During my tenure as a press consultant for purported cult leader, Keith Raniere, and his benefactors, Clare and Sara Bronfman (heiresses of the Seagram’s liquor fortune), I was tasked with improving Raniere’s public image and that of his company, NXIVM.
Officially, NXIVM conducts “human potential and ethics” seminars in Albany, Mexico City, Los Angeles and elsewhere. However, several mental health experts have critiqued its trainings, comparing the methodology to “thought reform,” commonly called “brainwashing.”
My work consisted of trying to get positive press and “spin” stories away from NXIVM – the cult – to NXIVM – a business that sells “a comprehensive personal and professional coaching program.” I had success, too. Raniere enjoyed a rare respite from negative press, something he had not seen before or after I left the organization.
It was 2007 and at the time the press did not know Raniere had blown over $100 million of Bronfman sisters’ inheritance on bogus commodities investments, a crooked real estate deal, and paying lawyers to sue his enemies; nor did they know Raniere slept all day and at night had a harem of female devotees who gave their hearts, minds and undressed bodies to him.
These things few knew –including myself – or that the cult was raking in millions – seemingly much of it off the books.
During my tenure, things went well. Albany’s weekly newspaper Metroland published a favorable blurb on Raniere – for the first time; The Times Union wrote a story about NXIVM without using the word “cult” – for the first time in memory. I wrote press releases and announcements, which were published and broadcast and I arranged interviews for NXIVM people to humanize, and demystify them.
Getting the Dalai Lama
The slight improvement in their press coverage may have encouraged Raniere to seek what many commercial operations seek – a celebrity endorsement. In the past he had used the late actor Eddie Albert. He tried for Goldie Hawn once – but failed. This time he wanted a “higher power” endorsement.
His Holiness The Pope was out of the question. Rev. Billy Graham was not likely to make a public endorsement of Raniere – no matter how much the Bronfman sisters were willing to spend.
One day, I got an enthusiastic call from one of Raniere’s inner circle.
“What would you say if we got the Dalai Lama to come to Albany and announce that Keith’s teachings are the solution to the world’s problems?” she asked.
I asked, “Does The Dalai Lama know Keith?”
“No. But Sara and Clare are ready to donate a million to the Dalai Lama. One of the Dalai Lama’s assistants, a monk is here in Albany and Sara is showing him everything. If the Dalai Lama, one of the spiritual leaders of the world, comes to Albany and endorses Keith the press will not say we are a cult; we are cutting edge.”
I believed the Bronfman sisters would be able to procure the services of the Dalai Lama. The Dalai Lama was not only the spiritual leader of Buddhism in Tibet, but the head of the Tibetan Government in exile; he led a refugee government headquartered in Dharamshala, India.
While little is known about the Dalai Lama’s personal wealth or his government-in-exile’s finances – their published budget for 2002-03 amounted to $22 million – a government in exile cannot forcibly tax anyone; the Dalai Lama is dependent on donations.
I advised Raniere that while I was confident a million dollars would lure him, I doubted this would spin well in the press. I was never again asked for help with the media and soon afterward was fired after I discovered and revealed facts about how the Bronfmans lost $100 million at Raniere’s hands.
Keith Raniere, he’s as smart as it gets
Keith Raniere in his online bio claims he is a “scientist, mathematician, philosopher, entrepreneur, educator, inventor and author”. He claims he was a judo champion at age 11.
By age 12, he claims he taught himself to play piano “at the concert level”; at age 13, he was a professional computer programmer. From his first semester at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute in Troy, New York, he began taking PhD level mathematics courses. Upon graduation, he claims he became Rensselaer’s first triple major, earning degrees in mathematics, biology and physics.
Raniere was in fact named in the 1989 Guinness Book of Records in the category of highest IQ. He claims he has an estimated problem-solving ability that only one in 425 million people can equal in the world meaning that with seven billion people – there are less than 20 who can match wits with him.
The Dalai Lama has accomplishments too
The bio of His Holiness the 14th Dalai Lama, Tenzin Gyatso claims that at age two, while living in a small hamlet in northeastern Tibet, he was recognized as the reincarnation of the 13th Dalai Lama, Thubten Gyatso. The Dalai Lamas are believed to be reincarnations of the Bodhisattva of Compassion, the patron saint of Tibet.
The Dalai Lama began his monastic education at the age of six. He majored in logic, Tibetan art and culture, Sanskrit, medicine, and Buddhist philosophy: which includes the perfection of wisdom; the philosophy of the middle Way; the canon of monastic discipline; metaphysics; and logic and epistemology. At age 23 he was awarded the equivalent to a doctorate of Buddhist philosophy.
In 1950 His Holiness was called upon to assume full political power over Tibet after China’s invasion of Tibet. His reign was brief. In 1959, with the suppression of the Tibetan national uprising in Lhasa by Chinese troops, His Holiness fled to Dharamsala, in northern India, where he set up the Central Tibetan Administration and “The Charter of Tibetans in Exile”.
Supported in part for years by the CIA, he later addressed the US Congress, and the European Parliament in Strasbourg, and, in 1989, he was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize for his non-violent struggle for the liberation of Tibet.
Since then he has established monasteries and schools for Tibetans and lectured in more than 60 countries, received over 150 awards, honorary doctorates, prizes, etc. and authored or co-authored more than 100 books.
Along the way, The Dalai Lama met Pope Paul VI, Pope John Paul II, the Chief Rabbi of Israel, the Archbishop of Canterbury, Dr. Robert Runcie, and Gordon B. Hinckley, president of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.
Now he was to meet Keith Raniere, genius, and founder of NXIM.
The Bronfman sisters worked for more than a year organizing the upcoming visit. Sara, in particular, worked hand in hand with the Venerable Lama Tenzin Dhonden, a special emissary of His Holiness the Dalai Lama. The title venerable is given to Buddhist monks who take a lifelong vow of celibacy and poverty. The two had met in Idaho and Sara told Lama Tenzin that the Dalai Lama might find NXIVM’s tools useful.
Tenzin then visited Sara in Albany and met NXIVM members. Despite reading allegations that NXIVM was a cult, Tenzin said, “I have my own intellectual resource, capacity, to know persons, to feel persons. I can pick up like that, very easily.”
Thanks to Lama Tenzin, Sara and Clare Bronfman and Nancy Salzman, president of NXIVM, were granted an audience with the Dalai Lama in India. There they expressed their desire to invite His Holiness to Albany to meet Raniere, and of course they offered to make a suitable Bronfman –style contribution to the Dalai Lama and his worthwhile causes.
The Dalai Lama agreed.
Back in Albany, an excited Clare told the Albany Times Union that she had a vision of “bringing His Holiness together with Keith, believing that we may have certain tools that His Holiness would think would be good and beneficial for humanity.”
Venerable Lama Tenzin Dhonden lent his voice, as well, announcing, “With the ethical tools developed by Keith Raniere, and the presence, wisdom and guidance of His Holiness the Dalai Lama, we have the essential ingredients to transform our society.”
Fig Leaves Falling
In the sex charged society of the love cult of Raniere, it wasn’t long before the Venerable Lama Tenzin Dhonden was transformed by Raniere’s ethical tools. One night, Sara’s mother’s friend came unexpectedly and found Sara and Lama Tenzin in the hot tub kissing and cuddling amorously, or, as NXIVM inner circle member, Kristin Keeffe, later called it, “canoodling.”
Barbara Bouchey, another inner circle female, said, “Yeah, they weren’t having sex, but they were in the hot tub in a hot-necking embrace.”
From celibate monk to a hot tub with an heiresses, the Venerable Lama Tenzin, was inches away from a torrid affair and the breaking of his vow.
The Dalai Lama has taught that sex offers fleeting satisfaction and leads to trouble later, while chastity offers a better life and “more independence, more freedom”.
From the hot tub it was a few paces to the bedroom. Bouchey said, “I’ve showed up to her house a couple of times and the two of them come out of that bedroom.”
Keeffe said, “I’ve seen him come out of the fucking bedroom. It wasn’t even a secret.”
Raniere knew. So did the entire inner circle. Raniere use to say to Sara in front of other people, referring to Lama Tenzin, ‘how’s your husband?’”
And helping him dispense with his second vow – that of poverty – Sara Bronfman purchased a beautiful home for her lover Lama in Half Moon, a suburb of Albany.
Bad Press Days
While things were hot with lover Lama and Sara –sister, Clare, announced to the media that the Dalai Lama was to appear in Albany for a four day session of talks and meetings, capped by an appearance on Sunday, April 19, 2009, at the Albany Times Union Center, where His Holiness would give a public address on compassion and ethics – a lecture sponsored by Clare, Sara and Raniere’s organization, The World Ethical Foundations Consortium. Tickets were priced at “$52, $82 and $112″ and, with a maximum seating capacity of 17,500 at the Times-Union Center, that could pull in a million dollars for the Dalai Lama.
Instead of receiving the tidings with joy, there was an outburst of shock recorded in the Albany press that the Dalai Lama would associate himself with the “cult-like” NXIVM. The Dalai Lama, frequently an honored speaker at prestigious universities across the United States, was, it was noted, not being officially hosted by any school in the Albany area.
The Albany Times-Union reported that despite the stature of the religious leader and Nobel Peace Prize winner, no school was willing to lend its name as an official host for an event associated with Raniere. Skidmore College and Raniere’s alma mater, Rensselaer Polytechnic, declined to host the event.
A Rensselaer spokesperson explained, “While we have the highest respect for the Dalai Lama and his teachings, we chose not to accept the invitation based on a variety of considerations.”
The University of Albany agreed to rent out an arena but with the strict precondition, “that by no means were we going to allow NXIVM to be part of our relationship with the Dalai Lama. NXIVM and the organization were not going to have any part with dealing with our students, or advertising or recruiting,” according to U Albany’s vice president for development, Fardin Sanai.
Stories in the Times Union, the Albany Student Press, The Daily Gazette, and Metroland expressed people’s astonishment at the coupling of the Dalai Lama with the Bronfman Raniere cult.
Daniel Weaver, wrote in the Schenectady Gazette, “Keith Raniere has been involved in controversy for the last 20 years. He’s been the subject of lawsuits and investigations. He has initiated numerous lawsuits, many of which appear to be frivolous. He also harasses people…. He is hardly a poster boy for humanitarianism, peace and ethics; and his invitation to the Dalai Lama to speak makes one question the motive of the invitation.…. Raniere has not utilized compassionate ethical methods and solutions to address problems. Keith Raniere has brought anything but peace to the Capital Region. …. In 2003, Keith Raniere roped actress Goldie Hawn into speaking at … an annual NXIVM event. When Hawn learned about the controversies surrounding Raniere … she canceled her appearance. If Goldie Hawn has the sense not to appear at an event sponsored by Keith Raniere, then cancellation by the Dalai Lama, winner of the Nobel Peace Prize, should be a no‐brainer.”
Like Goldie, The Dalai Lama Cancels Too
With the spate of negative publicity, the Dalai Lama canceled his appearance. Times Union Publisher George Hearst, who spoke with a representative of the Dalai Lama, said, “there’s enough stuff out there that (they) don’t need to expose His Holiness to this kind of risk.”
This was a PR nightmare for NXIVM. If the Dalai Lama did not appear he was all but saying NXIVM was a cult. Raniere instructed his top assistant, Nancy Salzman, to rush to India to see the Dalai Lama and bring Sara and Clare and, of course, their checkbook.
They were persuasive.
While the Dalai Lama would not consent to a four day Albany tour, he did agree to deliver a single lecture –in Albany – one night; a 24 hour visit. He was coming to the US anyway for an official Harvard University sponsored engagement
The Dalai Lama Trust, was registered in New York State, just two days before the Dalai Lama’s rescheduled appearance in Albany. I was told by reliable sources at NXIVM that the Bronfmans donated/guaranteed $1 million to the Dalai Lama
So he’s baaaaack
The press that jubilantly announced the cancelation now announced the rescheduling, noting also that the Dalai Lama event moved from the 17,500 seat Albany Times-Union Center to the much smaller, 2,800 seat Albany Palace Theater. Tickets prices dropped to $55 to $85 per person which meant a gross of less than $250,000.
Critics took shots at the Dalai Lama. It was widely assumed that Bronfman money changed his mind. It was pointed out that the Dalai Lama once before received a gift from a purported “cult” leader. Shoko Asahara, founder of Aum, the Japanese cult responsible for gassing the Tokyo subway system in 1995, injuring 6,000 and killing 13 reportedly donated $1.2 million dollars to His Holiness before his killing spree.
When questioned about any financial incentive from the Bronfmans connected to his visit to Albany, Lobsang Nyandak, representative of His Holiness the Dalai Lama to the Americas, was a little unclear in his answers. At first he told the Times Union that the Dalai Lama would not receive money for his trip. When pressed for clarification, however, he said that whatever money was received would be “used for charitable and other purposes as per His Holiness’ guidance.”
The Dalai Lama Arrives and Explains
On May 6, the Dalai Lama arrived to speak at Albany’s Palace Theatre to a near capacity crowd of about 2600. Sara and Clare were seated onstage with him.
At the beginning of his talk, the Dalai Lama presented Sara and Clare with white silk scarves, called “kataks,” which, according to Tibetan culture, symbolize purity.
The Dalai Lama, seated cross legged on an oversized chair, addressed the audience on the topic of compassion for about an hour and a half. When the time came for questions, the Dalai Lama was asked about his canceled then rescheduled visit.
“Firstly I received an invitation that, in principle, I accepted,” The Dalai Lama said, “Because this is controversial, some allegations, then we carry further investigations. Then finally this organization’s teacher (Salzman) and some friend(s) (Bronfman sisters) came to see me in Dharmasala and I discussed, I observed, basically they are carrying some kind of movement about ethics…. When I met them personally in Dharmasala, I told them very friendly, very openly, ‘as far your sort of work for promotion of ethics I fully support…. but at the same time …. If you have done something wrong, you must accept, you must admit, change, make correction. If you have not done (anything wrong), make clear all these allegations (are untrue), truthfully, honestly, openly, transparently.’”
The Dalai Lama – covering his bases with aplomb – also asked the press to investigate – everything – to have the long nose of the elephant – and smell the truth from the front and behind.
At the event’s conclusion, the Dalai Lama called Raniere – who was in the audience – on stage and placed a katak around his neck.
A Lesson for Bronfmans
The day after the event, Sara wrote on her blog, “As we stood in the rain to say goodbye to His Holiness the Dalai Lama, he touched each of our cheeks and held our faces next to his with the words ‘thank you’ and ‘see you again.’ Tears started running uncontrollably down my cheeks.… his visit was a privilege we fought for….. It was a long road, and one paved with hardship, adversity, and tremendous growth. The highly paid media campaign designed to destroy our company, or any person or entity related to it, reared its ugly head at the news of his visit. We had naively believed people would be excited about his visit and that our community would put their pettiness aside to unite for this momentous occasion. We were wrong. His visit was met with fear and cynicism and some of our local media sources worked ardently to destroy the honor faster than we could build it.
“After an onslaught of negative articles and powerful local personalities voicing their lack of support for his proposed visit, His Holiness postponed until the truth became evident.
“In the end the truth prevailed, but in the process we lost participants, money and good faith. However my hope for humanity was restored by possibly the greatest leader of our time…. who has a strong enough sense of himself not to seek external security, and who conforms to truth as his standard …. It was a victory for us, for this region and for humanity. I feel proud to have been a part of this great feat.”
Clare wrote on her blog, “Due to the ongoing struggle several of my closest friends and I have (had) here in Albany – how we have been portrayed in the media – his visiting and message was particularly moving. His coming brought about a certain contradiction: what is written about NXIVM, Keith, Sara and myself in the press – being labeled as a cult – and a world leader showing his support for us after thorough investigation.” And reportedly a donation of one to two million dollars.
After the Dalai Lama’s visit – the honor that Raniere and the Bronfmans sought from the endorsement eluded them. Following my dismissal and subsequent attack by Raniere (with Bronfman millions) – their negative publicity increased.
The exposure of the real estate and commodities loss totaling $100 million dwarfed a sole lecture by the Dalai Lama. And the onslaught of negative publicity have rightly rained down on them ever since.