Cults of the '90s add materialistic spin

Minneapolis Star Tribune/July 25,1995
By Sally Jacobs

When Randy Robins began chanting with a Buddhist sect nearly 20 years ago the rewards came fast. His soul became syncopated with the rhythm of the universe, he says. He intuited global truths. He thrilled at his oneness with humanity.

What's more, Robins found that with just a few more minutes in front of the altar each day, material orders could be registered, too. He found a gleaming new stereo at the pawn shop. And an apartment near work. And there, right on the side of the road, was a 1979 Toyota with a rebuilt engine for a mere $600. "What was really amazing was that I had been chanting for a Cadillac but I wound up with a much, much better car," explained Robins, a member of the North Carolina chapter of a Buddhist group called Soka Gakkai. "If I had gotten a Cadillac I would be making quite large payments. There is no doubt that my life is richer because of my Buddhist practices."

And not just on a spiritual level. After two decades of bad press and static membership, many fringe groups and those considered to be cults have shed their saffron robes and taken up materialism as their mantra. Driven by the maxims of modern marketing, their masters are hawking glossy brochures not just to the dusty and disenchanted but to just about everybody. In the United States, it seems, there is a cult for everyone. Not all cults are religious

"Cults have diversified," said Cynthia Kisser, director of the Chicago-based Cult Awareness Network, which monitors cults throughout the country. "The public thinks that if it's not religious, it can't be a cult. Wrong. Cults offer business training, therapy, commercial and social opportunities, computer training and spiritual opportunities. Cults are doing some niche marketing and in some cases they're into more than one niche."

Despite a string of cult-related disasters spanning the globe from Waco, Texas, to a Tokyo subway, cult observers say that cult membership in the United States is mushrooming. In this country there are roughly 4,000 cults - depending on how they are defined - with a total membership of 2 million to 5 million. Now, with the arrest of the leader of Tokyo's Aum Shin Rikyo doomsday cult coming on the heels of the worst domestic bombing in U.S. history - an act apparently prompted in part by the assault on the Branch Davidians - the current crop of cults has come under increasing scrutiny.

Old and New Styles

A number of them, to be sure, are garden variety cults - defined by veteran watchers as groups that extract people from their daily routine and demand strict fiscal and philosophical loyalty to a charismatic leader. They range from the Church Universal and Triumphant, which has built a series of underground bomb shelters around its Montana headquarters, to the Word of Faith [Fellowship] Church in tiny Spindale, N.C., which last month was accused by former members of demon exorcism, child abuse and mind control.

The new breed is something quite different. There are no flowers offered at intersections. No tired India prints. Instead, there are broad-shouldered power suits, computer courses that hone meditative skills, crisp management treatises and manuals on self-improvement.

"They're trying to strip away the cult stereotype by using a modern, upscale image," explained Marcia Rudin, director of the American Family Foundation's cult education program. "Cults are mainstreaming so it can be hard to identify them." Modern messiah

Leading the way among these modern-day messiahs is Frederick Lenz III (a k a Zen Master Rama), who over the past 15 years allegedly merged the New Age and the Computer Age into a multimillion-dollar empire. Known as the "yuppie guru," Lenz reportedly claims to be a reincarnation of the Hindu deity Vishnu (although folks in Stamford, Conn., know him as the son of their former mayor).

Lenz - whose following of a couple of hundred has shifted from California to Westchester County, N.Y., in the past year - encourages his disciples to learn computer programming not only because computer work helps students develop meditative focus, but because it pays well.

Followers need the money. Lenz's meditation sessions and seminars cost as much as $3,000 a month and "special" students may pay even more. But former followers say they'd gladly have paid any price for an audience with the 45-year-old leader.

Earning an audience

Such audiences must be earned. In the past, students were recruited at free meditation seminars held in libraries and on college campuses - none of which mentioned Lenz's or Rama's name. Frequent attendees then were invited to meet Lenz at private dinners held in expensive restaurants. There, they were urged to learn computer programming while Lenz explained his version of American Buddhism. As adherents began turning over ever-larger amounts of money, Lenz insisted that they sever all ties with family and friends in order to "preserve their energy." So many of them did as they were told that terrified parents formed a group called LenzWatch.

Hefty fees

Lenz hung up his guru garb earlier this year in order to focus on "business interests" in the computer industry, according to his Los Angeles lawyer, Norman Oberstein. But Lenz watchers contend that his advanced students continue to preach enlightenment to computer programmers - for a hefty fee.

Oberstein said that at one time Lenz did direct his students of Buddhism toward programming careers, but he dismissed complaints of exploitation as "unfounded allegations that have never been brought to anything."

While Lenz gears his pitch to people under 30, Soka Gakkai appeals to those of all ages - particularly those who hunger for the American Dream. In a group based on the teachings of the 13th-century Buddhist monk Nichiren, adherents aspire to enlightenment - but see no reason that the journey should be an uncomfortable one. The religion's central ritual - the chanting of Nam-Myoho-Renge-Kyo or Devotion to the Lotus Sutra - supposedly not only brings one into harmony with the universe, but can bring a host of other goodies as well. Like a new job. Or a boyfriend. Or a parking space.

Unswerving Loyalty

That such earthly preoccupations have caused some to dub Soka Gakkai the "yuppie religion" concerns its leaders less than the fact that others charge it is a menacing cult. While the group has attracted high-profile members such as Tina Turner and Herbie Hancock, less visible adherents say SG demands unwavering loyalty, encourages the severing of family ties and requires ever-increasing donations.

"Pretty soon they're telling you who you could and could not marry, whether you could have an abortion or return to school," said Kasia Ross, 48, who along with her husband was a member of the Chicago chapter for 20 years. "It's pure control."

Soka Gakkai spokesmen deny such allegations, saying that members' families and their independence are valued. Either way, their message is winning converts: Since SG came to the United States in 1960, membership has risen to about 330,000, including several thousand members in New England.

And among other groups, some version of the financial approach prevails in the 1990s, too. Numerous spiritual groups linked to the human potential movement, like Lifespring and the former EST, are now providing management training at companies around the country that cult-watchers say borders on "mind control." There also are a number of New Age companies that sell of healing products ranging from water purifiers to herbal remedies and have developed elaborate pyramid marketing structures dependent on a spiritual devotion to each company.

Few have bridged the gap between the spiritual and the commercial better than the Church of Scientology. For more than 15 years, its nonprofit World Institute of Scientology Enterprises (WISE) has marketed church founder L. Ron Hubbard's management technology to businesses, including some of the nation's largest.

Between 1988 and 1991, for example, hundreds of Allstate Insurance workers received Scientology management training from an outside consultant and church member hired by the company. Allstate spokesman Al Orendorf says that the company was unaware of the Scientology link for several years.

Church spokesmen stress that WISE training is not used to recruit people into the church, but some participants harshly disagree. Peter Farrell, a veterinarian in Burnt Hills, N.Y., says that within days of signing up for a Hubbard management course offered by Sterling Management Inc., he was being urged to participate in a Church of Scientology program to work out some personal issues. Inspired by the trainer's upbeat attitude, Farrell said yes.

At the program's end, Farrell had spent $25,000 and handed over an advance payment of $34,000 for future classes. His wife promptly called a cult exit counselor and Farrell never took another class.

To see more documents/articles regarding this group/organization/subject click here.