A Potentially Cultish Culture

At the heart of a systemic approach to clergy misconduct is the understanding that culture matters. The riskiest possible culture, arguably, would be that of a cult: a community in which every single thing revolves around the whims of a single leader. In a cult, clergy sexual misconduct is almost a given.

To be clear: Greater Boston Zen Center was not, and is not, a cult. Nonetheless, we have found it useful to consider whether any aspects of our culture could be seen as “cultish” and, if so, to consider how we might change those aspects of our culture.

Our reflections have been, by necessity, specific to our particular Soto Zen practice—that is what we know—but we offer them here in case they are useful to other Zen communities or to other Buddhist communities more generally.

Note: We owe these reflections to Julie Seido Nelson; see original posting of them here.

It can be disconcerting or even eerie to realize how many typical Zen practices are also techniques used by cult leaders as part of a gradual and insidious campaign of “thought reform.” Psychologist Margaret Thaler Singer describes the latter in her book Cults in our Midst: The Hidden Menace in Our Everyday Lives. She mentions, for example, maintaining silence, moving and chanting in unison, and peer pressure (even in such subtle forms as following the group in removing one’s shoes). She goes on to describe displays of warmth and affection, sleep deprivation, systems of rewards, notions of special knowledge, encouragement to suspend one’s rational thought, spiritual hierarchy, and complex and ever-changing rules. The use of somewhat obscure language or phrases with changed meanings, she writes, is an additional “thought reform” technique.

If you’ve ever sat zazen, bowed with a group, walked in a kinhin line, chanted a sutra service, looked to others in the group to figure out what to do, or felt welcomed, these should sound familiar. Have you ever gotten up at 4:30am at sesshin, received a teaching status, heard about “enlightenment,” or been encouraged to “let a talk wash over you”? Have you sat with a group that distinguishes students from various levels of teachers, or experienced screwing up time after time in a complicated practice of oryoki or in a demanding retreat role such as Ino or Shusho? If you’ve also attempted koan practice or struggled to understand the writings of Eihei Dogen, you know how far removed from typical understandings of language and logic Zen can be.

Singer also writes about who it is that cults attract. You are probably already aware that people who are lonely, depressed, isolated, or in crisis may be particularly susceptible. While we may resist the idea, that description could fit many who are drawn to Zen. If we weren’t desperately looking for something, why would we give up beautiful days and entertaining pursuits to spend hours sitting silently on a cushion? But Singer says that cults also tend to attract good, altruistic people—people who want to be on the side of the right and true, people who want to do good things, people who want to save the world; in other words, people who want to “save all beings,” as we chant in the Four Bodhisattva Vows. 

If we think of cults as only those groups that isolate their members in some far-off rural compound and lead them into sexual orgies and murder, then of course your typical Zen group is not a cult. But cults, Singer writes, come in a variety of kinds and degrees. She defines a cult as “a group that forms around a person who claims to have a special mission or knowledge, which they will share with those who turn over most of their decision making to that self-appointed leader.” Some cults are more mild and under the radar, letting members stay in their families and live apparently normal lives. Some have single leaders, while others are led by a team. Not uncommonly, the leaders will be educated, apparently rational, successful, and even professional people.

So when is a Zen group a healthy, supportive environment for Zen practice, and what are signs that it is developing cultish aspects? Singer enumerates many distinctive aspects of cults, all along the theme of manipulating students’ admiration and love for teachers towards the teacher’s own ends, while suppressing dissent and criticism. 

The essence of cult-like behavior is the over-extension of authority by people who have established an attitude of devotion in their followers. We hope that Zen teachers and other leaders will keep in mind Keizan Jokin’s exhortation (from “At Ease and in Harmony”): 

Do not use the Way to make yourself important. This is the foremost point to remember. Remain always in Great Compassion and dedicate the limitless power of zazen to all beings.

Our hope for all students is that we do not confuse reverence for the dharma with excessive reverence for our human teachers—a subtle form of idolatry. Zen teachings can liberate us from our delusory self-identities and put us in touch with the realm of vast emptiness. We may experience a surrender of self to the greater harmony of the cosmos. Zen teachers, unfortunately, if they get too full of themselves, distort this into total submission of one’s self to mere human authority. Because we live in a world of emptiness and form, we do well not to totally abandon our personal autonomy and critical facilities. It is also the job of the collective, led by the board of directors and other senior leaders, to continuously educate ourselves on these dynamics and proactively ensure the safety of our communities.

Next: Additional Roots & Risk Factors: An Imperfect Past

Published June 12, 2022