by Charles Carreon
Taking clinical note of the increased manifestation of acute and chronic delusional ideation among practicioners of tantra, a new entry for DSM-V is proposed: Tantra-Induced Delusional Syndrome (“TIDS”). Currently, enthusiasm for tantra is high among mental health professionals seeking alternative analytical and therapeutic models, and critical awareness is correspondingly low. This article, authored not by a mental-health professional, but rather by an attorney with extensive experience with tantric lifestyles, focuses on the case histories of three American tantric teachers who manifested destructive delusional behavior. The article identifies the risk-promoting character of tantric doctrine as the etiological root of their pathology, considers how delusional pathology transfers to tantric students, and describes the social dynamics of guru-dominated communities as potential breeding grounds for self-reinforcing delusional behavior. The article proposes three types of TIDS, “Guru-side,” “Student-side,” and “Transitional,” and suggests treatment modalities.
Tantra, A Risk-Promoting Spiritual Path
Tantra originated in India during an indistinct time period in the second millennium B.C., as a spiritual style that infused virtually all Indian religions, including the Vedic, Jain and Buddhist traditions, with colorful, imaginative characteristics. Once tantra touches a spiritual path, it is irrevocably reshaped into a path that extols the virtues of risk-taking and focuses on attracting students with an appetite for drama and excitement. Buddhist tantra bears little similarity to the original teachings of the Buddha who was born in Lumbini, enlightened at Bodhgaya, and founded the world’s largest and most enduring monastic brotherhood. The original Buddhists engaged in simple meditation practices to clear the mind and still the passions, Tibetan “Vajrayana” Buddhists practice magical rituals in which they invoke a “tutelary deity” through the use of a “seed mantra” and cognize themselves as “emanations” of this divine being, residing in an alternate universe where all sounds are the divine mantra, and all thoughts are divine wisdom. Although the Buddha disclaimed guru status and advised his devotees to “work out their own salvation with diligence,” Vajrayana Buddhists venerate their gurus extravagantly, literally believing them to be infallible and more important than the historical Buddha.
While there are no doubt legitimate manifestations of tantra, it always proceeds on the basis of postulates, not on the basis of introspection or subjective observations. Several tantric postulates make the tantric path attractive to spiritual strivers:
· The nature of ordinary existence is divine;
· The divine nature is concealed by the passions;
· Wisdom is revealed by transmutation of the passions;
· The guru has the power to transmute the passions; and,
· Rejecting the guru’s grace is the path to self-destruction.
The passions referred to in these postulates are all emotional and intellectual distortions of “clear perception,” including the core attachment to one’s own self-identity. Thus, when presented to beginners as a dualistic, either-or approach to enlightenment, the door to dangerous misunderstandings is flung wide open. Ironically, the tantric path is often made more attractive to risk-takers by the outright declaration that it is dangerous, like a steep climb up a cliff, compared with the slow and steady ascent pursued by stodgier practicioners.
In modern-day America, “tantra” is often taught by virtual neophytes encouraged by traditional tantric teachers eager to seed new soil with their doctrine. Presented with the opportunity to play the guru, many of these newly-minted give in to the opportunity to exploit their students, and thus fall victim to the first danger of which serious tantric teachers give warning – the seduction of worldly power. Students who start off as bohemian rebels and non-conformists easily fall under the spell of tantric teachers who strut like fast-buck artists, adopt tough-guy personas, and exude an air of the-devil-may-care. Ironically, they may soon find themselves in the clutches of a psychology familiar to habitués of the bondage and domination scene.
Modern tantric teachers set about magnetizing a “mandala of students” who find their own individual reasons to adopt and spread the belief that they have established contact with a genuine tantric guru. Once a sufficient critical mass of students adopts this belief, it sets in motion a whirlpool of self-reinforcing behavior that exerts the psychological gravitational force of a black hole, sucking in large numbers of vulnerable souls. The community of Student-side TIDS sufferers reinforce each others’ mental enslavement through a shared, self-perpetuating delusion. Mid-level managers of the community primarily suffer from Transitional TIDS, a tense condition alternating between pride at being a community insider and anxious fear of exposure and humiliation. At the apex of this pyramid of misery sits the proliferator of the scheme, immersed in the psychotic pleasure of Guru-side TIDS.
In this article, which is but a preliminary foray into a promising field of diagnostic research, three case studies provide the basis for our hypothesis that Guru-side TIDS is a particularized psychological disorder -- Thomas Rich (Osel Tendzin), Catherine Burroughs (Jetsunma), and Franklin Jones (Adi Da Samraj). As these cases reveal, Guru-side TIDS is definitively a predatory, antisocial pathology that sometimes assumes criminal proportions and leads to devastating consequences.
Rich’s ascent to the status of Tantric guru was facilitated by his own tantric teacher, the once-legendary enfant terrible of Tibetan Buddhism, Chogyam Trungpa. Trungpa, the author of “Born In Tibet,” and many other books, was enthroned in early childhood as the Eleventh Trungpa Tulku of Surmang Monastery in a remote region of Tibet. Trungpa established the Vajradhatu organization in Boulder, Colorado, and prior to his death, pronounced Rich to be his Vajra Regent, to rule in his stead after Trungpa’s death and until the birth of the Twelfth incarnation of Trungpa Tulku.
Trungpa himself had been a famous drunkard and womanizer, as well as a talented poet and magnetic personality. Rich attempted to behave similarly. Tragically, Rich suffered not only from Guru-side TIDS, but also from AIDS. Not long after Trungpa’s death, he embarked on a series of sexual escapades and engaged in unprotected sex with several students. The reason? Due to TIDS-caused delusions, Tendzin believed that his bodily fluids did not transmit the disease. As a result at least one student and his female partner died of the lethal virus.
The conduct of Rich’s devoted students was equally reprehensible and casts a harsh light on the behavior of Transitional TIDS victims, the middle-managers of the dysfunctional Vajradhatu dynasty. Although many of Trungpa’s closest students were writers and artists, including the renowned poet Alan Ginsberg, and the Vajradhatu had its own newspaper, The Vajradhatu Sun, the entire matter of the AIDS deaths was hushed up, and never discussed openly by the cult leaders. Rich’s personal criminal misconduct was covered up, and legal protections against lawsuits by the victims were adopted in a corporate reorganization that downplayed Trungpa’s legacy and changed the name of the cult from Vajradhatu to Shambhala. In her biography, Trungpa’s wife has claimed Trungpa regretted appointing Rich his Regent, but failed to take action to disempower him. Since Trungpa, decimated by alcoholism, was barely able to relieve himself without assistance at the end of his life, it is not surprising that he was unable to disarm the time bomb he’d unleashed on his students. A man named Patrick Sweeney continues to gnaw the cud of the disgraced Regent, claiming to be his “dharma heir,” and operating the Satdharma group under those questionable auspices.
Catherine Burroughs began her career as a garden-variety psychic medium who purported to “channel” the spirits of wisdom teachers who had long ago departed this earth. Operating from her suburban lair near Washington, D.C., Burroughs tapped the manic energy that drives the over-achieving technocrats and hyperactive communicators who swarm through the bureaucratic warrens of the nation’s capital. Gifted with a knack for giving orders, Burroughs imposed heavy demands on her followers, pressing them into keeping a twenty-four hour world peace vigil that induced heavy competition among her devotees.
Burroughs’ transformation to Guru-hood was also accomplished with the aid of a Tibetan lama, who was wowed by her ability to maintain a stable of high-achieving, top-dollar donating students. Gyatrul Rinpoche, a Vajrayana teacher of the Nyingma sect who had established his own temple near Ashland, Oregon, endorsed Burroughs as a tulku, a reincarnated Bodhisattva, or “Hero of Enlightenment.” Burroughs saw the opening, and quickly negotiated a merger of her people skills with the established cachet of the two-thousand year-old Vajrayana brand, assuming the name of Jetsun Akhon Norbu Lhamo, and redecorating her temple with a blend of traditional Tibetan imagery and New Age crystals. “Jetsunma,” as she came to be familiarly known, assumed her place on the traditional lama’s throne, donned resplendent brocade robes, and doffed the peaked “lotus hat” that lamas wear on ceremonial occasions. The effect would have been silly if anyone with ordinary sensibilities had been able to view the proceedings; but by then the critical mass of Student-side TIDS sufferers had generated a field of delusive glamour, and Burroughs’ unabashed self-love conquered all hearts. For a while.
As her authority grew unchecked, her antisocial inclinations and intolerance with dissent waxed ever more virulent. Burroughs’ demands for money and power crescendoed in a rampage of bizarre behavior that included serial marriages to several students twenty years her junior, rapacious financial exploitation of her flock, and culminated in her arrest by the Maryland State Police for battery on a young nun. Shortly thereafter, Burroughs moved to Sedona, Arizona, and in almost clichéd fashion, Burroughs predicted a series of “earth catastrophes” that failed to take place in 1999.
Jones was once a handsome young writer with a Masters in English from Stanford. After serving his apprenticeship with the two tantric gurus Rudrananda and Muktananda, he assembled his own flock of sycophants. A prolific writer blessed with the gift of gab, Jones’ spiritual opus, “The Knee of Listening,” became a staple on the bookshelves of hippies inclined to philosophical nattering. Starting out in Los Angeles, he took advantage of the drug culture in the sixties to induct young, beautiful women into his cult. Jones’ story gives us insight into one of the important methods of inducing Student-side TIDS among followers. It is axiomatic that women will perceive any man as dominant who commands the devotion of all other men. Jones conquered women by surrounding himself with subservient male devotees. During all-night drug and drinking parties, Jones would deploy his male devotees to separate women from their boyfriends or husbands. Jones would then make his move on the new woman. By morning, she would have discovered a new form of bliss in the arms of the guru, and her ordinary lover would have his ego reduced to the size of a pin. Unable to leave his woman behind, and equally unable to argue her away from Jones, the cuckolded man would often become a new devotee. Thus Jones acquired two TIDS victims for the price of one.
In 1985, Jones’ abuse of his devotees exploded in the national press and a he settled a string of lawsuits that alleged what was widely-known in hippie society – that his “communities” were parasitic projects that enriched him with sex, money and power, leaving his devotees psychologically and financially deprived. He bought a small island in Fiji from actor Raymond Burr and moved there with a clutch of disciples whose fate it was to explore the heart of darkness.
Over the years, Jones extracted enough wealth from his devotees to sustain a remarkably self-indulgent lifestyle, toward the end of which he was able to pose as a visual artist who integrated digital photography with monumental aluminum installations that were displayed in Italy and praised by a stable of pet intellectuals in fatuous post-modern style: “It is Adi Da Samraj’s imaginative triumph to have conveyed the illusions created by discrepant points of view and the emotionally liberating effect when they aesthetically unite in the psyche of the shocked perceiver.”
Until the end of his life in November 2007, by way of singing for his supper, Jones continued to emit his original spiritual prose stylings: "I Am The Perfectly Subjective Divine Person, Self-Manifested As The Ruchira Avatar—Who Is The First, The Last, and The Only Adept-Realizer, Adept-Revealer, and Adept-Revelation of The Seventh Stage of Life.”
For several days after his death, Jones’ devotees entertained the notion that he might “wake up” from a fatal heart attack, a notion that they apparently abandoned reluctantly, presumably when the odor of putrefaction became evident. Even the most slavish student-side TIDS sufferers will be forced to admit, after a decent interval, that the guru’s shit admittedly stinks.
Student-side TIDS can develop after relatively brief immersion in a Tantric guru-student relationship. The roots of Student-side TIDS lie in the student’s feeling that they are missing out on the truly miraculous character of a world they believe exists, but are unable to contact. They may have experienced, through drugs, romantic adventures, travel or other emotional stimulants, a sense that life has occasionally parted the veil and allows them to glimpse a magical universe, and that if they could establish a connection with this other realm, they could escape the dull reality in which they feel themselves confined. Tantra is generally not for those students who are comfortable with sustained intellectual effort in pursuit of spiritual awareness. However, it often attracts those fond of mastering an arcane vocabulary, esoteric symbols, and a pantheon of gods and goddesses. Spiritual seekers drawn to tantra share some of the psychological traits of compulsive gamblers, who have an unshakeable faith in their unique luck, and a passionate desire to harvest outsized rewards.
Students of tantric teachers often suffer from a derogatory self-image, and seek to ally themselves with the glamour emanating from the guru. Inclined to believe in their own specialness, but convinced that they cannot achieve transcendence by their own efforts, they place their faith in esoteric traditions that hold the promise of revealing secret knowledge. Tantric teachers whipsaw students emotionally by alternately deriding them for their emotional and intellectual efforts, teasingly making a show of effortless transcendence, then accusing them savagely for being unable to make the petty sacrifices of time and money that would demonstrate the sincerity of their devotion. Tantric teachers also use standard methods of breaking down social conditioning and inducing dependence on the tantric teacher by requiring participation in lengthy rituals and practices, demanding that they render personal services to the teacher and his family, and doling out humiliation as if it were a blessing. Sleep deprivation and rote repetitions of ritual acts also serve to deaden mental acuity and induce an undiscerning mental state in which a fog of confusion can be recharacterized as a sense of removal from worldly attachment. In the tantric environment, all activities and events are re-imagined as sacred portents and harbingers of blessings or misfortune. Nothing that happens in the “mandala” is ever ordinary, thus life becomes charged with imputed significance.
The net result of the tantric milieu is to institutionalize a groupthink founded on individual helplessness and total dependence on the guru. Individually, this may deepen into self-hate, an obsession with the person of the guru, performance of acts of extreme self-sacrifice to obtain approval from the guru, and even the veneration of the guru's physical detritus, i.e., nail and hair clippings. Student-side TIDS may induce bouts of acute anxiety alternating with depression, episodic flights from reality characterized by transient ecstasy and self-deification, compulsive meditative or devotional behavior, and the nagging fear of damnation, referred to in tantric circles as "Vajra Hell."
Student-side TIDS also takes on various apparently benign forms, that manifest in persons with a bland personality or low intellectual vitality, who feel best when kept in a low position without hope of advancement. People who avoid challenges and suffer anxiety primarily when presented with changes of routine may find Student-side TIDS to be a perfect refuge from the rigors of ordinary life. When combined with the narcotic effect of mantra recitation and avoidance of troubling discursive thought, the result can be the formation of a personality happily uninterested in the various pursuits that comprise the elements of an ordinary, satisfying life, such as relationships with other people, having children, a satisfying career, or aesthetic and intellectual activities.
Transitional TIDS develops in some victims of Student-TIDS after a long period of earnest striving to earn the favor of the guru. Transitional TIDS emerges only when fertilized by encouragement from the guru, and is characterized by feelings of superiority, identification with the dominating image of the guru, and confidence that one will in fact attain guru status. Transitional-TIDS sufferers assume the role of go-betweens in the TIDS community, transmitting messages to and from the guru, arranging monetary transfers, and helping Student TIDS victims to establish their credentials. Transitional TIDS often manisfests in subtle and gross anti-social predatory behavior typical of those afflicted by Guru-TIDS. Transitional TIDS usually develops into a cyclic pattern in which the characteristics of Student-TIDS, i.e., ambitious hope and low self image, alternate with the manic character of Guru-TIDS, i.e., self-deification and megalomania, creating a alternating vortex of delusional activity that is manipulated by the guru to satisfy his or her own pathological whims.
Transitional TIDS sufferers, torn by the tension of alternating between ambition and hope on the one hand, and humilitation and despair on the other, often suffer from a suppression of affect that gives them a rigid, serious cast of mind. Transitional TIDS tends to extinguish the sense of humor, and victims of the intense mental division that characterizes this state of mind rarely smile or laugh except when the Guru makes a joke. They will often make attempts at humor that they believe reflect the Guru’s apparently spontaneous style, but such attempts usually fail, eliciting only false laughter from Student-side TIDS sufferers, who are attempting to curry favor from a higher-status devotee. Transitional TIDS sufferers thus are entombed in their personal rigidity and surrounded by a social environment of extreme conformity and predictability, a sort of frozen hell from which they gain a respite only during bouts of despondency and self-loathing.
Student-side TIDS is treatable if the victim can be removed from the TIDS-saturated environment and is engaged in extensive talk-therapy with persons who know nothing about the guru who is the focus of infatuation. For example, simply being put to work in a position involving manual labor, in the company of people who do not know or care about the guru, can be remarkably effective. The complete lack of responsiveness to discussion of the guru tends to give the TIDS-sufferer pause, as they realize that people can live not only without their guru, but without any guru whatsoever. Talk-therapy with people of a “spiritual” bent is, not surprisingly, generally unhelpful. The key to treatment, if a quick cure is desired, is simply to extract the victim from the environment, expose them to ordinary life, and allow their mind to recover from the continuous flow of obsessive guru-regard.
Transitional TIDS poses somewhat of a more difficult problem, but is treatable. The Transitional TIDS sufferer is much more likely to break out of their cycle through an explosion of anger when their hopes of achieving Guru-hood are suddenly exploded. Interestingly, gurus can provoke such occurrences by taxing a student’s loyalty to an extreme, suddenly breaking the illusion that the guru actually loves the student, leaving the student feeling extraordinarily bereft. Another exit point may appear when the Transitional TIDS victim hits a low point of disappointment, that may be provoked by an excessive humiliation at the hands of the Guru or one of his/her minions. Finally, jealousy may arise when a Transitional TIDS sufferer realizes that other people, less spiritual, less devoted, even less intelligent or sensistive to life, are having a wonderful time on a much smaller endowment of spiritual excitement.
Guru-side TIDS is of course, statistically a much rarer phenomenon than Student or Transitional-Side TIDS, and occasions for treatment are almost never presented. Further, by and large, the experience of Guru-side TIDS seems to spark little desire for change in the mind of the guru, and without that impetus, change is extremely unlikely.
In conclusion, while there are hopeful methods of treatment for Student-TIDS and Transitional TIDS, those afflicted with Guru-TIDS face a bleak diagnosis, because once a Tantric authority “recognizes” an individual’s Guru status, and students begin reinforcing it, a self-reinforcing delusional system is established from which anecdotal evidence indicates there is no exit. Indeed, because enabling the Guru’s pathology is the central rationale for the TIDS-powered community, it sets up a perpetual-motion machine that defies the erosion of popularity that even pop stars and first-tier Hollywood actors suffer. If we were sufficiently cynical, we might entertain the notion that Gurus have somehow achieved an enviable position, but then we would be obliged to elevate tapeworms and ticks to a position higher on the evolutionary ladder.