Tuesday, November 23, 2010

Following A Spiritual Master: Updated Notes On A Buddhist Cult

Racing chainsaw, with a Yamaha motorcycle engine.

"I believe that one day, our capacity to make excuses for doing that which we should not do will run head-on into the tree of our excuses for not doing that which we should do, and all excuses will finally be recognized as having the same origin."

I received a disturbing note the other day, and I let it lay around, wondering if I had any interest or responsibility in the matter. It was a note from someone who I met in Sedona, Arizona, while babysitting the unruly children of the Buddhist cult Kunzang Palyul Choling. I reproduce a portion of the note below,

The note calls into question New Age "Jetsunma" Alyce Zeoli's practice of interfering in the relationship between her students and their doctors. She has a considerable track record of forcing students to go "doctor shopping" until they find one who will prescribe the same psychiatric medications that she uses! While that was the immediate subject of the note, what it evoked for me was the larger question of loose cannons on the deck.

Hence, the subject of today's post.

Usually, the foremost scriptural authority on the topic of how to follow a spiritual master is considered to be Asvagosha's Fifty Verses on Guru Devotion (Bla-ma Inga-bcu-pa), written circa the first century. Although various commentaries, glosses, and interpretations have been produced at various times and places, to serve various purposes, it is to Fifty Verses that all Tibetan lamas turn for the last word.
So, what does Asvagosha have to say about the qualities of an authentic spiritual master? Surprisingly, or not, he says it all in just three verses:
A disciple with sense should not accept as his Guru someone who lacks compassion or who is angersome, vicious or arrogant, possessive, undisciplined or boasts of his knowledge. (Verse 7)
A glance at Zeoli's criminal history should be enough to establish that she has, in the past, become so violent with students that she was arrested. [UPDATE: As of August 11, 2009, the putative victim of this incident has recanted her statements, and now, more than a decade after the event, states that she perjured herself.] As to viciousness and possessiveness, one need but consider the behavior of her students to get a glimpse at her "teachings." This includes burglary to steal medical records; using donated funds to maintain "attack" sites directed at her critics, and whistleblowers; burning her ex-husband in effigy; the practice of a rather pathetic attempt at black magic; perjury; extortion; illicit drug use; threats of violence... the list is extensive, and well documented in the book Buddha From Brooklyn, by Washington Post investigative reporter Martha Sherrill, which I commend to all readers.
It is interesting to note the reviews of this book -- and there were many -- point out that Zeoli, "is as much an invention of her followers as she is of her own ego." This brings us to Asvagosha's next verse:
(A Guru should be) stable (in his actions), cultivated (in his speech), wise, patient and honest. He should neither conceal his shortcomings, nor pretend to possess qualities he lacks. He should be an expert in the meanings (of tantra) and in its ritual procedures (of medicine and turning back obstacles). Also he should have loving compassion and a complete knowledge of the scriptures. (Verse 8)
Zeoli cannot give empowerments. She cannot conduct rituals beyond the most rudimentary observations common to all first year dharma students. Her knowledge of Buddhism is such that she employs ghostwriters to prepare her books and lectures. Indeed, her former husband, Michael Burroughs, who used to be one such ghostwriter, has eloquently observed that her knowledge of tantra is "virtually non-existent."
Here, from a site maintained until recently by Michelle Grissom, of Seattle, Washington, the former nun who Zeoli was arrested for assaulting, is an insider's view of Zeoli's teachings. [UPDATE: Ms. Grissom has now (August 11, 2009) rather elaborately recanted her statements, but I think it is interesting to read what she had to say in the past.]
KPC Teachings

Note that there is no stable philosophy at KPC. The belief system perpetually changes.

Jetsunma pulls her ideas from multiple religions and many of her teachings contradict each other. Students who have observed logical inconsistencies have asked questions and been taught that they are merely "seeing their own arrogance and pride." Like most cults, as documented by Dr. Margaret Singer, KPC's teachings are not intended to be understood. Students are reduced to parroting, nicknamed the "Jetsunma-said" syndrome.

KPC's formal Buddhist teachings encompass a muddled mix:

- some Hinayana Buddhism, with an emphasis on monastic vows and an invented concept of "group karma."
- vaguely understood Tantricism which is considered to largely apply to Jetsunma's superior capacity while the students are not expected to be able to practice.
- a rather bogglingly misunderstood rendering of Yogachara where "mind only" refers to a student perceiving their own faults in the teacher (therefore Jetsunma has no faults, and any criticism the student has boomerangs).
- quite a heavy emphasis on Buddhanature teachings. These are interpreted as largely pertaining to Jetsunma, i.e., she is the living embodiment of Buddhanature, the door to enlightenment, while students have only the seeds of Buddhanature; therefore total devotion to Jetsunma is the quickest route to enlightenment.
- an element of Vendanta Nondualism from her early teachings.
- rote recitation of Dzog Chen nature of mind teachings from Guenther's translation of Longchenpa's Kindly Bent To Ease Us reduced to catch phrases.
- Madhyamika and teachings on emptiness play a limited role, regarded as something only Jetsunma has the capacity to understand.
- a strong emphasis on "pure view" which is defined specifically as seeing everything Jetsunma does as perfect. Many of her illnesses are blamed on the "incorrect view" of the students.

Various New Age concepts continue to be taught to the first wave students in restricted teachings (lay lines, power spots, crystals housing energy, apocalyptic ideas, a mish-mash of Hopi shamanism, Neo-Christianity, etc.), and tapes of her old channeled teachings still circulate.

Former students need to recognize that they been introduced to a scrambled version of Buddhism where basic concepts have been redefined to suit Jetsunma's needs. The words are often the same, but the meaning attached to them is not the same as Tibetan Buddhism. It is a bit like being shown the color "blue" and told that it is "green" – when you are told "green" you will picture the wrong color, and respond inappropriately. This is difficult to sort and will look like a personal misunderstanding but actually your interpretation is consistent with every other KPC student's. When students appear to recognize the words, Lamas assume that they've been taught correctly. Start over from scratch.

On the plus side, Jetsunma hasn't given many teachings since 1992. Her ex-husband Michael claims that he researched her early teachings, and the tapering off does coincide more or less with his departure. Her more recent teachings draw largely from her latest fads (diets, Anne Rice books, Star Trek, fitness) and her justifications for the same.

Students have to go through stages of acceptance at KPC, just like any cult.

Main students and newbies

First someone is a "newbie." They're given a very Buddhist spiel and viewed largely as a source of donations to "make a connection to Jetsunma." If the newbie doesn't show up for more than Sunday classes, they stay at newbie level.

If the newbie begins to do work for the temple (the very wealthy are fast-tracked, meet Jetsunma, etc.) they slowly become one of the "main students." Those are given a mailbox at the temple, access to the temple voicemail, email, and intranet. The email is largely a bombardment of money and labor requests for Jetsunma couched in love-bombing and ego-stroking, KPC being crucial to the future of Buddhism in the west, etc., etc.

First, second, and third wave students

Among her main students there are three permanent hierarchical circles around Jetsunma: her first, second, and third wave students. Most newbies can't hope to be more than a second wave student as this is based on when the member joined. It's presented as a special karmic link to Jetsunma and to KPC's mission. The first wave students are the ones who joined when she was channeling the prophet Jeremiah. Second wave students joined when she first started teaching Buddhism. Third wave students are considered more karmically distant from her, and represent KPC's "expansion phase" into the world. However, Jetsunma can declare that someone is a "late arriving" first or second wave student as happened with her ex-husband Karl.

The first and second wave students (with select additions) are treated with subtle privilege and are invited to secret teachings from Jetsunma that veer very, very far from Buddhism, involving crystals and predictions of world disasters, meridians of energy through the planet and so forth.

The inner circle

Within the first and second wave students there is an additional hierarchy, also measured by "closeness" to Jetsunma: her friends, consorts, and family. The ones within Jetsunma's inner circle are considered to be especially blessed and closer to enlightenment, but walking a razor's edge because they can be kicked out of her inner circle at any time.


Retention is largely through fear and appealing to the students' self importance. Students are told that KPC is the future of Dharma in the West, bringing a form of spiritual awakening that is tailored to them through their special connection to Jetsunma, and to Americans, from Jetsunma's "Ngagma" lineage. If the students fail to successfully internalize her teachings, then these will be lost to the future generations. Worse yet, if the students turn away from Jetsunma, even subtly in their minds (this is not clearly defined), they are told that they will drag their families with them to the hell realms in their next life. If students have any doubts they will harm all sentient beings. The monks and nuns face similar threats if they don't stay ordained.

Doubts specific to Jetsunma's behavior are handled through blame-shifting: anything the student thinks about Jetsunma is just a reflection of their own minds, i.e., they're seeing their own faults, not hers. For example: "Why does Jetsunma need such a high salary?" is answered with, "You must have a lot of fear and grasping surrounding money in your own mind."
Here is what one visitor to Zeoli's group had to say of their experience:
"Over the past two years I have visited Jetsunma's temple in Poolesville MD many times. I have first-hand experience with it, and I have talked with some of the people who are described in the book. Based on my own experience I can say that Martha Sherrill's book is an accurate portrayal of Jetsunma, her temple, and her followers. Everything I have seen myself is consistent with Sherrill's book.

"I first visited the temple because I was looking for expert instruction in Buddhist meditation practices and/or "lo jong" (mind training). I did not find it. I soon found that I was already more knowledgable about such things than even the "ordained" monks. The only meditation training I found was so superficial that you might as well just go buy Herb Benson's book "The Relaxation Response".

"At the temple I almost immediately got a gut-level feeling that something was wrong here. Subsequent visits only made that feeling increase.

"The people at the temple seemed to avoid me. I found them evasive and difficult to engage in conversation. No one could explain what the 24-hour prayer vigil was about, or even what "prayer" meant to a Buddhist.

"I heard Jetsunma speak at one of her visits to Poolesville, and it was like a time-share sales pitch. It was a high-pressure pitch to become one of her students. It was both peculiar and disturbing.

"On another occasion I heard an announcement from Jetsunma (delivered by proxy) that the lack of maintenance on the stupa garden had caused her to fall ill. Unpaid landscaping work however would remedy the situation. At that point I finally realized that Jetsunma's followers were crazy.

"I thank Martha Sherrill for alerting the world to an organization that looks like a Buddhist temple, but which is really a dangerous cult.
This brings us to Asvagosha's final verse on the subject:
He should have full experience in both ten fields, skill in the drawing of mandalas, full knowledge of how to explain the tantras, supreme faith and his senses fully under control. (Verse 9, emphasis added)
Above, is a heart-felt appeal for assistance from Zeoli's (now former) personal attendant of many years. It begs the question: who or what is in control of the senses? The psychiatric medications or the gin?
Above is another observation from the same attendant -- someone who was with Zeoli for over two decades -- explaining "many of her students are bipolar," and decrying Zeoli's drug dependency.
So, the issue becomes very simple -- so simple that it might best be left unspoken, were it not for the damage being done to innocent people -- why would anyone with the slightest respect for Buddhism choose to involve themselves in what is, demonstrably and indefensibly, a dark cult of psychiatric patients built around another psychiatric patient who cannot stand the litmus test of Asvagosha's Fifty Verses?
The inmates are running the asylum in America's Dharma Disneyland. One can only hope that the leadership of legitimate Palyul organizations around the world will stop relying on a policy of benign neglect, and instead deal with the problem head on, before any more wreckage accrues on the roads around Poolesville, Maryland.
We have a Jonestown type tragedy in the making.
That is a prophecy.
If you have a son, or daughter, or loved one involved with this cult, the time to arrange an intervention is now. There are plenty of places for them to practice legitimate Buddhism that do not involve living in a state of constant fear and turmoil, being drugged against their will, and being taught a convoluted doctrine of "enemies of the truth."
UPDATED : The history of extremist religious cults in America is littered with tragedies that could have been prevented. Doomsday revelations are usually present somewhere in the mix, and Zeoli -- who has on occasion claimed herself to be the "ruler of a faraway galaxy" (!) -- certainly fits the profile of an apocalyptic cult leader: like Jim Jones, right down to sexual exploitation of the "students," both male and female. The tons of food that were stockpiled at her heavily armed Arizona compound, in anticipation of a "Y2K meltdown" that never happened, later became traps for unwary animals, several of which were killed. Watch for like and similar conduct surrounding 2012. Zeoli's modus operandi involves generating "enemies" or "great disasters" as the locus for fund raising. She very cynically calls them her "bad daddies." There has already been at least one suicide I know of surrounding Zeoli. Will there be more as 2012 approaches? Or, is Zeoli, whose house of marked cards becomes ever shakier under the combined weight of binge spending and investigations into her finances, planning a "grand finale" for herself and her ever-dwindling flock of cult monkeys?
Here is some advice:
Don't drink the Kool-Aid!

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1 reader comments:

Nightprowlkitty said...

Ok then.

I know very little about the person and her sangha that you are writing about.

As a blogger, though, I have seen this dynamic and been involved in it myself to a greater or lesser extent.

Why is one granted an insight about another that no one else seems to see? And what is one to do?

I've battled about this, have ruined reputations I thought were based upon false claims, I've fought the followers, won some, lost some.

Usually no one who didn't follow the labyrinth of invisible clues could make any sense of these fights at all.

The question then becomes, to me, how does one live with others who believe they have pulled the wool over your eyes and for some reason have gotten away with that for so long?

So I think maybe it's just that I'm crazy or paranoid. And often that has been the case, lol!

Sometimes I've hit on describing this behavior in a way that resonates with others and get a great deal of affirmation and approval for "exposing evil!"

That, of course, immediately blows my head up 7 sizes beyond what it already is.

I try to look at your posts on this from the viewpoint of karma, but I don't have a great deal of understanding of karma and too often lapse into the nihilistic Western distortion of karma and then I am just confused for a while.

I don't think the Nazi example is very apt when it comes to a justification about speaking out on this. That was an issue of someone who had great governmental power, among other pretty idiosyncratic historical forces.

The only thing I can think of is that one doesn't know whether what one has done is positive or negative until the effects are seen.

And even then, confusion can keep one from understanding those effects.

Chogyam Tungpa Rinoche is still felt to be a charlatan by some folks (I am not one of them). He drank a lot, had sex with lots of women, etc.

Yet look at the effects of his presence in the West.

What are the effects of the Jetsuna's presence and power?

That Christian saying, "by their fruits you shall know them," however that goes ... is what I'm getting at.

I can well understand being secretive about your own craziness. The two sort of go together.

I read somewhere that we should see others in samsara as having mental illness and then we'll have compassion for them.

I hope this wound gets healed.