The New Kadampa Traditon – Purity Troubles

If you ever encounter or are/were affiliated with the New Kadampa Tradition (NKT) (aka “Kadampa Buddhism”) you will meet and learn four important concepts:

  1. the term purity,
  2. that “Geshe-la is a Buddha” [or it would be good to see the founder of NKT, Geshe Kelsang Gyatso, that way. And if you don’t see him (your guru) as a Buddha you won’t attain “any realization” …],
  3. that your perceptions and judgements are not reliable and
  4. that Geshe-la knows, while you don’t know, that’s why you need deep and pure faith [in him and his texts].

I think it is save to say that this fourfold belief system forms something like “the root” of the NKT ideology that ties spiritual seekers to NKT. This fourfold belief system is also extremely dangerous because it forms the basis for religious extremism. I will support my claims based on Lifton’s work about Shoko Asahara / AUM cult and by examining the term and traps of the concept of purity as it is been applied within the NKT. (All this is far from being perfect, I wrote it down quickly based on a discussion by email.)

Each of the four points just mentioned are important to be checked and examined and it is crucial to develop a deeper understanding about their meanings and contexts, otherwise you will highly likely be trapped into a religious extremist belief system with far reaching destructive consequences.

Let’s start with the first point, the term purity. (For a discussion of the meaning of “faith” see here, for a discussion of the misleading explanations by Kelsang Gyatso about faith see here. The dangers of seeing the Guru as unfailing see here.)

The term “purity” is very present in NKT. The term is combined with different other words including such claims as “if you come to the [NKT] festival you will meet many pure practitioners” or “we are pure Gelugpas”, “the pure tradition of Je Tsongkhapa”, “pure lineage”, “pure mind”, “pure world, “pure faith”, “pure moral discipline”, “pure concentration”, “pure compassion” etc., and – very important to note and to question that concept – NKT speaks a lot of “pure Dharma”, attaching this phrase to their own presentation and understanding of Buddhism, which suggests ‘the NKT is pure, the NKT teaches pure Dharma!’.

The term purity in the context of indo-Tibetan Buddhism has different meanings in different contexts. Pure can mean “free from the adventitious stains” (no afflictions like anger, attachment, envy etc.); “seeing all appearances as deities, all sounds as mantras …” – in the context of tantric practice; “being free from the conception of inherent existence”; “being free from all afflictions and knowledge obscurations together with their seeds” etc. …

Kelsang Gyatso, NKT’s controversial founder, defines in his book The Joyful Path of Good Fortune “Pure Buddhist instructions” as follows:

Pure Buddhist instructions are only those that have been received through a pure, unbroken lineage from Buddha Shakyamuni. (p.22)

If you just pick up this claim and use it to investigate if NKT meets their own standards (to be a pure tradition, that teaches only pure Dharma) you are trapped quickly in some amazing – and for NKT unwanted – consequences:
The NKT’s “ordination lineage” is not from Buddha Shakyamuni, it follows the NKT ordination is not a pure Buddhist instruction. It follows NKT monks and nuns do not have a “pure lineage”. This is easily established by following Kelsang Gyatso’s own definition and the explanation of his previous successor, Gen Kelsang Samten:

Also we have to understand that the presentation Geshe-la has given of the ordained way of life is new. Our vows are new, aren’t they? No one had these, specifically these vows before.

A lineage that doesn’t stem from Buddha Shakyamuni and is therefore no “pure Buddhist instruction” …

However, my main focus in this post are the dangers and misconceptions going along with the phrase “pure Dharma”.

Pure Dharma

In my opinion it is highly problematic to attach the term “purity” to the Dharma and to postulate a concept of “pure Dharma” from a spiritual/dharmic perspective and also from a mundane perspective.

The dharmic perspective

“The Dharma is without defilement”[1] – and therefore “pure” according to Maitreya’s Uttaratantrashastra (a text not existent nor studied in NKT[2]) – and there is no such thing as “impure Dharma”. If you add the term “pure” to Dharma you claim also that there must be something that is impure Dharma.

Dharma in the broadest sense is what overcomes the defilements of the mind[3] and in that sense all Dharmas are pure. If something is not an antidote to the defilements or a protection from a rebirth in the lower realms it is non-Dharma. So either phenomena are Dharma or they are non-Dharma. A third category, that discriminates between pure Dharma and impure Dharma, is not needed (except for sectarian purposes) nor is a discrimination between pure and impure Dharma stressed by any of the great Indian Buddhist pandits, the Buddha or Je Tsongkhapa! But all of them stress that a student must be able to discriminate between what is Dharma and what is non-Dharma!

The mundane perspective

From a mundane point of view the term “pure” is also highly questionable. The following descriptions by Robert J. Lifton in his Destroying the World to Save It: Aum Shinrikyo, Apocalyptic Violence, and the New Global Terrorism I found to be equally applicable to NKT:

There is a loading of the language, in which words become limited to those that affirm the prevailing ideological claims (Aum “truth” versus outside “defilement”). At the same time a principle of doctrine over person requires all private perceptions to be subordinated to those ideological claims. In Aum, that meant that doubts of any kind about the guru, or about his or Aum’s beliefs or actions, were attributed to a disciple’s residual defilement.

In such a closed world, there is often a demand for purity, an insistence upon an absolute separation of the pure and the impure, good and evil, in the world in general and inside each person. In Aum, only the guru could be said to be completely pure. Disciples, even the highest ones, engaged in a perpetual, Sisyphean struggle for purity, their guilt and shame mechanisms taken over by the cult if not by the guru himself.

There was also in wartime Japan a rigidly hierarchical system of absolute obedience that ran from the lowest-ranking soldier or mobilized civilian right up to the emperor. In the military it meant obedience to one’s immediate superior, whose orders, after all, represented the emperor’s. The principle became so extreme that at war’s end some Japanese soldiers refused to accept the emperor’s surrender speech because they had not received orders from their immediate superiors to stop fighting.

In Aum, too, orders from immediate superiors represented the omniscient will of the guru and were therefore sacrosanct. Both systems promoted the ideal of absolute purity—as represented by emperor or guru—and the inability to realize that ideal became a matter of personal and group failure.

In both, a totalized ideal of purification infused everything and, because it was unachievable, created a constant anxiety stemming from an ever-present sense of defilement.

What is not yet present in NKT is

As these belief systems broke down, enormous conflicts arose, occasioned by doubts about the infallibility of immediate superiors and, ultimately, about the divinity of the emperor or the guru. Final outbursts of violence reflected the dissolution of each system and its need to reassert its death-power.

The use of the term purity brings in an awareness of that there must be impure Dharma. This impure Dharma must be outside of the NKT because the NKT Dharma, “Geshe-la’s Dharma”, “is pure”. Kelsang Gyatso and NKT stress that it is of utter importance to “keep the Dharma pure”, “not mixing it” [with impure Dharma]. This leads to a close mental bondage to the imagined and believed purity of the NKT and a fear to the outside world where there is the potential “impure Dharma” or just [threatening] impurity. Such fears are nourished by Kelsang Gyatso in statements such as these:

Buddhism in general is degenerating, including the Tibetan Gelug tradition … Every year it is degenerating and becoming weaker, while political activities are increasing. This is very sad. However here in the west we are very fortunate. For us this is not a degenerate but an increasing time. During an increasing time the Dharma is flourishing, it is very easy to gain realizations, and there are many pure practitioners and realized beings. When Buddhadharma first began to flourish there were many realized beings, both Yogis and Yoginis. Then gradually they became less and less common, until now it is very rare to find a pure practitioner. (see Ordination Talk 1999, .doc)

If you think about this and if you have some experience with NKT, looking from a critical, distanced perspective, you might recognize that the concept of purity is used within NKT as Lifton portrayed it for the AUM cult: in the NKT there is purity (or the truth) outside of NKT there is degeneration (or defilement).

Besides the demands for purity in NKT, other parts quoted above of Lifton’s analysis of the AUM cult are also present in the NKT: an extreme tendency to guru obedience, the concept of the need to surrender to the guru (which is not mainstream Buddhism), the unfailing omniscient guru versus the fallible disciple that blames himself for everything (the guru can never be wrong), an ever increasing mental attitude – the longer one is committed to NKT the stronger it becomes – to feel guilty (of not having enough faith, of having too many negative emotions, of not working hard enough for the spread of NKT etc.). If things don’t work well for you, you must purify yourself, because it is your fault, your “impure view” etc.

Of course, so far, the NKT has not been involved in any murder or crime as Asahara did, still there are fundamentalist tendencies that I think are important to consider and to be aware of. When I left the NKT and read the following Interview by Shainberg with Robert Jay Lifton (that is only recently fully available online) I found a lot of similarities between NKT and the AUM cult from the point of view of structure, concepts and tendencies.

See also:

[1] »The Dharma is neither non-existent nor existent. It is not both existent and non-existent, nor is it other than existent and non-existent. It is inaccessible to such investigation and cannot be defined. It is self-aware and peace. The Dharma is without defilement. Holding the brilliant light rays of primordial wisdom, it fully defeats attachment, aversion, and dull indifference with regard to all objects of perception. I bow down to this sun of the sacred Dharma.

Inconceivable, free from the two [veils] and from thought, being pure, clear, and playing the part of an antidote, it is free from attachment and frees from attachment.

This is the Dharma with its features of the two truths.«

[2] None of the five treatises by Maitreya/Asanga is studied or even existent in NKT.

[3] »What is the difference between Dharma and non-Dharma?« the teacher Drom[tönpa] was asked by Potowa.
»If something is in opposition to fettering passions, it is Dharma. If it is not, it is not Dharma. If it does not accord with worldly people, it is Dharma. If it does accord, it is not Dharma. If it accords with the teachings of Buddha, it is Dharma. If it does not accord, it is not Dharma. If good follows, it is Dharma. If bad follows, it is not Dharma.« – Tsunba Jegom, Precepts Collected from Here and There (Kadam Thorbu)