As published in April 2015’s issue of Singapore’s ‘For You (Information)’ Buddhist magazine
All these sentient beings [in the Dharma Ending Age (now) will], away from the Buddha, be progressively distant. Evil teachers who speak the [false] ‘Dharma’ [will be as numerous] as the Ganges River’s sand [grains].
– 阿难尊者 (楞严经)
Venerable Ananda (Surangama Sutra)
A Buddhist friend had this query – ‘A relative attended the activities of a group, whose teacher claims to be a “Buddhist” master giving “Buddhist” teachings. Having learnt some seemingly “Buddhist” practices there, she claims they have “healing” effects, and that the master has some “supernormal” powers. However, upon closer look, this so-called master is not a true Buddhist teacher who gives true Buddhist teachings at all. He is merely riding upon Buddhist culture, teachings and terminology in a loose and inaccurate way to promote his ideas and practices, many of which distort actual Buddhist teachings. As she strongly believes in the so-called healing effects, she blindly gives the master credibility over whatever he teaches, gladly parting with her money and time to contribute to the group. Not only is she learning “Buddhism” wrongly, which brings her further away from liberation (enlightenment), she is repeatedly cheated in its name. How can I wake her up?’
It can be challenging to guide those in ‘Buddhist’ cult groups back to true Buddhism due to 3 main reasons.  First, they did not really learn about true Buddhism adequately, which is how they easily fell for, and continue to fall for these groups’ tricks. (This is delusion or ignorance, the root of the Three Poisons at work.)  Second, as these groups dish out some appealing and addictive benefits, they are easily mistaken as worthy of faith and support, assumed to create ‘good’ karma (for health and wealth) when promoted. (This is attachment or greed, the first of the Three Poisons at work.)  Third, these groups often use fear to retain followers, by claiming those who leave ‘will’ create very ‘bad’ karma. (This is aversion or hatred, the second of the Three Poisons at work.) The thorough solution for awakening those poisoned is by continual education through the true Buddhist teachings. When the root poison is uprooted by wisdom, all Three Poisons will be purged.
There are 2 key steps the deluded can take to awaken themselves, and for us to help awaken them.  The background of all so-called ‘Buddhist’ teachers should be checked for credibility – even if they are already ‘popular’. Are there public records (e.g. online and in print) on who their teachers are, and which Buddhist organisations they are associated with? Are these teachers and organisations in turn reputable in the eyes of orthodox Buddhists?  Are all the core teachings that attract many followers found in the Buddhist scriptures? Or are they self-concocted, mixed with pseudo-Buddhist ideas and practices? Even if they seem ‘Buddhist’, they might not be. If they are ‘praiseworthy’, are many prominent Buddhist teachers and organisations endorsing (or condemning) them? (Egoistic cults of personality usually run on high self-praise while disparaging others.) When in doubt, other learned Buddhist teachers’ advice based on the scriptures should be sought for second opinions.
One big reason cult followers remain loyal to their masters is due to apparent ‘healing’ benefits, often supposedly brought about by some ‘meditation’ or ‘energy’ techniques. (Another reason is being tricked into belief that they have secret ‘exclusive’ access to the ‘highest’ truth, which they are expected to believe blindly without question, thus stunting their growth of actual wisdom.) Some ‘healing’ effects are due to auto-suggested placebo effects, peer pressure and adrenaline rushes. Even when they do work, it could just be physical energy (such as qi) at play. The confusion comes in when warped ‘Buddhist’ practices are thrown into the mix, to make things look ‘holy’. The truth is, orthodox Buddhist practitioners already experience healing frequently. It is just that we do not make much of a fuss out of it, to use it as a means to attract followers. This is so as all forms of worldly healing and powers cannot prevent death, while the Buddha’s teachings focus on transcending rebirth.
The main priority of the Buddha’s teachings is to heal the mind before the body as all suffering arise from mental poisons, while liberation is by ending the cycle of birth, ageing, sickness and death. For instance, countless in history have experienced miraculous healing through the time-tested practice of mindfulness of Buddha (e.g. Amituofo), but most also know the importance of practice to reach his Pure Land, where healing of mind and body will be truly complete, and the cycle of suffering can be transcended once and for all. A cult master however, slanders all Buddhas by saying there is no point to reach Pure Land. Such is how deviant teachers can sabotage and destroy spiritual lives! Cult masters short-sightedly focus on short-term ‘healing’ instead. The more this is emphasised, the more will the main priority be forgotten. With attachment to physical ‘healing’, while neglecting furthering of actual spirituality in time, one’s body will still eventually let one down.
What if cult masters seem to have ‘supernormal’ powers? Most, if not all are imaginary, either staged or are mere mind games. If they do exude some strange ‘energy’, all the more should they be steered clear of, as the physically and mentally weak can easily be manipulated. The Buddha was very clear that only the pure universal Dharma and pure personal conduct should be used to attract followers; not unverifiable claims of power, attainment or status for fame and fortune. Although masterful of tremendous supernormal powers, the Buddha only used them skilfully as last resorts, to highlight the truer and greater miracle – of instruction, that leads to liberation. Other traits of cult masters include claims of being ‘equivalent’ to Bodhisattvas and Buddhas (out of delusion), being embroiled in financial and sexual scandals (out of greed), and being against orthodox Buddhism (out of hatred). Being so seriously affected by the Three Poisons, how can they lead others beyond them?
Some might think that since some cults have some ‘positive’ teachings and ‘healing’ benefits, we should just let them be. However, not clarifying on them is to allow their further confusing of the masses via defiling of Buddhism’s name. As the Three Poisons keep all bound to suffering, any teachings that further them are harmful. These spiritual poisons are more insidious than physical poisons, which are easier to detect and eradicate. The most dangerous poisons are those disguised as tempting candy. Any cult master who is willing to abuse and misrepresent the Buddha’s teachings is straightaway and downright a liar. As the Buddha warned in the Itivuttaka, ‘For the person who transgresses in one thing, I tell you, there is no evil deed that is not to be done [as it can be concealed]. Which one thing? This – telling a deliberate lie. The person who lies, who transgress in this one thing, transcending concern for the world beyond [karmic rebirth] – there is no evil he might not do.’
Also warned by the Buddha in the Surangama Sutra (楞严经), ‘[With the] causal ground [or direction] not true [at the start, the] fruit [or result] attracted [will be with] twists and turns, [away from the true goal].’ (因地不真，果招纡曲。) Mistaking a false teaching as the true path to liberation, one might end up taking a convoluted detour for many lifetimes, and even sink to the lower realms due to negative karma created from supporting what is against the Buddha’s teachings. All grave mistakes begin small, as they further grow when left unchecked, until they become so serious and widespread that they even harm oneself and others beyond this generation. As concerned Buddhists, we must share these warnings, with all our already affected or potentially affected family members, friends and beyond, while pointing out a path for how they can learn the genuine teachings of the Buddha. If even we true Buddhists do not do this, who will? Why not share this article today?
– By various Dharma protectors
Such as I have spoken, is named Buddhas’ speech. Not such as spoken, is Papiyams’ [Mara: the evil demon king] speech.
– 释迦牟尼佛 (楞严经)
Sakyamuni Buddha (Surangama Sutra)
How To Prevent Being Tricked By ‘Buddhist’ Cults
(As published in Singapore Buddhist Federation’s magazine):
Are There Mediums & Manifestations Of Buddhas & Bodhisattvas Around?
The Buddha’s Admonition Against Making False Claims
List will be updated regularly: