"We use more discriminating intelligence when we buy a used car than when we buy a religion,” says philosophy professor and cult-buster David Christopher Lane. “Buying a used car you at least look underneath the hood, hit the tires, maybe take it to a mechanic to check it out. But in buying a religion, you’re supposed to wear these narrow blinders, so that if anybody disagrees you can block it out. It’s basically, check your brains at the door when you join a religion."
For the past 20 years, Lane’s books and articles accusing several new religious movements of plagiarisms, lies, inconsistencies, and scandals have raised a fury among true believers. According to Lane, members of various cults have threatened lawsuits, written him letters with skeletons on them, broken into his apartment, made death threats, and generally harassed him.
Lane’s no longer an easy man to find. He lives in the San Diego area, but the location is a closely guarded secret. He has no phone. “I actually kept my phone for years,” explains Lane, “until...one night when you’re asleep and you’ve got to get up at four in the morning and go to school, you get a phone call saying, ‘We’re going to fucking kill you.’ You know what I mean? It gets tiresome.”
For ten years I was a member of Eckankar,one of the groups Lane has written about most extensively. His critique was instrumental in my dropping out of Eckankar in the early ’80s. I anticipate our talk with a mixture of excitement and anxiety. Apparently Lane has equally conflicted feelings about me. Initially he refuses to come to the Hillcrest home where I’m staying, preferring to meet in a nearby restaurant. Since I don’t want to play the awkward game of trying to figure out who one another is in public, I haggle. “I’m worried about getting lost,” he says, exasperated. “But it’s just a few blocks off University.”
Finally, he agrees to come to the house, but I’m doubtful that he will really appear. With only a post office box and an answering service to connect me to him, Lane seems as slippery as Houdini. With the blink of an eye, he could vanish forever.
Lane does arrive, at one o’clock Thursday afternoon, on time to the minute. I open the door to a boyish 38-year-old with a full head of healthy brown hair. He’s told me he surfs, and in his knee-length khaki shorts, plum-colored T-shirt, and sandals, he looks like a surfer. His clothes seem to be tossed onto his rather stocky body.
He extends his hand and smiles broadly. “Hi, I’m Dave." Sizing up his clean, homogenized attractiveness, I think, “Tuck in his shirt and he could be on one of those infomercials, beside a pool selling motivational tapes — how to lose weight, gain friends, make it rich in real estate with no money down.” We spend roughly nine hours together, spread over two days.
Sitting at a table outside Monsoon at Village Hillcrest, surrounded by potted plants and curving walls of mango orange, gold, deep purple, and rusty red, Lane sips a Coke and tells me the history of his involvement with alternative religious movements.
At 17, Lane, who was raised Catholic in the San Fernando Valley, became interested in Radhasoami, a branch of surat shabd yoga founded in India in the 19th Century. In 1978, after five years of study, he was initiated into Radhasoami in India by the late Maharaj Charan Singh.
In 1977, noting the similarities between Radhasoami and Eckankar, a religious movement founded in San Diego in 1965 by the late Paul Twitchell, Lane wrote a term paper comparing the two for an undergraduate religious studies class at California State University-Northridge. In the course of his research, Lane discovered information that led him to believe that Twitchell copied “whole chapters from Radhasoami texts, lied about biographical details,” and misled people concerning the origin of Eckankar’s doctrines.
Lane leans across the cafe table, excitedly tapping his straw. “I found all this fun, interesting stuff. I talked to Twitchell’s first wife. Nobody knew he’d been married before. I was excited — 20 years old, in the moment of discovering something new. I had huge phone bills, because I had called this professor or this person. So I sent my term paper to Eckankar, and then they turned around two months later and said they were going to sue me if I published it. So, I’m not scared of attorneys. My family is full of attorneys. Naturally the threat made me want to do more research. If they’re going to sue you about a 120-page term paper when you’re 20 years old, you know something’s up."
The following year Lane wrote a second paper, “The Making of a Spiritual Movement: The Untold Story of Paul Twitchell and Eckankar.” “I was obsessed,” Lane admits. “I was on the Holy Grail of research."
Through a process that Lane himself does not completely understand, someone photocopied this manuscript and circulated it around the country. As the great Houdini wrote, “The yellow thread of exposure seems to be inextricably woven into all fabrics whose strength is secrecy.” Houdini, like Lane, was a man whose obsessions drove him to expose religious frauds.
James Peebles, an Eckist and fellow classmate of Lane’s, also wrote a paper on Eckankar. The two students shared notes. “Peebles,” says Lane, “got so disgruntled when he realized there was some kind of fraud being perpetuated that he wrote Eckankar himself about these findings.” Peebles returned to his Baptist roots and sent his paper to Professor Ed Gruss of the Los Angeles Baptist College. An Eckankar representative, claiming to be a member of the Berkeley-based anti-cult group Spiritual Counterfeits Project, asked Gruss for a copy of Peebles’s report. The report made claims of tax irregularities and personal misconduct by an Eckankar leader. Eckankar then threatened Gruss with a $2.5 million lawsuit for “publishing” Peebles’s paper, for making a photocopy of it.
In the meantime, Lane graduated from Northridge, visited India, and enrolled at the Graduate Theological Union in Berkeley, where in 1979 he met Brian Walsh. “He wanted to make my research more available. So he puts up a thousand bucks and out comes this funky. Xeroxed, self-published book with a weird cover.” Within three weeks of its publication, The Making of a Spiritual Movement sold out.
Around the same time, the Spiritual Counterfeits Project published its own journal, Eckankar, a Hard Look at a New Religion, based largely on line’s manuscript, which they distributed to nearly every Eck center i in the world. Disillusioned Eckists left the movement in droves. Eckankar set up a meeting with Lane at its international headquarters in Menlo Park.
“Were you nervous?” I ask.
“No, I was excited that somebody would pay attention to my research,” Lane exclaims. “I think they expected somebody who was more academic looking. This was ’79, 15 years ago. I looked like a little kid. I’m a surfer, so I had this surfer hair and a turtleneck. They were dressed up in suits. They had this little tape recorder, and I was impressed — I thought it was very professional. And they looked at me like, ‘What’s this geek doing?’ We sat down, and they were really uptight, because they knew the impact of my research. So I said, 'You guys can get out of this simply, just explain that Twitchell plagiarized. And just explain that Twitchell covered up his life.’ The upshot of it was, they didn’t do anything.”
Lane tried in vain to place his controversial book with a major publisher. In 1983 Lane and Brian Walsh issued a glossier version of The Making of a Spiritual Movement through their own Del Mar Press. Eckankar threatened a lawsuit for the inappropriate use of their trademark symbol on the book’s cover. With the popularity of the Ghostbusters logo. Lane and Walsh had put a circle with a slash through it over Eckankar’s logo, which is “EK” formed into a circle. Del Mar Press agreed to change the cover on future editions. The Making of a Spiritual Movement, which is not advertised or available in bookstores, has sold more than 10,000 copies.
Finally, in 1992, Garland, a publisher of hardback reference books, accepted Lane’s manuscript for its library series. Eckankar got wind of the new edition, and their lawyers began corresponding with Garland. Although the book was already typeset. Garland decided to withdraw it.
Lane’s green eyes turn serious. “Be very careful with Eckankar. When they find out you’re talking to me, I guarantee that their lawyers will write. I’m sure of it.” He taps his finger on the table. “Actually, Eckankar is the one who has kept me going because they keep [after] me every time I try to come out with something. They sent letters about me claiming I was the negative force, that I was predicted from the beginning of mankind.”
In just one of Paul Twitchell’s books. The Far Country, Lane claims to have found more than 400 “plagiarized” paragraphs. Lane smiles to himself as if he were envisioning Paul Twitchell hunched over some Radhasoami text, scribbling away. “I don’t mean just an idea or a thought, I’m talking about the reproduction of grammatical mistakes, semicolon misuse. I’m talking about the very form of that truth being copied. Not the truth itself. I don’t know what that is.”
So who was this mysterious Paul Twitchell? He claimed to have been born on a boat on the Mississippi a few minutes after a great earthquake shook the mid-South and formed a lake in its wake. (Such a quake did occur in 1812.) Twitchell told his second wife, Gail, that he was born in the early ’20s. Lane’s research indicates, however, that Twitchell was born between 1908 and 1912, in Paducah, Kentucky.
During the ’30s and ’40s, Twitchell was a prolific writer. He’s listed in Ripley's Believe It or Not as having sold an article every day. The Courier-Journal magazine, to which he was a regular contributor, reported that he sold 1800 stories and articles in three years.
In 1942, after a stint in the Navy, Twitchell moved to New York, where he continued his journalism career, attended many churches, and read extensively on spiritual subjects. A job as a correspondent for Our Navy took him to Washington, D.C. in 1945. There he and »his first wife, Camille, joined the Self-Revelation Church of Absolute Monism, a system of yoga founded by Swami Premananda. In 1950 the Twitchells moved to the church compounds, but five years later Twitchell was asked to leave the church for “personal misconduct.” That same year he and his wife separated. Their divorce was final in 1960.
After leaving the Self-Revelation Church, Twitchell dove into the Radhasoami movement. Radhasoami is a yogic teaching that, according to Lane, “is designed to enable the soul or consciousness to ascend beyond the physical body to higher spiritual regions by means of an internal sound or life current.” Central to the teachings of Radhasoami, continues Lane, “is the necessity of a living human master competent in initiating disciples into the practice and technique of listening to the inner sound, contemplating the inner light, and leaving the human body at will.” The Indian guru Kirpal Singh figures prominently in Twitchell’s early writing. Eight years later he broke with Kirpal Singh and thereafter denied any involvement with him. In the late ’50s, Twitchell also became a staff member of L. Ron Hubbard’s Church of Scientology, another association that would later be denied.
Twitchell married his second wife, Gail Atkinson, in San Francisco in 1964. Shortly afterward, Twitchell claimed, a 500-year-old Tibetan monk, Rebazar Tarzs, appeared to him and instructed him to move to San Diego. Twitchell was living in Point Loma in 1965 when he started teaching workshops and selling booklets on how to leave your body. On October 22, 1965, Twitchell claimed to have received the Rod of Power from Rebazar Tarzs, becoming the 971st Living Eck Master. Eckankar, the Ancient Science of Soul Travel, was officially founded.
“For a year and a half or two years,” says Lane, “it was a shoestring operation. He was advertising in Fate magazine, Orion magazine, Cosmic Star." In one article Lane shows me, Twitchell is reported to have piercing blue eyes, to sleep only four hours a night, to read 5000 words a minute, to eat little, and to have “the ability to be in all places at the same time.”
Eckankar took off like wildfire, growing from three students to thousands in less than three years. Today it is perhaps the most successful religious movement to come out of the ’60s, claiming a worldwide membership in the tens of thousands.
The teachings of Eckankar are presented to the public through books, free brochures, advertised meetings and lectures, and, of course, word of mouth. According to one brochure, which invites me to “experience the miracle of spiritual growth” and to “climb the stairway to spiritual freedom,” Eckankar membership is said to be renewable on a yearly basis.
Members receive a monthly “discourse,” which they have the option of studying alone or in classes. The suggested annual membership donation for individuals is $120, a bargain in the miracles-and-freedom market. A representative at the Eckankar international office assured me that no one is turned away for lack of funds.
Eckankar, which is now called the Religion of Light and Sound, teaches that each individual is Soul inhabiting a human body. Soul, being a spark of God, is on a journey to find its way home to God, or the Sugmad. Eckankar is the most direct path to becoming a “coworker with the Sugmad.” Initiations link Soul to the Eck (Holy Spirit), which can be seen as light and heard as sound. Followers of Eckankar believe that beyond the physical world there are many other realms existing at higher vibratory rates. Through daily spiritual exercises, one can shift one’s awareness from the physical world and soul travel to these higher planes. In order to burn off all their karma in this lifetime and to be released from the cycle of death and reincarnation, Eckists practice detachment from the vagaries of life. This is not seen as coldness or indifference but as a precursor to unconditional love.
The Living Eck Master acts as the organizational head and as a guide to the aspirant’s spiritual journey. The inner form of the Living Eck Master, known as the Mahanta, works with students in the “dreamstate” and during their spiritual exercises. The Living Eck Master descends from an unbroken line of Vairagi Masters. Any of these 900-plus masters may appear to spiritual seekers on the inner planes or in the physical world, often in disguise. The beggar you meet on the street may really be an Eck Master. At one Eckankar seminar in Florida, a panhandler happened to station himself outside the hotel where the seminar was held. Eckists left and right were smiling at the guy, stopping for long chats, and tossing money into his cup. The perplexed beggar was in hog heaven. And who knows? He may have been Rebazar Tarzs.
Writing this summary of beliefs, I consulted Eckankar materials, but I didn’t need to. After giving lectures and teaching Eckankar classes for ten years, I already knew them well.
In Eckankar there is a technique called the Golden-Tongued Wisdom, in which you find spiritual guidance through an overheard conversation, a voice on the radio, or the lyrics of a popular song. A line will leap out and inspire you. “I’m a fool to want you,” quivers Billie Holiday through my stereo speakers. Was I a fool to want Eckankar? I don’t think so. In the early ’70s, when I joined, I was dysfunctionally shy, a borderline agoraphobic, afraid to talk to salesladies in department stores. Besides my straight As, I had nothing to give me a sense of self-worth. In Eckankar, since everyone is Soul, everyone is worthy. As Eckankar filled my life, I felt like I was entering Shangri-la; a new glistening world of love, of possibility opened before me. I gave up drugs, and my grades went down.
While a few people I met were off-the-wall, Eckists in general make wonderfiil friends, kind, caring, nonjudgmental. Operating, as I do now, in a professional arts world in which people want a r£sum£ before deciding whether to talk to you, I miss the support of the Eckankar community. And the sex — though Eckankar in no way encourages sexual contact among its members — with that degree of trust and the sense of two souls meeting, the sex was great. I was 21. My only regrets were that I sold all my rock albums to pay for my membership.
Lane’s research into Eckankar is meticulously documented. The Making of a Spiritual Movement is, in fact, so well documented that at times it reads like a 200-page footnote. It lacks the wit, passion, and narrative drive of his other books. Lane, like his counterpart Houdini, seems shackled. Two figures emerge from the stilted style: the protean Paul Twitchell and his young, vivacious wife Gail, who, after Twitchell’s death, married his successor, Darwin Gross, in a Dynasty-like power play that troubled and thrilled the faithful.
Lane attributes the initial success of Eckankar to Gail’s organizational abilities. “She’s very clean and clear about her business acumen. Everybody I’ve ever talked to who knows Gail says she’s a very sharp person. And Twitchell was also very sharp, but maybe not sharp business-wise. He never had much money. Combine these two forces, the creativity of Paul Twitchell with the organizational skills of Gail — ” Lane opens his hands in a gesture indicating anything could happen. “I don’t think Twitchell imagined that Eckankar would blossom the way it did. It went through the roof a lot quicker than he expected. It’s the reason, I believe, that he plagiarized so blatantly.”
“Because he had to get a lot done?”
“You got it. The way to get more income is to have new material,” speculates Lane. “Imagine it — you’ve got a lot of new clientele out there ready to buy your stuff. To come up with original material takes time, and time is money. Dr. Bluth, Twitchell’s personal doctor and vice president of Eckankar at the time, has confirmed that he gave Twitchell books from the Radhasoami library.
“His earlier writings didn’t really talk about Rebazar Tarzs.” (The 500-year-old bearded Tibetan monk Rebazar Tarzs wears a maroon robe, carries in his powerful right hand a huge walking staff, and speaks with a musical voice. He’s a character who has seized the imaginations of Eckists as completely as Ahab or Falstaff has seized ours.) “Instead, Twitchell wrote about Kirpal Singh and Swami Premananda. Now what do you do when your group is charging money and does not follow any of the restrictions of this Indian group it evolved out of, one whose teachings are free? So I came upon this theory called genealogical dissociation. Simply put, Twitchell cut his connection with Radhasoami for good marketing reasons. He had to make it seem like it’s his own creation, because if he linked the two he’d lose his potential clientele.”
It was to hide these past connections. Lane believes, that Twitchell created the unbroken line of Vairagi Eck Masters, dating back some six million years to Gakko, who emigrated from the planet Venus. “Understandably, he changed the names of his sources, because he didn’t want people to know about his past. Remember, he’d been kicked out of Swami Premananda’s church in 1955. His previous associations were tainted. It got to the point that it became a mythology in which Twitchell couldn’t remember all the names. On tape Twitchell is asked about Rebazar Tarzs. In what century was he born? He totally doesn’t know; he doesn’t know what the guy’s talking about. 'Oh...oh! Rebazar Tarzs, yeah, that Rebazar Tarzs. ’ Understand, he’s got names coming out of the woodwork.”
“So who do you think Rebazar Tarzs really is?”
“Probably a composite cover name for three people: Guru Nanak, the founder of Sikhism, which was started 500 years ago; Sawan Singh, who was Kirpal Singh’s guru; and Swami Premananda. Whereas Sudar Singh [another memorable character in Twitchell’s cosmology] is...Kirpal Singh.” In The Making of a Spiritual Movement, Lane quotes many passages from Twitchell’s magazine articles written in the ’60s in which Twitchell cites Swami Premananda, Kirpal Singh, Meher Baba, Guru Nanak, Kabir, and even Jesus. Lane then quotes these same passages as they were later reproduced, usually word for word, in Eckankar books, with the names changed to the o Eck Masters Sudar Singh, Fubbi Quantz, Rebazar Tarzs, Lai Tsi, j and Gopal Das.
Lane and his friends playfully call one another by the names " of Eck Masters. Lane places his hand to his face like a phone » receiver, “Hi, Fubbi, this is Gakko.” I choke down the last gulp of my Green Garden vegetable cocktail and ask,. “Where do you think Twitchell got these names?”
Lane says, “He got them from his Indian books on Radhasoami, or Julian Johnson’s The Path of the Masters, or from With a Great Master in India. He came up with the name Sudar Singh from the name Sudarshan Singh — he just cut off the ‘shan’ part of it and put ‘Sudar.’ Usually he mixes Indian names with Chinese names [from] popular Tibetan or Taoist books, and he’ll conflate the two. An example is Jagat Ho. Now, ‘Jagat’ is actually the first name of a Radhasoami guru named Jagat Singh. Then he took the ‘Ho,’ and he put the two words together. He does that all the time.
“Once when I was driving down to Baja on one of my frequent surf trips,” he continues, “I noticed to my amazement a highway sign that said ‘Rebasar.’ I don’t know exactly what it means — ‘No Passing,’ or something like that. I said to myself, I bet this is where Twitchell got the name Rebazar Tarzs! Remember, when Twitchell founded Eckankar in 1965, he was living in San Diego, at Point Loma. I would not put it past Twitchell to have simply coined the name from one of his trips to Baja.”
For tax purposes Twitchell moved Eckankar to Las Vegas, but he maintained residence in San Diego for the rest of his life. When he died in 1971, he was living in Del Mar. Lane asks me if I want to see Twitchell’s Del Mar home. “Sure!” But when we go to the Hillcrest Village parking garage to retrieve Lane’s car he can’t find it. As we wander aimlessly back and forth between the second and third levels of the garage, I smile at my surfer companion’s inability to negotiate this concrete urban maze. Clearly he is more comfortable with the fluid topography of waves, of meditation, of philosophical inquiry. Finally, as a last resort, Lane suggests we exit the parking garage and then walk down the ramp where we drove in. Lane imagines himself driving, “Let me see, I turned left here, now right, then I drove straight for a bit.” Using this gyroscopic homing pigeon technique, he leads me straight to his little white Nissan.
Once we get to Del Mar, Lane pulls to the side of the road and examines a copy of Twitchell’s death certificate to get the exact address. “Here it is. Pine Avenue, right next to where I was living when I was doing my books in the ’80s. If I had a really good arm, I could have thrown a baseball up the hill, without gravity, and maybe hit his house.”
“Did you know this before you moved there?”
“No, I had no idea.”
We drive over and park a few blocks from the beach, in front of a posh, two-story wooden house with a cobblestone drive, surrounded by Torrey pines. Lane leans down to better peer through his window. “I don’t remember it looking this way,” he says pensively. “I don’t remember it being this nice. I don’t remember that second story. It’s a bitchin’ house.”
I ask Lane to tell me about Twitchell’s mysterious death. Many Eckists regard this death with the same mixture of awe and curiosity with which we regard the death of JFK. I figure Lane knows plenty about this. But he refuses to reveal details for publication and will only repeat the facts as listed on the death certificate. Twitchell died of a heart attack around one o’clock in the morning on September 17, 1971, in Cincinnati, Ohio. The story he tells me off-the-record, however, is filled with enough ardor and drama to qualify as an alternate ending to Citizen Kane.
“But, Dave,” I whine, “why won’t you talk about it on tape?” “Because I have a certain kind of respect for him, a kind of sweet affection. There’s certain things I left out of the book, and one of them is the night Twitchell died. There’s lots of stuff I know about Eckankar, lots of stuff that is real juicy and real scandalous, but I wanted to limit my book to some major salient features about plagiarism and cover-up. What I found was so obvious that anybody could have discovered it. It wasn’t just David Lane’s personal opinion. I have nice feelings toward Eckankar. I don’t have a real axe to grind.”
At a Hillcrest cafe, Lane confides, “The people who scare me are John-Roger’s people, not Eckankar’s.” John-Roger Hinkins, founder of the Church of the Movement of Spiritual Inner Awareness (MSI A, pronounced “Messiah”), has gotten a lot of bad press lately. Last year, former cult member Peter McWilliams published a scathing tell-all, Life 102: What to Do When Your Guru Sues You; November’s Vanity Fair linked Arianna Huffington’s allegiance to MSIA to her husband’s unsuccessful senate campaign; and the March issue of Playboy ran a detailed expose. But Lane had the jump on all of them when back in 1984 he wrote “The J.R. Controversy; A Critical Analysis of John-Roger Hinkins and MSIA.”
Lane pays for my coffee and his Coke, and we sit down at a small, dark table. The walls are covered with Andrea Zuill’s dramatically lit oil paintings of monstrous chalky-fleshed zombies. I imagine them as the tormented souls of all the cultists who have lost their faith because of Lane.
“John-Roger was a follower of Eckankar,” begins Lane. “In ’68 he was a ‘convener,’ which means he held Eck satsangs [classes) in his home in Rosemead, California. After a year or so, he branched off and started his own group, MSIA, claiming that in 1963 he had a kidney stone operation and that after nine days of being in a coma he had been commissioned to be the Mystical Traveler Consciousness.” At first Hinkins thought it was the legendary Rebazar Tarzs who came to him on the inner planes and passed on the “keys” to the Kingdom, but later, after seeing a photo of Radhasoami guru Sawan Singh, Hinkins decided that it was really Sawan Singh who had given him the mantle.
Browsing in a bookstore one day, Lane stumbled upon one of John-Roger’s books and noticed it was very similar to Eckankar. “You can imagine how I felt,” exclaims Lane. “This was in ’76 or ’77, and I was 20 years old, so it’s like All the President's Men. I wrote to him, and he wrote a real nice letter back, saying that we should get together and talk. This guy’s pretty smart, because he knows that if he pays attention to me, that’s a good way of buying me off, so he can spin-doctor my research. He invited me to his house in Mandeville Canyon, a beautiful house, a mansion. I was very naive. The minute he saw me he canceled all of his appointments and spent six hours with me.”
Lane leans across the table toward me and grins. “I never thought he was gay until everybody said, 'Heilo-o, looks like he likes you a little too much, Dave.’ One of his major disciples, Victor Toso, later revealed that he had kind of a quasicrush on me.”
“Did John-Roger ever make any moves on you?”
“No, no, no, no.”
“I was flattered that here was a spiritual master who was spending hours with me instead of dissing me or suing me. He wanted to know every dirty piece of laundry on Twitchell and Eckankar. He was obsessed. He used to send me Christmas cards, he gave me his personal phone number, and he offered me $5000 to help with my research on Eckankar.”
“Did you take any money?”
Lane shakes his head. “No. I kind of [thought he was a fraud, but at the time he was being nice to me so I wasn’t in the mood to expose him. Well, the upshot of it is, we were friendly for five years, and then in 1983 four of his closest disciples defected. They knew what I had done with Eckankar, and they thought, ‘Well, he can do this with J.R.’ So there was a secret meeting in a Santa Monica condominium with these defectors. Very top secret, for they were really scared of upsetting John-Roger. I taped them for five hours.” The accusations leveled against Hinkins included embezzling money, plagiarizing from the teachings of Paul Twitchell and others, skirting zoning laws, illegally obtaining airfare discounts, setting up tape recorders throughout his house to obtain information that he would later use to appear psychic, and sexual misconduct.
Lane pauses and thinks for a bit. “This is where I’ve got to be careful. Everybody’s sexuality is different than everybody else’s. I imagine we have a wide spectrum. The problem is that John-Roger claims to be celibate. His disciples told me he would pick a guy every night out of the staff and claim that they needed to have sex with him in order to increase their aura — or they needed, pardon my language, a rectal innerphase in order to burn off karma.”
“He has thus thing called aura innerphasing, where you do aura balancing, soul balancing, etheric balancing. The disciples felt used and manipulated for spiritual reasons.”
After the secret meeting. Lane phoned Hinkins to ask him about these charges. “He went nuts. The courtship was over. Man, it was a nasty conversation. I told him I didn’t plan to write about him, but letters [started going] around the country saying that I was a gay FBI agent in San Diego, that I had researchers working for me that I wasn’t paying. Some letters contained threats against me and my informants. In one he refers to me as ‘Lane the widower.’ So then I wrote ‘The J.R. Controversy’ for a new journal called Understanding Cults. When it came out, I got a 25-page letter from a group called the Coalition for Civil and Spiritual Freedom. It never existed. It was a P.O. box with John-Roger’s own name signed to it.”
Four or five months later, on October 5, 1984, Lane’s apartment in Del Mar was burglarized. Lane is convinced John-Roger was involved. “I was teaching at UC-San Diego at the time. I came home around 12:30 in the afternoon, and the place was ransacked. I mean, I couldn’t get in the door, so I had to climb through the bedroom window. The bed was overturned, drawers were everywhere. The phone wire had been disconnected. And there was a big note on a box that said, ‘NO MORE.’ No jewelry was gone — only research stuff, including materials for my doctoral dissertation.”
“He took my wife’s personal diaries, a camera which he must have thought had film in it, videotapes, an address book, and my recipe file containing my favorite recipe for Del Mar lentil loaf. He probably thought my recipe file was written in code and had secret information, or something like that. I called John-Roger immediately. I got one of his disciples. I said, 'Where was John-Roger yesterday?’ The guy turned totally paranoid. His voice changed, ‘Well, we can’t reveal that information.’ ‘Was he in San Diego?’ No reply. The next day Channel 8 news came out and did as their lead story ‘Cult Researcher Robbed.’ They took a copy of my article The J.R. Controversy.’ But they didn’t name John-Roger.”
About four weeks later Lane’s guru in India, Charan Singh, received a letter, supposedly from another follower in San Diego, criticizing Lane and quoting from his wife’s stolen diaries. Charan Singh forwarded it to Lane. That same week, Hinkins wrote to Lane assuring him that he wanted to be friends again and that he had nothing to do with the robbery. Hinkins also wrote to Charan Singh asking him to use his influence to get lane to stop doing research on him. According to Lane, all three letters are printed in the same typeface with the same malfunctioning capital A.
“Then,” Lane says excitedly, “John-Roger committed the biggest mistake. He took my wife’s diaries and made hand-written notes in the margins. ‘Should I send this to the IRS?’ 'Should I send this to Eckankar?’ Little notes he was making to himself. Then he mailed some of the stolen documents anonymously to Eckankar under the assumption that they would use it against me and I would think Eckankar robbed my house. But Eckankar’s attorneys mailed the package back to me. It [had been mailed originally] from a P.O. box that John-Roger had personally paid for. The guy’s like an idiot, right? And so I had handwriting analysis done on the writing on the diaries and on that NO MORE sign. Two different analysts verified they were all written by John-Roger Hinkins. Moreover, people within John-Roger’s group have confirmed that on the day of the robbery he was in San Diego.”
Lane didn’t sue Hinkins, but he did go public with his story. In Understanding Cults, Lane published “The Criminal Activities of John-Roger Hinkins,” a laborious account of Hinkins’s alleged break-in and smear campaign. He also gave full accounts to the San Diego Sheriff s Department and to numerous news agencies. “On the Marie Vega [TV] show in Los Angeles, I said, ‘John-Roger Hinkins robbed my house.’ He threatened to sue the TV station for a million dollars if they ever ran the program again. But they kept running it, and he never sued them.”
In August 1988, the Los Angeles Times published an extensive two-part critique of John-Roger’s activities, based on Lane’s research. Lane also appeared on Geraldo Rivera’s Now It Can Be Told. “Geraldo was in New York, and I was on satellite hookup at Universal Studios in the San Fernando Valley. ‘The Cadillac of Cults. Are your tax dollars being spent by this group?’ So they interviewed me, and I had this rainbow tie on, and Geraldo and I were going at each other. I said, ‘Yeah, Geraldo, this guy robbed my house, he did this he did this he did that — ’ all on national TV. I just went off on him. At this stage, Peter McWilliams, the guy who later wrote Life 102, was still pro-John-Roger, so he was putting his hands on the camera, that kind of scene, when they tried to interview John-Roger. So you get this juxtaposition, Lane really going off on John-Roger and McWilliams trying to protect J.R.’s reputation.” *
After such an exhausting chronicle, I feebly inquire, “Are you still doing research on John-Roger?”
Lane takes a deep breath. “No.”
Several hundred members of Eckankar live in the San Diego area, but not all of them participate in local events. Although no meetings are required, the local Eckankar newsletter lists a variety of classes, book discussions, Hu chants, and lectures. Many events are open to the public, including the Sunday worship services, which tackle spiritual topics of broad interest. Last April the current Living Eck Master, Harold Klemp, spoke at a three-day “major seminar” at the San Diego Marriott Hotel & Marina. Each year Eckankar holds three of these U.S. seminars, which can draw 6000-plus people.
Three local Eckists agreed to speak with me. Late one afternoon, I visit transpersonal psychologist Charles Richards at his office in Del Mar. I’m greeted by a tall, handsome black man with a mustache and short-cropped hair graying slightly at the temples. He looks professional but not stuffy in his blue suit jacket, gray shirt, and black boots. As we shake hands I notice he’s wearing a gold ring with an embossed EK logo. Around his neck hangs a similar pendant. When I sit down on the cream-colored day bed, he suggests I might be more comfortable in the armchair facing him. On the wall to my right is a framed print of the yin-yang symbol with a feather fixed to it.
In 1978 Richards moved from North Carolina to San Diego to pursue his graduate training in psychology. Besides working as a therapist, Richards has taught at the University of Humanistic Studies and is an adjunct staff member of the Center for Creative Leadership in La lolla, an organization that specializes in executive management training. He also does private executive coaching. He is a reserved man whose dimpled smile betrays a sense of humor. On the desk behind him sits a teddy bear.
When I ask him what Eckankar’s position is on Lane’s research, Richards, who’s been in Eckankar for 20 years, says he doesn’t know. “Basically, I feel that David Lane is making a name for himself by being an antagonist to Eckankar. Everybody has a right to pursue whatever interest they have. He focuses a lot on past things, Paul Twitchell and how much his writings look like the writings of a teaching Lane happens to be in. That’s his axe to grind with Eckankar. You can get in a debate over whether one paragraph in one of Paul Twitchell’s writings looks like a paragraph in somebody else’s writings, but that has nothing to do with your spiritual experiences and the confirmation you get personally through the teachings and your work with the inner master. To me, if people want to get into those kinds of discussions, fine, and I’ll kick it around with them for a while, too, if they want to talk on that level. But the stuff that Lane goes after has nothing to do, for me, with the validity of the teachings.”
“When I was in Eckankar, one of the things that I really liked about it was its respect for other faiths and that there was no pressure to get anybody to join.”
Richards responds, “Sri Harold Klemp has taken a special effort to make it clear that we accept the value and the need for all different paths and religions, because people operate at different states of consciousness. Eckankar is not for everybody. The Temple of Eck in Chanhassen [Minnesota] is open to people of all faiths to come, to attend the worship services, maybe just to enhance their own beliefs. It’s even available for community events. Eckankar is still very much open to and supportive of whatever religion a person belongs to. In fact, we find more in common with people of other religious or spiritual beliefs than we have with people who don’t have any religious or spiritual beliefs, simply because they have a commitment to spirit on some level.”
“I’m curious about how Eckankar has changed since I left it in the early ’80s.”
“Well,” Richards says slowly and thoughtfully in a charming Southern accent, “I think the present Living Eck Master has not changed the essence of the teachings, which is basically about self-realization and god-realization in the most direct way the individual can achieve that. Rather, he’s tried to make the teachings more accessible to the average person who’s interested in religion or spirituality but may not be familiar with a lot of the terms that we’ve used in the past.”
“What alternative terms have been developed?”
“Instead of talking about ‘contemplations’ or the nurat or the surat technique for the light and sound, we just say we do spiritual exercises. They’re very much like physical exercises, but they’re for Soul, to strengthen Soul’s connection with spirit. The spiritual exercises are a form of prayer. We have a different focus and intent, that’s all. We talk about the Hu as a prayer song or a love song to God, instead of saying it’s a chant or mantra. In the past, we thought that this was our little private esoteric religion. So Harold said, ‘Hey, why should we make this difficult for people? Let’s try to make it easy for them to at least understand what we’re doing, what we’re about, and what the potential of the teaching is.’ ” “A lot of people would see Eckankar as a cult. How would you address that issue?”
Richards takes a long, reticent pause before he answers. “People typically define cults, first of all, as based around worshiping a personality. We don’t do that in Eckankar. Secondly, we don’t have any kind of communal living. Eckists are all over the world, and in different walks of life, and from different political orientations, different socioeconomic levels. There’s always been a complete reliance on the individual’s own inner guides and not some pre-established protocol that everybody has to operate under. Since its early days Eckankar has always really been a religion. It’s had to be recognized as such in this country to operate as a nonprofit organization. When you look at what we do relative to other religions, it basically is no different, we just have a different doctrine and somewhat different beliefs.” Richards flashes me his dimples. “We figure, if it looks like a duck, walks like a duck, we might as well call it a duck."
When I leave Richards’s office it’s dusk. As I stroll toward the ocean, through a lush, affluent neighborhood, disappointment creeps over me like the tide. I was never able to penetrate Richards’s reassuring politeness until I turned the conversation from Eckankar to Freud, Adler, and lung. Then his whole manner changed — he leaned forward in his chair, his voice emphatically rose and fell. But even in his formality I instinctively trusted him.
Del Mar’s beach is amazingly clean. People sit on park benches, push baby carriages along paths, jog beside the water. The air is cool as I listen to the soft lapping of waves. The vivid orange-pink horizon stretches on endlessly beneath a nearly full moon. I feel like I’ve stumbled into a New Age greeting card or a novel by Iris Murdoch, try to imagine experiencing this extravagance on a regular basis. Murdoch’s obsession with water suddenly makes sense. In The Sea, the Sea she writes, “Far away in that ocean of gold, stars were silently shooting and falling and finding their fates, among those billions and billions of merging golden lights. And curtain after curtain of gauze was quietly removed, and I saw stars behind stars behind stars, as in the magical Odeons of my youth.
And I saw into the vast soft interior of the universe which was slowly and gently turning itself inside out. I went to sleep, and in my sleep I seemed to hear a sound of singing.”
Friday afternoon I visit 22-year veteran of Eckankar Kevin McMahon in his Cardiff home. I’m surprised to meet a casually dressed middle-aged man with graying hair, who seemed much younger on the phone. McMahon looks as Irish as his name, with a large, soft face and a sad mouth that bends pleasantly when he smiles. As he fetches me a glass of juice, I sit in his cozy living room, which is decorated with family photos, relics from Thailand, and McMahon’s own paintings, imaginary landscapes with lots of vivid blue. McMahon, who was raised Catholic in New York City and on Long Island, has always been interested in spirituality. In the Army he traveled to Thailand, where he met his wife.
“She was a Buddhist, and I became interested in Buddhism. You know, just a natural progression. When I came back to the States, I read a book by Paul Twitchell called The Tiger’s Fang. I had heard about this ability to get out of the body, where one can have an internal spiritual experience. The experiential aspect to Eckankar really interested me, and that’s how it started.”
McMahon seems suspicious of me, so I tell him that my current husband is an Irish Catholic from Long Island and that I’m still very much in contact with my former husband, who’s a higher initiate of Eckankar like himself. He’s unimpressed on both counts. Cautiously I bring up David Lane.
“Fie has a personal thing against Eckankar,” he briskly replies. “I can’t understand why he would be doing this, because the Eckists have never gone out of their way to hurt him; but he claims that they did, I think, in one regard. I know that here in San Diego, when we had our Eck center, elderly members of Eckankar who were sitting at the center got threatening telephone calls from Christian organizations.”
“Do you think this was because of Lane?”
“No, it had nothing to do with him. I’m just saying that if he had a personal problem with some Eckists, this is not an indictment against Eckankar, this is an indictment against the individuals he’s had contact with. I met David Lane in San Diego. He was giving a talk at UCSD, trying to sell his book, preaching against Eckankar and a whole bunch of other religions. I stood up and said, ‘You know, I’m a member of the community, I’m a coach in the Little League, I’m involved with the schools.’ I gave a list of my involvements with the community, and then I said, ‘I’m an Eckist and I believe in God. Why is one faith trying to knock somebody traveling the same path to God? It doesn’t make sense.’ And all the people kind of looked at me as if to say, ‘Well, jeez, he doesn’t look evil.’ Lane came up and he talked to me and thanked me for coming. David Lane has his own personal agenda. We see that all the time.”
Though McMahon is obviously angry about Lane, he maintains a kind, gentle manner. I get the sense his gentleness does not comes naturally, that it has been worked at, with great success.
“What about Lane’s plagiarism charges?” I ask. “What I find interesting is that his material doesn’t shake the belief of most Eckists.”
“This is why,” he responds immediately. “We don’t rely on the written word. I had out-of-the-body experiences, I had contact with spirit, I saw the blue light, saw all the things they talk about in the books — prior to coming to Eckankar. A lot of people have. I met a guy from Vietnam whose whole family traveled here to San Diego by boat, guided by Rebazar Tarzs, who’s one of the Eck Masters that’s written about in the books. And he didn’t know anything about Eckankar.”
“How did he know it was Rebazar Tarzs?”
“The guide was a bearded man in this maroon robe. When the Vietnamese fellow was in San Diego, he saw a poster for an Eckankar event that had a picture of Rebazar Tarzs on it, and he recognized him. We’ve had people who have recognized Harold Klemp prior to his becoming the Living Eck Master; he kept coming to them into their dreams. Plagiarism charges fall on deaf ears with Eckists because we’ve had experiences outside of book learning. If we were to rely on books as the source of our knowledge and our truth, we’d be really hurting, because we’d be all going in different directions. There’d be nothing to believe. I’m not interested in all this other dialogue that David Lane is so focused on. People’s experiences don’t matter to David Lane. If that’s his focus in life, then he has a very limited view of life.” McMahon explains that plagiarism isn’t always what it seems. “Understand that if you read the sacred works of all the religions, such as the Bhagavad-Gita, the Bible, or the Koran, you’re going to see references almost exactly alike.” He tells me a “phenomenal” story about an American writer and a European writer who, unbeknownst to one another, wrote identical books and sent them to the same publisher. “You can explain it in a lot of different ways. Paul was an avid reader. He read thousands and thousands of books, and he was a spiritually hungry man. His quest for knowledge and experience of God is without question. This is not the type of individual who was looking for riches — he didn’t dress well, he didn’t have a lot of possessions or anything. His only interest was getting the message out about the light and sound of God.”
McMahon doesn’t blame anyone for being skeptical. “I think that in Eckankar skepticism is healthy,” he continues. “One of the disciplines that we employ is the law of discrimination. We actually challenge our inner experiences in the name of God, to make sure that they’re not phony, not of the negative world of Kal. We have to make sure for ourselves that what we’re experiencing is truth and not an illusion.”
McMahon generously drives me to my interview with holistic health practitioner Bettina Yelman, whose Del Mar office is just down the hall from Richards’s. Yelman is stunning — tall and extremely thin, clad in a pale-beige pantsuit, her natural blond hair pulled back into a bun, the bangs teased like feathers across her forehead. Her enormous eyes seem to sparkle. Yelman tells me she was born in Germany.
“I got sick a lot when I was a baby. I think it was a resistance to being in the physical world and being fully embodied, and so I tried to exit a few times.” There is, indeed, something ethereal about this frail woman.
When Yelman was six, her family moved to Texas. “It was difficult coming to this country, trying to figure out the language, the new culture, and what to do. I had my two sisters to take care of while my parents were being mixed up. There was a lot going on.” She speaks so softly, I move the microphone closer. In Texas, she says, a disembodied being began visiting her. “I called him my friend,” she continues. “For years he came to me every single day and would teach me, but I never visually saw him except for once.”
“So you were awake when you had this experience?” I ask, intrigued.
“Totally aware,” she says seriously. “It was like in my imagination. I would just close my eyes and he would be there, and I would be there with him too. One time he said, ‘I want to take you someplace.’ I said okay! It was exciting, someplace to go! I remember he took my hand and I could feel it, a concrete thing. We were suddenly in a marketplace with lots of bright burgundy-colored carpets. People were wearing rich, colorful clothing. There was music and noise and clamor, and I turned to look at my friend. He had on a white turban with a gemstone right here in the middle.” Yelman points to her bangs. “He was kind of dark complexioned. Once I got into Eckankar I was suspicious that he probably was an Eck Master, but he never really said so.”
When Yelman was 12 and she moved with her family to California, the visitations ceased. “In a way it was like an abandonment. I didn’t know why it happened. Actually in the moment it was okay, I hardly noticed it. I became a teenager and all this other stuff was grabbing my attention.”
I keep looking around at Yelman’s office. Everything is mauve and cream: the water cooler, the paper cups, the walls, carpet, chairs, and even the stereo. Yelman’s studies at UCSD brought her to San Diego in 1974. Nine years later she read Paul Twitchell’s Eckankar: Key to Secret Worlds. “My parents raised me not to write in books, and so I didn’t. But he was describing my experiences
in his book, and on every single page I just had to make my own notes.” As Yelman laughs, her stiff, angular body quivers with excitement.
After reading Eckankar books for a year and a half, Yelman went to a seminar in Las Vegas. “I’m an extremely intuitive person,” she says, “so I feel things long before I understand them in my head. As I walked through the hotel lobby, I couldn’t see to the other side of the room there was so much smoke, and I’m very sensitive to smoke — yet I felt totally spiritualized.” Though wary of groups, Yelman decided to give Eckankar a try. “When I called to sign up, they told me that I never had to go to a class if I didn’t want to. Because that was my condition — if I could just study in the closet, then I would join. Aside from the fact that Eckankar has techniques and tools that are incredible and not really matched by other groups, I think the freedom that is allowed to the members is a wonderful thing."
During their first six months of membership, new Eckists usually receive what is known as their “first initiation” in the dreamstate. Yelman received hers while at an Eck seminar in Hawaii. “After dinner,” she confides, “I walked along the beach and sat down beneath a tree to do a contemplation. This most incredible feeling came over me, literally like light inside of me. The sound current was very loud. Spirit can express itself as sound or as bright or even colored lights. The ocean was rushing...usually I hear a sound that is like electricity, kind of high pitched, but richer, fuller than just electrical buzzing. Some people who have ringing in their ears say that it’s horrible. But this is not oppressive at all. This feels like all the atoms in the universe moving around, it’s like a rushing sound in the background. Anyway, there was an intensification of that, and I knew undoubtedly something was going on.
“That night in the dreamstate I had a meeting with a master. At the time I didn’t know who he was. When I woke up in the morning, I had an opportunity to ask questions. Incredibly, I was awake, but still in my inner world at the same time. I would ask a question and get an answer, and I would jot it down. I still have those notes. Those answers were so far-reaching in their depth and breadth, they still help me today, nine years later. I asked what happened to my friend, my childhood master. And they said, ‘He taught you everything he could teach you, and you agreed that it was complete.’ It was so satisfying, it was so true, really true, true to the core of my being.”
“So was your childhood teacher an Eck Master?”
Yelman flickers in her pink-and-cream chair like a pale flame. “He is Shamus-i-Tabriz” (a living Eck Master of 400 years ago who now teaches on the Causal Plane at the Sakapori Temple of Golden Wisdom in the city of Honu).
“And which Eck Master initiated you?”
“Rebazar Tarzs,” she says reverently. “In another lifetime I may have had a connection with Rebazar Tarzs, and so that would be a good way of linking me back in. Same with Shamus-i-Tabriz. I’m also aware that in at least two previous lifetimes I was killed because of my beliefs, specifically in reference to Eckankar, and so I think some of that karma was still sitting heavily on my chest, so to speak.”
I’m impressed with Yelman’s absolute assurance. “The Living Eck Master gives support and guidance for the things that we choose to do.” Yelman pauses for emphasis. “If you were going to visit a new city, wouldn’t you want a guide, wouldn’t you want to stay away from the places where the prostitutes are, from the dark streets and the hoodlums? When you’re traveling, you want to have fun; you want to see pretty things. You need a guide who knows the city. The Living Eck Master helps the souls that are embodied here on Earth to gain the spiritual insights that they need to grow and evolve spiritually.”
Yelman hugs me goodbye, and I take an endless rush-hour cab ride to Hillcrest, during which the driver asks me endless questions about Eckankar. He’s a friendly guy with lots of dreams of his own, but I just want to stare at the streams of headlights along the highway. When I get home, my hosts greet me with a Manhattan. I need it. One exclaims, “Aren’t you afraid of those Eckankarists, aren’t you afraid what they’re going to do?”
I take a guilty sip of my drink. “No,” I sigh, “I’m not afraid of those people.”
On Saturday, I lunch with Lane at a restaurant in Del Mar. I hook my mike over the breadbasket and turn on the tape recorder. He tells me he’s currently working on a second book about Eckankar, entitled Gakko Came from Venus: Exploring the Hidden World of Eckankar, an Unauthorized Expedition.
“But, Dave,” I ask in exasperation, “after all this time, why are you persisting?”
“Rarely in life do you ever get to play detective,” he says. “That’s really what it is for me. I want Eckankar in some weird universe to keep going, because it’s fun for me. And I don’t mean fun in a mean way, I mean, I find Paul to be incredibly imaginative and very interesting to investigate.”
It may be a game for Lane, but believers are playing for high emotional and intellectual stakes. Dropping out, of a religion, one in which one attempts to focus one’s every thought, every action on those teachings, is a horrible experience. Though Eckankar does not try to coerce disillusioned members to remain on the path, Eckists are warned that when they drop out, their spiritual growth stops, and they are at the mercy of the Kal, the negative force of the universe. The Kal is similar to Satan, representing everything that is materialistic and evil, a being of vileness, wrath, and vengeance. For years after I left Eckankar, I was plagued with wrenching spasms of primal fear, emptiness, collapse, and betrayal.
David Lane’s critiques of Eckankar may be well documented and rational, but religious devotion is not about rationality. On an Internet alternative religion bulletin board, a former Eckist writes that after reading Lane’s book, “I felt as if someone had just torn out my insides and served them to me over rice.” Losing one’s cult is like losing the love of one’s life. The lover has lied to you, but the lover is oh so seductive and satisfying, and submission is so thrilling. It’s difficult not to resent Lane, that temptress, that town gossip, that snake in Eden.
“But Eckists are such sweet people,” I insist. “Don’t you feel like the Great White Hunter attacking the endangered rhinoceros?” Lane responds with animation. “People always say, ‘Leave us alone; Eckankar works.’ I do leave those people alone. I don’t go into Eck centers and walk around and say, ‘Here, read my book.’ All I’m saying is that Twitchell was lying to his constituency. If you want to go and follow a group in which the founder lies to you, whether it’s about the spiritual masters on the inner planes, about his personal life, or about the sources of his information and his books, well, fine. Do people get mad at Ralph Nader for saying that a Pinto blows up? Wouldn’t you want to know everything you possibly could about the history of this group and then make your choice? It seems to me I’m doing a huge favor to the Eckists, because now they can know what they’re joining, and if they’ve read my book, they’ve done all the research, and if they still think this is for me, then fine. They’ve made an open-eyed decision.” “There’s contradictions and scandals in every religion, Christianity included. Why do you make a point of fingering Eckankar?”
“I do think Christianity has fucked up more people in its history than Eckankar ever has. You’re right, every world religion has got its problems. I think it would be wrong of me to say that Eckankar is unique. Let's just say that on a relative scale, Jim Jones and Jonestown is the worst and that Mother Teresa of Calcutta is the best — in that range Eckankar is kind of in the middle, and I don’t think it should rank with the most dangerous of cults. It has its positive aspects, a sense of community, a sense of focusing on the individual and his or her experiences of the divine. On the negative side, Twitchell’s teachings were synthesized without really maturely thinking whether these different teachings fit in together. I think there’s some sophomoric techniques, that it’s naive in terms of its psychology. Instead of asking people to be really skeptical of things, it’s asking them to believe almost anything.” “But, Dave,” I counter, “when you talk to Eckists they always tell you, ‘I’m a totally skeptical person. I don’t believe anything until it’s proven to me.’ ”
“I’m sure they said that about Jim Jones; I’m sure they said that in David Koresh’s group. Mother Teresa’s group. They would say that in any college or institution. You’re not going to say, ‘Well, I’m a dumbshit. My group is for dumbshits. Everybody has an IQ of 80 or lower...uuurrrrrrrrrr, let’s go, let’s start a religion.’ ”
Our pizza arrives, and Lane politely allows me to take the first piece. I ask, “How do you account for Eckankar’s success?” “Eckankar uses two things that everybody has to have. That is, people have to find meaning in their lives, regardless. Second, everybody has to dream at night, or most people dream at night, and Eckists dream about Fubbi Quantz or Rebazar Tarzs or Paul Twitchell. I dream about all these guys myself, because if you study the stuff long enough.... I see Eck masters, I see Radhasoami masters, I see Rebazar Tarzs and Sudar Singh. But it’s my vivid imagination, the projections of my own mind, my own day-to-day experiences. I don’t give them any value. But if I belonged to an organization that did. I’d really start believing I’d had a spiritual experience, I’d wake up feeling like, ‘Wow!’ Eckankar works because it doesn’t make you have experiences that are impossible to have.”
“What about soul travel, visiting higher planes of existence?” Lane swallows his pizza. “I am skeptical of paranormal claims, because I believe we need to shave more with Occam’s Razor.” “Occam’s Razor?”
“The principle of competing theories, developed in the 14th Century by a guy named William of Occam, who said that if you have competing theories, go for the simplest theory first if it explains the issue fully. An example: I claim the reason I missed our appointment last night was because Elvis was on Venus and sucked me up into a space capsule. That’s one explanation. The other one is, I overslept. Among those two explanations, Occam’s Razor points to the simpler one, I overslept. The problem is that nobody uses Occam’s Razor when it comes to spirituality. We have a tendency to want to inflate our lives with spiritual meaning, and skepticism is not much fun. A skeptic goes to an Eckankar meeting, or anybody’s meditation meeting, and says, ‘Well, now wait a second, are you sure you saw the astral body of Rami Nuri? Maybe it was just some neurons firing in the right part of your brain or maybe you had too much dopamine in the frontal lobes or maybe you took an Excedrin four hours ago.’ We don’t want that kind of explanation.’’
It’s a beautiful, sunny day. Sitting at our outside table, high above Camino Del Mar, surrounded by sky and ocean, I feel as if we’re gods feasting on petty human concerns. I ask, ever so casually, “Is it true that you have some friends who are Eckists?”
“How do they justify that you are doing things that might damage the group?”
“They differentiate the message from the medium. They say, the message works for me, the contemplation works for me. Paul Twitchell’s the past; we’ve evolved out of that. They say you can never damage the Eck spirit, because it’s life. So I may Ik damaging the organization, but the real essence of Eckankar is not the organization, it’s the Eck, that inner spirit.”
“How did you meet these people?"
“They read my book. One interesting guy I met was Jerry Mulvin. He was a pro-bowler as well as a higher initiate in Eckankar. In 1979 he called me from Northridge, where he was living at his girlfriend’s aunt’s house. He’d read the book and wanted me to visit him. After I’d talked to him for a couple of hours, Jerry said, ‘Dave, why don’t you start your own religion? With all this information you have, you could start your own thing.’ I go, ‘Jerry, I can’t do that — third-eye patch, turban, the flowing robe — I can’t do it.’
Two years later I got a letter from a guy in Canada saying he’d discovered a genuine guru. So I asked, 'Who is this enlightened being?’ It was Jerry Mulvin! He offshooted from Eckankar and founded this religion called the Divine Science of Light and Sound. He’s now in Scottsdale, Arizona. For a hundred bucks per year he gives you the divine connection. If he can’t take your soul back to God, he improves your bowling game, money-back guarantee.” We both laugh so loudly at Lane’s joke, the couple at the next table, who have been covertly eyeing the tape recorder, stare at us openly.
“I wrote to Jerry, way to go, Jerry! Two years ago you were living at your girlfriend’s aunt’s house, not making much money on the pro-bowling scene, and now you’re God.”
“And what was Jerry’s response?"
Lane rolls his eyes. “Classic. He said, 'Some of us live the spiritual life, others intellectualize it. Signed, The Master.’ Another former Eckist named Gary Olsen started the MasterPath. He’s touring the Southwest, as we speak. Another man named ‘Sri’ Michael Turner, in Tucson, claims to be the 974th Living Master of the Midnight Sun. I keep discovering more and more offshoots, in India as well as here — it’s like a virus, it keeps reproducing itself.”
“You know the ins and outs of how religions are organized, and you're a charismatic person. Jerry Mulvin’s suggestion that you start your own cult must have been intriguing on some level. I bet you’ve fantasized about it. Do you think it would be an easy thing to do?"
The waiter arrives with our check, and Lane and I bicker over who’s going to pay for it. Nobody wins, so we just let it sit there.
Lane’s still a member of Kadhasoami, but he’s been reluctant to talk about it, beyond mentioning that his guru Charan Singh’s death in 1990 has thrown him into a state of crisis. Other students of Radhasoami have objected to Lane’s critical stance in The Radhasoami Tradition: A Critical History of Guru Successorship, published by Garland. Clearly Lane is not a blind follower. But I’m amazed that after all the dirt he’s dug up on religions, he could be seriously involved in any spiritual path. I ask him how his research into cults has affected his own beliefs.
“My research has helped because it’s made me more discriminating, more critical-minded. At this stage of the game I can’t buy the crap that permeates religion, not just new religions, but religion in general. There’s so much shit. I only accept that thing which I can verify or that thing which I consider to be somewhat genuine. I think of Rumi, the great Persian poet, who said, with all these false coins abounding, there’s got to be something genuine in the midst of it.”
Again, I am reminded of Houdini, whose interest in spiritualism was awakened with his dearly loved mother’s death. Houdini longed to communicate with her beyond the grave. But, while his friend Arthur Conan Doyle and other enthusiasts were impressed with the supernatural sideshows of mediums, Houdini, with his vast knowledge of magic techniques, could duplicate the effects. He took to unmasking frauds, but always with the hopes of finding a true medium. In The Life and Many Deaths of Harry Houdini, Ruth Brandon writes, “He terribly wanted to be convinced. That he could notJ>e was his tragedy.” I wonder if this is not Lane’s tragedy too.
“Dave, what do you believe?”
“I’m a mystical agnostic materialist. What it means is that I ultimately don’t know. And in my unknowingness, I like to explore how much more I don’t know.”
“Is this a scary position?”
“I love it. I love unknowingness.”
“Talking to these Eckists, the conscious, rational, jaded Dodie faded out, and this other little Dodie inside me was starting to feel an incredible seduction. I wanted Bettina Yelman’s calm, I wanted Charles Richards’s benevolence, I wanted Kevin McMahon’s assurance. I like you and I’m enjoying our talk, but nothing you’re saying is very seductive. Do you know what I mean?”
Lane drives me back to Hillcrest. In my copy of The Making of a Spiritual Movement, he signs himself “the Kal force, Dave.” The Kal force, remember, is the power of negativity. Lane can be such a card.
The following evening, when the airport shuttle drops me off in front of my apartment, five guys are smoking crack beside a dumpster. It’s hard to leave the magical vistas of Del Mar. It was hard to leave Eckankar too. I turn on the stereo and stare out the window. Rosanne Cash sings, “Some dreams die with dignity. They fade out clean and quietly. But some won’t let you let ’em go.” It’s raining. In her Golden-Tongued Wisdom, Rosanne continues to sing, “A cold hard rain comes pouring down. It wasn’t like this last time around. There’s no calm center to this storm.” And it continues to rain. In January, it rains for 26 days. The skies themselves seem to be weeping with loss.
Just when I thought the story was over, a new development pops up, like the arm jutting from the grave at the end of Carrie. Lane tells me that former Living Eck Master Darwin Gross is appearing February 11 at the Best Western Hanalei Hotel. Every thriller these days has a false ending and then a real ending, to the point that when I watch a pre-Carrie film, I am disappointed at how easily chaos is defeated. With some trepidation, I return to San Diego, exhausted from two months’ immersion in religion. I have a nightmare in which Lane and I go to the wedding reception of a couple we do not know, and Lane abandons me.
The mastership of Darwin Gross is a black cloud in Eckankar history, a history that Eckankar wants to erase. Nowhere in any of the Eckankar press materials is Gross mentioned. I wonder how long it takes new Eckists to even learn of his existence. When word got around that I was doing this article, I got an odd phone call from Don Ginn, the California Regional Eck Spiritual Aid. He didn’t bring up David Lane, but he requested that I not dwell on Darwin Gross. I really hadn’t planned to write about him at all.
Gross’s rise to power was steeped in controversy from the beginning. When Paul Twitchell suddenly died in September 1971, he left no word as to who his successor should be. Then his widow, Gail Atkinson, had a vision in the night in which Twitchell named Gross. In October, at a seminar in Las Vegas, Gross was revealed to be the new Living Eck Master when Atkinson walked over to him and handed him a blue carnation. Gross actually received the mantle on the inner planes when he was handed, not a flower, but the Rod of Power. Various Eckists say they witnessed the ceremony. (In one illustration, the Rod of Power is depicted as a glowing white wand. When a group of Eckists and I went to see the Bloomington, Indiana, premiere of Star Wars, we were thrilled by the light sabers of the Jedi knights. They looked just like the Rod of Power! To top it off, their white helmets bore an insignia that was remarkably similar to Eckankar’s circular EK logo. Star Wars was no ordinary action flick, we concluded, but a profound spiritual saga. “May the Force be with you.”)
Because Gross had been in Eckankar less than two years, his appointment shocked and disturbed many Eckists. Some left the movement. A few months later Gross and Twitchell’s widow married, sending more ripples of confusion throughout the fold. Not long afterward I joined Eckankar, unaware of the dissension.
Whenever I saw Gross and Atkinson, I would be seated in an auditorium, surrounded by thousands of avid followers, each hoping at some point to receive the darshan, the Master’s gaze. Gross was in the habit of wearing light-blue leisure suits, and men throughout the audience mimicked his attire. Outsiders would think they had stumbled into a convention of traveling salesmen. (My husband, who had never heard of Atkinson before, sees her as a kind of ’60s super-vixen, like Pussy Galore. But the woman I remember was mousy, with a broad smile; no Bond girl was she. Ellen Burstyn, maybe.) I would raise my head to the stage in rapt silence, devouring every word the Grosses spoke. I could almost picture the legendary Rod of Power in Darwin’s hand. They were gods to me, and one doesn’t question the mating patterns of gods. Gross and Gail Twitchell divorced in 1978.
In October 1981, Eckists were again floored when Gross announced his resignation as the Living Eck Master, but not without first signing a contract that gave him a salary of $65,000 for life, full medical and dental coverage, use of a company car, and entertainment expenses. His new title was President of Eckankar. The Rod of Power was passed on to Harold Klemp. Within two years Klemp fired Gross, accusing him of negativity, spiritual decay, and embezzlement. “Apparently,” says Lane, “Darwin took $2.5 million and put it into a front corporation in Oregon called Dharma Corporation. He basically took Eckankar’s money, while saying it was really for Eckankar purposes.” Excommunicated from Eckankar, his lifetime agreement terminated, Gross was suddenly penniless. His books were suppressed, and he was forbidden to associate himself with Eckankar or Eckankar teaching in any way, including the use of trademark terms such as “Eck,” “EK,” “Living Eck Master,” and “Eckankar.” When Gross protested, he was slapped with a lawsuit for business impropriety and copyright infringement.
Gross continues to work as a spiritual master, with a small group of devoted followers, many of them former Eckists. He publishes books through an organization called Be Good to Your Self, located in Las Vegas. Home study discourses and musical tapes are also available. Much of Gross’s current teachings center around the easy-listening jazz he performs on the vibes. Gross’s uplifting music is claimed to have miraculous healing powers. The program Lane and I attend at the Best Western Hanalei is called “The Universal Basics of Life Through Music.” It costs $35 at the door.
Saturday afternoon, when we arrive at the hotel, Lane keeps disappearing into the bathroom. He and Gross have been sparring since 1977. As late as December 1993, Gross sent out a memo to all his readers defending Paul Twitchell and “the corporation he started” against Lane’s attacks. Gross’s fastidious avoidance of the copyrighted term “Eckankar” is noticeably awkward and circuitous. Lane has countered with a point-by-point rebuttal, “When God Responds: Sri Darwin Gross versus David Lane,” which he’s including in his new book, Gakko Came from Venus.
While Lane is in the bathroom, I try, to no avail, to get permission to photograph the event. Gross’s young, perky assistant, Dawn, explains, “Frankly, there have been lawsuits." She agrees to provide us with an official photograph of Gross at the vibes, and I leave to find Lane. He’s sitting on a couch in the small lobby outside the conference room. I urge, “Come on, Dave, it’s starting.” I practically have to pull him into the concert.
We take our seats among the 50 or so other seekers, many of whom have flown in for the event. Dawn is finishing an applied kinesiology demonstration of the power of Gross’s music. A volunteer raises one arm straight out to the side, and Dawn easily pushes it down. Then she asks him to think about Gross’s music as he again holds out his arm. This time the arm doesn’t budge no matter how hard she pushes down on it. “See!” she exclaims. We close our eyes and chant Hu together for several minutes. Gross enters and takes his position behind the gold-toned vibes.
Remembering him in his better days, thin and attractive, I am shocked by the corpulent, aging man standing before me, coughing. He reminds me of the bloated, near-death Elvis, only fatter and older. He jokes about his “Nevada cold,” blaming it on the dust from the Indian burial grounds being dug up to build housing. Lane looks like he’s swallowed a mouse, grinning and biting his finger. Gross’s movements are frail and slow as he removes his dark-blue jacket to reveal a short-sleeved white shirt and tan pants held up with wide red suspenders. Accompanied by keyboardist and devotee Ron Kurz, Gross begins with “Blues in E Flat.” The music is great, lethargic and soothing, the kind of music one should listen to in a cocktail lounge with an umbrellaed drink. Gross smiles to himself as he hits the vibes. He seems gently ecstatic, but so tired. When he finishes the song, he takes off his shoes “to be closer to the keys.” The atmosphere in the room is homey and protective.
After a few more tunes. Gross and Kurz are joined by vocalist Kim Driggs, an attractive woman with dark shaggy hair. In a husky voice, smooth as malt whiskey, she sings, “Don’t blame me for falling in love with you. I’m under your spell, but how can I help it.” There is a double edge to this torch song; from the way she keeps glancing affectionately over at Gross, it is the Master’s spell that Driggs can’t be blamed for falling under. When she begins her next selection, “My Funny Valentine,” I lose all objectivity*. Valentine’s Day, my birthday, is only three days away. I vacantly stare at Lane’s tanned hairy legs, nostalgic for the boyfriends who played this song for me. The loss of my old loves and Gross’s loss of status become merged in an ineffable sadness.
After she finishes, Gross says, “She can belt one out, can’t she? I hope you all had your seatbelts fastened.” Even more moving is Driggs’s rendition of “Somewhere Over the Rainbow.” Gross sits this one out on a rattan stool, his arms folded over his huge stomach, lost in thought. When Driggs gets to the line “away above the chimney tops, that’s where you’ll find me,” I focus on Gross’s bulbous belly and red suspenders. He looks like Santa, I think, like a fallen Santa. Lane has tears in his eyes. I lean and whisper to him, “You are so opaque.” I am surprised by my cruelty. Sitting in this pathetic room with its riotously floral turquoise-and-purple carpet, it feels as if nobody’s dreams will ever come true.
I keep waiting for Gross to give a speech, but he never does. We zone out on lounge music for an hour and a half, then Dawn walks to the front of the room and says, “That’s it.” I ask Lane if he’s going to introduce himself. Lane shakes his head. “I don’t want to tweak his day. He’s got his music. He’s having a good time.” So I walk over to Gross myself and shake his hand. “I used to be in Eckankar,” I tell him. Discomfort spreads across his face as I continue, “You were the Master most of the time I was in it.” Holding my hand, he looks deep into my eyes and says, “I’m still the Master. I always have been. I never stopped, not even for a minute — even though they, pardon my expression, treated me like shit.” As I walk away he yells after me, “Hang in there!”
Sri Harold Klemp has immense financial resources available to guide the spiritual lives of his tens of thousands of believers. Gail Atkinson, who has long since broken with Eckankar, is said to live in wealthy seclusion in Palm Springs.
Lane and I drive to La Jolla for leaden upscale Mexican food. Sipping his virgin strawberry margarita, Lane says, “I got a sense of authenticity when he played his vibes, like that’s who he really was, a musician, instead of trying to be a master. One of the reasons he may have relinquished his spiritual role to Harold is that it didn’t jibe with him. He may like the trappings, but not the actual duty of it. I really enjoyed the music, but it was kind of sad. Life’s kind of sad. 40 people in a hotel named Hanalei in San Diego for a man who used to draw thousands. He’s big, coughing, not in the best of health, and he doesn’t have any money. Yet it has a sweetness to it. It was like an outpost of spirituality. I felt the world has gone by, but these people are still there.”*
Excerpt from a letter sent to informants who spoke with David Lane during his research into John-Roger Hinkins:
A friend from La Jolla gave me a copy of the article that David Lane is writing called the J. R. Controversy. All that junk you told him made me sick.
All that junk you gave Lane to write down came out of your own filthy minds, and mouths and you know filthy mouths “must” be cleaned out don't you.
If I were any of you. I’d be very careful where I go and what I do and who I talk to, you wouldn 7 want anyone to get hurt now, would you?
Don’t you all have “innocent" friends visit you and live near you?
I'd sign this but you SCUM BAGS aren't worth much more of my effort, just a bit more EFFORT and then it ends. It’s going to be interesting to see how this information gets back to me. In days of old the barrier [sic] of bad news to the King was done away with.
I also have the evidence that David Christopher Lane is an informant for the F.B.l. and is being financed by them to do his dirty research.
cc: The Watchers who are everywhere.