VICE made me join three cults for this issue: Adidam, the Moonies, and Aleph. Since Adidam tops the list of "controversial groups" at cult watchdog Rick Ross's website, I figured it'd be the best place to start. Also, their whole deal is worshiping a guru from Long Island who now lives on Fiji and looks like a cross between Yoda and a man-frog. This, cultwise, is about as good a vibe as it gets.
I called their New York number and got a chipper-sounding guy named Gene who told me there was an introductory study group at an apartment on the Upper West Side the next night, to which I said, "Cool, thanks." He then told me, "You know, it's really amazing once you begin devoting your daily attention to the guru and enter into that heartspace, how it cuts through all the everyday crap of the world and moves you closer and closer to the state of god-union. It's almost like an alchemical process." I said, "Cool, thanks."
The apartment was owned by an old gay couple who looked like an engorged George Lucas and deflated Jerry Stiller respectively. Everybody sitting around the coffee table when I came in was well past their 40s and kind of looked like extras from a really boring sitcom. We went around the circle and explained how we'd been turned on to Adi Da Samraj (Frogger's guru name), which mostly consisted of having run across a book somewhere. Then we got to a sweat-suited lady with white cigarette-burn scars up her arms who, not too surprisingly, used the conversation as an excuse to dredge up her drug history.
Her twitchy, ponytailed brother raised the stakes, however, by launching into a half-hour dissertation on how, after dismissing him due to his stance on yoga, Adi Da's spirit came into his room and forced him to wear it like skin, which led to some later freak-out on a train. I zoned out for a lot of this, but the gist was that his consciousness now resides about a foot above and slightly behind the head of his physical body, kind of like in GTA.
The night's main event was a 40-minute video comp of "Beloved's" lectures from the 80s. Every few seconds, Teddy, the Lucas-looking gay, cut the tape to share an anecdote of his time with Beloved or explain the nuances of his behavior. For instance, when he paused at length between sentences and darted his eyes back and forth? That was him dissolving the karma of every being who ever lived. And when he kept locking eyes with different people in the audience? Drawing power from their devotion so that he could retransmit it through his gaze, of course.
I was worried there'd be some sort of intensive discussion once it was over, but everybody just got up and wandered into the kitchen for some iced tea and crackers. I bought a tape called When the Tiger Disappears, featuring a naked Beloved on the cover, from the bookselling table. Ciggy assured me it was a choice cut. Henry, the guy in charge of the table, gave me a little Xeroxed schedule and said I should come to a "Celebration of Good Company" at the cult's group house out in Brooklyn the next weekend. "There'll be chanting and testimonials," he told me enticingly.
That Saturday I got to the house a little ahead of schedule and plopped down on the couch with a copy of Adi Da's autobiography, The Knee of Listening. I was just getting into how his dog dying first led him to realize his own divinity, when an older woman in a makeshift sari sat down next to me and asked what I could donate for the meeting. I put in $15 over her insistence that I didn't have to pay the full fee since I was a student, and she cut me a deal on my own copy of Knee from the book table.
While we were haggling, a similarly robed mommish-looking lady draped a purple cloth over a TV tray in front of me, then set up a little mini shrine with a portrait of Beloved, a scented candle, and some big orange flowers. After everything was in order, she bowed to the picture and started stepping back and forth with both hands raised, mumbling something non-English-sounding. After the first few paces, the registrar woman fell into almost-sync next to her.
Eventually a few of the folks from the apartment showed up (though sadly not the crazies) along with a young, dumpy-looking Asian girl and a woodchuckesque former hippie, and things got under way.
The house leader, a trim, 40-year-old black guy named Dale who had one dangly turquoise earring and a smooth, open-collared suit, came forward and explained the chant he'd written to start things off.
"You probably don't know any of these words, but that's OK," he told us, "They are full of great meaning which your heart will understand even if you don't. Also, I forgot to make copies this morning, so if you could just pass it around that way everybody can see it."
He then walked back to a keyboard set up behind all the seats, set the rhythm to samba, and began leading us through a melody that sounded like dialing a long-distance number, but more drawn out and with the words "Adi Da" every couple of syllables.
Somewhere around repetition 50, he cut us off, let the drums go for another measure, then came back into the living room to talk for an hour about his recent trip to Fiji to worship Adi Da, which I tried as hard as humanly possible to stay awake through.
After he finished, a younger gal came forward to talk about her recent stay on Fiji, and it was lights out for real. When I came to they were putting on a 15-minute video to wrap things up. Rather than lectures, this video consisted of a three-minute shot of Beloved mounting a stage in front of a crowd of devotees followed by a fucking 12-minute close-up of his unmoving face, which everybody around me stared at like it was a magic-eye poster.
The next study group was back at the apartment that Thursday. I got there about 20 minutes after it was supposed to start and went through the open door to find the living room completely empty. Expecting to stumble in on some frenetic orgy of middle-aged saddies, I made my way down the hallway to the bedroom, but there found only housemates George and Teddy checking their email at separate computers.
"Well, you're the only one here," George told me. We walked back into the living room and watched yet another video of Adi Da, this one featuring a Q&A with some of his astonishingly stupid followers from the late 70s (one woman in one of those Kate Bush sack dresses asked "What do you think of infinity?"). I was really expecting some sort of chat about the purposiveness of life or whatever this time when it was over, but Teddy just mumbled "Pretty good tape," and headed back to his room with Bob.
Right as I was about to leave, Bob called me back to his desk and said, "I've been trying to e-mail you about our upcoming retreat but keep getting bounced. Can you take a look and see if this address is right?" For some reason he had inserted the numeral 6 right in the middle of my name. Adidam is the worst cult I've ever been in.
On the night after my first Adidam meeting, I swung over to the New York HQ of Rev. Sun Myung Moon's Unification Church on 43rd St. Inside its storefront, there were a few people at tables and some general Asian music playing on a boom box. A smiley girl named Dana introduced herself, then told me I should come to service on Sunday to learn more about Mooniedom and gave me her number. I put my info on a little sign-in sheet and was free to go.
The next Sunday I ditched out on sleep to go to Moonie church. For all the supposed fiscal might of the UWC, their chapel looked a lot like a grade school gym, except with a big, wooden mandala-looking emblem surrounded by purple curtains where the scoreboard would be and a sharply-dressed Jamaican guy named Rev. Delton preaching at the free-throw line. The congregation was a weird mix of old black women, teenage Koreans, dumpy middle-aged white guys with Asian wives, and two white junkies covered with tattoos who got up in the middle of the sermon—needles in hand—to go shoot up in the bathroom.
Apparently the Rev. Moon and his associates are really big on "unifying cultural divisions through marriage," and like to express this sentiment by pointing out mixed-race couples whenever they have the chance. After crowing about one Guyanese woman's willingness to marry a Trinidadian, Delton asked a lone white guy with a graying bowl cut and absent Japanese wife to stand up and be recognized for his contribution to global unity. "He is white and he married a Japanese! We all talk about it, but this guy actually did it!"
After the sermon, Rev. Delton invited one of the other ministers up to the stage to perform a spirited, vaguely homoerotic duet of the Carpenters' "Top of the World" while everybody lined up in front of the altar to give their offerings.
I was starting to get nervous about things wrapping up quickly, but luckily this was it. Dana snagged me on my way out and introduced me to a short, stocky Korean guy named Rev. Hyun who told me to come back later in the week so he could help me through some of the basic tenets and terminology of the movement.
When I popped in on the Moonies the next day, a short black man I'd never met before looked up at me from his table and said, "Hi, Thomas." Before I could get wigged out, Dana came over from the back to smile and have me sign in again, then grabbed Rev. Hyun and a plate of cookies and we all sat down to have a little chat about Unification.
Basically their whole deal is that Rev. Moon was visited by the spirit of Jesus when he was 16 and told he could be the second coming by getting everybody to have a bunch of kids and be faithful to their wives. This would fulfill Christ's original mission of founding God's family on earth, which got fucked up by his crucifixion. Right after he told me this, Rev. Hyun kind of shifted his glance and made this exaggerated Wha?!? face, going, "Are you telling me Jesus was supposed to get married?! Ohhh kayye." I wanted to tell him that this wasn't such a hard sell compared with worshiping a 60-year-old guido, but settled on just mentioning something about the Da Vinci Code.
Rev. Hyun moved on to talking about the Unification's biggest enemies: Freud, Alfred Kinsey, and Hugh Hefner, the forefathers of the "Free Sex" movement.
"Rev. Moon's alternative to this is 'Absolute Sex,'" he told me. "That's where the husband's genitals belong to his wife and vice versa. Black preachers always crack up when they hear him talk about this, because they know it's true."
The Moonies were already off to a pretty good lead with the cookies and vaguely plausible theology and genital ownership policy. As if to seal the deal, when I asked him how much it would cost to sign up for the introductory lectures, Rev. Hyun went, "Psssshhht, I'll do it for free."
For the rest of the week I devoted myself wholly to the UWC. No bulbous gurus, no unresponsive Japanese supervillains, just me and the Rev and some slickly illustrated PowerPoint presentations each afternoon, going over how the four-unit foundation of love provided a stable bridge between the perfection stage of human development and the achievement of the three divine blessings. It got a little convoluted and technical at times but all in all, everything made pretty sound sense when I could understand it, even the part about Eve fucking Satan (which Hyun paved the way for with another "Here comes some zany shit…" face).
By the end of the third lecture I was basically sold. I started to find myself thinking that sex was sort of bullshit, and looking through crap on the Unification website at night instead of browsing for porn. Did you know the Moonies want to build a bridge-and-tunnel network connecting Alaska and Russia across the Bering Strait called the "World Peace King Tunnel"? Maybe it's just the indoctrination speaking, but doesn't that seem like a really, really good idea?
About the only thing I was balking at was being matched up with a stranger to be mass-married, but from what I'd seen around the building, odds were pretty good the girl they'd hook me up with would be something of a looker or at least Asian.
When Rev. Hyun read to me from his email that True Father Moon was going to be in New York the next weekend, you could have heard my gasp down the hall. Then he reread the message and realized it was just going to be his wife. Crud.
Nevertheless, after Sunday service, the Reverend and I cruised over to the Hammerstein Ballroom, which it turns out is fully Moonie-owned and -operated. It's hard to explain an auditorium full of grown men and women psyched to the point of screaming about an old Korean woman in a business suit slowly taking the stage then plodding through a speech with all the personality and enthusiasm of someone reading from the phone book, but when you're there with them, doing creamer shots of grape juice in the Holy Wine Ceremony and reading along in English about the fucking Peace Tunnel, it's pretty hard not to scream a little yourself.
I'm not going back to the Moonies and I know this was just supposed to be a cult evaluation, but to be totally honest, I have a hard time not answering the phone when they call me. The Moonies is hands down the best cult I've ever been in.
The morning after my introduction to Adi Da, I cruised on over to the English website of Aleph to see about signing up for some yoga classes.
Aleph is the perky, Judaic moniker picked out by Fumihiro Joyu to distance his sect from its previous incarnation, Aum Supreme Truth, and their assorted legal slipups in the mid-90s (creating an arsenal of chemical and biological weaponry, murdering critics and former cult members, and attempting to overthrow the Japanese government by means of coordinated sarin attacks on the Tokyo subway being among the most major of their oopsies). While squinty beardo Shoko Asahara is still guru in many longtime members' hearts, as of 2003 his particular brand of LSD- and mayhem-fueled apocalypticism has been junked in favor of a bubblier and far less deathy doctrine, emphasizing the karmic benefits of daily meditation and giving people presents. They even adopted a cute widdle dove as their new emblem. Between the cartoony nowadays good vibes and the corpse-ridden legacy of destruction, who in their right mind wouldn't want to join up?
There used to be a branch based out of New York, but after September 11, the U.S. State Department decided to declare them a terrorist organization and freeze all their assets, just in case. I figured even if they didn't have an official clubhouse or anything, there still had to be a few old Aumites/Alephians kicking around who'd be willing to show a new initiate the ropes, so I shot an email saying as much to the head of their PR department and put on my waiting cap.
After a few days of impatient silence, I decided to refresh PR's memory of my interest in learning about the Dharma, and after a few more days of near-unbearable anticipation (imagine really having to pee, but the spiritual equivalent), I broke down and emailed every address I could find on the site or plausibly invent. One of them had to be up for having me aboard, even if it was only the distant, insular Shikoku branch (I wasn't about to be picky).
Over the next week, I occupied myself with my other cults and tried to put visions of toiling sleeplessly at the cult's scenic Mt. Fuji compound out of my head—they had to get back to me at some point, if only as a matter of proper netiquette. This is Japan after all.
In the meantime, however, I figured it'd be a good idea to practice what few monkly rites I knew of, so that when Aleph finally came a-callin' I could just dive right in. I pushed the couch and the TV to opposite sides of my living room and set up a little meditation space in front of a table with some flowers and incense (I tried to hunt down some made from bilva leaves in honor of Aum's central Tibetan deity Lord Shiva, but the best I could come up with on short notice was Sublime, as in that dead fat guy's band). I found a nice full-page picture in a magazine of Asahara sitting in resplendent purple yoga robes to tape above my makeshift altar, then tore it down and got ready for some serenity.
For my first foray into meditation I decided to bypass the beginner's option recommended by the Aleph website, "This Body Is Impure" (a little obvious, right?), and pour myself straight into "The Suffering When Senses Become Weak."
The instructions for this guy are pretty straightforward: "Imagine that you have lost your eyesight and have suddenly become unable to see beautiful scenarios, the faces of the people you love; you cannot read newspapers or your favorite comics or watch TV. A strong desire arises within you that you want to see these things badly. Continue to meditate until you feel an unbearable pain."
Swaddling myself in a bedsheet, I shut my eyes and gave it a go. As far as I can tell I never quite hit "unbearable pain," but after what felt like a good hour or two, I started to feel a little sad at all the great things I was missing out on vision-wise. That suddenly gave way to a sensation that felt like a really intense caffeine jag as my mind started drifting to how awesome the rest of my senses were going to be now that I was blind. I figured this must be the whole point of the exercise and triumphantly opened my eyes only to find I'd been out a whopping 18 minutes. Not only that, but when I checked back at the site, I discovered that the actual purpose of the meditation was to make me realize "what has given me pleasure has now become the cause of my suffering," and that I should "detach myself from the attachment of my senses" to avoid this pain. I was fucking way off.
I sent out another round of emails, this time grounding my interest more specifically in the desire to "awaken dormant abilities in my mind and psyche." When Aum first started back in the 80s, its whole focus was on pulling in young otaku with the promise of levitation and psychic powers, and accordingly they advertised in the back of UFO zines (the whole apocalyptic Buddhism slant only came after Shoko's first brush with the Book of Revelation. Nice one, Christianity). Since earnest enthusiasm wasn't winning me any points with these Japs, I decided an open appeal to nostalgia might be in order. There's currently a slow-boiling schism in the group between old-school devotees of Asahara and Joyu's legitimacy-oriented faction (though critics say this fracture is just a facade engineered to let them have their cake and gas it too). If I couldn't plead my way into the sect proper, maybe a splinter group would take me on.
As another week passed with no word from the East, I started to feel the first pangs of disenchantment with Aleph. Sure, it was fun fantasizing about stumbling upon some tiny Manhattan enclave and being locked in a sensor-equipped meditation chamber until I could reduce my brain waves and breathing patterns to those of the Grandmaster (or simply the enlightened ideal should I end up in Joyu's party), but it was becoming clearer and clearer that in reality these guys' ship had long since sailed. They may still freak out the squares in Japan, but is that really saying much in a culture that still considers rockabilly the height of rebellion?
I was already finding myself too occupied on a nightly basis with Adidam, the Moonies, and this other cult I joined but am not at liberty to chat about on a nightly basis to keep on Aleph's ass, and on top of that I couldn't even get my hands on a copy of any of Master Shoko's teachings without some sort of special permit from the New York Public Library. Shit, I couldn't even eBay a fucking CD-R of his astral music to put on during meditation.
Finally I decided to stop pussyfooting around with Aleph and dive straight into classic Aum as best I knew how. While I was unable to pull off such hallowed rites as being beaten karmaless with bamboo rods and drinking Shoko's dirty bathwater due to lack of fellow enthusiasts and supply, respectively, I could partake in thermotherapy, which simply involves submersing yourself in scalding hot water for a couple of hours.
Monitoring its temp with a meat thermometer, I added kettle after kettle of boiling water to my bath until it hit a toasty 200°. After a couple of false starts, in which I hesitantly lowered a toe just into the surface of the steaming water, I determined there was no such thing as spiritual gain without a leap of faith and, sitting on the rim, stuck both legs in at the same time.
Holy shit was this the worst idea ever. There was about half a second of vague discomfort where you almost have a chance to go, "Wow, this isn't bad at all," before the pain hits in full, then interestingly enough, about half a second of reprieve once you pull them out where you just manage to think, "Whew, well at least I got out of there in time," before the wrenching aftersting kicks in. I wrapped my cherry-red calves in damp towels for the night and by the morning they'd managed to get back down to a healthy, swollen shade of pink. It was really beginning to hit home that not only was Aum/Aleph not going to bend over backward to get me involved but I might not be cut out for it in the first place.
I had one last option: Using David Kaplan's The Cult at the End of the World as my guide, I managed to track down the address for Aum's old NY digs. Hoping that who or whatever resided there now might at least have a forwarding address or somebody's number, I tried giving the building a call but kept getting a busy signal. Since that would seem to indicate that there's still a phone line intact, I decided to stake it out on foot. Ditching out on Moonie church (resulting in several increasingly urgent voice mails from Dana) I walked up to 48th Street and Fifth Avenue but found only a really crappy-looking psychic named Chloe with a particleboard sign. I poked my head in her door and said, "Hi, I'm looking for Aleph." "Alf?" she said with one of those tweaky, what-are-you-talking-about? faces. "No, I'm sorry A-leph, like the yoga group? Used to be Aum?" "What? Do you want a reading?"
That was it for me. Fuck you Aleph, I never wanted to be in your stupid cult anyway.
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