Wednesday, July 25, 2012

against the stream

 The social connections between the community of practitioners,
the so-called sangha, are based mainly on the shared ideology
and not on a truly personal level.  A sure sign of this is that any open criticism of the “master” or the ideology leads to more or less immediate distancing from the other group members, or even to aggression. 

~ Ralf Halfmann on “groupthink”

Recently, Christopher Hammacher read a paper at the International Cultic Studies Association conference in Montreal in which he presented two well-known cases of teacher misconduct taken from within the Zen community*. 

His paper was of interest to me in that, beyond a description of the individual or group pathology of students and/or followers, or the usual emphasis on the sleazy qualities we tend to equate with “cult leaders”, Mr. Hammacher elucidates some of the subtler characteristics of these two Zen teachers that, unchecked, allowed their misconduct to continue, in some cases for many years.

According to Hammacher, some of the behaviours these teachers had in common were the tendencies to:

become angry and/or defensive when confronted with criticism
have a penchant for formality or extravagance
blame the student's own ego to deflect personal criticism
not practice what he preaches (is a hypocrite)
manipulate the group to adopt an us/them attitude
control the flow of information to students, with teachings emphasizing self-published works
consider himself special or exceptional (the rules do not apply to him)
adopt a non-democratic method of institutional control

Although the article focuses on two Zen teachers who have been the subject of recent scandal, concerns about the unethical conduct of Buddhist teachers is by no means limited to the Zen community** and is a personal concern of mine because of the cult-like fascination with Buddhism in North America.

Buddhism offers a rich alternative to our own religious and other cultural institutions, especially because you do not have to believe in anything to practice it, but the aspiring student would be wise to consult Hammacher’s excellent article and pause to critically examine the conduct of his/her teacher or organization.

* you can download the article from The Buddhist Channel
** See this article on some of the corruption going on in the Tibetan Buddhist tradition