His accomplishments are all real, and His good reputation is definitely deserved.
— Wall text for Stone Seals by H.H. Dorje Chang Buddha III
I toured the primordial Buddha’s art museum with two security guards trailing and a translator over each shoulder. My guide was Vince Huang, a proxy for the Buddha, who has returned to the human realm after roughly twenty-five hundred years. Born Yi Yungao in China’s Sichuan Province and recognized as His Holiness Dorje Chang Buddha III by the US Senate in 2012, the Buddha is currently based in Pasadena.
I was introduced to His Holiness not through His reputed holiness, but through His artwork, which I encountered at the International Art Museum of America (formerly The Superb Art Museum of America) in San Francisco. At the entrance of the serpentine gallery on Market Street, a bust of the Buddha welcomes visitors with a plaque outlining His accomplishments, such as “more accomplishments than anyone else in the past few thousand years.” Photos are not allowed in the museum, but here is an artist’s depiction of the bust:
Confounded by the notion that the primordial Buddha (date of birth unknown) was not only alive in the mortal world, but a retired artist in Pasadena, I pondered unanswerable questions: How could someone with so many accomplishments (“the most”) be so unknown? How does one calculate accomplishments in the first place? And why would the Buddha live in Pasadena?
His Yun Sculptures, “the World’s First Mysterious Works of Art,” have been exhibited at the Rayburn Building on Capitol Hill for members of Congress. Most essential are Mysterious Boulder with Mist (2012), which inexplicably produces mist from one of its crevices, and A Rock of Horizontal Charm (2017), “the First Irreproducible Art in the Human World.” Disciples of the Buddha have offered $12 million and $50 million, respectively, to anyone who could reproduce these pieces, “but to date no one has come close.” His works have reportedly sold for record-breaking prices of $16.5 million, US$900,000 per square foot and US$467 per square inch.
These values seemed dubious for an artist without much presence in the mainstream art world, but I found that many of His endorsements are verifiably real. In addition to the 2012 Senate resolution were three more resolutions proposed in His honor, a Presidential Gold Award from President George W. Bush, and countless certificates from other well-known officials. According to one purveyor of His artwork, “5,612 experts and scholars representing forty-eight countries and regions at the World Poets and Culture Congress unanimously named Master Wan Ko Yee [as the Buddha is also known] as a Distinguished International Master.”
Members of the Buddha’s family have received similar recognitions. The Buddha’s wife, Yu Hua Wang, had her own exhibition attended by US Congress members. His daughter, Pui Chu Yee, was recognized in Congress as “the world’s youngest world-class artist.” A certificate from the Royal Academy of Arts states that the work of His twelve-year-old son, Hang Kung Yee, is “highly original” and demonstrates “great talent.”
But while powerful people have affirmed the artistry of the Buddha and His family, the framing of the work (and sometimes the work itself) seems to undermine its own legitimacy. Consider the phrase “His accomplishments are all real, and His good reputation is definitely deserved,” included in the wall text for Stone Seals; at least in English, it serves only to imply that there is reason to scrutinize. I became convinced that the Buddha was hinting at His own artifice. Could the work be a satirical wink toward the often ego-driven, financially-inclined institutions of art and religion? A caricature of constructed identity and institutional duplicity? A cleverly critical post-art performance?
Somewhere in my months of research, I learned that His Holiness was first introduced to the world as the highest-level Buddha at the 2011 AsiaWorld Expo. An ICN News broadcast shows a follow-up assembly in 2014, allegedly the largest religious gathering in the history of Hong Kong, “with countless devout Buddhists in attendance,” and over 28,000 Buddhist organizations represented. Witnesses recount the Buddha’s miraculous transmutation from an elderly man to a “flawless and astonishingly perfect” teenager in a matter of minutes. In all fairness, if Jesus was resurrected, why couldn’t the Buddha shed a few years?
And yet, I was skeptical. The sheer absolutism of the declarations gave me pause, and some of the cited evidence is rather absurd. First, I found the enlightenment MRI, which illustrates consciousness leaving the crown of a prominent American disciple. Then I learned of His “health care products,” including, supposedly, the number-one hair growth product in China, “Superior Power Hair-Nurturing Liquid” (or “Fabisheng” in Chinese, meaning “Hair Must Grow”).
Then there’s the purported piety of animals such as a dog, a squirrel, wasps, a fish, and dancing birds. And let’s not forget the five-star rating on Yelp, which was reported by 237 individual websites, including a cable installation blog. But perhaps most suspect was The World Peace Prize, which the Buddha shares with Mahatma Gandhi, Ronald Reagan, mass murderers, Korea’s Former Minister of Department of Agriculture and Forestry, and Suzi P. Leggett, the Korean widow of Rep. Leggett, who was accused by the FBI and IRS of collusion with the Korean government.
In short, there’s enough material out there to make you think the Buddha is either a wicked cult leader or an impressive con-artist, or both. But while the web of corporations and offshore accounts made my eyebrows rise, a legal consultant with expertise in Buddhist cultures and organizational finances did not find any fraudulent activity in the 990 forms available online. The most significant source of income reported was “replica art sales,” totaling $3,225,500 in 2015. As for the criminal accusations against the Buddha, including a redacted INTERPOL arrest warrant, might some or even all of them be linked to defamation efforts by the Communist-atheist Chinese government?
Los Angeles Human Rights Attorney Peter Schey, who has represented the Buddha, explained that the INTERPOL warrant “was motivated by a desire on the part of the Chinese government to persecute him as a result of his religious activities.” Understanding the Buddha as an enemy of China, the arrest warrant, accusations of rape, and reports of fraud are complicated by the strong possibility of anti-Buddhist propaganda; after all, His main detractor has a grave history of human rights violations. This notarized series of testimonials by followers of the Buddha, describing such torture methods as pepper spray, electrocution, hanging, drugging, extortion, and the creation of false testimonials in China’s notorious “re-education camps,” must also be placed on the ledger.
Exhausted by this rabbit’s hole of allegories and allegations, I struggled to piece together my own opinion. I wanted so badly to believe that the Buddha’s work was an ode to artifice, and I felt that His art alone was proof.
His Holiness seems to dance with reality in most every expression of His artwork. Yun Frames are made of “faux withered vines, faux tree roots, faux white jade, faux old wood, faux spotted jade, faux ganoderma lucidum, faux red coral, etc.” Sometimes wall texts acknowledge the imitation material, sometimes they don’t, and sometimes the imitation material is itself imitated. In His series Jade Panels Painted in Oil Colors, oil paintings of imitation marble are neither oil paint nor marble, but conspicuously laminated digital prints. Forgery is simultaneously celebrated and concealed.
Even beyond His fine art, the dichotomy of reality and fantasy seems to permeate the Buddha’s expansive list of occupations, including the lightly manipulated image above from His landscape design work. To me, the blurry liminal space between the rocks and their reflection represents His fusion of imagination and actuality. During a guided tour of the IAMA, I learned that He uses haziness and clarity “to combine realism and non-realism” in His menglong (“hazy”) style paintings. During my tour of the H.H. Dorje Chang Buddha III Cultural and Art Museum, I learned that His ink and oil work is often described as “super realistic abstract painting.”
Throughout history, both art and religion have assumed a fluid sense of reality. Yves Klein’s seminal Saut dans le vide or Leap into the Void (1960), which was distributed in Klein’s self-published newspaper under the headline “Un Homme Dans l’Espace,” asserts the artist’s ability to fly to the moon as a way of “denouncing NASA’s own lunar expeditions as hubris and folly.” According to Forbes, Klein’s deception (a tarpaulin caught his fall) had the effect of “rattling everyone who encountered it.” Might the Buddha, with a similar employment of allegory, be mimicking the purchased posturing of today’s most prominent artists and leaders?
My theory that the Buddha was creating an allegorical alternate reality felt further substantiated by news of a 102-acre “Vatican-style” development in Southern California under the name Holy Heavenly Lake, where he would reportedly serve as “the Pope of Buddhism.” According to the Victorville Daily Press, the compound was proposed as a “Buddhist tourist attraction” to the Hesperia Planning Commission, indicating awareness of the enterprise’s artificial nature. Even more indicative is the $17.5 million property His group recently purchased at the world’s epicenter of artifice, where imitation is encouraged and fantasy is currency: the Las Vegas Strip. Here, according to the Las Vegas Review-Journal, His Holiness plans to build a monumental Buddhist temple.
Yet contrary to my interpretation of His work, any suggestion of fiction is fiercely opposed by the Buddha’s followers. In a “Solemn Statement” published on a website dedicated to His teaching, the author states that anyone who “wantonly slanders H.H. Dorje Chang Buddha III and opposes the recognition or congratulation issued by his own master is undoubtedly a demon who insults a Buddha and opposes his master or is a just a scoundrel in society.” Reading this, I held hope that the Buddha was either transcending the awareness of His followers, or better yet, His followers were a constructed part of His magnificent allegory. The only way to test my theory was to ask Him myself.
I first approached the IAMA museum clerks, who denied affiliation with His religion but seemed to genuinely believe that the artist was the primordial Buddha. The clerks put me in touch with Steven Meyers, vice president of the IAMA and the legal counsel for the World Buddhism Association Headquarters. Meyers informed me that “H.H. Dorje Chang Buddha III has never granted even one interview in this lifetime. That is because He does not attach importance to his reputation or status and has never considered his own personal interests.”
I attended one of the two temples in San Francisco dedicated to His teaching (there are also temples in Covina and Sanger, CA; Salt Lake City, Utah; Columbia, MO; Hendersonville, NC; and Cologne, Germany). At Hua Zang Si, a recognizable red chapel in the Mission district, I was welcomed by friendly monks who implored me to kneel before a Yun Sculpture that supposedly emits light from within (I didn’t see it). In the gift shop I purchased a Yun frame with a lenticular hologram for $80 cash (the museum-sized replicas were $280).
Eventually, I received an email reply from Suzi P. Leggett, World Peace Prize recipient, widow of Rep. Leggett, and a 2018 Congressional candidate, who put me in touch with Vince. Vince responded with twelve paragraphs, the beginning of which I’ve included below:
Reading this distinctly passionate language, it dawned on me that Vince, the Buddha’s interlocuter, might just be the Buddha himself. Almost two months later, I met Vince in Covina for the well-translated, high-security tour. I didn’t dare ask, and I have no proof to support this belief, but I wondered if a wig could make a Buddha out of Vince. At the end of the tour, Vince bought me the complete set of the Buddha’s CDs from the gift shop (“vocal mastery” is among His many talents) and I bought an umbrella, a windbreaker, and another Yun Frame. The packaging of the frame listed the manufacturer, GemArt, whose slogan reads: “Your ideas become reality.”
Later Vince brought me to a temple in Pasadena: The World Buddhism Association Headquarters. In a room with two altars, each including an identical image of a deceased disciple, Vince prompted me to point out the larger photo. “They look about the same size,” I said with a shrug. Vince shook his head with frustration and raised his voice: “Just look at them!” I pointed to the image on the right, which was better lit. Vince enthusiastically agreed. After the same test from other perspectives, Vince instructed a monk to measure the images before me, revealing that they were, in fact, the same size. Satisfied, Vince encouraged me to visit The Mystery Spot, a well-known tourist destination in Santa Cruz, for additional inexplicable experiences.
I realized early on that I was drawn to the Buddha because I saw myself in Him. As a meticulous architect of my own online presence, I was smitten by His illusions/delusions of grandeur and how rigorously He’s woven them into reality. Later, I realized that I had also founded an arts organization with a generic title that revolved around financial procurement: Student Arts Magazine, which I established during college to commission artwork, using school monies, for a publication that was never really distributed. Lastly, while writing this article I received an email reading “Hello Rev. Theo, Another year, another cheer! That’s right, it’s now been ten years since you became an ordained minister!”
Considering myself as a fellow certified religious leader who has worked tirelessly to shape an online identity and founded an arts organization with ulterior motives, the Buddha represents a genuine hero to me. One must admit that, although His proclamations deviate from the mainstream, the Buddha has developed a remarkably elaborate alternate reality — an achievement that does, in a way, make Him a god.
The Buddha appears in the portrait above before the same abstracted stones from His landscape design work; the use of image-blending literally blurs the lines of fiction and reality. Perhaps the Photoshop-enabled synthesis, representing an evolved sense of truth, most accurately renders the Buddha’s enlightenment.
Whether or not the Buddha is aware of it, His art illuminates the evolution of truth and identity that has emerged in the age of the internet. As our sense of fact and reality becomes less verifiable and more subjective, we must increasingly seek truth in artifice. That is, only what recognizes its own fabrication can be confirmed as true.
As a wise soul once commented on a YouTube slideshow titled Art Creations by H.H. Dorje Chang Buddha III (Master Wan Ko Yee),
True is false and false is true.
Once anything is virtual,you [sic] will see the buddha.
— Mica Chang, 2012