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]
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]