Critical Dharma for Thinking Minds
Chris Johnston was a member of the Buddhafield cult in Los Angeles in the 80s. Chris made a documentary about the cult, called “Holy Hell”.
Chris was interviewed by ‘Richard’ of Deep State Consciousness, who has himself been involved in Eastern spiritual movements and cults:
Chris Johnston left the cult and went on to study religious movements and cults in academia. In the course of his studies, he discovered that some of the early research on cults came out of studies by Robert J. Lifton of people who escaped Maoist indoctrination camps. At the end of this interview, (48 minutes) Chris talks about some of the dynamics of political cults, their similarities with religious movements and spiritual cults. Chris talks about the Trump phenomenon and how radical and white nationalist groups act like cults.
UPDATE: For more on the ways that political and secular groups can act like cults, read Be Scofield’s report on the political cult created in the Cultural Anthropology Dept. at the California Institute of Integral Studies, an otherwise non-cult, secular institution of higher education.
Extremist political groups can act very much like cults, but they exhibit critical differences from religious or spiritual cults. They are similar in that they are ‘high demand groups’ that indoctrinate their members into an extremist ideology, and to sacrifice personal safety and integrity to gain acceptance in the group.
However, instead of using ‘love-bombing’ techniques to lure members into a sense of trust and belonging, political cults often use shame, verbal abuse, humiliation and threatened exclusion to force you into subservience to the group and its ideology—a process I call ‘hate-bombing.’ (See the link to Be Scofield’s report on the CIS cult above.) Political cults push you to engage in increasingly radical acts of violence towards authorities, which can be dangerous, to sacrifice one’s own safety and psychic integrity to prove one’s dedication to the group’s political goals and ideals. The group will steadily increase the level of dedication you must show to their ideals, a tactic called ‘upping the ante’. No matter how much commitment you show to their political norms, they will increase the level of commitment required. Through ‘hate-bombing’—shaming, threatened exclusion and demands for increasingly risky behavior—members are radicalized to espouse ideologies and engage in political acts that they would never commit on their own.
I very nearly became involved in a Buddhist political cult a couple of years ago. This was a group that had a long history as a well-respected social justice organization dedicated to promoting social justice through non-violence and peace. However, the organization was taken over by extremists who then used the trust that had been built up over many decades to legitimize its radicalized agenda. It adopted a process that shamed and excluded people who did not espouse its radical ideology. Tellingly, some members of the group began to advocate the use of armed violence to achieve their political goals. The combination of religious authoritarianism and radicalized political ideology became a potent mix, ironically, not unlike the fascist white nationalist groups they claimed to be against.
During the brief period that I was involved, the group appeared to have cult-like tendencies, like many Buddhist and spiritual movements do, but was not behaving like a full-blown cult at the time. However, I saw early on that it had the potential to become a political cult and so decided to leave the group immediately. Once I got behind the veil of the website, videos and public talks, and saw how the group actually operated, as an exclusive group of corporate elites, I immediately recognized its cult-like structure.
One of the telling cult-like features of the group is that they changed their organizing strategy. The previous organizing strategy had been to set up independent local groups that could make their own decisions within the framework of the organization. Subsequently they no longer set up local groups that could act independently within a decentralized network. Instead, they centralized their actions under a single Board of Directors and within the region where the headquarters was located. Previously they had traveled to locations throughout the country to share their skills and knowledge with local groups. Subsequently they recruited members and required active members to go on special “retreats” at their central location. The centralization process gave them control over the members and the message, the power to indoctrinate and include/exclude people from higher tiers of membership and direct influence within the group.
The core leadership of the group explicitly disavowed democratic decision-making that would involve the whole membership in favor of making all decisions with the staff and Board. The broader membership was never consulted on the types of projects that the organization would undertake. The membership was only used as a kind of ATM machine to fund its projects. The group was radical in its political ideology, but in terms of leadership and decision-making, it acted like a corporation run by elites.
Chris Johnston describes the membership structure of cults as having multiple rings of inclusion and influence. This political group created a two-tier membership, with the outer ring of connection open to anyone, members who became their financial supporters, but the inner ring of active membership was exclusive to those who were willing to undergo their centralized indoctrination process.
Not everyone in the group’s leadership exhibited this cult-like influence, but there were certain key individuals who were clearly using negative power techniques of ‘hate-bombing’: shaming, humiliation, verbal abuse and threatened exclusion to gain power over other members, especially those who resisted the extremist ideology. I was one who resisted this indoctrination and radicalization process.
I left the group within a few months of seeing how they really operated behind the scenes at the administrative level. Having already had the experience of being peripherally involved in two Buddhist cults (Shambhala and Nalandabodhi), I was wary of being involved in yet another Buddhist cult, this time, a political one. I consider myself very lucky that I spotted this cult-like tendency early on and got out before it got any worse.