An Almighty Con? Taiwan’s ‘Purple Shirts’ and their Master

Why you need to know

Former members of the massive religious group are speaking out about high fees, harassment, and the leader's spurious claims.

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Followers of a self-proclaimed Buddhist guru in Taiwan are handing over tens of millions of dollars in membership fees and donations to his organization each year, former members of the sect have told The News Lens.

Master Miaochan (妙禪師父), founder of Rulaizong (如來宗), is netting yearly membership proceeds of NT$72 million (US$2.4 million), coupled with monthly donations of as much as NT$86 million (US$2.8 million), the former members say.

The organization, which claims to practice Zen Buddhism, was founded by Miaochan in 2004 and is understood to have about 80,000 followers across Taiwan. Followers of Miaochan credit anything good that happens in their lives — from job promotions to finding love — to the protection and blessing of their master. They claim the leader’s healing powers include curing people who have suffered strokes and those diagnosed with early-stage cancer.

Members pay NT$1,000 to NT$2,000 (US$33 to US$66) in monthly fees to the organization. The leader claims the contributions will help him bring salvation to his believers and the donations are collected at their 24 large-scale prayer sessions held each month. It is at these prayer sessions where Miaochan makes appearances, and members are encouraged to attend at least one session every month.

A local bank, Yuanta Bank, offers members the “Rulai Card,” which automatically deducts NT$2,000 from cardholders' accounts as donations to the group every month.

“Josh,” a former member who now works to convert people out of Rulaizong, believes that at least 800,000 people have participated in introductory sessions and paid the base member fee of NT$300.

“From that fee alone, Miaochan has made at least NT$24 million over the past 13 years,” he told TNL.

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A shady record

Every week, up to 5,000 people wearing the iconic purple T-shirts gather at Tianmu Sports Park in Taipei just to get a glimpse of their spiritual leader, who claims to be a “living Buddha” on par with Jesus Christ, the Prophet Muhammad and Siddhartha Gautama.

Miaochan’s real name is Liu Jin-lung (劉錦隆). According to the Rulaizong website, he became a “Buddha” in 1998 and established Rulaizong to spread his views. Rulaizong claims it now has 110,000 members, although “John,” a source close to Miaochan, says this does not account for the 30,000 people who have left the organization.

Prior to founding his own organization, Miaochan was a high-ranking disciple under a different Zen Buddhism teacher, Master Miaotian (妙天). According to blog posts written by his former classmates, he left after being accused of overcharging people who were buying cubicles for cremation urns from Miaotian’s organization. He was not charged but his reputation was damaged, they say. While Rulaizong claims to accept anyone who is interested in joining, former members told TNL that the organization does not welcome Miaotian followers.

“Chen,” a former teacher at Rulaizong — the organization is understood to have 30 paid head teachers, and over 80 volunteer teachers — was a member for five years and had access to the Tainan prayer center’s monthly meetings.

“Miaochan’s greed knows no bounds,” Chen says.

Chen says a large amount of money is also donated into a “provision fund.” While Rulaizong’s official stance is that donations are voluntary, Chen told TNL that is not the case. Teachers push members to make donations telling them,“Only then can our Master help you remove bad karma.”

At the end of each year, the head teachers of the organization's 30 prayer centers will ask members to contribute more donations, Chen says.

In addition to a monthly donation of NT$10,000, Chen’s family was asked to contribute NT$100,000 at the end of each year.

John, the former member close to Miaochan said donations given at the prayer session start at NT$1,000, but he has seen people dropping up to NT$5,000 in the boxes.

“At the prayer sessions, Miaochan’s followers practically climb on top of each other just to get their money into the collection box,” John says.

Chen adds that very little of Rulaizong’s income is used to maintain the organization’s daily operations.

Drinking water and photocopy machines in the Tainan prayer center, for instance, are sponsored by members, and rental fees for parking at the prayer centers are also paid for by members, according to Chen.

John says that in addition to the more than NT$300,000 collected at each of the 24 larger prayer sessions held each month, further income is generated for Rulaizong and its leader through the collection of bus fares for the shuttles to the prayer stadiums.

After the money is collected, John told TNL, “I carried all of the cash back to Miaochan’s apartment in suitcases. ‘Bus money’ from Taipei, Taichung, Tainan, everywhere.”

John says that whenever the “master is unhappy,” the director of Rulaizhong will gather well-off members — generally company executives — to contribute funds for buying “presents” for Miaochan. However, no one has ever seen any of these presents.

“The only ‘present’ anyone has seen is that NT$3 million (US$99,000) jade pendant Miaochan wears,” Chen says.

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No oversight

Unlike other Buddhist foundations like Tzu Chi or Foguangshan, Rulaizong does not publicly disclose its financial records. For the past 10 years, the organization has also been collecting separate donations for building a "prayer stadium,” but neither the amount collected or the location of the stadium has ever been made public.

When contacted for comment, Rulaizong referred TNL to a September 2014 statement which states that Rulaizong is a non-profit organization registered with the Ministry of the Interior. All funding for the organization comes from donations by members, and donations are used for teaching Rulaizong beliefs.

The statement goes on to state that Rulaizong hires internationally accredited accounting firms — it is unclear which firm — to audit its accounts and the group also reports its financial accounts to the Ministry of the Interior.

“Absolutely none of the donations go to private accounts. Rulaizong was set up as a center for meditation, we ask that the public respect that and give us a quiet space to meditate,” the statement concludes.

The organization did not respond to further questions.

As to where the public could make complaints if they suspected a scam, a spokesperson for the police told TNL that jurisdiction over religious organization came under the Department of Civil Affairs.

“The police doesn’t really get involved in religious affairs. These complaints should go through the Department of Civil Affairs,” the spokesperson said.

However, an official in the Department of Civil Affairs told TNL that only the police or other investigative authorities had investigative powers over fraudulent organizations.

“If evidence could be provided then investigative authorities will be able to open a case against the group,” said the official.

An official with the Ministry of Justice’s Investigative Bureau Public Affairs Office says that religious affairs are difficult to investigate, especially since money given to religious organizations are usually donations.

“If someone feels they have been scammed, they could bring a case to a district prosecutor, who might investigate the charges,” the official told TNL.

Neither agency was aware of complaints being lodged against the group.

Chen and John never thought of lodging reports with the Taiwanese authorities after they left. “We didn’t know anyone we could go to,” they tell TNL.

“All of the money is being given to Miaochan and Rulaizong willingly, so a fraud charge would never hold up in court,” Josh told TNL. “Rulaizong is nothing more than a scam.”

‘Big brother’ is watching

If any of his followers question the cash flow of the organization, they are told that this is the “Buddha’s secret” and to continue to meditate and believe in their master, the former members say.

Followers are encouraged to report back on any developments in their private lives, part of an intricate system of control that helps prayer center teachers monitor individual members.

The teachers will know if members have received a promotion, found a new job, recovered from an illness or the like. They then report on these happenings to core members of Rulaizong, who eventually report back to Miaochan himself. Teachers also monitor each other and report on their movements to the leader.

“He’s a control freak. If your toilet breaks he wants to know,” John says.

According to John, head teachers — who form the core of the organization and spread Miaochan’s “teachings” — have been forced to move into the same apartment with Miaochan so he can keep watch over their comings and goings. Miaochan also tends to separate spouses who both teach at his centers, sending them to job postings in different regions of Taiwan, he says.

Many of the teachers quit their normal jobs to work for Rulaizong and are completely dependent on their leader to pay their salary, but live in constant fear of Miaochan.

According to John, Rulaizong teachers cannot count on a stable income, since Miaochan makes cuts whenever he feels his influence waning. The former employee says he had his salary slashed in half after three months of working for Miaochan. Barely able to support himself, John stopped making donations to Rulaizong, and after another three months, he was fired.

Head teachers and members who are fired or leave the organization are immediately ostracized. John says he had 4,000 Facebook friends while still a member of Rulaizong. After he left, 3,600 people “unfriended” him.

Moreover, subject to strict control from Miaochan and under pressure to maintain member numbers, head teachers threaten and bully members who begin to “lose faith” in the organization.

Chang Chia-lin (張嘉麟), one of the first people to start opposing Miaochan on PTT, Taiwan’s main internet forum, says that intimidation and threats are rampant within individual prayer centers. Members who wish to leave, Chang says, are usually told they will have a “bad karma explosion” — bad luck for the rest of their lives.

Chang was the only former member willing to be named in this article.

Rulaizong members are notorious for pestering everyone they know into participating in the weekly meetings. Even after being turned down, some will continue to call and text in a bid to increase the organization's membership.

“Thank you Master, praise Master”

Despite the requests for donations and payments, Miaochan appears to have been successful in continuing to attract and retain believers.

Lim Tai Wei, a senior lecturer at Singapore Institute of Management and a research fellow at National University of Singapore’s East Asian Institute says Taiwan is ideal for religious proselytization because its freedom and democracy allows it to accommodate all religious practices.

“Democratization that occurred after a period of authoritarian rule reinforced the process and outcome of new religions,” Lim said via email.

According to the researcher, Rulaizong appears to have roots in Tathagata Buddhism, a concept which refers to the idea that Siddartha experienced enlightenment and others will follow suit by imparting the methods.

Since Taiwan is traditionally a majority Buddhist and Taoist country, accepting sects with differing interpretations like Tathagata, or Rulaizong is a smoother process, Lim says.

Rulaizong members are taught to constantly hold Miaochan in their minds. This way, they are told, their master can help guide them through any difficulties in their lives. During meditation, believers are told to hold an image of their master in their mind’s eye and say the phrase, “Thank you master, praise master (感恩師父,讚嘆師父).”

Teachers tell followers to thank their master for everything good or bad that happens in their lives. Unlike other major Buddhist organizations like Tzu Chi (慈濟), which provides humanitarian relief during disasters and encourages recycling, followers of Rulaizong are told not to be involved in charitable work as helping others only interferes in their karma and does not help build character.

Members close themselves off from their friends and families, neglecting normal life and getting completely taken up in the practices of their religion, Josh says. They spend time meditating instead of working, and many of the members he knew had changed jobs multiple times.

Rulaizong’s core belief — that believing in Miaochan can help solve difficulties — is also deeply problematic, says Josh. He gives an example of a young woman who decided to ride her scooter home during a typhoon instead of calling a taxi because she believed that holding the image of Miaochan in her mind would keep her safe. The woman reached home safely. However, Josh asks, would Rulaizong’s teachers take responsibility if she had an accident?

If believers start to question these teachings, they are told that their “self-conscious is too strong,” and suspicious members are eventually shunned and forced to leave.

Josh says he left the group after three months because of the idolatry of Miaochan and members’ ignorance of true Buddhist teachings.

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Countering a Buddhist ‘cult’

Lim, the Singapore-based researcher, says that Taiwan’s democratic and free environment also means there is a possibility for resistance or opposition in religious discourse, narratives and institutions.

Chang joined Rulaizong for a few months in 2012, but began to grow wary as the requests for money increased and he was told not to ask questions about Miaochan’s background.

He did some digging on Miaochan’s past and now believes the leader is a charlatan. In December 2014, Chang began writing blog posts debunking Rulaizong and its leader, leading a wave of “anti-Rulaizong” blogs and Facebook pages.

Chang, who now works in Holland, calls Rulaizong a “spiritual growth promotion enterprise.” Miaochan relies on a group of people with great marketing skills to spread his “beliefs,” Chang says, but in reality, Miaochan himself has no such great knowledge.

Chang points to Rulaizong’s weekly report that was recently canceled. The report was compiled by Rulaizong members from recordings made by Miaochan, articles quote the leader verbatim. “If you read these articles, you start to notice he does not make much sense,” Chang says.

Chang began parodying these articles, which, he says, led to the cancellation of the weekly report.

As Chang’s parodies began to garner attention on PTT, others who had experiences with Rulaizong started to come forward as well. An anti-Miaochan group on Facebook, which uses the handle @brainwashingasshole and has 2,000 likes, allows people to submit anonymous complaints about the group and its members. Chen and John both tell TNL that many of the anonymous submissions are actually from current members, and some of the more revealing submissions are factually accurate.

Lazer Lotus, another parody Facebook account, was set up in 2014 and is the brainchild of Tsai. Tsai went to a Rulaizong introductory session while still in university, where he marveled at the ridiculous “teachings” being shared by members of the group.

The meeting compelled him to set up his own religion to counter Rulaizong, complete with its own backstory and core teachings. Tsai later used Lazer Lotus as a platform to run for student council representative for his university department. His election promise — a strong belief in the second law of thermodynamics, among others — led him to become a sensation on PTT, and his Facebook page gained 9,000 followers.

Tsai, who is now serving in the military, does not have the time to manage the page but he hopes Lazer Lotus can be a platform to reveal the truth about Rulaizong.

Even with the increase of opposition to Rulaizong on the internet, the group still continues to have a hold on its believers.

Tsai and Chang agree that Taiwan’s superstitious culture is a key reason Rulaizong has managed to capture the hearts and minds of so many Taiwanese people.

“Groups like Rulaizong that claim to be Buddhist appeal to people who are at a low point in their lives, and since Taiwanese will pray to any god, they easily believe in people like Miaochan,” Tsai says.

On the other hand, Josh says that it is the lack of critical thinking skills in Taiwan’s education system that makes Taiwanese so easy to brainwash. “When I look at Rulaizong, what I see is not a scam, but Taiwan’s sorrow,” Josh says.

Ultimately, Chang and Tsai both say that stricter control over religious groups is needed in Taiwan.

Without a religious law, even the lawyers that are members of Rulaizong know that no legal action can be taken against the group, Josh says. “The group will just continue to function in the gray areas of the law.”

Editor's Note: The names of several former Rulaizong members have been changed to protect their identity.

Editor: Edward White

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