Authoritarian religion draws its power from an understandable desire: for perfection.
This craving leads people to bow down before supposedly holy books, holy people, and holy dogmas that, they believe, will give them what they can't find in this imperfect world.
Such is the central theme of Stephen Bachelor's terrific foreword to "American Guru," a book about Andrew Cohen's abuse of his students/disciples. (I'll have more to say about this book when I've finished it; it's a disturbing tale of guru worship gone bad.)
I like Stephen Bachelor a lot. He's a secular Buddhist who does a great job of sifting the religious crap from Buddhism's otherwise generally appealing outlook on life. I've enjoyed his "Buddhism Without Beliefs" and shared a few quotes here.
(On Bachelor's web site I just came across an M.A. thesis about his agnostic Buddhism that I'm looking forward to reading.)
Below are excerpts from Stephen Bachelor's foreword. He starts off by describing the first time he went to see Andrew Cohen, after he'd been told that "a great guru, a world teacher comparable to the Buddha, had appeared."
Not really. Not even close.
That's obvious to me after reading about half of "American Guru." Unless the Buddha was a jerk who enjoyed hurting people emotionally and physically, and was addicted to being idolized by uncritical disciples.
I squeezed into a poorly lit room, packed with people, many of whom I knew, sitting in silence, eyes closed, cross-legged on the floor. Then Andrew appeared, radiant and smiling, and sat on an old armchair in one corner. It was one of the most tedious evenings I can remember.
...While the students experienced some sort of ecstasy by collectively projecting their spiritual longings and ideals onto Andrew, Andrew seemed to need the adulation of others to endorse the sense of being the enlightened guru he and his students wanted him to be.
The more this interchange of mutually reinforcing desires went on, the greater became the certainty that Andrew really was the savior of our age and the students his first blessed circle of disciples. As long as this bubble of shared conviction remained intact, everyone got what they wanted.
...The only way I can describe what I witnessed in Devon in the 1980s was the formation of a cult: a closed system of millenarian belief exclusively focused on a single person who claimed absolute authority.
...Authoritarian religion is one of the greatest dangers facing humankind in our world today. Whether that authoritarianism be Christian, Muslim, Hindu, or Buddhist makes no difference. In each case, an elite group claims absolute authority on the basis of a text or a mystical revelation, then seeks to impose that authority on others as the only way to achieve personal and collective salvation.
...All belief in an unconditioned reality that transcends the contingent, painful flux of this world is, I suspect, an understandable but dangerous delusion. Rather than directing our longing and energy towards the Absolute and the spiritual freedom it promises, we need to turn our attention back to the world with all its messiness and suffering.
For if there is any liberation to be found, it will be found here, in the midst of ordinary life, as a freedom from the grasping and craving for the self or the world to be perfect.