Highgate mental health nurse: My years with Indian spiritual guru Osho and his Rajneesh movement
- Credit: Archant
“That’s when I was asked to take Osho out on the lake. For me it was a very special honour. We actually created a second lake by building a dam. From a dry, arid desert the place became an oasis.”
Basho Dunsford is looking at a picture of himself with controversial Indian spiritual guru Bhagwan Shree Rajneesh, or Osho, and his secretary Ma Anand Sheela. They are rowing on a lake in Rajneeshpuram, the 126sqm city the Rajneesh community built in Oregon, USA, in the early 1980s.
Basho, now a nurse at Highgate Mental Health Centre, was among the first group to move to the commune from the ashram in Poona, India, in a bid to bring the Rajneesh religion to the west.
Anyone who has seen the Netflix documentary Wild Wild Country will know it didn't go to plan, but in the beginning the growth of Rajneeshpuram was incredible.
Rajneesh's original headquarters had been popular with spiritual seekers from all over the world in the 1970s. Architects, lawyers, doctors, academics and actors all donned the religion's trademark orange clothes, and together they helped to build a functioning community in the States.
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"It was awe inspiring," says Basho, 67, speaking on a bench at the Highgate Wood Pavilion Cafe, which he ran for 15 years. "Just the dedication of everyone and the energy was phenomenal. We didn't call it work, we called it worship.
"Osho attracted really amazing people who were maybe looking for an alternative way of living. It wasn't a hippie commune. We had two-storey houses with Japanese landscape gardens. We had a shopping mall with a casino, restaurants, a hairdressing salon, which I ran. There was a university, banks, an airport."
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The city also had a bus network, a sewage reclamation plant and a post office. It was bankrolled by donations from wealthy members, as well as the sales of Osho's books and videos worldwide.
Basho, whose name at the time was Prem Rajan, was soon given the prestigious role of being assistant to Osho's secretary Sheela and lived with the commune's top table in Jesus Grove.
Sheela, who had joined the group with her husband in India, became the face of the movement amid widespread media interest, proving a controversial figure with her feisty TV interviews.
The Indian media had branded Osho a "sex guru" thanks to the portrayal of his teachings of sexual, emotional, spiritual and institutional liberation. In America, he was dismissed as the "Rolls-Royce guru" - because he had 93 of them.
"That didn't faze me," says Basho, of Crouch End. "There were so many scandalous stories about the whole movement. They were finding these stories without knowing anything about Osho.
"We were pioneers in therapy. Lots of innovative therapies were devised which are now common practice, like dynamic therapy which involves shouting and letting go of repressed energy. At the end of an hour you sit in silence for 15 minutes and become still and then reflect. He was a master.
"The Rolls-Royces - I had no need to find out what they were for. It didn't affect me, but it did affect a lot of other people. But those people are often very materialistic in the first place. I would say it was one of his devices for us to see where we were at within ourselves."
Basho's family were supportive throughout his spiritual journey, which began when he became interested in meditation while growing up in Wood Green. At 21 he boarded a Budget Bus from Totteridge to India, and from there carried on to Australia and became a hairdresser.
He visited Japan in the late 1970s and spent two years in the mountains with a Zen master studying yoga, nutrition and meditation, and finding alternative ways to work with people with different mental and physical health problems.
It was on his return to England that he became interested in Rajneeshism, and he travelled out to Poona, now Pune.
"I just felt I was connected to Osho," he says. "So after my first meditation in London I knew I had to go and see him. Nine months later I went, and I stayed for a year and a half.
"It was in the early days and everyone was wearing orange and the atmosphere was very loving and peaceful."
It wasn't long before things took a different turn in Oregon. The small neighbouring city of Antelope was home to fewer than 60 people who were not best pleased at "these people down the road dressed in orange, screaming and shouting and building a city".
"They became intimidated, I suppose," says Basho. "And the accumulation of Sheela's celebrity status and power that she gained, she maybe dealt with them in a way that wasn't very friendly.
"I loved Sheela, because I felt I was doing Osho's work. But she became a caricature of herself. It became an antagonistic affair."
Legal battles with Antelope over land use led to calls for the Rajneeshpuram to be dismantled, and hostility increased. At one point the commune bussed in hundreds of homeless people to try and rig an election, which failed and led to them being "released" into neighbouring towns.
Osho began receiving death threats, so an army was formed.
"We protected our land, like any country does," says Basho. "I never imagined when I was going to build a city filled with peace and love that I'd be learning how to use a rifle. But I just went with the flow."
The dream was unravelling and Osho withdrew from public life, appearing only for "drive-bys" in his Rolls Royce. In 1985, when Sheela began to suspect Osho was trying to replace her she, Basho, and others boarded a plane for the Black Forest.
Days later Osho held a press conference, labelling Sheela and her associates "a gang of fascists" and accused them of serious crimes including wire-tapping, trying to kill his physician and a bioterror attack on the people of The Dalles, Oregon, using salmonella to swing the county elections.
"It did escalate into something that was beyond anyone's thoughts," Basho admits. "I knew about some of the things, like the wire tapping, but not everything.
"When Sheela left it slowly collapsed and it was very timely, before anything really untoward did happen.
"Most sannyasins do not like her at all. But without her it would not have been created to the level it was. She had amazing drive and force.
"I left with her in a jet. We went to Germany and hid in a wood cabin in the Black Forest."
Basho says he did not know about the poisoning, but adds: "I would have liked to have stood up and taken the consequences of our actions."
The salmonella attack is the first confirmed instance of chemical or biological terrorism in the States, infecting 751 people including public officials. Sheela was eventually extradited and pleaded guilty to attempted murder and assault. She was jailed for 20 years and served 39 months, before moving to Switzerland.
Basho, who was visiting friends in Berlin when she was arrested, stayed with friends in Sussex and worked as a hairdresser while preparing to face the world again. After rebuilding his faith in Osho with a clear mind, he returned to see him in India.
"I wanted to be face-to-face with him and be accountable for all my actions," he says. "People dropped trays when they saw me. But he wanted to see me in the front row for his discourse.
"That morning seemed auspicious. The music was tender and sweet and he came on and sat down in his chair and spoke for three hours, during which I entered the deepest meditation I had ever experienced. He would weave stories around each other and I knew all the stories he was narrating were for me and by the end my relationship with him was complete. We were the same but in two different bodies. My whole journey was a disciple was complete. That was my blessing."
Those discourses about Zen masters and teachers were the last time Osho spoke in public before his death in 1990, and were published as The Zen Manifesto.
Basho returned to Hampstead feeling empowered. He placed an advert in the Ham&High to get work as a masseuse, and in the same edition saw the City of London Corporation was looking for someone to take on an old cricket pavilion in Highgate Wood.
He saw it, and opened The Oshobasho Cafe.
He adds: "The beauty of it is when I first went to India and Osho blessed me, that night I had a dream I was doing a Japanese tea ceremony for him. I had studied them with the Zen master. I wrote a letter to him and immediately after I posted it I looked into the office and there was a photo of him drinking a cup of tea. It was like a spontaneous response."
Basho, whose name came to him while meditating after Osho's death, ran the cafe until 2004.
"It became my work to offer the Osho in everyone a cup of tea," he says. "The cafe became my interpretation of the traditional Japanese tea ceremony, but for the public. If anyone asks me my religion I tell them it's a cup of tea."