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Who Is This Man?

Master Charles dodges the question of name


He was a master of meditation. A swami who’d once worn saffron robes and lived on an Indian ashram. A mystic who’d wedded modern technology to the wisdom of the ancients and so blazed a straight and smooth path to awareness. They came, as dozens of others have come, to live with Master Charles.

In 20 years these pilgrims have helped him build a New Age wonderland — part monastery, part retreat center and part, of all things, record company — in the woods and red clay of Nelson County.

In return, Master Charles has helped them unlock some of life’s many mysteries.

While remaining a bit of one himself.

In purely physical terms, Master Charles’ domain is 450 acres of rural woodland interrupted by a straggle of buildings. Calm abounds; off the trails that crisscross the spread wait cool, green hillsides, whispered breezes, still ponds.

To those drawn here over the years, though, its appeal is largely unseen: This is “The Sanctuary,” a locus of powerful spiritual energy. Alan Scherr felt it the moment he stepped onto the property, nearly a decade ago. “Pay attention to how you feel while you’re here,” the 53-year-old former college professor advises. “This whole place is one big pulsating meditation.”

The epicenter of the vibrations was, and is, the master himself, also known as Charles Cannon, aka M.C. Cannon, a 58-year-old musician, author and monk whom followers describe as an “enlightening master.”

Such folks “unceasingly enjoy a truthful perception of reality, and they are free in the eternal now of oneness,” Master Charles explains, by way of definition, in his 1997 memoir, “The Bliss of Freedom.”

“They are not referred to as enlightening because of what they say, but rather because of what they are, because of what others experience in their presence, the radiance of their Source-field.”

It was experiencing this Source-field that prompted Scherr’s move to Nelson County with his wife and infant daughter in 1996. Today he’s president of the Synchronicity Foundation, the nonprofit company that manages The Sanctuary’s interconnected ventures — a line of music compact discs designed to encourage a meditative state, and retreats that have drawn thousands, among them actress Ally Sheedy.

“Suffice to say, I was blown away,” Scherr says of meeting the master, as he sits behind a desk busy with paperwork, crystals, a tiny Zen garden and the nubs of burnt incense sticks. “I was so blissed.”

“Here was a Westerner,” recalls Scherr’s wife, Kia, “someone like us, who’d watched ‘The Flintstones,’ who drank Cokes, who was a real master. You could sit right there in the front row and ask him questions! And you could feel his energy.

“That’s the mark of a real master, when you can feel it.”

It is early afternoon when Scherr, playing tour guide, strides through a grove of trees to a handful of small purple mobile homes, where the foundation’s 30 or so full-time monks fill mail orders for CDs, run a Web site, provide meditation support for customers, and organize retreats.

He passes a small hut marked “Recording Studio,” then weaves among a half-dozen larger mobile homes with names like Harmony and Transcendence, each broken into Spartan cells in which most of the monks reside. The air is filled with the rumble and hiss of ocean surf, which s from loudspeakers.

Synchronicity’s CDs incorporate such natural sounds, along with vocal chants and orchestral arrangements, in long, glacial pieces without dramatic peaks or toe-tapping hooks, music that when played over speakers seems as unobtrusive as wallpaper.

Played over headphones, however, the music — written and largely performed by Master Charles — is said to provoke profound change in its listeners. Until recently, in fact, Synchronicity’s logo was a Buddha wearing headphones.

The surf follows Scherr to the village’s edge, and a wooden building called The Environment. It is 12-sided, with a gently peaked roof, a shape that he says helps focus energy. Inside, rows of chairs fitted with headphone jacks face an armchair on a low altar, flanked by a pair of tables. On one is a clown mask on a stick. On the other is a plastic figure that drops its pants with the squeeze of an air bulb.

The enlightening master is into clowns. “He thinks we’re all clowns,” Scherr says, “including himself. We put on costumes, assume roles. People begin to take their costumes pretty seriously, and to forget that it’s all for fun, for delight.”

Monks are required to spend nearly two hours here every morning, plugged into headphones, meditating. They must exercise twice daily. They must put in full workdays, seven days a week, and after dinner tend to chores until dark. Most importantly, they must be serious about growing their consciousnesses. They are unpaid, but supplied meals, a bed and contact with Master Charles.

“This is not the camera club,” Scherr allows. “About 5 or 10 percent of humanity, at any one time, is going to be open to something like this.”

Master Charles once lived in a mobile home himself, within yards of The Environment and his fellow monks, but these days, an audience with the man requires a first-gear climb up a narrow, steep drive to the property’s crown and “The Parsonage,” a $589,000 house that Master Charles shares with four monks.

From the building’s small foyer, a spiral staircase ascends to the master’s reception room — 12-sided, like The Environment, with pale purple walls and windows overlooking forest and foothill. Persian rugs cover the floor, which is otherwise decorated with statues of elephants and St. Francis of Assisi, a console filled with gifts to the master from admirers around the world, and a large Buddha. In the Buddha’s lap is an array of toy clowns.

Master Charles breezes into the room in cream-colored silk loungewear, shakes hands and settles into a wide, plum-colored velvet armchair. He is tall, fit-looking, bespectacled, with dark hair cut into a short pageboy. His skin is pale and pink, without trace of a tan.

“I don’t get out and about that much,” he explains over the surf emanating from wall-mounted speakers. “If I travel out of here it’s usually for professional commitments — programs, retreats, things like that.”

That’s not a complaint. “It’s a magical place, kind of a mystical place,” Master Charles says of The Sanctuary. His speech is melodic, deliberate, carefully enunciated, and punctuated with little hums; many of his sentences end with a querying “Hmmm?”

“It’s rural,” he says, “very quiet, very meditative.” Outside, a storm brews. Clouds hang dark and heavy over The Parsonage. Treetops sway. “It’s also,” he adds, “a good place to experience the weather.”

A good place to contemplate the unity of being, as well. Everything and everyone is connected, he says — you, me, that chair over there — all part of an all-encompassing One, the Source. Life as we experience it is merely the Source amusing itself. One day might bring comedy, and the next tragedy, but it’s all good.

“It’s very entertaining for me,” he says, “to be with people who still believe there’s a God in heaven on a throne with a beard, surrounded by angels with harps, that they would pray to, and that God would somehow take care of them — when there’s so much evidence that that doesn’t happen.”

He chuckles. A bolt of lightning strikes close by. The house shudders.

What’s offered at The Sanctuary, Master Charles says, is far more relevant than most mainstream religions: a lifestyle that not only nourishes the spirit, but through diet and exercise, the body and mind as well.

It is a simple existence. He owns nothing, receives no pay, has no bank account. His needs are provided for, but all things material are in the hands of the foundation. The house. The land. The BMW Z3 roadster parked outside: It’s a “hand-me-down” from the foundation’s chairman, Michael S. Lang of Fort Worth, Texas — an “extremely wealthy man” and a “benefactor to this organization for many, many years.”

“He told me, ‘Here, you’re modern — you ought to be able to enjoy driving around with the top down,’” Master Charles says, laughing softly. “It’s a volunteer organization. It’s a charitable organization. It’s a labor of love.”

Thus, his colleagues down the hill embrace their Spartan lives. “They’re done with the material world,” he says. “The monk is renouncing. He doesn’t want to be surrounded by things that make his mind busy.”

Some subjects get a mind busier than others, and at Synchronicity none does so quite like Master Charles’ past.

Alan Scherr says that’s because the media have “misquoted, intentionally edited and misrepresented” the master on what he did before he began his spiritual quest. “It seems endless and ridiculous,” he wrote in an e-mail. “All this mess of misrepresentation has gotten so exaggerated and out-of-hand that Master Charles just throws up his hands and laughs.”

Granted, the stories have been strange. Two accounts, published shortly after Master Charles’ arrival in Nelson County, quoted him as saying that he’d portrayed Ernie on TV’s “My Three Sons” for a few months, that he’d played a doctor on a soap opera called “Love Is a Many-Splendored Thing,” and that he’d appeared on Broadway in the cast of “Jesus Christ, Superstar.” A later story, in The Los Angeles Times, reported that he was a musical prodigy who at age 10 had toured the country with jazz drummer Gene Krupa.

Master Charles says, through Scherr, that none of it is true — not only did he not do any of it, but he never said he did. But the stories refuse to die, perhaps partly because the journalists involved have insisted the quotes were accurate, and perhaps partly because the notion that they’d deliberately manufacture such a resume seems a stretch.

Then again, maybe it’s because Master Charles won’t say what he was doing when he wasn’t doing what he says he never said he did. As Scherr said via e-mail, “He purposefully keeps private and unavailable what he considers the irrelevant and distracting details of his first 21 years.”

Master Charles edits those years to an amorphous few sentences: He was born in Syracuse, N.Y., to Italian-American parents. He has two sisters, and the three of them enjoyed a happy, all-American childhood replete with ice cream and Santa Claus, and shopping at Woolworth’s.

His name wasn’t Charles Cannon at the time. What was it? Master Charles doesn’t say. His memoir does reveal that he did some modeling, took acting, singing and dance lessons, and that an itchy skin condition so tormented the young mystic-to-be that the family moved to Florida, in part to provide him some relief.

Where in Florida? Master Charles doesn’t say. Where did he go to school? Won’t say, beyond that it was Catholic. What year did he graduate? Sorry. His book mentions that he played the drums in public, and that, in his midteens, he did so behind exotic dancers in a burlesque show. It suggests that he was no stranger to public performance, and that he spent a lot of time “in the world of entertainment.” It provides no details, however.

A photo in his memoir depicts him in football gear, and folks at Cardinal Newman High School in West Palm Beach say it matches a student they remember as one Chuck Ceravolo. Was it under that name that he entertained? If so, he failed to leave a lasting impression: Google’s never heard of him, and the newspaper of Ceravolo’s youth, The Palm Beach Post, doesn’t have him in its files.

Master Charles went on to college, Scherr says, declining to discuss where or when. As for his degree: Scherr says the master “majored in the arts.” A Synchronicity pamphlet says that his education emphasized “comparative religion and philosophy.”

What’s fact? What’s fiction? Does it matter? No, says Steve Pauley, one of Scherr’s predecessors. “What he did or didn’t do when he was 19 years old,” he says, “doesn’t mean a hell of a lot to me.”

Life, after all, is simply entertainment. Most of us take it far too seriously.

One aspect of the master’s past doesn’t get short shrift. Beginning in his childhood and continuing through his teens, he says he experienced episodes of expanded awareness that left him weak with joy.

In 1970 he visited friends who’d just returned from a trip to Asia, during which they’d met an Indian master of meditation named Muktananda Paramahamsa. They offered a photo of the swami. When it met his eye, the portrait “dissolved into a whirlpool of scintillating, hallucinogenic energy,” he recalls in his memoir. “I was immersed in a rose- and blue-colored magnificence, permeated with minute particles of dancing, diamondlike light that slowly moved upward and entered the area just above the center of my eyebrows.”

Not long after, he set out for India, where he met Muktananda at his ashram and found that the swami’s proximity had a similar effect on him. He took up the monastic life. In the years that followed, Muktananda traveled the globe establishing the Siddha Yoga Dham movement, and his American disciple accompanied him, eventually as his personal secretary — a job he landed even though he and his boss needed an interpreter to communicate.

Muktananda’s tours brought him to the United States, where Siddha Yoga soon had thousands of followers, while Cannon became so practiced at meditation that Muktananda decreed he be a spiritual guide himself.

Cannon so became Swami Vivekananda, and under that name was dispatched in 1979 to Houston, where others detected a power about him. “I just found being in his presence addictive,” says Carol Wise, a Houstonian who’d felt no such energy when she’d met plain “Chuck Cannon” in 1974. “I just dreaded not being with him.”

When Swami Vivekananda left Houston, “we all wept, because we hated to see him go,” Wise recalls. “I have that same feeling about being with Master Charles that I had with (Muktananda). There’s no separation. They’re one.”

Physically speaking, they were soon to part. In 1982, Muktananda died.

Within a year, Siddha Yoga was racked by scandal — reports of money squirreled away in Swiss bank accounts, charges that the supposedly chaste Muktananda had bedded women and young girls at his ashrams, intimations that the swami had employed threats and intimidation against his critics.

Swami Vivekananda had left the movement by then, and in short order moved to Virginia. “I traveled the world constantly, so I always wanted to park it one day, you know?” he says. “And many times I traveled through this part of the country and I liked it. So when it came time to finally stop the traveling and settle, I decided this was where it would be.”

He moved into a cottage in Shipman, south of Nellysford, in April 1983, then lived with a small band of followers north of Charlottesville. Most held regular jobs, while Cannon — who dropped his monastic name in favor of “Brother Charles” — immersed himself in a project inspired by his late master. Muktananda had believed that meditation would achieve its potential in the West only if it shirked its ancient Eastern trappings. He “looked at me one day and said: ‘You’re an American. You must contemporize this,’” Master Charles says. “‘You must find a way to take this into your culture, that makes it part of the West.’”

The result: meditation soundtracks. “His original idea was to replicate the sound of the caves in which the monks in India meditated,” Scherr says, but that gave way to music engineered to foster specific brain activity. Played through headphones, some recordings reputedly fostered brainwave frequencies in the Alpha range, said to promote a light level of meditation; some tapped into the deeper, creative Theta range; others, the Delta range, provoking a meditative state akin to deep sleep.

By 1987, four years after the group bought the first piece of the now-sprawling Sanctuary, its cassette tapes of those early recordings had gained a following around the world. Mail order sales were brisk.

Scherr, a longtime practitioner of Transcendental Meditation, says he was skeptical before he tried one of the tapes himself. “I put the thing on, bemused, thinking, ‘What can this offer me?’ And in one minute, I was totally astonished.”

“Without it,” he says, “it’s like riding to California on a horse: You can do it, and people have done it, but it’s a hell of a ride. Why not take a jet?”

The storm passes. The thunder recedes. Master Charles — who assumed his latest name at his followers’ behest — smiles serenely. He can count many blessings. He has a staunchly loyal following, for one. Sydney Jane Miller, a Sanctuary monk and Synchronicity officer who has known him for 24 years, calls him “the most loving person on the planet.”

“The longer I know him,” she says, “the more I am in awe of him.”

Even monks who’ve left The Sanctuary speak well of him. “He’s a born teacher, and a wonderful teacher,” says Steve Pauley, who spent 2 1/2 years with the mystic, and who still drops by with gifts on Master Charles’ birthday. “I’d actually spend more time with him, if I felt I’d grown enough that he could be proud of me.”

Tens of thousands of Synchronicity’s tapes and CDs have sold over the past two decades, an affirmation of the master’s powers not only as a meditator, but as a musician. The foundation enjoys online success, as well: A free e-mail newsletter, “The Meditation Toolbox,” reaches thousands each week.

Then there are the retreats. A couple of dozen times a year, seekers arrive to draw inspiration from monks and master, meditate in The Environment, and enjoy wordless meals in the dining hall - again, a 12-sided room that resounds with the soft crash of surf. Each spends several hundred dollars for the experience.

Their numbers don’t overwhelm - 112 people in 2001, according to the group’s tax records; just 98 in 2000, and 232 in 1998. A program through which the foundation counsels CD meditators serves modest numbers, as well.

Still, Synchronicity has never tried to be “the McDonald’s of meditation,” as Scherr says, and it isn’t exactly hurting. It took in more than $1.3 million in 2001 and boasted total assets of $4.2 million.

Success in matters of the spirit can’t be gauged in dollars, anyway. “Seeing the transformation in peoples’ consciousness is amazing, absolutely amazing,” Master Charles says.

He rises, shakes hands, leaves the reception room. A minute later, he reappears with a gift: a flat river pebble painted with the face of a clown, and a business card that reads, “May the Farce Be With You.”

A reminder, he says, that life isn’t so serious, that it exists to amuse our oneness, that we need to lighten up.

Fact, fiction, comedy, tragedy. All entertainment. S

Virginian-Pilot reporter Earl Swift is the author of the new book “Where They Lay: Searching for America’s Lost Soldiers” (Houghton Mifflin), about the effort to find American soldiers missing in Laos.

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