when devotion becomes destructive…

I came across a fascinating essay today by John Crook, entitled: Dangers in Devotion: Buddhist Cults and the Tasks of a Guru, which was a paper presented at the conference ‘The Psychology of Awakening II’ at Dartington Hall, October 1998. The essay is available at: http://www.westernchanfellowship.org/lib/wcf////dangers-in-devotion-buddhist-cults-and-the-tasks-of-a-guru/

It is a long essay, deeply erudite and thoughtful, and one well worthy of concentrated study from start to finish. In it he talks about the emerging danger of some Buddhist organisations in the West descending into ‘cults’, and looks at ways in which this process can be avoided. In particular, he says:

These Buddhist cults resemble the guru-based institutions of Hinduism more than they do their Buddhist origins. In Hinduism, gifted and charismatic gurus become the focus of a personal cult of devotional practice and at any one time there are many of these for potential devotees to choose from. The loose framework of Hindu belief and practice allows a high level of personal choice in such matters but not all gurus are free from the many forms of ethical corruption. How do such ‘cults’ arise? The psychology of such processes has become clear in recent years. Individual identity requires the formation of key values for which social approval is given and without which an individual experiences painful alienation. Traditionally these were given by the society in which a person lived, and we had monolithic religions dominating large areas of the world. Since in contemporary society the philosophical basis for values has become culturally relative and science has for many removed the belief in supernatural forces, individuals are forced to choose between a range of equally valid interpretations of the cosmos and of the way to personal salvation. Once a ‘way’ is chosen it becomes an area of profound psychological investment so that anything that threatens it also threatens the self. On accepting an institutionalised value system personal identity is largely replaced by social identity – that is the individual identifies with the social norms of the group.

Value systems are based in what Muscovici has called social representations. These are ideas and attitudes that are seen to represent the “real” and which are believed to be the truth. Social identity is rooted in the adoption of representations of “truth” and anything that threatens their credibility thus comes also to threaten the person. When the fount of wisdom is a particular individual, an unthinking devotion may develop which in worst-case scenarios leads to the establishment of an accepted tyranny. When an individual finally rumbles what is happening and attempts to break away into independence and an acceptance of his or her existential aloneness the reaction of other believers is apt to be intense. The question must therefore be asked whether cults of this kind and with this psychological causation are compatible with traditional Buddhist understanding in which freedom from suffering remains the goal. This question is vital not only in relation to the institutions which we have been discussing but for all attempts to form an organisation in which ‘enlightenment ‘ is sought and within which teachers and their shadows operate.

Open Buddhism in the Context of Practice

On his deathbed the Buddha told his followers to use the Dharma as a guide not the teacher. His profound advice throws the individual back into himself and his questioning appraisal of what Dharma can be. It does not lie in the views of a teacher, however helpful these can be and however fine an exemplar he or she is, but in the heart where the meaning of selfhood resides. The path to such understanding is essentially a lone quest, just as it was for the Buddha. Guidance lies in the teachings not in a teacher. Essentially the Four Noble Truths, the principles of impermanence, emptiness and the law of interdependent causation lie at the heart of the matter and require experiential realisation not mere intellectual assent. While vehicles for the transmission of the Dharma are essential, realisation is essentially an individual matter in which clinging to identity and all forms of representation is abandoned.

What then is the role of the teacher? The vehicles (Theravada, Mahayana, Zen etc.) are perspectives on the Dharma with the power to induce realisation. The teacher is a facilitator of this individual process. Any attempt to be an authority on the scriptures, a paragon of virtue, or a defender of a faith misses the point. A great lama or a solitary yogin consulted in some remote cave only have Buddhist validity if they facilitate the insight of others. There are many skilful means, as the Lotus Sutra makes clear. There is no absolute truth which has to be believed. All views disappear in absurdity. Attachment to any representation is thus an error. Krishnamurti was right in arguing that any institutionalisation of religion becomes divisive and yet a vehicle for the Dharma needs a structure.

All schools of Buddhism hinge upon and return to the understanding of emptiness. This insight is conveyed in a variety of ways and nothing can be picked or chosen as more relevant than anything else. That which is relevant is that which works. As Wittgenstein advised – look for the use and not the meaning. If a device or an idea works that is enough, for there is no ultimately discoverable meaning. This means that when a great Zen master and a fine lama meet there are no barriers between them. Although one may be riding a horse and the other a camel they both survey the same view. If this is not the case, understanding of the Dharma has at some point been lost.

The implication of this is that the Buddha Dharma must be ‘open’. Even though individuals may subscribe to contrasting traditions of practice and viewpoint if there is openness to the underlying empty vision then understanding can arise. We need therefore to cultivate a tradition of ‘open Buddhism’ and only if we manage to do so will the Buddha Dharma find a place in the West free from cultic factionalism and argument.


Crook goes on to provide tentative suggestions for a ‘Code of Ethics for Spiritual Directors’, which makes fascinating reading in the context of recurrent scandals and problems  in the West regarding Buddhist teachers who allow the dark side of their personalities to be projected onto their students and their dharma centres.  I really recommend a study of this code and its possible applications to the needs of dharma centres in our time.

Crook goes on to say that:

Democracy in Buddhist Institutions

There remains one final point. The problems of many Buddhist organisations have rested on the unlimited authority of the guru. This has often extended to matters of belief, practice, financial control and property. It is hardly surprising that mistakes have been made which have usually been as much a result of devotees’ lack of responsibility as it is due to the leader’s failure in self control and insight.

Cults can be profitably undone by democracy. All that is needed is proper attention to the creation of an institutional structure in which the power relations between guru and followers is balanced, in which problems and disputes can be raised and discussed and in which the formation of appropriate committees allows decision making processes reflecting the wishes of the membership. Many Buddhist institutions lack proper constitutional organisation and a prime recommendation may be that this issue be immediately addressed.

This task is not simple. The teacher is often the bearer of a lineage of teaching going back many centuries, maybe even to the Buddha himself. The teacher has received some form of transmission from his own guru to pass the way on to others. Those who have not received such transmission are hardly in a position to criticise the essential message. Too much democracy could mean that anybody’s version of what the Buddha may or may not have said could gain equal credence with an inevitable regression to an ill-prepared salad. It is rather the manner in which teachers present themselves, their attitude to others, their ethical stance and correctness in relationship and in financial concerns that become the legitimate focus of committees set up to monitor an institution’s well-being. It is to this concern that an institutional constitution should be directed.

Given the nature of the psychological process active in cults such a change may not be easy. It will often require grassroots action within the institution. Indeed, if these institutions are to survive, this will become essential. Further publication of destructive arguments such as those we have discussed here will be to the detriment of all Buddhist institutions in the West. It is time to set our houses in order.

The need for a truly ‘open Buddhism’ and a truly democratic and accountable constitutional structure within Western Buddhist organisations is, I feel, very urgent now if Western Buddhism, certainly in the UK, is ever to truly flourish and become harmoniously integrated within a liberal Western culture. Chieftains of the tribe of the Enkaytees would do well to take note.


6 Comments on “when devotion becomes destructive…”

  1. DharmaForum says:

    What John Crooks’ theory ignores is the power of the Guru in affecting change within the individual. The abuse of the individual, or dissenting group, by the Guru, or his/her close core, is the aspect focussed on. This is relevant in the current context of the posting. But we must not forget the function of the Guru during the creation of the practitioner’s path. This begins with meeting the Guru, liking the Guru and entering into the Path. The Mahayana student lacks ability to distinguish Dharma (the principal quality required for a fully qualified student) but does know if they like the Guru or not. Thus the Likeability of the Guru represents the nascient ability of the student to correctly identify Dharma applicable to them, or not, later. Note, the goal of the Teacher should be to develop this quality in the student of correctly identifying or discriminating dharma. This may require teaching them basic dharma as a preliminary to build a foundation of knowledge, but the goal of the Guru should be to relaease the student when they have built their own power of discrimination. For they then return to that sea of ‘existential aloneness’ having been raised in the protected hatchery of the Guru’s house. It should not be to keep hold of them indefinitely like an over-attached mother.

    Now we come to one of the greatest stories of Buddhism, and one which could probably not happen in the current western culture without accusations of wrong-doing and abuse, and that is the story of Naropa and Tilopa. This relationship lasted 12 years, was individual, (no others were involved), and appeared from a modern viewpoint to involve neglect, physical abuse and the cultivation of an extreme scenario of faith. Naropa at the end of his life (Biography of Marpa) accomplished the state of Knowledge Holder and disappeared into the mandala of emptiness leaving his student bereft. However, history has it that Naropa returned to his formal position (or higher) in the ‘safe’ environment of Nalanda, before by degrees going walkabout.

    So, how do you permit the incredible power of the real Tantric path to flourish while locking down the abuse of individuals and minor groups by larger groups. I assert this has always been a problem of the sangha and that from one perspective Buddha’s students bullied him into providing laws so that they could ‘control’ the morals of other students. And that they used psycholgical tactics similar to children upon parents.

    In the sutra ‘Bodhisattva Never Despise’ Buddha gives a jataka tale in which he felt bullied merely by the attitude of the other pure monks. Such an attitude would not even be seen as bullying, though Buddha perceived it as such in the context of his attempts to develop conventional bodhicitta. This ‘bullying’ took place in a universe countless aeons ago. And those monks, after their passage through hell – (seems a bit extreme, ed.), became his faithful students!

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