Sunday, October 12, 2008


I tried to show this video to the folks that came to the Hill Street Center last weekend. But it didn't work.

This promo concentrates on the sexual stuff. But there's a whole lot more than that going on. And, really, the sex stuff is not even the most interesting or scary aspect as far as I'm concerned. You can find the entire program at the following links:

Part 1

Part 2

I doubt these links will be there for long since I don't think National Geographic authorized them.

The matter of what is and what is not a cult is something that has bugged me for a very long time and will probably continue to bug me for the rest of my life. It's a very key matter to me because of how close I came to joining a very dangerous cult when I was a young spiritual seeker. I've recounted that story so many times regular readers can probably regurgitate it on cue. I even referenced it in the post just below this one. The full story is in my first book Hardcore Zen (follow the link to your left to check it out).

My friend Nina showed me this program a few days ago and my immediate response was to want to burn my kesa and transmission papers, cancel all further classes at Hill Street Center and renounce my status as a monk. I later decided that would be a bit too drastic. But for a good few hours I was thinking hard about it. Especially since people are starting to ask me about doing precepts ceremonies, in which I'm supposed to give them new fake "spiritual names" just like Michael Travesser did with his culties. This kind of thing fills me with a lot of worry.

When I look at a show like this I don't think, "Gosh, look at those weirdos over there. I'm sure glad I'm not like those people!" or even, "Look at that scumbag cult leader. Jeepers, I'm sure glad I'm not like that!" No. I look at these people and I can only see myself on both sides of the equation. It's important, I think, never to see yourself as above or immune to this kind of behavior.

One real important point that often gets lost in examinations of cult behavior is the responsibility of the members of the cult. It's very easy to point fingers at the leader and say he's a sleezebag. But this stuff doesn't just flow in one direction. In order for a cult leader to have power, someone's got to give it to him. It's amazing how willing people are to give up their own power. I've even had people try to give up their power to me -- of all people. Could you find anyone more likely to abuse such power? A good Buddhist teacher will always hand your power right back to you. If you find one who accepts your power, please run away as fast as you can.

Having said that, I have to also say that there are situations where a certain degree of reasonable exchange of power needs to take place. If you live in a monastery or any other form of communal living situation, for example, you need to defer a bit of power to the group and its leadership in order to have things run smoothly. You have to take your shoes off before you step into the zendo, no matter how much you love your brand new Docs. You gotta turn clockwise on your cushion even if you feel deep down in your heart that you just have to turn counter-clockwise.

Everybody talks about the so-called militarism of Japanese Zen. And a bit (not a lot) of that does exist. But because this charge has been leveled so often it's become a cliche, there's a tendency for some people to see everything that happens at a Japanese style Zen monastery or temple as an example of militarism. "Oh my God! They all eat at the same time! So does the army! It's MILITARISM!!" Personally I've never encountered anything I'd call militarism from my teachers or indeed from any teacher or temple I've visited.

At any rate, cults usually work things out so you give up a certain degree of reasonable power at first and only later on are you asked to surrender things that are unreasonable. Clearly giving your wife or daughter to "consummate" with a cult leader who claims to be the Son of God is completely unreasonable, as is being the one who willingly "consummates" with the leader. But we can surmise that this is not how things began. It took a long process to get there.

I can even imagine how it worked from leader Michael Travesser's side. Through a process of skillfully manipulating his thoughts he's convinced himself that he is the Son of God. Yet he finds he wants to get it on with the wives of certain of his parishioners as well as their daughters. This is normal for any human male. I will vouch for that! But the Son of God is not any human male. The Son of God would never have such thoughts, since the Son of God's thoughts are all pure. So Michael has a dilemma. He needs to justify how he can have these thoughts and yet still be the Son of God. If he can't he's got to admit he's not the Son of God. There's a lot riding on this. So he manipulates his thought process again to create a justification for his lust that allows it to be pure. Then he needs to get support for his ideas from the people around him, since their support would legitimize his thinking. He uses the same justifications with them as he has used successfully with himself and voila!

What makes this even worse is that because he believes he's the Son of God and not an ordinary man, he feels he cannot just fantasize about his conquests like a normal guy who lusts after women he shouldn't touch might. He has given his thoughts tremendous power. He feels that he must act upon them. These thoughts aren't just ordinary thoughts. They are the thoughts of the Son of God.

ANYWAY. It's difficult to say exactly where things cross the line from activities and attitudes that constitute legitimate and reasonable giving up of power into the land of cult-like behavior. The whole notion of surrender is highly questionable, I think. I hear that word thrown around in spiritual groups all the time and it always gives me the shivers. As they said in Galaxy Quest, "Never give up! Never surrender!"

Watching this stuff serves to remind me that we can justify absolutely anything with thought. There are no limits. It is vital to understand this. You, and I do mean you, can make anything at all sound reasonable if you twist your brain in just the right way. And yet all of us have a much deeper sense of what is and is not right behavior. This sense is not a matter of thought at all.

This is the sense that will tell you whether what you're dealing with is a cult or not. It's true that all of our major religions, including Buddhism, could have been defined as cults in their early days. It's also true that there are cults based around all of the legitimate religions. Much of any religion's history from its beginnings as a cult to its emergence as a legitimate religion is a process of stripping away its cult-like qualities.

Whatever. I don't have the final answer on this. It's just something I thought was important to share. I'd like to believe Buddhism is immune to cult-dom. But I've seen enough to prove conclusively that it's not. Or maybe I should put that another way. It's possible for a cult to use the phraseology of Buddhism and to call itself "Buddhist." But culty "Buddhism" is not Buddhism at all.


Anonymous said...

1 baby, 1 !!!

Anonymous said...

don't sweat it. throw off the extras if you need to. krishnamurti did it so excellently. so what if you lose some street cred by not following the old patterns. you know what's up!

Al said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Al said...

Great post Brad! Have you read the True Believer by Eric Hoffer? Classic. Easily one of the best books ever.

Anonymous said...

"Legitimate Religion" is an oxymoron!
From my understanding (actually quite limited), Soto Buddhism is a philosophy, and has nothing to do with "spirituality", as there is no such thing as a spirit. We are stuck here in this eternal "now", and I for one have never seen a ghost. Plenty of halucinations, but no ghosts.

Anonymous said...

dude, we are hallucinations unto ourselves.

Master Associate said...

Those videos are very interesting, albeit very scary. I can intellectually understand how somebody gets wrapped up into a cult, but deep down I really just can not fathom how people get suckered into these situations.

Matt said...

yeah, i was gonna throw the "legitimate religion" flag, too. Not sure that's possible...

Nice post! This was a good one.


Anonymous said...

the unsatisfied need for approval is unconscious and often formed in the pre-verbal mind of the child.

Anonymous said...

Jundo, another of Nishijima's Dharma Heirs, writes:

I actually think that the fact that Nishijima Roshi never emphasized the Precepts more is one of the main reasons that so many folks in or around Dogen Sangha are so rude to each other, mean, angry and even sometimes racist.

You have Mike Cross with his racist, anti-Japanese and anti-Jewish comments, you have Brad with the potty mouth and insults and sensitive ego, you have folks who don't speak to each other for years and who fight over all kinds of silly things (whose name goes first on a book), you have other people who hold grudges that go on for ages. It shows something truly disfunctional. It is one of the reasons I had to back away.

Dogen Sangha began to demonstrate all the little internal diseases of any cult, but with one saving grace ... which is that its members were so disorganized, and pulling in so many separate directions, that it could never get itself sufficiently cohesive and organized to be a cult. Thank Buddha! I call it the "cult that might of been" or better "the cult that couldn't shoot straight".

And a major factor in this disfunction, anger, abuse, foul language, gossiping, fighting, ego and clinging was ... a deep misunderstanding of the role of the Precepts. I think.

I don't hide this opinion. It makes me sad.

Gassho, Jundo


I'm not talking about our Treeleaf Sangha, cause we might not be right for everyone. We might be doing it wrong too. Of course, not everyone appreciates the same things.

Instead, I just want to talk about which kind of Buddhist teacher I would listen to.

First, there is a teacher with a brilliant theory about Buddhism, but he seems angry, upset, edgy, short tempered and holds grudges.

Second, there is a teacher with a brilliant theory about Buddhism who seems at peace with himself and the world, alive, wise, level headed, long tempered and forgiving.

Personally, I would doubt the first teacher. In fact, even if the first teacher is teaching what "the Buddha taught" or what "Master Dogen taught" ... and even if the second teacher is completely wrong, I will go with the second guy through and through. Why? His life and way of living is all the proof I need.

Dogen Sangha had/has both types of folks in it. Unfortunately, sometimes I think the first type predominates, but the second type is well represented too. First among them is Nishijima Roshi who, while not perfect, is a beautiful human being.

But there was so much of the first type that something is/was very very wrong.

Gassho, Jundo

Let me clarify the point I was trying to make about Nishijima Roshi. He himself is a very gentle and sweet man who naturally lives in accordance with the Precepts. It is his natural temperament, I think.

So, I believe he naturally assumed that all his students would naturally start living the same way just by sitting Zazen. Well, you just have to look around Dogen Sangha, at how so many of his students behave to each other ... with the anger, abuse, foul language, gossiping, in-fighting, resentments, feuding, etc. ... to know that the theory is/was too optimistic.

Some of Nishijima Roshi's students don't engage in ugliness, but so many do to greater or lesser degrees. It may show that something is very wrong with the idea that right behavior "naturally arises out of Zazen". Cause it doesn't for most folks.

Gassho, Jundo

Hi Peter,

Jundo, I understand that you've had personal differences and with Brad Warner and Mike Cross.

No, Pete, these were not "personal differences". There was and is a cancer growing in and around parts of Nishijima Roshi's Sangha, a sickness of anger, abuse, foul language, gossiping, in-fighting, resentment, feuding, greed, egotism, distrust, basic inabilities to act with mutual respect. Folks can't even find a moment of time and common ground to talk to each other! And that's among many "Dharma Heirs"!!

I shall never look the other way, I shall speak out against it forever. I shall not pretend that the cancer does not exist.

I hope your family is well. Give me a call when you have a moment for a cup of tea.

Gassho, Jundo

Anonymous said...

This doc may have been made by the same guys who did the straight edge program on Nat Geo. Same sort of follower mentality going on in that "sub-culture" as this dude's god cult.

Straight Edge doc. pt.1:

And for the Anon who posted Jundo's remarks, I happen to enjoy the silliness and shit talkin' on Brad's blog. It's kinda like Bill Hick's "People Who Hate People" club.

Fuck you vey much :)

Jinzang said...

In my experience, people involved with Zen are scrupulous and conscientious, sometimes too much so. They don't require much talk on morality or the precepts, though certainly there's nothing wrong with mentioning them.

Brad's anger seems to come from a different place. I noticed when I was growing up Catholic that the nuns had a problem with anger as well. My theory is too much control, they tried too hard to be good and the repressed emotions seeped out as anger.

I can't say whether this has anything to do with Brad, as I don't know him well and have never met him. I just wanted to note that there are reasons for anger other than libertinism, so I think Jundo is drawing a faulty conclusion.

Anonymous said...

Dear anonymous poster of Jundo's comments,

Jundo posted here specifically asking people not to re-post his words out of context.

Anonymous said...

Jundo can control what people say on his blog. Brad lets people say whatever they want to here. Even if it is ignorant and anonymous.

Anonymous said...

I really admire Brad for letting people say what they feel they need to say here. Brad's way appeals to my idealistic side. But I admire Jundo also.

Anonymous said...

Now, like most Brooklynites, I'm a skeptic. My idea of a self-help book is Willie Sutton's book about bank robbery. So I approached "Big Mind, Big Heart" with a jaundiced eye, expecting snake oil. But I found it compelling and life-changing.

-Dennis Hamill : Brooklyn Daily News

Now i'm not Dennis, but, I've looked into Big Mind a bit, and it doesn't seem as bad as Brad makes it out to be. But I've looked into Brad, and he's not as bad as some People make him out to be either. Brad tries to teach something through angry punk rockishness, and Genpo tries to teach something by looking at various aspects of the mind. Two western approaches, two teachers. A good variety of perspectives.

Sorry it's off topic, but it seems to be a running topic.

-Jon Anonymous

Anonymous said...

Brad, Genpo, Jundo:
Study all three without judgement. There is something in each approach. No need to pick a tribe.

Anonymous said...

gosh.. i don't know about all that.. but, those cult chicks are hot!

Anonymous said...

Thank you so much for the National Geographic links, my play kept stalling, but still, it was well worth inching through it all.

The definition of cult given in the beginning--something about any group whose following of views or a leader are deemed 'unorthodox' by the mainstream.
Well....that would be quite a number of folks now!

I actually don't ascribe to that definition. I see it more as a gradation.

There are 'regular' families, mom dad and kids which function in 'cult like' fashion. There are abused women, in a zombie state of being unable to view their batterer in any other than 'cultish' terms.

We human beings are immensely shapeless and maleable (the word 'plastic' comes to mind, but has the connotation of disingenuous and that's not what I'm trying to capture in description here--most cultest speak with fervour, with great sincerity--it is more an 'as if-ness'. It appears they have poured themselves into the as-if-ness of devotion. In a way this mirrors/matches the leader ' has also poured him/herself into the living semblance of (whatever it is they say they have now become).
I was on friendly terms with one such person who had gone to India and lived in an ashram and had come back and mimicked what she appeared to perceive was a 'blissed out state.'

I think we do various levels of this all the time.
We go to a party, we don't want to be rude, we 'appear' to be interested in what someone is saying, we 'appear' to be having a good time. We laugh 'as if' we enjoyed the joke.
We go to a party, we don't want to be there, we 'appear' to be bored by everything, offended by what people say...we argue with our partner who 'forced' us to go when we didn't want to and can't stand 'those people.'

I remember in college going with my college love on a field trip with his engineering students. It was some kind of chemical plant. Guys in white coats, white hard hats. Machines, lights, knobs, gauges.
I was exhausted when I got home: it was so hard to stand around and 'look interested' when there was absolutely nothing. Of course that was before zazen by about 10 years. After facing a wall for a while, this stuff would have been highly entertaining.

This cult stuff, this handing over of my mind, my emotions, etc. is more a matter of degree. Human beings are capable of a range of behaviors. The more affiliations we belong to, the more we can see our own broad interests and get to know the range of possibilities we entertain: our hobbies, our affiliations are little markers.
Think about all the places you visit on your computer, which is not a full account, but is a sample of explorations of your mind's interests.
How we behave in social settings needs to follow somewhat a similar path as our own cells which make us up. Our cells have a range of functionality: they must stay within a certain portion of the range so that our body as a whole functions smoothly.
How groupings of people in society interact ends up needing to do the same thing: find a way to function smoothly together: preserve homeostasis is what this action is called in the body, preserve harmony is what this is called in society.

I was young and a 'truth seeker,' I was in a lot of emotional pain of such an intensity I thought I was going to die from it. I think I could easily have become part of a cult. I didn't encounter anyone, and I also always opted to 'take life straight' no chaser. I always took the pain.
But not everyone can 'take the pain,' or they have their own way of 'taking the pain,' by making someone else responsible or something else responsible.

Our human nature/the way the human mind/human emotions work, the way personalities are structured, the way certain types of experiences occuring at certain critical formative junctures impact the being we are. It's a roll of the big dice--the cosmic dice!
So, through no fault of my own, I am who I am.
What would I do if I started to believe that God was talking to me and making me messiah! What would I do if I was stricken down, pinned to the ground and God made it clear I was to have sex with my daughter in law!
Well, chances are good (as "Question Authority" was my approach to most things, even though I was an exemplary model student in elementary and high school years). I was an odd hybrid of questioning and compliant. I guess I might defy God and not have sex with my son's wife. I guess I might defy God and not lie naked with children of my congregation.
Many people in the act of defying their God have done similar things.
But then, I'm a person who is able to 'take the pain.'
What happens when your own brain is out of whack and you can't tell which way is up? What then?
Well, isn't this why commandments were handed down? Isn't this the time to contemplate those precepts. Isn't this why laws are on the books?
For just in case you lose it and you have no idea of right and wrong anymore--isn't this what jails and mental institutions were built for? Those who are out of the range of socially acceptable behaviors?

There are times when we subsume our inclinations to better serve a whole. This happens during sesshin, for example. It happens in the workplace, it happens on the road as we drive, it happens in families. Even a unit as small as a couple: just one other person and you: who parks their car in front/in back, which side of the bed to sleep on, who showers first, etc. etc. are based not only on each persons proclivities but also on their wider connection/affiliations to outside.

I think it is very very good to study the mind.
I think it is excellent to give the mind as much time to be thinking non-thinking as possible.

I know for myself this 'as if-ness' behavior when it has arisen in myself or when I experience what I think I perceive of it in others gets my attention every time.

Anonymous said...

"M.D.'s even put their fingers in women's sexual parts".. This is a very good point made by Mr. Bent. I love it that his last name is Bent.

Anonymous said...

The cult leader guy bears an uncanny resemblance to Michael Palin.

Moon Face Buddha said...

Interesting and informative post Brad.

Anonymous said...

If you can see it in yourself you can stop it. The real [and common] danger is when you don't want to see it.

Unknown said...

Any organization can develope features of a cult, whether it's a religious organization, political party, commercial company,
country or a neighborhood knitting circle. The leader garners to much influence over the lives of their followers and, just like Warner said, begins to invent excuses to do what they want, whatever it is.

I think that's what the certain bloke meant that he said "price of freedom is eternal vigilance". Of watching that your boss does not gather too much power.

Allison said...

Brad, you should see the movie "Holy Smoke" with Kate Winslet.

I was involved with a similar person when I was a teenager. I don't know if a cult of 3 or 4 folks can officially be a cult, but I fell for the most incredible stories hook, line, and sinker. It took years and a lot of pain to pull myself out of it. And the guy still wants to be my "friend." (Luckily I haven't run into him in a few years.)

It just happens when a manipulative person finds a naive, malleable young spirit with VERY low self-esteem. It's an art form. And some people are very good at it. They think it will raise their own low self-esteem, but I never saw any good come out of it. Just sex, drugs, and rock & roll.

Weasel Tracks said...

Anonymous said:

"Legitimate Religion" is an oxymoron!

I suspect you have too narrow a conception and experience of religion.

From my understanding (actually quite limited), Soto Buddhism is a philosophy, and has nothing to do with "spirituality", as there is no such thing as a spirit. We are stuck here in this eternal "now", and I for one have never seen a ghost. Plenty of halucinations, but no ghosts.

Some of those were just ghosts pretending to be "halucinations."

Anonymous said...


I know this isn't really contributing to the conversation but, Kudos on the Bill Hicks reference. That man was a fucking American hero if there ever was one. We could really use him in our current times.

Blake said...

It's not often someone quotes Galaxy Quest. "By Grabthar's hammer, we live to tell the tale."

Uku said...

Great post, Brad. Well said.

Anonymous said...

I think that Brad should try to lower the amount of energy he puts into comparing himself to others. Indeed he is different to some wacky cult leader, but he is not different in comparing himself to others.

He says he IS the Messiah and other people are not. Brad says he IS not a wacky cult leader but the other guy is.

What Brad does is often right, and sometimes wrong, like many good people. We should accept other views without the urge to change it. Indeed, we should protect people from evil. But some people hate Soto Zen because you "can't" move during Zazen.

Terrible people are doing terrible stuff. I feel bothered though that Brad is so bothered he says he would like to burn his kesa.

I hope that he regains his strong commitment of the past.


Anonymous said...

"Those video are interesting.."

Fuck that those videos were boring as hell...


vent said...

Anonymous said...
gosh.. i don't know about all that.. but, those cult chicks are hot!

you're right. I think it's that glazed over, deer in headlights look.

End times = Good times!

Anonymous said...

I got your buddhist cult right here ... -
Site dedicated to the teachings of Dr. Frederick P. Lenz, Rama, and American Buddhism. ... copyright © The Frederick P. Lenz Foundation for American Buddhism ...

Erin Hoffman said...

I think I would argue that a cult comes into being when there is total surrender of choice (and therefore responsibility) from one or multiple people to another or multiple other people. Some religions can then also be cults, though you could split hairs semantically and say that societal acceptance differentiates a cult from religion, but the bottom line is dogma.

What I struggle with is the need for tradition and ritual which do seem to run counter to individual choice and searching, because clearly for the transfer of knowledge and experience, so that we're not merely retreading the same history as if every experience were truly unique and new, there is a need for tradition. It's the issue of doing something without questioning it, as usual, that is the problem. I've never seen a cult that genuinely encouraged doubt.

Unknown said...

"It's important, I think, never to see yourself as above or immune to this kind of behavior."

erm, bullshit. It's easy to be both be contemptuous of, those who are not able to find the courage to be themselves and instead seek to find an identity in a crowd. It's also very easy to decide not to need that, thus rendering yourself immune to it.

Stop hand waving about what is and isn't a cult, stop wasting your time with mystical nonsense and go out into the world and enjoy your life. Ignore those who try to tell you they know what you should do, they're idiots.

Wise people have figured out a lot of truths about life and some people seek to pass those on. I say it's best to muddle through and find your own truth about life by living it. If you spend your decades in a monastery looking for inner peace you're still coming out in a box like everyone else and all you will have done is sat on your ass for 50 years. That is a terrible waste of existence, because it's not existence, it's more like a perpetual training for something that will never happen.

Be! Now! Tomorrow is too late!

Rick Matz said...

"Bluto" would be a great spiritual name.

Mike said...

What is the difference between a fake spiritual name and a real one?

If I choose to call myself Mike or John-boy, which is less valid?


PS: Loved Hardcore Zen, was one of the first books that turned me on to Zen.

Anonymous said...

zen buddhism isn't militarist because it has a rigid practice schedule, although it's adoption in feudal japan by soldiers (among others) probably didn't hurt.

the history of militarism in Buddhism goes back at least to Chinese monasteries who needed to form police to protect themselves from bandits (from which we get the Shaolin martial tradition).

In the feudal warring states period of Japan Buddhist monks were a military force during some of the regime conflicts.

During WWII presumably at least some of the Buddhists were ok with the imperial ambitions of Japan (probably as much as Christians were/are ok with the imperial ambitions of the US or Britian?).

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