Obituary for a veteran hippie bodhisattva

August 20, 2014

Stephen Gaskin died July 1 at the age of 79. He was a Marine combat vet and the founder and spiritual teacher of The Farm, a former hippie commune, now a cooperative eco-village and major North American center for permaculture.


Gaskin taught semantics and creative writing at San Francisco State University in the early ’60s. As his friends and students began to experiment with psychedelics, he did too. An agnostic, he realized the hippie ideals were religious.


He began to study religion and held weekly meetings of up to 1,500 people, called “Monday Night Class,” in which he related religious notions from around the world to the experiences shared by acidheads and pot smokers.


These talks revolved unapologetically around psychedelics. In the mid-’90s, he wrote, “We believe that if a vegetable and an animal want to get together and can be heavier together than either of them alone, it shouldn’t be anybody else’s business.”


He called for amnesty for incarcerated pot smokers, saying that was at the “least the government could offer. They actually deserve compensation for the imposition.” Asked facetiously by a reporter if he had inhaled, Gaskin wisecracked, “I never exhaled.”

 

 Gaskin thought the idea of God as “some old white-haired Englishman who hides behind one-way glass and zaps an occasional human who bugs him is pernicious superstition...All you have to do to meet God is to understand that you are a corner of it.”


He believed religion demands that we be bodhisattvas, enlightened people who could step off the wheel of existence, but stay to help everyone else reach liberation. God wants freedom, justice, health, and happiness for everybody, and we are as responsible for the hungry and oppressed as if they were sitting next to us. “You are God’s eyes on the scene. If you say, ‘Why didn’t somebody take care of this?’ and walk away, you’ve just checked out on your obligation.”


In late 1970, Gaskin set out with 200 classmates in a caravan of old school buses to tour the US and Canada. Upon returning to San Francisco, the group found a place where they could model a lifestyle they believed could save the world.


The caravan settled in Lewis County, Tennessee, 60 miles south of Nashville. The fact that the rural implement dealer who sold them their first 600 acres was willing to carry the note for a bunch of longhairs who made no bones about their drug use and polyamory is testament to the “technicolor Amish”—and to Gaskin’s charm.


The Farm logged, grew soybeans and sorghum, and fielded a number of businesses. It was an early solar contractor, and home of Plenty International, a charity that helped restore housing and water to highland Guatemala after the 1976 earthquake.


The Farm buried its own dead and delivered its own babies. Gaskin’s wife, Ina May, is the grande dame of the modern midwife movement. Longtime Farmer Albert Bates is a prominent permaculturist.


In 1976, Gaskin was arrested for growing marijuana, despite having advised the actual growers against it. He took responsibility for it after police discovered the growers nude, playing flute to the young plants.


The Farm had more than 1,000 residents at a time, with as many as 10,000 passing through in a year. Some were mentally disturbed, Gaskin having claimed he could make them sane. Pregnant women came to The Farm instead of having abortions, at Ina May’s invitation. They ate vegan, and visiting Guatemalan peasants were appalled at the sparseness of their diet.


In a 1985 interview with Whole Earth Review, “Why We Left The Farm,” eight former members explained that the commune bit off more than it could chew. “There were always only 40 or so guys who were supporting The Farm in terms of cash.”


Food and clothing were rationed, and The Farm operated partly on members’ trust funds. The former members agreed that it was impossible to make improvements because Gaskin didn’t hear things he didn’t want to hear.


Gaskin’s writing bases a valid critique of injustice on a coherent worldview. His version of the bodhisattva’s impossible vow—to speak truth, follow the Buddha, quench desire, and save everybody—was to “shovel shit against the tide forever.”

 

He couldn’t back down from that, even when the shovel hit friends.

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