I do not want to write this story -- there are a lot of reasons for this. One is that it is a story that is hard to believe without having been there with me to directly experience it. Some people haven’t believed me, or have pushed it aside as a matter of peripheral importance when I have tried to tell them about it. That’s something I’ve resented. But being here on the West Coast has changed my feeling about this in a way -- people have lived through experiences far more extraordinary. Something about that makes this easier for me to write. It’s also hard to write about emotionally, for reasons that will become increasingly apparent - I don’t want to write it; I never want to think about this again. But if I want to get it out of my system and forget about it, I have to leave it here in order to leave it behind me. I don’t want it to define my life, either -- there are memories that I hold dear to me, things that I could write about that would not be so dark, things that make me happy to write about. Those things have more to do with my intellectual pilgrimage through that great big World of Ideas. However, I did make the choice to do this on my own -- it is irrevocably a part of me, and I can’t escape myself. The optimist says that life is about the moments that take our breath away -- I didn’t know that the sentiment would refer to a feeling of strangulation: death by overwhelming guilt. That’s how it is, when it feels like God has abandoned humanity.
I’ve given a lot of thought on how to format this piece, because there’s a lot of dimensions to what this means to me: It has played a part in my radicalization, the development of my view of people and authority; it plays a part in the development of my understanding of ethics, and has given a certain special sensitivity to my understanding of theological subjects. It began as a naive experiment, following a morbid vein in my curiosity. I’ll write it out in parts -- the first sections, immediately following, will be the story of how I got to this cult and my personal recollection of the events. The other parts, what little I can put together, will be the facts of what I know about this cult from my research -- always with the library books. Though it would be fitting to have a discussion about faith, of the essence of theological and spiritual matters that remain important to me to this day -- in spite of all the things that have happened -- that is a topic for a different day. Maybe that’s entirely another book. Anyway, it’s too much to go into at the present moment. It’s time to tell the story of Sukyo Mahikari. I have no fear about this anymore -- if members of this cult would like to know my name, here it is in the open. I invite whoever it is that will respond with condemnatory denunciations to speak directly to me. We could have a Hell of a cup of coffee together.
Down the Rabbit Hole, Neo
My interest in cults preceded my interest in radical politics or activism of the traditional left. I was living with a librarian and her husband at the time, and she would drive me to the library each morning. I would wander around while she worked, getting a cup of coffee and reading whatever I liked, and, for the sake of objectivity in my truth-seeking, including some things that I didn’t like. One of those books was by the most famous and controversial of the so-called “New Atheist” intellectuals, Christopher Hitchens. The book was God is Not Great: How Religion Poisons Everything (oh my -- now, now, tell me how you really feel, Hitch). I supplemented this reading with reading a few essays of Carl Sagan’s on the scientific method, and Bertrand Russell’s thoughts on rational and skeptical philosophy -- when you are investigating any matter, or considering any philosophy, he says, ask yourself only and solely what are the facts, and what is the truth that the facts bear out? I like that. Seems reasonable enough for someone seeking the truth. The other book was the book that triggered this most intriguing and terrifying series of events. It was also the most interesting book I had ever read at the time, called “Cults in Our Midst,” by a psychologist named Margaret Singer -- fascinating read, spectacular woman, really. My interest in cults had developed out of the perversity of it -- everyone dreams of finding a place to belong, and cult leaders had a type of power to lie. How do people end up doing terrible things, like committing murders, rapes, simply because someone else tells them to? Because it appears to be directed by an authority that has claimed possession of divine knowledge? Because someone is being threatened, or someone’s family has been threatened if an action is not carried out? Because of a promise of some sort -- fame, prestige? The anarchist Alexander Berkman (I would read a year later) made the point in his book on Anarchist Communism, that if someone is held at gunpoint and asked for their money, they are free to make the “choice” to give the money over -- theft, or death and you’re “free to choose.” Maybe that had something to do with it. I didn’t know, I had no idea.
Margaret Singer’s book went into a lot of great detail concerning this. Cults play on the needs of people, simply put. We are all looking for a place to belong, we are all looking for something more in a life that seems to be increasingly empty, and the promise of some fulfillment, enlightenment, something, anything special, is a promise perfumed with some aura of irresistibility: mysticism, sold at a special price, for a limited time only. Cults, said Singer, function through a manipulation of a specially abusive sort -- the illusion of deliberately constructed obscurity -- maybe they speak phrases pulled from some “ancient” or esoteric “holy text,” or languages that are pulled from some forgotten part of history -- secret knowledge that only this group knows, and you can be in on the secret if you do what you’re told. Apparently harmless and intellectually attractive to a spiritually curious person who is unsuspecting. Cults promise a string of things, and play off of something essential in human nature -- a Utopian promise, as was the case with Jim Jones, or escape from the inevitability of death, as was the case with the cult I knew - called Sukyo Mahikari.
The Intellectual in Exile takes a Field Trip
Reading means nothing if you don’t apply it. The only way I would truly understand the nature of a cult would be to see one for myself. Seems easy enough. As fate would have it, someone I suspected was a member of a cult invited me within a month of reading Singer’s book. How fortunate(?). I had dropped out of community college by then, but still regularly attended the cafe debates because I was learning to hone the art of argumentation there -- daily an intellectual free-for-all. A cult functions through a system of reward-and-punishment, and some cults work by rewarding those who are successful in their promise to recruit new members. He had told me about the group and its special Sunday Meeting -- lining up with the blossoming of the Cherry Trees in the District of Columbia. A beautiful event, the Cherry Trees. What a strange way to spend a lazy afternoon, fighting a cult. He told me it was a group called Sukyo Mahikari, and that they were doing some sort’ve meditation seminar, that I seemed like a spiritual person who would take interest in this sort of thing, and that if I didn’t like it, I wouldn’t have to return. Something about it immediately seemed suspect to my newly crafted Skeptical philosophy, and Margaret Singer had talked about “Neo-Eastern” cults like the Hari Krishnas, and “live-in,”cults, that had promised that people could leave at any time, but are manipulated into staying, for fearful reasons of punishment in the afterlife (a violent modification of the Puritan’s theology). I was bouncing between my librarian friend’s house and another friend, and this person promised me a night’ stay at his house, before we had head up to the meeting in the capital city of the freest country in the world. A night’s sleep, and a learning experience. Sounds fun enough, and I am a traveler and truthseeker, after all. One friend, I saw this coming, tried to talk me out of it, gently making remarks about the ominous implications of following my “morbid curiosity with this crazy religious group.” I didn’t listen, because I have (or did at the time) a compulsion to dive into things head first: Geronimo! This is the cry of someone who is reckless and young and stupid. At least I can admit it now. I wish I didn’t have to learn the lesson the hard way.
A Hard Lesson in Skeptical Philosophy
I stayed at his house for the night -- it was a very poor house, with a lot of holes in the floor. The smell of sawdust and alcohol is perfect for inducing vomit. His mother was also a part of the cult. Cults prey on abused people, says Singer, and his mother was beaten by her husband. She would speak so highly of me, upon meeting me, telling me she got visions of angels when she shook my hand. After I revealed myself to be someone trying to stop this cult, I would get calls from her in the morning every day for the following three weeks, harshly-toned threats, telling me to watch my back. I didn’t call the police, because the threats were irrational and harmless -- they didn’t know where I was. One morning after receiving a call, I walked into my friend’s bedroom to ask her if we were safe -- we were barricaded in her big and empty fortress-of-a-house. Only you, Stephen Wallace, would be doing something like this.
I didn’t sleep that night. I knew what I was getting myself into. I didn’t read. I didn’t sleep and I didn’t do anything but sit up and think that night. Eleven in the morning the following day, that’s when this mission begins. I am a man on a mission -- my name is Victor Sung, a fake name -- lying for protection, intellectual self-defense (Actually, it’s Stephen Wallace, Stephen Da Sung Wallace, W-A-L-L-A-C-E. Hello everyone, I am The End, the bain of all deceptive cults and evil, villainous institutions like this one -- oh, and, Godspeed, you devilish ponzi schemers, run for your lives!). I had crafted a whole story, something appropriate to fit the situation. Actually, when I was asked what I was doing there, I didn’t lie. I said I was a boy who had been abused by his parents, who had been homeless, who had been doing a lot of reading and was interested in what they had going on in this organization, which seemed to be a peculiar group, interesting, that I had never seen anything like this before, and that I needed to learn the truth and see it for myself.
And I did learn the truth. Time to apply the rigor of the scientific method to whatever they had to say. It was a lot of sitting and standing, which was alright, that’s normal, except they spoke in monotonous unity, in something that was explained me “ancient religious Japanese language, like Hebrew, except Japanese.” The lesson was what was explained to me by the recruiter -- we were in a period of baptism by water, when Jesus had come down before, and God’s Mercy had saved us from the malice of eternal torment. But, now, we were in a period of Baptism by Fire, and there were punishments for all of us damned souls -- the solution is sublimely simple -- the members of Sukyo Mahikari are saved -- a new Noah’s Ark was being built in Tokyo Japan, and we would all be safe, for joining. There was a ten minute period of meditation after an exhausting four hour session of continuous sitting-standing-monotony-and-mumbling. Something my newly forged skeptical mind found repulsive. Something my fatigued body also reviled -- I hadn’t slept in thirty hours by the end of the endless pseudo-sermon. I had gotten up once to go to the bathroom, only a few feet away, in the back of the room. I was stopped by smiling faces, men who grinned too widely and shook my hand and asked me how I was doing, and hoped I was having a good time, hoped I was having a great time, hoped I was doing well, hoped I was doing well, hoped I was doing well. Three men stood outside the bathroom, and hoped I was feeling okay. Phones and especially picture phones were not allowed in the room. I had gone to the bathroom, simply to breathe. I was afraid -- there was no going back now, stupid.
Lunch followed the meditation. Ten minutes of sleep was enough for how I felt. Something I was going to do here could save a life, only one life saved and I would have found a meaningful thing done in my recklessness. I would be a moral, good person for this, and that mattered deeply to me. Margaret Singer says that some neo-eastern cults served food and manipulated people into thinking that, if the food induced vomit later, the explanation would be given that it was a spiritual purging of bad energy. I could check that one off of the “This is Batshit Crazy, This is a Cult” mental checklist -- I was told that if I had developed diarrhea or if I had felt a little sick after eating the food, it was because it had been blessed by Su God, and as such, it was food that could cure me of all of the bad karma. Yikes. No thank you, I have chinese waiting for me at home.
The Moment of Unraveling
The feminine, in Sukyo Mahikari, is annihilated. And this is why only the young girls wore uniforms. Dark green, with shoulder pads. Pseudo-military style. That was what made me nauseous, not the food. I remember feeling a tearing sadness in the pit of my stomach, noticing that, in the back of the room was a nursery, where during the whole service, toddlers played. Something I felt, for years following this day, guilty that I could do nothing about. The room was small but I was clever, and the preteens and early teens ate in a closet -- perfect, I could take off my mask there, and let them know. The problem was that it was only reserved for members -- but again, I was clever, so I adopted a blank stare and tilted my head towards the ceiling -- nothing to see here, airhead walking.
I closed the door behind me. Now was my chance: You guys, I want to tell you, this is not what it seems to be. Your freedom from this, the truth about what this cult is, its link to Japanese Fascism, its link to a terrorist attack in Tokyo in the 1990’s, its designated status as a cult by certain skeptical organizations is only an internet search away. I mean this, please believe me, come with me and leave and we can go.
I had not planned for this. A courteous rejection of my beliefs, because, the internet is full of people who are not “in” Sukyo Mahikari, the critics are damned and it would be irrevocably sinful to listen to them. And that it would be foolish of me to do so, as well. They said they knew this because that’s what they had been told. That’s it, they’d been told it, and there was no need for a rational investigation. There was nothing I could do. Margaret Singer wrote about how the layers of reason are slowly and diligently peeled away, stripping the members of the power to question. How did I forget this? The mission was compromised, and I was a failure of an agent, with no base to return to. Now, I was trapped. Luckily for me, no kid brought my name up to anyone important. I was safe. I was a safe failure.
There was a meeting that followed the service. I had to stay, because my recruiter friend was a part of this. The plan was that they were going to need $11,000 for the new building, which would be nicer than this one, and exciting and new. They moved around monthly, and I imagine that this was to keep from being tracked too easily. I can’t prove that, though, just a feeling. I was told with plastic glee that people had donated their entire paychecks to this cult. Yes, throw salt on the wounds of my realization that this was, indeed, a cult.
I was dropped off at my friend the librarian’s house, and invited to come back next Sunday. I told them that I’d think about it. I had not slept in forty-two hours, and I did not say a word to them. I went up to my guest room, and collapsed on the bed. I woke up in tears, which I didn’t know it was possible to do. I don’t remember sending a text to my friend, but I read it after I woke up, at midnight. There was nothing I could do for those kids, whose whole lives were now not theirs, the possibility of their futures had been aborted by the totalitarian arrangement of Sukyo Mahikari, and there was nothing I could do. There was nothing I could do about it, and I couldn’t accept that.
What kind of God would bring forth cultish personalities from the clay?
What kind of God would allow this?
No God that a Skeptic boy could believe in. Not anymore.
Ask Yourself Only and Solely…
To this day, I regard Bertrand Russell to be a secular prophet. Ask yourself only and solely, what are the facts and what is the truth that the facts bear out? When I tried to alert the International Cultic Studies Association, my findings were rejected -- I was not linked with any mainstream media outlet. But I can spell out what I know here -- Sukyo Mahikari is a distant cousin of the rigid religion of Shinto. The parliamentary reports of the French Government have classified Sukyo Mahikari as a cult. The group already has been classified as a cult by the International Cultic Studies Association, and there is a book that critiques the organization heavily, called All The Emperor's Men, which ties the group to Japanese Fascism. The group has been linked to a terrorist attack that killed twelve people in a sarin gas attack. It is strongly anti-semitic. This is the truth that the facts bear out. For now, this is all I can do -- add my experience to the pile of tragic stories having to do with cults, from Charles Manson, to Scientology.
The Seed of an Anarchist Vine
The cult experience of mine is inseparable from what would become my anarchist ethics. All philosophers have philosophers that precede them, that have laid down the tracks to arrive at the destination of a new idea. Preceding Marx was the Left Hegelians, preceding Nietzsche was Schopenhauer. My own philosophical development included this, before I considered myself an anarchist, I considered myself a skeptical nonconformist -- Old Testament, New Testament. It is through this experience that I began to see political ideology as a tool of control analogous to cultic arrangements -- false promises, lies, and a lot of scheming that leaves people hurt, sometimes people get killed in meaningless violence -- the world’s largest Cult is the American Political Machine. It’s taken me a long time to write this story, because it hurts to write it. But, I am done with this, for now.
Through this experience, I became interested in reading the works surrounding larger questions of control and coercion in free societies. It’s through this investigation that I found the work of Noam Chomsky. That is when everything changed. And that is the story that I would love to tell.