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The Pursuit of Happyness: Australia’s future spiritual destiny

In a religion that simultaneously advocates world peace and conflict, is the country ready for the unique and radical theologies Happy Science wishes to impart?

Art by Harriet Cronley Art by Harriet Cronley

Ryuho Okawa has a vision for Australia.

He has prophesised that in 300 years’ time, the centre of civilisation will shift down to our shores. A great historical figure will be reborn on this soil. Previously known as Confucius, he will propel the world into the next stage of modernity. This has been foreseen in the ninth dimension above.

But now, centuries beforehand, I find myself on the busy road to my local Shoshinkan. A flurry of cars, trucks and motorcycles speeds past at all hours. If you blink, you’ll miss it. I turn off the Pacific Highway and come face-to-face with the beige exterior of the temple. A row of gold letters perched above a two-tiered building sitting on tall neoclassical columns, cast a shadow onto my windshield: HAPPY SCIENCE.

Kofuku no Kagaku—otherwise known as Happy Science—is a New Age Japanese religion that originated in 1986. Devotees in over 100 countries seek a state of bliss through faith and soul-training, with the ultimate goal of entering a realm of heaven before being reincarnated back on Earth. There are two temples in Australia: one in Melbourne’s St Kilda, and the other here, in the North Shore suburb of Lane Cove.

– LIGHT – 

I’m standing at the threshold listening to the low murmur of chatter. Inside, in the entrance hall, there’s a stack of tidy books and pamphlets, beckoning me. I walk in. Suddenly, the background noise stops and five curious faces look up at me. Steam from freshly brewed green tea wafts over the smiles plastered to their cheeks. A woman in her fifties rises out of her chair to ask about my visit.

“I hear there’s a meditation this morning?”

Yes, she says, every day at 9:15. The leaders are privately reflecting at the moment, but I am more than welcome to wait inside the Prayer Hall.

The main room of worship is modest in size. A procession row splits it in half, with 36 chairs spaced out evenly on the marble tiles. The walls are adorned with framed calligraphy and watercolour flowers painted by a temple regular: irises, cherry blossoms, water lilies. In the back corner, a harp. Everything seems to have its place.

Green arches form a tripartite collection at the front of the hall. My eyes fly up to the larger-than-life statue at the room’s centre: El Cantare. Supreme god, creator of all, a lurid mass of yellow gold. Standing on lotus leaves, El Cantare is draped in regalia and topped with a gemmed papal hat. One bent arm dangles a sword and the other thrusts a winged staff towards the congregation before Him. At His feet, a plaque reads:

Spread this truth to the end of the world!
地の果てまでも伝道せよ

I take a seat at the back.

A handful of worshippers begin to drift in. Each person bows at the door before picking up a navy palm-sized booklet. ‘The Dharma of the Right Mind’ is Happy Science’s main sutra, consisting of over 20 pages of back-to-back prayers. It must be recited twice a day. Mechanical blinds churn down and shade engulfs the room. Believers join their hands at the chest and bend forwards. Each line, chanted in unison, is short, abrupt and robotic.

The soul is immortal intelligence…
The soul is imperishable energy…
The soul is all and everything…

A tall man to my right leans towards me. As I later learn, this is Steve, one of the lead Happy Science ministers. Through a light New Zealand accent, he instructs me to sit upright, rest my forearms flat on my thighs, and face my palms upwards. This way, he tells me, I can receive the Light into my heart. After 30 minutes, my back muscles are straining. Orchestral music echoes above as the guided meditation tape takes us on a roundhouse trip to the ocean, the moon, and the inner depths of our souls.

– WISDOM – 

March 23rd, 1981.

A Japanese businessman in his mid-twenties has a finance degree and a trading job under his belt. His name is Takashi Nakagawa. But on this special day, Takashi spontaneously receives Great Enlightenment. He can venture back in time, visit the future and speak to intergalactic creatures beyond our comprehension. In a past life, he was Buddha. Not only does El Cantare live within him, but Takashi can suddenly communicate with Margaret Thatcher, Thomas Edison and George Washington. He is the chosen one and must share the good news with all of mankind.

More than 30 years later, he is now Ryuho Okawa, the founder and CEO of a global, multimillion-dollar religious organisation.

Okawa has written thousands of books, as I am repeatedly told, most dictated through revelations in his sleep and written in record time. Each person offers a different figure: maybe 1500, more than 2100, around 2300 publications. The divine words flow seamlessly through intermediary to page. Many of these texts line the bookshelves of the foyer, some in Japanese, but most translated into English.

Professor Carole Cusack from the Studies of Religion department at the University of Sydney saw Ryuho Okawa speak during his second Sydney visit in 2012. She described the presentation as cheesy and unappealing. Okawa, she says, “wears a suit and is very bland and mainstream”. He is an exemplar salaryman guru whose capitalist roots are explicit.

But when devotees speak of their Master, their eyes light up and passionate smiles creep onto their lips.

“He’s a grand spirit,” says Sean, who has followed Happy Science for five years. “He’s an amazing consciousness. But he’s also teaching to help the happiness of humanity”.

Sean’s sentiments are shared by a reserved man who calls himself ‘J’. Over the years he has been coming to the temple, J’s life has benefitted from Master Okawa’s wisdom in ways he could not elaborate. “He is the combination of all religions in the world. He brings them together. He teaches people about the truth and educates them.”

In one of his seminars in Hawaii, Okawa proposed: “I’m either a liar, a storyteller, or the Saviour. You must choose one.”

– TRUTH – 

The Lane Cove temple is four storeys tall. Its top floor has a study room with a television for watching Okawa’s lectures and the anime movies produced by Headquarters. Around the corner, seven bedrooms peek out from either side of the hallway. Most of them are simple, with bunk beds and desks for overseas visitors, but some are large enough to cater for a whole family. Gold-framed photos of Okawa are everywhere, his voice bleating constantly from the speakers above. The floors below hold a laundromat, bathroom, kitchen and staff living quarters.

Steve and I sit at the communal table outside of the Prayer Hall. The woman who led the meditation clicks past in heels and a tailored skirt. She stops and offers to make us tea. We accept and a few minutes later, she places two warm mugs down in front of us. Sitting before me, Steve begins to deconstruct the intricate world that Ryuho Okawa has painted for his followers. He insists that Master’s theologies are “very clear and logical and easy to understand and quite sensible and there’s nothing crazy in there”.

Happy Science teaches that humans never really die. We live for all eternity, as visitors on planet Earth. After our physical bodies wear out, our souls venture back home to the heavens above. There are nine dimensions of heaven, where we roam with others whose spiritual wavelengths align with our own. Which tier we occupy depends on how enlightened we are—El Cantare sits at the top, along with Jesus, Moses, Buddha and Isaac Newton. Between this world and the fourth dimension, which is considered the gate to heaven, there is Hell: “a world that disappears when the earth changes to a utopia” fuelled by suffering and the “thoughts of conflict and destruction of people on earth”, Okawa writes.

In order to cultivate our minds and expose ourselves to different worldviews, we must interact with others back on Earth. Thus the cycle continues. Our new life is mapped out, and a death date locked in.  We subconsciously strive to be better the second time round by following the lessons learnt in previous lives; but we cannot remember our past identity because “it’d be a lot of burden if you were, say, Abraham Lincoln and had to live up to expectations”, as Steve analogises.

A month after my initial visit, Steve runs a public lecture on negative spiritual energy. In the space of an hour and a half, I learn that all material problems are produced by the mind—and can be fixed by the mind too. Lack of wealth is the result of “poor mentality”. Cancer is the reflection of a “shadowed” soul, something that can be cured through prayer and good faith. I’m also taught that suicide is a futile attempt to cheat fate: suicide victims  are stuck on this earth until their allotted time is up, wandering unseen and tempting others to join them. According to Steve, 50 per cent of illness, 70 per cent of mental health issues and 90 per cent of divorces are caused by possession by evil spirits.

– PROGRESS –

Every Sunday, a seminar takes place in the Prayer Hall. The material varies: sometimes it draws on the Master’s texts, other times it focuses on individual betterment or spreading Happy Science throughout the world. This particular week is significant. Reverend Hironobu Sunada has just come back from hearing the Master speak in Japan. He has made a tentative translation and wishes to share the important news Okawa has disclosed.

At the press of a button, a video from Okawa’s lecture begins to play. Thousands of people cheer, clap and wave at the camera. Back in this room, a continent away, only twelve people have turned up. It’s an even split of middle-aged Japanese women and Caucasian men.

Okawa begins his address. His voice is shrill and confident, blaring from the projector screen. In his trademark lounge suit and slicked-back hair, Okawa is emphatic; small hands flick ahead of the paperless stand before him, occasionally exploding behind his head to emphasise a point. It’s not long before he delves into geopolitics. The South Korean President is a reincarnation of Mussolini; a war between Japan and its neighbours is inevitable; US President Trump is respectable because he “always adds words like ‘in the name of God’ or ‘God Bless’”.

A short, timid woman pulls me aside after the seminar and asks me not to be put off. After all, she says, Happy Science is the missing link between individual and global issues. We must make the most of the lessons relevant to the now, while Master walks on the planet with us.

Ryuho Okawa is no stranger to public life: in fact, he brought his religion into the political sphere in 2009, when he founded the Japanese Happiness Realisation Party. And he is notorious for his radical opinions, often framed as revelations. Last year, for example, he alleged that the spirits of World War II sex slaves, or ‘comfort women’, told him that they had lied about their treatment at the hands of Japanese soldiers—a confession that conveniently aligned with the timing of the Japanese Government’s attempts to organise a memorial and victims fund.

Ideal politics, according to Happy Science, is when politicians pray, reflect, meditate and listen to God before making decisions. When I ask about Okawa’s political intervention, Steve is emphatic: “It’s arrogant if you think that you should just decide how the country should be run [without] asking God what you should be doing,” he says. “We would hope, in the future, to have a Happiness Realisation Party here in Australia. And in every country!”

– SALVATION –

Our mass spiritual awakening as a country, led perhaps by Okawa’s descendants or future form, is but inevitable in the eyes of those who look up to him. But is Australia truly ready to be the new fulcrum of global spirituality? Will Australians ever throng to a religion like Happy Science?

When I ask Professor Cusack whether she believes it will ever reach the same popularity here as it has in its motherland, her short answer is no. Australians are just too “used to rationalism, science and technology” to wholeheartedly take on board Master Okawa’s “eclectic and unusual” teachings.

In Japan, Happy Science boasts over 10 million members. The Sydney branch cites a few hundred followers who come and go throughout the week.

I say my farewells, weaving between clusters of believers catching up, sharing jokes and passing out served plates. They look forward to seeing me again, hopefully in the near future. Glass doors swing shut behind me. I restart my engine. Soon, I’m welcomed back into the familiar hubbub of traffic, beeping and asphalt.

It’ll take four or five more reincarnations for me to fully understand the teachings I leave behind.