This overview of Chen Tao/True Way is condensed from articles and conference presentations I have produced, which were in turn based on fieldwork, news reports, and primary source materials. Reprints of my articles and presentations are available by request.
For their invaluable input and assistance I wish to thank: my colleagues in the University of Chicago Chen Tao Research Cadre (Divinity Schoolers and minor divinities all) - Dereck Daschke, Carrie Dohe, and Matthew Goff; independent investigators Forrest Jackson and Rodney Perkins; James Covert of the Garland News; and Teacher Chen and the members of God's Salvation Church who were gracious enough to speak with us in March of 1998.
Chen Tao has appeared in news sources as "God's Salvation Church," "God and Buddha Salvation Foundation," and "God Saves the Earth Flying Saucer Foundation." Its Chinese name (zhendao in the Pinyin system, jun dao in English phonetics) means "True" or "Right Way."
Though it gained notoriety internationally by traveling to the US, its history long predates its US residency. For most of its existence the group had been headquartered in urban southern Taiwan. It began in the early 1950s as the Association for Research on Soul Light, a client cult (cf. Stark and Bainbridge 1987:28-9) with a relatively loosely connected clientele of several hundred academics and white-collar professionals. Clients learned how to detect and quantify their "soul light" energy using machines, and then to increase spiritual energy and physical longevity using techniques of meditation and exercise.
The current prophetic leader of Chen Tao, Hon-Ming Chen, joined the Association in the early 1990s. He was then an associate professor of social science employed by the Chiayi Pharmaceutical College in Tainan. News reports and member statements concur that "Master" or "Teacher" Chen had for much of his life experienced visions of golden balls of light, which perplexed him until he found an explanation for them within Chen Tao--that is, as evidence of his spiritual advancement and ability to communicate with God, the Heavenly Father.
Chen began to get messages from Heaven (in keeping with a Chen Tao and general Chinese convention, I capitalize Heaven to convey its interchangeability with the Supreme Being) that catapulted him into leadership, transformed the group into Chen Tao, and culminated in the overseas mission which brought the group to the world's attention.
In 1995, he made known the first of a series of divine communications: the Kingdom of God would descend on the group's headquarters in Peipu village, Hsin-Chu county, on 22 February 1995 (Gods Descending; Perkins and Jackson 1998). Chen reported that the end of the present world cycle was imminent. (Chen uses the term "world," but I substitute the more awkward "world cycle" to convey the cyclicity he writes of. "End of the world" has a more linear and final connotation that is ultimately misleading.) The Kingdom of God would soon descend on North America, the continent that has in each world-cycle been the site of God's (re)creation and salvation of humanity (God's Descending, Arrival of God). Chen was instructed to found the majority of seven churches (a theme also found in the biblical Book of Revelation) in North America. He set up headquarters in San Dimas CA in late 1995, Garland TX in March of 1997, and, finally, Lockport NY in May 1998, each time being joined by the rest of Chen Tao - 160 parents, grandparents, children, and single young adults at peak membership - some months later. In Texas, Chen Tao occupied around 20 houses in an upper-middle class residential section of Garland, a suburb of Dallas. Many members were well-paid professionals in Taiwan (doctors, engineers), with at least three being genuinely wealthy.
Following a pair of ambiguous appearances of God at Chen-convened press conferences - a TV theophany on 25 March 1998 and one scheduled for plain-sight viewing on 31 March - Chen moved to Lockport NY and media interest vanished abruptly. Though most members returned to Taiwan within two months of the last press conference, a core of around two dozen moved to upstate New York to await the End-Times. They created a website and opened a branch office in Brooklyn.
The group has drawn comparison to Heaven's Gate and other flying saucer religions because of the means Teacher Chen proposes for Christ's return--what he calls "God's space aircrafts" (cf. Arrival of God). And, like these UFO NRMs, their belief system is an amalgam of religious and secular traditions; in this case, Chinese Buddhism and Taoism, Christian apocalypticism, particularly the books of Revelation and Daniel, flying saucer mythology (which is as hot in Taiwan as it is in the US), and technoscience. But the Chen Tao system, emerging as it has out of a Taiwanese cultural-historical context, has a different take on UFOs, the millennium, and what I think is aptly called "technospirituality."
The first crucial component to understanding Chen Tao is the emphasis on the soul and karma. In its pre-Chen era, Chen Tao was dedicated to discovering, measuring, and cultivating a quantifiable, physical soul. Teacher Chen retained and further developed this materialist concept of the soul. Readers of Teacher Chen's books and press releases discover that the ultimate purpose of humankind is to cultivate each part of a tripartite soul to Buddha status by following the "Right Way" as Chen teaches it. As one would expect with a Buddhist-based belief system, it is the total karma of all incarnate souls, rather than the intervention of Deity in history, that drives cosmic cycles of change. Though God creates the cosmos anew each time (ours being only the most recent of fifteen cosmoi), the momentum of collective negative karma pushes it from a period of "creation" through periods of "abiding" and "destruction" to an eventual "annihilation" (God's Descending, Practical Evidence).
Knowledge of God and Buddha's cosmos, the purpose of life, and the importance of the salvation Chen offers is but a first step toward salvation (Practical Evidence:2). The next step is working toward salvation by following a teacher (like Chen), practicing meditation and qigong-based exercises, and emulating Christ and Buddha, the most spiritually advanced beings short of the Heavenly Father. Just before the period of annihilation, Christ would return in his divine flying saucer to take Chen Tao and other spiritual cultivators to an existence in the next dimension.
I refer to the Chen Tao system as a "technospirituality" not simply because of the prominent role flying saucers play, but because of the extent to which gadgets are critical to their conceptual scheme and practices. Chen speaks of a "divine science and technology" to which practitioners of the "True Way" will have access as they grow in wisdom and purity. Flying saucers, "God's space-aircrafts," are only the most dramatic example of this divine science and technology. And, as I discuss below, the news media and the electronic technologies that give it and all contemporary media their global reach were of great importance to the fulfillment of the Chen Tao mission.
Like many NRMs, Chen Tao has a message - the arrival of the Great Tribulation and of attainable salvation - that shapes how it acts in the social world. The way they set about spreading this message in Texas echoes back to the saucer religion described in When Prophecy Fails (1956): get the news media interested and they will help spread the word. This approach has its drawbacks, not least that reporters take the message off in their own direction, which is often contrary to the intent of the messenger.
What developed in Garland was a symbiosis, a tacit partnership that provided each partner with something they wanted: for Teacher Chen, a means to reach millions of living beings with Gods word; for the news media, a source of compelling, marketable stories. Within this partnership, each partner attempted to use the other to its own advantage which, I argue, they were only able to do because of a long-standing, ultimately unresolved pattern of mutual misrepresentation. For his part, Chen disregarded evidence that journalists had ulterior motives in broadcasting Chen Tao, disregarded, in fact, that they were telling a story using Chen Tao in a manner that undermined his message. And the media representatives continued to put Chen Tao in the spotlight even as they realized it was in some fashion assisting the group.
The near-exclusive reliance of Teacher Chen and his group on the news media that reached a high point in Garland vanished abruptly with the move to Lockport NY, and the loss of media interest. A new strategy went into effect--web publishing. The official Chen Tao website featured extracts from the latest (electronically published) books, open letters to the President and pharmaceutical companies, as well as images of "God's space-aircrafts" and a construction termed "the fusion reactor of God." This would seem an odd combination in any other circumstance, but they are all fit into the CT cosmology, with a new wrinkle.
Chen claimed that God held off the Great Tribulation in 1999 in order to give every human the opportunity to convert our bodies from their normal 3% divine material to a full 100%. The greatest obstacle to this was our failure to take responsibility for our karmic debts, exacerbated by the blinding effects of our materialist worldview and our increasing reliance on technoscientific means of learning about the cosmos. We have also created another obstacle for ourselves by destroying the planet's immune system, thus opening ourselves, at a macro level, to natural disasters and, at a micro level, to attacks by things like cancer and AIDS, which Chen asserts are actually animate beings existing in dimensions below the range of our three-dimensional perception.
The plan in the early New York period was to make the US into the "Holy Medical Land of God's super-high science and technology" where combined technological and spiritual efforts to rebalance the ecosystem and perfect the human body-mind-spirit should be pioneered. From Lockport and the Brooklyn office Chen and company carried out demonstrations (in Central Park), and lobbied political and entrepreneurial organizations for support. Chen put himself forward as both a consultant to pharmaceutical companies in producing the ultimate vaccine and - in a seeming parallel to his offer to be stoned if people were unconvinced by the fulfillment of his 1998 prophecies - as a guinea pig for God's therapeutic action. True to form, Chen continued to invite the news media to actively disseminate this information, though I found no evidence that the message was getting out by any means other than their website.
At some point after 2002, a schism erupted between Chen and several other high-ranking members. This led to Chen's exile and a reorientation of the group as the "Grand True Way" (see link below). This incarnation of the group seems be de-emphasizing saucers and technology, instead focusing on the more conventionally Buddhist recognition of what causes suffering--and a more conventionally Christian search for salvation. (updated 12/05)
At last count (December 2005), the English-language output of Chen Tao consists of five books (two apparently in electronic form), a printed pamphlet, a half-dozen prophetic press releases, and a website. Since most of these items are relatively scarce and/or obscure, I hope soon (pending approval) to be able to provide them in Adobe Acrobat PDF format.
"God's (the Heavenly Father) Announcements" press releases:
The Garland Police Department was well organized for the media "circus" (thanks to the negative example provided by the handling of the 1991 Branch Davidian stand-off and the input they sought from religious scholars like the late Lonnie Kliever of Southern Methodist University). Below are copies of the press kit provided to news media personnel and assorted academic observers, a JPEG example of the passes reporters had to obtain from the GPD's media liaison, and (soon) the packet of Chen Tao press releases listed above.
There are literally hundreds of articles on Chen Tao, many of them available electronically though services like Lexis-Nexis. I will only offer a high-quality handful here, though I can provide a fuller listing upon request.
There are a number of Chen Tao-specific websites in addition to this one, including the group's own homepage. As with new religious movements in general, many of these sites are sociologically oriented and make at least a pretense of scholarly objectivity, but many are obviously partisan, even downright vindictive. Caveat lector!