Escape To Freedom

Liu Tung-Cheng was already awake, as usual, when the sharp trill of the morning whistle pierced the silence of the Lung Fa Tang sanitarium at 4:15. But this time the 34-year-old alcoholic wasn't chafing at the metal chains that bound him by the waist to a mumbling patient who suffers from schizophrenia. He was nervous, reminding himself to act as if it were a normal day. Nothing, of course, is quite normal at Lung Fa Tang, a quasi-Buddhist temple that--depending on one's point of view--is either a radical mental-rehabilitation center or a terrifying asylum designed to exploit slave labor. Like nearly a third of the 650 residents, Liu was shackled 24 hours a day by what the monks and nuns call the "chain of feeling." It was meant to help him "connect" with others--and to prevent him from running away. They also make the daily rituals cumbersome: mopping up excrement on the floor, bowing before breakfast, showering together--all to get ready for another day of work, without pay, on Taiwan's largest poultry farm. "There is no rest," says Liu. "We work 365 days a year, even Chinese New Year."

But this day was different. Hieh Kai-feng, the self-styled Buddhist monk who founded Lung Fa Tang 20 years ago, had left on a trip to mainland China the day before. The Master's likeness--seen on everything from dashboard figurines to an enormous golden Buddha on top of the temple's main facade--still kept vigil. But the monks and nuns seemed more relaxed in his absence. Liu saw his opportunity. He spoke quietly with three inmates, including 13-year veteran Chen Kwang-chao, a "squad leader" entrusted with keys for the door, the chains--and, crucially, a truck. The men put on civilian clothes underneath their soiled Buddhist robes. And at 6:10 a.m., after two groups left for the farm, Chen commanded, "Let's go!" The four men piled into the truck, dragging their unstable companions along. Nobody saw them leave, but they feared that the truck--and their shaved heads--might give them away. So 20 minutes later, near the city of Tainan, they shed their shackles and chained the confused patients to the truck (with a bag of cookies). "We'll be right back," they lied, and for the first time in years, they walked in freedom.

The dramatic escape from Lung Fa Tang in January shines a spotlight on one of Taiwan's dirty little secrets. The recent escapees are publicly accusing Lung Fa Tang of physical and psychological abuse--charges that temple officials vehemently deny. In a visit to Lung Fa Tang last week, NEWSWEEK could not verify specific charges of abuse. But the fact that the thriving enterprise relies on chains and forced labor--tools that were banned in the West more than a century ago--raises concerns about the plight of the mentally ill in Taiwan. It's a ticklish issue for an island that takes pride in being almost breathtakingly modern, both in its technological advances and in its embrace of democracy and human rights. In reality, Taiwan society still has trouble dealing with those who don't conform. "Lung Fa Tang is a blemish we don't want others to see," says Dr. Wen Jung-kwang, head of the psychiatric ward at Chang Gung Memorial Hospital, noting that even the local press has said little on the subject. "It's a sickness we want to hide."

Lung Fa Tang (literally, the Dragon Metamorphoses Temple) is the product of a society that still largely views mental illness as a shame and a stigma. Once mental illness breaks through the family fabric, there is little outside support. "Society is to blame," says Dr. Billy Pan, a psychiatrist at Taipei's Wanfang Hospital. "The government could put more money into psychological care, but society would have to help foot the bill." Unlike Japan, which devotes nearly 10 percent of its national health-care budget to mental health, Taiwan devotes only 3 percent, he says. Taiwan has fewer than 21,000 beds for some 130,000 psychiatric patients; the beds are filled with chronic patients with nowhere else to go. "The sad thing," says Hwang Wen Hsiung, director of the Taiwan Association for Human Rights, "is that Lung Fa Tang answers needs that have not been met by society."

Lung Fa Tang discovered those needs by accident. When Li Kun-tai, an illiterate farmer, first opened his Buddhist practice 30 years ago, changing his name to Hieh Kai-feng, a neighbor begged him to take her son as an apprentice. The boy was a pyromaniac. So Kai-feng, protecting his flammable hut, tied himself to the boy with a rope and set him to work in the garden; gradually the boy's mental health improved. Word spread, and people flocked from all over, asking Kai-feng to take in their troubled children. The controversies that have swirled around the Master and his methods seem only to enhance his status. He spent six months in jail in 1984 for fraud (selling Buddha statuettes at exorbitant prices). But when Kai-feng got out of prison, he received a hero's welcome--and the number of residents grew. Most of the patients have some form of schizophrenia, but some are simply addicts, outcasts, or former prisoners that families can't control. Lung Fa Tang says it does not charge fees. But in most cases, families are willing--and they say encouraged--to pay large sums of money, usually from $15,000 to $75,000.

Desperation drives them to Lung Fa Tang. Liu's mother, for example, was so scared of her son's coming home drunk and violent that she took him to Lung Fa Tang one night when he was passed out. (Liu remembers waking up tied to a metal bed with monks hovering over him--his worst hangover.) One man visiting his 27-year-old son last week said he grew frustrated with psychiatric clinics that couldn't diagnose his son's violent outbreaks, but pumped him up with sedatives and sent him home. "He's better behaved now," says the father, betel-nut juice dripping down his lip. Many parents are beguiled by visions of religious salvation. But if they need more convincing, the Master, a wisp of a man in his billowing gold robe, brings out his best marketing tool: the Lung Fa Tang "Big Band" playing a weirdly dissonant version of "I Can't Stop Loving You." As the promotional video says: "Without pills, without shots, Lung Fa Tang has created a miracle in Taiwanese psychiatry."

But all the promotion in the world can't hide the misery. Chen Kwang-chao used to be considered one of Lung Fa Tang's miracles. When he arrived 14 years ago, a refugee from the state hospitals, Chen was plagued by imaginary voices. Just two months later they stopped. Chen's not sure why, but he hasn't heard them since. Lung Fa Tang did not declare him fit to leave, but administrators unchained him and gradually gave him more privileges. He became a squad leader and a Big Band drummer, accompanying Master Kai-feng on trips all over Asia, including mainland China. (Kai-feng says he has contacts with 41 mental-health institutions on the mainland.) Chen became so trustworthy that the Master even let him get a driver's license so he could drive one of the trucks carrying workers back and forth to the chicken farm.

Deep inside, though, Chen was tormented. His parents had not visited in 11 years. As squad leader, he says, he was forced to beat other inmates at the behest of the "disciples"--the 17 nuns and three monks who run the place. (Master Hsin-hsien, the woman who is taking over the retiring Master Kai-feng, denies that this happens.) One of his fellow escapees, Chin Jung-tsai, remembers that after an earlier escape attempt, it was Chen who kept him strapped on a metal bed for seven days, giving him only one meal a day. Chen hated what he saw as the monks' hypocrisy--and the constant, nagging fear. "Every day was full of fear," he told NEWSWEEK during a meeting at an all-night cafe in Taipei. "I knew that if I stayed, I'd be finished." Without Chen and his keys, the escape would never have happened. "To breathe fresh air again makes me happy," he said. "But I hope that people outside won't be fooled again and hand their money over to Lung Fa Tang."

It's hard to know how many others inside Lung Fa Tang feel as Chen does. The shaven-headed residents--about one third of whom are women--are mostly disciplined, submissive and unexpressive. (On one of the only unguarded moments during the visit, a middle-aged woman started complaining about the place--no hair, no fun, no tampons--until a nun appeared out of nowhere and told her not to say such things "in front of a guest.") The place has the lugubrious feel of a concentration camp: after working all day in the chicken farm--feeding a million chickens, harvesting 2,000 crates of eggs, shoveling a bumper crop of guano--residents line up obediently for their vegetarian dinner. They respond to a series of whistles signaling when to bow their heads, march forward, pick up their chopsticks, stop eating. Not a word is spoken. "If they learn good habits here," says Kai-feng, smiling, "then you can teach them anything."

How is their mental health? That's hard to say. Lung Fa Tang has no doctor or psychiatrist on staff. Nor does it keep any formal records to track a resident's progress. Administrators would not say how many patients had ever been declared fit to leave or how many had died. Liu, the escapee, says 41 people had died during the past 18 months. Master Hsin-hsien says there were only three or four last year, but "we can't reveal that number because people would use it against us." One sign of success, she says, is that "nobody has committed suicide" from the 10-story chicken coop.

Master Kai-feng, meanwhile, is treated almost as a god. Kai-feng has virtually eliminated the temple's emphasis on Buddhist practice. Hsin-hsien is not Buddhist at all and has replaced Buddha's image with the Master's throughout the compound. (In one series of photos in the main hall, his image emanates outward in a ham-handed use of multiple exposure.) Kai-feng likes to tell people that "thousands of Buddhas bow before me." Sure enough, a patient in chains runs up and bows down before him on the dirt floor. "If we treat people as badly as they say," says Hsin-hsien, "why would they bow down to the Master?"

Try fear. "How did I feel?" asks Liu. "Here are these monks who are supposed to be kind and merciful, but... we're treated like slaves." Master Hsin-hsien says that profits are reinvested for the patients' "welfare"; Lung Fa Tang doesn't release its financial records. She argues that the discipline is for a greater good. "When you arrive at Lung Fa Tang [as a patient], you can't say you want to talk about human rights," she says. "What about the rights of your family or of society?" Unfortunately for the patients of Lung Fa Tang, many Taiwanese still see things the same way.

Photo: The Master: Kai-feng (left), a self-styled Buddhist, believes that chains and hard labor can heal troubled souls

Photo: No rest, no pay: A patient waits to be trucked to a work site on the temple's chicken farm