“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.