Pages

Friday, September 20, 2013

The True Buddha Sect

Lei Zang temple in September, 2013.


Here's a sketch I wrote years ago of a True Buddha temple in Redmond, Washington, under the direction of Stevan Harrell, a scholar of Chinese religions and, at the time, head of the Anthropology Department at the University of Washington.  The temple was significant because it was at the time home temple for the True Buddha sect -- the founder lived in a mansion just east of North Bend.  The sect, which purported to have some four million followers around the world, is interesting because it joins traditional Mahayana philosophy (the kind you get in East Asia), with Tibetan Buddhism, Chinese fengshui and assorted occult practices, with the charisma, artistic talent, tall tales, and the razzle-dazzle of Lu Shengyan, the talented religious entrepreneur who founded it.  While Lu is from Taiwan, this gives a snapshot of Chinese religion in general, and how Buddhism continues to evolve among Chinese outside of China, to a less extent within China.  (Update: thousands of page views, so far, but no comments.  Who is reading this?  Comments in Chinese are welcome.)

I  include a portion of my original paper here. 


"The True Buddha School and Democratization of the Esoteric Path to Nirvana"

Introduction

In recent decades, Taiwan has proven an extraordinarily fertile ground for religions, sects, and cults of an astonishing variety, paralleling the family-oriented entrepreneurship that has brought the island economic success.  Most sects, like the island's companies, have relied on networking with the international Chinese diaspora, and on strong "export" skills, to develop a foreign presence as well: the Yi Guan Dao no less than evangelical Christians, the Flying Saucer sect as well as the Light of Buddha, Ce Ji, who brings practical help to the poor in Azerbaijan and mainland China, and the "Supreme Master Ching Hai," who offers salvation to five generations of ancestors through herself, "Modern Day Savior and Living God Almighty."  Having found worldly success, the Chinese diaspora is clearly seeking ways to channel that success in directions that will bring eternal benefit.  Having opened up to the outside world, many feel a need to connect with a total-world cosmology, and many of these sects, like several new Messianic cults in Mainland China, borrow elements from Christianity.  At the same time, a feeling of resurgent ethnic pride, and a desire to remain connected iwth traditional Chinese belief, is also very strong among overseas Chinese.  Not surprisingly, many new sects call themselves Buddhist (the international "Chinese" religion), while incorporating elements of folk religion and Daoism (a more exclusively Chinese religion) into their teachings.

In 1985, a small Chinese temple was built to local opposition at the end of a cul-de-sac on a hill above Lake Sammamish, in Redmond, Washington.  Master Lu Shengyan, a one-time Presbyterian Sunday School teacher from Taiwan and self-proclaimed Living Buddha, came to Redmond with the ambition of blending Daoism, the four main schools of Tibetan Buddhism, and direct communion with spirit guides to introduce his Tantric "practical way to Enlightenment" to the world.  Since Lu took refuge from his rapidly-expanding Taiwanese following by moving to suburban Seattle, his movement, which has been described as "one of the most if not the most dynamic and interesting contemporary Chinese schools of Buddhism," has grown to an alleged four million followers, mostly Chinese but also with North Americans, Hispanics, and Europeans, with three hundred chapters in Taiwan, Malaysia, Singapore, Japan, Mainland China, Europe, and two dozen cities of North America, magazines and books in several languages, and public appearances with up to fifty thousand followers at a time.

The dropping of the pebble of True Buddha dharma into the pool of the modern Chinese diaspora's mass-market, post-industrial religious market, has not been effected without ripples of controversy.  Buddhist leaders in Hong Kong took out an advertisement in a local newspaper warning believers away during Lu's meetings in the ex-colony.  Lu complains of "persecution" he encountered in the Buddhist world of Taiwan, where he has been called a "sorcerer."  He related one incident in which a Buddhist "who considered himself orthodox" refused to eat with one of his followers, saying "Good and evil cannot stand together, I'm not going to eat at the same table with the son and grandson of a devil."  While many Chinese in the Seattle area speak more sanguinely about the new movement and take its orthodoxy for granted, the movement has also inspired ecumenical distrust in the Chinese community.  Christians say Lu beguiles followers to worship him as a god, lives in the lap of luxury, keeps mistresses, or tears families apart.  A Buddhist nun told me, "They eat meat --that's so cruel! -- they marry -- they can teach what they want, as long as they don't call it Buddhism."  An atheist postal delivery man from Mainland China whom I found at my front door delivering a package, spied a Chinese book on esoteric Buddhism in my hands, and brought up the subject of Lu Shengyan spontaneously. "I can't stand that guy," he said, telling me the story of a rich woman who allegedly offered all her money to the temple, only to have Master Lu tell her, "You need to have sex with me.  I'm a god."

While readily admitting his wealth, describing in light-hearted flow-of-consciousness prose the thought process which led him to purchase his Mercedes and his mansion, Master Lu presents his school as an authentic (and uniquely potent) school of Buddhism.  He asserts detachment from accusations leveled against him, saying he feels compassion for his accusers, and teaches his followers they must respect other schools of Buddhism and Taoism in particular, and orthodox religions in general.  At the same time, the thread that runs most strongly through the growing body of sacred texts Master Lu has written -- some one hundred thirty volumes of lively encounters with the spirit world, esoteric ritual, monist philosophy, visits to holy sites around the world, and letters from gratified disciples -- is a no-holds-bared apologetic for his own spiritual authority in comparison with other schools. 

But I will argue that while Lu's interpretation of Buddhism may seem unorthodox to many Chinese Buddhists, and may lack the philosophical intensity of the Gelugpa or Sakya schools, the most controversial aspects of his teaching do mesh with the Tibetan tradition, especially of the Nyingma school, and even the magical and worldly aspects of the movement find precedent in Chinese and Tibetan Buddhism. As we shall see, in most but not all respects True Buddha is a not-atypical representative of this tradition.  True Buddha's most important innovation in respect to these schools lies in the fact that, in the strictest sense, Lu's revelations are not esoteric, but public, a democratization of the esoteric tradition that parallels other developments in Taiwanese society.    
 
Part One will relate Lu Shengyan's biography.  Part Two will describe the international community of followers of True Buddha, and the psychological, material and supernatural benefits they claim in joining.  In Part Three, I will consider True Buddha's paradoxical relations with the outside religious world, in particular the brash and ingenuous manner in which Lu solves the conflict inherent between the theoretical broadmindedness of Buddhism and the practical necessity of demonstrating True Buddha's superiority.  Finally, I will consider Lu as a Messianic figure.  What is it about this particular phase in the development of Chinese society which makes the Messianic personality of Master Lu in particular, and esoteric Buddhism in general, attractive? 
 
This is in many ways a very preliminary study.  The True Buddha movement has already produced a sizable quasi-canonical literature in Chinese and English of almost 130 books, carefully numbered and of the same size and format, by Master Lu as of June 1998, monthly Chinese newspapers and magazines, and a bimonthly English magazine published in the San Francisco Bay Area.  Of this, it was possible to read only a fraction.  Besides written materials, I also relied on personal interviews with about twenty-five believers at the Lei Zang temple in Redmond and Master Lu's mansion in North Bend, WA, observation of temple ceremonies and conversations with other Chinese and two non-Chinese ex-disciples in the Seattle area.  Professor Wai Lun Tam of Hong Kong University has written the only scholarly studies of the True Buddha school of which I am aware, which are awaiting publication.  He kindly forwarded me copies of two of these: "The Transformative Power of Chinese Culture as Seen in Buddhism in China and the True Buddha School," and "Enlightenment as Hope According to the True Buddha School," which respectively describe the True Buddha School in the overall context of cultural transformation of Buddhism by the Chinese, and narrate the story of Lu's pilgrimage in relation to the Chinese concern for eternal life and prosperity. 
 

Esoteric Buddhism in China
 
While some emperors of the Six Dynasties, such as Liang Wudi, showed a stronger personal interest in Buddhism than did the Tang rulers in general, overall the flame of the dharma reached its highest intensity during the Tang, when a lively international culture facilitated the comings and goings of monks from India, Central Asia, Korea and Japan, and the streets of Chang An, with at one point 300 Buddhist temples, were filled with a babel of foreign voices and new ideas.  The mandala, a colorful symbol of esoteric Buddhist empowerment that combined Daoist numerology with Persian fire symbolism, emerged as "the most potent expression of pantheistic realization that has ever been realized."  Su Dengfu argues that the spatial scheme of the mandala was copied fairly faithfully from proto-Daoist diagrams of the "Di" of the five directions, a concept that began to appear as early as the oracle bones of the Shang Dynasty. 
 
Esoteric Buddhism first appeared in China as early as the fifth century, but it was with the immigration of the three great foreign patriarchs of Chinese esotericism, Amoghavajra (Bu Kong), Subhakarasimha (Shan Wuwei), and Vajrabodhi (Jin Gang Zhi) two hundred years later that it gained a high profile among the elite of the Tang capital.  Bu Kong led emperor Dai Zong in a baptismal rite, and was credited with warding off natural disasters and the An Shi rebellion.   Esoteric Buddhism appealed to some of the same Tang emperors who are remembered as enthusiastic Daoists: Xuan Zong, for example, who defended Daoism against Buddhism in general, was strongly attracted to the new doctrines.  Denis Twitchett explains, "Tantrism made use of magical spells, incantations and mystical techniques which were similar in many ways to those of Taoism."  The Tang rulers' commitment to Taoism was justified in both family and national terms, and also of course held the perennial attraction of the mysterious and magical.  Esoteric Buddhism matched the latter virtues, and in addition reflected the colorful and international character of Chinese upper-class society when China was at a peak of self-confidence and cosmopolitan curiosity.  While Su Dengfu's suggestion that Daoist influence on Vajrayana thought may have begun even in India, due to the visits of Chinese traders during the Han and earlier, seems far-fetched, his argument that the flow of causality between the two religions after esoteric schools began to penetrate north of the Himalayas went in both directions is hard to argue with.  Su traces a great deal of the ritual and art of Chinese esoteric practice to Daoism: worship of constellations, feng shui, male and female child attendants to the Buddhas, the use of cinnabar and realgar with incantations of Daoist origin, and the ritual use of swords and mirrors, among other things.  Stanley Weinstein argues that esoteric Buddhism won the competition for Imperial (Li family) patronage precisely because it was a blend of Buddhism and Daoism. 
 
From the beginning, then, esoteric Buddhism was especially syncretistic, often in particular being identified with Daoism.  Another obvious characteristic was its ability, unlike Pure Land and other popular cults, to attract the political and especially social elite.  Finally in noting its amazing internationalist character (meaning not only that the religion travels well, but that even within China it assumed a multi-ethnic character reminiscent of the racial diversity manifest in Tang carpets from Dunhuang), the question arises whether this was only a function of the cosmopolitanism of its glory years, or in some way reflected its intrinsic nature.  In fact, as we shall see, this characteristic would continue to identify the school in China.  Perhaps the attraction of hidden mysteries and exotica operates at an inverse ratio to distance.  It might be that, while written language in general reflects a sacred hue to the eyes of illiterate pre-modern society, as Benedict Anderson has argued, the magical character of unknown languages, of Joseph Smith's "reformed Egyptian," Morrison's difficult-to-decipher Chinese to the Taipings, or the strange accents of the Sri Lankan and Sogdian monks to those who first heard esoteric doctrines in Chang An, retains its attraction for those who can read their own, more mundane, script, to those minds are susceptible to the charms of gnosticism.  In any case, the babble of accents from the subcontinent, Tibet, Japan, and Korea at the esoteric sect's Green Dragon temple in Chang An, must have added to the inherent mystery of the doctrine preached within. 
 
After the Tang, esoteric Buddhism never completely died out in China: as Lu Jianfu exhaustively documents, Indian teachers continued to make their way to China for some time, Chinese masters emerged and transmitted teachings, and esoteric practices influenced other forms of Buddhism and Daoism.  While color and flare were the tone of the Tang, and during the 8th Century the concept of "realizing the Dao through sex" became acceptable in some circles, a revival of Confucianism brought a sterner moral and aesthetic outlook beginning with the Song.  Indian esoteric Scriptures, which frequently advocated incest, cannibalism, and such horrors, were looked on more critically.  And since their magical advantages could also be gained through native Daoism, a more proudly introverted Chinese society largely turned its back on esotericism.  Tibetan advisers to the Mongol invaders made a poor impression on the native elite, including even Chinese Buddhists.  At the same time it is interesting to note that again the attractions of esoteric Buddhism were offered to those who had succeeded in life, like (up to that time) the Shun Di emperor: "Your Majesty may have everything in the world, but you can only keep it for one life.  How can life be lengthened (He neng ji he)?  You need to accept this teaching."  The "debaucheries and depravities" organized during the reign of Shun Di, reputedly including human sacrifice, naturally left a bad taste in the mouths of the Confucian elite.  Yet the great Buddhist center of Wu Tai Shan, not far from Mongolia, which traces its beginnings as as center for Buddhism to an Indian monk during the Eastern Han who thought the mountain looked like Vulture Peak in India, acted as a bridge between epochs of esoteric Buddhist activity.  The Japanese patriarch Ennin spent weeks on the mountain during the Tang, the great Tibetan master Naropa sent a student to study esotericism there in the Song, Tibetan and Mongolian lamas re-established an esoteric presence shortly after the founding of the Ming, which remains to the present day.  While esoteric Buddhism in Tibet began to take on a more philosophical tenor which interpreted esoteric texts in an increasingly ritualized and abstract sense, the failure of esoteric Buddhism in China to complete the same transition, or to attract people less inclined to flamboyance, left it literally on the margins of Confucian society. 
 
In the early 20th Century a revival of esoteric Buddhism began in Chinese society, brought about in part by the politically-motivated patronage of a number of Tibetan lamas, invited to teach at China's leading universities, in part, by the efforts of a retired Guomindang general who took the name Neng Hai, and in part by the reformist measures of the monk Tai Xu.  The latter, wanting to unite the various schools of "Chinese" Buddhism, founded  a school to train Chinese Buddhists in Tibetan Buddhism at Beijing, later moving it to Chengdu, and dispatched disciples to Japan to accept direct transmission from Shingon masters.  When the communists took over the mainland, naturally some lamas fled with the nationalists to overseas Chinese communities. 
 
As the Chinese community in Taiwan has urbanized over the past three decades, a move towards more orthodox Buddhism on the part of many young people has been noted.  Today's Chinese culture outside of Mainland China shows a blend of vigor, intra-cultural curiosity and openness, and ethnic self-confidence, that China as a whole has seldom experienced since the Tang Dynasty, when the exotic color and magic of esoteric Buddhism first caught the eyes of China's upper classes.  At the same time, the roles once played by ruling Mongols and Manchus and their Tibetan confederates on the one side, and subject Han Chinese on the other, have been reversed.  The nun who told me, "We're Buddhists, we eat vegetables, not meat," when reminded that Tibetan Buddhists eat meat, answered quickly, "They can't grow vegetables there."  As I went out the door, I noticed a "China out of Tibet" bumper-sticker on the car of the Chinese couple who came in after me.  Whether or not the sympathy many overseas Chinese feel for Tibet is a factor in the popularization of esoteric Buddhism, that such sympathy exists is certain. 
 
The Makings of a Guru
 
Lu Shengyan was born to suitably auspicious signs on the eighteenth day of the fifth lunar month in 1945, at a chicken farm on the bank of Niutiao Creek in Houhu township, Jiayi County, Taiwan.  He was born, it is said in front of a world map, and when his mother looked at her child, she was "surprised to discover his bright and smooth little body was wrapped in a layer of extremely thin white silk."  The newborn loved light, and since the wartime blackout was still in effect, his parents could only oblige him by taking him outside to gaze at the moon and stars.  An acquaintance remarked to his father, Lu Ershun, "This child really likes light, and was born in front of a world map, starting at the world.  It could be that in the future, he'll bring light to the world." 
 
Having in fact worked summer vacations in high school on power lines, presumably bringing light, Lu enrolled in a military school called Zhongzheng Engineering Academy, in the Geodesic Department of the School of Surveying.  He described the choice as owing to "fate." "It seemed as if it had all been arranged by Heaven above."  In school he developed talents for writing and artwork, editing a school publication called Surveying Art (Celiang Wenyi), and reporting for Young Soldier and Flying Camel magazines.  In 1967, Lu self-published his first full-length book, A Thin Smoke Collection (Dan Yan Ji), quickly followed by three more during military school making use of equally ethereal titles.   
 
There is no doubt that part of the attraction of the True Buddha School derives from the attraction Master Lu himself holds as an author and artist.  Many of his followers traced their interest in the school to reading his books which, more than one told me, are "simple but deep.   You have to read them through several times."  I was surprised to find how many disciples had read the entire body of Lu's works, some more than once.  Most of his paintings are scenes from nature -- flowers, gourds, gently humorous birds -- though attractive but sterotypically-modest women are another favorite theme.  Lu's paintings, like his writings, are simple and informal, imaginative, colorful, and full of typically Taiwanese mode of humor that relies on the quick juxtaposition of worlds, in particular an idealism exaggerated to hyperbole, juxtaposed with more mundane realities.  In conversation, Lu sometimes marks the transition between the pious and the familiar by the common Taiwanese expedient of interjecting a colloquial expression in Taiwanese.   In painting, it is the eyes (especially of the birds) that most often betray the joke. 
 
Lu's interest in religion also began early.  In the fourth grade, Lu Shengyan was invited by a friend to New Presbyterian Church in Gaoxiong.  He read the Bible, attended a youth group, was baptized as a Christian, and taught Sunday School for a while.  Master Lu explains his conversion from Christianity to traditional Chinese religion as a journey whose first (and to all appearances defining) step began one night in 1969.  In a dream, Lu says he traveled to an ancient temple at the top of a tall hill, and there met an old Daoist monk.  "You've finally arrived," said the monk.  "I've been waiting for you for a long time."  The two masters met once every 500 years (a stereotypical period between sages, as originally explained in the last verses of Mencius, alluded to by Journey to the West, Hong Xiuquan, and Mao Zedong, among others).  As an aid to memory, the monk hit Lu on the head with a duster, and he woke in a cold sweat. 
 
Lu's mother had been planning a visit to the Jade Emperor Temple in Taizhong that day, and he decided to join her.  There an "extremely ugly" old woman dressed in a blue robe, with "one eye tilted upward, the other tilted downward, and a slightly misaligned mouth" stood up in a crowd and shouted, "Who is Lu Shengyan?"  Having identified himself, Lu was barraged with a series of very accurate leading questions about his background and identity.  He kneeled on the floor and was commissioned in a rather informal manner by suddenly-visible bodhisattvas, who "hope you can do some good work for them, spreading the Dao and dispersing delusions, propagating the spirit of Buddhism  . . . the bodhisattvas know that you have a kind heart and that your behavior is proper; therefore they want to entrust you with their mission."  A crowd, his mother in the midst of it, gathered around the young man.  Closing his eyes, Lu saw three deities enthroned on lotus.  When they disappeared, a banner descended with the characters yi (righteousness) and xiao (faithfulness) in red and gold as a voice said:
 
"The Jade Emperor has especially bestowed upon you the motto of Loyalty and Righteousness.  They are the principles by which you should guide your life.  Before any action, ask yourself if you have any misgiving in carrying it out.  By becoming your own master, you can obtain eternal life and the Dao, and you will coexist with Heaven and Earth." 
 
Thus symbols of Daoism and Buddhism were joined from the beginning of Master Lu's spiritual journey.  Boddhisattvas and the Jade Emperor, a mystic call to imperial virtues and to preach Buddhism, the symbols of the two faiths linked in an almost symmetrical arrangement.  The duster is a talisman common to Daoism and esoteric Buddhism.  The lotus, of course, is the symbol of Buddhist dharma, which grows from the muck of the mundane realm, yet blossoms with the purity of Buddha's world.
 
Both the general scene and the cast of characters here assembled are stock features of Messianic Chinese iconography.  A dramatic interaction with a similarly eclectic assortment of heavenly figures, including Guan Yin and a Supreme Heavenly Patriarch who has been identified with the Jade Emperor, empowered Hong Xiuquan with the totalitarian ideology and divine authority he attempted to impose on the empire.  In fiction, the 108 heroes of the Water Margin were recipients of a similar but less overwhelming heavenly endowment.  The Monkey King laid claim to a title reminiscent of Lu's "Coexist with Heaven and Earth," and while historical rebels have made similar claims in pursuit of political power, the Monkey King also showed it possible to channel such energy to the service of Buddhist dharma as well as revolution. 
 
In case the point about the essential oneness of (at least) Daoism and Buddhism be lost on any of his readers, Lu followed the story with another telling how Ksitigharbha, guardian of Yin Jian (the Chinese Hades), taught him the correct method of bhardo deliverance for spirits in hell.  This rite, which was taught by esoteric Buddhist teachers during the Tang Dynasty, was regarded by traditional Buddhists as especially risky - the monk Zhu Hong in the Ming Dynasty, for example, told of a friend who had met hundreds of former monks suffering torment in one of the worst corners of the Underworld for having conducted it incorrectly . Lu waded in without fear, noting, "In reality, ghosts are just like human beings . . . In my opinion, there is nothing dreadful about being friends with ghosts.  It is actually more scary to be friends with human beings whose true feelings are masked behind their faces."  But to conduct bhardo ceremonies, he would need proper registration with the government, so he asked the bodhisattva whether he should register his business as Daoist or Buddhist.  Ksitigharbha replied:
 
"Do you regard the Tao and mysticism of Lao Tzu as different from that of Buddhism?  Is there really any difference whether you register as a Taoist or Buddhist?  . . . Actually, both Taoism and Buddhism could vanish and become extinct.  Experience this truth yourself." 
 
From the beginning of Master Lu's religious career, we find traces of three overlapping themes which would prove characteristic of the whole.  First, Lu's encounters with the spirit world are extremely casual, and second, always self-affirming.  These attitudes contrast sharply with prominent elements of both traditions to which he had been exposed.  On seeing an angel, the prophet Isaiah wrote, "Woe is me, for I am undone, my eyes have beheld the glory of the Lord." Spirit mediums in the folk Chinese context often express a more visceral fear, as Jordan noted: "Nearly all tang ki maintain that they tried every possible inducement to persuade the possessing god to select someone else," even at threat to their lives.  Awe of the numinous and fear of the uncanny are both entirely absent from the experiences Lu relates from the other world.  Third, his encounters are eclectic in theory, borrow deities from any and all Asian sources in practice, but in them, Lu's spiritual astuteness and moral uprightness are often contrasted with the obduracy of other religious professionals.  The old lady in the temple, whom Lu would later count as one of his disciples, commissioned him in words which combined these three elements in an ironic way, considering the allegations so often made against him:
 
"Some wicked people have deliberately put on the coats of the Buddhas and gods to engage in affairs that harm others.  Under the guise of psychic counseling, these people take financial and sexual advantages of their fellow beings.  They use smooth talk and heresy to spread the fallacies. The righteous dharmas are sinking while the devious teachings are rising . . . The bodhisattvas know that you have a kind heart and that your behavior is proper, therefore they want to entrust you with their mission." 
 
The supernatural world Lu describes in the stories of his early career in Taiwan is the familiar Chinese realm of folk mediumship and exorcism, enthroned in the popular imagination by supernatural fiction.  Master Lu makes his way through that world with swaggering self-confidence reminiscent of a kung fu hero.  Lu recognizes the dead who have committed suicide by the dark smoke above their heads, while aborted fetuses are visible to him as a red smudge in the womb of women he meets.  The living suffer peculiar symptoms, such as pain at well-scheduled hours of the day, which Lu alone can diagnose, and often have to do with the improper burial of ancestors or persons unknown, or with secret sins.  While he describes the horrors of spirits and men suffering from hellish karma, as well as astral travel to places of heavenly bliss, Lu maintains zizai, a calm but compassionate equanimity and (in the non-pejorative sense) "self-centeredness" reminiscent of Zhuang Zi or Buddha.  His dialogues with gods and spirits are casual and a bit sassy, and in his dialogues with men, he is seldom mistaken in his diagnosis or subject to rebuke from anyone with spiritual awareness.  All in all, were an educated and entrepreneurial spirit practitioner with a flair for pithy story-telling and a memory for successes to emerge from the ranks of Taiwanese folk religions, he would undoubtedly sound something like this.  Lu balanced his resume in healing, fengshui, and other occult arts by accepting the philosophical guidance of various teachers human and divine: a hitherto-unknown god named San Shan Jiu Zhou (Three Mountains Nine Continents) who came to him two nights after the incident in the temple, a Daoist hermit from Ching Cheng Mountain in Sichuan Province who lived an anonymous life on a little hill, several Buddhist masters including the famous Yin Shun, and teachers of the four Tibetan schools of esoteric Buddhism, among others. 
 
Lei Zang Temple
 
Lei Zang ("Thunder storehouse," a reference to vajra, associated with thunderbolts, Ksitagarbha, or Dicang Wang, and to XIzang, Tibet) temple is positioned with its back to the spine of the long, ancient glacial moraine that makes up western Redmond.  With the campus of Microsoft a mile away at the top of the hill, it figuratively sits with its back to the world, expressing perhaps the proper subordination of worldly to spiritual affairs.  Half a mile further down the hill lie the northern reaches of Lake Sammamish.  (Sacred lakes are often the site of adventures with spirits in Tibetan Buddhist stories, and in The Inner World of the Lake, Master Lu writes of his fascination with this body of water, his meetings with spirits there, and the way in which the surface and depths of the water function as a microcosm of the universe.)    Lu himself lives twenty miles closer to the mountains and his beloved nature, and incidentally deeper in the rain, in an enormous, tastefully-decorated Mediterranean-style mansion about half a mile north of I 90, near North Bend, Washington.  There, surrounded by mountains of Twin Peaks fame, spruce and fir forests, and meadows of lupine where elk come to graze, Lu meditates and writes.  When the weather clears and "no thought" takes him (his disciples told me, "We never know if he's going to come"), he may arrive in Redmond for the four o'clock Tong Xiu Hui, Mutual-Cultivation Meeting.  There is a stir inside the temple as his presence is excitedly announced, and worshippers quickly sink to the ground. 
 
The temple, a medium-sized building of conventional Chinese religious architecture, is situated at the end of a cul-de-sac.  The eight houses along the approach are used for library, dining, living, and administrative facilities, and house a staff which answers questions by e-mail and letter from around the world.  Just in front of the gate to the temple is a large ding made in Taiwan with incense burning in it and the legends, "Pray for the peace and prosperity of the nation" and "Pray that the wind be right and the rain be suitable," in Chinese. To the right of the temple, in a hollow against the fence that marks the boundary of the property, lies a little "dragon palace" where, on one visit, a monk and a nun were engaged in painting the multi-hued scales of a beautiful green dragon on a large yellow boulder, which had been moved from the original site of the temple. 
 
The main temple building consists of three rooms, the central worship hall, an administrative room on the right, and the bookshop on the left.  Colorful murals of bodhisattvas and gods with fiery or round halos gathered around two thrones, are painted on the walls of the main room: on the right, one inscribed, "Siddhartha mandala," and on the left, another inscribed "Lian Hua Tong Zi mandala."  Master Lu himself occupied the throne in the center of the latter, with a brilliantly-colored cloth crown or mantle about four feet above his head.  Exquisitely-colored Tibetan-style banners and mandalas made by sect's monks and nuns decorate the side walls and hang from the ceilings: "Esoteric Buddhism," one monk explained, "uses these colors to attract people to the temple.  The Buddha doesn't really care about colors -- the highest color is no color.  But every color represents a different meaning; all the colors represent the fact that we do not abandon the masses of people.  White stands for danger and disaster.  Yellow stands for true righteousness.  Red stands for love." 
 
 On the back wall of the worship hall more than sixty large idols and several vajras are arranged in three rows: on the top row, tall golden Buddhas, each beneath a cloth "umbrella" about ten feet across hung from the ceiling with a Tibetan mantra written within, and smaller bodhisattvas between the Buddhas.  The gods and bodhisattvas of the lower levels are an eclectic marriage of heaven, hell, and everything in between: Indian elephant gods, Daoist patriarchs, gruesome Tibetan dharma protectors with garlands of human skulls, calm and compassionate bodhisattvas with dozens of arms uplifted to save all those who call on them: Avalokitsvara, Maitreya, Mahabrahma, Yamataka, Mahala, each labeled in Chinese and anglicized Sanskrit.  About a third of the figures have closed eyes, enjoying the stillness of nirvana.  Nothing in the history of Buddhism seems to have been entirely left behind.  Theraveda Buddhism is present in the inward-looking, world-renouncing Buddhas, Mahayana in the merciful (but stern) bodhisattvas, esoteric Buddhism in the (partially) tamed wild demons. 
 
But among all these figures, that of Master Lu himself -- Lian Hua Tong Zi -- is the most human and attractive, handsome, a bit portly, a trademark cheerful smile on his face.  Lu seems a bridge between the many inhuman and supernatural figures who share the place of honor with him on the shelf, and the worshippers.  As in most photographs, Master Lu's idol looks like a man who knows how to laugh, the kind of person who picks parties up by his presence, which simplifies and humanizes and reconciles this otherwise unearthly pantheon to the world of Ronald McDonald and cell phones.  Daniel Overmeyer notes that sects tend towards "worship of their founders long with the most approachable figures in the orthodox pantheon."  Here Lian Hua Tong Zi is both.  One Bay Area monk with a professional background explained how these Buddhas and Bodhisattvas were brought to life for him, in terms I found revealing:
 
"With the teacher leading the way, you don't wander off, and you save fifty or sixty years . . . True Buddha is the most direct and fastest way to achieve Buddhahood . . . The Reason I became so involved was because I had my own personal experience with the Buddhas and Bodhisattvas.  I have experience to I know what is real . . . If you've had a Big Mac, you know what it tastes like." 
 
This was no doubt a careless metaphor: on consideration, few would define "what we have found to be real" in terms of Big Macs.  Yet it is true that in humanizing the path to Buddhahood, Master Lu's school exhibits qualities Ray Kroc would appreciate: efficiency, "response," simplicity, humor, democratic availability, and fun.  While his followers also speak of his depth, Master Lu seems first of all eminently approachable. 
 
Among the pantheon appear three or four Daoist figures, including one of the patron saints of the movement, Yao Chi Jin Mu, or Wu Sheng Lao Mu.  The role of this figure in the Compassion Sect of eastern Taiwan, called "basic to the precious scroll literature" of earlier epochs, has been described by Overmeyer and Jordan, who also point out her role in White Lotus and other sectarian rebellions.  The True Buddha movement appears to have borrowed her off the shelf, as it were, though still on the shelf in the sense that free copies of a book nominally about her fill a bookshelf on the inside wall of the room.  Lu's books, like the bao juan, represent a vehicle for the popularization of Buddhism. 
 
The most incongruous figure in the crowd of Buddhas and Bodhisattvas is also the smallest: a four-inch high white statue of Jesus, standing almost in the embrace of a three-faced Indian demon called Mahabrahma.  (Who plays a role in Buddhism much less important than, but analogous to, the demiurge Yaldaboath as a contemptuous satire on Yahweh in the Gnostic system.)  One of the monks explained, "We have a great deal of respect for Jesus -- he had the compassion of Buddha, too. When he was dying on the cross, didn't he ask God to forgive his enemies?"  Believers who had been Christians prior to joining the sect all emphasized their continued respect for Jesus.  One told me, "I still pray to Jesus Christ -- I guess it's kind of a habit."  Informants who had been followers of Chinese folk Buddhism likewise told me their practice included the worship of Guan Yin.  Yet as eclectic and broadminded as True Buddha is, this small statue is the only token concession (if that is what it is) apparent in any of the symbolism of the temple to the religions of the West, and of Master Lu's youth. 
 
Four several-foot photographs adorn opposite walls of the worship hall: three taken during Master Lu's visit to India and the Dalai Lama, and another of Chinese-American governor Gary Locke with two of Lei Zang temple's leading monks.  During the period I did my research, in the front of the hall to the left, in a little glass case, stood an exhibit of bones from the body of the Grand Master's mother, who passed away a few months previously.  Beside the case was written an explanation: the bones, most of them white but some a light green or yellow, were she li zi, sariras, which only appear in the body of one who has attained enlightenment and passed to the world of the Buddha.  A series of photographs about the funeral and auspicious internment of the deceased also appeared on the reader-board on the street outside the temple.  This is not the first time Master Lu has made use of this form of apologetic: in 1992, he published a booklet called Sariras -- Buddhist Relics Among Executed Prisoners, which described the conversion of four death-row inmates in Singapore who had converted to True Buddha, quoting their effusively grateful letters to him, and the between four and thirty sariras found in their bodies after execution.  Lu concluded: "Therefore, beyond any doubt, Living Buddha Lian-sheng . . . is a true Living Buddha . . . the True Buddha Tantric Dharma is a Correct Buddhist Dharma.  This is supported by the fact that people who cultivate this Dharma, even including death row prisoners, all will obtain great spiritual achievement.  What can slanderers say about this?" 
 
Other than for special ceremonies, Lei Zang temple holds regular services every weekday at four in the afternoon, and Saturday night at eight, the latter of which is preceded by (distinctly non-vegetarian, and tasty) dinner together in the side building.  I attended several of these services in the course of my research.  It is not my purpose to write in detail about the sect's liturgy -- partly because I lack experience to make meaningful comparisons, but mostly because what believers get out of the services is of more interest to me.  Briefly, however, both ceremonies begin with an invocation, and work through a series of chants invoking the blessings of the Buddhas and Bodhisattvas, listed in detail in a folder for those who don't have them memorized.  The longest liturgical part of the service involves chanting the one hundred and eight rosary beads.  Monks or nuns give homilies, one on weekdays, two on Saturday night, in which case one is given by a senior monk or nun, the other by one less-experienced and perhaps a little nervous.  Transitions are marked by the light tapping of a bell.  I think the chief subjective impression I felt up to this point was a sense of calming. 
 
Back to a green dragon, on a visit a few days ago.
Following that, if Master Lu is present, he takes off from a point brought up in the homily.  One Saturday, for example, a nun gave a simple and rather moving talk on the "Eight-Fold Path," in Mandarin with a heavy Cantonese accent.  Master Lu followed by launching into a seemingly irrelevant but intriguing story full of humorous asides about the "Dragon palace" to the side of
the temple, and the reasons they had just painted it for the fourth time.  The first dragon had been very sensitive: Master Lu merely yelled "rain," and it would rain; just put his hands together, and the dragon god would descend to meet him.  But some people had complained that the green dragon wasn't sufficiently "Buddhist," so the former director of the temple had painted in his place a "beautiful" but surly yellow dragon, who, American dragon that he was (Lu is speaking freely in Mandarin), hardly ever came when called, and was cheeky and flippant in his crown and royal pao when he did show up. "Don't blame me.  Some day you'll understand," said the replacement third dragon when he, too, failed to act.  Finally Lu's voice, which had been the slow, modulated, naturally-articulate voice of a skillful story-teller, raised for the punch line, delivered by the third dragon.  "You tore down the old dragon palace and built a new palace.  But the money used to build this palace came from a person who deceived people to get it."  Finally Lu came around to the original point of the lesson: "We were talking about the Eight-Fold Path.  If you take dishonest gains and do something good with them, does that have any merit?  A believer needs to follow the Eight-Fold Path."
 
 
A Profile of True Buddha Believers
 
The True Buddha School claims about four million followers, of whom about a quarter are allegedly deeply involved.  On the West Coast, the largest concentration of believers appears to be in Vancouver, where two thousand followers have three temples to choose from.  But if the percentage of believers among the Chinese community outside of China is no more than in Vancouver, less than one percent, in other words, then the number of active followers is probably not more than a tenth of that figure. Lei Zang temple usually hosts about thirty practitioners during weekdays, a bit more than a hundred on Saturday evenings.  A trickle of visitors comes and goes throughout the day, making obeisance to the idols, burning incense, throwing moon blocks, chatting, and buying books.  I also attended a homa fire ritual at Master Lu's mansion, where about fifty believers were gathered.  The sect has, however, built a number of very large temples in Asia. 
 
One of the most striking facets of the True Buddha school, at least as experienced at Lei Zang temple, is the remarkable variety of people who come to worship, from all social classes and dozens of countries.  Mandarin is probably heard most, and acts as the primary language, with not a little Sanskrit in the liturgy, and Tibetan on the prayer wheels out front.  English, Cantonese and Taiwanese also function as lingua franca for people whose first language might be Indonesian, Cambodia, German, Hainanese, or Malay. 
 
My respondents came from strikingly mixed religious backgrounds as well: Catholics, at least one Protestant (many of whom were never personally devout, however), many folk or general Buddhists, who typically worshipped Guan Yin, or followers of vague Chinese religion, one man from an Alaskan native religious background, and many others from atheist or agnostic backgrounds.  A few had gone through more than one of these stages, and two or three volunteered that True Buddha might also turn out to be a stage in their respective pilgrimages. 
 
As I asked believers about their interest in the school, most proving friendly and eager to talk, several patterns emerged.  First, most respondents noted supernatural confirmation of Master Lu's powers, almost always including psychic response on first meeting Master Lu, frequently manifesting itself later in dreams, and also quite often through healings.  A young woman who had come to the United States with her parents and brother to escape the race riots in Indonesia told me the family's interest in True Buddha came about through her father's psychic abilities, which he had prior to joining, but had developed since.  "Sometimes my father had a dream, and the dream came true.  Sometimes he like get the sixth sense, you know?  Like there's something wrong or something going to happen, he always sense it." 
 
An American from Los Angeles, due to be consecrated during the service by Master Lu, told me he had been raised by an Aleut grandmother in Kodiak who took him through the woods and taught him about the deities of trees and plants.  "A lot of time I go by feeling," he told me.  He had tried out "Yellow" (Gelugpa) and "Red" (Nyingma) Tibetan Buddhism previously.  "I'd met a lot of other gurus; I didn't feel a connection . . . What they emphasize here is a spiritual response, as opposed to other places and methodologies where there is no response, and you're working completely on faith.  If you never have any response, good or bad or indifferent, you don't know if anything is happening."  Dreams in particular: "The one dream that was really kind of telling, after I had taken refuge I was in a kneeling position.  Guru Lu held his hand out and light emitted over the crown (of my head).  It was as clear as you and me standing here."
 
As a doctor, another thing he appreciated about the True Buddha was its interest in the material.  Other schools by contrast "emphasized entirely the spiritual aspect and neglected the physical . . . Some of the people didn't seem so healthy."  (Lu himself draws this traditional emphasis of Chinese mizong between esoteric and exoteric Buddhism: "Exoteric Buddhism is only concerned with cultivating character (xing),it doesn't cultivate the body, because it figures the body is unreal, so doesn't trifle to mess with it.  But what about Esoteric Buddhism?  It stresses simultaneous inner and outer cultivation . . . It assumes, if you don't have a strong body, how can you cultivate yourself?" 
 
A mechanic from Brunei with little education, though he spoke about seven languages (Hakka and Hainanese were his mother tongues) who came down from Vancouver for the service, also told me he appreciated Master Lu's emphasis on health.  Lu's teachings mix Zhuang Zi's wu wei with Buddha's wu chang in an optimistic blend he appreciated: "We human beings think a lot of things.  Don't think too much, take it easy, everything is not forever.  Everything will go away.  Before I had a lot of sickness.  When you sleep you worry about this, worry about that.  My master says don't worry about anything."  The mechanic noted that Master Lu was "different from other Buddhas.  We see him every day.  He's become Buddha already."  His faith was enhanced by objective confirmation of the Master's supernatural powers: in one case, four years ago, he was saved from likely death when his car hit a house and the roof smashed it, but he apparently was thrown clear.  Last year came confirmation of a less cheerful sort: "My father-in-law was sick.  My Grand Master said he would die in six months.  Even the doctors don't know.  In six months, he died."
 
The mother of a small child sleeping on the floor during a Saturday night service told me she ws Cambodian, from a mixed skeptical and Christian background.  "I needed to go back to Thailand.  It popped into my head to ask Buddha, the Dharma and the Sangha to help me and bam!  I got the visa done like that."  She placed faith in Lu on their first meeting.  "I asked Master Lu about something that no one would know about my life - there was a certain secret that no one knew and I asked him and he knew.  The following weeks I kept having dreams about him manifesting himself, telling me it was time to be awakened."  While this lady had read all of her teacher's books that had been translated into English, she learned his other teachings transcendentally.  "The majority of the teaching is transmitted to my mind.  Like in America you have a gut instinct.  I would follow that instinct." Once, when she was working at a law firm, someone did her a favor, and she told the friend, "I owe you one."  The next day the friend asked, "Did you pray for me?  My Dad was supposed to have a bypass and he went in and was cured.  I consulted a clairvoyant and she said it was a gift from the Buddha."

3 comments:

archena said...

It's a lot to digest.

One question, why Seattle? Or America for that matter? Unclear on the need/purpose for the move at all (I know you addressed it briefly).

Okay, it's not much but it is a comment... ;)

David B Marshall said...

The weak Anthropic Principle applies here: the observer lives in Seattle, and therefore would not have written on this sect if it were not based here. Therefore (strong version) I caused True Buddha to move to Seattle. That's all I know. (Lots of people from Taiwan here.)

I'm trying to figure out why there are 1600 page visits to this article so far, and where they're coming from . . .

archena said...

Okay, that makes more sense (Taiwanese population - not the mystical causality).

Spiders?