About cults, and what makes them bad

I’ve been thinking about what differentiates cults from religions. So, let me get the obvious concepts out of the way.

It’s not size. Every religion starts small. Buddhism started with Buddha giving a sermon in Sarnath, near Varanasi. Christianity started with Jesus and his dozen disciples. Islam started with Mohammad seeing a demon in a cave, who scared him to the point of wanting to kill himself, and his wife telling him he’s not crazy, he’s a prophet (true story).

So, the fact that something at one point has billions of followers doesn’t mean it didn’t start with a lunatic having a psychotic episode in a cave.

The other thing to get out of the way is the etymology. In some languages, “cult” is negatively charged while “sect” is neutrally charged, in others it’s the other way around. For instance, the Croatian translation for “cult” is “sekta”. So, when the Croats try to make some big thing about false etymology, trying to prove that “sect” derives from “secare, sectum”, “to cut”, not only they are wrong (it derives from sequi, sectum, “to follow”), but their etymology would be meaningless to the English audience to which “sect” is a neutral word. So, the word itself has no sinister connotations.

If I had to make a very simple definition, sticking to English language, I would say that “cult” is a “sect” you happen not to like. It’s like the difference between freedom fighters and terrorists. Freedom fighters are the terrorists you happen to like, or they work for you.

There’s no significant formal difference in appearance or organization between the craziest and most vicious cults and the best, noblest spiritual movements mankind has ever produced. They all start with some guy with an idea, he attracts followers, and it either grows from there or dies out. So, the cult-like form doesn’t really tell you anything valuable or informative. So, saying that something is a “cult” because it consists of a spiritual teacher and his followers is a completely non-sequitur argument. It doesn’t tell us anything important about spiritual, ethical or intellectual merits of the entire thing. It’s like saying a car is red. OK, it’s red, but what brand is it, what engine does it have, how fast does it go? To say that something is a “cult” is essentially saying it’s a following of some kind. But whom are they following, why, how, and to what end?

The interesting thing is, there are other very similar social structures, but they are not called cults. A gang, for instance, is a cult in all ways but one: it has no spiritual pretensions. But to turn it around, how many cults are so bad that you can say they are gangs with spiritual pretensions? I can make a good case that Islam was exactly that. It was a gang that robbed caravans around Medina, and later spread throughout the world using primarily violence and deception. If anything, it is more a gang than a spiritual teaching in its social structure, even now. But in case of Buddhism or Christianity, that doesn’t hold. There some Buddhist sects that behave like gangs – Aum Shinrikyo, for instance, and I could make a case for Nichiren. In Christianity, I don’t think I can remember of any notable sects that acted like gangs. In Hinduism, there are unfortunately several examples, for instance the Thugee, a sect of Kali worshipers who made a ritual out of strangling and robbing passengers on roads. So, what does that mean, that within religions you can have sects that are cults? Yes, but what does that tell us about cults? First of all, if you describe such a religious gang as a cult, any sane person will agree on the definition. The problem is when detractors use the term to denote any religious group that they wish to slander, pointing out superficial similarities with known evil cults, in hope that they will avoid having to point out what exactly is wrong with the group they wish to malign.

So, let me give my definition of a cult. A cult is something that has the formal qualities of a religious group, behaves like a gang, and has no deep and authentic spiritual guidance.

What does that mean? It means that the only difference between early Christians and early Muslims is that Jesus didn’t instruct his disciples to go out and rob the caravans of “infidels”, and that unlike Mohammad he actually had an authentic spiritual connection with God. You can’t judge them on superficial similarities, because the crux of the matter is whether they are good or evil and whether they are from God or not. People today try to present it as if the bad thing about a cult is that it follows a spiritual leader. It’s not. If you followed Jesus or Buddha, how is that a bad thing? It is only a bad thing when the spiritual leader of the group is false. But that’s the difficult part – how will you know whether the leader is authentic? It’s easier to just claim they are all false and then what remains for you is to see whether a group matches a simplified description. That’s what atheists do. I advise against it.

There’s another interesting phenomenon – heretical sects within an evil religion, that are authentic spiritual followings; an example of this are the Sufis in Islam. They had an interpretation of Islam that was more Vedanta than Islam, they were thought of as heretics by the Muslim main stream, but if anything, they were on the path of sainthood. So, the fact that something is a heretical off-shoot of some religion doesn’t necessarily mean it’s bad. Being main-stream isn’t necessarily a good thing.

There’s another thing – trying to define moderation as good, and radicalism as bad. If you want to say someone is good, call him a moderate, and if you want to say someone is bad, call him a radical. That actually works only if you’re talking about a philosophy that is inherently evil, and so if someone follows it consistently he becomes an evil person, and if someone doesn’t really take it seriously, he can be a good person. This is the case with Islam. The more consistently you follow it, the more evil you get to be. That’s why you can equate “Islamic radicals” with “evil Muslims”. However, it doesn’t work with other religions. For instance, what’s a radical Jain or Buddhist or Christian? What’s a radical Yogi? Does someone become more evil if he practices pranayama with kumbhaka of over a minute? Does he become evil if he walks around in soft slippers and a mask so that he doesn’t kill bugs and microbes because violence is the ultimate evil? Does he become evil if he does japa of 32 rounds a day? Does a Christian become super-evil because he’s so radical he enters a convent where he does nothing but pray, fast and commune with others like him? Such people are not the summit of social productivity, and they frequently exclude themselves from society at large, but even the most anti-religious advocates couldn’t describe them as “evil”. Weirdos, maybe. But not evil.

Evil, that’s what you become if you have your daughter’s clitoris cut off because of your religion, or if you kill other people while shouting how great your God is. Yes, you can become evil by taking religion seriously, but it does matter which religion you take seriously. They are not all the same. If you take some of them seriously you are more likely to become a saint than a thug. However, if you take a thug religion seriously, you become a thug. So, there’s another definition of a cult: it’s a gang of thugs who take an evil religion seriously.

So, basically, if you don’t like some religiously-flavored group that takes its teaching seriously, it’s a cult and the members are referred to as brainwashed zombies or Borg drones. If you like it, it’s referred to as a convent of monks. If you like a rebel group, they are partisans or guerrilla fighters. If you don’t like them, they are bandits or terrorists.

Thoughts about America

I’ve been following the situation in Syria lately, both the US-Russia “agreement” and the situation on the ground, and here are some of my thoughts.

First of all, America has almost zero control on the ground, among the jihadists. They will take American weapons, but they will use them to shoot the “Christian dogs” immediately afterwards.

Second, there are no moderates in the opposition there. All the moderates are aligned with the government. For quite a while the rallying call among the jihadists was that Assad and similar “dictators” need to be overthrown, because they are not democratic enough, and guess what, “democratic” there means “Islamic radical”.

Third, if you allowed the people there to elect a government, they would put an Islamic caliphate in power, which is what ISIS is. ISIS is the manifestation of the will of the local populace. What’s immensely worrying is that America if arming and financing those idiots, both directly and through their client states in the middle-east, and that’s why they are so difficult to defeat. Essentially, the Muslim Brotherhood and ISIS are what democracy will produce there, in the same way as it produced the current regime in Iran. It was the result of the popular uprising against American meddling in their affairs, and it’s not going anywhere. So, basically, in the middle-east democracy means radical salafism, an Islamic caliphate. That’s what the Muslims would create if you allowed them to pick their own government, and that’s why the only way to introduce some semblance of Western values, progress and technology there was to impose some kind of a secular dictatorship.

Fourth, the main difference between America and Russia at this point is that Russia wants to stabilize the middle-east and avoid the spread of chaos and war, and America wants the opposite, it wants to completely decivilize the middle-east in a state of perpetual war where all the cold-war era client states have been destroyed, and the local Islamists essentially have no financial or industrial capacity for spreading Islam to the west.

Fifth, in the long-term, what America seems to be doing might actually save the Western civilization, if they are actually doing what I think they are. In the short-term, it causes regional chaos, which seems to export itself into Europe and America through the wave of migrants. Those migrants are too stupid to take part in the Western economy and can only serve as drain on our resources and form dens of terrorists and troublemakers. Essentially, they are worth nothing and cost us dearly.

Sixth, I don’t know which troubles me more, that America seems to insult and provoke Russia so blatantly, or that Russia reacts so calmly. Russian calmness most likely means they are simply buying time and forcing America to start the nuclear war, which they accepted as inevitable. Were it not so, they would probably try to avert it with an aggressive posture. This entire thing looks like a game for the public opinion after the war, where America wants to kill all the Russians while portraying them as aggressors and itself as a defender of peace, while Russians seem to say “we know you’re the aggressors, just go ahead with whatever you have planned, but don’t expect us to take part in your games”. The Russians are very careful not to do anything that could be used as an excuse for the start of a nuclear war. However, they are prepared for it.

Interestingly, although a bear is used to symbolize Russia, I think they are acting more like a rattle snake. They are sounding their warning but they remain in a strictly defensive posture. If you ignore the warning and step on them, they will bite you, but they will not attack first, they will not leave their defended zone. Also, I noticed a very interesting thing – Americans seem to be laying traps for the Russians, things like the artificial Ukraine crisis, where they expected Russia to react by invading Ukraine, but Russia evaded the trap and instead opened a completely different theater of action in Syria. America now tries to create a situation in Syria where Russia will have to react in a way conducive to the nuclear war that they desire, but I expect Russia to evade again and open a completely different theater to project its influence. Essentially, what America seems to be doing is provoke the rattle snake to strike, so that it can cut its head off, but the rattle snake sees through it and acts very strategically. America is more powerful, but the Russians are smarter. The entire situation looks like a conflict between an IQ 90 bully and an IQ 130 geek, where America is the bully. The usual development of such conflicts is that the bully keeps beating up the geek, but the geek strategically uses his advantages in such a way that he suffers through the ordeal patiently, finishes school with high grades, creates a tech startup company and earns millions of dollars, and the bully gets to deliver him pizza. Essentially, the geek knows he can’t win the battles, but he can position things so that he survives them just long enough for the strategic situation to shift to his advantage.

The most worrying thing in the entire situation is that America behaves like a bully who thinks he’s invulnerable because all the power in the world is on his side, and nobody will stop him. He will bully whomever he feels like, and he will control the narrative in order to present the victim as the villain. America acts in a way that is consistent with a serious power trip of someone who never had to endure a crushing defeat, and that’s the worrying part, because if that’s true, it means they don’t even understand or care for the warning signs of the rattle snake, and they will simply proceed to attack.

Their problem is that the Russians and the Chinese see through them, they understand what they are dealing with, they have time on their side and they will strike, when it comes to the point of “use it or lose it”. And considering the IQ difference, they have a very good chance of completely surprising the Americans and winning. The Americans are very powerful, but they are overconfident, reckless, internally conflicted and stupid. This is not a winning combination.

Evil, it’s what other people do

Whenever some bad shit happens, it’s always other people’s fault. You’re fine. Nothing wrong with you in any way.

When your government kills people, supports terrorists, dumps toxic waste into the environment, cuts down forests or introduces shitty laws, it’s not your fault. It’s the government. It’s the other people.

It’s the politicians, the rich, the elitists. They are evil, corrupt, deformed, they serve Satan. But you, the common people, you are good, right, proper, decent and you serve God.

You just want to have safety, food, water, gas, job and other infrastructure. You’re going to protest if you don’t get it, and you’re going to remain silent if you’re pleased.

You just want to be happy and want your children to be happy. The duty of the politicians and the industrialists is to figure out how to make the details work. You don’t want to know. You don’t want to dirty your hands with the messy details. You will just vote at the ballot box and you will vote with your wallet at the store. You just want results.

You are great. If only the rest of the world was as good and decent as you. If only you could get rid of the politicians and the capitalists, who are evil, then all would be great.

Do you even get it, or is my sarcasm so close to your actual opinion that you don’t even recognize it as such?

About turning the other cheek

There’s an important issue related to the previous article, where I talked about separating your inputs from your outputs, so that you don’t become a reactionary automaton. It’s the issue of “turning the other cheek”, as Jesus would put it. If we look into it more deeply, we find two underlying issues: self-defense and justice.

The issue of self-defense is essentially the issue of standing your ground, both spiritually and materially. Spiritually, it means defending what you believe in and what you stand for. Materially, it means protecting your life and property, as well as persons and things entrusted to you.

The problem with standing your ground is that everybody and their dog assume they are on the “right side of the Force”. Everybody assumes they are worth defending. But are you, really? Is defense of your person really the defense of God in this world? Is it the defense of what is true, righteous and good? Or are you merely a dog barking at the people on the street just because you’re on the “right” side of the fence, and you’re simply defending your territory like any other animal? Those are important questions, because if you ask people, they will all tell you they are trying to do the right thing, and they are trying to do good. The result of all that is the sum of all evils in the world. All evil people think they are perfectly justified in all their actions. If you find a person who is full of self-doubt and thinks of himself as inherently evil, you’re probably dealing with a saint. Evil not only assumes the right to defend itself, it assumes the right to assert itself. So, although the issue of self-defense initially seemed straightforward and clear, it is everything but. When someone slaps you in the face, the instinctive reaction is to assume you’re right, to assume the right to defend yourself. But what if you are in the wrong? What if that other person has the right to slap you in the face? What if the right and proper response is to feel shame and remorse, to accept rebuke and to repent? So, the solution would be to be situationally aware. You need to know your place in the wider world. You need to know where it is proper to stand your ground and defend your position, and when to re-examine your stance, retreat, perhaps even change sides. One possible lesson of “turn the other cheek”, therefore, might be that you should not assume your righteousness with full certainty. Maybe you got slapped because you’re an asshole. To turn the other cheek might be to accept blame and rebuke, and to offer apology. If so, that is a valid lesson.

Implicit in this is the judgment of right and wrong. If you are wrong, retreat, accept punishment and offer apology. Attempt to redress the wrongs. Repent. However, if you are right, and you are attacked, what then? Turn the other cheek no matter what? This is the place where people instinctively disagree with Jesus, they rebel against his teaching, and I’m not really sure it’s justified, because as we could see above, there are other legitimate interpretations of his statement – don’t assume you’re right and automatically reflect the input. We don’t know if he had a moderate or an extremist attitude towards this. I, however, can tell you what I think. I think you need to defend what you know to be true, and what you know to be just. You need to stand your ground. You don’t necessarily retaliate in kind, but you make your position known, you declare yourself and you work toward the greatest good. Sometime this means to attenuate a volatile situation. Sometimes you will remove yourself from the situation. Sometimes, however, you will respond with deadly force. There are legitimate situations where I would do so, and I wouldn’t bat an eyelash about it. If you had an active shooter scenario where some Muslim yelled “Allahu Akbar” while shooting people, and I was armed, I would shoot him twice in the chest and once in the head to make sure he’s dead. I think the response with deadly force would be so automatic I wouldn’t have time to even think about it, it’s like catching a glass you dropped, a reflex. So yeah, I wouldn’t turn the other cheek, I wouldn’t try to talk, or dismantle the situation. Every second of fucking around can mean another innocent person dead. You need to act, and you need to apply violence. You need to do it quickly, and effectively. Yes, those who live by the sword can die by the sword, but the trick is, you don’t even have to know what a sword is, to die by it. But that’s not the only possible scenario. It’s not always “allow someone to bitch slap you” or “shoot to kill”. Sometimes, you negotiate the exchange of five hostages for yourself, knowing you’ll be killed. You make the assessment, and if you see it’s worth it, you save their lives by offering yours. That, too, is a way to stand your ground – “if you need to kill someone, kill me”. So, as you can see, it’s a complicated matter, but as far as I’m concerned, it’s all an application of Augustine’s principle of just war, or, in a generalized case, just application of violence. Today people think violence is evil and there can be no excuse or no tolerance for it, but that’s a wrong approach. The right approach is, how can we minimize violence? How can we fight evil, how can we act in order to reduce evil? If you have a situation where 50 people die if you do nothing, and 1 person dies if you shoot the armed terrorist, how is refusing to kill a terrorist a good thing? And how is killing him bad, even though it is violence? You need to have your priorities straight. The Hindus have an excellent system for this; they have a list of priorities. First priority is moksa, liberation. Second priority is dharma, righteousness. Third priority is artha, usefulness. Fourth priority is kama, sensual pleasure. Basically, you see if something is conducive to liberation or not. Of things that are conducive to liberation, favor those that are righteous and just. Of things that are righteous and just, prefer to do those that are useful to you and others. Of things that are useful to you and others, choose to do those that are pleasurable.

So, it’s not always a choice between righteousness and a painful death. It sometimes is, if it can’t be avoided, but sometimes it’s a subtle choice, between polite silence and polite expression of your attitude. Sometimes to testify for God means to have an orgasm with the right person. Sometimes to testify for God is to offer your life in exchange for another person’s. Sometimes it’s to kill someone, quickly and efficiently, so that he wouldn’t kill the innocent. It’s a subtle thing, and it annoys me when people oversimplify things to the point of making nonviolence or kindness an absolute. Yes, kindness is good, but only if it’s helpful and useful. Sometimes kicking someone’s ass is better than kindness, and produces a greater good. It is wrong to justify evil actions with this, but nevertheless, it is my opinion that violence solved more problems than any other approach. The Nazis in the second world war weren’t defeated by lovingkindness, they were defeated by brutal violence. Sometimes you need to blow someone’s brains out in order to do good, and there’s no other way around it. If you’re facing an army of murderers, the right thing to do is take up arms and oppose them with deadly force. Sometimes, the only truly consistent choice for the greater good is to reject the concept of absolute nonviolence, and instead treat evil as a problem, and moderate violence as a possible solution. But it functions like this: if one uses words to do evil, you oppose him with words to spread truth and reason, and do good. If one uses a gun to kill good people, you take a gun and put a bullet in his brain. It’s that simple. Respond moderately, adopt a moderate, almost passive approach, but be ready for decisive and very violent action if it’s the right thing to do. Oppose evil by doing good, oppose lies by spreading the truth, but oppose an armed terrorist with a 9mm, two in the chest and one in the head if he still moves. Then turn the other cheek to check how the victims are doing and how you can help them.

Eat bitter, taste sweet

Some 18 years ago I had an altercation with a Dzogchen Buddhist who recommended a technique of meditation that basically went this way: you inhale impurity, and exhale purity. You inhale anger and exhale bliss. Eat bitter, taste sweet, essentially.

My objection was that what you “inhale”, basically your spiritual input, will determine the content of your consciousness, and expecting to transform it within the span of one breath is incredibly naive; you will fail, and instead of transforming discord into harmony you will accumulate discord and disturbance within you, and you will exhale hypocrisy, the pretense of peace and harmony.

However, I recently witnessed disturbing trends within society, as well as some individual examples, that made me reconsider my position.

What I realized is that I might be defining the problem from one position, that might not be the only possible and valid one, due to certain unsaid implications. For instance, if one implies a steady spiritual foundation of one’s consciousness, basically what I would call a vertical connection, and if one learns how to maintain this amidst all kinds of superficial experiences and mental states, this would invalidate my objection. “Inhaling” would then not refer to appropriating a spiritual state, but to suffering an experience with one’s deeper spiritual state unperturbed, and, furthermore, it would imply suffering a blow without automatically generating a reaction of the same energy-type, but instead the implication would be that one separates the quality of one’s experiences from the quality of one’s actions. Essentially, it means you can take any input, suffer its blow, absorb it and transform it, and act not as a reaction to the immediate energetic quality of your input, but from the deeper position that determines the correctness of actions.

The social phenomenon that initiated this line of thinking can be described as “pussification”. A pussified person assumes it’s his right to be happy and to feel good, to live without any stress, responsibility or danger. When experiencing something other than perfect bliss and approval, a pussy whines, complains, hides from the unpleasantness and is basically useless. It is here that I realized that the Dzogchen practitioner, to whose meditational practice I took exception, might have been on to something, because my recommendation, too, would be to “eat bitter, taste sweet”. Buddhism isn’t about “woe is me, all is suffering, let’s wallow in misery and whine”, it’s about “shit happens, suck it up, get over it, get over yourself and manifest harmony, goodness, clarity and wisdom”. Buddhism has a very manly approach to things, very Roman in its stoic balance. One is to take the blows of life, remain unperturbed, and manifest dignity, justice, beauty, kindness and harmony.

I think our civilization lost this Roman aspect and, as a result, I lost my respect for it. Our civilization is more about worshiping victims, about whining, finding all kinds of “repressed minorities” to “help”, and not about manifesting great things and having faith that justice and harmony will result from the general upward attitude of our spiritual vector. I think the victim-worship and the oppression Olympics are the direct result of this general social pussification, of the expectation that everybody should have only sweetness and joy as their input, as their experience of life. But that’s not how life works. Life is basically a torrential stream of suffering, pain, disappointments, losses and humiliations. If you think there are privileged ones who are excepted from this, you are simply stupid. Buddha wasn’t stupid, he got it. Suffering is the determinant of life. You can’t eliminate it, the only constructive approach is to deal with it in such a way that you don’t drown in it due to faulty expectations of pleasure and approval. Whatever you do, shit will happen. It’s what you are when shit happens, what you manifest, that separates the men from the boys. The metaphorical boys expect to eat sweet, and whine when it’s bitter, or even when the sweetness is not absolutely perfect. The metaphorical men eat bitter, and smile, because they know that what you manifest determines who you are, not what you experience. That’s what Jesus meant when he said “What goes into someone’s mouth does not defile them, but what comes out of their mouth, that is what defiles them.” “But the things that come out of a person’s mouth come from the heart, and these defile them. For out of the heart come evil thoughts – murder, adultery, sexual immorality, theft, false testimony, slander. These are what defile a person; but eating with unwashed hands does not defile them.” (Mt 15)

What you do, what you manifest, is what either defiles or sanctifies you. Not what you experience. To experience difficulties, hardships, oppression, discrimination, prejudice, sickness, hunger, old age and death, is normal. To manifest things that are worse than what you took in is particularly evil, and causes spiritual downfall and degradation. To simply reflect the pressure is ordinary, and causes perpetuation of suffering. To shine under pressure and manifest God in this world is exceptional and glorious, and causes liberation. So take in the difficulties of this world, stay unperturbed because your consciousness has deep foundations in God, and manifest greatness of all kinds. Inhale suffering, hatred, pain, loss, agony and humiliation, and exhale clarity, beauty, justice, kindness, wisdom and greatness.

Eat bitter, taste sweet.