COLUMN ONE : Tracking the Mystical Traveler : The church founded by John-Roger has sparked controversy over some of its teachings, now-defunct gala awards and a peace retreat near Santa Barbara. Now it is in the news because of Arianna Huffington.
Even the Mystical Traveler had to admit: Oct. 5 was a particularly trying day in a trying season.
Earlier in the fall, California’s Senate race had taken a weird hop, with national media and Democratic spin doctors suddenly blasting Arianna Stassinopoulos Huffington, wife of Republican candidate Mike Huffington, for her involvement with spiritual teacher John-Roger and his Church of the Movement of Spiritual Inner Awareness, or MSIA.
All week the Doonesbury comic strip lampooned Arianna Huffington, calling MSIA “a cult.”
That morning, though, the jokes took on a sinister edge when 53 members of a Swiss-Canadian sect called the Order of the Solar Temple were found dead in a murder-suicide.
Abruptly, commentators’ snide slaps at MSIA, which teaches that “the Mystical Traveler Consciousness” can help achieve “Soul Transcendence,” turned more serious.
By evening, longtime minister and staff member John Morton, to whom John-Roger passed “the keys” to the Mystical Traveler Consciousness in 1988, was countering what he termed media “witch hunts” that threatened MSIA’s religious freedom, and trying to rebut those who “mocked and . . . persecuted” the movement he loves.
Later, in a lengthy interview, Morton said there is enough of a “track record” so that the issue of Arianna Huffington’s involvement with John-Roger and MSIA will “take care of itself.” He also said that if she would defend MSIA, it might dispel the notion that “this is ‘a cult’ that only stupid fools would get involved in.”
The public, he continued, might then see that “maybe Arianna is on to something that is profound and deep and real.” He added, though, that given her recent efforts to distance herself from MSIA, he felt obliged to describe her involvement “in the past tense.”
Arianna Huffington, who declined to be interviewed for this story, has said MSIA is not a cult, that she is a member of the Greek Orthodox Church and that John-Roger, whom she first met in 1973, is merely a friend.
Current or not, her ties to MSIA have put the movement and its 4,000 to 5,000 participants worldwide back in the public eye.
John-Roger, 60, was born Roger Delano Hinkins, to Mormon parents, in Rains, Utah. After working at various jobs and obtaining a psychology degree he moved to California.
As a Rosemead High School English teacher, Hinkins was, by most accounts, well-liked. Students enjoyed his propensity for turning out the lights and leading intense “guided imagery” excursions so vivid that some were literally knocked out of their chairs.
In 1963, Hinkins awoke from a coma caused by a kidney stone operation, possessed, he said, by the spirit of “John the Beloved.” Hinkins started calling himself John-Roger--J-R to some. He said he anchored the Mystical Traveler Consciousness, a spiritual mantle that had been assumed by others including Moses and Christ. He spoke of his communications with “beings of light” and his “special dispensation” to serve humanity.
In 1970, he and the school parted ways, but at least one teacher and one of his former students stuck with him, and remain involved in MSIA, which was incorporated as a tax-exempt church in 1971.
Over time, the teachings expanded, and J-R--who said he also anchored a rare force called the Preceptor Consciousness, which comes to the planet only once every 25,000 years--began offering, for a fee, “aura balancings,” “polarity balancings” and “inner phasings"--services still integral to MSIA.
On Oct. 5, about 200 people gathered in a rented Santa Barbara hall to hear a scheduled “open seminar” by John Morton.
Children skittered between pews and folding chairs. Adults, some of whom had participated in MSIA for 25 years or longer, chatted and expressed amused disbelief that a group that teaches “Don’t hurt yourself and don’t hurt others,” was being mentioned in the same breath as Jonestown and Waco.
A few longtime followers wore the purple clothes once said to be the Traveler’s color, and others wore MSIA’s insignia jewelry. Otherwise, the diverse group could have blended seamlessly into a Lutheran or Catholic congregation.
The seminar began with a ritual known as “calling in the Light.” Then, as “a means of moving farther into the higher realms of consciousness,” the group chanted soothingly what MSIA literature calls the sacred names for empathy and God, Ani-Hu .
Finally, with John-Roger, now Traveler emeritus, sitting in the back receiving a neck massage from a smiling woman, Morton strode onstage in a stylish olive suit, looking more junior executive than Mystical Traveler.
Morton’s monologue, like those of John-Roger that run on public access stations nationwide, came across to an outsider like stream of consciousness. A minister later explained that the Traveler was simply “picking up” and commenting on the audience’s thoughts.
If so, then some folks were pondering God and soul transcendence, others donations (“Somebody’s got this thing about money,” Morton said); banking practices (“I have no knowledge whatsoever that there are any Swiss bank accounts or any other secret bank accounts”), and MSIA’s relations with the Internal Revenue Service (“In actuality, we’ve had very good relations with the IRS.”)
Afterward, the hostess returned to the stage, and in the same cheerful PTA president voice in which she announced that cookies and punch would be served, she advised the audience to remain seated and not touch John Morton or John-Roger as they left.
“For those people who are new, part of the reason that we ask for that is that during the seminar, John and John-Roger also work with a spiritual consciousness, and here in the seminar some imbalances from the physical, the emotional, or the mental may be released . . . and then they’re held around the energy fields of John Morton and John-Roger. . . . If you touch them, then that could get more anchored into their body, and it’s a little more difficult for them to clear that.”
Earlier, Morton had noted in his talk that sometimes the church can strike outsiders as “weird or kooky.”
But, he added, “we also appear as very beautiful, loving, joyful people. If you miss that part of the Movement of Spiritual Inner Awareness, you’re blind.”
Participants have said they were initially attracted to the familial warmth of the early seminars, for which seekers paid $3. But quickly the movement’s fortunes grew. In 1973, MSIA purchased a large home in Mandeville Canyon where John-Roger, who has taken a vow of poverty, lived with his young male staff. The next year, the church purchased the elegant Busby Berkeley mansion on West Adams Boulevard, and renamed it Prana--the Purple Rose Ashram of the New Age. It later acquired an office building in Santa Monica and a Lake Arrowhead retreat.
In 1978, John-Roger launched Insight Transformational Seminars, which, according to tax records, brought in more than $1 million in the first full year.
In the 1980s, a handful of ranking ministers left the church, portraying John-Roger as a Svengali.
Numerous former ministers said that he used the lure of his awesome cosmic connections to garner wealth and worldly power.
Victor Toso was one of three men who had served on John-Roger’s personal staff who contended that J-R had sexually seduced them under spiritual pretense. Several former members, including Wendell and Susan Whitmore, claimed that when they left MSIA (previously pronounced “messiah”) John-Roger or his staff members had harassed them and vandalized their cars.
No one was ever charged in those incidents. John-Roger, who declined to be interviewed for this story, has previously denied allegations of sexual relations with his staff under spiritual pretense and intimidation.
After The Times published a series of articles on the movement in 1988, John-Roger’s bad press subsided, and he went on to launch the best-selling “Life 101" series of books with author Peter McWilliams. But in March, McWilliams, MSIA’s 1990 “minister of the year,” left the movement.
In June, MSIA sued him, demanding more than $400,000 in unpaid royalties and past-due promissory notes. Williams has said in interviews with The Times and other media that John-Roger “programmed” him to believe that J-R was more powerful than Jesus, then duped him into putting his name on the books. McWilliams says he has paid or donated more than $1 million to the church.
Church officials say that McWilliams’ accusations--which are spelled out in his speedily self-published book “Life 102--What to Do When Your Guru Sues You"--are simply the author making good on “blackmail” he threatened when MSIA tried to collect money he had agreed to pay.
In any case, McWilliams’ collaboration with John-Roger had brought the movement good publicity after the collapse of its most high-profile effort, the John-Roger Foundation’s International Integrity Awards.
From 1983 to 1987, media swarmed as the awards were presented to South Africa’s Bishop Desmond Tutu, polio researcher Dr. Jonas Salk, then-Los Angeles Mayor Tom Bradley, consumer activist Ralph Nader and director Oliver Stone, among others, usually at black-tie galas.
In 1985, J-R appeared in Interview magazine, awkwardly posed beside award recipient Mother Teresa. Author Arianna Stassinopoulos, who was ordained an MSIA minister in 1978, had gone with J-R to present the prize. In the preface to her interview with him for the magazine, Stassinopoulos wrote that her first encounter with her “way-shower and friend” was a pivotal moment in her long spiritual quest, and that she had studied with him ever since.
In 1988, Jim and Dodie Brady, then MSIA ministers, were in the midst of bringing the annual gala to Washington when they spoke to staffers and ministers who had left the movement. They began to question the integrity of the man who inspired the awards, they say. Amid considerable turmoil, the event was canceled.
Dodie Brady, now a critic of the way Arianna Huffington has represented her relationship with MSIA, says that she is still “embarrassed” that she had helped persuade then-Sen. Alan Cranston and other lawmakers to introduce national legislation that would have declared Sept. 24--John-Roger’s birthday--an annual Integrity Day. Forty-seven states and 200 cities had already approved such a proclamation.
In 1988, after the cancellation of the Integrity Awards, the MSIA faithful organized a celebration for John-Roger. Led by Morton, the church threw a black-tie bash and presented him with “the symbolic gift” of a $752,000 house near the John-Roger Foundation’s Santa Barbara-area ranch, although he still spends most of his time at the Mandeville Canyon home.
Morton now lives with wife, printing heiress and MSIA supporter Laura Donnelley-Morton. In July, Architectural Digest featured the couple in their remodeled Brentwood-area “Spanish-Passadian-Oriental-Ranch” style home, which boasts views “from Downtown to Palos Verdes.”
Meanwhile, John-Roger’s teachings continue to spread through MSIA and its aligned organizations. The once-lucrative Insight has gone through financial travails and is now independently owned by three MSIA participants. MSIA seminars, retreats, trips, Peace Awareness Trainings, Spiritual Warrior workshops and other events are held across the United States and in Canada, Chile, Mexico, Uruguay, Spain and other nations.
The focus at the moment, however, is the Institute for Individual and World Peace’s Windermere ranch, 140 acres of stunning boulder-strewn chaparral overlooking Santa Barbara and the Channel Islands.
Katherine Hall, vice president of the institute (of which John-Roger is president), said the plan for Windermere is to create a peace retreat to help realize the institute slogan: “Peace in the world will result when we take responsibility for peace in our lives.”
Many of John-Roger’s and John Morton’s movement activities now go toward raising money for Windermere, where events for the aligned organizations would be held. Wealthy donors have also been generous. Carl Wilson of the Beach Boys and Donnelley-Morton have each contributed more than $200,000 to the institute, according to tax records. Arianna Huffington contributed $35,000 between September, 1990, and November, 1992, and McWilliams contributed more than $54,000 before parting ways with John-Roger.
The Peace Institute has also donated to several “designated charities” in the past five years. The largest amounts have gone to MSIA, with smaller checks written to other John-Roger-aligned organizations, including the University of Santa Monica, Peace Theological Seminary and the Educare Foundation, which teaches the Achievement and Commitment to Excellence self-esteem program in some public schools.
John-Roger defines “peace” as “the cessation of againstness.” And the institute--previously the John-Roger Foundation--has faced plenty of againstness regarding Windermere.
The most recent plans shown to neighbors, scaled back from the original drawings, include a 3,600-square-foot dining facility, a 3,000-square-foot community building, a new hay barn, a basketball court as well as 10 one- and two-story cabins and campsites.
But neighbors in the remote community with its narrow winding roads cite fire danger and traffic, noise, water and environmental concerns. They complain, too, that the Peace Institute plays hardball.
In 1987, the John-Roger Foundation sued resident Helen Larsen for $1 million to gain access to a small road on her property. The suit was dismissed three years later, and Larsen said the institute reimbursed her legal fees.
“From the moment the John-Roger Foundation came into this community,” Larsen said, “I have known no peaceful enjoyment; instead I have felt harassed and invaded.”
Hall says she is confident that consensus can be reached in the community. The institute has worked closely with the neighbors, and a team of top consultants has offered assurance that the uses the institute envisions are harmonious with the environment and the community’s needs, she said.
For neighbors Craig and Judy Jennings, though, the problem with Windermere is symbolized by the 8,000-square-foot barn the institute built in 1992, while the site was still zoned for agriculture but then used for institute events.
The barn was necessary, said ranch manager and MSIA minister Jack Espey, to keep the ranch’s 46 horses warm on cold nights. Indeed, about half the cavernous space has a dirt floor and paddocks.
But another large section is carpeted and paneled, has ceiling fans, insulation, a massive air-conditioning system and a panel of switches controlling various functions, including stage lights. A placard on one wall sports a roster of people who contributed to the “tree fund” in 1991 and 1992.
“I can’t help but think of it as a ‘compound,’ ” Craig Jennings said, smiling.
Morton, MSIA President Paul Kaye and other participants are frustrated by renewed suggestions that their ecumenical church, which encourages the spreading of “Light and Love,” is a cult.
What keeps people working with MSIA, Morton and Kaye say, is the value they get from the Traveler’s teachings--that God is within everyone, that “no soul shall be lost.”
“This is a brilliant teaching,” Kaye said.
But John-Roger’s words, recorded in more than 24 books, 5,000 tapes and 144 monthly “soul awareness discourses,” are open to interpretation. And to complicate matters, his supporters say that much of what happens in seminars is not necessarily meant to be grasped on “the word level.”
Students of the Traveler--J-R used to call them “votaries"--negotiate a labyrinth of his cosmic insight on working with the Light, overcoming karma, reincarnation, the negative “kal power,” and moving through the lower realms--physical, astral, causal, mental, etheric--toward Soul Transcendence.
Admirers have no problem shrugging off the more unusual aspects of the teachings, and seem baffled that outsiders see anything in J-R but love and selfless commitment to serving others.
Heide Banks, 38, first attended a John-Roger seminar 16 years ago. She continues to study the teachings, but adds that MSIA is only a part of a life that is rich with friends and activities outside the movement. Of John-Roger, she said: “I think he has a tremendous loving energy around him, that really encourages people to be the best that they can be.”
Kaye and Banks said that most people who study with MSIA never “put J-R on a pedestal” and those who move on do so without bitterness. Both independently suggested nine-year participant Victoria Marine as an example.
From October, 1990, until November, 1992, Marine lived at Prana and edited the movement’s New Day Herald newspaper, with John-Roger as her editor-in-chief. When she left MSIA early last month, she wrote letters saying she did so with no “againstness” toward anyone.
But since then, she said, “my eyes have opened a little . . . it’s like I put my glasses on and started seeing clearly . . . The more I go along now, the more I think, ‘My God, I was manipulated and used.’ ”
Marine, 35, now attends First Presbyterian Church of Hollywood, which she said seems “open” and “inexpensive.”
In contrast, MSIA “charges for everything,” she said, from seminars to polarity balancings; MSIA initiates are discouraged from sharing their thoughts with each other, she said, and many ministers were so obedient to J-R that they abided by the most offbeat rules.
Marine said many staffers would not eat pork or garlic before conducting services such as aura balancings because J-R is allergic to those foods and could be affected, even though he participates only “spiritually” from afar.
Marine said her recent questioning of MSIA was in part inspired by the “suspicious” call she got from Banks, who wanted to know if she would talk to a reporter.
“She asked, would I be OK if (the reporter) asked me about Arianna? The question seemed strange: Would I be OK? What does that mean? Will I have a seizure, start crying?”
Banks later said she never mentioned Arianna Huffington.
Marine said that she had talked to Huffington and attended several seminars and a retreat open only to ministers and initiates with her in recent years. Once, she wanted to publish some “excellent” photographs of J-R holding Arianna’s daughter, but the answer was no. With J-R’s permission, Marine said she sent the photos and the negatives to Arianna’s sister, Agapi Stassinopoulos, a longtime MSIA participant.
Huffington campaign spokeswoman Jennifer Grossman said Friday that Arianna Huffington has spent too much time “trying to rebut malicious lies and rumors” and will let her “six books and countless speeches speak for themselves. . . . She will not participate in a witch hunt by association.”
Morton, Kaye and others say that the teachings of the Traveler are compatible with mainstream Christianity; that John-Roger frequently says: “Jesus is my boss.” Morton provides a folder of J-R’s quotes that mention the teachings of Jesus.
But it is easy to thumb through movement literature and find passages where John-Roger or supporters portray the Traveler as Christlike, or state that the positions J-R “anchors” are of greater cosmic importance than Jesus’.
For example, in “The Path to Mastership,” a book updated in 1982, John-Roger writes: “Buddha said, ‘I am the Light of Asia.’ Christ said, ‘I am the Light of the world.’ The Traveler says, ‘I am the Light of the universe’; And the Preceptor says, ‘I am the Light of all universes.’ This is not a spiritual promise. It is reality.”
For a church apparently intent on establishing its credentials for Christian-compatibility, the iconography of Western religion is conspicuously scarce. A tour of Prana reveals the estate as a pleasant place for spiritual study. There is a statue of the Buddha on one table and a Hindu sculpture in a nook.
One resident’s room does display a half-dozen or so portraits of Christ, but they are surrounded by a reverential display of even more images of John-Roger, which are everywhere in Prana, now called the Peace Theological Seminary and College of Philosophy.
Marine said simply: “You have all these normal, nice, intelligent people repeating what J-R says, even bizarre things, and if enough say it you start to accept it yourself.”
In August, anticipating McWilliams’ book, MSIA’s Kaye wrote a letter to discourse subscribers urging them to “look within” for answers to the coming questions: “Is MSIA a strange cult? Is this the real thing or some money-making scheme?”
He pointed out that in 1988, when The Times and other publications reported “rumors” about John-Roger and MSIA, discourse subscriptions dropped.
“But ironically,” he added, “it impacted positively in terms of income flowing to the church, because the people still involved upped their involvement and commitment.
“Many of you are probably wondering how J-R is doing with all of this. The answer is, just fine.”
Times researcher Peter Johnson and Times staff writer Kenneth R. Weiss contributed to this story.