This article is an electronic version of an article originally published in ICSA Today, Vol. 04, No. 03, page 30. Please keep in mind that the pagination of this electronic reprint differs from that of the bound volume. This fact could affect how you enter bibliographic information in papers that you may write.
ICSA Today, Vol. 4, No. 3, 2013, 30
Mushroom Satori: The Cult Diary
By Joseph Szimhart
Review by Marcia R. Rudin
Joseph Szimhart has written an interesting novel about a young man’s 10-year encounter with a Zen Buddhist group. Using the literary device of personal notebooks, Szimhart constructs his story around the experiences his protagonist Jake chronicles in diaries he gives to a cult specialist to read. Jake traces his initial attraction to the group, centered in a commune in New Mexico, and his gradual commitment to it. He describes how he and others slowly come to realize that the Japanese leader they know as “The Old Man” is abusive. Jake relates his departure from the group and his attempt to build a new life back at home with his family.
Jake is a seeker who quits school to try to find the meaning in life he has not found in the Catholicism in which his Polish family raised him. He is in a transition period in his life, and he is vulnerable. Jake believes he has found what he is searching for in an ostensibly benign, low-key Zen Buddhist group. Slowly, he is drawn in and learns to shut out the desires of his past life, as Buddhism requires.
But Jake begins to hear from former members of complaints about the leader and lawsuits against him. He realizes the leader changes his ideology to suit the circumstances and questions. The turning point comes when The Old Man severely beats Jake and other followers with a stick, justifying this physical abuse as part of his Zen teachings. Later, when the leader dies, his alcoholism and sexual behavior come to light. There are even questions about whether or not his death was a result of murder.
Jake finally leaves the group. He returns to his family and faces the challenge of rebuilding his life. Friends and family are welcoming and try to help him, but adjustment is difficult. He has a panic attack while attending his first Catholic Mass. During his first attempt to resume the sexual activities he had given up as part of the Buddhist lifestyle, he collapses from stress and a physiological reaction to a combination of alcohol and drugs. He is taken to a mental hospital. While in the hospital, Jake undergoes a hallucination he later interprets as a mystical experience. Szimhart leaves the reader with a sense of optimism that Jake will recover when he meets a woman and they fall in love.
Szimhart draws on his extensive knowledge of New Age philosophy, long involvement in cult research (since 1980, after he left the New Age Church Universal and Triumphant), and his experience as an intervention specialist since 1986. Although the large amount of exposition is awkward for a novel and sometimes takes the reader out of the story, we learn much about Buddhism and New Age thought. And Szimhart shows us how easily anyone, especially a vulnerable seeker, can be drawn into a group. He also illustrates how an apparently benign group can gradually transition into a destructive one, or can cleverly mask its true nature from the outset.
About the Author
Marcia Rudin, MA, has studied cults for 23 years[a]. Until her retirement in 1997, Ms. Rudin was the Founding Director of the International Cult Education Program, a preventive-education outreach of the American Family Foundation. She writes widely about cults and psychological manipulation and lectures on these topics throughout the United States and Canada. Ms. Rudin has co-authored two related books and has contributed, in various roles that include writer, co-producer, producer, and editor, to numerous International Cult Education Program videotapes, books, lesson plans, and newsletters. Ms. Rudin is a former Assistant Professor of Religion at William Paterson College. (firstname.lastname@example.org)