It could be that you’re already familiar with modern global Buddhism, be it of the Tibetan, Burmese, Thai, Vietnamese, “mindfulness”, “insight”, or other variety. Your practice might predate your decision to join an eco-activist group or ecological support network. If this describes you, you may have already navigated what I’m about to say.
I’m addressing this in particular to those activists and concerned citizens who have been introduced to global Buddhist practices and communities through eco-activism networks that are understandably reaching out to seek sources of support and nurturance in a critical time.
I’m writing because I’m seeing a lot of interest in Buddhism as both a philosophy and as a series of self-and-co-regulation techniques within groups like Extinction Rebellion and Positive Deep Adaptation. I don’t want to discourage this interest in any way, but I do believe there are some things to bear in mind for those on the verge of going deeper into practice. These are facts I’ve gathered as a survivor and researcher of cults.
Here’s the main point, which I’ll break down below:
Yes: use the techniques and be comforted by the philosophy. But: be very wary of taking advice from or handing leadership over to “career” Buddhist teachers in the following areas: ethics, communications, group behaviour, political tactics, regeneration culture, or community building.
Why? Here are a few reasons:
1. Virtually every large modern Anglophone global Buddhist community is awash with unaddressed abuse. The abuse has been physical, emotional, sexual, financial, and spiritual. The pattern is broad and the damage is deep. Links at the bottom.
2. It is rare that a modern global Buddhist community trains its members in anti-oppression, ecological awareness, or the history of social movements. It’s just not on the curriculum. Despite this, there is a tendency amongst long-term practitioners to assume that Buddhist practice magically confers insight in one or all of these areas. Many labour under the illusion that being Buddhist magically makes them anti-racist, for example. Or they believe that a Buddhist perspective gives insight into how best we confront the state, as in the recent viral post that suggested that (without using this language) XR rebels view the police with metta, because “we’re all on the same side.” The poster has a point, though not the one intended: for fifty years, global Buddhism has for the most part sanctified, rather than resisted, the neoliberal police and surveillance state. Bottom line: competency in Buddhism does not predict competency in any other area, and may in fact impede it. There’s no shame in this: one can’t be good at everything.
3. Recent implosions of prominent Buddhist organizations have exposed decades of widespread abuse and enablement. This has scattered many senior staff, many of whom are now looking for new communities, new angles, and new work. In many cases, these are folks who have been deeply embedded — as enablers and victims — in cultic dynamics. It takes a long time to get sorted out after being embedded. Healing and accountability can happen, but I can say anecdotally as a journalist and researcher in this area that it is rare.
4. Most Buddhist teachers that attained social power in these groups did so not through the strength of their training nor any measurement of their attainment in the techniques of meditation (for there is none), but through their skill at serving the leadership, or through the power of their charisma, and the group transferences that feed it. Leadership in these organizations is often gained through socially toxic means.
5. The post-implosion histories of many Buddhist organizations feature a pattern of charismatic lieutenants breaking away from the original group to found their own communities, often with predictable results. I guarantee that there will be Buddhist teachers whose organizations have recently failed who out of narcissistic or financial necessity — or just pure habit — will now try to lead or monetize their brands within eco-activist organizations.
6. Part of what we’re seeing in the highly-flawed internal reform movements of organizations like Shambhala is the adoption of woketivist language as a form of brandwashing, even while the needs of the organization’s survivors remain unaddressed. Arguably, any attention placed on social justice issues has some social benefit, but the activist newcomer to Buddhism should consider that the newly-minted eco-Buddhist teacher might be far more interested in promoting their own ideology than in the actual cause. They may be using XR or PDA as a delivery device for their real commitment.
7. While the self-and-co-regulation techniques of meditation, mindfulness, metta, warrior-compassion, right speech, etc. can all valuable in and of themselves, activists who are unfamiliar with global Buddhism should know that each and every one of these techniques and attitudes has been used in various group contexts to suppress critical thinking, member agency, and enable abuse.
8. Abuse in Buddhist organizations often plays out along gender lines. Every organization listed below was founded and/or was led by a charismatic male teacher. The majority of sexual assault victims to come forward in recent abuse revelations are women. It is also true that the majority of unpaid administrative and emotional labour in these groups is performed by women. Further, women’s administrative visibility and labour can be used to extend the pretence that an organization’s values are feminist, trauma-aware, or justice-oriented — all values that aid in recruitment, especially of younger women. But in reality, many of these organizations are deeply patriarchal and misogynist. Eco-movements do not want to import yet more forms of misogyny and unexamined rape culture, whether explicit or internalized.
None of this is to say that Buddhists are bad people or that there aren’t some Buddhist teachers doing great social justice or activism work. In my experience, these are the folks who have been independent from branded communities for years, have spoken out against abuses they witnessed, and have adopted an interdisciplinary approach to how they continue to learn and practice. Many hold qualifications as psychotherapists, social workers, or scholars of religion, and this can afford some critical distance. (However, in the case of Shambhala International, many earned their degrees at the group’s own university, Naropa, and so can’t really be said to be qualified outside of the group.)
Bottom line: Buddhism can be great, but the organizations and leadership structures that have emerged in its globalization period are often myopic, bourgeois, self-serving, and at times abusive to their members. People who professionalized in those spaces have a lot of work to do to show how they’re not going to repeat what they’ve been through or been complicit in.
I predict that the era of ecological collapse will be a boom-time for cults — political, religious, or both. This is because nobody knows exactly what’s going to happen, but we do know it’s going to be apocalyptically bad, and we’re going to be even more desperate for community than we are now. This means that conditions are ripe for inspired and charismatic leadership, which we already see in the figureheads of XR, for example. Charismatic leadership is one of Lalich’s four factors in defining the cultic. (Another is totalizing ideology. XR is at least 2 for 4. A third thing to look at would be information control. Hm.)
Many of us may be starting to feel like strong communities are the only reliable refuge we’ll have as collapse continues to spread. So far, branded global Buddhisms have not provided good models for strong community.
Messianic movements are dangerous, and so is the modern police and surveillance state. I hope we can all be careful that global Buddhism doesn’t get used to meditate those dangers away.
Some online responses to this article have suggested, without offering evidence, that the institutions listed below have made strides towards rectifying abuse. For those who wish to research this assertion, I propose the following test:
Try to find published survivor testimonies that speak to these improvements.
Such testimony might read as follows:
“I was abused in [organization name] and the organization has been very responsive to my needs. When I approached the community with my story, I knew who to go to, and no one ignored, deflected, or snubbed me. No one tried to tell me the abuse was my fault or that I should use the spiritual techniques of the group to reframe the abuse as love. I found several people in the organization who became allies and helped me to come forward. They took risks with their own social capital to defend me against enablers. The leadership did not stall or try to limit the PR damage. They investigated and sanctioned those who abused me. They offered me direct care in my recovery, and paid for my related expenses. They really showed that they were able to offer the values of their spirituality in difficult circumstances. This has restored my hope in [Buddhism/yoga/etc], because it has helped to heal the very deep level of trauma that comes from spiritual abuse.”
Problematic global Buddhist Organizations (an incomplete list):
I just had the pleasure of answering some interview questions posed by an old friend about the health care needs of ex-cult members.
Such a great topic. I talked about digestive issues and depression and how reading Harry Potter to my five year-old has helped me recover from the abject disenchantment of spiritual abuse.
It also made me remember a few other things, or see them slightly differently.
I came to yoga after my cult years (1996-2003), and quickly began to professionalize into it. It made sense: I hadn’t finished college, had travelled too much, didn’t feel settled or productive, wanted and needed to connect with people and show value, etc. Part of what worked about that is that it offered an alternative/unconventional pathway towards a job in which I wouldn’t have to answer for the lost years.
(As an aside: all this anxiety around yoga teacher’s education and “authenticity” is IMO heavily wrapped up not only in the fact that nobody’s in charge, but in the biographical havoc and shame that high-demand groups wreck on people’s lives. My gut says that most of those who accuse me and others of not having proper teachers — and therefore nothing worthwhile to say — are either covering up or spiritualizing their own cult abuse stories.)
The other part that worked was that both the practice and its professionalization seemed to grant a sense of agency and maybe even autonomy. Yoga culture wasn’t a cult, or at least I hadn’t run into specific yoga cults, yet. As a recovery zone, it seemed as wide-open as any new economy. Studios were opening with DIY pluck on the leading edge of gentrification, alongside art/design shops and digital marketing startups. There was a sense that the world was wide open and everything was material to excavate, and that the basic premises of psychosomatic exploration would yield private but shareable wealth.
I now understand this was a late crest on the Human Potential Movement wave, which began to roll in 70s. And I suspect that the neoliberalism that these movements both fronted for and concealed managed to capitalize on whole swaths of people who felt the need to escape systems of control. Yoga really did become the religion of neoliberalism, not just because it was commodified as the sign of freedom and spiritualized flexibility in relation to the precariat, but because it really did embody freedom for people leaving abusive constellations. In many cases, it made only bodily demands upon devotees. It felt “grounded” that way.
In my specific case, the post-cult need for autonomy, playing out in the yoga zone, meant that I had no instinct nor education towards the protection of indigenous sources or modes of learning. The basics of cultural appropriation — detach, reframe, commodify — were built into the globalizing economy, but also intersected with a personal need to have something of my own following years of being manipulated.
I now see what I was using and why and am doing my best to realize my own sense of unreality did not give me permission to plant a flag over real things from real places. Travel there, yes. Dialogue with, yes. Live “your yoga” as though you were the center of the universe, detached from global injustice and inequality? No.
My education in and fascination with Ayurveda allowed me similar leeway. A premodern self-care regime based on intuitive poetry gave me a sense of autonomy over a body that cults had taught me was disgusting or unreal. But it also protected me from the scrutiny of diagnostic medicine, which I subconsciously feared would force me to ask hard questions about whether in fact I needed more professional help.
I survived depressive episodes without self-harming, but I’m very concerned that the self-reliance expressed through these practices — itself a trauma-related response — can at times go too far, convincing people that the vata will eventually calm down with a little more sesame oil, or that everything will improve when Jupiter enters Aquarius, so long as you’re attuned to it and have merited the blessings of the transit, etc. People can really jeopardize themselves through shaky mechanisms of self-reliance, which aren’t really self-reliant at all if they rely on mystification.
When the yoga world showed its cultic ass to me, I really didn’t want to believe it. I really didn’t want to see what I saw on that video of Jois, or hear what I heard from students of Iyengar or Choudhury. I went so far as to shut down my friend Diane’s story of Jois’s assaults. More on that in the upcoming book.
Yoga was a zone of freedom, I insisted, and if people didn’t find it there, that was on them.
Oh yes, I really thought that, and not just from my layers of privilege, but from the perspective of not having digested the shame of having been in cults.
My response was out-of-phase. I was hearing cult abuse stories in my zone of cult recovery. I was angry about the contamination. But I got over it.
So now I’m wondering how much of the blowback that yoga cult victims get is not just generated by the cults themselves, but by the more general belief and marketing that yoga was the zone so many of us went to for agency — and, in lock step with neoliberalism, we had to believe in it to feel functional or even survive.
As a specialized subgroup, we yoga people were indoctrinated to blame the victim. We were under the illusion that we had autonomy, and that our healing could come from within ourselves alone.
What a joy that it does not.
TRIGGER WARNING: descriptions of child rape, sexual assault, violence against women and children, cult abuse.
“Sri Swamiji [Satyananda] always loved children, and children loved him. In fact, I may call myself his first love, although I know that many others have loved him and he has loved many other children before me.” — Swami Niranjananda
“You can take even the worst possible rogue as your Guru…. You should never look into the defects of the Guru. You must deify the Guru.” – Swami Sivananda, Yoga in Daily Life
“The next day, Akhandananda came up to me and said, ‘How are you feeling?’ And I said, ‘I’m very confused.’ He said, ‘Don’t worry about your mind. Your mind belongs to me.'” — Royal Commission witness Jyoti (104:10908)
“The ashram was the kind of place where, if you scream, no‐one comes.” – Royal Commission witness APR (106:11099)
“You would only have to look at Yoga for the Young, which is a book that we were very involved in – all of us are in that book, and all my drawings, and the other kids did drawings and we all contributed to that book – that book was still sold by Satyananda Ashram years later, after people knew that some of us were sexual abuse victims.” – Royal Commission witness Alecia Buchanan (104:10899)
Why I’m Writing
Something extraordinary happened in a Sydney conference room last week. A vast swath of the modern global yoga movement went on trial. Or pre-trial, as it happens.
Australia’s Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse heard testimony from over a dozen witnesses who resided at Satyananda Yoga Ashram at Mangrove Mountain from the mid 1970s through the late 1980s, including eleven who were children or young teens at the time. The ashram was founded to spread the practices of yoga. But without exception, the former child residents told harrowing stories of pervasive physical and sexual abuse. Continue reading “Boycott Satyananda’s Literature and Methods Until Reparations are Made for Sexual Abuse”