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Handling a cult situation

By Upasaka HL Wai, The Buddhist Channel, July 3, 2007

Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia – What do you do should you get involve in a cult situation? What action can you take if someone you know is involved?

Earlier we described signs and situations where a cult can be spotted. It should be clarified however, that a cult usually demonstrates a group of characteristics rather than just one particular behavior. So a cult leader may be seen as always being right, have unquestioning followers, becomes intimidating if one does not follow instructions and seems to be preoccupied with fund raising (read article “How to spot a Buddhist cult”).

So once it is confirmed that the group in question does indeed demonstrate cult like tendencies, what do you do? Here are some suggestions (based on actions and experiences taken at actual cases):

Accept situation calmly

One of the very first experiences one gets after realizing that they have been duped by a religious cult is the feeling of being a dope. Some gets a little more emotional as they may have invested a few years of their lives with the group. While others may get depressed for some time and prefer to avoid mixing with people, especially those related with Buddhist activities.

There are cases where seemingly intelligent people or those with professional background have fallen for cult groups. These victims are the ones finding it the hardest to face the fact that they have been duped. However, it has to be remembered that the call of the cult is not so much correlated with status or intelligence, but involves more equitably with emotional needs.

While feeling “dopey” or depressed may be a natural initial response, it is important not to allow the feeling to linger for a prolonged period. The best possible way to move on is to simply accept the situation and then let it go. It is in the past and there is nothing one can really change.

Ask for help

Once the state of acceptance is reached, and you are calm enough to assess the true situation, the next thing to do is to ask for help. There are a few ways to do this. If there is another Buddhist center nearby, approach the abbot or people there and relate your experiences with them. If there are no groups nearby, visit a Buddhist online forum or contact a known blogger and have a chat about the situation. Another way is to write to the media, such as the Buddhist Channel.

You may be surprised to find that there are many helpful people out there who can give relevant and pertinent advice. It is important to bring into open and share your experiences. Just by talking about it helps to release some of the bottled up frustrations. Doing this with someone who listens empathetically is actually effective therapy.

Ask questions, do research

If you wish to take affirmative action, or want to help someone who cannot seem to get themselves out from the clutches of the group, it is imperative to find out about the respective teachings that the group purports to follow.

First thing off the block is to research on the background of the teacher. Find out what lineage he or she belongs to, and how long the person has been ordained. If the teacher cannot provide evidence of ordination on when, where and how it took place, and is evasive about who their teachers were, his or her credentials can be assumed to be suspect.

An easy give away is the robes worn by the teacher. If it looks like an ensemble of garments which is not consistent with what is worn by mainstream Buddhist monks or nuns (i.e. Theravada, Mahayana and Vajrayana), it is likely to be self created. If information of the ordination is provided, bring it to a third party for authentication and verification. The people whom you have asked for help will be able to provide the required assistance.

Find out about the type of teachings that is being propagated. This means looking at the ways chanting (or puja) is conducted, how meditation is practiced and the types of sutras that are used for Dharma studies. Compare these with the lineage or tradition which the teacher purports to follow. There are many sites on the internet that provide such information.

Other signs to look out for are the type of food taken (in particular, such things like alcohol, drugs or even [excessive consumption of] meat) and the time of the meals concern (for instance Theravada monks do not eat after lunch). Also pay attention to any particularity with regards to the frequency and intensity of meetings held with regards to fund raising activities.

Make a note on the behavior of the people involved with that of the precepts. These rules are summarized in the Patimokkha of the Vinaya Pitaka (Book of Discipline), and amount to 227 rules for the monks, 311 for the nuns (at least in the Theravada tradition). For lay practitioners, they either follow the five or eight precepts.

If you find discrepancies between the activities carried out by the group with that of other mainstream groups within the tradition, identify them and note it down.

Compile records

A simple way to collect useful source of information is to gather materials produced and published by the group. They can come in the form of the Chanting (Puja) booklet, books and articles written by the teacher, information published on the group’s website, periodic newsletters or bulletins and its brochure or pamphlet.

If possible, note down the dates of each publication (if available). If there is a series of collection, look for consistency of information. Also note for emotive language used when the teacher or a representative of the group addresses an “unfriendly” situation.

Recollect when ever possible the analogies, sutra verses and stories used during Dharma studies. Try to remember how the teacher applied the verses in the context of his own interpretation. Find out the source of these Dharma materials through independent media (such as the internet) and study how they are applied by other teachers. Buddhist online discussion forums are a good platform for this purpose.

Keep a chronology of events

Surprisingly, a chronology of events is one of the most effective means to catch a cult. By documenting these materials chronologically, inconsistencies can easily be spotted. These are pertinent evidence which can be very useful for public awareness campaigns to warn people about the group. These materials will also be useful if legal process is involved later on and could be used as court evidence.

Do not get into emotional confrontation

Should things turn confrontational, meet it head on. Do not show signs of uneasiness or hesitation, and never give in to anger. It is not easy to confront someone who was previously your teacher, someone whom you’ve paid respect (or bowed) to and one whom you had looked up to for your spiritual welfare.

If meeting with the teacher becomes inevitable, look at him or her in the eye and maintain contact. Do not flinch. He or she may try to incite you to return an aggressive response. Stay focused on what you have to say, and then deliver the message in a firm, objective tone. Use all "Buddhist" means to deal with them, such as “radiating loving kindness (metta)” (just radiate, no need to tell). Be patient and calm, but firm.

Identify the goal of the confrontation: What do you want him or her to do? Disrobe? Disband the group? Or would you settle just for a public apology?

Once the goal is achieved, do not pursue further, unless of course the group is resurrected again some other time. If so, state clearly that you and your supporters will be there, keeping a watch on them.

Stay focused on the "one issue"

Cultist tends to crave for aggressive response. Depriving them of responses to their own impulsiveness seems to “drive them nuts”. Collectively as a group, they may seem confident and in control, but individually they are insecure.

More often than not, they will try to use a barrage of strategies to confuse and to frighten their detractors. A favorite method is to threaten legal actions against anyone, such as websites, online forums and other publications should they fail to remove materials which negatively impact their movements.

Another way is to use their own supporters to gather public sympathy by playing up the “underdog” or “under siege” situation. They will try to give an impression that they have the backing of hundreds (or thousands) of people, just to prove their legitimacy. More often than not, this is just a handful of people closely associated with them.

But whatever it is that is thrown at you, it is imperative to stay focused on the “one issue” that you want an answer from. This could range from “proving ordination credentials” to “allegations of sexual misconduct” to “allegations of misappropriation of funds” or other alleged misconducts. Do not be distracted by their other acts or legal threats.

By not budging from that one issue, the cultist is not allowed any room to maneuver. By not being able to answer that one issue, their faux pas is openly exposed.

File police reports if intimidation becomes physical or when fraud is detected

A consistent characteristic of a cult is the use of fear and intimidation. While it is difficult to prove mental blackmail, it is quite a task to nail a cult if they have not broken any laws.

However, should any members of the group feel they have been physically violated, such as being sexually abused or threatened physical harm, or forced to donate money as a result of intimidation, they must step forward and be willing to produce statutory declarations so that legal actions is initiated. The victims must however, be made to feel assured that they have adequate protection should they decide to take this recourse. Members of the Buddhist public can provide such assurance by giving them undivided moral or physical support.

A word of caution

Should you decide to act against a particular cult, be forewarned that the ride could be long and hard. It will test personal resolve, stamina and resources. It is imperative to get public support and to do proper research.

Next: Preventing cults: What Buddhists can do

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