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.