Of Cults & Clones

Helen Tworkov

Following the cloning of Dr. Wilmut’s ewe, we asked various people to comment on this historic event. In response (see p. 36) Ravi Ravindra, Professor of Comparative Religion and of Physics at Dalhousie University in Halifax, said, “A more serious issue is how our propaganda, our social-psychological manipulation through the media, actually makes people behave as if they were clones.” A month after Professor Ravindra’s reply came into the office, the mass suicide by thirty-nine members of Heaven’s Gate dramatically proved his point. Confronted with such a brutal example of herd mentality, however, we conjure up a hundred different reasons to explain why “we” are not “them.” In the process, we lose sight of Ravindra’s point, while everywhere within and around us lies evidence of autonomy anesthetized, aborted, inhibited and infantilized.

The days when Buddhism was perceived as a cult are, thankfully, behind us. The proliferation of Buddhist texts in translation and the cross-fertilization of different schools and traditions continue to provide ample evidence to counter the classic telltale signs of homogenized, secretive, closed-circuit cult dynamics. Within one region alone, the northern Rio Grande (see this issue’s special section), the burgeoning scene under the Buddhist umbrella includes Zen, Vajrayana and Vipassana centers, temples for recent immigrants from Vietnam and Thailand, American lineage holders and resident priests from Asian cultures. Communication among different groups, as well as between Buddhists and Native Americans, suggest a wholly different sensibility than that of Heaven’s Gate, which was sequestered in the Manzano Mountains of New Mexico prior to taking up residence in San Diego.

To the best of my understanding, Buddhist history harbors no mass suicides, and nothing on the horizon indicates a change of course even in the shadow of millennium madness. To make a clear distinction between a tradition and a cult, however, does not mean that we as Buddhists have examined or witnessed or purified our own compulsions toward cult behavior, toward playing follow-the-leader, indulging blind faith, jettisoning conviction for group approval, joining the pack when we can’t hack personal responsibility and honesty. Examples within the new Buddhist communities of charismatic leadership and clone-like students are numerous; but just as with Heaven’s Gate, the most dramatic examples obscure the subtle, daily, humdrum way in which autonomy is forfeited or undermined.

The greatest challenge to new Buddhists—if not to anyone on a spiritual path—is to figure out how to be a student, how to embrace devotion, surrender, to honor, respect and receive the wisdom of those who know more than we do, without annihilating or amputating some crucial element of our beings. To confuse—as is our wont—autonomy with individuality risks turning the path into one of ego aggrandizement instead of ego killing.

Allen Ginsberg (see p. 22) was a blazing meteor-antidote to clone mentality. He put his queer shoulder to the wheel and changed the consciousness of America. Yet what remains most inspiring about Allen is the consummate ease with which he integrated his immersion in the Blake-Whitman lineage of profoundly individuated poetic vision with surrender and passionate devotion to his Tibetan gurus, the late Chogyam Trungpa Rinpoche and Gelek Rinpoche. Having played fervently—and immodestly—in the wilds of personal discovery, he came to his practice brimming with confidence and monumental integrity, and continued, with his poet’s-ear precision, to listen, to obey. Ob + oedire. To go toward listening. Ready to receive, he walked the Buddha path in his singular way, as must we all. Inimitably.

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