In polytheistic Rome, Constantine was the first in the West to make one of the numerous cults (“superstitio”), Christianity, the legitimate religion (“religio licita”) of his empire. Religion and State went hand in hand, sometimes the monarch would also be the leader of a religion, until the French Revolution declared the separation of state and religion, and put an end to the status of “religio licita”. At the time religion and state were not separated, heterodox beliefs, within the official state religion, would be considered heresies and prosecuted. Other religions could be prosecuted or tolerated.
The word “cult” (or “secte” in French) has a more or less pejorative ring, depending on the national legislation regarding the freedom to practise an official religion or more unofficial (illegitimate) forms of religions.
In the past, forms of government were more authoritative and in the case of governments where state and religion weren’t separated, religions were more authoritative than in modern secular states. The official religions had to accept the new legislation separating state and religion and giving them less power. Catholicism had been the state religion of France (“la fille aînée de l’église”) for a long period. So when Mgr Jacques Lefebvre, founder of the Fraternité sacerdotale Saint-Pie X (FSSPX) in 1970 wanted to return to a more “traditional”, “orthodox” and “authoritative” form of Catholicism, his movement was considered by some as a “cult”. Because of the difficulty to define a “cult”, the French Law prosecutes cult-like behaviour (“dérives sectaires”), not “cults”, unless crimes have been committed, in which case these will be prosecuted as such. Some of the level of authority and fields of competence once granted to religious hierarchs are no longer acceptable and would no doubt be considered as “dérives sectaires”.
The authority of a religion, or a cult for that matter, can’t supersede that of the state or of its law. In the case of a legitimate religion imported from a country where state and religion aren’t separated (theocracy), aspects of that religion could be considered as cult-like, especially in the case the authority of a hierarch would supersede that of the secular guest state within the circles of that religion.
Contemporary Tibetan Buddhist hierarchs have had different opinions and attitudes towards possible clashes of authority between a guest state and the in their own country legitimate religions. The Dalai-Lama ended the Tibetan theocracy, by withdrawing from secular power and organising a Tibetan parliament in exile, with an elected head of government. But it takes time to get accustomed to the new situation. Other Tibetan Buddhist hierarchs publicly oppose “Western” values (democracy, secularity, gender equality,...) and would like their religion to have greater authority or a more extended field of competences. Some would also oppose the Dalai-Lama’s embrace of “Western” values.
In a democratic guest state, the various forms of Buddhism benefit by the state's freedom of religion. The guest state would probably consider their more conservative (theocratic?) ideas as a legitimate expression of their religion (that it doesn’t know very well at all) as long as they remain in the private sphere. The reactionary views of e.g. Mgr Lefebvre were considered “cult-like”, whereas the theocratic views of some Nyingma hierarchs would likely be considered as the orthodox views of their legitimate religion (Tibetan Buddhism or even Buddhism...), even though the Dalai-Lama and the Tibetan government in exile try to move away from them. Since the political power of Mgr Lefebvre and his followers was bigger than that of conservative lamas, it required political answers.
In the case of the various abuse scandals in Tibetan Buddhism, the litigious point seems to be the authority of a vajrayāna guru and the abuse thereof. That authority is not a Western invention. What a vajrayāna guru does with that authority (“abuse”, insult the ego, kill the ego, destroy concepts, meekness etc.) can be very personal and improvised, adapted at a specific audience. There would be question of abuse, in case the guru abused his power, but in theory there seem to be hardly any limits to that power. The small print may specify caracteristics and obligations for both parties, but if these are not observed, there is no human authority to enforce, judge or punish them. Vajra Hell is considered to be their punishment.
These days the locus classicus of the master-disciple bond seems to be the hagiographical fiction (15th-16th century) of the relation between Tilopa (?) and Nāropa (11th century), often quoted by those who defend the unexpected and provocative (sex and violence) behaviour of a guru. Here is what Kalu Rinpoche I said about this relationship.
“In any case, if we have established a relationship with a lama on the Vajrayana level through receiving an initiation from him, it is vital that our relationship with him be positive; whatever his behavior, it is crucial that we maintain sacred vision. We must consider his actions as skillful means for helping us. If we can develop that attitude, it will open us to authentic blessing and carry us toward enlightenment. We can receive exactly the same help as we would get from someone who was perfectly pure. Even if the lama himself is not completely enlightened, he can still advise and help us. For example, someone who is familiar with a region can give us directions whether or not he or she is a great person. We cannot always judge by their actions who is a great lama or adept and who merely claims to be one. At a certain level, great adepts often act in an odd or even outrageous manner, for example, drinking a lot of wine or being involved with many women. On the other hand, someone who pretended unjustifiably to be an adept would find himself in a hell realm where he would become some monstrous creature. The disciple, however, can be helped by any authentic lama in whom he has faith.” (Luminous Mind: The Way of the Buddha.Kalu Rinpoche then tells the story of Nāropa’s hardships that Tilopa had him go through. The only possible disclaimer for outrageous behaviour is the status of the adept (“great person”, “great lama”,...). Yet, Kalu Rinpoche adds that a disciple with faith can be helped by any “authentic” (tib. mtshan ldan) lama. Faith, and not losing it whatever the behaviour of one’s “authentic” lama, is what triggers off the lama’s blessings. In the case of Trungpa’s “drinking a lot of wine or being involved with many women”, Kalu Rinpoche made a comparison with Padampa’s drinking, stating it was bad for his health, but that he couldn’t see “any moral or ethical problem”. This implicitly boiled down to suggesting Trungpa was like Padampa, or letting the students make such judgement themselves. There was for Kalu Rinpoche in theory no contradiction between being a vajrayana teacher and “drinking a lot of wine or being involved with many women”.
Kalu Rinpoche, Karma-Ran-Byun-Kun-Khyab-Phrin-Las, Denis Tondrup)
Dzongsar Khyentse Rinpoche explains:
”An unenlightened master should be under no illusions. He must know in himself that he isn’t enlightened, and he should never deceive himself by claiming that he is. As his student, though, you must see your Vajrayana master as an enlightened being. This is the choice you must make. But doesn’t that contradict the Buddha when he said, “You are your own master. No one else is your master”? No, it doesn’t, because you are the one who is making that choice.”In Vajrayāna, the student is apparently free... to pick their master: voluntary servitude, La Boetie would call it. Voluntary servitude as a path to freedom… Enlightenment seems almost optional.
“The story of how Tilopa taught Naropa has been cited again and again. Not as some kind of legend, but as a teaching and an example – an example that most budding Vajrayana practitioners long to emulate”,writes Dzongsar Khyentse Rinpoche in his long “Guru and Student in the Vajrayana” defense of guru-devotion (14/02/2019). As Dzongsar Khyentse Rinpoche suggested, if Tilopa were to teach through this method in our times, he probably would have ended up in jail.
The definition of “dérives sectaires” (sectarian aberrations) in French law focuses on actions which aim for the “psychological or physical subjugation” of an individual. In vayrayāna guruvāda the psychological and/or physical subjugation wouldn’t be the ultimate aim, but a means to “liberation” (mokṣa), defined by some as the destruction of ego fixation. In theory, there is no immediate link between any actions and “liberation” as its result. In the popularised forms of “crazy wisdom”, “insulting ego” and “smashing concepts” series of humiliating actions supposedly aimed at diminishing a student’s ego fixation seem to imply though there is such a link between a strong “ego” / ego fixation and egolessness, where humiliations are believed to help bring down (humble) the level of ego fixation (“meekness”). As the level of ego fixation goes down, the level of “realisation” would go up, the two seem to be linked. Still in theory, at a certain point the student’s ego level would become acceptable enough, to help the teacher to humble/humiliate other students or to start having his own students.
Like Mindfulness (™) in the past, “crazy wisdom” can now be learned without a Buddhist context. Alex Vartman's The New Tantra (TNT) group let himself inspire by Chogyam Trungpa’s crazy wisdom and ego bashing.
“All of us on the team (and most of the students) really believed in the teachings and that we were growing as spiritual practitioners on our paths to embody ever more fully our divine potential. Alex very cleverly marketed his teachings and methods as belonging to the ’Crazy Wisdom’-traditions, which are famous for using unconventional teaching methods to reach extraordinary levels of breakthroughs. Hence, we came to consider it normal that we were being treated in ways that others would certainly find abusive and destructive. After all, the name of the game in TNT was to ”Kill the Ego” in ourselves and each other.” The Mad Hatter: Inside Alex Vartman’s “The New Tantra” Be Scofield, December 27, 2018
|The Dalai-Lama and Keith Raniere|
Keith Raniere's Nxivm cult is another example. It presented itself as a "community guided by humanitarian principles that seek to empower people" and "working to build a better world".
“According to court documents, a secret society called "DOS" or the "Vow" existed within Nxivm. Constructed like a pyramid scheme, levels of "slaves" were managed by "masters". Unbeknownst to almost all members of the Vow, Raniere - the only male member of the group - was the sole occupant of the highest tier, serving as the "highest master."
Slaves were expected to recruit slaves of their own, who all ultimately worked to service Raniere.” Keith Raniere's Nxivm sex cult trial: What we learned, BBC 19 June 2019.
« Exercising of critical faculties in the Ethical real entails taking responsibility both for acts and for the underlying motives. If we do not take responsibility for our motives, whether positive or negative, the potential for harm is much greater. The moral value of a given act is to be judged in relation both to time, place, and circumstance and to the interests of everyone involved now and in the future. It is conceivable that a given act is ethically sound on the one particular set of circumstances, but that at another time and place and under a different set of circumstances it may not be.Power, abuse of power and corruption are inseparable from hierarchical organisations and pyramid schemes, even (and, who knows, perhaps especially) when they are run or counseled by saints/“saints”. Ronald M. Davidson writes in Indian Esoteric Buddhism:
The authors of this book presents readers with a challenge in seeking to contribute to building a compassionate, ethical humanity they often discuss recognised problems from unfamiliar angles. In the part of the world from which I come, there is a well-known adage that even when offered gold, device tested, beating it and burning it to ensure its value before accepting it. This means that rather than take any advice on trust. We should think about it and ask ourselves if it's useful. If we decide it is, then the sensible thing is to put it into practice. » Daily Mail article 24 January 2018
“There appears no exception to the rule that, when the Mantrayana becomes culturally important outside India, it is principally through the agency of official patronage, either aristocratic or imperial. Given these circumstances, it would be extraordinary if the military and political culture of early medieval India had not shaped esoteric institutions, doctrines, literature, rituals, and iconography, at least to some degree.
In fact, the degree is compelling, and central aspects of esoteric Buddhism came to embody directly and unequivocally the structure, aesthetics, and ideology of medieval Indian feudalism. In short, esoteric Buddhism is the form of medieval Buddhism that internalized, appropriated, reaffirmed, and rearranged the structures most closely associated with the systems of power relations, ritual authentication, aesthetics, gift-giving, clan associations, and sense of dominion that defined post-Gupta Indian politics.” (p. 115)This sociopolitical nature of esoteric Buddhism made it appear reassuring to other cultures (China, Japan, Tibet, etc.) that adopted it.
“The mature esoteric synthesis that arose then was emblematic of the new formulation: it insisted on an immutable master-disciple bond, employed royal acts of consecration, and used elaborate mandalas in which the meditator was to envision himself as the Buddha in a field of subordinate Buddhas. Proponents of the system composed a new class of scriptures that taught the transmission and recitation of secret mantras. Calling themselves “possessors of mantras or scepters” (mantrin / vajrin), they developed rituals (particularly fire sacrifice) for the purpose of a codified series of soteriological and non-soteriological acts and ultimately institutionalized this material in Buddhist monasteries where texts were copied, art produced, and rituals performed.” (idem, p. 117)Tibetan Buddhism is a form of esoteric Buddhism. Esoteric Buddhism seems to be an ideal fit for theocratic societies with a hierarchical or feudal structure. It doesn’t seem a good fit for a modern democratic secular and egalitarian society, where "meekness" and insulting or killing the ego, in theory, have no place... How would it go about putting into place the structure that it had been conceived for without royal, aristocratic or imperial support or without authoritarianism (psychological and physical subjugation)? It could only do so in small groups or networks, within which its hierarchical or pyramidal structure could prevail and where the individuals would function as subjects, rather than citizens. How could those groups or networks function without “dérives sectaires” (sectarian aberrations)? Can their students be both (zombie) citizens and (religious) subjects whilst realising “emptiness and meekness”?
Religions have been adapting themselves to cultural and political changes. Sacrifices of humans and animals have made place for sacrificial cakes etc., that will no doubt soon become vegan and gluten free. Confucius would disapprove, because he preferred the real thing. Will “crazy wisdom” manage to become “crazy” within the boundaries of the law? Alternatively, master and disciples could happily accept going to jail for the sake of their “liberation”. Can “insulting ego” and “smashing concepts” in the very fictional “immutable master-disciple bond” of Tilopa and Naropa somehow be adapted to a surveillance capitalist society? What other options could authentic and traditional esoteric Buddhism have? According to some Buddhist masters none. No compromise was possible.
The day after Sogyal Lakar punched a nun in the stomach in front of 1000 people, the doubters were addressed by a member of the Rigpa hierarchy.
“Sogyal, he said, was upset that people should be questioning his methods. If people didn’t understand what had actually happened, then they probably weren’t ready for the promised higher-level teachings, and Sogyal would not teach again during the retreat.” Sexual assaults and violent rages... Inside the dark world of Buddhist teacher Sogyal Rinpoche 21/09/2017 Mick Brown
Sogyal also declared “Each time I hit you I want you to remember that you are closer to me… closer to me. The harder I hit you the closer the connection.” (July 30th 2004, garden of Sogyal's villa in Lerab Ling, France) Youtube
|Sogyal Lakar and Dzongsar KR (drinking bourbon?) in the UK, September 2016|
Dzongsar KR defended his friend by invoking esoteric Buddhism's samaya bond.
“However you describe Sogyal Rinpoche’s style of teaching, the key point here is that if his students had received a Vajrayana initiation, if at the time they received it they were fully aware that it was a Vajrayana initiation, and if Sogyal Rinpoche had made sure that all the necessary prerequisites has been adhered to and fulfilled, then from the Vajrayana point of view, there is nothing wrong with Sogyal Rinpoche’s subsequent actions.”
“Frankly, for a student of Sogyal Rinpoche who has consciously received abhisheka and therefore entered or stepped onto the Vajrayana path, to think of labelling Sogyal Rinpoche’s actions as ‘abusive’, or to criticize a Vajrayana master even privately, let alone publicly and in print, or simply to reveal that such methods exist, is a breakage of samaya.”
“I’m sorry, but we can’t bend the rules on this point. When both the giver and receiver of a Vajrayana initiation are fully aware and clear about what has happened, they must then both accept that pure perception is the main view and practice on the Vajrayana path. There is no room whatsoever for even a glimmer of an impure perception.”La La Land : "a euphoric dreamlike mental state detached from the harsher realities of life"
“It may not be “popular” to talk of such western threats to the dharma, and I know that many see my postings on this as too negative. But being positive about everything, living in La La Land, and comfortably going along with and accommodating all popular and prevailing cultural assumptions, isn’t necessarily helpful.” Dzongsar Jamyang Khyentse, Guru and Student in the Vajrayana
Not unlike certain aspects of "pure perception". Dzongsar KR explains:
"So, how does pure perception work? As a Vajrayana student, if you look at Sogyal Rinpoche and think he’s overweight, that is an impure perception. To try to correct your impure perception you might then try visualizing him with the body of Tom Cruise, but that is still not pure perception. One of the Vajrayana’s infinite number of skilful methods that are used to deconstruct and dismantle impure perception, is to visualize Sogyal Rinpoche with a horse’s head, a thousand arms and four legs. But even this technique must ultimately be transcended in order fully to realize pure perception." Dzongsar Jamyang Khyentse, Guru and Student in the VajrayanaOf course nothing guarantees that one day the student will attain the authentic "pure perception" as defined by Dzongsar KR and may remain stuck in the lower levels of "pure percepton" during a couple of lifetimes, in which case they will have to make do with Tom Cruise or Hayagrīva.
|Possibly Caligula and his horse/consul/priest Incitatus (British Museum)|
 “We can’t change the Vajrayana view or invent some ‘moderate’ version of Vajrayana Buddhism just to suit the 21st century western mind-set. If we did, it would be like saying that in these modern times, we should say that certain compounded phenomena are permanent and some phenomena do exist inherently – but we can’t do that either. The view is fundamental to Buddhadharma and therefore to the Vajrayana path.” Dzongsar Khyentse Rinpoche in his “Guru and Student in the Vajrayana”
 “We had dinner with Trungpa Rinpoche, which was quite a scene in itself with his butler wearing white gloves and serving the food from silver salvers. Then the next morning Kalu Rinpoche was asked to address the sangha. I remember it was on that occasion that Allen Ginsberg decided to play devil’s advocate, and said, “What is the dharmic or a-dharmic reason for Trungpa Rinpoche’s drinking? And, as his students, how should we relate to that?” Of course, a deathly silence fell over the room, and I think the vajra guards were ready to jump him and cut his tongue out, but I translated it for Kalu Rinpoche. Rinpoche sort of smiled and said, “Well, let me tell you first about Padampa Sangye. Padampa Sangye was a real boozer and a lot of his students had a problem with that, and one of them finally asked him why, if he was an enlightened master, he was always drunk. And Padampa said, ‘Ah, the Padampa may be impaired, but the döndampa (absolute) is not.’”
So often the things that die are the jokes. They’re the things that would make the talk happen, but they don’t work in English if you are doing too literal a job. In this case, it just fell into place, and the audience loved it. Then he was able to say, “Now having said that, I myself am concerned about Trungpa Rinpoche’s health. I have no concerns about the morals or ethics of him drinking. I am concerned about his health and I think you as his students should be too. And you could go to him and say, ‘Please sir, we have absolute faith in you as our teacher, but for the sake of all beings, please consider extending your life by cutting back on your drinking.’” He said once you’ve accepted someone as your vajrayana teacher, you can’t speak to them from a perspective of ‘I am right and you’re wrong. You’re making a mistake and doing something bad and I insist that you change.’
He was only able to get that message across so kindly because of the set-up with the joke.”
Extract from an interview (March 2012) on the website Lotsawaschool.org with Lama Chokyi Nyima (Richard Barron), former interpreter of Kalu Rinpoche I. The website is unfortunately no longer online. Former source.
 “Il s'agit d'un dévoiement de la liberté de pensée, d’opinion ou de religion qui porte atteinte à l'ordre public, aux lois ou aux règlements, aux droits fondamentaux, à la sécurité ou à l’intégrité des personnes. Elle se caractérise par la mise en œuvre, par un groupe organisé ou par un individu isolé, quelle que soit sa nature ou son activité, de pressions ou de techniques ayant pour but de créer, de maintenir ou d’exploiter chez une personne un état de sujétion psychologique ou physique, la privant d’une partie de son libre arbitre, avec des conséquences dommageables pour cette personne, son entourage ou pour la société.”
 " He said, well, the problem with Merwin — this was several years ago — he said, Merwin’s problem was vanity. He said, I wanted to deal with him by opening myself up to him completely, by putting aside all barriers. “It was a gamble.” he said. So I said, was it a mistake? He said, “Nope.” So then I thought, if it was a gamble that didn’t work, why wasn’t it a mistake? Well, now all the students have to think about it —so it serves as an example, and a terror. But then I said, “What if the outside world hears about this, won’t there be a big scandal?” And Trungpa said, “Well, don’t be amazed to find that actually the whole teaching is simply emptiness and meekness.” When the Party’s Over, interview avec Allen Ginsberg dans Boulder Monthly, mars 1979.