Why you should care
Because a whole universe could be behind “buzz.”
Steve Cohen, whom we’d nicknamed Reverend Steve, passed me a handbill touting the accomplishments of “Rama,” a spiritual guru and former acolyte of Sri Chinmoy.
Rama — or, as we came to know him, Frederick Lenz — was big into past-life regressions and spiritual awakenings. He also shared with Sri Chinmoy a belief in the power of levitation. But there was something else, something other than him claiming to be 5,000 years old. The handbill said he could speak to bees.
“He speaks to bees?”
“Yeah. And he’s here tonight on campus and we’re going. You want to come?” asked Reverend Steve, so-called because of a “church” he had started in a genius comedic act of po-mo mimicry.
“Wouldn’t miss it for this world. Or any other.”
At the auditorium we looked for seats in what was a fairly packed affair, with around 200 people. When Rama was announced, he suddenly appeared, in full command of a certain kind of stagecraft, at the lectern to fevered applause. He smiled beatifically and then gestured with one hand; the applause died down and he cranked the spiel up.
Sixty minutes of New Age bilge. If he wasn’t going to talk about bees, damn it, we’d ask about bees.
In “real life,” the California-born, Connecticut-raised Lenz had a Ph.D. in English lit from the State University of New York at Stony Brook. His dissertation: “The Evolution of Matter and Spirit in the Poetry of Theodore Roethke.” But he also had a road-to-Damascus moment when, after getting busted for weed and released from a work camp, he met a Tibetan Buddhist monk who helped him realize that he was a great spiritual leader.
How great? Apparently great enough that he’s existed through various incarnations since 1531, from Japan to Tibet and India. Something his spiel traded on as he talked about consciousness, awareness, self and realization of self, and all the while Reverend Steve and I were waiting. For? The bee banter, naturally.
But after an hour of of New Age bilge, the blazer-clad Lenz — a mix of Mr. Rogers, sans the sweater, and hippie magician Doug Henning — opened it up for questions. Well, if he wasn’t going to talk about bees, damn it, we’d ask about bees.
The questions came fast and furious from the peanut gallery: “When you were speaking, I saw your face change. At first it was you and then it was an old woman and then an Indian man. What was happening?”
“Those” — and here Lenz paused — “were my past lives coming out to play.” He smiled, and the questioner, an audience plant we figured, nodded appreciatively.
A few more like that, and then this: “Could you talk about out-of-body experiences as you’ve had them?” We recognized the voice. Rising from our chairs, we scanned the crowd and saw that, sure enough, it was our friend Smash. Outside of the unfortunate nickname, he was probably the smartest person we had ever met or would be likely to meet, including Reverend Steve’s father, who was a professor and a math giant. Yeah, that smart.
His eyes narrowed. “I don’t understand your question.” He smiled and shrugged as if to say, “Is it me? Or is it him?”
But sitting in a sea of upturned faces, Smash had been reduced to some kind of … believer. Our whimsical interest in bees had fallen by the wayside. Now it was war. I raised my hand: “How across a variety of religious experiences and states of being do you find that you can justify, as you seem to do, placing a premium on enlightenment?”
Lenz’s eyes narrowed. “I don’t understand your question.” He smiled and shrugged as if to say, “Is it me? Or is it him?”
“You’re selling something that I don’t think is yours to sell.” An almost subsonic hate murmur rippled through the crowd. “Seems like if you had freely discovered something you should freely extend that discovery.” But Lenz, who had advised followers to get jobs in high tech and had started a company called Advanced Systems Inc. that did some kind of quasi-tech thing, wasn’t hearing it or having it. He started talking about agendas, intimated that he thought I had one and brought the meeting to a close.
We made our way up the aisle toward Smash.
“Why the hell are you asking that guy about out-of-body experiences?” I was a longtime skeptic, and whether it was my stepfather taking me to Santeria ceremonies when I was a kid or having relatives in churches who spoke in tongues, I was believing very little of it.
“I thought he might know,” Smash said.
“Listen, any spiritual guidance you need you can get from me! I could help you out with that. So, next time just ask me.”
“Why would I do that?”
“Because I can help.”
“How?” Smash asked. “I mean what do you know about enlightenment? You suffer.”
“Suffering is enlightenment.”
We headed home. In the intervening years, a girlfriend’s cousin got caught up with Lenz. She broke ties with her family. The organization bounced her around the country. Made her learn software programming. Had her working 18-hour days and handing over her income.
And Lenz? Amid a flurry of allegations concerning all manner of impropriety and a day before his taxes were due, Lenz fell off a dock into the Long Island Sound and drowned. The Suffolk County Medical Examiner’s Office said he had overdosed on Valium and was suffering from liver cancer. He was 48 and left behind an $18 million estate. And we never did hear about those bees.