"Buddhism is the study of happiness."
"Happiness is light."
"Unhappiness is seeing incorrectly."
"Always be positive!"
Joan meditated for a while, then got down to business, recruiting students to go to New York to meet Frederick Lenz, a self-proclaimed guru who calls
himself Zen Master Rama.
Three nights a week - at the University of Pennsylvania, the Moore College of Art and Temple University, Center City - Lenz devotees run these free sessions, which they say will lead the way toward universal enlightenment.
But not everyone who follows Lenz is a devotee.
Just about everywhere his disciples surface, another organization, Lenz- Watch, arrives, warning would-be disciples that many of his followers end up suffering financially, mentally and physically.
Soon after Lenz's devotees began advertising their workshops in Philadelphia this summer, Walter and Julie Jacobs, city residents whose daughter Jennifer is a Lenz follower, initiated a local campaign against Lenz.
Walter Jacobs is director of the Philadelphia office of an international advertising agency, The Rubicon Group; Julie Jacobs is a professor at the satellite branches of Pennsylvania State University. Both are founding members of Lenz-Watch.
"It's important for people to know about this man," Julie Jacobs says. ''It's a cult. He takes our kids, and he destroys them. And that's what those recruiting sessions . . . those meditation seminars are all about."
Lenz-Watch now routinely produces former Lenz disciples who accuse him of being a fraud, of using their money to finance a lavish lifestyle, of trying to force them to have sex with him, and being a "predator" who stalks unknowing young adults.
Such criticisms have been lodged against Lenz since 1988, which was also the last time he personally denied the charges in public - once in an interview with CNN talk show host Larry King and once on the program A Current Affair.
On the shows, Lenz denied extorting money from followers for his own pleasure - they pay for seminars, he said. He denied sexually abusing female students. And he denied commanding people to do anything - "I just have people who go to my seminars," he said.
"I try to teach people to be happy in a stressed-out society," he told King. "And it's impossible to please everyone."
Lenz portrayed himself as a victim of the Cult Awareness Network, a group that disseminates information about what it considers to be cults in America. The network, Lenz said, has targeted his group because it wants to prevent Buddhism from spreading in this country.
Lenz has since refused to talk to the press, instead issuing summary statements, denying every charge made against him. Two weeks ago, a Lenz spokeswoman told The Inquirer that allegations against Lenz "are . . . science fiction."
Lenz, 42, stepped into the world of spiritualism during college in the 1970s as a disciple of Sri Chinmoy, an Indian-born guru and peace advocate based in New York.
In 1979, Chinmoy sent Lenz and other disciples to California to start a meditation center in San Diego. Soon after he arrived on the West Coast, Lenz announced that he had become "enlightened" and started his own religious group.
Around that time, Lenz began to change, said Mark Laxer, a former student and disaffected friend of Lenz's, who is writing a book about his experiences in the organization.
"Early on, he was into trying to make millions of people happy, and that was sort of a rallying cry for us," Laxer said. "In the very beginning he wasn't saying he was a demigod or the Anti-Christ. That came later."
Lenz began encouraging followers to become computer programmers and to distance themselves from family and friends, and he promised to show them the path to nirvana, said Laxer and other ex-students.
Lenz began calling himself Zen Master Rama in 1983, after his following began growing and disciples by the hundreds were calling him guru.
The gateway to Lenz's group - which is limited to people between the ages of 18 and 29 - has always been through "meditation workshops." In the early years, Lenz taught the sessions himself, offering what he calls a modern Buddhism for Americans, but which ex-followers say is a perversion of Buddhism that encourages careers, sex and wealth.
The allegations against Lenz began emerging in 1988, when his following was at its height of about 1,000 people. That year, he moved from California to the East Coast, taking many disciples with him, Laxer said.
The allegations continue.
Mark Lurtsema said he attended Rama's meditation seminars for six years,
from April 1984 to April 1990, mostly in New York City. By then, he said, tuition for the sessions had reached as much as $5,000 a month for two meetings with Lenz and for the opportunity to work in software-development organizations that Lenz established.
Lurtsema said Lenz's tuition rose steadily over the years, from $100 a month in 1984. Lenz gave the group various reasons for the price increase, Lurtsema said, telling it at one point that he needed to establish a war chest to protect him from lawsuits, and at another that he needed $6 million a year to "spread the dharma" to other people.
Lurtsema, who said his position among the most advanced devotees gave him a close-up view of Lenz's lifestyle, said Lenz spent much of the money on
"What he really did was buy two cars and a nice house," Lurtsema said. ''He wore expensive clothing and had a good time, at our expense."
Meanwhile, the students lived sparsely, Lurtsema said, and most of them were strapped for money.
Despite the financial drain, many Lenz followers said they felt compelled to stay with the guru for years. "I was told for years and years and years that I was missing something inside that could only be filled by my teacher," Lurtsema said.
Lenz fostered self-doubt in his followers by telling them they were unhappy
because they tried to do things their own way, rather than follow his program for spiritual enlightenment, said Frances Cole of Connecticut, who was a follower for six years. He also told them they were possessed by dark entities that only he could rid them of.
Lenz would speak for long stretches of time, always in a quiet, soothing voice that lulled people into believing he was sincere, Cole said.
Many students who believed Lenz was a trustworthy guru leading them to enlightenment were devastated when they concluded that he was only interested in money and power, she said. "It's like having a priest molest you," Cole said.
Laxer, who said he considered Lenz his best friend for the seven years he was involved in the group and who lived with Lenz for three of those years, said he was drawn by Lenz's charisma, sensitivity and ability to intertwine Eastern philosophy with literature and topics of American pop culture, like movies, bestsellers and music.
Laxer said he went with Lenz from Stony Brook to San Diego in 1979, and helped the guru start his own center.
"He is a very captivating speaker, and a very kind person inside," Laxer said. "Deep down, he's a very special person who's vulnerable, and sort of a victim of himself."
Kristi Patten, a 20-year-old from Seattle, said she first met Lenz last January at a formal dinner for disciples in Los Angeles. Soon after that, Patten said, she moved to Berkeley to study computers because that is what Lenz wanted. She demanded a car from her parents, broke up with her longtime boyfriend, and distanced herself from her family, all because members of Lenz's group told her she needed to do so for spiritual growth, she said.
In late February, Patten said, Lenz invited her to his posh Long Island home for a week to see if she wanted him for a teacher, she said.
No sooner had she arrived, she said, than Lenz began pushing her to have sex with him.
"We were in the house all alone," Patten said. "He wanted to have sex, but I said 'no.' He got very upset, and didn't stop. He physically hurt me. When I left, I had the feeling that something was wrong with me."
Two weeks ago, Lenz spokeswoman Lisa Lewinson in New York declined to listen to any of the specific allegations by Patten, Lurtsema, Cole, Laxer, the Jacobses and others. Instead, she read a general denial: "Dr. Lenz and his associates categorically deny these and other allegations made about him and his program. We feel the allegations are based on paranoia, and we call them science fiction."
Lewinson blamed the accusations on the Cult Awareness Network, which she said is trying to destroy religious groups and is "anti-First Amendment."
"In my view, there are very few destructive cults. It's a religion to the people in them," she said. Then Lewinson compared the network to people who blow up abortion clinics, taking away a woman's right to choose.
"They're taking away our right to choose," she said.
Julie and Walter Jacobs don't see it that way. Their daughter Jennifer has been a Rama follower for eight years and, they said, she has become a different person.
She cut off all communication with her family for years, the Jacobses said, and when they talk to her - infrequently now - she seems suspicious, serious and unhappy. She no longer has a sense of humor and has stopped playing the
piano, a passion she had since childhood, they said. She gives them no address and no phone number, yet accuses them of giving information out to people who call and harass her, they said.
The Jacobses said Jennifer would not discuss Lenz or the accusations against him; instead, she spouts dogma or cuts them off when the topic comes up. At times, she demands that they break off all ties to other Lenz-Watch parents, they said.
Lenz's spokeswoman, Lewinson, said The Inquirer would not be allowed to interview Jennifer Jacobs.
The Jacobses say their primary motivation is to have Jennifer back, and to start a new relationship with her. But they say they are also driven now to warn other young people in Philadelphia to stay away from Zen Master Rama's meditation sessions at Temple, Moore College of Art and International House.
"We don't want other people to have to go through this like we did," Julie Jacobs said. "It's not right. It's just not right."