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Home arrow New Age Cults and Isms arrow A Former Member of Eckankar Revisits Eck

A Former Member of Eckankar Revisits Eck

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A Former Member of Eckankar Revisits Eck
Cult-Buster David Lane
John-Roger Hinkins
Il Fornaio
Darwin Gross


On Saturday when I lunch with Lane at Il Fornaio in Del Mar, he's wearing the same khaki shorts and sandals as before, but his T-shirt has been replaced with a faded blue and purple plaid polo shirt. I hook my mike over the bread basket 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, or 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 in a major way. If you want to go and follow a group in which the founder lies to you point blank at every turn, 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 dumb shit. My group is for dumb shits. 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 swallow my pizza and ask, ever so casually, "Is it true that you have some friends who are Eckists?"

"Oh, yeah."

"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 be 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 off-shooted 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 the couple at the next table who have been covertly eyeing the tape recorder, stare at us openly. "I wrote to Jerry, I 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 an ebolo 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?"

Lane gives me a big grin. "Well, yes … I've always thought that as a sociological experiment it would be a lot of fun to create your own religion. I wouldn't do it myself because I have too many skeletons in my closet. The skeletons would just keep coming out and coming out. Some old girlfriend would come over, 'Hey wait a minute. ' I don't need a Paul Twitchell scenario. Also I wouldn't do it because it plays too much on people's ultimate vulnerability. But in my lurid imagination I've always thought, how would you pull this thing off?"

Lane needs a bit of prompting. "How would you do it?"

"People aren't doing it the right way, I can tell you that much. First of all, I'd pick a woman as the leader. There's not enough women taking advantage of the market." What about me I think. I imagine a new religion in which I, Dodie Bellamy, would be exalted as the 974th Living Mistress of the Mystical Surf. I'd live in a mansion in Del Mar and have cute boys in short-shorts polishing my Lexus. I'd wear body-hugging white robes and jewel-studded sandals.

"Number two, you don't charge any money because you'll make tremendous amounts of money by not charging money. What you say is, 'This is completely free.' The more you keep saying that, you're going to get people who feel really good about you. Precisely at that point you have people set up donation funds for other activities, which people voluntarily give to.

"Thirdly, you create a hierarchy-you know, levels, initiations. Eckankar does this really well. Scientology does it even better. People love hierarchies; they love status. You may be a loser in the real world, but if you join this cult and all of a sudden you're some ninth honcho, it really gives you a sense of meaning, of purpose-and a sense of power. In our day to day society unless you have the money, education, political connections, you don't have much power. You're just part of a big huge clog. But in these associative groups, these mini-universes, boy, you can become addicted. So the more you have this tier level, the more people will stay within your group.

"Then of course you come up with secret esoteric teachings, which I would synthesize but not plagiarize. You totally acknowledge your sources. But then I'd say that in my trip in 1978-because everybody knows I went to India in '78, meeting all these gurus-I'd say that I met somebody I never talked about and that I found his secret manuscript which reveals the secrets to life. However, it's been ordained that only the first chapter be printed before the turn of the millennium. The other twenty chapters, will have to wait. You get all this interest, "Wow!" You come out with the other chapters later. It's a marketing device."

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 Radhasoami, but he's been reticent 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 (Garland Publishing, Inc. ). Clearly Lane is not a blind follower, but I'm amazed that, after all the dirt he's dug up on religions, he could seriously be 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, whereas his friend Arthur Conan Doyle and other enthusiasts were impressed with mediums' supernatural sideshows, 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 not be, was his tragedy." I wonder if this is not Lane's tragedy too. I ask gently, "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' 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?"

"When my philosophy students come in and we talk, everybody wants to know the secret of life. And I want to give them the secret, but I don't know it. You're saying that my sense of unknowingness, my sense of skepticism, isn't glamorous or enticing. To be quite frank with you, I loved my guru beyond description. I didn't call him my guru, I called him my friend, because guru has such a weird, master/slave connotation. He was a beautiful person, and I don't know anything beyond that. To me it was very tangible, very real going to India and seeing him work with the poor in the hospitals and feed the masses. Everybody was happy just to see him. And when he died my dreams …" Lane makes a downward, crashing movement with his hand then looks into my eyes so woefully my heart goes out to him.

"Everybody wants to see their guru, their teacher as God," he continues. "I'm quite the opposite. I'm the one guy who wants to see him pick his nails. I'm the guy who wants to see him eat a jellabi. I'm the guy who wants to see a tear in his eye. I want to see the humanness. That's what I love. I don't know anything about God. I'm the guy who doesn't believe, but who is extraordinarily religious. Sometimes when people talk about their religion, I love it and I want all of it, and I'm there, but I can't believe. It's like the square peg doesn't fit no more, because the answer is less than what I know the truth must be. I know it's a lie, I know it's a con. We don't want to face that people die of AIDS. My brother, whom I loved dearly, died of a heart attack three years ago, out of the blue. My dad died of a heart attack. My best friend died. People talk about mythology and spirituality and astral planes and all that crap, but, man, this place sucks. I don't give a shit who created it. I don't care what planes there are. When I see somebody in Bombay sitting on a little towel begging, who's got elephantitis, who's got pockmarks on his face, and nobody pays attention to him, the world sucks. Bottom line. I want to believe, but I can't. It's a real drag."

Lane drives me back to Hillcrest, and we part with gifts. I give him my new book, and he gives me a rare copy of the 1983 edition of The Making of a Spiritual Movement, the one with the banned no-smoking sign on the cover. "Sign it," I urge. He writes, "To my friend for a lovely 2 days of conversation. Thanks-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 San Francisco 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. And it's hard to write this article. 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 Cash 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, while I'm working on this article it rains twenty-six days in San Francisco. The skies themselves seem to be weeping with loss.