YELM - The 3,000 students who attend Ramtha's School of Enlightenment throughout the year hail from all walks of life - from artists and entrepreneurs to scientists and Hollywood actors.
About half of the students live in Washington state; nearly one-third live in Thurston County, school officials say.
Many moved from other parts of the country, and other parts of the world, to be closer to Ramtha, a 35,000-year-old spirit said to be channeled by JZ Knight of Yelm, the founder of the school.
"Ramtha is a very unique entity," said Diane D'Acuti, 59, of Yelm. "He is very difficult to put a definition on. He is a being that is absolutely incredible."
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Knight, 60, said she has left her body "thousands of times" to channel the school's master teacher, who speaks in a unique masculine accent that's flavored with rolling Spanish-like R's, Irish phrases, and ancient Greek and Aramaic terminology.
Knight said "The Ram" made his first appearance in her Tacoma kitchen almost 30 years ago. Ramtha's spirit channeled through her body about a year later, she said. The petite woman said she remembers being surprised - not necessarily about the experience itself, but that she could see some cobwebs near the ceiling that she had missed while cleaning.
Knight said one of her first spiritual journeys with Ramtha was a trip to another dimension, to see what happens when people die.
"I told him I was scared to death," Knight said during a seminar that ran June 30 to July 2. "And he said, 'Well, you haven't died, yet.'"
From 1979 to 1988, Knight traveled around the country, holding one- and two-night classes and longer retreats that were known as "Ramtha Dialogues."
In 1988, she established Ramtha's School of Enlightenment, also known as the American Gnostic School.
Her 80-acre forested ranch on the outskirts of the city limits became the school's campus. The property is known locally as "the Ranch" because Knight and her former husband bred and trained Arabian horses, and at one time had as many as 120 horses.
But with the collapse of the Arabian horse industry, the business was dissolved and most of the horses were sold.
The wood-paneled arena that was built for training horses became the school's Great Hall.
Horse stalls were walled in and converted to office space.
Pastures became places where blindfolded students practice envisioning archery targets, searching for cards that represented their dreams, sending and receiving pictures to each other with their minds, or as Ramtha would say, "quantum entanglement."
In recent years, Ramtha students have pulled together to organize on some of the community's hot-button political issues, opposing cell phone towers, a proposed NASCAR track and the development of a Wal-mart store in the area. Steve Klein, a longtime Ramtha student who also works part-time as the school's travel and logistics coordinator, ran for mayor last November. He spent about $50,000 to the challenger's $15,000, in a town where campaign costs rarely exceed $1,000.
Although he lost - he was trounced, really, as Klein described it - the former airline executive has continued to follow City Council issues.
Klein recently began publishing an online newsletter, a blog, about City Council issues. It hasn't gone unnoticed. "Every article in there slams the City Council for everything they try to do, and frankly without any information," said Yelm City Council member Bob Isom.
Most people learn about the school through word of mouth from friends and relatives, school officials say. The books and tapes published through JZK Publishing, which also is owned by Knight, draw the second-highest number of recruits.
Ramtha's teachings are built around the concept of reincarnation, and some students believe they knew Ramtha, and possibly studied with him, during past lives.
Jan Clements, 69, of Rainier said she immediately felt a connection with Ramtha the first time she saw JZ channeling him on video in 1986.
"I was driving people crazy - I was saying, 'There's something more, there's something more,'" said Clements, who is retired from the real estate industry. "And when I saw the video, that was it. ... I found my teacher. I'd been looking for him for a long time."
People are encouraged to bring their families to the school, and children often sit alongside their parents during classes and activities.
"It's such a gift to be able to be here with our children because they get it by example," said Laura Craig, 37, of Yelm, as she watched her 3-year-old romp on the school's playground during a break between sessions.
Bill Hashim, 53, of Yelm first learned about the school while working on the Nisqually River Management Plan for the Department of Ecology. He said he wondered what was going on behind the towering, white pillars and massive gates.
One day, he struck up a conversation with a Ramtha student. That's all it took.
"I said, 'I've got to know what you know,'" Hashim said.
The school doesn't fall into the category of "church" or "religion," according to James Wellman, a professor of Western Religions and chairman of the Comparative Religion program at the University of Washington.
"It's more like a client-based spiritual and therapeutic personal growth group," he said.
There are similar groups throughout the Northwest, particularly in Ashland, Ore. Most groups have a spiritual leader, and often intertwine nature and self-awareness with their teachings, Wellman said.
"What you have in this region is a strong and large group of people who are spiritual but not religious, and they're seeking out resources to help them deal with those issues of spirituality," he said.
In the past, Hashim said the school has been misjudged by some in the community.
"They want to put labels on it - you're a cult, you're a religion - but it's not that," he said. "It's a school of knowledge. What we're learning is how the nature of reality is created. We study things like the brain, the nature of neurochemistry, the nature of God. ... It's not a religion. It's not a dogma. It's just a school to learn about yourself."
Peggy Black, 62, of Mossyrock, said she likes the school because it brings together people from all over the world. It's where she met her husband, Brian, who moved from Australia to study at the school.
"It's exciting - everything other than this is so boring," she said.
"Things I've learned here just aren't out there in that other world."
Some students say they were skeptics at first.
Carolina Ortiz, 52, of Barcelona, Spain, said she didn't like her first Ramtha experience, last August in Italy.
"It was terrible, I didn't want to know any of it," she said. "I refused to do the exercises."
But then she tried one of the school's events in Mexico. Next she traveled to an event in Belgium. And earlier this month, she was in Yelm.
Christine Conley, 35, of Phoenix, said she learned about the school through the independent film "What The Bleep Do We know?"
At first, the civil engineer was mainly interested in the quantum physics aspect of Ramtha's teachings.
"I didn't really buy the whole channeling thing," Conley said. "But the more and more I listened, I was like, 'I don't know how JZ could know all of that.'"
Conley said Ramtha has taught her how to take responsibility for her actions and her life.
"There's no more being a victim," Conley said. "There's no one else to blame."
She said she doesn't think the school is much different from other philosophy-based groups.
"They're all kind of saying the same thing: Take responsibility for yourself," Conley said. "Ramtha's just really direct about it."