Dr Michelle Haslam
Buddhist cultic groups are perhaps more likely than other religious groups to draw a vulnerable person in. The explosion of the mindfulness movement and meditation ‘on prescription’ often leads people to develop an interest in exploring Buddhist practices and philosophy. The self-help movement, combined with lack of awareness of cultic dynamics and Buddhist abuse, is leading more and more vulnerable people to recruitment. Hidden and whitewashed histories of Buddhist abuse, poor safeguarding and lack of trauma informed meditation are leading people to be harmed. The #metoo movement has now hit Buddhism, and adverse effects of meditation are now being acknowledged. In this article I mainly draw on examples from The New Kadampa Tradition and Triratna because these are the largest most prominent groups, and the ones that I have experience with.
The explosion of the mindfulness movement
Mindfulness has been portrayed as a panacea for many difficulties and inadequacies in social media for several years now. This phenomenon has led some people to refer to the movement as ‘McMindfulness’. I think most people can acknowledge now that the movement got a little out of hand. Companies learnt that calling a product ‘mindful’ made it more likely to sell. You can even buy ‘mindful’ shower gel, ‘mindful’ protein shake, and ‘mindful’ watches (that don’t even tell the time!). For a comprehensive review of how the mindfulness movement took off, see here and here.
According to Van Dam et al (2017) ‘misinformation and poor methodology associated with past studies of mindfulness may lead public consumers to be harmed, misled and disappointed’. Of particular concern is the fact that less than 25% of meditation trials actively assess adverse effects (Goyal et al., 2014; Jonsson, Alaie, Parling, & Arnberg, 2014). Many people do continue to report anecdotally that mindfulness meditation does help increase their mental ‘clarity’ and reduces their stress levels as an added benefit. However it is likely that people do not report adverse effects very frequently in person or on social media either. Willoughby Britton, researcher and clinical psychologist discusses this further in a Tricycle article here . People have reported that they have felt like mindfulness has been prescribed to them almost like antidepressants. Psychologists Dr Miguel Faria and Catherine Wilkhom discuss this in the book The Buddha Pill. This means that people with complex trauma that has not been addressed are often recommended to begin a mindfulness practice which could cause them adverse effects, perhaps with little psychoeducation on trauma and trauma-sensitive mindfulness.
The mindfulness movement is likely at some point or another to lead a person to become curious about its roots in Buddhist practices. Some people argue convincingly that mindfulness without morals or ethics could make us a mindful narcissist or sociopath. This argument makes us vulnerable to seeking out a group within which to study the roots of mindfulness – making us more likely to be recruited into a Buddhist cultic group.
The search for happiness, positive psychology and obsessions with self-help
The quest for happiness, and enlightenment, has drawn people to religion for centuries. Despite difficulties in defining and measuring happiness, we continue to be duped into thinking we should be happier than we are. Of course, if you are depressed, anxious or suffering with post-traumatic stress it’s natural to want to feel better. Despite the potential side effects of achieving a permanent state of patient acceptance of everything (like, getting yourself run over) we continue to be duped into believing we should be working towards transcendence of aversion and anxiety. This video by Russ Harris explains how we can get into a struggle with our anxiety via this idea.
The idea that we need community to practice, but also solitary spiritual retreats?
Jon Kabat-Zinn recommends practicing within a meditation ‘sangha’ or community in this (rather evangelical, in my opinion) foreword for a mindfulness special edition of Current Opinion in Psychology:
I wonder whether Western people also can get hooked into the idea of going off alone like Buddha apparently did, with the ridiculous idea that we can cope completely on our own, then come back and tell everyone stories about how spiritually impressive we are and what spiritual realisations we achieved. Or judge them silently for their mundane, worldly lives and all the pointless objects they accumulated while we were gone.
Sam Harris argues in Waking Up that Buddhist groups are not worth joining, however he does not speak about cultic environments and the potential damage to your health and relationships. Some Buddhist groups encourage spiritual bypassing of emotional pain through thought reform, meaning that they aim to focus on ‘virtuous’ or positive thoughts all the time (The New Kadampa Tradition) or suggest we should be aiming to destroy aversion altogether. In the book What makes you not a Buddhist? Dzongsar Kyentse Rimpoche points out that if we did actually achieve what we believe to be enlightenment we probably would not be able to interact with other people in any meaningful grounded way and would appear dissociated or just plain ‘crazy’. (I met many people in The New Kadampa Tradition who appeared this way). You might be living in a ‘Pureland’ of virtuous thoughts and hallucinations of Buddhas, but you probably wouldn’t have many friends. Friendship, intimacy and authenticity are some of our fundamental needs and we can’t transcend them, as much as we would like to (especially following a betrayal or heartbreak). Board member of The Open Minds Foundation and ex-scientologist Jon Atack discusses his views on this in a video here.
Overlaps between Western psychology, neuroscience and Buddhist beliefs
Cognitive behavioural therapy suggests that practicing more positive thoughts helps improve mood and therefore to combat depression. (Although it is important to bear in mind that research trials for CBT were given more funding due to its short term nature, and also that it is more difficult to get null findings published). Some people do report anecdotally that CBT helped them to manage negative automatic thoughts and to improve their self-esteem. Positive psychology however can make us vulnerable to believing that we should aim to completely eliminate painful thoughts and therefore painful feelings. Whilst it is disempowering when a person entirely blames external circumstances for their suffering, it could be argued that the self-help movement got a bit out of control. Sometimes we blame negative thoughts located solely in the sufferers mind as the problem without recognising toxic elements in their environment, relationships, and the many other systems within which they live. There are many quotes and memes on social media drawing upon Buddhist ideas that our minds (and therefore we) are entirely responsible for any suffering. In its worst form, this argument can be used to claim that there is no need to recognise trauma, campaign for social change, and no need to leave toxic environments.
There are many books and podcasts now that blur the lines between Buddhist practices and neuroscience. Many Buddhist ideas are considered to be in line with quantum physics, for example ‘emptiness’, ‘dependent arising’ or ‘interconnectedness’. This means that athiests are often curious about Buddhist ideas and study Buddhism without wishing to label themselves as a religious Buddhist. Many books on recovery from addiction draw upon Buddhist ideas, adapting the 12 step recovery model. Many authors are both therapists and self-identify as Buddhists as order members of Triratna.
Alliances between Buddhist sects and secular mindfulness teachers
Breathworks, the biggest mindfulness teacher training provider in the UK, was set up by three order members of FWBO/Triratna. This link is not made clear in my opinion, although order members are named under their ordained names on supervisors lists. This means it is likely that mindfulness teachers in training with Breathworks will come into contact with Triratna at some point, even if just through the use of the same venues. They may be encouraged to attend a Triratna centre through meeting order members through Breathworks. I have been reassured that Breathworks training courses are entirely secular however (and rather expensive, in my opinion).
Kabat-Zinn states that Zen mind is ‘a breath of fresh air—carrying the implication that it is the practice itself, in concert with skillful and compassionate teaching, often non-verbal, and the benefits of a sangha/community of practitioners, that catalyzes realization and awakening, beyond the conventional forms, sacred texts, and orthodoxies, wonderful as they may be within their own cultural context..’ Zen Buddhism has a long history of severe abuse within groups (Kabat-Zinn, 2019).
Positive prejudice towards Buddhism
Many Westerners hold positive views towards Buddhism as a religion, believing that its simply about peace, love and compassion. Many Westerners say things like ‘I’m not religious but if I was, I would be a Buddhist’. This means they are not likely to be on the look out for signs of cultic dynamics or spiritual abuse. The #metoo movement has only recently spread to Buddhist organisations.
Lack of education about cult awareness
There is still a lack of education on cultic environments and coercive control for young people. Even as a psychologist in my late twenties I didn’t understand the potential dangers. Most people hold a view that they wouldn’t be susceptible to a cult, but anyone can be drawn in with the right vulnerabilities and exposure to the group, especially during a time of transition.
Deception and recruitment
Hidden names and name changes
‘We are THE Buddhist/Meditation Centre of this city’
Buddhist centres are often named after the place only e.g. ‘London Buddhist Centre’. This means that it is not immediately obvious that this is actually Triratna which was previously named FWBO. Naming the centre after the location also suggests that it is ‘The’ Buddhist centre of the city, almost as if the movement owns the city, preventing other groups from becoming as well known.
The New Kadampa Tradition do not mention that they are the New Kadampa Tradition when they advertise for working volunteers on sites such as Workaway. This means that working visitors and their families are unlikely to realise they are going to stay at a New Kadampa Tradition centre unless they do further research. I would argue that this is done deliberately so that people are less likely to find the testimonies of abuse online.
‘We teach meditation’
The meditation centre might claim that it teaches mindfulness or meditation when it actually teaches thought stopping, thought reform and dissociation (The New Kadampa Tradition). Despite this, their centres are named ‘Meditation Centre’ instead of ‘Buddhist centre’, in order to draw more Western people in.
‘We are modern’
The New Kadampa Tradition claim they are modern Buddhism, but ex-members acknowledge that there is nothing modern about the group. Triratna do come across as more modern, and the minimalistic décor at Triratna centres is likely to be more comfortable for secular, younger people.
‘This is THE path to awareness’
Mindfulness is actually very difficult to define (see Van Dam et al., 2017 for further explanation on the problems of definition). Buddhist definitions are different to secular definitions. There is no one way to teach someone to become more aware, more conscious, or more ‘mindful’. There is a risk that those keen to learn about mindfulness who attend Buddhist classes will be told that the methods recommended by the guru are THE way to mindfulness or awareness. I observed this kind of language within both The New Kadampa Tradition and Triratna. Even secular meditation teachers can fall into this trap, attached to the way in which their own teacher has taught them.
‘We are Buddhism’
These groups teach the ideology of their teacher. NKT practitioners are known to talk as if kadam dharma is the only ‘pure’ ‘true’ version of the dharma, when in fact it does not even include the Four Noble Truths or mindfulness of the body. Many members report being encouraged not to read books by other Buddhist authors, and Kelsang Gyatso banned all books that were not written by himself in the bookshops. Sangharakshita, the founder of Triratna, told male disciples that having sex with him was helping them achieve spiritual realisations by helping them reduce the likelihood they would get caught in neurotic relationships with women. This doesn’t mean that he knew nothing about Buddhism of course, however many members have reported that this idea did filter down through the teachings and the order and has affected some men’s ability to maintain healthy relationships with women. One can only assume based on this that the dharma has been distorted in other ways to serve the guru.
‘We understand and can help with mental health difficulties’
The organisation could also claim it will help you overcome your depression/anxiety/stress (The New Kadampa Tradition). For further analysis of this misleading advertising please see ‘Potential psychological and physical harm through involvement with The New Kadampa Tradition’.
Buddhist groups are known to have little understanding of how trauma affects the brain and body. This means that those who have trauma may be practicing meditation without an understanding of their trauma or grounding and self-soothing techniques. There is therefore a risk that they traumatise themselves further if they struggle in silence with flashbacks for example during group meditation sessions. No contraindications or adaptations for people with acute trauma symptoms are given. Within cultic groups that actually do teach mindfulness meditation (rather than self-hypnosis and thought control), there still remains a lack of awareness of trauma in led meditation sessions. Whilst mindfulness can be a helpful tool in enhancing awareness and self-regulation, there also can be adverse effects that are very rarely mentioned. High levels of self-focused attention have been associated with psychopathology such as negative affect (Ingram, 1990; Mor & Winquist, 1992) anxiety, dissociation, substance misuse and decreased pain threshold (Eisenlohr-Moul et al., 2012; Evans et al., 2014; Sahdra et al., 2017). In the context of Buddhist meditation these include flashbacks, dissociation and depersonalisation (Lindahl, Fisher, Cooper, Rosen, & Britton, 2017). Adverse effects are likely to be under reported as many researchers have not asked about them, and participants do not tend to spontaneously report these to meditation teachers. This means that people are not sufficiently warned that they may experience adverse effects such as alterations in their perception of reality or sense of self. It is likely that upon disclosing these adverse effects that they might be told that these are signs of progression on the ‘spiritual path’. Survivors of The New Kadampa Tradition in particular (which practices visualisations, thought control and magical thinking) sometimes report severe dissociation, emotional repression, hallucinations, and paranoia. No studies have been conducted however these symptoms are frequently reported in testimonies.
Adapting mindfulness meditation to those with trauma symptoms would involve educating people on what trauma symptoms are and how to respond to them skilfully to minimise risk of retraumatising themselves in the silence. Mindfulness meditation can also be adapted to those with trauma by offering different anchor points for attention. For example, a person with acute trauma symptoms may find focusing on their breath or their core more distressing than focusing on their hands and feet, or sounds.
‘For people who’ve experienced trauma, mindfulness meditation can actually end up exacerbating symptoms of traumatic stress. When asked to pay focused, sustained attention to their internal experience, trauma survivors can find themselves overwhelmed by flashbacks and heightened emotional arousal. I’ve met survivors who, despite their best intentions, have ended up feeling disoriented, distressed and humiliated for somehow making things worse. The power of meditation thrusts survivors directly into the heart of wounds that often require more than mindful awareness to heal’ (Treleaven, 2018).
Interestingly, Breathworks, which was set up by three Triratna order members, do offer an online trauma sensitive mindfulness masterclass, but it does not appear that Triratna meditation teachers are required to complete this training in order to lead meditations at the present time.
Buddhist groups are known to recommend meditation for all types of difficulties. The New Kadampa Tradition, a more extremist high-demand group, believe that all suffering is created by our ‘self-cherishing mind’ and has nothing to do with external conditions, abusive experiences or trauma. The New Kadampa Tradition teach practices that encourage dissociation and spiritual bypassing of emotional pain and trauma reactions. This would exacerbate trauma symptoms further, with the groups ‘rejoicing’ in this ‘overcoming’ of emotional pain rewarding this behaviour. For more details see ‘The emptiness of trauma in The New Kadampa Tradition’.
Given that most people have had traumatic experiences of some kind, but those in contact with mental health services even more so, it is highly likely that by ‘prescribing’ mindfulness meditation healthcare professionals are putting traumatised people at risk of entering cultic environments that are not trauma informed. Furthermore, some people report that perceiving they have ‘failed’ at meditation due to poor concentration adds to the feeling of inadequacy they were already experiencing as someone with post-traumatic stress symptoms in a society that often stigmatises and pathologises people for this.
Members of cultic groups are known to recruit new members, both directly and indirectly. They may not be aware that they are doing this. However they are often instructed to pay extra attention to newcomers, and to recommend the organisation to friends and family. Flattery is often used and gift-giving is common, an experience that survivors later identify as ‘love-bombing’. Arguments that individuals in Buddhist groups have been known to use to encourage attendance are below:
‘The rest of life/the world is meaningless/capitalistic/worldly/degenerate’
Buddhist groups often suggest that meditation, training your mind, or spiritual friendship is more meaningful than activities that people engage in the rest of the time. I heard people talk like this in both the NKT and Triratna. This is a black and white way of discriminating between Buddhist and non-Buddhist life and activities. Activities outside of the group are often considered less spiritual, not Buddhist, or somehow more ‘deluded’. For those who struggle with capitalism and narcissism in everyday life, this can be confusing. The group believes that it is less capitalistic and narcissistic when in fact it may be preoccupied with bringing in new members or making money in order to keep the centres running and to expand. Group members often talk about compassion and unconditional love, but survivors later report that they found that the love they received from the group was entirely dependent on being part of the group or at least holding a positive view of it.
‘We’re on THE spiritual path’
The suggestion that there is a spiritual path that will lead to enlightenment obviously hooks many people in to meditation and further exploration of the practices and ideology of the group. At first, people probably won’t admit to you that they believe they have permanently achieved certain spiritual realisations. Further down the line they may start telling you how spiritually advanced or wise they think they are becoming (people told me this in both the NKT and Triratna). Their behaviour may not match up with their words, but because of ‘crazy wisdom’ ideas, hierarchy and lack of safeguarding it may be difficult to discuss this with anyone.
‘This is your spiritual home’
Senior teachers have been observed to use emotionally loaded language to suggest that the Buddhist centre is your spiritual home. If people feel lonely, unloved or have complex attachment trauma, this is likely to lead to dependency.
Hidden or whitewashed histories of abuse and exploitation
Many people are unaware of the abuse histories within Buddhist groups and are often shocked to hear that this includes sexual abuse. It is difficult for victims of abuse to come forward due to difficulties in labelling their experience as abuse. Many of the teachings are abuse enabling (for example ‘its all in your mind’, ‘all of the teachers actions are perfect’). ‘Crazy wisdom’ and ‘wrathful compassion’ are ideas that have been used to abuse people in the name of spiritual development. Tahlia Newland speaks of her difficulties in identifying Sogyal Rinpoche’s abuse due to these beliefs in a video here.
There are now many testimonies available online of experiences of abuse and trauma resulting from involvement with Buddhist cultic groups. For a comprehensive article on abuse in Tibetan Buddhism and the subsequent denials and whitewashing see here. Senior members are known to hide the history of abuse from other members and the general public, and then to whitewash it once it is exposed. Tenzin Peljor’s Buddhism Controversies website also links to many testimonies across Buddhist cultic groups. The comments sections are also worth reading.
Character assassination of whistleblowers
The character assassination and demonization of whistleblowers serves the function of discrediting their testimonies and opinions (DARVO: Deny, Attack, Reverse Victim and Offender). This is also often how perpetrators react in 1:1 abusive relationships. Due to the teachings however, which can sometimes be used to suggest that suffering is purely created by the mind, it is even easier to dismiss whistleblowers of Buddhist abuse as simply lacking mental ‘clarity’, spiritually inadequate, ungrateful or ‘deluded’.
Mark Dunlop has written about how he was character assassinated as mentally unstable (‘cracking up’) by order members (see www.buddhism-controversy-blog.com and www.ex-cult.org). Tahlia Newland speaks of her perspective on Rigpa’s DARVO response in her book ‘Fallout: Recovery from Tibetan Buddhism’. Senior NKT members have threatened the livelihoods and safety of ex-members who have spoken publicly. Most of these threats remain confidential in order to protect the victim. They threatened author Gary Beesley with legal action should he publish this. They also threatened the media and staff at Inform, an independent charity that collates information about cultic groups, with legal action. Senior NKT emailed my workplace pretending to be a fellow concerned psychologist the day after my psychological analysis went viral. They then threatened me and my workplace with legal action should I release the defamation email. Following this, they set up an entire defamation website under my name using this same fake identity, claiming that I am too mentally unstable for my analysis to be trusted, claiming any trauma caused by involvement with the NKT was ‘minimal’, and that I was fired for gross misconduct.
Lack of safeguarding
Buddhist cultic groups are known for lack of safeguarding. Religious organisations that are registered charities are not regulated by any external body other than The Charity Commission. It seems consistent that Buddhist groups only implement safeguarding policies and procedures in order to save their own reputations when they are exposed by the media. Those that do implement safeguarding policies and procedures appoint senior ordained members whom by nature revere the leader and are invested in the continuation of the movement (Triratna).
Some groups train their meditation teachers and meet regularly to review how they go about this (Triratna). The New Kadampa Tradition allows General Programme teachers with no training, background checks or supervision.
Potential resulting trauma
Survivors of all these groups report similarities in their resulting complex trauma. Themes include:
- difficulties trusting their own perception of reality and intuition
- dissociation, derealisation and depersonalisation
- hallucinations (when visualisations were part of their practice)
- trauma bonding to the group and the guru
- fear of leaving, negative karma
- grief and feelings of betrayal
- paranoia (towards the group, and deities if the group practices magical thinking)
- a more disorganised attachment style than they had prior to recruitment
- symptoms of ‘narcissistic abuse syndrome’
No studies have yet been published however these symptoms are reported repeatedly in the testimonies that people do feel safe enough to release publicly. For those who were seriously spiritually abused, some report that this felt like ‘soul rape’. Whistleblowers are likely to have experienced further trauma as a result of this process.
Even if the individual does not identify as someone who has experienced abuse or adverse effects of meditation, there are many other potential risks to your health and relationships. Ex-members of all kinds of cultic groups report disorganised attachment styles that they believe were exacerbated by their involvement with the group. Studies which investigate attachment styles pre and post cult do not exist however. Buddhist groups in particular which teach renunciation and non-attachment, coupled with spiritual friendship, are likely to disrupt secure attachment styles. Mark Dunlop writes about the effect of his practice within FWBO on his attachment style on www.ex-cult.org. Those who came to the group with an attachment difficulty are more likely to suffer further attachment trauma upon leaving. Not everyone who leaves will develop trauma however and some walk away easily.
What can we do about this?
According to cult expert Janja Lalich (Are we all cult members now?, 2019), it takes a national movement to fight a national cult. Therefore, it takes an international movement to fight an international cult. Whilst it isn’t possible to eliminate cults completely due to our deep seated need for a sense of belonging and meaning, we can warn people of the potential dangers. There is nothing we can do to completely ‘cult proof’ people however the more information that people have available to them the better.
Due to the likelihood that the recommendation to practice mindfulness and meditation may lead a person to seek out a Buddhist meditation class, it is my opinion that when recommending mindfulness practices healthcare professionals should actively warn people to do their research and read testimonies before attending. In my opinion if we don’t do this we are in danger of sending vulnerable people straight into a cultic environment.
We can help educate vulnerable people by spreading information about cultic dynamics and coercive control. We can help highlight testimonies of abuse and challenge those who try to silence whistleblowers. We can help combat the wish for a permanent state of enlightenment by reminding each other that we aren’t supposed to be happy all the time or to be able to patiently accept everything. We could also moderate the ‘McMindfulness’ movement by reminding ourselves and others that mindfulness and meditation is not the cure for all our problems or our intergenerational trauma.
There is no cure for the wonderfully confusing and frequently emotionally painful condition of being human.
If you believe that anything in this article is incorrect, you can let me know in the comments section. I may respond to thoughtful comments but no longer respond to NKT members who use this forum to character assassinate me as mentally unstable or spiritually inadequate.
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