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Lamas, Geshes and Cults… It’s the NKT!

A reader writes:

 I have a question:  What is going on with the brouhaha over Dorje Shugden and the row between the Dalai Lama and the New Kadampa Tradition? (if this is too detailed a question for your site, that’s totally fine.)

My response:

It’s a big question, one that may be beyond the scope of this site, but here’s the story in a nutshell.
The New Kadampa Tradition was founded by Geshe Kelseng Gyatso in 1991 as a sort of offshoot of the Tibetan school of Buddhism. They grew rapidly, having dozens schools across the globe. The leader of the Tibetans was, and still is, the Dalai Lama. At first, the Dalai Lama approved of the new offshoot sect, but somewhere down the line, things changed. Kelsan Gyatso accused the D.L. of not doing enough to regain control of Tibet, while some Dalai Lama supporters have gone so far as to say the Chinese government is backing the NKT to make the D.L. look ineffectual.  The competition between the two men continued, culminating with the Dalai Lama essentially saying “They’re not with me anymore,” and breaking the connections.
There are quite a lot of detractors out there calling the NKT nothing more than a cult. They have a single charismatic leader, and they teach only his words. In the bookstores they operate, they sell only his books, and literally threw out all the books by other teachers and traditions. Questions and discussion are discouraged; openness is frowned upon. There are even “recovery groups” that have sprung up for people who have gotten out of the group. Nonetheless, they are still growing rapidly, and are quite successful financially. They seem to actually be doing some good.
Is it a cult? Is it a valid Tibetan splinter-group? I’m not going to get in the middle of this battle, but that’s the overview. Do your own research and post your thoughts below. Just to start you off, here’s a BBC documentary that will introduce you to the situation:

10 comments to Lamas, Geshes and Cults… It’s the NKT!

  • baf

    Controlling what members can–& cannot–read is the beginnings of totalitarianism. It is scary & frightening. I volunteer as a docent as the Holocaust Museum in Washington, DC, & censoring reading materials is what the Nazi party did during their rise to power in 1933, & having only their message out is propaganda.

  • I find it very disturbing that Geshe Kelsang seems to praise people who call him a Buddha (at about 8:19 in the documentary). If he were really enlightened, wouldn’t he be humble about it?

  • Oscar

    “YOU” are your own authority. Let’s not forget that. When the Bhudda died, he did not leave no one in charge — this includes the Dalai Lama, or anyone from the Tibetan traditions. I’m a lay Bhuddist and I read material from the Theravada, Mahayana and Vajrayana teachings. What doesn’t make sense to me, I put aside, and what makes sense to me I practice. The stuff between the DL and his Sangha is just that — stuff, a bunch of crap. It’s more politics. You don’t need to embroil yourself in with it. You just keep practicIng and meditating.

  • Mark

    The NKT is a deceptive entity, that can have a very dangerous affect on vulnerable minds. It has been plagued with scandals and is permanently covering it’s tracks and white-washing it’s own history. On the top level it’s a multi-million dollar international business posing as a Buddhist sect and charity to avoid paying taxes. On another level it is a personality cult that survives by misrepresenting itself as a Buddhist tradition, which it is not. Gesh-la poses as an enlightened being and his followers fall for it. He is a skilled hypnotist posing as a monk for his own gain. He uses hypnotic skills over his followers without their realizing it. They in turn are sent out to add more power and wealth for their dirty little organization. They specialize in collecting weak minded and socially vulnerable individuals with money. They are in no way a charity, they demand payment for virtually everything they do. Gesh-la is an international charlatan and the NKT is behind the scenes a nasty, very deluded organization that needs to be avoided.

  • I visited an NKT center a couple times when I lived in Albuquerque, and I’ve read a couple of the New Kadampa books by Geshe Kelsang Gyatso. This was the first organized Buddhist(y) meditation center I’d ever gone to, so I was willing to give it the benefit of the doubt for a few visits.

    I came away with the conclusion that there were many things I did not like about the NKT center:

    1) Mandatory up-front payment of a fixed price for every single class/event you go to. This does not seem in the spirit of Buddha’s “come and see” approach, which has trickled down through all the various streams of Buddhist teaching over the centuries. (Note: I’m not opposed to giving money to support teachers and centers; years later, upon spending time with a Vipassana group that met weekly, I began giving whatever I could spare and often making donations far above the mandatory dollar amount that the NKT would charge.)

    2) The teachings, both in the meditation sessions and in the books, seem more like “Buddhism lite” than anything I’ve encountered from more traditional and rigorous sources (e.g. Shunryu Suzuki, the amazing Master Seung Sahn, Pema Chödrön, and even more pop-culture teachers like Lama Surya Das).

    3) As mentioned by Mark, the “personality cult” aspect is strong. The students I talked with casually at the NKT were extremely closed-minded towards anything other than Gyatso’s books. They were not willing to even discuss ideas or materials that came from Tibetan Buddhism, which the New Kadampa supposedly developed from. And the borderline “shaking with rage” reaction I received from one of the “accomplished students” at this center, when I accidentally lumped the NKT in with Tibetan Buddhism, was pretty revealing.

    On a side note, a couple years after visiting (and abandoning) the NKT, I encountered someone who was a devoted student of that center. She became a customer of mine at the business where I worked. She eventually engaged our company to help her with a large project so she could “gain merit” with the New Kadampa. She had to “bid” on this project, and apparently had to match a large part of the thousands of dollars this would cost using her own limited funds. When the project hit some snags and delays because of technical errors, she almost fell to pieces, because she was so afraid of the New Kadampa office she was dealing with, and because her life was such a shambles that she did not want to lose their “spiritual support” that they were threatening to take away.

    I really don’t like to bash organizations of spiritual seekers, but it is clear from all the above pieces that there is something sour going on with the New Kadampa Tradition. It seems to trickle down from somewhere at the top, and it just leaves a bad taste in my mouth every time I run across it.

    So, while I don’t like having to be critical of Buddhist (or “Buddhist”) groups, it is obvious that this criticism is necessary sometimes, when we are faced with what appears to be a predatory and/or abusive organization.

  • Clare

    This is nonsense! I lived in an NKT Centre for a bit – can’t think of anything less totalitarian. I left when I found it didn’t suit me. I sometimes go to the odd class but am not deeply involved now. The veneration of the teacher has a long tradition in Tibetan Buddhism, and there’s a strong emphasis in the NKT on checking out the teacher thoroughly first. I think there’s also a strong feeling that ‘pop-Buddhism’ – a kind of mash-up of whatever bits seem attractive from whatever source – is really pretty meaningless, and while that might come across of authoritarian, no-one is obliged to sign up to it who doesn’t want to, and for those who follow it it means there’s a coherent body of doctrine which isn’t just a happy-hippy mess, and is founded on the great Buddhist texts (which many of Geshe-Kelsang’s books are translations of or commentaries on). If this isn’t your bag, fine, but don’t bad-mouth something just because it doesn’t suit you.

  • catrina

    I regularly attend a meditation class run by the NKT and I don’t have any of the negative experiences listed in the documentary clip. The book shop does mainly stock books from the tradition but questions and debate are encouraged and there is no obligation to attend every week or donate large sums of money. I attend mostly because I enjoy debate which I find thought provoking. It is true to say that NKT is the main type of buddism in my region and the number of small local groups is growing but feels like an organic expansion rather than an infiltration. I was very surprised to here that people view movement as a cult.

  • Sonam

    NKT is a very conservative offshoot of the Geluk Tradition that historically have clashed with the Dalai Lama due to his practice of accepting the teachings of all Tibetan Buddhist traditions. Historically Dalai Lama’s took a lot of initiations with renowned masters of other traditions which some teachers of the kadampa tradition frowned upon as they believed the only true teachings were the ones by Jey Tsongkapa and his disciples. This conservative branch of the geluk sect started using one renowned conservative master who existed during the i think the 5th dalai lamas and died under mysterious circumstances(presumed murdered) time as a deity for worship. This is what is known as dorjee shugden. the Dalai Lama himself used to practice this form of worship but after practicing this form he realized it was not a conducive to his Buddhist practice. There are two different aspect to Tibetan opposition of NTK. There is no direct opposition in majority of tibetans to those practice of dorjee shugden. Most of the opposition to NKT practitioners started when they started taking money from Chinese government and started accusing the dalai lama of wild accusations based on falsely drawn conclusions. eg. That the dalai lama was a nazi sympathizer because the 1938-39 the german expedition was in tibet and a letter written by tibetan officials to hitler was supposedly signed with his name. He was born in 1935 he was 3 or four year old at the time. The only reasons they got access into tibet was because of the request put forward by the british government to the tibetan government through the then kingdom of sikkim. I personally don’t really care if some one practices it as every one is in titled to there opinion and practice. I only have a problem with NKT as the misrepresented the truth. I can go on and on about NKT and their practices and the chinese government involvement but i will not as like a goldsmiths test gold, like a practitioner should test dharma through personal experience and person should thoroughly check the information present to one.