6 Tips to Avoid Cults & Abusive Teachers

Previously, I had written about how Buddhism is not a religion. However, many sects have taken on religious trappings. Even worse, many “Buddhist” teachers manipulate the Dharma to serve their own twisted egos, such sexual abuse of students at the hands of Mt. Baldy Zen Center’s Joshu SasakiTriratna founder Sangharakshita, and Osel Tendzin of Vajradhatu. Worst of all is the Tibetan tradition, which justifies abusive behavior as “crazy wisdom”, maintaining that “enlightened beings” are beyond criticism or reproach. One Tibetan lama, Sogyal “Rinpoche”, even went as far as punching devotees. Yet many unsuspecting students, especially Westerners, keep getting suckered into these cults. Today, we will discuss how to avoid abusive teachers on your spiritual journey.

  1. Question everything.
    Anything that we learn from our books or teachers must not be believed at face value. We must hold them to the scrutiny of our logic and individual experiences. This is why the Buddha said, “Don’t accept anything on the basis of reports, legends, traditions, scripture, conjecture, inference, analogies, agreement with views, probability, or the authority of your teacher. You must know for yourselves.” (Kalama Sutta). Thus, if a teacher ever asks you to suspend or repress your doubt, they are undoubtedly a fraud.
  2. Reject idolatry.
    A common feature of Tibetan and East Asian Buddhism is paying homage to a variety of bodhisattvas, dakinis, wisdom kings, and other deities. Furthermore, central to Vajrayana Buddhism are the samaya vows to revere one’s guru as a perfect deity in himself. All of this is idol worship, which is not what Buddha’s teachings are about. These practices only arose as a matter of adapting to the preexisting spiritual practices of Asian populations.
    If you mindlessly obey your guru, or pray to Amitabha ten thousand times a day, will your suffering really end? The answer is obviously no. Thus, if a teacher ever tells you to obey their every command to “gain merit”, or that they are the incarnation of Jesus/Maitreya/Vajrasattva/Shiva/Buddha/etc., they are undoubtedly a fraud.
  3. Drop things that don’t work.
    After becoming an ascetic, Siddhartha Gautama studied with a teacher, Alara Kalama, for three years in order to learn a special meditation. When he realized it wasn’t ending his suffering, he left to find a new teacher. After three more years studying with Uddaka Ramaputta, he once again realized that it wasn’t ending his suffering, and left again. The moral of the story is don’t be afraid to quit. We must honestly ask ourselves if this particular teacher or path is bringing an end to our anger, ill will, and suffering. If it’s not working, we must drop it.
  4. Take responsibility for yourself.
    Can your teacher live your life for you? Can your teacher take your place when you die? Of course not. So why would you let them tell you how to think? We cannot expect someone else to end our suffering or bestow wisdom and awakening upon us through pointless rituals, initiations, or transmissions. From the law of karma, we know that all suffering begins and ends with ourselves. Thus, we must reclaim our agency and be proactive in our spiritual journey.
  5. Remember: Teacher < Sutras < Science & Logic < Individual Experience
    The sutras are the body of texts compiled from Gautama Buddha’s teachings after his death. They are the definitive source of Buddhist wisdom, and translations are widely available on the internet. If your teacher contradicts the sutras, go with the sutras. If the sutras contradict science, go with science, because Buddhism must conform to reality. Finally, you must remember that individual direct experience is the ultimate arbiter of spiritual truth.
  6. Be compassionate towards yourself.
    The spiritual journey towards becoming your highest self can be painful and difficult. It can be hard to be honest with ourselves and admit when things are not working out. Many people who are stuck in an abusive relationship, whether domestic or spiritual, will deny reality or blame themselves for what has happened. By extending compassion towards ourselves, we can learn to treat ourselves with kindness and develop a healthy self-relationship. We can accept reality for how it actually is and gain the courage to free ourselves from this situation. Compassion takes true moral courage and starts with yourself.

With metta,



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