By Carol McQuire
Who is demonstrating against the Dalai Lama?
The protests against His Holiness the Dalai Lama are organised by the International Shugden Community (ISC) whose directors are senior teachers and members of the New Kadampa Tradition – International Kadampa Buddhist Union (NKT-IKBU). They are supported on the ground by other NKT followers and a minority of Tibetan Shugden practitioners who have proven links to Chinese interests.
NKT teachers are all volunteers with no contracts or worker’s rights, although some are paid. There is some evidence from 2008 that shows a senior NKT teacher was removed from her NKT teaching role after publicly criticising the protests against His Holiness.
What is the New Kadampa Tradition (NKT)?
The NKT is a controversial New Religious Movement – academically analysed as being appreciably different from mainstream Buddhism. It was created as a legal entity by a Tibetan Buddhist monk called Kelsang Gyatso and his students in 1992. It can be called ‘separatist’ due to its official policies of separation from all Tibetan teachers except Kelsang Gyatso. Centres are advised never to accept invitations and to ignore requests for help from any Tibetan Buddhist group or teacher. The NKT is mentioned several times in an academic pamphlet on religious extremism in UK universities.
The NKT functions like a ‘spiritual franchise’; each NKT centre or business is a member of the ‘Kadampa Buddhist Union’, is financially independent of the NKT and sustains any losses locally while all profits are passed directly to the NKT through the ‘International Temples Fund’. Each centre has to follow the ‘NKT Constitution’ and ‘Internal Rules’. There are exceptions [See “Who runs the NKT?”]
The NKT’s main daily spiritual practice chosen by Kelsang Gyatso is a Guru prayer to Je Tsongkhapa combined with prayers to Shugden, a Tibetan protector whose propitiation began in the 18th century amongst an elite male group of Gelug tantric meditators. The practice became popular during the 20th century until it was seen as provocative of sectarian dispute.
How is the NKT set up legally?
The purpose of the NKT is to ‘increase Buddhist faith in the world’ by ‘promoting the activities of the union of Kadampa Buddhist Centres known as the NKT-IKBU’, to ‘introduce the Buddhist Faith of the New Kadampa Tradition publicly’, to ‘exemplify Buddhist practice by service to the public’ and to ’emphasize the development’ of affiliated ‘Kadampa centres’, ‘publishing activities’ and ‘companies’.
The NKT and each of its subsidiary businesses (such as centres) in the UK are registered as both a ‘company’ and a ‘charity’ (giving them tax free status). All ‘NKT’ centres are therefore independent businesses that are ‘spiritually affiliated’ with the NKT but are legally and financially independent entities. In other countries, a similar ‘independence’ is set up according to local laws. Local directors of NKT centres are the persons responsible in case of loss while the NKT generally takes no responsibility. Exceptions are the one remaining ‘Kadampa Hotel’ in Holland and the ‘Kadampa Primary School’; the former runs at a loss as did the latter until 2014. The Spanish (and its subsidiary Taiwanese) company owned by the NKT ran at a loss in 2014. The NKT also owns the London Kadampa Meditation Centre (KMC) and the German International Retreat Centre (IRC).
As stated by NKT sources, the ‘business lineage’ of the NKT is considered equally as important as the spiritual in furthering the aims of the charity.
How big is the NKT?
The NKT has roughly 48 affiliated residential ‘Kadampa Buddhist’ (KBC) and ‘Kadampa Meditation’ (KMC) centres in the UK, 50 in the US, and more than 120 in the rest of the world. Approximately 600 venues are temporarily rented, often only by the hour, for giving classes. Even adding the temporary venues this does not add up to the ‘1,100 centres and groups’ the NKT claims that Kelsang Gyatso has established.
The ‘World Peace Temples’ are temple buildings that are within the 16 Kadampa Meditation Centres such as that at Manjushri KMC, the ‘mother centre’ of the NKT. There are 3 international retreat centres, 32 World Peace Cafes, one ‘Kadampa Hotel’ in Holland and a children’s ‘Kadampa Primary School’ in England. Tharpa publishing company, which only publishes Kelsang Gyatso’s books and translates these into other languages including Chinese, has affiliates and distributes world wide. Profits are also collected from the NKT’s worldwide festivals and celebrations and through selling statues made in the Kadampa Art Studio at Manjushri.
Where does the NKT’s money go?
Every NKT business has the same intention as stated in the NKT’s ‘Internal Rules’ – ‘flourishing Kadam Dharma’ – all profits are directed to their ‘International Temples Fund’ (ITF) – which aims to create a New Kadampa Tradition temple in every major city in the world.
Public accounts clarifying the specific activities and decisions of the International Temple Fund (ITF) are not available. To get some information about how these funds are collected from each NKT subsidiary and what they are used for it is necessary to view the financial accounts and websites of each NKT centre/business.
The ITF can only be seen as a few figures in the final section of accounts for the ‘New Kadampa Tradition’. At the end of 2013, the ITF had £2.8 million designated funds with £14.7 million available as unrestricted funds giving a total of £17.5 million. Including this, the NKT had a total declared fund of £20.7 million.
This does not reflect the real value of the NKT as if the NKT decides that any affiliated centre or business should be sold, all profit will revert to the ITF. Although NKT income had generally decreased in 2014, the ITF had risen to £18.6 million by December 2014.
There are now a number of NKT teachers who have taught using Kelsang Gyatso’s methods for over thirty years. NKT ‘Resident Teachers’ – one for each NKT centre –
are not funded by the NKT but by their local centres who also pay for the costs of their teacher’s international travel and study with the NKT. The NKT has no pension or retirement policy, no hospice and gives no job security.
Due to this lack of support for NKT teachers and administrators and the pervasive use of volunteers, overheads are very low at only 6% of income in 2013.
How do NKT centres start?
Funds are collected locally with inspiring campaigns ‘for world peace’ and the opportunity to ‘spread the pure Dharma of Je Tsongkhapa’ and then interest-free loans may be given if the ITF considers a new centre viable. For instance, there is currently a ‘Train 50 teachers for London’ campaign and fundraising for plans to build a NKT ‘London Temple’ in Wimbledon with £800,000 allocated as a grant from the International Temples Fund. Unusually, this London centre was bought by the NKT in 2014 – new centres most often acquire their own mortgages.
The older residential centres in the UK were started by using live-in volunteers who renovated large, empty buildings bought cheaply by the NKT. These volunteers lived mainly on state benefits. English Heritage and local council funding have been given to help with renovations as the buildings were ‘listed’ (protected) and the NKT provided needed new accommodation.
The largest centre the NKT has – the ‘mother centre’ Manjushri Kadampa Meditation Centre in Cumbria, UK – was actually bought by the FPMT, another Tibetan Buddhist group, in 1975. In a deeply contentious dispute, Kelsang Gyatso kept Manjushri for his own purposes, even though he reportedly already had another residential centre given to him in York. According to oral accounts, his stated intention from the late 1970s in the UK – he arrived in 1977 – has been to promote ‘pure Dharma’ by creating his own ‘independent’ centres.
How does the NKT expand so easily?
These earlier, large NKT residential centres are frequently remortgaged to send funds to the ITF. Bodhisattva Centre in Brighton sent £429,530 in 2013 as a loan, having remortgaged the centre for £522,032. This cost is then covered locally by charges for teachings and accommodation. Centre residents often temporarily ‘give up’ their rooms to be rented during main NKT teaching courses producing a ‘double’ rent. There are no discounts or free teachings for ordained sangha or concessions for low income students. Even working holiday visitors can be asked to pay for teachings.
The NKT, through the ‘International Temples Fund’, is continually expanding its international property portfolio. It is not clear who makes the decisions about which properties to buy. Kelsang Gyatso previously secretly visited projected temple sites in person but this is no longer the case.
According to centre websites, in 2014, the International Temples Fund (ITF) spent $4.75 million on two new centres in the US; one a street away from Hollywood Boulevard and the other in the Hamptons, New York State.
Teachers for NKT centres are trained very quickly compared to teachers in any other Buddhist tradition. Students learn techniques to ‘transmit’ Kelsang Gyatso’s books to others. The ‘Special Teacher Training Programme’ [STTP] in London or online takes only 2 years. The residential programme at Manjushri only lasts 6 months. The requirement for entering the training is mainly ‘faith’, not any specific study or time spent in the NKT. Once on the training programme you can be asked to teach even if you have not completed any course; you only need to express the intention to complete it. No other training is given to or qualification taken by either teachers or administrators.
How does the NKT keep control of so many centres and teachers?
The NKT General Spiritual Director appoints and ‘authorises’ a resident teacher for every NKT centre in the world. Each resident teacher then decides who else is authorised to teach at their local centre. Resident teachers do not normally have any employment outside NKT centres and are often the only people maintained by a centre.
The NKT system is kept consistent by the study programmes which focus on simplified and highly edited traditional Tibetan Buddhist texts with commentaries by Kelsang Gyatso. NKT teachers have to memorise and teach from these books. In many ways ‘the book is the teacher’ and if NKT teachers deviate from this style they are at risk of losing their teaching roles. Each summer the resident teachers are required to be in residence at Manjushri and all of those living outside the UK, even the most senior teachers, study on Neil Elliott’s London ‘STTP’ [Special Teacher Training Programme] online.
Studies and exams are often repeated and the more complex books are seldom taught. Very few NKT teachers have finished the original TTP study of 12 books; the STTP has only 6. Students are encouraged to think of themselves as empowered ‘by the lineage’ and to be giving the ‘oral transmission’ of the texts to others. The teachings are given in a very simple, repetitive way and the accompanying meditations and sung prayers are in a slow ‘new age’ style. Ex members recall these for decades afterwards.
The NKT gives very little ongoing supervision to resident teachers. This means that although the study programmes are systematic, each resident teacher has complete personal freedom to behave as they wish in their local centre. The NKT will only check if there are ‘complaints’. There is no system of training in ethical behaviour based on the Indo-Tibetan Buddhist Vinaya (code of ethics).
How can I identify an NKT centre?
Avoiding online criticisms of ‘the NKT’ in social media, newspapers, academia and by ex NKT followers the NKT have often repackaged their promotion. For universities, schools or health services they call themselves ‘Modern Buddhism’ or ‘Kadampa Buddhism’, ‘Modern Buddhism and Meditation’, ‘Meditate In London, etc. Local centres do not often mention ‘NKT’ in their ads. Instead they use their individual names such as Heruka Kadampa Meditation Centre, Manjushri Kadampa Meditation Centre, Kadampa Buddhist Centre, etc.
Who runs the NKT?
Power in the NKT is concentrated. The trustees of the NKT, who manage the NKT/ITF’s extensive funds, are the General Spiritual Director (GSD), and the Deputy Spiritual Director as well as two other NKT students. The executive officers are the Secretary and Deputy Secretaries of the NKT, the Secretary of the GSD and a treasurer.
The Finance Committee is made up from these same 8 people. The NKT Secretary and Deputy Secretary also function as the Kadampa Meditation Centre and Temple Development directors. This gives them three roles each.
The Education Council is made up of the ‘members’ of the NKT and consists of Kelsang Gyatso, each NKT centre and every resident teacher in the world. It is managed by the GSD and the NKT Secretary. Conflicts can be solved easily as all NKT teachers are appointed by the GSD and can be fired immediately and any changes that a local centre may try to make have to be authorised by all the members of the Education Council. The GSD is also a named Spiritual Director of every NKT centre. Where there have been serious conflicts which involved the Charity Commission in the UK, a threat of arrest for unsubstantiated charges of fraud was made by the police against one local director because he did not agree with NKT policy.
The NKT has 27 paid employees. Who those employees are and what their salaries and responsibilities are cannot be determined from the trustees’ reports.
Neil Elliott, the teacher of the online STTP in London, is teaching all the international Resident Teachers instead of, as would be expected, the GSD, who only trains them for 2 weeks each summer. Neil was previously the ‘heart disciple’ of Kelsang Gyatso but he resigned and disrobed amidst allegations of sexual misconduct in 1996. According to the NKT Internal Rules, no one who disrobes is allowed to teach again in the NKT. It seems that the NKT can ignore its own constitution when this is convenient.
Why are people attracted to the NKT?
In the UK, the NKT offers a very ‘British’ experience – tea, gardens and ‘pure’, simple meditation teachings with very few foreign words given by friendly teachers of your own nationality and culture. The NKT tries to use teachers from each culture in their home countries. Practising Dharma, even sophisticated tantric practices, is made easy and comfortable.
Increasing personal satisfaction developed from meditating is linked up by the NKT with their project of ‘world peace’ – for promoting NKT ‘pure Dharma’ and creating temples all over the world. It is easy to feel you are being useful and compassionate if you support this.
What do the NKT celebrate?
The NKT have their own system of celebratory events unaligned to the Tibetan Buddhist calendar and do not go to any historically Buddhist places, such as Bodhgaya, on pilgrimage. Followers are only encouraged to attend NKT festivals.
How many New Kadampas are there?
There is no clear data on how many followers, students or centre residents the NKT has. The legal membership is mentioned under ‘Who runs the NKT’? The largest NKT centre is Manjushri KMC with approximately 90 live-in students; Bodhisattva KMC has less than thirty. UK centres tend to be residential; international centres tend to be smaller with space only for the teacher and a few others.
The NKT’s main International Festivals are the Spring and Summer Festivals held at Manjushri KMC and the Fall Festival held at different centres each year, often where a new temple is being opened. NKT data for festival attendance and profit is as follows:
Summer: over 2,000
Fall: no data (New York)
(Profits from New York were kept by the New York World Peace Temple/KMC)
Fall: 6,900 (Portugal)
(Announced as Kelsang Gyatso’s last appearance in public)
Fall: 750 (Spain)
How many people visit NKT centres?
Manjushri KMC, as a building of historic as well as religious interest, has a full programme of community access including guided tours and school visits. Most of these are charged.
2014: 15,000 adults, 2,000 children (900 Girl Guides) and another 900 on tours
2103: 13,800 adults and 2,225 children
2012: 13,500 adults and 2,200 children
2011: Under 11,000
Other NKT centres have open days and free short drop in meditation sessions to encourage visitors as well as facilitating school visits which are charged.
What are the complications of going to NKT classes?
A first contact with Buddhist teachings can transform lives – but this is mainly attributed to Kelsang Gyatso and the NKT, not to Buddha or to Tibetan Buddhism. Students are soon made to feel they should ‘return the kindness of the Guru’ in giving them the NKT centres and the NKT’s ‘special’ Dharma by working for and giving to a centre as well as helping others to do so.
Special, exclusive commitments to the NKT are added to the ‘simple Buddhist path’ the NKT teach through the tantric and refuge vows students are soon expected to take if they wish their path to enlightenment to be faster. These commitments oblige students to practice Shugden prayers and meditations daily, to promote the NKT Dharma and not to criticise the NKT. Ordination vows keep the ordained tied to the NKT. Their ordination is not to ‘Buddha’ but to the NKT with Kelsang Gyatso as their spiritual guide for all future lives.
Kelsang Gyatso gives a simple ordination of ten promises based on avoiding 5 non virtues and ‘practising contentment’ and celibacy. This ‘transforms’ into ‘full’ ordination only by following the NKT path and changing one’s motivation, not by taking more vows, as is the case in all other ‘full’ Buddhist ordinations.
A sense of obligation and loyalty to the NKT develops that in practice becomes ‘obedience’ to ‘Geshe-la’s (Kelsang Gyatso’s) wishes’. Followers also describe feeling they are ‘special’ because they are committed to a ‘special’, unique and fast path which they consider superior to any Tibetan Buddhist presentation.
What will paying for NKT classes and volunteering in the NKT promote?
Money given to the NKT will expand and promote the NKT all over the world – without respecting the Human Rights of NKT followers who are volunteering for the organisation. There are no labour rights, pension schemes, etc. Any NKT teacher can be asked to leave their role immediately without any recompense for their work.
Money given for meditation classes will also be contributing to protests against the Dalai Lama – NKT teachers are living on stipends from their local NKT centres whilst protesting as ‘members of the ISC’. Each NKT centre pays the costs of its own resident teacher, not the NKT. Therefore, to prove that a centre has no involvement with the protests, each one would have to prove either that their resident teacher did not attend the protests or that whilst attending the customary NKT stipend was not paid to their teacher.
Why is it difficult to leave the NKT?
NKT ordination cannot be transferred. NKT teachings have an intense focus on the special purity of their own presentation that often prevents a stress free appreciation of other teachings. People easily feel guilty about ‘breaking vows’ and a deep sense of loss at losing their NKT roles and NKT Dharma. Leaving the group may mean starting a completely new social life. People may have given all their savings to the NKT and not worked in an ordinary career for decades. Some may have, simply, nowhere else to go.
What do ex NKT followers report?
People can become ‘addicted’ to the NKT world view in which activities outside the NKT world become ‘meaningless’. Personal ambition can easily become deeply attached to the NKT project of world expansion and the role of ‘being a Buddhist teacher’. Ex NKT followers frequently mention anxiety, depression and exhaustion caused by overwork and coping with unrealistic expectations from senior NKT teachers and managers only trained in promoting the NKT. There is no other training in counselling, administrative or executive skills. There is no ‘duty of care’ towards any teacher or student in the NKT.
What concerns about Shugden does the Dalai Lama have?
His Holiness does not say that no one should practice Shugden but is warning against the possible consequences of doing so. In certain cases the practice of Shugden can lead to a deeply sectarian exaggeration of the ‘purity’ of a particular kind of Buddhism, destroying unity between practitioners as well as affecting their health and leading towards the breaking of refuge vows. Therefore, for their well being, he recommends that his own tantric students do not practice Shugden.
Is the NKT Tibetan?
The NKT stated recently that they are an ‘independent Western Buddhist tradition’ and that ‘the NKT is not Tibetan Buddhism but Western Buddhism’. It should be questioned then, why NKT monks and nuns are given Tibetan names and use Tibetan Buddhist ordination robes.
The NKT state that their ‘spiritual practice’ is based on the study programmes of ‘Buddha’s teachings of sutra and tantra‘. However Kelsang Gyatso, the NKT’s founder and ‘ordaining master’ is only a Buddhist teacher on the basis of his own Tibetan Buddhist training and ordination as a Tibetan Buddhist monk.
The NKT state that ‘there is no connection whatsoever between this spiritual tradition and the Dalai Lama’ but Kelsang Gyatso is known to have attended teachings from the Dalai Lama whilst he was studying.
Is there a precedent for NKT students or Shugden practitioners having to ‘choose’ between the advice of different teachers?
The ISC campaign states that His Holiness the Dalai Lama has made Shugden practitioners suffer as they have been forced to choose between keeping their Shugden commitments, which may be family and/or Guru based, and following His Holiness’ advice. However, when Kelsang Gyatso was finalising the creation of his own tradition in the early 1990s, residents at Manjushri Institute (later KMC) were forced to choose between Kelsang Gyatso and any other teacher they might follow. Kelsang Gyatso claimed exclusivity.
It is unthinkable for the Dalai Lama or any ethical Tibetan teacher to demand exclusivity.
Why are the protests against the Dalai Lama so defamatory?
If the NKT are not ‘Tibetan’ and the Dalai Lama’s view of Shugden is only a request to followers committed to his tantric initiation practices, then why should the NKT in the guise of the ISC continue to protest using unethical but legal protest techniques such as ridicule and noise?
There is documentation showing that the use of ‘ridicule’ is a deliberate ISC policy promoted by senior NKT members most probably due to the lack of serious evidence that can be verified by third parties to support their exaggerated claims. Within the last year ISC followers have claimed both ‘six million’, ‘four million’ and now only ‘many thousands’ of Shugden practitioners suffering from abuses supposedly caused by His Holiness’s advice on Shugden.
Why has the ISC changed its four points?
The ISC recently changed its four points; demands made to His Holiness the Dalai Lama. The ISC had claimed continuing ‘persecution’ and ‘prejudice’ and called for the return of the Shugden monks to their monasteries. The ISC no longer calls for the return of the monks. Shugden monks in India are now content with separate institutions as this policy managed by the monasteries through democratic voting has been successful. There is now very little evidence of any direct conflict in the streets of Bylakuppe. NKT monks and nuns have far fewer rights within the NKT than any monk at Shar Gaden and Serpom – the Shugden monasteries in India.
Why are the protests damaging for the Tibetan cause?
The protests create confusion about Tibetan Buddhism and the role the Dalai Lama has in Tibetan society. Buddhism is embedded in Tibetan culture and the management of a country using the ethics of spiritual practice is seen as deeply valuable. The ISC campaign minimises and ridicules the Dalai Lama’s concern for his people as ‘political’.
Importantly, the protests deflect attention from the abhorrent and documented persecution of Tibetans within China that Human Rights organisations such as Amnesty International so clearly reveal.
The Chinese government supports Shugden and creates further conflict within Tibetan society – third party evidence can be found of people being imprisoned for criticising Shugden worship.
What are the benefits of the protests for the NKT?
Both in 1996-7 and in 2008 the NKT organised demonstrations against His Holiness the Dalai Lama that coincided with the public exposure on the internet of the alleged sexual misconduct of Deputy Spiritual Directors of the NKT who in each case were ordained monks.
His Holiness has not changed his general advice on Shugden since 1996 except to suggest a referendum on Shugden in 2008. Facilitating the independence of Shugden followers stemmed increasing conflict. Therefore what caused NKT followers to start their demonstrations and defamations again in 2014? A possible cause is another crisis of power; the need for cohesion when a strong ‘good image’ at the pinnacle of the NKT is missing; Kelsang Gyatso has not been seen in public nor appeared in any videos or photos since October 2013, nor has his death been announced. Followers are only told what are ‘Geshe-la’s wishes’ and are expected to follow them.
Protests against the Dalai Lama increase solidarity and pride within the ISC/NKT. This reinforces the protesters’ sense of being ‘heroic’ and ‘victimised Kadampas’ saving Tibetans from ‘impure Dharma’ and the ‘mixing of politics with religion’. Surely a concern for the well being of his own people is a sign of the compassion of a spiritual leader not of his corruption?
The protests also keep NKT followers distanced from understanding the non sectarian approach of the Dalai Lama – the protesters are ignorant of Tibetan history, culture and Buddhist practice. The giving up of personal independence to the ‘perfect Guru’ and his intentions are NKT practices through which they mistakenly see and judge Tibetan Buddhist practice and practitioners. They deeply misunderstand the open, humanitarian and tolerant ethos of His Holiness the Dalai Lama.
Why are there demonstrations against His Holiness the Dalai Lama?
In Tibetan Buddhism there is no expectation that any person should follow the instructions of a teacher they do not respect. The ISC/NKT followers show no respect for His Holiness so there is no expectation whatsoever that they should follow his advice. Tibetan Shugden Buddhists in India either practice independently of His Holiness or they follow his advice; some now live in independent Shugden monasteries and others simply practice Shugden in private to keep their family or other commitments. Shugden monasteries have the proven support of His Holiness and their Tibetan monastic institutions of origin promoted their independence. The needs of Shugden practitioners have been respected. There is no substantial evidence of Human Rights abuses. Any serious conflict relating to Shugden has dissipated.
However, followers of the Dalai Lama are still subject to the harassment of loud drumming and shouting which, whenever legally possible, have been happily used by NKT/ISC followers to prevent His teachings from being heard peacefully in the west. NKT, ex NKT and others are also subject to continuous attempts at silencing any criticism of the NKT/ISC. Social media is covered with NKT/ISC anti Dalai Lama defamations. The NKT/ISC’s own behaviour displays what His Holiness warns against as a possible consequence of Shugden practice – divisive sectarian behaviour. It is precisely this kind of behaviour that creates more fear and puts Shugden practitioners into disrepute.
It is no longer possible for ISC protesters to insist they are ‘behaving independently’ of the NKT when, instead of teaching meditation, senior NKT teachers are following His Holiness around the world. What business or spiritual organisation would allow its members so much freedom to follow concerns it did not share?
If the NKT’s ‘Modern Buddhists’ really have no debt or connection to Tibetan Buddhism, as they say, then surely they should acknowledge their lack of knowledge of Tibetan ways of being. But then on what grounds can they claim to have exclusive access to the ‘only pure Dharma’ of Je Tsongkhapa – a Tibetan teacher whose lineage they claim to follow without studying his books and methods – and upon what right can they then claim to have the wisdom to judge His Holiness so harshly?
Perhaps NKT followers suffer nostalgia for the roots they have cut. Recently published public accounts show that the NKT has lost considerable income in the last year. Tibetan Buddhism, via His Holiness, continues to flourish outside the Tibetan world.
New Kadampa Survivors
September 13th 2015