HUGS, CLAPS, AND KOOL-AID: CULTS CAN BE FUN! PART I

I came home from high school one day to find that my dad plastered Marshall Applewhite’s photocopied face all over the house. For some reason Dad was obsessed with the Heaven’s Gate cult leader; I think it had something to do with the crazy look in Applewhite’s eyes:

Marshall Applewhite, a.k.a. "Guinea," "Bo," "Do."  His platonic girlfriend? "Pig," "Peep," and "Re." There's a lid for every  crackpot , I guess...

Marshall Applewhite, a.k.a. "Guinea," "Bo," "Do."  His platonic girlfriend? "Pig," "Peep," and "Re." There's a lid for every crackpot, I guess...

“Look at him, he’s fucking nuts!” Dad shrieked with glee, tapping the portrait for emphasis. Us kids laughed up a storm, but Mom simply shook her head and walked off, convinced Dad finally lost his mind. Our giggles were cut short by Mom’s voice.

“Augie!! What the hell is this?!”

We quickly made our way down the hall to discover why Mom was so upset. On their bed lay her purple bathrobe, a scarf neatly folded atop. At the foot of the bed was a pair of sneakers resting next to a small suitcase. On the nightstand lay a glass of water and two pills (aspirin). We could feel Dad’s giddiness level rising.

“Look in the pocket,” Dad wheezed, struggling against a full-on laugh. When Mom reached in and pulled out $5.75, he lost control. She just glared at him. Perhaps years of working as a psychiatric nurse left her incapable of finding stuff like this funny.

After their breakfast gruel, they used the bowls to guide their  haircuts .

After their breakfast gruel, they used the bowls to guide their haircuts.

“I married a mental patient,” she muttered, leaving the room to start dinner. Dad then turned his focus to me and my sisters, his eyes begging for feedback. We commended him on his prank, being particularly impressed with his level of detail. Soon the microwave would beep and transition Dad’s one-track mind from CULT to FOOD, so the fun seemed over. But later that evening the laughter would continue, as Dad was thoughtful enough to put Applewhite’s face inside the fridge and shower, too. 

Cults get a bad rap these days, don’t they? Just the word “cult” can conjure up disturbing images: the fire-bombed Branch Davidians compound in Waco; the mass suicide/homicide of the People’s Temple in Jonestown; the Manson murders, or in this case, Heaven’s Gate. Check out the link to learn why Dad’s wardrobe set-up was pretty accurate, down to the $5.75.

But not all cults are deadly, which I soon discovered when I joined the Soka Gakai International (SGI), a laymen’s Nichiren Buddhist organization from Japan, where it is known simply as “Soka Gakai.” This took place in New York during a period in my life where I was seeking guidance and personal empowerment. To be clear, I'm actually grateful for the SGI and have no agenda to "bash" the organization. I am, however, very critical of some of their practices and no longer associate with them or Nichiren Buddhism. Many people wonder why anyone would join a cult, so here's my list of warning signs that may help, should you find yourself drawn to an ideology. What you are about to read is the result of my experiences to the best of my memory. 

Warning #1: Your place in life

Feel familiar? (From Matt Groening's aptly titled,  Work Is Hell ).

Feel familiar? (From Matt Groening's aptly titled, Work Is Hell).

This should be your first tip: anyone seeking religion or philosophy is usually attempting to manage, if not relieve, the emotional pain they are experiencing. Just by walking through the doors of the SGI you have advertised to them where you are in life…which is often (but not always) a place of pain. As a result, you tend to be highly suggestible, even desperate, to change your circumstances. Keep this in mind.

I have always been more attracted to Buddhism and Eastern philosophy, as the Catholic faith I was raised in left a lot to be desired. One of my colleagues identified as a Buddhist, so when I asked to learn more, he took me to the SGI Cultural Center in Union Square. I walked through the doors and was greeted with perpetual smiles, group chanting, and a lot of clapping. Boy, you should have seen the smiles when I agreed to join, which leads to...

Warning #2: We’re so thrilled you joined; now clear your schedule.

Anyone frowning was removed and sent to the basement for re-education...just kidding ;)

Anyone frowning was removed and sent to the basement for re-education...just kidding ;)

Any organization that reacts to your joining with such unbridled enthusiasm should produce a yellow flag. The SGI seemed cult-like in nature almost immediately, but I wasn’t all that bothered by it (see Warning #1 again). I realized being a Nichiren Buddhist meant a very structured schedule, and you should possibly see this as an orange flag. Like many religions, there is a weekly expectation to practice with other members in your community; little did I know just how much time would be expected of me. Stay tuned for Part II...

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