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  • A Conversation with Jeffrey J. Kripal
  • Arthur Versluis

Jeffrey J. Kripal holds the J. Newton Rayzor Chair and is also Chair of the Department of Religious Studies at Rice University. Author of numerous books, including Esalen, Authors of the Impossible, and Mutants and Mystics, he is one of relatively few authors to focus on the religious radicalism of the 1960s and of the counterculture. In the following conversation, we spoke about the remarkable Big Sur community of Esalen, its historic role in the counterculture, and the complex relationships among Asian religions and Western religious and cultural movements in a global context. Our focus was countercultural religious radicalism in historical and social contexts.

Arthur Versluis (AV):

I'm sitting here in southern France in a castle with Jeff Kripal and we're talking about Esalen and some of its political and religious implications in relation to American religious political history. I wondered if we might begin by thinking about your own overview of Esalen and its role in the counterculture of the 1960s—what the relationship of Esalen was in your view, not just to California, but more broadly to the culture at large. How do you see Esalen's role in terms of the counterculture? [End Page 89]

Jeffrey J. Kripal (JK):

Like most things, it's very complicated. There's not a single trajectory there—there's not a single line of influence either coming into the place or moving out of the place. There are multiple, multiple streams of influence. Esalen was founded in the fall of '62 in Big Sur, California. It's not actually yet Esalen—it takes a year or two for it to be called that. It's still going today—it has its fiftieth anniversary next year [in 2012], so it's an institution that has been active for fifty years now. And really, every single one of those five decades is significantly different than the others, so you need to think about the whole history here. You also need to think of the prehistory; a lot of things surprised me about the history. I went into this project around 2000 or so with a lot of the same stereotypes and assumptions that intellectuals have about these sorts of movements that are unfortunately framed as "New Age" now, and I'll explain why this wasn't New Age when it started. The major influences pre-Esalen were literary. Big Sur was a kind of Bohemian outlaw country or literary Mecca for a number of radical writers.


Henry Miller . . .


Henry Miller became the main figure there, but there were a lot of others. Robinson Jeffers, John Steinbeck grew up in Salinas just down the road, and so there was very much a literary culture there, and when Miller moved there, he had lived in different places in Big Sur, but almost all of his books were banned when he moved back to the States from France. And so, when he was living in Big Sur, they knew who he was, yet they didn't. Because he used to joke that if anyone wanted to read any of his books, they needed to go down to the wharf where they were all confiscated in the warehouses there. So already you have a kind of radicalism in place in the literary culture.

There were also other influences—there are two founders, a man named Michael Murphy, who is still very much alive, and another man named Richard Price or Dick Price, who was killed in a freak hiking accident in 1985. Each man had different motivations for founding the place. Mike's motivations were primarily the desire to unite Asian philosophy and Western science—he had lost his Christian faith as an undergraduate at Stanford, and then had regained a kind of religious or metaphysical vision studying an Indian philosopher named Sri Aurobindo. So for Mike, Esalen was very [End Page 90] much about bringing Western science and Indian philosophical thought together. For Dick, it was very much that he wanted to create a place of healing and recovery for those who had been abused by the psychiatric system, because he had been. Dick...