Chautauqua will focus on spiritual communities in state

UNM professor Ned O'Malia will speak Saturday at Farmington Museum at Gateway Park

Mike Easterling
  • Ned O'Malia teaches Asian religions and serves as a travel writer, photographer and tour guide.
  • Northern New Mexico served as home to at least 30 communes in the 1960s.
  • The region also has attracted Sikh, Buddhist and Muslim communities over the years.
Ned O'Malia

FARMINGTON — The territory along the Rio Grande River through New Mexico has served as a magnet for those seeking spiritual enlightenment for more than 100 years. But from the late 1960s through the early 1980s, it had a particularly strong pull, drawing representatives of various Eastern and Middle Eastern faiths, in addition to thousands of hippies who took up residence in communes.

Albuquerque resident Ned O'Malia, a professor of Asian religions at the University of New Mexico, long has been fascinated with the proliferation of those groups along the banks of the waterway that bisects the state. This weekend, he will deliver a Chautauqua presentation on "Yogis, Sikhs and Zen Masters Along the Rio Grande," at the Farmington Museum at Gateway Park.

O'Malia developed the 90-minute presentation about 10 years ago, but he estimates he has delivered it only a dozen times across the state and never here, so the material likely will be fresh for the local audience. As a travel writer, photographer and tour guide, in addition to his work delivering presentations around the state through the New Mexico Humanities Council, O'Malia enjoys bringing such little-known subjects to light.

"I do find it delightful to have people say, 'I never knew that,'" he said today during a phone interview from Albuquerque. "I talk to a lot of people who have lived in New Mexico their whole life who say, 'I have never been to Raton, I have never been to Silver City.' I like to provide some culture with some geography."

O'Malia is much better known to residents of the Four Corners than many of the subjects he explores. He was here in September to present a Chautauqua on "Our Muslim Neighbors," and he returned in March to lead a reading and discussion group on "Islam in America'' at the museum and at San Juan College.

One of the figures featured in Ned O'Malia's Chautauqua "Yogis, Sikhs and Zen Masters Along the Rio Grande" is the late Yogi Bhijan, leader of the North American Sikhs based in Espanola.

This weekend's PowerPoint presentation will cover some different ground. But O'Malia maintains it's hardly a coincidence that New Mexico in general and the Rio Grande in particular have drawn so many of those who practice little-known or nontraditional forms of spiritualism.

"In the 1960s, there were at least 30 communes in Northern New Mexico," he said, explaining that he believes many of the people who chose to live in those communities were attracted to the area because of its strong Native American culture and the respect Natives displayed for the land, its beauty and the natural order.

But there were other things that made the Rio Grande corridor attractive, as well, he said.

"I remember talking to the co-founder of one of the two largest communes one time, and when I asked him why they chose this place, he said, 'Because we were 2,000 miles from our parents, and there were no building codes.'"

The region didn't attract just hippies. Over time, it became home to a Sikh Dharma community just outside Española, the Lama Foundation north of Taos, three Buddhist retreats or meditation centers scattered between Albuquerque, Santa Fe and Jemez Springs, and a series of Tibetan stupas stretching along the river from Albuquerque into Colorado. There is also a large Islamic mosque and campus in Abiquiu.

The late Sufi Master Samuel Lewis is featured in "Yogis, Sikhs and Zen Masters Along the Rio Grande," a Chautauqua by Ned O'Malia. Lewis is buried at the Lama Foundation north of Taos, and his grave serves as a pilgrimage site.

O'Malia said the Catholic Church's long and pronounced history throughout New Mexico also made the state fertile ground for those interested in spirituality, even if they chose to do so under the tenants of a different religion or philosophy.

Most of that activity has been concentrated in the northern part of the state, O'Malia said, and his presentation focuses largely on those sites and communities. But he said there are some lesser-known examples south of Albuquerque.

"Northern New Mexico was so insular and parochial that things changed very slowly," he said, describing the atmosphere that made the region attractive to those searching for enlightenment. "The south was much more open – it had cattle drives and gold miners. There was some activity there, it's just not as discernible."

O'Malia recalled hearing that at one point in the 1960s and 1970s, an estimated 10,000 hippies a year were making the trek to the communes around Taos to take advantage of the free shelter, food and clothing many of them offered. That led officials of one such community to finally say, "Enough."

"They were standing in the road with a chain and a shotgun and sign that said, 'No room,'" he said, laughing. "Where would 'Easy Rider' have been if they had locked the doors?'"

Mike Easterling is the night editor of The Daily Times. He can be reached at 505-564-4610.

If you go

What: "Yogis, Sikhs and Zen Masters Along the Rio Grande," a Chautauqua presentation by Ned O'Malia

When: 3 p.m. Saturday at the Farmington Museum at Gateway Park, 3041 E. Main St.

Admission: Free

For more information: Call 505-599-1174