Wednesday, April 15, 2009

Buddhist Cults: or, How I Became Frankenstein and Learned to Love the Mob

For the majority of Buddhists in this world, and most particularly in the traditionally Buddhist nations or geographical areas, being Buddhist means about the same thing as being Christian in Mississippi: one doesn't think very much about it, because this is just the way things are. There's a strong tradition of adherence to the sutras, so all the questions more or less answer themselves. "Criticism and interpretation," are virtually unheard of, because there is no publish or perish culture infecting the priesthood.

So, in general, we can for a moment operate with the stereotype that in the Buddhist homelands, it is sometimes sufficiently Buddhist to just be Buddhist. Maybe in that sense, "criticism and interpretation" is something one does silently, when one meditates.

In the West, we do not have a strong tradition of adherence to the sutras. We prefer the Dalai to the Pali, because with infinite skill, His Holiness (a name on loan from the Vatican) makes seem easy that which otherwise appears difficult. Maybe in that sense, "criticism and interpretation" is a gentle pointing-out instruction.

In the nations or areas where Buddhism has only lately visited, there is a noisy, often obnoxious minority that has developed religious "criticism and interpretation," hereinafter C&I, to the level of commercial art and entertainment. I do not have to tell you who they are. You have already seen their glossy magazines and trendy web sites: a post-modern reprise of Robert Benchley and Dorothy Parker at the Algonquin Round Table, with liberation on the installment plan as the raison d'etre.

Oh, how witty. Lets make each other famous.

Lets Make Each Other Famous?

Fortunately, back when all this was getting started, we in the West were visited by a low-flying angel, who used his angel eyes to foresee all of this nonsense, and provide us with cautionary instruction. Of course, his instruction was dutifully recorded, published, and preserved, but I still do not think anyone paid it any mind. So, it remains, like a underwater mine waiting to explode, should a worthy ship pass into uncontaminated waters.

"The existence of form, credentials, is what maintains the illusion of I. Thus, if a person is self-righteously claiming to practice the buddhadharma, is using his practice as credentials, then he is simply playing ego's game."

We are drifting elsewhere, it seems. Somewhere the bilge is fragrant, and life is easy.

So, it begins:

There are areas of the internet where people who call themselves Buddhists gather to bash around other people who call themselves Buddhists, and both factions are making decisions about one another. This is basic small group social dynamics: the kind they used to teach in Sociology 101. It is what passes for something that calls itself the "Sangha."

So, it seems we have Buddhist cults that are refusing to recognize other Buddhist cults, and indeed, brands them as harmful. The list published here is by no means comprehensive. In the harmful category, they might well have included KPC (Kunzang Palyul Choling: the renamed Center for Discovery and New Life, formed from the Black Mountain Light Center), or any one of a dozen others. Nevertheless, I find it interesting that two of those mentioned, i.e. Dorje Shugden and the True Buddha School, are creations from what we think of as traditionally Buddhist regions: Tibet, and Taiwan. This is actually quite interesting, because it appears to prove that these cults can be seen as a basic human invention; an atavistic imperative, if you like, responding to some unfulfilled inner need.

(I have also seen others singled out: a Gelugpa guy with a genuine geshe who lives in a desert ger in the 'States with foxy lady lamas, but in his case it is obviously motivated by jealousy. In the interest of full disclosure, I should probably explain that when I am in the 'States, I sometimes live in a desert ger with rabbits. Maybe I should've stuck to the studies, huh?)

"If a group of people do this together, then they reinforce each other in the same game. Inevitably, they will pick a leader. Then the leader will have as his credentials the title 'head of the flock.' The members of the flock will have as their credentials the title 'member of such-and-such organization.' The leader and the flock reinforce each other's identities."

Whenever I hear about a Buddhist cult, I immediately want to investigate. It is like watching hookers on the stroll. You never know when you'll find a really saucy one. Speaking personally, one whistled at me a while back, and she came right over to the car. I made the mistake of rolling down the window far enough for her to jump in. That led to my brief tenure as Chief Operating Officer of KPC in all its farflung permutations and front operations. So, while I may not be an expert on Buddhist cults, at least I am entitled to an opinion, having examined one from the inside out, so to speak.

Even things which seem accidental are the product of cause and effect.

Parenthetically Speaking

(To the question of "is he or isn't he," or "did he or didn't he," or whatever the gossipy question happens to be, I have something to say: only one of three things explains the matter. Either a really world-class babysitter managed to confront some baby tricksters at their own game, in which case shame, shame, shame on those babies for letting themselves be stupid in public; or, the genuine article came to town, and again, shame, shame, shame on those babies for letting themselves be stupid in private; or, somebody offered up a really sublime, in-depth, object lesson in the pitfalls of spiritual materialism to a bunch of spiritual materialists, in which case shame does not apply. One can teach stupid babies without relieving them of their stupidity, and still be called a teacher. To the allegation of a fourth explanation, i.e. that a demon is involved, modesty prevents commentary. What are demons wearing this season? Big hats still de rigueur?)

Back to the Main Issue

What is a cult? Fortunately, we have the cult of cult experts to instruct us. First, the dictionary definition offers:

"1. A formal religious veneration 2. A system of religious beliefs and rituals also its body of adherents; 3. A religion regarded as "unorthodox or spurious."; 4. A system for the cure of disease based on dogma set forth by its promulgator; 5. a: A great devotion to a person, idea, thing; esp.: such devotion regarded as a literary or intellectual fad, b: A usually small circle of persons united by devotion or allegiance to an artistic or intellectual movement or figure."

The cult experts say that what separates the so-called destructive cult from the dictionary cult has to do with three factors:

  1. A charismatic leader, who increasingly becomes an object of worship as the general principles that may have originally sustained the group lose power.
  2. A process of coercive persuasion or thought reform.
  3. Economic, sexual, and other exploitation of group members by the leader and the ruling coterie.
Trungpa Rinpoche -- as you have guessed, he is our low-flying angel --- had a rather specific explanation:

"Inevitably this organization, this collective ego, will look for further confirmation of its health and existence. It may even take as its credentials the transmission of the lineage, the teachings of the great masters, but it will be a prostitution of those teachings. It will involve itself in the ever-escalating game of one-upmanship in order to enlarge its congregation. This one-upmanship may take the form of collecting endorsements and diplomas, as well as the form of ambitious practice and adherence to the teachings. It will also see the success of rivals as a threat."

My tulku is bigger than your tulku. My lineage is glorious. Our temple is huge. If a cult hounds and persecutes, it really shouldn't surprise us. Mob forms on the left. Torches and pitchforks available at the booth.

The Empty Shell

In our shared religion, which seems to be Buddhism more often than it seems to be shared, we have the powerful image of a conch shell. This symbolizes the Dharma in potent fashion. However, there is an equally potent interpretation in which the shell symbolizes form empty of true meaning. In the Sutra of the Treasury of Buddha it says: "If someone teaches with ignorance, it is worse than if he took the lives of the inhabitants of three universes, because his ability to teach the dharma is impure." Similarly, the Buddha said that his teachings could never be destroyed by outsiders, but only from within. In the immortal words of Trungpa Rinpoche: "This is the perversion of sangha. It is the dark-age style of spirituality, the operation of spiritual materialism."

I believe that Trungpa Rinpoche's manifesto on Buddhadharma Without Credentials, from which we have here quoted throughout, is of cardinal importance to the wholesome spread of dharma in the West, and will be of increasing value as time passes by. However, none of this remarkable teaching's value will be realized until we, ourselves, learn to recognize in our hearts what it was he was trying to warn against. When I say "recognize," I mean really recognize. Cults, such as those under discussion, exist because of the operative modalities of spiritual materialism: because of the search for credentials. How could it be otherwise? The heirarchies, and enemies, and battles we invent for ourselves, and each other, do not serve us very well in the end, do they? Doesn't it become exhausting to continually take the same hill; to fight over the same ground, to no good purpose, while the better opportunities of our arising display go to waste?

There are 501(c)(3) Buddhist organizations in this country that take donated money... money that sponsors declare as deductions... and employ this money to "punish enemies" under all manner of excuses. Ask yourself: is this Buddhism? Or is this, as Trungpa Rinpoche teaches, a perversion of Buddhism?

A kind of cowardice?

The mentality of the cult is the mentality of the crowd in microcosm -- mob psychology at its lowest common denominator. It is a worldwide neuroses, but nowhere is it seen to the perfection it exhibits in the West, because here it is bred into us by the relentless scream of a market-based economy wholly dependent on samsara's sharpest aspects. We are the loneliest, craziest crowd on the planet. We buy our team logos, brands, and bumperstickers because we need to belong to something. Some of us tattoo Harley-Davidson on our ass, and some of us tattoo Buddhist symbols on our arms. Some of us wear blue bandanas and some of us wear maroon robes. My sangha gonna peel your sangha's cap.

Is this what we want?

If we hear, over a period of some time, that certain patterns are repeating themselves, that is a great, big, fat, red flag. That is "like and similar conduct." If we hear that this or that cult, actual or suspected, is engaging in like and similar conduct, be it chasing down enemies, or fundraising in support of some grandiose scheme, or laying the cat-o'-nine to the back of an evolving sheep who dared to leave the flock, then that should be sufficient cause to throw on the brakes. If slick cult emissaries are making the rounds, softly sighing sibilant slanders, we ought to get out the snake sticks, and sling them over our shoulders.

When does "sangha" become "cult?" How does it happen? Why does it happen?

Worth investigating, don't you think?

Now, if you'll excuse me, I believe I hear someone knocking on the castle door. Something about C&I.

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3 reader comments:

Chase Bauer said...

Thank you for this, I really enjoyed your insights. I think the point about a cult being a product of spiritual materialism is absolutely key. Even on its most subtle levels.

Just out of interest, can you site that Trungpa Rinpoche quote for me? I would love to read that talk. Thank you!

TENPA said...

"Buddhadharma Without Credentials" may be found in his Collected Works.

Anonymous said...

Brilliantly stated... really a wake-up call.