Bill Martin portrait by son Clancy Martin
Credit: Courtesy Clancy Martin

My father was a successful real estate developer in Toronto and Calgary until 1971, when my mother left him for his sponsor in Alcoholics Anonymous. My mother, a great beauty, said he was the most charismatic man she'd ever met. "Every woman who met him fell in love with him. Men, too." But she also always added quickly, "Your father had mental problems. Had them since he was a kid." After the divorce, my father moved to Palm Beach, Florida, where he lost all his money in failed land-speculation deals. In 1973, he moved to the West Coast to find the Meaning of Life, which for him meant making the California scene, sleeping with Shirley MacLaine, dropping acid with Timothy Leary, and studying with everyone from the Maharishi Mahesh Yogi (the Beatles' guru) to the spoon-bending psychic Uri Geller at Esalen. Ram Dass was one of his best friends ("But, honestly, not the holiest man I ever met, son"). He was a regular at such New Age campuses as Ananda, the Self-Realization Fellowship, and Harbin Hot Springs in Northern California.

In 1975, he made his first pilgrimage to remote Buddhist monasteries located high in the Himalayas, in India and Tibet. He would return every year for two decades, to meditate, study the ancient texts, and profit from the examples of great masters like the Dalai Lama and Babaji – the elusive saint said to have lived for centuries in caves in the most remote parts of the Himalayas. He sat at the feet of his guru, Sri Sathya Sai Baba, the great Hindu holy man.

My father was a born salesman and entrepreneur, and after learning from other great teachers and watching the spiritual movement flourish in California, in 1976, at 36, he set up shop on his own. "I'm a late bloomer, C.W.," he told me. "Jesus started his teaching at age 30, and the Buddha was 35." He founded the Church of Living Love in Palm Beach – at the time, the wealthiest zip code in the United States – in a one-story, freestanding brick building, formerly a florist, in an outdoor luxury mall near downtown. About 50 parishioners attended his first service. I was there.

"There's one simple principle all the great religions and philosophers have in common: love," he preached. "That's where it all starts. Love others, love yourself. People say it's hard to love other people, but let me tell you, my friends, loving yourself is a helluva lot tougher. Once you understand that basic principle, the mysteries open up. Truly love yourself and you'll see all of your past lives, you'll see the beings around us that have different senses than our own, you'll travel through all of the planes of existence."

During his services, my father wore neatly pressed gray flannel trousers under a traditional orange monk's robe, with a scarlet sash around his neck. He usually kept one muscular shoulder exposed. He wore long necklaces of beads – malas, they are called – that had been purchased and blessed on his trips to India, and often the women who came to church brought garlands of flowers to put over his head. I loved it when they brought the flowers because sometimes he'd place one on me, and it felt like I was getting off the plane in Hawaii.

My father was one of those men who, when he entered the room, seemed to have a kind of light shining around him. Once I asked him about it and he said, "You're starting to be aware of auras, C.W. Everyone has them, and everyone can see them. They come in all different colors, depending upon the person's level of spiritual evolution. But most people blind their eyes to them. For the great gurus, their aura is entirely white. I practically have to wear sunglasses around Sai Baba. And with Babaji, he's pure light. You can see right through him."

The Tibetans have a word for this phenomenon: lungta. It doesn't mean quite the same thing as aura, but it captures the power of the great personality, full of confidence, the compelling human being. My dad had enormous lungta. Even when he was in the last few years of his life, he could still look at a waitress, smile at her, and they'd leave together at the end of our meal. I'd seen him do it dozens of times. I don't know how often I had to wait outside a restaurant, or outside a hotel room. He could seduce anyone.

As part of the Church of Living Love, my dad offered mystical counseling services and sexual therapy. He started in Palm Beach, but Living Love eventually had satellites in West Palm Beach and Jupiter, as well as Scottsdale, Arizona, Palm Springs, and Coronado, California. The congregants were almost exclusively young women looking for love and rich widows looking for sex. He survived on small donations and large gifts – one parishioner gave him more than a million dollars over the years – and he often complained about the IRS.

I lived with my mom, but in the summers and over winter vacations, my father raised me as a kind of Buddhist-Hindu would-be mystic: I was meditating by the time I was eight or nine. I read Autobiography of a Yogi with the devotion of a Southern Baptist engaging with his Bible. Now I can see that as a child I was principally a fanatical member of the church of Bill Martin. Without ever meaning to be, I was always somehow on my dad's side during the divorce. I think my spiritual enthusiasm was an attempt to win my dad back, to be the son he'd never have to leave.

As we sat in meditation during services, my dad would give his "talk" – he hated the word sermon: "It's a moralizing word, son, and morality is just another name for cruelty, for telling other people how to behave." We prayed for the release of all sentient beings from suffering, listened to New Age music, and sang love songs. I remember as many as 100 of us, standing in a huge circle, hand in hand, me and my dad and all those women, singing: "There is nothing to need/Hide from, or fear/We are whole and complete/Right now and right here."

He would often give spontaneous readings of people's immediate futures or past lives. He complained, after services, of the way he could hear the thoughts of the whole congregation. "Be glad you're not that sensitive yet, son. They bellow so loud I can barely hear myself think."

He dragged me to every kind of conference and seminar imaginable: EST, Transcendental Meditation, pyramid power, and astral-projection training; "gatherings" of the followers of Carlos Castaneda, Unitarians, and Rosicrucians; Ken Keyes' "Higher Consciousness Training" (also, interestingly enough, known as Living Love); Dianetics, Alcoholics Anonymous, and Burning Man.

"There's a little bit of wisdom in almost all of it, son," he'd say. "Even Christianity has a grain of truth. Once you get past the old-man-with-a-beard-in-his-throne BS."

I'd nod. I particularly liked anything that involved having cool powers, like bilocation of the body or reading minds. I wanted to perform miracles, fly, or at least be able to have sex in my lucid dreams.

"You won't really understand any of this stuff until you're ready to come to India, son. Then you see the real thing. In the Himahooleeyas" – my father was one of those dads who had a joke name for everything he loved – "saints were achieving enlightenment 4,000 years before Christ was born."

When I was young, my father wouldn't let me come with him to India. Then, when I was a teenager, and he thought I was ready, I didn't want to go. I was more interested in girls than gurus. Years later, after I had three daughters, two divorces, a battle with alcoholism, and a suicide attempt, I was finally ready, only he wasn't. He had died.