Esalen and the American Academy of Asian Studies

Richard Price and Michael Murphy, 1982


The Esalen Institute was founded in 1962 by two close friends, Michael Murphy and Richard Price. The story of their meeting, their friendship, and their founding of Esalen is inextricably bound up with the American Academy of Asian Studies and its leading faculty, Frederic Spiegelberg, Haridas Chaudhuri, and Alan Watts. Walter Truett Anderson tells the story in his book Upstart Spring: Esalen and the American Awakening (1983), from which the following quotes are taken.

Michael Murphy graduated from Stanford in 1952. During his sophomore year, he had a life-changing encounter-- with Frederic Spiegelberg, the first director of the American Academy of Asian Studies. Spiegelberg had been recruited to direct the Academy by its founder, businessman Louis Gainsborough.

Every university has its academic stars, spellbinders who can dazzle a lecture hall full of students and lure their minds for an hour or so away from sex and football. One of the spellbinders at Stanford was Frederic Spiegelberg, of the Asian studies department. Spiegelberg, a refugee from Hitler's Germany, was a product of the great burst of intellectual activity that had flowered in Germany in the 1920s and 1930s.

He was a colleague and friend of two of the leading existentialists, Martin Heidegger and Paul Tillich. He himself was one of Europe's leading scholars of Oriental religion and, unlike many such scholars, had the ability to communicate his knowledge; his courses at Stanford were immensely popular.

Murphy didn't get around to hearing one of Spiegelberg's lectures until his sophomore year, when he stumbled into it by chance. The administration had switched lecture halls for Spiegelberg's course on the third day of the quarter, because the enrollment had outgrown the space originally assigned to it. Murphy came into the lecture hall for a social psychology course he was taking, and found that it had been moved elsewhere. He decided to stay around and hear Spiegelberg. Spiegelberg had just returned from a sabbatical year in India, where he had visited Sri Aurobindo, religious mystic, social activist, and head of the great ashrarn at Pondicherry, and the religious leader Ramana Maharshi.

Spiegelberg lectured that day on the Vedic hymns, and he talked about the Brahman, rolling out the name Of THE BRAHMAN in a sonorous voice that seemed to carry within its own resonance all the grandeur of the Hindi concept of the great spirit of the universe. Murphy had never been exposed to these concepts before, nor had he ever read any of the Eastern religious texts. But when he walked back to the fraternity house for lunch that day, he knew that his world had changed.

The only immediate outward change was in his class schedule; he dropped the social psychology course and stayed with Spiegelberg that quarter as the professor unfolded his vision of the perennial philosophy contained in Eastern religion. He still lived in the fraternity house, although he had begun to dislike it even before his encounter with Spiegelberg. He also began to meditate....

Murphy went back to Stanford in the fall. He was still living at the fraternity house and still enrolled in the premedical program, but his way of living was beginning to feel more and more like a thin outer shell, ready to crack......Finally, he realized that the time had come to do what he really wanted to do-forget about medicine and set out on the path of spiritual exploration.

So, in mid-January of his junior year at Stanford, Murphy moved out of the fraternity house and took a room in an old building in Palo Alto called the Frenchman's Tower, where he spent eight hours a day meditating-four hours early in the morning, four hours later in the afternoon. He notified his parents that he did not intend to go on to medical school, and took a job hashing in the fraternity house, because he felt guilty about accepting their money. His plan was to drop out for the spring quarter and take some classes in San Francisco at the American Academy of Asian Studies, an institution Spiegelberg [was directing], and then to go back to Stanford to study religion and philosophy.....Murphy proceeded with his plan. He dropped out for the spring quarter to study in San Francisco, then went back to Stanford....

Murphy graduated in 1952, and was drafted not long afterward....Less than two years later, Michael completed his army service and returned to Stanford to go to graduate school. He was trying to map out some reasonably respectable way to pursue his interests, a career that would relate to his own needs and still look good in Salinas. He thought he would get a Ph.D. in philosophy and become a professor so he could pass on to future generations of students the teachings that inspired him.

However, Murphy found that graduate study in philosophy made no room for the kinds of spiritual explorations that had become central to his life, and after two years he left Stanford and went to India, where he spent 16 months in Pondicherry, at the Sri Aurobindo ashram, which he had first heard about from Frederic Spiegelberg. When he returned he lived in Palo Alto, taking odd jobs, meditating, reading, and writing. Then,

In 1960 he moved to San Francisco and took a room in a pleasant old brick mansion on the fringes of Golden Gate Park that had been converted-- by a man named Haridas Chaudhuri, an Aurobindo follower-- into a living and meditation center [the Cultural Integration Fellowship], a low-keyed urban ashram. Here he felt less isolated than he had in Palo Alto, and had the opportunity to be around a rapidly growing number of people who were interested in the same things as he was.

Haridas Chaudhuri was a scholar of Indian religions who had come from India to the United States in 1951 at the invitation of Frederic Spiegelberg to teach at the American Academy of Asian Studies. Chaudhuri was one of the key faculty members at the Academy of Asian Studies, where Murphy first met him.

One day a young man named Richard Price came by the house. Price said a friend of his had suggested he look up Murphy. They exchanged some information and discovered they had been classmates at Stanford-not only classmates, but psychology majors as well. Probably they had sat in some of the same overcrowded postwar classes together. It was not surprising that they had not become acquainted in those days, but it seemed almost providential that now, after all these years, two 1952 Stanford psychology graduates should both be dropouts in San Francisco, meditating and studying Oriental religions.

After graduating from Stanford in 1952, Price had spent some time as a graduate student in psychology, first at Harvard, and then at Berkeley. But he found graduate school unsatisfying, and unsure what to do with his life, he enlisted in the army.

In the long and easygoing days of training-camp routine, there was plenty of time for unstructured philosophical bull sessions without the sense of pressure and competitiveness that had always lurked about the edges of such conversations at Harvard. After a while he got into a schedule of night duty that was flexible enough to allow him time to take some courses at Berkeley or Stanford. He decided to see what was going on at Stanford, and in the spring quarter of 1955 he enrolled in classes there. One of them was taught by Frederic Spiegelberg.

The contact with Spiegelberg was not quite the instant epiphany it had been for Michael Murphy a few years earlier, but it produced, over time, an equally profound change in the course of Price's life. He had never been interested in religion, which seemed to him to be nothing more than a system of deceit that existed mainly to enforce social rules of behavior. Yet he found himself oddly moved by the content of Spiegelberg's presentation. It was the first time he had experienced religion as something that might relate to his own life.

In one of his lectures Spiegelberg mentioned a yogi who was giving a talk at the Vedanta Society, and Price went to hear him. Again he found himself, somewhat to his surprise, quite impressed. Later he went to hear another lecturer Spiegelberg recommended, an Englishman named Alan Watts, a former Episcopalian minister who had become a student of Zen Buddhism. Watts was not just studying Zen; he was making something new out of it, synthesizing it with ideas from some of the more adventurous realms of Western psychology. At Watts's lecture Price heard, for the first time, of a man named Frederick Perls, who had developed a system of therapy based on awareness of one's own mind and body. Watts also spoke of Wilhelm Reich's ideas about how the human organism is damaged by the socially enforced repression of its instinctual drives. Price had heard Reich mentioned in the psychology departments, of course, but only as a crazy man with a weird invention, not as somebody whose ideas were of any value.

Price began taking courses at the Academy of Asian Studies, where Watts was the star attraction. Watts was rapidly becoming a leading popularizer of Zen Buddhist ideas, and in San Francisco he was the intellectual mentor of a group of young writers and artists who were trying to make Zen-or something that sounded like Zen-a part of a new Zeitgeist. Time declared, in the summer of 1958, that "Zen Buddhism is growing more chic by the minute," and took note of Watts as its leading American interpreter; a similar article in the Nation a few months later called him "the brains and the Buddha of American Zen." These were the people who became known as the Beat Generation, whose moment in time was called the Beat Scene.

The Beat Scene was part literary movement, part tourist attraction. On the literary front it was represented by such writers as Lawrence Ferlinghetti, Allen Ginsberg, Jack Kerouac, and Gary Snyder, all of whom came to Watts's lectures and wove Zen themes into their writings. Kerouac's novel The Dharma Bums was the best known of these efforts. It was a novelized paean to Zen and the free-flowing West Coast Bohemian life style. The Dharma Bums was an easily decoded roman a clef: its chief character, Japhy Ryder, was based on Gary Snyder, and also visible in its pages are Allen Ginsberg as the poet Alvah Goldbook (author of a poem entitled Wail), and Alan Watts as Arthur Whane. Snyder was the most serious scholar of the lot; he had studied Zen in Japan and had translated some Chinese Zen poems into English.

The tourist aspect of the scene centered on San Francisco's old Italian district of North Beach, which now suddenly blossomed with art galleries and hip hangouts, like The Place and the Co-Existence Bagel Shop, where young people and not-so-young people came to live out the 1950s version of la vie boheme. The clientele there was a melange of artists, writers, neighborhood hangers-on, tourists, and San Francisco businessmen who hurried home to shed their buttondown shirts for black turtlenecks, and hurried back to where the action was.

Price took a room at the Academy and began spending more time in San Francisco, studying Buddhism and watching the Beat Scene unfold around him.

After living for a while at the Academy of Asian Studies, Price married a woman he had met there. But not long after that, he suffered a nervous breakdown, and spent the next few years recovering in a clinic on the east coast and then with family in Chicago. Then, in 1960, he felt strong enough to return to a normal life, and he left Chicago to return to San Francisco. It was shortly after his return that a friend of his told him to look up someone named Michael Murphy, who had just moved into the Cultural Integration Fellowship of Haridas Chaudhuri. After their initial meeting, Murphy and Price quickly became close friends. After a few months,

Price and Murphy were both trying to keep their expenses down. Price had some stock and the money he had saved while working for the beer-sign business in Chicago; Murphy had a two-day-a-week job as a copyreader for a trade magazine called the Paciflc Shipper. The publisher at the Shipper decided he needed a full-time copyreader, and asked Murphy to work full time or quit. He quit.

Murphy had been playing around with the idea of going down to live at Big Sur. The Big House, the house his grandparents had built for themselves, was standing empty. Dr. Murphy was dead, and Bunny, now in her eighties, rarely went there anymore. Dennis was living in his own house, carousing around and working on a second novel. The property south of the creek was now a resort motel, Slate's Hot Springs. He could live in the Big House for nothing and probably find a part-time job.

This seemed to be the time to try it, since he was out of work anyway. He talked it over with Price and invited him to come along. There was plenty of room. They would just go down there and see how it felt; if they didn't like it, they could always go back to San Francisco. If they did like it, they could stay on indefinitely, meditate, and read....

Michael Murphy was naturally distressed by what had become of his old family vacation spot, the place he and Price had come to in search of a haven for meditation and study, Sometimes he thought about taking it over and running the business himself.

This was an idea that he had toyed with before, from time to time.... He thought he would run the motel and also hold some lectures and educational programs there as a side line....

He and Price talked about the possibility of such a venture with a growing sense of enthusiasm. It made sense to them. Alan Watts was already holding occasional weekend seminars in the area, sometimes at the Big Sur Gallery and sometimes at the house of the architect Nathaniel Owings. Probably Watts could be persuaded to use the lodge for his lectures; other programs of that sort might be put on there as well. This would augment the motel and restaurant operation, and also serve to change the tone of the place bring in people who were more interested in religion and philosophy, less given to knocking each other down.

Murphy and Price agreed that their programs would be open and flexible, not wedded to any particular school or discipline. They would establish a center for the exploration of new ideas. The guiding principle would be synthesis: the flowing-together of East and West, the ancient and the modern, science and religion, scholarship and art....

Some time during the spring and summer of 1961, the project became more concrete....As the plans for taking over the hot springs became a reality, Murphy and Price went seeking advice and support. They talked to Frederic Spiegelberg, and the courtly old professor, who knew all kinds of people, was most helpful. They talked with Alan Watts, whom they had first met through Spiegelberg. They talked with Gregory Bateson, whom Price had known at Stanford. They wrote to Aldous Huxley and went to see Gerald Heard. Such contacts as these were the beginning of what was to become a formidable cadre of philosophers, psychologists, artists, writers, theologians, and wise souls who took an interest in their project, gave them suggestions, and agreed to come to Big Sur to lead seminars. It helped, each time they approached some new luminary, to be able to mention the other people of stature who were involved already. And so the circle widened....

Slate's Hot Springs was now officially under new management. Price moved over to the lodge, into a room that became a combination bedroom and office. Michael stayed in the Big House. They had agreed that Price would be in charge of the resort and that Murphy would go to work lining up the seminar programs. But it would not be a complete division of responsibilities; they would work together on all parts of the operation.

In January of 1962 Alan Watts gave a seminar at the lodge. This was one of his own programs, attended by his own private clientele and not organized by Murphy and Price, but it was an opportunity to give the place a test run, to get a little philosophy vibrating through its rooms.....

[Watts] had visited Carl Jung and had lectured at the Jung Institute in Zurich in 1958, and he had been impressed by Jung's abandonment of formal lectures in favor of seminars that lasted for a weekend or some comparable period of time. In these seminars an instructor and a group of students would work together more or less continuously, with plenty of time for questions and discussion. On his return to California, Watts (who had left the Academy of Asian Studies) began to hold private seminars based on this model. He gradually built up a clientele for such events, a loose aggregation of followers who would be notified by mail in advance of the next seminar. The sessions were held here and there, mostly in the San Francisco Bay Area, sometimes in Los Angeles, usually in the homes of friends or students, for people interested in the subjects he liked to call "these things." Watts had many friends in the Big Sur area, a place he had been attracted to ever since he first drove up that coast on his way to San Francisco, and often gave seminars there, too. So the precedent had been set, and when Watts gave his first seminar at Slate's Hot Springs, sitting in front of the old stone fireplace, drinking an occasional beer, and conversing with a couple of dozen people about these things, it was not a leap into the unknown, only a continuation....

Thus was the Esalen Institute born out of the extraordinary crucible of the American Academy of Asian Studies.


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