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

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.


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

  1. […] smear of the New Kadampa Tradition was posted on the New Kadampa Truth blog this evening. The history of the New Kadampa Tradition’s ‘cult’ smear, Part 2 reveals the origins of the term ‘cult of Shugden’. The term was first used by Andrew […]

  2. wisdomfire says:

    It’s all becoming clearer now. Thanks again for your continued effort on this series of articles. This timeline of events is definately helpful, both for those of us who working to spread the truth and for those who are seeking clarification to resolve any doubts the ‘cult’ smear has created.

  3. Felix Pace says:

    Perhaps something could be written about the history of this epithet “Third Buddha”. The letter from the Sera abbots makes reference to this, as does the video from the TGIE about Shugden. It’s also commonly cited in other places that Geshe Kelsang refers to himself as a “Third Buddha” and makes his followers do the same. Jim Belither once explained to me that he had traced the origins of this title to something that had been written in one of the NKT Full Moon (or New Moon?) magazines. These short-lived publishing endeavors accepted submissions of art, stories, poems, photos, and cartoons from students around the world. The material submitted was quite random, and most of the contributions from students were not what you would call “literary works of art”. Apparently one of the submissions was a poem by one of Geshe-la’s students that referred to him as a “Third Buddha”. I’m sure there were probably many other fulsome praises as this is common among students of Buddhist teachers, as in other religions. Anyway, that term got picked up in another article written in the same 1996 time period and then I think people began to assume that Geshe Kelsang himself was the source of this term, and it began to be used as proof of him being self-aggrandizing.

  4. Bill Esterhaus says:

    I was really shocked when these articles came out. I know that journalism is often less than perfect but it’s unusual for a journalist to be so obviously biased and ‘gunning’ for a target. I’m surprised the newspaper editors actually allowed these articles to be published. If they had written such defamatory material about a movie actor or a rock star they would have been sued for vast sums of money.

  5. Bill Esterhaus says:

    Oh, and another thing – Tibetan Buddhists say how appalled they are by Geshe Kelsang’s open letters to the Dalai Lama and also by the wording of the ‘Tibetan Situation Today’ booklet of the Western Shugden Society, but the Sera Expulsion Letter contains the most hateful language I’ve ever seen used in a communication from one Buddhist to another. How could fifteen Abbots of a holy institution such as Sera Monastery put their name to a vitriolic document like that? It’s clearly not ‘right speech’ and obviously politically motivated.

  6. […] history of the New Kadampa Tradition’s ‘cult’ smear, Part 1 The history of the New Kadampa Tradition’s ‘cult’ smear, Part 2 Possibly related posts: (automatically generated)New Kadampa Truth – Fighting the SmearsWelcomeThe […]

  7. aria says:

    This has all been very worrying for me as I have a family member who has been very involved in The New Kadampa Tradition for many years.

    I have to say that as far as I can see she is in no way involved in a ‘cult’ in the popular sense of the word. She remains an independent person who is encouraged to keep her home life and keep in contact with her friends and family. She has become a happier and more balanced person as a result of her involvement.

    I find this article very interesting and enlightening. I can completely understand that the Dalai Lama may not be as blameless as the Western media would have us believe. Indeed how could he be? He is not only a religious leader, but also a political leader. Anyone who is involved in politics at his level will naturally find it very hard to remain true to their religious side at all times.

    I am looking forward to reading part 3 and 4 of this article.

  8. Extremador says:

    If you look up the definition of cult you will find that there isnt one even amongst academics. There is a huge history of new organisations following traditional teachings being mislabelled as cults all over the internet its happening in all religions all over the world. Because of the invention of the aeroplane & mass communication religions are moving quickly to new places. There is a lot of competitiveness between groups & if one is getting more success jealously leads to the cult label. We can see how other traditions from Tibet have also been subjected to false smears to make people abandon those teacher & follow the Dalai Lama. Demoting Lamas and intefering with the discples getting the correct reincarnation to make it so the disciples cant communicate with their lineage gurus anymore. And this is just in buddhism. If we are cherishing others its easy to see the big picture & how this type of thing is happening all over the world & is precisely why we need to maintain the teachings on how to overcome delusions without the Dalai Lamas editing (which removes the original teachings from this world) The dalai lama has succeeded in severing alomst the entire populations relationships with thier root gurus by either not letting the root Guru be recognised as reincarnation or spreading gossip about the Gurus. I wonder how many Lamas have been botted from their monasteries or forced to flee by the Dalai Lamas hate campaigns against them

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