Robert Earl Burton founded The Fellowship of Friends in the San Francisco Bay Area in 1970.

Burton modeled his own group after that of Alex Horn, loosely borrowing from the Fourth Way teachings of Gurdjieff and Ouspensky. In recent years, the Fellowship has cast its net more broadly, embracing any spiritual tradition that includes (or can be interpreted to include) the notion of "presence."

The Fellowship of Friends exhibits the hallmarks of a "doomsday religious cult," wherein Burton exercises absolute authority, and demands loyalty and obedience. He warns that his is the only path to consciousness and eternal life. Invoking his gift of prophecy, he has over the years prepared his flock for great calamities (e.g. a depression in 1984, the fall of California in 1998, nuclear holocaust in 2006, and an ominous, yet unspecified new threat late in 2018.) While non-believers shall perish, through the direct intervention and guidance from 44 angels (including his divine father, Leonardo da Vinci) Burton and his followers will be spared, founding a new, and more perfect civilization.

Many regard Robert Earl Burton a narcissist and sociopath, surrounded by a largely greed- and power-driven inner circle. The following pages offer abundant evidence supporting that conclusion.

This archive draws on official Fellowship publications and websites, news archives, court documents, cult education and awareness forums, the (former) Fellowship Wikipedia page, the long-running Fellowship of Friends - Living Presence Discussion, the Internet Archive, the (former) Fellowship of Friends wiki project, and the editor's own 13-year experience in the Fellowship.

Presented in a reverse chronology, the Fellowship's history may be navigated via the "Blog Archive" located in the sidebar below.

Sunday, June 23, 1985

A visitor's evening among friends

Sacramento Bee
Published on June 23, 1985, Page A21

It begins in the occult section of a bookstore when you pick up a copy of a volume by the Russian philosophers P.D. Ouspensky and G. I. Gurdjieff.

As you thumb through its pages, out falls a bookmark, emblazoned with pictures of the two men, one bald and crazy-looking, the other bespectacled and serious. Printed between their faces are phone numbers for centers in Davis, Sacramento, London and Paris.

So you call one of the numbers. A woman in a polite, cool voice asks, would you like to attend a session to discuss the ideas of the two philosophers? She supplies a time and place.

That's how most people are introduced to the Fellowship of Friends. Unlike many new religions, there's no hard sell. No money least at first. They rely on curiosity and the power of the men's ideas, with a little help from members who sneak into bookstores and plant the markers.

The basis for their beliefs, one quickly learns, is strict self-discipline. The reward, they say, is a superior knowledge of the mysteries of life. A religion or philosophy? It's hard to say. They call it a system.

Recently, a Bee reporter attended an introductory session posing as a potential recruit after finding a marker in a book at Levinson's Book Store on Howe Avenue. The session, in a remote farmhouse south of Davis, provides a rare glimpse at the inside of this relatively unknown group.

Dogs and barnyard fowl howl and cackle, and a wind blows dust across the unkempt yard. But as the door of the house swings open, an immaculate, creamy-white chamber greets the visitor.

Copies of a Rembrandt and other artwork line the walls. Cleanliness and a penchant for things cultured are hallmarks of members' lives.

Five members, hands on laps, wait for the visitor in the living room. The people are as well-scrubbed as the house. Shined shoes, free of scuffs, glisten like footwear made out of black mirrors. Wet-combed hair. Long dresses on the two women, one with her hair in a bun. They look almost Amish.

"Let us begin," says the woman who seems the leader. We'll call her Natasha. She has asked to remain anonymous.

There's a code language. For instance, the word "octave" is substituted for a job or task. And they don't use contractions. It's not proper. They would say, "I am fine" or "we are happy." She speaks in a mechanical, cold voice.

Natasha instructs the visitor not to open his mouth unless he raises his hand and is granted permission to speak. Speaking, Ouspensky says, is a "vice" that hinders man's observations. The visitors says something and she sternly orders him silent.

"There are four levels of consciousness," Natasha continues. "The first is sleep. Then there is awake. But, you see, we sitting here are not awake. We think we are awake. But we are really asleep.

"Then there is level three and level four. Ordinary men cannot reach them. Once in a while, you can accidentally reach this level. But you cannot stay there. It is like finding money on the street. One cannot make a living off that."

Natasha says the works of Gurdjieff and Ouspensky enable you to get to these levels most of the time.

"One cannot learn this on one's own," she says. "One needs to study, to go to school." The only way to get there is to study with them. "And it takes many years," she adds.

As she finishes, she stares at the ceiling. [ed. - An imitation of Robert Burton's mannerism.] Her husband raises his hand, and without her acknowledging, he talks. They seem to be reciting a script. [ed. - Indeed, it is exactly that - a performance.]

"Do not believe anything we tell you here," says the husband. "You will have to verify it for yourself. Only then will you know the truth.

"It is like being in a prison. If men do not know they are in prison, they do not want to escape. Most men do not know they are asleep. Once you learn you are in prison, you want to escape, dig your way out. All of us are trying to escape. We are all digging together, to find a way out."

He, too, stares upward when he finishes talking, and all five members sit in an awkward silence, looking at the ceiling.

Natasha's husband again talks, but is interrupted by the other woman who shakes her hand wildly. Natasha explains the other woman "photographed" her husband because he used the word "like." To "photograph," in the group's code, means to spotlight a situation.

Natasha explains each member is given a word he is not supposed to use for two months. If he uses it, other members shake their hands and "photograph" the offender. The man apologizes for using his forbidden word.

It is part of raising one's consciousness, explains Natasha. It's one mind game to increase observation. Also discouraged is imagination. (It's a "destructive faculty," wrote Ouspensky. "Imagination is almost as bad as lying.") Students are encouraged to fill their minds with meaningful things and try not to imagine.

Later she was told that the visitor was a reporter and she tried to elaborate on her philosophy.

"It is a nebulous concept. It will be very difficult for you to put it into words." She suggests practicing exercises - watching for one word each month and trying to eliminate it from conversation. Try to see how aware you can become of yourself.

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