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That’s not exactly the question that Naomi asked me several weeks ago. To be precise, she asked me how one could discriminate between a legitimate Buddhist group and a cult. I’ve explored the question before, and I’d like to address two questions: (1) What is a religious cult; and (2) What would make a Buddhist community a cult?
In my research for defining a cult, I found there are several different kinds, e.g., political, social, cultural. Although these areas overlap with religious cults, I’m limiting my focus to a religious cult.
What is a Religious Cult?
- The religious group is often seen as extreme by the mainstream religious community. A cult is different from a sect, since there are sometimes spin-offs from the original religion that are generally accepted. For example, Vipassana, which has eliminated many of the Buddhist rituals and trappings, comes out of Theravada Buddhism and is widely accepted.
- The leader is shown unquestioned devotion by the community and is often idealized. Everything from misuse and abuse of community members, administration, financial operations, and violation of the law are included here.
- No one is allowed to question the organization’s religious tenets or mismanagement. Any doubt voiced by practitioners is immediately discounted, and members may even be ostracized or kicked out of the community.
- Members are often isolated from friends and family, and even from the greater community. The insistence in exerting this type of power is a danger sign.
- Demands that members give all their money to the organization or ask members to participate in illegal or life-threatening activities are the actions of a cult.
Some of you may say that religious communities don’t have to be extreme to this degree to be a cult. And certainly many of the items above can be subdivided into further examples. My concern is that people tend to assign the word “cult” to any groups that they dislike, don’t understand, or find frightening. I’m using this forum to suggest, through my investigation of the meaning of “cult” and of Buddhism, that the word should be used appropriately and discreetly.
Can Buddhism be a Cult?
It can be. But the Buddhist religion or philosophy has a 2,000-plus year history and, especially in the West, is becoming better known and more accepted. Here is what I’d look for in a Buddhist community to determine if it might be a cult:
- Buddhism has reached the point in this country where it is becoming more mainstream. American or Western Buddhists are working to find a way of adapting the practice to our culture by dropping some of the traditional Japanese practices completely, or substituting them with Western practices. Also, many Buddhist communities are born out of well-known lineages; asking about the lineage and the background of the teachers (to see if they have simply hung up a sign or have been trained as teachers) is helpful. Since I didn’t complete my training to be a sensei, I tell people in my meditation group that I’m the group’s teacher, but not a Zen sensei. That may seem like an unnecessary distinction, but it is important to me.
- I often use self-deprecating humor when we have discussions after meditation or have other activities. I try to be kind and approachable with everyone. Since the participants are responsible for their practices, I only meet with them if they are interested. Since most people only come to meditate, I don’t take attendance or insist that they participate in the group or meditate at home. Of course, I encourage them to have a regular meditation practice, but that’s up to them.
- There are communities that have ignored the behavior of teachers who drank, had affairs with students, or misused their power. At one time I worked with a teacher who, I found out, was having an affair with another student. She also happened to be a casual friend of mine. When I talked to the teacher shortly after I learned of his actions, I bluntly told him that he was no longer my teacher, and I was no longer his student.
- The meditation group participants know that they can challenge anything I say. Or disagree with me. Or add their own perspectives. I remind them that the foundations of Zen are great faith, great doubt, and great determination. At the risk of oversimplifying, great faith is choosing to practice because it’s meaningful and valuable to the participant; great doubt are those moments when we question the practice and ourselves; and great determination is what we practice to get us through the tough times.
- Although we don’t have many social activities, I always enjoy those times when I can meet spouses and significant others. Since the participants live in this 55-plus community, it’s likely that I will run into couples at the gym or café or just walking. I want to be engaging with people, and I want them to know that our meditation group is a safe place to visit. Many Buddhist communities have family get-togethers where people can get to know the teachers and other people in the group.
- Most Buddhist communities have very affordable fees. The last community I was in charged $40 per month for membership; a person could also choose not to pay at all, although they didn’t have the same benefits of paying member rates. A person can choose to donate for other purposes, such as a building fund. But there should never be pressure to do so.
There are communities that have brought attention to abuses by teachers or management. If they make corrections hold people accountable, communities can recover their integrity. Grievance procedures should also be written up and publicized to members so they know that they have options when there is wrongdoing.
I feel compelled to add one final note. I think the larger Buddhist community (perhaps a little less so at the sangha level) is becoming a leftist cult. The most popular magazines have liberal themes. They have almost, without exception, adopted leftist political philosophies in ways that can be separated from the Buddha’s original teachings. Certainly there must be sanghas that refuse to have political discussions, but they often think that ideas that conservatives consider to be liberal are mainstream are factual (such as man-made climate change). So although I love Buddhism and its original teachings, I no longer participate in the larger Buddhist community.Published in