Zen Talk

Is zen a cult

Is Zen a cult

What is a cult

Generally speaking, something is called a cult when the beliefs or practices are outside of the mainstream norms of the religions of the culture you currently live in. In the United States, Buddhism and Zen in some parts of the country is accepted as mainstream, though in other parts it would definitely be considered a cult and possibly persecuted by the locals. So, locally what IS and IS NOT a cult may be subjective.

The word ‘cult’ itself is short for cultus, which means ‘cultivation’. The media has put a negative spin on the word, implying evil deeds and malicious intentions.

There are benign cults and destructive cults

For example, the followers of St. Olaf have beliefs and practices that are not shared with the mainstream religions of the local population, however they provide food banks, shelters for the homeless, and volunteer counselling for any who ask. The community benefits, and the members of St. Olaf are peaceful, healthy and overall happy. St. Olaf would be considered a benign cult.

On the other hand, the followers of Holy Dove who also have beliefs and practices not shared with the mainstream religions of the area, they isolate themselves from the general population, they use predatory unethical means to finance their church, the members are violent when questioned or criticized, and overall the members are unhappy, nervous and suspicious of others. Holy Dove would be considered a destructive cult.

Cult researchers

When an third party is asked to examine a group to determine if its a destructive cult, they look for the following:

  1. Isolation
    1. Members are not allowed to associate with non-group member, or
    2. Members are not allowed to read other materials that are not approved by the group
  2. Behavior/thought control
    1. Members are convinced that if they leave the group that terrible things will happen to them, or
    2. Members believe in the group or the leader is infallible. 
  3. Environment Control
    1. Members are kept in a malnourished and/or sleep deprived state, or
    2. Members are using mind-altering drugs

So, is Zen then a destructive cult?

The answer is, it depends…

The Zen teachings themselves are not destructive, however the methodology and ideals that the group holds may be destructive.

I have visited some Zen Centers and Buddhist organizations here in the USA that I would classify as a destructive cult. I have counseled many people who were involved in a destructive cult, here and abroad, that when I listened to them, their stories indicated that the group running the Zen Center where employing destructive cult tactics.

Am I in a destructive cult?

It’s hard to say if someone is in a evil cult, or if any particular group or leader is indeed using evil cult tactics. Only through interviews, and examinations of the groups records can one make the case, and that can take quite some time depending on how isolated the group is.

For example, Trungpa Rinpoche – a radical Tibetan teacher, ran a destructive cult for years without any criticism or notice from the larger Tibetan/Buddhist communities.  It was only through interviews of the survivors of the Naropa Institute, after Trungpa’s death, did the truth of the horrors committed and abuse came out. I personally listened to the stories of one survivor and was chilled to the bone as he spoke about the horrors and terror that he reigned down in his group.

It may only be Zen/Buddhism in name only

There are some groups that loosely call themselves Buddhist and/or Zen. When one examines their teachings, one notices that the Teacher has elevated themselves to a superior state of being, though the fantastical claims they make.

Typically, the group leader will claim to be Zen or Buddhist (or both), yet insisting that their own writings, lectures, and stories are equal, or have surpassed, the Sutras and all other spiritual writings.

Typically, when examining the teacher and group, one can go down the destructive cult checklist with affirmations.

Zen Evolution, Revolution and Reformation 

So, having said all of that…

One has to keep in mind that the style of Zen as well as of Buddhism does change as needed.

Would have Linji the famous chinese Zen Master in 800 AD, Rinzai Zen in Japanese, have been accused of running a destructive cult with all of his shouting and hitting, and harsh criticism of the Ch’an in China?

I am sure he would have been executed if he had put himself as the Living Flesh-buddha, and his entire works burnt, and his followers killed. However, Linji survived to become a minor school in Zen (The southern school) if only because with examination his criticism were found to be valid, and his methods where to Help Others, not to elevate himself.

Linji always claimed to be ‘The man of no rank’ for he was not elevating himself, nor seeking riches.

Sometimes, it’s just the people involved

There are evil people (psychopaths, sociopaths or masochist) who show up at the Zen centers for their own designs and purposes.

Sometimes these people endear themselves to the teacher, or take on positions of authority with in the center where they can inflict maximum torment on all those round them for their own emotional and psychological needs.  

Sometimes such persons and brought to account for their behavior openly to the members. Of course, this brings up quite the drama where the evil person departs angry and blaming the members for their own bad behavior, or they appeal to the teacher to defend them in-front of the entire membership, and the teacher often does just that because they been swooned by the evil person.

Sometimes it’s just a group of established students, a clique, that feels they are entitled and will often interpret the teachers lectures and talks to mean something totally different that what the teacher actually said. What is sad is when the teacher knows this is happening and does nothing.

FOMO and the freedom of choice

FOMO means ‘Fear Of Missing Out’ and it’s a big reason why people tolerate badly behaving people, because they fear they may miss something that will bring them to the state of Enlightenment.  Yes, it is a silly notion but that fear is very real and powerful for so many, and that is why these destructive cults flourish and these evil people get away with very evil deeds.

In the end, it’s always your choice. You have to ask yourself what benefit there is for staying with evil people or with a group that is going down the destructive cult path.


Non-aligned Zen Teacher currently living in Las Vegas, Nevada USA Youtube Channel Website