Why do Buddhists – especially but not exclusively ‘Kadampa Buddhists’ – fear enlightenment?

Recently a monastic elder from Switzerland pointed out an article from the New York Times that was reprinted in an Indian newspaper, the Deccan Herald. Omri Boehm, an Israeli, criticizes in The German silence on Israel and its cost, the silence of German’s public intellectuals (Habermas, Grass) with respect to Israel’s wrongdoings. Boehm calls for “rational, ethical voices”, “not silence are needed”.

I found the whole article very inspiring and to the point. Most of the well thought out arguments have a great meaning in other context, like Buddhism, and for a 21st century Buddhist too. For instance the silence of Buddhists within and outside the New Kadampa Tradition (NKT) with respect to the wrong doings and damage the NKT leadership and the whole organization are creating for many individuals and Buddhism at large, or the case of Sogyal Rinpoche etc.

However, in this post I will mainly focus on the NKT.

What is enlightenment?

The enlightenment Boehm is referring to, is not one of the three types of Buddhist enlightenment (or awakenings) but the European enlightenment (in German: Aufklärung). Boehm about Immanuel Kant’s concept of enlightenment:

In his well-known essay from 1784 — “What Is Enlightenment?” — Kant defines enlightenment as “man’s emergence from his self-incurred immaturity,” a process of growing up that consists in finding the “courage” to think for oneself. That does not mean, however, to think by oneself, or alone. On the contrary, Kant insists that using one’s “own understanding” is possible only through a “public use of one’s reason,” in at least two interrelated ways.

First, in order to think for oneself one must strive to transcend the perspective of one’s private commitments — personal, historical, professional, civic — and attempt to judge from the cosmopolitan “standpoint of everybody else.” Second, and closely related, is the idea that thinking for oneself is possible only by thinking aloud. We would not be able to think very “much” or all too “correctly,” Kant writes, if we would not think together “with others with whom we communicate.” Transcending our private perspective thus depends on submitting our opinions to the judgment of the “entire reading public” — striving to reach, through public debate, an agreement of “universal human reason in which each has his own say.”

How to engage Geshe Kelsang Gyatso’s students in rational discussion?

For 15 years I have had discussions with NKT followers, read their comments, answered to them. NKT followers have been given from the outset space here on the blog to express their views openly and to engage in discussion or dialogue. I read their and Kelsang Gyatso’s views on google groups, in Buddhist and non-Buddhist forums, newspaper comment sections etc. and I recognized the effectless trials of other Buddhists (mostly Ex-NKT) to reach out to NKT followers with reasonable arguments. Engaging with NKT followers in discussion is and was in 99,9% of the cases a discussion or a dialogue with a deaf.

Since I was myself an NKT follower and became over time within the NKT immature and stopped my process of growing up, replacing critical thinking and analysis with the repetition of arguments that were parts of the group propaganda and most often totally untrue or a spin of the facts, I understand very well how NKT followers feel and think.

Rarely has anybody from the NKT managed to have any reasonable public discussion – except “seeking clarity” on Tricycle blog [He was the most open guy I witnessed in public discussions. After his open research he left the NKT.] or a bit Kadam Ryan here on the blog. However, at the end Kadam Ryab asked me to delete all of his contributions basing his wish on what I see as ‘irrational fears’ like fear of “splitting the Sangha” etc. (I promised to fulfill his wish and will do this in the next week, [hopefully!].) So one of the rare NKT persons, Kadam Ryan, who opened up a bit, and who was brave enough to be faced with corrections (and also some hostility), who finally had eve to agree with some of the corrections, retreated into silence. The other NKT person, “seeking clarity” on Tricycle blog, left the NKT altogether. Kadam Ryan asked for the future not to be involved in any public discussions and he decided to ignore the misbehavior of the Anti-Dalai Lama activists from his own organization and what the leadership of the NKT has to do with this. Why? My thesis is, because Kadam Ryan as well as the vast majority of NKT followers fear enlightenment. 

I think, NKT followers deeply fear to think for themselves, to come to another view than the NKT leadership, especially Kelsang Gyatso. Having another view than the omniscient Keslang Gyatso is feared to “doubt going into the wrong direction”, which hinders your to attain enlightenment.

I think, NKT followers deeply fear to find out that Kelsang Gyatso, the NKT and they themselves might have fundamentally erred. They fear the consequences of their possible new findings. Findings that might contradict what they have learned until now and believed to be true. Therefore, it is by far easier to withdraw from open, honest public discussion and to avoid to get aware of the own and the NKT leadership’s errors. An awareness, based on a valid perception, that would enable to address and to correct these faults and to finally overcome them is the most dangerous thing for an NKT follower.

A former NKT follower has summarized these fears as “terrors”:

1. The terror of uncertainty and ‘not knowing’

2. The terror of having made a dreadful mistake in ‘trusting’ the NKT blindly

3. The terror of having to work it out for oneself when one’s intuition has been on hold, perhaps for decades

4. The terror of breaking ‘vows and commitments’ to the NKT

5. The terror of ‘losing face’ 

6. The terror of ‘starting again’

7. The terror of losing all those years for nothing

There is much to keep people ‘in’ the NKT and not much to entice them out. Except exhaustion or ethics. 

During the process of their involvement with the NKT those following the NKT will gradually, unaware of that process, block all their critical analytical faculties. Open analysis and critical thinking will be replaced by Dharma phrases, what “Geshe la says”, simple slogans, narrow-minded concepts, simplified Buddhist teachings, faulty propaganda etc. There is not any chance within the system of the NKT to question these claims, concepts, superficial Buddhist teachings that have a strong tendency to Nihilism and growth-hindering simplifications because the NKT is a totally closed and self-referential system where “purity” and salvation can be found only within the very organization and its enlightened and sole leader + his books, Kelsang Gyatso. Only by adhering 100%ly “purely” to the material of NKT, enlightenment can be attained. Outside of NKT there are evil forces of a “degenerated Tibetan Buddhism”, with the “the worst dictator of the Modern world” (the “false Dalai Lama”) etc. or just impure Dharma or Dharma that in no way should be “mixed” with the “pure Dharma” of the NKT.

Discussions within the NKT study programs aim solely to ‘help’ ‘Kadampa Buddhists’ to adopt exactly the same view on NKT, Kelsang Gyatso, his Dharma presentation and the outside world as Kelsang Gyatso has expressed them. Discussions within the NKT study program don’t aim to help the student to form an own, mature, critical, differentiated understanding of Buddhism, the Dharma or the NKT and its leader but to form a homogeneous view that is totally, 100%ly, in line with the views of NKT’s enlightened leader, the third Buddha, Kelsang Gyatso. That’s why NKT followers act and discuss like parrots in public discussions. They see themselves as “vessels” through which “Geshe-la speaks”. It is a successful institutionalised process within the NKT that eradicates any individuality and independent thinking for the sake of forming an homogeneous body of followers that expresses at all times and at all places what “Geshe la said”, an organisation in which every individual can be replaced at any time by any body else.

People like me, who come from a Communist dictatorship or Russians who followed the NKT, have it easier to identify the whole setting of the NKT as a dictatorship setting with all its mechanism you commonly find in dictatorships. In a way the NKT seems to be more successful than dictatorships to manipulate their followers because you will always find dissidents in dictatorships but where are the dissidents in the NKT? There seem to be none at all. What a dream for any dictator!

In such a setting as that of NKT you will become mentally like a child, you will become immature, there is no true growth possible. Why? Because growth and maturity need critical thinking, critical analysis, vast knowledge and understanding, the ability to look at yourself and your own environment with an open and clear but critical and differentiated attitude. As a genuine spiritual seeker you must have the wish and bravery to question everything for the sake to find truth based in facts. Just as the Buddha did it. (He learned from his teachers but when they erred or couldn’t further help him, he left them.)

Buddhism stresses to find faults in yourself and not primarily in others. This is only possible by getting aware and by discussing your own faults (including the context in which you live and work), by openly investigating them, by admitting them (if they are really there), by exposing them and not by ignoring them. An open spiritual seeker will be grateful about reasonable criticism (advanced practitioners will be able embrace also unreasonable criticism as a tool to improve their patience.) But in the NKT all energy is used to brush errors and facts that contradict the NKT world view under the carpet and to blame instead others, attacking them, and to defend the own “purity” by all means, portraying oneself as the poor victim of outer hostile forces.

What I read and heard from the NKT founder & leader Kelsang Gyatso were always things like these:
“I have not done anything wrong!”, “You my students have not done anything wrong”, “These are wrong accusations against the innocent” (you could find this sentence for years on the NKT main site*), “I promise that I and NKT have never acted inappropriately” etc.. While claiming his own purity and infallibility Kelsang Gyatso points out only others as the sole culprit of unwelcomed or painful  developments – be it a certain NKT resident teacher or the Dalai Lama. While bathing himself in innocence he puts the blame on others. It was this amazing lack of Buddhist thinking and Buddhist practice by Kelsang Gyatso personally – his total unawareness that things arise in dependence of many causes and conditions and that oneself might have contributed to the effects one does not like – which led to my “emergence from self-incurred immaturity”, when I had the good luck to witness directly in around June 2000 in Berlin at NKT’s Dipankara Centre.

If you read all those comments by NKT followers in the internet and if you see how much they missed (e.g. see comment section of the Open Letter to Followers of the New Kadampa Tradition by Gavin Kilty) or regretted (e.g. Kadam Ryan here on the blog) to have engaged in public discussion, you will easily detect that uninformed people who have no clue whatsoever about Tibet, Tibetan Buddhism and the history of Indo-Tibetan Buddhism or the history and practice of Shugden in Tibet and the Dalai Lamas – including the vast and profound qualities of the current Dalai Lama – repeat like parrots the faulty propaganda or empty Dharma phrases that the NKT / Kelsang Gyatso / Kadam Neil Elliot have skillfully and gradually instilled in them.

At the end the blind want to “educate” the world to “understand the deceptive nature” of the Dalai Lama, who is – according to the blind – “destroying pure Buddhism in this world”. Ignorant people who missed to educate themselves first before they try to educate others – including better informed people – want to educate the world! Wow! Buddhists who have become so blind and so deluded that they cannot see that most of these (baseless) accusations they throw against their opponents are all projections that just reflect the situation within their own organization with its autocrat leader.

Isn’t it deeply sad when a man, who practices ‘Kadampa Buddhism’ since about 35 years, who was appointed as the successor of Kelsang Gyatso to uphold his lineage, Gen Kelsang Khyenrab (Steve Booth), thinks and behaves like an ignorant child, when he writes in the comment section of  an all in all factual rather correct article by Newsweek Relentless: The Dalai Lama’s Heart of Steel:

Another thorough whitewash of the mafia-style false Dalai Lama and demonization of sincere Shugden Buddhists. This article is just propaganda not worth serious reading.

Gen Kelsang Khyenrab (Steve Booth)
left: Gen Kelsang Khyenrab (Steve Booth)

I am younger than Khyenrab and I would be happy to respect him as an elder Buddhist from whom I can learn. But his comment is just so childish and totally ignorant of the facts, hostile to others (“mafia-style false”) and self-praising (“sincere”) that it makes me really sad to see what the NKT made out of a man who once might have started as a sincerely seeker of a genuine spiritual path.

What are the forces in the NKT and in Khyenrab himself that make an adult, a practicing Buddhist for about 35 years, who should be wiser or more mature now, behaving more stupid than an uneducated child?

If you 1) read all of those internet comments by NKT followers or Kelsang Gyatso’s statements on Google Groups or his Open Letters, 2) if you have sober knowledge about Tibetan Buddhism, Tibet, its history etc., 3) if you can think for yourself, and) if you really openly look into this case, you will realize that the elders in the NKT (as well as newbees who swallowed the NKT agit prop) have attained a realization within the NKT setting that is the opposite of Kant’s enlightenment:

  • a self-incurred immaturity
  • a state that is the opposite of growing
  • a thorough lack of finding the “courage” to think for oneself
  • an inability to engage in any meaningful discussion of one’s “own understanding” through a “public use of one’s reason”
  • a total lack of the ability to transcendent the perspective of their private commitments — personal, historical, professional, civic — and attempting to judge from the cosmopolitan “standpoint of everybody else.” (For instance, they have never ever tried to understand [or even to note] why Shugden practice is feared by Kagyupas, Nyingmapas, and even Sakyapas; why it harms the unity of the Tibetans in exile, the life of the Dalai Lama. Instead they wrongly claim there would have been never ever any problems between Nyingmapas and Gelugpas, “Shugden loves Nyingmapas, Dalai Lama please don’t lie!” etc. Why do they expound such untruths? Because this is what Kelsang Gyatso wrongly proclaimed to them or in interviews, and because “he is enlightened” “it must be true”.)

Among the many other distorted attainments people have gained within NKT are misconceptions about monastic vows and life or what even simple things like lying actual is. To call another person who points out facts that can be found in any sober academic research a liar – because the NKT holds another (historical distorted) view on it – reveals that NKT followers do not even have a correct understanding of basic Buddhist ethics because another opinion is no lie, even when the opinion is considered to be wrong.

However, this is only a secondary thought …

My thesis and concluding thoughts

As long as NKT followers or ‘Kadampa Buddhists’ – and we Buddhists in general! – do not even attain a fraction of the enlightenment as defined by Kant, we can forget about Buddhist enlightenment because Buddhist enlightenment includes to see the facts as they are and not to turn the facts upside down. To see the facts as they are is the very basis for being able to eradicate the own wrong views that block one’s spiritual growth and that block the increase of one’s understanding, wisdom and compassion and the ability to relate to oneself, others and the world in a healthy, fact-based and constructive way.

Further, IMO, genuine spirituality is based on honesty, openness, introspection, spiritual integrity, and the constant questioning of the own believes and understandings until one sees the things as they are. At least one should get closer to reality and not further away from it …

You can be a Buddhist without having any sense of spirituality or spiritual integrity at all. Maybe it would be good to avoid that because it is of no use, except to please and to decorate the samsaric ego by attaching a new nicely shining label on it: “I am a (purely practicing) Buddhist, please adore me!”


* Scroll down the site image at web.archive.org there you can find:

New Kadampa Truth
Now is the time to dispel false accusations against the innocent

See also