Tuesday, January 29, 2008

Curse these cults!

I'm feeling a bit irritated. Yeah, I know that's not exactly a rarity, but at least the reason is interesting.

A Buddhist centre down the road from me is running a meditation class. To me, this sounded great - I've always wanted to learn meditation - and I've been gleefully anticipating the taster session for weeks.

This morning, though, I bothered to look up the group that's doing the lessons. It turns out that the New Kadampa Tradition is to Buddhism what ISKCON (aka Hare Krishna) is to Hinduism. It's a semi-cultish movement based loosely on the original tradition, nothing more.

Why do these groups seem to be so popular? Why do the Hare Krishnas have the manpower to canvass the high street? What's with the sudden growth of these rather imitative little cults?

My conjecture is that the situation is analogous to the phenomenon of invasive species. These traditions typically have their roots in rather minor subtraditions of age-old practice, and grow up fighting their corner against equally sophisticated, often quite similar competitors.

But then the tradition gets exported from its native habitat, into the midst of a population that's never been exposed to it before. This population has no basis for comparing the new tradition with its rivals, and no culture of criticism to provide resistance to its spread. Like bulfrogs in Australia, the tradition grows and spreads. For some reason, there's normally a personality-cult aspect to this phenomenon, although that could just be selection bias on my part.

I like this way of thinking about the formation of religions. As with language, the analogy to biology is not precise - species have no feature corresponding to patois or to combined traditions. But it's easy to visualise, which helps me to spot further examples.

And, of course, there's one very obvious example. A strain of Judaism that was inspired by a charismatic personality, transmitted to a large population of non-Jews, and as a result quickly morphed into a new religion that had little in common with its ancestor.

What would have happened if Srila Prabhupada had been killed off when his movement was just becoming popular, murdered by a government intent on removing the disturbance he caused? What would the backlash have looked like, as his followers fought to spread their truth before it could be obliterated? What would the world have looked like three centuries later, after the Hare Krishnas had become the dominant religious force? What about five centuries later, when "heretical" works had started to be purged? What about two millennia later, when all the newspapers and books that would have placed ISKCON's beliefs in context had long ago rotted away?

What stories would be told of his life? Would we think of him as a Messiah?


Anonymous said...

on what basis do you say that the NKT is a cult? There is a lot of negative information on the internet about this tradition due to other Buddhist groups who, out of jealousy and intolerance have an agenda to destroy the NKT.

For a refutation of this negativity, please read:


Thank you!

Lifewish said...

I don't consider NKT a cult because of its bad press. I'm aware of the bad press but, even by the most negative reading, the controversies surrounding NKT aren't particularly unusual.

I consider NKT a cult because it is based primarily on one individual's interpretation of religious texts, ideas and practices, with everyone else referring to that individual for guidance.

NKT is in illustrious company here - as I alluded to in my post, first-century Christianity would also qualify as a cult, as would early Islam. Basically, it's a cult when the individual held responsible for interpreting divine truth is still alive.

However, religious lineages that pass through such a one-man bottleneck tend to undergo a lot of changes (consider the reinterpretation of Judaism by Christians). They often tend to become more radical too. Both of these make me slightly nervous about placing my unconscious mind under a group member's control.

I did go along to the meditation sessions (I think there's a post on here somewhere), and I was OK for the first session. For the second session we moved onto meditating on a focus - world peace. I don't actually think that unqualified world peace would be a good thing, so I couldn't allow myself to go all the way into a meditative state. The experience left me with a headache, and I stopped going.

I'm aware that this may well not be NKT's fault - I'd probably have the same problem in a mainstream meditation class. But the experience of trying to resist "reprogramming" when in a semi-meditative state was decidedly unpleasant. I tried to alleviate the problem by talking through my issues with the group leader, but this was only helpful to the extent that the group leader herself had given them any thought, and it turned out she hadn't.