Richards finds solace in Cambodia

Special to The Times

Actor Michael Richards, whose career nosedived after he shouted racial slurs at hecklers in a West Hollywood comedy club, has been seeking some spiritual healing here with his fiancee.

Richards, best known for his portrayal of the eccentric Cosmo Kramer on the popular television series “Seinfeld,” said he has quit stand-up comedy.

“That night, when I was insulted and disrupted, I lost my heart; I lost my sense of humor. I’ve retired from that. I’m taking time off to feel myself out, get to know myself and appreciate other people,” Richards said in an interview here.


Richards, 57, and actress Beth Skipp traveled to remote temples before visiting Angkor Wat on a tour sponsored by the Los Angeles-based Nithyananda Foundation. The sect adheres to the teachings of 29-year-old Hindu monk Nithyananda -- an avowed “enlightened Master and modern mystic” who’s referred to by his followers as “swamiji.”

Nithyananda members here say Richards began attending foundation events in March, about three months after launching into a racist tirade from the stage of the Laugh Factory. He later apologized for the outburst.

In the interview here, Richards said he was just a tourist and not a full-fledged devotee of the Nithyananda group.

“I don’t wear club jackets or belong to organizations of this nature. I do my own personal work. We came to see this amazing country,” said Richards, who left Cambodia for neighboring Thailand on July 7.

“I listened in, but often my fiancee and I went on our own, to feel the temples in our own way. They’re magnificent structures. It’s great to just be in them and watch time go by. We’ll probably be back.”

The tour, officially a fundraiser for an Internet university, featured daily spiritual seminars by Nithyananda at the hotel, followed by visits to the nearby Angkor Archaeological Park, where the leader discussed depictions of Hindu cosmology. Swamiji is described in the group’s literature as “on a mission to re-establish the science of inner bliss on planet Earth.”

Richards, born in Culver City, spoke candidly about the Nov. 17 racist rant, which ended up on the Internet after an audience member recorded video on a cellphone. He said his Cambodia trip was not any kind of “karmic rehab.”

“No, I’ve been doing other personal work since [the incident],” he said. “I’m trying to learn to enjoy myself.”

Richards and Skipp, who appeared in the 2006 L.A. production of “Me, My Guitar & Don Henley,” checked into a $380-per-night deluxe spa suite at Siem Reap’s Hotel De La Paix on June 29. They joined the Nithyananda tour after several days of sightseeing independently at ancient sites, including Preah Vihear, a famously difficult-to-reach mountaintop temple overlooking the Thai border.

“We went way out into the country. Preah Vihear was unbelievable. And the way we got there: We went up this crazy road in a funky pickup, and when we got to the top there’s this magnificent temple,” Richards said. “We did it all old-school.”

Richards said the couple planned to proceed to Chaing Mai, Thailand, and eventually the ancient city of Luang Prabang.

“At first, I was a little bit struck by the poverty, but when I leaned in I could see how open-hearted the Cambodian people are, and I was touched by it,” Richards said. “I’d always wanted to take a trip to the Far East. It’s a place I’d never been. I knew of Angkor Wat and I’d seen pictures, so we decided, ‘Let’s go for this.’ It’s amazing: You can walk around and it’s all hands-on in the temples, it’s not roped off. Seeing spirituality in stone is inspiring.”

A spokesman for the Nithyananda Foundation said Swamiji has gathered 1.2 million initiated disciples in 21 countries, after “going public” in 2003. The foundation’s headquarters, in Duarte, is described in the group’s brochure as “a grand meditation hall pulsating with cosmic energy.” The movement began as the Nithyananda Meditation Academy in Bangalore, India. The brochure describes the Bangalore facility as “exuding mysticism and equipped with modern amenities, this is a space where mere existence is meditation!”

“It’s not a cult, it’s a culture,” said Nithyananda follower David Herold, president of a drug and alcohol testing company headquartered in Redlands. “I call it the enlightenment express.”

Herold began to study Nithyananda’s meditation techniques just four months ago at a 12-person beginner’s program also attended by Richards.

“Swamiji helps you to reconnect to the self,” Herold said. “His teachings are a tool to cleanse and relieve stress, addiction and negative energy.”

By the end of the tour, Nithyananda members said Richards was not seen at morning seminars and often went on his own.

“I’m not a part of the group. I’m not a devotee. Like I said, I don’t wear club jackets, but I honor all the clubs,” Richards said. “Life is not always about us or making people laugh. I’m trying to understand the humanity that I am, that I belong to. So, in that sense, I’m part of a group: humanity.”

Still, he was open with his views on spirituality.

“What constitutes spirituality is heart,” Richards said. “Making people laugh is something else -- I did ‘Seinfeld’ for 10 years -- it lightens things up, helps people enjoy the world they live in more. I’ve had people call me from hospital beds and tell me, ‘That Kramer character got me through it. Thanks.’ It’s pretty simple, you know, the feeling of opening yourself up to others.

“You go through a country like this and see the people close to the land. I see the heart they put into their homes and their lives. I see their children: open-eyed and cheery. You’re in the middle of the country and they’re waving at you from a motorcycle. When you’re right there at that living connection, that’s spiritual.”