Ex-members have reported that they found the new belief system and teachings almost psychoactive and disorientating, like a drug, and found them addictive. The ‘blessings’ are likely to release dopamine and oxytocin in the brain. Many ex-members of the NKT and other similar groups report a predisposition towards addiction and co-dependency. Many
report to have had previous experiences of ‘oneness’ and states of bliss when taking drugs, and then finding mundane life quite intolerable. They report that they experienced feelings of euphoria and ‘oneness’ during their meditation practices within the NKT, especially in the beginning whilst experiencing ‘love-bombing’ from the group. Teacher training notes state that giving people a good feeling during their visits to NKT centres keeps them wanting more and makes it more likely they will come back.
Several researchers believe that studies of cult members may revise current theories about the workings of the brain. For a relevant video on how cult involvement can affect the brain click here. Experiences described by cult members resemble personality changes regularly associated with disorders of the temporal lobe of the brain. ‘The symptoms of temporal lobe epilepsy,’ said Dr. Clark, ‘are similar to those seen or reported as resulting from cult conversions: increased irritability, loss of libido or altered sexual interest; ritualism, compulsive attention to detail, mystical states, humorlessness and sobriety, heightened paranoia‘ (New York Times Interview, 1982). Another researcher told The New York Times that ‘Keeping devotees constantly fatigued, deprived of sensory input and suffering protein deprivation, working extremely long hours in street solicitation or in cult-owned businesses, engaging in monotonous chanting and rhythmical singing, may induce psychophysiological changes in the brain’.
Some current and ex-members reported to me that their involvement with the NKT initially helped them to detox from a substance, by giving them other ‘objects of refuge’. However, youare likely to be left with a new addiction to the group, and particular spiritual practices. They were led to believe that the dharma had cured them of their addiction and no one
seemed able to recognise that they had exchanged a previous addiction for a new one. Some might argue that the new addiction is less harmful to the persons functioning than the old one, which could be true if the person remains within the NKT for life and this meets their needs. However, if they choose to and are able to leave, they are likely to suffer with
serious withdrawal effects and complex post-traumatic stress disorder.
‘Buddhism is not a drug, but many people who practice Buddhism use it as a drug to anaesthetize themselves from the stress, anxiety and suffering of modern life. What’s worse, Buddhism is being taught as a drug, as a broad-based sedative to numb, calm and soothe the anxieties of the privileged classes. This kind of Buddhism shields people from feeling and reacting to both the passionate beauty and cold brutality of human life‘. (Shaun Bartone, Sociopathic Buddhism: Contemporary Western Buddhism as a Moral Failure)
Involvement in cultic groups has been argued to lead to emotional dependence on the leader or on the group (Garand, 2013). This makes people likely to stay despite threats to their psychological and physical health. This is particularly likely when the person has become isolated from outsiders and engulfed by the group. Ex-members of cultic groups often report that they were in a stage of arrested development, where they relied on the teachings to regulate their emotional state and to guide their decision making.
Due to the repeated trance states and feelings of bliss people can often experience during teachings and meditation, they often become convinced that these feelings are a result of their involvement with the NKT and its dharma, and therefore they can become bonded to this organisation. Due to the NKT being sectarian and the active discouragement of reading other texts or trying out other Buddhist groups, members are unlikely to believe that they could find another source of these blessings. Given the teachings on non-attachment and renunciation this is very confusing and contradictory.
Many members report being estranged from their families, and a history of childhood abuse and emotional neglect. This means that they may be more likely to struggle with attachment disorders, and may experience intense fears of abandonment, making it even more difficult for them to leave. Members are encouraged to repeatedly focus on how fortunate they are to have discovered their spiritual guide and the dharma, thus generating a feeling of gratitude which can lead to misplaced loyalty. Children who are ignored or neglected can create a misplaced loyalty towards their parent as a buffer against letting in the reality of the parent’s abuse or emotional absence. The child overcompensates by manufacturing an imaginary closeness with the unavailable parent. The child learns how to be in relationship with an idealised version of the parent. Thus you could argue that those who experienced childhood emotional neglect might be more likely to idolise their guru and his teachings. Misplaced loyalty makes it harder for people to perceive and acknowledge abusive behaviours, and to leave abusive situations.
Someone with a childhood history of narcissistic abuse already knows themselves as an object to be subjugated, thus making them more vulnerable to a cult with a narcissistic leader. A replica of this dynamic can be found in the cult and the person can regress back to re-enacting this dynamic. This is defined as spiritual transference, where we direct emotions felt towards the parent in the past and project them onto someone in the present (for example a teacher or guru). Followers objectify themselves by allowing the leader to see them as a subject, who needs to train according to their doctrine. Though followers believe they are voluntarily embracing the leader’s teachings, the reality is that they have been coercively manipulated to submit. This is not just an emotional dependence but the wish to experience the other as one’s whole world, just as the family is for a young child. According to Becker (1974), our urge to deify others comes from this transference. ‘The more they have, the more rubs off on us’. Anders (2019) states that when Buddhism spread to the West ‘while an introspective, self-reflexive attitude, and the knowledge of Buddhist philosophy being an instruction for the individuals’ path to autonomy were lost, the identification with teachers and one’s own group were widely propagated as mainstream instead‘.
Combining this spiritual transference and state of infatuation or ‘fervor’ with the indoctrination to see any perceived faults in the organisation as evidence that they still have an ‘impure mind’ leads followers to believe that they should work harder at viewing their teacher and the NKT in general as faultless. This means they develop blind spots and cannot see obvious contradictions in the teachings or members behaviours.
For those who take their teachings and vows very seriously, a person may develop a fear of an unfortunate rebirth due to their leaving the organisation and ‘turning their back on’ their spiritual guide. According to Christian Szurko, spiritual abuse recovery expert, it is often very challenging for victims of spiritual abuse within Buddhist traditions to disclose abuse for these reasons, over and above other religious groups and cults (stated during phone call with myself).
It is possible to develop trauma bonds to an emotionally neglectful and abusive person or group of people. When a person is suffering they run to a safe person for comfort. However if this person is also their abuser, or taught the teachings used to abuse them, this can create confusion (cognitive dissonance), paralysis and trauma bonding.
Obviously, for those who have taken vows or ordination, they have promised to devote their lives entirely to their guru, and even their future lives, no matter how they are treated by this guru or his disciples. This is the most damaging trauma bond imaginable. This is a dangerous combination due to the feelings of ‘bliss’ they have repeatedly generated in association with Kelsang Gyatso. This could be considered a form of Stockholm syndrome, where a person becomes so trauma bonded to their abuser that they cannot see the abusive behaviour clearly, and defends the abuser, perhaps even idolising them in spite of abuse. Combining the neuroscience behind trauma bonding with the teachings on seeing your guru as faultless could be an extremely traumatising combination.
Traditionally in Buddhism, the teacher claims their spiritual legitimacy as the representative of an unbroken lineage that can be traced back through a sequence of distinguished names to a founder, or even to Buddha himself. The teacher’s person and conduct are thereby regarded as an embodiment of Buddhas teachings. ‘It is this ideal that underlies the role of teacher as exemplar and shapes the asymmetrical charismatic relationship between a teacher and his students‘ (Bell, 2002). Such idealisation often leads a student to experience strong emotional attachment, with feelings that parallel those associated in Western culture with romantic love. This can lead to self- abandonment and glorification of the other.
It is crucial to ensure that a compassionate figure or source of feelings of unconditional love cannot exploit, betray, mislead or mistreat you. For people who have attachment difficulties, giving their trust over to a figure whose organisation then treats them in an abusive way is extremely damaging and likely to lead to severe attachment trauma, on top of the trauma that the person already suffered with. Encountering abuse within an
organisation that frames itself as a compassionate one is likely to create extreme cognitive dissonance where the victim is left feeling highly confused. Those who come to think about the lack of safeguarding and how hiding abuse was most likely condoned by the leader are faced with a dilemma: either their teacher wasn’t enlightened, in which case they have been conned, or enlightenment isn’t what they thought, which can be even more distressing.
Anders, A. (2019). Silencing and Oblivion of Psychological Trauma, Its Unconscious Aspects, and Their Impact on the Inflation of Vajrayāna. An Analysis of Cross-Group Dynamics and Recent Developments in Buddhist Groups Based on Qualitative Data. Religions, 10(11), 622
Becker, E. (1974). The Denial of Death. Souvenir Press.
Bell, S. (2002) ‘Scandals in emerging Western Buddhism.’, in Westward Dharma : Buddhism beyond Asia. Berkeley: University of California Press, pp. 230-242
Garand, M.E., (2013). Sectaire et “inter-dit”. Introduction de la dimension du croire dans l’écoute du dire des personnes ayant vécu une expérience sectaire. Faculté de Théologie et de Sciences des Religions. Université de Montréal, Montréal, p. 423p.