E-Sangha and “sect bashing” (continuation of the ‘cult’ smear history)

March 5, 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

The Rise of Sectarianism in Buddhist Discussion Forums

In the late 1990s, the cult smear against the NKT was spread mainly by the Tibetan government in exile and official Dalai Lama websites, on alt.religion newsgroup discussions, and by word of mouth in Tibetan Buddhist Centers loyal to the Dalai Lama. However, in the years that followed, during the 2000’s, a fully-fledged Internet attack on Geshe Kelsang Gyatso and the NKT began to take place on certain Buddhist discussion boards such as E-Sangha, Buddhanet, Beliefnet, and Phayul by Tibetan and Western supporters of the Dalai Lama.

The normal pattern in such discussion forums was that a “newbie” would post a question along the lines of: “There’s this Buddhist group near me called the NKT, I’m thinking of going to some of their classes, what do people think? Do you have any information about them?” This innocent question would result in a flood of negative posts, denouncing the NKT as a cult, claiming they weren’t Buddhist but spirit-worshipping murderers, etc, and recommending the questioner try “a genuine Buddhist group”.

These posters who were so vehemently opposed to the NKT were Tibetan Buddhists from various sects although, more recently, they were joined by a few disaffected ex-NKT members who jumped on the bandwagon with prolific posts.

E-Sangha

The most egregious of these discussion forums is E-Sangha, which has also recently been receiving a slew of complaints from other Buddhist groups and individuals for its intolerance and censorship. As it says on the E-Sangha Watch website:

E-SANGHA WATCH has been created with the support, guidance and encouragement of concerned Buddhist clergy and lay-persons of several schools wishing to firmly yet constructively oppose, publicize, correct and explain to the unwary the current state of intra-Buddhist sectarian bias, misinformation, religious intolerance and ‘sect bashing’ which unfortunately exists under the present policies and administration of the ‘E-Sangha’ Buddhism Portal website.

(More examples of E-Sangha’s bias, misinformation, intolerance and sect-bashing are  also collected here and here. Laura Busch also wrote a doctoral thesis on E-Sangha available here.)

Many NKT practitioners and others have been shocked over the years to find that the New Kadampa Tradition is actually banned on this supposedly open Buddhist forum, the largest Buddhist chat group on the Internet! The board regulations state in black and white:

“These few “Buddhist” schools of thoughts are not recognized by E-sangha. No links to their websites, their books, or their followers’ websites are allowed: New Kadampa Tradition (NKT) and all other proponents of Dolgyal/Shugden”

However, a reading of the background to this ban and who instigated and maintains it will hopefully reassure people that the reasons behind it were completely capricious and unjustified.

E-Sangha is a Buddhist forum that started in 2003. In September 2003, E-Sangha administrators conducted a poll of its members to decide if the NKT section that had been started on the board should be removed. This poll was requested by Global Moderator Henry Chia, also known as Ngawang Gelek, a Sakya practitioner from Singapore who had posted actively against the NKT on the alt.religion newsgroup discussions during the Dorje Shugden controversy in 1996/97.

Labeling the NKT as non-Buddhist for its reliance on Dorje Shugden, Henry cut and pasted every single negative article regarding the NKT and Dorje Shugden taken from the TGIE and Dalai Lama official websites and then advised the members “to make up their own minds”. As one member pointed out: “Thanks to Henry, plenty of information is now available for folks to make an informed vote.” There was no information, however, posted from the side of the NKT or any other Shugden practitioner.

There never was a vote. By the middle of September 2003, “Teyes”, the E-Sangha founder, had decided:

“I have read through almost every word that Henry had written, clicking on almost every link. The messages are exhaustive and I tried hard to digest the vast amount of information. I am not an expert in Buddhism, although raised in a Buddhist family, thus all members help are required, especially in issues like this. I appreciate Henry’s frankness in raising this point and I agreed with Henry that:

1) There will be no links to NKT website as from today.
2) There will be no seperate listings of them as a unique group within our database.
3) All NKT’s folks can participate in all our discussion.
Thanks everyone for their help, especially Henry. (So members, you can disregard the votes about NKT). Have a nice day!”

And he followed this with another posting later:

“Dear members,
I have considered all the pros and cons when NKT section was removed. After examining, I am rather worried that newbies in Buddhism might be misled. That’s my main fear, especially E-Sangha has been growing steadily over the last 2 months, and is right now, the most active board on Buddhism. I hope that we will put this issue behind us. Thanks.”

With no knowledge of the NKT other than what he had heard from Henry, and despite the fact that the NKT had hundreds of Centers and thousands of students all over the world who were happily and sincerely practicing Mahayana Buddhism, the owner of E-Sangha condemned the NKT as dangerous for “newbies”, a theme that was continued in all subsequent discussions.

Another E-Sangha global moderator called Namdrol (Malcolm Smith) joined in the discussion and over a period of many months provided E-Sangha members with a huge amount of astounding, sometimes laughable, and (according to one psychiatrist who responded) clinically delusional misinformation. For example, those who rely upon Wisdom Buddha Dorje Shugden (called here “Dolgyal”) are responsible for the invasion of Tibet, Mad Cow disease, and the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan:

“Gyalpos also cause strife and cattle diseases. The outbreak of Mad Cow disease in Northern England a couple of years ago has been attributed to the strong presence of Shugden practitioners in Northern England.”

“I don’t hate Pabhongkha; I don’t hate Dolgyal. But I think that Dolgyal is harmful and that because of him, the Tibetan Goverment fell, the Chinese were able to easily invade, and these sorts of things are predicted in many texts.

It may be hard for you to beleive, but the strong presence of Dolgyal practitioners in Northern England led to the Mad Cow disease outbreak; the burning of the millions of bovine corpses incited the anger of the Mamos, and they in turn caused these wars in which we are now ensconced– so this is no joke–really!”

 

Most recently, Namdrol incited forum members to more intolerance (on the occasion of the Dalai Lama’s being admitted to hospital for kidney stones):

“We can all thank the Shugden people for HHDL’s present state of ill health.”

However, because he is an “old-timer” and a global moderator, his words astonishingly enough have carried weight and adversely influenced many people. For example:

“Namdrol’s point’s should be well taken, he really knows his stuff when it comes to Tibetan Buddhism. He has practiced for a long time and personally knows many very high lama’s, and Rinpoche’s”.

Namdrol has devoted many postings to slandering the Gelugpa tradition in general that was passed down through Je Phabongkhapa, Trijang Rinpoche and their disciples, even casting aspersions on Lama Zopa and the FPMT (who have the Dalai Lama as their patron). Umpteen people have been banned from E-Sangha for questioning the moderators or not toeing the party line, but not once has another moderator asked Namdrol to stop his divisive, intolerant and sectarian speech.

Here is an example of the intolerance toward the NKT on E-Sangha that was enshrined as policy in 2003 and continues to this day, from a recent thread concerning the opening of an NKT World Peace Cafe:

“The NKT is not a legitimate Buddhist organization in my opinion. For this reason, I would certainly avoid the cafe. I would also spend an hour or two emailing leads to local media about the controversy surrounding the cult.”

“the NKT is dangerous and the spirit they worship is too. how can they propose to open a world peace cafe when the biggest part of their organization is the worship of a malicious spirit?”

“As we all know, this cult have done and still doing so much damaging to the public”

“To them Dharma is a business opportunity to fund the growth of their sect and kelsang gyatso’s empire.”

“You could always be an infiltrator, share some other views. Would be interesting to go in there and say you know, a lot of people consider the NKT to be a cult.”

(For the smear that Geshe Kelsang has profited from the growth of the NKT, see Smear: Geshe Kelsang has millions of pounds that have come from his disciples.)

It is clear that some E-Sangha members are sufficiently militant to take action against the NKT by contacting venues where classes are being held to get them cancelled, defacing publicity, and vandalizing Geshe Kelsang’s books in bookstores so that they won’t sell. Some members have openly boasted about engaging in such activities, and the existence and effects of these behaviors are one reason the New Kadampa Truth website was compiled.

E-Sangha’s mission statement reads: “E-Sangha’s intent is to keep the tradition alive and flourishing, and to help bring peace, harmony and happiness into everyones lives.” Yet they have been the source of destroying peace, harmony and happiness between Buddhist groups and practitioners since they began in 2003. The clique of moderators have frequently broken their own detailed board guidelines on adhering to right intention, right speech, and right action.

Any reference to the ‘NKT’ on a web forum or discussion board these days will almost inevitably draw a barrage of ‘cult’ allegations as surely as a magnet attracts iron.

Sadly, we can see that the Dalai Lama’s unjustified condemnations have been effective in associating ‘NKT’ and ‘cult’ in the minds of his followers and many other Tibetan Buddhists.

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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


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