According to the Cult Help and Information Centre founded by Jan Groenveld, there are an estimated 5,000 cults currently recruiting thousands of members each year in the United States alone. “They all approach you and say just try it and see,” says Cult Information Consultant Joe Szimhart. “They're very relaxed, very casual.” But when so many are disguised as enticing paths to righteousness, how does one protect oneself?
“One way of understanding a cult is a break from a tradition,” says Dr. Michael Sudduth, San Francisco State University’s philosophy and religion department advisor. “Usually cults disown tradition in an important way.”
Sukyo Mahikari is a Japanese Spiritual practice that was founded in 1959 by Japanese military leader Yoshikazu Okada, or, as he is known within the practice, "Sukuinushisama," which translates to “salvation master.” Not considered a religion, this controversial practice is centered on okiyome, the giving and receiving of light energy. This light energy is supposedly concentrated in members, and is transmitted when members hold their palm to the recipient’s forehead—where, they say, the soul resides—in addition to the neck, kidneys, and anywhere a person is experiencing pain. This light is not only believed to purify the body, but the physical world as well. “Sukyo Mahikari only started saying that healing is not the purpose of True Light when they became concerned about the possibility of legal ramifications of claiming that,” says Anne Broder, a former member of Sukyo Mahikari. ‘Anne Broder’ is a pseudonym she chooses to use when speaking to the media. “Originally the organization was quite up-front about claiming that it could cure practically anything except leprosy and AIDS.”
Szimhart gained much of his knowledge on Sukyo Mahikari from writing a review of Gary Greenwood’s All The Emperor’s Men, a real account of Greenwood’s experience as a seventeen-year member. “He and his wife got to know the group very well from the inside, and they learned that there were a lot of cult-like characteristics and beliefs that they no longer could believe in,” he says. “They decided that Sukyo Mahikari was essentially a very superstitious organization. It’s a lot of hype based on folk magic and folk beliefs that go back to the Japanese roots in Shintoism.”
Broder was a member of Sukyo Mahikari for ten years, including several years, she says, as a “full-time trainee and junior staff member.” During this time, Broder was living at the center. “To me a cult is anything that manipulates a person’s beliefs and actions by mixing deception with enough truth to make the whole believable, and then uses fear to maintain a hold over the person,” she says. “The really sad thing is that most of the people doing the manipulating are merely passing on what they themselves sincerely believe.” Szimhart, who has been researching “the problem of harmful group activity” since 1980, feels that the main tactic of many cults is the use of thought reform techniques. “The idea of thought reform is connected to manipulation on human beings through coercive means,” he says. “The idea is that someone gains influence over another person and take advantage of that person through that influence. False beliefs can lead people into that whole concept of thought reform: thoughts that can change a person from one way of life to another.” Thought reform can occur, Szimhart says, Ideologically, socially, emotionally, physically, politically, or spiritually.
Historically, the first “cult” dates back to the Old Testament. Jews that had become Christians supposedly led a group as described in the Bible books of Acts and Galatians. These new Christians allegedly told their fellow Christians that they were to honor Jewish law and be circumcised. The early church composed a written response to their request, which is recorded in Acts 15:23-29:
23 They wrote this, letter by them: The apostles, the elders, and the brethren, To the brethren who are of the Gentiles in Antioch, Syria, and Cilicia: Greetings. 24 Since we have heard that some who went out from us have troubled you with words, unsettling your souls, saying, “You must be circumcised and keep the law”—to whom we gave no such commandment—25 it seemed good to us, being assembled with one accord, to send chosen men to you with our beloved Barnabas and Paul, 26 men who have risked their lives for the name of our Lord Jesus Christ. 27 We have therefore sent Judas and Silas, who will also report the same things by word of mouth. 28 For it seemed good to the Holy Spirit, and to us, to lay upon you no greater burden than these necessary things: 29 that you abstain from things offered to idols, from blood, from things strangled, and from sexual immorality. If you keep yourselves from these, you will do well. Farewell.
The notion of a “cult” is largely tied to a distortion of the Bible’s message. “Although people who are not religious are going to regard certain extreme groups as cults, such as Jim Jones [Jonestown], many other groups are labeled cults from the vantage point of a particular religion,” says Sudduth. In other words, Protestantism was a break from Catholicism, but no one today regards Protestantism as a cult because Protestants and Catholics accept similar creeds.
“The word [cult] is a neutral term that means ‘a system of devotion to a person, an object, or an idea,” Szimhart says. “There’s really nothing wrong with cults per se. In Sukyo Mahikari's case, it’s using an old folklore of Japan and presenting it as a plausible system of beliefs when it’s just superstition. The harm for most people is all the money and time and energy they spend thinking this is going to work and then 25 years later they find that they’re not any healthier, or any better off in any way,” he says. “The problem is, you don’t get that time back.”
Broder points out that those who join cults are often stereotyped as gullible and insecure. “It’s a common misconception that ‘cults’ are populated by other people, those who are stupid, or socially inept, or maladjusted in some way,” Broder says. “I think most people think that they themselves could never be sucked into a cult, as if they come with a convenient sign over the door saying ‘this is a cult.’ As someone once said, don’t ask a cult member if he has been brainwashed, because if he knew he was, he wouldn’t be.” Szimhart believes that most people who join cults are indeed looking to fill a void. “Fifty percent of people that join Sukyo Mahikari are looking for some sort of personal healing,” he says. “Very often there’s an initial relief, maybe psychosomatic, but it doesn’t last. It's that initial little hit that hooks them. “
Sudduth is not familiar with Sukyo Mahikari, but he believes that there are several characteristics shared by most groups believed to be cults that can serve as indicators. First, Sudduth believes that secrecy seems to be an element in lots of cults in terms of their beliefs and practices. While members of Sukyo Mahikari seem to go to great lengths to hide information from non-members, Broder argues that members are not themselves provided with enough information to make an educated decision as to whether or not they believe what they are told. “Correct facts are about the only tool members have to help cut through the emotional manipulation and mind control, but Sukyo Mahikari has hidden a lot, and facts are hard to come by,” Broder says. “If members freely choose to remain members after they have access to the full facts, that is their free choice and I'm fine with that.” Years of research after leaving Sukyo Mahikari have enabled Broder to gain a better understanding of the core concepts of Sukyo Mahikari. “In a nutshell, a kumite [member] is trying to purify her/himself and others in order to be in tune with Su God and help Him save humanity from disaster and bring about a better world,” she explains. “Whether or not Sukyo Mahikari is “working” should be able to be seen by the state of the world as a whole and the level of health, peace, and prosperity experienced by members, but there are too many invisible provisos, such as karma and the arrangements of “divine wisdom,” for one to ever be sure how to interpret what one sees.” Michel, who did not reveal his last name, is a long-time member who is very confident in his decision to ‘live in the light.’ “I’ve been practicing for 23 years and not brainwashed! Don't get confused: deep enthusiasm is not brainwashing. I tend to think it's easier to declare that they were brainwashed than to recognize they couldn’t make it. I feel deeply sorry for that. Anybody can get out of Mahikari if he wants, and many do! Where is the brainwashing?” Michel believes that those who have had negative experiences within the practice become disillusioned, and begin to view Sukyo Mahikari in a false light. “Some Christians still say that the Pope is the antichrist! The Catholic Church had the Inquisition, the Crusades and so on, but it doesn't mean that the faith of millions of followers is a fake, or that they must be brainwashed, or that the church is useless and dangerous.”
In an article she wrote on the subject for the Japanese Journal of Religious Studies last year, Broder points out that the content of the first revelation recorded in Goseigen was changed around the time of Okada's death in June, 1974, even though that revelation occurred in 1959. The first four editions ofGoseigen, which were released between 1970 and 1974 do not contain a particular sentence that is present in all subsequent editions of Goseigen. As Broder writes, “According to most published texts of this revelation,
Su God told Okada:
‘You will be made to speak the depth of the teachings, which was not revealed before. The Spirit of Truth has entered your ___. You shall speak what you hear. The time of heaven has come. Rise. Your name shall be Kōtama. Raise your hand [perform tekazashi]. The world shall enter severe times.‘
(Holy Words: Goseigen, 4-5.)
“Raise your hand” does not appear in the first Japanese edition, printed in 1970, the third, printed in 1973, or the fourth printed in 1974 – the year of Okada’s death – while it does in fact exist in all subsequent editions printed after Okada’s death in 1974. But how did this sentence – one that happens to be at the center of the beliefs upheld by members - appear after the time of his death? “In brief, these stories concerning the origin of Mahikari say that God gave the above revelation to Okada in 1959 and, as a result of that revelation, Okada tested out ‘raising his hand’ and discovered, supposedly to his great surprise, that he could heal people by giving light,” she says. “Initially, the fact that he could heal people by giving light was the thing that supposedly convinced Okada that the revelation was genuine. Therefore, he founded his new religion because he believed Su God was telling him what to do, and that all the revelations contained “The Truth.” According to Broder, adding in words to make it seem that God told Okada to raise his hand as part of that particular revelation in 1959 suggests a link between the healing technique practiced by members, "true light," and the revelations from God. "They thus drop any previous beliefs they might have had about unseen spiritual matters and willingly follow Okada's teachings," says Broder. “Sukyo Mahikari controls the beliefs of its members, their beliefs dictate their actions, and you get very dedicated altruistic members - some of the nicest people I've ever met! - who often become quite incapable of seeing that they have been manipulated.” When asked for a response in regards to the sentence that is missing from the earlier editions, Poelma preferred that William Roberts, Assistant Director for the North American region, answer on her behalf. Roberts, who is able to read Japanese, confirmed that the sentence is in fact missing from the earliest editions. “The revelations were revealed as much as could be at the time,” he says. Roberts expressed a desire to “check with headquarters” when asked how this sentence could possibly have been revealed after the time of Okada’s death. Roberts has not yet supplied a response. “I'm not surprised!” Broder says of Roberts desire to seek an answer from headquarters. “Members will generally answer questions quite openly about the basic stuff they all know from kenshu, but if they have any doubt at all they will refer you to someone else due to the fear of misrepresenting the teachings. It was always drummed into us that we must never ever distort the teachings, even accidentally.” Michel said he had never heard of the missing sentence, or of the earlier editions being different in any way, and declined to reveal his last name because he stated that was unsure of the purpose in the writing of this story. “There has always been strong emphasis on preserving Okada's teachings (his "golden words") as is, and avoiding any corruption of his original words,” Broder says. “And of course, the revelations are supposed to be a reliable record of what Su God [the ‘Creator God’ worshipped by members of Sukyo Mahikari] said.”
Secondly, according to Sudduth and Szimhart, a similar type of individual often leads cults. “Typically, there’s some charismatic person that is the leader of the group,” he says. “Although people who are not religious are going to regard certain extreme groups as cults, such as Jim Jones, many other groups are labeled cults from the vantage point of a particular religion.” In other words, Protestantism was a break from Catholicism, but no one today regards Protestantism as a cult because Protestants and Catholics accept similar creeds. Szimhart agrees, believing that the leaders often do not practice what they preach. “The leaders of these groups know that this stuff doesn’t really work,” he says. The challenge for members of any organization is finding out what is really going on in the mind of the leaders—and whether or not they really believe what they want members to believe. “In Sociology, this is called ‘backstage reality,’ Szimhart explains. “You’ve got to know what the leader is like behind the scenes and how they’re pulling the strings to make the magic show work.”
Perhaps the most influential tactic used by leaders of cults is the use of fear to keep members from leaving. “The belief system is inducting paranoia that if you’re not practicing, bad things are going to happen,” Szimhart says. That’s why people don’t leave. It’s not because it’s working, it's because they’re afraid of what will happen if they’re not in it.”
The fact that cults have been around as long as religion, and that so many cults and religions exist, is a testament to the idea that no individual has ever been or possibly will ever be completely positive of the most righteous way of life. “Of the hundreds of cults that I've dealt with, none of that energy affects me,” says Szimhart, a happily married father of __. I even have deprogrammed people out of Sukyo Mahikari. I would be blasted out of the universe for my [so-called] “negative” energy. That’s one proof that it’s purely psychological.”