Ever since a Hindu monk from India, the Maharishi Mahesh Yogi, unveiled a mind-relaxing technique called Transcendental Meditation (TM) in the mid-1950s, opinions about the movement's validity have remained divided. Devoted practitioners believe TM is an equal-opportunity panacea for individual and societal ills. Detractors deride TM as a cult led by a durable old scam artist.
During the past three months, Maharishi, now 93, has again made worldwide headlines through the announcement of a $1 billion fundraising campaign to establish a University of World Peace. Spearheading the effort is a group called U.S. Peace Government, which has proclaimed a desire to make its discoveries available "to all who love peace [and] wish to protect their nations against terrorism and war."
Add to the mix a charismatic media magnets to publicly support Maharishi since The Beatles' brief endorsement nearly 40 years ago: film director David Lynch. In December 2003, Lynch participated in New York, Los Angeles and Washington, D.C. press ops that also featured satellite feed from the Maharishi's Vlodrop, Holland headquarters.
Communicating via e-mail from the Los Angeles offices of Asymmetrical Productions, Lynch told CityBeat that through a semi-daily practice of TM started 31 years ago, he quickly overcame some deep-seated anger issues.
"A billion is needed to create a University of World Peace and to have an endowment fund so that scholarships can be given perpetually to at least 8000 peace-creating experts," Lynch wrote. "On one hand it's a lot of money. On another hand it is not. I think of this as a chance to create permanent peace for a small fraction of the $500 billion the government spends every year on weapons and war."
Joining Lynch on the fundraising trail is Jeffrey Abramson, a partner of Bethesda, Md.-based Tower Companies, a developer of environmentally friendly buildings for the metropolitan D.C. area. Also in tow, Robert Brown, a semi-retired corporate type who once served as an exec for San Diego's Ziff-Davis Market Intelligence.
Acknowledging that Lynch is the main draw, Brown noted the filmmaker's advantages: "One is that he's famous... and people want to hear what he has to say." Also, those familiar with Lynch's work are intrigued by the contrast between his darkly offbeat cinematic vision and his personal, world-peace-through-meditation vision.
Expressing commitment to the project, Lynch repeated several catch phrases employed in his other recent interviews-"There's a lot of fool's gold in the world, but we all know that there's real gold as well," and "When the sun comes up, the darkness goes away.
"This practice has meant a great deal to me and I have grown to believe that Transcendental Meditation can help the world," Lynch said. "Last year I had the chance to meet Maharishi. I feel that his plan for creating large groups of expert meditators can create world peace. ... This is not a religious conviction. It is based on my personal experience and on solid research."
Such "studies on the peace-creating effect of" having "a large enough number of experts in one location practicing these advanced meditation techniques" include research done "during the Lebanon war" and published in The Journal of Conflict Resolution. Also cited was an issue of the Journal of Offender Rehabilitation dedicated to studies on TM's "potential to reduce violence, crime and terrorism," and the research of John Hagelin, founder of U.S. Peace Government, whom Lynch called "a leading scientist in this area."
Ideally, the university would be situated in a warm location-probably California or Florida-with most students initially imported from India. A major focus would be on group meditation, practiced seven days a week and for several hours a day. The prescribed number of 8,000 meditators conforms to the following hypothesis: affecting an environment through meditation requires a number of individuals equal to the square root of 1 percent of the target population-in this case, the roughly 6.5 billion people on Earth.
The fund-raisers often confront skepticism. Calcutta's The Telegraph recently described "the billionaire Maharishi" controlling a "real estate empire worth over $3 billion in the US alone." Similarly, the U.K.'s The Guardian confirmed that Maharishi owns "some pretty impressive buildings in a large number of [U.S.] cities, and the authorities in some of those cities are furious with him for sitting on them rather than developing them as he had initially promised."
Brown said he didn't believe any of the "controversial press around Maharishi."
Lynch told the BBC that he personally practiced a technique called yogic flying. Despite any magic-carpet-ride images that moniker might conjure, Brown described it as people who "hop around like frogs."
But "this isn't about, "We're all the same,'" Brown said. "What's so much fun about going out [to press conferences] with Jeffrey and David-we're really different people. ... We think in different parts of our brains. You know, an artist and a business guy and a developer."