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Virginians Slain in Attacks Lived Out Peaceful Ideals

By Jerry Markon, Amy Gardner and Theresa Vargas
Washington Post Staff Writers
Saturday, November 29, 2008; A01

FABER, Va., Nov. 28 -- Alan Scherr was an art professor with a comfortable life in the Maryland suburbs, but he spent 25 years studying Transcendental Meditation in a quest for something more. The search took him and his family to Virginia's Blue Ridge Mountains, where they shed their old life in Silver Spring and meditated in the complex of a New Age mystic.

"It is pleasure almost to the point of unbearable ecstasy," he wrote upon meeting the mystic, a former actor known as Master Charles, who was himself a disciple of a prominent Indian spiritual guru and who founded the Synchronicity Foundation here in 1983.

Scherr's life with the spiritual community led him and his 13-year-old daughter, Naomi, on a pilgrimage to India, where they were gunned down Wednesday as they ate a late dinner at a hotel in Mumbai. The 58-year-old former University of Maryland professor and his daughter were among five known Americans killed in the terrorist attacks that rocked India.

As they mourned the deaths, family and friends struggled to comprehend how a man defined by his quiet spirituality had met such a violent end -- along with the daughter who was raised in part by monks in the family-like atmosphere of the rural Synchronicity compound, 30 miles from Charlottesville.

"It's an unbelievable tragedy that he should be struck down by terrorists when his whole life was about creating peace," said Marcia Kaspark, Alan Scherr's ex-wife. "His whole life was about spirituality."

The journey that Synchronicity officials called the "trip of a lifetime" for more than 25 members of the group was shattered when gunmen burst into the first-floor cafe at the Oberoi Hotel. Alan Scherr was killed first, execution style, with a bullet to the head, said Michael Lang, former chairman of the Synchronicity Foundation, which runs the Virginia compound and its businesses selling books and CDs about meditation.

Naomi, a high-achieving student who was home-schooled at the compound and planned to attend boarding school in New York next fall, was shot next, Lang said. "It's hard for me to imagine the rationale for shooting a 13-year-old girl in the back of the head," he added. "Naomi was the sweetest, loveliest, most innocent young girl."

Bobbie Garvey of Synchronicity said she called Kia Scherr, Naomi's mother and Alan's wife, on Thanksgiving to say the two were missing. On Friday morning, Garvey called back to say that Master Charles had identified the bodies. "And she whispered something I couldn't understand and started to cry," Garvey said of Kia Scherr, who was in seclusion with her two adult sons from a previous marriage.

Master Charles remains in India, where he escaped the attacks by spending 45 hours locked in his hotel room. Four other Synchronicity members in the cafe were wounded. The group had left for India on Nov. 14 and planned to return Monday.

It was a tragic milestone on a spiritual journey with Indian roots for Master Charles, who grew up in New York and Florida as a practicing Catholic and whose real name is Charles Cannon.

One night after a stage performance in New York, two friends just back from India showed Cannon a picture of a prominent Indian mystic known as Swami Muktananda, said Lang, the former Synchronicity chairman. "Master Charles looked at the picture and went into a trance," Lang said.

Cannon would become known as Brother Charles, then Master Charles, and serve as the primary American emissary of Muktananda, whose admirers in the 1970s included former California governor Jerry Brown and singers John Denver and Carly Simon.

When Muktananda died in 1982, Master Charles had a vision in which his departed guru told him to go to the Blue Ridge Mountains, Lang said. He bought 80 acres in the Virginia countryside, three hours south of Washington, and began building a spiritual community that emphasizes his own form of a soothing Eastern art he calls "high-tech meditation," or fast enlightenment.

"We have created McDonald's. If we have created fast food, can we not also create fast enlightenment?" he told The Washington Post in 1990, when the group's emblem was a Buddha wearing a Walkman.

Today, the Synchronicity Foundation is one of a number of spiritual retreats in Nelson County, a rural enclave of about 15,000 residents that sits on the eastern slope of the Blue Ridge and includes the Wintergreen Resort. No more than 50 adherents, known as monks, live at any one time on the property, which has grown to 450 acres. They spend their days meditating, planning spiritual retreats and taking orders for the group's business selling meditation tapes, CDs and books.

The foundation's 2007 federal tax return lists income of $242,000 from such sales and total assets of $5.4 million. The form says Master Charles and the six-member board of directors take no salary, although Master Charles lives on the property in a $589,000 house known as the Parsonage.

Synchronicity's collection of wooden structures are well-maintained and landscaped, and its common spaces are hung with Christmas and other religious decorations. The compound is crisscrossed with meticulous gravel paths lined with stones, and both indoor and outdoor spaces carry the lingering smell of burned incense.

In a fellowship room hangs a picture of Master Charles with Zsa Zsa Gabor, one of his Hollywood admirers.

Synchronicity's approach seemed a natural fit for Scherr, who wrote in a 2000 essay in the Web magazine Realization that he had spent 25 years practicing and teaching Transcendental Meditation. But it was not yet his life's work: He was an art professor at the University of Maryland and a part-time photography instructor at Loyola College from 1990 to 1996.

Everything changed for the professor in April 1994, when he ventured here and saw a presentation from Master Charles out of, he wrote, "a mixture of curiosity and a compelling sense of destiny."

"I am taking in his every word and gesture with my eyes, while I feel my heart melting and my head reeling, opiated beyond understanding. I am drunk and I do not know why or how," Scherr wrote.

As he was drawn ever deeper to Synchronicity, Scherr struggled with his life in Silver Spring. He and his wife filed for bankruptcy in 1996 and would lose their house to foreclosure in 1998. "Piece by piece, everything I had acquired or accomplished began to fall away, as if by design," Scherr wrote. "Every attempt at keeping up the facade of my life as a suburban householder, resulted in failure and bitter disappointment."

In 1996, Scherr broke with his former life and moved his family to the Synchronicity compound, where until his death he was vice president of the foundation, helping to run its business side and serving in a public affairs role. He and his family eventually lived on the compound in a house donated by a New Zealand businessman, Lang said.

Naomi Scherr was 2 when her parents moved to the compound, and so her playground was amid meditation centers, and monks could be counted among her friends.

"She . . . was a shining light, a visionary, a brilliant artist," said Garvey. "She could draw anything. Or write. She got that from her father." Garvey remembered how, as a child, Naomi would draw pictures for everyone and later, as a teenager, would work in the kitchen, even choosing to cook dinner once for the entire community.

Monk Sydney Miller said everyone in the community -- "like a family" -- watched her grow. She remembered how the toddler would lie on the floor during meditations.

As a teenager, she would join her parents every day at 5:30 p.m. as they gathered outdoors to meditate. Miller said Naomi was looking forward to the trip to India. "She was just so excited," Miller said. "She wanted to get her nose pierced. And she did."

Naomi had dyed her short hair blue one time and red another, and she knew her way around a computer. Community member Marie Kelly described Naomi and Alan as "inseparable," saying he had recently taken her to a concert in Richmond. "She could wrap him around her finger," Miller said.

Staff reporters Maria Glod and Jerry Markon reported from Washington. Staff researchers Meg Smith and Alice Crites contributed to this report.

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