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Tampa Bay disciples of ‘Wild Wild Country’ guru remember Oregon commune

SPRING HILL

Joe Lemieux sat on the cream sofa near several relics from another era in his life, out of place in this retiree’s pastel-tinged living room and brought into the morning light specifically for this occasion.

There was a beaded necklace holding a tiny photo of a wispy-bearded Indian man, dozens of books with mystical titles like The Sacred Yes and I Am the Gate and a framed sheet of yellowing stationery embossed with the name Bhagwan Shree Rajneesh.

Written in precise script at the bottom was Joe’s other name: Swami Prem Prabuddh.

None of this would have meant much to the average houseguest before the March premiere of Wild Wild Country, the sensational Netflix documentary series about Bhagwan, the Rolls-Royce-collecting Indian guru now known as Osho, and the stunningly advanced commune city of Rajneeshpuram his thousands of followers built on a rural Oregon ranch in the early 1980s.

Bhagwan’s sannyasins, who only dressed in shades of orange or red and were known for free love and mass meditations that could include passionate screaming and vigorous dancing, were immediately at odds with the older, conservative residents of nearby Antelope, Ore. The six-part series focuses on Rajneeshpuram’s leaders, specifically Bhagwan’s private secretary Ma Anand Sheela, and the shocking abuses of power she undertook in a political feud with Oregonians and state officials.

By 1986, Sheela and other sannyasins were in prison for charges stemming from what has been called the largest bioterror attack in U.S. history, in which nine salad bars were purposely contaminated with salmonella, plus an assassination plot on the United States Attorney for Oregon.

Bhagwan was forced to return to his ashram in Pune, India, in 1985 after pleading guilty to arranging sham marriages that allowed his foreign-born followers to remain in the United States. The Oregon ranch, which by then had its own airstrip, stores, schools and police force, was disbanded. It’s now the world’s largest Young Life Christian youth camp.

But Lemieux, 69, was there in 1981 when the Rajneeshees were still building their utopia. At the time, he didn’t even know if he was planning to live there or visit. He simply went.

He had already been to Bhagwan’s original commune in Pune in the late 1970s. A friend had been to Pune and returned so completely changed that Lemieux immediately made plans to go himself, accompanied by only the friend’s wife.

"It was the most powerful experience of my entire life, still to this day," he says of his visits to Pune. "Imagine being in Buddha Hall with 2,000 people dancing and meditating. The energy, you’ve never felt anything like it."

He "took sannyas" in 1979, which means he committed to an inner journey with Bhagwan as his guru. He received his new name, Prabuddh, along with his mala, the beaded necklace. He wore it for years, along with an all-orange wardrobe that included the orange overalls he wore when he worked in sanitation. Later, he ran a service for sannyasins traveling to India called Orange You Glad You’re Going.

So when he scored an invite to the Oregon ranch early on, he jumped at the chance. He brought his two young sons, but after a couple of months, things took an unsettling turn.

"Suddenly people are walking around with guns, and I was really confused. It just didn’t match up with all the peace and love ideas," Lemieux said of the increased security and weapons training the commune’s Peace Force undertook in response to perceived threats. "All of a sudden people are standing there with machine guns when Osho is in his chair and when he’d go by in his car."

Lemieux voiced his concerns at the time, but said he doesn’t remember much about being at the ranch, except for leaving. "Before I left, Sheela told me, ‘Prabuddh, next time you come back, don’t make it so hard on yourself.’?"

He never did go back. Over the years, he opened several health food stores in Hernando County. In the 2000s he helped promote some local concerts by Prem Joshua and other Osho-inspired musicians. Sometimes, alone, he’d push the tables aside at a local community center and dance like he had at Buddha Hall.

The morning after finishing the Netflix series, Lemieux paused near his front door when a framed photo he had set there caught his eye. He had taken it out earlier in anticipation of being interviewed, but only seemed to really notice it then.

It was Lemieux in his 20s in Pune. His eyes are closed and he’s wearing a sleeveless robe. Bhagwan is seated above him, arm extended, a thumb on Lemieux’s forehead in an energy darshan. He’s Prabuddh in this photo, his face a mask of perfect tranquility.

"You know, in the show, near the end, Sheela says it was all a con, but I can’t believe Pune was a con. There’s nothing that wasn’t real about that," he said, working it out in his mind. "Maybe the ranch was a con. Then again, if the ranch was a con, it was all a con. ... No, I don’t think it was.

"But it doesn’t matter. One thing Osho said was, ‘Don’t follow me. I’m not a master, you’re not a disciple.’ So, if it’s a con, it’s a con."

Lemieux is not the only Tampa Bay area sannyasin.

Ma Kranti Tilasmi, 61, a psychological counselor whose Seminole Heights bungalow is listed as Tampa’s Osho Meditation Center on Sannyas Wiki, still has the envelope with a return address of Rajneeshpuram, Ore., in which her Bhagwan mala was sent to Tampa in 1982.

She took sannyas that year and immediately went to her closet and threw away anything she couldn’t dye red. She never lived at Rajneeshpuram, but visited the ranch several times for its annual Master’s Day.

"I remember when you’d arrive at Rajneeshpuram and got off their bus, the first thing they did was check you for contraband. Then you’d go into this room to watch an orientation video that had checks and Xs," Tilasmi said. "It was like, drugs, X, dancing, check, condoms, check, no condoms, X. Then you got to your tent and there was a care package."

What was in it?

"Condoms," she said, laughing.

Free contraceptives aside, both Tilasmi and Lemieux say Bhagwan’s reputation as the "sex guru" was wrong. Neither of them saw any public lovemaking at Rajneeshpuram.

"If that stuff was going on, it was all in private sessions, it definitely wasn’t the norm," she said of scenes showing public sex in Wild Wild Country. "Maybe you’d look over and another tent would be rocking, but Osho never encouraged anyone to have sex or not, just think differently about it. ... He didn’t want people pointlessly locked into traditional systems that made them unhappy and prevented them from their truth."

Tilasmi said there was once a large enough group of sannyasins in Tampa Bay that she could organize meditations with a dozen people, maybe more. She was introduced to it by a former co-worker in the psychology department at the University of South Florida, who later had an Osho meditation center in St. Petersburg. They dressed in red and wore their malas every day to work at USF for years without issue.

"I remember going along with him to this big, crumbling house on Bayshore (Boulevard) near Gandy. It looked like a castle," she said. "We go in and there’s all these people there and they’re all wearing red and they all give really long hugs. ... That’s one thing about sannyasins, they give really good hugs. It’s like, you get all the awkwardness out right up front."

Both Lemieux and Tilasmi say without a doubt that Osho’s writings and meditations have helped them to live a more peaceful, mindful life, remembering not to blindly accept traditional ways of doing things, just because.

"He said to live the life that’s right for you, whatever that is," Lemieux said.

Osho never visited Tampa, though six of his 85 Rolls-Royces were auctioned off at the Florida State Fairgrounds in Tampa in 1986. A Pinellas County commissioner once appeared on the Phil Donahue Show to talk about Bhagwan. They considered him an expert because he had dealt with Scientologists in politics, according to a St. Petersburg Times story from October 1984.

In the ’80s, when the commune bussed homeless people from across the United States to Rajneeshpuram, possibly to inflate the commune’s voting power, they recruited from the streets of Jacksonville and Miami, but appear to have skipped over Tampa.

The largest active community of Osho sannyasins in Florida might be just outside of Miami in Hallandale Beach. They meet every Sunday and claim on oshoflorida.com, under the button to donate, that they’re actively looking for land to build a permanent ashram.

The Tampa Bay community has dwindled to Tilasmi, Lemieux and maybe one or two others they’ve lost touch with, but for years Tilasmi’s Tampa home was like a "meditation flophouse," where people would show up and stay for a while.

It doesn’t happen so much anymore, but about a year ago she got a call out of the blue from a couple of guys visiting Tampa from India. They were looking for a meditation. She told them to come on over to talk about Osho.

Contact Christopher Spata at (727) 893-8719 or [email protected] Follow @SpataTimes.

     
   
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