Trimondi Online Magazine





Is Tibetan Buddhism a Cult?


Dr. Robert J. Lifton’s Eight Criteria for Thought Reform and Lamaism, the Cultist form of Buddhism


by Chris Chandler


Robert Jay Lifton (born May 16, 1926) is an American psychiatrist and author, chiefly known for his studies of the psychological causes and effects of war and political violence and for his theory of thought reform. He was an early proponent of the techniques of psychohistory.


Disclaimer: Robert Jay Lifton wrote a seminal book, entitled, “Thought Reform and the Psychology of Totalism which was published in 1961. It had a subtitle, A study of “Brainwashing” in China.


However, he published a new edition in 1989. In the preface he noted the following point, “Now after twenty-eight years, my own sense of this book has changed. I see it as less a specific record of Maoist China and more of an exploration of what may be the most dangerous direction of the twentieth- century mind-the quest for absolute or “totalistic” belief systems. In other words this book is not about China but about universal issues of mind control and not about the specifics of one country from which the initial evidence was gained.


In 1988 Steven Hassan published his book, “Combatting Cult Mind Control” and he acknowledged the contribution that Robert J. Lifton had made to his thinking. It is clear by the time Robert J. Lifton wrote the new preface to his book one year later he owed a lot to those who were trying to address the issue of cultism.


1. Milieu Control

This involves the control of information and communication both within the environment and, ultimately, within the individual, resulting in a significant degree of isolation from society at large.


Lamaism maintains a completely controlled system of communication, both within the environment, and within the individual.  Within the environment, No information is allowed” in” and none of the secrets of the inner workings are allowed ‘out.”  For an example of not allowing any information “in”, the scandals involving the Eco Karmapa, concerning money laundering, the illegal purchase of benami land, set aside for Indians, was all over the Indian news and even in the U.S. news that is very pro Lamaism.  This news never reaches these sanghas.


The Lamas made sure , in the closed system they maintain, that none of this reached the ‘devotees” in the U.S. and Britain, who support Ogyen Trinley Rinpoche, the Dalai Lama’s ‘prodigy” being groomed to take his place.  The lamas  need not have worried, since none of these  devotees, some of them programmed for years , would ever read anything that contradicted their pure view of this lama, or any lama in fact.  But for the newer students, it was essential to make sure that none of this information ‘got into the lama system” so the older western students would function as important ‘gatekeepers” to minimize this news, to distort it as unimportant, and to make sure that the boundary from the outside, was completely “impermeable.”   For one year this scandal was all over the news, but none of the western Lamaist students knew anything about it, because they were told by the lamas and the older students to pay no attention. 


Sogyal’s predatoriness and sexual abuse is similarly protected from being ‘information’ let into ‘other sanghas, that are closely related, and since all of them have formed an alliance now, this would be all of them , that is why the ‘circling of the wagons” was so important by these other lamas, who went ‘immediately’ to Rigpa centers, and taught,  or taught with Sogyal, side by side, or had western students make videos about how ‘wonderful” Sogyal is, all to deflect and prevent these sanghas from even contemplating the news…


They also powerfully control the information and communication within the individual, by their repressive, terrorizing vision of hell realms,  and the teachings that even a negative thought, particularly of their ‘gurus” or master lamas, will lead one to be in ‘hell forever” with no hope of return.  This would fall under the 8 deadliest transgressions, to see, say or believe anything negative about ANY of these lamas who are to be seen as living deities, that you are totally dependent on for ‘enlightenment” , which is , of course , a complete distortion of the Buddha’s teachings.



2. Mystical Manipulation

There is manipulation of experiences that appear spontaneous but in fact were planned and orchestrated by the group or its leaders in order to demonstrate divine authority or spiritual advancement or some special gift or talent that will then allow the leader to reinterpret events, scripture, and experiences as he or she wishes.


In very short order, western students are indoctrinated into “magical thinking” and quickly disabused of their rational thinking and critical reasoning, which is systematically undermined, replaced with group think, carefully orchestrated by the older students, who model how to “view these lamas” by their sycophantic behaviors around them, their total submission to an agreement with everything these lamas say ‘as divinely inspired”.  While pretending to be “humble” one is learning that these are “divine beings” on these thrones, that the older students are submissively hanging on every word they say, and who are only here to “help us”. Some fairy tales include a lineage, where their previous lamas, were products of a deity and a human being.  


Quickly one is following the group, to model submissive, prostrating behavior, and a sudden belief in fairy tales, listening to fables about Tibet and the lineage of these divine ones, and soon one learns to ask no penetrating, western type questions.  Hours of chanting, particularly when one is making offerings, long periods of meditation together, starts to have a ‘dissolving quality” on all that one has previously valued and believed.  It is shocking how quickly this happens. The lamas are soon ‘creating ‘magical nets’ of protection around the group before a retreat, they are doing ‘purification practices, and ‘blessings” of books, and ritual materials, such as malas, they engage in special ‘abishekas.” It doesn’t take long for the group and newer students indoctrinated into these ‘mystical manipulations” to believe that the lama himself is divine, and the recipient, and manifestation of a living Buddha,  that represents sometimes hundreds of living deities, coming through his enlightened body to the students.  These lamas are experts at ‘mystical manipulation’ and have made it a ‘fine art” of seduction to quickly control the minds of the individuals in the group to believe this.



3. Demand for Purity

The world is viewed as black and white and the members are constantly exhorted to conform to the ideology of the group and strive for perfection.  The induction of guilt and/or shame is a powerful control device used here.


In the Tibetan Lamaist cult one is immediately taught that one is ‘impure” and that is why one is in a ‘human body” and NOT in a deity body, like these lamas.  The teachings after being presented at first as ecumenical, and easy going, and relaxed, soon become  are all about ‘purity” and doing many practices, and cycles of practices to ‘purify’ ones being, that may and probably will take ‘lifetimes.” Soon, one begins to feel ‘less than they did” when they entered the Lamastocracy, and one loses confidence in one’s own individuality, which is ’emptied out, by both the dogma and the practices,  one feels ’empty” and often ‘only complete in the presence of the lamas.



4. Confession

Sins, as defined by the group, are to be confessed either to a personal monitor or publicly to the group.  There is no confidentiality; members’ “sins,” “attitudes,” and “faults” are discussed and exploited by the leaders.


Lamas , have started using ‘confession in the group” recently, i.e. a confession of sins before the group,  and a confession of one’s faults, particularly if there has been a ‘change in administrations” the outgoing administration is humbled, with confessions,  or the ‘managers” of the group, use group shame to make devotees conform to the rules of the system.



5. Sacred Science

The group’s doctrine or ideology is considered to be the ultimate Truth, beyond all questioning or dispute.  Truth is not to be found outside the group.  The leader, as the spokesperson for God or for all humanity, is likewise above criticism.


The Tibetan Lamaist version of Buddhism , even though it is based on Hindustani Brahmin priestly caste system religion is taught as the “highest form’ of Buddhism and referred to as the Third Turning of the Wheel,  i.e. the highest teaching the Buddha taught, even though there is no record extant that the Buddha taught Guruism ( he actually said that ‘no one should sit higher than another, and to be a light unto yourself)  or in particular, the Mahayana gradual path,  or certainly NOT vajrayanaVajrayana, and the master-disciple commitment, is said to be the highest teachings of the Buddha, and the fastest path to ‘enlightenment” even though in the Pali and Sanskrit teachings of the Buddha, there is no record of these teachings. Nor were their teachings on ‘reincarnation.” which is very helpful to keep those lamas on thrones, reincarnating again and again, the same person and the rest of us reincarnating into ‘higher” embodiments, IF we adhere to the Lama doctrine, The latter will of course take ‘many lifetimes.” Very convenient for them,  and a ‘long slog’ for the rest of us



6.  Loading the Language

The group interprets or uses words and phrases in new ways so that often the outside world does not understand.  This jargon consists of thought-terminating clichés, which serve to alter members’ thought processes to conform to the group’s way of thinking.


Almost all these Lamaist sanghas have their own ‘loaded” language,  new members soon learn to speak in the jargon of these cliches so that in short order, this loaded language has added to the group think.


(A) Everything the lama does is a ‘great teaching” no matter how egregious, women who are particularly docile and conforming and sexual consorts, or the older female “pimps” for the lamas, are considered to be “Dakinis”. They are treated with respect in front of the group, for ‘going along with the abuse”, (that film honoring that old Tibetan woman, Khandro is a classic brainwashing film for the western women, on how to behave!) the more ‘traditional’ they are, to fit into their roles, the more praise they are given in the group. The men can be more arrogant and dismissive, since they are modelling the lamas.


(B) But the men too, have to be willing to give up their egos, and this is considered again, not exploitation by the lamas for their own benefit, but a “great teaching”, or if the show wrathful insulting behaviour to the student, he is getting a “great blessing” and not an insult.  Physical abuse becomes a quicker ‘purification” of one’s karma.   This list is not exhaustive, just the most obvious examples of loading the language.


“Serving the lama” also is a great blessing, and “serving is the greatest elegance” or the best prostration could result in immediate enlightenment…. All of it is to make the individual conform to this repressive, autocratic lama system where individualism and critical thinking and even resistance to being submissive is turned on its head by the language. 



7. Doctrine over person

Member’s personal experiences are subordinated to the sacred science and any contrary experiences must be denied or reinterpreted to fit the ideology of the group.


Everything that happens, again, is subordinated to the great blessing of being within this ‘sacred science”.  Ordinary events become ‘miraculous”,  Rain, rainbows, anything that happens in the ordinary world is no longer just objective events, but are magical and are a blessing of the lama, or the sacred teachings of the Buddha that only the lama can dispense. The point is to make the student totally dependent on the lama, just as in all cults the students become totally dependent on the leader, completely infantilized.



8. Dispensing of existence

The group has the prerogative to decide who has the right to exist and who does not.  This is usually not literal but means that those in the outside world are not saved, unenlightened, unconscious and they must be converted to the group’s ideology.  If they do not join the group or are critical of the group, then they must be rejected by the members.  Thus, the outside world loses all credibility.  In conjunction, should any member leave the group, he or she must be rejected also.  (Lifton, 1989)


In old Tibet this would have been ‘literal” people were imprisoned, tortured or even killed if they were a danger to the lamas despotism.  But Tibetan Lamaism today uses more subtle rejection,  ‘ignoring that person” , rejecting that person, even wrathfully and insultingly treating that person, in the group, making sure that the heretical behaviour is noticed by the group, and the rejection serves to prevent anyone else from asking critical questions,  soon everyone in the group is into group think and totally conforming.  Laughing at the same time at the same jokes, all looking adoringly at their source of everything, i.e. the lamas on those thrones,  the students have  to become totally dependent on the lama, any independence is totally discouraged , subtlety and directly through shame in the group,  and , if someone leaves, Lamaism all together,  they are considered DEAD , lost, and even  a demon. To be shunned by the group, totally.  They are very dangerous to the lamas, but they are presented as very dangerous to the potential enlightenment of the group members who must shun them.


© Chris Chandler





A light which leads out from the Tibetan Buddhist dream-trance (Chris Chandler: “Enthralled – The Guru Cult of Tibetan Buddhism” – Review of the book by Victor and Victoria Trimondi)


This is the best research and the best material ever written on Tibetan Buddhism – Review of The Shadow of the Dalai Lama by Chris Chandler


Is Lamaism a cult? Dr. Robert J. Lifton’s Eight Criteria for Thought Reform and Lamaism, the Cultist form of Buddhism by Chris Chandler


Ex Tibetan Buddhism – Blog of Chris Chandler