Book Review - Enthralled: The Guru Cult of Tibetan Buddhism
ICSA Today, 9,(2), 2018, 13-15
Book Review - Enthralled: The Guru Cult of Tibetan Buddhism
By Christine A. Chandler
North Charleston, SC: Create Space Independent Publishing Platform. 2017. ISBN-10: 1511543469; ISBN-13: 978-1511543460 (paperback). $19.95 (Amazon.com) (Kindle, $14.99). 527 pages.
Review by Joseph Szimhart
“Hell hath no fury like a woman scorned” is not Shakespeare, as I had recalled; instead, it comes from The Mourning Bride by William Congreve, who wrote: Heav’n has no rage like love to hatred turn’d / Nor Hell a fury, like a woman scorn’d (Act III, Scene 2). Getting things right with memories about art and literature can be tricky, much as doing so can be with religious experience. Former cult members can become furious both with themselves and with the cult—like a woman scorned—when the extent of the deception and abuse finally sinks in. That happened to me also after I defected from a cult at the end of 1980. And that happened to Christine Chandler after she defected from decades under the psychological thrall of a Tibetan Buddhist cult.
Former members tell stories about their cult experiences that some sociologists of religion have called atrocity tales for many reasons, but this label effectively diminishes the moral and ethical value of a victim’s testimony. In other words, the dispassionate sociologist tends to see she said, he said to avoid making a value judgment about good and evil intentions. As an example, a cannibal rite among some tribes in New Guinea has as much inherent value to that tribe as the Holy Eucharist does to a Catholic. The thought is that we should not judge the cannibal rite based on Roman Catholic teaching or on rival tribal practices that have eliminated eating people. A sociologist of this stripe (not all think this way) runs into problems when a tribe that captures his son hiking in New Guinea eats the son. You might guess there would be weeping and gnashing of teeth in the egalitarian sociologist’s ivory tower, but do not bet on that sociologist devaluing cannibalism as a tradition.
Enthralled: The Guru Cult of Tibetan Buddhism by Christine Chandler reads much like a former cult member’s atrocity tale, albeit better referenced than most. Chandler’s approach is often effusive and repetitive, with more than 500 pages of exposition and self-revelation. There is a good reference list, but it lacks an index. The author used a self-publishing format with the CreateSpace print and distribution service; thus, the potential professional editing is lacking to cut down on repetitions and overstated criticisms. Having said that, I sympathize with Chandler and her effort to get the word out about abuses among Tibetan Buddhist lamas and their cult followings, and also her effort to strip away the deceptive veneer of peaceful mindfulness that covers an actively fascist and superstitious tradition. The Dalai Lama is not spared Chandler’s scorn, nor are the celebrity, political, and New Age leaders who promote the Dalai Lama and his agendas.
The topic of this exposé is familiar to me not only because of Chandler’s specific cult that surrounds the legacy of Chögyam Trungpa (1939–1987), but also because the cult I was with in the late 1970s had some roots in the Tibetan tradition via the occultist Helena Blavatsky. Chandler mentions the Theosophical Society with its founder Blavatsky as embracing a form of Buddhism in the 19th Century and deriving its White Brotherhood of adepts from a Tibetan Mahayana Buddhist scheme of bodhisattvas. Moreover, my old cult, Summit Lighthouse, used the Agni Yoga teachings mentioned by Chandler, founded in the 1920s by the Theosophist couple Nicholas and Helena Roerich. The Roerichs claimed to represent the Agni Yoga teachings based in Shambhala, hidden somewhere in the Tibetan region among the lamas. Shambhala is the realm where the White Brotherhood purportedly operates both in and out of their corporeal bodies—they are among us, but we cannot always see them. Chandler discusses sympathetic agendas among the Tibetan lamas and the Theosophists, who have had an enormous influence on what we call New Age today. Her concern is that the New Age movement and both right- and left-wing politics are being scammed by the mindfulness movement. The author believes there is a pernicious agenda to undermine Western Judeo-Christian values and sciences with lamas vying to take control.
Chandler entered her 30 years’ attachment to and pursuit of Trungpa’s Vajrayana Buddhism around 1984, so her effort to express her reactions and feelings in this book began in earnest a mere 3 years ago. With her second husband, she emerged from the cult milieu as a grandmother and as a working, licensed social worker and psychologist. There were long periods when Chandler gave her all to the cult causes and lived around group communes in Vermont and in Crestone, Colorado. Chandler’s family were concerned all along that she was in a cult, but she would have none of that, overlooking signals of group control and believing that the high purposes were worth the submissions.
The group goals may have been banal if we consider what most cults offer, but Chandler fell into the trap that, to save the world, one must purify the self first; and she believed that Chögyam Trungpa knew the truth. That meant that submission to a lama without question was the only way to gain ultimate spiritual freedom in this lifetime. The worst crime a person could commit was to turn against a lama. The dire myth was that the lama’s power could turn the treasonous seeker to ashes, literally, and curse the seeker’s soul to a horrible death and incarnational experience in a next life. I am reminded of a Rolling Stones song, Play with Fire, which has this verse: But don’t play with me, ‘cause you’re playing with fire.
The Globalist agenda of the Tibetan Buddhist movement has been enhanced by both Western and Chinese Communist politics. On the one hand, the exiled Dalai Lama and all Tibetan Buddhist groups in the West are sold by celebrities as peaceful, spiritual alternatives who can bring the globe together through mindfulness. On the other, after devastating the Tibetan culture, the Chinese are now rebuilding some remaining monasteries to promote a potentially lucrative spiritual tourism trade to Tibet, albeit one controlled by Chinese power. Chandler warns that the Mahayana Buddhist mindfulness is merely a friendly façade that lamas exploit—the lama tradition is always angling to become the priest-king of culture:
Professors with PhDs from Columbia University, Harvard and Yale, Princeton, Stanford, or M.I.T., and other prestigious representatives of western academia, have all equally proven to be as susceptible to being mystically manipulated and enthralled by these Tibetan lamas as the illiterate nomads in Tibet. (p. 209)
Chandler leans on several sources to augment her positions. She often references the Germans Victor Trimondi and Victoria Trimondi and their book, The Shadow of the Dalai Lama: Sexuality, Magic, and Politics of Tibetan Buddhism (2003). The Trimondis met and befriended the Dalai Lama in the 1980s. They translated and published writings by the Dalai Lama in Germany. They helped the Dalai Lama to organize and speak at international conferences with famous speakers in Austria and Germany. However, they came to seriously question some of the tenets of the Tantric Buddhism that the lama professed. Eventually, the Trimondis became two of the Dalai Lama’s harshest critics.
Neither Chandler nor the Trimondis are claiming that a global takeover by Tibetan Buddhism is possible, but they do indicate strongly that, as in any totalist cult, the devoted members want to see their leader in charge of the planet. Other criticisms include an inherent atavism, or throwback to a herd mentality in which one male lama is dominant and females have only subordinate roles.
Chandler cites June Campbell often to underscore Tibetan Buddhism’s abuse of women as “empty spaces” or dakinis with whom a lama secretly has ritual sex for his personal spiritual gain. Campbell’s exposé, Traveller in Space, came out in 1996. I reviewed it positively in 1996 because Campbell did a scholarly job describing the history of Tibetan Buddhism. Campbell used her personal experience of 4 years as the translator and secret consort of a lama for whom she worked to flesh out, so to speak, what has been going on in the lives of supposedly celibate lamas.
The well-documented and lurid sexual indiscretions by Chandler’s guru Trungpa, who died rather young at age 47 from complications with alcoholism, along with those by the notorious lama Sogyal Rinpoche, are not exceptions in the lama culture. Campbell makes it quite clear that the dakini, as mistress, serves a sacred and essential purpose, but not for herself. Too many women have been devastated by these controlled sexual relationships with Tibetan lamas. I met for part of a day with one of Sogyal’s young sexual slaves after she broke away from his cult. She, like others, settled their lawsuits for hush money under pressure from slick lawyers for the lamas who would have made life hell in the courts for these women had they pursued an open trial.
Chandler also mentions the children born into Western Tibetan Buddhist cults and calls them “dharma brats.” These kids are raised to feel very special, somewhat as the lamas were raised. I met one of these “brats” 10 years ago when he was 29. He was brought to the psych hospital where I work to treat his suicidal ideation. My job was to conduct a thorough intake interview. What I thought, from the initial report by police, was just another case of a suicidal person turned into an amazing story that the young man only told me after he found out that I understood the Buddhist cultures. When he said he was named as a child tulku, or reincarnated lama, I knew what he meant. His depression came on strong in his early twenties as he began to realize that the extra-special treatment he received in Seattle by his white parents and the Tibetan lama in charge of that group conflicted with who he really was as a person. He had developed no special and miraculous powers of mind. It was all fake, because he came to see that the lamas were faking it too. Unfortunately, he found no therapist who could address what he was talking about until he met me; so he had stopped bringing up his tulku dilemma in sessions. Chandler points out that the therapy community wants to believe that the mindfulness aspect of Buddhism cannot be bad and may be a solution to depression and other anxious ills, including war.
Of course, few Western children living in Tibetan dharma develop mental illness; but they may as adults remain in the service of the Tibetan Buddhist agenda as ambassadors:
The Shambhala dharma brats are in high gear these days, as actively “engaged Buddhists,” spurred on by the spiritualized, Buddhocratized, eco-world citizenship movement that Trungpa’s son, Osel Mukpo, is helping to create. (p. 395)
Chandler worries about a “Buddhocracy,” or a totalist agenda among the lamas. The links with New Age groups are apparent in the Crestone, Colorado area, where wealthy supporters Maurice and Hanne Strong (both deceased) helped drive the dream of “global citizenship” with what they claimed was their United Nations-endorsed Agenda 21 (p. 472). Chandler and her husband had relocated to Crestone for the final phase of their devotion. Crestone harbored “twenty-five major, eastern cults, foundations and sects” (p. x) on land grants from the Strongs’ Baca Ranch. Chandler reiterates her belief in a right-wing political fear that the left wants to redistribute America’s wealth to support a global village. George Soros is mentioned as in league with the Dalai Lama for this purpose:
Crestone is the petri-dish of the late Maurice Strong’s Agenda 21; his template for slowly eroding the “affluent middle class,” along with U.S. national sovereignty and its representative democracy, and replacing it with a spiritualized eco-communitarian world citizenry that will be taxed to death, like Old Tibet, to “redistribute” the world’s wealth; mostly into the hands of the few, from the many. (p. x)
I find that many former members of cults get derailed in their recovery by becoming missionaries for truth, as if they found it. I would have liked to see more of Chandler’s personal story and less of how Tibetan Buddhism is an evil force in line with an occult conspiracy to rule the planet. Chandler’s book has enough slings and arrows against Tibetan Buddhism to keep all lamas in America ducking and dodging for years. It is worth reading for its effective gutting of Chogyam Trungpa’s legacy and that of other elitist and abusive lamas such as Sogyal Rinpoche, who in my opinion deserve every lash of Chandler’s whip. However, there is not much in the book to show the more elegant expressions of the Buddhist enterprise, though I found a few contrasting references to Mahayana Buddhism as more benign in philosophy than the Tibetan Vajrayana of the lamas. Buddhism, like any old tradition, has many faces and expresses itself through the cultures and cults that adopt it.
A more careful criticism, for example, appeared in tricycle: The Buddhist Review, a magazine that promotes the Buddhist mindfulness agendas that Chandler excoriates. “A More Enlightened Way of Being,” written by Seth Zuiho Segall for the winter 2016 edition, explores the conflicts and adjustments with Western modernism among Buddhist practitioners. Segall’s careful critique could easily apply to other religions that struggle with modernist science and cultural advances. Segall ends his essay thus: “The foremost principle of Buddhism is that everything changes. It is a law that governs Buddhism too” (Segall, p. 98). Perhaps the real value of Chandler’s book is to help Tibetan Buddhists better address their outdated, medieval principles and make some healthy changes to the way lamas behave, are raised, and are indoctrinated.
Segall, S. Z. (2016, Winter). A more enlightened way of being. tricycle: The Buddhist Review (27)2. Available online at https://tricycle.org/magazine/a-more-enlightened-way-of-being/
About the Author
Joseph Szimhart began research into cultic influence in 1980, after ending his 2-year devotion to a New Age sect called Church Universal and Triumphant. He began to work professionally as an intervention specialist and exit counselor in 1986.
Since 1998 he has worked in the crisis department of a psychiatric emergency hospital in Pennsylvania. He continues to assist families with interventions and former members in recovery, including consultations via phone and Internet. In 2016 he received an ICSA Lifetime Achievement Award at the Annual Conference in Dallas, Texas.