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Lama Surya Das Headshot

Spiritual Responsibility and Cult Awareness

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Twenty years ago, when there was quite a bit of troubling public news concerning dangerous cults among spiritual groups, I co-authored a white paper called "Spiritual Responsibility" with my Boston neighbor, cult deprogramming expert Steve Hassan. At that time the guru Bhagwan Rajneesh was deported from this country, and Scientology was banned in Germany, etc. Aum Shinrikyo, the purportedly Buddhist group in Japan, which spread poison sarin gas in Tokyo subways, was under intense criminal investigation and eventually found its leaders in prison.

Now people are asking about the Diamond Mountain University incident in the Arizona desert. (NY Times, June 11, 2012) Having spent a significant amount of my life training in silent Buddhist meditation retreats, I have seen that, aside from the undeniable benefits of such rigorous contemplative and monastic practice disciplines, isolation and extended silence can for some also have dangerous repercussions. This may be the case for the insular spiritual group founder, Geshe Michael Roach, and his devoted followers.

This scandal is very troubling as well as troublesome, and raises a lot of questions about spiritual centers and accountability. Michael's group is not the only one whose retreats might look, to the outside viewer, like a mere refugee camp, trailer camp, barracks or prison. Traditional long intensive practice retreats and monastic training rules of reasonable efficacy are well known to sometimes take unprepared people over the edge; practices including long-term silence, fasting, celibacy, sleep deprivation, restricted outside contact, secret teachings, proscribed readings, etc. All these can lend an aura of cultic activity to a fairly harmless group such as any ordinary short-term yoga retreat or prayer enclave, things that we ourselves may be engaged in without remaining very conscious of or vigilant regarding potential dangers and downsides. Having experienced these austere conditions and austerities myself for lengthy periods of time, including several years on end, I know that these things are effective and can be appropriate; it's all a matter of degree, intensity, intention, management and coordination, to be balanced and rounded out with various healthy and nurturing mitigating factors for purposes of group well-being and inner individual flourishment. Unfortunately, unstable personalities who are subjected to such conditions are especially vulnerable; I've found it useful to thoroughly screen and prepare potential trainees who wish to participate, including observing individuals over a period of time and assuring that they complete shorter intensive retreats before becoming overly involved in long-term retreats in often marginal conditions.

It is worth pointing out that experienced cult experts make a significant distinction between generally harmless cults (the die-hard Boston Red Sox fans or the Yale Skull and Bones Secret Society) and dangerous cults (David Koresh's Waco group, and Jim Jones' Jonestown fanatics), and point out that all cults are not created equal nor are equally harmful.

There is not much professional oversight or organizational hierarchy in the Buddhist tradition, although every authorized and qualified teacher answers to their own teacher and their own lineage tradition to a certain extent and traditional monasteries in the Old World had their own systems of checks and balances, including communal monthly rituals and acknowledgements of wrongdoing. This has been the case for over twenty-five hundred years, since the time of the Enlightened Buddha. Eastern disciplines like Buddhism are fairly new in this modern world and our Western culture; we each have to rely on our critical judgment, kindred spirits, elders and the study of other traditional sources of knowledge in order to make intelligent decisions.

"As a simple Buddhist monk" and not as a pope-like figure, the Dalai Lama himself has spoken out on many occasions "against ethical lapses, exploitation, abuse and corruption among spiritual teachers." He believes that "we should be Twenty First Century Buddhists, socially engaged and open to science and psychology and other religions, developing critical thinking through modern education." He has exhorted us to be vigilant and discerning, self-critical as well as tolerant -- supporting each other in spiritual friendship, collegiality and community -- for the sake of advancing a balanced and harmonious, wise, altruistic, and actively engaged compassionate path of enlightenment, of genuine benefit to the entire world.

An old Tibetan saying goes like this: "Don't spy out the flea in another's hair while overlooking the yak on one's own nose."