Friday, November 12, 2010

I belong to a cult of approximately 375,000,000 people

I didn't know that (and learned it here).

Many people I know do think I'm in a cult, or suspect that I might be. After all, I attend "services" that involve rituals they do not know anything about. The word "ritual" is off-putting. If they are religious, any ritual that is not identifiably religious in nature is foreign and suspect. If they are non-religious, rituals imply religiosity. Either way, the rituals I engage in are probably in some way bad.

Those that know I may bow, even with my head to the floor, are appalled. Full prostration bowing?! Oh, the horror of it!

A friend who had visited the monastery where I once stayed came back very upset. She felt traumatized. "I didn't know they'd make me bow!" You'd think she'd gone through hell (and indeed, for her, she did) - "Why did we have to get up at 4:30 a.m.?! All that chanting! It's a cult!"

In the broadest sense of the word "cult", American Zen Buddhism fits the bill. It is not widely understood, has few "adherents" in the society, and has "strange" rituals and beliefs.

In the larger sense, it is not, for although my friend didn't like bowing, getting up early, or chanting, she was free to leave, and indeed to refer to the monastic practice there as "nazi zen."

I tend not to write or talk about my Buddhist practice with anyone, even others who practice Buddhism. On one hand, it seems too personal a thing to give voice to, but on the other, it seems too integral a part of my life to not speak about. But when I do speak, I run into trouble. If I seem "too interested", I'm obviously falling into some cultish behaviors. Trying to explain what I get out of full prostration bowing or chanting sutras is terribly difficult, and really quite impossible for someone who hasn't experienced it to understand. So, I don't explain. I won't here, either.

But, I do find it interesting, that with all my self-disclosure, my Buddhist life is something of a secret or mystery to others. I suppose that can't be helped. I need to learn to be okay with the fact that if I say I can't do something on Saturday because I'm going to the Zen Center, that here in Maine, people either assume I'm attending some weird thing that they don't want to know about or I'm attending services like any other religious person.

It doesn't really bother me. It's just interesting, and sometimes funny, as one person said to me this week, "Oh right, you go to a therapy group on Wednesday nights, right?" I suppose that's better than thinking I belong to a cult (though some group therapies are rather cult-like indeed).

Image note: Kinhin (walking meditation). Can be done anywhere; not just the mediation hall, not just secluded bucolic settings.


BitterGrace said...

"Cult" is a very loaded word, and one I rarely use in a serious way. An editor I like very much once replaced the word "sect" with "cult" in a piece I wrote, and even though the subject of the piece was a completely wacky, bullshit New Age religious group, I was mortified by the change.

When I was first getting interested seriously in the Craft, somebody gave me this list for evaluating the "cultishness" of a group. Obviously, lots of Christian groups would score higher than most any Buddhist group.

Julie H. Rose said...

When an old neighbor's son developed an interest in Buddhism, his parents thought he was "getting into a cult." I had originally started this post with the idea that the less we know, the more we categorize what we don't know incorrectly (though I had phrased it better the first time around!)

That's a good list. You are certainly correct that a lot of Christian groups would fit the bill.

I would be mortified, too, if I had written something for publication and that word change was made. There is a world of difference between sects and cults, though they may be the same in some instances.