The Power of Peer-Pressure: Soft Authoritarianism in Buddhism
The theme of ‘awakening’ in The Who’s rock opera Tommy needs to be explored further as an allegory for ‘awakening’ religions in the West. Tommy is a deaf-mute boy who ‘awakens’ through a series of violent experiences, and then tries to share with others his path to enlightenment, which takes place at ‘holiday camps’ [retreat centers]. The method, putting on eye shades, putting in ear plugs, and a cork in one’s mouth, akin to silent meditation retreats, doesn’t work for his followers, who then scream “We’re not gonna take it.”
From the outset, I thought being a Buddhist was cool. Then once I plunged into it, I thought it was alien and strange. Exoticism kept me interested for a long time, as did the pursuit of Buddhist ‘cool’. I studied hard to understand Buddhist history and cultural context, to understand why it felt so alien, to naturalize it to my own experience.
Then I discovered what institutional Buddhism really was: an asylum for people who can’t deal with the real world on any level, and a haven for what I call soft authoritarians. (There’s probably a better tag for that.) These are people that could be classified as ‘liberal’ in terms of their social and political beliefs (e.g. not anti-gay, etc.). But they are also people who are comfortable with and even seek out authoritarian relationships: conformity to the norms of the group; the teacher/student hierarchy; the authority of Buddhist scripture (while they laugh at the Bible); unwavering faith in the ‘rightness’ and efficacy of Buddhist teachings and practices.
A surprising number of the Buddhists I encountered on social media such as Reddit are Buddhist Apologists: people who defend Buddhism to the hilt, quoting scripture and famous lamas and monks, arguing against non-canonical interpretations of dharma and practice. They often act as apologists for the abusive and self-serving behavior of the Buddhist hierarchy. Even among Dharma Punx, who’s cultural mission is to promote a certain Buddhist ‘cool’, I found ‘groupies’ who defend against any critique of the Dharma Punx ethic.
I have written before that I have found that most Buddhist sanghas are proto-cults, that is, they have cult tendencies that could become full-blown cults under certain conditions. What makes them proto-cults is the willingness of the members to accept anything they’re taught without question, to do whatever they’re told without qualification.
In most small sanghas, Buddhist hierarchies are shallow; there are few people at the top and there isn’t a lot of pressure from the top down. The condition for cult behavior comes from the bottom-up, from peer pressure, and from the passivity and willingness of members to believe and do whatever they’re told by someone who is elevated as ‘teacher.’ Soft Authoritarians believe wholeheartedly in the efficacy of devotion to the teacher. They show a willingness to deliberately idealize and venerate anyone in role as ‘teacher’, no matter how unqualified or unethical they might be.
There are also ‘hard authoritarians’ in Buddhism as well, East and West. In Asia, hard authoritarians are monks aligned with the military and dictators in authoritarian State regimes. Buddhism is used to justify violence towards religious and ethnic minorities and civil war. In the West, ‘hard authoritarians’ relish the Master-Slave relationship between teacher and student, regarding it as effective and sacred. I have even discovered a couple of American Buddhist white supremacists who regularly post videos on Youtube.
Soft authoritarians justify and excuse the abuses of their teachers and organizations, albeit quietly and politely, in deference to “the tradition” or the beloved “Rinpoche.” Mostly they remain passively silent and thus complicit when faced with allegations of teacher and institutional abuse.
Soft authoritarians do little to produce a Buddhist counter-culture. In the West they simply believe that their well-padded bubble is a counter-culture, an alternative or protest to mainstream white Christian society. Ironically, in Asia, Buddhism is not a counter-culture; it’s not an alternative or a protest but a capitulation to mainstream culture—it is the mainstream culture, and Buddhist adherents are the true conservatives and conformists.
So the would-be Buddhist enters this strange, magical world that is so alien to western culture and feels that they’ve arrived in a spiritual wonderland, a true counter-culture, an alternative to the capitalist rat race of meaningless work, consumption and the drivel of Facebook. Finally, she has some meaning in her life. She feels free of the usual constraints and pressures of her class. She’s with the ‘cool’ people who reject western culture and mainstream authority and embrace a totally different worldview. After all, Buddhism is not a religion; it’s a philosophy, a science of mind, a practice.
But this is a complete illusion. Instead, what she has stumbled into is just another brand of religious conformity and authoritarianism in the guise of ‘spirituality’. Pretty soon it becomes obvious that she must comply, obey and keep her mouth shut. I have seen this countless times in meditation halls where practitioners sit in numbed silence for hours and never speak up, never address, much less question, the teacher and what they teach.
The self-discipline of silent meditation imposes a level of conformity that is almost unbreakable. One’s critique of the ethos of passivity and conformity falls on deaf ears; no one wants to hear you, it disturbs their peace. This level of passivity is pervasive and unnerving. Don’t criticize, don’t question anything, don’t even think for yourself. To do so puts you at odds with your peers. The pressure is towards passivity, doing what you’ve been told to do in order to be accepted by the group. Soft authoritarianism takes over.
What practitioners get from acquiescing to soft authoritarianism is a kind of idealized parent figure who assures them that if they do as they’re told, everything will work out alright. The idealized parent may be a guru to whom the practitioner subjects himself by samaya vow, or it may be an idealized community, the sangha. It can be a place, like a shrine room or retreat center where everything is perfectly orchestrated to produce the comfort and undisturbed composure of the practitioner. The idealized parental figure further encases them in a kind of womb-like bubble, or cocoon, as CTR called it, himself the master cocoon spinner.
It takes a while, but after a few years of reality testing, the whole game becomes obvious. Then the practitioner is faced with a decision: stay or go. Or teeter on the periphery, one foot in the bubbly wonder world, one foot out. How much of your grip on reality do you have to give up to stay involved in something that was helpful in some ways, that made you feel calm, secure, at peace? Or how much are you sick of the whole charade and ready to just leave behind whatever security or ‘good feelings’ it might provide? Only you can make that decision. You as the practitioner have to free yourself. You must decide what you will tolerate and what you must walk away from. You have to decide whether to ditch the raft, what liberation is for you.
Having been a person who was so rigidly constrained by religion in my youth, my liberation involves rejecting religious constraints. I don’t consider myself to be an ex-Buddhist, because I haven’t completely rejected the teachings and practices. I call myself post-Buddhist, because I’ve outgrown what Buddhist institutions have to offer. That’s why I decided to provisionally reject Buddhism as a religion, to free myself from this kind of passivity and peer pressure, to throw off soft authoritarianism. Ultimately I left because institutional Buddhism offered no further challenges, therefore no opportunities for growth. It just became too comfortable, stale, habituated and repetitive. From that point onwards, the real growth I experienced was getting out of Buddhism. That was a real awakening.