A brief Review of the New Kadampa Tradition Chapter in: “Spiritual and Visionary Communities: Out to Save the World”

Former members of the New Kadampa Tradition (NKT), as well as spiritual seekers might be in a better position after reading Carol McQuire’s chapter about her experiences within NKT in:

because they can now base their discrimination and judgement on a more informed perspective.

It is the first academically reliable writing published from a former NKT follower’s point of view addressing issues such as the controversial NKT ordination and the commitment required from members. You might be able to read most of the text on Google-Books but to be fair to the publisher, editor and authors, I would like to encourage and recommend buying the book. It’s not very expensive (£17.99).

Academic research about the New Kadampa Tradition (especially that of the Open University by Prof. Robert Bluck and Dr. Helen Waterhouse) has been – for my taste – quite superficial so far. Robert Bluck (PDF) for instance tried to balance the criticism which was described by Dr. David Kay (PDF) by means of interviewing current members of the New Kadampa Tradition, and they – of course – rejected all criticism and toed the party line of the organisation. From McQuire’s insider-report on NKT one gets to know that “We should never talk to the press or to academic researchers. Only senior teachers could do this, by appointment …” (McQuire: 75). Using this insider-information provided by McQuire and putting it into another context, the interviews of NKT followers which Bluck made for his research on NKT, it becomes clear that Bluck only relied on well chosen people from the NKT establishment. Because no new voice of any former member of NKT is quoted by Bluck, Bluck seems to have missed interviewing former NKT members (or NKT critics) to at least balance the official NKT point of view of his interviewees. Subsequently – for instance – with respect to one of the many criticisms (or allegations) summarized in Kay’s research Bluck states (p. 147) :

More controversially, Bunting (1996b: 26; 1996c: 9) claimed that monastics changed out of their robes to sign for state benefits, residents financed NKT centre mortgages with their housing benefit, some members were pressurized into donating money through covenants or loans and the movement had acquired large properties including ‘several stately homes’. Waterhouse (1997: 144) reported properties being bought and renovated as local centres, with set board and lodging fees for residents who were often on state benefits, and she questioned whether those on the Teacher Training Programme were genuinely available for work.

All such accusations of wrongdoing were vigorously denied by interviewees, who explained that using housing benefit to support mortgages is wholly legitimate and that monastics often have part-time work and may wear ordinary clothes if this is more convenient (Namgyal, 2004). While smaller centres may struggle financially, donations were always voluntary. Manjushri’s large community and popular courses make it financially secure, a few people are sponsored because of their NKT work but others are on ‘extended working visits’ or work locally, and some are legitimately on employment benefit (Belither, 2004). However, while individual rule-bending has never been sanctioned, it may sometimes have been knowingly ignored, at least in the past.

However, for those who were deeply involved and committed to NKT it is obvious that Belither presented a skilful distortion of the facts to Bluck. And Bluck himself was obviously content with this statement, not going deeper into the issue. It is a major strategy within NKT to stretch the commitment of members to work full time for the organisation. Based on the pressure and dynamics of the organisation, many monastics had often no choice except to give up their paid work and receive state benefits which is then used to pay their rent to NKT – if they live in a NKT centre – and to pay the NKT study programmes, NKT festivals etc., and this money pays back the mortgages of castles and big, representative buildings. By this means NKT has acquired a considerable amount of expensive assets. Since this strategy is an integral part of NKT expansion one finds also in McQuire’s insider-report –  a “story similar to that of many others” (McQuire: 82) – in-between the lines (and there are many such points which are in-between the lines):

I wanted to live in an NKT residential community in Britain to deepen my practice and find support like that I had received from the Sangha, the NKT Buddhist community, in Mexico, I stopped training as a counselor and from 1998 to 2006 I lived within or very near an NKT centre with my children, depending entirely on British government social security benefits. I joined the Teacher Training Programme (TTP) and then, to  fulfill my intention to promote these teachings for the rest of my life, requested ordination …

As a result of this lack of questioning the official NKT characterisations, Bluck’s and Waterhouse’s research does not penetrate the issues in many ways and remains superficial – at least for my taste. The example given here is just one of many that can be given that can demonstrate that research published before McQuire’s account has often been superficial. The same non-challenging or non-questioning of NKT’s official point of view can be found also in Danial Cozort’s paper on NKT*. To give briefly another example, I would like to use one point I found in Waterhouse’s “Buddhism in Bath”*. There Waterhouse claims that the NKT ordination is a Getsul (skt. sramanerika) ordination. This is first of all not correct but more important, the implications of the change of how the Vinaya (monastic code for monks and nuns) is understood within NKT has grave, far reaching consequences for the spiritual life of NKT ordainees which have not been analysed at all so far by academic research. Again, McQuire goes into details with this too. There one learns for instance (p. 72/73):

Unlike in the Tibetan tradition, there was no ceremony for disrobing, no “clean break”. Those who disrobed had to stay away for a year and could never teach in the NKT again. Leaving was seen as shameful and a person who left would rarely be mentioned. It was said that disrobing would make our “bad karma” ripen as “hellish” experiences. We were told we were following a “special, new” ordination that “nobody has done before” but even though our ordination was different, we looked like Tibetan monks and nuns.

It was told the robes “tend to lend authority to ordained teachers” and soon after my ordination I began teaching. The first time I taught, enthusiastic, I heard voices in my head during the teaching saying ‘Who do you think you are?’ and criticizing me for teaching when I knew nothing! Upset, I stopped teaching even though Geshe-Ia said that teachers who get “discouraged” are “foolish”. A year later, my ‘Heart Jewel’ practice was stronger so I began again. Teaching was considered our main practice for “promoting the tradition”, a “heart commitment” of Shugden practice, along with regarding Shugden as inseparable from our Tantric practice deity and our Guru. We needed to become “qualified spiritual guides” as soon as possible; one NKT teacher would be “more important” to Geshe-Ia than “the hundred [students] who become Buddhas”. Being qualified didn’t mean passing our exams, that wasn’t necessary; it meant “relying on the Guru” through ‘Heart Jewel’ and then teaching others the NKT texts.

The latter passage of this is already picking up another controversial issue, the qualification of NKT teachers … and in this way almost every passage or even sentence or phrase by McQuire sheds some new light from an insider-perspective on the complex internal functioning of a totally closed, self-referential group, where only one voice is accepted as the highest authority, and the impact it has on an individual.

The chapter by McQuire opens up and invites a deeper investigation into the mechanics and life within NKT and it offers insights as to why there is such an increasing number of former members who have started to speak up, reporting the experience of considerable damage from the organisation. (see e.g. New Kadampa Survivor Forum).

INFORM, based at the London School of Economics, and an independent charity that was founded in 1988 by Professor Eileen Barker with the support of the British Home Office and the mainstream Churches, has published this collection of essays under Ashgate publishing. In recent years this research institution – upon whose expertise the UK government and UK journalists, as well as international and national researchers rely – had more inquiries about the New Kadampa Tradition than about The Church of Scientology (see for instance Annual Reports 2010 (PDF), 2011 (PDF) or this summary). I can only assume that INFORM  saw a need to offer this insider report. As the New Kadampa Tradition had successfully stopped different critical academic publications by threatening to sue the author or publisher, this is the first academic publication that passed unnoticed into the public realm offering a critical insider account. I would like to thank Carol McQuire, Prof. Timothy Miller, INFORM, and Ashgate publishing for their effort and courage.

At the moment I lack time to write a detailed review of the chapter by McQuire in “Spiritual and Visionary Communities: Out to Save the World”. Also, I would prefer an established researcher to write a peer-review but as yet this has not happened. That’s why, meanwhile, I would like to offer a review by Andrew Durling – who is also a former NKT follower who just recently left NKT – which he posted on Amazon. He kindly agreed that it can be posted here on the blog too:

I must admit to being biased about this book: I have personal experience of INFORM, the independent charity that collects and disseminates accurate, balanced and up-to-date information about minority religious and spiritual movements, and which has organised the bringing together of the collection of essays that constitutes this book. I have had reason to be very grateful for the balanced, sensitive help and advice INFORM gave me when I experienced the trauma of becoming involved in a bitter dispute within the New Kadampa Tradition, one of the movements written about in this book. The subtitle of this book – Out to Save the World – indicates what is common to all the intentional communities that feature in this book, these communities being just a small sample of the many thousands of such communities around the world. These communities originally start off with the best of intentions, in this case the intention to help save the world in some way. But so often these communities, because they involve some radical experimentation or innovation in communal living, or represent a radical break with a spiritual tradition, or cultural norm, have crises and disputes to deal with which threaten their very existence. How these communities deal with these crises determines, amongst other things, whether the original intention of these communities survives or changes significantly, sometimes so much so that it becomes unrecognisable to the community’s original founders or members. These communities, when they function harmoniously, often help their members to experience the height of spiritual inspiration, even ecstasy, in ways not available in the ‘normal’ world, sometimes creating the feeling of having been ‘saved’ and thereby empowered to help save others. But when they go wrong, the fall-out can be toxic to all involved, especially given the deep emotional, financial and social investment members of these communities often have to make in order to gain entry to them, or at least feel like they belong within them. Exit from these communities, voluntary or enforced, is often deeply traumatic and destabilising for both the people leaving and for some of those left behind.

I will only mention one essay in this book, the chapter written by Carol McQuire about her time as a Buddhist nun within the New Kadampa Tradition (NKT), which is deeply controversial within the world of Buddhism generally. I, like Carol, was once a devout member of the NKT and I was deeply moved by Carol’s searing honesty about her experiences, and about her complex and evolving feelings towards the teachers, teachings and organisational practices of the NKT both during her time as a nun and after her traumatic exit from the NKT. I could relate to many of her experiences and feelings and recognised how difficult it is to retain one’s idealism and devotion in the midst of turbulent, confusing and often disturbing change within an organisation like the NKT, which tries so hard to preserve what it perceives to be a ‘pure’ Buddhism whilst at the same time trying to put clear blue water between itself and the rest of the Tibetan Buddhist tradition that it originally evolved from and which often itself criticises the NKT as being less than a ‘pure’ Buddhist sangha. Carol’s essay was somewhat cathartic for me and helped me with my present journey towards understanding and integrating my past within the NKT. I suspect many of the other essays in the book will serve a similar function for others who have had contact with either the NKT or the other intentional communities explored in this book.

All the essays in this book are meticulously backed up with copious footnotes and references to academic research and documentary material, and the introductory overview by Timothy Miller of the broad history of intentional communities is extremely useful in putting the essays that follow into context. The stories in this book are about powerful, often bizarre, always deeply felt experiences by real life people within the intentional communities they belonged to, and show a side of spiritual life that very rarely makes the headlines, especially as many communities have fraught relationships with the media and society in general, sometimes preferring not to engage openly with them at all, in order to maintain their ‘purity’ or so as to maintain their freedom to operate in the way they wish to, or simply because they despair of ever getting the wider world to understand or accept them. This book is an invaluable contribution to the study of intentional communities and their often fraught histories, complex social relationships and organisational psychologies. It is also very readable and compelling into the bargain. Truth is often stranger than fiction and this book certainly illustrates that.

* For a detailed list of academic research about the New Kadampa Tradition see

  Last edited by tenpel on June 10, 2015