Since cults do tend to proliferate more in the religious, philosophical and metaphysical types of organizations, I think it is something that is very important for us, as Buddhists, to discuss and understand better. There have been countless cults, both past and present, that have sprouted and thrived on the exploitation of both the innocent as well as the willing. Cults, especially those that pose serious harm and danger are not indigenous to only the West, but have appeared all around the world as well. In general, they tend to follow a more theocratic nature, often espousing different variations of existing traditions, but also can extend to the more bizarre and wacky cosmic flavor. Some of the more famous ones involving mass suicide/murder, such as the 900+ deaths in the 1977 Jim Jones Peoples Temple Cult in Jonestown, Guyana or the 1997 suicide of 39 people of the Heavens Gate cult here in the United States, were more about charismatic leaders who were mentally disturbed or twisted. However the harm most cause aren’t of always the spectacular or deadly type, but fall under the far more common category of human greed, either monetary or sexual in nature.
Those using the mask of Buddhism as a pretense to exploit people, has and does occur and Buddhists are not somehow immune to this phenomenon. Cults operating under the guise of Buddhism are probably much more common than one may suspect, and have involved people claiming to be reincarnations of Buddha, enlightened Arhats or mystical sages. As Buddhists here in the West, I think it’s important to be vigilant of those opportunistic organizations that pop up from time to time, as I see Buddhism in the West is in state of constant flux and change. The use of the word cult when referring to any organization is indeed very powerful and can place sometimes unfix-able marks on the reputations of those endeavors in the public eye. Unfortunately, there are those who may have nothing more than a strong opposition to a certain view of a group and will use the word incorrectly, purely as a weapon to discredit and dismiss an entire organization. So what constitutes the difference between a cult in terms of an enterprise set up for the sole purpose of exploitation of people and other organizations, that just may have beliefs or views that would fall outside the traditional scope of what society may deem appropriate?
Firstly, what isn’t a cult? Just because an organization teaches or expresses rather unorthodox viewpoints, differing from what society deems traditional or conventional, does not make for a cult. If an organization is run by a person that has an egocentric, offbeat or even just a very charismatic personality, does not mean it is a cult. If people freely partake in somewhat bizarre or odd rituals and behavior, this does not in itself make for a cult. There are probably a lot of organizations that we may find offensive or ‘cultish’, but that does not necessarily make them endeavors aimed at harming or exploiting people.
Now, what does constitute a cult? I see it as something that’s purpose, whether directly or indirectly seek to benefit inappropriately from exploiting people either monetarily or sexually; or perhaps can just include a very convincing charming person who wants nothing more than to garner some type of God-like admiration or worship from the members, and these can certainly be the most dangerous. It has a lot to do with motive, who’s benefiting, who’s paying and what is the underlying intention of the organizations leaders. If you look closely, you will probably notice the common thread that runs through most cults is the basic truth that a few will ultimately benefit at the expense of many others.
You might be a cult if:
If bizarre rituals are required by members, including any type of sexual act in order to fulfill some teaching or favor, then it is a cult. If large amounts of money or material items are required to gain favor, or to learn some teaching, then it is a cult. If the 'leader' claims to be a messenger from God or be some infallible prophet or some other mystical cosmic force, then it’s a safe bet it’s a cult. If they have 'secret' teachings or different levels of rank only obtainable through money or other types of personal consideration, and these secrets aren't open to scrutiny, then its probably a cult. If they're main concern is to maintain allegiance to one or a few 'leaders' despite the needs of its followers, then it’s probably a cult. If wisdom, understanding and compassion are not given freely, with no strings attached, (with the possible exception of the request for nominal voluntary donations), then it probably is a cult.
We must, as individuals, not relinquish our own good judgment or common sense in place of someone else’s viewpoint. Our individual and personal authority is the ultimate and final word on all matters in our lives; it is ourselves, and only ourselves that must guard our own dignity, possessions and well-being. It is imperative to explore, understand and ask as many questions as one can before involving oneself in an organization that may seem even a bit off the beaten path. This is why it is so important, so utterly and dramatically important that we find our own way, even through the guidance and teachings of others that we all do want and need.
I think Buddha himself expressed the greatest advice possible, when on his deathbed he said:
“Be a light unto yourself, betake yourselves to no external refuge. Hold fast to the Truth. Look not for refuge to anyone but yourselves.”