DETROIT LAKES, Minn. - Ask Gary Olsen his age, he declines comment.
Ask him where he lives and he offers an enigmatic reply: "I live in all true seekers' hearts."
Ask him how many "true seekers" he teaches; he brushes aside the query as a "personal question."
But ask Olsen to talk about the MasterPath, and he prepared for a torrent of eloquence.
Olsen is the area leader of the MasterPath, a suddenly controversial group of spiritual truth-seekers.
Some people - among them a professional deprogrammer who has been in the area this summer working with some of Olsen's "students" - call the MasterPath a cult.
Olsen begs to differ.
"A cult is anyone that worships a personality; that is a true cult," Olsen said Wednesday, seated on the porch of his parents' Detroit Lakes home. "The biggest cult in America is religion, because they worship Jesus, the man.
"No, the MasterPath is not a cult. I do not ask for the worship of any of my students. I am only the vehicle, a representative of the divine."
Olsen, known to his MasterPath followers as the shabda, is a Moorhead native who was raised a Christian. As he became older, he found that his religion was not fulfilling his spiritual requirements.
"I became a truth seeker," he said. "I sought out God; and I discovered a for more pure form of the Holy Spirit than that presented through the church."
That discovery, he said, was the MasterPath, which he defines as a direct path and an individual approach; "It's not a teaching I have coined or invented; it's God's way of staying in contact with man, and man's way of staying in contact with God.
"The MasterPath is not an outcropping of any currently existing philosophy or metaphysical teaching. Only the soul that has been ordained and commissioned by absolute higher power has the understanding to convey this message. In no form or fashion am I calling myself God, just a representative."
According to MasterPath literature, a follower - known as a chela - pays $15 a month or $180 a year in membership fees, and in return receives "monthly discourses and contemplation notes," from "the Master."
The group offers for sale books explaining the MasterPath and tapes with such titles as "The Pains of Separation"; "The Initial Encounters with Kal and Shabda"; "Recognition of a True master"; and "Channeling."
And although one may be tempted to classify the MasterPath as just another New Age tenet, it is far from new, Olsen says.
"This teaching has always existed within the world," he said. "It's an esoteric study of the divine, only meant for those ears that can hear and those eyes that can see.
"Religion today has failed to give mankind what they have been so desperately seeking. Even though religious institutions have been good man still looks for more.
"The MasterPath is presenting the most evolved teaching on the planet, and it can only be experienced; it can never be taught, but only caught."
Olsen is a charismatic man, given to dramatic gestures and sweeping pronouncements. His skin is deeply tanned; he wears a neat mustache and a wedding band.
He is married, he says, and has three stepchildren. Although his wife follows MasterPath, his stepchildren do not.
"The MasterPath deals with adults," he said. "We don't allow anyone under 21 to enjoin our teachings. Many souls under 21 want to but we insist that they have parental consent."
Therein lies one of the bones of contention between Olsen and Rick Ross, the Phoenix, Ariz., deprogrammer who was in Fargo this week, working with 23-year-old MasterPath follower Jill Hutchinson.
"The deprogrammer and some parents have tried to make a federal case of this," Olsen said. "As an example, they held a 23-year-old woman - by law, an adult, and a very devoted disciple of mine - for four days, against her will."
Olsen objects to Ross' contention that the MasterPath uses hypnotism and brainwashing techniques on its followers.
"The truth about deprogrammers is that that's the wrong title: They're actually programmers," he said. "They feel that whatever path some seekers on, it is wrong. What they actually do is reprogram them to their point of view, which is usually the point of view of the parents.
"The MasterPath is accused of using hypnotism and under-the-table techniques, but that is completely erroneous. The tactics they have charged the MasterPath with using, I have never used, and in fact are exemplified by their own conduct in the Fargo-Moorhead area in the last few weeks."
Olsen insists that none of the MasterPath's followers are forced to stay in the group.
"Their charge that I'm trying to take their children away is preposterous," he said. "Anyone on the MasterPath can leave at any time. It's totally free choice. They can write and ask to be released, and can be released at any time.
"There are no threats and hostile attitudes. It's an individual journey to God, and if any individual chooses to halt that journey, he can do so at any time."
Olsen doesn't expect the controversy now swirling around the MasterPath to harm the group.
"This incident will make the teachings more well-known," he said. "It's too bad all this had to happen But it's basically free advertising. Those that are truth seekers will know exactly what I am relating. They will be able to see that the wrongdoing has been by the parents and the deprogrammer.
"What's tragic here is that in the parents' attempt to hold onto their children, they actually push them away - and pay the deprogrammer $450 a day to do it."