We’re all certain that we’re immune to the contagion of disastrous conviction, that we’ll never be vulnerable to a belief that is too foolish even to consider, but the fact is that not only are we not immune, but that by the very human nature of our mind, we’ve already proved ourselves susceptible. Sometimes we need to see a belief displayed in ordinary life’s petrie-dish aspic before it begins to look suspicious.
What exactly are we seeing when, for example, we observe the antics of sport fans? We see the same fanatical excess that characterizes any cult membership. People who, just a few hours earlier were thoughtful and calm as they returned from church or shuffled through the sections of the newspaper’s Sunday edition, show up, say, at the baseball park wearing a professional sport’s team’s heraldic colors and insignias – silly hats, clothes and even painted faces. As the occasion demands, they boo and hiss and cheer, in unison they stand in waves or make hatchet chops, or in a mob’s “Give us Barrabas” chorus, they demand the death of an official. We’ll see fifty thousand spectators wildly jump and shout because a man who has been paid a few million dollars to take an oak bat and strike a leather covered pellet, has actually done so.
Where does all this emotion come from? It comes from the same place dangerous beliefs come from: it is incorporated into the nature and the structure of the mind. To be sure, sports fans are only rarely overtly destructive; but every bookmaker who ever died rich, – and seldom do they die otherwise – died rich because bettors are usually fans whose team-enthusiasm has not only skewed the odds but has inspired them to bet in the first place. Wagers based on false information – and sentiment invariably falsifies appraisals – are foolish wagers. Emotion is a symptom of projection and inflation, those two conditions of samsaric slavery. Again, any emotion is a symptom of projection and whenever we find ourselves sliding from interest into fascination and down into emotional involvement, we’re trying to negotiate attachment’s white water rapids and only luck will keep us from colliding with those boulders in the stream. How many times in our lives have we believed in someone who betrayed us? How many times, despite other people’s insistence that he was unworthy of our trust, did we stubbornly cling to our delusion, insisting that they were prejudiced, or blind, or simply did not know him as we did. Of course, it was we who were blind, because projection made us see only what we placed upon him. That is the nature of projection. When emotion overrides reason we are automatically prejudiced in our belief. No one should doubt the sincerity of the mother who, when watching an army march by, says simply, “Everybody’s out of step but my son, John.”
The instincts of self-preservation and of reproduction, those gods of Mothers, Lovers, Heroes, Friends and Enemies, push and pull us, compelling us in the most irrational ways to accomplish their goals.
There is a strategic survival pattern evident when horses form a herd and follow the dictates of a single stallion. An army and a general are pressed from the same survival template, as is a patriarchal family or a town and its mayor or an assemblage of sport fans and their heroic MVP. Our bodies and brains are the hardware, our very genes and cultural norms are the software that we run. For as long as there is strength in numbers and we require that strength, we will form alliances, group ourselves into religious, social, and political collectives. We’ll appreciate the ligatures of family and friends. For as long as we perceive enemies, we need to hate enough to kill. For as long as we need the reciprocal benefits of possessory love, we’ll adore our baby or parent or spouse. There is no requirement that someone be worthy of our adoration. If we waited until we found the perfect lover, we would not mate; if we waited until we found the perfect teacher, we would learn nothing.
If it is the Hero god in our mind that we project onto someone we believe is a Perfect Master, we will see the God, not the person. We’ll fall on our knees before him and worship him and in our mind at least, we will be raised up, inspired. If he’s a good leader, he’ll make us stand up as he leads us in love and teaches us to live in splendid poverty and humility. He’ll refine us and open our minds to all the possibilities of science and art. But if he’s just another false prophet he’ll have to manipulate us to hold us together… he’ll have to assure us that – as we’ve always suspected – we’re rather special. And, inflated with elitism, that helium of superiority, our lips will curl out and up as we affect that slight, smug smile of cultish certainty: “We, the Chosen, the Elect, the Privileged, have been blessed in ways that you who are none of these things can understand.”
And then, so that our superior group doesn’t self-destruct with internecine conflict, our leader will have to gather all our individual shadows into one great missile of hate and hurl that weapon against some other hapless enemy… some race, or religion, or nationality, or social class, or intellectually inferior rabble. It will be Them versus Us. We’ll display the insignias of exclusivity. We’ll all be wearing identical Nike sneakers when we board that spaceship. Our alien masters will not confuse us with those other would-be passengers who wear Rebok or Converse or LAGear.
No, we don’t wear blue to cheer the Denver Broncos and we don’t wear orange to cheer the Miami Dolphins. We know these things.
And this is how we live and how we need to live before we mature and attain the Age of Reason, the Age of Nonattachment. We project the appropriate god – lover, mother, child, friend, or hero from our mind’s Olympus onto someone and if he or she is worthy of that questionable honor, we can in due time detach, withdraw the projection, and let the god in question engage us in Alchemical adventures. We’ll be independent then and more, we hope, than just a little wise.
But if he or she is unworthy of the honor, we’ll be mangled in the chains of our own attachments. Whether or not we survive the ordeal depends a lot on luck. The second instance of dangerous belief that hauntingly comes to mind involved another visitor, a distraught man of no more than thirty, who was still grieving over his young wife’s death which had occurred months before.
As soon as he entered the room he noticed a foot-high plastic acupuncture mannequin I keep on a side table. Eyeing me suspiciously, he asked, “Do you do acupuncture?” I assured him that I didn’t, and that I kept the mannequin only because it so clearly showed the meridians. Many forms of meditation require at least a rudimentary knowledge of these “Chi” conduits. But he was still not satisfied. “Do you ever tell people that since there’s a Buddha inside us, our body is a kind of temple and we should take care of it?” I say it often so I owned up to the remark. But he meant, “take spiritual care of it”, a term that I did not quite understand and said so. Not caring to elaborate, he continued, “What about drugs? Do you also tell people not to take drugs?” “Drugs as in illegal drugs… or drugs as in a drug store, prescription medicines?” I suddenly felt the need to deflect his questions and went into a sort of “shields up” mode.
“Pharmacy drugs. Can a good Buddhist, say, a Chinese Buddhist, take ordinary prescription medicine? Or is he or she limited to herbal medicines?”
I found the remarks astonishing. “Nothing in the Dharma says that a person can’t take medicine. What we shouldn’t do is take pills in lieu of self-control. An obese person should try to lose weight by eating properly and by exercising, not by popping amphetamines. That sort of thing,” I explained., adding, “And when it comes to medications, there’s no difference in concept between taking an herbal tea, for example, and taking a capsule of the relevant herbal ingredient, even in synthetic form.” I said that this was simple common sense. “Quality, quantity, and delivery systems may vary, but a medicine is a medicine. The question is, ‘Does it restore you to good health?’ What happened to your wife,” I asked.
He cautiously proceeded to tell me about his wife’s death and of the problem he was having with his in-laws who blamed him for it.
“The Chinese believe that the heart and mind are the same thing,” he began, “but I don’t think they are.” I agreed.
He had met his wife in Taiwan. He was working as an engineer for a construction company and she, an architecture student, had visited the building site. From the moment he first saw her, he knew that she was the woman God had created for him. They were married in a Buddhist temple by her old Master.
She had had a long history of stomach problems, he said, but antacids and herbal teas were always able to relieve the symptoms. But when he eventually brought her to Los Angeles, her condition worsened. She blamed the additional stresses of American diet and culture; and she was encouraged and supported in this belief by her Chinese friends and relatives. They wanted her to consult local Chinese Folk Medicine practitioners, but he instead took her to an American doctor who tested and treated her for ulcers which he said were caused by bacterial infestation. Antibiotics and PeptoBismal were prescribed, and she responded well to the treatment.
But when his company sent him to the Middle East for several months’ work, his wife decided to return to Taiwan to spend some time with her master in his monastic retreat. It was there, in rural Taiwan, that she began to experience severe attacks of indigestion. Responding to her first painful attack, her master, a kindly old man who evidently was rarely, if ever, sick, called in the only physician around, a Chinese herbal acupuncturist who often attended Buddhist services. This physician gave her Black Dragon Eggs, a miraculous concoction of precious herbs which immediately relieved her distress. He also prescribed regular acupuncture treatments, and gave her a digestive tonic and a creamy green concoction, both of his own compounding, to take before and after meals respectively. In the event she felt more serious distress, he sold her supply of these expensive and mysterious Dragon Eggs.
Further, this doctor thoroughly criticized the regimen her American physician had prescribed and after assuring her that no one knew medicine better than the Chinese, a boast she was entirely disposed to believe, insisted that when she returned to the U.S. she not see this American doctor again. Instead she should consult a colleague of his in Los Angeles. She spent a small fortune on these treatments in Taiwan and a large fortune on these treatments in the U.S. The mention of the Black Dragon Eggs startled me. I knew something about at least one kind of mysterious black pill from China. I interrupted him to ask what these Eggs looked like and he told me like licorice gum drops that had a yellow yolk center. I didn’t like what I was hearing and feared where the story would lead.
To the young husband, the medicine the new Chinese doctor provided did not work very well. She was experiencing nearly daily bouts of diarrhea and cramps. But in the expert opinion of the doctor the medicines were actually extremely effective since, to put it simply, they weren’t dealing here with simple physical illness. No, it was more serious than this. Clearly, her symptoms could be directly attributed either to karmic retribution or to irritated ancestral spirits, which was pretty much the same thing. A priest at a nearby Buddhist temple verified the disease’s etiology and offered, for the sum of fifteen hundred dollars, to conduct a propitiating service. The husband refused to finance this shamanistic enterprise; but his wife’s sister, who had a vested interest in placating these particular spirits, came up with the necessary funds, and the ceremony was held.
Despite the bells, chants, and incense, the ancestors grew more restive. When they were particularly annoyed and her symptoms worsened, she took another five dollar Black Dragon Egg, a dish which the ancestors seemed to enjoy since her distress always abated. The young husband, however, was growing increasingly alarmed and begged her to return to her American doctor; but just as adamantly she refused, insisting that Chinese problems are best solved with Chinese solutions. And what did he know about things Chinese? She resented his nagging and counteracted it by reiterating that the one person she trusted most, i.e., her old Buddhist master, had personally restored her to the wisdom of her ancestors. She would not fall from grace again. Her heart had spoken to her and what it said was “be patient and keep the faith.” At regular intervals, her Chinese friends, relatives, and fellow Buddhists buttressed this overarching conviction.
To the young husband’s annoyance, these associates became so solicitous that they daily brought her Chinese meals, suitably bland and wholesome, which they convivially shared. But then, over their post-prandial cup of Jasmine tea, they would chat about those topics which most interested them. He often overheard these discussions and regretted not knowing less Chinese than he knew. What did Americans know about anything? Since this was not a rhetorical question, the list of answers was long: Americans didn’t know how to dress, raise children, study or learn, work industriously, treat disease, grow food that didn’t taste like plastic, prepare nutritious meals, survive a single day without popping pills, or resist the compulsion to tell scandalously intimate secrets on national television.
The young husband blamed these domestic intruders for his wife’s worsening health. Unfortunately he made the mistake of telling his mother about them and their comments. She, responding in normal maternal fashion, begged him to come home to her for dinner every night; and, as often as he could, he obliged. And naturally she also confronted his wife and the tea klatch telling them in so many words that emigration was the obvious solution to the problem of unsatisfactory immigration. Not having imparted this instruction diplomatically, she immediately instigated that most costly of conflicts, a civil war.
For many months he had had a burning desire to see the new bridge across Tampico Bay and now, having vacation time coming and wanting a change of venue even more than he wanted to see the bridge, he decided to take his wife to Mexico for a vacation. They would leisurely drive along the Gulf and visit Mayan ruins, inspecting them with an architectural eye, and then go on to Cancun where they would lounge on the beach for two weeks. They visited a few Mayan ruins but they never got to Cancun.
She had gotten a headache for which she had purchased aspirin, the only analgesic available at the little tienda they stopped at. Then, the following day, while driving across the Yucatan she collapsed. The Yucatan peninsula was not a good place to be when needing critical care. People were helpful, but she had gone into shock and was dead on arrival when he finally got her to a hospital.
In the blur of grief that followed, he learned that his wife’s stomach had been horribly ulcerated and that, because of irritation perhaps caused by coarse or spicy foods and the ingestion of aspirin, these ulcers had uncontrollably bled.
He said that the Mexican doctor who took her history was brusque and insulting. “He asked me why I didn’t get better medical treatment for her. I told him I spent several hundred dollars a week on acupuncture and “natural” medicines and he called me a fool. Then he said that the green aftermeal medicine was probably “Maalox with green dye” and that the “before meals tonic” was probably laced with a narcotic or a muscle relaxant and that if I knew what was good for me I wouldn’t drive around Mexico with unprescribed opiates or tranquilizers. They have drug laws. ‘You should have kept your wife on antibiotics.’ the doctor said. ‘She’d be climbing the steps of Palenque instead of lying in the morgue.’”
The young widower, knowing enough about Mexican jails to heed the advice, returned to his hotel and poured what was left of her supply of herbal medicine down the drain.
“And the Eggs?” I asked him. He said that he flushed them down the toilet. By the time her sister arrived, even the containers had been disposed of and there was nothing to prove that she had ever had medicine with her. He returned to Los Angeles to face the condemnation of her family and friends. They were certain she had succumbed because he had deliberately deprived her of her treatments. The attacks on him were vicious. Still confused by grief, he wanted me to convince him that he hadn’t in some way contributed to her death by acquiescing in the treatment. Should he have forced her to see an American doctor? Was there something to this Karma business? What did I think?
I told him that I doubted that, given the intensity of her belief, she would have taken the American doctor’s prescriptions. She would have found a way to obtain the Chinese doctor’s medications and that this was the sorry fact of dangerous beliefs.
I described the projection process and the kudzu Blitzkrieg of irrationality. I defined Karma, that network of causes and effects which converge at whatever nexus of time and place we happen to find ourselves in. “Luck enters into things,” I said. “When she went back to Taiwan for that visit, if she had had that attack in Taipei, her master would have called an ambulance or taken her to a hospital himself. She would probably have received the same treatment that her American doctor had given her. Taipei does not lack quality medical facilities or personnel. But she didn’t have that attack in Taipei, she had it in some remote location.” My comments gave him only cold comfort.
I continued, trying to explain the incomprehensible. “When a person’s in extreme distress, a bond is easily formed or strengthened. A bond already existed between her and her master. She trusted him. And when the local doctor he sent for provided such immediate relief, everyone, especially her master, had to be favorably impressed. Surely he would have encouraged her to visit this doctor. Wouldn’t we do the same?” I asked.
Then I returned to the mysterious black pills. “Irrational belief doesn’t confine itself to religious matters. People martyr themselves to beliefs of all kinds.” I didn’t know what was in the Dragon Eggs, but I offered a suggestion.
I produced the summer l992 issue of Priorities Magazine which someone had recently given me and opened it to an article by a Houston, Texas surgeon, Dr. Ralph E. Dittman.
In his article, The Black Pearl of China, Dr. Dittman related the following story: a patient of his had visited Chinatown in San Francisco and there had been introduced to a miraculous herbal medication called Black Pearls. The patient, a successful businessman, saw the commercial potential of this herbal product and, by way of testing the market, purchased a quantity of them and distributed them to his Houston friends. Wanting to know what specifically was in the pills, he asked Dr. Dittman to have them tested. One of the people who received these pills was a man who, being on parole for a drug offense, was required to submit to periodic drug testing. One day, after taking a Black Pearl, he flunked the test. On grounds that he had illegally ingested Valium, he was immediately returned to jail.
The results of the gas chromatography/mass spectroscopy analysis which Dr. Dittman had ordered clearly showed diazepam’s signature 36.6 minute peak. It was Valium, all right. After an investigation, the unwitting drug-taker was released.
Dr. Dittman concluded his article by warning that these “‘harmless’ Asian herbal folk remedies often contain illegal combinations of cortico- or anabolic steroids, nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs, antibiotics such as tetracycline or chloramphenicol, Valium, narcotics…” The various Federal and State Food and Drug regulatory agencies were finally beginning to prosecute the dangerous fraud.
My visitor read the article several times. “I should have been more forceful.”
“It wouldn’t have done any good,” I said. “She believed in what she was doing. Short of deprogramming her, you wouldn’t have put a dent in that armor.”
I think that when he left he understood that his wife had been the victim of a cult. It may have been a cult of only one, but all the symptoms were there: the jingoism, the chauvinism, the elitist’s smug superiority, the stubborn and blind conviction.
No, a cult is not defined by numbers. One wrong seed planted in a single mind is enough. A dangerous belief, like kudzu, doesn’t recognize borders. When the darting vine reaches the property lines, all our lawns are at risk.