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Understanding Eastern Groups

Reprinted from AFF’s Cults and Psychological Abuse: A Resource Guide and AFF’s Cult Observer, Volume 14, Number 5, 1997.

Understanding Eastern Groups

Joseph P. Szimhart

In the twentieth century, dozens of migrating new religions and new versions of old ones have struggled to find acceptance in societies that view them suspiciously.

Unscrupulous leadership styles, aggressive recruiting and fundraising tactics, abuse of members, and an elitism that devalues or condemns outsiders are traits that have earned a “destructive cult” label for many of these new Eastern movements. In other cases strange rites, costumes, and language confuse outsiders who might suspect deception or elitism when there is neither.

More often than not the confusion comes from both sides of the culture mix as exotic leaders recruit natives of a different culture who neither understand the language nor grasp the real history of the group they join. Often the new leader is as influenced or changed by the new culture as new members are by the exotic teachings of a sect based on an old religion. As a result many of the new sects that stem from Eastern religions develop a hybrid character and content.

To better understand Eastern groups in American culture it helps to follow certain guidelines. First and foremost is to gather information by and about the group. Some notorious groups have accumulated a wealth of commentary from scholars as well as journalists. The problem here is to sort fact from distortion, so it is important to repeatedly ask the question, “what factors might detract from the reliability of this claim?” It also helps to be aware of one’s own bias, be it religious, political, scientific, or experiential. Relatively unknown Eastern groups or small, emerging groups tend to fit into some category of faith or philosophy: for example, Taoism, Mahayana Buddhism, Bhakti Yoga, neoShintoism or heretical Sikhism. More often a maverick leader has broken with a known sect or claims to revive or purify his or her native religion. It is extremely rare for a leader of a new group not to be influenced by a prior group. Sometimes the leader borrows from or syncretizes ideas from many traditions. How that new leader has changed prior teachings and rituals can help us understand the new purposes, meanings, and potential directions the group will take.

Second, I suggest you adopt a set of standards that not only apply to your own value system, but standards that reflect a wider, intercultural model of a healthy group. Then compare the evidence you have gathered from your most reliable sources and run down the checklist.  Some suggestions: Are there reliable checks and balances on the authority figures? Are the techniques and rituals in and of themselves potentially harmful? For instance, meditation is the most common technique of Eastern groups, yet the Eastern traditions often relate warnings about the dangers of meditation practice. Does the group have hidden agendas and double standards? Is the group more like a lucrative business for the leadership than a religion that serves all members equitably?

Eastern groups tend to revolve around the mystical revelations or enlightened status of the founder or leaders. More often than not, alleged magical and miraculous powers enhance the status of the guru. It is not uncommon for devotees of such gurus to submit to them as they would submit to “God.” Within some Eastern teachings total submission by a devotee is an honorable and sacred choice. Since revelation and enlightenment are highly subjective notions, the behaviors and actions of the leader and the group members might be the only objective criteria one has to evaluate and understand. It is not unusual for “enlightened” leaders to act as if the mundane morals and laws of average human beings do not apply to them. What are the leader’s “enlightened” attitudes and behaviors? How much power or influence does the leader have over devotees? Does enlightenment equal entitlement? The elegant and positive elements of any Eastern group are reflected not only through the experience and actions of its devotees, but also in how those devotees affect the society around them. The same holds true for corrupt elements.