“The major apprehension surrounding cults is not that they represent new religious creeds, dissenting political views, or alternative therapeutic methods. The driving concern is that these groups tend to abuse their members, and sometimes nonmembers, unlike bona fide new religious (and other) movements, which treat members and outsiders with relative respect.”
The April 2012 death by misadventure of a boy in Arizona -- what is now being cast as the "Tragedy at Diamond Mountain" -- has sharpened focus on out-of-control Tibetan Buddhist cults. If this tragedy leads to their eradication, then the death was not in vain: it would, in fact, be a fearless bodhisattva's gift. But, as it seems, the cults themselves are running amok, resisting all attempts to rein them in. Absent strong leadership, the road to their eradication will be rocky and steep.
The sad affair in Arizona has received international attention. It has also spawned considerable commentary in obscure reaches of the blogosphere. One of the more interesting discussions arises around reporting by Matthew Remski. What makes his work of some value is his genuine attempt to define what constitutes a cult.
Mr. Remski attempts to craft his definition with reference to three sources:
- An academic conference on cultism in 1985;
- A mental health professional's evaluation tool, the Group Psychological Abuse Scale [GPAS] from 1994;
- A forensic caution "On Using the Term 'Cult'" from 1986.
Of the three, I found the Group Psychological Abuse Scale to be the most useful diagnostic measure we might apply to Tibetan Buddhist cults. I would encourage readers to download this via the link above. Since it is only twenty-eight questions, we can read through it together. This is one of those "1 to 5" tests where "1" is "not at all," and "5" is "very characteristic."
1. The group does not tell members how to conduct their sex lives.
2. Women are directed to use their bodies for the purpose of recruiting or of manipulation.
3. The group advocates or implies that breaking the law is okay if it serves the interests of the group.
4. Members are expected to postpone or give up their personal, vocational, and educational goals in order to work for the group.
5. The group encourages ill members to get medical assistance.
6. Gaining political power is a major goal of the group.
7. Members believe that to leave the group would be death or eternal damnation for themselves or their families.
8. The group discourages members from displaying negative emotions.
9. Members feel they are part of a special elite.
10. The group teaches that persons who are critical of the group are in power of evil, satanic forces.
11. The group uses coercive persuasion and mind control.
12. The group approves of violence against outsiders (e.g., "satanic communists," etc.).
13. Members are expected to live with other members.
14. Members must abide by the group's guidelines regarding dating and intimate relationships.
15. People who stay in the group do so because they are deceived and manipulated.
16. The group teaches special exercises (e.g., meditation, chanting, speaking in tongues) to push doubts or negative thoughts out of consciousness.
17. Medical attention is discouraged, even though there may be a medical problem.
18. Members are expected to serve the group's leaders.
19. Raising money is a major goal of the group.
20. The group does not hesitate to threaten outside critics
21. Members are expected to make decisions without consulting the groups leader(s).
22. Members are just as capable of independent critical thinking as they were before they joined the group.
23. The group believes or implies its leader is divine.
24. Mind control is used without conscious consent of members.
25. Members feel little psychological pressure from leaders.
26. The group’s leader(s) rarely criticize members.
27. Recruiting members is a major goal of the group.
28. Members are expected to consult with leaders about most decisions, including those concerning work, child rearing, whether or not to visit relatives, etc.
Before using the above as a field assessment tool -- which seems a reasonable use -- we might want to consider the degree to which it does or does not jibe with legitimate Buddhist teachings on the subject. As to the latter, I can find no better resource than Trungpa Rinpoche's immortal commentary Buddhadharma Without Credentials, wherein he discusses what he calls the "perversion of sangha," which we have reprinted here at Digital Tibetan Buddhist Altar many times:
"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. 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.' Then the members of the flock will have as their credentials the title 'member of such-and-such organization.' The leader and his flock reinforce each other's identities. As is said in the Sutra of the Treasury of Buddha, '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.' 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-upsmanship in order to enlarge its congregation. This one-upsmanship 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. The Buddha said that his teachings, like a lion, would never be destroyed by outsiders; it could only be destroyed from within like a lion's corpse consumed by maggots. This is the perversion of sangha. It is the dark-age style of spirituality, the operation of spiritual materialism."
So, now, with these two, mutually supportive resources -- these base lines, if you will -- we can try to identify what is and is not a Tibetan Buddhist cult. This, in any event, is the hard way. The easy way is to just use common sense, and constantly apply a handy rule of thumb: to what degree does this action/speech/situation benefit all sentient beings? Not is any abstract sense, mind you, but in a very practical sense. Coughing up thousands of dollars to purchase thrones doesn't really fly, now does it?
Having performed our assessments, what next? What do we do? Who do we tell? According to Dalai Lama's well publicized statement at a March 1993 "Western Buddhist" conference, it seems we have some sort of duty to alert others, or warn others, or simply inform others. But, whatever duty we have does not peacefully co-exist with our cultural assumptions. We assume that, if we step up, then "someone in authority" is also going to step up and denounce whatever rapscallions need denouncing.
This simply does not happen. It needs to happen, but it does not. The Tibetan teachers, who we take for granted as that "someone in authority," greet matters such as these with utter silence. It is their cultural assumption versus our cultural assumption, don't you see?
"For just under thirty years, Tibetan Buddhism has been spreading through the different continents of our earth. Lamas, tulkus, and Geshes have made an enormous contribution to the flowering of Tibetan Buddhism all over the world, aided by hundreds of thousands of students and disciples. During the same period, some rather unhealthy situations have arisen, and this has led to difficulties. Initially this was due to an excess of blind faith on the part of the disciples and also to certain teachers who eventually took advantage of their disciples' weaknesses. There have been scandals, financial and sexual abuses. Such things happen! As a result I must insist at this point that it is absolutely necessary that both disciples and teachers keep the goal in mind--to preserve a perfectly pure Dharma. It is the responsibility of us all to put an end to this type of unhealthy activity."
---His Holiness the Fourteenth Dalai Lama
Who are we talking about? We'll list just the alleged principal cults currently operating in the United States, inclusive of noted overseas command and control, or support mechanisms:
- Dorje Shugden. A clandestine operation designed by the Chinese intelligence services to stir up trouble for the Fourteenth Dalai Lama. (So many people realize this I cannot, professionally speaking, classify it as "covert.") Denounced by the Dalai Lama himself.
- "Geshe" Michael Roach. A cult of personality, denounced by the Office of the Dalai Lama. A number of organizations are grouped under the umbrella of this American fellow who claims to have received a Tibetan "geshe" degree, with only a rudimentary knowledge of Tibetan. He is the co-founder of Diamond Mountain -- the milieu that now becomes infamous owing to the death of Mr. Roach's romantic rival under peculiar circumstances.
- "Lama" Christie McNally. A cult of personality surrounding the ex-wife of Michael Roach; co-founder of Diamond Mountain, seemingly the bigamous wife of Ian Thorson, victim of the Arizona tragedy (her wedding to Mr. Thorson took place two months prior to her divorce from Mr. Roach becoming final). Claimed by her numerous followers to be a direct manifestation of Vajrayogini.
- True Buddha School. A showy operation managed from Taiwan, with no known connection to any legitimate Tibetan Buddhist lineage of which anybody is aware. Elaborate claims of divinity, "living Buddha," etc.
- Kunzang Palyul Choling (KPC). Also known as the New Palyul Lineage (NPL). Renamed from the Center for Discovery and New Life, formed from the Black Mountain Light Center, neither of which are nominally Buddhist organizations. A cult of personality surrounding former Christian New Age "channeler" Alyce Zeoli, a self-styled "Jetsunma" believed by her followers to represent the divine person of Princess Mandarava. The organization came to notice for the presence of a homosexual pedophile among its ordained, now serving twenty years in an Arizona prison. Subject of an expose by a Washington Post reporter entitled The Buddha from Brooklyn: A Tale of Spiritual Seduction. Outrageous on-line behavior, persecution of critics, and a suicide are associated with this cult. [Full disclosure: I had a bout with this group. The U.S. District Court judge stopped the fight and ruled in my favor: a first round TKO. The U.S. Department of Justice subsequently dismissed its own appeal of the decision.]
- New Kadampa Tradition (NKT). American front mechanism for the aforementioned Chinese black operation. These are the people you see costumed in robes, "demonstrating" against the Dalai Lama.
- Western Shugden Society (WSS). Headquartered in London; the "third area" designated for management of American activity associated with Dorje Shugden, New Kadampa Tradition, et al. These are straight up black operations managed by an active, hostile foreign power.
- Pathgate International. Headquartered in London; the "third area" designated for support of American activity associated with the New Palyul Lineage. Maintains a "fighting force" of martial artists; gives substantial financial support to New Palyul Lineage operations in the United States. Thought, on information and belief, to exhibit some cross-contamination among membership with Western Shugden Society, although overtly, the two are claimed as opposed.
These are the top eight problems that need to be fixed. From each of these centers of discord, tentacles of divisiveness reach toward all corners of Dharma in North America. These eight cults read "maximum" on the Group Psychological Abuse Scale, characterized by absolutely indefensible misbehavior and violation of the common vows of Vajrayana Buddhism. Each represents a clear and present danger to its membership, and to society at large. They are to be regarded as an openly notorious threat to His Holiness the Dalai Lama, and other individuals in a position to refute their claims, and are individually thought, on information and belief, to be in possession of arms.
These groups are characterized by fundamental deceptions, requiring ever-escalating deception on the part of leaders and members in order to maintain secrecy. Examples are: individuals making claims of status to which they are not entitled; sexual misconduct; abuse of controlled substances; hostile agendas toward "outsiders;" hostile agendas toward "insiders;" fundraising irregularities; grandiose projects which cover schemes to divert funds, and so forth. Other examples are possible, but you get the general idea.
At the base, these cults are delusional. The "king and queen" aspect is clearly noted in most cases, as are absolutely absurd claims to infallible divinity, and morbid preoccupation with the outward signs and trappings of status.
None of them can pass the Group Psychological Abuse test.
None of them can pass the Trungpa test.
If a teaching, teacher, or institution fails to embody renunciation mind, this is not Buddhism. If a teaching, teacher, or institution is preoccupied with the eight worldly dharmas, this is not Buddhism. There is a whole book written about this, by a real Buddhist teacher: What Makes You Not A Buddhist. I highly recommend this book.
It is all fun games until somebody loses an eye.
Somebody down in Arizona lost his life. I did not know him. Nevertheless, I would like to feel that he did not die in vain. If his death can spur the dismantling of these runaway cults, then it meant something. Otherwise it was just a waste.
Splitting hairs over who shot John is a scandalous insult. Seeking solace in long, drawn out philosophical arguments is just a means of avoidance.
Time to cowboy up and run these demonic varmints out of the territory. Otherwise, some day down the road, our kids and grandkids and great-grandkids are going to wonder why we didn't clean up this mess while we still had a chance.
I think we owe this one to the future.
[Of related interest -- http://tibetanaltar.blogspot.com/2012/06/dirty-dancing.html]