A life in the day of the New Kadampa Tradition

[Legal disclaimer: everything in this essay is the view and experience of the author and may not represent the experiences of others who were involved.]
I first came across the NKT when I was given a paid for respite break by a local charity, at Manjushri Kadampa Meditation Centre near Ulverston. I knew nothing of the NKT’s reputation or indeed that there were Buddhist groups with a bad rep.

My impressions were good. I went to puja (prayers sung to simple tunes) nearly every day, read books in the library and tried out meditation. I guess not many people talked to me, but the ones who did were kind and gentle, and I was able to reach some very basic realisations about my life in Buddhist terms. It made good sense, I very much wanted more, and I asked if I could move in. Immediately and with little consideration I was told no, only very select students could live at that centre, but I might try smaller NKT centres elsewhere.

A little over two months later I moved into Chenrezig Centre in Lancaster city centre. I was allocated a room that was large, but had only a skylight to allow in daylight, and no adjustable ventilation – the room was baking hot in summer and freezing cold in winter. We were discouraged from using much heating to save the centre money, despite we were paying towards bills and some of us were also making a monthly donation, as well as buying things for the centre out of our own pockets.

After a few weeks as a resident I was asked by the financial director to give my laptop computer to the resident teacher of the centre. At the time I didn’t believe he could be serious, and I laughed it off. Now I’m sure he was.

I was put under a lot of pressure to make financial donations in indirect ways – to pay for new robes for the resident teacher, to pay for her and other residents to attend teachings at other centres, and such like. I was on disability benefits, and I must have given thousands of pounds to the NKT while I was a member, one way or another.

Despite all this, I was quite happy there for some time. I was appointed meditation room supervisor, which meant keeping it clean, putting out and removing chairs and cushions for pujas and teachings, and organising the more complex puja rituals. I attended both General Program (GP:basic) and Foundation Program (FP:intermediate) classes, and although I wasn’t always entirely happy with answers to my questions, I was persuaded to believe this was due to my inexperience as a Buddhist practitioner. I was told Geshe Kelsang was both a Buddha and my guru, and I accepted that as part of the conditions of belonging to the tradition.  I had little idea what it meant or how to check it out, and we were discouraged from reading any books other than his. As with so many things, no one said you absolutely must not, but the usual phrase was, “Why would you want to?”.

Later the centre was to become divided. Neil Elliott, who had been Gen-la Thubten, moved in along with his wife, and he, the resident teacher and the financial director made a lot of decisions and changes that affected the rest of us, but in which we were allowed no part. NKT centres are definitely not democracies, and being a resident does not give you any say in what happens there.

After about 15 months I had a rough time with jetlag, following a trip to the US, where I had given a presentation on disability and spirituality. Despite my previous hard work and financial support of the centre, I was asked to leave. By now I had permission to take ordination as a nun, which had been granted on the condition of full support of my teacher, and now she was the main player in having me removed from the centre. A man living outside the centre was allocated to speed up my moving process, and within a short time I moved out to Bardsea, a village near Manjushri KMC. Manjushri still refused to consider me for residency, but I hoped that by being nearby and showing willingness and hard work, they might overlook my disabilities and allow me to move in.

Life in Bardsea was horribly lonely.  The village is small, most people drive off to work all day, and those that are left are the elderly, who don’t go out much. I had hoped that going to Manjushri centre would be enough, but it turned out to be the icing on the cake of great loneliness. I was allocated cleaning jobs two mornings a week – toilets and the large dining room – and I came in faithfully to do these.  Rarely did anyone talk to me, and I wonder if anyone even noticed I was doing the work. I went to puja every day, walking a half hour each way, and often no one really spoke to me there either. I attended the resident teacher’s GP class and the Sunday FP, which was where I got most of my interaction for the whole week.

Despite these bad experiences, I decided to go ahead and ordain. The time came, we had preparations the day before, and then the ceremony in the morning.  I took my vows and went home after lunch, in my robes, back to my empty flat, with a certain sense of failure and thoughts of, what’s actually changed? I had heard from other people that the high of being ordained usually lasted a few weeks, but mine didn’t last a day. Still, I was determined I was going to be a good nun and continue to develop my mind in Buddhist ways. I was unprepared for how often I would feel a failure, and how I would still find myself questioning what the NKT and my guru Geshe Kelsang were doing.

Following summer festival, I applied to move to Losang Dragpa centre in Todmorden, West Yorkshire. I had been refused previously, but now that I was a new nun, and there were new people in key roles at LDC, I was accepted, and moved in October. This was just as well – as evenings began to draw in walking to Manjushri centre along unlit lanes with no pavements was beginning to feel very risky, though no one cared to check on my welfare when I didn’t attend. At LDC things were not always a smooth ride.  My accommodation was two rooms in one of the blocks behind the castle – buildings that looked like run down council flats both outside and in. Our stairs had no carpet, just old flaking underlay, the buildings were barely heated, and in the cold, damp Yorkshire winter I had frequent colds and coughs I found hard to shake off.

Other things were quite well. I had frequent access to my FP teacher and occasional access to the resident teacher, who I admired very much – though it has to be said a lot of the residents didn’t like her because she hardly came out of her rooms.

My work for the centre was mainly ironing guest bedding and helping in the kitchen, as well as some time cleaning in the three meditation rooms. My disabilities were somewhat catered for in that I only had to work mornings, and I tended to get light duties during weekend events. It must be said that when I tried to get across the case for increasing disabled access to the centre I was told that disabled people never showed any interest in attending!  There was a chalet building that had apparently been intended to be wheelchair accessible, but on knowledgeable inspection really wasn’t. The NKT attitude to disability is a misapplication of one of the ten conditions for a human life to qualify as precious (according to Tibetan Buddhism): no physical or mental afflictions. Disabled people naturally have more difficulty accessing teachings and NKT sees little reason to make it easier for them. I struggled with this complete lack of compassion throughout my time in the NKT.

I was aware that other centre residents had a much harder time than I did in some ways – many were working full time at low paid jobs in order to pay their rent, bills and buy basic food, and on top of that they had to spend a set number of hours each week working for the centre, plus most of us were getting up early to attend teachings from 7am to 9am two days a week.  Stories abounded of how much good it had done some of our teachers to be exhausted to the point of crying throughout teachings and pujas through their excessive commitment to the centre.

On a day to day basis life at LDC was not easy, I still questioned things, but I took my ordination seriously, and tended to consider that this was as good as it gets.  I was living in a large centre, attending teachings several times a week, and pujas daily, and what more could a new nun ask for? I did want to volunteer in the local community, but my resident teacher wouldn’t hear of it, and directed me to train to work on the centre’s reception desk instead.

Then, following summer festival 2007, our cold, damp “paradise” on the hill fell apart. The first I heard of it was when a lay woman resident I was friendly with came to talk to me – about her feelings concerning our resident teacher having suddenly announced she was leaving. Despite being a nun, I had not been told, and the news was at least two days old. I managed to see the teacher before she left, and later found out she was not honest with me. Scandal had fallen once more on the NKT – Gen-la Samden, a monk and very high teacher, had been having sexual relations with nuns and lay women in the name of tantric practice. My resident teacher was one of those nuns. I found out at this point that what Samden did was exactly the same as what Neil Elliott, also serving as Gen-la, had done some years previously, though when Elliott had moved to Chenrezig centre we were given a watered down version – that he had given back his vows in order to marry Diane.

Our little world fell apart quickly – within a couple days of our teacher leaving we were informed she wouldn’t be replaced, the centre was closed, we all had to move on. A letter was shown around, declaring the centre to be impure, and leaving us in turmoil. Were we, the residents, also impure? Were the teachings we had received there corrupt?  No one came to help us or advise us. Later Gen-la Khyenrab, who had replaced Samden, said that sending someone to us in our time of need would have been like sending someone into a lion’s den. Both then and now my response to that is, didn’t the NKT have a Bodhisattva – a highly realised practitioner – in its ranks, who could have taken whatever was thrown at them, and helped lead us through the mess we were left in?  It’s ironic that many of us had heard of centres being suddenly closed, but we never thought it would happen to us.

The next few weeks and months were very strange. Residents gradually left, most of them for other NKT centres – despite all that had happened! I applied for a couple of centres – Manjushri, and Madhyamaka near York.  Both offered me a pre-residency working visit, then when I disclosed my disabilities both rejected me, despite my successful residency at LDC. I found myself directed to Nagarjuna centre in the Midlands. It sounded good – was known for taking people with disabilities, pets and/or children. I visited and found it completely isolated, with the format of the working day incompatible with making the long bus journey to town and back.  It was rumoured that the resident teacher, a lay woman, was permitted to have a TV, which was absolutely banned in all other centres. There was something odd about the place, like a kind of dumping ground for NKT misfits where they could cause little trouble.

Around this time I really began to leave the NKT. I visited the FPMT centre (a similar but reputable Buddhist tradition) in Leeds, where I was accepted, NKT ordination and all, and treated with great compassion and respect. Ultimately I was to be unable to continue with the FPMT either due to the traumas caused by NKT; this was no fault of theirs.

I decided to remain a nun, wearing robes and keeping my vows, but trying to make a go of it on my own, on the edges of but not fully involved with other traditions. I moved out from the run down block behind the castle that used to house LDC, tried to keep up a practice, and failed, even despite attending FPMT weekly.  In April I returned my robes, along with a letter returning my vows and expressing my disappointments, in a box posted to Geshe Kelsang. I knew by then not to expect a reply, and I never got one. I had been in NKT about three years, and a nun for around 21 months.

It’s three years now since I posted off my robes. I have changed and moved on but am still working to integrate my NKT experiences into anything coherent as a part of my history.  It’s deeply confusing – there is so much potential good in the beautiful teachings of the Buddha, but the organisation warps them, bending them to maximise its financial profits and minimise its responsibilities to its members. Therefore when a person sees the light and leaves the NKT it is hard to trust again, hard to find the spiritual direction and fulfilment that we need, and that led us there in the first place.

I am left distrusting of ritual and of teachers, even when I have researched a group and found it to be reputable. I feel some desire to strike out on my own spiritual path, but I don’t know how to find it without some direction and the company of others going a similar way. In other words, I don’t trust groups or teachers, and I don’t trust my own judgement. This, for me, is the lasting legacy of my time in NKT.

I valued being a nun more than anything at the time, but now everything holy and pure seems suspect, even though the real difficulty was not that I was too impure for the NKT – but that I was actually too pure for them! I could not, and ultimately would not, rationalise their failure to practise what they preached. Therein lies the irony of being a NKT survivor.

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