Dharma wheel with sgi colorsThis story was first published in my book, The Johari Mirror.  Many readers have asked me to post the account of my introduction to Buddhism.  This is the dramatic tale of a Bodhisattva’s advent.

Most people living as I write this remember or know by reference the gruesome serial case that grabbed the headlines in August of 1969.  The famous Tate/ La Bianca killings saw a houseful of movie stars and beautiful people slain in a ghoulish craze right in the middle of the Beverly Hills, at director Roman Polanski’s house.  Then, 3 days later, Rosemary and Leno LaBianca were killed by the same group of murdering marauders.  The killers left their moniker, “Helter Skelter”, the title of a Beatle’s song, written in their victims’ blood on the walls at both murder sites.

Most people living in Los Angeles at the time can remember exactly when they learned the news of the killings.  Joan Didion recorded in The White Album, that:

“Many people I know in Los Angeles believe that the Sixties ended abruptly on August 9, 1969, ended at the exact moment when word of the murders on Cielo Drive traveled like brushfire through the community…”

The world’s attention was riveted to the shocking tale.  The months following the killings revealed the strange story of a “family” of scruffy kids living communally at an old movie-set ranch in the Topanga hills.  The violent and evil underbelly of the “love generation” was luridly exposed.  The “social revolution” of free sex, rock music, drugs, and “freedom” – read anarchy – that had taken place all around the globe suddenly became dubious.

The murder story became a celebrated legal case as one of the most bizarre and terrifying “stranger than fiction” tales unfolded in the courtroom.  Still at large, Manson Family members carved swastikas into their foreheads and passed out leaflets in support of their satanic guru.  Charles Manson appeared on television in the courtroom with his newly carved swastika to bellow his protest at the “fascist pig state of America” and the “fascist justice” he was receiving from it.  Outbursts of this type from Mr. Manson and his devoted followers frequently interrupted the court proceedings.  President Nixon, always prescient, declared Manson guilty before the verdict, thus jeopardizing the trial.

Not many people know the real story of why and how this tragedy occurred.  It was enough to make anyone sick to learn about the weird cult of sex and violence erupting from the abandoned movie-set onto the real stage of headlines and murder trial.  Aside from its sensational aspect, not many really wanted to delve into the “reasons” for the bizarre murder spree.  The lurid aspects of the case, however, were irresistible

No one understood the case better than the prosecutor, Vincent Bugliosi.  District Attorney Bugliosi devoted body and soul to uncovering and building evidence to convict the criminal conspiracy of hippies and dropouts who slaughtered innocent people and painted blood on the walls.  “Helter Skelter” — the slogan borrowed from a Beatles song the “Family” imagined gave them instructions for instigating a race war — became watchword for terror, and a best-selling title.  The whole fantastical story of the impending chaos generated by unleashing a race war at Los Angeles’ shaky social foundations resonated with the terror of Hollywood’s vivid imagination.

Charles Manson, who was, in fact, absent at each of the murder sites and was never proven to have carried out the physical murder of anyone, became the caricature of evil.  His insane grin, the leering stereotype of a crazed Svengali with hypnotic power to manipulate others, became the very image of demonic insanity.  “Helter Skelter” was smeared on Sharon Tate’s walls in blood to proclaim the agenda of the Manson Family, the pawn-like players in one of history’s strange watershed transitions.  What was it all about?

Until now, no one has ever unveiled the true motive for the Tate/LaBianca killings despite massive and various reports on the event.  What was “Helter Skelter” really supposed to be anyway?  Were the Manson Family lunatics really so simple as to believe in their mission of creating a race war?  How could such a misguided murder spree have so radically changed the world’s thinking that it “abruptly ended” a decade of chaos, civil strife, war, and orgasmic expression.  This story has a very powerful integrity, a cosmic dimension.

In one of his last writings, Music for Chameleons, Truman Capote got the closest to the truth in his San Quentin interview with Manson Family pretty boy, Bobby Beausoleil.1  Capote describes Beausoleil as:

“…the real mystery figure of the Charles Manson cult; more to the point—and it’s a point that has never been clearly brought forth in accounts of that tribe – he is the key to the mystery of the homicidal escapades of the so-called Manson family, notably the Sharon Tate-LoBianco (sic) murders.”

Capote then spells out the mystery of the killings and how they began, but does not quite attain the truth:

“It all began with the murder of Gary Hinman, a middle aged professional musician who had befriended various members of the Manson brethren and who, unfortunately for him, lived alone in a small isolated house in Topanga Canyon, Los Angels County.  Hinman had been tied up and tortured for several days (among other indignities, one of his ears had been severed) before his throat had been mercifully and lastingly slashed.  When Hinman’s body, bloated and abuzz with August flies, was discovered, police found bloody graffiti on the walls of his modest house (“Death to Pigs!”) –graffiti similar to the sort soon to be found in the households of Sharon Tate and Mr. and Mrs. La Bianco

Bobby Beausoleil is serving a life sentence for the murder of Gary Hinman, the person who introduced me to Buddhism.  It was at Gary Hinman’s house that I met Bobby Beausoleil, Susan Atkins, and Mary Brunner who would, five months later, torture and kill Gary, setting off the chain of events that would live in infamy and change the world.

I met Gary Hinman while hitchhiking – something I never recommend but which circumstances forced me to at the time.  I had been in Big Sur for a long weekend, camping and hiking around, and was headed back to Occidental College on the East side of Los Angeles.  I was trying to find or free myself, one or the other, in the famous mountains, canyons, and beaches.

I’d gotten a fortunate long ride all the way from Salinas into Los Angeles, dropped off at the intersection of the San Diego (North-South) and Santa Monica (East-West) freeways.  I walked two blocks, stuck out my thumb, and immediately, by strange coincidence, appeared an orange VW minibus with Gary Hinman at the wheel.

His greeting as I got in was “What are you doing tonight?” and I reached for the door handle.

“I’m busy” was my gruff answer and I almost got out.

“Wait”, he implored, “ I just wanted to invite you to a discussion about Buddhism.”

In 1969, being a liberal arts student at Occidental College had made me aware of every trendy idea and philosophy.  My interest in Buddhism was not especially great.  I was agnostic, with an interested suspicion of all religions.  However, the popular culture had made me aware of certain interesting Buddhist ideas—karma and eternity and so on– so my curiosity was piqued.  Along with pot smoking, rock-n-roll reveling, and Vietnam War bewailing, the topics of Buddhism, feminism, environmentalism, and several other forgotten isms were enjoying their seminal popularity among the hip and fashionable way back in 1969.

So, for the promise of a free ride out to Eagle Rock on the other side of Los Angeles, I agreed to attend a “discussion” meeting on what I understood would be the topic of Buddhism.  Gary drove me to the suburb of North Hollywood that Sunday evening, March 9, 1969, for my introduction to what would become my choice of religion.

While driving, Gary introduced himself more politely.  He told me his ex-wife was a music instructor at Occidental, and that he earned his living as a music teacher.  He was quite reticent about Buddhism, encouraging me to “save questions for the meeting”, and this I found annoying.

When we got to the meeting-place, an awkward young man greeted us, stuttering and asking us to remove our shoes before entering.  We added ours to the rows and piles, a remarkable variety, of shoes in front of the door.

Inside, I heard the first sound of group chanting, “Nam Myo Ho Ren Ge Kyo, Nam Myo Ho Ren Ge Kyo, Nam Myo Ho Ren Ge Kyo”.  I witnessed a crowded living room of (mostly) young people facing an altar and reciting in unison.  The chanting aroused a strange resonance; and, despite the uncertainty of the circumstances, I took my seat comfortably and with a suddenly buoyant anticipation.  Was this Buddhism?

Any readers who may have encountered the Nichiren Buddhists of the Japanese lay society, Soka Gakkai, during those wild 1960’s days may agree with me that the overzealous and oversimplified presentation of Buddhism at their proselytizing “discussion meetings” were a bit much.  Over-the-top enthusiasm and zany, rambling testimonials were not at all what one envisions about the transcendental philosophy of Buddhism.  People usually regarded and conceived of Buddhism as a tranquil, priestly religion of monks in saffron robes, meditating…quietly.  This noisy affair jarred my preconceptions.

Nevertheless, I endured the camp songs sung by budding young girls, the over-sincere and sometimes hyperventilating testimonials, the insightful but generic wisdom of the meeting leader (who, I later learned, was a Hollywood PR man), and then the pressure to join, to “try it (the Buddhist practice of chanting)” to test the veracity of their zealous enthusiasms.  It was a regular tent-meeting pitch.

These “discussion meetings” were held in cities all across the US, and many people encountered them during those heady times.  They were even captured in a timeless piece of filmmaking called The Last Detail staring a promising young actor named Jack Nicholson.  In the movie, the three heroes attend a Buddhist “discussion meeting” in a New York apartment that is nearly identical to the one I attended in North Hollywood.  They come upon a kind of nurturing and conversion, and the criminal anti-hero of the film goes into the Navy brig chanting, “ Nam Myo Ho Ren Ge Kyo” in desperation.

I mention this only because the film keeps an important record of the beginnings of a penetrating American religious movement, one I was witness to in that first experience in a suburban living room.  This movement, believe it or not, has much to do with the subterranean conflict that provoked the Manson Family murders.

It is hard to describe, even to my own satisfaction, exactly why I was convinced to attempt this, to me, simplistic practice of Buddhism.  The young people I met at the meeting were not especially attractive or intelligent, nor was their message articulated with great understanding.  Moreover, the whole tone of the thing, with all the cliché’ religious hype, was off-putting — not my kind of thing.

There was, however, a certain indescribable animated happiness in that living room, not false or manufactured but innocent and genuine, as real as I had ever encountered.  Especially in contrast to the dismal academics and depressed rich kids at Occidental College, I found their attitude, corny as it was, refreshing and uplifting.  I decided to reward their hospitality and their urgings with a “commitment” to “try out the practice” for three months, and got my ride out to Eagle Rock.

On the way home, Gary Hinman informed me that he’d be taking me to a temple in Etiwanda, on the road out to San Bernardino, the next weekend for some kind of Buddhist initiation.  This was definitely what I did not want to hear, because my impression was that I could “try out” the chanting practice without committing any of my time and energy in further effort.  Also, I have always regarded priests with a healthy disdain, and wanted no part of priestcraft and temples.  Gary excused the inconvenience but insisted it was necessary, and invited me to his home in Topanga as a consolation.  I couldn’t refuse the ardent offer of friendship and hospitality, so I reluctantly agreed.  A few days later, Gary called to arrange our journey for the next Sunday, March 16.

The ceremony at the Etiwanda Buddhist temple was a bunch of exotic hocus-pocus as far as I was concerned.  After some mumblings in Japanese that were completely lost on me, I was given a scroll to enshrine and worship on my own.  I could not wait for this rigmarole to be over and I am still embarrassed about its esoteric weirdness.  However, this marked the beginning of a lifelong path that has taken me over many obstacles and adventures.  The first obstacle and adventure had to do with my sponsor, Gary Hinman, and the Manson Family.

After the ceremony, Gary drove me to his home in Topanga Canyon, distant from the downtown Los Angeles or Hollywood most people think of.  His place was an artist’s cottage, far along the Old Topanga Canyon Road that wound its way through a dry gorge of the Santa Monica Mountains.  His only neighbors were other isolated artists and hippies, and, of course, the Spahn movie ranch– once a bustling set for western movies, but now abandoned to the hippies and bikers that had taken it over as a commune.

When we arrived at his place, Gary was surprised to notice a stripped-down Volkswagen bug parked in the driveway.  When we climbed up the steep stairway leading to Gary’s cottage, we were surprised by three uninvited guests waiting outside his house.  These three, I learned later, were Bobby Beausoleil, Susan Atkins, and Mary Brunner, the latter was the original “family” member and mother of Charles Manson’s child.

A heated discussion ensued, and I stood at a distance to watch.  It seemed these three were accusing Gary of something as he, rightfully, chastised them for being at his home in his absence.  It was quite a weird scene and, not being privy to the details, I felt uncomfortable about watching a fight.

Gary informed me later that the three unwanted visitors were part of a larger group living in a ‘commune’ down the road.  This gang had been extorting things – food, cars, money – from his isolated neighborhood in the name of “peace and love”.  These freeloading “flower children” were especially interested in his VW minibus, and had somehow concluded that he “owed” it to them.  That’s what the heated discussion was all about.

Gary then told me a strange story about a charismatic commune leader called “Charlie” who had stayed with him at one time, right after Gary had begun his Buddhist practice.  It seemed that Charlie was interested in Buddhism, and so were some of his followers at the ranch.  They were curious about power and  “performing magic spells” and, Gary said, Charlie had a penchant for fear, liked people being afraid around him, and manipulated people through fear — even threatening murder.

Gary waged a campaign in the neighborhood to end the commune’s constant panhandling, going through garbage cans, expecting handouts and outright gifts of things like cars and clothes, and otherwise demanding that the community accept their “everything belongs to everyone” attitude.  According to Gary, they were quite criminal in their behavior, and he was trying to get people to stop supporting them with extorted guilty gifts.

He also told me that there was an underlying religious conflict, because he was a Buddhist.  Gary believed in the dignity of human life.  He aspired to the benevolent good that comes from following the Bodhisattva path and changing one’s destiny.  He believed in himself as showing the first spark of enlightenment to a benighted world.  It may seem strange to say, but it was because of this belief he was ardently opposed by the Manson Family.  Manson, Gary explained, believed that human lives were expendable, a means to some end, probably an evil one. It was far remote from my understanding; but when we visited and spoke with one of his neighbors, I got a clearer understanding of what Gary was up against.

Gary and his neighbor were discussing the ongoing problem of the commune at the Spahn ranch, and the neighbor let me know that Charlie’s “family” had threatened to burn Gary’s house down and destroy him as part of their apocalyptic fantasy.  The neighbor said he’d been to some sort of shindig at their place, and it was really spooky – lots of bikers doing weird stuff, everyone “f——g each other and taking acid all day long”, guns, and black magic orgies going all night.  He said that Charlie had been ranting something about Gary Hinman getting “chopped”.  I had the distinct impression that Gary was confronting some very dark evil. Considering the way things turned out, my impression was an omen.

Here is an excerpt from Vincent Bugliosi’s book, Helter Skelter, which evokes the insanity of the Manson ‘family’.  The speaker is ‘family’ co-conspirator, Paul Watkins:

“Charlie was always “selling fear.”  He wanted people to be afraid, and the more afraid the better.  Using this same logic, Charlie said that death was beautiful, because people feared death.”2

To illustrate the conflict between the two, contrast the above with a passage from Gary Hinman’s volume of the Lotus Sutra:

“What these persons preach

is in all cases the Law of former Buddhas,

and because they expound this Law

they have no fear before the assembly…

While these persons uphold this sutra

They will dwell safely on rare ground, by all living beings

Delighted in, loved and respected.”3

That summer, I worked on an experimental farm run by the University of Maryland, and otherwise started living a more focused existence.  I began attending the local Buddhist meetings in Washington DC, and starting feeling hopeful about life in a way I hadn’t before.  Watching the first men on the moon that summer of 1969, I felt a kinship and pride in my country, and hope for its future in spite of the Vietnam War, Dick Nixon, and the Manson Murders.  All the attenuating benightedness that had alienated me before seemed remote and transient beside my newfound interest in Buddhism.

At the end of the summer, I went back to Los Angeles to re-enroll at Occidental College.  This was about two weeks after the Tate-La Bianca killings had made headlines.  In Washington, D.C., people warned me about returning to California, which now seemed, to them, hopelessly and murderously anarchistic.

When I got back to LA, one of the first things I did was look up the local Buddhist members.  It wasn’t hard to find them; the headquarters of the group was right on the beach in Santa Monica, and there were many young people, all converts like me, to get in touch with.  Of course, I wanted to reconnect with Gary Hinman.  When I asked about him, I got the weirdest looks and reluctant non-responses.

When I finally got to pose the question directly, I got the surprise answer of my life.  “He’s dead”.  Just that bluntly, the ‘leader’ answering my innocent inquiry squirmed with the difficult truth.

“They don’t know much about it except some guy was picked up just the other day driving his minibus”, was all the detail I could coerce.  It was all anyone knew at the time.

This forced me into a faith crisis.  What happened, I asked myself, to ‘They will dwell safely on rare ground’ in a religion that was supposed to offer compassion and security.  Weren’t good things supposed to happen to Buddhists?  How could it be that my first connection to this new religion, my sponsor in Buddhism, had been murdered?  Suddenly every doubt and apprehension I had felt about these Buddhists all along came vividly to life.

“The truth is, people die all the time”, the leader condescendingly offered.

“Right”, I countered, “but people aren’t brutally murdered all the time”.  I remember walking out onto the Santa Monica beach in shock.  I went home that night a deeply shaken young man.

I couldn’t get very far with my doubtful reasoning.  The facts of the Hinman case were not yet well known (this being not one month after the Tate/La Bianca headlines), and no one had yet linked Gary’s murder to the Manson family.  Bobby Beausoleil had been apprehended driving Gary’s mini-bus, but no one had put two and two together to implicate Bobby’s “family” of scruffy cons and misfits in the sensational murders.  Instead, the L.A. District Attorney’s office prepared to blow Bobby’s first trial for lack of evidence and a reliable witness.

I was in torment.  How could such a thing be rightful?  Of course, it is always astonishing when we face death.  It’s such an irrational blow, something that strikes us below the level of awareness and shatters all our presumptions.  In this case, my fragile new belief was shaken to the core.  I resolved to chant through that night until I felt resolved, or quit and never think about it again.

After about three hours of chanting, from either fatigue or inspiration, I realized a different kind of awareness about this matter.  These are diary entries of that night:

“If Gary’s death was so brutal and unexpected, did it also have some kind of meaning?  If his brief life was cut short by cruelty, did that sacrifice have some greater import?  Could this tragedy have significance beyond my current understanding?”

These questions kept arising and pressing and, of course, they had no immediate answer.  I felt sure, however, at the end of my vigil, that they would be answered, if only by me and for my own enlightenment.

The ensuing months brought the world spectacle of the Manson murder trials.  Since celebrity murder trials, with their attenuating media frenzy and legal speculation, have now become such a part of our culture, we are benumbed by them.  However, in 1969 this was not yet the case, and the exhibition of the Manson Family under examination in a Los Angeles courtroom was salaciously irresistible.

Television carried the bizarre story, along with the strange images of the demonic, swastika-branded Charlie and his brainwashed followers, to every corner of the world.  The story of the movie actress, Sharon Tate, and her housemates ferociously butchered by the “love children” was powerful television — as were the bloody assassination photos of the wealthy La Biancas.  Gary Hinman’s story got lost in the shuffle – another peripheral casualty of the nasty “family” and the insanity of the time.

Bobby Beausoleil’s first trial ended in a hung jury, only eight out of twelve jurors voted guilty, and the judge declared a mistrial.  That’s when Vincent Bugliosi was assigned to the case, as an adjunct to his investigation of the Manson Family and the Tate-La Bianca murders.

Prosecutor Bugliosi  — to build a case and convict the Manson family — was driven as an avenging demon.  He slept on a cot in his office during the trial, endured death threats from Manson himself in the courtroom and from the crazed “family” members still at large, and worked in complete selfless devotion day and night to bring a conviction.  Of course, the courtroom antics of Charles Manson and his supporters did a lot to convince the jurors they were dangerous; but the legal case against Manson was fragile and built on the conflicting testimony of witnesses, like Susan Atkins, without integrity.

For example, Susan Atkins originally said that she had stabbed Gary Hinman while Bobby held him down.  Later she changed her story to say that Bobby had killed Hinman on his own.  Beausoleil accused Charles Manson of Hinman’s murder, testifying at his own trial that he was just a witness and accomplice, and that Manson had done the stabbing.  Mary Brunner turned prosecution witness and testified that Bobby Beausoleil did the killing, thus sealing his fate, but doubts remain about the veracity of any of their testimony.  It was a bizarre circle of accusation and denial.

Susan Atkins, one of the two girls I had met that day at Gary’s Topanga Canyon house, was the prosecution’s star witness, although she could hardly be counted as trustworthy or favoring the prosecution.  Her incredible story, modified and even changed completely under cross-examination, convicted Charles Manson and several of his followers and sent them to jail.  Other “family” members, especially Mary Brunner, came forward with their own versions corroborating the gruesome Hinman murder, but it was Susan Atkins who initially spilled the story, inadvertently, to a jailhouse snitch.  It was her rambling, ambiguous memory of the Hinman murder that unlocked the rest of her secrets of carnage.

According to Atkins, she and Bobby Beausoleil had come back to Gary Hinman’s house one night to convince Gary to give up the pink-slip registration for his VW minibus and some cash they knew he had been saving up.  Gary resisted vehemently, increasingly antagonistic to his unwelcome guests.  He told them he did not have the cash anymore and would under no circumstances turn over his bus to them.  He ordered them to leave, which they would not do for nearly three days.

Bobby Beausoleil finally picked up the telephone and called Charles Manson, saying, according to Atkins, “Gary’s not cooperating, what should we do now?”  This was one of several calls that Beausoleil made asking for instructions.  Manson decided to intervene personally.

Charlie Manson arrived at the Hinman house carrying a war-surplus samurai sword, a regular cutlass.  The ensuing argument did not persuade Gary or soften his antagonism.  Manson, in an act of bravado, drew out the long sharp blade of the sword and sliced off Hinman’s ear.

This was crossing the Rubicon for Charles Manson, the point of no return.  This cruel event, more than any other, started the chain of mishaps and blood frenzy that led to the famous homicides and trial.  This strange and unwarranted persecution with a Japanese sword, upon a gentle Buddhist musician, is the seed of what became known as the Manson Family murders.  It evokes, quite clearly, the ancient admonitions of the Lotus Sutra that its votaries and emissaries, the Bodhisattvas of the Earth foretold, will be “persecuted with swords and staves”4, even in modern times.

The rest of this part of the story is gruesome and tedious.  Gary survived the attack that sliced off his ear, but an attempt by Susan Atkins to sew the ear back on was futile.  There was now blood everywhere, and an obvious case of aggravated assault with a deadly weapon.  The torture continued another two nights.

At some point Bobby Beausoleil called Manson to ask for instructions again.  Manson reportedly said,  “You know what to do”.  Bobby then attacked my friend with a knife, stabbing him dozens of times until his airways filled with blood and he suffocated.  The murderers, in frenzy, took up Gary’s blood and painted “Political Piggy”, “Death to Pigs”, and “Helter Skelter” on the walls of his house.  Beausoleil actually returned to the scene and tried, ineptly, to wipe his fingerprints from the bloodstained walls.  He left the body to be discovered by three of my future Buddhist friends a week later.

The police started looking for Gary’s orange VW microbus, and found Bobby Beausoleil driving it in Van Nuys.  He said Gary gave it to him, but had forgotten to sign the pink slip registration transfer.  Living in jail, Beausoleil may have concocted the plot to create copycat murders.  To convince the police that Bobby couldn’t really be guilty because another serial murderer was at large, his “family” went on a homicidal rampage and left bloody clues, on purpose, for the cops to misinterpret.  Ironically, but understandably, the LA police never made this choreographed connection between the Hinman and Tate/LaBianca murders until they learned it from Susan Atkins.

Almost two months later, Charles Manson and his “family” were rounded up in the Mojave Desert, about 200 miles from Los Angeles, by Sheriff’s Deputies.  It was while in custody of the Sheriffs that Susan Atkins spilled the beans about Gary Hinman’s murder, and suggested involvement of her “family” in the now-famous Sharon Tate murder.

The investigating Sheriffs found, among Manson’s possessions, a huge cache of arms, including a submachine gun, and a now-broken samurai sword.  Under forensic analysis, the sword yielded a match for the blood of Gary Hinman.  This sword, because it provided the requisite physical evidence to convict him of complicity in murder, is why Charles Manson resides in prison today and for the rest of his days.  The microscopic bits of Bodhisattva blood are the offending evidence of Manson’s great crime.

The insane gaze of Charles Manson is now an icon of evil in our culture.  A representation of the beast, a savage satanic leer — the familiar glare has been parlayed into innumerable news stories and commentaries about the evil that lurks in men’s minds.

Some have exploited the image of this sad criminal loser — often with the swastika carved into his forehead — to titillate vast followings of adolescent rage.  Often the brainwashed consumers who buy Charlie Manson’s psychotic portrait know nothing of him or the real evil he represents. Recently, it was revealed that the two adolescent gunmen in the Columbine High-School massacre were adherents of the “Helter Skelter” doctrine of redemption through cataclysm — they worshiped Manson the way his moronic ‘family’ did.

Gary Hinman is forgotten.  Except as a footnote to this famous murder story, Gary Hinman lived and died anonymously.  Because he was well known as a Buddhist, the FBI investigated the meeting-place where Gary took me that first time to see if there may have been a larger conspiracy.  There was, in a sense, a larger conspiracy of Buddhists.

Back in 1969 it would have been difficult to foresee that the overzealous youngsters in that North Hollywood living room would help launch a global spiritual movement, Soka Gakkai International; one that today includes millions of members in 192 countries, a university to kindergarten education system (Soka schools), a renowned cultural component, and a global political lobby.  The Buddhist movement Gary helped to pioneer, and the belief he died with, lives today as a worldwide religious phenomenon.

Gary was actively involved in a Buddhist conspiracy to declare the absolute dignity of human life, to engage people of diverse lands and cultures with hope, and to inspire them to act in solidarity with others.  It was a conspiracy against the mindless life-degrading violence that afflicts us all, that afflicted Gary Hinman to death; and that unites us as human beings in rejection of war, “Helter Skelter”, criminal collusion, the exploitation of innocence, and the bestial insanity of Charles Manson and his ‘Doctrine of Fear’.

I remember Gary Hinman every day in appreciation.  I still treasure the Lotus Sutra book he gave me that day.  I know that my appreciation for his self-sacrifice makes his shortened life infinitely valuable, eternally significant.


My strange connection with the Manson family did not end with Charlie’s conviction and the incarceration of his ‘family’.  Coincidentally, over the ensuing years I became close friends with all three of the young men who found Gary Hinman’s body, and heard them recall the incident many times.  Years afterward and quite separately, I became good friends with a Los Angeles real estate broker who took me to lunch one day at his home.  While driving up to his house on Cielo drive in Coldwater Canyon, he pointed to the gate of his neighbor and said, “that’s the famous Sharon Tate murder house, and I’m the one who discovered the bodies”.

Several members of the Manson family still reside in various California prisons.  Although sentenced to death, they were spared when California abolished the death penalty for a brief time in the 1970’s, and their sentences were commuted.  Bobby Beausoleil, Susan Atkins, and Charles Manson are serving sentences with parole essentially denied them for life.  Manson himself, while an inmate at a facility for the criminally insane, had a run-in with a former member of the “Hare-Krishna” sect who, to repay Charlie’s taunts about his chanting, set him on fire.  Manson, now hideously burned over eighty percent of his body, continued to declare himself innocent of all charges, the victim of the “fascist” government, and an unrepentant product of “the system”, until his celebrated death in 2017.

22 thoughts on “How I Met Buddha; The Untold Story of the Manson Family Murders

  1. Thank you so much for posting this meaningful story. Last year around this time while reading something about the Manson murders, I discovered that Gary Hinman was a Nichiren Buddhist. Being a Nichiren Buddhist myself for over a decade I felt extremely disheartened and shocked. It disturbed me deeply to learn of his untimely demise especially at reading stories of him dying while chanting and holding his prayer beads. I too felt as you did in your story with feelings of shock and disappointment in the practice and members telling us of this “protection” we have when we chant. I kept thinking, “Where was his protection at that time?” I was also in a very dark time in my practice. Learning about Gary being tortured and killed just solidified my doubt, but I got guidance and felt there must be a deeper reason somewhere to somehow make sense of such a horrible event. I know people come into this life with their own karma and life lessons they are to learn with others. It’s all part of a bigger story, maybe too Mystic at times to comprehend. You writing about your story helped put that together for me. Thank you for sharing this and enlightening me and hopefully many others on the deeper and more profound meanings life can have, and how we can see them more clearly through our Buddhist practice.

    1. Thanks so much for taking the time and feeling to read and comment on the story. I’m so happy that you found a profound meaning in this story. The beginning days of the struggle to introduce Buddhism in America were a battle, but not entirely different than the struggle we face today – and fraught with dangers. Gary’s life was truly heroic in the Buddhist sense.
      You might like to know that I’m a 45 year leader of our movement, having pioneered Buddhism in 11 geographic locations, and having met literally tens of thousands of aspirants on our path of human solidarity.
      The development of Nichiren Buddhism in America we see today was unimaginable in Gary’s lifetime, but realized in mine, the one he introduced to the path of SGI.
      Thanks once again for sharing your feeling.

      1. My folks joined in 1970, and we received Gohonzen and Gojikai at Etiwanda Temple.
        My mother says people were still talking about Gary Hinman because it was such a shock, and of course everyone knew each other in those pioneer days.

        I am a member too of course. This practice is deep, life affirming, and powerful.
        Thank you too for remembering Mr. Hinman.

      2. Thanks to all for your kind words. I’m happy to reintroduce the memory of Gary Hinman and remind others of the life-and-death struggle involved in introducing Nichiren Buddhism to this troubled world.

  2. Hi Jim, I’m a journalist working on a story and would like to be able to tell Gary Hinman’s story better than it’s been told. Would you get in touch? Thanks.

    1. I’m very happy that someone is interested in telling Gary Hinman’s story. Please tell me how you would like to be in touch and I will oblige.

      Thanks for your interest and inquiry.

  3. I’d have to check with you here. Which is not something I usually do! I enjoy reading a post that will make people think. Also, thanks for allowing me to comment!

  4. Very interesting account. Were you ever interviewed by investigators from the police or prosecutor’s office?

    1. I was never interviewed by police or investigators. However, my friends who found Gary’s body testified at the Manson trial..

      1. –Do you know if Gary ever went to the police or sheriff about the threats he was receiving from the Manson clan?

        –Do you know if Gary ever had someone living with him by the name of Jon Hyden Marsh (he was an AWOL marine at the time) in the summer of ’69?

        –Were you ever questioned by investigators after Gary’s murder? If so, did you tell him about the threats Gary was receiving?

        –Do you know if Gary ever had contact with black militants while he was at UCLA?
        Was he sympathetic to their cause?

        –How did Gary afford that house on his part-time music teacher’s salary?

      2. –Do you know if Gary ever went to the police or sheriff about the threats he was receiving from the Manson clan?

        No, I don’t know.

        –Do you know if Gary ever had someone living with him by the name of Jon Hyden Marsh (he was an AWOL marine at the time) in the summer of ’69?
        No, I don’t know.
        –Were you ever questioned by investigators after Gary’s murder? No, I was never questioned. My friends were though, and testified at the trial.

        –Do you know if Gary ever had contact with black militants while he was at UCLA?
        Was he sympathetic to their cause?
        No, I don’t know. I would find this improbable.

        –How did Gary afford that house on his part-time music teacher’s salary? I don’t know anything about his assets or salary.

      3. Thanks for replying, Buddhajim.

        “–Do you know if Gary ever had contact with black militants while he was at UCLA? Was he sympathetic to their cause?
        No, I don’t know. I would find this improbable”

        It should be noted that a newsletter called “The Maotist” was in Gary’s mailbox at the time of his death. So he appears to have been sympathetic to leftist causes. I have always wondered why Gary finally left UCLA before
        he got his degree after so many years studying there.

    1. Thanks for your kind words and attention. That house in North Hollywood is forever in my memory.

  5. Very nice post. I just stumbled upon your weblog and wished to say that I’ve truly enjoyed surfing around your blog posts. After all I will be subscribing to your feed and I hope you write again very soon!|

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