Keywords: Human Universal Energy (HUE), Luong Minh Dang, Spiritual Human Yoga (SHY), Mankind Enlightenment Love Inc. (MEL), biofield energy medicine
Human Universal Energy (HUE) refers to a group of related organizations the Vietnamese-American Luong Minh Dang founded in the early 1990s: the International Human Universal Research Institute (IHUERI) established in France and renamed Spiritual Human Yoga (SHY) in 1994; and Mankind Enlightenment Love Inc. (MEL), established in the United States (Luong, M. T., 2007, p. 1; Mayer, 2000, p. 1).
Today, these organizations are under the control of HUE Faculty Inc. (HUEFI) and the Academy of Human Universal Energy and Spirituality (HUESA). These companies oversee several centers that operate in more than 60 countries around the world and offer instruction in a form of complementary alternative medicine known as biofield energy medicine, which involves the manipulation of putative energy fields that ostensibly affect health. The belief system of these centers, based on New Age philosophy, includes a spiritual and pseudoscientific ideology that incorporates elements of Hinduism and Buddhism, esoteric theories, and theories that derive from Chinese and Vedic medicines that emphasize the harmonization of “life energy” in the human body through the opening of chakras.
Some cultic groups such as the Gnostic Association of Anthropological and Cultural Studies (AGEAC), Sukyô Mahikari (Light of Truth), Invitation to Intense Life, and Energo-Chromo-Kinesis have a similar belief system and place the same emphasis on harmonizing people’s energy or vibrations (Abgrall, 2001, pp. 160–187). Other groups embrace different religious traditions but also incorporate New Age themes and alternative forms of healing, which they use to recruit their followers. This was the case of The Order of the Solar Temple (OST), whose cofounders Joseph Di Mambro and Luc Jouret won over recruits by lecturing on New Age themes and holistic health.
Beyond their medical concerns and belief systems, common to these groups are certain characteristics and persuasive strategies that have been identified in the research literature on cults: a) excessive devotion to an all-knowing, charismatic leader who is not accountable to any authorities; this leader claims to be divine or the direct spokesperson for God and has the mission to save humanity; b) indoctrination in a system of absolute beliefs; c) control and manipulation of information; d) concealment of the group’s true identity and motives; e) some degree of isolation and control of personal life; f) confusing doctrine; g) use of deception, fear, manipulation of feelings of blame, and intimidation; and, in the most extreme cases (e.g., OST), h) unethical use of confession, schedule control, sleep deprivation, and/or use of physical force to inflict harm, among others (see Lalich & Langone, 2006; see also Krok, 2009, and Rodríguez-Carballeira et al., 2010, for discussion).
This paper attempts to show that HUE may be a cultic group in disguise, exhibiting many of these characteristics and using unethically manipulative strategies to influence its members’ decisions and thoughts, and to alter their behavior and emotions in order to achieve its financial aims. In the process, HUE may be changing members’ habits and lifestyles, suppressing their individuality and critical thinking, and affecting their personal identity and psychological integrity, as frequently happens in cult environments (Lalich & Tobias, 2006).
The study is based on a qualitative content analysis of HUE’s primary documents, and on previous studies that focus on different aspects of this group; these include a study by Jean-François Mayer (2000); a brief review of the organization by Jean-Marie Abgrall (2001); a recent legal case study by Henri de Cordes (2011); and reports on Mr. Dang’s criminal trial in Switzerland.
Mayer analyzed this group (under the name of SHY) from the perspective of millennial studies. He concluded that HUE “did not exhibit the features of a group likely to engage in dangerous actions” and had the potential to grow and expand (2000, p. 7). Abgrall, in contrast, examined this organization (under the name of IHUERI) in the context of New Age groups and cults that focus on medical concerns, theories, and techniques. He found it problematic that the group targeted its recruitment in the medical field and claimed to cure all diseases; he concluded that if HUE “were satisfied just to teach spirituality and techniques of personal growth, no one would object” (2001, p. 180).
On the whole, I find these assessments accurate and agree with their conclusions; namely, that HUE is not a destructive group and would be essentially benign if it limited its teachings to these subjects, and as long as it did this in a way that is transparent and harmless. However, judging from de Cordes’ report on Mr. Dang’s criminal trial in Belgium, the reports on his trial in Switzerland, and the primary documents produced by this organization in the past 10 years, these conditions do not seem to be the case. HUE has changed and evolved, and new information has become available that demands a reevaluation of this organization.
In what follows, I discuss my methodology and sources; provide a general overview of HUE’s background, history, and teaching program; identify the cult-like characteristics found in this organization; and discuss HUE’s potentially harmful strategies and teachings, as well as several aspects associated with this group that may warrant future investigation.
Methodology and Sources
For the purpose of this study, I processed several of HUE’s primary documents using a qualitative content analysis according to Philipp Mayring’s approach (2000). I combined the two methods of category development prescribed by the author: deductive and inductive. Applying the latter, first I identified major themes (e.g., religious beliefs and rites, prophesies, esoteric theories, scientific claims, behavioral prescriptions, matters of health and well-being, and so on) and broke them into subcategories. At this point, themes consistent with the aforementioned characteristics and persuasive strategies associated with cultic groups started to emerge. The subsequent review of research literature on cults confirmed and expanded these categories, which I applied to code the texts according to Mayring‘s step-by-step deductive method.
Using these predefined categories for coding was important because they provide direction, inform the research question, and illustrate the range of meanings of the phenomenon. However, even though I identified most of these categories in the available texts, the sample I used is not all encompassing. Locating all primary documents of the group under study was difficult since HUE zealously guards them. Thus, for instance, I located only eight of 20 teaching manuals thanks to several anonymous ex-HUE members who were willing to contribute to this study. Nevertheless, the information contained in these manuals is repetitive. As much as 75 percent of the content of any given manual is repeated in any subsequent one. Additionally, using the same categories, I found and coded an e-book HUEFI recently published and a total of 29 primary documents (other than teaching manuals). These documents include teaching programs, transcripts of meetings, New Year’s messages, urgent messages, reports, newsletters, and summaries of various seminars.
A HUE center director questioned on the subject offered a rival explanation concerning Mr. Dang’s criminal convictions in Belgium and Switzerland (to be discussed later). This individual argued that their leader was subject to unfair religious persecution by the Catholic Church and the European Union (Anonymous, personal communication, July 6, 2012). This argument does not fully explain the incriminating evidence found against Mr. Dang in these countries, or his conviction in Switzerland. Moreover, the argument is in line with what Janja Lalich and Madeleine Tobias call “delusion of persecution,” or the tendency of cult leaders to be “highly suspicious… [to] feel conspired against, spied upon or cheated, or maligned by a person, group, or governmental agency” (2006, p. 60).
After coding all texts and identifying the themes that were key concepts for the analysis, I synthesized all information, which is included in this paper and its organizational structure.
Background and History
Mr. Dang, or Master Dang, as he is known among his followers, came to the United States as political refugee in 1985. He held his first class on universal energy for 27 students in San Diego, California, on July 20, 1989. Between 1990 and 1994, he taught in Latin America and Spain (Luong, M. T., 2008, p. 1). From that time onward, he used false academic titles and other false credentials (see below) to establish himself as a healer practitioner and teacher in the United States and several European countries, successfully attracting a large number of followers from all over the world during the next decade.
By 2007, SHY and MEL had centers in 50 countries around the world and—according to statistical data provided by these organizations—more than 3 million students. After Master Dang’s death in August of that year, both his second wife and his son wanted control over these organizations and centers. The issue was settled by December 2007. Mrs. Theresa Thu-Thuy Nguyen retained control over MEL Australia and changed its name to HUESA (Luong, M. T., 2007a, pp. 2–3). Apparently, HUESA established new centers, including four in the United States, and created alliances with some existing SHY and MEL centers. Mr. Luong Minh Trung, in contrast, established the company HUE Faculty Inc. (HUEFI) in the state of Missouri in 2011 and trademarked the names MEL, Human and Universal Energy, and Human and Universal Energy after Mr. Luong Minh Dang (Luong, M. T., 2011; HUEFI, n.d., Disclaimer section, para. 8). Centers around the world with these names are official partners of HUEFI, as well as most under the name SHY.
Although HUE’s headquarters are independent, according to HUESA, their method and teachings are basically the same (n.d., Outline of Universal Energy Method section, para. 2). They both offer a teaching program that consists of eight seminars of various durations that group together the 20 levels of Master Dang’s original program, as well as special seminars, educational events (symposia), congresses, and a training program for instructors. Nevertheless, there are some differences. Before 2010, HUE organizations claimed to be affiliated with the Open International University for Complementary Medicines (OIUCM) in Colombo, Sri Lanka. This university has no accreditation and claims to have been established per the World Health Organization Alma Alta Declaration of 1962 (which actually not promulgated until 1978) and was recognized by the United Nations Charter for the University of Peace. However, the only initiative of the United Nations with this title is not a real university but a discussion forum in Costa Rica. This detail was determined in 2006 by a Belgian criminal court, which found Mr. Dang guilty of the use of false academic titles, fraud, forgery, illegal practice of medicine, and criminal conspiracy as leader of an organization involved in these crimes “under the guise of a spiritual quest” (de Cordes, 2011). As a result, HUEFI no longer acknowledges such affiliation and has dropped all references to Master Dang’s false titles, which he received from this university (PhD, MD, DSc, KStJ). HUESA, in contrast, still claims to be affiliated with that university and mentions Mr. Dang’s titles, along with the 2001 Albert Schweitzer Award he allegedly received from the Albert Schweitzer Foundation for his humanitarian work (Luong, M. D., 2002, p. 1).
Today, HUEFI, HUESA, and their partners teach Master Dang’s “original” healing method based on meditation and the opening or activation of chakras or energy centers of the body. This opening supposedly allows people to harness universal energy and transfer it with the hands and through telepathy in order to restore health by reestablishing the energy balance of damaged cells in the body, and to achieve happiness and spiritual development. The free flow of universal energy in the body is said to relieve stress, improve the power of concentration, and contribute to the mental development of the practitioners/students and humanity at large (Tran, 2012). HUEFI cites as scientific proof of these claims works on psychoenergetics and bioenergy fields by scholars such as William A. Tiller and Gary E. Schwartz, among others (Tran, 2012, Chapter 4, Section 2). However, the organization fails to mention that these works are highly speculative and controversial, and have been received with skepticism by the scientific community. 
To learn Mr. Dang’s method, it is necessary to undertake a uniform and well-structured educational program that focuses on training students to acquire an ever-increasing number of meditation and energy-transfer techniques, and the theoretical knowledge necessary for their application. According to publicly available information, students initially learn the function and location of the chakras and have their chakras opened by the instructor (levels 1–3, 4, 5). In subsequent intermediate levels (5.1, 5.2, 6, 7, 7+), students learn how to transfer energy at a distance, and meditation methods that enhance their ability of concentration. Also, students “receive answers about the spiritual backgrounds of these teachings” (HUEFI, n.d., Seminars section, para. 3). In the advance levels (11, 12, 13, 13+, 13++) students learn about emotions, how to clear emotional blockades, and how to “detect, train, and enhance certain capacities of [the] brain” (HUEFI, n.d., Seminars section, para. 4). The last specialized levels (16, 17, 18, 19, 20) are dedicated to the interaction between consciousness and mentality, well-being, spirituality, and science. In addition to new meditation and energy-transfer techniques, students “learn … answers to enhance their knowledge in the different topics of the seminars” in order to improve the quality of life and work for themselves and humanity “in practical experience” (HUEFI, n.d., Seminars section, para. 1-5).
Prospective students are left to make a decision about starting the training program based on this information. They probably have heard about meditation and chakra opening since these ideas are now popular in the Western world, and they likely are impressed by the supposed scientific proof of HUE’s claims. Moreover, the program claims the advantage of opening students’ chakras in a 2-day seminar, a very short time compared to what other training programs based on meditation, such as Reiki, offer.
Religious Beliefs and Control of Information
When he was alive, Master Dang opened students’ chakras either in person or by telephone or video conference. Then, just before his death, he gave his permission to a select group of students at the highest level of training to do the same (Luong, M. T., 2007b, pp. 15–16). Now instructors at that level who receive the proper training are also granted this permission; but per Master Dang’s “instructions when He was alive, the task of Opening Chakras 100% … is still being done by the Master‘s Soul” (Luong, M. T., 2007a, p. 3). The capitalization of the pronoun and the noun to refer to Mr. Dang and his soul, which became common practice after his death, indicates a level of respect that borders on deification. This honor is justified by Mr. Dang‘s teachings, for although he tells students in level 6 that they should not believe in him the same way they believe in Jesus and Buddha (Mayer, 2000, p. 5), by level 18 he seems to suggest his being their equal. This view is evident in Mr. Dang‘s answer to the question of whether he is the Messiah:
I have nothing to hide, the three are one and one are [sic] three. You are like me in the past. God has given me all the work, because God and I are one, and I teach you in the same way God has taught me so you are like me … I am the manager and I give it to you, so you are responsible too. That is why the three are one and one are [sic] three. Man and God are two, but now we are three: I am the second and third are you. (as cited in Mariani, 2007, p. 2, my translation)
It is difficult not to see here an allusion to the Christian Trinity, with Mr. Dang occupying the place of Jesus, and his followers that of the Holy Spirit giving life to his Church. The idea is reinforced by other teachings in this and subsequent levels (19 and 20), where Mr. Dang finally reveals that his soul comes from outer space and has never before been on earth, unlike that of Buddha and HUE students, which reincarnated countless times (Luong, M. D., 2007a, pp. 11–12, 68; Mariani, 2007, p. 3). However, his soul has knowledge of all souls and has been instructed by God to take care of everyone that turns to him for help (Mariani, 2007, pp. 1, 3). Those who follow him complete the journey to Enlightenment, and then God, the Master and his followers become one (Luong, M. D., 2007a, p. 125). Moreover, HUEFI encourages students to visit St. Louis, Missouri, “the birthplace of the teachings of Universal Energy,” for it was from this location that Master Dang began healing, teaching, and traveling to other states in the United States and to the rest of the world (Report, 2008). One is hard pressed to see the difference between this and any other religious pilgrimage. Not unlike pilgrimages to Mecca, Santiago de Compostela, and Jerusalem, during this pilgrimage to St. Louis students are invited to meditate before the “altar of mankind ancestor” dedicated to remembering the “Invisible Beings who gave to mankind the people in every country around the world that made contributions to human civilization” (Luong, M. D., 2007b, p. 39). In this, as in many of such altars in HUE centers around the world, photos of the Master are situated between and/or above reverential icons such as the Virgin Mary, the female Bodhisattva Quan Yin, Buddha, Mohammed, and Jesus, amid flowers and candles.
HUESA also encourages students to visit and meditate before its altar, and organizes collective meditation sessions around both the Chinese Lunar New Year and Master Dang’s birthday. The “HUESA family” is invited to “face toward the Altar of Mankind Ancestors in Melbourne, Australia” at the designated meditation time (HUESA, 2010).
Although HUE emphasizes that it is not a religion, people who enroll in the organization’s training program wanting to reap the benefits of meditation and energy-based healing start by learning basic techniques and end up venerating (worshipping?) Master Dang. In the process, they are gradually introduced to altars, prayers, and energy pyramids, and to ideas of collective healing, absolute freedom, purification, spiritual space travel, spiritual-sexual unification, communication with higher beings, and salvation from cataclysmic events that will affect the planet before the dawn of a new era devoid of diseases and suffering (Luong, M. D., 2007b). They are told that those who follow Mr. Dang’s teachings and help humanity will be able to survive, while those who do not will suffer, die, and eventually reincarnate (Luong, M. D., 2007b; Mayer, 2000).
Apparently, none of this information is disclosed to prospective students or even to current trainees, who receive Master Dang’s teachings step by step throughout the “seminars” or, as he says, who “…listen carefully in order to receive the newest lessons I reveal so you can learn” the absolute truth he has received directly from God and the “Divine Beings” (Luong, M. D., 2004b, p. 61; 2007b, p. 16). Additionally, available information shows that Mr. Dang’s biography and HUE’s history have been carefully edited. There is no mention of Mr. Dang’s arrests and criminal convictions in Belgium and Switzerland. Nor is there any public acknowledgment of HUE’s schism of 2007, the dubious standing of the OIUCM, or of Mr. Dang’s failed prophecies of the 1990s (see Mayer, 2000, for discussion).
HUE’s control and distortion of relevant information, as well as the use of enticements and fear-inducing admonitions in its teachings give rise to ethical concerns. These and other psychomanipulative strategies may be used to influence people’s decisions, alter their behavior and emotions, and change or control their thoughts (Krok, 2009; Lalich and Tobias, 2006). Even if they do not have the same impact on all people, these strategies are potentially harmful for some individuals and may indirectly affect their families and loved ones (Langone, 2001). The following section discusses in greater detail some of HUE’s potentially harmful strategies and teachings.
Potentially Harmful Strategies and Teachings
HUE’s teachings demonstrate the use by cultic groups of several strategies of psychological influence or abuse, including: control and manipulation of information, emotional abuse, indoctrination in a system of absolute and Manichean beliefs, imposition of a single and unquestionable authority, and some degree of isolation and control over personal life (see Rodríguez-Carballeira et al., 2010, for discussion). As we shall see in this section, the use of these strategies may harm individuals financially as well as in terms of their ability to think critically, their psychological well-being, and their ethical behavior.
Emotional Manipulation, Suppression of Critical Thinking, and Financial Exploitation
Starting at level 6, HUE’s teachings become increasingly manipulative. There is a constant, repetitive referral to Mr. Dang’s communication with God and the divine beings, who teach him everything so that he can, in turn, instruct his pupils. Mr. Dang uses this rhetorical device as a form of proof by assertion, generally accompanied by promised rewards: salvation from catastrophic events, health, purification, freedom, wisdom, enlightenment, and the development of superhuman powers, among others. These enticements are then followed by admonitions of the consequences of not following the Master’s teachings: not escaping the wheel of karma, losing the company and blessings of higher beings, attracting sickness and disease (to oneself and one’s family), destroying oneself, and “other serious consequences” (Luong, M. D., 2007b, p. 32). This approach may instill fear in the pupils and reduce their ability to think critically. Moreover, the teachings also exploit modern fears: economic crisis, pollution, global warming, and nuclear power. Students are repeatedly told that the world is now making the same mistakes as the people of Atlantis, who caused its destruction with their arrogance, putting more faith in their own technological prowess than in God. But the human race can be saved from extinction if students sacrifice their time, money, and will to power, devoting their life to transferring energy and spreading the message of universal energy, love, compassion, and peace; doing so is in fact their God-given mission (Luong, M. D., 1996, 2000, 2004b, 2007a, 2007b).
Fear and moral responsibility are powerful tools that group leaders may use to manipulate others, and even to get them to accept sophistic arguments. One may see this at work in Mr. Dang’s argument concerning the payment of tuition fees, which runs as follows:
I designed the tuition fees for UE Seminars because I want you to never depend on me so you have total freedom to continue to learn and develop spiritually in UE or to deny it. This is a hidden point the Deities created to help bring you total freedom…. If you see the benefits then you will learn, research and continue to progress. But if you see that UE Teaching is useless or ineffective then you can freely or automatically return back to the stage before you had your chakras opened, that’s all. It is very simple. You are totally free to decide your own path. (Luong, M. D., 2007b, p. 41)
While it is true that receiving a gift may create dependency in reciprocal forms of exchange, it is also true that in economic exchanges the parties involved should know in advance what they are receiving for what they are giving. However, as we have seen, HUE students do not know going in what they are paying to learn. It seems that HUE takes advantage of this imbalance to surreptitiously establish forms of reciprocal exchange based on structures of mutual dependence, which are riskier than economic exchanges and make people more vulnerable to each other’s actions (Molm, Schaefer, & Collett, 2009). In so doing, HUE retains control, while seeming to allow students to leave the group at any time. But leaving the group entails the aforementioned reclosing of the chakras, which has serious consequences, as Mr. Dang tells them elsewhere: “You know that these teachings enable you to treat diseases. If you run away, the Higher Beings will make your family sick. Even if you do not want to treat, you will be forced to do so” (Luong, M. D., 1996, p. 15). In light of these implied threats, is it really possible for the students to freely decide their own path? Even if they decide not to go on, Mr. Dang tells them they will have to die and reincarnate immediately “to work again at once” (Luong, M. D., 1996, p. 15). These threats and the discourse of salvation and moral responsibility toward humanity further bind students to the group. The discourse also makes them feel blessed and special, for they believe they are God’s chosen ones. This belief may in turn cause a division between them and outsiders, who are seen as “greedy,” “low,” and “evil”—as people they do not need to love in a personal way, but to whom they should express infinite love by transferring energy (Luong, M. D., 2007b, pp. 1–2).
Another sophistic argument discourages students from giving to charity: “I do not tell you to give money to charity…. You should do charity work by using Universal Energy, which is infinite. But if you give money to charity how much is enough?” (Luong, M. D., 2007b, p. 41). The argument is not only deceiving but also fallacious. It does not follow that people would not know how much is enough when they are donating to charity. Furthermore, the compassion is invalid. Money is tangible and real, while universal energy is not; it is in fact purely speculative. No verifiable scientific evidence of its existence has been found, and scientific support for the effectiveness of energy-based healing is lacking (Edzard, 2003; Hall, 2008). In contrast, giving to charity is a personal decision that everyone should make by themselves rather than being told what to do, which diminishes one’s personal autonomy. Students are assured that tuition fees go directly to “UE charity funds” that the Master administers on their behalf (Luong, M. D., 2007b, p. 41). This may well be the case. However, during his trial in Belgium, Mr. Dang was unable to prove that the money he received from tuition payments between 1991 and 1999 was in effect destined for charity works. Moreover, the court found that pseudo invoices had been created to “distract the tax services from profits of various seminars and conferences” (de Cordes, 2011). These documents showed that several HUE centers were beneficiaries of large amounts of money (50% of all tuition payments), but the money was instead transferred directly to Mr. Dang’s personal bank accounts in the United States. In 2006, the court concluded that “the abuse of trust or gullibility of the victims was present” in Mr. Dang’s organization (de Cordes, 2011). The latter even encouraged students to obtain the same academic titles that the Belgian court adjudged to be false–a practice that started in 2002 (“Instructions…,” n.d.). Since the application for obtaining these titles was processed along with fees through HUE, one may surmise what one will. The Master died during the appeal process, but according to de Cordes, “had Dang lived long enough to attend his appeal trial” (2011), the court would not have changed its verdict or reduced his sentence.
Disruption of Personal Identity and Psychological Integration—Displacement of Conventional Morality
Apart from deliberately controlling and distorting information to make it acceptable, Mr. Dang created confusion by frequently changing his stories and varying information at different levels. For instance, when he first started teaching, Mr. Dang told his students that he had learned everything he knew from an Indian Master called Dasira Narada II; but later he dropped the story, claiming that everything came directly from God and the higher beings (cf. Luong, M. D., 1989, p. 3, & 2000, p. 26). Starting at level 5, he tells his students his soul has reincarnated many times; at level 7, he says that another soul entered his body at age 5 and was placed beside his body, only to reveal at level 18 that his soul had never before been here on earth (Luong, M. D., 2000, pp. 10, 25). “It is all so confusing,” says an ex-HUE member; “he blurs the lines between lies and truth, real and false … making it almost impossible to distinguish what is real in the Master’s teaching” (personal communication, May 2nd, 2012). This blurring of boundaries may weaken the students’ sense of conventional morality and heighten cognitive dissonance. In addition, this weakening may be what allows Mr. Dang to convince students at the highest level (who will disseminate HUE’s teachings around the world) that lying and telling the truth are somehow interchangeable; in this regard, Mr. Dang says,
The fact is that … you can use lies to help others. From now on whatever you say, even if you’re joking, you will say something true to their hearts. What I mean is that in any case you can help by telling lies, because the truth of what you say will resonate in their hearts. (Luong, M. D., 2007a, pp. 15–16, my translation)
Evidently, the ends justify the means. Students need to have the same ideas, beliefs, values, and behaviors of the leader in order to complete the work of the divinities. According to Mr. Dang, there need to be many “Luong Minh Dangs … who will be the product of the activation of the God Gene that is hidden inside people by Universal Energy in order to have these geniuses” (Luong, M. D., 2007b, p. 43).
Creating a new identity within the students is apparently the only way to secure HUE’s growth and survival. Furthermore, imparting the organization’s teachings with a humorous and joyful disposition is a prerequisite for success, for doing so may help establish trust and rapport, important for getting the message across and winning support for its ideas. According to ex-HUE members, Mr. Dang himself was incredibly funny and charismatic. In the seminars, he apparently joked about everything. For instance, he repeatedly joked about having “bottomless pockets,” meaning that he would always “give out” to students, people in need, and charities without question. Students trusted him implicitly, as one ex-HUE member says: “We didn’t ask for receipts or invoices, we were simply amazed by the Master’s joy and generosity … but there was perhaps an embedded message: that we should also have bottomless pockets and ‘give out’ our money without thinking” (personal communication, May 1st 2012). According to this individual, students’ trust is so complete that “many members voluntarily give up outside interests including family, career, and hobbies to devote their lives to ‘volunteering,’ teaching and transferring energy.” This behavior is encouraged by HUE’s discourse of “absolute freedom,” which refers not only to the freedom of helping others in their spiritual learning and development, but also to attaining freedom of mind, which means freeing one’s will. Mr. Dang says in this regard, “Don’t change your decision. Don’t be tied by culture, custom, books [and] religion. Don’t be worried, disturbed, concerned or afraid. Don’t be possessed by fame, ambition, and love” (Luong, M. D., n.d.). Elsewhere, he explains that culture, tradition, religion, family, and science cause suffering and “fear of the truth” (Luong, M. D., 2007b, p. 26). Additionally, students are encouraged to transfer energy on every occasion, and even during physical intimacy—a practice known as “spirituo-sexual unification” (Luong, M. D., 2004a, pp. 1–6, English section). This practice ensures that students’ minds are continually turned toward Mr. Dang’s program of spiritual growth. The freeing of the will and excessive focus on HUE’s program may not only isolate students from the broader society but also impair their psychological integration, which leads to “a chronic and escalating self-conflict” or the compartmentalization of “ourselves into discordant mind-pieces.” (Langone & Clark, 1985, para. 26).
Conclusions and Future Research
HUE seems to exhibit many of the characteristics associated with cultic groups summarized in Table 1.
HUE: Cult-Like Characteristics and Persuasive Strategies
Members reflect excessive devotion to an all-knowing, charismatic leader not accountable to any authorities.
Self-appointed leader claims to be direct spokesperson for God.
Group leaders are preoccupied with making money.
Leader is not accountable to any authorities.
Leader is venerated and has a special mission to save the world.
Group encourages pseudo-altruistic activity and discourages legitimate charity work.
Members experience indoctrination in a system of absolute beliefs.
Control and distortion of information exist.
Suppression of individuality and critical thinking exists.
Group encourages rejection of old values and beliefs (absolute freedom).
Group has a polarized us-versus-them mentality.
Group uses millennial discourse to instill fear of leaving the group.
Group reflects some degree of control of personal life: economic aspects, occupation of time, behavior, and even sexual relations.
Confusing doctrine encourages blind acceptance and rejection of logic.
Teachings affect personal identity and impair psychological integration.
Teachings encourage members to distance themselves from the broader society.
Group promotes establishment of own brand of morality outside acceptable social norms (ends justify the means).
Group uses deception, fear, and intimidation to influence members psychologically, intellectually, and emotionally.
Even though the group is not totalitarian in its control of members’ personal life or does not inflict physical harm on them, other types of harm seem to be associated with this organization: social harm (e.g., fraudulent fund-raising practices and tax evasion), and personal harm (e.g., financial exploitation and diminished personal autonomy, psychological integration, and critical-thinking capacity).
Additionally, this group’s belief system is eclectic, incorporating elements from multiple religions and philosophies. Nevertheless, at higher levels of instruction, religions are criticized, and veneration to the founder encouraged to a point that borders on deification. Mr. Dang’s status seems to be comparable to that of Jesus and Muhammad, and perhaps higher than Buddha’s, since his soul has never reincarnated. The group, however, claims to be nonreligious and welcomes people from all denominations, promising health and well-being through the transfer of energy that has supposedly been proven by science. These claims make it very attractive to unsuspecting people who have no idea of the group’s true identity and motives.
Further research would be necessary to establish the degree of HUE’s potential psychological abuse at different levels of instruction. This research would need to consider the differences between HUEFI and HUESA. Both groups still use the same teaching manuals and Mr. Dang’s recorded video conferences and lectures in their respective teaching programs, but they have created different new lectures/seminars. Additionally, HUEFI has erased from its manuals all references to Dasira Narada and its founder’s false academic titles and awards, while HUESA has not. The latter may still encourage students to obtain false academic titles from OIUCM since it is still affiliated with this university.
Another line of future research concerns HUE’s potential degree of abuse in terms of its reliance on unpaid labor, which may differ in different countries, and its potentially harmful teachings regarding issues of health and reliance on its healing method.