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A Conversation with James Steinberg

from the June, 2005 issue of The Monthly Aspectarian


James SteinbergJames Steinberg is the author of Divine Distraction: A Guide to the Guru-Devotee Relationship. He is a longtime devotee of Adi Da Samraj.


Guy Spiro: James, you’ve been a long term student of Adi Da Samraj. Tell us about that.

James Steinberg: When I joined His community in 1973, I was looking for a spiritual way, a spiritual teacher. I had seen many different people that were on the “spiritual circuit” in those days, but it wasn’t until I came across Adi Da’s teachings that I found something that I actually felt that I could belong to and become a part of. I’d been looking for a teacher who could serve my own spiritual practice and He spoke very directly to me. There was a book that He had written called The Method of the Siddhas and it had a chapter titled, “Money, Food, and Sex.” In that chapter, He addressed how, if someone was going to be a spiritual practitioner, they had to straighten out and apply themselves relative to those aspects of life. Reading that, I realized that this was a teacher who could serve me because He had a lot of wisdom and truth of the kind of things that I was definitely going to have to handle if I was to become a real spiritual practitioner.

GS: What did you take from that?

JS: By that time I had tried vegetarianism and been macrobiotic. I’d been eating raw food. I grew up eating meat and I needed clarity about how to live relative to food and to spirituality at the same time. I grew up in Los Angeles and was very involved in that whole world there of bikini beach parties, and I knew that I wasn’t going to be able to have a spiritual way that simply just cut off sexuality. But how do you experience your sexuality and have a spiritual life at the same time? Adi Da addresses that directly. It’s the same regarding money and how do you have a livelihood? Adi Da addresses these issues. Each of these are vast realms of experience and understanding that He has very directly made plain and given wonderful direction.

GS: How does He deal with those issues differently than the typical teaching?

JS: When Adi Da began teaching, it was based on His own enlightenment, not on a traditional, hundreds-of-years-old approach. He directly addressed each of us in the present moment. When the teaching came down relative to sexuality, it wasn’t based on some ancient scripture about it; instead, He engaged us about a self-understanding regarding each of those tendencies. Where were we at? What did we want to do? But then greater than that, what was our spiritual impulse? So we had a period of many years in the beginning relative to money, food, and sex where He engaged us in what He called “a teaching consideration.” He instructed us really from where we were at. We experimented and tried things. We did it one way and we did it another way. And then He would say to us in the midst of it, “How does this serve your God-Realization and your spiritual practice? What’s the truth of what you are doing? Sure, you want to have fun and you want to party. Sure, you have all of these ideas about doing these kinds of disciplines, but what is it all truly about?” In the midst of all of that, wisdom would come out of what He would call “the consideration.” The one agreement that we all had with Him was that whatever came out as truth or wisdom in the midst of it, that’s what we wanted to do, because we were there as spiritual practitioners with him. This process evolved the most extraordinary teaching relative to the present day of money, food, and sex. Not something out of the books or something given by some holy decree thousands of years ago, but a living consideration in the face of real individuals.

GS: Is the teaching as renunciant as you get most places?

JS: Eventually it becomes that. Eventually it becomes a situation in which you’re so given over to the ecstasy of Divine Realization, that a lot of the fascination with money, food, and sex falls away and you’re more oriented towards the Divine. But at the beginning it involves truly dealing with those things and growing relative to them.

GS: Rather than just saying “No,” and trying to live with the consequences.

JS: Exactly. I mean, if someone has truly already moved to that sort of thing, then that’s fine. But in general, most of us haven’t, and so there is a process of growing and outgrowing about all of those aspects. Finally one gets to the point where one can devote one’s time more and more to the Divine, and it’s a natural, happy, and ecstatic process.

GS: Rather than giving up something that is painful at that time to give up.

JS: Right. It’s not a cutting away. It’s not a self-flagellation or a bodily mortification or anything like that. Basically, there is nothing wrong with pleasure and bodily enjoyment; it’s just that, ultimately, Divine Realization is the greatest pleasure.

GS: You’ve been there a long time and you’ve seen all the changes come and go. I remember when He was Franklin Jones originally, and then He became Bubba Free John, which I really liked. But there has been controversy. It’s been very interesting. Talk a little about the history and how those close to him have experienced that.

 JS: At the very beginning, Adi Da taught in an extremely traditional way, very formally. What He found was that His students weren’t really getting it. So, He kind of got off His chair and went face-to-face with us during the period that you’re speaking of, when He was known as Bubba Free John. Bubba means “friend” or “brother.” It’s a kind of endearing word for somebody who is close to you. He engaged all of us that way in order to teach us. He became like us in order to teach us into “right” understanding of ordinary presumptions. It was a wonderful teaching demonstration.

When we began, all of us had a lot of difficulties, for example, with organized religion. A lot of us had had that in our backgrounds and really didn’t want that. We were looking for a spirituality that was free. And Adi Da schooled us and grew us to the point where we could again take on all the aspects of true religious and spiritual life, but without it being bureaucratic, buttoned down, and so formalized that it had no living spirit to it. Each one of the aspects of real religious, spiritual life began again, and in some sense you can say that Adi Da has now established a new tradition, a tradition that is adapted to this time and this place. To watch it was to watch the most extraordinary demonstration of divinity.

My own background when I came to Adi Da was that I had already been running a small spiritual bookstore in Boston, probably the principal spiritual bookstore in the Boston area. So, when I came to Him, I had already read a great deal of the spiritual traditions. Even so, when I saw Him he was so alive and full of Spiritual power and transmission, and Divinity, that the only things that could come to my mind were things like Jesus sitting at the Last Supper, or Ramakrishna in a room in Calcutta with His devotees. I didn’t have any way to understand such a God-Man, but here He was in a white-skinned body, teaching in a Western context, and it was extraordinarily mind-blowing. For those few years around Him, I forgot everything else. I didn’t think about anything else because He was so enchanting. History was literally, from my perspective, being made — Spiritual history.

At this point, there is an extraordinary teaching of sixty volumes of instruction. The instruction was in a written teaching, but also through stories of His play with His devotees. In other words, He doesn’t simply teach us by telling us, but He engages in a story that shows us something. At a certain point, after many years of that, He didn’t have to do it so much anymore. So things became more formal. Whenever there would be a dramatic change altogether, it would often be marked by a transformation in Adi Da’s own body-mind. At that point, He would take a new name. So "Franklin Jones" became "Bubba Free John", and then "Da Free John", and now he’s known by the name "Adi Da" or more formally, "Adi Da Samraj". The word “Da” means "to give". It’s a traditional word from the Sanskrit. The way that Adi Da teaches is simply Adidam. It’s like the Buddha taught Buddhism. In terms of trying to make an easily recognizable name for the way, the way that Adi Da teaches is the way of Adidam.

GS: Does use of the word “Avatar” give you pause?

 JS: I understand it and I have a strong history in it. Adi Da does use the word “Avatar” to refer to Himself. We use it in our own recognition or seeing who He is. The word itself means to “cross down or cross over.” What it refers to are beings that come to this earth-plane already Divinely enlightened. It’s an extraordinary statement to say that someone is born enlightened. In the West, one of the few examples we have of that is someone like Jesus who was said to be a Divine incarnation, an Avataric incarnation. In the East there is a lot more of that understanding of someone who comes like that. Adi Da has told us is that He was born enlightened in order to serve and help others with that single purpose, so His whole life has been devoted to that. When you are in Adi Da’s company, He’s not simply just a great mind or a great thinker or a great speaker, even though He does demonstrate all of that, but He’s alive with a Spiritual power. If you look at the paintings of the Christian saints, you see they sometimes have halos around their heads. I’ve seen that kind of halo around Adi Da’s head. He’s just very alive with power. It’s very clear that, in His company, you’re in the company of something great. There is a kind of reverence or awe that you feel.

In my time of being around Adi Da, I’ve often been the person that He sent out to go and meet other Spiritual figures in other Spiritual traditions. Any time when I’ve met someone who is of great Spiritual strength and power and potency, there is always a kind of natural reverence that is there. No one has to tell you, when you’re in the company of such a one, that it’s appropriate to bow one’s head because you’re grateful, not simply for that person there, but for that Spiritual power. In Adi Da’s company, that Spiritual power is very strong and very profound. When He invites people to become His students, it’s inviting them to be in relationship to that Spiritual force and power that He is, which is really strong, and a real inviting of potency into your life.

GS: He sent you personally out on a mission. What are you out in the world to do?

JS: Adi Da’s now sixty-five years of age and, at this point, He is not very well known in terms of a wide knowledge of Him. So, simply put, my “mission” is to let people know that He exists and that He has this extraordinary teaching. Also, that He offers a Spiritual relationship to Him that is absolutely transformative. There will be certain individuals who are looking, who are trying to find someone who actually is a Divine authority, someone who really knows what He is talking about, who doesn’t simply speak from experience, but is speaking from Spiritual Realization and the circumstance of this Divine, real, truthful condition. I very much want His lifetime, His incarnation here, to be able to be used by people.

GS: I was surprised for a moment when you said that hardly anybody knows who He is, but then I realized that, unless you’ve been involved in these things for as long as you and I have, you might not know who He is.

 JS: In terms of the billions on this planet, many people are looking for something, but they really haven’t found anything that rings true to them, and therefore they are still seeking, and they don’t even know that there is an alternative of someone like Adi Da Samraj. I speak sometimes to high school kids in religious study courses and they’ll talk about all the great traditions of the past, but when I tell them that there is somebody like that who is alive today, it is an eye-opener for them. What I suggest to them is that they owe it to themselves to check it out, to get one of the books and see that there is some real truth there that’s available to you if you’re ready for it. Many people are just going about the ordinary pursuits of life and that’s really what they’re involved with, that’s their orientation. But there are some who are seeking something great and something that is truly profound, and who are willing to embrace a way of life that’s about a relationship to a real teacher.

I’ve written two books on the matter of the Guru-devotee relationship. The word “guru” is a difficult word in the West right now. We’re very suspect of that word. To talk about someone as a "Guru" is very difficult because we kind of figure that such an individual is going to pick our pocket or something. That they’re going to want to take something from us. We have a very independent orientation,"every man in his own castle with his own circumstance". But it should be obvious to us that if you want to learn something really in depth and truly understand it, you need a good teacher. It’s the same thing with spirituality. If you want to learn how to be a great ballet dancer, then get a great ballet teacher. If you want to learn about physics, then go to a master in the area of physics. If you want to learn about spirituality, then the best thing to do is to find a Spiritual teacher. At a certain point, people are ready for that. Adi Da teaches the real thing. He is looking for people to actually realize His condition, to actually become Divinely and completely self-realized. That is possible in one lifetime.

GS: What happens at one of your events?

JS: I do an evening event that introduces these ideas. We talk about the "dual sensitivity", the kinds of things that are necessary in order to take up Spiritual life. We talk about the area of my specialty which is the relationship to a Spiritual teacher and how to transcend cultism and make use of a Spiritual teacher. Then we talk about Adi Da himself and His thirty-three years of teaching. He’s now living in Fiji at His ashram, so we talk about the current circumstances of His living. On Saturday, we have a fuller event where we take a whole day and I show a lot of Adi Da speaking, and also some other traditional teachers speaking, and talk about the tradition of Spiritual realizers. We have time for more discussion and questions and get into things in more depth.

For more about Adidam events in your neighborhood, including those led by James Steinberg, click here.

For more about the devotional and spiritual relationship between devotees and Adi Da Samraj, click here.

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