who abandoned his own teachers, was on the same page: “No one saves us but ourselves—no one can and no one may. We ourselves must walk the path.”

But, above all, Buddha taught about the blindness and danger of egotism. So why were his disciples, some allegedly ego-free and Enlightened, disappointed when he told them he would not name a successor? In not being elevated, did each feel belittled? Wronged? Buddha’s brother-in-law, Devadatta, tried to kill him after Guatama refused to surrender disciples to him. Later, bitterness and rivalry grew between those who vied to inherit Buddha’s robe and begging bowl to become the next revered Patriarch. After surviving an earlier assassination attempt, the Second Patriarch, Huiki, was beheaded at age 105 by other rivals. When the fifth Zen Patriarch, Daman Hongren, named the illiterate but wise Huineng, his successor, he advised him to flee the temple immediately lest he be murdered by the embittered monks he had passed over.

Selfish rivalry among the spiritual elite was no less intense in Tibet. When the regent, Depa Nordu, failed to be named the fifth Dalai Lama, he stuffed a silk scarf down the throat of the winner, Drakpa Gyaltsen, banned his reincarnation, and tossed his relics in the river. Later, Dalai Lamas six, nine, ten, eleven, and twelve were also murdered. Meanwhile, throughout China and Japan, countless competing Buddhists schools, sects and sub-sects were cropping up and, in many cases, there was little understanding or loving-kindness between them.

Competition and antagonism were particularly fierce in the occult community at large. For millennia, shamans, necromancers, and magicians, black and white, had been hexing, cursing, and casting fatal spells on one another, thinning their own ranks even more efficiently than Church inquisitors. Later, jockeying for fame, stage clairvoyants, conjurers, and fakirs disparaged one another, while the leading star, Houdini, the author of Miracle Mongers and Their Methods, discredited them all as impostors.


By the end of the nineteenth century, riding the coattails of the Spiritualist fad led by the talented impostor Madame Blavatsky and the Great Beast 666, Aleister Crowley, two avatars stunned the armchair mystics of Europe.

The first, who impressed both T.S. Eliot and Aldous Huxley, was a self-deifier from Armenia. No one knew exactly when he was born (guesses ranged from 1866 to 1877), he revealed nothing about his childhood, nor about the source of his teachings. He confided only that he had been awakened at age nineteen after Hazrat Babajan, an elderly female Muslim saint, kissed him on the forehead. He then started his career, appropriately as a salesman, travelling throughout Europe and Asia. First, he sold carpets, then caviar, then canaries (common hedgerow birds he dyed yellow). Seeing that his mesmerizing personality was more suited to the service industry, he became a hypnotherapist specializing in addiction cures. His professional experience soon proved to him that all men are in a hypnotic “waking sleep.” He devised a wake-up call “The Fourth Way,” combining the Fakir, Monk, and Yogic techniques of concentration and self-mastery.

After taking his “System” on the road, establishing The Institute for the Harmonious Development of Man, and inventing sacred dances, he made his name: George Gurdjieff. Recovering from the first of two near-fatal car crashes, Gurdjieff wrote All and Everything, a cosmogony contemptuous of science and filled with neologisms (Theomertmalogos, God the Creator; Etherokilno, heat energy; Megalocosmos, universe; etc). He also introduced biologists to the Kundabuffer, a divine organ at the base of men’s spines which prevent them from committing mass suicide due to a controlling, carnivorous moon. Since he always said, “Laughter is the antidote,” some took this as a joke.

Gurdjieff went on to assure his many students that, through his System, they could attain immortality by being reunited with “The Most Most Holy Son Absolute.” He always cautioned them: “I ask you to believe nothing that you cannot verify for yourself.” But he had a healthy contempt for humanity’s verification abilities: “Two things in life are infinite: the stupidity of man and the mercy of God.” His taste for luxuries, fine wines and delicacies bankrolled by his students was also said to be limitless. And, after performing “The Work” on his female disciples, at least seven bore him children.

The second impresario boasted many followers, including Gary Cooper, Tallulah Bankhead, Mary Pickford, and Boris Karloff. He claimed to be a divine avatar “irrespective of doubts,”[1] and that his previous forms had been Rama, Krishna, Buddha, Jesus, and Mohammad. In his own cosmogony, God Speaks, he revealed that fifty-six “God-realized” souls lived on earth at any given time: five were Perfect Masters, and one was the jewel in the crown—himself.

Otherwise, God was silent for forty-four years, communicating by alphabet board, then only with hand gestures. Nine years in, he announced that he would break his “word fast” at the Hollywood Bowl, explaining: “When I speak that Word, I shall lay the foundation for that which is to take place during the next seven hundred years… and the impact of My Love will be universal.” At the eleventh hour, though, telling the Associated Press “conditions are not yet ripe,” he boarded the RMS Empress of Canada and sailed for Hong Kong. Later, like Gurdjieff, he suffered two near fatal car accidents, karmic or not, rendering him an invalid and eventually contributing to his death. Under roses and ice, the “Compassionate Father,” otherwise known as Meyer Baba, lay in state for a week. His last words, delivered in sign to his devotees, were: “Do not forget that I am God.”


            By the time God shed the mortal coil, Chogyam Trungpa Rinpoche was bringing Dharma to the West and enlisting Alan Ginsburg and other Beats. Claiming that he had transcended good and evil duality, the Tibetan lama wrote in Crazy Wisdom, “The real function of the guru is to insult you.” He taught his students lessons in egolessness when he was not assaulting them. Once, he ordered his bodyguards to strip a sixty-year-old female disciple naked and carry her around the meditation hall. When several students fled the scene, Chogyam sent guards after them, they fought back with broken beer bottles, but obediently returned after being overpowered.

Chogyam died in 1987, at age forty-eight, from alcoholism. His body was said to have remained warm and uncorrupted while on view for five days and, after his cremation, rainbows appeared to the still faithful.[2] His Dharma heir, Osel Tendzin (aka Thomas Frederick Rich, Jr, from New Jersey), took over his flock. Though Chogyam admitted that his successor was not yet Enlightened, he said he’d been a precocious student of selflessness, so was already a tathagatagarbha—“in the Buddha’s womb.” Taking a page from his role-model’s playbook, Osel, bi-sexual, went tantric on his students. “It became a mark of prestige for a man, gay or straight, to have sex with the Regent,” one explained.[3] Telling no one he had tested positive for HIV years before, Tendzin infected several male students and one died of AIDS.

Released in 2011, the documentary film In the Name of Enlightenment exposed Chogyam’s friend and countryman, Sogyal Rimpoche. In 1994, a ten million dollar lawsuit was filed against him for infliction of emotional distress, assault and battery. At the time, he had recently published the ghost-written, Tibetan Book of the Living and Dying (which, to date, has sold two million copies), ran the forty-country Rigpa Community, and lived in his southern France custom chalet with a heated swimming pool and a gourmet “lama kitchen.” The suit was settled out of court and, under pressure from the Dalai Lama and others, Sogyal retired. Even so, like many others, he insisted, “I have never, ever, acted towards anyone with a motive of selfish gain or harmful intent.”

In his The Sex Life of Gurus for the Yoga Journal, popular Vipassana master and psychology PhD, Jack Kornfield, concluded: ”Bees do it, birds do it, and most gurus too.” Having interviewed fifty-four lamas, swamis, and roshis, he found that thirty-nine of his colleagues were sexually active and nine of these with their students.

Alan Watts, the Zen lecturer and, according to D.T. Suzuki, a “great Bodhisattva,” was a prolific student-lover himself. A hearty drinker like Chogyam, he was as enthusiastic about lubricating as liberating. Rather than wondering if he might have a monkey on his back, the three-marriage veteran and father of seven wrote in The Book: On the Taboo Against Knowing Who You Are: “The perfection of Zen is to be perfectly and simply human…. I have never yet met a saint or sage who did not have human frailties.” [4]

Could Watts have been yet another self-reflection evangelist who seemed allergic to mirrors? Who failed to see a disconnect between his words and his actions? Naturally, bees and birds do it, too—but with their students? And not just any students, but worshipful, submissive disciples? Was this simply consensual pleasure, or a power play?

Can this not uncommon, exploitative behavior be rationalized as a few “bad apples” with “feet of clay” innocuously indulging themselves, in opposition to everything they teach?  The venerable Zen master, Gasan, had identified the problem years before when he told his own ambitious monks: “What of the one who preaches without Enlightenment? He is killing Buddhism!”

Photo credit:  Adityamadhav83, CC BY-SA 3.0, via Wikimedia Commons


Like the first Christian missionaries, the first Bodhisattvas supported themselves with their begging bowls. But, today, instruction on karmic improvement and ego liberation is so challenging and in such demand that guru overhead has skyrocketed. So, some have found it necessary to capitalize their Loving Kindness. Though there are no stats on their Enlightenment success rates, according to Forbes magazine, today’s leading sages include: Baba Ramdev (net worth: $230M), Mata Amritanandamayi ($230M), Sri Sri Ravishankar ($153M), Asaram Bapu ($53M), and Gurmeet Ram Rahim Singh Insaan ($46M).

Leading the Dharma Gold Rush that swept the twentieth century Western world was Maharishi Mahesh. By 1949, the former physics student had been doing grad work with Swami Brahmananda Saraswati, aka Guru Dev, for nine years. In 1957 he founded the Spiritual Regeneration Movement and assumed the honorific “Maharishi,” meaning “Great Sage,” though his followers referred to him as “His Holiness.” Launching his first international tour two years later, he pledged to “rid the world of all unhappiness and discontent.” The Honolulu Journal reported: “He has no money, he asks for nothing. His worldly possessions can be carried in one hand.”

Within a decade, boasting the Beatles as disciples, he had his own Rolls and Learjet. By the early nineties, critics were calling his one billion dollar TM Movement Organization the “McDonalds of Meditation.” By this time, the Great Sage ran his own university which taught “Siddhi-Flying” and other life skills. In addition, he owned his own publishing company, as well as a satellite TV channel, Veda Vision, reaching over one hundred  countries. He was also attempting to launch the Maharishi Heaven on Earth Development Foundation (MAHEDFO) which planned to “reconstruct the entire world” for an estimated one hundred trillion dollars, starting with fifty “Maharishi Cities of Immortals.”

Hoping to tap a new demographic, His Holiness, along with Vegas magician Doug Henning—a U of Maharishi grad known for disappearing elephants—planned to build Maharishi Veda Land Themes Parks. To bankroll his consciousness revolution while fighting charges of tax fraud in India, the CEO hiked the TM student “‘donation’ fee.”[5] When asked how corporate profits were being used, the “Giggling Guru” who called laughter “the highest state,” giggled: “It goes to support the centers, it does not go to me. I have nothing.” At his death, the guru’s personal wealth was estimated to be one billion dollars, and that of the TM organization, five billion.

The Maharishi’s favorite disciple was a young endocrinologist whom he called “Dhanvantari,” after the legendary doctor of the Hindu gods. Though the TM sage was at the peak of his popularity and power, Dhanvantari suggested he could unburden his mentor of the operation. When the offer was refused, the disciple, feeling that further involvement with the group would be “a hindrance to my success,” left to make his own name: Deepak Chopra.

Chopra published two bestsellers: Ageless Body Timeless Mind (1993)—a DIY manual on how to live up to two hundred—and The Seven Spiritual Laws of Success (1994)—a Hindu Think and Grow Rich. The self-described “Quantum” healer helped popularize these titles and their many sequels with thirty thousand dollar lectures warning about “the disease of materialism.” Meanwhile, the author, who boasted in a New Yorker interview that he’d never been sick a day in his life, promoted “prosperity meditation” for a body “that is free from disease, never feels pain… and cannot age or die.”[6]

To supplement his teaching, Deepak currently offers rejuvenating Rupa shampoos, lotions, mists, and aromas, as well as “anti-aging” elixirs which cost up to ten thousand dollars for a year’s supply. Shop.chopra.com grosses twenty million annually.

Though scientists call the doctor of the gods a “purveyor of woo,” “hocus pocus,” and “psychobabble,” he dismisses them as “naïve realists.” Besides, “I’ve gone beyond criticism and flattery,” he says, adding: “No skeptic, to my knowledge, ever made a major scientific discovery or advanced the welfare of others.”[7] Despite the skepticism, Chopra, who recently released his ninetieth book, is estimated to be worth eighty million dollars.


By the time the Maharishi’s popularity was peaking, a certain countryman of his was on the run from a five million dollar tax bill for his ashram in India. Arriving in the U.S., the fugitive declared: “I am the Messiah America has been waiting for!”[8] Having first made a name for himself in 1968 with his lecture series From Sex to Superconsciousness, the messiah was known as the “Sex Guru.” Born Chandra Mohan Jain, he was known by his followers as Bhagwan (“Blessed One”) Rajneesh, aka Osho (“Master”).

At age twenty-one, the Blessed One announced that he was the #1 Perfect Master, replacing Meyer Baba. He claimed to be indebted to no master but named some of his ashram chalets after the legendary LaoTsu and ChaungTzu. Despite insisting his teaching was unprecedented, he said nothing that hadn’t already been said two millennia earlier—except about one thing. Claiming he’d had more sex than any other man in history, the Blessed One called himself “a spiritual playboy,” “Zorba the Buddha,” and the “Vagina Guru.”

Preaching that “poverty has no genuine spiritual value,” the Blessed One also called himself “the rich man’s guru.” In 1981, financed by wealthy disciples and heiresses, Rajneesh purchased a sixty-four thousand acre cattle ranch in Antelope, Oregon (population 50). Here, he built Rajneeshpuram, or Osho International Meditation Resort, his version of the Maharishi Heaven on Earth Development. Construction—with the free labor of his followers, and without permits—sped along 24/7. “Westerners want things quickly, so we give it to them right away,” explained Rajneesh who made daily construction site drive-by blessings in one of his ninety-two Rolls Royces. When he was later asked how many Rolls he need, he replied: “Nine hundred and ninety-nine would not be enough.”

In the summers, one hundred fifty thousand Rajneeshees worldwide, who were called Neo-Sannyasins, after the original Indian renunciates, converged on the Shangri-la to empty their wallets and illuminate their minds with their master’s radiance. “We need your diamond rings and your gold watches,” his CFO, Ma Anand Sheela (who drove a new Mercedes and accessorized with Gucci, Dior and Cartier) informed all newcomers. “We need the five dollars you’ve been keeping in your back pocket, even if that is all you have in the world.”[9] The fundraiser later confessed that wealthier disciples were dosed with Ecstasy to encourage their generosity. Meanwhile, the Rajneeshpuram bookstore exclusively carried the master’s photo lockets (with hair or nail clippings), tapes, videos, inspirational placards, his three hundred books, and his sunrise red disciple uniforms. The most popular bumper sticker read: ‘Moses Invests, Jesus Saves, Bhagwan Spends!’

“SURRENDER TO ME, I WILL TRANSFORM YOU!” read a twenty-foot banner behind his white throne. The spiritual exhibitionist called himself “the sun” and his followers “opening flowers” and urged them to: “Let me be your death and resurrection.”

In order to fulfill his promise, he taught his Neo’s “dynamic meditation.” Everybody stripped naked, spun and pogo-sticked wildly; then, with the cry of Hoo! collapsed breathlessly to the floor, and, under the Vagina Guru’s watchful eye, group sex would begin. At other times, women were pleasured with mangoes and vied for “special one-on-one darshans” with Zorba.[10] “It is no exaggeration to say that we had a feast of fucking, the likes of which had probably not been seen since the days of Roman bacchanalia,” recalled his bodyguard and biographer, Hugh Milne.[11]

Bhagwan had perfected a no-blink Rasputin eye softened with a benevolent Mona Lisa smile. This, coupled with his costume—Dashanami beard, white linen robe, Rolex, designer ski cap, and ZZ Top shades—made for mesmerizing guru theater. But, more important than his outfit was his aura. Sixty milligrams of valium a day gave him tranquility, and regular hits of nitrous boosted his bliss. “I do not care whether people see me as Buddha or as Rasputin,” the spiritual playboy once said. “Few people will think of me as Buddha, and the majority will probably regard me as Rasputin. That’s beautiful. One thing I am certainly interested in is that everybody should think something about me.”

Telling his disciples “I am absolutely free to be shocking,” Bhagwan delighted them with one-liners such as “Mother Teresa should jump off a bridge,” and “God is a dirty word.” Fond of mystifying, if not stupefying, he teased them, “Baby, my whole work is to confuse you!” He proved it by explaining: “I am not a teacher… but a master who shares his being with you, not his philosophy. A master is a mirror.”[12]

When Hugh Milne first arrived at Rajneeshpuram, he called its Svengali “a potent mixture of poet, artist, lover, sexual alchemist, sensual libertine, master magician, court jester, and without doubt one of the wisest men who had ever lived.” After years in the yoke and before fleeing the retreat and checking into a psychiatric ward, Milne decided that Bhagwan’s many disciples “gave him his identity” and that, without them “he would be a desperately lost soul.”

Not unlike the People’s Temple’s Jim Jones and Camp Apocalypse’s David Koresh, Rajneesh feared abandonment above all. Though he told his Neo’s anyone was free to leave his sanctuary, he warned them of dire karmic consequences. The only departure he approved of was a disciple in a body bag. Meanwhile, he informed his flock that he was having “increasing difficulty staying in my body.” The only way to reduce this hardship and prevent everybody from becoming spiritual orphans, he added, was with the weekly arrival of another Silver Cloud Rolls, plus a new airplane, plus more followers to compensate for the AWOLers and Judases.

Sensing that his words were no longer bewitching his worshippers, the prajna-parrot took a vow silence, maintaining it for three years (forty-one shy of Meyer Baba’s mark). While on word-fast, he wrote Notes of a Madman, swam in his indoor pool, and watched his favorite videos, Patton and The Ten Commandments. Otherwise, he held silent audience in the meditation hall, allowing his Neo’s to bask in his presence while he basked in their adulation and transfused their energy.

The famous Indian author and Rumi translator, Farrukh Dhondy, called Rajneesh “the cleverest intellectual confidence trickster that India has produced.” The esteemed Krishnamurti called him a “criminal.” Suspecting the same, the U.S. Immigration Department demanded an audience, telling him he would either have to prove he was a teacher, or be deported. Forgetting his earlier denial, the Vagina Guru insisted that he was indeed a “super super super” teacher.

“Well, Mr. Mohan,” replied the agent, “if you are such a super, super, super teacher, then surely some of your disciples must be Enlightened, as you are.”

“Yes,” replied Mohan, who by then had ended his silence to speak what he called  his own truth, “Thirty of my disciples are indeed Enlightened.”

Not only was he charged for immigration violation, the Oregon DA indicted the Blessed One and his Neo’s for their efforts to protect their Shangri-la from the unenlightened locals by means of attempted murder, assault, arson, burglary, racketeering, and bioterrorism.

The nonviolent, vegetarian Rajneeshees amassed an artillery to defend the compound. But, avoiding a Camp Apocalypse-like raid, the master fled in his Learjet with fifty-eight thousand in cash, thirty-five watches and diamond bracelets worth a combined one million dollars. He was intercepted, jailed, tried, and given a ten-year suspended sentence, plus a four hundred thousand dollar fine.

After twenty-one countries denied him asylum, Bhagwan returned to India and enjoyed what he called “the crescendo of life” at age fifty-eight. His remaining followers, convinced that he had in fact been poisoned in jail, said “living in the body had become a hell” for him. Ecstatically dancing, drumming, and singing, they carried their master’s mortal remains, in a bed of flowers, to the flames, so he could join his fellow deities.

[1] Meher Baba’s Call, Pamphlet, 12 September 1954
[2] Warrior-King of Shambhala: Remembering Chogyam Trungpa, Jeremy Hayward
[3] AIDS Alibis: Sex, Drugs, and Crime in the Americas. Stephanie Kane, Temple University Press, 1998
[4] Meditation retreat directors, some popular authors, who have resigned or been prosecuted in recent years for sexual harassment and/or assault: Zentatsu Richard Baker (San Francisco Zen Center), Roshi Genpo Merzel  (aka Dennis Merzel, Kanzeon Zen Center, NY), Roshi Dainin Katagiri (Minnesota Zen Center), Kyozan Joshu Saski (Mt Baldy Zen Center), Eido Shimano (Zendo Shobo-Ji, NY), Seung Sahn (Providence Zen Center), Sakyong Mipham Rinpoche (Shambala International), Gurmeet Ram Rahim Singh (Dera Sacha Sauda), Noah Levine (Against the Stream Meditation Society), Swami Muktananda (Shree Muktananda Ashram), Swami Premananda of Tiruchirapalilli.
[5] The original $35 cost rose to over $2,000. After the Maharishi’s “left his body” in 2008, the fee was lowered.
[6] Perfect Health, Deepak Chopra, 1991
[7] Short list, Skeptic-Atheist Discoverers: Charles Darwin, Thomas Edison, Sigmund Freud. Alfred Nobel, Erwin Schrodinger, Albert Einstein, Sir Roger Penrose, Niels Bohr, Robert Oppenheimer, Linus Pauling, Carl Sagan, Stephen Hawking, B.F. Skinner, Oliver Sacks, James D. Watson, Richard Feynman.
Short list, Skeptic-Atheist Social Welfare activists: Socrates, Democritus, Xenophanes, Diderot, Voltaire, Abraham Lincoln, Karl Marx, David Hume, John Stewart Mill, Jean Paul Sartre, George Santayana, Clarence Darrow, Margaret Sanger, Bill Gates, Warren Buffet, George Soros.
[8] Feet of Clay, The Power and Charisma of Gurus, Anthony Storr
[9] Bhagwan: The God That Failed, Hugh Milne
[10] Though, as an Enlightened being, the Vagina Guru had overcome desire and suffering, he reserved his special darsans for a particular type of disciple, confessing: “I have been tortured by small-breasted women for many lives together, and I will not do it in this life!”
[11] Bhagwan: The Failed God. Hugh Milne
[12] The Golden Guru: The Strange Journey of Bhagwan Shree Rajneesh, James Gordon.


David B. Comfort is the author of popular trade books from Simon & Schuster, Citadel/Kensington, and Writer’s Digest. He is a Pushcart Prize nominee and finalist for the Faulkner Award and Chicago Tribune Nelson Algren Award. His nonfiction has appeared in  Pleiades, The Montreal Review, Stanford Arts Review, and Johns Hopkins’   Dr. T.J. Eckleburg Review. “Guruphobia” is taken from his forthcoming title, The New Dao: The Skeleton Key of Life and Afterlife.

First published in 3:AM Magazine: Tuesday, December 22nd, 2020.