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Buyers clearing out reminders of secretive cult as it heads for new home in Montana : Dismantling the Inner Sanctum of ‘Guru Ma’

Times Staff Writer

The mysterious Calabasas tower where God passed along messages to “Guru Ma” is open now.

Down below, the enema room, where her followers submitted to daily cleansing of their souls along with their lower intestines, is closed.

The changes are taking place as part of a $1-million cleanup of the estate that, until two months ago, was the headquarters of the controversial Church Universal and Triumphant headed by “Guru Ma” Elizabeth Clare Prophet.

Workers for a Japanese university that bought the estate for use as an American branch campus are dismantling offices and altars left behind by the religious cult, which is relocating to a remote Montana ranch.

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Church Universal members have temporarily moved into tents outside the Calabasas property next to Mulholland Highway at Las Virgenes Road, originally the site of the historic Gillette Mansion. They face a Dec. 15 deadline to completely vacate the 218-acre estate.

In Montana, leaders of the secretive sect are negotiating with state officials for an agreement that will let them set up shop in trailers on 33,000 acres of ranch land at the edge of Yellowstone National Park.

Decision Possible Monday

Montana officials say they hope to decide Monday on their requirements for the church’s development there.

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Cult members left behind in Calabasas have watched glumly as workers hired by the Tokyo-based Soka University have begun repairs and renovations to the rambling, 56-year-old Mediterranean hacienda-style mansion that was the private residence of Prophet.

Prophet, who sometimes called herself “the Vicar of Christ,” claims to be God’s chosen earthly “messenger” who receives instructions directly from a group of “ascended masters.” The list of ascended masters includes Merlin the Magician, Jesus, Christopher Columbus, Faith, Hope and Charity and K-17, the “ascended master at the head of the Cosmic Secret Service.”

Church Universal doctrine is interwoven with snippets of several Eastern and Western theologies and philosophies, including Protestantism, Catholicism, Hinduism, Buddhism and transcendentalism.

In Calabasas, the ascended masters supposedly dictated messages from the mansion’s tower, which could be reached only by a curving stairway leading from Prophet’s bedroom.

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The mansion was decorated by Gregory Mull, an architect who later quit the church and filed suit against it, alleging that cult officials ruined his health and personal life. In April, Mull won a $1.5-million judgment against Prophet and the sect. He died three months later of heart and lung failure.

Estate Dubbed ‘Camelot’

Prophet named the Calabasas estate “Camelot” when her church purchased it for $5.6 million in 1978. She lived in the mansion’s second floor beneath the tower until the estate was sold to Soka University in July for $15.5 million.

The university’s workmen have torn out the tower room’s aluminium-casing windows that gave Prophet a commanding view of her domain.

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They have removed the tile-floored colonic room--literally ripping out the walls and floors--that Prophet set up in the mansion’s former first-floor butler’s quarters. Former members said daily enemas were mandatory under cult doctrine.

Workers are also ripping out the gaudy purple carpeting placed at strategic places on the estate. Former members say that Prophet taught them that ultraviolet rays from the color carried a “violet transmuting flame” that helped them focus their cosmic energy.

The cleanup crew has removed scores of makeshift offices from the mansion and from an adjoining dormitory and chapel building. Those two structures were built about 30 years ago when the estate was used as a Catholic seminary by the Claretian Fathers.

“We’ve pulled out probably 40 miles of partitions from there,” said one man who has helped oversee renovations that started in September, when the church began the phased turnover of property to Soka University.

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Desk, Phone, Computer

“Every 10 square feet they subdivided into an office that had a desk, a phone, a computer terminal.”

The repairs, like the purchase of the property itself, are being coordinated by an American Buddhist group, Nichiren Shoshu of America (NSA).

NSA leaders negotiated the purchase July 3 after unsuccessfully attempting to launch Soka University’s American branch in San Diego last year. NSA had purchased a 149-acre site there in 1981 for $7.8 million, but San Diego city officials balked at dense development of the parcel.

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In March, NSA officials purchased the 31-acre Mountain View Academy on Las Virgenes Canyon Road in Calabasas for $2.2 million as an alternate campus site. But they quickly decided that the parcel was too small to house a branch campus and approached Church Universal officials about their property.

NSA is part of the Nichiren Shoshu Buddhist sect, which has ties to two politically powerful organizations in Japan. They are the Soka Gakkai International, a quasi-religious group with an estimated 10 million members, and the Komeito, Japan’s third largest political party.

Soka University in Japan, which has an enrollment of about 5,000, was founded in 1971 by Daisaku Ikeda, president of Soka Gakkai International.

500,000 in America

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In the United States, NSA boasts a membership of about 500,000, including such celebrities as singer Tina Turner, actor Patrick Duffy and musician Herbie Hancock, according to group leaders.

NSA has a reputation for aggressively seeking converts, particularly among non-Japanese. It differs from other Buddhist groups in that its members chant for personal material gain as well as spiritual improvement.

But officials of NSA, which is based in Santa Moncia, say that it won’t be a case of one zealous religious group replacing another.

Ted Fujioka, vice general director of NSA, said Wednesday that the group will drop out of the Calabasas picture once Soka University begins offering language classes to 200 students next summer.

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“The school itself has nothing to do with NSA,” Fujioka said. “We’re helping out now, but, once it’s open, it will be on its own.

“It will be non-sectarian. I don’t think there will be any religious activities there at all.”

There will be no proselytizing done from the campus, he said.

Seen as Welcome Change

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That will be welcome news to residents of communities around the western edge of the San Fernando Valley, who complained that their neighborhoods and shopping centers were frequently plastered with colorful Church Universal and Triumphant recruitment posters.

The posters were produced in a sophisticated print shop set up in a barn at the Calabasas estate. Cable television programs were produced by Church Universal leaders from a control room set up next to their main chapel.

The printing presses were reportedly still being used last week in the barn, which will be the last structure on the estate that Church Universal turns over to Soka University under terms of the purchase agreement.

In Montana, the church has its eye on an industrial area on the outskirts of the town of Livingston for the new print shop, according to Andy Epple, planning director for Park County.

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Livingston is a few dozen miles down U. S. 89 from the Royal Teton Ranch, which the Church Universal bought from industrialist Malcolm Forbes about six years ago.

Sect officials have talked of building a self-sufficient community on the ranch land that will include thousands of devotees. That idea has made many of the 13,000 residents of Park County nervous.

‘Work Camp’ Proposal

The locals were scarcely mollified a month ago when church leaders unexpectedly labeled a proposed 33-building development, the first for the ranch, as a “work camp.” Under Montana law, work camps are exempt from local county subdivision laws and regulations.

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“They have effectively skirted local review as a subdivision,” Epple said in a telephone interview. “As a work camp, the county has no review whatsoever. They were able to take advantage of some weaknesses in the law.”

Epple said Church Universal leaders were “going full-speed ahead with their work camp for occupancy in December” until Montana officials stepped in. The state said the scope of the sect’s project might require an environmental impact statement.

Steve Pilcher, the top water quality official for Montana’s Department of Health and Environmental Sciences, said he expects the department to rule Monday on whether an environmental assessment of the project is mandated. If the study is required, Park County residents would a chance to give their opinions on the development, he said.

“From what I’ve seen, they’ve successfully avoided some of the review by doing things a certain way,” Pilcher said of the sect. “They’re still within the regulations, so someone there has obviously done their homework. Many of their actions result in avoiding some sort of regulatory control.”

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Church Universal officials were not available for comment. But sect Vice President Edward Francis, Prophet’s husband, told Montana reporters recently that the work camp strategy was used because the church is “under time constraints” to get the project completed by Dec. 15.

The church has about 200 staff members in Park County now, but the number will increase to about 500 by the end of the year, he said.

Church officials say they have members worldwide, but will not divulge the number. It has estimated at anywhere from 5,000 to 100,000.

In Calabasas, Church Universal guards still stand by the ornate iron gate that blocks the tree-lined drive leading to the mansion that was built in 1930 by razor blade maker King Gillette.

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The Gillette family in 1935 sold the estate to Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer executive Clarence Brown, who raised horses on the land and built a private airstrip for use by friends in the entertainment industry.

Bought by Claretians

The Claretians acquired the property in 1952 for use as a seminary. The estate was called “Claretville” until the mid-1970s, when the Claretian Fathers phased out their monastery and leased the property to Thomas Aquinas College, a private school.

Church Universal bought the property in 1978 for $5.6 million. Under terms of that deal, it had 25 years to pay off the mortgage. The sale to Soka University, however, called for the church to receive $15.5 million right away.

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Daniel Keuhn, superintendent of the National Park Service’s parkland in the Santa Monica Mountains, said he is hoping for an invitation from Soka University to tour the estate. His agency has expressed an interest in acquiring the property, provided it can raise the money or trade other federally owned land for it.

The estate is seen as a potentially important park site because it sits squarely in the middle of the Santa Monica Mountain range at the northern end of Malibu Canyon. Parkland already owned by the state and federal governments is nearby.

Keuhn said parks officials have met with university leaders and been told that the estate is not for sale. But parks administrators have also been assured that its open space will be maintained, he said.

“All indications are they want to be good neighbors,” he said of the new owners. University officials assured him that they have no immediate plans to add new structures to the estate, he said .

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“They indicated they are concerned about the environment and keeping it as natural as possible,” Keuhn said.


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