Remembering Jonestown:
A Homage to the Dead, a Prayer for the Living

(This article was originally published here in November 2008 on the website for the Zen Buddhist Order of Hsu Yen. It is reprinted with permission.)

Dear Lord, let me not be a follower of people
But a follower of Your Light

Dear Lord, let me not lay judgment on others
But seek understanding and compassion

Dear Lord, let me not stray from Your Sight
But should I falter, may Your Grace draw me back

November 18, 2008 marked 30 years since Jim Jones and his followers created one of the most horrific tragedies against humanity in recorded history: the slaughter of hundreds of men, women, and children of all ages: death by poison. Some took their own lives willingly after killing their children first. Others, more hesitant, were killed by their family members by forced injections of cyanide. There was widespread belief that many of those who failed to die from poison or who tried to escape were shot instead, but only two people were found with lethal bullet wounds: Annie Moore, who left behind a suicide note; and Jim Jones himself. Images of the aftermath of the slaughter were too horrific for us to comprehend. There was no way for us to make sense of what the media was telling us. And showing us.

Today it is still just as hard to wrap our minds around what happened. Why did it happen? It’s easy to look at this tragedy as a fluke: “It could never happen to me” we say. “Never would I have been a member of such a cult. Those people were surly not sane people.”

Maybe we’re right. But maybe we’re wrong.

What is it about us humans that we seek, with such ferocity, to belong to a group, to the extent that some of us will believe whatever we are told to believe for the sake of the group? We put our own identity aside in favor of the group’s identity. That’s what we saw in the Peoples Temple of Jim Jones in the extreme, and it led to mass suicide and murder.

Are we all susceptible of “losing ourselves to the mob”?

I think it is a potential, at least, that we are. And I think we must be extraordinarily watchful of our own tendencies to identify with groups of all kinds, not just religious groups. If we reflect on the evolution of our species, it involved the close inter-dependence of individuals within the group for survival. We are here today for the simple reason that we instinctually identify with the group – an instinct we inherited from our ancestors who survived precisely because it aided their survival. There’s no reason to think that just because we’ve become “civilized” over the last few hundreds – or thousands – of years that this instinct has disappeared. Such primal survival instincts evolve over millions of years, not thousands.

And if we look closer, we can see ourselves living out this very group-identification instinct in many ways. Although we may not be a member of a religious cult, are we a member of a political party with which we identify strongly? Are we members of a church in which we feel so strongly that we would, silently or vocally, shun those who are not members, or at the least, try to convert them to join up? Do we not join the military to “fight for our country” by putting our own lives in the line of fire for the cause of the group – our country – killing those who oppose our country, our group?

I don’t intend to delve into this topic in great depth, for it is likely a bottomless pit that I could not climb out of … but it is valuable to see the bigger picture. An event like the Jonestown massacre, or the Nazi concentration camps, help us to remember that we are all potentially susceptible to being drawn into a situation where we commit horrible acts against ourselves and against others.

It’s critically important that we watch for signs along the way if we want to keep ourselves out of trouble. The concern isn’t whether or not we can or should belong to a group, but we should always ask ourselves if it is a group with sound moral, social, and ethical principles. Does the group exist for the sake of the group, or for the sake of the individuals in it? The moment a group exists to serve itself, it’s time to depart and blow the whistle. Several of those in Jonestown did just that and were able to escape the compound shortly before the massacre.

Many of the followers of Peoples Temple had so strongly identified with the group that they were ready and willing to kill themselves, their children, and their parents. Obedience to the group, for them, had become blind obedience. We must never allow ourselves to become blind. Our eyes must penetrate this tremendous force – this instinct – hardwired in our psyche that encourages us to join a group and follow-the-leader. That is the only way we can be assured of not falling into a pit we can’t climb out of. We must stop before we fall in.

The people living in the community of Jonestown were ordinary people like you and me. People with ideals of helping others, of sharing their goods with those in need. They worked together to build houses and clinics and schools. They shared in each other’s joys and sorrows. They were good people who died a tragic death, a death that happened because many of them had closed their eyes to themselves. They lost sight of the sacred nature of life. When we lose this sight, we lose our humanity. Can there be any greater loss?

What can we do to prevent ourselves from inadvertently falling into the darkness, that darkness that led to the Jonestown massacre? We can be cautious when joining groups of any kind. And if we do join a group, we can ask ourselves some crucial questions:

Does the group exist principally to serve itself?

Does the leader denigrate other groups or other individuals?

Does the leader seek control over the group by threats, violence, or public humiliation of its congregants?

Does the leader elevate himself or herself over the group with self-proclaimed “higher levels of understanding,” or spiritual attainment?

Or …

Does the group provide a service for the greater good of humanity?

Does the group seek to serve even those who are not members of the group?

Does the group allow congregants to leave as freely as they came?

Does the leader serve with humility and compassion?

The decision is always ours – how we choose to live our lives, how we choose to treat others, how we choose to treat ourselves. We can make those choices based on our sense of connection to humanity, or we can make those choices based on our desire for disassociation from it. One way leads to freedom, the other to entrapment. Utopia exists not in a communal enclave, but within our very own skin. As hard as we may try to look outward to find it, we never will find it there. It’s in the opposite direction. In our own hearts.

Where we look, is where we go.