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Ming Zhen Shakya

Cults And Not Quitting Your Day Job

by Ming Zhen Shakya, OHY

    Ye sons of Great Britain I think it no shame,
    To write in praise of brave General Graham,
    Whose name will be handed down to posterity without any stigma,
    Because, at the Battle of El Teb, he defeated Osman Digna.
    By William McGonagall who, in 1877 at the age of 52, discovered himself "to Be a poet".

It is one of the more intriguing quirks of human nature: a man will find less satisfaction in accolades given by discerning colleagues for his professional achievements than he will find in praise, however faint or perfunctory, given him by strangers for the products of his hobby.

A surgeon, who by some innovative technique wrests from death a body whose vital signs point clearly to a morgue, will wonder, as he sits upon the dais of his awards' dinner, how soon he can make his exit without seeming ungrateful. But let his local newspaper reprint as filler a poem (because it rhymed, albeit too often with "-tion") he wrote after long labor in the throes of creation, and he will dally till closing time in coffee houses and Poets' Corners to share a little table space with fellow authors.

In the same way, a lawyer whose rhetoric has just exonerated a client who, by any sane evaluation of the evidence, was most certainly guilty, will accept the felonious embrace, step quickly back and seek any way out of the courtroom that avoids the Press. He is bored with the match and relieved that he will not have to spend another minute with the beneficiary of his skill. But let the judges at the State Fair bestow an honorable mention upon the carving he has done of an eagle about to take flight from what purports to be a nest, and he will endlessly pose with basket weavers and bench makers in affectionate camaraderie. With them he is in his element, his heart's true venue. He is an American craftsman - much like Paul Revere.

It happens all over our planet: a perfectly sober human being will become intoxicated with some 'out of the ordinary' inspiration that brings new meaning and value to his existence.

We all know the feeling. In the span of a single breath, an idea occurs to us. We fill our lungs, and in with the air comes a genie, a spirit that inflates us with power. Improbable schemes become certainties. Barren talent is suddenly rank with ability. Euphoric, lifted heavenward in feathered joy, we look down and feel divinely ordained to bestow the beauty and the insights of our gift upon earthbound men. We are not ambitious. Ambition is the ground-level stuff of status-seeking egos. We are inspired, and inspiration is, by definition, a spiritual matter. And as such, we see the occasion of our exultation as entirely beneficial. If somebody said "Don't quit your day-job," we'd laugh and think him a fool. If somebody said "cult" to us, we'd pity him.

And so we sing or write or preach. To us, our gift is wonderful and as perfectly delivered as it was conceived; but earthly critics can be tougher to please. McGonagall thought his poetry was the very equal of Milton's. He could never quite understand why his audience pelted him with rotten vegetables and shouted for a hook that would drag him from the podium. He ignored the abuse, preferring to see in someone's sympathetic nod a semaphore from God.

If our works are tangible, such as song or verse, and are applauded, we can turn pro or become celebrated amateurs. The danger we then face consists in how well we manage our new star status, in how much maturity and sobriety we bring to our fame. But if we fail and no one appreciates us, then, providing our self-esteem is protected by our "day-job" career, we may suffer some financial loss or the self-inflicted Persona damage done when we foisted our 'gift' upon family and friends; but we'll survive intact. A kind soul will remind the world, "His voice may stink, but he's a damned good engineer!"

Without a haven to which our ego can retreat, we'll try to live out our fantasy there in the stratosphere. But we won't be growing any new feathers; and once our wings begin to disintegrate, we'll plunge like Icarus into a vast, uncaring ocean. Mocked, reviled, and with our "talent" still unnoticed, we'll sink into obscurity's deep drudgery.

Our situation, however, is far more complicated if our inspiration has been spiritual in nature. For here, the possibilities are more dangerous and we may not be our only victims.

Let's say that a person who already belongs to a religious organization becomes inflated by what he believes is a spiritual experience. He'll confer with a spiritual superior, a priest or master, seeking an explanation or a pronouncement of validity.

In order for the superior to be able to distinguish a false claim from a genuine one, he must have greater spiritual experience than the claimant. Priests and masters are not necessarily mystics; and many Zen organizations, preferring not to get involved in the intricacies of altered states of consciousness, simply discount all such encounters. Rudely dismissed as "Maya" (Makyo) in a regrettably blanket rejection, genuine satori or visionary experiences are often consigned to dogmatic trashbins.

If a superior determines that the experience is genuine, he terms the euphoria "Zen Disease"; and then he must try to guide the inflated person safely back to earth, to get him back on the Path where he may advance to the next higher level of spiritual awareness. The earthbound eyes that followed his flight will be comforted to see this return to a regimen that is familiar and also available to them.

But if the superior regards the claim as false, i.e., a simple case of ego-inflation, and does not give the claimant the recognition he desires, trouble follows. The inflated person becomes resentful, pompous, an incorrigible "authority" and an obstreperous presence in the Sangha. Certain that his genie has carried him to the summit of Enlightenment, he sees little choice but to sever his association with those whom he now sees as ignorant and deluded. Particularly if he is a member of an honorific vocation, he will likely start his own group.

Whenever a spiritual force is not harnessed by the ligatures of established religion, it tends to become a rogue force, unfettered by any common sense. Spiritual claims, however irrational or spurious, are often strangely compelling and fascinate people in ways we do not expect. And then those persons who saw something new and exciting in the aspirant's flight, who believed and supported him, will want to continue looking to him for leadership, to follow him to wherever it was they thought he could lead them. When this happens, the Icarian plunge will not be into an empty ocean. It will be upon their upturned heads. For now we have the makings of a cult.

Obviously, there is nothing tangible in the product of religious inspiration that can be subjected to objective criteria. As far as earthbound folks are concerned, the aspirant may be truly inspired or he may be mentally ill, or, for all they know, he may be a conniving fake. Great piety, unlike a great tenor voice, can easily be feigned; and when even stigmata can be hypnotically induced, who can tell true from false?

And here we have the opportunity for great mischief. Resorting to the only criteria available to us, we tend to give significance to the claims of spiritual experience in direct proportion as we give significance to the claimant's professional or social status or, what is most influential, his existing clerical status. If he is a priest or a monk, we regard his pronouncements as revelatory. A bus driver's mystical experiences do not impress us with the force that a businessman's or a bishop's do.

Spontaneously or by design, such a person initiates cult formation by inviting a few of his admirers to join him in some salubrious or otherwise interesting activity - meditation, exercise, oracular guidance, horoscopic prediction, faith healing. There is strategy in the procedure: he will meet them in a location that is pleasant and apart from any established group's meeting place. If it is in his home, he, as an expression of his spiritual superiority, will alter the decor of his living quarters, adding exotic items and removing prosaic ones. Candles, incense and music may complement the "other worldly" ambiance. He may also acquire distinction by affecting stylistic differences in dress. Perhaps he will wear quasi clerical garb, an Asian uniform, wooden beads or other "spiritual" adornments. He may let his hair and beard grow or shave his head entirely. His demeanor and his unusual appearance will gain him the attention necessary for the first phase of projection: fascination.

Often a cult forms quite innocently. A fellow from India or Japan or Taiwan who has the requisite exotic mystique, will come to the U.S. to be a chemist, an architect, a mathematics' teacher - some profession that has nothing to do with religion. He will be devout in his beliefs and practices and, being so, will do Yoga or Tai Ji Quan or Qi Gong and demonstrate by his person the positive effects of a healthy diet and exercise regimen. Perhaps a few of his co-workers will ask him to help them achieve such emotional poise and robust health as he enjoys. He will invite them to his home; and then, after exercising, they will casually discuss the Bhagavad Gita or the Dao De Jing or the Sutras. The group will grow, necessitating organization; and within months they will run out of space.

And then, in the expansive joy of their newfound society, the members will insist upon pooling their resources to obtain an official residence for him and meeting place for themselves which will, of course, require the legalization of their association. Without ever setting out to become one, he will be the founder of a religion. He can safely quit his day job. In fact, people had ascribed leadership to someone who had been only a follower, and they were able to do this simply because he was one step ahead of them on a road neither had been down before.

But there is more involved in the followers' attraction to the leader. For, unlike a singer's audience, witnesses of a preacher's performance interact, unite, and share in fellowship the very act of being present.

When the subject isn't entertainment or a craft display but is rather personal salvation, good physical or mental health, and a sense of community, the messenger not only receives uncritical attention, he becomes heroic. And none of this depends upon the sincerity of his message. His motives may be more sinister... money and political ambition being the usual culprits.. but no one will notice.

There is a psychological event called "snapping". It is the precise point at which what has been humanly fascinating becomes supernaturally commanding. A god who resides in our Olympian mind is projected upon a mortal; and our ego is helpless against the recoil of the discharge. Back it snaps. This is the moment of confirmation, when we realize that someone we were merely interested in is someone we cannot live without; or someone we merely disliked becomes someone we absolutely detest and wish to see destroyed.

It is an emotional moment... this movement out from us of something that commands our attention and obedience . We are compelled to follow, to obey, to venerate or destroy. We crave the security of belonging and the guidance of a leader.

The need to belong to a group and to follow a leader cannot be underestimated. It is not an easy matter to convert loneliness into solitude. While we are still unenlightened, we are lonely; and we require human contact as much as we need air to breathe. We need to reach out and touch somebody, to feel that comforting connection, just as we need to worship a hero. We therefore attach ourselves to persons or things; but the essence of Zen is detachment.

We know that whenever we feel emotion, we are initiating a projection. "E" means "out from" just as motion means movement; and what is moving out from us is an instinctive force, an archetypal god. The instinct commands an enormous amount of energy.

Only when we look at ourselves objectively, as when, for example, we sit in the grandstand of a football stadium watching our home team play, do we get a glimpse of the amount of emotional energy we release in the name of The Friend (ourselves congealed into a single herd unit with a common herd goal) and The Hero (the lead-stallion/star quarterback). We scream like Banshees about something as pointless as the handling of a ball. How much greater is the intensity of projection when our allegiance is to our religious group and its leader. We release this energy as so much ballast. Elated, we soar into an irrational stratosphere.

Even if a cult has been formed by someone who has had a genuine spiritual experience, there will come a time when his euphoria will subside; and it is then that the temptation to exploit his spiritual experience "for the benefit of others" may become irresistible. For then, if he intends to remain the focal point of his movement, he must move beyond personal piety into group management. He must receive from his little group their individual projection of The Friend and of The Hero. The means of accomplishing this are astonishingly easy: he must appear to be altruistic and not to be seeking personal gain. He must immediately act to deflect all possible adverse criticism by appearing to be a humble servant who just happens to possess all necessary knowledge for the salvation of others. He must be authoritative and whatever subject he does not know, he must deem irrelevant or destructive or erroneous. As his little group grows, he will need to reinforce the feeling of fellowship and exclusivity by giving his followers an outside common enemy: a person or group whose interests are perceived to be inimical to the group. For with this stroke, he obviates internecine strife, congeals the disparate, and is perceived as valiant in his heroic struggle against the vaunted enemy. "The friend of my friend is possibly my friend; but the enemy of my enemy is definitely my friend." And that enemy can be a race or class of persons, a different ethnic group, families who oppose the alliance, an entire government. It does not matter at all.

At this point, once he has secured his followers' emotional ties, he will be followed anywhere he leads. Initially, he may not know precisely where this will be. It is certain only that to an inflated ego, flattery is fact. He will consider himself a political or economic or spiritual force. He will initiate boycotts; Political Action Committees; miraculous cures and intercessions; charitable enterprises; the championing of underdogs; the alteration of the status quo - anything to give the group the illusion of purpose.

And this is why Zen masters insist that we must pay attention to ourselves, to our emotions. And whenever we feel attracted or repelled by an individual, group, material object or enterprise, we must ask ourselves what it is that we are feeling... and why... and just how this craving or aversion can possibly advance our progress in Zen.

Any time we find ourselves becoming emotional about someone we are entering a phase of enthrallment and are heading 180 degrees away from where we want to go. We want to be individuals and independent persons - free from needing people, places, and things to define us and to provide us with the facade of status. Cults or any strong identification with a group stamps us with the hallmark of servitude, of dependency. We have reverted to the herd instinct.

Twenty Zen men in a room is a collection of twenty free individuals; but twenty cult members in a room is a single mindless slave. Especially in that collective body, the servile mind needs to believe that it has attained freedom and victory. The more that evidence to the contrary becomes undeniable and external criticism mounts, the more desperately does that mind try to validate itself. If it fails to demonstrate any justifying effects, it will appropriate the success of others. Just as a failed artist will claim greatness for himself by citing 'other great artists' who were unappreciated in their lifetimes, cult members will assert legitimacy of their controversial group by insisting that Christianity, too, was also once a cult. And so, of course, was Buddhism.

Many religions have political agendas and when we discover them we are discomfited by the breach in the separation of church and state. But usually, platform is pulpit. They are pro-life; or anti-war; or pro-segregation; or anti-immigration; or pro-creationism; or anti-welfare; and so on. Whatever their views, they wear them as chevrons. We have no difficulty in identifying them.

Cults, especially the contrived variety, will keep their agenda secret until they are ready to reveal it. Initially, they will borrow the symbols or the uniforms of an established religion to give themselves the appearance of authenticity. In Europe, Nazism, the world's most violent political organization, borrowed the swastika from Buddhism, the world's most pacifistic religion. The association rubbed off. People were comforted by this familiar sign of "commonweal".

With such simple devices cults hide in plain sight. Not until they release poison gas in a subway or commit mass suicide in preparation for a cometary rendezvous do we even have a clue about their motives.

There are other borrowings, too. The poet-surgeon and the sculptor-lawyer may not be inclined to mingle the product values of hobby and profession or quit their day jobs to become starving artists; but each is isolated in his inflation. A group member is subjected to the additional force of peer pressure and, in accordance with any group dynamic, will tend to conflate the product values of two unrelated occupations. Sober, he would never assume that a person is a good singer because he is a good astronomer; but once he falls under the influence of group inebriation, he smugly sweeps this logic aside. He readily assumes that his success in an honorific occupation confers a right upon him to support any cause, that by his very participation he ennobles it and proves its validity. He does not understand that by putting his career in the service of his beliefs, he has depreciated it. One day he may awaken from his stupor to discover that he has sacrificed much, including his career, to worthless gods and goals.

And so we find that daily work, however excellently it is performed, tends to be dreary, while a rare creative impulse - the excitement caused by the inspiration of a genie or the exhalation of one, so exhilarates us that we happily grovel for anything that can prolong the thrill. We magnify the smallest indication of benefit, exaggerating a grudging grunt until it becomes a paean of praise. We recite our verses as though they were jewels of wisdom that issued from our lips or grandiosely sing our songs, the Music of the Spheres. We huckster the new flexibility our 'spiritual' exercise regimen has given us, the additional energy we acquired from our new diet, the slaking of spiritual thirst at our new Font of Mercy and Love. We need to be recognized as having been blessed, as belonging, as being chosen for greatness.

Sometimes we never recover our senses.

William McGonagall, Poet and Tragedian of Dundee, had no honorific vocation in which he could invest his ego. He had been a handloom weaver in the burgeoning Industrial Revolution. Roused from the dullness of his occupation, he saw himself raised by genius to the glorious heights of Art. His inspiration was to him God's loving gift which he was obliged to share with all mankind, and so he persisted in writing and reciting what is probably the worst poetry in the English language. James L. Smith, a scholar who has given much thought to the phenomenon that was McGonagall, has chronicled the poet's continuing rejection. "The most outrageous misfortunes left his self-confidence unshaken," writes Dr. Smith. "Dundonians found him irresistible: they ridiculed the poems, hoaxed the poet and pelted the performer. Baited beyond endurance, he removed to Edinburgh and there, still cherishing an illusory greatness, he died in poverty."

It is to be regretted that Edinburgh did not give McGonagall the funereal notice that lesser luminaries had received - as he, himself, had poetically given in the case of:

The Funeral of the German Emperor

    The Authorities of Berlin in honour of the Emperor considered it no sin,
    To decorate with crape the beautiful City of Berlin.
    Therefore Berlin I declare was a City of Crape,
    Because few buildings crape-decoration did escape.

Today, all over the world, there are poetical societies (a cult following!) devoted to the illiterature of William McGonagall. And why not? He is a joy to read. Jonestown or Heaven's Gate or Moonies may never amuse us; but as those of us who appreciate him can attest, there is no failure in life that cannot be made more bearable by the simple reading of his wacky verse. And now that we know we cannot hurt his feelings, our laughter is of a gentler nature.

And yes... just as his poetry emerges in relief from other ordinary verse, the cult of McGonagall stands out from other cults: posing no hazards, it is a rare exception to the rule.  


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Last modified: July 11, 2004
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