Propaganda: The making of the holy Lama Ole Nydahl

I am not too much interested in discussing Ole Nydahl in this post. I wrote at length about his controversial sides on my German website. The German article was my response to a collective effort by Ole Nydahl followers to remove criticism against Ole Nydahl from the German Wikipedia. After a mediation had been provoked by me, one of the (female) pro Nydahl editors was able to influence the (male) Wikipedia mediator by secretly inviting him to a dinner and a lecture by Ole Nydahl. (I found this out when I checked their talk pages and what they had deleted on those pages.) When I realized this I confronted the Wikipedia mediator and the pro Nydahl editor with these facts and finally I withdrew from the mediation and the German Wikipedia article about Ole Nydahl and made my own article about him – basically collecting all the criticism which has been uttered over the last decades …

According to all the information I checked, read, and received, I think it is safe to say that Ole Nydahl is a classical elitist leader gathering people who finally identify themselves with an elitist group, the Diamond Way, and its leadership – elitists who are convinced that it is they who bring the Dharma (within the context of Tibetan Buddhism) to the West – and Tibetans or Buddhist monks or nuns are not much needed for this process.

Ok, naivety and pride can make you believe everything, no matter how stupid it is.

In that sense, Ole Nydahl and his Diamond Way followers are quite similar to the New Kadampa Tradition (NKT). Another similarity Ole and his Diamond Way Buddhism share with the New Kadampa Tradition is the occupation of a respected name for the spread of their movements in the West. Just as the NKT occupies and claims to be the inheritor and the possessor of the ancient Kadampa school, Ole Nydahl and his Diamond Way devotees occupy and claim to be the inheritor and the possessor of the Karma Kaygue Tradition in the West. Also, both share a similar missionary drive, rapid expansion, badly educated teachers, and a superficial understanding of the Dharma.

Burkhard Scherer writes about the Diamond Way movement:

As a New Buddhist movement, the Diamond Way revolves around its founder, the Danish Hippie-turned-Lama (Tibetan Buddhist teacher) Ole Nydahl (born 1941). His spiritual conversion, career and mission is remarkable, particularly because of the identitarian emphasis the movement places on the constant writing and rewriting of Nydahl’s (auto-)hagiography, or (rang gi) rnam thar in terms of the Tibetan Buddhist literary genre (Scherer 2014). Nydahl, together with his late wife Hannah (1946-2007), encountered the previous head of the Tibetan Karma Kagyu school, the Sixteenth Karmapa Rangjung Rigpe Dorje (1924-1981) in the late 1960s and early 1970s; Nydahl’s life narration subsequently constructs him as the first western student of the Karmapa hierarch (a contestable claim) and as one of the most successful propagators of Tibetan Buddhism in the West/global North in general.

It has been noted in previous research (Saalfrank 1997: 224-228; Scherer 2012a) that the movement can be meaningfully described as neo-orthodox (or better: neoorthoprax), using Peter Berger’s definition of neo-orthodoxy as “the reaffirmation of the objective authority of a religious tradition after a period during which that authority has been relativized and weakened.” (Berger 1980: 79): Nydahl is – in social and, selectively, in religious terms – a conservative propagator of Tibetan Buddhism among western lay converts (and now second generation convert Buddhists); his trademarks are a combination of charismatic self-stylisation and grandeur; old boy’s charm; and most importantly a superficially modernist hybridisation and packaging of orthodox (or better ‘orthoprax’) Buddhist content, which at times uneasily masks many traditional pre-modern features and the tendency to inscribe Tibetan Buddhist orthoprax devotion for the teacher into an uncritical personality cult and imitation of the teacher’s habitus (Scherer 2011, pp. 94-95).

Consequently, Nydahl’s charisma, socially conservative political views, and life style have drawn criticism for propagating a “life-style Buddhism.” (Ruch 2006); his broad, hyper-social and sometimes hedonistic appearing packaging of Tibetan Buddhism for a mainly privileged following (=white, heterosexual, abled-body/body-normative, young-to-middle aged, middle-classed) earned him the criticism of propagating a sort of “Buddhism light” (see Scherer 2009, pp. 35-38).

Im my opinion, Ole Nydahl has been rightly criticized for promoting a hedonist version of Buddhism. Ole Nydahl has also been accused of speaking in a conceited and militaristic way, of being right wing, racist, sexist, and hostile to foreigners. He also became infamous for his strong hostile attacks against Islam.

If you are interested, you can read parts of Scherer’s Nydahl biography here.

However, Nydahl and his followers see themselves as yogis. Yogis are basically renunciate meditators who live in solitude. Undistracted they dedicate their lives to purify their minds and to realise the ultimate nature (shunyata, emptiness) of things. The Diamond Way movement followers seem to be the first “yogis” of the Karma Kaygue Tradition who do not live in caves, solitude or the forest and who do not have to rely on renunciation but on (samsaric) joys like bungee jumping, fast motorbike races, parachuting, sex etc.

In Germany people reported to me that Ole Nydahl and his followers took over most of the German Karma Kaygue Centers and made them their own centers. They said they did this by making devoted followers members of the respective charity trusts, removing the old board and installing a new board that followed Ole Nydahl and his favorite Karmapa candidate (Thaye Dorje). There were mainly only three very strong persons in Germany who were able to resist Ole Nydahl’s take-over strategy, a former army general and two architects. The latter also won the court case (after Nydahl and his followers took over their centre in Hamburg) and they kicked Nydahl and his followers out of it.

Having said this, there are also some good things about Ole Nydahl and his Diamond Way Buddhism:

  • It is not too difficult to leave the group – though similar to NKT, going to other Buddhist teachers, Buddhist centers or Buddhist traditions is strongly discouraged, seen as a grave fault and a threat to the lineage … similar to NKT, Nydahl and his followers share the same attitude of sectarianism with Kelsang Gyatso and his followers¹
  • those who have left the group are not damaged too much, but report that mainly there has been benefit for them and they can continue under good teachers outside of Diamond Way very easily
  • many (but not all) think about their time in Diamond Way with gratitude, and say that it was a good, initial start for Dharma practice for them
  • Ole does not establish himself as the sole authority for his students but Ole also invites other Buddhist teachers like the late Shamar Rinpoche etc.
  • Ole accepts when a student leaves him and when the student says he wants to follow another teacher. A former student told me that Ole wished him all the best and let him go without grasping or hostility.

To come to the point of this post, I mainly wanted to make you aware of the following propaganda video:

Here is an analysis to it:

For a video about Tibetan yogis watch this video:

More critical information about Ole Nydahl

Burkhard Scherer’s research about Ole Nydahl and the Diamond Way movement²

¹ See for instance: A Warning Letter from Lama Ole Nydahl: Don’t Mix Tantric Methods and Teachers

² B. Scherer, professor of Religious Studies (Buddhism) at Canterbury Christ Church University, is a Tibetan Buddhist practitioner (main teacher: Karmapa Thaye Dorje), with previous links to the Diamond Way (for more details on Scherer’s positionality see the auto-biographical reflection in the 2014 article, pp. 107–108).

Header image: Ole Nydahl | CC BY-NC-ND 2.0