For one week I was in London. During that time I visited also INFORM—an internationally renowned research group based at the London School of Economics. I am full of praise and respect for their work. First of all, the persons I met are very intelligent, clear minded and have a warm, unbiased and compassionate attitude, which I really cherish very much because such qualities are a must for such work and they are always useful for self and others. Also INFORM is not unaware about the harm New Religions can bring to people, which was important for me to see because some accounts I read from Massimo Introvigne (CESNUR) seem to confirm the criticism of cult-watch-movements that he might be rather supporting these groups by downplaying the potential harm that so called cults can bring to others.
Actually I think there is a fine line between the freedom of religion, and a setting which creates an environment that undermines the freedom of an individual or actually encourages the exploitation of individuals on a material, emotionally or sexual level. What is more important, the concept of “freedom of religion” or that the people’s freedom and well-being is not harmed in the name of religion? In Germany the concept of “freedom of religion” was seen as higher than the concept of the “rights of animals”, therefore a German court gave permission in the name of “religious freedom” for kosher butchering. A decision I feel to be quite questionable even in mundane perspective not to speak about a Buddhist point of view.
Researchers like Margaret Thaler Singer stress the rights of the individual not to be harmed in the name of religion and researchers like Massimo Introvigne stress the rights of the freedom of religion and that New Religious Movements should not be harmed by denouncing them or portraying them in a biased manner. Actually I appreciate both approaches. But for my taste how Introvigne writes about Singer appears to me also as being biased and at times even hostile. Maybe I am wrong about Introvigne, but to me the key point seems to be that if we cling too strongly to ideas of purity (etc.) or hold fanatically to the concepts of rights, there is a tendency to see these ideas as more important than the sentient beings’ welfare. These attitudes will always lead us away from being really human, compassionate and wise. All types of fundamentalism or inhumanity go together with the attitude that certain concepts are seen as more important than sentient beings welfare and freedom. What makes the things even more complicated is that these concepts also claim to exactly know what is good or bad for the being’s welfare… We’re walking on razor’s edge…
It was mainly from my Wikipedia work, what I learned there as an editor, some explorations into the so–called “cult” or “anti-cult” stuff, and exchanges with INFORM that protected me from falling from one extreme to another, which means after having followed devotedly a cult movement to apply the same black and white patterns but now as an “anti-cultist”. This danger really exists after having left a cult. One is at risk to not recognize the black-and-white patterns and to fall under their spell again. In that sense one needs really a “deprogramming” of one’s bad mental attitudes in order to really ‘get rid of the cult’ not only outwardly but also inwardly, in the own mind.
During my visit to INFORM and in the last days I learned three things. One is with respect to NKT, the second has to do with the Geshe title claim of Kelsang Gyatso, and the third thing I learned is to question the ways of how to deal with groups which have a lot of destructive patterns. Besides the INFORM visit, one of the highlights with respect to my thinking about NKT and the issue of destructive movements or spiritual leaders who lead their students astray was a meeting with Claude AnShin Thomas, the head of the German Buddhist Monastic Congregation, Ven. Bhikshuni Thubten Choedroen, who I met with in Kassel (Germany) on July 18th, 2011. I was thinking it might be helpful to share some of the points here in brief:
INFORM’s Statistics of Enquiries
It was quite astonishing for me to learn during my INFORM visit that in 2008 and 2010 the most enquiries with respect to groups were with respect to the New Kadampa Tradition. The NKT topped even Scientology. Here are the statistics. They are available for the public and were provided by Suzanne Newcombe (PhD), Research Officer at Inform:
In 2008 Inform received enquiries about 84 different groups about which it already had some information. Of these specific groups, those about which Inform received the most enquiries were:
39 New Kadampa Tradition
37 Mehdi Zand / World of Yaad
22 Church of Soientology
20 Mohan Singh
15 Unification Church
8 The Family International
6 Brahma Kumaris
5 School of Economic Science
4 Exclusive Brethren
4 Hizb ut-Tahrir
4 International Churches of Christ
4 Landmark Education
4 Soka Gakkai International
Inform notes in their report about 2008: “A considerable amount of staff research time arose out of the enquiries about the New Kadampa Tradition, Mohan Singh, and Mehdi Zand and the World of Yaad.”
The 2010 Annual Report is not finalised. For 2010 the comparative figures are:
28 New Kadampa Tradition
27 Mohan Singh
13 Church of Scientology
9 Falun Gong
5 Exclusive Brethren
5 Friends of the Western Buddhist Order
5 School of Economic Science
4 Unification Church
3 Brahma Kumaris
3 Diamond Way Buddhism
3 Divine Light Mission
3 Jehovah’s Witnesses
3 New Frontiers
3 Sahaja Yoga
3 Schiller Institute
3 Universal Church of the Kingdom of God
3 Mehdi Zand
1996-2010 enquiries about the New Kadampa Tradition:
1996 – 19 enquiries
2 former members
3 current members
1997 – 9 enquiries
1998 – 11 enquiries
3 current members
1999 – 6 enquiries
2000 – 6 enquiries
2001 – 6 enquiries
2002 – 3 enquiries
2003 – 3 enquiries
2004 – 2 enquiries
2005 – 1 enquiries
2006 – 7 enquiries
2007 – 17 enquiries
8 former members
1 current member
2008 – 39 enquiries
6 current members
13 former members
2009 – 23 enquiries
3 current members
6 former members
2010 – 28 enquiries
5 current members
7 former members
Geshe Title of Kelsang Gyatso
The Geshe title of Kelsang Gyatso is somewhat a mystery, while he claims to hold a Geshe title, some sources say he didn’t receive the Geshe degree. The New Kadampa Tradition sent their point of view to INFORM together with the permission to make it available if someone asks for it: »Separate document regarding Geshe Kelsang’s personal situation«. (PDF) If one reads it carefully and has some background it shows some inconsistencies, e.g. in Tashi Lhunpo it is not possible to study to become a Geshe, one is offered the Khachen degree. It seems that Kelsang Gyatso indeed didn’t really receive the formal Geshe title, and he himself states that he didn’t accept the changes with respect to it, hence he had to bear the consequences of this decision.
The arguments the New Kadampa Tradition is using to defend the Geshe title are not very helpful because it is not uncommon either to call someone out of respect a Geshe or even just for fun. To praise a learned person as a master and to write long life prayers which portray him to be a great teacher is a common approach in Tibetan Buddhism. The statements made in long life prayers shouldn’t be taken literally. Our Lharampa Geshe in Italy even forbade to recite his long life prayer “because it is not true.” To use long life prayer statements as arguments to settle a controversy about a Geshe title is not very productive in such a context.
The problem seems to be more that the Geshe title is sometimes used or given even if persons did not do the final debates and exams. For instance according to a Geshe at Nalanda monastery (France) Geshe Michael Roach received his Geshe title after he had done the amount of work of four years of study and because he was a generous sponsor. In that context some argued this is the way how corruption enters education and spirituality. I have been told that sometimes even cooks can get an honorific Geshe title. According to a fully ordained nun from the Tibetan Centre in Hamburg (Germany) Khensur Rinpoche Geshe Jampa Tegchok, who taught from 1997-1982 the Geshe program at Manjushri Institute (now NKT’s “mother centre”), a program which was approved by the Dalai Lama, and who served for seven years as an abbot in Sera received the Geshe title without the final requirements. But this is perfectly accepted by everybody and nobody has challenged it, he is held in highest esteems! So there is a type of acceptance, ambiguity or flexibility which is different to our Western world where it is a very clear process when one obtains a PhD. Trying to get some clarity I wrote to some learned persons:
Actual there are some Geshes, who didn’t do their Geshe exam but use the title Geshe and this is perfectly accepted and no problem within Tibetan Buddhism. I just heard that also my 80 year old teacher who was aboot for 7 years of Sera Je in India, Geshe Jampa Tegchok, and who was in the first 2 years together with Kelsang Gyatso at Manjushri Centre, did not do the Geshe exam, still it is perfectly fine for him to have the Geshe title and it is commonly accepted.
Carola Roloff (PhD) replied in an email:
That is true, although I know Tibetan geshes who do not feel that this is appropriate. It seems that it became more and more quite common, at the same time this leads to an inflation of the academic geshe title. Similarly it is criticized that more and more Tulkus are appointed. Generally speaking there are several geshe titles. The term geshe, lit. kalyanamitra, already occurred from the 8th century onwards, as we can see from the Kadam Chöjung and thus correctly pointed out by Geshe Kelsang Gyatso. Actually yesterday I learned that even Dromtönpa is considered to have been a geshe in the sense of a scholar, although he was a lay person. It seems that the geshe title by Gelugpa monasteries came only in existence by the 18th century. I have raised the issue of Tibetan scholar titles in my MA thesis and in relation to Rendawa in my PhD thesis.
When I asked for her permission to quote this statement, she agreed and asked to add the following paragraphs:
However, I would like to point out that this is a very complex issue. For example, in the Tibetan Gelug monasteries in Indian exile it was possible that you receive the geshe title as long as you were enrolled, even if you were travelling most of the time and did not join the classes, as long as you participated in the final exam. This does not mean that you have or do not have the knowledge required. It will depend on many circumstances such as the person’s ability and determination, the teachers close to the person etc., whether the knowledge has been accumulated.
For somebody who worked most of the time for the monastery and therefore was not able to join the classes, it was sufficient to memorize a certain text (minimum 50 pages/folios?) to receive the geshe title. During the traditional final debate session such person would sit next to the main of three main candidates, who sits in the middle, but would not be expected to say anything. This leads indeed to situations in which persons who never studied the major five texts receive a geshe title.
On the other hand there are monks (and nuns) who did the full study, which nowadays takes 17 years, but did not receive the geshe title, either because they did not want it (in the case of some monks), or because they did not receive it (in the case of nuns), although they seem to have passed all exams required according to the gelug exam regulations and perhaps could even become a geshe lharampa. Why some monks did not want the title may have various reasons such as (apparent or true) modesty/renunciation, or lack of money to make the traditional offering to the whole community of monks after they have received the degree. But again, this does not mean that those who accepted the geshe title are always true or not true practitioners.
So again, as so often, things are not black and white and have a very complex background. There are also cases like Lama Yeshe–founder of the FPMT and Manjushri Centre near Ulverston/Cumbria)–who was a Tulku and a Rinpoche but never used those titles. As far as it was told to me his situation was similar to that of Kelsang Gyatso but he never used the Geshe title.
Not Isolating Groups
We have a very sad case in Germany were the Vietnamese abbot (Thich Thien Son) of a huge community in Frankfurt (Pagode Path Hue) is accused of having inappropriate sexual relationships with some of his male students. According to former members he even claims wrongly this would be a part of the monk’s training and other masters would do it likewise. This abbot had been the former head of the Deutsche Buddhistische Ordensgemeinschaft (DBO). After extensive research by the DBO board and engaged Buddhists, based on five affidavits the “abbot” was finally expelled from the DBO. The DBO made a public statement on their website too. Some concerned Buddhists and the DBO informed teachers, musicians, and the Jade Buddha project about the findings of the DBO to be able to make an informed decision. Though many terminated their collaboration with the Pagode in Frankfurt, some didn’t. Among them was Claude AnShin Thomas and his decision was felt by some as controversial. Due to different reasons and circumstances the head of the DBO and I were able to meet him, and it was quite an extraordinary experience… To make it short, though Claude Anshin refused to take sides or positions with respect to the accusations his point of view is: “if the accusations are true the group needs help, if they are not true, they need help too and if they are semi-true they also need help. Isolating groups is not a good way of dealing with such problems.”
Though the DBO statement and my own engagement in this case were not based on the wish to isolate the group, public statements such as these will rather naturally lead to an isolation and though such public statements might be useful to protect others and to enable people to make an informed decision, they aren’t necessarily the best way to address spiritual, power, sexual, material or emotional abuse.
At the moment I am in the process of sorting out these understandings, and I asked Suzanne Newcombe (PhD), a research officer at INFORM what she thinks about it. With her permission I quote her here:
Sociological research shows that it is when groups are social and physically isolated that the most harmful things happen. Extremism in both thought and behaviour is moderated somewhat by contact with other groups and ‘mainstream society’. This is partially behind Inform’s policy of always trying to maintain directly contact with the groups we study. ‘New’ groups or those with charismatic leadership can change very quickly and unpredictably, so it is also good to have contact so that one can have accurate information about what is actually happening.
In the Canadian Rigpa documentary one of the women says that she approached a visiting monk at Sogyal’s centre in France asking what it meant to be a ‘consort’ and was told by this person that it was ‘a great honour’. She later felt that this individual was colluding and supporting what she would describe as Sogyal’s ‘abuse’ of women. I wonder what would have happened if that monk would have said – no Buddhist should cause harm by sexual relationships. There is a fine line between being seen as ‘endorsing and colluding’ and being available to moderate, observe and counsel individuals away from harm. Being able to say clearly and with specific examples, how Thich Thien Son’s actions have caused harm to some of those who were in relationship with him, is very helpful.
One of the key theories sociologists use is that of ‘deviance amplification’ the wikipedia link here is a fair introduction: Deviancy amplification spiral. Traditionally, it focuses on media involvement in demonising sections of society or particular groups. However, you can also sometimes see the same cycle at work with say, a ‘problem’ child in school – the child becomes labelled as a problem and then acts more and more in accord with the label. If you want more reading along these lines, let me know and I’ll think a bit more.
I hope this is some food for thought.
Upadate 19 March 2012
- INFORM’s leaflet Extremism on University Campus – Oct 2011 (PDF)
updated: March 19, 2012