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

“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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12 Responses to The history of the New Kadampa Tradition’s ‘cult’ smear, Part 1

  1. […] quote from the article: The history of the New Kadampa Tradition’s ‘cult’ smear Being accused of being a cult by someone who dislikes you is similar to being asked if you are […]

  2. wisdomfire says:

    This is a great article and I’m very happy that you will be publishing a series of articles about the ‘cult’ smear here. Thank you!

  3. dorjeshugdentruth says:

    Nice work! It’s about time that people were told where this idea that ‘NKT is a cult’ came from. The Dalai Lama has a lot of responsibility for this one. I guess what he cannot control, he needs to destroy. I remember the ‘Newsweek’ article from 1998 and was shocked that he and Robert Thurman were so aggressive against Shugden practitioners in general and the NKT in particular. I hope you will cover that in future articles.

  4. Gail says:

    Thank you for this great article.

    The strange, warped Bunting article (and also the cynical Andrew Brown article in the Independent) always felt a bit like “shooting the messenger” and covering the journalists’ own backs.

    It must have felt unbearable to these UK journalists to even acknowledge that their perfect Dalai Lama might have made a mistake. They probably felt far more comfortable and in their element to try and utterly discredit those who were trying to bring this grave error to light rather than be the first to cast doubt on this untouchable being.

    These journalists probably weren’t spinning the facts and misinforming the public deliberately — they just couldn’t make that mental paradigm shift to support the underdog back in 1996 when the NKT were barely known and had no status in comparison to the Dalai Lama. As your article states, one journalist at the time confided:

    “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.”

    To give the NKT fair hearing would have diminished the journalists’ own status, or so they may have thought.

  5. Felix Pace says:

    Seeing this history is really helpful and important. For people like myself, who came into the NKT a few years after the Bunting article, we have no direct experience of a time before the NKT was an object of criticism. I had no idea that Bunting was the first one to use this term “cult”, but it really shows how capricious and insubstantial this designation is. One journalist, playing fast and loose with her language, and stirring up a dramatic story, ends up inaugurating a whole campaign of abuse against the NKT. It’s quite admirable of Geshe-la, given the context, to have taken up the challenge of confronting the Dalai Lama.

  6. Lyara says:

    Felix, I was around at the time, and I couldn’t agree with you more that Geshe-la’s behavior was admirable. Actually, it was exceedingly brave. He stood up to the establishment in which he grew up and fought for the underdog.

    I don’t think people always understand what sacrifices he was and is still prepared to take to protect religious freedom and preserve the tradition of Je Tsongkhapa and the lineage Gurus. Certainly, he is prepared to have a bad reputation, be outcast from the society of his peers, and even receive death threats that mean he has to keep his whereabouts hidden probably forever. He said in a recent Festival that he was prepared to die for this tradition (like King Yeshe O).

    History, I believe, will show that Geshe Kelsang has been heroic, deeply compassionate and in possession of incredible integrity. He has never acted immorally or with a worldly motivation and has stayed positive and courageous throughout these last decades, taking on the personal responsibility, the burden, of preserving the Kadampa tradition passed to him by his root Guru Trijang Dorjechang despite the maelstrom of Tibetan politics.

    Due to this admirable and inspiring behavior, the Kadampa Tradition of Je Tsongkhapa will be able to flourish long after today’s politics have burned out.

  7. […] The history of the New Kadampa Tradition’s ‘cult’ smear, Part 1 The history of the New Kadampa Tradition’s ‘cult’ smear, Part 2 […]

  8. Steve Rogers says:

    I totally agree with what Lyara says. Geshe-la lost friends, reputation and safety – it was a most honourable sacrifice. Looking at the current degenerate, corrupt, anti-truth, anti-wisdom, anti-compassionate, illiberal state of the Dalai Lama’s project to remake Buddhism, I’m relieved he did. Every person who repudiated Dorje Shugden, and especially every teacher, damaged the Dharma and if there had been no-one left to stand up for the truth we could have turned the lights out and gone home. The Ganden oral tradition is worth dedicating ourselves to, as is democracy in the mundane realm, and both are trampled by the Dalai Lama’s paranoid fascism. I am not being insulting here – these are the words I truly believe represent his actions. I am sorry that he has lost his humanity under the stress of losing Tibet and being worshipped by the ignorant West, and wish him a peaceful time in the future, when he can stop doing wrong and regain his real happiness.

  9. Steve Rogers says:

    I think your ideas are very clever and wise, Extremador. Well done for pointing out something so important. And I can clearly see that everyone whether inside or outside the NKT practice has a responsibility to ensure that all other beings know they are free. Without that knowledge, their karma will never be exhausted. Thank you again for your words! 🙂

  10. Extremador says:

    Was what I said deleted? Anyway I cant remember what I said but I am finding online that most religions are smearing each other as cults. There is a lot of problems in the world of spirituality in general. Im reading a book where in the 1800s protestants were accusing catholics of using brainwashing & fanatical behaviour to force people to convert. There must be a traditional Buddhist text that denotes what specific behaviours come from self cherishing & self grasping in a clear set of outlines. Ie what are the extremes & mistakes people can make when they are beginners in religion. There is a reason why a high percentage of the population decided religion isnt for them. If we can identify this then it could be very beneficial for people. Perhaps they would say hey Buddhism has hit the nail on the head those guys understand these things! It could inspire many people.

    This fear of religion is coming from somewhere this ridiculous situation where people are paranoid to look into religion needs addressing. I wasnt interested in these issues at all until I started working hard on cherishing others. Now the issues affecting others & blocking them from enjoying a spiritual life have become important to me. Now is the time to address this. Whilst we have mass communication we can help so many peoples faith in spirituality be restored with just a few words. Then people will begin to really blossom in this world & get confidence in attending religious places & feel positive about spiritual goals.

  11. hulio says:

    Please everyone understand the important thing is may we become buddhas for the benefit of all. NKT or any form of real buddhism is totally unselfish, love is real and real love comes from regarding others first. Yes I am a practising Buddhist, but the clue is in practising…. To achieve all that the the Blessed Buddhas wanted us to achieve is so hard thats why so many people practise Buddhism……Please regard others first and let true love flow. I am a simple man with a family, and a sangha, and I treasure my three jewels but please dont be blinded by this cult label. True NKT is about others,, and from that, the benefit for your own mind will arise, and subsequently you yourself will benefit others.Don’t be scared to let go to your mind. Does it control you or through practise can you control your mind? Find your local centre and experience the true love and fellowship that buddhism offers through meditation and peace…………… and no I ain’t a hippy!!

  12. QG says:

    It’s too easy to accuse anyone you dislike of being in a cult, but to properly assess the danger we must carefully look at their merits.

    When people freely give their assent, the essence of democracy, in order to bring about a positive change or improvement in themselves there is very little danger from actually being a cult because their actions are powered purely by positive intentions.

    However if people are coerced, threatened with retaliation, or feel otherwise compelled against their free will, then their actions come from negative minds such as fear or hate, and so we may reasonably be concerned about those results. Just as we understand that typically good results don’t come from bad actions, good results don’t come from dangerous cults.

    Therefore giving one’s assent freely is a good indicator that there is no danger, only democracy. And when free assent can be seen in abundance then they have been assessed properly by their own merits to be no cult but a democracy.

    These are the examples you should go and look for if you want a reasonable way to know the NKT with any certainty. To measure them in a lesser way is to create danger by acting as your own cult.

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