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How would one recognise if a sangha or Buddhist group is a cult or has cult type tendencies. Are there well established things to look out for? Are there cult type behaviours or patterns that would be particularly linked with Buddhism or are all cults broadly similar irrespective of their religious inspiration?

We have tried to answer questions about cults before here and here however these questions have been closed down as too opinion based. However I'm hoping by broadening the scope and moving it away from any one group it may help to keep this more objective. Also I would imagine that there are scholarly studies in this area so I'm hoping that this will also assist in objectivity.

As a side note I'm aware that the term cult is a controversial and emotionally weighted term. It's difficult to get a good definition but I found one here that seems reasonable

A group or movement is theologically a cult if it identifies itself as belonging to a mainstream, recognized religion — and yet rejects or otherwise violates one or more of the central, essential teachings of that religion.

however I welcome any other definitions too.

  • What would you think of closing this question and taking it to the Chat room instead? – ChrisW Jun 12 '15 at 22:07
  • Related question here: buddhism.stackexchange.com/questions/2677/… – Robin111 Jun 13 '15 at 1:42
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    I would leave this question open and monitor the answers provided. There is room for answers as to ascertain whether an organisation or following when considered as a cult is based on theological or sociological reason. Cults exist, which ever definition we use. – Samadhi Jun 13 '15 at 2:21
  • As there are many definitions of cult and there are many forms of Buddhist organisation/philosophy of practice, adopting a particular accepted definition of cult would put certain organisation within it. The negative emotional association with extremely unhealthy cults should not be associated with all definitions of cults. – Samadhi Jun 13 '15 at 2:39
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    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 Jun 14 '15 at 2:11
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The term is vague and (perhaps except in academic history of religion usage) pejorative.

See Cult for a partial list of organizations/adjectives associated with the word 'cult':

  • socially deviant
  • novel
  • acts of violence
  • excessive devotion
  • faith healing
  • heresy (unorthodoxy)
  • sexual abuse
  • financial extortion
  • possibly criminal

The word "cult" has always been controversial because it is (in a pejorative sense) considered a subjective term, used as an ad hominem attack against groups with differing doctrines or practices, which lacks a clear or consistent definition.

See also Stigmatization and discrimination

If you use the word, it's likely to be understood as having some pejorative meaning, but what that meaning is isn't clear.

If you must say something critical of another person or another group, I think you should at least try to be clear/specific about what crime[s] or other defect you accuse them of, and therefore not say "cult".

  • Everyday absorption in Samsara or conditioned reality as practiced by 99% of the population could be termed a cult too. There's excessive devotion to materialism from which all criminal and negative acts arise. – Buddho Jun 13 '15 at 19:42
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Some answers from the suttas (emphasis mine):

Here, monks, a monk might speak like this: 'In a certain dwelling place live many elders, very learned, who have learned the traditions, who are bearers of the Teaching, bearers of the Discipline, bearers of the Tabulation, I have heard this directly from those elders, directly I learned it: "This is the Teaching, this is the Discipline, this is the Teacher’s Dispensation."' Those monks’ speech, monks, is not to be rejoiced over, not to be scorned at. Without having rejoiced over it, without having scorned it, after learning those words and syllables well, they should be laid alongside the Discourses, they should be compared with the Discipline.

If, when these are laid alongside the Discourses, compared with the Discipline, they do not fit in with the Discourses, they do not compare well with the Discipline, you may here come to this conclusion: 'Certainly this is not the Gracious One’s word, it is not well learned by those elders,' and, monks, you should abandon it. If when these are laid alongside the Discourses, compared with the Discipline they do fit in with the Discourses, they do compare well with the Discipline, you may here come to this conclusion: 'Certainly this is the Gracious One’s word, it is well-learned by those elders.' This, monks, is the third Great Referral you should bear in mind.

-- Mahāparinibbāna sutta, DN 16

and:

[...] "What is the cause, lord, what is the reason, why before there were fewer training rules and yet more monks established in final gnosis, whereas now there are more training rules and yet fewer monks established in final gnosis?"

"That's the way it is, Kassapa. When beings are degenerating and the true Dhamma is disappearing, there are more training rules and yet fewer monks established in final gnosis. There is no disappearance of the true Dhamma as long as a counterfeit of the true Dhamma has not arisen in the world, but there is the disappearance of the true Dhamma when a counterfeit of the true Dhamma has arisen in the world. Just as there is no disappearance of gold as long as a counterfeit of gold has not arisen in the world, but there is the disappearance of gold when a counterfeit of gold has arisen in the world, in the same way there is no disappearance of the true Dhamma as long as a counterfeit of the true Dhamma has not arisen in the world, but there is the disappearance of the true Dhamma when a counterfeit of the true Dhamma has arisen in the world. [...]

"These five downward-leading qualities tend to the confusion and disappearance of the true Dhamma. Which five? There is the case where the monks, nuns, male lay followers, & female lay followers live without respect, without deference, for the Teacher. They live without respect, without deference, for the Dhamma... for the Sangha... for the Training... for concentration. These are the five downward-leading qualities that tend to the confusion and disappearance of the true Dhamma.

-- SN 16.13

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The line between cults and regular groups is not always clear cut. Groups are more or less cultish, so judgment must be exercised as to what level of cultish behavior you are willing to tolerate.

But what denotes cultish behavior? Here's a good checklist for starters.

What about Buddhist-specific cults? Here are some questions to ask...

  1. Does the leader claim to be Enlightened?
  2. Does the leader behave immorally?
  3. Is the leader's immoral behavior praised as "crazy wisdom"?
  4. Are people exploited under the guise of "transcending their egos"?
  5. Are there levels of initiation/practice?

If you encounter one of the above, be on alert. If you encounter multiple instances, then run for the hills.

BTW, my use of #1 may distress some. Don't I think Enlightenment exists? I'm not sure... I think we can be more or less enlightened, but I'm suspicious of Enlightenment as an all-or-nothing claim. Often, this becomes a claim of infallibility which is then used as a pretext to exploit people and is the driving force behind the transgressions of cults. So generally, if someone claims they're enlightened, I assume they're full of it.

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    I would say that the definition of a Cult is that it is ultimately: 1. Self-serving 2. Harms people, and justifies itself for doing so. So you would need to look for wrongful benefit and wrongful harm. Do they follow the eight-fold path? – user2341 Jun 13 '15 at 18:00
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    This is from the linked article: "Mind-altering practices (such as meditation, chanting, speaking in tongues, denunciation sessions, and debilitating work routines) are used in excess and serve to suppress doubts about the group and its leader(s)." Hmm...meditation and chanting...we're all in trouble. ;-) – Robin111 Jun 15 '15 at 17:44
  • Are you saying people must, should, or might be willing to tolerate some (moderate) level of "more or less cultish" behaviour (and if so, what does that mean)? – ChrisW Jun 15 '15 at 18:51
  • @ChrisW I'm saying there's often no hard and fast distinction between cult and not-cult, and instead many organizations exist on a continuum. Therefore, rather than asking what is and isn't a cult, one might instead see how cultish any organization is and decide whether this is acceptable. – R. Barzell Jun 15 '15 at 19:22
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This Controversial 'Buddhist' Teachers & Groups page includes these references in its "Useful information in English" section:

This page (probably the whole web site) is mostly about Tibetan Buddhism.

It also links to Zen teachers issue open letter confronting abuse from which you can read about some similar problems within Western Zen.

I hope you will not need such information.

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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.

  1. 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. :)

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    According to Wikipedia Tirthika means literally "non-Buddhist", e.g. Jain. I think the corresponding Chinese dictionary entry is 外道 (use "guest" as the login to that dictionary). – ChrisW Jun 15 '15 at 18:33
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Zopa Rinpoche wants to stop eathquaks with his mind. Gomdes Lamas go arround making ceromonies to make retreat guests in wealthy countries like Denmark Rich.

Ar the same time People WHO have been through horrible Abuse and seek hope in the compasionate Ways of Buddha, are made out to be crazy disgusting inhumans, at the same time the frase keeps ringing " we are all the same".

If you see major distatefull contradictions in a Group. Then find another place. The original forms of buddhism Doesnt haven't gone so wrong

protected by ChrisW Jul 3 '17 at 16:26

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