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Elvis the Bodhisattva

   by Peter Holleran

   "Elvis was my close personal friend. He came to my Deer Lake training camp about two years before he died. He told us he didn't want nobody to bother us. He wanted peace and quiet and I gave him a cabin in my camp and nobody even knew it. When the cameras started watching me train, he was up on the hill sleeping in the cabin. Elvis had a robe made for me. I don't admire nobody, but Elvis Presley was the sweetest, most humble and nicest man you'd want to know." - Muhammad Ali

   If there be such a thing as a divine plan, Elvis Aaron Presley, beloved by millions, was an important worker within it, who in many ways changed the human landscape for the better in the twentieth century. A brooding, yet fun-loving, giving man, one of the seminal architects of rock and roll, deeply devotional, he had a little-known absorbing interest in esoteric spiritual matters and sacred teachings in the latter part of his life.

   (This article has a number of interesting short links; please take time to look at them as they add much heart to the writing.

   Most of us know him as a by-necessity secretive personality, imprisoned by his own popularity, with an entourage of loyal body-guards/buddies, and a classic example of a unbridled kid in a candy store, giving away Cadillacs to friends and family, shooting out TV screens in his hotel room whenever his nemesis Robert Goulet came on, and making his way into the White House to get appointed an honorary drug-enforcement position from President Nixon. (1) He was all of that, yet he was a humble, generous, religious soul and a man of destiny who had a big influence on contemporary culture in more ways than one. Growing up with simple gospel roots - he in fact contemplated being either a gospel singer or a minister before he went into rock and roll - was deeply devoted to both parents and friends, and became -along with Little Richard - a tremendous force in helping breaking down the color barrier (2), having a respect for all races of mankind, and also, in the opinion of some it might be ventured, becoming a positive influence on the acceptance of the spontaneous movement of the body by a still yet puritanical America, although many adults at the time did not think so. Images of him come to mind on the Ed Sullivan show, screened from the waist down to hide his gyrations, yet always the gentleman with Mr. Sullivan, who assured America by saying, “he is thoroughly all right, a fine, young boy.”

   There has been some controversy over whether Elvis copied or stole from black artists, but the fact is his mannerisms and vocalizations “sounding” as a black man were what drove his critics - namely white parents - up the wall. Elvis did cover other artists’ material from time to time, but then so did the Beatles on their early albums - a not uncommon practice among musicians, and all benefitted. From Wikepedia:

   “Little Richard is cited as one of the first crossover black artists, reaching audiences of all races. His music and concerts broke the color line, drawing blacks and whites together despite attempts to sustain segregation. Many of his contemporaries, including Elvis Presley, Buddy Holly, Bill Haley, Jerry Lee Lewis, the Everly Brothers, Gene Vincent and Eddie Cochran, recorded covers of his works. Taken by his music and style, and personally covering four of Richard's songs on his own two breakthrough albums in 1956, Presley told Richard in 1969 that his music was an inspiration to him and that he was "the greatest".

   Elvis’ early covering of Little Richard songs, however, were a far cry from the sacharine commercialized version of “Tutti Frutti” put out by Pat Boone’s producers [which nevertheless Richard admitted actually gave a boost to his career].

   Of Presley, however, Little Richard himself said:

   “He was an integrator. Elvis was a blessing: They wouldn’t let Black music through. He opened the door for Black music.”

   Presley never denied his musical sources. He was quoted as saying:

   “The colored folks been singing it and playing it just like I’m doin’ now, man, for more years than I know: They played it like that in their shanties and in their juke joints and nobody paid it no mind ‘til I goosed it up. I got it from them.”

   Jackie Wilson, a good friend of Elvis, had this to say:

   “A lot of people have accused Elvis of stealing the black man's music, when in fact, almost every black solo entertainer copied from Elvis.”

   So there was a lot of cross-pollination. Little Richard became known as “The Architect of Rock and Roll,” while Presley became “The King of Rock and Roll.” He was a close friend of James Brown, “The King or Godfather of Soul,” and would rent out theaters to hold private viewings of films of the latter’s performances. They both highly admired each other, and in an interview James expressed his love for him.

   Despite fame and fortune Elvis never forgot the poverty he came from.

   “Certain places mostly in southern states advised the Elvis camp that he could leave the black girls back home. Elvis refused to work any gig where the girls [The Sweet Inspirations] weren’t welcome.” - Myrna Smith, group member

   So the criticisms of professional theft, exploitation, or racism, seem unwarranted. In fact the case can be made that by his influence and example he helped bring to the attention of the general public many black artists who might have remained out of the limelight and confined to the R &B circuit. But he was just doing what came natural to him, singing in a “down home” way from his country gospel and rockabilly roots.

   John Lennon said, ”Before Elvis there was nothing.”

   With his iconic blend of blues, gospel and southern country, bottom line is that Elvis became the leading figure of the newly popular sound of rock and roll, and his hip-swinging performances, hairstyle, clothes, and promotion of the then-marginalized sound of African-Americans also unfortunately led to him being widely considered a threat to the moral well-being of white American youth. He was condemned by Jesuits, Roman Catholics, Pentecostals, white DJ’s, black DJ’s,, Frank Sinatra, even the FBI But not by millions of screaming kids.

   It was the beginning of a tumultuous time in race relations in America, in which the phenomena of Elvis and music played a part, and thankfully, gradually things began to change.

   Underneath it all, however, as such a ‘man of destiny,’ the pressure at times must have been immense. As mentioned, as a young man Elvis was a devout Christian, but also often troubled, and confessed in 1958 to the Rev. James Hamill:

   "Pastor, I'm the most miserable young man you've ever seen. I've got all the money I'll ever need to spend. I've got millions of fans. I've got friends. But I'm doing what you taught me not to do, and I'm not doing the things you taught me to do."

   Elvis lived with this struggle throughout his life. He told his friend Pat Boone, "I wish I could go to church like you." After Boone told him he could, Elvis replied, "No, they wouldn't leave me alone. I would distract the minister."

   Every great soul has their failures and excesses, and he was obviously no exception. Yet beneath it all, he had more than his fair share of southern nobless oblige, courtesy, kindness, and a spirit of giving. Still, despite, and partly because of, his great worldly success, along with childhood sorrows, including the loss of his twin brother Aaron at birth, and the early loss of his mother, he was deeply in touch with a sense of loneliness. This led him in later years to engage in extensive study of oriental wisdom. Not only did he seriously learn martial arts, but, unbeknownst to most of the public, he read constantly books such as H.P. Blavatsky’s The Secret Doctrine and The Voice of the Silence, W.Y. Evans-Wentz’s translation of The Tibetan Book of the Dead, Kalil Gibran's The Prophet, Paramhansa Yogananda’s Autobiography of a Yogi, Richard Maurice Bucke’s Cosmic Consciousness, J. Krishnamurti’s The First and the Last Freedom, the Tao Te Ching, Dane Rudhyar’s New Mansions for New Men, Chogyam Trungpa’s Sacred Path of the Warrior, Joel Goldsmith’s The Infinite Way, Nicholas Roerich’s Flame in the Chalice, and Paul Brunton’s The Wisdom of the Overself, among many others. Of special importance was the book published in 1916 by Anonymous (aka Joseph S. Benner), The Impersonal Life, which Elvis gave away by the caseload, and was found at his side when he passed away. A special edition was posthumously published by Graceland, as “the book in which Elvis found the light.” He was documented to have read over a thousand books on spiritual themes. His daughter, Lisa-Marie, remembers:

   "My father's library of spiritual books is amazing. I've gone through these books. They're covered with his notes. He wrote on the top of the page, on the bottom of the page, in the margins - everywhere. You can hear him thinking when you read those notes."

   Professor Albert Goldman in his book, Elvis, writes:

   “The writings to which Elvis Presley devoted himself for the balance of his life were established in the 1870’s by the.. fascinating Madame Blavatsky. Elvis always had on hand copies of Madame Blavatsky’s writings...In fact, one little volume purporting to be translations by Blavatsky of [ancient Tibetan tablets called The Golden Precepts] and entitled The Voice of the Silence (3) was such a favorite of Elvis’ that he sometimes read from it onstage and was inspired by it to name his own gospel group, ‘Voice’.” (4)

   As is frequent, it was a seemingly chance encounter that triggered his involvement in the spiritual quest. This interest was catalyzed when he changed hair-stylists:

   "The new man was Larry Geller of New York who introduced him to the idea of masters. Elvis’ immediate irreverent response was, “Who the hell are the masters?” (5)

   He learned there were a great many masters besides the beloved Jesus of his childhood, and who served a divine purpose. He became interested in astrology and all things occult and spiritual, joining the movement among the young in the 1960's. Priscilla noted that she was “witnessing the emergence of that part of his nature that was thirsting for answers to the fundamental questions of life.”

   Goldman remarks:

   “He was eager for all of us - especially me - to absorb all the knowledge he was consuming. Happy to share everything for hours and handed out books he thought would interest us. That he did read these books with great care is evident even from the appearance of his copies, dog-eared, travel-stained, heavily underscored on almost every page. Elvis committed many of the key passages to memory and would recite them aloud while Larry Geller held the book like a stage prompter.” (6)

   Like many men into whose hands came the responsibility of power,

   “He asked Larry why, out of all the millions of people in the universe, he had been chosen to influence so many millions of souls. Granted this unique position, how could he contribute to save a world burdened with hunger, disease, and poverty? Why was there so much human suffering in the first place? and why wasn’t he happy, when he had more than anyone would want? He felt he was missing something in life. Through Larry’s insight, he hoped to find the path that would lead him to the answers.” (7)

   Most of this soul-searching came in the five years after his breakup with Priscilla in 1972. He joined the Self-Realization Fellowship (SRF), but Sister Daya Mata, Yogananda’s successor, tried to discourage his first attempts and desire for a kriya yoga short-cut, reminding him that his path as an entertainer would test the sincerity of his resolve. Nevertheless, he persisted and became an enthusiastic member, seeing Daya Mata, who he revered as a saint, frequently for the rest of his life. He faithfully pursued his lessons and developed a routine of meditating 30 minutes a day, particularly before performances, to 'get the ego out of the way so God could speak through his songs'. "Better than any drug I know," he once said.

   Naive like many of us were at first about such matters, he even experimented with the concept of psychic powers. After reading Autobiography of a Yogi and Yogananda's teaching of an adept's mastery over cosmic manifestation, and The Wisdom of the Overself in which Brunton argued, in brief, that everything which appears was ultimately mental or of the nature of our own soul's constructive thought projecting forth an indwelling Divine Mind’s master image. Elvis once asked a friend to look up in the sky, announcing that he was going to use his mind to move a cloud. After a few minutes he exclaimed excitedly, "did you see it, man - did you see it move?!!” (8) It is evident from this that he did not fully understand the complex essentially advaita vedanta doctrine of 'mentalism' (9) that Brunton introduced in his ground-breaking book. It was not a teaching to “feather one’s own nest with,” and the individual soul was not the ultimate creator. But that was certainly no fault of Elvis, just beginning to explore yoga and mysticism, not yet equipped for the rarified atmosphere of pure philosophy and who lacked a qualified teacher to explain such difficult material. For this book, first published in 1943, was a difficult and seminal book for spiritual seekers. Yet who would have thought he would even have read and considered as one of his favorites a book like that? How far-reaching seeds of truth get spread! Therefore one must never loose an opportunity to see that they be scattered liberally. It was clear Elvis was searching for answers, and who knows how many others may have found a glimmer of higher light because of him?

   It was no surprise, however, that Elvis, after his time of involvement with other spiritual teachings, with the troubles of life looming over him, turned back to the comfort of his childhood faith in Jesus, which he never truly left, near the end of his life:

   "Gospel singer J.D. Sumner recalls a woman approaching the stage in Vegas with a crown sitting atop a pillow and Elvis asking her what it was. She answered, "It's for you. You're the King." Elvis took her hand, smiled, and told her, "No honey, I'm not the King. Christ is the King. I'm just a singer."

   "In December 1976, Elvis requested that television evangelist Rex Humbard and his wife Maude Aimee meet with him backstage in Las Vegas in between sets. "Jesus is coming back really soon, isn't he, Rex?" Elvis said as he began quoting all kinds of Scriptures about the Second Coming. "It really shocked me that Elvis knew all of those Scriptures from the Old and New Testaments about the Lord's return," Humbard told me in an interview."

   "Elvis, Maude Aimee, Rex and J.D. Sumner were sequestered into a large closet in order to have some privacy and speak about spiritual matters. "I could see he was reaching back to his childhood when he used to play his guitar and go to church and sing church songs," recalled Humbard. "And I could see he was reaching back to the past - that spirituality, that feeling that he had years and years before that had been planted in his heart."

   "What really shook Elvis up during their time together was when Maude Aimee told Elvis about her prayer that he would become a "bell sheep" for God. As Elvis asked her about what that meant, she explained: "In the Holy Land, they put a bell on one sheep and when it moves all the rest of the flock moves with him. I have been praying for years for you, Elvis, that you would become a bell sheep. If you fully dedicated your life to God you could lead millions of people into the kingdom of the Lord." According to Humbard, "Elvis went all to pieces. He started crying. She shook him up by that statement."

   Elvis never became that bell-sheep, however, worrying that openly turning his heart over to Christ would alienate his audience. But he kept gospel songs and singers in his concerts, to the chagrin of Las Vegas management. Interestingly, although rock 'n' roll made him a legend, Elvis never took home a Grammy Award for his rock music. His three Grammys were for sacred songs: "He Touched Me" (1972) and "How Great Thou Art" (1967, 1974).

   Priscilla said that he nevertheless seriously tried to apply his studies, telling her:

   “We have to control our desires, so they don’t control us.”

   In one conversation with Geller, Elvis had stated:

   "All I want is to know the truth, to know and experience God. I'm a searcher, that's what I'm all about."

   Unexpected words from such a larger-than-life public image, but, then, one can never tell who is spiritually ripe or not, or what goes into the make-up of a man. While his life was caught short at age forty-two by the monkey-on-his-back of drug use, it was a fate he shared with so many men and women of destiny, whether in entertainment or spiritual teaching. What starts out small as an aid to quell pain turns into a demon that thwarts ones deepest heart's interests. One can only think of beautiful young Judy Garland, who gave people such happiness and joy, destroyed by a Hollywood system that exploited her with uppers and downers as a kid to stay awake working long hours, or Tibetan Buddhist Trungpa, who turned to alcoholism after a serious car accident, only to succumb to stomach cancer before the age of fifty. It wasn't just 'crazy wisdom', but alcoholism. My accupuncturist battled it for years and treated Trungpa at the time, saying that they even drank in his office together. No one said life or the quest was easy, and such characters often bear more of the pain of the world than others. Therefore we dare not to judge anyone, given life's twists and turns. Some say that on the last day of his life Elvis confessed that he was lost and prayed to the Lord to forgive him for his sins. If so, who can say if this might not have been a critical moment for him to assimilate all that he had learned along the way? For as Abbot Zenkei Shibayama of the Nanzenji Monastery in Kyoto, Japan, has said:

   "The first step in pursuing the way to religion is to “empty oneself.” But this “emptying oneself” does not mean, as ordinarily understood, merely to be humble in one’s thinking or to clean out all from the self-deceived mind so that it can accept anything. It has a much deeper and stronger meaning. One has to face the “ugliness and helplessness” of oneself, or of human life itself, and must confront deep contradictions and sufferings, which are called the “inevitable karma.” He has to look deep into his inner self, go beyond the last extremity of himself, and despair of himself as a “self which can by no means be saved.” “Emptying oneself” comes from this bitterest experience, from the abyss of desperation and agony, of throwing oneself down, body and soul, before the Absolute."

   "It is the keenness with which one realizes one’s helplessness and despairs of oneself, in other words, how deeply one plunges into one’s inner self and throws oneself away, which is the key to religion. “To be saved,” “to be enlightened,” or “to get the mind pacified” is not of primary importance. Shinran Shonin, who is respected as one of the greatest religious geniuses in Japan, once deplored, “I am unworthy of any consideration and am surely destined for hell!”...When one goes through this experience, for the first time the words of the great religious teachers are directly accepted with one’s whole heart and soul...”

   Elvis Aaron Presley won the world’s heart, helped many people, and whether one wants to call it a collective fantasy projection or not, he was - and still is - loved by many. To me that counts. To conclude by paraphrasing scripture, "we know not who is among our midst, and often we entertain angels unawares." (Hebrews 13:2)

   And one of his favorite passages:

   “Only when you drink from the river of silence shall you indeed sing. And when you have reached the mountain top, then you shall begin to climb. And when the earth shall claim your limbs, then shall you truly dance.” - Kahlil Gibran

   If I Can Dream


(I didn't realize I was writing this article during the commemoration of the thirty-fifth anniversary of Elvis' passing. Every year over 75,000 people from across the globe come to Graceland to pay their respects at this event. Elvis, R.I.P., brother)


Elvis quotes:

   “To judge a man by his weakest link or deed is like judging the power of the ocean by one wave.”

   “Money's meant to be spread around. The more happiness it helps create, the more it’s worth. It's worthless as old cut-up paper if it just lies in a bank and grows there without ever having been used to help a body.”

   “Truth is like the sun. You can shut it out for a time, but it ain’t goin’ away.”

1. Enjoy the really fun movie, “Elvis Meets Nixon.”
2. Moving accounts of Elvis and his friendship with James Brown, Sammy Davis Jr., Jackie Wilson, Muhammed Ali, and others.
3. The Voice of the Silence - to silence any sceptics - was praised in an early version by the Panchen Lama and a later one by the 14th Dalai Lama, and noted in 1927 by the famous D.T. Suzuki as “the real Mahayana Buddhism.”
4. Albert Goldman, Elvis (New York: McGraw-Hill, 1991), p. 364
5. Ibid, p.
6. Ibid, p. 365

For more on Elvis’ spiritual quest see If I Can Dream: Elvis’ Own Story, by Larry Geller, Spector and Romanowsky; also Leaves of Elvis’ Garden by Larry Geller

7. Priscilla Beau Presley and Sandra Harmon, Elvis and Me (New York: G.P. Putnam’s Sons, 1985), p. 204-205
8. Joe Espositio and Elena Oumano, Good Rockin Tonight (New York: Simon and Schuster, 1994), p.123
9. See here for an explanation of Brunton's teaching on mentalism.
10. Steve Beard, from "Defending Elvis", in Risen Magazine.
11. Abbot Zenkei Shibayama, A Flower Does Not Talk (Rutland, Vermont: The Charles E. Tuttle Company, Inc., 1970) p 172-173.