Sunday, December 12, 2010

New research into the Ziguang Shang Shi Sect by Ah Ming


 A native speaker of Chinese identified only by the pseudonym Ah Ming did a Chinese language internet search and discovered some new information on the Ziguang sect, without coming up with any definitive explanation for its move to Amsterdam.  Ah Ming has no connection with the Ziguang sect and has never met any of its members. Since the report has an objective  and even-handed tone and does not express any hostility to the group, I decided to publish it here without any editing or abridgment.

Background on Ziguang Shang Shi

Guang Huan Mi Zong has  both an  English and Chinese website. The Chinese version does not limit access to members, and provides some biographical information on Ziguang:

He is said to have become a Buddhist at the age of 5. At 7, Ziguang was forced to flee with his mother  (unclear from where, to where, and why). Five years later, he was "enlightened" and decided to devote his life to spreading the teachings of Buddhism . He started learning from various masters. In 1986, he began touring the world and treating the sick.

I was surprised I could not find his Chinese name. Most of the time, a Shang Shi (holy master)  has a Chinese name they go by in addition to this title.  "Shang" means "holy" and "Shi" means "master." In any Buddhist group, a Shang Shi is the highest authority. "Ziguang" translates literally to "purple light." Usually, when a person obtains a religious title, he/she also picks up a name with religious significance. I didn't find any reference to purple light in Buddhist sects, but it appears his name suggests he shines a light on the inner soul and clears the body of illnesses.

There is no evidence of use of the name "Lucas Wang" before he arrives in US. There is also no mention of this name in Chinese media. It is really unusual for a Shang Shi to hold an English name like "Lucas." If for nothing else, such a common name detracts from a Shang Shi's claim of religious authority.

Connection to Hong Kong Federation of Education Centers

 Based on a  search of Chinese-language sites, it appears Guang Huan Mi Zong has some sort of connection with Hong Kong Federation of Education Centers. The HKFEC is a non-profit organization based in Hong Kong, and according to its website its mission is to promote education and provide professional training. However, the HKFEC is also "Angel-sound Newspaper Office." Nearly all of the educational links on its website deal with physical and spiritual health, and in many cases Ziguang's quotes are used. The HKFEC says it recognizes the Guang Huan Mi Zong's commitment to improving human health.

What seems strange is that the HKFEC's director Sita Mak and its board members Dr. Raymond Wong, Franki Law, and Stella Choi are all educators. Most notably, Dr. Wong writes for several reputable Hong Kong publications. His articles focus on teaching children financial skills. I haven't found anything that linked any of these four people to religious teachings, so it seems odd they would start an organization that promotes Guang Huan Mi Zong.

Similarities with Other Buddhist Sects

Based on my own experience, I would see the Ziguang group as similar to a number of Buddhist sects that exist in the US, China and Taiwan. Faith healing is certainly common among Buddhist sects, many of them which are relatively new. They are mostly seem as scams by those who do not belong to the sects. People often turn to these sects when they get an illness for which there is no cure or the cure is too expensive. A lot of people probably would have live longer by receiving the proper medical treatments. But there are cases in which treatments offered by these sects "work." Whether or not it is coincidental, such instances certainly help the sects attract a group of devoted followers who feel they owe their lives to the sect and its leader.

 Guang Huan Mi Zong

"Guang Huan" means "ring of light." "Mi Zong" means "secretive religious order." Mi Zong actually can be adopted by any religious group whose teachings are based on secretive connections with the divine. The term originates from religious groups in India. Today there are many religious sects that call themselves Mi Zong in India, China, Taiwan, Hong Kong, and Japan, although most people would associate Mi Zong with Tibet.

"Guang Huan" is a popular Chinese phrase; many stores and business uses the name. There isn't really a reason to suspect these businesses have a a connection with Guang Huan Mi Zong, which does not seem to refer to any other group.

I haven't found any teachings of Guang Huan Mi Zong that are associated with property-owning, but some Buddhist sects do preach owning property as essential to establishing power. As for funding, it is puzzling, but some sects do attract a tremendous amount of money.

Similarities to the Ching Hai sect

A well known example which might interest you is the Supreme Master Ching Hai International Association. The group has been deemed a cult by the Chinese government and by many respected Buddhist organizations. Ching Hai was born in Vietnam into a Catholic family, and she later formed a Buddhist group (whose teachings are not Buddhist at all). Her case is pretty fascinating. She sells expensive memorabilia to her followers and charges highly for various services and programs. She even once claimed her bathwater can cure illnesses and had her followers drink it. There are numerous accusations of her organization being a scam. In fact, charges has forced her to fled many places. Some say she has gotten at least hundreds of millions of dollars through scams. Nevertheless, she continues to have a huge, devoted following around the world among Asian communities. Her followers continue to donate to her in large amounts and argue charges against her are false. You can find a lot of information and videos about her by searching "Supreme Master Ching Hai," though many English sources seem to portray her in a much better light than Chinese ones. Perhaps the way her group operates can give insights on Guang Huan Mi Zong (the "contact us" page on her website puts the sheer size of her organization in perspective).

Some thoughts

Guang Huan Mi Zong can be seen  as part of a larger trend of a rise of new Buddhist sects that have gotten wealthy through donations. But this doesn't seem to explain why Ziguang  would choose to go into a non-Asian community. He does not seem to have a bad reputation among the Chinese-speaking community. And if his primarily interest is to make money, his choice of investments seems bizarre.

One last note on Guang Huan Mi Zong. It is entirely possible that it has the largest following in Hong Kong. When I typed in Ziguang Shang Shi, the first few pages are mostly blog and forum pages, mostly on  Hong Kong websites. The blogs all detail miraculous stories of how Ziguang has saved lives. Whenever there is a post questioning the legitimacy of Guang Huan Mi Zong, the post is almost always replied by Ziguang's followers arguing otherwise. Also, his website is in traditional rather than simplified Chinese. Only Taiwan and Hong Kong still use traditional Chinese, and Guang Huan Mi Zong does not appear to have a following in Taiwan. (Though of course many religions are still practiced in secret in China.)

Thursday, December 9, 2010

The Forgotten African-American Burial Ground in Kinderhook

Columbia County is a very rural area between the upper Hudson River and the Berkshire Hills, and most of its population is concentrated in pleasant country villages resembling nearby New England. The northwestern corner is within easy commuting range of the state capital in Albany, and the southern and eastern sections contain the second homes of many prosperous residents of New York City. Agriculture is one of the primary industries. 

And a drive through the county’s bucolic countryside would leave the impression that nearly everyone  is of European ancestry.  

Only in the city of Hudson is there a sizable number of citizens of African descent, and  many of them are concentrated in the city’s public housing .  For most who live, or visit, it might seem that the rest of Columbia County is like a 1940s Hollywood film, a small town and entirely white America. This was not always so.

Ignoring our multi-racial past has its price, and racial tensions are bound to erupt from time to time among young people unaware of their common history and humanity.  On December 5 Stephanie Lee of the Albany Times Union reported on one such incident. An African-American father, Michael Moore, was outraged by the bigotry which his son reported experiencing from fellow students in the Hudson public schools, and his outcry quickly led to his own ostracism by school authorities:
     Then, on a bus in spring 2008, a Hispanic student handed a shoeshine brush to the 14-year-old special education student and told him to use it as a hairbrush, Moore said.
     Outraged, Moore marched to the microphone at a school board meeting, insisted he'd learned that his son's experience was not isolated and bluntly declared he knew of a white student who called blacks "niggers." He said that hateful word -- repeating it over and over, as if to splatter its shame on everyone.
     Weeks later, then-Superintendent Fern Aefsky responded to Moore, whom she had recently commended for volunteerism: He was barred from school grounds.
   "There's so much racism that happens at the Hudson City School District," said Moore, 56, "it's morally incompetent."

The article goes on to describe the two sides of Hudson revealed by this incident:

Warren Street, a classy main street lined with cafes and antiques stores, greets visitors to the city. But in many ways, it is like a movie back-lot facade. A block or two away lies a cloister of high-rise towers filled with black and other low-income occupants. Some 24 percent of the city's roughly 7,500 residents are black, and a quarter live below the poverty level, according to the latest available census data.

Judging by the present residential pattern in the county, young people of European descent are likely to see their African-American peers as interlopers,  while young African-Americans probably have little awareness of how deep their roots are in this county, or how much of it was built long ago by their ancestors.

In the 18th century this state had the largest slave population of any colony north of Maryland. Slavery in New York State, where it was gradually abolished beginning in 1799, was the most widespread here in the Hudson Valley, where the huge estates of wealthy Anglo-Dutch families rivaled Southern plantations in their reliance on slavery.

Robert Livingston on right, with Jefferson and Franklin,
working on the rough draft of the Declaration of Independence

Robert Livingston, renowned  for being part of the small group who drafted the Declaration of Independence, was, like Jefferson and Washington, a slavemaster. Clermont, the elegant manor home of the Livingstons south of Hudson NY, depended in part on slave labor, as well as on that of tenant farmers of European origin. The official Clermont website reports that some wealthy landowners may have disposed of their human property in a way that avoided the financial loss imposed by statewide emancipation: 

Some authors have also suggested that once the Gradual Manumission law was passed, Northern slave holders were beginning to sell their slaves to Southern owners to protect their financial investment. In 1827, manumission was completed, and all remaining enslaved peoples were legally free.

 Clermont, manor home of the slave- owning Livingston family

As the great semi-feudal estates were replaced by family farms following the Anti-Rent War of the 1840s, there was little room for the remaining African Americans who had done so much to create the prosperity in which they never shared. Their memory was forgotten, and even the graves of generations of hard-working people were forgotten and lost.

In the quaint village of Kinderhook, a scant dozen miles from the housing projects of Hudson, is one such burial ground, now so completely vanished that only the oldest residents of the village have a memory of its existence. And I believe that the unmarked burial ground is  located on land owned by the county’s historical society.

The Center for Columbia County History at the Vanderpoel house.
Probable site of African burial ground is in woods to right rear of house.

 According to  Edward Collier’s History of Kinderhook (1914) land was set aside for the internment  of African-Americans on the property of the Vanderpoel house, which was owned by a man whom Rev. Collier calls "somewhat erratic." Evidently, John Rogers was more tolerant than his contemporaries and felt sympathetic to families unable to bury their loved ones in cemeteries like  that of the nearby Kinderhook Reformed Church, reserved for  families of Dutch and English descent, including that of our 8th president:

“While the Vanderpoel place was owned by the somewhat erratic John Rogers, he set apart a portion of his land for the free burial of our colored people. It was thus used until every available inch was taken up; in some cases, it is stated, with coffin piled upon coffin. It was then, as it now long has been, closed against additional burials."

Captain Franklin, in his 1878 history of Kinderhook calls John Rogers an Irishman of convivial habits, but withal a good business man and says that he built a store and was on the board of a village bank in 1853, which would place the origin of the burial ground in the years between about 1821 and the Civil War.

When I first visited the Vanderpoel house several years ago, it was not hard to locate the most probable site for the forgotten burial ground  in a wooded quadrangle on the northwest corner of the property. The area presents an anomaly among the yards and gardens characteristic of the block, due most probably to a respect accorded to the small parcel of land by earlier property-owners of the neighborhood.  Neighbors of the parcel say that they had heard stories of the old graveyard, and an older resident of adjacent Albany Avenue, Mrs. Snyder, told me that when she was a child, the stones were still there. At some point they were just taken away, she said, and the graves were forgotten.

 Possible site of an unmarked grave in the parcel of land 
near the Vanderpohl house

I thought about the unmarked final resting places of so many people who worked to build this county, and was saddened to find no reminder of their lives. Doubtless, many of the simple markers were of wood and vanished even before the last gravestones were carried away, although it is clear that as late as 1914 the site was still recognized as a cemetery.

When I recently shared my discovery with the historical society’s executive director, Ann-Eliza Lewis, she said that she thought that the African burial ground was farther west, where the Little League field now exists, and directed me to the grave stones on the edge of that field.  She did agree that the wooded parcel of land on the Vanderpoel site was probably a burial ground, but she thought that it was that of the Pomeroy family. I thought this an unlikely possibility, considering the respect shown to  English and Dutch forebears in this region.

 The grave of the 8th president, Martin Van Buren, is set amid
stones honoring the memory of many of Kinderhook's early 
settlers of European origin.

However, Ann-Eliza  was open to the possibility that such an African  burial ground might exist on property owned by the historical society and hoped that, if verified, a suitable recognition of the site could become a central part of next year’s sesquicentennial remembrance of the Civil War.

 UMass archeologists at work near the Vanderpoel house, June 2009

In June 2009 a group of archeologists from the University of Massachusetts at Amherst did some careful excavations near the Vanderpoel house, and uncovered number of interesting small artifacts. Doubtless, the expertise of the U Mass team could be consulted again to evaluate the probable burial ground.

 Grave markers  have been moved to this location near
the Little League field on Rothermel Lane

 One marker, that of "Sylvestes," may be that of a freed slave.

As to the gravestones near the ball field on Rothermel Avenue, to which Ann-Eliza referred me, they have clearly been moved from the actual location of the resting places they once marked. The very neatness of the quadrangle and the arrangement of the 13 headstones and four footstones  in size order, without regard for family names, is clear evidence that they have been moved and rearranged. Also, they are not the markers of slaves or freedmen, but of local families of European descent such as Van Valkenburgh and Leggett.  Only one stone, bearing the single name “Sylvestes,” who died in 1860, suggests an individual who was born as a slave. 

Confirming  the  location of  the village’s African Burial Ground, and providing appropriate recognition to these forgotten builders of the county, would be a small but significant step toward increasing an awareness among young people of our shared heritage, and might even contribute a to a greater understanding.

NOTE: I first presented these findings, or perhaps I should say this theory, in a letter published in the Hudson Register-Star in 2009.

Update October 2011: I received some interesting information from Annie Cooper, director of Columbia County Tourism, who reported the following from a person she considered extremely knowledgeble about Kinderhook history:

I am not sure about any stones being moved there. One of the stones that still stands is that of Mrs (Hannah, I think) Burgert who was wife of the AME minister in the village (at the little black church on Sunset). I think a lot of the stones have been stolen.

The cemetery began around 1814 or 1816, when John Rogers died. He was the owner of the Burgoyne / van Schaack mansion after David van Schaack had died; and in his will he provided that that land be set aside as a burying ground for the "colored people of Kinderhook". (John Rogers himself was an Irlishman and did not own slaves.)  Collier wrote in his book (1914) that by that time the cemetery was filled up.
In the 1970s or so, there was a Boy Scout project to clean up that cemetery which was badly overgrown etc. I believe at that time, they moved the remaining stones to one place to make it easier for DPW people to mow around. There are sure to have been more stones than there are now ... though I expect that not every black person could have afforded one.

I have never heard that slaves burials were moved there / though I suppose it is possible. I don't know of another black burial ground, though I am aware that some slaves were buried in the family plots of the people who had owned them.

When abolition was made law in NY state in the 1790s, the law said that anyone born to a slave after that time was free ... and that slaves themselves would become free in 1827 (i.e., a "generation" after the law had passed) unless individual slave owners decided to manumit their slave(s) before that date. — So when John Rogers bequeathed that land, there were still slaves in the community who might have been buried there. After 1827, a goodly number of black people lived in the village or in nearby rural areas and they are likely to have been buried there as well. I have tried a bit to see if there was any record of burials there, but have never been able to locate any church records for the Kinderhook African Methodist Episcopal Church.

The former A.M.E. church, now a private home

This well-researched 2008 historical novel by N.E.  Sartin offers a very interesting glimpse of the African-American community in Kinderhook in the 1880s.  The story centers on the important but little remembered  trial of "Battice" Jackson, a black man,  for the murder of Gertrude Hover, a white woman.

Update June 28, 2017

The Columbia County Historical Society has provided welcome recognition of the African American burial ground in Kinderhook. A state historical sign on Rothermel Lane and an informative sign at the site of the surviving grave markers refers to the estimated five hundred slaves and freed people buried on the land bequeathed by John Rodgers.

Wednesday, December 8, 2010

Immigrants in the Hudson Valley and the Secure Communities Initiative


 Immigration authority terminates Secure Communities agreements  

"A key immigration enforcement program that has drawn criticism from some state and local governments will terminate all existing agreements with jurisdictions over the program, federal authorities announced Friday.
Immigration and Customs Enforcement said its director, John Morton, had sent a letter to state governors terminating the agreements “to avoid further confusion.” - Washington Post

Hard work by immigrant advocacy groups and countless individuals across the country has had its effect, but  ICE still needs to be monitored closely.

In contrast to the welcome shown to the Ziguang Shang Shi sect in Amsterdam, Latino migrants have not found our area particularly friendly. “It’s not just the weather that’s cold upstate,” according to Luz Marquez of Troy, who works with abused Spanish-speaking women. “It’s the people, too. Many of the women I work with are afraid to go to the police.”

 Amsterdam Mayor Ann Thane with 
members of  the Ziguang Shang Shiu sect

The Ziguang sect has no such fear, and did not hesitate to demand more police action when their temple was vandalized, nor were they shy about calling in the state Department of Environmental Conservation to harass Art Popp, a maple syrup farmer whose occasional  presence on their land in Ephrata was objectionable to them.

Even somewhat prejudiced local people do speak well of the Ziguang sect, implying that they are more desirable than other recent non-Anglo arrivals. “They’re not out there committing crimes,” one man told me last month. And although the ample and unexplained financial resources of the sect do raise red flags, members of this group are not seeking employment that might go to  citizens and retailers are happy to take their money.

 Migrants from Latin America frequently walk
long distances to work or shopping

In contrast, Latino people new to the area generally maintain a low profile and are not known for seeking attention. Too many English-speakers only hear of them when a crime is committed. Here in Columbia County, two incidents over the past year confirmed the unfortunate stereotype. In October, an illegal alien from Mexico named Luis Gomez Cruz  stabbed his wife and a male friend  in Valatie, and evaded arrest for two days. A year earlier Manuel Ramirez, an illegal alien from Guatemala, raped a woman jogging along a country road near Kinderhook, and was apprehended in Westchester county.   

 Luis Gomez-Cruz , an illegal immigrant
from Mexico,was arrested for
stabbing two people in Valatie

 Manuel Ramirez, an illegal immigrant from Guatemala, 
was arrested for raping a local woman jogging 
along this quiet country road in Stuyvesant

No one wants people like these two in this country. That’s why the Department of Homeland Security’s  Secure Communities Initiative is apt to be greeted with enthusiasm locally, although the collaboration envisioned in the MOA signed by Governor Paterson has not yet taken effect.

Calls to the police departments in Troy, Albany, and Hudson last week revealed that officers in those departments had not yet received directives from the state for implementing the MOA. But a few Hudson Valley law enforcement agencies have already made a major commitment to immigration enforcement, and their experience  needs to be evaluated before the entire state commits to “Secure Communities.”  The Putnam County Sheriff’s Department proudly announces its collaboration with ICE on its website. 
According to the Immigrants for America Foundation, based in a Schenectady law office, the Colonie Police Department has made immigration enforcement a top priority. They report that this prioritization is evident in a pattern of profiling in traffic stops and is resulting in many crimes going unreported by a fearful Latino community.  Since Colonie  has been named for two years running as the safest community for its size in the US, I wanted to get the department’s take on this.

I spoke with Lieutenant Robert Winn, who is in charge of criminal investigations. for the Colonie  Police Department He said that the department did not make immigration enforcement a priority but that they addressed it as a secondary matter in the course of other investigations. He was familiar with Secure Communities and said they were filling out the paperwork for that program, so apparently the state has, as of December 8, sent out instructions for the implementation of Paterson's MOA. He felt  that the federal initiative would not change the way Colonie PD operates in such cases.

I then asked Lt. Winn about a case reported to me by the Immigrants for America Foundation of a man who was defrauding vulnerable immigrants by means of bogus immigration documents. Lt. Winn said that the man in question was arrested in January of this year for that charge and that there was currently a warrant out on him for failure to appear.

Kuen Ling Chen, at the time of her first arrest

In February Colonie police arrested  a ring of  immigrant women from China  for prostitution.  In the course of the investigation into two storefront massage parlors, the Jasmine Beauty and Massage at 1741 Central Ave. and  the Red Rose Massage Parlor, 644 Loudon Road, police apprehended the owner Kuen Ling Cheng  and five other women . Kuen, who was already facing charges from a previous prostitution bust four months earlier, reportedly recruited women through advertisements in Chinese-language newspapers in New York City. (a media source also popular with the Ziguang sect, and  often invisible to US law enforcement)

ICE was called in to determine immigration status. Although no minors were involved this time, there is always a strong possibility of coercion when women of uncertain immigration status are found in this kind of situation. Evidently, the case has been handled without any peremptory deportations, since Kuen and her crew were arrested today for the third time and on the same charges.

I spoke with the Workers Rights Law Center in Kingston and was told of a raid at Stewart Airport a year ago  in which 15  people from several Latin American countries were rounded up, based on a bogus terrorism tip, and held incommunicado by ICE and Orange County law enforcement officers.  However news reports at the time indicated that the 15 were using forged identification. Even so, they have still not been deported. According to the legal offices of Catholic Charities in New York City which is handling the defense, their cases are about to go before immigration court. Thus, it appears that ICE has not acted with the haste and disregard for individual rights suggested by  the Workers Rights Law Center and the Hudson Valley Community Coalition.

After considerable inquiry, I had no conclusive answers about the Secure Communities Initiative. However, incoming Governor Cuomo needs to carefully re-assess Governor Paterson’s agreement with Immigration and Customs Enforcement  to make sure that all appropriate  safeguards are in place so that this latest federal involvement in local law enforcement is done right and does not violate the rights of people we ought to welcome to our communities. 

Jurisdictions where collaboration with ICE has already begun, such as Putnam and Orange Counties, should be studied closely to develop a model for partnership statewide. And the evidently successful work of the Colonie PD also needs to be  documented if only to refute the allegations of profiling by the Immigrants for America Foundation. Very possibly, that department's work could serve as a model for successful federal/local collaboration under the new initiative.

 Email and phone contact during the transition between governors can be  problematic, and a written letter is, in my experience, most apt to be taken seriously:

Andrew Cuomo
State Capitol
Albany, NY 12224