A few blocks north-east of me as I write is the old site of the People's Temple, where a charismatic young preacher by the name of Jim Jones was winning converts and admirers to his innovative version of Christian socialism, local hero Harvey Milk among them, by the early 70s. After a few years in San Francisco Jones decided to bring his flock to a special compound in Guyana, where they would be able to found a community free from the taint of atheistic capitalism. At the urging of an association of concerned relatives, a member of Congress was sent out to Jonestown on a fact-finding mission. After several of Jones' community tried to leave the group, Congressman Leo Ryan and four others were gunned down. Soon afterward, Jones persuaded or coerced all 909 members of his congregation to quaff Kool-Aid laced with cyanide.
The Jonestown mass-suicide was the single biggest loss of civilian life in US history not related to a natural disaster until September 11th, 2001. Leo Ryan remains the only serving member of congress to have been successfully assassinated. For anyone joining what sociologists term new religious movements - independent, experimental, or innovative religious groups - the tragic history of the People's Temple of San Francisco might well be kept in mind. It was the dark side of the upsurge of interest in alternative lifestyles and syncretic mysticism of the late 60s, and led to the founding of a the anti-cult movement of the 80s. But of course, new religious movements are still with us, as are cults. My mother sometimes reminds me of her friend whose daughter was brainwashed into believing that her mother was a witch.
One of my friends, when she found out I enjoyed meditation, told me, 'You're not going to join a cult like my friend from college, are you?' (Her friend was a student of Andrew Cohen, whose physical abuse of his followers is documented in William Yenner's memoir American Guru). And I don't think I am, but it had crossed my mind. I've talked to several older members of PZI, and thought a lot about cults and new religious movements in general. The atmosphere at retreats is what gets me worrying, mainly just because it's so unusually loving that I figure something must be up. (I remember one woman saying to me as I left, 'It's been so good sitting next to you!' I thought 'What, in silence?', 'How nice', and 'It's a cult' pretty much simultaneously.) But PZI's experimental nature also has me wondering at times. All this wondering has led me to try to put together a list of signs to look out for if you don't have a taste for cyanide-flavoured grape juice.
1. Exaggerated claims that the movement or the leader is transforming the universe, bringing together all human knowledge, or healing all ills. If you join a religious movement that makes the claim that it can get rid of all your problems, it's not a religious movement: it's a roomful of people who are delusional. If the leader is someone who claims, like Andrew Cohen or Ken Wilber, to have synthesized all human knowledge and to be ushering in a new stage in human evolution, chances are they don't know much about any particular branch of human knowledge, and that they know especially little about evolution by the natural selection of inherited characteristics. John Tarrant certainly doesn't make any of these claims, or at least he hasn't in my hearing. At WiG we constantly try not to get rid of our problems, but to become better acquainted with them, which is hurtful and helps.
2. Extreme or bizarre deviation from traditional ethical norms. Most new religious movements don't actually claim to start from scratch, but are instead parasitic on religious traditions that command varying degrees of authority. Now, one of the best reasons for religious innovation is that traditional teachings, for example on homosexuality, are felt to be out of tune with the times, or simply to have gotten things badly wrong. To that extent any modernizing movement will have to deviate from the past, at least the recent past. But a religious group that didn't have some notion of sexual morality and immorality would seem to be leaving out a rather large segment of our moral lives. Everyone can see that the Family cult was taking liberties with scripture in encouraging incest as an expression of God's love; but it may help in less obvious cases to remember that a Buddhist group that doesn't present some minimally honest understanding of the four noble truths and the eightfold path isn't really Buddhist.
3. Rigidly hierarchical structures, with a cult of the leader or teacher. I talked recently with a man who'd been around SFZC during the time of Richard Baker's leadership. He told me that it was quite clear that your criticisms of the teacher weren't welcome; in fact, he said that Baker would probably have reacted to any criticisms by shouting something along the lines of, 'How dare you question my authority?' With nobody questioning his authority, and with him being a bloke, it's not too surprising that he used his unquestioned authority to have sex with as many women as possible. I'm told that John Tarrant sometimes gets angry with people, and he seems to prefer to react to criticism with silence rather than with cogent argumentation and appeals to documented facts. But I've also heard he does meet with people who have issues with him, and doesn't hold grudges against them afterwards.
4. A veil of secrecy rather than a culture of transparency. If there's nothing to hide, then nobody should really be going around helping to cover things up. One disturbing aspect of the recent Tarrant-Foster dust-up was that an editor at Shambala Sun magazine wanted to let the matter drop to avoid 'washing the Buddhist world's dirty laundry in public', important for a newspaper 'with a substantial non-Buddhist or beginning Buddhist audience'. The argument seems to be that we should not tell the truth in order to convert more people to Buddhism. But Buddhists lying to cover up the wrongdoing of other Buddhists is unlikely to be an acitivity that draws a great many converts. And it also might just be in contradiction with the precept against lying and the undertaking to practice right speech. If you can't write home on a retreat, that's something to write home about, and not in a good way.
5. Encouraging adepts to create a whole new identity for themselves and cut off ties with their families and friends outside the gorup. I'm well aware that many Buddhist and neo-Hindus in the West adopt new names to add to or replace their own when they convert, and also that this is routinely done in our own Zen lineage. (I want my new name to be 'James'.) In many cases this is a touching and intimate form of symbolism, though I must say it strikes me personally as almost intolerably pretentious. (I'll post more on this later.) But if a group wants you to change your identity completely and encourages you to cut off contact with your previous group of friends, I'd suggest running very, very quickly in the other direction. Not that you'll take my word for it - you've probably cut off contact with me already. But you don't really need a new identity anyway - you can be quite happy with your ordinary one.
6. The workshops and retreats don't cost $50 or $100 but your savings, your car, and your house. How much people should be paying (or being asked to pay) for what is another issue I'll have to return to (as much because I may be paying too little for certain events as because others may be paying too much). Ideally, nobody should pay anything for meditation, and if a run-of-the-mill sitting group or meditation teacher asks you to pay, just find one who won't (it's easy). Once we're talking about an institution with a website and staff or about events with food and rooms, it gets more complex. But one thing isn't complex: the guru doesn't need that Mercedes-Benz. If he can't get through life without one, you may want to look elsewhere for help in developing contentment and generosity in your life.
I may have strayed off-topic a few times, but I flatter myself that what I've provided isn't a terrible list of things that should make you think twice about getting deeper into your local new religious organization. It's not an exhaustive list by any means - if your teacher thinks he is Socrates, or Jesus, or both, for example, that may be another reason to step away. I think PZI does pretty well at avoiding cult-status on all of these counts, which is a reassuring thought as I approach taking refuge; all the same, this blog was started partly as my contribution to keeping the organization as non-hierarchical and transparent as possible. But there's a problem with my list, and that is that none of its criteria are particularly well-defined. What constitutes an extreme deviation from traditional ethical practices, for example, as opposed to a moderate one? The quesion gets to the heart of the problem of cults.
The core problem about cults is similar to the core problem with murderers - it's very difficult to tell what they are for sure before they become something horrible. Cults aren't all completely new religions, but nor are they all newfangled reworkings of existing faiths. They're not overwhelmingly drawn from Christianity or Buddhism or Hinduism. And they don't even all depend upon charismatic leaders. Even definite cults can do a lot of good in some ways, and they nearly all present a minimally appealing public face to newcomers - for both points, see Lawrence Wright's long and detailed report on scientology in the New Yorker. In the end, the best advice is simply to keep your eyes open and trust your instincts - not your deep spiritual 'heart', but your ordinary, everyday instincts about what seems phoney and exploitative.
Because when it comes down to it, the tragedy at Jonestown wasn't that people were drawn into a cult, but that Jim Jones browbeat them into drinking cyanide. Groups of all sorts - corporations, goverments, armies among others - can commit crimes and do great harm to others and to their own membership. Talk of cults makes it seem as if spiritual groups are more vulnerable to a certain type of mind-control, but I've seen no evidence that this is the case. (If the Milgram and Stanford Prison Experiments are anything to go by, secular forms of authority are quite sufficient for that kind of exploitation.) It's been a theme of this blog that politics is everywhere, and that means that vigilance is always a necessity. Whatever a group's purpose, you shouldn't support it if it suppresees dissent, exploits its membership, and makes transparency impossible.
When I first came to California, I was immediately driven to an extensive compound where I would spend the next three years living and working, many hours a week for low pay and with little recognition for my labour. The entire time my actions were supervised by a team of superiors, and I was given little choice but to comply with their instructions. That seems like a fair description of my time so far as a grad student at Stanford, but it would be ridiculous to say that I've been drawn into a cult. My point is not at all that grad school, or Stanford, is excessively isolating or insufficiently transparent; rather, I just want to remind you in closing of what an ordinary thing hierarchy is. It's there in your workplace, so you can't be too shocked when you find it in your religion. Of course, that doesn't mean that you shouldn't fight it; but it does mean that it's nothing to be afraid of.