This series titled Practical Companion is for intermediate practitioners.
This post covers some sensitive issues in the Buddhist world in regard to the various traditions and methods of practice. How do we know which method is suitable for us? How do we know if we have joined a credible Buddhist organization? How do we know if our teacher is qualified?
Examine our method of practice
Most of us probably learn Buddha Dharma from books, youtube, the internet, friends, teachers, courses, etc. There are so many resources available, but not all who claim themselves Buddhist are Buddhist. Some may contain inaccuracies and some are from dubious sources. Therefore, it is essential for us to authenticate and check before believing, accepting, and practicing what was taught to us.
Buddhist Cult Group – It is okay to leave.
Let’s look at Buddha’s biography.
Devadatta (Buddha’s cousin) started a Buddhist cult even when Buddha was still physically around. He managed to amass a great number of followers who subscribed to his version of Buddhism. This was because Devadatta wasn’t enlightened and had not seen the Truth. Consequently, he interpreted Dharma according to his motives and “popular” social opinion. His form of “popular” Buddhism gained acceptance amongst the unsuspecting population very quickly.
New followers were fooled by Devadatta into joining because they were none the wiser. Devadatta was the cousin of Buddha after all! Devadatta wore the robe of a Buddhist monk. Devadatta also has a group of monks studying under him. Devadatta was capable of supernatural feats too. However, people were unaware of his mind. Devadatta no long regarded Buddha as his teacher. Devadatta had already renounced his refuge of the Triple Gems in his mind. In fact, Devadatta felt that he was equivalent to Buddha or better than Buddha!
If we look at the above situations, we should realize how easy it was for a man to impersonate an Enlightened Being. All that was happening during a time when Buddha was physically present and hundreds of Arhats were walking around and teaching the Dharma!
Fortunately, enlightened disciples like Shariputra went to teach the misguided members of Devadatta’s cult. Consequently, many people left Devadatta when they realized that they were duped. So, it is perfectly okay for us to leave a Buddhist cult when we realised that we are being fooled.
If we reflect carefully, many people are still following the footpath of Devadatta today. Cults come in many guises. Some teachers might have studied under enlightened masters but like Devadatta, they also went astray and unwittingly created their own misguided brand of Buddhism. Such misguided teachers are harder to detect because they laud from prestigious Buddhist sects or Buddhist college.
Some cults are more obvious because their leaders declared themselves as “New” Buddha or “Ancient” Buddha predating Sakyamuni or “supreme” Buddha that “rule” over all Buddha or bodhisattvas. Those who know Dharma can identify these quacks easily.
SO WHAT IS A BUDDHIST CULT?
Let’s examine this topic under the context of Devadatta.
In short, a Buddhist cult is fake Buddhism. It started with a leader like Devadatta. Someone who doesn’t know Dharma but thought he/she knew. Like Devadatta, the teachings are usually a mixture of Buddhist tenets and unorthodox interpretations (for example – teaching an eternal soul), some popular beliefs, and/or non-Buddhist principles. Everything is mixed up, including the leader’s motivation.
Devadatta thought that his brand of Buddhism was more “accurate” or better than what Buddha taught. For example, Devadatta wanted to enforce a vegetarian diet but Buddha did not agree. Devadatta believed that he was helping others with his “new” Buddhism. And of course, at the back of all his “fronts” and reasonings, is his ego and ignorance.
History of Buddhist cults and their movements
As we can see from Devadatta’s story. Buddhist Cults had been around since the founding days of Buddhism.
Unenlightened people pretending to be enlightened or mistaking themselves to be enlightened.
What is so bad about Buddhist cults?
If we look at Devadatta’s story, we might wonder: “What is bad about vegetarianism?” The answer lies in the word enforcing. trying to make it compulsory, Buddhism is a spiritual path of self-discovery and growth. Buddha doesn’t prescribe any commandments.
If we examine what Devadatta did, it became pretty obvious that he was a pretty messed up person. Assassinating the Buddha, instigating his follower (a prince) to usurp the throne by murdering his father,the king, and the list runs on.
At the very beginning of their startup, cult leaders may appear to be full of wholesomeness. But non of them can escape the corruption of their minds as power comes into their possession. For example, some cult leaders abuse their followers, and others indulge in crimes and are completely at ease with murder.
In recent times, Buddhist cult leaders amass great fortunes and live a life of luxuries. They enrich themselves by “selling” Dharma and promoting superstitions to “enslave” their followers mentally. For example, a Cult leader from China was auctioning his “blessed” undergarments for 30,000 dollars apiece. Yup and people bought those stained underwear to worship for good luck!
Tell tale signs of Buddhist cults
Rich, greedy, lustful leader – Remember, Buddhism started with renunciation. Prince Siddhartha renounced his kingdom and riches. Buddha and his monks begged for food as a livelihood. Buddha and his monks do not accept money or anything of value. They do not keep anything valuable for themselves. If we expect this from all Buddhist leaders and teachers, then individuals with a hidden agenda of getting rich through Buddhism have nowhere to stand.
Besides money, an ordinary man might also be greedy for power, sex, food, luxurious lifestyles, etc – Again, we just need to look at the monastic code of conduct. A proper Buddhist monk or nun lives a frugal life. Their only goal for becoming a monastic is to become enlightened. This is the original intention of the monastic order established by Buddha. Thus, a monastic has to be celibate, live frugally, and live humbly without any power or undue influence over their disciples or society.
Many laypeople misunderstood the type of relationship they need to develop with the monastic communities. We should not be craving any close and intimate relationship, to begin with. Not even if it is limited to those of a close friend, or siblings. There should always be this “wall” or distance with our Buddhist teachers. Why? Because we do not want to develop attachment. Good Buddhist teachers will make sure that they keep a “distance” from their disciples. Why? Because they do not want their disciples to become attached. That is the spirit of Buddhism. Non-attachment and Nirvana.
On the other hand, a cult leader will want you to become dependent on him/her. They want to manipulate you and make you reliant upon them. That way, they can fulfill their hidden agenda of sex, material gains, dominance, power, etc.
Hope the above makes sense? Although the above is pretty obvious, many people like to idolise or worship. They crave to have a god-man figure in their life. Someone who has that supernatural ability to divert calamities, heal sickness, bestow fortunes, grant longevities, and many other mundane desires to be fulfilled. Forget enlightenment, who wants that anyway?
To have a scammer, there must be a believer willing to be scammed. If you judge Buddhist teachers by the above criteria, few can meet the mark.
False messages and teachings
We need to understand that there can only be one Samyaksam Buddha in each cycle of world existence, which in our case, is Shakyamuni Buddha. Any men or women who claim to be Buddha after that are all FAKE. To understand this, we need to understand what a Samyaksam Buddha represents and what Nirvana means.
Any men or women who claim to be a bodhisattva that is mentioned in the sutra (Mahayana Buddhism) are FAKE. Those bodhisattvas we read about in Mahayana Sutra are MAHASATTVA. They go about helping people INCOGNITO. As for ordinary people putting themselves on a high pedestal as Bodhisattva, I think the test is pretty simple. Just go to any hospital and get a list of patients waiting for organ donors and try to get an organ from these “Bodhisattvas” and see what happens. In the Buddhist ideology, a Bodhisattva will happily sacrifice both eyes for you. And they don’t go around advertising their good deeds after that. That is a real bodhisattva. Once we know this hard fact, we should be asking ourselves. Why do we believe a fake? Because we are craving the supernatural?
It takes two hands to clap. Really.
The above position in Buddhism prevents Fake preachers from impersonating spiritual characters in the Buddhist canon. That way, Buddhists will be protected from scammers.
Separately, scammers like to present themselves as being “beyond” or loftier than the mainstream Buddhist monastic communities. They proclaim themselves to be some forgotten ancient Buddha or some Bodhisattva, then establish their own spiritual orders and their own set of rules. The reason why they need to do this is actually very simple. Otherwise, they will be subjected to the scrutiny of mainstream Buddhism. Which means no more fanciful lifestyle, a stringent code of conduct, and not making a livelihood out of Buddhism (unless you are a monk or nun). That is why many lay Buddhist teachers continue to teach for free. (But that is also eroding away)
Believe in worship instead of Karma
This is a very common twist by many Buddhist cult leaders. They want your worship and devotion. Therefore they teach you that the best karma comes from your unquestioning devotion and worship. They teach you to spend your money, time, and effort on their organization and causes so that you have tons of good karma. But if you sit back and think carefully, you will realize that you are being manipulated into helping them grow their empire.
Just read up Buddha’s biography and it becomes very obvious what is wrong with these cult leaders. Buddha will teach you enlightenment only. Buddha will teach you how to meditate and then “shoo” you away so that you can practice seriously on your own. He will not ask you to buy his undergarment for good luck, built him a huge monastery, recruit 100 new members to qualify as a “gold” member, or be His devoted servant and work your ass off to atone for your bad karma(sin). Buddha did not do any of that. Think about it.
Harm of heretical teachings
The blind leading the blind will end up in a bind. In this case, being bound to samsara,
As I shared earlier, cults have existed all along. Sometimes, a cult leader might not even be consciously scamming people. Some of the ancient Buddhist cults were developed by well-meaning men or women. Unfortunately, their understanding of Dharma was flawed and they taught their misguided views to others.
Some of these resulted in dire consequences. For example, there was this ancient sect that promote self-harm in the past. Such as burning their finger like a candle to worship Buddha? Ouch! Ok, that is extreme, right? And it doesn’t take a Ph.D. to know something is amiss. Unfortunately, the logic goes missing when one is too caught up in the supernatural or missing common sense? In case you are wondering how is that possible? There is a story in the Buddhist canon whereby a hare (Buddha in his former life) jumped into a fire to become food for a hungry man. And if we want to imitate that rabbit bodhisattva…..
And in ancient Japan, some ascetics starved themselves to death while performing self-mummification in the process to copy the incorruptible body of enlightened masters. In recent years, a Japanese cult named Aum Shinrikyo masterminded a terrorist attack in the Japanese subway.
The above examples are very prominent because they resulted in physical harm to lives. Others are not so obvious. For example, teachings that portrayed Buddha as a God-like being or teachings that emphasised the importance of worldly gains over enlightenment, or the existence of a soul within us. All these teachings will obstruct enlightenment and are not Buddhist in nature. In such instances, the cult leaders or cults can qualify as a religion because they do good, engage in charities, practice meditation for peace and love, etc. Unfortunately their teachings can only lead to higher rebirths in heaven but not enlightenment.
For a beginner, it is important for us to know Shakyamuni Buddha. Read his biography from reliable sources such as those that are based upon the Theravada canon. Study some sutta from the Theravada Buddhist canon. They are invaluable to our quest for enlightenment.
May all be well and happy
Theravada Buddhism – To be continued in the next post
Mahayana Buddhism – To be continued in the next post
Vajrayana Buddhism – To be continued in the next post
Core Buddhism – The Dharma Seals