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As Empire Thrives, Guru Seeks Credibility Amid Fears He is a Dangerous Cult Leader

Westchester (NY) Gannett Suburban Newspapers, November 3, 1997,

Byline: Bill Varner, Staff Writer
For a few weeks in September, it looked as if Westchester-based guru Frederick P. Lenz III finally had achieved a measure of the respectability he craves.

"Rama," as he is known by his disciples, was linked in a Barnes & Noble Inc. promotion with literary giants Charles Dickens and John Steinbeck. Barnes & Noble included Lenz, as the author of "Surfing the Himalayas" and "Snowboarding to Nirvana," in a contest that awarded winners a trip to the settings of novels by Lenz (Nepal), Dickens (London) or Steinbeck (Monterrey, Calif.).

Then, as often happens with Lenz, a troubling question intruded: is the 46-year-old author a savvy computer software entrepreneur with Buddhist trappings or a dangerous cult leader? Barnes & Noble received several letters of protest from people who believe Lenz is nothing more than a flimflam man whose mind-control techniques compel his followers to pay huge sums of money for his lectures and computer classes.

Lenz was quietly dropped from the promotion.

It was a setback, but his personal empire continues to thrive with, for almost a decade now, Westchester County as its capital.

Within the last year, Lenz:

Launched a new software company, Vayu Web Inc., with a White Plains address.

Gave a series of spring lectures on Shakespeare plays at Purchase College, State University of New York.

Introduced a six-month course in computer programming at Westchester hotel conference rooms, which began in June and continues until December.

Lectured his followers at three "power trips" to Caribbean islands that cost them up to $2,700 for the trip, plus a lecture fee of up to $4,000.

Took the first steps toward a push to attract new young followers.

It all started, locally, when Lenz shifted his base of operations from Southern California to Westchester and Connecticut in 1988. After attracting several hundred followers with his brand of hip "American Buddhism," martial arts and computer programming, Lenz came east when some accused him of sexual abuse and drug use.

The son of a former mayor of Stamford, Conn., who claims to be one of 12 enlightened beings on the planet, Lenz bought a house in Old Field, Long Island, and began giving lectures and classes at Purchase College. In 1992, his students spread out from Philadelphia to Boston to recruit new members through free meditation workshops at libraries, colleges and churches.

All the while, Lenz aroused the opposition of parents concerned by fees of up to $5,00 their children paid him, and by family ties severed by association with him. Some of the parents formed a group, Lenz-Watch, to monitor his activities.

The debate rages on.

"He's no different than (motivational speaker) Tony Robbins," said Christopher Beach, director of the Performing Arts Center at Purchase College, where Lenz gave four lectures on Shakespeare plays in April and May.

The college has continued to rent space to Lenz, despite complaints from parents and others who believe he is a cult leader.

"He is a sick individual who gets a rush out of controlling people's lives," said Steve Kaplan, a member from 1980 to 1994 of the musical group Zazen, which produced tapes the students play during their meditations.

Kaplan, who never left California, says he played the role of money courier for Lenz, carrying hundreds of thousands of dollars the students paid for the classes and lectures by plane from Westchester to Los Angeles. Lenz often rented a house in nearby Malibu.

His students and a network of computer programming companies he directs have made Lenz a multimillionaire, but have not diminished his craving for respectability. The problem for Lenz is that, like the Barnes & Noble sweepstakes, determined opponents and exaggerated claims have blocked his efforts to win mainstream approval.

Seeking credibility

A good example is Vayu Web Inc., named after Lenz's deceased dog, Vayu, and with Lenz as president and chief executive officer.

For a time, the company's Internet site touted the Oct. 1 introduction of a fully automated Web site browser, Vayu Web 500. For $3,000, companies could purchase a program designed to lead potential customers through their Web site sales presentation.

But, typical of Lenz-related companies and his followers, Vayu Web's address is a Mail Boxes Etc. outlet on Mamaroneck Avenue in White Plains, and telephone calls to the company yield only a voice mail message. Several messages left by Gannett Suburban Newspapers produced no return call.

Meanwhile, Vayu Web's Internet site closed in October, with a notice of "More information will be available soon..." posted.

Meanwhile, too, Vayu Web appears guilty of some of the distortions that characterize Lenz-related enterprises.

According to a Vayu Web press release dated Dec. 13, 1996, the company was in the midst of "partnership discussions" with Silicon Graphics Inc. of Mountain View, Calif., and promised to donate 5 percent of its first year's earnings to UNICEF.

However, a Silicon Graphics spokeswoman said there had been no such discussions, and that the company told Vayu Web to quit making the claim. And a UNICEF spokeswoman said no one there has ever heard of Vayu Web.

One favorable "review" of the Vayu Web 500, included in a press release prepared by a company spokeswoman, came from Lawrence Borok, president of Vantage Point Inc., a health-care information systems company in White Plains. Borok is a student of Lenz's who calls him "the most honest human being I have ever met."

The NBC-TV news magazine show "Dateline" ran into the same problem when it investigated Lenz last year and attempted to verify claims he made about two software products created by another White Plains company, Client/Server Connection LTD.

When Dateline questioned Lenz about a claim that "200 of the largest corporations" had purchased the products, he provided the name of only one, the Bank of New York. But when Dateline checked it out, the Bank of New York said it did not use the product.

A call to Client/Server Connection LTD. Was not returned.

Efforts to reach Lenz through his attorney and Vayu Web also produced no interview.

His personal Web site features an interview (questioner unidentified) that includes a Lenz statement that "these cult stories are untrue, without any foundation, and trade on a deep bias against Westerners who dare to embrace an Eastern belief-system."

Cult parallels>

The Aug. 16, 1996 "Dateline" segment, which included a rare interview with Lenz, won an Emmy award. The show followed with an update on April 1, in the aftermath of the suicides in California of 39 members of the Heaven's Gate cult. That show pointed out parallels between the Heaven's Gate and Lenz groups.

The parallels should be taken seriously, according to Thomas Derr, a Manhattan political consultant who has monitored developments in the Lenz empire since a female friend of his was recruited into the group several years ago. Derr, who wrote one of the letters to Barnes & Noble and has pressed Purchase College to oust Lenz, reported that his lectures on Shakespeare featured tragedies that end with the main characters committing suicide.

A 39-year-old Manhattan woman who attended the April 21 lecture at Purchase College said it focused on the play Richard III, the story of a demented murderer.

"It was a completely opposite interpretation of Richard III than you usually get," said the woman, who asked that her name no be disclosed. "Lenz said (Richard III) was misunderstood, basically not a bad guy."

The audience also struck the woman as odd.

"I never saw anything like it," she said. "They zoned on him. It was like their eyes were not blinking. It was scary. People sat separate from each other. They are taught that everyone is trying to steal their energy, so you don't make eye contact or make good friends.

A former Lenz student, Jim Picariello, said "the fear is that Lenz will get kooky and will have his inner circle do something extreme."

In fact, Jim Barratt of Corvallis, Ore., believes his daughter, Brenda Kerber, a one-time Lenz student, committed suicide in northern Westchester in 1989 after writing in her diary that "Rama is my true love. He makes me feel like an ass." A White Plains resident at the time, Kerber also described a stern rebuke from Lenz after failing to come up with the payments needed to attend his lectures.

Police are investigating the Kerber case. No body has been found.

Derr, who says Lenz is "to Buddha what Beavis and Butthead are to educational TV," believes a new recruiting drive is imminent.

As evidence, he cites sources who said Lenz followers recruited in 1992 were instructed last spring to read 27 spiritual texts that will lead to their empowerment as "monks" able to teach meditation.

That's what happened the last time a recruiting drive was launched in this area, Kaplan said.

"In 1991 and 1992, he ordained students as Buddhist monks, gave them certification and a special lineage that means they had attained enlightenment," Kaplan said. "They become a teacher. They start a school."

There is no evidence yet of free meditation workshops being held in the area. But the August 1997 edition of the Campus Security Report, a public safety newsletter for colleges and universities, warned of impending activity and listed the "Lenz Meditation Groups" as among the most active on college campuses across the nation.

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Cults come in a variety of shapes and sizes. Categories of cults that are recruiting successfully today include:

Eastern meditation: characterized by belief in God-consciousness, becoming one with God. The leader usually distorts and Eastern-based philosophy or religion. Members sometimes learn to disregard worldly possessions and may take on an ascetic lifestyle. Techniques used: meditation, repeated mantras, altered states of consciousness, trance states.

Religious: marked by belief in salvation, afterlife, sometimes combined with an apocalyptic view. The leader reinterprets the Scriptures and often claims to be a prophet if not the messiah. Often the group is strict, sometimes using physical punishments such as paddling and birching, especially on children. Members are encouraged to spend a great deal of time proselytizing. (Note: included here are Bible-based neo-Christian and other religious cults, many considered syncretic since they combine beliefs and practices). Techniques used: speaking in tongues, chanting, praying, isolation, lengthy study sessions, many hours spent evangelizing, "struggle" (or criticism) and confession sessions.

Political, racist, terrorist: fueled by belief in changing society, revolution, overthrowing the "enemy" or getting rid of evil forces. The leader professes to be all-knowing and all-powerful. Often the group is armed and meets in secret with coded language, handshakes, and other ritualized practices. Members consider themselves an elite cadre ready to go to battle. Techniques used: paramilitary training, reporting on one another, guilt, fear, struggle sessions, instilled paranoia, long hours of indoctrination. -- Captive Hearts, Captive Minds, Lalich and Tobias, Hunter House, 1993.