Thursday, 2 July 2009

The Danger of Cults to Buddhism

A kind reader here, commented on my previous post, and provided some links concerning the organization she belongs to, The Friends of the Western Buddhist Order (FWBO). In her comment, she made the observation that some people had classified the FWBO as a cult, and was worried about the label tarnishing their credibility and reputation. I looked into a few different sources concerning this particular organization, and while I saw nothing that I would say classifies it as a cult, I don’t believe I could make an informed judgment either way as I don’t know all the ins and outs of it. I’ll let those who know far more about that particular circumstance that wish to comment, answer those questions. But, nonetheless she brings up a great point in her comment. What exactly are cults and what is their relationship to Buddhism?

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.”


  1. It is words like that from the Buddha is why I have such a great respect for him and his teachings. Of all the spiritual teachers and icons I have had, he was the only one that has made that sort of statement (unless you count Richard Dawkins as a spiritual teacher in a sense, but as of late he seems to have gathered around himself a sizable cult of personality).

  2. I have to agree with your statement about Buddha Jamie. :-)

  3. it is wise to have your wits about you when getting to know anyone, particularly an organisation that potentially goes to the very heart of your being. i think that it is a shame that there is material on the internet that puts such energy into discrediting the FWBO but i also think it's a shame that anyone thinks they should leave their brain at the door when they get involved with buddhism.
    surely, rather than an invitation to blind faith, buddhism actually encourages awareness and consciousness. that's how it strikes me, anyway. how could you find a truly 'middle way' without engaging your brain and in that case where would be the opportunity for exploitation?

    as well as the 'cult' accusations, there has been an ongoing issue about male dominance which really bothers some women. there was a book written some time ago by an order member called something like 'angels, men, and women' which apparently suggests there's a pecking order and men are above women spiritually. i find this profoundly uninteresting, since it simply isn't my experience of the sangha, or indeed of any individual order members. as far as i have seen over the past four years as i have got to know people and the organization, there are more men in key positions, but there is no bar on women, and i have never felt patronised.

    further, it is entirely possible to attend courses and classes in mindfulness and meditation at LBC and never become engaged in buddhism if you don't want to. i happened to feel safe to grow spiritually in that community and continue to do so.

  4. Thank you very much for those comments Elaine!

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  6. Rather nice place you've got here. Thanx for it. I like such themes and anything that is connected to this matter. I would like to read more soon.

    Best regards
    Jeph Normic

  7. Oddly enough, I write this on the day the author passed away... The best evaluation of a cult came from Isaac Bonewits: the Advanced Bonewits Cult Danger Evaluation Frame

  8. He's a poor guy and also very stupid. I think this article couldn't hide the realistic topic, because all about religion always has something behind the issue. Once in my live and also the last one, this article was disgusting, I'm an intellectual guy, and I think you must change the style.

  9. NO god

    NO religion



  10. If you are one of those religious, You should have respect on every religion even thought you find difficult to believe all.It is too rude to create an insult on religion. Wish you get the right sense very soon.