Tuesday, November 30, 2010

New Federal Mandate and Our Region's Most Vulnerable Newcomers

Irish immigrant family in early 20th century
(courtesy Albany Times Union)

A recent series of postings on this site has focused on the World Peace and Health Organization, a native Chinese sect which has settled in Amsterdam. When I learned of the arrival of this group, I was hoping that they were the kind of immigrants who could revitalize our region, which has suffered depopulation for decades as manufacturing jobs were outsourced and our once thriving factories and farms were abandoned to decay. However, a close study of the WPHO group revealed that, whatever their intentions, they do not intend to permanently settle and raise families here. - unless their holy master Ziguang tells them to do so.

Following publication in the November 28  Schenectady Gazette of a summary of my findings on the WPHO, I became more concerned that some local people are  hostile to any newcomers who do not speak English, and  feel free to express the kind of anti-immigrant bias  encouraged by media demagogues like Lou Dobbs. Such people choose to forget the previous waves of immigrants, almost always facing a similar hostility,  who have contributed so much  to the flourishing of the Hudson and Mohawk Valleys. Except for the Mohicans and the Mohawks, we are all immigrants or the children of immigrants.

Mohicans viewing the arrival of Henry 
Hudson's Half Moon in 1609
(courtesy Library of Congress)

When the first immigrants arrived, the people  who had lived here for thousands of years welcomed  them, but according the website of  the N'DahAhki people, the  result was not a happy one for them:

On September 15th, 1609 Henry Hudson and the crew of the Half Moon first sailed up the Mohicanituk in search of Cathay and the Indies. One of the ship's officers, Robert Juet, described them on that first meeting as a "loving people". They were also the first Native people in the Northeast recorded as having been made deliberately drunk by the Europeans. Fur trading with the Dutch began the next year. Within a few years, 90% of the Mohicans had died of epidemic disease. The middle 17th century Mohican-Mohawk conflicts for control of the lucrative fur trade (the so-called 'Beaver Wars')

 Sojourner Truth was born near KIngston
(courtesy Library of Congress)

The next group to arrive were Africans imported as slaves  by the Dutch starting in 1626, and their history in  this valley has been ignored for far too long. Too few of our schoolchildren even know that Sojourner Truth was born near Kingston and grew up speaking Dutch. One can't help but wonder what contemporary bigots would make of her: illiterate, hostile to authority, no way to earn her own living. She'd end up on a no-fly list for sure.

German immigrants prior to the Revolution were more readily accepted by the English and Dutch, and militia commander Nicholas Herkimer is renowned for his heroism at Oriskany in 1777. Irish and German Catholic immigrants in the 1840s and 1850s met with religious prejudice, but as  they buillt their own school and political systems, they  compelled Protestants to accept them. Immigrants from Italy, Poland and other parts of eastern Europe readily found work in the expanding economy of the early 20th century and rose with the growth of the middle class fostred by the labor movement of  the last century.

All  these waves of immigrants, with the shameful exception of those who were enslaved, were from Europe. Only in recent decades have people from Latin America begun to arrive upstate  in significant numbers. Susan Lang of Cornell University explored the growing presence of this group in a 2006 article:

Mexican farmworkers and their families are settling in rural upstate New York communities in record numbers, often offsetting recent decades of population loss and making upstate much more diverse. However, two-thirds of the newcomers can't speak or understand English, and most are marginalized in their communities.  Seasonal farmworkers in New York used to be primarily African-Americans, but 95 percent of the farmworkers now are Latino, primarily Mexican, and they are increasingly settling down with their families in the farm communities rather than returning to their home countries.

Although these new migrants tend to keep a low profile, their labor is in demand. A farmer in Columbia county told me that he simply couldn’t afford to stay  in business were it not for the labor of Spanish-speaking farm workers, and he did not care if they were documented or undocumented. “Americans don’t want to spend all day picking in the hot sun, or if they did, they wouldn’t work for what I can afford to pay them.” He held up a pint of strawberries and asked me, “Do you want to pay eight dollars for this? That’s what I’d have to charge if I didn’t have the Mexicans.”

It is interesting to speculate about how much such working people could contribute  if they had a chance to own land and raise their own crops. Our countryside  is littered with abandoned farms that might be restored to life by newcomers from Latin Americas. Certainly, there are few others except for the Amish who are drawn to such a hard life.

Instead, the Spanish-speaking families who  could revitalize our agricultural economy  may well become the innocent victims of a new federal program designed to deport truly dangerous  people, called the “Secure Communities Initiative.” The program’s executive director David Venturella described the program's joint national security/community security mission: "Secure Communities is a comprehensive effort to increase national security and community safety by identifying, processing, and removing deportable criminal aliens, beginning with those who pose the greatest known risk to public safety."

No one could quarrel with such goals, but the key words are “beginning with those who pose the greatest known risk to public safety."   And knowing something of how bureaucracies operate, I am sure there will be considerable pressure to produce results, and if no truly “criminal aliens” turn up, the temptation to deport those with minor charges, or whose charges were dismissed, will be inevitable.

The program requires that anyone who is booked for any charge, whether felony or misdemeanor or even if the charges are quickly dismissed, should have his/her fingerprints transmitted electronically to Immigration and Customs Enforcement Once ICE identifies an eligible individual through a database match, it will issue an “immigration detainer” requiring that the individual should be held in the local jail until a decision is made regarding deportation.  No federal funds will be provided for local communities to pay for the additional incarceration.

Governor David Patterson signed a Memorandum of Agreement with the Department of Homeland Security/Immigration and Customs Enforcement on May 10, committing every locality in the state to participation in this program. An earlier provision from ICE allowing localities to opt out was changed in August and the program is now mandatory, thus extending the policy of Arizona’s draconian SB-1070 anti-immigration statute nationwide.  

The possibility that “Secure Communities” will interfere with good police work by tying down law enforcement officers in the pursuit of harmless migrants, or that it will damage necessary relations between the police and the Spanish-speaking community, must be taken seriously. The Police Foundation has voiced these same concerns, making a strong case that “Secure Communities” is disruptive of good police work.

I was eager to uncover the effects of this new policy in our region, and I began by contacting police departments to learn if, or how, this initiative was being implemented. At the same time I decided to reach out to the designated targets of this latest federal mandate, and to immigrant rights organizations in our area.

As I set about my research, I kept in mind the example of an Irish immigrant  who  was most certainly considered a dangerous alien in  his own time. James Connolly lived  in Troy a hundred years ago, and was a founder of the Industrial Workers of the World before returning to his homeland. By contemporary standards, he might well be put on a  government list for extra scrutiny and possible deportation.

Connolly is revered today as one of the founding fathers of the Irish republic  He  led the Irish forces in the Easter Rebellion of 1916,  the first battle in the  bitter war for independence from British tyranny and  was executed by the foreign occupiers of his country at Kilmainham Jail.

James Connolly is honored in Troy's Riverside Park

Update December 29, 2010: 

As of this date it is still unclear if communities can opt out of the Secure Communities Initiative. A judge has given Immigration and Customs Enforcement until January 17 to release the documents that will clarify this issue. The evident stalling by ICE would suggest that the bureaucrats know they can't  legally impose this diktat on every police department but are hoping to do so anyway. Thus far, most states states are falling into line, despite the lack of clarity from the feds:

Update May 22, 2011 

Good news. The Inspector General of the Department of Homeland Security has announced an investigation of the abuses of the Secure Communities Program, specifically the damage it has done to innocent immigrants vs. actual felons deserving of deportation.

U.S. to investigate Secure Communities deportation program


Sunday, November 28, 2010

Ziguang's Claims of Healing Powers Raise Questions

Published in today's  Schenectady Gazette

When I met Ziguang Shang Shi at the former St. Casimir’s Church in Amsterdam on October 21, he gave me his self-published book, “Holy Master Ziguang Shang Shi in U.S.A; Miraculous Stories of Salvation.”  I have always had an interest in various religions, and was eager to learn what he had to say.

I didn’t get to read the book until after I came back to St. Casimir’s a second time on October 26, for its re-dedication as the Five Buddhas Temple. But when I opened his book and started to read it, I didn’t know what to make of it.

The book consists almost entirely of 161 personal statements from Chinese-speaking people who came to the healing sessions Ziguang has been conducting in American cities for several years. And the world pictured in the book is a scary place. Ziguang writes that “devils are raging all over the world. The demons of illness rampantly endanger the physical and spiritual healthiness over the world. It causes the decline of human health.”

And according to the book, he is the savior in this world full of devils: “During the Dharma Vanishing Era, Holy Master Ziguang Shang Shi descends to this mortal world for rescuing people with his divine power and his great mercy of Buddha.” Zhi Bei saw him control the ocean’s waves and Xiang-rong Ma even says she saw him rise into the air: “This moment I suddenly saw Holy Master Ziguang Shang Shi’s body raised in the air and I saw golden light emitted from his body. They shined on all audiences.”

Such visions are not unusual for people who have come to Ziguang’s healing sessions. Lin Fan-Yuan “felt there was an opening at the top of my head. I could feel a spark entering my head. I could feel the door of my wisdom was opened when the Buddha light was entering my head.” Dong Min Mo “smelled a nice scent and saw a violet light on top of my head” and afterwards was happy to lose 12 pounds and reduce her waist size two inches.

But there does seem to be something like exorcism going on for many of these people, particularly when the ailments are of a more serious nature. Ziguang tells Yuan-Zhu Liao: “Don’t worry. You will be fine after the evil spirits in your body were driven away.” He tells  Dai-Shi Huang that “Satan has already left your body. Your abdomen wouldn’t be swollen again.”

What really worried me was the story told by Xiaoling Lu, who had been hearing voices telling her to kill herself, but Ziguang told her: “You are not insane. You are haunted by something evil. If nothing is done, you will be in bigger troubles.”  What if she avoids psychiatric treatment based on what he told her, and then kills herself?

Although some of the illnesses are relatively minor, people with Parkinson’s disease and cancer also came to be healed by Ziguang. I know that a positive attitude is important to health, but it strikes me as terribly irresponsible if you make somebody feel so positive that they give up life-saving medical treatment.

For example, Qiong-fang Lin had an operation for breast cancer: “I just believed in science, medication and surgical operation to remove tumors. Holy Master Ziguang Shang Shi said it did not need injection, medicine and surgery, cancer cells can be controlled. Holy Master Ziguang Shang Shi told me not to worry as the esoteric dharma would prevent the spread and transfer of cancer only if I practiced sincerely and did merit wholeheartedly.”

On that first day when I went to St. Casimir’s, there were things that were puzzling, even though I didn’t know anything yet about the group’s belief in miraculous healing. I was made to feel welcome right away and Jenny Wong invited me to join a lecture being given by Ziguang, who was speaking in Chinese to a group of 28 women and five men.

Ziguang soon began talking directly to me and asked me if I had any questions, so I asked him these four: How many people will be coming from China to live in Amsterdam? Will the people from China settle and raise families here like previous immigrants? Is it their goal to become American citizens? And, why is the group buying so many properties so quickly? Ziguang answered none of these questions but simply repeated much of what was quoted in earlier news reports: he has come to bring health to the people of Amsterdam; he will bring prosperity by opening new factories and other businesses.

At one point in that meeting, Ziguang started talking about the burglary at St. Casimir’s in September, and he said he might go to France if people here did not want him. I turned and asked the group if they would stay in that case or if they would follow their master. They cried out in almost one voice that they would follow the master wherever he went. I guess whether they stay or go depends entirely on what he says.

And another odd thing happened after the meeting was over. I asked Jenny Wong how many people had come with Ziguang from China, but she wouldn’t give me a definite number, or even a ballpark range. She said that the people were here on a “voluntary” basis and that the numbers keep changing because people come and go from China.

When I finally finished Ziguang’s book a couple weeks later, I felt that I needed to know more about Buddhism if I was going to be fair. I went to see Monshin Paul Naamon, abbot of the Tendai Buddhist Temple in Canaan, which is affiliated with an ancient Japanese religious institution. “Claiming healing powers like this is not sanctioned by any recognized Buddhist tradition,” Naamon told me. “Buddhism is a search for the nature of reality. If you do something to feed people’s delusions, that is not Buddhism.”

I don’t know much about Buddhism, but I’m inclined to agree with him.

Saturday, November 20, 2010

Large real estate purchases in Gloversville and Ephrata raise questions

People in Gloversville were puzzled by recent real estate purchases by unknown buyers of two large landmark buildings: The Schine Building and the YWCA.

My own curiosity about developments in Gloversville began when I was part of a conversation October 26 at the Five Buddhas Temple, formerly St. Casimir’s Catholic church in Amsterdam.  A member of the Christian congregation renting space in the YWCA had come to see Jennie Wong , spokesperson for the World Peace and Health Organization, to inquire if rumors that the WPHO was interested in the building were true. Jennie confirmed that the group led by Ziguang Shang Shi was indeed interested in the building.

 The YWCA, built in 1900, had been offered for sale at $400,000 and is now under contract for $120,000 to an undisclosed “out-of-town buyer,” according to Pyramid Realty, which is handling the sale.

This does not confirm, of course, that the WPHO is the mysterious buyer of the YWCA,  but I can’t help but wonder why anyone would be interested in such properties and yet take such care not to reveal their identity. Certainly, serious investments and renovations are much needed in downtown Gloversville, and any organization willing to make that commitment would be be welcomed and applauded.

The 29,000 square foot Schine  Building, built in 1888 as Memorial Hall,was sold at a November 11  auction for $48,000 to an undisclosed buyer. Michael Teetz of Glove City Realty placed the winning bid on behalf of another party. Teetz wouldn't say who authorized his bids or identify future plans for the building, but he did say the World Peace and Health Organization was definitely not the buyer. So, this is one rumor can be laid to rest. (A reader of this site alerted us to a November 18 article in the Leader-Herald reporting that "the Gloversville Economic Development Corp., which oversees loans to businesses within the city, will add the 29,000-square-foot building to its properties.")

The Leader-Herald building in downtown Gloversville

Amanda Whistle in the Leader-Herald reports that:  “According to property tax map data, the building is owned by Memorial Hall, LLC. The prior owner was Covenhoven Realty Corp., which sold the building Feb. 12, 2007, for $225,000.”

A week before the sale, Whistle had written: “the winning bidder at auction will have the opportunity to apply for grant funding for restoration and renovation of downtown's historic centerpiece.” She explains  the details on the grant:

“Wally Hart, president of the Fulton County Regional Chamber of Commerce said there is still $175,000 left from the $200,000 awarded in 2008 through a historic preservation grant from the state Housing Trust Fund.

Each building on North Main Street is eligible for up to $50,000 for building renovation and $10,000 per building for facade restoration under a 50/50 matching format, Hart said. Because of the size of the Schine Building with its seven storefronts, it is eligible for up to $20,000 for facade restoration.”

A merchant in the Glove City Commons across the street from the Schine Building speculated that the building could become profitable as an inexpensive apartment rental “if somebody fixes the roof.”  He estimated that maintaining and heating the large structure would cost $6000 a month, which would cut into rental income. A young man who has done work in the old building agreed, saying that extensive repairs and renovation are necessary.

Gloversville native son G. David Schine 
with Joe McCarthy and Roy Cohn

As of November 15, retail tenants in the Schine building had not yet heard from the new owners, and a tenant in the YWCA was still in the dark about that pending sale.  I spoke with several people on the street about the building and one lady reminded me that the Schine family had experienced a moment of notoriety back in the McCarthy era. In fact, it was a controversy over G. David Schine that finally discredited McCarthy. After a three years reign of terror, McCarthy ran into trouble when the Army charged that he and his aide Roy Cohn had employed undue pressure in an  effort to get an officer’s commission for Schine, who had been working for McCarthy & Cohn as an unpaid investigative aide before being drafted. McCarthy’s abusive questioning of the Secretary of the Army in the subsequent hearings is what finally led the Senate to censure him. Schine went on to a career as a Hollywood producer, making use of the family fortune that began here in Gloversville, and died in 1996.

Still without any idea of whether the WPHO was the mystery buyer of the YWCA, I headed west to Ephrata to take a look at a large property owned by the Ziguang group  since summer.

The long vacant Adirondack Center Camp on Hart Road in Ephrata, which includes 206 largely forested acres, was bought in August by the World Peace and Health Organization according to Edward Hunt in the Leader Herald:

“The group paid $400,000 for the site, which had been listed for $995,000, according to Gordon Enfield, principal broker with Carroll Enfield of Troy. Part of the difference was considered a donation to the group.

Jennie Wong, a representative for the group, referred all questions to its leader, Master Ziguang Shang Shi, who was unavailable.”

This response foretold later problems between the Ziguang group and local people. Again, Edward Hunt, writing in the Leader Herald on October 16, told of one completely avoidable conflict precipitated by the sect:

Concerned for the well-being of the trees on their newly bought property, the leader of a Buddhist organization has demanded that a local farmer's syrup taps be removed from the maples.

Master Ziguang Shang Shi and his Bhuddist followers of the World Peace and Health Organization said the syrup taps are damaging the trees on the 200-acre property on Hart Road the group purchased in August.

"They are placing nails in the trees," he said through an interpreter. "The nails are taking their life energy."

Art Popp, the farmer who planted the taps and who has been making maple syrup and farming in the area for 43 years, is quoted by Hunt as saying: "They came along and bought the property in August and immediately demanded I remove the taps," he said. "I was right in the middle of harvesting vegetables from the farm and couldn't drop everything and pull out the taps."

Popp said that ,he is “frustrated by what he described as "continual harassment" in the form of a steady stream of letters from the WHPO demanding the end of the sap harvest and a Department of Environmental Conservation officer stopping by his farm on Murray Hill Road making what Popp called "a courtesy visit." The DEC officer gave Popp 30 days to remove the equipment and Popp expects to have the taps removed before that deadline.”

When I looked at the property on November 15, it appeared completely empty .I spoke with Art Popp the next day, and he said that the camp had been vacant for a month or more, no signs of life whatsoever. The only recent appearance by WPHO was when four members arrived to nail No Trespassing signs on trees. (which seemed odd, considering the earlier objection to maple taps). Art confirmed a pattern I had observed in WPHO’s Amsterdam purchases. Properties are bought without any awareness of local codes, and end up unused. 

When the group started work on a storage shed in August, Code Enforcement Officer David Rackmyre issued a stop work order, since a building permit had not been secured and the structure was beneath power lines. Even more significantly, as Art pointed out, the site is part of the Canajoharie watershed, and any further building would not be possible.

A few weeks ago, I discussed this incident with Jennie Wong and stressed that her people needed to be sensitive to the local culture here, and to act in ways that avoided conflict, rather than provoking it. She seemed to agree.

Pizza King restaurant, whose owner was arrested 
for harassment of WPHO people on Nov. 14

The latest misunderstanding led to the arrest over the weekend of a local businessman from Schenectady for harassment at the former Jesuit Retreat House Auriesville . The details are unclear and when I went to see the man, who has run a successful restaurant for 20 years, he did not want to make a statement.

Hopefully, greater transparency on the part of the WPHO will do much to prevent such incidents in the future.

Update April 13, 2011

The deal to buy the old YWCA,  reportedly by the WPHO, offered last year for $400,000, has fallen through. The building is now said to be available in the $100,000 + range.

Wednesday, November 10, 2010

Wow, it was the Buddha on the stage!

Xia-ling Shen,  as quoted in Holy Master Ziguang Shang Shi in U.S.A., p. 106

Ten minutes after I met the man who calls himself Ziguang Shang Shi at the Five Buddhas Temple in Amsterdam, he gave me a copy of his book, Holy Master Ziguang Shang Shi in U.S.A, copyright 2009 by World Peace and Health Publications. Evidently, he has been routinely giving out copies of his book to anyone of any influence whom he meets,  so it clearly contains nothing that he wishes to hide from public notice. But it is a very revealing window into the nature of his religious teachings and of his influence over the people who so admire him.

The book contains 161 statements from individuals who report being cured of many different kinds of illness, physical and mental, after meeting Ziguang at one of the many mass healing sessions he has conducted since 2002 at hotels in Los Angeles, San Francisco, Philadelphia and New York. All of the testimonies are from persons with Chinese language names, and the text has been translated into sometimes awkward English by his aides.  

The testimonies are from sessions held in various cities, and  indicate the extent of Ziguang's reputation among Chinese-speaking people in this country and possibly in China. The people providing the testimonies describe the  meetings are widely announced in the Chinese-language press and in leaflets. 

All of this activity has been quite invisible except to those who understand Chinese. However, since June, Ziguang has moved to take his message outside that community and share his teachings with English-speaking people. This is his avowed purpose in building a large real estate presence in Amsterdam, where he has been welcomed by the mayor and given very positive coverage in regional media.
Ziguang at a mass healing meeting in a New York Hotel

A great number of those he has cured speak of Ziguang  as a deity. Xia-lin Shen, quoted above, is cured of lower back pain and saw Ziguang as the Buddha himself. Wu Gong Nu is cured of a pain in her left foot and says, “This time I finally saw the real Buddha.”  Zhen Qi Ping saw an 81 year old woman throw away her walking stick at Ziguang’s command, and declares: “Holy Master Ziguang Shang Shi was really the incarnation of Buddha.”

None of this alarmed me at first. The illnesses mentioned in these testimonies are minor and certainly might be alleviated by kind words and restored confidence. And to say that Ziguang is the Buddha is not like a Christian saying that his minister is really Jesus or a Rabbi claiming to be Yahweh.  In the most ancient scriptures, Gautama Buddha’s final words to his people (in the Pali language, sammasati.)  could be loosely translated as “Don’t  forget that everybody is really a Buddha.”  And even today, the Dalai Lama is regarded as an incarnation of an earlier, particularly enlightened lama. 

But some participants in the healing sessions do go beyond just saying that Ziguang is a Buddha. They see visions. Lin Fan-Yuan “felt there was an opening at the top of my head. I could feel a spark entering my head. I could feel the door of my wisdom was opened when the Buddha light was entering my head.” Dong Min Mo “smelled a nice scent and saw a violet light on top of my head” and afterwards was happy to lose 12 pounds and reduce her waist size two inches.

When Xiang-rong Ma attended a “dharma convention,” as the sessions are called, she saw more than a light above her head. She saw Ziguang rise into the air:

“This moment I suddenly saw Holy Master Ziguang Shang Shi’s body raised in the air and I saw golden light emitted from his body. They shined on all audiences.” 

 image from the book suggesting Xiang-rong Ma's vision

And when Ziguang brought Zhi Bei Lu to a beach, “he used his esoteric  dharma to summon the sea. When we just arrived at the beach, the ocean was very quiet with only tiny waves. But suddenly the big waves came one after one.” She concludes: “he let us know more the magic of Guang Huan Mi Zong.”

And if Ziguang’s book  only revealed a pattern of curing such minor ailments as lumbago, rhinitis,  indigestion, acne, hay fever, obesity , insomnia and migraines (or computer obsession, in the case of one 13 year old) , I would not be worried.  But it is the  reports of people come to him with a truly serious illness that must be a cause for concern.

 statement of Xue-Fang Kuang

According to Xue-Fang Kuang,   “Unluckily, a metastasis on my left breast was found and was eventually led to other operation. It was eventually deteriorated to bone cancer. I had spent hundreds and thousands of dollars for having treatment and medication since the cost of each injection and blood transfusion was several thousand dollars. As the cancer cells spread all over my body, my doctor said that nothing he could do about it.”

When Mrs. Kuang meets the master, she says: “The feeling of having his supernatural power exertion was better than having blood transfusion.” She never says that he has cured her, and he cannot be accused of fraud based on her statement. But it is certainly possible that she might find him so comforting that she might forgo life-saving medical treatment.

Qiong-fang Lin also reports that she had an operation for breast cancer and was “very worried and unhappy.”  She comes to a dharma convention at a New York hotel and reports: “I just believed in science, medication and surgical operation to remove tumors. Holy Master Ziguang Shang Shi said it did not need injection, medicine and surgery, cancer cells can be controlled.……Holy Master Ziguang Shang Shi told me not to worry as the esoteric dharma would prevent the spread and transfer of cancer only if I practiced sincerely and did merit wholeheartedly.”

The confused syntax attributed to Mrs. Lin makes it difficult to know exactly what happened in her case but it certainly appears that the master led her to believe that if she followed his advice, she would not need legitimate medical treatment for her cancer. But because her words have been translated by people whose own English is unsteady, it is impossible to draw a definitive conclusion here.

There is a hint in one testimony that Ziguang’s staff separates out those with truly serious diseases and prevents them from seeking his help. Sam Tam reports that he had heart disease, high blood pressure and asthma and was not allowed at first to be part of Ziguang’s healing session: “Originally I was arranged to join a special group. This group included old people and people with serious incurable sickness who needed special treatment time. This group of people was not ready to learn the esoteric dharma.”

 Sam Tam  begs Ziguang’s assistant to be admitted  to  see the master, who then examines him and  says, “You have had enough suffering and will be allowed to join the dharma class.” Sam tells us : “I was so lucky to join the class.”  Later on, he discovers that he can run again like he did ten years earlier. In all probability, Ziguang or his aides were able to determine that his illness was not as serious as he thought.

These cases of serious and potentially fatal diseases are relatively few in comparison to the non-life threatening ailments reported in most testimonies. And it is possible in each serious case that Ziguang is only providing psychological comfort and manages to avoid directly telling people to avoid effective medical treatment.

However, there are testimonies which indicate serious mental illness and depression, and it is these which are genuinely alarming from my point of view. And it is in these cases where there are disturbing references to evil spirits and demonic possession.

Wall hanging at Five Buddhas Temple depicting 
a demonic figure on horseback, carrying skulls

Yuan-Zhu Liao is suffering the after effects of a concussion and Ziguang tells her: “Don’t worry. You will be fine after the evil spirits in your body were driven away.” She feels much better after he tells her this.

Hong-Lan Liu says that Ziguang tells her that her withered shoulder was caused by evil spirits. “That’s why no doctor was able to cure it using either eastern or western methods of treatments.” She begs Ziguang to “help me drive away the devils.” She feels a flash of light and soon feels much better. 

Ziguang tells 62-year old Dai-Shii Huang that “Satan has already left your body. Your abdomen wouldn’t be swollen again.”

Guang-Pu Zhang says: “I was haunted by Satan. My wife was a Christian so I knew who Satan was. I sincerely begged Master Ziguang Shang Shi to remove the devil. When he used his divine power, I sweated a lot. Short while later, Holy Master Ziguang Shang Shi told me the devil was gone.” He says he was “normal” a few days later.

And then there are testimonies from people who have been diagnosed with mental illness.

Pak Chi Wan says: “Most doctors said I was insane and offered me tranquilizer and sleeping pills. But I always hope some powerful god or Buddha will come to save me, so I wait and pray sincerely for this.” She ( or he) goes to see Ziguang and “I feel very much relaxed and become happier.” This may be a case of depression, but there is no suggestion of dissociation from reality.

But  Xiaoling Lu, a 22 year old woman, says: “Doctor said that I had mental disease. I started to think of killing myself because I heard a voice that told me to do so.”  She goes to see Ziguang and he tells her: “You are not insane. You are haunted by something evil. If nothing is done, you will be in bigger troubles.” Zuang works with her for three days and she says, “I was completely changed…His holiness brought me new life.”  However, this young woman is clearly suicidal and experiencing auditory hallucinations.  If untreated, there is no doubt her life will be in danger. And perhaps other people’s lives, if the voices in her head lead her in that direction.

None of this resembles any form of Buddhism I ever read about. But I wanted to make sure I was not misjudging a religion that was not my own, so I went to see Monshin Paul Naamon, abbot of the Tendai Buddhist Institute in Cannan, NY. “Claiming healing powers like this is not sanctioned by any recognized Buddhist tradition,” Naamon told me. “Buddhism is a search for the nature of reality. If you do something to feed people’s delusions, that is not Buddhism.” 

The fact that Ziguang permits his followers to attribute supernatural powers to him places him outside of any Buddhist lineage, according to Naamon. His teachings should not be regarded as Buddhism nor should local people base their idea of Buddhism on what he is doing in Amsterdam.

People  give up their careers  and possibly their families, to follow this master. In several of testimonies from the book, individuals who are cured of various illnesses announce a decision to give up their previous lives and to follow Ziguang as his “disciples.” Bian-wa Cai gives up her (or his) job as a financial controller and promises to “use my professionalism to support his preaching in every American city.”  Lai-yin Wang, a meditation teacher, is “willing to give up my career and beg Holy Master Ziguang Shang Shi to accept me as a disciple.”

Every testimony concludes with personal thanks to 
Ziguang for physical or psychological healing

The opening pages of his book make it clear that the disciples of Ziguang Shang Shi must accept his belief that the contemporary world is a fearful place filled with demons who cause sickness:

During the Dharma Vanishing Era devils are raging all over the world. The demons of illness rampantly endanger the physical and spiritual healthiness over the world. It causes the decline of human health.

And they must see Ziguang himself as a divine being who saves mankind from  these demons:

During the Dharma Vanishing Era, Holy Master Ziguang Shang Shi descends to this mortal world for rescuing people with his divine power and his great mercy of Buddha.

It is not certain whether any of the individuals who have heard voices, seen visions, or who believe Ziguang is divine have come with him to Amsterdam. But it certain that Ziguang wants himself to be seen in this way or he would not have featured their testimonies in his book.

Avoiding a rush to judgment:

We should not be too quick to dismiss the ideas of the Ziguang sect  as completely alien to American culture.  Roman Catholicism, my own ancestral tradition, and the largest Christian denomination in this region, also espouses a belief in  casting out demons. On November 12-13 Catholic bishops and priests met in Baltimore to discuss  popular demand for more exorcisms, and for priests trained to perform them: "Bishop Paprocki noted that according to Catholic belief, the Devil is a real and constant force who can intervene in people’s lives — though few of them will require an exorcism to handle it." 

And as for Holy Master Ziguang's apparent power of levitation, is this any less credible than the widespread Christian belief in the Rapture? That worldwide process involves far more than just one man mysteriously rising a few inches into the air. The General Council of the Assemblies of God churches,  another denomination well-represented here, issued an official position based on the Bible, entitled "The Rapture of the Church." 

Friday, November 5, 2010

Trying to make sense of $3.5 million in area real estate purchases by Buddhist group

 Interior of the Chuang Yen Temple in Carmel, NY  
One of many Buddhist religious centers in the Hudson Valley

According to tradition, Siddhartha Gautama became the Buddha, the awakened one, after rejecting his luxurious life as a prince and engaging in many years of self-denial and meditation.  The monks who followed in his footsteps over the centuries took vows of poverty and kept only the most meager possessions: their sandals, a robe, a bowl for begging alms. Only last year seven Buddhist monks were denied visas to enter Canada because of their self-chosen poverty.  Canada's visa forms ask each applicant to declare any money and possessions back in his homeland, and when the monks indicated they had renounced property and possessions, the reply bounced back:  “Visa denied ... applicant has not provided relevant information.”

But the Buddhists who have come to Amsterdam are spending lavishly , and in cash, for real estate of all kinds.  Since 2005 the group had been residing at the former Jesuit Retreat House in Auriesville as the American Sports Committee, Inc., attracting little to no public notice locally. Ziguang had been sponsoring healing sessions at hotel ballrooms in major American cities, such as New York and Philadelphia,  since moving to Auriesville from California, but these were aimed at a Chinese-speaking audience and were not visible to English-speaking people in our region.

Jesuit Retreat House, purchased in 2005
But beginning in June, 2010 the World Peace and Health Organization, Inc, as the group now called itself, purchased two closed Catholic churches in Amsterdam, St. Michael’s and St. Casimir’s for a total of $250,000 under the name of  the non-profit entity, Guang Huan Mi Zong, Inc. 
For another religious denomination  to buy closed Catholic churches is not unusual in the Albany diocese where 33 churches were marked for closing as of 2009, and in April a third Catholic church, St. John the Baptist, was sold to a Pentecostal congregation.

 St. Michael the Archangel Church, price $100,000

St. Casimir's Church,, price $150,000

The Buddhist congregation, however, broke new ground in real estate purchases with a strong presence at an auction of foreclosed properties in August. The Amsterdam Recorder reported that the group’s bids ranged from $100 for a one family house on Voorhees Street to $16,500 for a commercial two-story apartment building on Park Street. "Their vision is to bring people to reside here and work here, so hopefully this is wonderful for the city of Amsterdam," Mayor Ann Thane is quoted as saying. She is also reported to have estimated that there were bids on 131 properties from all parties, bringing a total of $325,000 into the city treasury.
WPHO's leader, Master Ziguang Shang Shi, as Lucas Wang prefers to be called, spoke in Chinese through an interpreter to promise:  "We're going to convert all this old property into something good to ... beautify the city."  The question of whether the properties would be moved off the tax rolls, which was a major concern in August, has still not been answered.

The numbers shifted by October 17 when the Albany Times Union reported that the Buddhists acquired 48 properties at a foreclosure auction in August, paying as little as $100 to as much as $16,500, for a total of almost $100,000 on foreclosures. 

Neither newspaper report turns out to be completely accurate.  According to records obtained from Amsterdam City Assessor Calvin Cline, a total of 41 properties costing $1,234,000 are now under the name of Lucas Wang, with prices ranging from $700 to $65,000. According to Cline, none of the foreclosed properties are listed under the names of the World Peace and Health Organization or Guang Huan Mi Zong.

Pat Baia, a developer in Amsterdam who specializes in renovating neglected houses, expressed surprise at the quality and extent of the purchases.  It was his impression that the WPHO people had not examined the properties which they bought, and might not be aware of how much additional investment many of them needed.

Citing the example of a house on Strong Street he bought at auction for $9000, Baia said that the building would require at  least another $30,000 to bring it up to code, and suitable for habitation. “Houses like this have to be renovated within a year or face code violations. And if renovation cannot be completed prior to winter, they must be secured and sealed to avoid water damage.”  But, he pointed out, the city has only one official in charge of housing code violations, and he has a large backload.

13 Voorhees Street, price $700

11 Voorhees Street, price $10,000

A visit on October 27 to  properties listed under the name of Lucas Wang confirmed Baia’s concerns.  Five houses on Voorhees Street vary in the degree of deterioration and, more significantly, there is no sign that renovation work has begun.  Large bags of trash fill the porch of 13 Voorhees, which was sold at $700, and a neighbor believed that the city has already issued a citation.

A Spanish-speaking resident of the street said that some people had started to clean out one house, but that he saw no one with the tools needed for serious work. He said that he offered to work for the group, but had not yet received a response. He mentioned one acquaintance who did work three days for the WPHO as an unpaid volunteer, but he maintained that skilled people would not work without pay.

319 East Main Street, price $32,000 

Houses listed under the name of Lucas Wang at other locations showed the same pattern: badly neglected buildings, deteriorated roofs, open or broken windows.  Neighbors of the partly boarded-up 319 East Main Street had seen no sign of anyone working on the house or cleaning debris from the property.

 4 Bell  Street, price $20,000
Tree growing from the roof of 4 Bell Street

A huge building at 4 Bell Street, probably once a boarding house, and sold for $20,000, has been vacant so long that a tree has taken root on the deteriorated roof.  166 Guy Park Avenue, at $25,000, is situated amid successful businesses, but exhibits roof damage and open windows.

 Broken windows at 166 Guy Park Avenue, price $25,000

Despite the failure, thus far, to address the immediate needs of such deteriorated buildings, the WPHO continues to look for more real estate opportunities.  Efforts to purchase the old Chalmers mill on the Mohawk River stalled when the city insisted that the unsafe structure be demolished as a condition for buying the prime riverfront property.

 74 Mechanic Street, price $30,000

77 Mechanic Street, price $33,000

The WPHO is also eager to finalize purchase, for $460,000, of the Clara S. Bacon Elementary School.  The 240 acre Adirondack Center Camp in Ephratah was bought in August for $400, 000. Jenny Wang, spokesperson for the WPHO, confirmed that discussions are underway for the purchase of the YWCA building in Gloversville, which has an asking price of $400,000.

 Clara S. Bacon School, price $460,000

All of the recent sales, completed or in progress, would exceed $3.5 million, not including renovation costs which could easily double or triple that number.

The real estate spending spree, initially welcomed by many local officials and residents, is evoking concern.   The failure to renovate or secure the houses , in particular, has not gone unnoticed.  Richard Leggiero, alderman for the fifth ward, participated in a recent meeting at which city officials met with Jenny Wang and Lucas Wang. “They didn’t seem to know how we do things here, so we sat them down and told them they needed licensed contractors and building permits. We told them the city will not pick up construction materials like sheet rock and lumber, and they need to rent dumpsters.”

The Moshers, a retired couple who live next door to 49 Mechanic Street, one of Wang's properties, said that the house, built in the 1830s and sold for $29,000 in August, was in desperate need of a new roof.  “Why are they buying all these old houses?”  Harold Mosher asked.

I posed the same question to Lucas Wang,  through his translator Jenny Wang, and he responded by describing his dream of preparing places for the thousands of people he expected to flock to this city to share in his teachings about health and serenity.

 Ziguang Shang Shi (Lucas Wang)

And perhaps this religious leader's faith in his own vision of Buddhism really is the only explanation behind the seemingly irrational bout of acquisition.