Origins of the FBTO Box

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This is a history of the box set’s evolution. See more detailed information on the making of the box set, Lama Foundation page.

Let’s begin with an excerpt from a 2008 interview with Ram Dass by Joseph W. Bean for the Maui Style. 

“Be Here Maui: Ram Dass Embodied on Maui at Present”

Ram Dass shares about the origin of Be Here Now… “When I went to India the first time, and I had been with my guru a few months, he said, ‘I give my blessing to your book.’” Ram Dass explained that he had, at that time, no intention of writing a book. But, back home in America, he did write a book. He submitted the book to nine publishers who all rejected it. Then, speaking of Neem Karoli Baba, his teacher in India, Ram Dass added, “I said to myself, ‘If this guy is who I think he is, he’s the publishers and he can’t be turning down his own book.’” Then he said that, after giving a lecture series (at the Sculpture Studio series in NYC recorded in 1969) based on his time in India, a woman came to him, a court stenographer, and gave him a huge stack of paper. He asked what the paper was, and she said, “These are your words.”  

“With that stack of paper in the trunk of his car, Ram Dass {drove cross country} went to Esalen (one of the important centers of spiritual exploration in the West at the time) where he was assigned to share a cabin. Ram Dass continued the Be Here Now story. “They said, ‘you’re staying with this couple.’”  {John and Catty Bleibtreu} He found himself housed with a man who was a gardener at Esalen, but otherwise an author from New York. The man asked what the stack of paper among Ram Dass’s belongings was. He was told what the stenographer said about the lecture transcripts. “He marked them,” said Ram Dass, indicating that the man underlined sections.”   Rameshwar Das continues the From Bindu to Ojas story in the preface to the book Be Love Now by Ram Dass and Rameshwar Das  

“Ram Dass’ painstakingly written manuscript about his India trip found no takers in the publishing world. He continued giving public talks, and that fall he drove cross-country to California to teach at a nascent center for psychological and spiritual growth in Big Sur called Esalen. Esalen assigned him housing with a writer and his wife, John and Catty Bleibtreu. John noticed the transcripts from Ram Dass’ talks at the New York sculpture studio as he pulled his suitcase out of his car. He asked if he could take a look. He thought there were some good stories, and he checked off the ones he liked.   From Esalen, Ram Dass drove to the Lama Foundation near Taos, New Mexico, a back-to-the-land commune of artists and hippies that he had helped found before his trip to India. Steve Durkee, a visionary artist who had spearheaded an art group called USCO in New York, was a friend and the main man at Lama. He also noticed the transcript and asked what it was. Over dinner with five or six of the resident artists at Lama, they brainstormed ways that the passages John Bleibtreu had checked could be illustrated.  

During the fall and winter of 1969-70, Ram Dass, Steve, and the Lama commune went to work on making Ram Dass’s works into text art. At his talks, Ram Dass gave out postcards that people could send in to Lama to get a copy of whatever emerged. I even did my part and copied some of the photos of saints Ram Dass had brought back from India.   In early 1970, the Bountiful Lord’s Delivery Service at Lama mailed out several thousand copies of a twelve-by-twelve corrugated box, the contents and printing of which were financed from the proceeds of Ram Dass’s lectures. It was distributed at no charge. In the box was a core book from the transcripts called From Bindu To Ojas — Sanskrit for “From Material to Spiritual Energy. It was printed on brown paper and hand bound with twine. Included were a booklet about Ram Dass’ journey to the guru titled HisStory, a section of spiritual practices called the Spiritual Cookbook, holy pictures to put on your refrigerator or altar, a book called Painted Cakes, and an LP Record of chants and spirituals from the contemporary scene. It was a true do-it-yourself kit for a spiritual journey.  

The Summer of 1970 saw a brief revival of the yogi camp at Franklin. After Ram Dass had been on the road and lecturing for a year, the numbers began to be overwhelming for George’s farm. But from those evanescent groups came the genesis of a Western satsang, a community of seekers.   Ram Dass continued to lecture and travel, but was mindful that Maharaj-ji told him he could return to India in two years. Finding himself beginning to burn out after all the public exposure, Ram Dass was thinking about going back to continue his work on himself. Demand for the From Bindu To Ojas box quickly exceeded the supply from the original printing. Steve Durkee was working on turning it into a book with distribution by Crown Publishers, with an editor named Bruce Harris. It was titled Be Here Now.   Ram Dass adds to our story: from Be Love Now page 149.  

“A chain of apparently coincidental events that began in New York and extended to Esalen in California and the Lama Foundation in New Mexico led to the publication of Be Here Now. A lovely woman named Lillian North, whose day job was as a public stenographer, was deeply affected by the sculpture studio talks. She transcribed them and handed me a pile of typescripts, saying, “These are your words.” I didn’t want to carry the whole pile and asked her to put them in the trunk of my car. I drove out to California. When I was at Esalen in Big Sur, a writer, John Bleibtreu, saw it and asked, “What’s that? Can I read it?” Afterwards he said, “You’ve got a great book here.” His selections became the core text of Be Here Now.   From California I drove to the Lama foundation commune up on a mountainside outside Taos, New Mexico. I had been part of its conception before going to India. A group of creative artists were living there, Dwarka Bonner, Francis von Briesen and Tenney Kimmel, and of course, Steve and Barbara Durkee, who were the founders. Steve was the head honcho of Lama. He also noticed the manuscript in the trunk of my car. He said the same thing as John, “What’s that?”  

Steve read it, and sitting around at dinner we all came up with idea for the artwork and publishing it in a twelve by twelve corrugated box that was the original Be Here Now. The box was called From Bindu to Ojas, which signified the evolution of consciousness up through the chakras to liberation in the crown of the head. The core text with the art was printed on brown paper and bound with string, and there was a Our-Story and His-Story section about Maharaj-ji, a part about practice called A Spiritual Cookbook, pictures, and a book list called Painted Cakes. It also had an LP record with kirtan chanting, which sounds pretty homemade now.  

We produced a thousand boxes paid for with contributions from my lectures. Anyone who sent in a postcard requesting it received one for free in the mail. Anyone who sent in a postcard requesting it received one for free in the mail. They were all sent out, and more people wanted them. When I went back to India, Steve put together a distribution deal with Bruce Harris, who worked for Crown Publishers, and the box became a book. The royalties went to Lama Foundation, and later half went to the Hanuman Foundation. Bruce later became editor-in-chief at Crown and eventually at Random House.  

In Early 1971 I received preliminary copies of the book in India. When it was read to Maharaj-ji, he told me to change some of the parts about Hari Dass Baba, who had been my sadhana tutor while i lived at Kainchi that first year. I had written that Hari Dass had gone into the forest when he was very young, at something like twelve, and became a sadhu. Maharaj-ji called a man up before him, and said, “Do you know Hari Dass?” He said, “Yes, Maharaj-ji. He was my clerk in the Forestry Department office for a long time.” Instead of living in the forest, he had been a tenant in a house owned by K.K’s family. I had mixed up Hari Dass and Maharaj-ji when I heard the story from Hari Dass. Maharaj-ji was the one who left home as a boy.  

While I was in America, Hari Dass had a parting of ways from Maharaj-ji. Hari Dass became ill with a life threatening intestinal blockage that required surgery. Maharaj-ji arranged for his medical care and subsequent recuperation, and after that Hari Dass was no longer involved in the intensive physical work and management of the Nainital temples. He had a group of his own followers, including some Westerners who had heard about him through me, and he was living in Haridwar when I came back to India in 1970. I didn’t see him. Maharaj-ji asked me to help Hari Dass get a U.S. visa and send him to America, so I did that and paid for his ticket.  

By the time these changes to the Be Here Now text came up, Hari Dass had arrived in America and was teaching at the Lama Foundation. They all loved Hari Dass, and they didn’t know Maharaj-ji from a hole in the ground. And here I was calling Lama from India and telling them to take out the part about Hari Dass, while he was right there at Lama — a cosmic irony that was typical of the many dimensions of being with Maharaj-ji. Maharaj-ji said, “If you don’t know, it’s all right. But if you know the truth and you don’t print it, it’s bad karma.” I was at the ashram at Kainchi, so I hitched a ride on an army truck over 12 miles of twisting mountain roads to get to Nainital, to telegraph Steve Durkee. Steve’s return telegram said the book was already being printed. It was going to be hard to stop it, and it was going to cost a lot of money. We would have to throw out the whole first printing. Steve drove down the mountain from Lama three hours to the book printer in Albuquerque, the same printer that produced the box originally.  

I showed Steve’s telegram to Maharaj-ji, telling him that the first printing was already under way. I said it would cost a lot of rupees, and he said, “Money and truth have nothing to do with one another.”   The next day I got another telegram from Steve. When he arrived in Albuquerque, he found that the printer had it all on the press ready to go, but at the last minute they discovered that one page was missing. It was also missing from the file, so they couldn’t reproduce it. The printing had been held up and not gone forward. That page had a picture of Maharaj-ji on it. Steve was nonplussed.”  

The Sufi Sam Connection, excerpt from Early Lama Foundation, By Ahad Cobb

  “Early on, spiritual teachers were invited to Lama Foundation. The first two teachers to come to Lama were Ram Dass and Murshid Samuel Lewis.   Ram Dass was Steve and Barbara’s old friend, Richard Alpert, who had been to India and had transformed into Ram Dass by the grace of his guru, Neem Karoli Baba. Ram Dass came to Lama in the winter of 1969-1970 and led a seven-week “ashram” for Lama residents and some of his own students during which each participant spent at least one week in seclusion, with Ram Dass visiting each hermit daily. One such practice was a 24 hour repetition of Om Mani Padme Hung to consecrate the prayer room. This was the first retreat held at Lama.  

Steve Durkee and Ram Dass came up with the idea of a book project that would become Be Here Now. They compiled Ram Dass’ recorded teachings and writing. In the summer of 1970 a team of artists was working on the layout of the graphically imaginative pages to be printed on brown craft paper that formed the core of Be Here Now. The first edition was a hand crafted book called From Bindu To Ojas. It was a big cardboard box like a pizza box that had the text of the book in various pamphlets printed in various ink colors, including a big oversized craft paper booklet tied together with brown cord, a Tibetan prayer flag, a long-playing record of mantras, and all sorts of goodies. It was sold by subscription. (Editor’s Note, I have learned that ten thousand copies were made of the box set from a Ram Dass 1973 radio interview posted here.)

Steve Durkee contracted with Bruce Harris of Crown Books in New York for the distribution of a commercial edition of Be Here Now. The book was printed on a web press in Albuquerque. As in the box, the center section was printed on brown craft paper. To everyone’s surprise, Be Here Now, published by Lama Foundation, became a spiritual bestseller in 1971, selling out 600,000 books in its first edition. It provided national recognition and a welcome stream of income that made everything easier for quite a while.  

Murshid Samuel Lewis was invited to Lama in the summer of 1969. A Sufi-Zen-Hindu-Jewish-Christian-Master, who had achieved realization in all these traditions –“one of the first exponents of experiential comparative religion,” as one scholar wrote — Murshid Samuel Lewis, also known as Sufi Ahmed Murad Chisti, had attracted to himself a large number of disciples in the Bay area, teaching them meditation, breath, walk, and Sufi practices. The Dances of Universal Peace started to come through Murshid Sam to his disciples in the late 1960’s. Since his death in 1971, the Dances of Universal Peace have spread all over the world.  

Murshid Sam was at Lama for a week in August 1969 and then for a week in June 1970 — giving breath, walk and dance practices, teaching nonstop, drumming and chanting while people worked in the adobe fields. He said that, “At Lama Foundation people practice, practice, practice what others only preach, preach, preach.”   When Murshid Sam died suddenly in January of 1971, he asked that his body be buried at Lama Foundation. Murshid Sam’s body was brought up to Lama and laid in the center of the Dome — at same time that all around the sides of the Dome the pizza boxes of From Bindu To Ojas were stacked up ready for mailing. On a slope overlooking Lama, they dug a deep grave in the ground and buried Murshid. White quartz was mounded over the grave at a later date. This is his Maqbara — the resting place of a Sufi saint, a place of pilgrimage. A dancing ground and retreat were later built nearby.”   Click here to continue reading about the Lama Foundation and the book development.

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