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Book Review - Snowboarding to Nirvana

This article is an electronic version of an article originally published in Cultic Studies Journal, 1999, Volume 16, Number 2, pages 205-211. Please keep in mind that the pagination of this electronic reprint differs from that of the bound volume. This fact could affect how you enter bibliographic information in papers that you may write.

Book Review - Snowboarding To Nirvana. 

Frederick Lenz. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1997, 225 pages.

When this book was released, I had no idea that Frederick Lenz had contracted with St. Martin’s Press to write a series of books about his life as a New Age snowboarder. (Frederick Lenz committed suicide in April, 1998. He ingested over 100 Valium tablets and drowned in Conscience Bay behind his home on Long Island, NY.) Snowboarding To Nirvana is the sequel to the author’s first “novel,” Surfing the Himalayas (1995), in which Lenz fictionalizes a “series of experiences” that he claims to have had. Snowboarding continues where Surfing left off—the young Lenz continues in Nepal to engage his guru, Master Fwap, who represents a mysterious Tantric Buddhist order. Fwap is a character in the neo-occult tradition of spiritual adventure novels popularized by Carlos Castaneda. Fwap is to Lenz what Don Juan is to Castaneda—a literary creation who may or may not represent actual shamans whom the authors may or may not have met. In both cases, the mystical masters are fantastic alter egos of the authors, who seem to delight in fooling some of the people (their devotees) all of the time.

Although I have read dozens of books in this genre, it is not something I do for enlightenment. My job requires it. With that in mind you might understand why I chose a trans-Atlantic trip to read Snowboarding and annotate it on empty back pages as is my habit. I finished this task in four hours or less and fell asleep. I may have had a dream that all of Lenz’s devotees left him out of sheer embarrassment after they read Snowboarding. If you follow Lenz’s logic in his books, dreams can come true.

In the story, young Lenz is snowboarding alone again in Nepal at “extreme” heights (14,000 to 19,000 feet) when he hears a strange “voice” speak to him about hidden “dimensions.” We later learn that this voice was from another magical teacher, the Oracle, who Fwap introduces to our intrepid trekker. Seers among Tibetans are sometimes called Oracles. Throughout the story, Fwap and the Oracle guide their student into newer insights and experiences, especially at the Oracle’s "Thunderbolt Monastery" hidden deep in the “Anapurna Himalayas” (sic). They give Lenz a Handbook for Enlightenment, conveniently written in English. The Handbook passages are interspersed throughout the text shaded in gray for easy reference. The Oracle and Fwap have an uncanny resemblance to the shamanic duo of Don Genaro and Don Juan of the Castaneda series in their capricious manner of teaching. They often laugh at their befuddled student after playing tricks on him. They also offer premonitions of who and what the young Lenz will encounter next. And, of course, it all happens as they predict.



Lenz reiterates some of the insights he gained in the first book—he and his snowboard are one (p.15), enlightened masters are funny and have brilliant auras (Oracle glows “electric azure blue” on page 28), and Earth’s crowded humanity has psychically polluted the astral planes, thus making it difficult to meditate. Meditation is the key to enlightenment, and Lenz’s peculiar meditation views are spelled out in the second chapter of the Handbook: meditate twice daily without fail and connect with your “Tantric root guru” (pp. 85-86)—for Lenz's devotees that means him. The prescribed meditation technique is replete with hypnotic inductions that can create suggestible states in the practitioner. The detailed instructions guide the meditator to visualize, breath, imagine, and use yantras (sacred pictures) and mantras (sacred sounds). Lenz suggests the traditional Buddhist mantra, OM (sic) mani padme hum. The Handbook resembles lectures given by Lenz in which he fuses and confuses Buddhism with New Age pop spirituality.

Early in the story Fwap and the Oracle predict that Lenz will meet a woman who will teach him something he needs to learn. Then they laugh at him, somewhat eerily. They also inform him that he is a tulku, “an advanced soul that has practiced yoga and meditation in many former lives” (p. 33). Fwap informs Lenz that he has attained enlightenment “many times” but needs to “regain” it in this one as a tulku. In my dictionary, a Tulku is “a person who, after certain tests, is recognized as the reincarnation of a previously deceased person” (The Encyclopedia of Eastern Philosophy and Religion, 1989). The most famous tulku today is the Dalai Lama, who was chosen after certain childhood tests indicated to Buddhist monks that he was the incarnation of a previous lama of the Tibetan Gelukpa tradition. "Tulku” Lenz has no objective references outside of his book that legitimate monks in any way tested him. But he gives us a key as to why: “The Oracle and I [Fwap], and other enlightened masters, are generally ignored” (p. 149). Later, Fwap predicts that when our snowboarder begins to preach in America, “...most of the people there [in the West] will think that you are a charlatan” (p. 203). Hello! The oldest trick in the book by charlatans is to complain that people will call them one. It is a defensive way to disarm a suspicious person. This transparent technique does not work well here.

Lenz comes off defensively throughout his story. From the first pages he seems to believe that he must respond to criticisms of his first novel, Surfing. In fact, I had a suspicion as I read Snowboarding that he had read my critique [Skeptical Inquirer, July/August, 1996] and took it to heart. Lenz explains in the Introduction that he took the liberty to alter distances and time periods, but maintains that the “accounts...are based on real-life occurrences” (p. xii). That much is understandable—authors have a right to embellish or restrict a story—but in many instances within the story he goes on at length to reply to criticisms. Lenz makes a point of explaining that he snowboarded around 14,000 to 19,000 feet (p. 70) when he seemed to claim in Surfing that he was as high as 24,000 feet. He no longer mentions a “yak-drawn cart” because, as some critics pointed out, yaks do not live at low altitudes around Katmandu. Perhaps he meant a water buffalo—I saw those around Katmandu, but no yaks.

In one peculiar passage, Lenz-the-student lectures Fwap-the-master about the history, techniques and development of snowboarding (pp. 74-81). Fwap seems content to listen politely to his student brag about his knowledge of snowboards and his snowboarding accomplishments: “I’m into extreme vertical and off-piste boarding. I like to ride alone....” (p. 76). Nobody ever sees Lenz perform “extreme” boarding. He does not answer the criticism that he could hardly have been using a snowboard during the time sequence of his first novel. And why Fwap would care who invented the snowboard is anybody’s guess, but the reader is treated to a short, poorly chronicled, name-dropping narrative of the sport anyway.

In another chapter Fwap discourses about the “second attention” (a Castaneda/Don Juan concept that corresponds to psychic intuition and power). The second attention is enhanced during “power” moments at sunrise and sunset according to both Don Juan and Fwap. It helps to use the second attention to gain consciousness of the “half-life of time.” This is a Fwap teaching about “the awareness that time doesn’t have either mass or energy...it doesn’t really exist at all... Nothing is ever born, nothing grows, nothing matures, and nothing decays or dies, nor is anything really reborn...The self itself is an illusion” (p. 209). Although Buddhist philosophy bears out these pithy comments by Fwap, in the context of Snowboarding the statements are meaningless. Lenz misrepresents the cultures that give Buddhism meaning or validity, much as Castaneda does with Mexican Indian shamanism.

One aspect of Lenz’s character, only indicated in passing in Surfing, emerges forcefully in Snowboarding. I mentioned above that Fwap and the Oracle predicted that he would meet a woman “the next day” after they give him the Handbook. Lenz describes a sexy, blond, Danish damsel, about college age with a Slavic name, who happens to bed next to him at the youth hostel. She happens to be a seeker who has studied “Tantric” sex and Buddhism. Hmmm, guess what happens. I won’t go into the pulp-fiction details of their spiritual conversation that leads to coitus and oral sex, but they entertain every horny, New Age teenager’s vision of a youth hostel rendezvous. The Danish woman leaves our sexually satiated tulku suddenly after explaining and giving the meaning of “Tantric” sex. I think that Tantric scholars and authentic practitioners of Tantra might be amused. We must keep in mind that true Tantrics might practice a psychologically dangerous path that can also lead to their being social outcasts in India and Tibet—the secrecy about Tantric rituals is legendary. Lenz’s cavalier approach to it all is primarily immature. When the Dane disappears from the text as quickly as she arrived, Lenz is bummed. But not to worry. Sex keeps happening for the esoteric playboy.

After Lenz leaves Nepal for California halfway through the book, he meets with some surfer friends and a college woman at a sorority bash in or near Los Angeles. After he meets the young lady, they talk, drink, dance, drink some more, go up to her room, and copulate. Later he expresses a love-hate relationship with Los Angeles and decides to return to Nepal. Perhaps the “Valley Girl” did not do the “Tantra” thing well enough. Lenz complains that he has never “loved” anyone except perhaps Master Fwap. Lenz returns to Nepal, where Fwap tells him that he will meet a "German woman" (unnamed) who is a better snowboarder than Lenz.

Back in Nepal, Fwap and the Oracle welcome their prodigal student with new, more powerful teachings. Lenz is introduced to “skyboarding” in a higher dimension after learning a most powerful mantra. “Phat! Phat! Phat! Phat!” chant the masters, so as to “clear” the atmosphere of astral interference—all that people-pollution and nasty astral beings who attack meditators. The masters tell Lenz that “Phat!, ...when uttered loudly by a person with occult power,” causes destructive beings and forces “to flee... Always use ‘Phat!’ when you find yourself in an impure or aurically negative physical location...[It] can purify astral spaces” (pp. 181-182). At the Oracle’s retreat the three meditate on “Blue Sky” and proceed to “skyboard” through colored dimensions until they reach the violet one. “The air in this dimension was textured with what looked like some kind of undecipherable hieroglyphic writing. Beings like huge American Indians began flying past us...[they] didn’t seem to be aware of the three of us” (p. 179).

I won't go into the occult happenings at the end of this sequel, such as the psychic teleportation of three human beings, a snowboard, and a backpack. The key passages of this book are on pages 202 and 203. Lenz tells us through his alter ego, Fwap, that he must gain his Ph.D. and become “wealthy and famous” because the West will only “bother to listen to what you have to say about enlightenment” after that occurs. If Lenz had a purpose, it was to convince us, not necessarily to prove to us, that he was a misunderstood mystic in a universe that conspired to thwart his mission. Paranoia? Maybe. But what about his wealth and fame? It became clear to the general public who saw a Dateline (NBC TV, August 1996) exposé, which claimed that Lenz gained most of his “wealth” by convincing a core group of devotees to find high-paying computer industry jobs, sell software for his businesses, and “donate” thousands of dollars a month each to support his mission. One wonders where the young Lenz in the books got his money to travel, snowboard, and hang out in exotic places. He does not talk about work. Try mind control. Lenz managed to influence dozens of intelligent, young “students” to believe in him and support him in a way that could only make "mind control" enthusiasts, like the Central Intelligence Agency, wonder.

On my return from Paris—the same trip I mentioned above—I reread The Search for the “Manchurian Candidate": The CIA and Mind Control by John Marks for another project. This book took me longer to finish than Snowboarding as it is dense with useful information and interesting facts. It occurred to me that, as flawed and silly (and dangerous) as much of the CIA experimentation on “mind control” was, the government’s search for a method to “control” the thoughts and behaviors of a deployable agent turned up only one undeniable fact: “By the time the MKULTRA program ended in 1963, Agency researchers had found no foolproof way to brainwash another person” (Marks, 1988, p. 154).

The best agents, it seems, are those who exhibit deep devotion to the cause and a willingness to avoid doubts about their mission. “Brainwashing” worked best when it mimicked “religious conversion” (Marks, 1988, p.138), and the Chinese had the most effective system to accomplish this, if only temporarily with their targets. They relied mostly on “group pressure, ideology, and repetition” (Marks, 1988, p.139). Fwap asks for as much from Lenz, who complies with the pressure from his masters, absorbs the ideology irrationally, and follows the meditation rituals repeatedly. And if you read the Handbook you can surmise what Lenz might ask of his students. As to “fame,” Lenz reportedly advertised himself and his projects with the “donations” from devotees. One might say that he was a self-made man. But was he enlightened as he claimed in a Buddhist sense? Phat chance he is not, if you see the derivation of Phat as I do. “Phat” (sic) is inner-city jargon for “cool” or “great” or “excellent” depending when and where you lived your life as a youth. Maybe “Master Fwap” has appropriated a trendy Western word in an effort to impress trendy Western readers. Out of curiosity I interviewed a Tibetan national at Project Tibet in Santa Fe, New Mexico. He never heard of Phat, and it means nothing to him in his native language. On the other hand, one authority says that "phat" means: "may the enemy be destroyed utterly." It is used at the end of mantras like: "Om! sar-ba Buddha dakkini hum phat!" "The concluding word, “phat,” that follows the mystic “hum” in many of these spells is cognate with the current Hindustani word 'phat'" (Waddell, 1895/1972, pp. 150-151).

References

The encyclopedia of eastern philosophy and religion. (1989). Shambhala.

Marks, John. (1988). The search for the "Manchurian Candidate": The CIA and mind control. New York: Dell.

Waddell, L. A. (1895, reprinted 1972). Tibetan Buddhism. New York: Dover Books.

Joseph Szimhart

Philadelphia, Pennsylvania