Again with the cult thing

Question: Did you know that Nichiren was a cult leader? You’re in a cult. Why are you promoting a cult?

Hillcrest: I was first introduced to Nichiren Buddhism in Los Angeles, where The Organization I Won’t Name has a huge presence. They market chanting as a self-improvement and prosperity scheme.

Youngish people like me were so grateful to The Org for “helping us get our lives together.” Leaders of The Org pressured us into setting a daily routine of chanting morning and evening. Guess what? Having a regular daily routine did wonders for my job performance. As an insolent 20-something, I had not yet developed good life skills, so this seemed like a miraculous transformation.

The Org provided me with new friends and almost nightly activities — chanting, meetings, lectures — so I went out to bars less frequently. Guess what? This also did wonders for my job performance. I got promotions and raises. I started a serious romantic relationship. Leaders praised me for “manifesting” these “benefits.”

I attributed my sudden success to my newfound practice of Nichiren Buddhism. Now, looking back, I realize that I would have had similar results if, without chanting, I had established responsible habits for myself.

The Org became culty when my life became more complicated. I was no longer happy in my job or my relationship. Leaders suggested I wasn’t chanting sincerely enough. I wasn’t working hard enough on behalf of The Org. I wasn’t bringing in enough new members, or giving “heartfelt” financial contributions.

I kicked myself. I felt like I didn’t understand Nichiren Buddhism. But really, it had nothing to do with Nichiren Buddhism. It was all social pressure and emotional manipulation to keep me in service to The Org and its charismatic “sensei,” a wealthy Japanese political figure regarded as the Supreme Mentor.

Jutta: My experience is similar. When you’re going through pain, adversity, or self-doubt, you find out who are your true friends in faith. Those who cared most about me urged me to separate myself from The Org. What I needed was something more like a church with a gentle environment of social support with potluck dinners and people unashamed to be going through their own problems. This is the difference between a religious cult and a non-cult. A cult involves pressure and mind-games. A non-cult is just people muddling through life trying to nourish their spirits.

NoNoNanjo: We should be clear that we are talking about “cults” as groups of people involved in unbalanced power dynamics or coercive control. “Cult” can also mean a religious sect. Nichiren Buddhism has many sects. (As does every religion.) Nichiren Buddhism is a collection of teachings practiced by a wide variety of groups. Yes, there are cults calling themselves Nichiren Buddhist. I think we should start by spelling out the characteristics of a cult.

Sint-Joris-Winge: I tell people that being in a cult is like being in a relationship with a charismatic, controlling, gaslighting, abusive boyfriend who says he loves you. When you first meet him, he seems wonderful. He deeply understands you! He cares! He love-bombs you, showering you with attention, praise, and gifts. Pretty soon, he makes jealous demands. He doesn’t want you to see your friends. He doesn’t want you to talk to your family. You aren’t allowed to question him. When you do things for yourself or have opinions of your own, he sees it as disloyalty or disobedience. Friend, you need to get out of the relationship before he destroys your self-confidence and your ability to trust your perceptions. You need to get out before he destroys you, period.

Montepulciano: Any religion, political party, or social group that’s organized around a supposedly infallible authority figure is culty in my book. A group dependent upon or blindly devoted to a leader is a giant red flag. I’m skeptical of all priesthoods, Buddhist or otherwise. Yeah, Nichiren was a priest. We’d be remiss if we weren’t skeptical of him.

Oaks: I know of very few Nichiren Buddhists in the U.S. who regard Nichiren this way. People may be reverent toward the Gohonzon and Daimoku, but that’s reverence for Nichiren’s teachings, not reverence for the person of Nichiren.

Most Nichiren Buddhists in the U.S. today disagree with many of Nichiren’s stated positions. For instance, his claims that other Buddhist schools are demonic — who believes this stuff? It’s seen as a peculiar notion rooted in 13th Century Japanese power struggles. The few individuals and groups I’ve seen trying to emulate Nichiren’s fiery, provocative style are all on the far, far fringes of Buddhism.

NoNoNanjo: Excessive devotion to an authority figure is one sign of a culty group. Devotion to or dependence on a “perfect ideology” is another. Cults often have a rigid belief system that does not allow dissent or conscientious objection. When I read Nichiren’s writings, I totally see how some people would interpret him as a cult leader. He can sound extreme. He can sound very “us versus them.”

Carmelight: Nichiren argued, yes, as part of a lifelong dialogue with those who disagreed with him. He’s not shutting down debate. He’s debating! His writings are all about hashing it out, refining his thinking, engaging with the arguments of others.

Nichiren didn’t have money, social influence, or weapons. All he had were words. People today who chide Nichiren for his vigorous arguments and harsh words don’t seem to understand that he brought an ink brush to a sword fight, and won.

Hillcrest: Well, to use the example of Jesus, lots of people think Jesus was a really nice guy, but he, too, was seen as a threat to the established order of his society. Today, there are extraordinary groups inspired by the example of Jesus, people who work to provide aid and comfort to the suffering. There are also cults that claim to be based on Jesus. We can’t blame Jesus for the ways in which he is misunderstood or misrepresented.

NoNoNanjo: The teachings of Nichiren or Jesus can be (and are) deliberately misrepresented. This is caveat emptor. Beware! If a group demands unquestioning commitment from you, watch out. If a group is preoccupied with raising money or bringing in new members, watch out. If a group claims to have special truth reserved for elite “disciples” or “true patriots,” watch out. If a group insults or demonizes former members, watch out.

Jones: Don’t blindly join any group. Find out about the group’s structure and governance. Are there written policies about the rights and responsibilities of leaders and members? Is there open, transparent accounting of the organization’s finances? Are leaders nominated and elected by the membership, with limited terms of leadership? If not, why not?

Sint-Joris-Winge: I can’t even start with “organizations” anymore. I practice my faith on a friendship-only basis. I talk about religion with friends — people whom I like — people who like me back. We don’t agree about everything. Sometimes we don’t agree about anything. We respect each other enough to say what we really think and feel.

Carmelight: During the pandemic I started joining Zoom meetings of a local church group on Sundays. It’s not Nichiren-based, obviously, but it’s interesting to see how people are doing “community” online. Now, it’s so much better because you can see and hear people through Zoom. You can get to know them. In the olden days it used to be just written commentary on message boards. You couldn’t be sure who you were interacting with.

Jutta: I’m struck by how many cult-like groups and movements have flourished online during the pandemic. Social media and podcasts have normalized rigid thinking based on disinformation and misinformation. Fringe groups have moved into the mainstream. People are more and more entrenched in totalist belief systems. I see this on the far left as well as the far right.

Sint-Joris-Winge: It seems like people believe in the craziest crap these days. For example, some people believe they are anthropomorphic animals like foxes and squirrels, and it’s like a sexual fetish for them. I mean, what the hell weird-ass quasi-religious “community” is that?

Carmelight: “Don’t judge!” people say. Oh, but I do judge. I refuse to relinquish my right to judge what’s good or bad for me and for society at large. If you give up all sense of judgement you might as well be in a cult. That’s like giving up your ability to discern for yourself how to live your life.

Sint-Joris-Winge: “Judge not lest ye be judged.” It’s a Christian proverb. We’re Buddhists in a predominantly Christian country, so we just have to deal with that fact. I understand this proverb as a caution against judging others hypocritically or unsympathetically. It’s not telling us to accept everything uncritically.