By Joe Roberts @jrobertsjourno
Scroll down for the full story
Videographer / director: Mert Beken
Producer: Joe Roberts, Ruby Coote
Editor: Beth Angus
30-year-old Bentinho Massaro has amassed an impressive following both in real life and online, with 24,000 Instagram followers and almost 300,000 Facebook likes.
But in the past year he has been accused of running an evolved form of cult and his career has been marred by accusations of verbal abuse, sleeping with students, and the suicide of one of his followers.
The Amsterdam-native told Barcroft Media: “I do not consider my group as a cult, if by cult you mean some dysfunctional group of people completely under the spell of a manipulative leader.
“But if you mean cult in terms of a culture, then yes, of course, because anything is a cult. Like politics is a cult. The people that attend a Michael Jackson concert are a cult. The people that talk about aliens are a cult. There are cults all over the place and we accept them all the time.”
Massaro has set up a sleek website for his “Trinfinity Academy” where new followers can access his teachings for free and, according to the banner on the site, “realise their freedom” and “master their life.”
Until the end of 2017, his regular meetings in Sedona, Arizona – where he established a base of operations – were reported to draw more than 100 people each week.
But his dramatic success came under the spotlight when the author of a December, 2017 ‘exposé’ accused Massaro of being the first “Tech Bro Guru”.
Written by journalist Be Schofield, who had embedded herself in Massaro’s Sedona group for a month, the piece made accusations of verbal abuse of students, sleeping with followers, and even a master plan for mass suicide.
On the question of whether Massaro has some nefarious purpose behind his teachings, and that he is “Steve Jobs meets Jim Jones,” as the article puts it, he is adamant in his denial.
“I would say that is a horrible, nasty comparison,” he said. “It is absolutely a completely different scenario, and anyone with the heart and will to truly investigate and spend some time with the people and spend some time with me would never come to that conclusion.
“I am a good person, my intentions are good and I want the best for everyone.”
While the article clearly hurt Massaro, he claims to have been unsurprised by its publication: “I have to say that I understand the nature of my work rubs some people the wrong way. Also the success of it rubs people the wrong way.”
On the specific claim that he verbally abused students, Massro maintains that this is a mischaracterisation of an ancient technique known as the Zen Slap.
The verbal abuse claim uses a specific video as part of its evidence, in which Massaro can be seen repeating the phrase “Fuck you” to a female attendee at one of his talks.
“I have not verbally abused my students,” Massaro said. “The western minds don’t really appreciate or understand it, but if you look at the eastern tradition, the Buddhist traditions, the famous Zen Slap, if you will, is a very common spiritual teaching.
“Because the ego of the student is so tenacious that sometimes the archetypal master will have to smack the archetypal student in the face with a strong statement or a word to sort of shake them up and wake them up.”
“It’s not a form of abuse, because the people will sign up to be there, they want to be there, they want that reflection.”
But Matthew Remski, an author and critic of Buddhist and Yoga culture, says this explanation simply isn’t enough to acquit Massaro.
“There are interactions within the teacher and student within Zen traditions which can feature a little bit of a jolt or a bit of verbal abuse,” he said.
“But all of that is prepared for with an intense series of preliminary practices and understandings about ethics.
“You don’t just throw these words around as though you’ve got them at the book store. These are cultures, they have rules to them, and the rules mean that the person who gets to sit at the front of the room, ostensibly has been tested, and that doesn’t seem to be the case with Massaro.”
As far as his spiritual credentials go, Massaro says he has travelled extensively and studied the Hindu philosophy of Advaita Vedanta and the Buddhist Dzogchen tradition – but this is as precise as he has ever got when explaining exactly what his guidance is based on.
He also addressed the allegations of sleeping with students, and says that he has slept with followers but that all of them were either people with whom he had serious relationships, or who were “potential relationship interests,” and that they can be counted “on one hand.”
“I guess anyone in a certain niche is most likely to meet their partner in a workforce so, no different for me,” he said.
Although the article’s damning allegations might have ended the career of other self-proclaimed gurus, Massaro has maintained a devoted following despite having to leave his Sedona dream behind.
More than 400 followers attended a retreat held in July this year in Baarlo, Netherlands.
One, 34-year-old Maaike Remmerswaal, asked whether she believed Massaro was running a cult, said: “I don’t see that his group is a cult.
“The thing that you cannot comprehend, you try to put that in a little box that you can understand, you can control it. So I don’t think this is a cult and if someone else thinks it, that’s fine.”
While it’s often difficult to ascertain just how qualified Massaro is, to be offering the kind of guidance he does, one thing he is very clear on are his supposed telekinetic powers.
He said: “Just some tin foil that I could spin on a table. At some point, I rolled a pen across the table and that’s when I thought, ‘Okay! This is enough. I don’t have to practice it anymore. I have proven it to myself.’”
Once he’d mastered the ability to move physical objects with his mind – the tin foil example can be seen on Massaro’s Instagram – he turned his attention to controlling the weather.
“I have had over 95% success with this one in particular,” he said. “All you do is you just visualise the end result and you finish it up with the feeling of confidence in that reality.”
There’s clearly a lot about Massaro to make prospective followers sceptical, but is he really the Elon Musk of the spiritual world, at the helm of a digital-age cult?
Author of ‘Cults Inside Out’ and founder and executive director of the Cult Education Institute, Rick Alan Ross offers this as a definition of a cult: “[There are] three core characteristics. They are, number one, a charismatic leader that has no meaningful accountability, and becomes an object of worship – the driving force and defining element of the group.
“Number two that there is a process of indoctrination, in which influence techniques and coercive persuasion may be used to gain undue influence.
“And finally number three, the group does notable harm by exploiting its members and using its undue influence to manipulate and take advantage of people.”
While Massaro is clearly a charismatic leader, and the driving force behind his own success as a ‘guru’, it remains unclear whether there is any exploitation in his case.
That said, there are videos online showing audience members breaking down into sobs after being confronted with repeated questions from Massaro such as: “Can you love yourself? Are you worthy of that?”.
But Matthew Remski says asking whether Massaro’s group is a cult is the wrong question to ask: “It’s more interesting to ask, are there ways in which his content is deceiving people? Are people becoming dependent upon him emotionally, socially, or even financially?
“Nobody wants to be identified as being a cult member so labelling the group as such is dangerous in a sense that it can really prevent insiders looking critically at where they are.”
Without a clear understanding of just how practiced Massaro is, it’s difficult to say whether his use of ‘wisdom tradition’ techniques are cynical or genuine attempts to provoke some sort of awakening in his followers.
In fairness to Bentinho, Maaike and another attendee at the Baarlo retreat, Kasper, certainly don’t seem to exemplify the manipulated, insular types characteristic of cults.
But it’s not that easy to acquit Massaro of falling afoul of all Remski’s points of concern. The telekinetic powers, for instance, seem like a clear way in which people might be “being deceived”.
What’s more, Massaro’s Trinfinity Corporation (separate from the Trinfinity Academy) seems very reminiscent of much of the Silicon Valley idealism we’re used to in 2018 – almost megalomaniacal in its ambitions.
The corporation exists to allow Massaro to develop products and services that will “better humankind” and reach what he refers to as an ‘Enlightened Civilisation’ by 2035.
There’s a specific plan, loosely laid out under the ‘Projects’ tab on the site, which indicates apps, a TV service, a record label, and even an “astral projection inducer” will be rolled out over a series of four “waves”.
It all culminates in the final wave: Trinfinity City. Details on this are lacking for now, and it seems Massaro is keen to play down this master plan in interviews, likely to negate the ‘Tech Bro’ image portrayed by the Medium article.
Either way, the four waves may have to wait. Trinfinity Corp was incorporated in 2015 as a for-profit company in the state of Colorado, where Massaro first set up his base of operations, after moving to the US.
As of March 2018, the company has been listed as delinquent for failing to provide an annual report to the Secretary of State.
Since holding the Baarlo event, Massaro has returned to the US and is holding more events, seemingly still able to draw a crowd and intent upon restarting his Trinfinity Corporation efforts.
He reflected on his Sedona experience: “In a way, perhaps it was too soon, too quick for the local community. Something shifted vibrationally, some people opposed it.
“But initially I would say there was a real glimpse of something beautiful and really nice coming together of the local people.”
Later, he added: “The reason I do what I do is because I perceive people really desire this type of clarity and I know I can provide it based on my expertise.
“I do as much I can to provide as much of that everyday, I have no desire to start a dysfunctional community.”