Tuesday, June 28, 2005

When all signs say.... 'cult'

Cults have long been a topic of fascination for me: what do they do? what do they believe? how/when does a cult become a 'mainstream' religion? how do I start my own?

Ok, so the last question was never quite so seriously asked, but probably very often on the periphery as the other questions were explored. A good friend of mine, Katie, a sociology graduate from UM often shared cult-starting strategies with me. She, however is an expert. Me, I'm a mere novice. Her focus was cult groups, even going so far as to live with a certain quasi-acceptable and mostly defunct cult group for an entire summer.

I first met her on a class trip to Vancouver, British Columbia (Canada) to spend a weekend with ISKCON, aka the 'Hare Krishnas'. I had a great time on the trip, sensing a genuine spiritual devotion amongst the ISKCON members, if not some hint of need in the younger ones. Their temple was beautiful and their prayers deep. Though they hailed a 'God' toward which I felt no calling, I felt comfortable in the presence of their own prayers, mantras, and devotional calls.

I had only just taken up a strong interest in Buddhism the fall before, and while I had no intention of joining them, my poor mother had not a few fears that I might not return! Leave it to mom to worry too much! I was still extremely skeptical, especially of 'organized' religion. And despite my affinity for the ISKCON members, they seemed to be just slightly better than what I imagined any average Christian church group to look like. I was in no way about to join any religious group.

Now.... Fast-forward four years to this year. I've been calling myself a Buddhist (see blog name) for about four years to most people, even nearly resigning my membership in Idaho Athiests (nearest organized group to me in Missoula!). But I didn't resign, and so that group is the nearest I have to any kind of religious organization to date. I did found a 'campus sangha' Buddhist group along with a UM freethinkers group, but both fizzled quickly so I don't count them. I did also inquire about becoming a 'mitra' (official 'friend') in the FWBO - Friends of the Western Buddhist Order in Missoula, but due to my continued interest in various forms of Buddhism (still 'shopping around') I was dissuaded from further commitment.

Recently, however, I have been contemplating joining some sort of Buddhist group with more solid commitment. The problem is, I haven't found the group yet! My reason for wanting to join something more is that I have done a ton of 'skimming the surface' here and there, and even tasted some of the depths of disciplined practice on a couple retreats, but I think it is time to further that discipline.

I have joined a 'Diamond Cutter' study group here in Bristol which has largely been made up of just myself, Achintya (an FWBO monk) and Suzanne (an active member of the New Kadampa Tradition). Now, in 5 days, I will see Geshe Michael Roach give talks in Ireland with these two people. Geshe Michael is an interesting character himself, not uncontroversial; but it strikes me that both of my travel mates are involved in groups that have had at least a brush with 'cult' accusations, the FWBO for odd/secretive activities of its founder, and NKT for the seemingly less ominous activities of worshiping a somewhat divisive deity and arguing with the Dalai Lama (see the links for more on each).

The status of these groups aside, cults are a real and destructive element in society, now as much as ever. But the lines between evangelical, fundamentalist, 'new' religion, new age, and cult are very blurry, and become even more difficult once you are a part of a group, as you become less able to make objective judgments.

So how does one know if the 'prayer group' or 'meditation class' they are going to is really nothing more than a front for a cult group? Well, I have been perusing the online anti-cult world and found at least one interesting article combining the experiences of an ex-Moonie and Lama Surya Das, as well as the useful site http://www.rickross.com/.

After some reading and reflection I agree that the groups of my travel companions are questionable, but certainly one needs to know more before calling either a cult. The fate of each rests on the shoulders of its members as well as the educated public. We all share a bit of the responsibility for questioning things that don't seem right and pointing out inconsistencies when we find them. The same goes for students of Geshe Michael Roach, including myself. His organizations are still outside of the public eye, but it will only be a matter of time before questions are raised, problems are pointed out, and it will be up to us all to treat such things openly and honestly. Thus far it seems that he has been very open about his life, teachings, and practices which, though it may initially put some people off to him, is certainly the best course for the long run.

1 comment:

Mark said...

How are you doing with your ACI studies?

I did up to ACI 4, before having a mad foray back into my Christian roots, which I'm now not so sure about...

Did you get to see geshe-hla in Ireland?