Diving into Conscience Bay

When New Age guru Rama was fished out of the waters off Long Island, he was wearing suit and tie and his pet dog's collar around his neck

Psychology Today/December 1998
By John Gallagher

The mansion at 183 Old Field Road sits beside a quiet country road that runs along New York's Long Island shore. The house is hidden from the road and neighbors by a redwood fence; the mailbox bears no name. A camera perched at the beginning of the driveway surveys passersby.

Police patrolling the shore road early on the morning of April 13 noticed something strange: the outdoor lights were all ablaze. Even more odd, entering the usually barricaded estate was easy. As they crossed the vast manicured lawn to the huge house with its copper mansards and three-windowed cupolas, they saw that the daffodils were abloom.

When the officers reached the front door, they discovered it was open. Inside, they found an immaculate living room punctuated by floor rugs, and a wall of glass overlooking the sleepy bay. Nothing seemed out of place; nothing seemed missing. The only thing unusual was that no one was around.

Upstairs, the master bedroom was empty and all of the motion detectors that guarded the room had been turned off. Then, in one of the guest bedrooms, police spied a fully dressed woman lying on a bed, unconscious. Police tried to rouse her, but she was incoherent. By her side was a picture of a man and another of a dog. In another room were two dogs, stiff but breathing.

Searching the grounds, one officer followed a narrow path down to a pier on the water. Thin metal rails guided walkers on the path; one of them was bent and broken. Police called in divers who, 10 hours later, pulled a man's body from the water. He was dressed in a suit and tie. Around his neck was a dog collar with a dangling rabies vaccination tag.

The man was Frederick Lenz, better known to the world as the New Age guru Zen Master Rama; the woman, Brinn Lacey, one of his devoted followers. Two nights before, in a suicide pact, the pair had drugged the dogs with Phenobarbital, downed fistfuls of Valium (at least 150 pills by Lenz alone) and stepped off the pier. By some miracle, Lacey and the dogs survived; Lenz did not. Lacey wrote in a note the police found by her side: We all tried to go too the other world last night, and only Rama made it..."

Lenz's death at age 48 brought to a close a life marked by spectacular accomplishment and enormous controversy. He won hundreds of followers to his self-invented brand of material Buddhism, earning a fortune in the process. A Ph.D. In American literature, he published two books, Surfing the Himalayas and Snowboarding to Nirvana, describing his experiences with a Himalayan monk named Master Fwap. A visionary, he anticipated the computer age, branching into programming before it emerged as the culture's second language. To his followers, Lenz was a brilliant teacher who brought them to new levels of spiritual awareness and an entrepreneur who guided them to lucrative careers. Newsweek dubbed him the "Yuppie Guru."

To his critics, however, Lenz was a charlatan who lied without compunction, fleeced his students and sexually exploited women. "For someone who theoretically lived his life to help others, he spent a great deal of his time looking out for his own interests," wrote Steve Kaplan, an ex-follower, in a letter printed in New York magazine after the guru's death. "Lenz was a walking contradiction."

Lenz cultivated followers, not friends; surrounded by disciples, he apparently felt closest to his dogs. He proclaimed himself, "one of the 12 truly enlightened beings on the planet," but seemed beset by private demons. And in what may be the supreme irony, Lenz, who never evinced a twinge of guilt, chose to die in a body of water known as Conscience Bay.

In many ways, Lenz's life was the baby-boomer experience writ large, covering everything from hippiedom to Reagan-era materialism (in this life, at least; on some resumes Lenz listed several past incarnations, including a 17th -century Zen master in Kyoto, Japan). Lenz was born to Dorothy and Frederick Lenz Jr. on February 9, 1950, in San Diego. He was to be the only child of the union. The couple's marriage ended when their son was just five years old. Frederick Jr., a publishing executive, remarried about six years later and did not seem closely involved in his young son's life.

For Frederick III, the center of his universe was his mother, a woman who dabbled in astrology and was addicted to alcohol. "No one loved me like my mother," Lenz was to tell one of his numerous girlfriends. Dorothy died when her son was just 14 years old, and Lenz moved in with his father and his new family, but he did not much care for the arrangement.

As an adult, Lenz kept his family ties to a minimum. He distanced himself, rarely phoning or visiting relatives. "He really didn't like his father and didn't want anything to do with him," says a former family friend. Nevertheless, after he grew rich, Lenz paid for an apartment for his father and bought him a Jaguar.

They may have not been close, but in an eerie way, the father's life presaged the son's. Lenz Jr. had charisma; he drew followers to his 1974 political campaign to become mayor of his hometown of Stamford, Connecticut, and enough voters to win the election.

He also acknowledge a contradictory attraction to the life of the spirit and the flesh. "I wanted to be a Holy Ghost priest & but then I found out that to belong to the order you had to take an oath of poverty, chastity and obedience," Lenz Jr. revealed in an interview shortly after he was sworn in as mayor. "I didn't want to do that."

Young Frederick showed a bent for the spiritual as a teenager. At Rippowam High School, where he was apparently well-liked, fellow students dubbed him "Crazy Fred" and jokingly described him in their yearbook as a "cut-rate philosopher."

After graduation, Lenz headed for the heart of the then-flowering hippie movement, San Francisco. He spent a year in the Haight-Ashbury district, where he later recalled using "power plants & based on the Tibetan Book of the Dead to experience Enlightenment."

Law enforcement authorities took a dimmer view of such "power plants." Lenz was busted for selling marijuana and sentenced to a year at a work camp. (The arrest was later expunged, allowing Lenz to claim he had no criminal record.) The light sentence was attributed to Lenz's father's influence. "The story in the family," recalls an observer, "is that the old man bailed him out and then beat the hell out of him for it."

Back in Connecticut, matriculating at the University of Connecticut in Storrs, Lenz followed up an interest, first cultivated in San Francisco, in the teachings of Sri Chinmoy, a popular Hindu guru who combined traditional Buddhist practice with physical fitness. In Chinmoy, who ran an ashram in nearby Norwal, Lenz found a focus he had never had before. Soon he was recruiting followers to Chinmoy's teachings of humility, obedience and fidelity.

During the Storrs years, Lenz married, but the union lasted just two years. Reportedly, Lenz wanted the marriage to be celibate while he indulged himself out of wedlock. Physically, he seemed ill-suited to the role of womanizer. Thin and tall (six feet three inches), Lenz had an androgynous face topped by a kind of white man's Afro of blond curls, and a voice that The Washington Post described as resembling that of fitness missionary Richard Simmons. "He was a nerdy guy," says the editor of his books, Jim Fritzgerald.

Some nerds, like Lenz, seem to have a peculiar allure. "He was able to use that nerdiness to endear himself to women and those around him," says Joe Szimhart, a cult specialist who has deprogrammed dozens of Lenz's followers. "He presented this confident edge that had all this occult power, but at the same time people around him could feel comfortable because he was a little clutzy. You felt a little sorry for him. Those two things would disarm people and intrigue them."

Accepted to graduate school at the Stony Brook campus of the State University of New York, Lenz worked to earn a doctorate in literature. His dissertation was on the American poet Theodore Rorthke, whose lyrical works often celebrate the glories of nature. Thereafter, Lenz insisted on referring to himself as "Dr." in virtually every forum.

All during this time. Lenz was recruiting for Chinmoy, but eventually he began to chafe at the guru's strict rules. According to Mark Laxer, a former follower of Lenz who turned into his harshest critic, Chinmoy became fed up with Lenz's womanizing. In 1979, Chinmoy apparently decided to teach Lenz a lesson in humility and obedience by sending him to San Diego to open a Laundromat.

San Diego, the place of Lenz's birth, became the place of his invention, the first of several. The geographical distance further weakened Lenz's allegiance to Chinmoy. Lenz, who by then was calling himself by the Hindu name Atmananda, began to hint his own divinity. The final break with Chinmoy came one night when, as Laxer recounts it , Lenz summoned his closest follower to the oceanside house he and Laxer then sharing with three women and announced that "Something heavy has been going down in the inner worlds. Can anyone see what it is?"

The turmoil, as it turned out, was that Chinmoy had "fallen." In the ensuing uproar, Lenz lost most of his following, but soon he was recruiting throughout California--this time to his own teachings. Lenz's philosophy, which he expounded under his newly adopted name of Zen Master Rama, taken after an incarnation of the Hindu god Vishnu, fit perfectly into the blossoming have-it-all ear of Reaganomics. Instead of Buddhism's traditional devotion to asceticism and removal from the vagaries of the world, Rama advocated a Buddhist-flavored materialism. The package included meditation and other Buddhist trappings but also money.

Indeed, Rama used financial success as a marker of spiritual growth. Lenz would have none of what he called the "begging bowl" mentality of traditional Buddhism. "He said that he had set up his program inwardly and outwardly so that our incomes would be a reflection of our spiritual progress," says Charles Rubin, who studied with Lenz from 1986 to 1991. "So not making enough money was a sign that we weren't doing well with the program and should go off and do something else."

This materialism showed up in Lenz's own life. His base of operations in 1982 was the rented Malibu home of Goldie Hawn. Over the years, he acquired expensive homes in Santa Fe and Bedford, New York. He owned Porches, Mercedes and Range Rovers. He dressed in Versace.

Not surprisingly, Buddhist teachers had little respect for Lenz. "I've never seen a serious reference to his man in all of my reading of Buddhist literature and discussion," says Melvin McLeod, editor in chief of the Shambhala Sun, an international Buddhist magazine. "He's not someone American Buddhism in any way recognizes, to my knowledge."

What little credibility Lenz might have had was obliterated with his suicide. "If he was a teacher of Buddhism, he never would have done that," says McLeod. "Suicide pacts, encouraging people to kill themselves, trying to kill dogs. None of that has anything to do with Buddhism."

Rama promoted his new philosophy by promoting himself. He had posters with his image plastered in Times Square. His photo appeared in ads he took out in Vanity Fair, the New York Times and the Los Angeles Times. The ads urged readers to "gain the competitive edge" through Rama's seminars. The campaigns did not come cheaply; in one blitz in 1987, Lenz spent $500,000.

Spiritual seekers who went to his meetings in the 1980s found him spellbinding. "There was soothing music, a couch up on the stage surrounded by flowers supposedly sent by followers," says one attendee. "He would talk about life and how to have a good career. People also claimed they saw light coming out of his fingers, or an aura around him."

"I had moments of clarity, of ecstasy, of superconscious awareness in his presence that I couldn't begin to describe," confesses Rubin. "He was a master at inducing these states in other people. You may try to describe it as hypnosis. That just seems like a way to belittle it to me. He was an amazing teacher in spite of his flaws."

In Rubin's opinion, Rama "got carried away with the money." Yet he attributes his own current financial success to lessons he learned while studying with Lenz.

The seminars served not only to recruit followers, but also lovers. Though Lenz preached that women needed to "detach" themselves from men in general, he separated himself from the rest of his gender. He freely admitted that he viewed the convocations as a dating pool. "It's like meeting somebody at church and you go out," he told the Washington Post in 1996. "I think it's called being a healthy American male." Lenz had numerous sexual encounters with female students, which he insisted were consensual explorations of "tantric sex," though his tactics were clearly manipulative.

"He considered his sperm to be liquid enlightenment and we should be very honored to have it in our bodies," says Nancy (not her real name). "I'm embarrassed to admit that I fell for that. I sure thought highly of myself until I began meeting all of the other women whom he had sex with." Nancy, who says the sex was "not very good," recalls one time when Lenz summoned three of his girlfriends together late one night. "He told us that we had psychically approached him with an interesting proposition, although none of us could successfully guess what it was. He told us that we all wanted to have sex with him together, but he wanted to do it one at a time. So two of us would clean his house while one of us would 'do' him. We all took turns."

"Lenz was very good to you when he was having sex with you," Nancy notes, "but if he decided to move on in his harem, then he would completely ignore you. We always assumed that it was because we were mentally bad or possessed."

Lenz led a sweet life for a considerable time, raking in millions of dollars annually. Students were charged fees, which escalated quickly and steeply. Rubin says that he started by paying Lenz $40 a month, which rapidly rose to $400. By the time Rubin was ousted from Rama's circle for being unable to keep up with payments, he was being charged $3,500 a month "basically to see Rama one night, albeit a long night."

Another group of followers was forking over $5,000 a month to see Lenz for two nights. Rama preferred to be paid in cash with crisp high-denomination bills, (preferably $100s); lower denominations, like $10s and $20s were "low vibed." Lenz also used to throw away all of his change, except for quarters, which he used to pay tolls. The coins, he declared, had "bad energy."

By the mid 1980s, Lenz had arrived at the conclusion that computers would reshape the economy. He founded a software development firm and instructed his students to train as computer programmers. It was yet another personal reinvention; now he was Rama the computer entrepreneur. "He was on the cutting edge of all these things," says Fitzgerald. "He had the terms down, although how involved he was, I don't know."

It was a curious enterprise. While some of the trainees turned out to be whizzes at programming, others plying their skills in Silicon Valley were dismal failures. A trade magazine dubbed Lenz's flubs "the California raisins." The raising' resumes were inflated, admit former followers, who say that Rama ordered them to "learn as they earn."

Even as Rama's wealth and influence was expanding, his inner strength seemed to be eroding. Throughout the 1980s, Lenz was using LSD and having his inner circle use it as well. He started to develop a belief in "negative spiritual forces" that only he could see and that could wreak physical and psychological havoc. Lenz became increasingly distrustful, even abusive. "I suspect Rama was deeply affected by all the hallucinogens he took," says Rubin. "They probably contributed to his mental fantasies about himself and to his paranoia."

Nancy recalls one incident when she commented on how appealing she found a seagull that was eating nearby. "Lenz said that it wasn't cute, that it might not even really be a bird, but might be something else," she notes. "He really had me getting paranoid, too."

Lenz began to believe that people wanted him dead and that even his followers were out to get him. "They were always trying to psychically kill him, he claimed," says Nancy. In response, the preacher of inner peace resorted to some decidedly non-pacive action. Says Nancy, "He proudly told me of a time when he put out a low grade 'kill energy' to anyone that wanted to mess with him, because he was tired of it. One of the men that was working on his house keeled over and died of a heart attack. Rama was very proud of the fact that he 'killed' him." (Lenz also had an un-Hindu-like affection for Stephen King and Clyde Barker novels and violent films).

Around the time the stock market crashed in 1987, so did Lenz's highflying life. Some of his students came forward with tales of outlandish behavior. "I got calls from people complaining about him," says Szimhart. "It was basically stuff he's been accused of all along: sexually manipulating women and taking a lot of money from an inner core of members."

Mercedes Hughes, who was deprogrammed by Szimhart, claimed that Lenz convinced her that one of her responsibilities was to perk him up after his seminars "and sex was one of the ways." Anny Eastwood charged that Lenz had threatened her with a pistol and forced her to have sex with him. But the heaviest blow came when Donald Cole, a UCLA student who studied under Rama, committed suicide by stabbing himself to death. In the note he left behind, Cole apologized for falling short of Lenz's standards. "Bye, Rama," the note read. "See you next time."

Though he denied all the charges, Lenz's image was badly tarnished. To most outsiders, Rama was now a cult leader, not a Zen master. The torrent of bad publicity affected Lenz deeply. "He almost went completely bald because of depression when the allegations came out," says one person who knew him. "He had these huge periods of depression because everyone was after him."

Lenz went after the media. "It seems to into and often grossly distort aspects of one's personal and professional life," he said in an interview published on his Web site. (Months after his suicide, the site had yet to note Rama's demise.) Lenz also attacked his accusers. He insisted that the charges were the work of a handful of disgruntled former followers, whose "motivation ranges from what you might expect-from the seeking of money and publicity, to those who genuinely suffer from chronic personal problems and have fixated on me as the cause of their frustrations and failures."

Lenz adopted a lower profile. He kept plugging away at his computer business but stopped making public appearances and moved back east to an estate on Long Island. Bought for $950,000 a decade ago (and now worth $2 million), it features a beautiful house of wood, mirrors and glass. But Lenz seemed to live in terror inside.

"He thought all of his students had terrible energy and that we contaminated anything we touched," says Nancy, who lived with him for a time (unlike most cult leaders, Lenz did not live with his band of disciples). Afraid of being poisoned-he claimed to have been poisoned to death in a past life by one of his students-Rama would not permit Nancy to cook for him. They ate most of their meals out, and when the multimillionaire guru did dine at home, he used plastic dishes and flatware.

Spiders terrified him. "They reminded him of 'entities,' " says Nancy. "When one crossed the floor he yelled at me to kill it. I covered it with a glass intending to take it outside, but he told me to kill it, because it might not really be a spider." Security was fanatically tight around the Long Island estate. Nancy remembers that she couldn't leave Rama's bedroom at night because she might set off alarms. Lenz slept with a rifle tucked under his side of the king-size bed.

By the early 1990s, Lenz's glory days seemed behind him. He was still a wealthy man. "I estimate that he had a hundred core followers that could send him at least $2,000 a month," says Szimhart. His remaining students still adored him, giving him a Bentley in gratitude one year.

But Lenz' knack for emerging in successful new guises seemed to be exhausted. "He was reinventing himself, but it was not working very well," says Szimhart. Still, Lenz had one more transformation left. After spending a few years in relative quiet, he burst back on the scene in 1995 as a novelist with Surfing the Himalayas: A Spiritual Adventure. The book is a detailed account of Lenz's putative encounter with a Tibetan monk named Master Fwap who reveals to him the keys to snowboarding down mountains. (Lenz had styled himself as a master of extreme athletics by this time.)

It was pure Carlos Castenada- with snow. Lenz often quoted the reclusive mystical writer, who is a favorite of New Age seekers. The book received scathing reviews. The Denver Post slammed it as "poorly researched crud" while the Santa Fe Sun derided it as "terrifically dull and stupefying." Still, heavily promoted by St. Martin's, its publisher, and $1 million of Lenz's own money that he used to publicize the book, it sold about 100,000 copies, making it onto the best-seller lists.

The book's success won Lenz some new followers, but it also led to publicity detailing the accusations against him. Unfazed, Lenz produced a sequel, Snowboarding to Nirvana. Published in 1997, the book added massive amounts of sex to the spiritual equation. The narrator's accounts of interludes, with a woman named Nadia in particular, combined cosmic consciousness and heavy breathing. ("As she opened her legs a little wider," goes one passage, "I thrust more deeply into her. We kissed, and then everything went white. I don't remember much of what happened after that, except for the two of us passing through countless cascading dimensions of color and ecstasy.")

The book was a failure, largely, in Fitzgerald's view, because Lenz bailed out of doing a tour or any promotional interviews. The reason: Lenz was devastated by the death of Vayu-his beloved dog.

By all accounts, Lenz's closest attachments were to his pet Scotties. They were his family-his "only family," claims one observer-and he took them everywhere. "He was wacky about them," says Fitzgerald. "He'd call me up at night and talk to me about his dogs. When he'd come up to see me in Manhattan, this great big limo would be out front with the dogs sitting in it, and I'd have to go down and see them."

Lenz's clear favorite was Vayu. He named the computer business after the dog and dedicated Snowboarding to the canine. An ardent environmentalist on his Web site, he ordered his groundskeeper to use the strongest pesticide available on the lawn just to keep fleas away from the dog. Lenz counted Vayu among the planet's 12 "enlightened beings." "When the dog would go out and bark at night, Rama claimed that he was barking at bad energy being thrown at the house," says Nancy.

It was Vayu's death, most agree, that pushed Lenz over the edge, into a deep depression that led ultimately to his suicide. He so couldn't bear to part with his pet that he reportedly watched the dog's body decompose on a couch for two days. "When the dog died, in a strange way, he died," says Fitzgerald. "It was a real alter ego with him."

"Rama taught us all how to deal with the physical world and how to deal with the spiritual world," maintains Rubin, "but he completely ignored the emotional world. He simply couldn't connect to other people as equals." When divers pulled Lenz's body from Conscience Bay, Vayu's tags were around his neck.

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