Many, many moons ago, when I was still living in England, my husband and I thought it would be a wonderful idea to join a local meditation group.
Meditation, after all, is rightly praised for conferring countless benefits for body, mind, and soul. Renown teachers such as Pema Chodron, Jon Kabat-Zinn, and Jack Kornfield have popularized the idea of Buddhist-inspired meditation being just what stressed Western people need to live more joyfully and mindfully.
Alas, Pema Chodron, Jon Kabat-Zinn, and Jack Kornfield were all on the other side of the Atlantic. In this pre-Zoom age we had to make do with what was available to us locally. So, we went to a free taster evening led by a Western Buddhist monk who seemed like a kind and well-spoken young man. The venue was pleasant, the participants were friendly and welcoming. The meditation practice itself, a visualization of breathing white light into the heart space and breathing out the gunky stuff, created a heightened mood and expansive state of mind. In this altered state, we listened to the monk speak about Buddhist philosophy. I didn’t agree with everything he said—he was a bit too ascetic and world-denying to my taste. Even so, the meditative experience itself was so enjoyable that we became regulars and befriended the other regulars. Not only did we attend the weekly meditation sessions, but we also joined the group activities, such as fundraising walks and other events.
Fast forward a few months. Our teacher asked if I would lead a few sessions, as he had teaching commitments elsewhere. At first, I was honored. But then as I understood this was meant to be a regular thing and not the one off, it began to seem very strange. In most traditions, students study meditation for considerably longer than a few months before they are asked to lead classes. I wasn’t even an actual Buddhist and had never taken refuge vows.
Yet not only was I asked to lead the meditation, I was expected to lecture on Buddhist philosophy. I was told to purchase a book by the monk’s spiritual leader, study each chapter, and talk about the message. I learned that in this school of Buddhism, people were only allowed to read books written by their spiritual leader and not by other Buddhists of any other school. Some of the stuff in this book just seemed off. Any act of self-assertiveness or personal agency was denounced as “self-cherishing,” supposedly a dangerous obstacle to enlightenment. However, shame was celebrated as good thing as it helps herd a straying student back to the One True Path. This caused my alarm bells to go off big time.
I also learned that this branch of Buddhism preached a fanatical opposition to the Dalai Lama. They worshipped a protector deity called Dorje Shugden, shunned as a malevolent spirit by other schools of Tibetan Buddhism. My teacher was urging people to picket and protest the Dalai Lama’s upcoming visit to the UK.
My head exploded. To think that my innocent desire to practice meditation in community had landed me in some bizarro spirit-worshipping, Dalai Lama-hating cult!
My online research then revealed that the New Kadampa Tradition, the institution behind the seemingly innocuous meditation class I joined, was, in fact, a Chinese-funded cult with the express agenda to undermine and discredit the Dalai Lama.
The NKT is a new brand of pseudo-Buddhism, made in the United Kingdom. Very keen on fundraising, they have opened numerous meditation centers and residential centers across the UK and across the world. Tibetan Buddhists from actual lineage traditions won’t go near them.
I was lucky. By the time I learned how toxic this group was, my husband and I could get out unscathed. We had invested some time and money, but weren’t deep into the organization. Others weren’t so fortunate. Seduced by the feel-good meditations and the lure of enlightenment, flattered to be asked to teach, other people got roped into opening residential centers, volunteering their time as cooks at the NKT cafes, or even making monastic vows to the organization. The last option is a poverty trap. The monks and nuns subsist on social benefits from the UK state while spending all their time volunteering to teach, fundraise, and run the residential and retreat centers.
Here are some survivor stories:
If I had it to do over again, I would have done my online research before attending the first class. This is what I now recommend to everyone joining a spiritual group or even a harmless-sounding meditation evening. Google the name of the organization or the leader and then add the words “cult,” “controversy,” or “criticism” in the search box and see what comes up.
As well as the danger of cults, there is also a very real problem of women and girls being sexually abused in some spiritual communities. We’ve all heard countless stories about high-profile Yoga teachers and gurus being found guilty of sexual misconduct and abuse.
Author, activist, and feminist Yogini, Uma Dinsmore-Tuli has started “Yoni Shakti: The Movement” to protest this abuse. The goal, as stated on the website, is: Eradicate Abuse of Women in Yoga and Reclaim Yoga as a Tool for Healing and Justice. You can join the movement and download the information packet for free.
Uma has created a comprehensive 13-point checklist of warning signs to let you know when you have accidently stumbled into a toxic group. You can access the list below. If I’d had this list way back when I joined that meditation group, I would have been able to extricate myself a lot earlier.
The problem with many gurus and spiritual teachers is that they encourage seekers to look for power and spiritual meaning outside themselves–in the guru or the group. As Yoga Nidra teacher and author, Tracee Stanley explains in a video conversation with Uma Dinsmore-Tuli, a good teacher will point you to the teacher within your own heart and teach you to find Source within your own soul, as women mystics of every faith have done throughout the ages. No ethical spiritual teacher will ask you to “outsource” your power and your center to another person or to a group.
Meditation and Yoga can and should be liberating in every sense of the word. Let’s work together to ensure that the world of Yoga and meditation is a safe refuge for every seeker.
Mary Sharratt is on a mission to write women back into history. Her acclaimed novel Illuminations, drawn from the dramatic life of Hildegard von Bingen, is published by Mariner. Her new novel Revelations, about the mystical pilgrim Margery Kempe and her friendship with Julian of Norwich, is now available wherever books and ebooks are sold. Visit her website.