The Birth of the New Kadampa Tradition ‘Lineage’: ‘Teething Problems’


Recently, a poster on this blog spoke of “cases of denial, which, in the current climate here in the UK, especially with regard to sexual exploitation, are relevant. These are related to individual’s actions and not to policy but there was a reluctance to accept that this was happening.”

For the sake of clarity, these issues are here recounted.It should be noted that since the deposition of Steve Wass, Kelsang Gyatso’s second appointed but failed successor, further appointees have come and gone, under circumstances which are far from clear (how could it be otherwise in a climate where cover ups and a complete unwillingness to admit to mistakes are clearly the norm?) Those knowledgeable about these circumstances are welcome to share that knowledge here, provided they are not simply  repeating rumour, as are those with knowledge of the ongoing psychiatric consequences experienced by the victims of the abuse cited, as well as their attempts to come to terms with these.

The link between Gyatso and Elliott was and is a strong one and it is clear that from very early in their relationship, the former recognized the latter’s potential as an effective orator and organizer. One of the conditions of membership that Gyatso stipulated in his 1991 letter to centres inviting them to join the NKT was that, when he died, ‘Gen Thubten Gyatso’ (Elliott) would be the organisation’s ‘Spiritual Director’.[1] Gyatso even went so far as to pen a long life prayer for his disciple which, until 1996, was regularly sung throughout all of the NKT’s centres. Elliott reciprocated by referring to his teacher as the greatest reformer of the Buddhist traditions since Tzong Ka Pa, ‘the Third Buddha’ who ‘restored the essential purity of Buddha’s doctrine’ and demonstrated ‘how to practice it in these extremely impure times’. According to Bunting, Elliott was, ‘The power behind the throne’;[2] he was certainly a figure held in awe by many among the organisation’s ever-burgeoning intake.

Elliott himself was an enigmatic individual, oft seen in his early ordained days pounding Manjushri’s cloister beneath a dark cloud with furrowed brow, an indication perhaps of the intense personal struggles he was undergoing at the time; the above, somewhat dualistic portrayal of the ‘pure’ versus ‘impure’ dichotomy that haunts so many beginners in Buddhism perhaps offering an insight into what the nature of those internal struggles might have been. In time however, he gave the appearance of having controlled his demons and subsequently became a central figure in the development of the NKT. Kay tells us that many of the distinguishing features that pervade today’s NKT, such as its study programmes and expansionist policies, were a direct result of Elliott’s inspiration. He was also a keen propitiant of Dorje Shugden and it was his influence as much as Gyatso’s that led to its instigation as a central and universal NKT practice.

The intensity of his devotion to both deity and teacher were rewarded, as we have seen, by Gyatso’s authorization of Elliott to grant Shugden initiations. Elliott was portrayed as, ‘…the first qualified English Tantric meditation master in Britain’[3] though actually, two other English teachers of Tibetan Buddhism in the UK[4] had several years previously been given permission to grant initiations; unlike Elliott however, each had trained for lengthy periods in their own respective traditions. That the myth of Elliott’s uniqueness continues to endure demonstrates the ignorance of those who perpetrated it and those who believed it with respect to their knowledge of the other Tibetan Buddhist traditions extant in the UK at the time.

As Lord Acton observed, absolute power corrupts and this seems to be exactly what happened with Elliott, as a result of the absolute power which he came, so rapidly, to wield.[5] Delusions of grandeur seem to have set in by the spring of 1994 when he declared NKT teachers (and thereby, by implication, himself) to be ‘emanations’[6] of Gyatso, ‘the Third Buddha’, a declaration that, with little imagination, could be interpreted as a direct claim to enlightened status.

Despite the fact that such a claim, if untrue, represents one of the ‘four defeats’ resulting in immediate expulsion from the monastic community,[7] this does not appear to have been the basis for his rather unceremonious public disrobing in 1996, after what the Guardian newspaper described somewhat nebulously as a ‘breach of his monastic vows’.[8]

That Elliott should fall prey to worldly whims and stumble back into the garden of earthly delights is not an indication of great evil but rather an indication of his being subject to the same basic frailties that affect each of our ordinary human lives. Nevertheless, the event was extremely damaging for Gyatso and the NKT for a number of reasons, not least because it cast doubt on the judgment of one perceived by his followers to be the ‘Third Buddha’. Again, for someone in a position of such power and respect to demonstrate what appear to have been some rather basic human shortcomings cast doubts over the efficacy of the whole of the NKT’s path, of which Elliott was probably the most devoted adherent. Finally, if Elliott’s misconduct was of a sexual nature, this raises the spectre of misuse of power and sexual abuse, something which the NKT would certainly not wish to be associated with; the fact that the organization repeatedly refused to comment on the specific causes for his expulsion could be interpreted as an indication of a fear of the potential damage such allegations might cause.[9]

Elliott disappeared from the radar for a short while but, despite his initially being ‘banned’ by the NKT,[10] returned to the organization as a layman and now resides at Manjushri Kadampa Meditation Centre (formerly ‘Manjushri Institute’) where, according to ex members, he continues to play an important role in the NKT. In 2003, the NKT’s publishing house Tharpa produced yet another of the ubiquitous translations of Shantideva’s popular ‘Guide to the Bodhisattva’s way of Life’, this particular translation being the work of Kelsang Gyatso and Neil Elliott. Images of him alongside members of the press during the demonstrations against the Dalai Lama outside the Albert Hall in 2008 and videoing the demonstration in Nürnberg indicate that Elliott is also involved with the WSS at a relatively senior level.

After the debacle of Neil Elliott’s very public disrobing in 1996, Gyatso eventually appointed Steve Wass, or Gen-la Samden Gyatso, as his next successor and Assistant Spiritual Director in charge of the worldwide development of the NKT. ‘Gen-la’, one of the first of Gyatso’s first disciples to have ordained under his newly created system of ordination, was described as:

…a powerful and inspiring teacher with vast personal experience of the Buddhist path. He teaches even the most profound teachings with perfect clarity and is loved and respected internationally for his practical, warm-hearted approach to Buddha’s teachings.[11]

Elsewhere, he was portrayed as:

…a perfect example of the extraordinary qualities we can develop through sincerely relying on a spiritual teacher and putting Buddha’s teachings into practice in our daily lives … If we follow his example and rely on his teachings we can make our lives truly meaningful.[12]

However, websites[13] created by NKT followers in 2008 to ‘fight the smears’ against the organisation, indicate that ‘Gen-la’s’ behavior behind closed doors at the time was far from exemplary.

These tell us that in December 2006 allegations began to surface on the internet that Samden Gyatso had been engaging in sexual acts with a number of women over a considerable period of time, behaviour allegedly justified by his claiming the sex was ‘tantric’. Moreover, it was suggested that, despite having full knowledge of this, Kelsang Gyatso had failed to act. As a result, Samden remained in his position and continued the abuse for a significant period of time.[14]

According to the NKT’s ‘smears’ website, in November 2005 an ex-NKT monk wrote to Gyatso explaining his suspicions about Samden’s misconduct, suspicions based on specific advice Samden had given him. Gyatso asked if the ex-monk had any evidence of misconduct, which he had not. He was then asked not to repeat the allegations, unless he could produce said evidence.

In January 2006, the same person wrote to Gyatso again, explaining the nature of his suspicions in more detail. Once again, he had no proof; neither had he seen anything, nor had anyone confided in him; he simply felt a ‘strong suspicion’. Gyatso revealed in response that he had in fact confronted Samden over the allegations, but that the latter had responded by denying any wrongdoing.

Samden Gyatso was finally removed fifteen months later, in February 2007, purportedly for other, unassociated reasons,[15] reasons which were outlined in a letter sent to the Resident Teachers (RTs) of each of the NKT’s many centres. It was only after his removal, the NKT claim, that a small number of people came forward, each with similar stories of sexual exploitation providing evidence that there was indeed substance to the earlier allegations.

Gyatso then wrote to Samden condemning his behaviour. The letter, which was copied to all NKT RTs read:

You have destroyed the NKTs reputation and the power of all NKT Resident Teachers. Through your actions so many ordained Teachers have disrobed following your view which is opposite to Buddhist view – you tried to spread a sexual lineage which you yourself created. Even in society a Teacher cannot have sex with students. After you left many people confessed to me that you had had sex with them … We will never allow your sexual lineage to spread in this world.

According to the ‘smears’ website, Gyatso and others in the NKT are presently trying to help individually anyone affected by Samden’s behaviour. Samden himself simply disappeared from the NKT radar: in May 2007, Vishvapani of the FWBO noted that:

If you follow links to Samden on the NKT’s webpage they will take you, in a somewhat Orwellian manner, to his replacement, Kelsang Khenrab, with no word of explanation of how or why the change took place.[16]

The deposition of Samden Gyatso was an imperative for Gyatso for a number of reasons. Firstly, in Tzong Ka Pa’s monastic tradition, to engage in sexual acts with a physical partner is totally forbidden for monks; Gelug monastic practitioners must rely only on a visualized partner throughout their corporeal life before achieving enlightenment in the after-death state through meditative transformation of that experience.[17] For Samden to introduce a path which contradicted this, as the above implies, represented a clear threat to Gyatso’s portrayal of his organization as the inheritor’s of the purity of Tzong Ka Pa’s tradition; if Samden’s path were to gain credence, this would totally undermine such a claim.

Secondly, the deposition was imperative from a public perspective because, in distancing themselves from Samden and his actions, the NKT and Gyatso were able to separate themselves from the abuse which he had seemingly perpetrated. What seems rather strange however is that, in doing so, they openly revealed both the nature and degree of the abuse in which their former Assistant Spiritual Director had supposedly engaged. In light of the circumstances surrounding his predecessor’s deposition still remaining a closely guarded secret, this represented a significant change of tack by the NKT. Let us examine the nature of this alleged abuse so as to understand why this unprecedented revelation was necessary.

It can be argued that while all forms of sexual abuse are immoral, the level of that immorality varies in dependence upon the nature and context of the abuse. For instance, while the sexual abuse of an adult is immoral, the sexual abuse of a vulnerable minor is perhaps significantly more so.

In this case, the sexual activity is alleged to have taken place between two, consenting adults at any one time. Normally, such a consensual act would not be considered immoral. However, Samden was both a monk and the Assistant Spiritual Director of the whole of the NKT empire and, as such, occupied a position of trust. This raised status transforms a consensual act into an abusive one. The UK Sexual Offences Act 2000 for example, argues that it is an abuse where a person who holds a position of trust over another engages in sexual relations with that person. Since Samden was in a position of great power and trust at the time these events are said to have occurred and the supposed relationship between the individuals concerned was a fiduciary one, it would certainly be appropriate to refer to such acts as abusive.

Of course, it could be argued that, because the supposed victims were adults under the impression that the sexual activity was, it seems, ‘tantric’ and therefore conducive to their long term well-being they would have consented to the activity, thus rendering it non-abusive. The reality of the situation however, is that the path that Samden is alleged to have espoused was common to him alone; as Gyatso put it, ‘you tried to spread a sexual lineage which you yourself created’. As a trained Buddhist practitioner with many years experience of teaching the tantric path, Gyatso would surely have been capable of distinguishing a fabricated path from a valid, historically established one.

What this means is that, not only would Samden’s purported multiple relationships with his female students been abusive, occurring as they seem to have done in the context of an unequal relationship, but also that they were justified on the basis of a false representation of the Buddhist path which promised the victim spiritual benefits if they participated. The sexual abuse then would have been of a ritualized form.

It was therefore, of the utmost importance for the credibility of Gyatso and the NKT that they publicly distanced themselves from Samden’s actions at the earliest opportunity, since no organization would want to be accused of knowingly and consistently presiding over adult ritual abuse or be forced to deal with the aftermath of such a scandal.

As with the case of Neil Elliott however, this raises some important questions, not least among them, how Gyatso could once again have not realized that he was presiding over misconduct, misconduct that had been pointed out to him repeatedly but against which he had failed to act. Seemingly, this occurred because the initial accuser had not presented Gyatso with any substantial evidence. Some however must surely have wondered why the ‘Third Buddha’ would have needed such evidence and, in light of his experience with his first proposed successor, why Gyatso had not acted significantly earlier.

In a 2008 response to allegations that ‘Geshe Kelsang has made mistakes in establishing the manner of his succession’[18] the NKT claimed that Gyatso had in fact ‘…shown great skill in establishing the manner of his succession’, and that it was ‘…thanks to having experienced first-hand the limitations of the other methods of succession that NKT practitioners can appreciate the current system and realize its wisdom’; unsurprisingly, the response made no specific reference to the nature of the ‘limitations’ highlighted by the inappropriate actions of either Elliott or Samden, despite their magnitude.

[1] Kay (2004) p 79
[2] M Bunting (August 15th 1996) ‘Sect Disrobes British Monk’ The Guardian, London
[3] Bunting (August 15th 1996)
[4] Rigdzin Shikpo (Mike Hookham) of the Nyingma and Kagyu traditions, and Lama Jampa Thaye of the Sakya and Kagyu traditions.
[5] John Emerich Edward Dalberg Acton, first Baron Acton (1834-1902). The historian and moralist, expressed the opinion in a letter to Bishop Mandell Creighton in 1887 that: ‘Power tends to corrupt, and absolute power corrupts absolutely. Great men are almost always bad men.’
[6] Thubten Gyatso ‘On training as a teacher’ in ‘Full Moon’ NKT magazine
[7] 1) Penetrative sexual intercourse. 2) Stealing above a trivial amount. 3) Killing a human being. 4) Falsely claiming superior spiritual achievements. If a monk engages in any of these four actions, he is no longer a monk and is not readmitted into the community.
[8] Bunting (August 15th 1996)
[9] Bluck (2006)  ‘…senior disciple Gen Thubten Gyatso was ‘disrobed and banned’ from the NKT, ostensibly because of a ‘breach of his monastic vows’ … though there is some confusion here.’ p 132
[10] Bunting (15th August 1996)
[11] Publicity, Australasian Festival 2006, published 24th March 2005
[12] Publicity for a course at the NKT’s Rameshori centre in Atlanta, Georgia, November 2005
[15] One person appears to have been told that Samden had resigned because he found the prospect of eventually becoming the NKT’s General Spiritual Director too heavy, and that he had withdrawn ‘into retreat’. See Vishvapani (May 2007) ‘NKT Succession and Questions of Authority’
[16] Vishvapani (May 2007)
[17] See A Berzin (August 2003) ‘A Short Biography of Tsongkhapa’: ‘Tsongkhapa died at Ganden in 1419, at the age of 62. He attained enlightenment after his death by achieving an illusory body (sgyu-lus) instead of bardo. This was to emphasize the need for monks to follow strict celibacy, since enlightenment in this lifetime requires practice with a consort at least once.’