Feathered Bastard

Mago Sculpture Dismantled, Rolling Stone Article Blasts Dahn Yoga as Cult

Between a cult and the Cottonwood rednecks, whom do I chose? That's the conundrum I'm left with at the news that the Mago "Mother Earth" statue has been dismantled.

That's to the delight of bigots in Cottonwood, Arizona, who decried the 39-foot statue (nearly 50 feet high when you count the base) as a "graven image" foreign to the lily-white community near Sedona.

(The local Verde Independent has a video of the dismantling you can watch, here.)

I have to admit to finding the Mago (pronounced "Mah-goh") statue enchanting, though for different reasons, as the handsome Catholic Church across the street from it on Bill Gray Road off state route 89A. Heck, I drove up there recently to get a gander, thereby exhausting one of the few reasons I may ever have to pay a visit to Cottonwood before I keel.

Mago's removal was protested, at least, in part, by employees of Dahn Yoga, a chain of yoga/martial arts studios founded by South Korean businessman and new age guru Ilchi Lee. The Tao Fellowship, the institute that put up Mago and the other smaller statues at what it called Mago Earth Park, is also led by Ilchi Lee.

Lee is blasted in the current issue of Rolling Stone magazine as the leader of a cult that rivals both Scientology and the Moonies in the way it dominates and fleeces its followers. Here's a sample of from the feature by reporter Sabrina Rubin Erdley, titled "The Yoga Cult":

"A federal lawsuit filed last year by 27 former members, including Shipley and Barba, goes a step further, claiming that Dahn is not only a cult, but that the profits generated by its brainwashed masses fund the rock-star lifestyle of Seung Heun `Ilchi' Lee, a paunchy, white-haired 57-year-old who travels the globe via private jet and is orbited by a worshipful entourage of personal assistants.

"Lee's disciples, meanwhile, live in communal housing, go deep into debt to meet financial quotas and say they are driven to exercise to an extreme degree. (In 2008, Dahn settled a lawsuit for an undisclosed sum when a college professor named Julia Siverls died of dehydration while hiking a Sedona mountain, allegedly lugging 25 pounds of rocks in her backpack.) The current lawsuit also accuses Lee of breaking wage and immigration laws, evading taxes and sexually abusing female disciples, who are assured they're being singled out for a sacred honor."

A Dahn spokesperson denied the allegations of the Rolling Stone piece, which includes a creepy account of an alleged sexual encounter between Lee and one of his admirers. 

"According to Harrelson," reads the Rolling Stone article, "Lee pushed down his pants and coerced her into having sex. When he finished, he caressed her locks. `I like gold hair,' he told her."

Mago, too, had gold hair, as well as deep blue irises, and vaguely Asian features.

As disturbing as that thought is, the debate over the Mago statue in Cottonwood dwelled little on whether or not Ilchi Lee is a cult-leader, and more on the fact that local rednecks loathed the statue for religious and cultural reasons.

The local Verde Independent's account of the Cottonwood Planning and Zoning Commission meeting that ordered Mago down pretty much sums up the reaction of the populace, who were outraged by the statue.

"Many invoked their own religious beliefs in opposing the park," noted the reporter's account, "like Andy Ericson: `We have Judeo-Christian values. This is not representative of the majority of the people...One man called the statue `a graven image.'"

Then there was the opinion of yokel Russel Cummings, who told the commission,  "I believe in black and white. I don't want no statue."

Wonder if he had a plug of chaw in his mouth as he said it.

If this all sounds like something right out of the 19th Century, well, it is. After all, we're talking about Arizona, or Yosemite Sam country, here.

And therein lies my dilemma. It sounds like it might be cool to be in a cult if you're the guy leading it. Otherwise, not. But then, the same goes for a lot of religions.

Redneckism, however, is a far more virulent, far more nefarious force in Arizona. In a state largely hostile to non-whites, a Korean cult is practically an exercise in cultural diversity.

Okay, I kid, a little. I'd hate for anyone I care about to be a cult-member. On the other hand, I really do not like the sandbillies 'round these parts. And yes, I know they don't cotton to me, but that comes with the territory. 

I reckon it's a reluctant draw, with a slight nudge to the cult -- if that's what it is -- for having a nice statue at least. Hey, if my back yard were big enough, I'd take it. It might get a pass here in Phoenix. Although if Mago were Mexican, I might have to keep an eye peeled for the local KKK-wannabes.

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Stephen is a former staff writer and columnist at Phoenix New Times.
Contact: Stephen Lemons