In a chilly, second-floor meeting room at the Ole Hanson Beach Club, eight people are seated in a circle, their eyes closed in meditation.
Accompanied by an electric keyboard, they are chanting: “Eheyeh” (Unity), “Jehovah” (cosmic father), “Elohim” (divine mother), “Adonai” (Lord).
They are followers of a secretive order known as “Builders of the Adytum,” or BOTA, whose members study Tarot “keys” and meditate in their search for spiritual enlightenment. BOTA combines age-old beliefs in mysticism with principles of modern psychology. It is a low-key organization that attracts members largely by word of mouth.
BOTA is just one of many alternative churches and temples in Orange County that draw followers from among those who have not found spiritual fulfillment in mainstream religions. Like the members of BOTA, many people in the county hold non-traditional views about spiritual matters, according to The Times Orange County Poll.
“In this complex age where life is more confused than it ever was before, a lot of people want to have contact with the supernatural,” said Gerald Larue, a USC religion professor. “This whole thing is a feeling of being lost and the need to find something outside of oneself that will bring magical power into life.”
The poll found that 13% of the adults in Orange County said they can gain insight into their life from astrology, and 22% believe in reincarnation--which is one of the principal BOTA tenets.
Founded in 1939 by Paul Foster Case, a former musical director, the order claims about 300 followers in Orange County and 3,000 worldwide. Members study the organization’s teachings through mail-order lessons.
They pay $10 a month for training in the Kaballah (mystical beliefs that originated in Jewish theology), Tarot interpretation and astrology to explore man’s relationship with the universe. There are BOTA centers in Europe, South America, Central America, New Zealand and Canada, members say.
However, few members were willing to publicly discuss their beliefs, fearing ridicule. Tarot keys have been wrongly labeled as dangerous instruments of the devil, they say. In addition, the tenets and practices of this religion, as those other faiths, may appear foolish or incredible to the uninitiated, they feel.
“We teach the Tarot as a fantastic book of wisdom--not as a fortune-telling thing. But most people think it has something to do with the devil,” said Joseph Nolen, 75, a retired jewelry designer from Laguna Beach who has studied BOTA teachings for 29 years. “Each Tarot key represents a certain principle in life and to meditate on that (principle) opens the door to a higher consciousness.”
He and other BOTA members believe that the Tarot--when used for its proper spiritual purposes--helps to unlock and master the powers of the subconscious, allowing an individual to realize his full capabilities. During the initial, three-month segment of the correspondence classes called “Introduction to Tarot,” students color black and white Tarot cards to help imprint the pictures and symbols on their subconscious.
The keys (or cards) are a collection of images based on the letters of the Hebrew alphabet. They have titles and represent different principles such as strength, creativity, judgment, reason and will. Each key has multiple meanings and is further associated with a planet and astrological sign representing a complementary cosmic principle.
For his own study, Nolen has slides of the 22 pictorial cards, which he projects onto his bedroom wall for meditation and study purposes. Nolen said he will refer to a particular Tarot key, depending on what is going on in his life at the time.
“It helps you get to the real motivation behind things,” Nolen said of the BOTA teachings, adding that they have helped him understand and then transcend personal shortcomings and problems.
“I noticed the difference in myself when I went to visit my mother and brothers. My reaction to them was totally different. I didn’t go back to acting immature when I went home.”
According to Nolen and other BOTA followers, the spiritual teachings change an individual’s way of thinking. Problems turn into disguised opportunities and any individual who is ready to receive the teachings of BOTA can achieve his dream.
BOTA followers believe that “inner watchers"--who have achieved the highest spiritual form through a series of reincarnations--watch over humans from an invisible dimension called the “inner plains.” Inner watchers guide people to BOTA learning centers when they are deemed ready to receive the knowledge of BOTA.
BOTA followers said they believe in reincarnation because it is the only just explanation for the differences of opportunity between individuals.
“If you are an oppressor of women as a man, then (in the future) you will have a female embodiment,” Nolen said. “Your past acts will determine what you are reincarnated as.”
BOTA teachings begin with seven correspondence lessons in which students are first told to write down an answer to the question, “What do you want?”
Adytum means the inner temple--that which is built without hands. It is derived from an ancient Greek word, according to BOTA literature.
BOTA proposes to help each follower build his own “inner temple” where he can realize his true spiritual fulfillment. At the world headquarters based in Los Angeles, members gather on Sundays for services which include chanting, singing and a ritual that involves acting out scenes based upon various principles in life. Many followers never attend any group gatherings, though, choosing to meditate and study on their own.
“We believe that God is not an old man in the sky but the life force within each person that puts him into action,” said Nolen, a former president of the Board of Stewards, which administers the nonprofit organization. “God is a force--an intelligent benevolence, and we are directed by this force in our seeming wandering.”
At the recent BOTA study session in San Clemente, group leader Val Streate asked the members, “How do you get what you really want?”
“The trick is you give your subconscious a clear picture in your mind and then you leave it alone,” said Streate, who owns a graphics-design company in Laguna Hills. “If you have a crummy attitude, you will have a crummy life. There’s an old Russian axiom: trash in, trash out. So it’s very important what we feed our subconscious, because that’s what it gives back.
Keith Tannler, 42, a clinical psychologist, says the emphasis upon proven psychological methods is what partly attracted him to BOTA. Tannler, who was raised an Episcopalian, was introduced to the organization through a friend in 1969.
“The BOTA principles are pretty consistent with what modern psychology has come to understand,” Tannler said. “But (BOTA) has an added spiritual dimension to its understanding of human behavior.”
Tannler, a father of two, says BOTA has provided him with spiritual guidance in times of emotional turmoil.
“Much of the focus is in dealing with problem situations in your life. It teaches to you to do some self-examination and question what’s going on,” Tannler explained. “Very frequently, what will come to mind is a Tarot key with some ideas associated with it.”
Once during a time when he was unusually irritable with his wife and children, Tannler said, he conjured up visions of Tarot key No. 8, which is called “Strength.” The key shows a woman bent over a lion, which is holding its mouth open. The woman wears a wreath of flowers on her head, similar to one encircling the neck of the lion.
“One BOTA principle concerns controlling the animal part of our nature--how we want to be acting and reacting to people,” Tannler said. “So . . . being able to call up that picture real quick helped.”
Tannler said he stopped going to church while a teen-ager because the teachings failed to answer his questions about spiritual matters.
Over the years, he has experimented with yoga meditation and Hinduism. However, his search for a spiritual home ended with BOTA.
“It’s been a philosophy of living that has always been there for guidance to gain perspective,” Tannler said. “I look upon every experience of my life as being God upon the soul.”