When a cult leader has a mental disorder
When a cult leader has a mental disorder, (Anti-social Personality Disorder (psychopathy) and Narcissistic Personality Disorder are comon ones), devotees will find all kinds of ways to downplay it or call it something else. And when the leader abuses his or her students, devotees may even justify the abuse as being for the benefit of the student – certainly this is the case in the Tibetan Buddhist sangha of Rigpa. A devotee in a cult cannot be convinced that there is anything wrong with their leader. On the contrary, they spiritualise their damaging behaviour as ‘crazy wisdom’ or ‘beyond the ability of ordinary beings to discern’ and so forth.
A Bagwan Shee Rashneesh follower told me back in the 80s that Bagwan had 100 Rolls Royces because he was free of attachment, and the fact that this was an illogical stance since the very opposite appeared to be true – he appeared to be very attached to Rolls Royces – made no difference to the devotees conviction. In the same way, you cannot convince those in Rigpa and other Tibetan Buddhist communities who think that assaulting students, coercing people into sex, and emotionally abusing them is enlightened behaviour that it is in fact trauma-inducing abuse delivered by a person with a mental disorder. And yet, maintaining this stance that there is nothing wrong with the perpetrator of the abuse, which they do as a mark of their devotion and allegiance to their leader, does not help the leader at all. What such leaders need is to be made aware of their disorder and encouraged to seek help, for the leader’s sake and the sake of those who are devoted to him or her.
Where psychology beats Buddhism
The Buddha had some profound insights into the nature of the human mind and its role in human happiness. When I found Buddhism, I, like many others, thought I’d hit the spiritual jackpot. This is it! I thought. Here is the truth. Encouraged by a teacher who put down psychology at every opportunity, I thought vajrayana Buddhism was way ahead of psychology, but it’s very clear to me now that in the area of personality and mental disorders Buddhism is lagging far behind psychology.
There is nothing in Buddhism about mental disorders. The system of thought is designed for people who are already mentally healthy, so there is no way for someone relying on that system of thought for their understanding of the mind to recognise a mental disorder when it’s staring them in the face. This is a problem when a teacher or instructor is faced with trying to help a student with such a disorder, but it is even more of a problem when the guru themselves is exhibiting signs of a mental disorder. Not only does Tibetan Buddhism not recognise a mental disorder in a guru for what it is, the religion mistakes it for a special kind of spiritual achievement – crazy wisdom!
Talk about the snake and the rope! (In joke for Rigpa Dzogchen students: the rope is not only not seen as what it is, it is also mistaken for a snake. This is an analogy for how we don’t recognise reality for what it is, empty of essence, and instead mistake it for something solid.)
In a fuedal society and a religion with a fuedal power structure this turning an issue with a leader into something that adds to his or her power isn’t surprising. Keeping the power of the guy at the top is of vital importance in a fuedal system, so rather than admit that the guru has mental issues, the religion makes him out to be especially gifted. It happens once, and then the concept of ‘crazy’ as a mark of great realisation is enshrined within the religion. How much of the stories told to back up the benefits of a crazy wisdom master are true? Did such behaviour really benefit the student or was it a white wash from the start? We will never know. I suspect that Tibetan Buddhism has been gaslighting devotees for centuries.
And even if Marpa really did assist Milarepa on his journey to enlightenment through ‘unconventional’ means, then we still have to ask how much has this story been used in service to a lineage of lamas who, generation after generation, suffered from the trauma of being abused as children. They were brought up to believe, as Orgyen Tobgyal said in Paris last year, that ‘beating increases wisdom’ and that pain will wash away bad karma. This is awfully like what the Christian flagellents believed in the fourtheenth century. And guess what? We’ve come a long way since then, but some sects of Tibetan Buddhism are still stuck in that antiquated and unhealthy belief system.
Modern psychology recognises trauma and mental disorders and knows how to treat them, and the best thing students can do for their lamas and their sangha is to recognise the signs when they see them and help their lama to see that they need help. Easier said than done, I know. Some tried with Sogyal, but he never actually made it to a psyciatrist. What a shame!
Why am I talking about lamas as if they have mental disorders? Well, obviously some are quite sane, but others? If the cap fits, wear it, I say. Denying the issue does no one any good, and any student who gives unquestioning obedience to someone with a mental disorder, (even if he is not physically present with them) is not in a healthy situation.
I leave you to decide how much of the following applies to Sogyal Rinpoche and Chogyan Trungpa. Oh and maybe you should also consider Orgyen Tobyal and Dzongsar Khyentse while you read. It’s from an Integrative Psychology article on institutional abuse. https://integrativepsychology.net.au/wp-content/uploads/2017/11/institutional-abuse.pdf
Characteristics of Abusive Group Leaders
“One type of abusive group leader is the charismatic leader, common in cults. Such a leader possesses strong talent for self-expression coupled with the ability to sense and read the needs of followers. These needs are then normally converted into the form of seductive promises that slowly lure the individual into the personalised ideology of the leader. Cult leaders are often incredibly manipulative and whilst they spend a great deal of time creating an image for their followers the essence of their personality is predatory. Therefore, charismatic leaders exhibit many of the features required for formal diagnoses under the DSM ( Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders ) category of personality disorders. Two personality disorders in particular- Anti-social Personality Disorder (psychopathy) and Narcissistic Personality Disorder- share many of the characteristics of abusive group leaders (APA, 2014; Aron, 2011; Edelstein, 2011; Shaw, 2003).
In the text “Take your Life Back” by Lalich and Tobias (2006) they suggest a checklist to help individuals identify and demystify the traits of a psychopathic/sociopathic, charismatic leader.
- Glibness and Superficial Charm: The charismatic leader is able to beguile and confuse and convince through the use of language; they are able to disarm and persuade with incredible proficiency. Tilgner, L., Dowie, T.K (Ph.D)., & Denning, N. (2015). 15
- Manipulative: The inability to recognise the rights and needs of others enabling any self-serving behaviour to be permissible. They divide the world into (1) those who can be manipulated, (2) those who are one’s enemies, and (3) themselves. Many people involved in a cult have been allocated to the category of those who can be manipulated and anyone who objects to behaviours quickly finds themselves in the position of the enemy.
- A Grandiose Sense of Self: Leaders have a tremendous feeling of entitlement, they by nature believe that they are owed and have the right to whatever behaviour they wish hence nothing is immoral or out of reach if it is in the quest to quench their insatiable desire.
- Pathological Lying: The leader is able to lie and be untruthful without any sense of impropriety. The cult leader will often construct complex self-aggrandizing narratives, which will represent them as having special or unique powers. This kind of lying is connected to something called pseudologica fantastica, which is the term given to the complex belief systems and traditions which they themselves develop (eg., they are the manifestation of some supreme power).
- Lack of Remorse, Shame and Guilt: The leader exhibiting sociopathic tendencies is unable to experience shame or guilt for their hurtful and damaging behaviours thus they see others as mere objects for the gratification of their needs. These needs are often carefully hidden and concealed within the subtext of some system of thought, which condones the lack of care and concern. They also tend to lack the capacity for genuine empathy but may disguise this with false displays of care and understanding.
- Lack of Emotional Depth: The leader who is unable to express remorse is also likely to have difficulty with anything but shallow displays of emotion. Due to the power imbalance the emotional lack on behalf of the leader is often mistaken for some kind of profound equipoise gained through diligent adherence to the group values and practices. Much of the emotional display is designed simply to manipulate the followers.
- Impulse Control: Leaders can exhibit problems with impulse control (otherwise referred to as acting out). This acting out normally takes a number of forms, the most common of which are sexual and physical abuse. This behaviour is often known only to a select few yet when it is publicly known complex explanations are offered. Usually this involves the leader behaving in ways that are simply beyond the understanding of their “less enlightened” followers. Thus there is often a claim to a special kind of teaching; this is particularly the case in sexual exploitation within spiritual cults. Spiritual cult Tilgner, L., Dowie, T.K (Ph.D)., & Denning, N. (2015). 16 leaders may claim they are passing on or helping their victim’s consciousness or spirituality. In the history of cultic studies it is usually the case that the sexual behaviour of the cult leader towards the followers is never truly consensual as it has arisen through sustained and deliberate degradation of personal will via threats of violence, control, and slow and surreptitious psychological manipulation over extended periods of time.
Conclusions and Key Recommendations: Profile of Abusive Leaders
- Psychological abuse, a powerful weapon of abusive leaders, is usually insidious and highly corrosive of identity and sense of self. Being harder to detect than physical abuse, the victim may find themselves caught on the receiving end of a destructive cycle of “crazy-making”.
- Authoritarian style personality is linked to abuse of power and control. Authoritarian personality characteristics: organise through hierarchy, move towards acquisitions of power and wealth, tendency to use people and see others as inferior or wrong, have a tendency towards sado-masochism, incapacity to be fulfilled and satisfied, suffer from feelings of paranoia and persecution.
- Two personality disorders in particular- Anti-social Personality Disorder (psychopathy/sociopathy) and Narcissistic Personality Disorder- are found in abusive group leaders.
- Characteristics of sociopathic group leaders: glibness and superficial charm, manipulativeness, a grandiose sense of self, pathological lying, lack of remorse, lack of emotional depth and impulse control.
- We may expect such sociopathic characteristics in cult leaders but consider leaders of new age movements, that proclaim a superior way of life; and survivors of clergy abuse who have frequently described a process of “grooming”, whereby their dependency and powerlessness was used to abuse and threaten them into silence. People in power who abuse others may share some if not all of the characteristics of authoritarian personality, charismatic, sociopathic and narcissistic personality styles.
- We recommend when dealing with individuals exiting an abusive group to appreciate the impacts of exposure to authoritarian and personality disordered group leaders and fellow members who may have emulated the behaviour of the leader.
- We recommend fully recognising the extent to which psychological control and influence have been used to disempower the individual. Working with exmembers of abusive groups is a process of rehabilitation; the supporting and rebuilding of a person that has been violated psychologically and possibly physically, sexually, and financially.
- Greater awareness, prevention and intervention of psychological abuse is required. Prevalence and impacts of psychological abuse across all levels of interpersonal relationship (ie., intimate relationships, schools, sporting, community and church) requires investigation and appropriate intervention.”
There’s a lot here to think about, not just about the teacher who may have a mental disorder, but also those who may have emulated the behaviour, and those of us in the process of recovery after exiting an abusve cult.
What jumps out of this article for you?
Private discussion on this and other related topics can be had on our Secret What Now Facebook Group. It is only for current and previous students of Rigpa, however, and we do moderate it closely. If you’re interested in joining, please contact us via the contact page and ask for an invite.
People from other sanghas can join the Dharma Friends Beyond the Temple Facebook Group . It’s a support group for anyone who has left their Buddhist sangha after hearing revelations of abuse by their teacher or after experiencing such abuse. It’s for people who see ethical behaviour, love, compassion and introspection as the core of their spiritual path. The aim of the group is to support each other in our spiritual journey wherever it takes us. Click here and request to join.
The What Now? Reference Material page has links to a wealth of articles in the topics related to abuse in Buddhist communities. For links to places to assist in healing from abuse see the sangha care resources page.
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