The FWBO is a UK based religious charity, which also has about thirty centres in the rest of the world. The FWBO offers public classes in meditation, Buddhism, and related disciplines. They also run residential communities, retreat centres, fund-raising trusts, and various businesses, and they can be viewed on the Internet at: http://www.fwbo.org/index.html [WARNING: this is the cult's home page]
This is one page of an ex - FWBO site. The purpose of the site is to inform a wider public about some of the harmful aspects of new religious movements and mind control cults in general, and of the FWBO in particular. The site is spread over a number of pages:
Main page: The FWBO Files (140 kb text.)
The following pages have been contributed by ex-member Mark Dunlop:
Section 1: Shorter History and Teachings of The Friends of the Western Buddhist Order. (27 kb text.)
Section 2 [this page]: What is a Cult? -The Mind Control Process in the FWBO (67 kb text plus 181 kb pictures)
Section 5: Possible Legal Protection against Cults - 'gold dust', according to a leading British cult expert. (17 kb text)
Preamble and Definitions
The word cult can be used in a variety of ways. It can be used in a non pejorative sense, as for example in 'cult band' or 'cult book'. It can also be used in a more pejorative way to refer to a group or organisation which is alleged to manipulate its members, and it is in this latter sense that the word is used here. This article adopts the following definition of the word cult:
A cult is: an organisation which systematically uses brainwashing or mind control processes to change the way its individual members think, in order to subvert their free will and restrict their independent judgement . The aim is to undermine members' own self reliance, so that they gradually come to place more trust in the insights of the group leadership than in their own judgement. A cult is not necessarily harmful in this definition.
The whole area of cults and mind control is difficult and contentious. Cults themselves are usually opaque to outside scrutiny, and the actual process of mind control is difficult to define or to analyse. It is difficult sometimes even to discuss the subject. A major problem is that the term 'mind' (or 'consciousness') is difficult to define, and so it tends to be excluded from the paradigms of scientific and academic enquiry. From a legal point of view, a concept like 'freedom of mind' is equally difficult to define, and therefore it is difficult to protect such a freedom (but see Section 5). The concept of personal free will is a cherished axiom of Western democracy, but neither individual free will nor its restriction can be objectively measured or verified with any certainty. It is largely a matter of opinion.
It is possible to take the view that society at large embraces a variety of organisations and institutions which could be interpreted as being somewhat cult like in their nature. It is often argued that there is a fine line between socialisation and indoctrination, or between persuasion and mind control. Nevertheless, society does attempt to make a distinction between acceptable and unacceptable behaviour: persuasion through physical force or through the denial of food and water, for example, are clearly illegal. In the view of this writer, there is a need for society to be more active in protecting its citizens from other more subtle processes of persuasion, which can be equally abusive of personal freedoms, and which are sometimes made use of by individuals and organisations in order to gain personal power over those they claim to help, but whom often they merely manipulate and exploit.
The term 'brainwashing' was first used in 1953 to describe techniques used by the Chinese Communists to subvert the loyalty of American prisoners captured in Korea. Brainwashing in this original sense involved physical coercion: imprisonment, food and sleep deprivation, and sometimes torture. Nowadays the term 'brainwashing' is used more broadly; the Concise Oxford dictionary defines brainwashing as the 'systematic replacement of established ideas in person's mind by new ones'.
In recent years, various people concerned about cults have increasingly tended to use the term 'mind control' to describe a brainwashing or indoctrination process which does not involve physical coercion. This kind of non-coercive process has the great advantage (from a cult's point of view) of not leaving any bruises or other physical evidence, and of therefore being very difficult to prove. Whilst there is evidence that some cults have used physical coercion, in general cults are keen to distance themselves from such practices. There has been a kind of Darwinian evolution among cults, in that those which have survived and prospered have tended to be those which have succeeded in developing effective, but non-physically coercive, techniques to subvert the free will and independent judgement of their members, or in other words to brainwash them. It is these techniques which are referred to by the term 'mind control.'
In this article, mind control is taken to mean: a non-physically coercive brainwashing process which results in the 'systematic replacement of established ideas in person's mind by new ones.' (as per Concise Oxford definition of brainwashing).
This term 'mind control' needs clarification. It perhaps tends to suggest the idea that a person's mind can be as it were robotically controlled by some outside agency, in the manner often suggested by science fiction. This is not at all what happens in a cult. Mind control as employed by a cult involves a number of complementary processes of psychological persuasion. It is more accurate to think in terms of a mind-control 'environment' rather than in terms of mind-control 'techniques' as such. These processes are usually quite subtle and all but imperceptible in operation, unless you specifically know what to look out for.
There are a number of groups which appear to make use of these kind
of processes. This writer has only had experience of one such group, and
so this analysis is written specifically in terms of that group, The Friends
of the Western Buddhist Order, or FWBO. This article aims to provide further
elucidation of the above rather terse definition of mind control, by examining
how the mind control process actually works upon members of the FWBO, and
specifically how their ideas and thought processes are first controlled
and limited, and then modified, and how this compromises members' free
will and their ability to exercise free choice. It is written from the
perspective of individual experience, moving onwards to make general observations.
The Mind Control Process as practised by the Friends of the Western Buddhist Order.
Nobody deliberately sets out to join a cult. Members of cults typically do not realise they are in a cult, and tend to be fairly indignant if it is suggested that they are. So, how is it that people come to join cults?
There is often an element of deception or disingenuousness in the way that cults present themselves to the public. Someone encountering a group such as 'Sterling Management' (Scientologists) or 'Women's Federation for World Peace' (Moonies) may have no particular reason to be cautious of the group. Initial contact is usually achieved via an ostensibly neutral agency which has no visible cult associations, such as a meditation centre or a stress management course. Once initial contact has been established, selected individuals will be targeted by the group leadership, and exposed to mind control techniques which, if successfully employed, will draw those individuals more deeply into the group. In that sense, a person doesn't choose a cult; the cult chooses them.
The largely anecdotal and subjective nature of mind, and of mind control, means that a formal description and analysis of the mind control process is never going to be entirely satisfactory. For example, trying to describe a mind control environment to readers who have not themselves experienced such an environment is, in a way, rather like trying to describe the effect of alcohol to someone who has never drunk it. At fairly frequent intervals during the mind control process, a person can experience a kind of intoxication with the group's ideals ( 'inspiration' in FWBO terms), and it requires a degree of empathy or imagination by an outsider to appreciate this subjective aspect and to make appropriate allowances for it.
The influence process takes time; while it can be initiated in as little as two hours, in general in the case of the FWBO, a prospective member will have to be exposed to the FWBO mind control environment on an intermittent but ongoing basis for at least some months (on average 2-3 years) before adopting the FWBO outlook and becoming a convert.
Mind control is a gradual and subtle process, rather than a series of easily identifiable discrete events. Nevertheless, it is easier to describe the mind control process if the process is unravelled into some component strands or elements, as described below. Once the process is under way, these different strands combine and operate together in a mutually supportive and synergistic way.
The mind control process in the FWBO can be separated into four main
component strands or elements: Aspiration;
1st. strand: Personal Ambition & Aspiration
Everyone harbours a hope to better themselves. Some only dream, some actively pursue a conscious goal, whether it be in terms of sporting achievement, or professional advancement, or scientific understanding, or religious or artistic fulfilment. These are natural and legitimate human ambitions and aspirations (using the term somewhat as it is used when, for example, the 1980's are described as an 'aspirational' decade).
It is probably true that many people experience a kind of spiritual hunger, or a desire for deeper values in some form, but this is not necessarily a sign of weakness and inadequacy. It would be a mistake to assume that people who are attracted to a group like the FWBO are necessarily weak willed individuals seeking solace from the group in order to fill an inner emptiness or to provide some sense of purpose in their lives. On the contrary, newcomers are usually active, well motivated people who can respond to a new challenge or adventure. The FWBO and similar groups are not especially interested in drifters. They much prefer active, good quality recruits, whose energy and talents they can utilise for their own purposes. In fact, ambitious people sometimes make the best recruits.
Successful businesses identify and target relevant aspirational groups in order to market their products and services, and the FWBO does the same. The FWBO's main target audience could perhaps be described as liberal altruists. Teachers and social workers, and those of a broadly similar disposition.
The FWBO quietly but actively markets itself. The status of a Registered Charity, the general good name of Buddhism, and Sangharakshita's status as a learned monk, and his claimed friendship with the Dalai Lama among others, are all used to enhance the image of the FWBO among its target audience. The FWBO offers public classes and courses, and newcomers are encouraged, by publicity material and by the enthusiasm of established members, to believe that the FWBO has something of value to offer. They are encouraged to aspire towards the (claimed) humanitarian and spiritual ideals of the group. Newcomers who do begin to actively aspire to these ideals are generally referred to within the FWBO as 'Friends'; later they can progress to the status of 'mitra' (student) as they begin to attend classes regularly and become more deeply involved.
Their individual aspirations provide the motivation and the fuel which
drives the FWBO as a whole.
Meditation is a reputable practice which in the right context can have beneficial effects. Meditation is somewhat dependent on its context, and in Buddhist teaching, meditation practice is accompanied by the observance of ethical precepts. Meditation is a fairly familiar practice in the East, where it originated, and people there are less likely to have exaggerated expectations for it. This is not the case in the West. Meditation is still regarded as something slightly strange and exotic by many westerners, and various claims are made for it. In fact, shorn of the hype, meditation could be said, from a western point of view, to be a kind of more or less focused and directed variety of musing or even daydreaming (in a non pejorative sense of the word), and this general kind of state of mind is one with which most westerners are fairly familiar. Its just that they probably won't have ascribed any great virtue to it, and they probably won't have heard it described or interpreted as 'meditation'.
A meditative state is more akin in Western terms to being entranced by a sense of wonderment at the beauty of nature, or to being absorbed in artistic enjoyment, as for example while listening to a favourite piece of music, or whilst ensconced in a book. This attitude or state of mind was famously described by the poet Coleridge as 'a willing suspension of disbelief' (B1). Keats similarly described it as being a state of mind in which a person 'is capable of being in uncertainties, Mysteries, doubts; without any irritable reaching after fact & reason' (B2).
By its nature, this sort of state of mind can only be appreciated subjectively and experientially. It is not very amenable to objective analysis. This is both a virtue and a danger. One danger is that this 'willing suspension of disbelief' can be taken advantage of within the context of a mind control environment. While meditation or meditative states of mind do not in themselves amount to mind control, they can help the mind control process, by inhibiting or suspending discursive rational analysis (i.e. thinking things through) in favour of an imaginative or inspired response, free from 'any irritable reaching after fact & reason'. Meditation within the context of a mind-control environment can help to soften a person up intellectually and emotionally, and thus help to prepare a fertile ground for the other component strands of mind control. Meditation within the context of Buddhist ethical practise (sila), or within some equivalent context, will not have this effect.
There are other practices sometimes used by groups like the FWBO, such as 'communication exercises' (also used by Scientology) which seem to have a sort of sub-meditative effect, in that these exercises do tend to inhibit discursive rational analysis. However, they lack meditation's ability to inspire and to stimulate the imagination. This element may be provided by other more emotionally stimulating activities, such as some kinds of inspirational singing, or simply by the enthusiasm of established members.
Many groups seem to make use of some form of meditative practice to
encourage this often inspiring and intoxicating 'suspension of disbelief',
even if it is not always described as meditation. Certainly it is prominent
within the FWBO; Friends and mitras are encouraged to do as much meditation
as they feel able to, and the cult leader describes meditation as:
'the heartbeat of the Movement.'
This is probably the trickiest element to analyse.
The word 'paradox' has a range of meanings. In one sense, it can mean a statement or situation which is seemingly absurd though perhaps actually well founded. Science contains a number of paradoxes of this kind. There is also the self-referential paradox, which contradicts itself. The best known example of this is a person who says 'Everything I say is a lie'. (If this is a true statement, then it must be a lie.) In general, a paradox is a statement which is partly true, partly untrue or contradictory, and partly perplexing.
Life is complex and often paradoxical. Human nature is paradoxical. Paradoxes are also well established in Buddhist teaching, as for example the Zen koan of 'the sound of one hand clapping'. Because the rational mind cannot easily deal with these kinds of paradoxes, and tends to give up on them after a period of time, meditative contemplation of paradoxes is fairly widely used within traditional Buddhism as a method of neutralising or by-passing the rational, discursive mind, or of 'stilling the mind.' The aim is to foster a more direct, intuitive awareness of reality, freed from the interposition of mental views and preconceptions, which are regarded in Buddhism as mental attachments tending to bind individuals to a cycle of ignorance and suffering.
In the FWBO, however, these traditional Buddhist techniques and practices, involving the meditative contemplation of paradoxes, are not used to encourage a student's own natural insight. Instead, paradoxical concepts and assertions are used to cast doubts in a student's mind about their own existing attitudes and affiliations, beliefs, characteristics, and personal abilities. The aim is to disorientate them and to undermine their self confidence and self-reliance, so that it is easier to manoeuvre them into a double bind. Taking as an example, a self-referential paradox from the FWBO: 'spiritual life begins with awareness, when one becomes aware that one is unaware, or when one wakes up to the fact that one is asleep'(B4).
Venus and Mars (detail Mars), Botticelli
The beauty of this kind of formulation (from a cult's point of view) is that this kind of assertion can never actually be disproved, because any reluctance to accept this teaching, or its implications, can always be ascribed to a student's own un-awareness and spiritual sleepiness. A student is unable to refute this, because the proof or disproof of this kind of assertion rests on a (hypothetical) level of spiritual insight which is only accessible to spiritually advanced people, and not to a student, who by definition lacks the required level of spiritual awareness. This is circular argument, which can be used as a double bind, or Catch 22, so that whichever way a student turns, they can always be put in the wrong.
True awareness, on the other hand, can be developed through spiritual practice under the guidance of the FWBO. As the cult leader puts it: 'I see it [the spiritual life] in terms of a very definite transition from what we regard as a mundane way of seeing the world and experiencing the world, to what we would describe as a transcendental way, seeing it in terms of wisdom, seeing it in terms of real knowledge, seeing it in terms of ultimate reality, seeing it in terms of a truer, wider perspective' (B5). In other words, it is again being suggested that the student's existing understanding and perception of 'the world' is mundane and limited in its perspective.
This is a recurrent sub-text or hidden agenda of FWBO teachings: to suggest to an aspirant or student that their existing views and perceptions, habitual thought processes, and emotions are all flawed, and are in fact the primary source of all the unhappiness and dissatisfaction they may have previously experienced in their lives. If they wish to progress, and if they wish to begin to develop their true potential as individuals, they should give up their old ways, and make a positive effort to follow the new truer, wider perspective and understanding promoted by the group and its leadership. As the UK's Norwich Meditation Centre Summer '98 programme puts it: 'Buddhism offers clear and practical guidelines as to how men and women can realise their full potential for understanding and kindness. Meditation is a direct way of working on ourselves, to bring about positive change in our lives. We teach two simple and complementary meditations. One helps us develop a calm, clear, focused mind; the other transforms our emotional life, enabling us to enjoy greater self-confidence and positivity towards others.'
The (paradoxical) assertions which tend to be the most effective in persuading a newcomer to buy into the group's values and accept the benefits of 'positive change' in their lives are the kind which are plausible and which seem to contain an element of truth. For example: 'We are psychologically conditioned by our race, by our class and by the work that we do....by the social and economic system of which we are a part and by the religion into which we are born or in which we have been brought up. All this goes to show we are just a mass of psychological conditioning: a class conditioning, plus an economic conditioning, plus a religious conditioning, plus a national conditioning, plus a linguistic conditioning. There is very little, in fact, that is really ours, really our own....that is really, in a word, us.'(B6).
This kind of teaching can, in a way, act as a psycho-active agent, almost
like a drug. Once lodged in a person's mind, the concepts and subtexts
embodied in this kind of paradoxical assertion can change the way a person
thinks. And because these assertions are often, as in the above example,
almost certainly partly true, they can be very hard to refute and to dislodge
Different cults each tend to have their own characteristic set of key words and assertions which they will use to criticise and undermine an aspirant's reliance on their own reasoning ability and judgement. In a Christian based cult such as the Moonies, for example, doubts or reservations which a student may have about aspects of the group's teaching, may be blamed on Satan or a spirit putting evil thoughts into the student's mind in order to try and prevent them from reaching towards God. In Scientology, to take another example, such doubts or reservations may be ascribed to the influence of 'engrams', unconscious conditionings from past lives which block the student's energy and prevent them from reaching their full potential.
The key point is that, logically, the kind of paradoxical assertions (and potential double binds) quoted above can neither be proved nor disproved, and therefore they are insoluble and impenetrable. By their nature, and because their proof or disproof rests on a (hypothetical) level of spiritual insight which is only accessible to spiritually advanced people, these assertions cannot be subject to independent or empirical verification. They are in a sense irrefutable. They are non-falsifiable, in Popper's terms (B7). They can only be taken on trust.
Karl Popper was Professor of Logic and Scientific Method at the London School of Economics from 1949 -1969, and is perhaps best known for his criterion of 'falsifiability'.
A statement of the form 'All crows are black' is a falsifiable statement, because one properly authenticated observation of a white crow is sufficient to show that the statement is false, despite any number of observations of black crows. In other words, the statement is capable of being disproved through empirical evidence, and can be modified to a more appropriate form which includes the proviso 'except for albino crows', or which changes 'all' to 'most'..
Popper criticised, for example, Darwin's Theory of Evolution as being non-falsifiable. It is incapable of being disproved. If a person or organisation wished to test the theory, how could evidence be gathered? The enquiring individual or organisation would have had to be around for tens of millions of years, and to have invented language, proper scientific trials, etc. Its not possible. Popper didn't say that Darwin's theory was necessarily wrong, only that it was non-falsifiable.
An assertion of the form: 'Spiritual life begins when one realises that one is not as aware as one could be' is a non-falsifiable assertion. It is a one-way street. While any number of people within a group may observe (or say that they believe) that they have become more aware following the group's spiritual guidance, a person who questions this or who observes (or believes) that they themselves have not become more aware following the group's spiritual guidance, cannot establish this as a valid observation, because it can easily be argued that this 'negative' observation results from that person's own deficiencies of spiritual awareness or aptitude, and not from any deficiencies in the group's spiritual guidance. A person can never actually disprove an assertion that they are deficient in spiritual awareness. How can they refute or disprove such an assertion?
Many of these kinds of irrefutable (and ultimately insoluble) paradoxical assertions (IPA's) used by various cults seem to pose a question or challenge of the following general form:
If you are not free [or failing to live up to your true potential, etc. etc.], because of your 'conditioning' [or insert equivalent IPA from your favourite cult], what do you do about it? Do you:
(a). Give in and accept the situation?
(b). Try and break free?
You can of course refuse to answer the question. However, if your answer is (b), then this implies some agreement with the assertion that you are 'conditioned' [or equivalent IPA]. To some degree, you have entered an insoluble self-referential paradox and also a potential double bind. The paradox is: how can you attempt to break free when any or all of your thoughts and actions may be at least partly the result of 'conditioning' (or ego, or the influence of a malignant spirit, or some other IPA.)? If you decide on a course of action on your own account, how do you know whether or not your decision is partly or wholly the result of your unconscious 'conditioning', or in other words whether you haven't simply been programmed to act in this way and are not actually making a free decision at all. By its paradoxical nature, this kind of question can never be satisfactorily answered.
This places an aspirant in a difficult position. They now have to decide for themselves, alone and without any outside reference, whether or not to place any trust in their new friends, and in the spiritual guidance offered by the group. (Remember that there are no independent or objective means of testing the validity of the group's claims and assertions; they can only be taken on trust). If they do not trust the group, then effectively they must break off contact with them. If, on the other hand, they decide to give the group the benefit of the doubt, or if they allow themselves to be drawn in by the emotional warmth and friendliness of existing members, or to feel inspired by the (claimed) humanitarian and spiritual ideals of the group, then they may be vulnerable.
In short, an aspirant has to decide between leaving the group, or 'opening up' and beginning to trust the group. This decision is the crux, or pivotal point, of mind control.
If a person does begin to trust the FWBO and its teachings, then they will be led towards discounting their own opinions as conditioned and unreliable (as outlined earlier), and towards relying on the group norms for guidance. Giving just two more examples of IPAs from the FWBO: 'Bodhi [insight]....consists in taking a very deep, clear, profound look into oneself, and seeing how, on all the different levels of one's being, one is conditioned, governed by the reactive mind, reacting mechanically, automatically, on account of past psychological conditionings of which only too often one is largely unconscious.' (B8) and: 'in order to experience reality...one must break through the rational mind, even break down the rational mind, and only then can one break through into Buddhahood.' (B9).
Partly through giving credence to this irrefutable and rather slippery kind of teaching, and partly because meditation practice also tends to inhibit rational analysis in favour of an imaginative response, a student's intellectual ability and discernment can become gradually muddled and blunted over a period of time, as the FWBO training process takes effect. To put it another way, these kind of IPA's tend to lock up logical thinking, because they are unanswerable.
Mentally boxed in and bamboozled by insoluble paradoxes, over a period of time an aspirant becomes less and less able to appreciate the sometimes quite subtle limitations and contradictions in this kind of teaching. They may not even be aware of these limitations. They fail to perceive how the simplistic, one-sided way these paradoxes and partial truths are applied in the FWBO offends common sense, and also contradicts the traditional Buddhist teaching of the Middle Way (i.e. avoiding extremes of doctrine or practice). They fail to see how they are being manoeuvred into a corner. They fail to see how their established ideas are being systematically replaced by new ones They mistake conformity for wisdom and insight..
Aspiring order members are trained and habituated over a period of time into seeing these new ideas, these insoluble paradoxical assertions and partial truths, as in fact embodying profound spiritual truths. Once this training has taken hold, the student will, in practice, no longer be fully able to think for themselves, independently of group support and confirmation.
The exercise of free will sometimes requires courage, and in general free will cannot really be exercised unless it is supported by a sufficient degree of self confidence. It is dependent on self confidence. A component of this self confidence is some confidence in one's ability to think rationally. It is this particular aspect of self confidence which is eroded by the use of IPA's within a mind control environment.
That is essentially how the FWBO ultimately subverts an individual's free will, leaving that person less able to act independently and to protect their own interests against manipulation by the FWBO leadership.
It is probably the main reason why established cult members are sometimes seen by outsiders as being weak willed individuals who have difficulty in thinking for themselves. They tend to assume that this must have been why they joined the cult in the first place. Actually, the reverse is frequently the case; established members were often capable and well motivated people before they joined the cult, and it was the cult indoctrination process that changed them and made them reluctant to think independently.
The rejection of independent rational thought can be quite marked in the case of established FWBO members, who will typically make statements such as: 'Everything is ungraspable' (B10), and: 'We always have to be aware that our ...uh,... what we think, is not true, until enlightenment.' (B11)
Re-orientation through Peer Group Pressure and False Friendship.
FWBO Order Members at 1978 Convention; Sangharakshita right foreground.
Peer group pressure is generally recognised as being an important motivator in human behaviour, and as such is obviously not confined just to cults. However, in a group like the FWBO, the peer group is somewhat hermetic and isolated from the wider society. Membership is tightly controlled, and all executive positions are filled by the cult leader's appointees. Difficult newcomers can be frozen out fairly easily.
As previously mentioned, a person doesn't choose a cult; the cult chooses them. Promising newcomers are quietly targeted and made to feel welcome. They are tempted by the prospect of friendship, of 'spiritual community', and 'loving kindness' (similar to the 'love bombing' or false friendship in other cults). As the cult leader, Sangharakshita, puts it: 'A lot of people feel very isolated, very alone, and they're quite desperate for some kind of deeper human communication. And they make the point that they find the FWBO a very, very friendly body, and they find within it a welcome and friendship such as they hadn't experienced before in their lives.' (B12).
The cult leader, Sangharakshita, is held in high regard by FWBO members, who will typically express sentiments such as: 'I find that amazing that, you know, you just do get this sense of tremendous wisdom, and incredible kindness, whenever I hear of anybody having met with him .... or postcards he sends out, and things like this .... just an incredibly kind appreciation of all .... hundreds of people. His capacity is quite extraordinary' (murmurs of agreement).(B13)
The aim of FWBO peer group pressure is to gain the trust and affection of prospective members, and to encourage them to aspire towards the (claimed) spiritual ideals of the FWBO. Established members can have a vested interest in doing this, because it tends to enhance their own feeling of security and status within the group. In that sense, there is a kind of pyramid sales or chain letter type of nexus in operation (B14). The cult leader describes 'spiritual friendship' in this way: '...the good friend becomes by insensible degrees the trusted counsellor, the trusted counsellor the spiritual guide or guru, the guru the Bodhisattva, the Bodhisattva the Buddha...' (A16).
In other words, FWBO recruiters will not tend to see themselves as 'recruiters',
and certainly not as 'trust bandits', but rather as spiritual counsellors.
At the same time, rival influences are minimised, in general by subtly
denigrating outside society (and especially families) as being spiritually
asleep and therefore a source of negativity, dissatisfaction and suffering.
While it is possible to practice Buddhism or meditation on one's own, it is generally agreed that some contact with a teacher is beneficial. The leader of the FWBO, Sangharakshita, puts it in this way: 'Meditation cannot be learned from books. In the course of our meditation practice many questions and difficulties will arise which the information that you find in books simply does not cover. One needs personal instruction and guidance, and this must come from a personal source, from someone who has some experience of meditation and is able to impart it to others.' (B3)
The relationship between a teacher and a student is quite variable within Buddhism. The relationship can be either formal and explicit, as for example in the case of a novice monk in a monastery, or it can be purely implicit and informal, as for example in the case of a Westerner who is slightly interested in Buddhism. Obviously there is a wide range of possibilities in between these two poles. In all instances, however, a student must have some degree of trust in and respect for a teacher, otherwise the relationship cannot really function. Equally of course, a teacher must balance this with an appropriate respect for their student's integrity as an individual, if the relationship is not to become one sided and possibly abusive.
This mutuality of respect is exemplified within the Buddhist tradition
by, for example, the Zen saying, or koan, that the only difference between
a Zen Master and an ordinary person is that the Zen Master knows that there
is no difference and the ordinary person doesn't. It is also an important
part of Western culture, as for example in the classical concept of education
as a process of 'leading out' or 'drawing out' a student's own innate talents
Obviously, there are inherent ambiguities and contradictions within this relationship, and it is these ambiguities which the FWBO is able to exploit. Essentially, the FWBO subverts the traditional teacher-student relationship into something more akin to a master-servant relationship, as illustrated for example by concepts such as 'spiritual hierarchy' (B15). and by statements such as 'in bondage to the will of a virtuous friend resides the secret of perfect spiritual freedom.' (A16).
Deceit and Duplicity (detail), Richard Dadd
Sangharakshita describes the 'spiritual hierarchy' of the FWBO in the following terms: 'There's no democracy in the Western Buddhist Order! .... It's a hierarchy, but a spiritual one.... It is the broad feeling that there is in someone, or in certain people, something higher and better than yourself to which you can look up.... It's a good, positive thing to be able to look up to someone! If you can't, you're in a pretty difficult position. You're in a sad state.... like a child that hasn't even got a mother and father to look up to....But this sort of assertion, that you're just as good as anybody else in the egalitarian sense, is really sick.' (B15).
Peer group pressure or false friendship on its own is not generally sufficient to convert someone to the FWBO vision of reality. It is also necessary to change the way a person thinks of themselves, privately within their own mind, by using the combination of meditation plus insoluble paradoxes and double binds as described earlier. As a person's view of themselves, or their personal paradigm, gradually changes (and in a sense breaks down), the FWBO vision becomes increasingly credible and attractive as a way forward. It is in this situation, as a person begins to feel slightly uncertain in themselves, that peer group pressure or emotional manipulation, presented as 'spiritual community', becomes able to work in concert with the preceding elements. All four strands must work together, over a period of time, for mind control to be effective.
New members are gradually encouraged to do more meditation and study, to move into an FWBO single-sex community, to deepen their commitment, to 'go for refuge' and so on, so that all four strands of mind control begin to operate together, in a mutually reinforcing pattern. For example, a member's practice of 'metta bhavana' meditation (lit. 'development of loving kindness') is often directed towards other group members, and this tends to encourage emotional allegiance to the group. This particular practice could be said to include the first, second and fourth strands. It is also a practice which can encourage an intoxicating feeling of 'inspiration', as mentioned earlier. It is often followed by a period of group chanting, which would include all four elements; the chanting will generally include lines such as: 'So, in emptiness, no form / No feeling, thought or choice / Nor is there consciousness'(B16). There is no doubt that 40 minutes of meditation, followed by 20 minutes of this kind of chanting, which is typical of the weekly FWBO Friends' Night, tends to leave many of its participants somewhat spaced out and uncommunicative, and this can be witnessed at any FWBO public centre.
In a sense, being just slightly brainwashed is, within the context of a organised cult, practically as bad as being fully brainwashed. Once the cult has gained a toehold within a person's mind, once it has established even a small degree of trust and deference, it has a person hooked (if not yet landed), and it can require some kind of outside intervention, fortuitous or planned, to break the spell.
In practice, in the FWBO, the whole mind control process takes from six months to several years to take effect. The process could be said to be effectively completed and consolidated by the time the student or mitra formally acknowledges and 'goes for refuge' to the 'spiritual hierarchy' (B15) of the FWBO, and is given ordination and a new name.
Or as the cult leader, Sangharakshita, expresses it: 'I hope that, having made contact with the FWBO, you will make a closer and closer contact with that current of spiritual energy which is our new Buddhist movement. And I hope that, sooner or later, you will allow that current to sweep you away.'(B17)
Within society at large, there are various kinds of groups and organisations which may appear to share some of the characteristics of a cult, such as the use of, for example, emotional pressure from a peer group, with an implied threat of ostracisation, or, for example, long working hours and lack of sleep.
The unique and defining characteristic of a cult, the characteristic that sets a cult apart from other groups, has to be the systematic use of brainwashing or mind control techniques to change the way a person thinks, and thus to subvert a person's individual free will.
All four individual strands or elements which come together to form a mind control environment as described above are, in themselves, ethically neutral, and they all occur in various forms throughout general society. The effects can be beneficial or harmful, depending on the instance. It is the systematic use of all four elements together and in combination over a period of time, within the peculiar closed society of a group like the FWBO, which makes them a good deal more powerful, and which seems to be necessary to create a mind control environment. If a group or organisation exhibits only two or three of the above elements, then, in this definition at least, they are not a cult.
However, it is the combination of elements 2 and 3, meditation (or meditation like practices) plus double binds (in the form of insoluble paradoxes), which seems to be critical and which seems to form the crux of mind control. Therefore the presence of these two elements together would seem to be a strong indicator. Of the other elements, aspiration is necessary in order to provide both an initial lead-in and also a continuing motivation for members, and peer group pressure is necessary in order to consolidate and systematise the effects of elements 2 and 3 upon new members. In other words, mind control plus organisation equals a cult.
Much of the general public debate about cults has been within the restraints of a broadly sociological perspective and methodology, and the debate has broadly tended to concentrate on what in this analysis has been termed the fourth strand; peer group pressure or social organisation. While established methodologies are undoubtedly capable of generating useful insights, they are also hampered by the fact that the governing paradigms of scientific and academic enquiry are poorly adapted to tackle the tricky question of 'mind' or 'consciousness'. There is an observable tendency to evade the question of consciousness or to marginalise it as subjective and therefore not capable of objective consideration. Attentive readers may spot a self-referential paradox there.
Because mind control by definition occurs largely within the privacy of an individual's own mind, affecting as it does their ideas and the way they think (strands 2 and 3 in this analysis), any analysis of the cult phenomenon which fails to give adequate consideration to these 'subjective' aspects and considers only the group or 'objective' aspects (4th strand) can only really succeed in painting half the picture.
English civil law makes use of the concept of 'a balance of probabilities' and the legal system generally is also able to consider subjective factors such as, for example, a person's motives, or, in some cases, a person's state of mind. It may be, therefore, that the legal system could provide a forum for determining whether or not systematic mind control can be used to restrict a person's liberty of mind and whether any such restriction is legal or illegal; see section 5
It may be technically possible for an organisation to be a cult in the above definition and yet to be wholly or partly beneficial. Mind control is a powerful process, and in a sense can be used beneficially, for example to cure people of drug addiction, through reorienting their personalities away from addiction. One of the UK's leading cult experts said that she first became interested in cults when she became aware that cults were using techniques similar to those that were being used therapeutically within the medical profession in order to cure people of drug addiction. Rev. Jim Jones (of the Jonestown massacre) started off as a drugs counsellor in New York. The Scientologists claim to be able to cure people of drug addiction, and they probably can. The FWBO has plans to set up a drug rehabilitation unit with help from Dutch Bank Triodos.
The problem is of course that abuses can occur when powerful techniques
are used in a situation without proper checks and balances. So while it
may be technically possible for a cult to be wholly beneficial, given human
nature and the temptations which are open to cult leaders, such cults are
comparatively rare. Most cults sooner or later are revealed to have fallen
prey to their leadership's desires for adulation, money, power, or sex.
Cults in general are dominated by their leaders, and members, especially those who have immersed themselves in the cult's mind-control environment for a number of years, tend to derive much of their outlook on life from the leader's teachings. Members who seriously question the leader's teaching will be ostracised or expelled. Consequently both individual members and also the cult as a whole will often seem to mirror in various ways the personality and preoccupations of their leader. Just as there is a range of human personality types, similarly there seems to be a range of types of cult. At the extreme end of the range, if the leader is an incipient paranoid schizophrenic with a persecution complex, then society may be faced with a death cult, as seems to have been the case with Koresh's group, for example. While both the actual and the potential activities of cults rightly cause great concern to those who know how powerful mind control techniques can be, the FWBO itself is not among the most dangerous of cults, and to the best of my knowledge, the group has never shown any tendency towards physical violence. The FWBO leader, Sangharakshita, may suffer from considerable hubris, but he is not mad or violent.
Cult leaders usually take great care to keep both themselves and their
organisations opaque and non-accountable to any outside authority. In the
case of the FWBO, Sangharakshita has the advantage that few people in the
UK are likely to know enough about Buddhism to be able to see that the
FWBO version departs significantly from the original. There are checks
and balances within the mainstream religion to counter the harm that misguided
teachers can cause to themselves and to others. Indeed, the Buddha himself
warned that his teaching was 'profound, hard to see, hard to understand'
and also that it was like a poisonous snake; if grasped incorrectly, it
will turn round and bite, and a person may come to harm (B18). To counter
this danger, the Buddha advised that his followers should 'assemble together
repeatedly and in large numbers' (B19), presumably in order to compare
their experience and understanding of his teaching, and to evaluate variations.
However, the FWBO has been effectively isolated from any real contact with mainstream Buddhists, who are prevented from becoming members of the FWBO (see Appendix D) and so this potential balancing factor is absent. For example: 'The less the FWBO is involved with "Buddhist groups" and with individuals affiliated to existing Buddhist traditions the better.'(Appendix A3)
There are rules purporting to govern the management of the FWBO, which have been approved by the Charities Commission, but again, these rules are circumvented and are not followed in practice. (Appendix D again). Thus the cult leader, Sangharakshita, is effectively answerable to no-one outside the cult. Within the cult, he is able through the mind control process to produce malleable disciples who recognise and accept his position at the top of the FWBO's 'spiritual hierarchy'. (B15).
By no means everyone who encounters the FWBO will be drawn in, so clearly mind control techniques are not all powerful. Two critical factors seem to be timing and targeting. As regards the first factor, perhaps the most dangerous time is when a person is undergoing some change or uncertainty or re-evaluation in their lives, for example when leaving home to begin college, leaving college to enter the job market, changing jobs, or after a bereavement, and this kind of situation can present a chance for a cult recruiter. People who maintain an established career and circle of friends are less likely to be drawn in to any depth.
As regards targeting, different groups do vary in their methods, but all are more or less selective. In the FWBO, relatively few members come in straight off the street. More usually, initial contact is established when someone comes along to try meditation at the local Centre on the recommendation of a personal friend. Sometimes the initial contact is through an interest in Buddhism, or Yoga, or Tai-Chi, or through one of the FWBO's Arts Centres. The element of friendship is essential. Mind control will not work unless a basis of personal friendship and trust is developed first. Once this has been established, then in a sense all a cult has to do is to take things steadily and avoid frightening the newcomer or aspirant off.
In general, groups like the FWBO have a hierarchical or pyramid type of structure. At the lowest level, members are part-timers who are only partially committed to the group and are who are only lightly brainwashed. All the cult leadership really requires of this level is that members should speak well of the group and be generally positive. Members at this level have little power or influence, and are unlikely to be aware of the full range of the cult's teachings.
Although the most successful FWBO members are skilled at judging a person's 'open-ness' and 'receptivity', and will focus on the best prospects, it still takes patience and effort to brainwash someone using mind control, and even then the effort isn't always successful. For this practical reason, therefore, strong mind control is generally only applied to selected individuals who are perceived to be not only receptive, but who also have something that the group leadership wants. Sometimes this is money or sex, but often it is some practical or business skill which is desired by the group leadership in order to expand the group or to raise money. The greater majority of members are not specially targeted, and are only relatively lightly brainwashed.
In other words, the FWBO is not a wholly consistent organisation, and individual experiences of the group may vary considerably. There are different levels to the organisational structure, rather like Chinese Boxes, and a person involved at a more superficial level may find it genuinely difficult to believe what goes on in some of the more committed levels of membership, for example the conversion of heterosexuals towards homosexuality, and the encouragement and practice of homosexuality as a (claimed) medium of 'spiritual friendship' in some of the FWBO's single sex communities.
Members who have not been specially targeted and who have nevertheless enjoyed the warmth and friendship of the group without really having been exposed to its darker side, will tend to think well of the group, and may be puzzled by criticisms of it. These members can be used as a public relations shield, to counter any allegations against the group, and to reassure new members. This is a major defence mechanism for the FWBO and for similar well organised groups, who are able to draw on the support of a large number of these positive members willing to testify to the benefits of group involvement. Individual critics can be simply outnumbered and their criticisms discredited.
In fact this positive group is useful not only for defence, but is also a potent marketing tool. The group network amounts to a well motivated and professional sales force that would be the envy of many businesses. They run a pyramid sales operation, marketing spiritual freedom. The FWBO, a relatively small cult, has an annual turnover in the region of £5 - £10 million, which, with Charity status, is largely unregulated and tax free.
The FWBO devotes great care to maintaining its public credibility, for
without it the group would have difficulty attracting new members. It also
benefits from a number of obstacles which confront potential critics. Firstly,
because of the above modus operandi (where strong mind control is applied
only to selected individuals and not to the group as a whole), critics
are always in a numerical minority. Secondly, if a critic's exposure to
the FWBO and its mind control practices is relatively slight, they are
unlikely to have enough inside information about the group to be able to
challenge them effectively. If, on the other hand, they have been more
deeply involved, and they have been exposed and habituated to mind control
to a greater extent, they are likely to find it very difficult to actually
break away from the group.
If they do manage to break away, they are likely to experience feelings of anxiety and disorientation once out of the group, and they may experience possibly severe internal conflicts and other difficulties while trying to rid themselves of their cult manufactured personality and way of thinking. These difficulties can include social isolation and long term clinical depression, and may also, in a small number of cases, have led to suicide. As Dr. Lifton (Appendix A13) puts it: 'The two selves [cult and non-cult] can exist simultaneously and confusedly for a considerable time, and it may that the transition periods are the most intense and psychologically painful as well as the most potentially harmful.'. It can be very difficult regaining confidence in one's own intellectual and emotional integrity, while faced on the one side with hostile cult members, who are likely to describe criticisms as 'despicable' or 'really sick', and on the other a society largely uninformed about, and therefore seemingly indifferent to, mind control techniques and their consequences.
In general, there appears to be little systematic research done into the after effects of cult involvement. Although there is a good deal of anecdotal evidence, it is difficult to quantify this or to put it into an appropriate perspective. It is not clear, for example, whether adverse reactions are relatively common and typical, or uncommon and atypical. It is difficult to know to what extent any adverse reactions may be due to cult involvement and to what extent they may be due to other independent factors. It is difficult to define terms, and the threat of litigation may also inhibit research in some instances.
Nevertheless there is a substantial body of concern about cults and the effect that they can have upon their victims. This concern has been expressed for example by former RAF psychiatrist, Dr. Gordon Turnbull, who debriefed hostages Terry Waite and John McCarthy, and who sees similarities between them and some former cult members. In a Newsnight report on cults ( BBC2 16th July 1993), Dr. Turnbull commented that:
'There are, obviously, great similarities between hostages who have been kidnapped, who have been rescued, and cult victims who are re-emerging into normal life. The phenomena, the features of their regaining of control and regaining of responsibility are very similar. The symptoms that they display are similar too. The great difficulty is, however, that the symptoms closely resemble symptoms of major psychiatric illness.' [see also Appendices A11 and A19].
It is questionable at the present time whether FWBO victims are likely to get much help from other Buddhists; a meeting of the UK Network of Buddhist Organisations in early 1996 vetoed a proposal to set up a Buddhist Helpline as potentially 'divisive'.
Even if, with the support and understanding of family and friends, they manage to free themselves from the after effects of cult involvement, a potential critic is then faced with the difficulty that any allegations concerning such matters as undue influence or mind control are by their nature somewhat abstruse and very hard to prove. Additionally, there may well be the threat of litigation to consider. All in all, the odds tend to favour the cult. (B20)
Besides the harm that can be caused to individuals who become directly involved, the activities of cults like the FWBO may have wider consequences. Essentially, cults tend to give ethical and religious values a bad name.
Just as forged money only works if there is some real money around for it to imitate, cults in general tend to disguise themselves with a variety of established religious or spiritual or altruistic or therapeutic philosophies and ideas, in order to present an attractive face to potential members. Some people refer to cults as 'New Religious Movements', without making a distinction. Through their misappropriation by various cults, many of these philosophies and ideas, which ordinarily may be valuable aspects of human society and culture, have to some extent been made disreputable and the subject of cynicism.
Well publicised and visible manifestations of cultic abuse add to a
prevailing atmosphere of distrust of religion and cynicism about the motivations
of its leaders. To some degree, this atmosphere of distrust and cynicism
tends to undermine or devalue the general social and cultural ethos of
society, much as the presence of forged money in circulation tends to devalue
the general financial currency. This in turn tends to inhibit both the
free expression of, and the free enjoyment of, ethical and cultural values
by individuals within society. To the extent that the activities of cults
encourage this distrust and cynicism, to that extent they reduce the quality
of life for everyone. It is a issue of human ecology and culture.
Notes and sub-appendices to Section 2: 'What is a Cult?'
B1. Coleridge, Biographia Literaria, Chapter XIV. See also 'A Dictionary of Literary Terms', A.Cuddon, pub. André Deutsch 1977, or similar dictionaries.
B2. John Keats described this state of mind as 'negative capability' (see dictionary as above) in a letter to his brothers George and Thomas, 21st. December, 1817.
B3. Sangharakshita, Mitrata Omnibus, page 125. pub. FWBO 1981. [ need meditation teacher ]
B4. Sangharakshita, 'Mind - Reactive and Creative', page 8, pub. FWBO 1971.[ wakes up to the fact that one is asleep ]
B 5. Sangharakshita, 'Going for Refuge', T.V. programme, BBC East 12.11.92. [ truer, wider perspective ]
B 6. Sangharakshita, Mitrata 10: 'Breaking Through into Buddhahood', p. 7, pub FWBO 1976. [ we are just a mass of psychological conditioning ]
B7. Sir Karl Popper, Professor of Logic and Scientific Method, London School of Economics, 1949-1969. See a Philosophical Dictionary for 'falsifiability'.
B 8. Sangharakshita, Mitrata Omnibus, page 38, pub. FWBO (Windhorse publications)1980 [ Bodhi -insight into conditioning ]
B 9. Sangharakshita, Mitrata 10: 'Breaking Through into Buddhahood', page 9, pub FWBO 1976. [breaking down rational mind ]
B 10. Vessantara (order member), public talk, Assembly Rooms, Norwich, 28.4.94.
B 11. FWBO Order member (Identity Protected), conversation 28.3.1994..
B 12 Sangharakshita, 'Going for Refuge', T.V. programme, BBC East 12.11.92. [ very, very friendly body ]
B 13. Rupachitta (FWBO member), 'Going for Refuge', T.V. programme, BBC East 12.11.92. [ tremendous wisdom ]
B 14. For a more detailed discussion of Social Psychology and Group Dynamics in cults, see Steven Hassan, 'Combatting Cult Mind Control' page 58ff. Pub. Aquarian Press, 1988.
B 15 'The Endlessly Fascinating Cry.' A Sangharakshita seminar on the Bodhicaryavatara, transcribed and published FWBO, 1977, p.74-5. 'Spiritual hierarchy' appears to be a variety of 'doctrine over person' and 'dispensing of existence' described by Robert J. Lifton in his 'Eight Criteria of Mind Control' included as an appendix to B 14 above.
B 16. The Heart Sutra, FWBO Puja book 1975, page11. For a fuller description of some of the practices taught at FWBO meditation classes, see the FWBO's own promotional literature.
B 17. Sangharakshita, 'New Currents in Western Buddhism' page 93, pub FWBO (Windhorse publications) 1990 [ sweep you away ]
B 18. Majjhima-Nikaya, i, 132.
B 19. Digha-Nikaya, ii, 73
B 20 For details of possible legal protection against cults, see Section 5.
Cult Information Centre UK based site, with links to other sites.
Freedom of Mind Resource Center US based site from Steven Hassan, the author of 'Combatting Cult Mind Control'
Spiritual Responsibility: Avoiding Abuses and Pitfalls Along the Path A page from Steven Hassan's own site, which has an overview of cults from Lama Surya Das, an American trained in the Tibetan Buddhist tradition. This page also contains the classic 'Eight Criteria of Mind Control' by Robert J. Lifton.
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