Open Forum: Buddhist Personality Cults

This picture still cracks me up.

A cult of personality arises when an individual uses mass media to create an idealized and heroic public image, often through unquestioning flattery and praise. Cults of personality are often found in dictatorships. The sociologist Max Weber developed a tripartite classification of authority; the cult of personality holds parallels with what Weber defined as ‘charismatic authority’. A cult of personality is similar to hero worship, except that it is propagated by mass media. However, the term may be applied by analogy to refer to adulation of religious or non-political leaders [wikipedia]

This post stemmed from some conversations online concerning the popular standing of the Dalai Lama in the West as well as his status among followers.  It seems that in many Buddhist circle the concept of a teacher spreads far beyond imparting wisdom and guidance ~ There is an element of supernatural prowess and miraculous insight as well.  In some cases, such as the Dalai Lama in my opinion, this personality cult is largely an aftereffect of popular marketing and promotion of eastern philosophies into pite sized nuggets of wisdom that can be easily swallowed and digested.  Who wants to think of the Dalai Lama as a homophobe?  Or of Shunryu Suzuki Roshi as a horrible husband.  Or you favorite teacher as taking a crap?

Or perhaps we need to make sure that we untangle the myth from the individual.  For example, the myth of the Zen Master is far from the reality of the Zen Master.  It is when practitioners become too tied to the myth and the perception that they lose site of the actual person.

Some of these qualities imputed to the Zen master are simplicity, innocence, and lack of self-interest or desire. The master is said to be a person whose actions flow solely out of compassion for other sentient beings. He wisdom, the ability to see the truth behind appearances and to have the prerogative to speak expertly on all subjects. In fact, he is taken to be last in an unbroken chain of enlightened, unblemished masters reputedly going back 2500 years to the historical Sakyamuni Buddha. But, this portrait can only exist if we ignore the irritating complexity and contradictions of actual lives and real history. [Zen Master in America~Stuart Lachs]
We hate complexity and don’t want to see contradictions so it is seemingly easy to appreal to an idealized image of those from which we wish to learn.  And I don’t mean to single out the Dalai Lama on this.  It was the example I heard used most often but I think it can apply to any number of examples.  Shunryu Suzuki roshi is held to a very idealized status in American Zen circles.  Chogyam Trungpa Rinpoche had equally high status, idealized by students but very flawed in nature.  Controversy also followed Seung Sahn (founder of the Kwan Um School of Zen) after his passing.  SGI president Daisaku Ikeda has also been labeled as a personality cult leader.
While I don’t fault any of these teachers there is a case to be made where followers become less of a student and more of a automaton.  This manifested view of a perfect teacher can lead to a situation that, as described by Stuart Lachs, can lead to a situation where  the Zen Master (or Lama or Guru or whatever) can be provided with a large amount of power and control.  When we place an almost supernatural expectation on normal (read: flawed) individuals what more can we expect than this?

Baker [roshi] was able to get away with such bad behavior, in part, because of the way he manifested his authority. He gave his followers two choices: obey his words without question or be marginalized. Being marginalized was tantamount to being forced to leave, a choice that was too painful for many people to contemplate. Leaving meant giving up what made life seem most meaningful, leaving close friendships and the joy of community. Therefore, in their need to remain at the Center, members recognized, consciously or unconsciously, a powerful incentive to buy fully into Zen’s mythology. [Zen Master in America~Stuart Lachs]
The Ch’an teacher, Master Sheng-yen stated that when referencing the Zen Master, “it should be remembered that the mind of the master is ever pure… and even if the master tells lies, steals, and chases women…, he is still to be considered a true master as long as he scolds his disciples for their transgressions.”  There is a statement here that a Zen Master, by title and lineage is beyond normal morality, is able to go against his own teachings and these actions should be accepted, without question, from his students. 
So where does the line between teacher and guru lie?  Where and when can we remove the myth and legend away from the actual person?  Or should we? 
The best Buddhist teacher I have had to date was a Shin practitioner in NJ who worked as a janitor and construction worker, married twice, divorced once but had both feet firmly set on the ground.





29 thoughts on “Open Forum: Buddhist Personality Cults

  1. From what I understand, Korean monasteries all have a Zen master, a chanting master, and a kitchen master. The “Zen master” has the job of overseeing meditation activities, just as the kitchen master has the job of overseeing food preparation. Of course, you give these masters due respect; you chant in time with the chanting master, eat what the kitchen master directs you to eat, and follow the meditation training of the Zen master.

    But being kitchen master doesn’t mean you make supernaturally enriched rice. It’s just a job.

    • That’s exactly right. And as you say, it’s often a job that needs to be filled, and if you don’t have a truly awakened teacher, (and they’re “really” rare) you do the next best thing and find someone who’s been sincerely practicing for many decades.

      Note the “decades.” Most monks in Korea won’t consider any kind of a teaching role unless they’ve been practicing at least 20 years. It just takes time.

      One of the other main characteristics that I’ve seen and heard of is that the truly outstanding practitioners also seem to be very humble, generally. It’s not about them, and their main concern is helping students become independant practitioners who can rely upon their own practice.

      • Just mentioning that I believe that the role of tenzo in most Zen Centers is considered a vastly important one.

        I love this exchange between Dogen and an old Tenzo

        Later, Dogen was staying on a ship. He met a tenzo who came aboard to buy shiitakes.
        Dogen: Your monastery is far away. Please stay and let me offer you a meal.
        Tenzo: I’m sorry, but I can’t. If I’m not there to prepare tomorrow’s meal, it won’t go well.
        Dogen: But surely someone else in the monastery knows how to cook?
        Tenzo: This is my practice. How can I leave to others what I should do myself?
        Dogen: Venerable sir, why work as a cook in your old age? Why not meditate and study the koans.
        Tenzo: My friend, it seems you don’t really understand practice.

        My take home is that it is not what you study but rather how you study it that clears the mind. I am a horrible cook but I love the process of preparing a meal.

        But it truly does take 20+ years of hard work to be able to teach Zen meditation. MY old teacher (no-one of any great importance) was an aging construction worker but he spent a life-time training his mind by laying bricks. Not a perfect man but one of quieted mind.


        • Thanks John, I haven’t read that book in 20+ years, but it’s still good! It’s “How to Cook your Life,” right?

          My Dharma grandfather, Hanam Sunim once, when asked about how to do koan practice, started off by saying, “people of high ability just take whatever confronts them and use it staight away.”

          I’ve been reading the letters from Aitken Roshi, regarding problems with a Japanese teacher, and it’s been kind of shocking to me. This whole topic of teacher as god, what were they thinking. Anyway, I’d best treat this as my koan and push back the keyboard!

          with palms together,
          Chong Go

          • I too have been reading up on Aitken Roshi and some of his “Miniatures of a Zen Master” and it is a very honest and challenging book!

            I get that same comment from time to time. “Treat your current situation as a koan” and I need to explain that it requiresa great deal of training to do so (unless you simply possess more natural ability).


        • I haven’t read that book. I’ll have to check it out. What I’d been reading are called the Aitken-Shimono Letters. Unfortunately, they make for a bit of a shocking and depressing read.

          But I suppose it’s useful as a cautionary “tale” to the rest of us, in highlighting things to be careful of within ourselves, and of things we encounter while taking care of our responcibilities.

  2. This is part of the reason I don’t follow the Dalai Lama closely, or pay too much attention to his teachings. When you strip away the cult of personality that surrounds him, his teachings seem no more special than many of the other contemporary Buddhist teachers out there, yet it seems like his are treated as having supreme wisdom or something. His teachings also don’t really seem to speak to me (different strokes, different folks).

    Same thing with Ikeda. Once the cult of personality is stripped away, you’re left with mediocre (at best) insights and very, very little substance. However, I do believe that there are certain people (Ikeda) who go out of their way to create that CoP for themselves, whereas in other instances (DL?) it is their followers and religious institutions that create the myth out of the man.

    Either way, buying into the story over the substance is dangerous.


    • Greetings Adam,

      You admit that you don’t pay very much attention to teachings of HHDL and then go on to qualify them as nothing special, mediocre and of very little substance.

      This in itself is a very good example of buying into ‘story’ over substance!

      • I think you misread. I said in regards to HHDL: “his teachings seem no more special than many of the other contemporary Buddhist teachers out there”. Maybe if I had any knowledge redarding HTML, i would have bolded “no more”. I find many of the contemporary Buddhist teachers out there to be full of wonderful insight, but I fail to see HHDL as holier or more special than many of the others out there. I simply don’t put him on a pedastal above many of the others out there, where I see many of his followers doing just that.

        As far as “mediocre and of very little substance”, I was referring to Daisku Ikeda, not HHDL. And I absolutely stand by that statement, as I have in my possesion tons of Ikeda literature.

        • I am not vouching for anyone being holier than anyone else. You are reacting to notions of a pedestal and have no knowledge of the depth or quality of the man’s teachings. As for his followers viewing their teacher as extraordinary, this is to be expected – a common enthusiasm found among those who have vajrayana gurus.

          As a rule, if you have not paid much attention to something, you are in no position to dismiss or comment intelligently because you have no real experience or interest. Simple.

          By stating that ‘same thing with Ikeda’ you imply that the description also applies to HHDL. Grammar!

        • only 4 inbeds…. weird.


          Maybe I should clarify then.

          Ikeda: mediocre and without substance. It is the cult of personality itself that propels him to the spotlight, rather than anything of substance. Also, I’ve posted on this of late, and had correspondance with John regarding this, and probably directed that comment more at him than all of his readers, knowing that he would understand the difference. Clarity issue I suppose (and probably grammer as well!)

          Dalia Lama: with substance, but still is surrounded by cult of personality. I have studied some of his teachings, and I bet I could find many, many, many more people that have more experience in working with his teachings and the Vajrayana vehicle itself. However, what I HAVE studied (again, html bold might come in hand here…) didnt’ speak to me very much, so I currently don’t follow the Dalia Lama closely. That, coupled with the fact that I don’t want to get swept up into the Dalai Lama cult of personality lead me to find (personally) more value in other teachers. Which is why I included the different strokes for different folks bit.

          I don’t think that the Dalai Lama’s teachings are without value, they simply don’t speak to ME like they do others. I also think that people are more in love with the man than what he has to offer. I simply don’t feel pedastals are necessary, and just because it might be expected that followers of Vajrayana gurus would create this CoP, that doesn’t mean anyone should buy into it, or that it should be such a readily accepted practice.


  3. I have been a practitioner for 43 years. I have had the good fortune to study directly with Suzuki Roshi, Chogyam Trungpa, and Gurumayi (Siddha Yoga Master).
    They all have baggage and intense criticism surrounding them.

    I personally received the same instruction from each of them — focus on the Dharma and practice with devotion and discipline if you want to be close to me. Physical proximity and relationship is not the point.
    Keep your own sanity and counsel, trusting the Inner Guru, even if it means disagreeing with the teacher. And remember that the form and personality of the teacher is not the Guru — the Guru is the authentic presence (the Grace) in the environment of a true teacher.
    Do not imitate the teacher blindly.
    I was in a Q&A with the 16th Karmapa during his first US visit in the 70’s, hosted by Trungpa Rinpoche.
    Most students were very new and wanted to know if they should imitate Trungpa Rinpoche — drinkning, smoking, etc. First, the Karmapa made clear in a strong declaration that Trungpa Rinpoche was a true Guru of the highest order.
    In answer to the question about smoking, drinking, and sexing, he said very directly and sharply, “Dogs shouldn’t imitate lions!”
    Seems to me that settles the question — if you have decided for yourself that your teacher is a true teacher, focusing on the Guru’s questionable behaviors and personality is a distraction from their teaching — focus on the Dharma and the practice with ruthless self inquiry to root out self deception and to connect with the Inner Guru.
    May we all succeed quickly on the path for the sake of all beings!

    • First off, thanks for the comment. But doesn’t it seem that the statement “Dogs shouldn’t imitate lions” just perpetuates the myth that CTR’s actions ok in the eyes of his students? It takes those human failings and creates a myth around them.

      But, be that as it may, if you change “Do not imitate the teacher blindly” to “Do not imitate of obey the teacher blindly” then we are in some agreement. I am speaking from a position of not having any direct teaching or involvement from the teachers I listing in my post (too young) so I don’t want to slander but rather remove some of the myth.

      I think both Suzuki roshi and Trungpa Rinpoche are great teachers from their writings and I am able to meld that insight with their own failings without losing respect for the Dharma they taught.

      Wonderful comment. Thank you and Cheers,

      • Well, it might be a myth that it’s a myth. Either way, it’s besides the point.

        We are in agreement that a student hopefully will cultivate a strong inner counsel that enables him/her to navigate devotion to, and contesting with, the teacher in a liberating way.

        Personally, I was never intimidated by Roshi or Trungpa in the way you describe in the example about Baker Roshi. I often disagreed with or did not follow their guidance — many times, I now think, it would have been better if I had. The tangible purity of their love and compassion linger.

        Peace, Jack

  4. @ogmin

    a common enthusiasm found among those who have vajrayana gurus

    I agree and don’t question that individual practitioners/students of different gurus/roshis have a large amount of enthusiasm for their teachings. But by and large there is a strong following to the Dalai Lama out of the simple fact that its the DALAI LAMA and he is recognizable. These people don’t have a depth of understanding of his teachings except to say maybe that they read a book or two.

    By this reasoning they place him on a pedestal through the image portrayed rather than the strength of his teachings. The same goes for many popular Buddhist teachers. I don’t question the wealth or depth of their teachings. What I do question is how little people think about who they follow.

    If one finds worth in someone’s teachings then by all means explore them. If one is attracted more to image of that figure then maybe more exploration is needed.

    Personally, I never enjoyed any of HHDL’s books. Through, hearing him speak I have developed a healthier respect for him. But still, my over all reaction is lukewarm.

    As per comparing HHDL to Ikeda. I feel that Ikeda built his cult of personality around himself while HHDL has a pop-culture shell created by media and hype.

    Thanks for your comments!


    • Outside of being a Vajrayana initiate (and even within at times), the Tibetan approach may seem overly foreign, intellectual, cultish, etc.,. If this is the case, I would advise you to withhold judgment, maybe even be quiet and keep window-shopping – you’ll probaly find something you like a few aisles over! And just because you have no attraction at this point, you don’t want to set up any casual negativity between yourself (and others) and any level of teachings or teachers which you may not presently resonate with or be able to understand.

      HHDL is not my teacher, nor of my lineage, but having audited him in some depth, I am blown away by the breadth and subtletly of his mind and understanding of the teachings. People are all so very different in their needs and tastes that I usually refrain from public assessments or declarations unless positive because opinions as to what may be useful or not tend to be so subjective as to be meaningless.

      As to the followings a teacher attracts, there will always be esoteric, mesoteric and exoteric levels of the mandala surrounding any teacher. This is true even in the community of my own humble Khenpos. Folks who are on the periphery of HHDL’s circle, for whatever reason, are blessed by the association and could do far worse. Even a little devotion and admiration regarding realized beings is of great benefit.


      • Been window-shopping for 10 years now. Been blogging that window-shopping experience for almost 2. Had I kept quiet, I would have learned nothing.

        Even a little devotion and admiration regarding realized beings is of great benefit.

        I would suppose it depends on the intent of that admiration and whether or not a being is realized.

        thanks for the comments!


  5. This is one issue with some pitfalls to discussing specifically. It can easily descend into gossip and criticism, picking on the faults of spiritual leaders and explaining why one specific leader is not deserving of the cult. Then it can descend into defending that leader, telling people that they’d understand and totally be part of the cult of personality if they’d only studied enough of that leader.

    Both arguments overlook the inherent problem in the media idolatry of the Dalai Lama. I don’t think anything you could prove about the Dalai Lama would convince me that it’s right to build a media empire around him. I don’t think anything you could show me about him would convince me that it’s best to charge hundreds of dollars for a seat to hear him.

    And I don’t think it’s good that, of the thousands of qualified Buddhist teachers in the world, there’s one who has a place elevated to centrality in the discussion. If a Buddhist told me they’d never particularly considered examining the teachings of Sheng Yen, or John Tarrant, or Joan Halifax, or Mingyur Rinpoche, or whoever, I’d say, “They’re pretty good. You should read them.” But if someone says they don’t read the Dalai Lama, the answer is, “Then you’re ignorant, because everyone should read the Dalai Lama.” That smacks of cultism to me.

    • Regarding the fees charged for attending teachings by the Dali Lama, I get the feeling that one of his duties is “fundraiser in chief” for the Tibetan exile community, and is allowing himself to be marketed in order to support refugees and Tibetan culture. The amount of money he is capable of raising is probably exponentially more than other channels can provide.

      As someone who doesn’t practice Tibetan Buddhism, he comes accross as very warm and humble, down to earth, and is able to laugh at himself. Who wouldn’t want to spend more time hanging out with people like this!

      • That’s a good point, Sunim, and thanks for your reply. If the Dalai Lama is “fundraiser in chief” for Tibet, that’s not the worst thing he could be. Still, there are lots of exile communities–the Iranian diaspora, refugees from Sudan, Rwanda, Burma… do people give more support Tibet simply because Tibetans have a charismatic leader while Serbians do not?

        And I’m inclined to be distrustful of the impact of charisma. When people uphold the Dalai Lama, they often mention these facts about his outward appearance–how he seems kind and humble from the expression on his face. (And also that he hangs out with Hollywood’s Richard Gere.) To me, it’s the five skandhas in action: we see the form of a good-looking person smiling. We get a feeling of attraction from that appearance. We shape a thought to justify our feeling of attraction. The thought leads to an impulse to pursue that person, and that impulse leads to a consciousness, “He must be a very wonderful person.” How would we tell if we were being deceived into believing that charisma is a sign of wisdom?

        • Hi Zenbija, I was reading “Three Cups of Tea,” (set in Pakistan) and someone was complaining that people always want to help the Buddhists, but not the Muslims, and I remember thinking, “Well, the Buddhists won’t threaten to kill you if they don’t like what you say!” I think there is something to that, where people will unconsciously feel (because of our non-dual connection?) much more inclined to support a person or group that is dedicated towards inclusiveness and the well-being of the whole (including nonviolence.)

          One of the interesting things I’ve noticed about what’s called charisma, it that a lot of times it is simply a strong feeling that the other person likes and cares about you. People always said that meeting Bill Clinton was like meeting a great friend you hadn’t seen in years. In terms of practice to me this is the fragance of caring and spiritual work on behalf of all beings. I suspect that since we are all interconnected, we too can feel that when we’re in the presense of such people.

          Of course that doesn’t mean that we should abandon our own good judgement and sensibility. They did something right, but that’s sure not a guarentee they do everything right! (ahem, Bill…)

  6. I am not aware that attending teachings lead by the Dalai Lama is extraordinarily expensive. I attended his 1995 Kalachakra in Barcelona and the price was average if I recall correctly (if I paid a fortune I forgot). Ah, Richard Gere was there, and I talked with him for 4 seconds. Ha!

    • Well, Barcelona is definitely out for me! Way out of my budget. I am a huge fan of saying that practitioners should take advantage of teachings as they come. If HHDL was near by, then I would stop in for the teaching.

      However, for the most part, traveling for teachings is out of the question. I am still trying to find time and money to visit @bitterrootbadge out in Montana.

      But back to resources…I have a small Zen sangha here so my practice is largely Zen. Were it a Vajrayana group or Shin or Theravadan then I would be learning from them.

      Anyway, next time you see Richard, smack him on the ass and tell him I’m still waiting for my call.


  7. I was living there Jack. I am a born Catalan. Ah, Richard… I think next time he will pay more attention to yours truly.


  8. From my years inside Vajrayana, I’ve seen the highest rank lamas of the Nyingma and Kagyu orders to respect the Dalai Lama as the most relevant spiritual authority. He is a scholar and knows Esoteric Buddhadharma inside out. Vajrayana is a not centralized religion, but the implicit position of the Dalai Lama granted by his peers from all four main Tibetan orders, looks to me as if he was the orchestra director, supreme judge and pope. It is not rare then that together with his political activity and posiiton of exiled chief of state, book author, and Peace Nobel Prize, he attracts so many people to the point of idolization. Maybe he is that cool, but this does not excuse people from use of discrimination.

  9. Pingback: Teachings of the Dalai Lama ~ Intro to Buddhism « Sweep the dust, Push the dirt

  10. hi all,

    I was at a recent teaching held by HHDL in Sydney, Australia. Not too far from where I live, and also not too expensive.

    One of the first things he spoke about was the fact that he was just an ordinary man. He said, If you have come here looking for something special or spectacular, you will be disappointed. I am just a man.

    He told a great story about how last year some uni students from USA did all these tests on him and came to the conclusion he had no supernatural powers whatsoever! It was very funny, and he was also laughing.

    I liked that about him. He was very down to earth and to me, discouraged any “worshipping” or exaggeration of who he was.

    Of course, the funniest part of this talk came afterwards. It was amazing to see the flock of people swarmed around the TShirt stand after the talk to get a tshirt that said “Dalai Lama 2010 Tour of Australia” (or similar). The swarm was three or four people deep, and there was an air of panic to the crowd — will I miss out?? I want that shirt!! etc

    That was interesting. I agree that we all can fall into the trap of wanting our teachers to be more than just men or women. We want them to be stronger, faster and better somehow… maybe so we can feel the same? But I wonder if our teachers really welcome this aspect of their leadership? I bet that they don’t.


  11. Nice postings.
    One of the problems of personality cults is that because the leader is so favorably media-tized, it becomes impossible for those who have been living in that community with that teacher to be open or honest about their experience- which, is not overly helpful or healing. It even can make exiting the group extremely difficult.

    Just reading through the posts of people who have not even been, say, a close student of HHDL, and yet are sort of vehemently defending him from some slight… this is the problem of personality cults, it seems to me.

    I was in a Buddhist personality cult for quite a number of years. One’s experience of the teacher (it was not HHDL) was that of a sweet grandfatherly fellow- if one was there only for retreats or had only read his books or had only met him on a plane… It was vastly different once one gave up one’s outside job and was living at the monastery with him.

    Oh yes, I used to believe what what of the posters wrote:

    “if you have decided for yourself that your teacher is a true teacher, focusing on the Guru’s questionable behaviors and personality is a distraction from their teaching — focus on the Dharma and the practice with ruthless self inquiry to root out self deception and to connect with the Inner Guru.”

    Sounds good, But, I don’t believe that anymore. I’m not saying that one’s teacher or Guru must be without flaw. That’s a little far fetched. But, to turn a blind eye always to one’s Guru’s or teacher’s most questionable activities is sometimes to turn a blind eye to something that is very not good, and in so doing we become accomplices in the same cruelty or delusion, and we deny the wisdom that is in our own heart.

    I agree that one can more easily see the speck in one’s teacher’s eye than the log in one’s own- and therefore it is better to concentrate on the dharma and the teachings. But sometimes, one also should look up and see what one’s teacher is doing and evaluate it. I learned alot from living in a personality cult, some of it good. But if I had it to do over again, I would listen to my heart and my own wisdom more quickly, rather than believing it all to be some deep teaching and concentrating on my practice- as I was always told when I’d question…

    If one has not personally lived with and trained with a teacher for over 3 years one cannot know the reality of that teacher and should not feel a need nor the privilege to defend him/her. It can cause alot more harm than good.
    And that’s coming from experience.
    The place I trained at was and is a shiny good place. A true place of training with very authentic teachers. That is what anyone who is into Buddhism and has never lived there knows.

  12. I am very new to the ins and outs of Buddhism, but it seems to me that
    perhaps the personality cult surrounding some of these teachers
    resembles the very grasping that their followers are seeking freedom from…
    To elevate a teacher to that extent is to grasp at an ideal, it seems to me, and one which is not realistic, thus adding delusion into the equation too.
    I think essentially, some of this is the responsibility of the follower to discover for themselves, but at the same time a teacher of any kind has the deepest responsibility to show integrity and clarity in their dealings with their pupils/followers.

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