Great Teachers – Biographical Sketches


Franklin Merrell-Wolff Franklin Merrell-Wolff | Douglas Harding | Richard Rose

Franklin Wolff was born in California in 1887, the son of a Methodist minister whose family owned extensive property in the San Fernando valley north of Los Angeles. He received an undergraduate degree in mathematics, with minors in philosophy and psychology, from Stanford University in 1911. While pursuing graduate work in philosophy at Harvard in 1912, he attended a series of lectures on Vedanta given by a visiting Indian swami and became convinced of the probable existence of a transcendent awareness that was beyond the mode of ordinary knowing. He cut short his studies at Harvard, returning to teach math at Stanford, but he left the academic environment less than a year later to devote his life to the quest of the Transcendent.

His search took him into Theosophical, Sufi and Hindu traditions, and in 1922 Wolff had what he referred to as his first Recognition: the realization that "I am Atman." Atman is a Sanskrit term for the Self as the subject or subjective moment of consciousness. This experience was, I believe, what Richard Bucke termed cosmic consciousness – the realization of oneness with everything in the universe that inspired Whitman's poetry, for example – and what is known in Christian contemplative literature as the unitive experience, or oneness with God.

In the late 1920s, Wolff and his wife Sherifa purchased a ranch on the eastern slopes of the Sierra Nevada mountains near Lone Pine, California – the gateway to Mt. Whitney. They had purchased the property because Hazrat Inayat Khan, a Sufi sage, told them that the spiritual center of a country was its highest mountain, and at that time, before Alaska statehood, Mt. Whitney was the highest point in the states of the US.

When an aqueduct was built to carry water into the Fernando Valley, that land became valuable as a citrus growing area and later as suburbs for Los Angeles. By gradually selling pieces of that land, Wolff never needed to work for money. During the depression of the 1930s, however, he spent long periods in remote parts of California mining for gold. In 1936, while studying and meditating on the teachings of the medieval Indian philosopher Shankara, what Wolff later referred to as the Fundamental Recognition occurred. He equated this with the Buddhist shunyata, the Hindu nirvikalpa samadhi, and the tao of Chinese philosophy. In his own terms, it was The Great Space, and Consciousness without an object and without a subject.

After his enlightenment at the relatively late age of 48 or 49, Wolff and his wife Sherifa continued their earlier work of lecturing and helping others who were searching for answers. In the 1950s there were study groups in New York, Chicago and other cities, and summers were active times at the Great Space Center near Lone Pine, where Wolff and his students took on the gargantuan project of building an ashrama of stone blasted from the mountainside in a remote canyon. But Wolff had pretty much disappeared from public view when John Lilly of LSD and dolphin research and isolation tank fame discovered him and introduced him to the hip generation of the 1970s by writing an introduction to the second edition of Pathways Through to Space.

Wolff lived on his ranch and continued giving his Sunday morning lectures through 1985, when he passed on at the age of 98.

Douglas Harding Douglas Harding | Richard Rose | Franklin Merrell-Wolff

Douglas Harding was born in England on February 12, 1909. He was the oldest of three children, born of parents who were members of a separatist Christian sect called the Plymouth Brethren. His father was a greengrocer whom Douglas described as a simple, genuine, gentle man who prayed morning, noon and night. The young Douglas adored his father, but he had a distant, difficult relationship with his mother, whom he described as tough.

Grammar school was an expansive time for Douglas, whose only reading material at home was the Bible and the sect's commentaries on the Bible. He was entranced by Shakespeare, whose writings one of his teachers read to them, and fascinated by Dickens. He said that reading A Tale of Two Cities, which climaxed with the "bad guy" sacrificing himself for the "good guy," left him in a dreamlike ecstasy for several days. His father would burn any books other than the two mentioned, so he had to do most of his at-home reading in the WC.

Douglas suffered from what he termed a morbid self-consciousness, never knowing when it would strike. It was the curse of his youth and lasted till age 30 when he was a major in the British Army. He was good at drawing, and at art in general, and the Brethren decided that architecture would be a good career for him. He was apprenticed to study under an architect, whom Douglas described as a bad one, for three years at age seventeen. When he sat for the national exams, he came out first in the entire British Empire to his surprise and was awarded a scholarship to London University.

While at university, at age 21, he decided to leave the Plymouth Brethren. His father was devastated, telling him he would rather see him hang for murder. That year he saw his first cinema and first stage play, both of which were previously forbidden, and began sincerely seeking what London had to offer in terms of finding the meaning in life. The mysterious nature of his own being and the desire to discover the difference between self and others led him to question both what he was made of and what he constituted or was a part of. He spent a great deal of time reading about the microcosm of cells, the macrocosm of the universe, and social psychology. He came to the understanding that he was a "walking zoo" composed of individual cells and that these cells in turn were colonies or social organisms of molecules, which in turn were societies of atoms, etc. Going the other way up the hierarchy, he was an organism in another zoo composed of planetary animals, while the planet was an organism in a solar system, etc. He realized that although he could survive without arms and legs, he wouldn't last long if the sun were "amputated." So when he was questioning what he was, he realized that man is more than just man – he's nothing without the hierarchy going up and down, belonging to all levels subhuman and superhuman.

He became fully qualified as an architect at age 22 or 23 and was quite successful at it without ever having his heart in it. He continued working as an architect except during the period of WW II, generally not spending more than an hour or an hour and a half a day at it and spending the rest of the time pursuing his interest in self-discovery. He first practiced for three years in Ipswich, a city in Suffolk, then went to India with his new wife, Beryl. He employed a staff of about 25 there and pursued his architectural career, shelving his passion for self-discovery for a while – during which period two sons were born.

drawing by Ernst Mach When the war broke out a few years later, he became an officer in the Army Engineers, where he had periods of free time and found himself back in his pursuit of meaning and self-discovery. He said that the "penny dropped" for him at age 33, in 1942 or 1943. In On Having No Head, he described that realization as having occurred while in the Himalayas. But in a 2001 videotaped interview with Richard Lang, he said that the realization first hit him when he saw a drawing by physicist Ernst Mach, who said he was attempting to start from scratch. What it showed was the fact that from "in here" we see the most obvious of truths – that we have no head. From that moment he knew that his life had to be about this "headlessness."

Harding returned to Suffolk after the war, took a year off from architecture, then started up a practice with a partner that was successful and again allowed him to accomplish his work in an hour or so a day, leaving him the vast majority of his time to devote to trying to get the message across to others that "You are the opposite of what you look like." He said, however, that it was 18 years after his Himalayan experience before he started seriously sharing what he'd found. That would coincide with the publication of On Having No Head: Zen and the Rediscovery of the Obvious in 1961.

He continued, along with his second wife, Catherine, to develop exercises for workshops they put on around the world. Douglas "shuffled off this mortal coil," to use the words of the man he considered to be the greatest writer in the English language, in the early hours of January 11, 2007.

Richard Rose Richard Rose | Franklin Merrell-Wolff | Douglas Harding

Richard Rose was born in Benwood, West Virginia, on March 14, 1917. He was the third of four boys in an Irish Catholic family and was born under circumstances that may have set his life's direction.

While pregnant with Richard, his mother was treated disrespectfully by a drunk one day as she walked home from church with her two little boys. The older of the boys told his father about it, and the father acted. He got the six-shooter he'd brought back from his adventures in the American west before he was married and went to find the man. When he found him, he pointed the pistol at the man and gave him the option of apologizing to his wife or dying. The man refused to apologize – out of disbelief or shock, Rose later speculated – and his father shot him between the eyes.

His father was tried and convicted of murder. His pregnant mother traveled to the West Virginia capitol to ask the governor to pardon her husband and ensconced herself on the steps of the governor's office until such a pardon was granted – which it was.

Richard was a religious child and was happy to comply with his mother's wishes to have a priest in the family. At twelve he entered a Capuchin pre-seminary near Pittsburgh, delighted to be able to get close to the people he thought were on personal terms with the God he wanted to find. He was a boy, though, who questioned and could not be content with accepting answers based on blind belief. He became disillusioned and spent much of his spare time in the attic of the seminary reading books on religion and Church history that the students weren't supposed to read. That was where he came across the story of the Albigensian Crusade and developed his abiding respect for those heretics whose convictions led to their persecution by the Church. He was in and out of the seminary a couple times, leaving for good at age 17.

This was during the depths of the depression of the 1930s. His parents had sold property in town and moved to a farm where they thought they could at least grow enough food for the family to survive. His father had a thriving plumbing supply business before being imprisoned, but afterward he wasn't motivated or able to work, so the family had little income. Richard put himself through a couple years of college, studying the hard sciences, which he looked to for keys to the universe. He survived for long periods on milk and candy bars. Once again he became disillusioned, realizing that the Truth he sought was never going to be found in knowledge – that it was something that one had to become.

He left school and took jobs around the country, working as a lab technician on projects such as the development of streptomycin in a Denver lab and of the atomic submarine at Babcock and Wilcox in Ohio, and as a quality control metallurgist at an airplane engine plant in Baltimore. He said he never stayed on a job for more than a year, not wanting to get into a rut, which eventually became a liability when a prospective employer saw the length of his resume. He turned his life into a "living laboratory," practicing yoga, vegetarianism, celibacy and anything else that appealed to his intuition. He also spent months of solitude back on the family farm. He said that he had dialed bliss during this seven-year period, but he eventually realized he was aging and had nothing to show for his lifetime quest of God.

What probably ended the period of bliss was the death of his older brother James, who was serving in the Merchant Marine on a vessel that was torpedoed by a German submarine. Rose had a strong bond with this older brother (as described in the poem simply titled "James" in Rose's Carillon), who was generous and fatalistic. He'd taken the most dangerous job on the ship, working in the boiler room on the night shift – typical of his lifelong concern and sacrifice for others. His death shocked Rose to the core, seeing in comparison the gigantic egotism of his own spiritual quest.

Rose had endured a great ego-shock at age 16, when a girl he thought angelic turned out to be far from that. His reaction was that it wasn't worth living if his prized intuition could be so faulty, and he took a dose of strychnine that was strong enough to kill a horse according to the family doctor. His constitution was amazingly strong, though, and he pulled through – with the memory of another shock: he didn't find angels waiting to take him to heaven but instead had a vision of himself in a grave with his body rotting.

At 30, in 1947, Rose had another ego-blow of recognizing his faulty intuition, this time concerning a women he was thinking of marrying. That shock may be what triggered the profound realization that occurred soon afterward, which answered all his questions. The approach to it was traumatic for him, a death experience. He said in a public talk decades later that he didn't find God, as he expected, but found that he was God – no, that's not right either, he said; he found that he is God, and that any of the listeners who pursued the trip to the end of the road would find the same thing. About six months after the experience, a description of it came to him in blank verse, which he wrote down in one sitting. He titled it "The Three Books of the Absolute."

During the years of his search, Rose ran into so many hucksters and self-deluded teachers that he made a vow to himself if he ever found anything, he would help others. In retrospect, he thought that commitment was instrumental in his becoming a teacher, since the realization of our essential nature brings with it the realization that life is a dream, and there's no desire to affect the dream. Although he was always seeking out other searchers and working with them at their level of interest, he didn't find any students who were interested in pursuing what he considered the apotheosis of spiritual work, self-definition, until a window opened in the early 1970s. For the next quarter century he devoted his life to public talks, writing, and making himself available for answering questions. He also made the family farm, whose shares he had purchased from his brothers after his parents died, available as a place where searchers could meet, spend time in solitude, and even live on.

In the mid-1990s, Rose began showing signs of Alzheimer's disease. A poem he wrote many years earlier, "I Will Take Leave of You," may have predicted the mode of his departure. It begins with the lines: I will take leave of you / Not by distinct farewell / But vaguely / As one entering vagueness.... Richard Rose died on July 6, 2005. The August 2005 TAT Forum is a memorial edition.

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