Inside one man's extraordinary exit from a Buddhist group accused of operating like a cult

ABC News, Australia/October 1, 2023

By Emily Baker

Richard Siu jokes his fashion sense could be better, but for the first 25 years of his life, his outfits were covered by the robes of the Jin-Gang-Dhyana religious group.

It's a celebrated Buddhist organisation, but one Richard describes as operating like a cult. Its legacy goes well beyond his choice of clothing.

He did not receive a formal education as a child, grew up with little contact with the broader community and spent part of his young adult life in effective isolation in a home owned by the group's leader in Hobart.

"I feel like my first 25 years of my life have been robbed by the Buddhists, which I'll never get back," Richard told 7.30.

"But on the plus side, I just keep going forward."

Jin-Gang-Dhyana is led by Wang Xin De, better known as Master Wang, who is worshipped by his followers as a living Buddha. Mr Wang's group is based in Hobart but has branches all over the world.

'Things just don't add up'

Richard was born in Hong Kong but raised in a Jin-Gang-Dhyana temple in New Zealand by his grandmother and gurus.

"Generally we get up pretty early in the morning, do some Buddhist rituals, and then we do martial arts, and then basically just either learn or copy the teachings from the master," Richard said.

Richard said he did not receive a formal education past the age of about three. In response to an inquiry from 7.30, New Zealand Education Ministry north director Isabel Evans confirmed the department could not find any record of Richard attending local schools or having been registered for homeschooling.

"Legally all children in New Zealand aged over six years must be enrolled at and attending school," Ms Evans said.

Richard, now 34, described an isolated youth. He showed 7.30 correspondence in which he asked Mr Wang's permission to go to the supermarket, and in another email, received praise for improving view counts on YouTube videos connected to the group by watching them on repeat.

"When you start looking at the outside world, you just start feeling like more and more things just don't add up, but in the group you're not allowed to question anything," Richard said.

In his 20s, Richard moved to Hobart to help with a major Jin-Gang-Dhyana event and do maintenance on properties associated with the group's $40 million asset portfolio.

Richard lived in a property owned by Mr Wang, where he said he was mostly alone without access to a mobile phone or entertainment beyond religious texts and a radio. He said gurus would regularly visit to check he was still in the property and collect his handwritten reflections and requests to his leader.

He alleged his diet was restricted as part of his spiritual practice.

"The master just said as part of your training you just eat bread, and that's all I had for quite a few months," Richard said.

"They said it was part of your training because they always say in ancient times the Buddha is living a simple and kind of harsh life."

Frustrated, bored and lonely, Richard longed to leave. There were no physical barriers stopping him from exiting the group, but without an education, social connections or money, he felt stuck.

"Technically you can go but it's more like the mental, the psychological pressure that you're not supposed to leave," he said.

Speaking out

Richard is the second former Jin-Gang-Dhyana follower to speak on the record about their experiences in the group. In August, Hong Kong woman Camille Kwan told 7.30 her relationship with her adult son Philip* had been affected by restrictions placed on him by Mr Wang after he moved to Hobart to live in a temple.

In messages seen by 7.30, Philip encouraged his mother to get Mr Wang's permission to see him while she visited Hobart.

"He keeps saying [they will] not allow him to go out this [temple] building, because the outside world hasn't been blessed by master," Camille said at the time.

The allegations of restrictions were denied by Philip and Mr Wang, both of whom accused Camille of "verbal violence". Another Jin-Gang-Dhyana follower also accused the ABC of verbal violence after the story was published.

Camille, who practised Jin-Gang-Dhyana Buddhism for decades, has consulted with Cult Information and Family Support president Tore Klevjer. Mr Klevjer told 7.30 the group's conduct was "spiritually abusive".

"The similarities that we see between domestic abuse [...] or cult-like environments are quite similar," Mr Klevjer said.

"There's the love bombing and time when the person is the centre of the universe, and then their own autonomy is gradually stripped away over a period of time, to the point where they're completely reliant on the group and on the teachings of the leader."

Seeking help to leave

Richard eventually decided it was time to experience life outside Jin-Gang-Dhyana.

Aware there was a library within walking distance of his home in the Hobart suburb of Lindisfarne, he left the house through a back window. To avoid main roads, he bashed through bushland to reach the facility. Once there, he used the computers and spoke with other library-goers – an attempt to "acclimatise" himself to broader society.

"Especially when you come back, you don't know whether someone will be at the door. So it just kind of has to be pretty quick, and almost like trying to do something dodgy."

Visiting the library became an almost daily occurrence. To avoid detection, Richard told the guru who checked on him that he was meditating each afternoon and couldn't be disturbed.

Finally, in July 2014, Richard did something drastic. He emailed Tasmania Police.

"I am writing to ask for advice on seeking the appropriate assistance so that I can leave a religious organisation that has been abusing me since my early childhood," the email started.

"I am not allowed to leave the house or communicate with anyone 'from the outside', and someone randomly comes to check and make sure I do not leave the house.

"They have also confiscated (or stolen?) all of my ID documents, to ensure I cannot go anywhere or do anything."

Police met with Richard at the Rosny Library within a week, but he did not want an investigation – he wanted support to leave. So he next turned to a neighbour, who gave him some money and drove him to temporary accommodation in New Norfolk, a town about an hour from Hobart.

Mr Klevjer from Cult Information and Family Support said leaders of closed spiritual communities would often tell followers the door was open for them to leave — but said actually doing so was not easy.

"When the door is open, and you want to leave, but leaving will cause shame and blame, then you're very reluctant to walk out and to walk away from the group that you're part of — especially when you'll never be in touch with people from that group again," Mr Klevjer said.

"Shunning is also very popular and very common with cult-like groups, where the current believers … are forbidden to talk to ex-members, because it will pollute them or change their mind or give them information about the groups that the leader doesn't want them to have."

It was a fear held by Richard on his exit.

"I remember going to sleep and thinking 'oh, what have I done now', because you're in this same situation for like 25 years and now you're in a totally different situation," he said.

"And given I grew up with the Buddhist group my whole life, basically I've cut off everyone that I've ever known, and everyone now from now on is people that I haven't known before."

'We're his family now'

It was at another library that Richard found the foundations for his new life – and his new family.

While passing the time at New Norfolk Library, Richard asked a volunteer for assistance with his resume, who quizzed him on his lack of education or work experience.

The volunteer was Michelle Browning, a well-known and much-loved local businesswoman who passed away earlier this year.

Aware Richard's time in the hostel was coming to an end, Michelle invited him to move in with her and her husband, Tony.

Richard became Tony's carer while the former local footballer recovered from a hip replacement.

"Shelly [Michelle] knew him for about a week before (he moved in), and when you meet him you see he's very trustworthy and all that — you know, a lovely young man," Tony told 7.30.

"So I just put all my trust in Michelle's judgement really. And I couldn't put my socks on if he wasn't there, so that was a benefit."

The Brownings' intervention changed his life. Tony and Michelle helped Richard find a job and let him live with them rent-free for more than three years while he studied at TAFE and then the University of Tasmania.

They also helped him get basic vaccinations and taught him everyday life skills – like how to ride a bike and dress for events.

"After 25 years in almost social isolation, I feel like, they helped me a great deal by learning the ropes on how to socialise," Richard said.

Richard now refers to Tony and Michelle Browning as his mum and dad, and Tony said the feeling was mutual.

"He's part of the family, he comes to all the functions and things like that, and Christmas parties," Tony said.

"We're his family now … which is great, because he's, you know, he's never known anything like that."

Moving forward

Richard Siu is now busy grasping all life has to offer. He works full-time, spends his weekends bush walking and rock climbing and travels when he can. He runs a Facebook page dedicated to his photography and is in the process of building a house with his partner of two years. He is a valued volunteer with his local fire brigade.

"As most people know, Buddhism teaches kindness, patience, and being compassionate, and I feel like that is still instilled in me since a young age," Richard said.

"The irony is that kind of helped me through being stuck in the Buddhist group as well. So there's one positive thing, but on the downside, I will say, I'll never get back 25 years of my life."

Jin-Gang-Dhyana and Mr Wang did not respond to 7.30's multiple requests for comment.

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