Outside the mostly secretive world of esoteric sciences and the occult, few people are familiar with Manly P. Hall, the man his followers call "the last remaining Western mystic."
Despite the hundreds of books he has written and the thriving institution he founded in Los Feliz 55 years ago, Hall's life story remains largely a mystery. He has written extensively about his afterlife but not a word about his past--a subject that seems forbidden even to his closest aides.
"We don't have any information about his youth," said Mike Mitchell, Hall's official spokesman.
At age 88, the guru is still going strong. His biweekly Sunday lectures regularly attract 200 to 300 people to a pale pink Art Deco building complex that is home of Hall's Philosophical Research Society, or PRS. His books, which cover everything from reincarnation to Pythagorean philosophy to alchemy and black magic, sell by the thousands.
While the PRS gift shop is stocked with volumes on witchcraft and the institution's library displays pictures of nightmarishly evil deities, Hall's lectures are anything but frightening.
Hall recently closed his spring lecture cycle with "The Migrations of the Human Soul." It was a fitting season finale for a man in the last stage of his life.
Sitting in a throne-like gray velvet chair at center stage of the spacious PRS auditorium, impeccably dressed in a blue suit, his full head of slick, white hair combed back, eyeglasses adding to his dignified appearance, Hall preached in a soft, soothing monotone:
"The individual as a being never dies, the body becomes exhausted of poten- tial. . . ."
Most listeners closed their eyes and meditated. Others avidly took notes. A few stared intensely at Hall. Still others nodded in agreement and whispered "Yes, yes!" every time he made a point.
"When we damage our bodies, we are wearing out unnecessarily the light bulb that represents our spirit," Hall said. "It is essential for the mystic, as for the individual seeking spiritual growth, to strengthen his heart with acts of charity, kindness and love of nature."
Remarkably, Hall spoke throughout the entire lecture without hesitating once, never retracting a word or pausing to structure thoughts. He went from Christ to Buddha to Vishnu to lesser gods without missing a step, always emphasizing that the only way to change the world is through individual spiritual growth.
His positive, feel-good message, a cocktail of ancient philosophy, world religions, mysticism and, most of all, old-fashioned common sense, attracted a clean-cut crowd of yuppies in jogging sweats, dignified-looking schoolteachers and good-humored senior citizens in their Sunday suits and dresses.
A firm believer in reincarnation, Hall uses poetic images to make death seem like a pleasant trip from a worn-out machine to a new body waiting to be used.
When a person dies, Hall calmly told his audience, the spirit travels up the spinal chord and "enters the thousand-petal lotus, then leaves the body forever." Once the spirit leaves the body, Hall added, a "white horse carries the soul" until it finds a new body, and the process continues.
Hall's two-hour dissertation drew rave reviews from the audience.
"He's got a lot of insights, he knows different religions," said housekeeper Olivia Kline, 34.
"He has the answer to peace and the good life," said Josephine Bridges, 88, a retired schoolteacher.
"He has such a depth in the understanding of knowledge," said Judith Mitchell, a 62-year-old receptionist from Camarillo who had come to the PRS with her husband and daughter.
An extremely private man, Hall is rarely seen outside the auditorium by any but a few of his closest followers. During a recent interview, Hall's assistants screened questions and answers, and determined the length of Hall's ability to carry a conversation, while recording on videotape his every word.
Hall would not discuss his private life other than to say: "I've been married for more than 40 years, and my wife and I are still on speaking terms."
'Only a Vacation'
He said that he is looking forward to his next life, and that he's not particularly worried about what form he will take. "I want to have fun, and it doesn't look like it's going to happen in this life," he grinned, while his aides laughingly celebrated his answer. Then, suddenly turning serious, Hall added: "I'm not worried about death because it's only a vacation." Hall's assistants seemed confused, apparently wondering whether to laugh.
Next, Hall addressed black magic, witchcraft and the occult. "They are unpleasant forms of self-dilution," he hissed, shaking his head in disgust. "I don't endorse that."
When asked why his bookstore and library are stocked with volumes dealing with the very subjects that Hall had just condemned, he sharply replied: "Because people want to research these subjects."