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New York Times Interview

By Gustav Niebuhr - July 1996

As the year 2000 approaches, declarations that a vast metaphysical change will coincide with the turn of the chronological odometer have not lacked an audience.


Twice in the past decade, for example, books that set dates for Christ's Second Coming sold well enough to generate numerous news stories. One promised the event in September 1988; the other suggested late summer 1994. Needless to say, however ....

Still, history-stopping expectations have been by no means unique to Christians. For the better part of two decades, a British painter named Benjamin Creme has been lecturing to audiences that a messianic figure expected by all major faiths will soon reveal himself and make the planet a much better place to live.

In itself, this idea of a universal savior is not unique to Creme (who pronounces his name 'Crem'); others have proclaimed similar dawnings at various times recent and past.
But Creme, a soft-spoken, snowy-haired man of 73, has for years drawn crowds in the United States and in other countries by offering a detailed and decidedly upbeat description of changes he says are already under way.

As he tells it, the planet will soon hear from a figure called the World Teacher, whose personal name is Maitreya, chief among the Masters of Wisdom, themselves a handful of "perfected men" who serve as guardians of a divine plan for Earth.

Maitreya, Creme says, left his abode in the Himalaya Mountains in a "self-created" human body to travel to London on July 19, 1977, where he has since lived in the South Asian immigrant community, preparing for a "Day of Declaration," in which he will reveal himself via global television and teach the building of a new civilization for the benefit of all.

Creme said he is kept informed of Maitreya's plans largely through telepathic communication with another Master, whose name he declined to reveal.

As Creme's own literature puts it, in a statement that would seem indisputable, his story "seems almost too fantastic to believe." But he does speak from within a religious tradition, albeit an esoteric one.

Asked the human sources of his inspiration, Creme said he was a student of the writings of Helena Blavatsky and Alice Bailey, whose books have had a profound influence on that diverse range of contemporary spiritual beliefs called New Age -- a blend of elements of Eastern and Western mysticism and a strong dose of self-improvement thinking.

Madame Blavatsky, as she was known, was an aristocratic, Russian-born medium who founded the Theosophical Society in New York in 1875 and who taught, among much else, that people could contact the spiritual realm with help from higher entities called Masters of Wisdom.

Mrs Bailey, a former Theosophist who broke away to found the Arcane Society in 1923, went further, publishing books she said contained dictations she received from a specific Master, which predicted a coming "New Civilization" of peace and enlightenment.

Catherine Wessinger, associate professor of religious studies at Loyola University in New Orleans, said a third woman also contributed heavily to this stream of belief -- Annie Besant, a British feminist who served as the Theosophical Society's president from 1907 to 1933, during which time she proclaimed the coming of a World Teacher, a role that would be filled by an entity called Lord Maitreya.

(In Buddhist belief, Maitreya is the name of the next Buddha expected to appear in this world, in the distant future.)

Creme, who never joined the Theosophical Society, said he regarded the Blavatsky writings as "preparatory" in the unfolding of a spiritual plan for the planet; Mrs Bailey's work was the "intermediate" stage. "People see me as continuing the teachings," he said. "I feel I'm dotting the I's and crossing theT's."

Undoubtedly, some people do. But others have been alarmed.

In his book, "The New Age Movement in American Culture" (University Press of America, 1995), Richard Kyle wrote that when Creme took out newspaper advertisements detailing his message about Maitreya in 1982, and declaring that "The Christ Is Now Here," he so outraged evangelical Protestants as to arouse their opposition to anything smacking of New Age beliefs.

Almost as if in recognition of that controversy, handbills inviting people to attend Creme's New York lecture began with the question, "Why should you pay attention to this guy's version of the Second Coming?" Below could be found three humorous answers and one earnest one: "You're seeking practical solutions to the fundamental problems of mankind."

Creme was asked how he handled skeptics. "I say, keep an open mind," he responded. "Skepticism is fine; I don't like cynicism."

He said he was a skeptic himself, but then qualified that. "If you've studied the teachings all your life and if you're in touch moment-to-moment with one of the Masters," he said, "it gives you a very sharp eye and ear for the truth."

20 July 1996 - Copyright 1996 - The New York Times Company

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First published April 1999,