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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Another Reply to Bodhisattva Centre Protestors, Part Three

September 17, 2008

Dear Carol and friends, here is the final installment of answers to your questions.

Is Dorje Shugden harming the Dalai Lama?

You said: It was often said that the practice of Dorje Shugden would shorten the life of the Dalai Lama. This recent tour seems to be proving that prediction to be correct as the Dalai Lama is now seriously exhausted.

Do you not think that the exhaustion might have something to do with a 74 year old man spending his year jetting around the world giving teachings and meeting thousands of people? Ageing, sickness and death are facts of samsaric life. Are people going to say — when the Dalai Lama naturally dies from old age or sickness — that it was people praying to Dorje Shugden that killed him? Surely such superstitious views have no place in this modern world.

Ask yourself, seriously and rationally as a Westerner who has been educated in science, do you really believe that the practice of Dorje Shugden can harm someone? What words in the prayers are harmful? What quality of the practice is harmful? I think you may be superstitiously believing the Dalai Lama’s propaganda, which has no logical basis. Such blind belief has no place in Buddhism – it is the real ‘evil spirit’ here!

The explusion of monks from their monasteries

Is the explusion of people from NKT Dharma Centres analogous to the Dalai Lama expelling monks from their monasteries?

You say “Long term practitioners, including people ordained and practising moral discipline in the NKT, can be made homeless and/or ostracised by their previous community if the Resident teacher finds their criticism inappropriate”.

It would be wrong for someone to be asked to leave a Centre simply because they had a criticism of a Resident Teacher. Resident Teachers need to deal with personal criticism in a fair and reasonable manner. If someone in a Dharma Centre has a criticism of the Resident Teacher, Geshe-la has said that the student should respectfully discuss this with the Teacher, asking why they acted in the way that they did. If the Teacher has made a mistake, they should admit to it and take steps not to repeat it. The Administrative Director and EPC are also supposed to act if the teacher is behaving incorrectly – this is now in the Internal Rules.

Of course, it doesn’t always work like this as the NKT is not a perfect organization and people make mistakes. For example, I am aware that in your case, Carol, this did not happen and your criticisms of your teacher engaging in sexual conduct might have fallen on deaf ears. It seems at that time that no one in the community of Bodhisattva Centre believed it could be happening. A lot was learnt from the disrobing of Lodro and Thogme and of course it is greatly hoped and prayed for that something like this would not happen again. I would like to take this opportunity to apologize to you for any mistake. If this was the only reason you were asked to leave your Centre, I think it was wrong. I don’t know the details of why you were asked to leave, and your teacher is no longer available to question; so I invite you to write about it to New Kadampa Truth if you wish us to look into it (we will respect your privacy).

In general, what the NKT is working towards is accountability on the part of the teacher and the student. If, upon honest reflection, the teacher does not find their criticism to be valid, but the student still does, they can take it up with the National Spiritual Director or the NKT Secretary in an attempt to find a resolution (the student can do this anonymously if they wish). However, if a student is openly criticizing the Resident Teacher, thereby destroying the harmony of the community, they should be asked to stop by the Administrative Director of the Centre. If their open criticism is not valid and they do not stop, they will be asked to leave to maintain the harmony of the community. In almost every case, they will still be able to attend classes, even if they are no longer living at the Centre.

This is a reasonable way to deal with disagreements and disputes in a Dharma Centre, but what you say is not analagous to what the Dalai Lama is doing. Here is an analagous example based on what you have said. Suppose that the Resident Teacher of the Dharma Centre said to the Administrative Director:

Manjushri is not a Buddha but an evil spirit. I have made detailed investigations and have concluded without doubt that this is true. Geshe Kelsang was wrong to see him as a Buddha. We must tell everyone that from now on they must not worship Manjushri. All residents must sign to say that they will not worship Manjushri and if they do not they will be expelled from the Centre. If they ask why, tell them that the Resident Teacher said so and this is very urgent.

Residents would then be forced to swear an oath abandoning Manjushri practice, on pain of being expelled from the Centre. Does this seem right to you?

Furthermore, at least in the case of this happening in the NKT, the residents could go to the NKT Secretary and say “our Resident Teacher has gone crazy!” and that Teacher could be removed. Shugden monks in India have no such recourse. The Dalai Lama is the sole authority – whatever he says goes.

If the same kind of thing happened at the highest level of the NKT, with the General Spiritual Director declaring a complete change of spiritual direction away from Je Tsongkhapa’s tradition, according to the NKT Internal Rules he would be removed by the Education Council.

You say: Just as the resident teachers of the NKT centres of Geshe Kelsang Gyatso promote peace and harmony in his communities by quietening criticism and doubt, the Dalai Lama has needed to reduce the conflicts surrounding Dorje Shugden practice by, in consultation with other senior practitioners, withdrawing support for practitioners.

It is not the same situation at all. If a Dharma Centre resident continually disrupts the harmony of the Centre, and every effort has been made to address their problem to no avail, they will be asked to leave. But the Dorje Shugden monks have not caused any problems. They are simply following the 400-year old tradition of their own Spiritual Guides such as Trijang Rinpoche. It is they who are following tradition, the very tradition that established the Gelugpa monastery in the first place. Since they are actual Gelugpas, why should they be punished?

Furthermore, if a Dharma Centre resident is asked to leave, they will find other accommodation, food and so forth. Residents, ordained or lay, choose freely to live as tenants in Dharma Centres and no expectation is set up that the Centre, their landlord, is responsible for housing them from then on. In the NKT, individuals are responsible for their own livelihood. Sometimes the NKT will offer to sponsor students to do certain jobs, and those students are free to choose whether to accept those jobs. However, again, being sponsored does not automatically guarantee that the person must be sponsored for life, anymore than being employed in any other job.

The Shugden monks have vows not to handle money and so forth that makes it very difficult for them to get jobs or procure food, and they have nothing other than a monastic education. Many of them have been in the monasteries since they were small children. These monks have no way to support themselves. Many have unwillingly had to disrobe over the years so that they could work in menial jobs – some of them are now in America working 12 hours a day in a restaurant where before they were esteemed monks and teachers. Even if those in India had the money, for example from their families, they are not allowed into the shops to buy anything.

You say: He is supporting a majority view. For many years, even though the practice was already ‘banned’, monks and nuns who practised Dorje Shugden were still living in these monasteries.

No, the Dalai Lama is creating a majority view. Let’s pretend for a moment that monks who do not practise Shugden are angry and offended at having to share their resources with Shugden practitioners and that this is why the Shugden monks have to be expelled.

Why would these monks be angry? The only reason would be because they have been told that the Shugden monks are spirit worshippers, not Buddhists, and that their daily practice is sectarian and harms the Dalai Lama and the cause of Tibetan independence. But who told them this? The Dalai Lama.

The Dalai Lama created the schism, just as he is creating a schism between Western Buddhist practitioners now over the same issue (see the previous point about the FPMT). Shugden practitioners are becoming the ‘Jews of Buddhism’, a persecuted minority because of the Dalai Lama’s propaganda.

We can also ask, “Why were the Shugden monks allowed to live in the monasteries until now?” Bearing in mind that Shugden monks had been living peacefully side by side with all the other monks for decades, and they were all like brothers, perhaps it is because the Abbots of these monasteries know that there is nothing wrong with Dorje Shugden. They just hoped that the Dalai Lama was experiencing some temporary madness and would change his mind. Their heart was not in it. This seems to be born out by some of the Dalai Lama’s increasingly insistent speeches, a sample of which I’ll repeat here:

The Dalai Lama gave a speech at Drepung Monastery on 7th January 2008 saying:

With strong emotion, Samdhong Lama accused Shugden devotees, saying that they have made open and overt contact with the People’s Republic of China.

He adds that he thinks it is very difficult for the monks to remain like fish and tadpoles together in the three monasteries of the Gelug Tradition.

The Dalai Lama is preparing a reason to purge the monasteries. Later the Dalai Lama had a meeting with the abbots of the monasteries. He rebuked the Shartse abbot, saying:

‘Shugden devotees are growing in your monastery. If you are this inept, you had better resign.’

The Dalai Lama also reprimanded the Jangtse abbot, saying:

‘You said that the monastery is clean, but there are still some Shugden devotees. You must do better.’

Who is the driving force behind ‘purging’ the monasteries’? Only the Dalai Lama. In his crusade to stamp out the practice of Dorje Shugden, everyone has to do what he says or leave.

The status of the ban and treatment of monks in India

You say: If this ‘ban’ was illegal then surely some government or human rights association would be backing your claims.

It is progress that the fact of the ban is no longer being disputed due to the wealth of evidence on the Internet, including in the Dalai Lama’s own speeches, that a ban is in force. This ban is illegal. There is currently an attempt to get the Dalai Lama to answer for his ban of Dorje Shugden in court in India because he has broken the Indian law by practising Deity discrimination.

As far as support by human rights associations are concerned, there are two things that need to happen. Firstly people have to accept that human rights abuses are taking place and secondly they have to want to do something about them.

It is going to take time for them to want to recognize that the Dalai Lama is abusing human rights. Because the Dalai Lama’s media profile is so high and positive, there is a natural resistance to taking these stories of abuse seriously. It’s like being told that the Husband of the Year is beating his wife! Also the plight of the Tibetans is so poignant – someone recently described them as the “seal pups of the international community” – and people have felt (though of course this is changing) that the Dalai Lama is their only future. So people are not in a hurry to accept such truths.

However, when it becomes clear what the Dalai Lama is doing, it is going to be hugely disappointing to many people. The Dalai Lama was a symbol of hope for many people, but when they realize that the Nobel peace prize winner has been waging his own private war against his own people, while at the same time hypocritically talking about love, compassion, tolerance and religious freedom, they will be understandably upset and their faith in Buddhism will be shaken.

Although the Dalai Lama’s supporters accuse us of being his enemy, actually we are trying to protect the Dalai Lama from the inevitable embarassment that he will experience when all this politicking and abuse become public knowledge. It may not be in the interest of Buddhism for the Dalai Lama’s reputation to be destroyed, but so far he’s doing a very good job of destroying it himself through his own un-Buddhist actions.

So far, a few brave Buddhists are shouting “Dalai Lama, stop lying” and perhaps it is not getting widespread media attention. However, as time goes on, more and more people will become aware that the Dalai Lama is not what he seems. How much better it would be for the Dalai Lama and his followers and supporters if he lifted the ban now, before it is too late


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