Question: Is there any NKT documentation that talks about when to introduce the Dorje Shugden issues to new students? Is there a deliberate policy of concealment and delay in introducing this until people are ‘too far in to get out’?
Answer – in three parts by Carol McQuire
 It’s simply not talked about that way. Even internally in the NKT documentation, I have not seen any that is that specifically discusses ‘Shugden’.
If you read the Notes on Teaching Skills by Gen Thubten Gyatso there is a lot in there about ‘gradual introduction’, etc,. The implicit understanding is that this is about the ‘real NKT’/Shugden, etc but that method also applies to a lot of things about Dharma, not just to ‘Shugden’.
As ‘Shugden’ is such an integral part of the NKT it’s not managed as being at all ‘dangerous’ or ‘nasty’ to bring people in to do the practice – it’s a kindness to them to do so. People are invited to do Heart Jewel/Shugden as the daily ‘Guru Yoga’ and main centre practice – every day, every centre – to say thank you for the kindness of the centres, books, study programmes, etc. It’s not ‘announced’ as ‘Shugden’ like a ‘secret practice’ or something prohibited or wrong. It’s so normalised and ordinary you have no idea what you are being drawn into. It’s the NKT’s main practice so how would it be ‘managed’ as ‘secret’? Doing Heart Jewel – the Ganden Lhagyema with Shugden prayers attached – is also a commitment when you join a study programme and of course, if you want to teach in the NKT.
It’s the Dalai Lama’s views that are ‘secret’ and as so many people who ‘drop in’ to the NKT know nothing about what the Dalai Lama thinks and as most of them know nothing about Buddhism or Tibetan Buddhism, then it’s a ‘non-issue’. We tell people who ask us how to ‘check’ that the best way to find out ‘what the NKT is’ is to ask about His Holiness in a general NKT teaching and watch the ‘reply’! It will most probably be an embarrassing silence or a mumbled excuse! Many people attracted to the NKT find it difficult to believe that there is no refuge in His Holiness the Dalai Lama by the NKT as the NKT sangha look just like him and at some point the ‘lineage’ connection to Tibetan Buddhism will be mentioned by them. People may well go to the NKT because of His Holiness and his positive influence on them. That is the sadness embedded in the lack of clarity surrounding these issues.
The NKT does a lot of ‘secret information’ sharing. Knowing ‘what the Dalai Lama says’, etc, is the more ‘secret information’ that is one of the issues you may talk about in private with your NKT teacher and it’s part of the ‘secret bonding’ between the local teacher and their students that keeps the NKT going and the protests going. NKT students are warned not to trust what is said on the internet, etc. They are told about the ‘poor, victimised’ NKT, and the ‘poor victimised Kelsang Gyatso’, etc. The ‘Shugden’ issue is almost marginalised and it’s certainly minimised – if you look at p. 148 in the ‘Modern Buddhism’ ebook that’s a free download, you can see a line drawing of ‘Shugden’ but he’s only called the ‘Wisdom Protector’ so how would a beginner in the NKT realise what the connection is to the protests against His Holiness? It all appears to be very benign and positive.
 When you ‘normalise’ Shugden like that, the Dalai Lama then comes across as ‘crazy’ for criticising it and you slot everyone into supporting the campaign as a ‘nice’ thing to do because His Holiness is ‘so mistaken’.
The ‘hardcore’ activists, like IndyHack and Gen La Khyenrab, ‘rev up’ the protest team with all the online accusations and that can deflect criticism of the campaign in general into criticism of their ‘crude’ techniques – this might be an actual ‘campaign ploy’ so people don’t look too much into the real issues and instead they stay ‘in house’ – but in general, it’s seen as the ‘decent’ thing to do to tell His Holiness that he is wrong.
What is also remarkable is that NKT people really seem to fear ‘going outside the box’. Sometimes their idea of ‘research’ is to watch Rabten’s videos for the International Shugden Commuity or look at the Dorje Shugden Tibetan Follower’s videos. Nothing else! Everything outside the ‘NKT view’ they really see as propaganda. I know, because that’s how I thought when I was there! His Holiness was really a ‘bad deal’! It’s fascinating how they do that – all of us ask afterwards how it happened – to university graduates and intellectuals who feel proud of our ability to ‘think independently’! I feel it’s the normalising of the NKT value system – a consistent, inward looking barrage of subtle and not so subtle praise of the ‘Special Kadampa’ techniques. Everything from the Dharma is attributed to Kelsang Gyatso’s ‘kindness’ and when we first ‘fall in love’ with Dharma the NKT justifications and consistently ‘shifted’ teachings slip in too. All your gratitude is highly focused towards the NKT and ‘Geshe-la’, not to ‘Budddha’ or ‘Tibetan Buddhism’.
That’s why a ‘normal, logical’ method when analysing the protest ‘justifications’ will fall short – it’s the whole fabric of ‘how the NKT did it with Shugden’ that needs analysing.
When the NKT/ISC, etc say that His Holiness the Dalai Lama ‘wants to destroy the NKT’, this feels like the truth as discrediting Shugden discredits the NKT world completely. So, the NKT ‘war’ becomes the almost desperate need to preserve ‘their’ tradition, which is then ‘overlaid’ back again onto a ‘Tibetan’ issue as a wider justification of their actions.
The game of ‘creating our own tradition’ which will ‘be’ Tibetan but not ‘Tibetan’ in practice (‘connected’ but ‘isolated’) started when Neil Elliott and other westerners met Kelsang Gyatso at Manjushri Institute in the 1970s. His Holiness wasn’t publicly against Shugden worship then, so it was a ‘sensible risk’ for Gyatso and Neil to create their ‘separate, Shugden tradition’ and ‘world’ during the 80s. They had designed most of it by 1992 – the music was still missing but the basic, simplified books and sadhanas in English were ready. Then, all their great new structure which had the ‘guru yoga of Shugden’ at its heart was torn apart in 1996 by His Holiness’ decision – which I am sure was not at all directed at ‘attacking the NKT’. The decision was taken to help conflicts simmer down and this eventually worked within the Indian diaspora – but Kelsang Gyatso and Neil, then ‘Gen Thubten Gyatso’ were then stuck in the cul de sac of being primarily a ‘Shugden’ group – I think that’s why Kelsang Gyatso went to India with Kelsang Pema in 1996 – to see what he could salvage as a ‘campaign’ against His Holiness, not just ostensibly to ‘see’ the political realities.
Gavin Kilty talks about the wider context here:
 It’s almost as if, the more logic you use ‘against’ the anti Dalai Lama protesters, the more you alienate them, as Shugden is so ‘normal’ and listening to what His Holiness says is such a big conceptual contrast to what they have been taught to think, that it produces ‘cognitive dissonance’ and ends up increasing their faith in the NKT. It’s difficult for them to think ‘beyond’ the NKT view.
It’s very, very clever. Bound onto the back of Kelsang Gyatso’s ‘love’ for Shugden as it seems to represent his bond with Trijang Rinpoche and his ‘lineage’ and is the ‘residue’ of the actual Tibetan lineage that Kelsang Gyatso holds and tried to give to his students but in a very crude way (without him having to make the actual effort to ‘be’ a spiritual guide to anyone in person), Neil Elliott used this ‘Kelsang Gyatso figurehead’ to create their own ‘New Kadampa Tradition’ using educational, psychological and politically astute management techniques. What many people don’t understand from outside the NKT is how unimportant the actual person of Kelsang Gyatso is in everyday NKT life – your local teacher, centre and the books are far more so. ‘Geshe-la’ was always more of a ‘concept’ than an actual ‘spiritual guide’ – this is more evident now that he no longer appears in public – he ‘appears’ through ‘Heart Jewel’ practice to ‘talk’ to students who so often say they feel ‘close’ to him but what are they actually close ‘to’?
It was a brilliant plan – to make their own ‘tradition’ and then sell ‘their’ Dharma as a product using corporate commercial techniques and building up a world wide empire of real estate by using students almost like ‘slave workers’ – NKT volunteers, including most of the teachers, work for nothing except the ‘privilege of being allowed’ to work for the NKT! The plan inevitably got warped – their campaign hasn’t changed with the times – it used to be more realistic in the late 90s. It’s not now – they have to look harder for justification – which is why their campaigns are becoming more and more absurd. Last week ‘Atisha’s Cook’ – one of the anonymous online protesters – produced a meme stating that His Holiness is ‘worse than Hitler’. ‘Shugden’ is even hyped up as a ‘religion’ in itself.
The NKT simultaneously ‘uses’ Tibetan Buddhism as validation and has to keep itself completely separate from it. The protests function to do both, very neatly. It’s difficult to do that, but they managed to pull it off – at least for their own followers! The reality that Gavin Kilty analyses, in the face of this, seems ‘abnormal’ and ‘absurd’. And to us, on this side, the NKT appear utterly absurd! It takes a lot of thought for people of either side to ‘understand’ where the ‘other side’ is coming from at all.
- Neil Elliott’s Teaching Manual: “Notes on Teaching Skills“
- Long Life Prayer for Neil Elliott (Gen Thubten Gyatso)
- About to these two documents – Carol McQuire