I have been to different temples/centers/monasteries from different schools, most of them I would return regularly, but in a few I found things that didn't agree with some personal views. I must say 100% of the time I found people with nothing but good intentions, but not always I agreed with the methodology, practices or some core believes, for example: Having a "cult style".

That said, I would like to ask: What are the main "warning signs" (if any) we should look for when going to a temple for the first time? (I'm not talking about a simple visit, but Dhamma talks, classes and meditation).

This question aims to help beginners, it is very hard to identify "unusual practices" when a person is just starting with Buddhism and have no idea what is Vinaya or the Suttas for example.

  • I am really unsure what you are asking for. If you could explain more I think you might get more specific answers.
    – Thien
    Aug 14, 2014 at 17:31
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    Christopher, I am talking about practices not aligned with Vinaya or the Suttas, there are countless examples, but I think we could list the main ones, in order to help beginners.
    – konrad01
    Aug 14, 2014 at 17:56
  • Your question title could maybe be clearer. At first sight I thought you were asking about signs such as "Remove your shoes!" or "No throwing food at the monks!" Also, are you asking only about temples, or about Buddhist "centers" more generally, or, going in the other direction, about specific teachers?
    – tkp
    Aug 14, 2014 at 18:28
  • about Buddhist centres, let me edit the question, it will be clearer for sure
    – konrad01
    Aug 14, 2014 at 18:37

5 Answers 5


Best is to do some reading of the main Suttas, such as: Anapanasati Sutta, Maha Satipatthana Sutta and see if what the center in question teaches corresponds with the Suttas.

Also see if the operations / techniques adhere to this:

  1. Should ideally be run by donations and not by charging a fee
  2. Should not be cultish
  3. Should allow free thought and inquiry
  4. Should not have practices which harm oneself or make oneself agitated or do the same for others

The last point you can only know when you have practiced the techniques taught at the place and found out you are are at peace and also cordial with others. Now if you do find a lack of peace and cordiality, it may be there is something wrong with how or what you practice. However, you should then take care -- and it is easy to misjudge this -- that you are indeed following their instructions. If you do that, and rule out the possibility that you haven't followed their instructions (in which case, maybe you're just doing your own thing and that is the problem), then there is a good chance there is something wrong with what you have been taught at the particular center.

Sometimes certain traditions may not encourage practices outside the tradition (including reading). In that case you have to look at the motivation behind it. Is it trying to have a grip or hold over the person? Or is it concern that undesired results may be brought about by mixing different techniques? Or is it concern about not being able to handle dangerous results of an unfamiliar technique? Many traditions are geared towards preserving the techniques exactly as handed down through generations and due to this, variation may hamper the results/benefits. This is why you have to be very careful and try to look at it without prejudice.

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    Hey Suminda. +1, but I've offered some pretty big edits, all just to get the English straight but in the process heavy restructuring of your second and third paragraphs was needed. As a result, there's a reasonable chance I've blown away some of your meaning, so go ahead and accept/reject as you like.
    – tkp
    Aug 15, 2014 at 14:49
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    Accepted made a small edit my self. Aug 15, 2014 at 15:09
  • I was a notified to review the edits and so I tried to further improve it. I hope it's faithful to your intention Suminda.
    – Unrul3r
    Aug 15, 2014 at 15:41
  • Any improvement is good. Aug 15, 2014 at 18:56

I think this is a very important question, but I can't see any way that a beginner who is unfamiliar with the Dharma can figure it out without essentially moving at least a little off the beginner's position. There's really no way to "bootstrap" yourself into trusting teachers without doing some upfront work yourself. So the main advice I'd give on that front is, go study the Dharma!

But perhaps there are some general rules of thumb that could also be useful. For example, to begin with perhaps a newbie should stick with the more established traditions: Theravada, Zen, mainline Tibetan, etc. That would necessarily exclude things like Soka Gakkai International (for example), but it's not at all arguing that SGI etc are bad. Rather it's simply to say that until someone finds their feet and understands what all the styles of Buddhism have in common, it's probably best to stick with more established styles, and then as one comes to understand things decide if moving to a newer or less well known approach is right for the person concerned.

Another general principle is to watch out for the "cult style" as the OP mentioned. Some good pointers in that direction are to be found around the net -- here for example. So if they're demanding unreasonable amounts of money, or seem to be highly dependent on the personality of the teacher, it's worth putting those on the list of "reasons for possible concern".

A third point is perhaps more controversial, but I'll offer it anyway being based on my own experience. I confess that to some extent I am a newbie in this situation. I have studied quite a bit, and have established a basic meditation practice, but I still haven't yet decided on a teacher, tradition, and so on. I consider that to be a very important part of my practice right now. And one of my considerations is to look at the life of the tradition's founder and those of its major figures. For that reason, I find myself a bit hesitant to engage with, for example, Shambhala. I still find myself trading off the huge contributions they have made, in terms of publication and teaching, and also some of their ideas, with the lifestyles and actions of the founder Chogyam Trungpa and his successor Ösel Tendzin. This is a very personal thing, and as I say I'm not rejecting Shambhala outright, but I suggest that observing the correspondence between the actions and teachings of major figures in the organization is a useful test.

  • Great answer! In my country there is a buddhist group that is growing considerably and it is probably the biggest one now, I have been on their centre many times and people have really good intentions there, but a few things made me give it up (mainly the way they treat authors outside their group, all books are from the same person there and the library doesn't exactly encourage people to read anything else), I follow Theravada, but I read books from H.H Dalai Lama, because they are great and provide good understanding, why should I not read it, simply because he is Mahayana? ;)
    – konrad01
    Aug 14, 2014 at 19:44

Health warning - this is a answer based on particular personal experience but I hope it's got some value in answering the question

I practice with a sangha (Triratna) which has been accused of cultish behaviour in the past. There is a decent sized article on wikipedia about these allegations. But to summarise the concerns have been around lack of proper lineage, sexual misconduct from the founder and particular centres developing a cult of personality leading to exploitation of newer members. This sounds dreadful and alarming particularly as I write it down. In fact they have changed their name since then from FWBO to Triratna. They never publicly admitted to this but I suspect that part of the reason was to put some distance between the organisations controversial past and the more positive present. So why on earth do I practice with them?

I think that you can only judge a centre through contact with your local group. For instance these are the questions that I have asked myself

  • Does the group seem welcoming to newcomers?
  • Are I comfortable with the practices?
  • What are the people who have been around for a while like? Do they seem like regular sane people?
  • Am I comfortable with how money is been asked for? I like beginners course to be just chargeable at a reasonable rate just as if I am signing up for a night class. It might be different to for you.
  • Is the centre supportive of people with families.
  • Is there events that welcome non-Buddhists
  • Is there a well structured supportive program for beginners
  • Can the centre cope with descenting opinions and views from alternative teachers.
  • Is there reference or study of traditional canonical texts e.g. Pali Canon, White Lotus Sutra etc...

As far as Buddhist practice goes in my humble opinion so long as they are teaching the 4 noble truths and the eightfold path then I would say this is Buddhist enough to engage with them. If further down the line they seem to be veering off then you can always try elsewhere.

This is an interesting and challenging question for me because I have chosen to spend 7 years practicing with a Buddhist group that has has a controversial past (although it has been received a lot more positively in the last 30 years or so).

If I can end with why I chose to go there in the first place

  • I had a personal recommendation from someone I trusted
  • The centre was near to where I worked
  • The didn't seem to do a lot of chanting/ritual which I couldn't get on with at the time

Are they great reasons to commit to a particular centre? Probably not - maybe I just lucked out because I've had a very postive 7 years.

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    The place I have been to, faced similar accusations, but I left it for other reasons: The classes were 100% about the "feel good / self help" modern Buddhism, yes they were helpful, but not even once I heard a mention to a sutta, I have tried to introduce deeper discussions many times, but it was useless. Months later I went to a Theravada Centre and in the first visit they offered me books and CDs on the suttas, the books encouraged the reader right from the beginning to read the suttas, that was enough for me, it felt more authentic.
    – konrad01
    Aug 15, 2014 at 12:30
  • @konrad01 That is an incredibly good point. The centre that I practice with does make frequent reference to canonical texts. I've just finished a study group with the Dhammapada for instance. When I have felt less happy is when we are digging into the founders opinions - not always a problem but there was one book in particular that I felt was very non standard. That said - i voiced my unhappiness with it and everyone was willing to accept this even if a lot of people actually thought the text was great. Aug 15, 2014 at 12:35
  • I absolutely agree with Konrad's point here. I think there is room for the "feel good" style but if it can't be traced easily and directly back to the sutras, or isn't grounded in them, that has to be a BIG warning sign. Another positive sign is if there is great respect for, and links to, other traditions even when there are disagreements between them. Oct 1, 2015 at 16:27

I think it's quite hard to make generalizations about Buddhist practices due to the wide range of practices acceptable within different schools. My understanding is some schools don't use the vinaya and the suttas most emphasized can be different by school as well.

If someone were to have a strict interpretation of the 5th precept and not be aware that alcohol is used in a limited way in some rituals in Tibetan Buddhism, they might jump to the conclusion that those rituals were not proper Buddhist practice and perhaps even that the temple was a bad place.

I think the most important "warning" for any beginner is that Buddhism is such a rich and varied religion and it can look so different from one tradition to another that the most important thing may be to simply see, hear, and experience without judging as one visits different centers and learns more about Buddhism.

Eventually new people find the tradition that suits them best; but that will be different from one person to the next. What a great Western* problem to have; so many choices! =)

*I'm assuming most new Buddhists would be western but perhaps I shouldn't be so judgmental. :)

  • I agree with the point regarding different traditions, but some practices should not be accepted in any tradition I think, but maybe I am wrong...
    – konrad01
    Aug 14, 2014 at 19:28
  • @konrad01, since your question referred to those who "have no idea what is Vinaya or the Suttas for example" I'm pointing out that these are not universal in Buddhism. If your question is really about deception or misguiding followers; that's really a different question.
    – Robin111
    Aug 14, 2014 at 23:46
  • the question was broad, I admite it, but I wanted to see the tips from other people without narrowing too much or giving my own examples
    – konrad01
    Aug 15, 2014 at 0:27

"All authentic practices of the Buddha carry within them three essential teachings called the Dharma Seals. These three teachings of the Buddha are: impermanence, no self and nirvana. Just as all-important legal documents have the mark or signature of a witness, all genuine practices of the Buddha bear the mark of these three teachings." -Thich Nhat Hanh


  • I was looking for more tangible things, practical.
    – konrad01
    Aug 14, 2014 at 18:15

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