Reclusive Guru's in Battle to Demolish Historic Dutch Monastery

Associated Press, January 20, 1998.

VLODROP, Netherlands (AP) Indian teachers in flowing white robes wander the wooded grounds while their children play cricket on the manicured lawns.

But behind the idyllic scenes at the old St. Ludwig monastery now home to the Maharishi Mahesh Yogi and his international Transcendental Meditation movement a bitter battle is brewing.

Some of the group's Dutch neighbors are fighting the aging guru's plan to demolish the historic Franciscan monastery, partly because it doesn't face due east.

The dispute has soured the normally harmonious relationship between devotees of the 79-year-old Maharishi and residents of Vlodrop on the border with Germany about 125 miles southeast of Amsterdam.

"These people can be very polite and friendly," said Harry Cox, a member of a committee fighting to save the monastery. "But if they do not get their way, their friendly faces disappear. It is a very uncompromising organization."

The Maharishi Foundation wants to raze the monastery it bought in 1984 for $900,000 and replace it with a lavish $50 million complex of buildings, ornamental gardens and lakes.

A group of villagers has managed to have the monastery, built for German monks between 1904 and 1909, classified as a national monument effectively putting the Maharishi's plan on hold.

But the monument status has been appealed by followers of the Indian guru, who visited the village in 1990 and liked it so much he never left. The Maharishi Foundation says it will take the legal fight to the Netherlands' highest court if necessary.

Famed for teaching the Beatles the art of Transcendental Meditation, the Maharishi now lives as a virtual recluse in an ornate wooden pavilion on the monastery's grounds.

"Clearly he likes it here. He has never, as far as I know, stayed in one place for this long," said Jacques Uijen, chairman of the board of the International Council of Maharishi Vedic Universities.

Using telephones, the Internet and satellite technology, the Maharishi keeps in touch with his followers worldwide, Uijen said. The monastery itself is used mainly as a training center for teachers of the Maharishi's word and as a global nerve center for the movement.

Started four decades ago, the Transcendental Movement says it has 5 million members and about 1,000 teaching institutions. Its teachings are based on ancient Indian texts interpreted by the Maharishi.

At the monastery, where some 280 followers silently meditate while children play noisily outside, portraits of the Maharishi with his trademark long, graying hair and beard stare benignly from walls in rooms all around the complex.

That picture is all most people get to see of the guru. He hasn't appeared in public for years, and aides declined a request for an interview with him.

"I know he is a friendly, always-smiling man, but I have never seen him. He never comes into the village," Cox said.

Villagers aren't out to chase away the Maharishi and his followers, Cox stressed.

"We do not see ourselves as enemies of the Maharishi. We want to work together to sort this out," he said.

A spokesman for the Maharishi organization, Wim van den Berg, dismisses Cox's committee as "a few people in the village."

"They do not have anything against us, but out of concern for this old building they have raised objections," he said.

Indeed, even Cox concedes some villagers back the demolition plans. "They see a certain economic importance in the Maharishi's presence," he said with a sigh.

The Maharishi pays property tax to the local municipality a tax that would rise substantially if his expansion was given a green light. Local officials already had granted a demolition license before the monastery was designated a protected national monument in October.

According to the Maharishi's architectural theories, building entrances should face east so they can gather energy from the rising sun; the monastery's is 29 degrees off. Bad architecture, according to one of the group's many glossy pamphlets, promotes anxiety, depression, bad luck and even criminal tendencies.

In addition, the decaying monastery is "a bottomless pit" that costs the group more than $500,000 a year just to keep habitable, Van den Berg said.

The building is damp and cold and loses hundreds of roof tiles each time a hard wind blows. Renovating it would cost $28.5 million, he said.

"The monks didn't leave for nothing," Uijen, the board chairman, added.

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