Franklin Jones and his Johannine Daist Communion sect for years stayed out of the headlines, practicing their unusual religion quietly, until this week when a $5 million lawsuit filed by a former member came to light.
Jones, who now uses the name Da Free John, "has always shunned the public limelight with its glamor, hype and superficiality", one of his writings says.
He also has told his followers that following him would not be easy.
But nonetheless, the San Rafael-based sect has managed to gain about 1,000 members worldwide - including about 350 in Marin, amass large property holdings, set up schools for children and centers for adults and publish thousands of books.
The sect's Laughing Man Institute operates centers and Dawn Horse bookstores in Los Angeles, Hawaii, Boston, Seattle, England, Australia and New Zealand, in addition to the one in San Rafael. Beverly Jacobs O'Mahony, the San Rafael woman who has sued Jones and his sect, claimed that she was brainwashed into believing Jones was divine. Other former members have come forward to agree with her.
O'Mahony also charged that she was the victim of false imprisonment, fraud and sexual and physical abuse, among other things.
But those who still follow Jones believe he is an "adept", a person who came into this world already enlightened with eternal truth. The sect's publications also call Jesus an "adept", but make it clear that Jones is considered more important.
Jones began his sect by teaching people face-to-face, first in Los Angeles and later at a 600-acre former resort in Lake County. But he now is in a "final hermitage" in Fiji, living with his nine wives and a few other "advanced students" on an island purchased for $2.5 million by a wealthy follower.
Jones makes it clear that to find the "happiness" he promises, his followers must sacrifice financially.
A book called "The Next Option", an introduction to Jones' teachings, says followers will receive an option to "scientific materialism and religious provincialism."
In his writings, Jones spurns the alms-giving of the past that he says resulted at times in professional beggars. Instead, his followers have the opportunity to contribute to a living "adept."
The greatest need, according to "The Next Option", is for the sect's "sanctuaries," retreats in Lake County, Hawaii and Fiji. The money is being sought to build more structures at the sites.
Members of the sect who are not in one of the retreats usually live communally, several families to a house. Locally, about 50 children of members attend the Big Wisdom Free School in Santa Venetia.
"They teach the traditional academic subjects but they are very much involved in indoctrination," a former member said.
For example, she said, children learn spelling words like "surrender", "bliss", and "truth" and learn songs about Master Da, she said. Members of the sect eat a vegetarian diet, but O'Mahony charged in her suit that she was forced to consume alcohol when she was in Fiji, even though this was traditionally not allowed.
Jones has been a prolific writer, and officials of the sect say 40,000 of his books have been sold.
Students are encouraged to read his writings, but to the novice they may be confusing.
For example, "capitalization of terms is a linguistic convention found throughout the writings of Master Da Free John," according to "The Next Option."
"When capitalized, such terms as 'Truth', 'Adept', 'Teaching', 'Agency', 'Transmission' and others are not used in the ordinary or conventional sense but rather carry a transcendental import and point the reader toward that which is beyond all language and conceptual thought," the book says.