- By Fa Gong Shakya
- Dec 03
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Buddhism is an ancient path of practice; to some a religion, to others a philosophy, and to many simply a practice of sane living. From the outside looking in, it can seem an evolutionary, and revolutionary, spiritual technology that seems to stand unique amongst religions in that it embraces the advances in knowledge of the post-modern world of philosophy and the ground-breaking discoveries of modern science, incorporating these modern wisdoms within a comprehensive context that has maintained relevance for thousands of years. To others, it appears little more than a folk-religion that ranks amongst the most fatuous of superstitions.
Depending on whom you speak to, and where you are, either can seem applicable. For those who have practiced and studied Buddhism in different countries, it can seem that the culture that supports it determines what sort of Buddhism you will find. To many of the educated avant-garde of the West, Buddhism can provide a vibrant tonic of science-friendly, non-dogmatic insights for those who seek a "non-religious" religion. Einstein, for instance, was known for thinking that Buddhism, alone amongst the world religions, could withstand the attacks that a modern, secular and scientific world-view could inflict.
But anyone who has travelled across the countries in which Buddhism may be considered "native" may attest, Buddhism there is most certainly viewed as a religion, and typically dismissed by the "educated elites" as a quaint, but probably embarrassing reminder of a simpler time; appropriate for simpler people, a vulgar folk-religion replete with its mythologies, curious beliefs, superstitions, rituals and trappings.
Debates regarding this simple dichotomy can be valuable, but are essentially beside the point. The reality is that Buddhism has changed, evolved and modified depending on the culture it inhabits. When Buddhism moved from India to China, it became relevant to the degree it expressed its capacity to both reflect and impact upon the culture of its time. Similarly, as it moved across Asia its relevance and capacity would be tested as it met new conditions, new questions, and demanded new interpretations.
Undoubtedly, as it encountered each new environment, the great majority of its adherents would have prided themselves on their "pure" teachings and practices. Early Chinese Buddhists no doubt unquestioningly allowed themselves to become attached to Indian language, customs and practices, in much the same way early Japanese Buddhists surely aped their Chinese forebears thinking that to do so "honoured the ancestors" or somehow reflected the truths of their tradition.
From our modern viewpoint, it can seem absurd to think that the growth of Buddhism would always have to contend with the majority who were unable to distinguish the teachings from the cultural trappings of earlier times in foreign countries. Despite these teachings expressing in ever-more dramatic and pithier ways the spiritual cul-de-sac of practitioners not confusing the finger pointing to the moon with the moon itself, such is the way of all religions and it seems that no matter how a teacher puts it, the great majority of "members" of a tradition will always value the trappings of cult over the substance of the teaching.
Chinese or Tibetans Buddhists trying to "sell" Buddhism to their countrymen, but insisting upon the vital centrality of an earlier Indian zeitgeist to their message, would have attracted little more than lovers of the exotic in the search for a new buzz. Only when this "Buddhism" started to demonstrate it could adapt to a new culture, and be relevant to it, could it be said that the tradition became meaningful.
It is no doubt inevitable that in similar fashion modern Western Buddhists, on the whole, appear to be more drawn to imitate the trappings of ancient and exotic cults than to seek a spiritual solution to their lives that is the core purpose of uddhism.And in exact proportion, these Buddhists do nothing to help the intended purpose of Buddhism find its bearings in the Western Hemisphere. Sinophiles and those invested in Tibetan politics may find a home in the Sino-Tibetan conventions that appear to constitute "Buddhism" in popular understanding, but for the rest of "suffering humanity" in the West, Buddhism will remain a not-particularly effective or relevant tradition until it becomes more holistically incorporated in modern Western culture. Until such time, it can amount to little more than an exotic cult
In this context then, what is "non-cultic" Buddhism? What is "cultic" Buddhism for that matter? Reasonably, I must at least first explain how I use the word "cult" in relation to Buddhism.
Even authorities in the field of cult-research argue about the most basic defining characteristics of a cult. For some, a cult is necessarily small, exclusive, and specifically religious, probably based around the personality of a charismatic leader (one with invariably nefarious designs). For others, a cult can be defined as something as seemingly innocent (and in the opinion of most, beneficial), such as the "cult of patriotism". One thing they will tend to have in common is the opinion that cults provide definition and parameters regarding beliefs and behaviours, and are designed to cultivate and maintain an exclusive sense of community. This, of course, is neither good nor bad, it is just a description.
Perusing various dictionaries, it is immediately apparent that "cult" is a term so broad as to be almost useless; it can include "formal religious worship", or "a system of formal beliefs and ritual". It can also be defined as "a religion regarded as unorthodox or spurious." So on one hand, any religion meets the definition of cult, on the other, some definitions demand a value-judgement regarding that religion before it qualifies as cultic.
For my purposes I will adopt a more specific definition of cult, specifically "a great devotion to a person, idea, object, movement or work" (Miriam-Webster Dictionary). I might include other, more precise, elements such as "the system of formal beliefs and rituals". There is room to be still more precise perhaps, but this is sufficient to start with. Why? Because this one definition alone should alert anyone who practices Buddhism to obvious potential dangers regarding their practice. Simply put, these dangers amount to rank egotism and attachment. And yes, sanctimonious attachment is still attachment.
To accuse the great majority of what passes for Buddhism as "cultic" - as I do - I do no more (and in many cases fall well short of) than the commentaries passed by the greatest of Buddhist teachers, including Buddha himself, regarding the dangers of "formal beliefs and rituals" or "great devotion" to a person or an idea.
Anyone who has read or learned anything of Zen will be struck by the overtly iconoclastic tone of the tradition regarding attachment to such devotion and attachment.
The "foundational premise" of Zen, enunciated by Bodhidharma (possibly) is that Zen is "a special transmission beyond words and scriptures ... pointing directly to one's mind." This deliberate emphasis was meant to highlight Buddha's constant exhortation that people "put no head above their own" and that they "be a lantern unto themselves." Knowing that, like any movement, his teachings would inevitably devolve into ritual, belief and religious orthodoxy rather than personal illumination based on personal practice and experiential self-awareness, Buddha made a quite deliberate effort to put all these potential attachments in a precise context. Bodhidharma's definition of Zen simply reiterated this.
The tradition of Zen regularly and surely keeps coming back to this fundamental premise. Some notable teachers, such as Linji and Dogen, went to extreme lengths to shock people out of their attachments to their cult; Dogen thought that telling people that Buddhist teachings and scriptures are "a smell of shit, or a whiff of fart" might do the trick. Linji thought he should add a bit more colour in the face of the religious devotions of his contemporaries when he suggested;
"Those who have fulfilled the ten stages of bodhisattva practice are no better than hired field hands; those who have attained the enlightenment of the fifty-first and fifty-second stages are prisoners shackled and bound; arhats and pratyekabuddhas are so much filth in the latrine; bodhi and nirvana are hitching posts for donkeys."
Perhaps knowing that the human tendency to veneration of idols was an almost insuperable challenge for most, he even put out possibly the most iconoclastic comment in the history of world religions when he said that should you meet the Buddha on the road, you should kill him.
These are hardly isolated instances of Zen masters having a bad hair day. Zen stories abound in variations on the theme, at times seeming to try to continually push the envelope, crossing between iconoclasm and outright antinomy and blasphemy, from destroying scriptures to burning statues of the Buddha and pissing on the warm ashes.
One can only wonder what more Buddha and the great masters of the Zen tradition could have done to make people see the importance of not letting their practice become a devotion, an attachment, a cult. Perhaps nothing more could be said, or done. Perhaps the reality is, much as Jesus said, that "many are called, but few are chosen." You can tell a Zen Buddhist that his or her tradition puts direct experience of Mind ahead of attachment to scriptures and tradition, and you can tell a Christian that his or her tradition expressly forbids killing people in the name of God or patriotism or "holy war". But perhaps the bemusing reality is that a significant number will neither understand, nor abide by, these clearest of teachings.
It can be frustrating for those wishing to find a Buddhism free of baubles and trinkets, bells and smells, that there is typically such an attachment to the trivialities of the Buddhist cult amongst its advocates. Particularly Zen, born as a reaction to a rigid and formal dogmatism, it became an iconoclastic revolution that explicitly advocated a return to the Buddha's insistence upon the primacy of the personal autonomy and experience, putting the responsibility of finding nirvana always by looking "directly into one's own mind/heart" . Certainly it can be deflating to wish to learn from a tradition whose great sages insisted we "put no head above our own" or to "kill the Buddha if we see him" to see their pontificating descendants spend inordinately more time talking about prostrations, bowing, proper lighting of incense, "appropriate" reflections upon sacred sutras, and a myriad of other examples of the "administrivia" of religion.
Buddhism in the post-modern West is valuable, and relevant, to the degree it is (or can be) communicated in our language, in our world. It is not the role of the suffering questioner to move him- or herself back in time, or to misty Asian locales of the imagination, before he or she can be a "good" Buddhist. It is for Buddhism to adapt to the world it finds itself in. To quote Jesus again (and yes, I am deliberately quoting a non-Buddhist teacher) "the Sabbath was made for man, not man for the Sabbath". Similarly, Buddhism was made for the suffering soul, not the suffering soul for Buddhism.
There is an intriguing, if esoteric, irony in Buddhist teachers who know the Indian, Chinese or Tibetan scriptures by heart (of course) also know that a fundamental hallmark of Buddhist teaching is that of "co-dependent origination"; the "Right Understanding" that teaches nothing exists in and of itself. Everything is contingent upon everything else. "This is like this because that is like that" said the Buddha. Buddhists often use this teaching to explain the concept of anatta, the refutation of the existence of a soul that exists independent of circumstance, and not subject to the reality of change. A Buddhist teacher can demonstrate there can be no consciousness independent of that which that consciousness is conscious of. The consciousness of the man who looks at a flower is not the consciousness of the same man who looks at a cow. There is no consciousness, or anything for that matter, that is "real" separate from the whole of which it is an implicit part.
Yet try and tell the cultic-Buddhist that Buddhism, in the same way, is "real" only inasmuch as it is incorporated by, and incorporates, the reality of the world it inhabits, and you are likely to invoke a defensive, perhaps hostile, reaction. To the cultist, the truth must be found in the trappings to which they are attached. Even more likely, you will be directed to the appropriate sutra, practice or teacher to ease your confusion - but rest assured that sutra, practice or teacher will be alien, ancient and probably entirely meaningless to the world you live in. At that point, you will no doubt be introduced to the concept of "Great Faith" ...
All organisations tend to bureaucracy, not the least religious ones. All systems tend towards entropy, probably particularly the religious ones. The further a tradition is from the original well-spring of inspiration, the more hidebound it and its members become, holding onto the outward expressions where the original impulse fades. When one can no longer see the forest, one becomes insistent on the importance of the one tree that remains to view.
But given an essay such as this must inevitably annoy or outrage the cultic Buddhist, it is important that we demount any potential "straw man" before it is erected. Let me say clearly that it is not what one does, but how and why one does it that determines whether they are genuinely pursuing a path designed to control (for want of a better term) the ego, or whether they are simply a cultist fiercely protecting their ego and its greed for attachment to form.
If a modern Western Buddhist bows, prostrates, offers incense, chants the appropriate sutra in the appropriate language, wears the robes, shaves the head, is fully vegetarian and never touches a drop of liquor, and feels comfortable only when reading the approved Mahayana scriptures, this in and of itself in no way suggests a cultist.
But a questioning new would-be Buddhist has a right to know that he need do none of these things. If he thinks the Dalai Lama is a feudal relic of antiquity, he can. If he thinks most of Buddhism is superstitious nonsense, but he is willing to explore and apply the Noble Eightfold Path on his own terms, then he may. If he wants to sit on a chair rather than on the floor, he may. Should he doubt, or deny, the reality or value of the teachings on reincarnation, such is his right. If he doesn't even entertain the inclination to debate the merits of vegetarianism, or whether his right hand should be on top of his left rather than vice versa in meditation, then good on him. He can still be a Buddhist, and can still be allowed to pursue the dharma as he considers it appropriate.
On the other hand, if he wants to buy into the whole Chinese/India/Tibetan/Japanese thing, he may. But always, hopefully, he understands that the teachings are, as Buddha said, merely a temporary expedient to help him reach the other shore. In and of themselves, they are of varying value. The non-cultic Buddhist need not consider them nothing more than "the whiff of fart"!
I am not suggesting that we discard the formalities, disciplines, regimens and challenges of traditional Buddhist methods, as they are effective at challenging the ego to release it's grip on the Self, and there are many people who need them.
Dogen and Linji themselves were certainly sticklers for ritual and appropriate convention. (Except for when they really weren't). I am also well aware that if a concept such as "non-cultic Buddhism" is used to make Zen simply a laissez-faire excuse to claim "spiritual" value, when it is in reality little more than an adolescent revolt against ritual or convention for its own sake, then it becomes worse than useless. It becomes simply the flip-side of the same coin tossed by the cultist. The Buddha dharma is also known as the Middle Path; avoiding extremes we neither discard the traditions, and nor do we slavishly adhere to them, confusing the finger with the moon.
Personally, I find it valuable to wear my clerical robe when performing a "priestly" function, or even when performing some private observations of practice. When ordained, much as I hated the idea, I shaved my head (precisely because I hated the idea). I also observe other conventions that define my Buddhist tradition. I see immense value in many/most of the practices that my Buddhist ancestors have put in place. But if I cannot let them all go, or not allow others to let them go as they see fit, then I know I have strayed far from my path, and have become simply another cultist attached to the "wisdom of the ego".
The issue is all really quite simple if we keep our own counsel and attend to our own practice. I explain my take on the value of convention and established forms like this - perhaps you have heard of the Japanese delicacy fugu. The fugu is a fish that is extremely tasty but, if prepared incorrectly, is fatal. No known antidote sort of fatal. I consider the forms and traditions of Buddhism like this fugu. Yes, there is immense value in these forms, but if you do them wrong, your spiritual life is dead.
We should also be very aware that the concept of "cultic Buddhism" should not be used simply to judge the practice of others, nor to identify precise traits that separate the "cultists" from the "true Buddhists" (indeed, one could probably cogently argue that as soon as you put an "ist" at the end of anything you associate with, such as "Buddhist", you have already succumbed to the lure of the cult). Who can confidently say (and who would wish to?) what constitutes attachment to the forms of a tradition? For some, wearing a robe is nothing more than an attachment to cult, for another it is a useful prop to assist in highlighting a certain function; for some, the Precepts are used for no other purpose than to identify with the cult, for others they are useful and essential pointers to appropriate and "skilful" behaviour; for some, shaving their heads amounts to card-carrying membership of the cult, for others, it is a useful reminder that vanity and grooming work to undermine a committed practice.
So let it be said from the outset, there is no practice of ritual or observance of tradition that inherently denotes a cultic mindset. It is never what is done that demonstrates one is a "cultic Buddhist", it is why it is done that does that.
"Cultic Buddhism" relates to one's own motivations, not another's. So the question may be asked, why is there a concern about it at all? If someone wants their Buddhism to be simply another expression of cultism, why is it a concern? The answer is straightforward - the Buddhist dharma is, and will remain, essentially irrelevant to many in the West as long as there is the opinion that Buddhism is defined by its trinkets and baubles. As a Western Buddhist I would argue that it is incumbent upon those of us who take it upon themselves to teach or to guide others that we are seen to be more than devotees of the strange and the exotic, an exclusive club for the "in crowd". It is our role to assist people to a sane and relevant Buddhist practice that may, but may not, have anything whatsoever to do with the predilections, fetishes and inclinations of other cultures and other times.
There is another reason an understanding of the dangers of cultism is important to those who practice the Buddhist path, whether they be teacher or student. Let me provide an example to illustrate this.
Recently, I heard a fellow Buddhist teacher regaling others with implied assertions that prostrations and bowing were essential to controlling the ego: that if one disagreed they were in the grips of said ego. Furthermore, she also specifically suggested that one (presumably if sufficiently "superior") could assess how far someone else was on their path of practice by how well/diligently/properly they performed their prostrations.
By any definition, this is a supreme example of cultic Buddhism. It may well have horrified the teacher in question that one could actually be a perfectly good Buddhist without as much as a single prostration.
One attributes to other's minds the calibres of their own. Indeed, this teacher may well wrestle with her own ego - her comments would appear to make this self-evident. But it is a mistake of the cultist to attach to the essential requirements of form and convention and to think that others need do the same as she, or her teachers, or her ancestors, did.
How, in this one example, can we see the penury of cultic Buddhism? Consider the dubious karmic reaction this one attitude may have given rise to; for this teacher, she believes she has the "authority" (or at least sufficient justification) to judge others, to "count another's cattle" as some Buddhists would say. Like so many cultic Buddhists, she has allowed herself to measure her own ego against another's, her own practice against another's. One would hope that any Buddhist teacher would appreciate that it is not their job to proselytise, to judge, to measure (and thereby fuel) their ego by comparing their practice to another's. But the "karmic debt" (and by the way, if you don't want to believe in "karmic debts", by all means, don't!) incurred extends further than simply her own situation. Consider the damage that may be done by anyone who heard this, who perhaps justifiably wonders at what tradition she speaks for, who her teacher was, or even whether Buddhism itself is any different from any other cult? Or perhaps you reading this have felt self-conscious or inadequate or excluded in your practice because you attended a retreat or meditation session and wondered if you were bowing "properly", sitting "properly", keeping your Precepts "properly", or prostrating "properly"? I imagine most people have had to, at one stage or another in their practice, surmount the fear or doubt that comes from wondering if the "authorities" (guardians of the cult) standing around are judging them, finding them wanting, or gossiping behind their backs about how their practice revealed their lack of progress. How sad this fear was probably entirely justified.
And worse; what if these people paying audience to said teacher actually took it seriously? What if they started doing the same thing? The wheels of karma churn inexorably on, more teachers immersed in ego, more potential students sadly walking away ...
Those endeavouring to honestly practice the Buddhist path endeavour to find and walk the "Middle Way". Extremes are to be avoided where possible, but sometimes they become necessary. A necessary revolution, for instance, requires an unsustainable excess of force just to create an ultimately balanced perspective. But at what price does the revolutionary sacrifice his or her own equilibrium to counter the oppression or inertia of that which should be overturned?
Brad Warner is a, well, hyper modern Western Zen teacher who, like many modern Western Buddhists, struggles with the unavoidable conundrums of trying to explain, and live, this Middle Path in an environment very foreign to its roots. Striking a very personal and unique path, he has been roundly condemned by his Buddhist peers for his lack of "appropriate" behaviour in how he teaches and lives his life.
In his book "Zen Wrapped In Karma Dipped In Chocolate" (yes, that is what it is called, and his chapter in an earlier work regarding reincarnation is titled "I Want To Come Back As A Pair Of Lucy Liu's Panties") Brad recounts a story of how he came to be writing columns for a website that most (and probably all of his Buddhist contemporaries) would deem pornographic:
"There are a whole lot of people out there for whom the word Buddhism is just a cover for the same old straitlaced neo-Puritanism beloved by every other religion in the world. They want their Buddhism as clean-cut and shiny as any Southern preacherman who rants about purity from the pulpit while he fucks his lady parishioners on the side. Anything that will get those guys' knickers in a twist is a worthwhile enterprise, as far as I'm concerned."
That last sentence is in reference to some of his ordained brethren who were apparently casting aspersions on the quality of his Buddhism measured against their own cultic interpretations of it.
There are, of course, going to be many who find Brad and his ways thoroughly objectionable. Some will consider that he is no Buddhist. And that's all fine. I doubt Brad minds too much.
But the point of concern for Buddhist teachers in the West and their potential students who are carefully appraising the relevance and value of Buddhism is that Brad and others like him are put in this position in the first place. In this case, Brad finds himself wanting to go out on a limb, pushing his iconoclasm, partly in reaction to the demands and expectations of the Buddhist cult. If there is fault to be found, whose is it? Brad's (and others like him), or the cultists who force them into "left field" just so they can express their own experience of Buddhism?
What, in the end, defines a Buddhism that is not in thrall to the trappings and baubles, the bells and smells, of ancient and exotic tradition? Simply, it is a non-cultic Buddhism that recognises what is essential to its practice and robustly refuses to replace the purpose of practice with an idol that undermines it. It is a non-cultic Buddhism whose adherents recognise the lure of attachment and the wiles of the ego that places such attachment upon the altar of its own ambition; it is a non-cultic Buddhism that honours the ways of the old and the curiosities of the foreign, but only insofar as it helps illuminate the here and the now; and finally, it is a non-cultic Buddhism that understands the path can only begin from where each individual stands, and only that individual can be trusted to know which path to take, and how to take it.