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May 11, 1999


The Guru, $ 18 million, and the Bird People

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Arthur J Pais in New York

Frederick Lenz A year after he committed suicide, self-styled guru Frederick Lenz, who used to list his past lives on his resume and went through controversial adult life with such names as Atmananda, has been reincarnated in the struggle for his $ 18 million estate in New York.

A fight rages between his associates who want the money to go to the newly created society, Lenz Foundation for American Buddhism, and the Audubon Society.

While the Audubon Society is vigorously fighting for the $ 18 million estate, it is also arguing that Lenz, a disgraced disciple of Sri Chinmoy and who embraced tantric yoga, was nothing but a cult figure and the Lenz Foundation is not entitled to the millions.

But even as it condemned Lenz's spiritual beliefs, the Audubon Society took pains to establish his "long-standing and abiding interest in the environment and his fascination with birds."

Audubon Society president John Flicker filed an affidavit detailing Lenz's membership history dating to 1975, a history highlighted by a $ 1,000 donation he made in 1997, according to newspaper reports.

The society also included the sworn deposition of Mark Laxer, a former Lenz follower, who has written some of the most critical articles about Lenz and has a Website devoted against him.

"Based on my seven-year association with Lenz," Laxer said in the document, "I know that he was extremely devoted to birds, considered them spiritual beings and regarded them as powerful symbols."

Laxer recalled Lenz's purchase of 14 macaws in 1979 and described an experience in 1984, in which he helped Lenz through a bad LSD trip "by inventing a story about an imaginary bird".

Surfing the Himalayas Lenz, who was expelled from Sri Chinmoy's ashram 20 years ago before starting his own movement that invoked the names of Lakshmi and Vishnu, was the author of the international best-seller, Surfing the Himalayas.

The New Age guru, who was found drowned in the waters of his Long Island estate last year, was 48. He had reportedly ingested more than 80 Valium tablets that day.

The struggle over Lenz's $ 18 million estate pits the National Audubon Society against Norman Marcus, Lenz's former accountant and executor.

Lenz's supporters, who have stayed with him despite serious allegations of mind control and forced sex, are outraged by the Audubon Society's claim.

The society has declined to discuss the case.

The legal fight for Lenz's fortune is based on two critical words in his will signed in October 1994. In that document, Lenz directed that his estate go to a charity set up by him to continue his spiritual teachings. But there was a catch. He had also written that if he hadn't created the charity by the time of his death or taken "significant steps" towards doing so, the money was to go to the National Audubon Society.

In June, two months after Lenz died, Marcus created the Frederick P Lenz Foundation for American Buddhism, with himself as president.

In December, noting that "the phrase 'significant steps' is imprecise and subject to varying interpretations", Audubon Society lawyer Susan Bloom filed papers charging that the Lenz Foundation was bogus and asking the court to award Lenz's estate to the bird people.

In January, Marcus and his attorney, David Warren, hit back with a motion listing half-a-dozen "significant steps" Lenz had taken to create the foundation before his death and asking the court to give the money to it.

Marcus also noted that he, Lenz and others spent years "conceptualising, planning and designing" the foundation.

He also argued that Lenz had made a "firm commitment to establish such a foundation", undertaken a search for a name, and explored the tax issues involved.

Last month, Bloom and the Audubon Society not only went to the extent of challenging Marcus's "significant steps", but also questioned if Lenz was a spiritual leader -- and whether his interest in Buddhism was real. Weren't there serious suggestions that he had been losing interest in Buddhism just as he had lost interest in Hinduism?

Included in the Audubon files was a copy of Lenz's obituary from The Washington Post, which said that "Dr Lenz's recruiting methods left behind a string of embittered, broken-hearted parents, including some who blamed him for their children's disappearances or suicides".

Also included is an NBC Dateline transcript in the package that quoted a former Lenz follower: "He took away my identity. Everything I [had] was replaced by a new identity."

Even as they questioned Lenz's spiritual beliefs, the Audubon Society took pains to establish his "long-standing and abiding interest in the environment and his fascination with birds".

Flicker filed an affidavit detailing Lenz's membership history dating back to 1975 and highlighted by his $ 1,000 donation in 1997.

Marcus, for his part, said he was unaware of any participation by Lenz in Audubon Society activities: "During the period I worked with [Lenz] from 1993 until his death, to my knowledge he had no experience with birds or bird study either as a hobbyist or otherwise."

Lenz, who earned his Ph D from the State University at Stony Brook in New York, did not teach literature as his professors expected, but launched himself as a full-time teacher of the mystique, specialising in Hinduism and Buddhism. He obtained a position teaching Eastern religions at the New School for Social Research in New York City. In addition he rented space on college campuses, including Harvard and New York University.

He also became an ardent follower of Sri Chinmoy who runs an ashram in Queens and has followers in more than 25 countries.

But many of Sri Chinmoy's associates began getting worried when Lenz began to break some of the guru's very strict rules. Though Lenz was tolerated for some time because he had an extraordinary ability to recruit disciples, senior Chinmoy followers disliked his ways with women.

Finally Sri Chinmoy allegedly confronted Lenz, but relented when Lenz agreed to go west to San Diego, open a laundromat to learn humility, and lead a hermetic life. Lenz was also to open a Chinmoy centre there.

Two years later, Sri Chinmoy decided that Lenz could not be changed, according to Max Laxer, one of the young and impressionistic disciples of the Indian guru who had worked with Lenz in San Diego. In 1981 Lenz was told that he could not belong to the Sri Chinmoy fold because of his alleged free lifestyle.

Lenz proclaimed that evil forces had taken control of the Sri Chinmoy movement and that he would start his own religious movement.

He began to call himself Atmananda and the group was called Lakshmi. He focused on the enlightenment of women, although men were also welcome. He incorporated a company as "Lakshmi" and various other offshoot companies such as Vishnu Travel, Lakshmi Distribution and New Light Productions. He began intensive recruiting in San Diego and at the UCLA campus in Los Angeles. Later recruiting was expanded to the San Francisco Bay area.

Within a year he had more than 150 followers, a large number of them students and about 70 per cent women.

Among his favourite themes were "entities" or negative forces that "would attack you in your sleep and affect your mind and your actions." Some of the former followers say Lenz borrowed this idea, and several others, from the works of Carlos Castenada.

On many occasions, Lenz spoke all the time about the entities and other topics. "He said we were partly possessed and that he was the only one who could help us. He listed his former lives in Tibet, Japan, Atlantis, India and so on," says Laxer.

According to Laxer and many other former followers of Lenz, he soon began talking in riddles and humiliated many disciples.

"If you think you understand what I am saying, you've lost because you don't have humility," was a common refrain.

By 1983, Lenz was losing interest in Hinduism and soon he would switch to Buddhism. His critics say it was a marketing ploy -- he had sensed that Zen was more attractive and hip.

Lenz dumped the name Atmananda and anointed himself "Zen Master Rama".

A unique spin was put on Buddhism by Lenz's marketing instincts. Disavowing the conventional observance of Zen, including monastic withdrawal from the world, intensive concentration and an ascetic lifestyle, Lenz offered something much more appealing. He called his philosophy "Tantric Mysticism" which includes meditation, out-of-body experiences and altered consciousness, but involves living an affluent lifestyle and enjoying worldly pleasures.

Lenz's pleasure, religion and nirvana concepts were akin to those of Shree Rajneesh who was also expanding his empire in America in the 1980s with a ranch in Oregon as his base.

When Lenz moved to Malibu in 1982, he began an intensive campaign advertising seminars in different locations around America. One ad showed pictures of a sexy blonde and a Porsche. Other ads carried highly touched up pictures of Lenz taken by Hollywood celebrity photographer Harry Langdon.

Then, in early 1983, he self-published his book The Last Incarnation which contained a series of testimonials to Lenz's supernatural powers supposedly written by his followers. There are descriptions of Lenz variously turning his right hand into a flaming torch like the Statue of Liberty, of Lenz levitating or filling rooms with golden light and similar feats of legerdemain.

But things were not all going smoothly for the new master. A disciple committed suicide saying he was sorry he was unable to reach the level of perfection expected by Lenz. The note concluded, "Bye, by, Rama. See you next time."

Though he was shaken by the episode, Lenz continued his crusade with singular enthusiasm, attracting hundreds of students and young professionals a month across America to his seminars and workshops, which now included tantric yoga.

In February 1986, he incorporated Vishnu Systems, a computer software development corporation and bade his followers to master computer languages, learn martial arts and recruit members to the organisation.

But things began going wrong for Lenz in the late 1980s as many of the disciples went public claiming that he had forced them into sex, and that he had made huge piles of money by brainwashing people into joining his computer and meditation seminars.

For several months, Lenz suddenly went out of public sight. He reportedly told his closest followers he needed to move from California to the East Coast to ward off the "evil spirits" that were trying to conquer him.

Abandoning names such as Rama Seminars and Vishnu Systems, he reinvented himself on the East Coast, offering courses about computer systems.

By the spring of 1992, Lenz seems to have decided that bad publicity was of no consequence, and those who believed in him -- and they numbered hundreds -- did not care what his former disciples had to say.

But there was no outward display of opulence -- no Porsche cars, no bikini-clad women posing for pictures. Most of his energy went into creating computer workshops and offering seminars on Zen Buddhism.

But a huge controversy erupted when Surfing the Himalayas, a self-published book in 1994, gained the attention of Warner Books, which has had huge success with another initially self-published spiritual adventure, The Celestine Prophecy.

Warner bought the rights to Surfing... for an impressive $ 250,000 and planned to publish it under its label in the fall of 1995. But after a report about the deal appeared in Publisher's Weekly, Warner received information alleging that Lenz was a controversial cult leader with a sordid reputation for sexually manipulating female followers. Warner dropped the contract, but still lost $ 80,000 to Lenz in the deal. St Martin's Press, an earlier bidder, picked up the contract for an undisclosed amount, but according to the New York Times (July 13, 1995), St Martin's was unaware of any controversy surrounding Lenz.

In the book, Lenz introduces us to a fictitious, "enlightened" monk with miraculous powers, Master Fwap. The monk is the sole living teacher from the ancient (fictitious) Rae Chorze-Fwaz Order. Fwap's lineage stems from the legendary Atlantis that sent great teachers to ancient Egypt and other places before it sank from its karmic depravity. He tells us that the ancient wisdom behind true enlightenment is now contained in his mysterious Buddhist enclave outside Kathmandu, Nepal.

Although Surfing the Himalayas was published as a fictional account, Lenz claimed it was based on his real experiences.

The book became a best-seller even as anti-Lenz articles appeared in the media. Now that the paperback is on the best-seller list, the new controversy could only make the book more successful.

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