This is the robe I wore for special events like classes and moon ceremonies. It designated me as Staff of Heaven and I was so proud of it.
I was the perfect cult recruit: fresh out of college and really into hallucinogens. So when my best friend said a Taiwanese gentleman at the copy shop off campus had sold him a copy of the Tao Te Ching and invited him to “Chinese philosophy classes,” I insisted he bring me along. (We were at a rave on Adderall and synthetic mescaline at the time; I ended up peeing on my friend while he restrained my attempts to leap out of the car onto the interstate. Narrative detour or crucial element in my subsequent brainwashing?)
The “philosophy class” was held at the copy shop, a soothingly familiar place -- I’d been there before to make course packets. Mr. Li* gave us donuts, fruit, veggie egg rolls and Styrofoam cups of hot jasmine tea while he explained the endless cycle of suffering that traps all sentient beings. For Tao receivers, though, liberation was possible. The Master could transmit the Tao to us through a sacred place on our bodies known as the “Yellow Center.” The ceremony cost only $15, and you got the ability to transcend life and death along with a free vegetarian meal.
I was sold. Not just because of the free food or the warmth displayed by Mr. Li, his wife and everyone else, but because reincarnation made sense to me. Who can’t relate to feeling trapped in a cycle? And who wouldn’t opt to receive the same truth all the Buddhas, saints and enlightened beings had? I wanted nothing more than to be holy and pure. So I set to work rigorously scrubbing my LSD-stained brain.
It was simple to follow the Tao tenets: no meat, no alcohol or drugs, no smoking, no cursing, no sex, no onion or garlic, 15-20 minutes of chanted prayers twice daily -- and no hanging out around people or in places where the afore-mentioned vices were prevalent. I left my rave friends to their Ambien-fueled orgies and made friends with fellow Tao cultivators: Meg, who’d lost her brother to suicide. Judy, who’d left an abusive husband after decades of marriage and found a wonderful new life with Tao. Anjika, who lived with her parents and didn’t take her epilepsy medications as prescribed (or at all) because medications don’t really jibe with Tao.
My life at grad school became a thin shell over the moon ceremonies, Tao rites and rituals, meetings, vegetarian cooking classes, recruitment, and occasional long weekends away at other Holy Houses. These classes lasted for days. Some were taught by children. I saw a robed preteen girl lecture for 12 hours straight without food or a bathroom break. She could do that because Buddhas were speaking through her, Master explained.
I worked hard, donated a lot of money, and pretty soon I was promoted to Staff of Heaven, which vested me with a blue robe (I’d coveted the robes of senior members -- they were sort of a status symbol) and brought me a step closer to enlightenment. I taught classes. I recruited friends. I skipped my little sister’s college graduation to attend the three-day Great Repentance class. I didn’t have sex at all and I made out only once during those six years.
When people asked about my restrictive diet, I chalked it up to allergies because you weren’t supposed to reveal the Truth to people who didn’t “have the right affinity.”
Tao was strictly word-of-mouth. We made coded references to it in emails, in case Homeland Security was monitoring. Tao was already outlawed in China, because of the Cultural Revolution, explained Mr. Li, who had become like a father to me and who told me Tao family was my true family. I’d later hear that Tao was actually outlawed because it was a malicious cult.
The longer I stayed in Tao, the worse I felt, and the worse I felt, the harder I applied myself to cultivation. The suffering I felt was my evil karma being purged, I believed. I couldn’t talk to a therapist because she’d belong to “the dust world” and would lead me astray. This was a test of my sincerity. Tao was real.
Master said we could prove it was real because Tao cultivators didn’t experience rigor mortis when they died. They stayed pink and soft and that’s how you knew their spirits had left their bodies calmly, through the Yellow Center.
I became suicidal five years in. I realized if I didn’t get help, I would die. I started seeing a therapist, though I told her nothing about my involvement with Tao. Somehow, just by talking about it peripherally, things began to change. One by one, I broke my vows. I still remember my first meal with onion and garlic: cheese pizza and a Caesar salad in an airport. It was the best slice of pizza I’d ever had.
Eventually, I told Mr. Li and Master I was leaving for good. Mrs. Li wept. Master blamed her for not bringing me up properly. I felt ashamed, worthless. I had betrayed the people who cared about me most and thrown away my chance at salvation. I was damned, but at the same time, I was coming back to myself.
I dropped out of grad school. I moved to a different city. I cut off contact with all Tao members. I started dating. I colored my hair. I got a job at an alternative weekly newspaper. And after a couple years, I got a phone call from Mr. Li saying Anjika had had a seizure in her sleep and died.
Her funeral was my first time back around Tao members. After the service, I stood looking down at her corpse, which was strewn with flowers in the traditional Hindu manner. Mr. Li took her hand.
“It’s soft,” he said with happiness, knowing this meant Anjika had left through the Yellow Center, knowing Tao’s truth was right there in front of me. “Touch it.”
I took my friend’s hand. It moved like the hand of a living person, smoothly, gracefully. But that didn’t change the fact that it was a dead girl’s hand I was holding. A girl dead at 32 who had never done the things she’d so wanted to do -- date, get married, have children -- because of her vows and her beliefs that she was sick, broken, inferior. I don’t know if she had been taking her seizure medications when she died. I don’t know what her life would have been like if she had listened to her parents’ concerns and left the group.
I do know rigor mortis lasts 72 hours only, and that Anjika’s funeral was three days after she died.
I know my story could have been like hers. But it’s not.
*Names have been changed.