I watched the movie HOLY HELL while holed up in Helsinki waiting for my ride up to Lammi for a four-day Zen retreat.
Holy Hell tells the story of a cult called Buddhafield led by a guy who went by numerous different names in the course of his career. He starts off as Michel, but in the film I remember them mainly referring to him as Andreas, so that’s the name I’ll use. Even Michel was a fake name.
Andreas was an actor who’d appeared in low budget movies then started a Los Angeles-based organization dedicated to transcendent awakening. The parallels to my own career are chilling.
Andreas’ specialty was delivering what his followers called The Knowing, in which he supposedly bestowed the direct experience of God upon his followers. Apparently the direct experience of God is a bunch of flashing colors and visions of spinning wheels in the sky, kind of like what you get when you take Ayahuasca or E.
Andreas’ followers loved and worshipped him. He apparently also coerced a number of the men in the group into unwanted sexual acts with him. And, of course, it all went spectacularly wrong. As these things tend to do.
My problem when I watch or read about religious cults going bad is that I always identify with the incorrect person. You’re supposed to identify and empathize with the innocent victims who were abused and cheated by the evil cult leaders. But I always end up identifying with the evil cult leaders.
Please excuse me if I sound defensive as I continue. But the last time I wrote about anything like this I ended up getting “blacklisted by most of the American Zen community” apparently. This was because “most of the American Zen community” had decided I was supportive of Joshu Sasaki’s abusive behavior.
I was not. And I made that unmistakably clear numerous times.
I just wondered in public why, while we were calling Sasaki a monster, none of us wanted to ask if maybe that made us Doctor Frankenstein or at least Ygor.
Let me try to be as clear as I possibly can at the outset. When I see a guy like Andreas or any other of his species of cult leader I think, that guy’s bad news. A sociopath, a megalomaniac.
But then I also wonder how come all these folks followed a guy like that. No one ever forces them to. They’re not children. In fact, in Andreas’ case children were strictly forbidden. Nobody threatened them with anything if they chose not to go along. So I find myself asking, what did they want from Andreas?
And I also wonder exactly where and when it all went wrong. I seriously doubt Andreas planned from the get-go to form a terrible cult and abuse people. I can’t see him — or anyone for that matter — as a character like Mr. Burns from The Simpsons gleefully rubbing his hands together as he makes plans to do evil.
Maybe Andreas really thought he could awaken his flock to some kind of transcendent reality he supposed he was privy to. Maybe he really believed he could usher in a golden age.
The thing that’s always missing from movies like Holy Hell and all the other films and books and Huffington Post articles of the same general sort is even the slightest attempt at gaining any insight into the supposedly evil people at the center of the action or into who contributed to what they were. But I get that. In order for a movie or a story to hold an audience’s attention it needs a villain, a bad guy.
Most Hollywood bad guys are pretty one-dimensional. Lex Luthor and The Joker sometimes get a tiny bit of backstory. But you’re not supposed to sympathize with them even a little or else you can’t root for Superman or Batman when they give them the thrashing they so richly deserve. In documentaries, real life people get to be the bad dude who gets what’s coming to him at the end or else survives to continue doing more evil deeds so the audience gets to boo and hiss.
I’ll say it again in case you missed it. Andreas looks pretty bad to me.
And yet, some of my own experiences as a spiritual teacher have led me to question whether movies like Holy Hell and all those HufPo puff pieces are telling the whole story. I wonder if they might be missing what appears to me to be possibly the single most significant aspect of these tragedies.
Let me try to tell you specifically why I have such a hard time making these guys into monsters like so many people want me to.
Let’s just take a single incident as an example. A few months ago I was doing a brief tour in the USA, leading some retreats and doing lectures and what-not in support of my new book. While I was in a certain rainy Midwestern post-industrial rust bucket of a town, a guy asked if he could take me out to lunch — his treat. Seeing as I wasn’t getting paid a whole lot for the talk that I gave there, I accepted. At lunch he said to me, “You’re a gift!”
By itself, being told stuff like this once or twice is no biggie. Getting told you’re great all the time is. This is treacherous stuff.
A couple years ago the comments section of this blog got bombarded by a guy whose adulation I had failed to receive properly. Try to imagine what that’s like in person. I don’t have to imagine.
Maybe the reason I haven’t become a complete megalomaniac — yet — is because, at heart, I am a nasty-minded, anti-social jerk who pretty much hates everybody. Also my base level of self-esteem is such that anyone who thinks highly of me appears to me to be deeply misguided if not completely out of their fucking mind.
But what happens when a different sort of person ends up being told again and again that he’s wonderful by wide-eyed true-believers who desire only to learn the great wisdom he has to offer? What if such a person didn’t receive quite enough attention in his childhood and craves the adoration? What if he sincerely thinks, as so many of us want to think, Oh, finally somebody really gets me? What if, when they’re sucking his holy dick, he thinks it’s love too?
Or what if he knows better but he just doesn’t know how to say no? It’s not easy to withstand the demands of a potential army of loyal acolytes. Maybe it’s simpler to just give in and make excuses that it’s all “skillful means” or some such tommyrot.
I know. I know. The guy at the center of the action is supposed to be a master! He’s supposed to be better than all that!
Sure. Fine. You go cloister yourself for a few years away from most of humanity, lose all your social skills, fall out of touch with the general culture for a good chunk of life, and then go out and find yourself the object of inexplicable veneration mixed with a liberal dose of barely concealed envy and covetousness. See what happens. We’ll talk then.
They always make a lot of how supposed perpetrators of evil like Andreas and the rest seek out a certain type of follower. I wonder how much a certain type of follower seeks out a specific type of sociopath? There’s a scene in Holy Hell where a former follower of Andreas breaks down in tears and cries, “We trusted you!” Watching this I couldn’t help thinking, maybe Andreas trusted you too.
We make a lot of what cult leaders want from their flock. What about what we in the flock want from our cult leaders? What about how we flatter and bargain and shimmy to get close to the seat of power? You think that has no effect on someone so holy? You know better than that.
When it all blows up in our greedy faces, we point to the guy on the plastic throne and say it was all his fault. Well sure, he might’ve been the greediest of us all. But look how we pretend we weren’t ready to sell our souls just to get a piece of what we thought he had. Look what happens when we don’t get what we think we deserve.
I’m not suggesting that Andreas or any other scandalized spiritual master was the “real victim” in their stories and deserve any great amount of pity. That does not appear to me to be what happened in any of those cases. The ones I know of all did bad stuff.
But I have to wonder, is all of our hand-wringing really because we pity the poor innocent victims and want to defend them? Or is it possible we want to reserve the option of playing the poor innocent victim ourselves? Is it thinkable that the only way we’re ever going to really put a stop to this stuff is when we accept our own responsibility?
And remember these cases are just the most spectacular ones, the ones that get movies made about them, and books written about them, and that the unpaid writers at Huffington Post seize upon because they think it’ll get them noticed by a news outlet that actually pays for its articles. They are, in short, just the tiny tip of a very big iceberg.
If you saw how easy it is for even someone as clearly un-worship-worthy as me to start a cult you’d be scared shitless. As long as there are sociopaths who want to be leaders there is an endless supply of folks who want to be led.
A lone sociopath is no real threat to anyone. But we don’t always leave them alone, now, do we? Not when we think we might get something for our services.
October 7, 2016 Berlin, Germany Zenlab
October 8-9, 2016 Berlin, Germany 2-Day Retreat
October 11, 2016 Wageningen, Netherlands 12:30pm Workshop at KenKon
October 11, 2016 Wageningen, Netherlands 8:00pm talk Wageningen University, Impulse Building, Ncounter room
October 12, 2016 Brussels, Belgium Talk
October 14, 2016 Munich, Germany, Lecture
October 15-16, 2016 Munich, Germany, 2-Day Retreat
October 18, 19, 20, 2016 Salzburg, Austria, 1-Day-Retreats
October 23-28, 2016 Benediktushof Meditation Centrum (near Würzburg, Germany) 5-Day Retreat
November 11-13, 2016 Mt. Baldy, California (near Los Angeles) Three Day Retreat
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