The Goodness of a Cult Comes from Those it Abuses
When I report on institutional abuse in yoga and Buddhism I always discover that survivors were stripped of time, security, money, earning potential, educational opportunities, social status, family bonds, bodily autonomy and inner dignity. I hear stories of endless hours of unpaid labour, undertaken with the promise of salvation. I hear from members who were raped by leaders who told them it was for their spiritual good. They describe being silenced by enablers.
These details constitute the cultic crime scene. An organization has exploited its members, and left human wreckage. Their stories can be told, corroborated, fact-checked, and published. Innocent and earnest members of the organization will hope that accountability is possible, so that what they remember being good and wholesome about the organization can be salvaged.
But a bitter irony curdles this desire. So much of what an earnest group member will be nostalgic for — the beautiful singing, the communal meals, the tidy accommodations and lovely gardens — came from the organization’s encouragement and exploitation of the skills of those it abused.
This organizational capital isn’t limited to songs and salad greens and sandwiches. In many cases, it also informs the core content of the group. In the two cults I survived, it was unpaid cult members who transcribed, edited, published, and distributed all of the cult literature.
Those pamphlets, audio cassettes, and booklets were mostly directed at an in-group readership. But the same exploitative mechanics can produce a group’s most popular, front-facing texts. The bestselling 1973 breakout book of the Buddhist assaulter Chögyam Trungpa, Cutting Through Spiritual Materialism, was written by students squeezing sentences out of him over years. In 1992, the feat was repeated by another Buddhist assaulter and cult leader, Sogyal Lakar, when the Tibetan Book of Living and Dying was published under his name, built on two years of labour by devotees.
These two books served as recruitment literature into organizations where cultic dynamics flourished and ruined lives. And the leaders didn’t really write them.