Saturday Night: Is this a wise investment?

Eight hundred people sit in the cavernous sanctity of the Union Chapel, a neo-Gothic church in Islington, waiting for answers.

Most are white, middle-aged, and middle-class: teachers, healers, secretaries, students and social workers, a caucus of faded hippies, some obvious church-goers, a few mothers with pre-pubescent children. Those who have driven up to London are distinguished by home-knitted sweaters, oddly shaped shoes and radiant smiles. They smile at anything, everyone, nothing in particular.

Tonight there will be no Methodism, though perhaps some madness. We have gathered to peer into the eyes of a psychedelic saint, a contemporary of Ginsberg and Leary, a man who scrambled up the mountain of truth and returned with stone tablets. Tonight he will hold them up to us. But will the inscription be legible?

A typist's chair stands before the altar. We watch as a bulky, snowy-haired, 63-year-old Californian perches on it and tucks himself into the half-lotus position. From a red nylon rucksack he plucks a tiny golden Buddha, and places it on the table beside him. He inhales and smiles - at the people, at the ceiling, at the vast space between the two. We all smile back.

'My name is Ram Dass,' he says. 'That means 'servant of God'.' The audience stiffens: this is not what we have paid to hear. 'Actually,' he continues, 'Ram is an acronym. It stands for 'Rent-A-Mouth'. (Ripple of laughter.)

'That's what I do, I rent my mouth out. People ask me if all those psychedelic drugs affected my brain. I say, 'Well, I'm probably psychotic. But you're paying to hear me talk.' ' He shrugs, with comic timing that might have been honed on the Borscht Belt. Sixty seconds in, and we're eating out of his chunky, freckled hands.

Ram Dass was once Dr Richard Alpert, a Jewish wunderkind proto-preppy of 30 years, professor of psychology at Harvard University and director of its Laboratory of Human Development. In March 1961, with his colleague Timothy Leary and others, he ingested psylocibin, the active psychedelic ingredient in so-called 'magic' mushrooms. It changed his life, thrusting him on to a mystical path. He and Leary started a research programme into states of altered consciousness, using psylocibin and LSD-25. As well as administering these drugs to clergymen, students, convicts and friends, Alpert took them himself, more than 200 times.

In 1967, discontented with chemical-induced satori, Alpert went to India in search of enlightenment. He returned a year later as Ram Dass, student of Karma Yoga, a curious mixture of Hindu theology and Buddhist philosophy, which he propounded in books such as Be Here Now and The Only Dance There Is. His guru, whom he worshipped, loomed large in these anecdotal books.

In Be Here Now he relates how this guru questioned him about LSD. Eager to please, he gave his spiritual teacher three tablets, and watched in horror as he swallowed the lot. 'I was around him all morning,' wrote Ram Dass, breathless with awe, 'and nothing happened . . .'

Though once considered an instrument of the Antichrist, Ram Dass is now a bastion of respectability. Told by his guru that he would achieve enlightenment only if he devoted his life to the service of others ('This was not what I had travelled half-way around the world to hear'), he established charities and devoted himself to an endless list of good causes: Aids, Third World health programmes, prison education, care for the sick, elderly and bereaved. He is big on caring: his best-selling titles (more than 3 million units sold) include How Can I Help and Compassion in Action.

But like Richard Alpert in 1967, most of us will get around to do-gooding once we have sorted out No 1. We are still smiling, but we have paid pounds 12 to be here now, and we want the first instalment of our self-improvement course, pronto. Sure enough, after 90 minutes of kosher wit and home-spun wisdom, Ram Dass finally delivers the goods: his five-point guide to enlightened living. Across the room, ballpoints hover over notepads.

'One: prolong not the past. Two: invite not the future. Three: don't alter your innate wakefulness - rest in awareness. Four: don't fear appearances. Five: there is nothing more than that.'

A fairly routine Q & A session follows, until, out of the darkness, a young American woman in the eighth row throws the saintly ex-freak a looping curve ball.

She knows all about the importance of 'letting go', of surrendering our grip on life, and living in uncertainty. She understands that we must give up struggle, and rest in luminous awareness.

But she has a potentially fatal form of cancer, which may erupt again at any time. If it does, how can she let go, when instinct urges her to fight furiously? How can she surrender the will to live, and live? You can hear the audience thinking: let's see you dance your way out of this one, Ram baby.

A long, mellifluous answer follows, about transcending dualism, overcoming polarities, and so on. He quotes a line from the Tao Te Ching: 'Do nothing, and nothing will be left undone.' It seems that she should struggle like hell, yet never identify with the struggle; stare death in the face, and acknowledge fear without being consumed by it. He thanks her for sharing her pain, for giving him 'something real to work with'.

Afterwards, people queue to thank Ram Dass. He hugs them each and every one. I seek out the woman, a healthy-looking, tanned and attractive 34-year- old, and ask if his answer had helped. 'Yes,' she says, her voice faltering slightly. 'Facing death, acknowledging it, is just a part of life.' And with that, she reaches out to hug me.

In that split second I recognise fear, shame and panic in my heart. Fear of embracing a 'dying' person; the shame of that fear; the panic of unrehearsed intimacy. But as I relax into her warm embrace and smell the soap on her skin, I notice she is no more dead than I am. My terror dissolves. We smile, and she thanks me for my concern. I realise I have an answer to a question I never dreamt of asking.

I look around and see Ram Dass, still hugging people like his life depended on it.