When I was younger - a lot younger - a previous lifetime, in fact - I spent a lot of time in one of the most famous Buddhist temples in Tibet. At first I mostly just lay around in the sunlight and chased crickets, but after a while I found myself becoming interested in some of the discussions the monks around me were having, in their open-air debates where they would jump around in their robes clapping their hands at key moments. I started hanging out with some of them and got in on some of their discussions. I learned to meditate, and I learned their debating style - where my jumping skills were much admired. While I could not commit to a vegetarian diet (look it up), I fit in with the monks in every other way.
Those were heady days. While we weren’t meditating in silence, we were engaged in heated discussions about the Big Issues: Life, death, free will, identity... I learned more in my years with those monks than in any other period in my lives, before or since. It wasn’t long though, before signs of friction emerged between my group of passionate young monks and the temple’s leadership and the other monks. We were young and we cared about everything very deeply, and so we questioned everything. We viewed the other young monks as more complacent, more concerned with gaining the approval of their teachers and the higher-order monks than with really grappling with these issues, with really discerning what was true.
Eventually, a group of us decided that we would split off and form our own order. This was no easy business, as the Buddhist hierarchy in Tibet is very rigid and adheres to strict rules regarding such things. Our request to establish a new order was declined, and being the rebellious young monks that we were, we took this as confirmation that we must indeed form our own order, by whatever means necessary.
It wasn’t easy. We gathered our meagre belongings and headed to a remote valley where we camped out in an abandoned old monastery. We sought donations from local villagers, who were very generous with food and blankets, and we started our own vegetable garden. They were some of the most difficult years of my life, and yet some of the most rewarding.
After a while though, something started to happen. None of us were immediately aware of it - in fact it is only in hindsight that I can say when I think it began to happen, which I believe was around the time of our first springtime in our new home. We had not yet been there a full year. Looking back, it’s easy to see how it all happened, but when one is in the middle of such things everything is less clear.
What happened was this: Slowly, and over time, those ideas and principles that we had been so eager to explore became less subjects for inquiry and more articles of dogma. This dogma we used against one another in a kind of spiritual one-upmanship wherein all of a sudden maintaining one’s own identity as someone well-learned, even erudite, had become all important.
Our arguments lost their joy and passion for learning, for exploring, for seeking the truth - and became instead a ground for proving oneself, for clinging to one’s territory, for maintaining the unspoken hierarchy that had developed among us. They began to take on the slightest whiff of threat.
In this environment, it was no longer safe to tread out to the very edges of truth and knowledge. What became safe was to repeat what had already been established within the group as “truth.” Better yet, to be the first to articulate it in a new and clever way. This became the new game: How to not only fit in to the group, but fit in in a way that set yourself apart from the others... just not too far apart.
What had happened to our little group was this: We had recreated the same hierarchy and authoritarian structure that we had sought to escape when we left the monastery. And in recreating that hierarchy, we created something that fit very well with that hierarchy: GroupThink.
Of course GroupThink can arise when any number of people come together, hierarchy or not. And our hierarchy was subtle, unspoken. Which perhaps made the power of the group’s opinion all the more threatening. It took a while before I caught on to what was happening. For a long time I didn’t say anything, only tried to comprehend what was going on. But when Yak-Nose (all of the monks had endearing nicknames for each other) was exiled from the group because he had insisted on delving deeper into the true meaning of “kindness”, I had had enough. I packed my things and I left, wary for a very long time of putting in with any kind of group at all.
So what did I learn from this experience? Well, obviously I saw the harm that GroupThink can do, the way it can shut down genuine inquiry, declare certain questions to be out of bounds. I saw the way it halted growth, the way it got people to simply run around in the same circles, expressing the same thoughts, perhaps in different ways but never really expanding their understanding, never stepping into new territory. Perhaps most worrying, I saw how it allowed the members of my group to believe that anything - really, anything - could be considered acceptable, even good and decent, as long as the rest of the group thought it so.
It’s been a long time since I split up with my little group of monks. And I’ve seen my own experience mirrored over and over again over more lifetimes and many decades, in different countries, different times, different circumstances, but often with the same sad phenomenon: That the people living in those countries and those times don’t even realize that they have participated in something ghastly until it is all over.
So what did I learn? I learned about the dangers of letting the group do your thinking for you. But more than that, I learned just how easy it is, how insidiously easy, for the viper that is GroupThink to slip into any group, no matter how well-intentioned, no matter how “enlightened.” I’ve learned that any one of us could fall victim to it and perhaps not even be aware that we have stopped thinking until it is too late.
Krishna Purr is a world-renowned spiritual teacher and speaker. One of his early lives was spent in Tibet as a temple cat, and he is the first non-human to have been awarded the “geshe” degree. He left Tibetan Buddhism in his third lifetime, to study Zen Buddhism in Northeastern Japan - which he prefers to Tibetan Buddhism, he says, because “rocks are hard.” He is best known as spiritual advisor to Urban Yogini. Krishna Purr is currently in his fifth or maybe sixth incarnation.