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Belief, being as contagious as a virus and often just as deadly, can put a teacher in the uncomfortable position of being both its vector and its cure.

I wish imparting a truth were more like planting a specific seed into the fertile field of someone’s mind, where the seed would germinate and grow… or not. And if it did grow, we’d all know exactly what kind of plant it would turn out to be: A zinnia or a tomato seedling would break through the soil and let us happily watch the natural progression of flower and fruit.

But often something unexpected happens. We think we’ve planted one kind of seed, then to our horror we wake one morning to find the field covered with a wild growth – a plush but unproductive kudzu has choked out the mind’s capacity to reason. It’s not easy to undo the damage. Kudzu does not lend itself to harvester or plow. Only herbicide or deadly frost tames it.

And so it happens that people who seemed calm and rational on Monday, when we first introduced a new technique or fact to them, have, by Friday, become fanatical converts, the slaves of silly or bizarre notions that owe their genesis to something we have said but that bear no relationship to anything we intended. Something has gone wrong. Plague or smothering vine… it’s shocking to see the speed at which disaster moves.

We cannot talk of dangerous beliefs without the referent specters of Jonestown, Aum Shinrikyo and, most recently, of Heaven’s Gate, to name but a few of the macabre apparitions our media sources have produced – those visions of death that came upon us, as the tombstones used to say, “sudden and awful.” In these images we see belief in its wildest, most virulent form.

How easily rampant fantasies obscure the signposts of logical direction! But we must be careful when we shake our heads in wonderment. All too often, when considering these tragedies of obsessional faith, we “safe” observers easily succumb to dangerous beliefs ourselves.

Our first mistake comes with the territory. It inheres in the separation of observer and observed. We examine whole organizations as if they were specimens in a Petri dish or zoo, creatures that have been divorced from the humanity that the rest of us still enjoy.

If possible, we find the story of their plight as funny-haha as we find it funny-strange. The size, rhetoric and industry of Jim Jones’ penis presents an interesting concept in crowd control. If only we didn’t have to see those thousand bodies bloating in the equatorial sun.

And Shoko Asahara, fright-wigged and pudgy faced, claiming to be a reincarnated Buddha… or was it Vishnu?.. while stockpiling all that lethal Sarin! Hilarious except when we recall those subway victims choking to death on poisoned gas.

As yet (God Help Us) there’s been no picture of uncovered corpse nor discovery of “other” victims to spoil our appreciation of Heaven’s Gate. All those intelligent, educated people castrating themselves and playing the slots in Vegas while they waited for a comet- trailing spaceship to come and pick them up? As Oscar Wilde said upon reading Dickens’ lugubrious account of the death of Little Nell, “a person would have to have a heart of stone not to laugh.”

When we get over the shock and the consternation and, yes, the laughter, we get serious and constructive and strive to comprehend the otherwise incomprehensible. Given our “they and we” vantage point, we’re limited in our response. We have to content ourselves with taxonomic notice, believing that merely by designating an organism as “a cult”, we have isolated it in some sort of biohazard lab. It won’t drift out the window or creep under the door. We’ve kept the Tribbles out of the triticale. Our second mistake is to confuse the very nature of our confusion. Has anyone ever written about cults without citing a dictionary definition before proceeding to speak authoritatively on the subject? Nope. We have to get the label right because, ultimately, that’s what we’re going to discuss. Naturally, someone will point out that according to this or that strict definition Christianity was once a cult or that Buddhism also was one or still is, depending, of course, on the speaker’s liberality. We construct and deconstruct; propose thesis, antithesis, and synthesis; declaim on the topics of drastic personality change, altered states of consciousness, brainwashing, hypnosis, and informational manipulations.

And so we substitute psychspeak for science and the next thing we know we hear some fool classify Jim Jones, Shoko Asahara, and Marshall Applewhite with Jesus of Nazareth and Siddhartha Gautama. Well, weren’t they all cult leaders?

Again and again we learn of cults and never do we move one lesson closer to the problem. Experts will write books for no other purpose than to discuss and criticize other experts. Art, however, will succeed where scholarship fails. We’ll get our Manchurian Candidate and our Clockwork Orange.

OK. We may not know how to define it, but we know it when we see it. It’s a shared irrational belief. Like carrying a rabbit’s foot? Well, no, that’s just a lucky charm. What about sacred relics, miraculous medals, fetishes, talismans? Nirvana? The Resurrection? Ah… Let’s get back to psychspeak.

Why don’t we just say what’s true: A cult is a collection of individual believers whose shared creed we cannot understand, just as an epidemic is a collection of individual victims whose shared disease we could not prevent. And yes, just as we don’t have an epidemic of wellness, we don’t have benign cults. (When they’re benign they’re just clubs.) The operative word is “individual”. A cult can be a unit of one.

And if the individual’s self-destruction is wrought by drugs, or alcohol, or gambling fever or by any of the familiar forms of desperation, what ultimately is the difference? In every plague, single persons suffer and are either saved or lost. Heaven’s Gate was not mass murder, it was mass suicide, the ultimate destruction of self..

So we can ignore the psychspeak. Jargon and cant will not help us. Ultimately, “cult” is rooted in belief, dangerous belief, and the problem is religious not academic. Those of us who are ordained in ministries of salvation know that the very act of being saved implies the presence of danger. We cannot ignore that precarious element which is contained in every technique and scripture of salvation we teach. A desperate soul is not lucid by definition. If he could think clearly, he would not need our help.

Every teacher can cite multiple examples of religious belief gone awry. (This, too, comes with the territory.) I’d like to relate two instances of my own experience which I hope will demonstrate that we don’t need to look to the horizon to identify the lunatic fringe of dangerous beliefs. All our lawns and landscapes are vulnerable. When the season’s right, the kudzu grows.

She was a middle class matron, attractive, educated, with a trim athletic figure and enough savvy to meet the challenge of greying hair, not by dying the white hair dark, but by bleaching the dark hair light, ash blonde, so that she successfully created the image of a younger, vibrant woman – which she was not.

She was a grandmother who found herself at fifty-one suffering from the vagaries of boredom, disappointment, a petrified husband, and two grown children who had become as emotionally remote as they were geographically distant. To combat the loneliness and rejection, she did what society expected: she followed the usual regimen of hobbies.

After failing at music and orchid raising, she tried her hand at art – a subject which had always interested her – and produced landscapes of bold stroke and unusual aspect according to gallery owners who nevertheless declined to exhibit her work; but then, at the height of her creative enthusiasm, she overheard two of her closest friends ridicule her talent as “hopelessly pedestrian” while they jokingly debated the best place in the garage to hang the gaudy artifacts she had bestowed upon them in lieu of real gifts.

Chagrined, she put away her brushes and retreated into herself and evidently finding nothing there, she decided to seek adventure, to stuff herself with the non-pedestrian substance of treks through exotic locales. She went to India.

There, near the end of her excursion, on a whim, she accepted a two-week volunteer post as conversational English teacher in a mountain village school. In the course of these two weeks she fell madly in love with a teacher’s aide who was thirty years younger than she. He did not ridicule her, in bed or out. He called her a goddess and kissed her hand in public; and she knew that he was sincere because she had overheard him tell his friends that she had initiated him into the mysteries of Tantra. Even his family was impressed, his father dutifully curbing his excitement lest he be “like the old fellow in Ray’s Deviwho saw Kali where he ought not to have looked.” Yes, she was a Yogini of no small accomplishments. Her Beloved had assured her of this, even as he praised Shiva for having helped him to preserve his virginity until that first glorious night with her.

He taught her how to wear a sari and she outfitted him in tasteful suits and sportswear; and for the final week of her visit they traveled, inseparable, exploring the Himalayan foothills and the delirium of flesh. One curious thing his sweet fondling discovered was a small lump in her breast.

She returned home, exultant in what she claimed was her first knowledge of true sexual love; and in exercise of solemn duty to those who needed some incentive, conveyed this information in dozens of letters and articles which she submitted to a variety of seniors’ publications. She also immersed herself in Tantric lore by which means she hoped to raise her introduction to divinity at least to an intermediate level. She had a new life and a new identity and she lived for no other purpose than to return to her Beloved and to her destiny in India.

From a flurry of clandestine love letters, she fashioned an ostensibly solid plan: she told her family that she would be returning to India simply to invest in a business property there, an altruistic venture.

But to her circle of fastidious friends, whom she delighted in shocking with lurid details, she revealed that she and her consort intended to purchase an old Tudor-style Inn they had visited in their travels. She had thought the place charming and he had recently discovered that it was for sale. They would gradually convert the place into an ashram, over which she would, of course, preside. He insisted that her letters were so beautifully written that her teachings would be internationally salable; and until such time as the world harkened to her revelations, the Inn’s restaurant and guest rooms would sustain them financially. He did not think it wise, and she agreed, to let the seller know that she was interested. The prospect of a ‘rich’ American buyer would surely cause the price to be inflated. He would deal with the real estate agent in the guise of being his father’s representative.

She applauded his cleverness. It reassured her as she laid plans to gather the money required for her to complete her apotheosis and for him to acquire title to her shrine.

Meanwhile, there was this nasty little problem of the lump. Her friends pressured her to consult a physician, issuing the additional warning that her medical insurance would probably not be valid in India, but still she demurred. Finally, her husband, apprised by the husband of one of her friends, inquired about the problem; and, fearing further betrayal of confidence, she relented and submitted to diagnostic evaluation. And so, in May, as the rainy season commenced in India, she was informed that she had breast cancer. Surgery and chemotherapy, strenuously prescribed, were just as strenuously declined. In September she had a delicious rendezvous planned in Calcutta and she did not intend to keep it scarred and bald.

Instead, she recalled a talk I had given about Zen meditation in which I had referred to the incredible power of meditation to change one’s life, a power that I said was difficult to obtain. Was she not a Yogini of no small accomplishments? She called me and asked if I taught meditation. I said no, that I taught Buddhism of which meditation was a part. I asked if she was interested in Buddhism and she replied, with a certain hauteur, “No, not in the least.” Then, stiffly, she asked if I knew anything about “left hand” (sexual) Tantric meditation forms. Our conversation having taken a pointless, disagreeable turn, I said that I was sorry I could not help her and explained that I had been ordained in a celibate, “right hand” Path. I recall the arrogance in her voice as she responded, “Pity…” and hung up.

I finally met her for the first time when she called again in August and came to my home for tea and a discussion of a stubborn problem she was having, the full extent of which she would not, unfortunately, learn until a few more weeks had passed.

She complained that she was being victimized by people who pretended to be what they were not. They had said that they were knowledgeable in the methods of meditation but they were either fools or knaves – incompetents or lying cheats. Everyone had assured her meditation was a simple matter; but though she had spent much money on books, hypnotists, on the purchase of a mantra, on spiritual therapists, on seminars, on a lava lamp and crystal ball, she still could not enter the meditative state.

I was dazzled by the spectrum and the zeal with which she had traversed it. But why was she so motivated? Almost with annoyance that I had not intuited the problem, she blurted out the distressing diagnosis and then continued to enumerate the methods she had tried.

I had been startled and as the situation became clear to me, her efforts took on a bizarre, ludicrous character. She had tried laughter therapy but the lump’s increasing size tended to deflate such risibility as the amusement offered. And every morning she spent half an hour visualizing microscopic “good” white-cell knights jousting in the tumorous lists of her breast with many “nasty” cancer-cell knights. She did not know why they weren’t performing at tournament level and flat-out asked me what she was doing wrong. I gulped. “Everything,” I said.

“Meditation,” I explained, “is not something you can learn the way you can learn to tango. It is difficult and all the determination in the world doesn’t guarantee results. It requires a certain faith and peace of mind and humility.” I stressed humility again and then concluded, “Meditation, like prayer, is a devotional exercise. Nobody, especially someone who has no spiritual ‘history’, can demand a miracle or purchase instruction in Divine Union.” Her attitude and her approach were wrong. I agreed that meditation could be a beneficial adjunct to conventional therapy, but I insisted that it should never be used to replace it. “There may be miracle cures associated with meditation but no one should count on the occurrence of a miracle.” I urged her to return as quickly as possible to her physicians, to seek other opinions if that would satisfy her, and then, when she was in more responsible hands than self-help, alternative-cure quacks, I’d gladly give her religious manuals and whatever technical help I could with meditation.

Disdainfully, she rejected my advice. I stood up, expressing regret that I couldn’t be of more help. “Perhaps,” she said, “if you understood why I can’t submit to surgery, you’d understand.” I sat down again and listened to her pathetic tale of love and adventure.

Then she asked if I had ever heard that a priest must be without blemish. I said that I had and recounted a sad event in my own ordination in China: a woman whose hand had been severed in an industrial accident was not permitted to become a priest because, among other reasons, she could not perform sacred hand gestures, mudras being an indispensable element in Buddhist ritual.

Then she said with astonishing sincerity and simplicity, “Now if you, an ordinary priest, cannot be with blemish, how can I, a Yogini, consent to be marred? The law is stated,” she offered for my edification, “in Leviticus, Chapter 21.” I’m not often at a loss for words; but I was stunned into silence that day. I muttered that I’d check the Bible and offered to speak with her again at some future time. I gave her a copy of some pranayama instructions I had written and again urged her to consult her physicians. She studied the paper I had handed her “like a duchess looking at bugs,” as Tarkington would say. It was insultingly elementary and she folded it in half and then in quarters and dropped it into her purse.

The next time she visited me she came fortified with an old batch of spurious arguments:

“Doctors lie, you know.”

— “Then why did you believe them when they told you you had cancer?”

“Stress causes cancer and meditation relieves stress. Relieve the stress and you relieve the cancer.”

— “Pediatric wards are filled with babies who got cancer without having to worry about mortgage payments or cheating spouses. Stress may weaken the immune system and contribute to the disease process, but a cancer is not dependent upon stress to maintain itself.”

“Countless people have been cured of cancer by diet and meditation.”

— ”If diet and meditation could cure cancer, countless saints… Sri Ramana Maharshi, Sri Ramakrishna, and a host of others, including many vegetarian Zen masters, who were all adepts at meditation, would not have succumbed to cancer. But they did, and they had even become diseased despite their extraordinarily stress-free lives.”

At several different seminars she personally had talked to people who had been cured of serious disease by meditation. “Were they liars?” she asked.

— “I discount neither the placebo effect nor the body’s ability to cure itself. I also know that imaginary treatments can cure imaginary illnesses.”

“What about all the books out there… testimonials written by patients who were cured with alternative-medicine methods?”

— “Fifty cents worth of bullshit for every nickel’s worth of truth,” I said, adding, “The failures don’t get published. They’re dead.” I gave up trying to convince her.

A week later she called again, frantic and violently angry. A few of the friends to whom she had so lavishly bragged about her love affair had betrayed her to her husband and he had surreptitiously emptied their joint bank accounts and had canceled her credit cards. Worse, he was in possession of many love letters which she had insouciantly kept in a lingerie drawer. She cautioned me not to nag her about medical treatment, adultery, or improbable love affairs. “I just wanted you to know that nothing is going to deter me. Without love, there is no life. I have been given love and I intend to live.”

She wrote to her beloved about this new test of their commitment to each other, sold some expensive jewelry and returned to India in time for her appointment.

But despite the sacrality of their lovemaking, she detected a certain secular uneasiness in his manner. Something was troubling him and it couldn’t have had anything to do with money, as her friends would later insist, because he was no more nor less troubled before or after she gave him eight thousand dollars towards the downpayment on the Inn. Yes, he had expected more, but until they gathered the necessary sum, he would resign himself to accepting the delay which, on the other hand, would give them more time to enjoy each other without the distractions of pecuniary considerations. Had she no other assets to pledge? Yes, but to get them she would have to get divorced, a complicated procedure.

He continued to brood until, walking along the beach, after she had implored him to confess the cause of his dark mood, he proposed marriage to her, or rather demanded it. She had to marry him, he said, because only then would he have exclusive rights to her. It had been disturbing to him to think that God had doubtlessly intended that she lead other men to enlightenment as she had led him. He knew he had a duty to serve her and to share her, but – God forgive him – he could not bear to do this duty. She loved him all the more for this weakness.

Radiant and sanguine in certainty, she returned home to attend to the legal details of divorce and the division of property and, incidentally, to a new and irritating little bulge in her armpit.

Several weeks later, she visited me again.

She was euphoric and when I commented on the expansiveness of her mood, she told me that she thrived on adversity. She was triumphant. Let her husband accuse her and cancel her credit cards. What was money, anyway? Let her children side with her husband and threaten to have her committed. She had never been so sane as she was now! Besides, she noted sardonically, they would never commit her – it would cost too much money and money was all they were really interested in. Thank God she had already sold her jewelry! Let her friends desert her. Good riddance to jealous fools. She would prevail. She was surrounded by ugly people who had shown her the ugliness of her former existence. How lucky she was to be set against them. Yes, God had seen fit to bless her with adversity. She was stronger for it.

It was a Saint Crispin’s day speech and I got the feeling that she was trying to rally my help in what might reasonably be considered a hopeless cause. It was an awkward moment. I asked why she had come to me. She stared blankly into space, not knowing the answer. I asked again, and suddenly she began to cry. She had not heard from her young lover since her return from India. He had not answered any of her letters. She had called the school in which she had taught and learned that he no longer lived in the village. His family said they didn’t know where he was. She had called the Inn and learned that months earlier it had been sold to a Swiss couple. Where could he have gone? Had her husband harmed him?

A smug, impervious certainty enveloped her mind, and reason could not penetrate it. I begged her to reconcile with her family and to seek medical help. She looked at me as though I were mad. “One poison in my body is enough. You want to put a second one into my system!” We were back to the old arguments against chemotherapy and surgery.

By Christmas, she was dead. To my knowledge she never heard from her Beloved again. But right until the end she engaged spiritual consultants to come to her bedside to effect telepathic communication with him and, of course, to teach her how to meditate. With fluids dripping into her, with her body skeletal and wracked with pain, with eyes so glazed that she could barely distinguish light from dark, she received them. Her husband paid them with his personal check.

Humming Bird

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