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." 

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