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How to spot a Buddhist cult

By Upasaka HL Wai, The Buddhist Channel, July 2, 2007

Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia -- Like any other major religions in the world, Buddhism also has its fair share of cults. Whether the leader is called Guru Rinpoche, Sifu or Bhante, as long as there is tendency to use and abuse the Dharma for personal gain, such as in getting followers to feed on the leader's ego or eccentricity, cultist will always exist. Cults will also thrive as long as there are followers who willingly or have been unwittingly misled.

A cult is defined by the Free Dictionary as, (1) A religion or religious sect generally considered to be extremist or false, with its followers often living in an unconventional manner under the guidance of an authoritarian, charismatic leader,  (2)  A usually  nonscientific method or regimen claimed by its originator to have exclusive or exceptional power in curing a particular disease and (3) Obsessive, especially faddish, devotion to or veneration for a person, principle, or thing.

Here are some key signs where cultists can be spotted.

The leader is always right

Charismatic leadership demonstrates itself very strongly in a cult situation. The maxim is that "the leader is always right". More often than not, his "holiness" is self anointed and various honorific titles are produced without any clear evidence of certification. When questioned in particular about their ordination, specifically about where, how and when it took place, their replies are usually evasive, or at best a rambling list of obscure meanings (such as "a lineage of no school").

The leader will claim supreme knowledge in a body of information (vinaya, suttas or liturgy), and may use certain verses to justify their thoughts and actions. With this mind set, he feels he has the divine authority to instruct people how to live and how to behave (like the saying goes, the one eyed leads in the kingdom of the blind).

No questioning

Cult followers are wont to quote their leaders without ever questioning them. To question the leader of a cult may result in sanction or abandonment by other members and the leader. Even the "Kalama Sutta" can be twisted to suit their interpretation. One of the favorite verses is the selective application that only "... when you yourselves know: "These things (actions) are good; these things are not blamable; these things are praised by the wise; undertaken and observed, these things lead to benefit and happiness," enter on and abide in them."

The problem with this is that followers are time and again told that they are "Dharma learners", that due to their "ignorance", they need to practice more diligently before they can decide for themselves. As such, it is imperative to form "spiritual friendship" kalyana mitra), the special bonding between "teacher and the apprentice". Unfortunately, cultist tends to exploit this relationship for their own purpose, which eventually leads to a perpetuation of a parasitic system or continuous dependency. This is anti-thesis to the symbiotic relationships that exist between the Sangha and lay followers as established in mainstream schools.

Cult followers will display an unquestionable zeal for their leader and will refuse to accept that their leader is ever wrong. The more extreme cases will even resort to violence to protect their teacher.

The whole world is against us

Public criticism and admonishment by those who are seen to be more knowledgeable or popular usually drive cult leaders to assume the "underdog" situation. Followers are constantly reminded that they are being bullied by "unseen" hands, by people in authority and by those who are "jealous" of their unorthodox ways. Their only way to counter such forces is to "band together".

No one else is right

Cult leaders believe they hold the monopoly of truth in their method of teachings and the way of practice. Anyone wishing to attend or visit another Dharma group or center is shunned by the rest of the congregation and considered to be a backslider. There was a case in Malaysia where a cult teacher grossly abused the Puggala Pannatti (the book of Classification of Four Types of Individuals) to brand those who did not follow prescribed rituals and modes of behavior as "padaparama" - individuals who cannot obtain release from worldly ills during this life-time even though he or she puts forth the best effort the Dhamma practice. To move up the scale, all one has to do is to strictly follow the prescribe methods and listen to the teacher's instructions.

Financial Exploitation

Cult is usually preoccupied with raising money, either for charitable purposes or to build their center. One of their favorite methods is to emphasize on the teachings of "non-self", "egolessness", "greed" and "emptiness" and then relating it to how one's personal wealth had less "merit" compared to those who shares it with the community to spread the Dharma. Cult groups teach that sacrificing for the better good of the organization is far better than putting one's money elsewhere.

Using fear and intimidation

Cult religions rely on private and public intimidation to keep their members in line. In Buddhism particularly, where the emphasis of mind training through meditation is integral to the practice, weak individuals or those facing personal problems are especially susceptible to such treatment. Through their charisma, cult leaders are adept at "empathizing" with those facing personal problems.

When the leader gets angry and uses harsh words, they explain it away as an expression of "love and compassion". Some justify this by labeling the aggressive response as "fierce friendship". And when the targeted member is also subjected to peer pressure to "modify his or her behavior", the intimidation becomes complete. This is what "mob psychology" is all about.

As a result, members of the cult group continuously face intra-group battles to maintain their desire to be accepted and their status may change depending on what's going on in their life. In this way religious cult leaders are able to keep a steady stream of members obligated and bound to their organization.


Almost all Buddhist cults use some form of mind altering techniques such as meditation, fear of the teacher, fear of "bad karma" and emotional manipulation to brainwash the members of the congregation to stay.

Such leaders are also adept at pricking on guilt conscience, often playing with the mind of the confused, giving personal counseling about "observations of mental formations" after a round of sitting.

Rather than leading the student to strengthen personal resolve to face their internal demons, the cultist would instead cultivate ideas of deliverance through community support, thereby perpetuating dependency on external forces.

Next: "How to handle a cult situation"

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