*names have been changed

“I hope you will come. The temple is such a wonderful place and there are so many nice people there. All your stress will go away if you visit there,” my friend Akiko said to me one day, as we were eating lunch together.

Akiko was my language-exchange partner and we often studied together over lunch, at a café near my apartment. From the beginning, Akiko had been so nice and sweet to me. However, over time, Akiko began talking more and more about her religion and had begun to ask me to visit her religious group’s center in Osaka. Almost every time we met, Akiko gave me a new book, magazine, or brochure for me to read, in order for me to learn more about her religion. I was starting to feel a little bit of pressure from Akiko, but to preserve our friendship and language-exchange, I finally agreed to go to the temple center with her.

All I really knew about Akiko’s religious group was that it was led by a middle-aged man who called himself El Cantare, who had achieved Enlightenment in 1981. El Cantare’s mission was to spread happiness through the world. I guessed that any guy who wanted to do that couldn’t be too bad, but I couldn’t help but feel a little skeptical. Having been chased by the Jehovah Witnesses for years, I was not exactly thrilled at being pressured into a religion.

Arriving at the temple center on a Sunday to meet Akiko, I was impressed by the interior of the building. Everything was lacquered in glimmering gold and several shiny marble statues of playful-looking angels were placed around the lobby, which had a domed ceiling painted to look like the heavens. I wondered where the group got the money to pay for such extravagant furnishings.

“Actually, I have a surprise for you,” Akiko confessed, as we went inside. “The Master, El Cantare, is here today and is giving a talk. It doesn’t start for another hour so I would like you to meet the temple’s Head Advisor before the speech,” she said, leading me up a set of stairs.

Arriving upstairs, I was led to a table where a small, bright-eyed old man was sitting. He was wearing a suit and looked very professional. On the table were several books.

“Hello, nice to meet you,” he said, shaking my hand. “You must be so excited about hearing Master’s speech today,” he said, smiling.

“Um, yes, very excited. Nice to meet you too,” I replied, sitting down.

“First, I want to explain a little bit about our center here and about our religion. Our religion aims to spread Truth in the world and is open to people of all backgrounds. It is based on faith in our Master and living leader, El Cantare, who is Buddha, God, and the great consciousness of the universe.”

“Wait a minute; did you say that your Master, who will be speaking today, is both God and Buddha?” I asked, surprised.

“Yes, Master is the reincarnation of both Jesus Christ and Buddha. That is why he has been able to write over 500 books about the Truth,” the old man explained. “There is one large tree in this world and the name of this huge tree is El Cantare. The tree has many large branches, and we are all connected by these branches. The 21st century will usher in The Golden Age, a utopia, or what El Cantare calls “The El Cantare Civilization.”

I was beginning to feel nervous. I wasn’t sure if I could believe in a man who claimed he was a reincarnation of both Jesus Christ and Buddha. Akiko smiled, patting me on the hand.

“Would you like to become a member of our group?” the old man asked. “You only have to fill out a small application form and there will be a short welcoming ceremony in which you will be asked, “Do you believe in the Lord?”

“Actually, Master will be giving a welcoming ceremony after his speech to all new members. I signed you up because I hope you will join us,” Akiko said, looking at me with a face full of hope.

“You signed me up?” I asked, surprised and a little angry. “But, I never agreed to become a member.”

“Yes, but I hoped you would be,” Akiko said.

“Well, I will listen to Master’s speech first and then I will decide what I should do,” I replied firmly.

I had the full intention of saying no.

“We hope that you will join us,” the old man said, smiling.

*          *          *          *          *          *          *          *          *          *          *          *         

An hour later, I was sitting in the back of a crowded room and listening to Master’s speech. Master was a clean-cut guy in his forties, who looked nothing like Jesus Christ or Buddha. He stood at the front in front of a podium, wearing a religious cloak covered with jewels and symbols which I could not understand. He explained that he had awoken to the hidden part of his consciousness, El Cantare, sometime in the 80s. He had been born mouth first so that he needed no manuscript or preparation when giving speeches and therefore, he could speak well.

After Master had explained a little bit about himself and his speaking abilities, a woman came to the front of the room, to give her personal testimony. She had experienced a lot of difficulties in her life and had turned to Master’s religion when things had reached the bottom. Now, she had changed her life and vowed to live the rest of her life believing and trusting in El Cantare’s teachings.

After the woman’s testimony, Master stood up to give his closing comments.

“I, who stand before you, am the rebirth of Buddha,” he said. “I have written 500 books of Truth. That is my proof. My disciples, and my future disciples, be good to all people and cleanse their minds. There is only one thing you must do and that is believe. That is the starting point. I am one lighthouse. You too can become lighthouses. Please save the people who are living in darkness. The world is in need of your light. Right at this moment, you have met the rebirth of Buddha. That is why you hold a great chance in your hands. Today is the day of beginning. Together, let us save the people suffering from evil. Now, would all new disciples please come forward?”

“That’s you!” Akiko exclaimed in a loud whisper, pulling on my arm to stand up.

“No, no, no. I need more time to think about it,” I protested, trying to resist her rather strong pull on my arm.

“Oh, come on,” she said loudly, causing several people to turn and stare.

“Please come forward, don’t be shy,” Master said, noticing what was happening and looking directly at me. “Come on, please come to the front,” he said, smiling and gesturing for me to come forward.

With Akiko literally dragging me forward to the front, I stood glumly in front of Master, along with two other middle-aged Japanese women, who stared at me as though I were an alien from another planet. Akiko stood beside me, holding my hand. There was no escape.

“If you believe in higher beings, spiritual beings, that are merciful and more powerful than human kind in this world, you can be courageous, you can overcome every suffering, and you can do all things. You must save the people in your country and all the people of the world,” Master said, touching the tops of all of our heads.

“Do you believe in the Lord?” he asked me.

“Um, yes?” I replied, hesitatingly.

How did I get myself into this? How had it come that I was standing here being inducted into some kind of religion that I didn’t believe in? I was starting to panic, to feel sick.

Sweat droplets began to form in beads on my forehead and I knew I needed to get out of there.

“I’m sorry,” I muttered, and turned to leave, pushing past Akiko, past the two middle-aged Japanese women, past Master, past all the staring faces.

Without looking back, I left, running out of the front entrance and back into the real world, where cars honked, bicycle brakes squealed annoyingly, and old women chatted loudly outside of a coffee shop. Gulping in the air, I ran down the street, away from the temple. Only one question remained in my mind though. Was I a member or not? I guess I would never know.