The history of the New Kadampa Tradition’s ‘cult’ smear, Part 3

February 13, 2009

For previous installments:

The history of the New Kadampa Tradition’s ‘cult’ smear, Part 1
The history of the New Kadampa Tradition’s ‘cult’ smear, Part 2

In 1997, the Dalai Lama himself, in a book published in the French language, openly called Geshe Kelsang a cult leader and improbably accused him of thirsting for power. From La Force du Bouddhisme by the Dalai Lama and Jean-Claude Carrière, pp 19-20:

Dalai Lama: …at the moment in England, a well-educated lama is behaving like a true cult leader.

Jean-Claude Carrière: A fundamentalist lama ?

DL : Whatever… he’s banned all my books, all contact with me, all images of the Dalai Lama. He accuses me of this and that. His faithful, a few thousand people, are only allowed to read his books, to display and venerate his photograph, and so on… But there you go, it’s only human. We are either all alike or all different. If our differences get the upper hand, then each individual can mark out their own territory of truth and cling to it with all their might.

J-CC Sometimes to the death…, their own or others’.

DL : Yes, that is the way we are made. On top of that there is the thirst for power, which is invariably corrupting.

(For a refutation of these allegations, which are the same as those in the Guardian and Independent articles, see:

Smear: NKT has no pictures of the Dalai Lama in their Centers
Smear: NKT sells only Geshe Kelsang’s books
Smear: Geshe Kelsang calls himself ‘the Third Buddha’ and seeks veneration from his students

In this book the Dalai Lama did not mention Geshe Kelsang by name, but this happened in an article called A Case to Study. Ostensibly authored by Tenzin Ragyal, the document was issued directly from the Office of the Dalai Lama in Dharamasala and it was understood that the Dalai Lama intended to have its contents promulgated.

The article is a crude propaganda attack on Je Phabongkhapa Dechen Nyingpo, accusing him and those in this lineage of being fanatically sectarian. (It is a shock when one first realizes that the Dalai Lama is actually publishing criticism of his own lineage Gurus.)

Here is the extract labelling Geshe Kelsang as a cult leader:

“It is in everybody’s interest to take a strong and appropriate stand and not to remain indifferent on the activities of Phabongkha’s followers and their cult groups and leaders like, e.g. NKT leader Geshe (self-styled) Kelsang Gyatso in England, Serkong Thritrul in Taiwan, Gangchen Lama in Italy, Drakgom Tulku in Nepal, Dema Gonsar in Tibet, Gonsar Rinpoche in Swiss and Dorje Shugden Society in India and Nepal etc.

The primary objective in providing this information is not to dig out what has happened in the past. It is to draw attention to the fact that even today, in this period of global religious harmony, some short-sighted and narrow-minded people and groups are actively adopting the path of fanaticism and religious intolerance. It is a task and responsibility of all of us to strongly discourage and act against such forms of religious intolerance and fanaticism.”

It is ironic that, in this call to arms, Tenzin Ragyal talks about “a period of global religious harmony” — considering that the purpose of the article is to destroy that harmony by defaming precious Gelugpa Lamas, accusing them of sectarianism and intolerance simply because they wish to practice within their own tradition. The supposed non-sectarianism of the accusers has become a source of self-justification and led to the actual closed off, fanatical, and intolerant attitudes towards so-called sectarians which we are seeing here.

Many Tibetan Buddhists have since heeded this call to arms, attempting to interfere with the development of the NKT and other groups who practice Dorje Shugden by defacing publicity, contacting locations where classes are being held in an attempt to get them canceled, and so on.

Cult Mystery? ~ The Newsweek Article

This propaganda was followed up by what, to this day, is one of the most damaging articles published in the press about the NKT and Dorje Shugden. Whereas only Tibetan Buddhists and interested parties were likely to see the Sera-Je Explusion letter from 1996, the Dalai Lama chose to attack Geshe Kelsang and the NKT using a very high profile and well respected weekly magazine.

On 28th April 1997, an article entitled Cult Mystery? by Tony Clifton was published in Newsweek. This was a stinging, unprovoked attack by the Dalai Lama and Robert Thurman, seemingly in retaliation for the embarrassment that Geshe Kelsang had caused the Dalai Lama in the previous year.

The cult smear, while in the title, is also prevalent throughout the entire article. Here are the relevant quotes:

“In the last year the Dalai Lama has retaliated, denouncing one Shugden order in particular as a hostile and crass, commercial cult

“And in an interview with NEWSWEEK earlier this month, the Dalai Lama expressed his worries about the Dorje Shugden. “That cult is actually destroying the freedom of religious thought,” he said. “Say I want to practice Nyingma. They say this Protector will harm me. Now, that’s an obstacle to religious freedom. I am trying to promote the tradition of coexistence, but the Shugdens say you should not even touch a Red Hat document. That teaching totally contradicts my efforts.”

“The split grew angry early last year. The Dalai Lama issued a call to all Tibetan Buddhists to avoid the Shugdens. He warned against the cult’s extremism and against public worship of their idol. Soon after, the NKT in London claimed that the Dalai Lama’s remarks had inspired Tibetans to harass Shugden followers in Dharmsala.”

“It’s the fastest growing Buddhist sect in Britain, where it now has about 3,000 members, a thriving publishing business in London and mansions that double as “Dharma Centers” all over the country. It has also been denounced by the London press and the Dalai Lama as a cult that fleeces its own followers.”

“Shugden appeals to crazies by offering instant gratification,” says Thurman. “Once you get involved, you’re told you have to devote your lives to the cult, because the god gets very angry if you don’t attend to him every day. It’s really bad stuff, the way they’re draining money out of people.”

The article contains numerous smears on Dorje Shugden and the NKT. What is interesting is that it is unclear whether “cult” is supposed to refer to the NKT or to Shugden worship – but the effect of blurring the line is to condemn both.

The article also contains the notorious Thurman quote:

“It would not be unfair to call Shugdens the Taliban of Tibetan Buddhism.”

Robert Thurman has never been to an NKT Center nor spent time with an NKT practitioner. He invented bitter nonsense to defend the Dalai Lama, upon whom his own reputation and career depends.

Geshe Kelsang wrote a long factual response to Newsweek refuting the points of the article called False Accusations Against the Innocent. However, given the power of the Dalai Lama’s words and the fervour with which they are believed and upheld, not only in the Buddhist world but in the world in general, the damage was done. This combined with the Sera Expulsion Letter cemented in the minds of many Tibetan Buddhists the belief that the NKT was a cult. 1996 and 1997 were bad times for the NKT. Brave as they were to stand up to the Dalai Lama, their actions were misconstrued and the unfair smear of their being a cult began.

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The history of the New Kadampa Tradition’s ‘cult’ smear, Part 2

February 8, 2009

This article continues to explain the historical and political context in which the NKT got the label “cult” from its critics. For Part 1, click here.

Battle of the Buddhists

A week after Madeline Bunting’s Guardian article, Andrew Brown’s “Battle of the Buddhists” appeared in The Independent (15 July 1996). Both these articles quickly made it onto the official Government of Tibet in Exile website, where they remain to this day as a well consulted source of misinformation – misinformation that has clearly prejudiced both Tibetans and Westerners against the New Kadampa Tradition and made its way onto any number of websites and blogs.

In Brown’s article, the term ‘cult of Shugden’ is used three times, all in factually challenged claims:

“Only monks can be initiated into the cult of Shugden, and only a minority of those actually are”

“To be initiated into the cult of Shugden involves a contractual relationship with this terrifying deity.”

“In arguing against the cult, and trying to suppress it within his monasteries, the Dalai Lama is not just making a theological point, but a political one.”

As one recent academic puts it in his paper, talking about the so-called “cult of Shugden”:

“It should be noted that the word ‘cult’ has a different connotation among academic circles than it does in contemporary parlance. Colloquially, cult is commonly used in a derogatory fashion to denote a religious group that is considered to be unorthodox, extreme, or false compared to conventional society. In the language of religious studies, cult is a neutral term that refers to a locus of religious practice in the form of liturgies and ceremonies; it is the system of rites and activities that are directed at a specific object. In this sense, one could refer to a cult of Avalokiteshvara, a cult of the book, and the goddess’s cult. In the case of Dorje Shugden, this is an important distinction to make because practitioners of this deity have been accused of being part of a cult in the popular negative sense of the word. This is not a sentiment that I share, so it is necessary to clarify that my use of the word cult is strictly academic in meaning.”

However, Brown’s article unabashedly and without any evidence used the term “cult” in its derogatory sense, and this set the tone for others to start calling Shugden practitioners and, by extension, NKT practitioners members of a “cult”. Brown’s article was likewise openly disbelieving and disparaging of the Shugden Supporters Community, the New Kadampa Tradition, and Geshe Kelsang Gyatso. The tone of the article was considered by many to be condescending and scornful. According to a Shugden Supporters’ Spokesperson who was present at Brown’s interview with Geshe Kelsang, Brown was patronizing and distrustful from the outset and barely made a pretence of listening to Geshe Kelsang’s answers. He also mentioned that he was a close colleague of Madeline Bunting and that he found her findings to be fair.

(Even as recently as April 2006 Madeleine Bunting bought up the subject again, talking about how Easter “has prompted Andrew Brown and myself to want to examine why it is that after stints as religious affairs reporters in the 1990s, both of us still find ourselves drawn to writing about the subject.“ Referring to that time, she says:

“… even gentle Buddhism managed to generate its own scandal: a fierce break away cult of Tibetan Buddhism campaigning against the Dalai Lama. That led to long and bewildering explanations from His Holiness involving oracles, dreams, divination from dough balls and I think even some headless chickens – or was that one of our jokes?”

However, any bewilderment at the Dalai Lama’s explanations felt at the time by Madeleine Bunting or Andrew Brown did not make it into print.)

The Establishment Strikes Back

So far in these proceedings, the Dalai Lama, who after all was the subject of the SSC’s campaign, was silent about the New Kadampa Tradition itself. This did not last long. The Dalai Lama’s retribution was swift and came from an unexpected quarter. In Autumn 1996, out of the blue, appeared the “Sera Expulsion Letter” signed by fifteen abbots wherein Geshe Kelsang was ‘expelled’ from his old monastery, Sera-Je. This letter came after a series of death threats and other warnings had been issued against Geshe Kelsang.

The rhetoric of the letter is hostile and an attempt to ‘punish’ Geshe Kelsang. There are also echoes of Bunting’s and Brown’s misstatements throughout. Some extracts from this letter:

“We sincerely hope that the cult leader and his fanatical supporters go through this and think twice before their vitriolic outpourings on the holy person of the Dalai Lama. We believe you would trust the Chinese version more than ours and because of this we took the liberty to quote from the Chinese communist periodical. It would be even better if you would care to go through the whole article and you will be surprised that even the Chinese communists have far greater respect for the Dalai Lama than cult leader Kelsang Gyatso and his cultists in Cumbria, England!!!”

…all these years he has been stashing away the millions of pounds extracted from his credulous disciples for his own insatiable greed. He has only recently renewed his contact with his house (Sera Jhe, Tsangpa House) and asked young monk’s photos to be sent. But most of the monks from the Tsangpa Khangtsen already knew the sacrilege he was committing by banning the photos of the Dalai Lama and even the utterance of his name in the premises of his cult kingdom.

The motivation behind this act was, he was now planning to wean away innocent, unsuspecting, young minds towards his cultist school called the “New Kadampa Tradition” which imposes a ban on Tibet’s Spiritual and Temporal leader the Dalai Lama and thus undermine his authority even in the exile community.

But of course all those are forgotten as a bad dream by cult leader Kelsang as he is now basking in the glory of the “third Buddha”.

But with Kalsang anything goes, after all he is the “third buddha” in the British Isles. What’s more, if any one disagrees with his “pure” cult, he gets the boot.

(All these accusations are addressed in New Kadampa Truth website.)

It seems clear from this letter that the Tibetan Government in Exile’s intention is to identify Geshe Kelsang as being a cult leader and the New Kadampa Tradition as being a cult. Nothing happens in Tibetan society without the Dalai Lama’s orders or permission. Either the Dalai Lama was behind this letter or the Sera Je Abbots were currying favor with him by attacking his “enemy”.

Part Three can be found here.


The history of the New Kadampa Tradition’s ‘cult’ smear, Part 1

February 5, 2009

“Cult” can be an innocuous word, when for example it refers to “a particular system of religious worship” or “an instance of great veneration of a person, ideal or thing e.g. the physical fitness cult.” But in the case of some NKT detractors, the word “cult” is used to mean something along the lines of: “a religion or sect considered to be false, unorthodox or extremist, with members often living outside of conventional society under the direction of a charismatic leader.” (All definitions taken from Random House dictionary).

As it says on the New Kadampa Truth website:

The NKT is not a cult but a Mahayana Buddhist tradition. Since the NKT follows only the Mahayana teachings of the great Buddhist Masters Atisha (982-1054 AD) and Je Tsongkhapa (1357-1419 AD) , which are traced back to Buddha Shakyamuni himself (500 BC), it is neither false nor unorthodox.

Its Internal Rules – containing numerous checks and balances on the behavior, election and dismissal of the administrators, teachers, and spiritual directors – also guard against any extreme behavior and are legally binding.

Given the general public’s justified distaste for cults, proclaiming a tradition to be “a cult” is an easy, lazy way to induce doubt and fear in their minds. So we have decided to tackle the “cult” word more fully. Hopefully it’ll result in some thoughtful discussion about whether the NKT deserves this label or not.

Being accused of being a cult by someone who dislikes you is similar to being asked if you are still beating your wife every night. No matter what is said or not said in defence, the insinuation remains that you beat your wife. For simply addressing this topic, the NKT may be accused by the same detractors of being defensive (“they wouldn’t need to defend themselves if they weren’t in fact a cult!”); but we will take that risk. From the faultfinders’ point of view, we’re damned if we defend ourselves and damned if we don’t. Why not just ignore them? Because people surfing the Internet sometimes encounter the allegation that the NKT is a cult and then assume that the person who said this somehow knows something that they do not. They may then believe this and either stay away from the NKT or, if they are already in the NKT, anxiously ask themselves, “Oh no, am I in a cult?!”

In all cases, we ask that people judge based on their own experience of having met NKT teachers, teachings and communities rather than automatically believe what others might say on the Internet. We would also ask that people apply an equally healthy level of inquiry into the possible motives of NKT detractors, some of whom have an interest in seeing the NKT damaged or even destroyed. This can be seen in this article, which will explain the historical and political context in which the NKT originally got slapped with this misnomer.

The background to the conflict: Shugden Supporters’ Society vs. the Tibetan establishment

So where did the idea that the NKT is a cult originate? We need to go back to 1996 and an article in the UK newspaper The Guardian. This article was written by Madeleine Bunting about the storm brewing over the Dorje Shugden issue because the Dalai Lama had, that year, openly declared his opposition to the practice of the this Buddhist Protector Deity. The Dalai Lama’s hostility to the practice had been an open secret in Tibetan exile society since the 1970s, and especially since the death of his teacher and famous Dorje Shugden proponent Kyabje Trijang Rinpoche in 1981. However, it wasn’t until 1996 that the rest of the world became aware of the issue.

In March 1996, the Dalai Lama announced a ban against the worship of the Buddhist Deity Dorje Shugden, declaring that such worship posed a “danger to his life and the cause of Tibet.” The exile government then began to enforce this ban. Houses were searched, statues destroyed, and lay and ordained practitioners coerced into signing their name, agreeing to abandon all worship of this Deity. Those refusing to sign were openly declared to be enemies to the cause of Tibet and endangering the life of the Dalai Lama. The consequences were dire for those who stood by their faith: employees of the exile government were fired and children of Dorje Shugden practitioners were expelled from school. Even the constitution of the exile government was adapted to this change of policy: “The presiding judge of the Judiciary Commission … must not be a worshipper of Gyalchen Shugden …”

Many Tibetan Lamas fell in line with the Dalai Lama and many more felt powerless to take action because their lives or livelihoods would be jeopardized. There were a few notable exceptions, most prominently Geshe Kelsang Gyatso, a sincere disciple of Trijang Rinpoche who had been resident and teaching in England since 1977. In 1991, he founded the New Kadampa Tradition, a Mahayana Buddhist tradition founded on the teachings of Buddha Shakyamuni, Atisha and Je Tsongkhapa transmitted to him by his own Gelug tradition teachers. Upon hearing the news that the Dalai Lama had banned the practice of Dorje Shugden and that various kinds of religious oppression were being visited on sincere practitioners in India, as well as upon receiving direct requests from distraught practitioners in India to help with the issue, he formed an organization called the Shugden Supporters Community (SSC). The Dalai Lama visited England in 1996 to give public talks and, when several letters to him had failed to garner any response, Dorje Shugden supporters engaged in protests and prayer vigils against his ban with placards such as “Your Smiles Charm, Your Actions Harm”, requesting him to restore religious freedom to Shugden practitioners.

The Press (over) reacts

Geshe Kelsang and the SSC always made it clear that they had nothing against the Dalai Lama himself and were solely opposing his ban of Shugden practice. However, such an event as the conflict between the Shugden Supporter’s Community and the Dalai Lama had never occurred in the Western Buddhist community before. The Dalai Lama, who had won the Nobel Peace Prize in 1989 for his non-violent opposition to the Chinese, was widely respected in the West and held to be a paragon of virtue, the most famous Buddhist on the planet, presiding over the beleaguered Shangri-la, Tibet. He had never been questioned before. His authority and opinions had never been challenged by Tibetans (or most Westerners) in 58 years of rule.
In this ‘David versus Goliath’ conflict, it is perhaps no wonder the bemused Western (and especially UK) press had difficulty in accepting the claims of the SSC and therefore researching those claims; and in those days there was far less possibility of offering evidence of persecution or balancing news out through the Internet. Buddhism was widely held to be a peace-loving religion where no one would ‘rock the boat’; and now large groups of saffron robed demonstrators were calling out the Dalai Lama in public, asking him to give religious freedom.

One journalist of a major English newspaper warned a Shugden Supporters’ spokesperson (who was a schoolfriend):

“No one will touch this or research it. It is taboo in the media to say anything less than saintly about the Dalai Lama, Mother Theresa or Nelson Mandela.”

Given the Dalai Lama’s high, positive media profile, the London media’s reaction was perhaps not surprising – they turned against the protesters and wrote articles that spun the SSC and the NKT in a very bad light, and let the Dalai Lama and Tibetan government in exile completely off the hook.

At the time, and looking back now, it is clear to anyone who knows about the situation how prejudiced UK newspaper reports of the dispute were, and how they failed to do any real research or ask questions of those suffering in India, preferring to rely only on the words of the Dalai Lama and Tibetan government in exile. It is also somewhat shocking that, in a free society, this didn’t raise any alarm bells at the time. If the guiding principles of journalism are equality and neutrality, two UK newspaper articles in particular fell very short. They were undisguisedly prejudiced in favor of the Dalai Lama and against Geshe Kelsang Gyatso, opinionated, and full of unsubstantiated gossip.

Madeleine Bunting has never hidden her own natural bias in favor of the Dalai Lama. As one example, in 1999 she said in a newspaper article called “Buddha’s Humble Servant”: “I booked tickets for myself, friends and relatives for Wembley [teachings with the Dalai Lama] months ago. …. I recognised him as holier than anyone I’d met before.” She is free to her own opinion but, unfortunately for the New Kadampa Tradition and journalistic integrity, she made no responsible effort to put her own opinions aside and offer a more neutral, factual point of view when writing about him and the worsening situation in India in 1996. She made the whole story about the New Kadampa Tradition.

It was Madeleine Bunting — in her article, Shadow Boxing on the Path to Nirvana of 9th July 1996 in The Guardian — who was the first person to mention the ‘cult’ word in relation to the NKT. From a conversation with an anonymous Buddhist teacher, Bunting quoted:

“A lot of young people go into the NKT from a drug-orientated life and find the emotional force of the cult is tremendously compelling.”

And there it began.

Part Two
Part Three
Part Four


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