Bronfman, the guru and their tea

National Post/January 12, 2001
Isabel Vincent

Union of the vegetable: Sect leader sues U.S. government after hallucinogenic seized

A lawsuit between the U.S. government and a member of the wealthy Bronfman family hinges on an obscure Brazilian religion that worships spirits in plants and animals and encourages ritualistic vomiting.

Jeffrey Bronfman, second cousin to Edgar Bronfman Jr. and grandnephew to dynasty founder Samuel Bronfman, heads a chapter of the Union of the Vegetable based in his home in Santa Fe, N.M.

His group, with the unwieldy name of O Centro Espirita Beneficiente Uniao do Vegetal (Portuguese for the United Beneficent Spiritual Central of the Vegetable), is suing the U.S. Drug Enforcement Agency for the return of a shipment of hallucinogenic tea that it says is part of its religion.

Mr. Bronfman's group is an offshoot of Santo Daime, a mix of Catholicism and native spirituality, which was founded by Raimundo Irineu Serra, an impoverished rubber tapper working in an isolated part of the Amazon before the Second World War.

The Union of the Vegetable, one of the three branches of Santo Daime, is mainly practised by foreign adherents who engage in group meditation after ingesting a hallucinogenic tea. The other branches of the Santo Daime religion -- Barquinha and CEFLURIS -- are practised mainly in Brazil and all are associated with the Amazon rain forest.

Adherents say Mr. Serra founded the religion after drinking a strange brew made by the Indians in the Accre region.

The tea, which is commonly referred to as ayahuasca, is made by boiling Amazon plants to produce a thick, brownish concoction with the consistency of tomato juice, which can cause hallucinations and vomiting.

When Mr. Serra drank it, he claimed to have had visions of a woman dressed in white, which he referred to both as "Our Lady of Conception" and the "Forest Queen."

His followers founded an ashram-like village in the Amazon known as Ceu de Mapia, where 700 people still live without electricity, running water or money.

"We praise the sun, the moon and the stars, calling for a life closer to God's nature and tuned with the human virtues of harmony, love, truth and justice," says the introduction to the Santo Daime Internet site, which features a service that will organize trips to the village, deep in the Amazon.

The chapter headed by Mr. Bronfman holds ceremonies in a tent, or yurt, at his Santa Fe home. A woman who has participated said the ceremonies begin with drinking the "horrible-tasting" tea.

On May 21, 1999, U.S. drug enforcement agents raided the sect's office and seized its supply of the tea. No one was arrested, but members say federal agents told them the tea could be destroyed.

A complaint filed in U.S. District Court claims the tea should be legal for members of the group, and that by confiscating it, the Drug Enforcement Agency violated their rights.

Mr. Bronfman, who was born in 1955, is at best a fringe member of the powerful family, which recently sold its giant Canadian distiller Seagram as part of a US$30-billion merger that created the giant communication group Vivendi Universal.

Michael Marrus, a professor at the University of Toronto who wrote a book on the Bronfmans, said "it's stretching it" to include Jeffrey Bronfman in the ranks of the powerful Montreal family. "I don't really know anything about him."

Bronfman Dynasty, Peter C. Newman's 1978 book about the family, mentions him only once in passing among the four children of Gerald Bronfman, saying he was accepted by Yale University "but chose instead to follow the Divine Light Mission of Guru Maharaj Ji."

Santo Daime gained popularity in Brazil during the 1980s, when television and film stars began to make the pilgrimage to Ceu de Mapia to drink the ayahuasca tea and take part in the ceremonies.

In response to reports of brainwashing and fraud among Santo Daime followers, the Brazilian government commissioned a report on the religion in 1987.

However, the country's federal drug council ended up giving its approval to the religion and its hallucinogenic tea. In a report, council officials noted: "The followers of the sects seem to be happy and tranquil people. Many ascribe to the religion and to the tea integration with their family, renewed interest in their work, encounters with the self and with God." There have been reports of people in Brazil and abroad overdosing on the tea.

"Of course, a lot of people abuse the tea," says Marilia Bandeira de Mello, a psychologist and head of the Barquinha sect of Santo Daime in Rio de Janeiro.

"The tea puts you in touch with your subconscious and consumed outside of the Santo Daime ritual can be very dangerous. You need to be protected by a spiritual guide when you drink the tea."

According to Ms. Bandeira de Mello, those who want to join the cult must be initiated at a ceremony in the Amazon. She would not say what the ceremony involves but noted Amazon residents who practise the religion take the ayahuasca tea every day.

Outside of the Amazon region, the tea is taken only when services are held, usually every 15 days, she said. According to Ms. Bandeira de Mello, the tea is used as a type of sacrament.

One of the goals of the religion is also to create sustainable communities in the Amazon. In the early 1990s, the World Bank proposed funding some of these Santo Daime projects but pulled the plug when the organization's officials found out about the hallucinogenic tea.

Vomiting, which is euphemistically referred to as "a passage" in the Santo Daime religion, is encouraged as a means of "spiritual purification."

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