Cults of personality take many forms. All the world religions centre about one prominent figure, and to the casual observer it might seem that Buddhism is no exception. But, rightly understood, this is far from being the case. The historical Buddha, the Buddha of our age, Gotama, is unique; but he is not unique in prehistory. He always referred to himself as the Tathagata, meaning One who has gone thus; that is, in the way of previous Buddhas. He claimed only to be the rediscoverer of the ancient way, the ancient truth (sanantana-dhamma) that had been proclaimed by innumerable Enlightened Ones before him. When asked his lineage, he replied that it was to this line of World Teachers that he belonged; his Sakyan ancestry, noble as it was, meant nothing to him, for he had chosen his own ancestral line, the lineage of those who had Gone Forth to homelessness and had set the Wheel of the Dhamma rolling in previous world cycles, for the welfare of all beings.
How did the Buddha wish others to regard him? His answer is clear: ‘He who sees me sees the Dhamma; he who sees the Dhamma sees me.’ The personality of the Teacher had in a very real sense
become identified with the Teaching. Realizing that, as the Buddha insisted over and over again,
the body and mental formations even of the Tathagata were impermanent, bound to dissolve
and pass away, the processes of the five aggregates2 being the same, in that respect for all, we
should look upon personality as a very evanescent phenomenon. The Dhamma, on the other
hand, is eternal.
‘Whether Tathagatas arise or do not arise, this nature of things continues, this relatedness of phenomena, this regularity of phenomena, this law of conditionality3.’
In this case, a Tathagata had arisen, he had realized the truth, and the truth transcended his
We return now to the cult of the Guru, which I mentioned earlier. In the main stream of religious thought, spiritual teachers abound. Each has his disciples, who regard him as an incarnation of God or at the very least as a very advanced soul ready to attain union with the universal soul (param-atman).
Between the devotees of these gurus there are often sectarian rivalries and some of them show a good deal of pride in being associated with one whom they regard as a manifestation of the Supreme. The teachings of the rival gurus are published; but when we read them, the feature that impresses us most is their sameness. Each one says precisely the same thing, in almost exactly the same way; and most of the teachings which are found to be so inspiring by others are nothing but thread-bare clichés. When you have read one of them, you have read all. Philosophically, they are negligible, and as spiritual instruction valueless.
Confronted by this phenomenon, we are bound to ask ourselves: What is the secret of the immense hold these teachers have over the minds of their followers? How is it that large numbers of intelligent persons, of East and West, are able to listen enraptured for hours while the guru spins out platitude after platitude, repeating over and over again the same formulas, quoting and re-quoting himself and others, endlessly, forever repeating the same hackneyed theme?
The answer, of course, is that the typical ashram is the centre of a personality cult. What the guru
says, or does not say, matters nothing. All that matters is his personal magnetism, within the aura
of which the critical faculty is lulled into a peaceful euphoria.
Now this personal magnetism is a very real psychic phenomenon, and it can be cultivated. It does not depend upon intelligence, wisdom or personal beauty, although the latter helps considerably in creating an initial sympathy in the devotee. It is rather a something in the nature what Mesmer called ‘animal magnetism’, a psycho-physical force that can be generated and projected outwards as an adjunct to the will. And this, more than anything else, is the secret of the devotion that surrounds so many teachers who have nothing to teach, so many prophets who have never prophesied, so many miracle workers whose only miracle was to suggest to others that they have seen something that never occurred.
The power to still the minds of others, to impart to them the impression that they have experienced ineffable peace, indescribable bliss this is the magnet that draws people to a guru whose intelligence
is hardly equal to the task of producing a third rate religious tract. The devotee sits before the guru and gazes at him in a happy daze; his thoughts are caught up in a luminous cloud, the hard contours of reality dissolve and he feels himself absorbed, all his petty personal cares vanish away with his lost sense of identity, floating in a vibrant field of love, the love of the guru embracing him, and his own love going out to the guru who is God. It is the apotheosis of the personality cult.
The Buddhist Bhikkhu sets out, by invitation, to preach the Dhamma. He carries in his hand a large palm fan, and when he delivers his discourse he holds the fan before his face. This is an ancient tradition of preaching Dhamma in every Buddhist country. All the time he is preaching his eyes are fixed on the fan. He is not orating; he is not, like the Ancient Mariner, fixing anyone with his glittering eye; above all, he is not trying to put his own personality across. If his hearers are to be influenced, it must be only by the Dhamma, by the words of truth penetrating their understanding, being weighed in the balance of their own judgment. In this way the Dhamma is taught. It is the antithesis of the personality cult.
Hero worship is a universal tendency, and can be of great benefit if the model chosen is a good one. But very often immature minds are prone to identification with models who represent the baser instincts and give a kind of sanction to violence, lawlessness and rebellion against society or the prevailing order of things.
Among young people, and not exclusively of the male sex, the more undeveloped seek identification with the more violent types they see in motion pictures and on television; later, they tend to come under the influence of older men who introduce them to crime. Others, who desire a more respectable pattern to follow, but are subconsciously activated by the same urge to express themselves in destructive action, may join some subversive political group having as its head a leader who represents all they wish to become. From this category come the groups of political extremists who take part in riots, racial persecutions and terrorism of all kinds. By rationalizing their destructive drives they succeed in convincing themselves that they are in a superior intellectual category compared to the mere criminal gangster.
In fact, they are less honest. The sophisticated youth who worships some [white shirted, suit and tie, corporate criminal] who claims to have a political philosophy is rather worse off than the boy from a different social level who admires and emulates an underworld character, for he is adding self-deception to his other personality defects. Few young people today are driven into crime by sheer want, as was formerly the case; for the most part, their absorption into the underworld comes about through the desire to emulate some gang leader whom they have chosen for their idol. Exactly the same is the case of the young or not-so-young follower of a political extremist; he seldom has the least conception of where his adopted cult of violence is leading, but is content to follow the figurehead and persuade himself that the aggressive activities he enjoys are motivated by a high purpose, directed towards a worthy end.
Misguided hero worship as the basis of personality cults is responsible for much of the disruption of present day society. It is unfortunately facilitated by improved means of communication. Ideas soared with a rapidity unknown before, and the personalities of those who initiate them are projected pictorially on cinema and television screens with [a] hypnotically compulsive force. The influence they come to have upon impressionable minds is [alarming].
The people who know most about it are not those concerned with the mental health of the population, but only with selling things—the advertising specialists and publicity experts. They [gauge] the cumulative effect of constantly repeated visual and auditory suggestion, and [we] would do well to turn to them for information. The media of mass communication are likely to prove a dangerous liability rather than an asset to mankind if something is not done to check the flow of unwholesome ideas they are increasingly being made to serve.