Cult Classics vs. Cult Survivor Literature: What Will Your Spiritual Reading Be Now?

Stories of abuse and betrayal tremble beneath the veneer of spiritual groups. Silently. For decades.

The veneer functions like money does in the Epstein world to write the laws, conceal the truth, and dispose of the evidence. Spiritual groups don’t have Epstein-level money, but they have other shiny objects to distract and confuse. They have stories of extraordinary men, spiritual transformations, and a coming enlightened age.

One type of question I often field is “what makes the Jois story a yoga story?” or: “What makes the Rigpa story a story about Buddhism?” I counter the deflection of this question by saying “It’s true: these are rape culture and high-demand group stories.”

Then I add: “But it’s important that we see how they play out in environments in which they are explicitly not meant to happen: places where vulnerable people come to be protected from abuse.”

But there’s another reason I believe stories of spiritual abuse are important to investigate and understand. In some cases, the group has an outsize impact upon the broader culture, usually through having found a way to conceal its origins, manage its image, and secularize and popularize its techniques.

I’m not talking about groups like Scientology, which unduly influence celebrities who carry a lot of social power, but which also have a hard time commodifying their core content. (One test here is that Dianetics has always been published in-house, while much of the “advanced” literature is hidden altogether.) With Shambhala, for example, the core content is sanitized, legitimized, and monetized through institutions like Naropa and a number of spiritual/self-help books that became touchstones in the 1990s neoliberalism that believed it was progressive.

That core content is a group effort. More importantly: the group effort conceals itself through the presentation of individual genius. Nowhere is this more efficient than in the spiritual book industry.

Spiritual books are marketed on the basis of the awakened personality and the intimacy of the author’s written “voice”. The public ends up thinking they’re encountering the realized presence of Pema Chödrön on the page, for example. That page, and the buzz around it, gets her onto Oprah.

But Chödrön’s ascent to Oprah isn’t driven by her personal wisdom or virtue. She gets that gig because she has risen to the top of a high-demand group as a spokesperson.

As a writer for twenty-five years I know that the writing that makes it into broader public awareness has very little to do with individual effort or talent, and almost everything to do with who you know and who is pulling for you, or working for you. The J.K. Rowling rags-to-riches story is vanishingly rare.

I’ve been browsing through Chödrön’s books, precisely because of their origins in Shambhala and their outsize influence in popular culture. I’ve been wondering why they did and do so well. The books are okay. They can soothe and entrance and present neo-Buddhist concepts in accessible terms. But the messaging isn’t significantly different from dozens of other dharma and self-help books, or from hundreds of talks I’ve heard given by yoga and Buddhism teachers of all stripes.

So: why these books? Why this writer?

Group effort. Chödrön’s first three books weren’t actually written, as in the close-yourself-away and grind out 500 or 1000 words per day. They are edited transcriptions of talks given to dedicated students over many years. The tapes were recorded by students. Then, students transcribed the tapes — a painstaking process back in the day, even if you did have a pedal-operated cassette transcription machine.

In the forward of When Things Fall Apart, Chödrön writes (it seems she actually wrote-wrote the forward) that she first looked through the two cardboard boxes of transcripts and tapes while on retreat for a year of “doing nothing”, and then sent them to her Shambhala Publications editor, who “sifted and shifted and deleted and edited” to generate a draft. (I’m wondering if the editor also did data input as well from hardcopies.)

As if on a conveyor belt, the draft becomes a book. But it’s not authored in a way that justifies the elevation of Chödrön as some kind of solitary realizer. It’s a collation of interpersonal moments generated by the feedback loop of charismatic exchanges in a highly-concentrated, high-demand setting. It’s a record of speeches made to people on retreat, who were likely nodding at every turn of phrase. That in itself will factor into things like tone, cadence, and length of sections.

By virtue of Gampo Abbey economics and the hierarchy of labour, the privilege of “a year of doing nothing”, and the work of a likely-underpaid editor, these moments wind up in print, and attributed to a single person, who then goes on to become a key public face of the group, helping to domesticate its “crazy wisdom” past.

In publishing, Chödrön has in some ways followed Trungpa’s lead. The guru himself never wrote alone. Here’s early Trungpa devotee John Baker in a recent interview describing how he and Marvin Casper basically co-wrote Cutting Through Spiritual Materialism (Shambhala Publications, 1973) — arguably the main stimulus behind the Naropa Insitute inaugural gathering in 1974 and a touchstone for recruits to Shambhala to this day. Trungpa’s meteoric rise in the U.S. was strongly fuelled by this single publishing event. It has sold more than 200K copies. 

[Trungpa] never wrote a book, but there was a book that was made out of his talks in England called Meditation in Action and was published by Penguin. He told the story of his life and that was published in Born in Tibet and that was in England. So when he got here, there was nothing that had been done. It was early and we decided: Well, let’s do a book here.

So he gave his first seminar and the students got together and they rented this house from a yoga instructor and I had a garage which was her yoga studio, just a little split level, you know, tract house with a little two-car garage. And she had turned it into a yoga studio and this group of students got together and they rented it and he named it, Trungpa Rinpoche named it Anitya Bhavan because he didn’t think it was going to last; Anitya Bhavan literally means in Sanskrit and Anitya is impermanence. And Bhavan is house. So it was the house of impermanence because it wasn’t going to last, and it didn’t.

But he gave his first seminar there and we took those talks and maybe some others, I can’t even remember. And we edited them into the book Cutting Through, Marvin and I.

But I think the key thing is that neither Marvin nor I, especially I, knew anything about Buddhism. So when we took these talks, we went to him and we went over every word of the editing with him, every word in that book was gone over and changed in a lot of them. Because he talked to us and then we would re-write it. And we would say, is this what you mean? And he would say, “Well, yeah, you know, it’s kind of, but what about, so let’s talk about this.” Then he would tweak it and we went back and forth like that.

And finally what had happened was… I’ll just cut stuff out of the story: We decided to finish the book… by going into a retreat together, the three of us, and we rented a house in California. He was going to do a speaking tour in California. And before that tour started, we had this house up on the, at the mouth of the Russian River in Jenner, California. A cabin, out in the sands. And, uh, it was just a cabin with a couple of bunk beds and a big bed that we gave to him and Martin and I slept in the bunk beds and we stayed there for three weeks and finished Cutting Through.

[Emphasis added.]

There’s no way Cutting Through gets published on Trungpa’s steam alone. So let’s think about this in relation to his published output of dozens of books, and the fact that his alcohol and drug use only increased over time, which means that his daily hours of lucidity dwindled, even as his fame and the free labour available to him increased.

Not comparing myself here, but without drinking and with no secretarial or research support, it takes me three years of almost full-time labour to finish a non-fiction book, and I’m not exactly slow. It takes Michael Ondaatje about seven years to complete a good novel.

So how did Trungpa publish? From the very beginning, he had a small army doing most of the work, which involved the careful sense-making of his students. Their job was to take the entranced group experience and make it work on the page, because it was through the page that they would attract more recruits to the group experience.

Here’s Trungpa in 1985, two years before his death, extremely drunk, enabled by an entire mandala of attention. Note how the opening scroll indicates this is a commemorative release. Shambhala International thought — at least in 2011 — that this was a good talk, and a fitting legacy piece.

While the group looked to Trungpa for sense, the group itself made Trungpa make sense.

The notion that Trungpa carried an untouched root of medieval Tibetan Buddhism into the postmodern world is not the whole story. The notion that he was a lonely gardener of that same root is not the whole story. What’s closer to the truth — in terms of his published output — is that he was the charismatic focal point of a collaborative movement that was quickly monetizing itself.

But it goes deeper.

The manufacturing and editing process of charismatic literature is inseparable from the manufacturing and editing process of the leader’s image and the group’s self-narrative. Baker and Casper hunker down with the leader to co-produce a book that attracts people to the group. Their focus is on the message, the message, the message — but not what he’s saying so much as what they can understand, come to an agreement about, concerning what they need, or want. They edit out the nonsense, and focus on what the finished page will look like.

Meanwhile, a larger circle is telling a story about the leader and his inner circle — including people like Baker and Casper. That ring is faithful, they’re tuned in, they’re recording the messages coming from the inside with perfect fidelity. What gets left out is the alcohol, the cocaine, the sex with countless students.

The circles of an any group execute various levels of editorial control. Hannah Arendt pointed out in Origins of Totalitarianism that one’s position in the hierarchy of an authoritarian group is defined by how much of the truth you know. Those at the top know most, and therefore have the most to conceal.

In the construction of Trungpa’s public image, a good example of what specifically gets left out are any accounts who might object to the way the following two biographers characterize his actions with women. Like this one:

“For those of his fortunate female students who wished it, his love could manifest in the most intimate physical manner. Those who did take up his invitation almost always remembered these times as some of the most precious of their years with Rinpoche. They were felt as times of profound teaching — though rarely was there any formal dharma discussion between them — as well as times of lightness, freedom from care, and playful humor. At the same time, of course, anyone in any similarly intimate situation with Rinpoche was pushed to the edge of their little ego games, pushed to be open and genuine; and, for many of us in the West, sex provides one of the deepest entrenchments for ego.”

— Hayward, Jeremy W. Warrior-King of Shambhala: Remembering Chögyam Trungpa. Wisdom Publications, 2008. 48.

and this one:

“A measure of his compassion can be gleaned from the reports of a number of female students who experienced spending intimate time with him as a very precious communication. Some women reported that, even when there was no sexual intimacy involved—as was often the case in the last years of his life—they experienced spending the night with him as the greatest kind of intimacy.”

— Midal, Fabrice, and Ian Monk. Chogyam Trungpa: His Life and Vision. Shambhala, 2012. 153.

Trungpa doesn’t even have to be alive for his followers to keep working for him. At this moment, these folks have managed to raise just shy of 120K to keep transcribing his talks. I have to wonder: aren’t there enough Trungpa books on the market? Is there some lost gem in those Betamax archives that will change the world? What else could that team of earnest people be doing with their time and energy?

Finally: how did Trungpa publications become so well known? It happened in part because the production army was also a sales force. The same thing happened with the Bihar School of Yoga, with dozens of titles attributed to Swami Satyananda, with many of them likely having been ghost-written. They became staples in modern yoga literature through the sales force of Satyananda Yoga teachers.


There is a genre of literature that directly opposes the book catalogues of spiritual groups. We might call it “cult survivor literature”. From beginning to end, it is produced in exactly the opposite way to the “cult classic”:

It begins in utter isolation.

It may have to fight its way out of trauma, dissociation, cognitive dissonance, and moral injury.

It begins from behind a veil: nobody will want to hear the story.

No one is knocking on the survivor’s door, asking to transcribe their lectures. When the group becomes aware of the survivor’s efforts, it will do what it can to shut her down.

What does it take for all of this to shift? Maybe therapy, maybe the #metoo movement, maybe both.

Or, somebody has to ask.

Here’s how it played out when I first started talking to Karen Rain:

I told Karen about my research and book plans, and asked her if she’d want to be interviewed about her experience with Jois. I suggested that my main focus would be on how and why she’d left the physical practice. I told her that my suspicion was that many top yoga practitioners had practiced themselves into chronic pain, and I was looking for subjects who could speak directly to that.

This was all true. But I left out the part about wanting to ask about Jois’s sexual assaults. I didn’t know how it would fly to bring that up in a first call. I felt that the injury story would be easier to talk about, but might lead into other territory. Karen intimated that it would, and suggested that, because it would, I really couldn’t be interested.

“I don’t think I can help you with your book. Yoga really isn’t part of my life now. I don’t think you want to hear what I have to say.”

I tried to tell her that I really was interested, in fact.

Nobody is interested in what I have to say.” She was emphatic.

Practice and All is Coming, p. 60

Rain was emphatic, yet nonetheless took enormous, lonely risks. Before I published her testimony, she started with a #metoo statement. She responded to an Ashtanga leader who used her huge platform to minimize the sexual assault. Then she did it again. Then Medium hired her to write her story.

Over two years now she has done what writers do: worked it out, word by word, alone, finding a voice in silence, publishing to a small blog. Knowing too that silence might close around her voice, as it did in 2010 when Anneke Lucas published her account of Jois assaulting her. (The 2016 reprint is here. More writing from Lucas can be found on her blog.)

By contrast: when Eddie Stern and Guy Donahaye published their collection of hagiographic interviews with senior students of Jois, Jois’s sexual assaults had been widely known for years. And yet the group narrative around who he was and where Ashtanga practice came from was so deeply inculcated in their group of subjects that only one of them hinted — in a minimizing way — at the truth:

“I heard all sorts of funny tales, that he liked gold and he kissed the girls.”

— Nick Evans, quoted in Stern, Eddie. Guruji – a Portrait of Sri k. Pattabhi Jois through the Eyes of His Student. Farrar, Straus & Giroux Inc, 2012. 400.

There are close to forty interviews in the book, which means that it had an immediate international sales force, consisting of the those subjects and their enthusiastic students. Donahaye has since disclaimed the project.

This is the literary/propagandistic wall that Lucas and Rain were up against. There was no ready market for their wisdom. But they could hear other isolated voices. Speaking into the silence together, they began to find each other. Rain has gone on to co-author this article with fellow survivor Jubilee Cooke.

For another current example of emergent survivor literature, you can check out the work curated by Louisa Leontiades on abuse in the polyamory world.

Bottom line?

You’ve read the bestsellers, the cult classics. You’ve heard from the groups.

Where are you going to turn to now for a deeper truth?

How are you going to support survivor’s voices?


  • Sometimes we might engage writing because at least we can listen to our own voice if nobody seems interested. Later, as a body of work emerged maybe it is linked up enough to get discovered. It might be part of a groundswell of voices who all have different obstacles and confidence.
    I remember reading Trungpa, Pema Chodron and planned to read more but never did as it created confusion and that was supposedly going to transform into wisdom but I did honestly not see that coming to pass. Most wisdom was how to cope and take refuge (from the delusions) surrounded by cult demands. It really was a path of delusion yet they even admitted this and even today that path holds us and we merely try to wrestle or steer it, reframe it to include a more self determined life

  • Interesting. I have found that practically all Dharma books save academic shastras are edited transcripts of talks. (For instance, every Dalai Lama book I’ve seen but his autobiography, and every book I’ve seen by “respectable” – as far as I can tell – lamas Tai Situ Rinpoche and Thrangu Rinpoche.) I’ve always considered this weak, and would greatly prefer planned/composed monographs. However, I didn’t realize the liberties that are sometimes taken with transcriptions (granted, I never cared for P.C., threw away my C.T.R. books and now shun everything connected with Shambhala).
    The dipsomania displayed in the tape is frightening. CTR often looks down to his right. I initially presumed he was consulting notes, but it’s also conceivable that he’s casting longing glances at the sake glass…

  • Hi Matthew,

    This is a tremendously well-wriiten piece, very insightful.
    The approach you describe here sounds very much like how the hagiography of Dennis Lingwood came about as well. And again, the on-going and continued re-silencing of Mark Dunlop shows the difficulties of those who have been violated in getting their voices heard.

    Your comment from Hannah Arendt is also exactly on point too.
    If one has been in such a senior administrative position within such authoritarian structures for any length of time, you develop severe headaches from the cognitive dissonance! Those further out from the centre of the Web of Zeus are usually quite oblivious of what is going on; partly because, as you correctly point out, those nearer the centre are whitewashing the narrative before it reaches the peripheries. And, moreover, the act of concealing what is going on from the public and less involved members is also the very act that causes the cognitive dissonance.

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