This is a different angle; but one worth considering as part of this overall topic. This is a passage from the Visuddhimagga page 110-111.
- Three bhikkhus came to the elder, it seems. One of them said, “Venerable sir,
I am ready to fall from a cliff the height of one hundred men, if it is said to be to
your advantage.” The second said, “Venerable sir, I am ready to grind away this
body from the heels up without remainder on a flat stone, if it is said to be to your
advantage.” The third said, “Venerable sir, I am ready to die by stopping breathing,if it is said to be to your advantage.” Observing, “These bhikkhus are certainly
capable of progress,” the elder expounded a meditation subject to them. Following
his advice, the three attained Arahantship.
This is the benefit in self-dedication. Hence it was said above “dedicating himself
to the Blessed One, the Enlightened One, or to a teacher.”
If we today, found out that our cousin, or brother-in-law or whomever was making statements that they were willing to die for their religious teacher; we might rush to judgment that they had become involved in a cult. We might be terribly concerned about this situation. And yet, in the Visuddhimagga, this story is being told to show the benefit of having such extraordinary dedication.
There are two points of view regarding cults; the point of view of the person who is participating in the group and the point of view of concerned outsiders. It can be easy for outsiders to pass judgement particularly when things are new or strange of if there is a cultural overlay to Buddhist practice that's not well understood by outsiders.
So to put it simply if you are worried about someone else being involved in a Buddhist cult; take it slow and give it time. There is a huge variety of traditions in Buddhism and some seem very strange to newcomers and outsiders. Time will tell whether this association is good or bad for the individual.
If you are worried about yourself having become involved in a Buddhist cult, trust your gut feeling. If you feel too much is being asked of you in terms of money, time, dedication, or anything that makes you uncomfortable; leave and find a place that's better suited for you. Doesn't really matter if it's a cult by definition or not, it only matters that it's not the right place for you and time to move on.
I really appreciate @MatthewMartin 's comment above:
The Chinese Buddhists sort of have a similar concept-- "outer path" or "tiirthika", which is sort like heretic or just "not Buddhist". A lot of traditional texts seem to tolerate or encourage what us modern westerners would see as excessive on some dimension and would trigger people to use the word cult. – MatthewMartin
as trying to fit the vastness of Buddhism into a Western mindset regarding cults is very elusive.
It's good to see this thread here because it seems to be an ongoing concern and glad to have an opportunity to present this aspect as well. :)