column from the Christian Research Journal, Spring 1993, page 5. The Editor-in-Chief of the Christian Research Journal is Elliot Miller.
Zen Master Rama: Cosmic Con Artist?
Seen any flyers on your local college campus for "Free Meditation Workshops" lately? Ex-participants warn that behind these innocuous ads from "The American Buddhist Society" is a bizarre and sinister cult that promises bliss but delivers devastation.
The leader of this cult -- "Zen Master Rama," a.k.a. Dr. Frederick P. Lenz -- calls himself a meditation teacher chosen by the universal consciousness to guide his students through powerful interdimensional vortexes while preparing them to earn millions of dollars through high-tech careers. Critics allege, however, that "Rama" has left a trail of mind control, drugs, sexual abuse, suicides, kidnapping, and unexplained disappearances in his wake.
Lenz is now employing blind ads and flyers promising "Free Meditation Workshops" to recruit new disciples in New York and California. Ex-members say that followers who run the workshops conceal the guru's identity from new students until they are considered ready for "more advanced teachings." Disciples allegedly separate the audiences that gather for the workshops into two groups: those in their twenties who have the potential to earn big money -- and everyone else.
Lenz's early career and chameleon-like character are outlined in the writings of American religions scholar J. Gordon Melton. Lenz was born in San Diego in 1950. While pursuing M.A. and Ph.D. degrees (the latter in English literature) from the State University of New York in the 1970s, he became a disciple of the Indian guru Sri Chinmoy. Receiving the name "Atmananda," he went on to teach yoga in New York and Europe.
According to sources once close to Chinmoy, however, the guru's local leaders considered Lenz so arrogant that they sent him to Southern California to open a small laundromat and learn humility. He began a Chinmoy meditation center in San Diego in 1980 but soon rebelled, taking a number of Chinmoy's followers with him and claiming that he, not Chinmoy, was the true "Enlightened One."
Around 1980 Lenz established his own organization -- Lakshmi, named after the Hindu goddess of fortune -- and set up headquarters in Los Angeles. Lenz's followers organized meditation seminars in swank hotels with expensive buffets fit for visiting heads of state, earning the nickname "The Rolex Gang" from hotel caterers.
Psychic Phenomena? In his Encyclopedia of American Religions Melton writes that "during the early years of [Lenz's] work in California, his students began to report a number of extraordinary experiences. According to the reports, Lenz would levitate, disappear completely, and/or radiate intense beams of light during group meditations. Soon after these reported experiences, at a gathering of approximately 100 students, Lenz announced that eternity had given him a new name, 'Rama.'" Melton adds that "while Rama makes no claim to be the same conscious entity as the historic Rama" of Hinduism, "he does claim to be the embodiment of the 'particular octave of celestial light which was once incarnated as Rama'" and the ninth incarnation of the Hindu deity Vishnu. (Lenz has also distributed a resume of supposed earlier incarnations with such entries as "1602-1671 -- Zen Master, Kyoto, Japan" and "1725-1804 -- Master of Monastery, Tibet.")
By 1985 Lakshmi had some 800 full-time students, with branches in San Diego, San Francisco, and Boston, and slick advertising in national New Age periodicals. In that same year, however, Lenz closed Lakshmi and incorporated Rama Seminars. He reformulated his basic program in 1986 and assumed the name "Zen Master Rama." In the 1990s he has used the name "American Buddhist Society" in his activities.
Lenz calls his hybrid religious philosophy "Tantric Zen." The New Age Encyclopedia says that Lenz's "Tantric Zen is described as a formless Zen, closely related to Chan (the original Chinese form of Zen) and similar to Tibetan Vajrayana Buddhism" -- but unlike that taught in modern Japanese Zen centers.
Claims of Coercion. Former followers claim that selected students are offered a "private" meditation meeting with "Rama," and are then indoctrinated with Eastern philosophy and persuaded that Lenz is deity (a process that can require several meetings or several months). When the student accepts Lenz as the "Enlightened One," he or she is directed to attend frequent seminars, costing thousands of dollars. Then the guru's surrogates pressure the new disciple to conform -- often under the threat of expulsion from the organization, or of possession by demonic entities ready to pounce on any student who rejects "Rama." (Lenz requires his students to place furry stuffed toys, called "Blisses," strategically around their homes to ward off evil spirits -- charging them up to hundreds of dollars per "bliss.")
Ex-members tell of being coerced into paying upwards of $6,000 per month for Lenz's computer courses, which are given by his Delaware-based, for-profit "Advanced Systems, Inc." According to recent estimates by critics, over 300 "inner-circle" students give practically everything they earn to Lenz, who made in excess of $15 million in 1992, enabling him to maintain a fleet of luxury cars, plus mansions in Long Island, New York; Tesuque, New Mexico; and Malibu, California.
Lenz's opponents say that his followers, who are mostly in high-paying computer-related jobs, lease their cars and apartments, own no furniture, sleep on mats, and spend every free moment working on a national computer link-up program for their guru. And they do all this while subsisting on candy bars and two to three hours of sleep per night.
Ex-members reveal that all of Lenz's "inner circle" devotees -- who meditate for hours before his picture -- are told to divorce themselves from all relationships with anyone but each other and Lenz. The guru's disciples can only be reached through mail drops and telephone voice mail systems. Even Lenz's public relations director, Lisa Lewinson, and her company, "Northstar Consulting Services, Inc.," have only a mail drop and voice mail to communicate with. This is the case for all of Lenz's corporations, including The American Buddhist Society, Advanced Systems, Infinity Plus Counseling, National Personal and Professional Development Center, Vishnu Systems, Rama Seminars, Inc., Lakshmi Distributing, New Light Productions, and Zazen Music, Inc. (Lenz's own record label).
While no warrants had been issued for the guru's arrest as of March 1993, the Journal has learned of two open investigations into Lenz and his enterprises -- one by the FBI and the other by the Criminal Investigation Division of the IRS. Further, assorted criminal complaints have been filed with the Suffolk County, New York district attorney and with police agencies in White Plains, Seatauket, Hawthorne, and East Farmingdale, New York; Millersville, Maryland; and Santa Fe, New Mexico.
Horror Stories. In 1987 the press began reporting a rising tide of claims against Lenz by former followers. One such person was 36-year-old Annie Eastwood, who was utterly swept away by the curly haired guru when she first met him in 1982. He invited her to his Malibu home (rented from Goldie Hawn for $6,000 per month) to meditate with him personally. But her bliss quickly became a nightmare.
Eastwood claims that Lenz "worked on me for hours, took me on a tour of his mansion, and then locked me in a bedroom, pulled out a gun, and forced me to have sex." Although she continued in the group for some time after the incident, Eastwood says that the closer she got to Lenz, the more abusive he became.
Eastwood charges that some of Lenz's inner-circle followers worked day and night, subsisting on coffee and cookies. "Rama would sometimes call us at 2:00 or 4:00 in the morning, and we'd all pile into cars and meet him. He'd yell at us about what slow, lazy wimps we were, and that we were weak and not good enough."
Eastwood is far from alone in accusing Lenz of sexual seduction, manipulation, and strongarm tactics. Mercedes Hughes, a follower of Lenz from 1987 to 1988, told an interviewer on CNBC that the guru urged her to leave her boyfriend, then tricked and seduced her. "He told me that having sex with him would empower me and that I would spiritually progress at a faster rate." She alleged that one of her new job duties, as his follower, "would include making him feel good after seminars -- and that sex was the main way."
At first Hughes bought in to the seduction, but things got strange. She recalled Lenz ordering her to his house so they could expel demons from it. Hughes even laughed while describing Lenz on LSD, clad in bright yellow rain gear and grabbing at devils that looked "like water" and standing on a stepladder to clean them off the ceiling. "He told me to shoot light down my arm to kill them. He said that they hate light and die." "It wasn't funny then," Hughes said.
Other ex-Lenz disciples aren't laughing, and the list of his devastated and burned-out ex-followers is long. Among the victims listed in press reports and depositions:
- Nancy Knupfer, 43, once a successful East Coast banking executive, gave thousands to Lenz, only to end up destitute, presently undergoing intense psychiatric therapy.
- Mark Laxer, a 17-year-old high school student, claims that Lenz held him down and forced him to take LSD after he said he wanted to leave the group.
- Jack Kukulan gave Lenz hundreds of thousands of dollars through the "Foundation for Enlightenment" -- reportedly set up as a front to channel money to Lenz -- and was found dead on his yoga mat at age 39 of an apparent morphine overdose. Lenz was reportedly a major beneficiary of Kukulan's estate. (Ex-disciples claim that after Kukulan's death, Lenz told a group of followers that his closest students were black witches who had killed Kukulan with their occultic powers.)
- Donald Kohl, a devoted Lenz follower, was so pressured into giving his earnings to Lenz that he committed suicide in 1984 because he "displeased Rama." Kohl left a note for Lenz saying, "See you next time, Rama."
- Brenda K. Kerber's parents suspect that she suffered a mental breakdown after struggling to pay thousands to Lenz for his classes, and they fear she was abducted, murdered, or committed suicide due to the unyielding mind control Lenz allegedly used on her. (The FBI is investigating her 1989 disappearance.)
Former followers assert that a favorite Lenz teaching was that "the best way to die is at the feet of one who is enlightened." According to Mark Laxer, Lenz used to promise his disciples that "someday we may go out to the desert and never come back."
Organized Opposition. Leading the fight against the guru is Lenz Watch, a tightly knit, West Coast-based group of parents whose sons and daughters have fallen under Lenz's sway. Though colleges and universities welcomed Lenz and his followers in the past, a number of schools (including USC, Stanford, and the ultra-liberal University of California Berkeley) and libraries have now banned his group from conducting introductory meetings and seminars on campus due to pressure from Lenz Watch.
Faced with growing scrutiny and opposition, Lenz has reportedly gone into seclusion at his Long Island estate, although he occasionally commutes to Malibu. And while Lenz issued a prepared statement disputing the claims of several disaffected members, all efforts by the JOURNAL to contact him personally to answer the charges in this article were blocked by his public relations director.
About the Author
Ferraiuolo is a nationally syndicated journalist specializing in investigative reports and personality profiles. He lives in Kirkland, WA.
The End of an Era for Jehovah's Witnesses
The year was 1941, and the second president of the Watch Tower Bible and Tract Society, "Judge" Joseph F. Rutherford, lay dying in San Diego, California. He called three men to his bedside: Nathan Knorr, Hayden Covington, and Frederick Franz. In Franz's 1961 book, Let Your Name Be Sanctified, he wrote of that gathering: "It appears that there the Elijah work passed, to be succeeded by the Elisha work."
Franz's nephew, ex-Watch Tower Governing Body member Raymond Franz, says he believes his uncle felt that "a certain 'mantleizing' occurred during that meeting." In fact, while Witness legal counsel Covington fell by the wayside, Knorr went on to become the next president of the Jehovah's Witnesses, and Franz became his vice president -- and later, the worldwide organization's fourth president.
But on December 22 of last year, Franz died at the age of 99. Where is the mantle now? "It disappeared," says Raymond Franz. "It just evaporated."
Perhaps no single man lived through and influenced as much change in the 4.3 million-member organization as did Fred Franz. So it is not surprising that many are wondering what effect, if any, his death will have on its future.
"For 72 years, he was at the center of power," says Ed Gruss, author of the book Apostles of Denial and a teacher at The Master's College in Newhall, California. And, as ex-Witness David Reed anticipated in a 1987 article, Franz's departure leaves "a void such as has not been felt since [Watch Tower founder] C. T. Russell died in 1916." Franz's nephew, Raymond, a nontrinitarian who now devotes his time to counseling both Jehovah's Witnesses and ex-members, says: "It is somewhat of an end of an era."
Franz's History. Born September 12, 1893, in Covington, Kentucky, Franz studied to become a Presbyterian minister before joining the International Bible Students Association (the Watch Tower Society's former name) in Chicago on April 5, 1914. "What a glorious feeling it was to be free from bondage to a religious system that was teaching falsehood!" Franz said in his autobiography in the May 1, 1987 Watchtower magazine.
Franz quickly rose in the young organization's ranks. In 1920, he joined the Bethel Family, the movement's headquarters in Brooklyn, New York; his address never changed again. In 1944 he became the organization's vice president, and in 1977, with Knorr's death, he became president. But Franz's impact was not made as an administrator. Instead, from the early 1940s onward he was the sect's undisputed theological oracle, and under his influence many of its most controversial policies, writings, and teachings were conceived and implemented. They include:
- The editing and translating of the New World Translation of the Holy Scriptures, the official Bible of the Watch Tower movement, first released as a complete Bible in 1961 (New Testament in 1950).
- The establishment and nurturing of a strict disfellowshipping doctrine, under which any Witness could be expelled from the organization for alleged nonconformity.
- The prohibition against any Witness receiving or giving a blood transfusion.
- The projection of the year 1975 as a very likely time for the end of the present world system and the subsequent ushering in of the seventh millennium since the beginning of the world -- the millennium of Christ's earthly rule. (Excitement about the date created a sudden surge in the organization's numbers, followed by an immediate drop of about 750,000 after the date passed uneventfully.)
Given Franz's remarkable influence, some may be surprised that the sect apparently marked his passing with little of the ceremony that accompanied the deaths of Knorr in 1977 and Rutherford in 1942.
Experts from within and without the Jehovah's Witnesses disagree on the affect Franz's death might have on the organization in the near and distant future. Debate centers largely around whether Franz's theological skills can be replaced, whether his presidential successor's administration will differ in tone or substance from his own, and whether the organization will seize the opportunity created by his passing to change key doctrines.
Many of the experts interviewed by the JOURNAL note that Franz had been largely "out of the loop" for several years as his health steadily declined. He remained active at least up until 1988, though he was declared legally blind in about 1966, according to his nephew. He was the first Watch Tower Society president whose office was largely titular. In 1975, the sect's Governing Body -- which has ranged in size from 7 to 18 members and, according to Franz's obituary, is now composed of 8 men -- wrested most of the authority to run the organization from the hands of President Knorr, who died less than two years later.
A Theological Vacuum? As Franz was never really considered a strong administrator, most believe his absence will be felt mainly with respect to his theological abilities. Friends and critics alike acknowledge that he had a keen, imaginative mind that fomented elaborate theological constructs. For years, most of the groundbreaking theological articles in the Watchtower magazine came from the pen of Franz, the only writer given virtual carte blanche by Knorr. "He likely was behind most of the theology and prophecies for the past 50 years, so he leaves a vacuum in that sense," says Reed, who now heads Comments from the Friends, a ministry to Witnesses in Massachusetts.
Leading Jehovah's Witness expert Duane Magnani and other observers doubt that Franz can be replaced as a creator and defender of doctrine. "I don't think there is a man on the Governing Body that can fill his shoes," says Magnani, who leads Witness, Inc., a research and evangelization ministry to JWs.
But Florida-based Watch Tower analyst Robert M. Bowman, Jr., while agreeing that there is no "heir apparent" to Franz, believes the organization might actually become more theologically sophisticated with Franz's passing. "Franz was a college dropout who rose up through the ranks and was obviously very intelligent...but was not himself anywhere like a theologian," says Bowman.
Bowman notes that there are more college-educated men in the organization now, and that others will be coming with the recent loosening of a former Watch Tower prohibition against attending college. "They have a pool of individuals within the organization...who are much more sophisticated theologically and exegetically than Franz or anybody" from the past. "They are...almost certainly going to move to a more collegial leadership style -- not just one member making the theological decisions."
Bowman says utilizing new and better-trained scholars will put the Society in a Catch-22 situation: "They need the extra sophistication, but people like that tend to see through" the organization's incorrect doctrine.
A Change in Presidential Style. Franz was at his best when organizational guru Nathan Knorr was president, since Franz's gifts as a thinker were then fully utilized and respected. As president, Franz was less influential, due to the fact that the president's powers were largely gutted just prior to his taking office, and also to the fact that he was not gifted as an administrator. "Franz never had the power of Rutherford or Knorr," says Reed.
Some people believe that with the recent appointment of Milton G. Henschel as the organization's fifth president, the Society could move back towards a more monarchical form of government from its recent oligarchical form. "Henschel is a different kind of person than Fred Franz," says Magnani, who adds that Henschel -- at 72 the second youngest member of the Governing Body -- has been highly influential. "My feeling is that it will be run as close as it could be to a one-man show." The bottom line, he says, is that Henschel's selection as president "was an important move mainly to keep the organization as conservative as possible."
But Raymond Franz thinks Henschel is typical of the men remaining on the Governing Body. "He's just a very, very average person. He is impressive looking. He can be very congenial. But he is typical of a certain mediocrity that prevails on the body."
The Doctrinal Horizon. Is there, then, any reason to expect the Jehovah's Witness movement to change doctrinally as a result of Franz's passing? Most of those interviewed say that change won't come directly due to his death and that, if anything, Henschel's appointment signals that the organization will likely follow conservative lines in the near future. Reed states, however, that "historically, whenever they have gotten a new president, the organization has come out with new policies. The average Witness is aware of that."
One of the two major teachings that observers deem most likely to change in the near future is the assertion that the year 1914 marked the return of Christ to earth and the beginning of his invisible reign. Witnesses believe that, according to the Scriptures, the generation that was living in 1914 will not pass away until the advent of Armageddon and the end of the world. But scholar and ex-Witness Jerry Bergman says that the 1914 date "is simply untenable" since those that were alive then are quickly dying out, creating pressure upon the organization's leaders to defend the verity of the prediction.
The other issue where many say change could occur is the matter of the Watch Tower's prohibition against blood transfusions, which has long been a subject of violent controversy among Witness families and in the courts. Bergman notes that the organization has hedged its hard-line stance on the issue. For instance, they allow blood to be drawn for blood tests, and they allow use of certain constituents of blood. "They are no longer consistent with their stand. Their stand is that blood is no longer to be used for anything; it is to be buried." (Magnani notes recent signs that the organization has actually "tightened up on the blood issue.")
Ex-Watch Tower headquarters staff member Randall Watters sees wider doctrinal changes coming in ten years or so. Like Magnani, he notes that the organization is very pragmatic. And it is that very fact that may eventually lead to change. Consider that in 1992 the Witnesses experienced only 2 percent growth in the United States, though they grew by about 5.5 percent worldwide.
Raymond Franz believes that his uncle's passing won't be a catalyst for doctrinal change. "If change comes now, it will come mainly by force of circumstance."
After all, says Magnani, "the reason that the Witness organization grows is that it doesn't liberalize. When you liberalize, you lose control of people."
About the Author
Joe Maxwell is a part-time editor with Christianity Today and a free-lance writer living in Mississippi.
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