Frederick Lenz wants you to know certain things about him. Author, music producer, computer entrepreneur, spiritual mentor, snowboarder -- Lenz will tell you that he is a great success at all of these. Perhaps you've seen his face lately in prominent advertising spreads in the New York Times, USA Today, Rolling Stone and Sports Illustrated. Perhaps you've heard the radio spots inviting you to read his new book, so that you can "find something to believe in," take charge of your life and -- who knows -- maybe even become a great success like Fred Lenz.

The massive ad campaign promotes Lenz's first novel, "Surfing the Himalayas," which has sold more than 100,000 hardcover copies in two months, and which its publisher hopes will become a new age phenomenon like "The Celestine Prophecy." Though ignored by nearly all major reviewers, Lenz's book has been endorsed by corporate heads, eminent sports figures and various pop culture shamans: "A fun read," says Phil Jackson, head coach of the Chicago Bulls; "a wild ride through the basics of Buddhism," says performance artist Laurie Anderson.

Yet there are other things Frederick Lenz prefers you do not know about him, or bids you to ignore. Namely the accounts by former devotees who say that Lenz is a cult leader, a spiritual con man who preys mainly on young people. Over the years, several have claimed that Lenz encourages his followers to sever family ties, convinces them that he has godlike powers -- including the ability to protect them from cancer -- and then financially or sexually exploits them.

Not surprisingly, some of these ex-acolytes say they cannot bring themselves to read Lenz's new book. "I can't even touch it," says a woman who joined Lenz's fold in her early twenties and became one of his many sex partners. "I would throw up. I get physically ill when I see it in the stores."

The ads touting "Surfing the Himalayas" don't mention Lenz's 15-year career as an obscure guru who first called himself Atmananda and later Zen Master Rama, who built a nomadic commune of more than 300 people, instructing them in occultism, meditation and computer programming. His publicists don't mention the 1983 book he wrote as Rama, titled "The Last Incarnation." It depicts him as a Hindu deity capable of turning invisible and walking on water. In Southern California, Lenz once distributed posters of himself emblazoned with the slogan "This man can turn a room GOLD in 60 seconds. Imagine what he can do to you."

He also used to list past lives on his resume -- for example, "1602-1671, Head of Zen Order, Kyoto, Japan" and "1912-1945, Tibetan Lama" -- and some students of his computer courses say they were taught to be equally creative when preparing resumes. Training materials provided by former followers contain instructions to "have a friend using a pseudonym act as your reference person."

Lenz says he has never told his students to lie, and claims those pages are forgeries. He says he has taught meditation to "probably half a million people" and only a handful have ever voiced dissatisfaction. He tells interviewers that if any of the allegations against him were valid, he would be in jail or the subject of lawsuits. He insists that his past includes no criminal record, and this is true (after Lenz spent a year in a California work camp, his 1969 conviction for possession of marijuana was expunged).

Lenz could be seen as just another new age flake with a book contract, but he's also been linked -- by press accounts, alarmed parents and former devotees -- to the suicide of one of his students and the mental breakdowns and disappearances of two others. A self-published book by one of Lenz's former confidants includes allegations of the guru dosing his followers with LSD, choking a puppy and waving a gun to reinforce his hold over their psyches.

"Recycled junk," Lenz terms these accounts. "The press has been duped. . . . I call it crucifixion by media."

In a lengthy telephone interview, he characterized his foes as part of a cabal of money-hungry anti-cult "deprogrammers" bent on destroying his new literary career. His lawyer also provided written testimonials from several parents whose children have followed Atmananda/Rama/Lenz, and statements from others impugning the mental stability of the guru's detractors.

"I am a Buddhist," says Frederick P. Lenz III. "I have never physically or psychologically abused a person in my life. I am a Buddhist." The Short Path'

Once you are enlightened you can do whatever you want without fear or sorrow. You can choose to have a career or live in a monastery; you can go snowboarding, get married, stay single, be rich and famous, or live unknown. . . .

-- Master Fwap in "Surfing the Himalayas"

The Buddha taught that all evil stems from the craving of material things and sensual pleasures. But Lenz, 45, eschews the ascetic lifestyle of many traditional Buddhists -- what he calls a "begging bowl" mentality. He often dates his young disciples, drives a Mercedes 600 and paid nearly $1 million apiece for his homes in New York and New Mexico. He embraces what he calls the "short path" to spiritual enlightenment, which involves learning meditation with an "enlightened master."

All the big publishing houses were eager to bid on Lenz's novel, which incorporates lectures he's been giving for years. The story was weird but trendy: A young American snowboarder in Nepal meets a Buddhist monk named Fwap, who reveals to him the secrets of Atlantis and meditation.

Much of the novel is repetitive cant about auras and chakras, but one key point emerges: the importance of not becoming too close to people who are "negative," especially family members and friends. Master Fwap warns the wide-eyed snowboarder that people can absorb "toxic" energies from other human beings and from physical places. These psychic toxins can cause many illnesses, including cancer, Fwap warns.

Lenz ended up getting a $250,000 advance from Warner Books for "Surfing the Himalayas," prompting complaints from Rama's foes. Soon after, Warner canceled the contract, citing "marketing differences with the author." Lenz got to keep about $80,000, though, and the book was quickly picked up by St. Martin's Press, which slotted it for intensive pre-Christmas exposure, including promos in 1,700 movie theaters nationwide.

The ad campaign paid off. "Surfing the Himalayas" reached No. 11 on the bestseller lists in mid-December and is now headed for its fourth printing. When Lenz signed books in New York and Boston, hundreds of his students turned out. In Boston, they waved signs that said "Master Fwap Lives."

In a pleasant, somewhat effeminate voice that recalls fitness guru Richard Simmons, Lenz describes his book as "faction" -- a blend of fact and fiction. He says he is not Fwap, an enlightened master who glows golden when meditating and is capable of such tricks as levitation.

"I am enlightened in the classic sense," Lenz says, but insists, "It's not a big deal. This is not having godlike qualities. . . . I'm a perpetual student of enlightenment. . . . I'm not hung up on myself at all."

He says he no longer teaches meditation and has no interest in recruiting spiritual followers. His primary business is software development, he says; his computer science seminars are so valued that advanced students pay him $3,500 a month, and he is obligated to appear at only one session. Students say they also pay up to $10,000 (airfare and hotel expenses not included) to accompany Lenz on soul-searching journeys into the desert or on scuba-diving trips.

Lenz says he wrote his book as a public service:

"I'm in the computer business, and I deal with a lot of programmers who are what you might call part of Generation X. A lot them are just very, very down on life -- they're very depressed. . . . I was trying to inspire these Generation X kids . . . to just get out there and do something with your life. . . ."

"I like college kids," Lenz adds. "I get a rush out of that age group. . . . There's just an energy -- I think it's sympathetic to mine." Age of Enlightenment

You cannot avoid becoming enlightened. It will come to you when you are twenty-nine.

-- Master Fwap in "Surfing the Himalayas"

The son of a former mayor of Stamford, Conn., Lenz holds a PhD in literature, which he earned at the State University of New York at Stony Brook. But instead of entering academe, he became a recruiter for the Indian guru Sri Chinmoy. At the age of 29, Lenz split with Chinmoy and relocated in San Diego.

He first proclaimed himself a holy man in 1980, when he incorporated himself as "Dr. Frederick P. Lenz, High Priest, the First Diocese of California of the Church of Atlantis," according to state records. Later he established a group named Lakshmi (after the Hindu goddess of beauty and prosperity) and hung out his shingle as a "self-realized spiritual teacher."

"The cosmic seducer," "yuppie guru" and "compu-cult leader" are among the labels the media have pinned on Lenz, who's been the subject of various exposes since 1987. The rap against Rama started when three Los Angeles women went public with allegations of the guru's abuse. Mercedes Hughes told the San Francisco Chronicle and L.A. Weekly that Lenz fed her LSD. Anny Eastwood told reporters that Rama emerged from his bathroom nude except for a towel, demanding sex and carrying a handgun. Nancy Knupfer said her five-month involvement with Rama led her to disconnect from friends and family and cost her more than $30,000.

Then, as now, Lenz called these accounts lies, and said the women entered relationships with him consensually and grew vindictive after he spurned them.

After the bad ink in California, Rama moved his core group to Reston, Va., where students rented apartments in groups of four or five, and attended classes at Computer Learning Center or obtained jobs as programmers or consultants. Between 250 and 300 of them lived in the Washington area from January through September 1988, before moving on to New York.

During that time, Patty Hammond -- a follower in her late twenties who friends say was under stress from working two jobs to pay Rama's fees -- suffered a breakdown and disappeared, leaving her car behind at her Reston apartment.

Another Lenz follower, Brenda Kerber, disappeared in October 1989 from White Plains, N.Y. Police detectives said they discovered a diary in which Kerber expressed frustration about her inability to perform well as a computer programmer.

"Rama is my true love. He makes me feel like an ass," wrote Kerber, who was 41 and separated from her second husband. "This is the end of the fairy tale. Good night." She left behind two children.

Kerber's father, Jim Barratt, believes his daughter committed suicide, and blames Lenz. "He's a son of a bitch, any way you look at it," Barratt says.

In Malibu, Calif., in 1984, a troubled UCLA student named Donald Kohl, who had attended Lenz's lectures for three years, killed himself at the age of 23. He left a note saying, "I didn't do well enough. . . . Bye, Rama, see you next time."

Lenz says he had no personal relationship with any of these students. He observes that statistically, the rate of suicide among his students is "one-tenth" that of an average university's. His lawyer, Norman Oberstein, adds: "Dr. Lenz grieves for the deaths of those who would take their own lives or drop out of sight -- but he is in no way responsible for such actions." Visions of Gold

I looked at my body and I was nothing but light. I wasn't solid anymore. Eternity has named me Rama. Rama most clearly reflects that strand of luminosity of which I am part.

-- Rama, in "The Last Incarnation"

In recent interviews with The Washington Post, six former Lenz followers -- three women and three men -- told basically the same story of their introduction to the group. Their experiences ranged from the Lakshmi period in the early '80s to the computer seminars of the early '90s.

All are smart and motivated, but some were emotionally vulnerable at the time. All were seeking answers and eager to follow someone. All grew to love Rama and the group above all else; all took his advice to enter the computer field and paid him monthly fees. Four say they lied to get jobs, at the urging of Rama or other group members.

Two of the women said they consented to sex with the guru because Rama told them it would advance them spiritually -- that this guaranteed they would be reincarnated in the next lifetime as more enlightened beings.

All of these former students now believe that they were subjected to a form of hypnotic mind control; some are in therapy. Yet their demonization of Rama can also be seen as a way of excusing their own bad choices.

Rama and his disciples lined up new recruits by advertising free or low-cost meditation sessions on college campuses. At these initial meetings, former students say, the suggestion was planted that Rama was fully enlightened and capable of turning a room golden. Eventually, the recruits got to attend a meeting with Rama himself. There, with the help of trancelike music and altered consciousness brought on by hours of lecturing and meditation, the spell would take hold.

Jim Picariello of Boston, now 24, attended a dinner meeting with Rama in October 1992, with his then-fiancee. He was a philosophy major at the University of Massachusetts. "Everyone {at the dinner} was a computer programmer, making between $80,000 and $200,000 a year. Everyone was happy and successful," he recalls.

After an evening of lectures and meditation, "Rama had a wrap-up after dessert. His voice got quiet and controlled. I don't remember what he was talking about -- neither does my fiancee -- but everything in that room turned into solid gold, as if inlaid with gold leaf. She felt a rush of euphoria. We looked at each other and thought, Holy {expletive}, that was phenomenal.' We thought he was the real McCoy."

Students were taught that meditating up to three hours a day was the path to achieving success and power in the computer field; and it was Rama who would empower them. If they meditated well, they would make more money. Naturally, some of this money should go to Rama, who charged little for beginners, but accelerated the fees as the students secured lucrative computing contracts. Over time, the dropouts say, Rama would equate one's spiritual progress with one's earnings.

He also used demonstrations of his "powers" -- followers swear he changed shape, altered the patterns of stars, shot beams of light -- as a way to instill awe and to control them. Ex-students say he even dictated what shampoos they should use; Nexxus and Paul Mitchell were best, "high-energy." They say they learned the doctrine of "inaccessibility" -- using answering services and mail drops to avoid contact with relatives and friends.

"It was an insidious, slow shift," says Charlie Rubin, 30, a software consultant in Upstate New York who estimates that he paid Rama $40,000 over three years. (He says he was among a group of students who chipped in to buy the guru a new Bentley.) "Rama is kind of like a drug dealer," says Rubin. "He has the ability to alter consciousness, but he doles it out like heroin."

"If people had a good job, they thanked him for it," recalls Frances, who followed Rama for six years, now lives in Southern California and asked that her last name not be published because she fears repercussions in the job market. "But if anything negative happened, it was your fault. If he was sick, it was because you were sending him bad energy. If you got sick, it was your fault -- you were communing with lower entities and demons.

"He told us, In your dreams you all go to Hell and make deals for power. What if you didn't have me to give you the cleaning energies? If you leave me, you could die of cancer or in an accident.' That was the hold he had on everybody: fear. People were terrified. They slept with the lights on."

Teri Koressel, a Rama disciple from 1984 to 1989, says she was among the women he selected for a private "spiritual" session at his Long Island mansion. It soon became clear what the guru wanted when he invited her into his bedroom, she says, then reappeared in his underwear, holding a tube of lubricant.

It wasn't rape, she says, because Lenz didn't force her into sex. "I felt very uncomfortable with him initiating that, but I ended up wanting to be with him. I felt honored, special. What do you call that?" Koressel, now 37, wonders in a phone interview from her home near White Plains, N.Y. "I was with him maybe 12 times, but the last five times he really treated me like a hooker: Go take a shower, put on a robe, jump in bed, I'll meet you there -- I know what you want.'

"He'd say, You look at this like we're having sex, but we're not. It's an exchange of energy. You think I get a charge out of this? I'm doing this for you!' I'd end up thanking him at the end: Thank you for lifting my awareness to new heights.' "

Today Lenz says his "dating" is in line with the traditions of Tantric Buddhism, which includes a sexual dimension in some of its rituals and symbols. "This is a perfectly acceptable habit," he says of having sex with his students. Thousands of women have attended his seminars, and "it's like meeting somebody at church and you go out. . . . I think it's called being a healthy American male."

Yet, in his lectures, Rama derided male students for making advances on female classmates. "As a man who's working toward {spiritual} liberation, you can aid women mainly by leaving them alone and not projecting sexual energy toward them," Lenz said in one course that was tape-recorded in the 1980s. "For most men, sexuality is filled with violence," he contended.

He cautioned women: "In this age, in this time cycle of this universe, the destructive vibrations are very powerful. . . . So, as a woman, if you are interested in enlightenment, then it is necessary to detach yourself from men till you become much stronger."

It was advisable for a woman to be around only one kind of man during these dangerous times, Rama suggested. "{I}f she's around an enlightened spiritual teacher, has spiritual friends . . . her growth will be tremendously fast." David and Goliath

When you attain my level of enlightenment, you transcend good and evil.

-- Lenz, as quoted in "Take Me for a Ride"

For much of the past year, Mark Laxer rolled around the country in a 1973 VW bus with a quarter-million miles on its odometer, accompanied by his aging Siberian husky. Often they slept in the back of the van, which was filled with copies of a book Laxer spent six years writing but no publisher would touch.

Laxer, a computer programmer, spent $8,000 to print the paperback, which he titled "Take Me for a Ride." It is a harrowing account of his life with Zen Master Rama. Laxer spent seven years with the guru, including two years as his housemate.

Trying to sell the book, the frumpishly dressed Laxer hung around mainly on college campuses. "Meet famous Husky and her faithful author," he scrawled on a sign. It worked well enough to prompt students to talk to him. But not many wanted to pay the $14 asking price for his book, so Laxer offered discounts, accepted items in barter (once, a Hacky Sack) or simply gave copies away.

Laxer told the college students he wasn't against cults. Cults are all-American, he says; the nation was founded and peopled by weird sects, dating to when the Pilgrims landed. They are not necessarily a bad thing. "They give you a sense of belonging, of community, support. And when kids fly the nest, away from their parents, they should experiment.

"Cults are not the problem," Laxer says. "Cults that turn destructive are the problem."

Today, Laxer still has thousands of unsold copies of "Take Me for a Ride." He is back in Washington working as a programmer on contract with the U.S. Customs Service. He lives alone in an unheated basement apartment. He is 35 years old. He commutes to work on a dilapidated 12-speed bicycle.

He wishes he had a steady girlfriend. "I want to get on with my life," he says.

Laxer left Lenz 10 years ago, but he has remained in the guru's shadow. "It's a David versus Goliath story," Laxer says. And it is also a Cain and Abel story.

As a high-schooler in New York, Laxer was intrigued by the mystical writings of Carlos Castaneda. After graduating, he wanted to hitchhike to Mexico to meet a brujo, a sorcerer. But he never did: Mark's older brother, David, a physics student at SUNY Stony Brook, took him to a lecture by a Sri Chinmoy recruiter who called himself Atmananda and told stories about the lost city of Atlantis. Both Laxer boys were raised Jewish, but their rabbi could supply none of the spiritual thrills offered by Chinmoy and Atmananda.

In 1979, Mark Laxer followed Atmananda and other devotees to San Diego. He became Fred Lenz's faithful assistant, distributing posters and collecting the money. About a year later, his brother left college and moved west to join the group.

Laxer came to seriously doubt the teachings of Atmananda/Rama/Lenz in 1984, in part because of Donald Kohl's suicide. In his book, he recounts a conversation with the dead student's father: "I know what you're thinking, but Donald was not involved in a cult," Laxer told him. Then, in July 1985, Laxer writes, he was invited to an LSD party at Rama's house.

"I thought in terms of computers," he says in the book. " He's formatting us like floppy disks!' I thought." Laxer left the group a few weeks later.

His older brother stayed. Today, David Laxer is 37 and describes himself as a wealthy man, an expert in software and computing. He won't provide the name of his company because he doesn't believe that a reporter will be fair to him in print. He says he hasn't seen Lenz in more than a year.

He indicates that he has paid Lenz more than $100,000 in fees in recent years, but says the money was well worth it: "Suppose you want to run in the Olympics, but you need a coach. That is my relationship with Dr. Lenz. I studied with someone who helped me bring out the best."

Furthermore: "Dr. Lenz can transmit a religious experience. . . . I know where it came from, this success -- and it didn't come from my parents."

David Laxer hasn't seen his parents since 1981. He believes they have been contacted by deprogrammers and are part of a campaign against Lenz that includes "media assassination" and "blacklisting" and "blackmail."

"I have no relationship with my parents by my own choice," he says, the contempt in his voice barely muted. "The amount of damage they have done to my life and my peers is incalculable."

And his brother Mark? He's a vindictive liar who's only out for money: "He's doing this for power, for fame. It gives him an identity -- he's got nothing else going on. My life is very challenging. . . . He's got time to defame someone. That's his career."

Mark Laxer responds: "I love my brother. That's on the record." But he won't say anything else. The last time he talked publicly about a Lenz follower, he was sued for libel. That suit recently was dropped, but Laxer says he's afraid his brother would file another. The Spiritual Marketplace

There is no past . . .

-- Master Fwap, in "Surfing the Himalayas"

Sometimes, the enemies of Rama wonder whether he hasn't won the game, pulled in all the golden karma. He's a rich man -- making about $6 million a year from his students, according to Lenz-Watch, a group of parents that has monitored the guru. And now people are buying his book. Many will think that its author is a good and moral Buddhist.

"Buddhist teachers don't talk about hell worlds and threaten their students' lives and give them LSD!" Mark Laxer fumes. "And teaching them to cheat and lie on their resumes is not Buddhist!"

"Mark Laxer was a very, very, very, very dear friend of mine," the guru says. He sounds almost wistful. Then he bitterly dismisses his former confidant's autobiography as "disgusting," a "little travesty of a book," the product of an unstable mind. "Obviously, he couldn't get it published by a commercial publisher -- so much for literary merit."

Actually, Laxer's book has gotten far better reviews than Lenz's. "Well written," the Library Journal said of "Take Me for a Ride," adding: "His portrait of a charismatic leader's descent into madness is gripping." The Santa Fe Reporter said Laxer's portrait of himself as a young spiritual seeker "comes across brilliantly."

The Denver Post panned Lenz's book as "poorly researched crud." "Terrifically dull and stupefying," agreed longtime reviewer Hart Williams, whose column in Santa Fe Sun magazine said: "Aside from failing on every level, there is nothing remarkable about this novel, except that it was published."

Having achieved a measure of mainstream credibility with a best-selling book, Lenz seems to fully expect further persecution. He admits he is "not a saint," but says all these allegations are the work of a conspiracy against religious freedom.

And in America, every man is entitled to invent his own religion, to see a market need and sell his spiritual product accordingly. Lenz's brand of Buddhism seems right for the times: "Remember, Buddhists don't believe in sin and guilt," he says.

Lenz prefers to talk about success, about how his book was selected by the Book-of-the-Month Club and the Quality Paperback Book Club, and how rights to his book were sold to 10 foreign publishers. And, yes, he's doing great in the music business too, having just produced two new CDs with his new age group, Zazen. "Have you checked out my new ad in Rolling Stone?" he asks. "It's gorgeous." The Gwid

In 1981, Lenz was based in San Diego, with a core following of about 50 students, including Mark Laxer. As Atmananda, Lenz was busy promising to turn rooms golden, and also publishing a newspaper called WOOF!

In the paper he created a cult leader named Gwid, presumably for purposes of parody. "Admirers of the Gwid have firmly rooted themselves in Rancho Bernardo," a front-page story reported in March 1981. The Gwid was quoted as saying:

"I do not wish to own your sons and daughters, merely to use them as a tax break. It is not the acquiring of wealth that interests me, but rather the actual possession of it. All else is useless to me unless it involves adventure, limber bodies, cunning and chocolate. . . . I stand for freedom . . . the dignity to live a free and happy life under my close supervision, and not getting caught." CAPTION: Lenz, right, in 1984 with then-devotee Mark Laxer, who has written a harrowing account of his life with the Zen master. CAPTION: Frederick Lenz calls reports that he has exploited followers "junk. . . . I have never physically or psychologically abused a person in my life." CAPTION: Frederick Lenz, pictured in the ad for his novel that appeared in Sports Illustrated. Right, Mark Laxer, a disgruntled former devotee of Lenz.