To Eco-Activists Being Introduced to Buddhism as a Support Practice: a Note of Caution
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):
Against the Stream (Noah Levine)
Rinzai Zen (Joshu Sasaki Roshi)
Diamond Mountain / Asian Classics Institute
Thank you for this piece of writing, it is timely and needed. This article speaks to so much of what I’ve noticed in neo-liberal spiritual circles, particularly the “Buddhist” communities I’ve participated in (I’m a Naropa graduate). A tagline such as “transform yourself, transform the world” (Naropa), lends itself to institutionalized narcissism veiled in claims of radical and effective community. Needless to say, the world is not being transformed (or it would have already happened) and continuing to meditate on world peace while perpetuating systems of capitalist consumption and oppression is disingenuous at best.
I really appreciate the call for awareness around the ramifications of some of these well known Buddhist organizations imploding. I hadn’t fully thought about how many “teachers” (and students) of these organizations will be looking for a new place to land and influence. As well, I appreciate the forewarning around the vulnerability collapse is creating for all of us. I agree that people will be (already are) desperately looking for community and eco-activist-spiritual communities will have a lot of appeal. This article helps me begin to deeply discern what to question and look for as I invest in the communities that I recognize as connecting and effective.
I, personally and professionally, have also experienced similar behavior (narcissism, abuse of power, claims to effective social change when little proof of such is available) in non-violent communication (NVC) facilitators, social justice groups, and eco-villages. Of coarse, there are some healthy and effective NVC, SJ, and eco groups, I just find these teachings or spaces lend themselves to abusive dynamics veiled in promises of connection and social change. Thank you for your writing.
I was wondering what your analysis of vipassana as taught by s n goenka is. Some patterns are similar, some aren’t.
I study groups more than techniques, so I don’t have much to say here. As I understand it, the global network of Vipassana retreat service providers is broad and diffuse enough that group dynamics would best be evaluated case by case, which would be challenging.