The Clickbait Cult

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Words || Max Lewis

Like everybody, I spend most of my days in a living nightmare. If you feel the same, I want you to ask yourself: what if there was a strange Japanese organisation that could scientifically teach you the secrets to happiness? What if it was started by a former businessman who claims he is the funnel through which God speaks, the reincarnation of Buddha who can communicate with dead political figures like Margaret Thatcher? If this sounds right up your alley, please don’t ever come near me, but look no further than Happy Science.

Like a game of buzzword Frisbee, lots of terms are thrown around about Happy Science, ‘cult’ being the most prominent. Online searches often pointed me in this direction, from articles written by VICE to a Facebook review admonishing it as a “dangerous cult playing on people’s insecurities”. Oddly enough, these were often accompanied by Happy Science PR people defending themselves from the ‘cult’ status. As a heavily insecure man myself, I thought there was no better way to get to the bottom of this mystery than to go, alone and vulnerable, to the multi-million dollar temple located in Lane Cove.

I barely had the chance to sleuth before I was greeted by a man whose name I never asked for, so I’ll call him Jeff. Jeff was a middle-aged Japanese man dressed smartly in a button up and jeans. I assure Jeff that I’m not out to write a smear campaign, so he sits me down and begins to speak.

“It’s about exactly how to make people happy”, he tells me. World conflict has its roots in religious disagreements, and Happy Science wishes to provide what Jeff unfortunately calls a ‘final solution’. Appearing to catch himself, he says, “We want to reform – no, not reform, change people’s perspectives”. This can be achieved through four principles: Love, Wisdom, Self-Reflection and Progress. This is the way to connect to the Gods: “Without it you cannot be happy, you will suffer and cause suffering to others”.

So, who came up with all of this? Jeff points behind me and I turn to see a picture of a bright, smiling Japanese man. “Master Ryuho Okawa,” he says. “We believe he is the reincarnation of Buddha – not the Buddha himself, but his core consciousness. His core consciousness is called El Cantare – what Christians call Father in Heaven and what Muslims call Allah. Master Okawa is not human – he’s talking to us through a physical body, but like Jesus, what he says are the words of God.”

Jeff neglected to tell me that Okawa was a former high-profile businessman, based in Tokyo and New York. He underwent a spiritual awakening in 1981, discovering El Cantare within himself and learning of his divine mission to create a Utopia. Okawa, presumably, sat and thought about this for five years before renouncing his corporate ways and forming Happy Science in 1986.  Since then he has written somewhere between 2000-3000 books – nobody at Happy Science seems to know the exact number, or remembers that ghostwriters exist – and members of Happy Science can be found in almost 100 countries. Master Okawa has achieved much in just 31 years.

“If you practice the four principles precisely, you can hear his voice,” Jeff says, cupping his hand to his ear and tilting his head. All I could hear was the blare of new-age elevator music, so my four principles must need improvement.  

I ask Jeff what makes up a day in the life of a ‘Happy’, as followers of Master Okawa are called. He skirts around the question with ease, instead telling me about the Dharma of the Right Mind, the ‘prayer book’ or ‘sutra’ of Happy Science. “A condensed Bible”, he says. I probe for more information, and he simply says, “I live the four principles all the time”.

Jeff seemed nice enough, but it’s around this time that I notice him often totally ignoring what I’m asking. Granted, he’s Japanese and there may have been a language barrier, although it didn’t feel like that. I was beginning to form a picture in my head of Happy Science as a sort of clickbait religion – you don’t know what it’s about till you’re already in and out of pocket.

I decide to see how much Jeff will tell me. I start with the classic: persecution. Homosexuals are an “experiment that heaven is carrying on”, yet they are still “accepted” he tells me. Trans and nonbinary people are simply forgetting who they are – perhaps mismatched with the identity of a previous reincarnation. They will get a chance at the gender they truly want when they die and reincarnate, and as such they should “please stop crying over [their] gender, and try to live what is given by God”.

Where Happy Science starts to get even uglier is the Happiness Realisation Party (HRP), situated in Japan. Although they do not yet hold a seat in Parliament, Jeff tells me they are very influential, but doesn’t tell me how. “The Gods do not like the situation in Japan”, he tells me. “They keep warning [us] – natural disasters, that sort of thing. Japan did not listen, so we had to establish HRP to restore faith for the nation.”

HRP ‘restores faith’ by advocating military expansion and nuclear arms for ‘deterrence’, denying the Nanking Massacre – where up to 300,000 Chinese citizens were raped and murdered – calling for China to be ejected from the United Nations, and publicly supporting Donald Trump. Jeff fails to tell me any of this when I ask him what policies the HRP has. However, according to On The Victory of Donald Trump, Okawa himself has “explored the depths of Trump’s soul and discovered he was a well-known US President in his past life”.  

Jeff tells me that Trump – and Putin – “understand” the HRP, and wish to work with them because they are the only honest political party. With Trump and Putin, HRP hopes to create “stress, good stress, for China to convert into democracy”. Trump’s hate-filled rhetoric apparently does not deter Happy Science, or Jeff: “What [Trump] says and what he does, does not necessarily …” Jeff trails off, choosing his words carefully before starting again: “You’re not supposed to look at what [Trump’s] doing in a simplistic way,” he explains.

I can tell Jeff is getting wary of my questioning, so I try to leave. I’m almost out when I’m cornered by another member, who I’ll call Sam. Sam gave off a much creepier and indoctrinated vibe than Jeff, giving me an intense stare as I explained how I found Happy Science, before asking if I’d heard the rumours of it being a cult. I feign ignorance, hoping to escape, but he continues. “When you watch Master Okawa, it’s amazing. No one can pretend to be so enlightened. No one who was lying could say it with so much sincerity and authority. Try to tell people that, and they’ll call you mad.”

“Or a cult?” I ask.

“Exactly,” he says.