Avoiding cult-like behavior

When joining or belonging to a religious tradition, the question can sometimes arise, “is this a cult or is it a pure tradition?”  The answer is all religious traditions are nothing from their own side.  The real question is do we as spiritual practitioners relate to our tradition in a cult-like way or do we relate to it in a qualified way?  If we relate to it in a cult-like way, for us our tradition will be a cult and our relationship with it will be unhealthy and destructive.  If we relate to it in a qualified way, for us our tradition will be a pure tradition and our relationship with it will be liberating and enlightening.  How do we protect ourselves from relating to our tradition in a cult-like way and instead relate to it in a qualified way?  Geshe-la has given us the answer.  Here, I have tried to collect my understanding of all of that advice in one place.  Indeed, this advice is equally applicable to any spiritual person relating to any spiritual tradition, Buddhist or non-Buddhist, Kadampa or non-Kadampa.

The short answer is we need to avoid extremes in our relationship with our tradition.  If the bulk of practitioners of a given tradition relate to it in a cult-like way, then in this world it will conventionally function as if it were a cult.  If the bulk of practitioners relate to it in a qualified way, then in this world it will conventionally function as if it were a pure tradition.  What it is in this world, ultimately, depends upon the behavior of its practitioners.  It is because we cherish the tradition we belong to and we wish for it to bring infinite benefit to the beings of this world that it is our responsibility to make sure we are relating to it in a qualified, healthy way, free from extremes.  If we relate to our tradition in a healthy way, our spiritual friends, students and so forth will likewise be more likely to do the same.  Our friends and family will not fear we have joined some crazed cult.  If we get it right, our tradition “may flourish forevermore.”  If we get it wrong, we may inadvertently destroy our precious lineage in this world.  The stakes are high.

Many students of spiritual traditions become confused, not knowing what to do or how to react when they see cult-like behavior among their spiritual friends, including their teachers.  They love and cherish their tradition, they see wrong behavior, it creates for them a crisis of faith, and they enter into a terrible intermediate state where they are too attached to their tradition to leave it but too averse to some of the things they see in it to be able to receive any benefit from it.  Geshe-la touchingly says, old people “have many special sorrows.”  In the same way, so too do those who become trapped in such an intermediate state.  These practitioners have many special sorrows.  If we relate to them with compassion, we can lovingly bring them back into the fold; if we become defensive, they will feel attacked and mistreated and eventually leave the tradition at best or become virulent critics of it at worst.  How should we respond when we see cult-like behavior among our spiritual friends?  How should we respond with compassion when one of our spiritual friends has found themselves with these many special sorrows?  More on that below.  First, it is important for us to learn how to get our own relationship with our own tradition right.  Above all, Dharma is a mirror against which we can identify our own faults, it is not a magnifying glass for criticizing others.  To get our own relationship with our tradition right, I find it useful to be mindful of the many different sets of extremes we can sometimes fall into.

Remain faithful while striving to do better

The first set of extremes arises from relating to our tradition as if it existed from its own side.  One extreme is becoming a religious fanatic.  Here we grasp at our tradition as being inherently good from its own side.  Anybody who criticizes our tradition or calls its purity into question gets branded an “enemy” who needs to be defended against and even destroyed.  Some fanatics use words like “heretic” and “infidel,” but regardless of what language we use, we all know who our “enemies” are.  Anybody who doesn’t likewise share our exalted view of our tradition is deemed lesser, inferior or a threat.  We become paranoid, thinking others are out to destroy our pure spiritual tradition in this world.  When faults, mistakes or scandals do appear, our first reaction is to cover them up or make excuses for them, which always makes things worse.  In short, our extreme attachment to our view and to our tradition makes us hostile towards others who might think differently about it.  Our interactions with others become dominated by pointing out all of the different ways in which the other person is wrong and we feel greatly threatened when they do the same towards us.  Any deviation or any departure from a strict, literal reading of things is seen as “degeneration,” and such views must be snuffed out to preserve the religious “purity” of the tradition, even if that means resorting to what can only be described as spiritual bullying.  Divisive speech becomes the norm.  Veritable “witch hunts” become commonplace where those who are critical are made to feel in no uncertain terms that they are no longer welcome.  They either fall into line, or they can find the door.

The other extreme is becoming a religious critic.  Here, we grasp at a tradition as being inherently faulty from its own side.  In the early stages of being a critic, we may still go to teachings but we receive little benefit because we primarily see the faults of the teacher and the hypocrisy of everyone around us preaching goodness, but then acting otherwise.  Eventually, we focus more and more on the perceived faults until they are all we can see.  Not wanting to lose our connection with the spiritual tradition we have invested so much in, we keep our doubts bottled up, but they fester and grow like a cancer until at some point, in a flurry of passive-aggressive behavior, we get upset and voice our criticism.  We may have once belonged to the “in group,” ascribing to the fanatics view of things, but now we somehow find ourselves on the wrong side of cult-like divisive speech and we became a target for purge ourselves.  We then grasp very tightly at all of the perceived faults and wrong behavior we see in our former organization.  Having been a “victim” of their fanatical behavior, we then feel it is our duty and responsibility to “protect others” from becoming ensnared into the cult.  In the Lamrim, Geshe-la describes the stages by which delusions develop.  First, we grasp at our observed object as having certain faults or qualities from its own side, then, in dependence upon inappropriate attention, we exaggerate those faults or qualities, sometimes well beyond reasonable recognition.  We then relate to our exaggeration as if it were somehow “objectively true.”  Both the fanatic and the critic make the same mistake, just from two different sides.

The middle way between these two extremes is to “remain faithful while striving to do better.”  I remember feeling very frustrated when I first read the teachings on faith in Understanding the Mind.  Faith was defined as the principal opponent of non-faith; and non-faith was defined as the opposite of faith.  This seemed confusing at best and tautological at worst.  But faith is the mother of all virtues and the root of the path, so we must learn to understand it correctly.  Faith primarily functions to oppose the perception of fault in an object of refuge.  Non-faith perceives such faults in an object of refuge.  Without wisdom, this can easily be misunderstood.  Practically speaking, non-faith is grasping at our objects of refuge as being faulty from their own side.  If faith is the opposite of non-faith, we could wrongly conclude that faith, then, is grasping at our objects of refuge as being faultless from their own side.  Then, when these objects appear faulty, we are left with a dilemma:  either we say what is faulty is somehow correct (rationalizing wrong behavior as somehow being sublime) or our faith becomes shattered and we lose everything.  The opposite of non-faith is not grasping at our tradition as being inherently faultless, the opposite of non-faith is the wisdom mind that realizes our objects of refuge are nothing at all from their own side.  If we relate to our objects of refuge as existing from their own side, we will quickly develop all sorts of attachments to them causing us to become a religious fanatic or aversions to them causing us to become a religious critic.

Pure view does not mean trying to view our objects of refuge as being perfect from their own side, rather it means learning how to view our objects of refuge in a perfect way where we receive spiritual benefit regardless of how they appear.  This is not hard to do.  When our objects of refuge appear to do something right, we should be inspired to emulate their example.  When they appear to do something wrong, we should learn from their example what not to do.  Either way, we receive perfect spiritual benefit.  Avoiding the perception of fault in our objects of refuge does not mean turning a blind eye to the faults that appear, rather it means ceasing relating to those appearances in a faulty way.  To “remain faithful” means to do precisely that.   We are able to remain faithful not despite the appearance of fault, but rather thanks to the appearance of fault.  Venerable Tharchin says we should take refuge in the Dharma, not the person.  If we take refuge in the person and the person makes some mistake, we lose everything; if we take refuge in the Dharma and the person makes some mistake, we learn a valuable lesson.

To “strive to do better,” quite simply, means to act on the lessons we learn from observing the behavior of our objects of refuge.  When we see particularly skillful behavior, we seek to emulate it ourselves.  When we see particularly wrong behavior, we look within ourselves to see where we are making the same mistake and we try stop doing so.  Remaining faithful while striving to do better protects us from falling into the extremes of being a religious fanatic and a religious critic.  We appreciate the good qualities we see and adopt them for ourselves and we learn valuable lessons from the mistakes we see, vowing not to repeat them ourselves.  We realize our tradition isn’t a cult nor a completely pure tradition from its own side, rather there are just different individual practitioners relating to it in different ways.  Instead of becoming distracted by defending its greatness or lambasting its faults, we strive to put its teachings sincerely into practice.

Remain grateful while clarifying misunderstandings

The second set of extremes we can sometimes fall into arises from how we relate to criticism of ourself or of our tradition.  One extreme is the extreme of defensiveness.  Here, we feel as if we are being unfairly attacked by the other person.  We feel like they don’t appreciate all that we do or our many good qualities.  We exaggerate what the other person is supposedly saying, thinking they are saying we are all bad with no redeeming qualities.  Because we exaggerate the scope of their criticism, we find it most unfair.  Pride, ultimately, is a reaction to our underlying insecurity.  We have projected within our own mind an exaggerated view of how great we are, and our feelings of self-worth depend upon maintaining that illusion.  When others call it into question, it forces us to confront our false self-narrative which is sometimes quite painful.  Seeking to avoid that pain, we feel it necessary that the other person stop saying such things, and we use a wide variety of different methods to try to silence them, not because we are trying to protect them from negative karma but because we dislike being criticized.  Our efforts to silence them often lead us to engage in actions in direct contradiction with the many teachings we have received.  We become like the United States when it used torture, sacrificing its very ideals in the name of supposedly defending them.  Our mind immediately begins to find fault in the person who is criticizing us, focusing on all of their many mistakes and shortcomings.  We often are then driven to retaliate against them, pointing out all of their many faults and inflicting upon them penalties for highlighting ours.  The dynamic then quickly spirals out of control, with both sides so absorbed in their mutual war of words that they don’t realize their own behavior is consistently proving the other person right.

The opposite extreme of defensiveness is abject surrender or passive behavior.  We allow the other person to criticize us, assenting to their negative view of us being inherently faulty.  We develop all sorts of feelings of guilt, worthlessness and helplessness, eroding away at our confidence.  Motivated by a misguided attachment to outer peace and a deep-seated aversion to any form of conflict, we allow the other person to spread wrong views about us unopposed.  We correctly think their harsh words are the ripening of our negative karma of having unjustly criticized others in the past, but we do nothing to oppose it thinking doing so will somehow rob us of our atonement through suffering.  We think nothing of the negative karma the other person is creating for themselves by criticizing us or our tradition, nor the harm they are doing by destroying the faith of others.  We passively do nothing while all that we have built and cherish is gradually destroyed by an unrelenting current of misplaced criticism and false accusation.  We seek to appease our attacker by giving them what they want, even if that means sacrificing fundamental pillars of our own beliefs.

The middle way between the extremes of defensiveness and abject surrender is to “remain grateful while clarifying misunderstandings.”  If we are honest with ourselves, every criticism, even the most unfair, contains a morsel of truth.  Rightly or wrongly, we are appearing to others in certain ways, and we bear some responsibility for that appearance.  Yes, it’s true, what appears to others minds depends upon their own delusions and karma, but it is a cop out to say all the fault lies with them while pretending that we are perfect.  Sadly, all too often we do precisely that.  In my view, this is a misuse of the Dharma.  We are using the precious teachings on emptiness to escape judgment and dodge uncomfortable criticism.  When we do this, the person who courageously voiced their criticism feels as if the victim has been blamed and then (correctly) concludes we are a self-righteous charlatan blind to our own faults.  They then give up hope of finding refuge within the tradition we belong to and they leave disheartened, discouraged, confused and sometimes quite bitter.  They may leave jaded towards all religions, setting them back possibly countless lifetimes before they find a spiritual path again; or they join a new tradition that identifies itself primarily through its opposition to us.  Who benefits from this?  Nobody.

Geshe-la says when we are criticized, we should express gratitude.  How can we possibly improve if we don’t know what we are doing wrong?  Alertness is the ability to distinguish faults from non-faults; great wisdom is the wisdom that knows the objects to be attained from the objects to be abandoned.  Due to our pride, sometimes the only way we can become aware of our mistakes is when others point them out to us.  The correct reaction to criticism should be genuine gratitude because now we can do better.  If we are making mistakes, we should forthrightly acknowledge them, make amends for any harm we may have caused, and strive diligently to not repeat them.

But this does not mean we should not seek to clarify misunderstandings when the criticism against us is unfounded.  We should not sit idly by while our self and our tradition are unfairly attacked.  But when we do seek to clarify misunderstandings, it is vital that two conditions are met.  First, that our motivation is genuine compassion wishing to protect the other person from accumulating negative karma for themselves as a result of their false accusations; and second, that we do not act in ways in contradiction with the teachings we have received in the name of defending them – for if we do so, we transform ourselves into our own worst enemy.  Most of the time, our clarifying of misunderstandings will take the form of a grateful yet apologetic conversation where we acknowledge our mistakes yet clarify where the person has misunderstood.  Sometimes, however, it is necessary to use other means to clarify misunderstanding or even cut the power of false words in this world.  But at no time should we violate these two essential conditions.

Remain inspired while following your own path

The third set of extremes that we can sometimes fall into arises from how we relate to teachings of other traditions.  One extreme is the extreme of rejection.  Here, we reject any and all teachings different from our own as being wrong, inferior, misguided and possibly even harmful.  We believe our tradition has the monopoly on the truth and all others must, by default, be wrong, or at best only partially right.  We grasp at there being one valid truth, one valid path for all people, and we possess it.  We feel very threatened when people practice in ways different than our own, and feel it incumbent upon ourselves to point out all of the ways the teachings from other traditions are somehow wrong.  Some Christians, for example, believe if people do not accept Christ as their savior, then those people will be subject to eternal damnation.  They then feel it necessary to “convert” others in an effort to “save their souls.”  Some Catholics think if it is not Catholic it is cult.  Likewise, some Buddhists haughtily look back on Christians as being small minded and superstitious.  If the Buddhist is feeling generous, they might acknowledge that there is some overlap between the Christian faith and the initial scope of the Lamrim, but then they all share a good laugh with their fellow Buddhists about those Christians who believe in God as creator.  Some Muslims, some Jews and some Hindus develop similar misguided views towards other religions.  Even within a religion, different individual traditions will develop similar rejectionist views of other traditions, such as Catholics vs. Protestants, or the scorn cast towards Mormons or 7th Day Adventists.  Likewise, such views can arise amongst Buddhists, such as Hinayanists vs. Mahayanists, Gelugpas vs. Nyingpas, or Dorje Shugden practitioners vs. non-Dorje Shugden practitioners.  Regardless of the example, the mind is always the same:  we are universally right, everyone else is wrong.

The other extreme is the extreme of mixing traditions.  Here, we say that every tradition has something useful to contribute and our job is to mix and match the good bits from the different traditions while leaving out the bad bits, and in this way we synthesize all of the teachings down into an inner essence that is equally true for everybody.  On the surface, it can certainly seem like such an approach is open-minded and non-sectarian.  The first extreme of rejection is a form of gross sectarianism.  This second extreme of mixing traditions is in fact a form of subtle sectarianism.  How so?  First, it is a subtle form of rejectionism where we are leaving out what we deem to be the “bad bits.”  Second, it grasps at its synthesized essence as the only valid way of looking at things, and hypocritically accuses all those who wish to follow their own tradition purely without mixing of being sectarian.  Thinking that only the synthesized mix is valid is just another form of gross sectarianism, the only difference being the content of one’s views is a mix of different traditions as opposed to an individual tradition.  Practical problems also arise because when we mix we transform ourselves into our own Spiritual Guide who arrogantly thinks we can lead ourselves to enlightenment by putting it all together.  Perhaps we may succeed, but the odds of us doing so are quite low; and even if we do, it will surely take us longer to forge a new path on our own then follow a proven one.

The middle way between these two extremes is to “remain inspired while following your own path.”  The Heart Commitment of Dorje Shugden is to “follow one tradition purely without mixing while respecting all other traditions as valid for those who follow them.”  For me, the best analogy for explaining this is imagine you are trapped in a burning room with many different doors out.  What do you do?  You find the door nearest to you, and you head straight out.  You don’t head towards one door, then another, then another because then you never leave the room.  You don’t head towards the average of two doors, because then you run into a wall.  You don’t head towards all doors simultaneously, because that will split you into many parts.  Your selection of the door nearest you is in no way a judgment on the validity or utility of other doors for those who stand closer to them.  If you see your best friend close to one exit and you are closer to a different one, you don’t fight with your friend trying to get them to go out your exit, instead you tell them to take their exit while you take yours.

It is exactly the same with different spiritual traditions.  There are many different spiritual “doorways” out of this world of suffering.  Different people stand karmically closer to different doors.  What should you do?  Find the door closest to you and head straight out following its path.  This is the meaning of follow one tradition purely without mixing.  If we start along one path, then another, then another, we never escape.  If we follow an average of two paths we are not led to an exit and will quickly become confused as we try reconcile the two seemingly conflicting views.  If we follow all paths simultaneously we will spiritually tear ourselves apart while going exactly nowhere.  Our choice of one door as being best for us does not in any way mean other doors and paths are not better for those who are karmically closer to them.  If we see our cousin or partner or friend stands karmically closer to a different spiritual door following a different spiritual path, we shouldn’t fight with them trying to get them to take our path to our door, rather we encourage them to head along their path purely without mixing because that is what’s best for them.  We respect all paths as being valid for those who follow them.

Does this mean we ourselves should reject all other paths for ourself while appreciating their value for others?  No.  Milarepa said, “I do not need Dharma books because everything teaches me the truth of Dharma.”  Where does the wisdom to do this come from?  It comes from following one tradition purely without mixing.  A religious tradition is, in the final analysis, a way of looking at things.  The more purely and consistently we look at things in a single way, the more universally we can look at everything and receive teachings.  When we read the newspaper, go out to dinner with our friends or go to an art museum, everywhere we go, everything we do, everything we encounter will reveal to us the truth of Dharma (or the Gospel, or the Quran, etc., depending on our religious inclinations).  Some things teach us the faults of self-cherishing, some things reveal to us the preciousness of our human life, some teach emptiness.  But because we are clear on our point of view, everything teaches us something.  If we can do this with a good Beatle’s song, why can we not also do this with the Sermon on the Mount?  Why can we not be inspired by the faith of Christians, the wholesomeness of Mormons, the example of Ghandi?  This does not mean we mix the teachings of these different traditions into our own, rather it means we can without fear look at these things from a Kadampa point of view and extract Kadampa lessons from them.  Doing so is not mixing, it is using the whole world as a Dharma book.

It is important to also note that respecting all other traditions as valid for those who follow them also includes showing respect for those who choose to mix traditions.  If for some people mixing traditions is what works best for them, then we should be happy for them and respect their spiritual choices.  Just as it is wrong for them to judge us for following one tradition purely without mixing, it is likewise wrong for us to judge them for mixing.  They do their thing, we do ours, let’s all be inspired by each other’s wish to become a better person.  This is likewise true for those who wish to mix Kadampa teachings with non-Kadampa teachings.  It is entirely normal that there will be a wide spectrum of degrees to which one mixes their mind with the Kadampa teachings.  Some will wholeheartedly commit themselves in this and all their future lives to follow this tradition purely without mixing, others will by happenstance cross a quote by Geshe-la when they are searching images on Google.  And there will be countless examples in between.  All are good, none are bad.  If we present the Kadam Dharma as if it is an “all or nothing” proposition, then the vast majority of people will choose nothing because they are not yet ready to accept everything.  If instead, we present the Kadam Dharma as “take what you find to be helpful, and set aside the rest as possibly something for later,” then people will feel free to engage with the Dharma on their own terms, according to their own karma, needs and dispositions.  If we tell people they have to be vegetarian to be Buddhist, they will choose to not be Buddhist because they are not ready to be vegetarian.  If we tell people they don’t have to be vegetarian, they then become Buddhists and later perhaps from their own side choose to be vegetarians.  The same logic is true for everything else.

Remain natural while changing your aspiration

The final set of extremes I like to try keep in mind are those arising from grasping at their being only one way to practice.  One extreme is the extreme of the exaggerating the importance of the external aspects of practice.  For centuries, our tradition has primarily been a monastic one, so it is only natural that we tend to hold up the example of an ordained person, living in a center, dedicating all of their time to working to cause the Dharma to flourish as the example of what we are supposed to be doing.  Some ordained people develop pride thinking this is the case and they look down on all those who “can’t let go of samsara.”  Some lay people develop all sorts of doubts thinking everything in their life that prevents them from adopting this monastic way of life is somehow an “obstacle to their practice.”  They then find themselves torn between what they think they should be doing if they were a pure practitioner and their commitments to their spouse, kids, job and so forth.  They grasp at these latter activities as being somehow inherently mundane and non-spiritual, while living and working at the center attending every puja, teaching and festival as being somehow inherently spiritual.  When they aren’t able to live as the person in the center, they start becoming frustrated with their loved ones, job and so forth and they feel this great tension between their spiritual life and their daily life.  If spiritual teachers are not careful, they can easily fall into the trap of mistaking their own personal choices as somehow being best for everyone else.  The skillful teacher understands different people have different karma and so therefore will follow the same set of teachings in different ways.  People who exaggerate the external aspects of practice find themselves suddenly dressing differently, bathing less, abandoning their non-Sangha friends or activities, beginning every sentence with “Geshe-la says,” and likewise standing in judgment over all those who continue to have kids, partners, professional careers, go on normal vacations to something other than a festival, or those who don’t attend every puja, teaching or festival.

The other extreme is exaggerating the internal aspects of practice.  Here, we neglect doing anything other than our practice.  We think the only thing I need to change is my mind.  I can remain cloistered alone in my room, avoiding contact with the rest of the world fooling myself into thinking I am being a bodhisattva.  When we are on this extreme, we look down on those who act in this world for normal charities or other good causes, we judge those who engage in political or social activism, and we give up on trying to make the world a better place concluding it is hopelessly broken so why bother.  Venerable Tharchin tells the story of when he was on long-retreat at Tharpaland.  After several years of retreat, he told Geshe-la, “I feel like I am very close to enlightenment; if I stay on retreat for a while longer I will make it.”  Thinking that Geshe-la would be delighted and tell him to remain on his retreat, Venerable Tharchin was greatly surprised when Geshe-la told him, “then now is the time to leave your retreat.”  Geshe-la continued, “if you stay on your retreat, you will attain enlightenment, but if you do you will become a ‘worthless Buddha’ because you will have no karmic connections with living beings.”  Geshe-la then sent him to Canada to teach, where he formed some of the best teachers of the tradition who are now teaching other students.  Geshe-la then sent Venerable Tharchin back to Tharpaland to lead it as a retreat center, where he established how exactly a retreat center within this tradition should operate.  Those he taught then fanned out to the other retreat centers around the world.  Venerable Tharchin concluded the story by saying our ability to help others primarily depends on two things, the quality of our inner realizations and the depth of our karmic relationships with others.  We need both.

The middle way between these two extremes of exaggerating the external or internal aspects of our practice is to “remain natural while changing our aspiration.”  Our primary task is to internally change our motivation from a selfish one to a selfless one.  When we do so, our external behavior will naturally change.  We can’t make external changes to try live up to some fixed notion of what it means to be a Dharma practitioner and think that will bring about internal transformation.  It is perfectly possible to get ordained, live in a center or spend our entire life on retreat and remain just as deluded and ordinary as before.  It is likewise perfectly possible to change diapers, work long hours in a demanding career, and otherwise lead a completely normal modern life and have it be the Quick Path to enlightenment.  All situations are equally empty, therefore all ways of life can equally be the Quick Path.  It all depends upon how we relate to that life.  If we respond to what arises in our life with Dharma minds, then regardless of what those life appearances might be, we are living a Kadampa way of life.  If other people don’t understand this and continue to judge the choices we make, that is only coming from their ignorance grasping at there being only one way of practicing Dhama.  We need to be engaged in the world, helping in every way we can.  Geshe-la said our job now is to “attain the union of Kadampa Buddhism and modern life.”  He has given us the Kadam Dharma and we already have a modern life, our job now is to completely unite the two realizing their non-contradiction.

This does not mean there is some fault in becoming ordained, living in a center or dedicating our life to retreat.  Of course that is wonderful and is a life that should be rejoiced in.  If every life is equally perfect for our practice, then that must also be true for somebody who follows a more traditional approach to practice.  The fault comes when we grasp at there being only one valid way of practicing, regardless of whether we think it is a traditional way of doing so or a more modern way of doing so.

What do we do when we see our spiritual friends engaging in cult-like behavior?

Having explored in depth the four different sets of extremes we can fall into with our relationship to the tradition, we can now return to the question of what we should do when we see our spiritual friends, including our teachers, engaging in cult-like behavior.

There is something about religious teachings that just naturally tends to bring out extreme behavior in people.  The reason for this is quite simple:  they are very powerful.  I had a friend once who loved all sorts of two-wheeled vehicles, from his first bike, the scooter he drove around in college to his prized Harley.  One day, he went to visit a friend who just bought a racing bike, which he affectionately called his “crotch rocket.”  Quite naturally, my friend wanted to try it out.  The owner of the bike said, “be careful, it’s really powerful.”  My friend said, “yeah, yeah, I know.  Let me give it a try.”  So my friend got on the bike, started out slowly, drove around a bit, and then turned a corner where he found himself at the beginning of a long, straight country road.  Wanting to see what the bike was capable of, he hunched down and decided to gun it, throwing the throttle to the maximum.  The bike suddenly lurched out in front of him, he found himself doing a wheelie, and the bike kept going throwing my friend back skidding along the road and trashing the bike in the process.  Spiritual teachings are just like this.  We hear about them, try them out carefully at first, but then once our initial doubts and hesitations are overcome we might decide to really go for it.  Our mind can race off in an unbalanced way and we will find ourselves skidding along the spiritual road, trashing the bike of our spiritual life in the process.  We start out just trying to become a better person and find a little inner peace, but before long we have transformed ourselves into a crusading spiritual zealot.  Such is the power of spiritual teachings.

So we shouldn’t be surprised when our spiritual friends, including our teachers, might sometimes start acting in cult-like ways, relating to the tradition in one of the extreme ways outlined above.  We all have experienced this from time to time.  I would say my time with the Kadampa tradition can be divided into two distinct phases.  For about the first decade, the normal view students tended to adopt towards their teachers was viewing them as “Buddhas.”  People would routinely joke about their teachers “miracle powers,” and anytime somebody had a problem with the behavior of the teacher, it was the student who needed to “maintain pure view.”  Teachers felt like they had to go along with the pretense of being a Buddha because it seemed to help students generate faith, and therefore take the teachings to heart.  But it had many unintended, indeed unhealthy, side effects.  Some teachers let this go to their head and started believing they were infallible, refusing to continence that they were making any mistakes.  Some teachers would engage in all sorts of spiritually manipulative behavior, thinking themselves Marpa taming a bunch of unruly Milarepas.  Some teachers wound up repressing all of their delusions, pretending that they didn’t have any to maintain the external image, but the end result was quite predictable.  They increasingly felt trapped, incapable of discussing with their spiritual friends their delusions and struggles, the repressed delusions would fester and grow like a cancer under the surface until one day they would blow in a variety of dramatic fashions, from sudden disrobings, sexual scandals to breaking off from Geshe-la wanting to establish one’s own tradition and lineage.

Students likewise began having all sorts of unhealthy, cult-like relationships with their teachers, desperately trying to get the teacher to love and approve of them, but never quite succeeding.  When confronted with wrong behavior on the part of their teacher, they would be told it was their wrong views and delusions, and they would tie themselves into all sorts of spiritual knots trying to say what is wrong is somehow right.  They would feel it is wrong to ask questions or challenge their teacher on the things they would say, growing increasingly confused as one misunderstanding compounds another.  So deeply scarred by such relationships some students became that they felt the need to flee the tradition or they remained and even to this day constantly judge themselves as spiritually falling short.

Geshe-la, then, one year at a Summer Festival gave a teaching which changed everything.  He said, clearly and unequivocally that we should view our teachers as Sangha jewels, not Buddha jewels.  They are practitioners, just like us, who are trying their best to put the instructions into practice, but still struggling with their delusions and making mistakes.  He said when teachers are teaching on the throne, the students should feel as if an emanation of Je Tsongkhapa enters into them and teaches through them.  In this way, they become a “temporary emanation.”  But that when they come down from the throne, we should relate to them “exactly as normal.”

He said when our teachers appear to make a mistake, with a mind of cherishing love for the teacher, the student has a responsibility to approach the teacher with their concerns.  He said, if we fail to do this the wrong behavior will continue and it could threaten the future of the tradition.  When we approach our teacher, he said we should do so respectfully saying, “first, I want to thank you for all you have done for me.  However, I have noticed that you tend to do XYZ.  Perhaps I am wrong, but it seems to me that this is not right for ABC reasons.  But perhaps I am misunderstanding, and I am hoping you might be able to clarify your perspective on this.”  Geshe-la then told us how the teacher is supposed to respond.  The teacher should first thank the person for raising the issue, honestly acknowledge any and all mistakes that the person is pointing out, and then clarify any remaining misunderstandings.  The student should then listen with an open-mind to the teacher’s explanation.  If we do this, he said, only good comes.  The teacher is made aware of their mistakes, so they can do better in the future.  The student feels as if their concerns have been acknowledged and addressed, and so go away happy.  If the student is right and the teacher changes, then the student’s faith in the teacher will deepen because they see the teacher sincerely putting the instructions into practice.  If the student is wrong, then the teacher’s patient explanation clarifying any misunderstandings will help the student see things more clearly in the future.  If we do not do this, only harm comes.  The teacher continues with their mistaken ways and the student remains stuck with their doubts and appearances of fault.  They then lose all refuge.  While not explicit in his advice, implicitly I think his meaning is also that if a teacher sees a student is trapped behind doubts, the teacher should compassionately approach the student and try clear the air so all concerned can go into the future free from problems.

After he gave this teaching, it took many years for things to really change, but year by year things have definitely gotten better.  There are still, of course, residuals of the old behavior.  Old habits die hard.  But by and large, with this clarification things are definitely trending in the direction of getting better and better.  The Dharma may be flawless, but we remain deeply flawed beings, so it is only natural that we will from time to time make a real mess of things.  That’s perfectly normal and not a problem.  As long as we are learning from our mistakes, it’s all part of the path.

In the end, nobody wants to be part of a cult.  Geshe-la certainly doesn’t want us to become one.  No spiritual tradition is, from its own side, either a cult or a pure tradition.  If we relate to our spiritual tradition in cult-like ways, such as the extreme behaviors described above, we transform our tradition into a cult.  But if we instead relate to our tradition in a healthy, balanced way then we transform our tradition into a pure one.  We all have a responsibility to carry the lineage forward in a way we can be proud of.  As it says in the sadhana Dakini Yoga, “all my actions from now on shall accord with this noble lineage; and upon this lineage pure and faultless, I shall never bring disgrace.”  This does not mean we will not still make mistakes and become cult-like in our behavior, rather it means when we do so we will recall the teachings and make another honest stab at finding the middle way.


May all conflict and tensions between religious traditions cease and may they all respect and be inspired by one another.  May all extreme behavior quickly cease, may we all find the humility to admit to and learn from our mistakes, and may all those who suffer from the many special sorrows associated with cult-like behavior find peace.  Above all, may my own behavior continuously improve so that I can, in my own small way, help the tradition of Je Tsongkhapa flourish forevermore.






17 thoughts on “Avoiding cult-like behavior

  1. Oh my heart is about to burst! What a beautifully clear and powerful explanation! Ryan, you’re such a dude. I love your understanding and for me it’s like reading one of Geshe-la’s books. I love the fact you used the words, “lambasted” and “happenstand”, that made me smile! 😀 Thank you, thank you and thrice thank you. Man, your humility makes me melt xXx

  2. Very interesting post. It should be required reading in all NKT centers.

    I was a part of the NKT for 10 years, and I eventually left because it started feeling very cult-y. Our teacher, a highly faithful, yet troubled woman expected to be treated like a Buddha both on and off the the throne, which resulted in the center splintering, and ultimately dissolving as people who refused to see her as a Buddha fled, and those who remained fell into cult-like obeisance.

    For a long time I saw the cultiness factor originating solely from the overzealous students. It’s natural, though, for people who feel like that they have finally found a true path to happiness to get swept away. People lose balance over all sorts of things – relationships, work, exercising, and their passion du jour. However, when one enters a spiritual community, I feel it is the teacher’s role to keep such zealousness in check. This did not happen in any of the NKT communities I encountered. Such zealousness was encouraged, and quickly people’s lives became filled with nothing but “merit making opportunities” to serve the NKT. Critical thought was not welcomed, and those who brought up issues were deemed as lacking in faith, or deluded. You were either “one of us” or you eventually left because it no longer felt safe or welcoming. Me, I eventually left when my so-called sangha friends questioned my choice to stay home with my dying cat rather than go to a festival to see Geshe-la. I was offered no compassion or support during that trying time for me. That was when it felt like a cult, and I knew I had to leave.

    Having settled into another tradition for the last five years, one of the major differences I see between this and other traditions I’ve explored, is the experience of the teachers, many of whom are put through grueling multi-year training problems with lots of mentoring. They are not only taught Buddha’s teaching, but how to skillfully care for those who look to you for safety, care, and spiritual shepherding. Becoming a teacher is not merely about having a “wish to teach” (the fact that I was allowed to teach beginning classes after maybe a year of practice now seems so wrong and absurd), but rather a combination of knowledge, years of experience, and a compassionate, open heart that can meet people where they are at. I met very few NKT teachers who met all three of those criteria.

    I do hope things are getting better in the NKT, though from the lock-step badmouthing of the DL on my former sangha-mates Facebook pages, my impression that the cultiness factor is still alive and well, at least in my old center.

    Thank you again for the interesting illuminating article. May it be of benefit.

    • Thank you for your comment. I am sorry that these things happened to you, and for what it is worth, I think you did the right thing to stay home with your cat! There are all sorts of valid karmic reasons why we can’t make it to a festival, teaching, etc., and certainly caring for a dying loved one (a cat is a living being too) is one of them. My perspective is whether we are at a festival or not is a question of state of mind. If we are at Manjushri, but have an ordinary mind about it, then are we really at a festival? If we are with our dying cat, but view caring for him AS our festival through which we will receive the teachings we need, we are at a “festival.” Our practice of Dharma should not cause us to engage in inappropriate or conventionally strange behavior.

      In terms of who is responsible, I would say we all are responsible for everyone else and ourselves. Teachers are responsible for their own behavior and how things unfold at their center. Students are responsible for themselves and how things unfold at their center. We all have a part to play. We have no control over what others do, but we can control whether what we do is making things better or not.

      I am glad to hear that you have found a new tradition that works for you. We each have different karma, so it is only natural we will find ourselves in different traditions. That does not mean, however, we can’t look back on our previous experiences and harvest the good we received. Sometimes I fear those who leave feel like they need to reject everything. In reality, what we are rejecting is behavior that is inconsistent with the teachings we have received, which means we can still affirm the teachings as being something beneficial. At a minimum, we can say our prior experiences are the boat that brought us to the shores of our new home. For example, there are many people who think they need to reject their Christian upbringing to become Buddhist. I disagree. It laid an important foundation for us, and we can still be grateful for the benefit we received, while still understanding that our new spiritual tradition works better for us.

      As far as new, inexperienced teachers are concerned, I can understand why this could raise some questions, however for me this model works as long as everyone understands, the teacher included, that we are all Sangha friends and the teacher is merely sharing what experience they have. If there is a pretention like one is a qualified spiritual guide, then of course that pretention is absurd. But if it is presented as “I am a practitioner just like you, this is my understanding of what it all means and how it has helped me,” then there is no problem. Within the modern world, “learning by doing” is a big part of any vocation, and it is often only when we start to teach something that we actually understand what it means. But again, different strokes for different folks.

      As far as the demonstrations go, I don’t think there is any fault in defending one’s right to practice in the way that works for them, and to push back against those who would label you a spirit-worshipping traitor for doing so. With that being said, I would say it is crucial that those protesting (of which I have been one) meet the two conditions described above, namely (1) they are motivated by compassion, and (2) their protest is consistent with the ideals they seek to defend. It may be a subject of debate as to whether certain behavior does or does not meet those two conditions, but that is for each individual to internally assess for themselves.

      Is there still progress left to be made? Much. But that shouldn’t be surprising. It will probably take several hundred years of this tradition operating in the West and modern world before many of these issues work themselves out. It’s all so new, and it will take a while to figure out how to do it right. In the meantime, I try have my own behavior make a positive difference.

  3. Thank you Kadampa Ryan, I liked this article a lot. I only came to study in the NKT in 2009, so I missed the decade(s) you first talk about, though I heard it from other people later. What disturbs me in the NKT at the present moment isn’t that people are acting in a cult-like way in that they follow Geshe-la’s teachings as though they were in a cult; rather, if we really follow Geshe-la’s teachings, then we wouldn’t really be able to act like a cult because we’d be too busy practicing purely and not be dogmatic. Unfortunately, what I have seen, frankly, since a few years after I got here, was that we have a lot of people mixing the teachings; when I tried to raise this issue I was shut completely down; it is just what I noticed, having read other books (was in other traditions for 9 years before joining Kadampas)– and I know when they are plagerizing, or outright teaching zen in class, reading from zen books in class, etc.. Sadly, no concern I ever raised was addressed, though I wrote for 2 years on it. Finally after two years, I got a brief email from someone who I don’t think follows Geshe-la, which told me I was lying that there has never been any mixing, that everyone is perfect and pure, etc…. this person works high up in the NKT but this person, you know, is completely the opposite of any advice you say Geshe-la gave in these teachings. I don’t even know if my letters ever reached anyone higher than that functionary in the NKT— because of course I don’t have private email addresses for anybody high up. So, basically, I don’t know what is going on, but there seem to be a lot of people who are not vaguly attempting to follow our tradition (read they wish to subvert us to a school that’s pretty opposed to us frankly) but I don’t know if the highest people I eventually wrote to ever even received anything I said…. I really love Dorje Shugden and follow him in everything; frankly right now he is keeping me from going to corrupt teachings by non-Shugden people, and is insipiring me (:)) to keep on telling people what is going on until it clears. As for the passive aggressive talking, I am not able to do that as it is too confusing and no one knows what anyone else even means…. so I am just really really straitforward. I am not against another tradition that doesn’t like ours going to its own centers and teachings its own stuff; they can of course follow whatever tradition they want. I am opposed to people coming to my Dharma Protector’s school, lying to everybody, and then trying to force a coup or conversion from within. May the pure traditions protected by Dorje Shugden flourish forevermore.

  4. Thank you so much for sharing this piece with us. I will be reflecting on this for some time. I have wished that you would take on this topic as I need a framework to begin to look at this with more detachment and less emotion.

    Thank you again, good brother, and peace to you today!

    Nomalanga Nefertari Albuquerque

  5. Ryan thank you for this very helpful article – I’ve read it several times and I particularly like the clarity you bring to what is mixing traditions and the Milarepa way of life.

    I think I may be one of those with many special sorrows because although your advice is sensible it makes me sad because I find you can’t put it into practice when there’s cult-like behaviour.

    For instance, I was part of a Centre for more than 20 years – I honestly hadn’t caused any trouble as far as I know – but when I left neither the teacher nor the managers asked me why or even if I was ok. So I have to conclude they’d rather I just stayed away than discuss. I have difficulty reconciling this indifference (not just to me) with Dharma teachings. Indeed in my daily life I regularly come across non Buddhists with much more natural concern for others.

    How do we voice concerns without ranks being closed? In my experience – I don’t mean everyone by any means – some Buddhists confuse honest talk with divisive speech/gossip/deluded doubt and worry about how good they’ll sound in a discussion and are afraid to speak their minds. Conversation in Buddhist circles can be very stilted! I’ve been like this this myself and now try to be more natural and authentic.

    Does this make me a religious critic – I hope not. It’s not all down to changing your own view is it when you see things aren’t right compared to normal society?

    Thank you again – your teachings are delicious x

    • Hello, sorry for the delay in responding to your comment. First, on you leaving and them not saying anything, I agree with you the normal human thing to do in a situation like this is to compassionately call and ask how things are going. I would suspect, however, that the managers of your center might have thought doing so would be seen as pressuring you and they wanted to leave you free to make your own decisions. Sometimes when we try respect the freedom of the other person to make their own choices it can come across as indifference. In any case, from our side I think we can do two things in a situation like this. First, let go of our expectation that others react to us in a particular way. Others don’t know what our expectations of them are, and so it is somewhat unfair for us to then be upset when they don’t live up to them. Second, have an honest conversation with them saying, “you know, I left and nobody said anything. I understand you might have been trying to respect my freedom, but the way it “felt” to me was you didn’t care and would rather I not come back. I have had this doubt and I don’t want to assume the worst, so I am wondering if you could explain to me your perspective on the whole thing.” Most people are unaware how inconsiderate they can come across and they would probably appreciate getting this sort of feedback (as long as you are providing it without anger, judgment or some expectation of an apology, instead your intention is to resolve misunderstandings because of a shared goal of getting along).

      On how to voice concerns without ranks being closed, I think the key is our own motivation. If we are upset, angry and attacking, people will get defensive. If we are open-minded, sincere, purely wishing to clear the air so that we can move forward together in happiness, people will usually respond well. It helps to start the conversation with things like, “I am probably misunderstanding, but…” and “I know you probably didn’t mean it this way, but…” That sort of thing. They might still act defensively, at which point you can generate compassion for them not understanding you are trying to help and follow the advice we have received to talk to our teachers. Honest, well-intentioned dialogue between two people who love each other usually ends well, even if it begins with a little discomfort. It’s so much easier to just shove things under the carpet, but that helps nobody.

      No, none of this makes you a religious critic! 🙂 You are just being human.

  6. An excellent article.Thank you. I wholeheartedly agree with a previous comment, this article needs to be reading at every KMC and KBC.
    I personally have been in the NKT for over 10 years as both a lay practitioner and as a “Kelsang”. This cult-like behaviour is all too evident.
    At my first Kadampa Buddhist Centre the Resident Teacher was placed on such a high pedestal that most of the residents appeared to worship her more than Venerable Geshe-la. We were all encouraged to give her money and gifts at every opportunity. When one of our other residents, a nun, expressed concern about the RTs behaviour, she was asked to leave! This RT no longer teaches.
    My next centre a KMC, was larger, so this behaviour was diluted. However there were “managers” that would frequent ask you to do things “because it is for Geshe-la” or that “Geshe-la wants you to do it”. Total manipulation of people’s faiths. I have been very fortunate to have met Ven. Geshe-la on a couple of occasions, he would be horrified to know his name was being used in such a way.
    So we give fuel to the “NKT Survivors” to feed their delusions. We give fuel to the Dalai Lama, the CTA, and Robert Thurman whose sole purpose is to destroy the NKT by labelling it as a cult.
    I remain in the NKT, but I no longer live at a Centre. My faith in Ven. Geshe-la remains steadfast, but I do not buy into this cult persona. At the end of the day, we are just Samsaric Beings, trying to do our best.

    My practice is to keep a happy mind and help others.

    • I try remind myself that the current incarnation of the tradition is very young, so it is only normal that occasionally mistakes will be made. For me, the questions are, (1) do the teachings themselves teach wrong behavior , and (2) are things getting better over time. For me, the answer to the first question clearly is no, because when we actually put into practice what we have been given, such behavior falls away. The answer to the second question clearly is yes (from my perspective, at least). I figure if I am not exaggerating myself, put the teachings into practice sincerely, and watch my own behavior to make sure I am not feeding anything unhealthy, then together we will all get there in the end. If we can learn how to relate to the tradition in a healthy way, then the tradition can make us better and we can help the tradition do better. Then we all get better together.

      • If only things were getting better Ryan
        Now all we get is this as you well know:

        epeated these phrases 20+ times. Geshela never ever spoke like this.

        Only Dharma can solve human problems
        There is no other way
        No other method can free us from suffering
        We must put Dharma into practice
        There is no other solution.
        It is the only solution the only way out of samsara
        There is no other method
        It is the only way, the only effective method.

        Just repeating this for about 5 minutes with no explanation of why or how. 2020 was a terrible year and sitting alone talking to camera streaming a Festival is tough. But we needed Dharma and that wasnt it.

        I have seen other teachings where the things we normally see do not exist is repeated 20 or even 30 times in an hour. If Geshe Kelsang was teaching he would give a clear explanation of what this means over a period of 5 to 10 minutes and then move on to another point.

        Another example of this unproductive teaching style is when there is repetition is like this.

        Dharma is the real solution
        It is the real method to solve our human problems
        It is great bliss
        It is the joyful Path of Good fortune
        It is the modern medicine
        It is the method of inner science
        It is a precious jewel
        It is the greatest gift
        It is a universal panacea
        It is mental technology
        It is the supreme treasure
        It is so beautiful
        We are so fortunate
        We are so lucky
        We have such an incredible opportunity
        Dharma is amazing
        It is our wishfulfilling jewel
        It is our most precious possession
        Coming from his heart
        His beautiful heart
        He gave us this
        He has been so kind to us
        He gave us this amazing opportunity
        These incredible Dharma tools
        He is fixing our world
        Everything comes from him
        He loves us
        He has the power to lead us to happiness
        We just need to believe in him
        Rely upon him
        Follow him

        This went on like this for over an hour. At the end of the Festival teaching there had been no explanation of what Dharma is. Its mind boggling that the quality of teaching that Geshe-la gave has all but disappeared when these teachers surely have access to the audio files and videos of Geshe-la teaching. And their own notes from when they were there!

        Neil Elliott needs to take responsibility for what he has done. In the 1980s he believed he could get rocket fuel for his practice by obsessing over Geshe-la and he created this teaching style of giving extensive talks about Geshela. Geshe Kelsang taught classical Buddhism and all his disciples decided to make the main topic to be adoring GKG. The tradition is becomes pathway to a Guru love bomb, where people are trying to get euphoria and status by having revelations. People boast extensively on social media. Its incredibly toxic but everyone sees it as glorious and pure.
        I AM CERTAIN Geshela told Neil many times that he was trying to leave behind lama worship and revive a focus on LAMRIM. If Neil explains this to the ITTP there could be some hope. Otherwise its going to just get more toxic ​

        Je Tsongkhapa revived focus on the Lamrim yet within 2 generations lamrim practice was once again rare. Everyone wanted to focus on worship instead doing the Migtsema. They wanted holy monks to come bless them. Noone was listening to Je Tsongkhapa anymore. Its the same today but much faster.

        Lamrim is disappearing, veneration of someone who asked us to preserve lamrim isnt authentic if they switch the focus to cult like obsession with one man. Geshela never taught saying Trijang 20 times per session. Yet we say Geshela 20 times per class.

        GKG teaching style and his successors are hugely different. His successors mainly teach to see one person as superior to everyone else. They say they love Geshela as they destroy his vision.

      • I don’t necessarily disagree with you. We need to be careful to not let our enthusiasm of love for Geshe-la get in the way of transmitting the Dharma he has taught. The Dharma must always be first, but of course reliance upon the Spiritual Guide is the root of the path.

        For me, when I see people within the tradition making what I perceive to be a mistake, I try take that as a lesson to find out where within myself I am making that mistake and then I try abandon it completely. It is not up to OTHERs to carry forward the lineage, it is up to all of us – including ourselves. So I try do my part to carry forward the lineage as purely as I can. If, in the course of doing that, I have the opportunity to speak with others about mistakes I am perceiving and they are open to discussing it, then I have an honest discussion with them along the lines of “it seems to me … and this appears to be problematic because of … I’m wondering if you could share your thoughts on this?” Geshe-la gave these instructions about 13 years ago about how teachers and students can have discussions in a mutually supportive and learning way – for both teacher and student.

  7. What a thoughtful, clear and instructive post. I have only recently (in the last six months) discovered Kadampa teachings, and I fear that in my enthusiasm for the truths I have found in them, I border at times on being over-zealous. Apart from being potentially quite annoying to those around me, I also worry that in my ‘Buddhist binge’ I’ll over-do it and then not want to come near it again.

    Your words have provided me with a very useful guideline for measuring my views and behaviour as I go forward. I’ve printed this post out and will refer back to it as a ‘health check’ of my attitudes, motivations and practice. Many thanks!

  8. My understanding about this is self discipline can be as hardcore as you like without anything being cultish.

    The cult word comes when people start trying to control each other or feel forced/pressured/tricked into things

    The key is to regard everyones happiness and FREEDOM as important. To give people space and let them be in charge of their own lives.

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