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by Carol McQuire
Thank you for asking me to talk.*
I will speak about what I think Shugden practice is in the New Kadampa Tradition or NKT.
I believe that the NKT is a ‘closed system’ that needs to silence those who could interfere with its claimed ‘authority’. I will argue that the NKT uses ‘Shugden’ to do this. Shugden practice in the NKT does not look like, and is not used in the same way as the Shugden protector practice in traditional Tibetan Buddhism.
Shugden is used by the NKT as a psychological technique to silence and control the most committed ‘insiders’ using ‘meditation’, and secondly, to silence critical ‘outsiders’, for example, using ‘Shugden’ to demonstrate against the so-called ‘Human Rights abuses’ of the Dalai Lama. These demonstrations also, importantly, have kept ‘insiders’ from asking awkward questions about issues ‘back home’ in the UK, such as the sexual misconduct of senior teachers in the past.
The NKT fiercely protects its own ‘renown’ or ‘reputation’ in the west. NKT students have reluctance and even fear of speaking out about possible ‘abuses’ within the NKT for fear of the consequences, such as criminal arrest, being sued for libel, or social exclusion. There are enough documented cases of the NKT making legal threats against ‘speaking’ to understand this is valid fear. But ‘Shugden’ isn’t often mentioned in these complaints by NKT survivors. They usually complain about issues of control leading to a lack of kindness.
But Shugden practice is the ‘essential practice’ of the NKT – praises, offerings and requests to Shugden are made every day in every NKT centre all over the world. To ‘be’ an NKT centre, you have to do these prayers. And every ‘qualified, pure NKT Dharma’ teacher is supposed to practice the NKT Shugden meditations before giving any teachings.
As ‘Shugden practice is the essence of the NKT’ and ‘critics of the NKT need to be silenced’, then if the Dalai Lama criticises Shugden, we have to conclude that the Dalai Lama must be silenced too.
But the Dalai Lama isn’t criticising the NKT, he’s only criticising Shugden practice. The murmur of the bad reputation of the NKT is not coming from the Dalai Lama. That’s mostly coming from ex NKT members like myself, who believe what we practiced in the NKT caused us harm and once we’ve seen how Dharma is taught elsewhere.
And there are no restrictions on Shugden practice in the UK, so, to justify silencing the Dalai Lama you have to believe he must be harming Tibetans, and you need to find evidence. And try and create a campaign where most people say there is no reason for a campaign as there is very little evidence of Human Rights abuses. And any campaign will always pale in comparison to the problem of the Chinese invasion.
So, why this seemingly irrational loyalty to ‘Shugden’?
I will discuss how I feel that ‘Shugden’ uses our own hope, attachment and fear to keep us tied and tongue tied in the NKT.
For the beginner, the NKT offers meditation with ‘gardens and tea’! Nothing to interfere with your normal life! The NKT also ‘brands’ a fast path to enlightenment – a ‘Modern Buddhism’ that is nothing like ‘that boring Tibetan stuff’! To have the ‘confidence’ to get enlightened you need ‘merit’. So, you live in and pay rent at a centre and help to run it and you ‘work for the Guru’ by promoting this ‘pure Dharma of Je Tsongkhapa’. ‘Teaching’ gives you vast merit for a ‘faster path’; if you have enough merit to be ‘authorised’ to teach. That’s when you get hooked, as I did, by my new hope for quick results into the trio of NKT study, being a teacher and Shugden meditations. You ‘accumulate merit’ even faster if you ordain. But, you are told, if you disrobe you won’t get enlightened!
The NKT needs teachers. It has to produce them very quickly as teachers leave and new centres are opening. Kelsang Gyatso is the reclusive Tibetan monk who created the NKT ‘system’. As a teacher you may only teach using Kelsang Gyatso’s books. You study so that you can memorise Kelsang Gyatso’s books. ‘Heart Jewel’ is the NKT’s basic Shugden meditation practice that Kelsang Gyatso created. That’s where you are told to ‘talk to the Guru’ if you have any questions your NKT teachers can’t answer. You can’t ask Kelsang Gyatso in person! And if you have any other problems you are told to do more ‘Heart Jewel’; Shugden will help you with it all.
It is the most confusing ‘meditation practice’ I have ever done.
What is it?
Looking at the basic sadhana of ‘Heart Jewel’, the first half is the traditional Gelug Ganden Lhygma – Je Tsongkhapa Guru Yoga.
The second part of Heart Jewel is offerings and requests made to Shugden; an ‘outer’ practice of Shugden that is very similar to the Gelug Palden Lhamo protector tea offering.
In this second part of ‘Heart Jewel’ you request knowledge, protection, compassion and power from the ‘Guru as Shugden’ and meditate on ‘downloading’ the confidence and ‘power’ to teach or for success in your activities. ‘Shugden’ is almost everything; he shows ‘all the paths of Sutra and Tantra’. Vajradhara, as well as Buddha Shakyamuni, Manjushri, Je Tsongkhapa and above all, Kelsang Gyatso appear ‘as’ Shugden. You take this ‘Shugden’ with you when you come out of meditation.
I quote three ‘benefits’ of doing this meditation from Kelsang Gyatso’s commentary to Heart Jewel.
By putting your trust in Shugden your practice will
- ‘naturally become pure’,
- you will have a ‘powerful ally’ and
- you will ‘always make the right decisions’.
‘Naturally become pure’ is what I felt ‘holding’ the Guru in my heart.
‘Having a powerful ally’ is what I felt when I taught – I could teach the perfect Dharma!
You ‘always make the right decisions’ – after teaching I often felt as if I was protected from making any ‘mistakes’ but only if I stayed on this NKT ‘path’.
Purity, power and infallibility!
In time, this practice led me to feel – and other teachers around me – that not only was ‘the Guru’ infallible and could make no mistakes but that I myself was also ‘without fault in any decision’ I made, ‘completely pure’ and ‘powerful’ too! And not only during teaching…every day with everything I did!
‘With my Guru’s blessings I can accomplish anything!’
This feeling is blissful to gorge yourself with and addictive. You aren’t ‘ordinary’ any more; you are ‘extraordinary’ and ‘special’ on this ‘unmistaken’ path. So you ‘have to’ protect’ the absent Guru, which is this power you now possess; you have to protect his ‘good renown’ and ‘his pure lineage’.
So you go to the demos and join in the defamation campaign – as I did from a distance – because without Shugden you think there will be no lineage in the teachings. I started to act as if I would do almost anything to protect my access to that feeling of power and control…what else could it be but the power of the lineage?
But, isn’t this twisting of the concept of the purity of the Dharma into ‘our own’ purity, power and ‘unmistaken’ actions as NKT teachers, exactly the ‘Shugden’ of ‘distorted aspiration’ that causes His Holiness the Dalai Lama’s concern? And the real ‘unvoiced harm’ the NKT system creates? As a ‘perfect’ NKT teacher, you feel no sense of personal responsibility for the harm your actions could create.
While in the NKT I increasingly saw this system as a hoax I was holding up. And feeling that doctrine of purity, infallibility and power in my teachers led to my conflicts with them…Good teachers I have met since ‘show’ you what to look for in your own mind, as they know it in their own minds already. It’s not about control.
Is the NKT trying to blame His Holiness the Dalai Lama for its own problems in maintaining authority? Surely by trying to silence His Holiness, NKT students are also silencing their own ‘inner critics’ or ‘intuition’; their own capacity to see what might have gone wrong.
As long as ‘Shugden practice’ feels so good, and Kelsang Gyatso is conceptually confused with Shugden, then NKT followers will remain deeply attached to the ‘Shugden Guru’, fearful of stopping the practice without ‘breaking samaya’ and going to hell, and fiercely protective of what appears to them to be perfect as it makes them feel perfect. You can’t see this while you are in it, but I see the ‘Shugden, NKT and Kelsang Gyatso ‘system as only seeking to maintain itself. Not a lineage.
I think that I can seriously state that in the NKT you become, not a ‘practitioner’, but a ‘Shugden follower’. You have very little idea of what you are missing out on and the price you will pay for your loyalty if you walk in that door wanting to be a better person and make the world a better place, ‘wanting Dharma’. That is the sadness.
* Talk given on 15th August 2014 at the SOAS panel discussion “The Shugden Controversy and the 14th Dalai Lama“