Mentor to Some, Cult Leader to Others

The New York Times/June 20, 1993.
By Kate Stone Lombardi

To his followers, he is Rama, a gifted teacher and spiritual leader with special powers who offers a path to enlightenment, happiness and career success. To his detractors, he is everything from a sophisticated con man to a dangerous cult leader.

Controversy has surrounded Dr. Frederick P. Lenz for the last 15 years as he has moved his base of operations to different cities around the country. Trina Walker, a former student, said that Dr. Lenz has more than a hundred students in Westchester County. He offers lectures at several places, including regular monthly lectures, by invitation only, at the Performing Arts Center at the State University of New York at Purchase. The group has been renting space at SUNY for three years but is not affiliated with the college.

Last month Dr. Lenz was included in a list of groups labeled as cults in the Congressional Quarterly Researcher. The independent Washington-based publication -- owned by the St. Petersburg Times of St. Petersburg, Fla. -- describes him as follows:

" Rama (the American Buddhist Movement). Known as the 'yuppie guru,' Frederick P. Lenz, 43, lives in a Long Island mansion where, as Zen Master Rama, he offers business-oriented teachings. Some 900 members in several cities believe Lenz is the first earthly incarnation of the Hindu deity Vishnu. To attend seminars and meditation sessions sponsored by Lenz's Advanced Systems Inc. , adherents in such high-paying fields as computer programming allegedly pay up to $70,000 a year. Female members have said Lenz exploited them sexually. " 'A Highly Ethical Person'

Dr. Lenz, however, dismisses the allegations of psychological manipulation, financial exploitation and sexual abuse made at different times by former members of his group. Speaking to a reporter for the first time in several years to clarify what he said were gross distortions about his program, Dr. Lenz said such accusations were absurd.

"I am a highly ethical person," said Dr. Lenz, who has a doctorate in English literature from the State University of New York at Stony Brook. "I'm a Buddhist, and I can't do stuff like that. I'd fry. I believe in karma. My experience is that people build you up and then shoot you down. "

Dr. Lenz said that he taught a form of American Buddhism, in which he offered courses in meditation and computer science -- a field that he has always been interested in. "I'm mingling a few things -- the Oriental esthetic to life and meditation and, at the same time, a very American sense of how we as Americans can become successful," he said. People who meditated successfully seemed also to do well in computer programming, he added. Doubts About the Master

The accounts of Dr. Lenz's activities are a study in contrasts, depending on the source. For instance, Mark Laxer, one of Dr. Lenz's former students (from 1977 to 1985), said he remembers the first time that Rama announced that he had attained perfect awareness and true enlightenment. ( Rama is the name for one of the incarnations of the Hindu god Vishnu. )

"Before he declared this he had us go on a 13-day fast, and I was pretty dizzy," Mr. Laxer said. "At that point he had about 100 disciples, and that's when he hit us with this news. It was like we were imprinted. After that, we were allowed to eat, but we had to stay up all night for a month. "

Still, Mr. Laxer said he had his doubts about his spiritual leader's veracity. Some months later, Mr. Laxer packed his backpack and tried to leave the group, but he said that Dr. Lenz stopped him as he was about to head out the door.

"He managed to convince me to stay, but shortly thereafter he started giving me antipsychotic drugs, because he said the other spiritual techniques weren't working. Basically, at that point, my rational doubting side subsided for a few years," Mr. Laxer said.

Students who wish to study with Dr. Lenz usually begin with meditation courses, which are free or offered at a nominal cost. If they are invited to become formal students, they begin computer science courses, at which point the price tag increases. A five-day course with Dr. Lenz costs about $2,000, said several of his current students, all of whom are over 18. No one under 18 is accepted. 'Respect for His Judgment'

Four students talked about their studies and their lives at the office of Dr. Lenz's lawyer, Jonathan Lubell. They said they had voluntarily switched careers after studying with Dr. Lenz.

Richard Harmon had been a graduate student in film school when he began meditation courses. He is now a computer consultant. Mordy Levine had been a partner in a trading firm on the American Stock Exchange. He has now been in the computer industry for four years. Marie Landis had been an artist; she is currently involved in computer programming. Terry Quirk had been pursuing a doctorate in earth science; she now has her own company providing software development and customization to corporations. They continue to pursue more advanced courses in computer science with Dr. Lenz.

All four said that they were happy and making considerably more money than they had in their former careers. Because their careers were so lucrative, they said they could easily continue to pay for Dr. Lenz's courses. They said they lived normal lives, were in contact with their families and had great admiration for their teacher, Dr. Lenz.

"Sometimes I feel this incredible love," said Mr. Levine. "It's not devotion or awe. But if he asked me to do something, say 98 out of 100 things he asked me to do, I would do, because I have incredible respect for his judgment, for his taking the right path. "

The students brought up one of their most troublesome grievances. They said they believed that their names are on a blacklist, circulated by anti-cult groups to executive recruiters in an effort to prevent them from advancing in their careers. Richard Harmon likened critics of Dr. Lenz to Nazis. Studying meditation in America in the 1990's was "probably like being Jewish in Nazi Germany," he said. "The first thing they do is destroy you economically. " A Material and Spiritual World

Dr. Lenz has been criticized for, among other things, his lavish life style, which includes a mansion in Long Island and travel by Lear jet. But he says that people have a misguided attitude that spirituality must be connected with poverty.

"People have gotten an attitude that somehow it is noble to be poor," Dr. Lenz said. "There is this tremendous negative take on the material world. It seems to me the material world is as spiritual as anything else," he said.

Dr. Lenz said that allegations of his running a cult are untrue, because among other things, his students are very much a part of the real world, holding jobs and living independently.

"There are no Branch Davidian compounds; there are no secret meetings," Dr. Lenz said. "The only time I meet people are at places like the Four Seasons or Tappan Hill or SUNY Purchase," he said. 'Under His Daily Control'

Many people, however, consider Dr. Lenz a cult leader. Arnold Markowitz, director of the Cult Clinic, which is run by the Jewish Board of Family and Children's Services, a social-services agency in Manhattan, said that "every cult-awareness group in the country has files filled with families and former members who have contacted them about Lenz. "

"It's not just that he has a positive message of how to live one's life," Mr. Markowitz said. "It's that he has hundreds of people who are intimately under his daily control, which includes severing their ties with their families and helping to deceive their families. "

Ms. Walker, the former student who studied with Dr. Lenz for five years, said that he told his students that families were filled with negative energy.

"He told us that our families did not want us to evolve spiritually, that they drain our energy," Ms. Walker said. "He had a lot of different ways to isolate us. If someone didn't like you, you should stay away from them. If they did like you, they just wanted to steal your energy. So you should stay away from them, too. And anyone in the group was competition. "

'Parents Feel Betrayed'

Dr. Herbert Nieberg, a psychologist with Four Winds Hospital in Cross River and an expert on cult mind control, said that he had worked with several parents whose children were involved with Dr. Lenz. Dr. Nieberg said the parents have been devastated by the involvement. "The children are no longer the people they knew," Dr. Nieberg said. "The parents feel betrayed; they feel bereaved. They've lost their child. We are not putting these groups down because of their religious beliefs. We are putting them down because of their destructive natures and what they do to people's lives. The stories are heart-rending. "

One woman, who said she was in Dr. Lenz's group for five years and who agreed to be interviewed only on condition that her name not be used, said that he controlled every aspect of her life, despite her connections to the outside world.

"I lived independently, and I had a job the whole time, and I will tell you that during those years the clothes that I wore were the clothes he told us to wear, the only movies we were allowed to see were the ones he recommended," she said. "He used to spend hours on how we should behave. "

The woman also said she had been sexually involved with Dr. Lenz. She said she was summoned to Dr. Lenz's mansion and told that sex with Rama was a speedway to enlightenment.

Dr. Lenz said that any sexual relations he had with female students involved informed consent. "I've never claimed to be celibate," he said, "but to suggest that in any way, shape, manner or form that I would do anything inappropriate to coerce a person to have sex with me is absurd. "

Dr. Lenz attributed the numerous sexual-abuse allegations to the jealousy of unhappy lovers who felt that he had jilted them. He also provided a 107-page document that included personal profiles of people who had criticized him publicly in the past, most of whom Dr. Lenz accused of being mentally unbalanced. A Dale Carnegie of the 90's

As the national controversy over Dr. Lenz continues in the news media, the question over his continued presence at SUNY Purchase also remains an issue. Dr. Nieberg of Four Winds Hospital said that he was astounded that Dr. Lenz was allowed to operate on SUNY grounds. He said that if the president of the university had a son or daughter in the group, it would have been "off campus years ago. "

But Christopher Beach, director of the Performing Arts Center, described Dr. Lenz as "no more than a Dale Carnegie of the 90's. " Dr. Sheldon N. Grebstein, president of SUNY Purchase, also defended Dr. Lenz's use of the theater.

"They have been model clients -- they are orderly, pay their bills on time, arrive when they say and leave when they say," said Dr. Grebstein. "At SUNY Purchase we have directly witnessed none of the alleged cult activity. "

Dr. Grebstein said that he and members of his college council have received a few letters of protest from several parents whose children were followers of

Dr. Lenz and that he had consulted repeatedly with legal advisers concerning Dr. Lenz's use of the campus theater.

Signing a Disclaimer

Dr. Grebstein added: "What these parents would like me to do is simply ban the group that we do business with called Advanced Systems Inc. , which has been renting a theater in the Performing Arts Center for about three years. But the council has decided not to single out this group from all others, because it would involve an analysis or evaluation of the content of their programs. We do not make those judgments of the groups using the campus. Once we do that, are we going to approve the content of a symphony? You get into an impossible situation. "

One thing that does distinguish the Advanced Systems lectures from that of a concert performance at the Performing Arts Center is the release form that student participants are asked to sign before attending. Under a paragraph titled "voluntariness," it reads:

"My attendance of the A. S. I. student program is entirely voluntary and any changes that I make in my personal life, life style, choice of career, place of residence, personal association or any other matters, including without limitation participation in martial arts of other physical development programs, are made entirely of my own free will and neither Dr. Lenz nor A. S. I. nor any agent or employee of A. S. I. or Dr. Lenz is responsible for any such change or changes."

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