New Kadampa Truth Website

April 13, 2009

We are happy to say that we have made the New Kadampa Truth website easier to navigate by adding sub-sections:

Tradition | Ordination | Finances | Organization | Teachers | Teachings | Other

There are also some additions and updates to the website in English, Deutsch, Español and Français.

As it says on the website:

Established in 2008, NewKadampaTruth.org (together with its associated blog) is the online service of a New Kadampa Tradition ~ International Kadampa Buddhist Union (NKT ~ IKBU) Public Relations team consisting mainly of experienced and knowledgeable teachers and administrators within the New Kadampa Tradition.

Its primary purpose is to provide in-depth, authoritative refutation of smears against the NKT ~ IKBU for those who have read or heard defamation of this time-honored Buddhist tradition. It also endeavors to increase transparency in the NKT ~ IKBU and pass on complaints. For this reason, it invites comments and questions. People can also write anonymously and know that their questions will be heard and respected and, if wished, addressed privately and discreetly. NewKadampaTruth.org has no physical office. It is associated with and endorsed by the NKT office at Manjushri Kadampa Meditation Centre in the UK.

If you have any concerns or complaints about the NKT~IKBU, or if you would like to report a smear, please contact report@newkadampatruth.org to communicate with the NKT ~ IKBU PR team.

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New Kadampa Survivors (continuation of the ‘cult’ smear history)

March 25, 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
The history of the New Kadampa Tradition’s ‘cult’ smear, Part 3
The history of the New Kadampa Tradition’s ‘cult’ smear, Part 4
E-Sangha and “sect bashing” (continuation of the ‘cult’ smear history)

The New Kadampa Tradition is not different from other spiritual organizations in that it is not suited to everyone, and many people who try it out do not stay. As a non-proselytizing Buddhist tradition that is not trying to convert anyone, this has always been expected and it is not a problem.

Sadly, though, some of these people leave through disappointment or even irritation and anger; and some of these go onto become active critics of the NKT on the Internet. The bad reputation the NKT has received from the Dalai Lama’s words and actions has proved a rallying point for diverse criticism of the NKT. This can obscure or distort people’s genuine personal grievances by causing every difficulty or disappointment to be exaggerated by the supposition that the NKT must be a cult because the Dalai Lama says so. Instead of taking each disappointment on its merits and seeing it in the context of an organization that is basically sound with room for improvement, some have jumped to the conclusion that their own difficulty is part of a far larger pattern – and that, although they appreciated the NKT before, they have only just realized that they have always been part of an abusive spirit-worshipping sectarian cult 🙂

Learning from criticism

This is not to say that the NKT~IKBU has not made mistakes because of course it has. The NKT~IKBU is a groundbreaking movement and operates worldwide. The Kadam Dharma it offers is pure and has stood the test of time, but the organization itself is naturally made up of imperfect living beings. It would be strange if there were not some problems. As the NKT~IKBU has said, it accepts and is sorry for its mistakes and is trying its best to learn from these, hence the Internal Rules and its many edicts for ensuring harmony, democracy and pure behavior. A great number of improvements and adaptations have been made over the past 30 years.

Hopefully, improvements will continue to be made both by the organization and by its individuals – there is no reason why not. From this point of view, as an ancient Buddhist tradition strives to adapt to the modern world, criticism has proven to be a very helpful mirror in which the NKT~IKBU has been able to see its faults and strive to remove them. As the old saying goes, what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger! As Geshe Kelsang has advised on the subject of criticism: check whether what is said is true or not. If it is true, accept and learn from it gratefully. If the criticism is not true, it is still true that we have the basic fault of self-cherishing, so we can still appreciate that person for criticizing us and use it as a reminder to reduce self-cherishing.

Understanding the Status Quo

But as the NKT, despite resistance and resentment from Tibetans who wish to preserve the Tibetan status quo, moves ever more steadily away from Tibetan politics and the vortex of the Dalai Lama to become an increasingly autonomous, non-political and democratic Western Mahayana Buddhist organization, Kadampa students have also had to wisen up. During this transition, they are having to learn to distinguish the genuine mistakes they and others have made (and continue to make) from the politically motivated wild accusations and falsehoods perpetuated by the Dalai Lama, the Tibetan Government in Exile (TGIE), and various Tibetan Buddhist groups. Only then are they able to take responsibility for the former while ignoring or rebutting the latter.

New Kadampa Survivors

Both the mistakes and the wild accusations find their way onto the New Kadampa Survivors, which is an Internet chat group that serves as the main convergence for NKT dissent. From the point of view of learning from criticism, the NKT has benefited from the focus of the New Kadampa Survivors chat group. Certainly, it has no objection to it existing and, if it helps some people, that is also good. But it may also be clarifying to understand it from an historical and cultural perspective.

Understanding the context

The NKT wishes to divest itself of Tibetan cultural accretions and especially Tibetan politics. It is not under the autocracy of the Dalai Lama and TGIE, and this is not pleasing to them. In the broader context of the damaging perceptions of the NKT being a sectarian breakaway inauthentic spirit-worshipping cult engendered by the Dalai Lama and other Tibetan groups, it is easier to understand the arising of the survivors’ chat group in 2007, which spilt over from E-Sangha.

It is hard to imagine this group arising if the NKT had remained under the umbrella of Tibetan Buddhism and the authority of the Dalai Lama and kept his pictures on their walls. After all, other Tibetan groups and Lamas without “survivors” groups have had as many if not more disrobings and disaffected students. Moreover, their unquestioning worship of the Dalai Lama as a God King, and “overall leader of all Buddhist traditions on this earth”* can easily be construed as cult-like, as can alarming but all too common statements like this one from a TGIE MP on France 24 explaining why there was no need for a vote to ban Dorje Shugden: “We do not have any doubt about Dalai Lama’s decisions. We do not think he is a human being. He’s a supreme human being and he is god.” Or this one from the TGIE quoted in the New Internationalist: “Concepts like democracy and freedom of religion are empty when it comes to the well-being of the Dalai Lama and the common cause of Tibet.”

The NKT and Geshe Kelsang have never strayed into such murky waters but their opposition to the behavior of the singularly famous head of Tibet has provided a rallying cry and justification for diverse detractors, which is not possessed by Tibetan Buddhist groups under the Dalai Lama’s patronage.

Rules of the game

According to its founder, David Cutshaw: “It is a place for former members to come and openly discuss what it was like being part of this sectarian cult.” There are three rules on Survivors: “No NKT propaganda is allowed; no NKT members/followers/students are allowed; no debate of Dorje Shugden is allowed.” What this means is that no positive input is permitted about the NKT (or Dorje Shugden).

The intention of David Cutshaw may well have been to find an audience himself and provide support for others. Perhaps there has been some relief for certain members as they have been able to voice their grievances and find sympathy. But the overall atmosphere and group dynamic is one full of blame, where everything is blamed on Geshe Kelsang and the NKT. (The only personal responsibility members seem to take is for their own neediness or naivety in joining the cult.) Even when outright untruths are told and re-told, no one is permitted to come forward to confute these or restore some balance, for that amounts to “propaganda” and the message is censored.

This all means that those who were seeking answers or support invariably become more negative, and newcomers stumbling upon this group (finding it for example while searching NKT in Google) receive an entirely one-sided and distorted depiction of the NKT. If they do not take the trouble to question what they are reading, it is natural for them to believe it, become disillusioned, and resolve henceforth to avoid the NKT.

Vicious circle

From this point of view, the survivors group is not helpful to the development of the NKT (and nor do they wish to be!) The very existence of the survivors’ group (and the fact that members often foray onto other Internet sites to share their views) has also fuelled the prejudices of Tibetan Buddhists further into thinking that the NKT must indeed be a cult if there are ex-members who are prepared to say so; and this has created a vicious circle of criticism and negative views. This has been a damaging factor in the NKT’s reputation in the Buddhist community (but music to the survivors’ ears!)

Disinhibition

(As an interesting aside, Internet chat groups are known to have a “disinhibition effect”, which according to psychological reports is not always benign and can “lead to rude language, harsh criticisms, anger, hatred, and even threats”, or “simply a blind catharsis, an acting out of unsavory needs and wishes without any personal growth at all.”)

Reasons for joining

It seems that most people on Survivors joined in 2008 as they were disillusioned by the Western Shugden Society’s demonstrations against the Dalai Lama’s ban, and/or by Samden’s and/or Lodro’s disrobings. In the latter case, this disillusionment is quite understandable and since that time steps have been taken to avoid a repetition.

For one thing, since the disrobing of Samden Gyatso, the Internal Rules specify that the authority of the both the teacher and the managers in each Center is subject to checks and balances and more equally shared out.

Far fewer people are joining the chat group nowadays, and the vast majority are “lurkers” or non-active participants. The same few people make almost all the postings. Judging by conversations and reports, it would appear that about half the members are NKT practitioners who are or were curious to read what is being written about them or their teachers.

Agent provocateurs

There are also members of survivors who have clearly never been to an NKT Center. They come from other Tibetan Buddhist groups and are on the chat group solely to “do research” for their own anti-NKT agendas (particularly an individual calling himself VJ Kumara who went so far as to wish for Geshe Kelsang’s death), sow dissatisfaction and TGIE propaganda, or promote their own traditions and Gurus. (Sometimes the Survivors realize they are being used in this way, at which point they have protested to the moderators.)

Tenzin Peljor deserves a mention here since he was the first to appear on the group straight after Dave had posted his first messages in 2007, suggesting he made the group public so everyone could find it; and since then has been a frequent poster and self-appointed spiritual advisor to the survivors, painstakingly ensuring that no one forgets how dreadful the NKT is and how wonderful (non-Shugden) Tibetan teachers and groups are by contrast. As with Namdrol on E-Sangha, survivors looking for guidance tend to trust Tenzin because they believe him when he makes himself out to be an expert on the NKT (and now Tibetan Buddhism), even though he has not been near the NKT in over 10 years and had an atypical experience of it.

A sense of proportion

In December 2010 the Survivors celebrated their 1000th member. While it would be wonderful if there were no survivors at all because everyone continued to enjoy their experiences within the NKT, it is worth getting this figure into proportion.

  • On the Tampa Bay Florida Facebook page alone, servicing one of the NKT’s medium-sized Centers, there are 1000 followers.
  • Teachers in New York, Texas, Brazil, Mexico and other places each week have audiences of hundreds. It is impossible to say exactly how many students attend NKT Centers every week, but it is certainly thousands.
  • Each International Festival attracts thousands of attendees.
  • Dharma Celebrations worldwide each typically attract hundreds of attendees.
  • Several hundred members of the Survivors’ group are still Kadampa practitioners who are just checking what is being said about them.
  • The vast majority of Survivors never post anything.

Moral discipline guides

Genuine mistakes have been and continue to be thoroughly investigated. The NKT has no wish or intention to endorse any cult-like behavior. The vast majority of people in the NKT try to be kind, well intentioned and reasonable, which is why NKT Centers generally enjoy success and their communities worldwide are growing. Some managers or teachers in the NKT have engaged in inappropriate or over-bearing behavior due perhaps to delusions, worldly concerns, poor people skills, over-enthusiasm, or failing to put the essential teachings on cherishing others into practice. However, these all too human shortcomings are not institutionalized in the NKT, and this behavior is neither encouraged by nor acceptable to the organization.

Please know that if you have any concerns or complaints about the NKT~IKBU organization, teachers, or managers, you are invited to email info@kadampa.org, or call [+44] (0)1229-588-533 and ask for the Secretary or Deputy Secretary of the NKT~IKBU, who will address your concerns in accordance with the Internal Rules 4.8, 12.1 and 12.3. These NKT “moral discipline guides” are responsible for making sure that Centers and individuals are “caring for people with kindness”, “improving the qualifications of Dharma students so they become qualified Dharma practitioners and Teachers”, “maintaining the Centre as a pure, peaceful and harmonious society”, avoiding “any breach of moral discipline”, and so on. If these things are not happening at an NKT Center, and for any reason you are not comfortable discussing it with the teacher or managers, you are requested to write to the moral discipline guides straightaway.

It does not follow from the unskillful behavior of a few individuals that the NKT is a cult, nor that such behavior cannot be found in other traditions that have not been labelled cults. Each case needs to be taken on its merits.

Where the criticisms on the Survivors group are groundless, factual responses can be found on New Kadampa Truth.

Footnotes

*(as proclaimed in a recent political announcement from a meeting with the Dalai Lama, March 6-8 2009):

“As per the gist of the intention of His Holiness the Dalai Lama, International Genden council, and the resolutions of Three Great Seats regarding the evil spirit Dholgyal (Shugden), monasteries including the Three Great Seats are heading toward positive direction, cherishing one’s interest. However [we] will discuss what is the best to carry out concerning the activity on the whole and the impairment imposed by Dholgyal adherents to Tibetan religion and politics, as well as their various actions of defamation carried out against His Holiness the Dalai Lama.

For the sake of Tibetan religion and politics, His Holiness the Dalai Lama, the overall head of all Buddhist Traditions on this earth, has given admonition not to worship the spirit Dholgyal. For the leaders who are High Lamas, Abbots, Tulkus, representatives, extend fully support on 10th meeting. Furthermore, through this meeting, they appreciate and praise the monks of Gelugpa monasteries for picking the vote-stick accorded the Vinaya and completely relinquishing the religious and material ties with Dholgyal worshippers.”


The history of the New Kadampa Tradition’s ‘cult’ smear, Part 4

March 4, 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
The history of the New Kadampa Tradition’s ‘cult’ smear, Part 3

The Final Wave of Press Misinformation

It didn’t stop there. In 1998, Tricycle, a Buddhist periodical, printed an article on the Dorje Shugden issue entitled Dorje Shugden: Deity or Demon? The article contained interviews with Geshe Kelsang (representing the pro-Shugden side) and the Dalai Lama’s brother Thubten Jigme Norbu (representing the anti-Shugden side). During his interview, Thubten Jigme Norbu said:

“No, no, this worship of Shugden is not a religion. If I open my big mouth, I can say this is a cult.”

The next press reference was November 2002, when the journalist Umarah Jamali in New Delhi wrote an article called Buddhism’s ‘Taliban’ blamed for Dalai Lama death threats for the Sydney Morning Herald. The word “cult” is used four times in one short article. The newspaper makes a grave error in implying that the NKT was responsible for death threats against the Dalai Lama; yet the thoroughly unsubstantiated story was later published by the Washington Times in the US and the Ming Pao Daily News in China.

“Police suspect a Tibetan cult, Shugden, is behind the threats against the Dalai Lama”

“The cult worships a 350-year-old wrathful Tibetan deity, Dorje Shugden, often depicted wearing a necklace of 50 severed human heads and having four fangs.”

“The Dalai Lama says Shugdens pose a serious threat to Tibetan unity in exile. He has urged Tibetans not to worship Dorje Shugden, saying it fosters religious intolerance and turns Buddhism into a cult of spirit worship.”

“The chairman of the Tibetan parliament, Toma Jugney, said: “It’s a deliberate attempt to create differences, not just between Indians and Tibetans, but amongst Tibetans too.” However, he did not say the cult was behind the death threats.”

Geshe Kelsang wrote a letter ”on behalf of Buddhism in general and the New Kadampa Tradition (NKT) in particular” to all three newspapers. In these he stated the facts, explained again that there is no such thing as a Buddhist Taliban (a highly inflammatory and inappropriate descriptor borrowed from Robert Thurman), and denied involvement in the death threats (which the BBC and World Tibet Network News had in any case traced to other groups).

The Washington Post published a retraction, and wrote to say that they “conducted a thorough investigation and concluded that the statements they had printed were incorrect.” The Ming Pao Daily News also printed a retraction. However, it is generally far easier to locate the original articles than the printed retractions; and the damage had been done.

Geshe Kelsang’s letters to:

Sydney Morning Herald

Washington Times:

Ming Pao Daily News

Retraction printed in The Washington Times:

Editor’s note: When published Nov. 23, 2002, this article incorrectly reported the relationship between a Tibetan sect in northern India and Geshe Kelsang Gyatso, head of the London-based New Kadampa Tradition. Mr. Kelsang and his group announced in 1998 that they have abandoned their dispute with the Dalai Lama and they say their Western Buddhist community is completely independent from those groups in India and Nepal which are suspected of issuing the threats.

Retraction printed in the Ming Pao Daily News:

Clarification – New Kadampas are not related to terrorist activities

Our paper on 25th November quoted from the Washington Times that: During the past few weeks in the northern Indian city, where the Tibetan government-in-exile resides, many posters appeared declaring death threats to the Dalai Lama. The Indian police believed that the death threats originate from a Tibetan Buddhist sect “The Shugden Sect”. The followers of the Dalai Lama called the “Shugden Sect” – “The Taliban of Tibetan Buddhism”. Related to the Shugden Sect , an organization in England called the New Kadampa Tradition (NKT) is founded by exiled lama – Kelsang Gyatso in 1991.

Recently, we have received a letter from Mr. Kelsang Gyatso stating that the New Kadampa Tradition is a western Buddhist organization, which is completely unrelated to the Shugden Sects in India, Nepal and other countries. The NKT have absolutely no political affiliations; are not against the Dalai Lama and never have been, but previously they simply requested him to stop his ban of Dorje Shugden worship; this was a request for basic human right of religious freedom. Since October 1998 NKT has decided to completely stop being involved in the Shugden issue, because it is in reality a Tibetan political problem.

Kelsang Gyatso states that he guarantees that the NKT and himself have never performed inappropriate actions; and that they have absolutely no connection with the recent death threats made to the Dalai Lama and with the previous Dharamsala murders. He believes that there is no ” Taliban of Tibetan Buddhism”. The Washington Times’ report was mistaken, and later they admitted that , due to their lack of thorough investigation, their accusation of the New Kadampa Tradition is incorrect.

The editorial department of Ming Pao agreed to withdraw the 25th Nov article report, quoted from Washington Times, and sincerely apologize to the New Kadampa Tradition and Mr. Kelsang Gyatso.

The Editorial Dept.


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.


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


Smear: NKT students worship Geshe Kelsang

January 22, 2009

This is the final article exploring how Kadampa students rely upon the Spiritual Guide in these modern times. For the previous articles, click here:

Smear: Geshe Kelsang calls himself the third Buddha and seeks veneration from his students

Relying upon the Spiritual Guide in these modern times

NKT detractors sometimes make unjustified claims about the NKT’s supposed cultish devotion toward Geshe Kelsang. The trend was started in a 1996 article by Madeleine Bunting in the Guardian newspaper, where she said that NKT members “pray to and worship Geshe Kelsang”. One recent example of a public attack on a website (by someone called “Truthsquad”, who has never been to an NKT Center):

“Geshe Kelsang Gyatso, now 78 and worshiped by his devotees as a cult hero, as the greatest Shugden protector, and as a supreme omniscient being whose narcissistic visions, power goals, dharma interpretations, lineage anaysis and fundamentalist politics are infallible.”

There is never any evidence provided for attacks of this nature. Geshe Kelsang has never claimed to be an omniscient being or a Buddha. He rarely talks about himself at all. He is a very humble monk and renunciate. He spent sixteen years blissfully happily in strict retreat, only emerging to bring Dharma to the West because his Spiritual Guide Trijang Rinpoche asked it of him.

While he is in the UK over the summer period, Geshe Kelsang lives modestly and simply in one small room at Manjushri Centre, the same room he lived in when he first came to the UK, and never leaves his room except to teach. He possesses very little. He does not even own a car, having sold the one car that was offered to him in 1986 so that he could donate the proceeds to ‘Live Aid’. He does not own a house, having given away the one he was given for a retreat center. He gives everything that he is offered away, including the royalties on his books and all gifts of money, property, statues and so on.

When he is not at Manjushri Centre, he lives quietly in unknown locations with just one or two assistants, and rarely travels or even leaves the house. There he engages in meditation retreat and continues to work tirelessly to help others by writing beautiful and acclaimed Dharma books and helping to preserve and promote the Kadampa Buddhism of Je Tsongkhapa in accordance with his own Spiritual Guide’s wishes.

Geshe Kelsang does not have one single trapping of luxury, power or worldly success. Nor is he interested in or engaged in politics. Although he is in good health, in Summer 2009 he will voluntarily step down as General Spiritual Director of the NKT, in a democratic system of succession that he himself has established.

As mentioned in an earlier article, relying upon the Spiritual Guide, or “Guru devotion”, is a teaching common to all of Mahayana Buddhism. However, Geshe Kelsang has managed to introduce these teachings in a skilful way that is acceptable to our individualistic Western sensibilities. In the West, people are suspicious of religious systems that promote another person and demand unswerving allegiance (except, curiously enough, when that person is the Dalai Lama!)

In recent years in particular, Geshe Kelsang has been explaining a profound and skilful method to practice relying upon the Spiritual Guide, which enables students to regard their Spiritual Guide as an emanation of Buddha during teachings whilst also giving them the freedom to relate to them as a more ordinary person at other times. It seems that by following these instructions, Buddhist practitioners of the future will be able to continue to make progress toward enlightenment in dependence upon Buddha Shakyamuni’s instructions on relying sincerely upon a Spiritual Guide. However, they will be able to do this without having to adopt unskillful, extreme or societally unacceptable behavior, and without the potential danger of being “cheated” or betrayed by a worldly or badly motivated teacher. For example, in Paris 2008 Geshe Kelsang said:

“It is necessary to clarify what happens during teachings. For example, if I have a pure motivation giving teachings to people out of compassion, and the teaching itself is pure, then the wisdom being of Buddha will enter my body and remain in my heart. In particular, I mainly give teachings from Lama Tsongkhapa, and so I have deep faith in Lama Tsongkhapa. If my motivation, view and actions are pure, and the teaching is correct, then the wisdom being of Lama Tsongkhapa will enter my body, remain at my heart inseparable with my mind, and speak through me. At that time I am like CD player, but the real teachings are coming from Lama Tsongkhapa or Buddha Shakyamuni. This means that at that time, practically, I can be an emanation of Buddha or Lama Tsongkhapa. For as long as that wisdom being remains, I am an emanation of Buddha, an emanation of Je Tsongkhapa. I can say this. If my pure motivation, view, or actions change, then the wisdom being will disappear and I will not be an emanation, I will become ordinary.”

This applies of course not just to Geshe Kelsang but to all those giving correct Buddhist teachings out of faith and with pure motivation, view and actions. “Emanation of Buddha” can refer to those who have attained full enlightenment as well as to those who are temporary emanations, functioning as Buddhas through the force of their faith, motivation and so on. Students can receive Buddha’s blessings from these emanations.

“It is important to distinguish these kinds of things. An emanation of Buddha can have many meanings. One meaning of emanation of Buddha is a person who really is Buddha, but there are other people who are temporarily functioning as Buddhas through the wisdom being of Buddha entering and remaining at their heart when they give teachings. At that time they have the same function as Buddha, and are also an emanation of Buddha. When the wisdom being disappears, they are no longer an emanation. Therefore, at different times, different situations will arise. Sometimes I can be an emanation, sometimes maybe not necessarily.”

Hopefully these three articles have helped to clarify how relying upon the Spiritual Guide is practiced in the New Kadampa Tradition. Similar teachings on pure view, Guru devotion and so on can be found in Geshe Kelsang’s books. For example, in Mahamudra Tantra pps 28-9 he explains how we should not reveal our Tantric realizations as this could result in inappropriate behavior:

“Even if we have the realization that spontaneously believes that we are Buddha Heruka, we should never indicate or declare this to others, as such behavior is inappropriate in normal society. People will still see us as John and not Heruka, and we also know that John is not Heruka. The realizations of divine pride and clear appearance are inner experiences that have the power to control our delusions, and from which pure actions will naturally develop. There is therefore no basis for us to show inappropriate behavior; we must continue to engage in our daily activities and communicate with others as normal.”

Geshe Kelsang himself is a very good example of what he teaches as he never indicates or declares his realizations to others. He gives his students the freedom to develop whatever view they wish of him. They can view him as an ordinary Teacher, or as a kind person, or as a Bodhisattva, or even as a Buddha, as is their wish. But this is their choice and it is a private matter of the heart.

Let us know if you have any questions or comments.


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