The leader is always right. No questioning. The whole world is against us. No one else is right. Financial exploitation. Using fear and intimidation. Brainwashing. Cults. This has nothing to do with Buddhism, right? This is the stuff of some lowbrow evangelical Christians or perhaps some nutty New Age pseudo-religion, but Buddhism? Buddhism is manifest wisdom, studied in universities, tolerant, peaceful, never offended or hurt anyone, created peace and prosperity wherever it spread, and is now the hope of the West. The Dalai Lama’s Tibet was a rural paradise. Right? Unfortunately, nothing could be further from the truth. In fact, Buddhism appears to be riddled with cults, both in Asia and the West, both online and in the real world.
What Is a Cult?
The origin of the word “cult” is relatively benign. Ultimately derived from the Proto-Indo-European root word *kwel, “move around,” prior to the 17th century it signified “a particular form of worship.” In the mid-19th century it was revived with reference to “ancient or primitive rituals” or “devotion to a person or thing.” More recently, however, the word has undergone a transmogrification, quipped by Philip Rawson as an “organized group of people … with whom you disagree.” Although one might be tempted to dismiss this change of meaning either as an expression of militant Christianity or, ironically, militant secularism, the word cannot be dismissed so easily. Especially since the 1960s, it has become clear that there are religious organizations – I will not dignify them as “spiritual” – some of them enormously successful in terms of membership and money, which are clearly and explicitly socially destructive, to their members and to the general society. They are one of the most terrible symptoms of the malaise of modernism.
Quibbling over semantics is not the issue. The meaning of terms changes continuously. What is at issue is the proliferation of such groups in recent times. We all know the most famous ones: the Manson Family, Aum Shinrikyo, Raelism, Scientology, the Order of the Solar Temple, Heaven’s Gate, the Branch Dravidians, the Unification Church, and Jonestown, amongst others. However, Buddhism and cultism? We are used to thinking that Buddhism is a highly refined, sophisticated, and progressive spiritual philosophy that could not possibly descend to the level of cultism. We are shocked therefore to discover that in the list just mentioned, which was chosen more or less at random, Aum Shinrikyo is based at least in part on (a perversion of) the Pali Canon. Of the nine groups listed, they are the only Buddhist group, but it is still a shock to see. If they were the only Buddhist cult, perhaps one could deal with that as an exception. However, in fact, the more one penetrates the inner world of Buddhist belief and practice, both online and in the real world, the more one discovers that Buddhism and cultism are not strangers. In fact, there are many Buddhist cults and even the largest and most reputable and established Buddhist traditions, including the widely revered Buddhism of Tibet, as people get to know them better, increasingly exhibit questionable qualities. A View on Buddhism lists no less than 37 organizations that might be accused of being Buddhist cults, including the utterly contemptible New Kadampa Tradition, a very successful and wealthy Tibetan Buddhist group that has been the subject of an expose by BBC and has been condemned by no less an authority than His Holiness the Dalai Lama himself.
My Personal Experience
During the past 48 years, I have studied virtually all of the major and many minor religious and spiritual traditions of humanity, both Western and Asian. I first encountered Buddhism in its Theravada formulation during my high school years (circa 1973). In the late 1980s, I had a spiritual experience that directed me to Vajrayana Buddhism, which was confirmed by a Tibetan lama during the mid-1990s. During all this time, I was too busy struggling to survive in Canada’s much vaunted “free” and “socially progressive democracy” to think about joining a Buddhist group. Moreover, prior to the advent of the Internet finding such a group presented a significant challenge. I did try, but no less an authority than John Blofeld cautioned me that real opportunities were nearly non-existent for Westerners, and I gave up.
I realized around the turn of the millennium that Buddhism represents a religion or spirituality that is qualitatively “other” than every other religious and spiritual tradition of humanity, in at least three fundamental respects: (1) it is non-theistic, (2) it is not based on faith, but on questioning (which is how the Buddha himself taught the dharma throughout his entire career), and (3) the teachings of the Buddhadharma represent the highest and most essentially profound philosophical and spiritual teachings of all religious or spiritual traditions of humanity, bar none. Western philosophy has only reached the level of the Buddha in the past century, most notably in the phenomenological movement of Husserl (1859-1938) and the process philosophy of Whitehead (1861-1947). Subsequent discoveries have only confirmed the fundamental underlying vision of the Buddha, including Einstein’s theory of relativity, quantum physics, and, more recently, string theory and “digital physics.” I began by joining various scholarly mailing lists on the nascent Internet, but was quickly disappointed by the complete indifference of the majority of Buddhist academics to meaning as distinct from the minutiae of translation – not that that is an unworthy pursuit at all, but it is only a means to an end, an end that many, perhaps even most, professional academics prefer to ignore. I have frequently been astonished at how little a Ph.D. actually understands. This was, in retrospect, my first “wakeup call.” Therefore, it was with great enthusiasm that I discovered a local Buddhist school in 2001 and resolved to dedicate the rest of my life to the study and practice of Buddhism and I became a student of the Nalanda College of Buddhist Studies and the head of its Student Association.
Attending the Nalanda College of Buddhist Studies was my second wakeup call. Although the “college” (so-called, for I quickly discovered that the school did not actually have permission at the time I registered to call itself a “college,” a word restricted to authorized community colleges under Ontario law) purported to offer a “graduate certificate” in Buddhist studies, in fact the level of instruction, taught by a professor who barely understood his subject, barely reached a grade 12 level. Even more disturbing, the professor introduced his personal and political prejudices into his presentation constantly, including explicit racist, sectarian, Luddite, politicized, and antisocial views, in which he repeatedly denounced the legitimacy of every tradition and point of view other than his own, even though the school represented itself as academic and non-sectarian, taking its name from the great Nalanda University, which included both Theravada and Mahayana scholars (see the Nalanda Tradition, which the Dalai Lama says we should take as the foundation of our Buddhist study). It was clear to me almost immediately that this individual had no authentic spiritual experience at all.
The final straw came when the professor failed a fine essay by a homosexual student, resulting in the latter’s being forced to withdraw from the program, despite the fact that the essay was at least as good, if not better, than the essay that he submitted with his application in order to be admitted to the school, and which received a grade of 110% at George Brown College – a real community college. The only possible conclusion is that he was failed due to his sexual orientation, in flagrant violation of the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms. The professor was frequently and openly hostile and contemptuous in his attitudes, a fact that is testified to by his students on the Rate Your Professors website. The school was required to refund the tuition fees of at least one student based on misrepresentation. As a condition of the refund, the school’s lawyer tried to get the student to sign a declaration that he would not submit a complaint concerning the school to the University of Toronto.
Subsequent to my withdrawal, the Nalanda College of Buddhist Studies was denied permission by the Ministry of Education of Ontario to offer a B.A. degree in Buddhadharma in 2005, and was subsequently closed. So far as I know, the school never actually issued a graduation certificate to any student.
After my withdrawal from the Nalanda College of Buddhist Studies, I was severely disappointed, but my love of the Buddhadharma was so great that I cast about for another organization, and settled on Rigpa. At the time, I did not know about the revelations concerning the sexual predatory and womanizing behaviour of Rigpa’s founding lama within the Rigpa organization broadcast by Vision TV in 2011. Dialogue Ireland and others have subsequently expanded these revelations in detail. Rigpa is now listed as a Buddhist cult. At the time, all I knew about Rigpa is that they had a group in my city and appeared to teach a very open, non-sectarian form of Dzogchen Buddhist meditation. Therefore, I joined it with great hope but, once again, I was severely disappointed. The members of Rigpa were mediocrities. There was no interest in exploring Buddhist philosophy. In fact, we were actively discouraged from discussing Buddhism at all, the only teachings that were allowed being readings from The Tibetan Book of Living and Dying, purportedly by Sogyal Rinpoche (there is some question as to the authorship), and taking courses and watching videos of Sogyal Rinpoche’s teachings, at a cost of hundreds of dollars. I did not stay with this group for long. After I left, the group changed its conditions of membership, including a requirement that members accept Sogyal Rinpoche as their personal lama, despite having no personal contact with him at all (a farcical caricature of the traditional Tibetan lama-chela relationship). The Toronto group subsequently collapsed and has never been reestablished so far as I know.
All of my contacts since then have been online, and I am sad to say that everything I have experienced since has been consistent with my previous experiences. I joined a number of Buddhist online forums. Most Buddhist forums moderate all published messages, and rigorously edit messages to conform to the sectarian and ideological biases of their founding organizations. Forums that are more “liberal” would inform one by email that one’s messages are not welcome because they do not conform to the views of the forum’s sponsors. “Ask a Monk” (YouTube and online) is an example of the latter. Finally, I joined the Free Sangha. However, despite the name, the members of Free Sangha are so religious and so bigoted and hostile that they combine to make the life of any member who does not tow the religious line miserable. I left Free Sangha finally convinced that organized Buddhism is hopelessly and even militantly fundamentalist, sectarian, shallow, and anti-intellectual, no better in fact than the lowest type of Christian fundamentalist sect and intellectually bankrupt. There is even a Buddhist cult in my city of Toronto, the Tengye Ling Tibetan Buddhist Temple, a familiar landmark, which has been exposed by Buddhist scholar Sean Hillman.
The final straw for me came when I discovered that the Tibetan ecclesiastical establishment includes child sexual abuse, as revealed by Kalu Rinpoche in his YouTube self-revelation, just like the worst revelations of the Catholic Church. Further research reveals that this phenomenon is an unacknowledged aspect of Indian culture, which is of course inextricably mixed up with Tibetan culture. I also realized that for every example that I have personally uncovered, there must be many more examples that I have not experienced or are not public knowledge. I realized that if Buddhism is to have a future in the West, it must break decisively with all of this cultural and historical baggage. In the words of Ezra Pound, it must “make itself new.” To do this, it must die and be reborn.
In 1929 Jiddu Krishnamurti, proclaimed by the Theosophical Society to be the next World Teacher, dissolved the Order of the Star of the East (OSE) that had been set up to establish his hegemony with the following story:
You may remember the story of how the devil and a friend of his were walking down the street, when they saw ahead of them a man stoop down and pick up something from the ground, look at it, and put it away in his pocket. The friend said to the devil, “What did that man pick up?” “He picked up a piece of Truth,” said the devil. “That is a very bad business for you, then,” said his friend. “Oh, not at all,” the devil replied, “I am going to let him organize it.”
The Dalai Lama has declared Krishnamurti to be the most profound spiritual philosopher of the 20th century. I am reminded of a naive Western adherent of the Tibetan ecclesiastical establishment, who enthusiastically declared on YouTube that Tibetan Buddhism has created a “machine” for the “production” of enlightenment. It was only after I turned to a reading of the Pali Canon, not superficially but comprehensively, critically, and in depth, that I realized how profoundly wrong this attitude is. In the light of my experience, it is just one more example of the mappo, the degeneration of the Buddhadharma at the nadir of human civilization, at the end of the first 2,500-year cycle of Buddhism. If one reads the Pali Canon, Krishnamurti’s words carry considerable weight. Even in the Buddha’s day, the majority of monks in the sangha were puthujjana monks, not merely unenlightened but not even on the path, whereas the true sangha of sravakas and arahants were a minority. Buddhist scholar Peter Masefield has documented this in detail. Moreover, the Buddha himself, at the end of his life, counseled his disciples to “be ye lights unto yourselves,” each one seeking enlightenment for himself or herself, which subsequently blossomed in the Tibetan non-monastic mahasiddha tradition associated with Padmasambhava, the supreme individualist whose actual writings are still forbidden reading and only available in English in the extraordinary commentary of Herbert Guenther, The Teachings of Padmasambhava, and the self-ordination tradition documented in the Srimala and Brahma Net Sutras and elsewhere. In a footnote to this work, Dr. Guenther makes the following remarkable statement:
This secrecy-mongering that surrounds this group of Padmasambhava’s writings may have been due to the fact that his ideas were too unorthodox and that, after all, as a foreigner he was an intruder in an already tense situation in which the antagonism between the various Buddhist and non-Buddhist (Bon) factions was on the increase. In course of time this secrecy-mongering became a ruse to impress others whilst hiding one’s own ignorance. This ruse together with the greed of its perpetrators was sharply, though unavailingly, criticized by rDza dPal-sprul Orgyan ‘Jigs-med Chis-kyi dbang -po [Patrul Orgyen Jigme Chokyi Wangpo] (1808-1878) in his Kun-bzang zhal-lung. It is still today practised by the diverse Rinpoches, Tulkus, and Holinesses and what-not who have come to India, Nepal and the West after the demise of the Lamaist state. (italics added)
Here we see a glimmering of a possible alternative basis for the dissemination of Buddhism in the West, based on the notion of a sangha of the individual, which I explored in my book, Buddhist Self-Ordination: A Dharma Strategy for the West. As Krishnamurti said, truth is a trackless land. I have ultimately concluded that this must be the destiny of Buddhism in the West too.
List of Works Consulted
- This “school” has apparently been reincarnated as the Buddhist Council of Canada, a purported non-profit organization claiming to represent all Buddhists, whereas it merely represents the narrow academic and religious beliefs of the same old NCOBS crew. As with the NCOBS, the council has tried to imply it is somehow affiliated with the University of Toronto, but U of T has cancelled its email address and is trying to have it removed from their website (personal communication). The Wikipedia article on the founder of these organizations has also been deleted from the Wikipedia. According to Corporations Canada, the Buddhist Council of Canada’s financial filing for 2012 is overdue. According to the Canada Revenue Agency, the Buddhist Council of Canada’s charitable status was revoked in 1989! A request to the Buddhist Council of Canada for their financial statements (which are public information by statute) has been ignored.
Adi Da aka Da Love Walking Amongst His Devotees
Confessions of Kalu Rinpoche
I Was a Tantric Sex Slave
In the Name of Enlightenment
The Lamas Who Give Buddhism a Bad Name
Osho: the Movie
Stripping the Gurus
An Unholy Row
I have recently discovered that there is a connection between the Nalanda College of Buddhist Studies, the Buddhist Council of Canada, and the Church of Scientology in Canada. I am researching this further and will provide more details as they are confirmed. Sept. 7, 2014