An article titled The One Pure Dharma by Judith Hertog appeared in the Winter 2018 edition of Tricycle: The Buddhist Review. Tricycle magazine is an influential publication based out of New York City, and is read widely especially in Western Buddhist Communities.
The magazine has carried several articles on the Shugden controversy, including interviews with Kelsang Gyatso, the founder of the New Kadampa Tradition (NKT) and the late Thubten Jigme Norbu, brother of HH Dalai Lama in 1998. During the protests of the International Shugden Community (ISC), made up mostly of NKT members, the magazine published “Angry White Buddhists Protest the Dalai Lama” by then PhD candidate Ben Joffe in 2015.
Hertog’s article, however, is the first to appear in Tricycle that takes an in-depth look at the New Kadampa Tradition itself. The article includes analysis as well as interviews with several NKT Sangha and teachers, as well as a few NKT survivors. NKT members remained relatively quiet when this article was released, but in 2018 several NKT members, including two NKT teachers, began commenting extensively on the Tricycle website. Many survivors also commented, and a lively discussion took place.
The most significant commenter from the NKT side was Lucy James, a prominent NKT teacher based in the United States who trained in the UK under both Kelsang Gyatso and Neil Elliott (Thubten Gyatso/Kelsang Thubten). She is the editor of many of Kelsang Gyatso’s books, as well as the author of a very popular blog called Kadampa Life. Lucy’s comments in some instances mirrored the gaslighting of survivors by the other NKT contributors. However, Lucy also noted that the NKT had apologized and changed.
Several survivors balked, as they’d never seen a public apology and acknowledgement of harm from the NKT. Commenters also noted that the NKT still has no publicly available safeguarding guidelines, and that in the recent past the NKT has violated its own internal rules.
Below are included several important responses to Lucy by Carol McQuire, an NKT survivor and voice for change in how the NKT treats both ex-members and the Tibetan community. The first response focuses on the NKT’s lack of official apology and clear safeguarding policies.¹ The second focuses on the New Kadampa Tradition’s continuous criticism of the Tibetan culture sphere, and how this brings up issues of cultural appropriation.² These letters elegantly explain several deeply rooted problems within the NKT and ask the organization to do better.
THE NKT AND THE ‘TIBETAN PROBLEM’
I would like to address the ‘Tibetan’ issue – the NKT constantly claims it is ‘not Tibetan’, including advertising this explicitly in a mainstream Buddhist magazine in the US. The contradictions of holding this view whilst sitting on a throne on a Tibetan cloth, wearing Tibetan ordination robes and sporting a Tibetan name whilst engaging in the daily practice of ‘Dorje Shugden’ (an explicitly Tibetan protector deity considered a spirit by the majority of Tibetan Buddhist practitioners) are immense. I don’t understand why you don’t see any contradiction! Kelsang Rabten recently said in a video that ‘Modern Kadampa Buddhism’ is ‘free of cultural accretions’ – if he used a name that corresponded to his country of birth, didn’t use Tibetan monastic robes and didn’t do ‘Shugden’ every day I might believe him!
No, the NKT followers don’t need to learn Tibetan to access Tibetan Buddhist texts – they are highly edited and presented in a ‘modern’ way for westerners to understand. It doesn’t matter that sections considered important for wellbeing and emotional stability are deleted (particularly from the NKT’s tantric texts) and that parts of the Buddhist path – such as self compassion and a grounding in the Four Mindfulnesses – are completely ignored.
If Kelsang Gyatso’s statue, now on every NKT shrine in the world, sports a Tibetan lineage holder hat, then this isn’t a problem – even though he’s been expelled from his original monastery and has cut ties with the Tibetan Shugden world since the Reuters expose of Chinese involvement with Tibetan Shugden followers. The NKT has a ‘Tibetan’ lineage – it teaches all the basic texts used for a young person’s Tibetan monastic education – and Kelsang Gyatso’s own ‘qualifications’ to teach depend fully on his previous contact with Tibetan culture and monastic education.
There are other western Buddhist groups that do a much better job at ‘taking out the Tibetan culture’ than the NKT does. Perhaps you should take the hint. Lucy, and mention to the NKT that you need to ‘walk the talk’ and suggest that your monastic companions wear robes that will distinguish yourselves from Tibetan and Asian monasticism. Then you wouldn’t create so much confusion with your Tibetan/not Tibetan cultural dynamics which at best are a cultural appropriation; the anti Tibet/anti Tibetan ‘philosophy’ of the NKT is more like insults added to injury. You make it seem like a proud and good action not to support Tibet or Tibetans in any way. Even ‘radical’! But if you are going to use Tibetan names, use translated commentaries on Tibetan texts and say you are heirs to a Tibetan’s tradition (Lama Tsongkhapa), at the very least you should stop attacking and demeaning Tibetan culture, and show respect for the heritage you depend on even if you do not follow any other live Tibetan teachers than your own.
The NKT uses Tibetan culture in a similar way to how it uses the UK pension and healthcare system; without contributing. The NKT, as a ‘charitable’ organisation, pays no tax to the UK government. Ex NKT suddenly ‘removed’ from their centres with no jobs or savings, depend upon UK governmental support for housing, food and psychological care. Many NKT centre residents, particularly those who ‘renovate’ NKT centres for future use, live and lived on UK state benefits for the unemployed.
So why is it so problematic for the NKT to express gratitude to those who have allowed it to grow? Ex NKT, the British government and charities who support the underadvantaged, Tibetan culture …
An NKT monk meeting HRH Prince Harry and Duchess Meghan in Birkenhead a few weeks ago, covered by the national and international press, is another example of how the NKT creates an ‘image’ that is illusory, deceptive and hypocritical.
The NKT does no charity work all over the world; it ‘dedicates’ all efforts to its own expansion, which is considered ‘charitable’ work. Kelsang Sonam used the charitable venue of a volunteer café and foodbank project set up for the poor of a UK community to promote the NKT with British royalty. The irony of the place he chose (even though it is where he volunteers as an ‘individual’) is a superb example of the NKT’s blindness to the consequences of its own actions. There are no discounts for poverty at NKT teachings. It’s common practice for many Buddhist organisations to offer teachings freely (donation) or to arrange discounts, but not for the NKT even in poorer countries. Giving only goes one way. Except when you give an NKT book to a Prince!
You should not attract new students using a ‘Tibetan’ aura (names, robes, teachings) and criticise and defame the culture you use to create your own ‘temples’ (also in a ‘mock’ Tibetan style!), Lucy. As the NKT still claims it wants a ‘temple in every city in the world’ (Gen Kelsang Dekyong, the NKT Spiritual Director said this recently in a public video), then all we wish, as ‘NKT survivors’ and ‘activists’ is that people attracted to the welcoming and ‘happy’ and ‘pure’ communities of NKT to practice Buddhism should be aware of the social and emotional, cultural and spiritual cost of that ‘harmony’. The NKT does not appear to be ‘ethically coherent’ in any way.
(New Kadampa Survivor Activists)
HAS THE NKT APOLOGISED AND CHANGED?
Dear Lucy/Luna Kadampa,
I am delighted to hear that the NKT has apologised and secondly, that the NKT has changed. I am sure your new students (and old) would appreciate it if you could show evidence of both official apologies and changes in the organisation. It would be good if the NKT no longer thinks that failing to observe the criteria that any good, ‘normal’ organisation follows for allegations of sexual misconduct, intimidation, bullying, financial and spiritual exploitation, etc.
Some people leave the NKT after their initial interest when they find out about the extraordinary defamations and ridicule towards HH the Dalai Lama during your protests, even though you tried to hide your identities as senior NKT teachers. This is particularly alarming as to encourage newcomers to trust the NKT they are often told that Kelsang Gyatso’s teacher ‘was the Dalai Lama’s tutor’!
Others leave, and this has been a constant trickle over more than 20 years, because of what they consistently name as a ‘lack of compassion’ from the organisation (which ultimately comes from a lack of wisdom). The general understanding is that compassion and wisdom are hijacked by the NKT’s commitment to expansion at all costs, including feeling the need to defend the NKT’s reputation against even the most sensible criticism.
The Charity Commission has stated that your constitution as registered is unchanged in the last decade. Therefore any changes that have been made by the NKT are internal and not accessible to interested students or the public. Can you explain these please?
The credible allegations of sexual misconduct when in role as ‘Deputy Spiritual Director’ of the NKT, by Neil Elliott, aka Gen Thubten Gyatso, aka Gen Kelsang Thubten, in the 1990s, has been constantly minimised as ‘falling in love’. The credible allegations of sexual misconduct by Gen Samden, in the same NKT role in 2007-8 have been addressed only by ‘authorising’ nuns (and some monks) involved in his ‘sexual lineage’ to go on purification retreat and ‘reordain’ if they wish and to teach again (i.e., Neil Elliott and Kelsang Drokyi, previously known as Kelsang Chodzom), even though this goes against the rules of your own constitution. I understand you say this is because they are considered ‘special’ cases. However, in these days of #MeToo and #MeTooGuru astute persons interested in meditation would expect a full inquiry made by outside professionals, preferably with legal training, as well as a full programme of psychological support for those suffering from distress caused by the activities of NKT teachers. I am not aware of either of these.
The timing of these allegations coincided with creating an ‘external enemy’ of His Holiness the Dalai Lama by instigating protests to ‘protect Shugden’ against his perfectly legal and sensible criticism of the practice.
My concerns come from the compassion I learnt within the NKT, where I studied for 12 years and was ordained, teaching and doing administration volunteer work. The people who come to us (as NKT ‘survivors’) often come after years of ‘recovery’ from service to the NKT as volunteers, ordained persons and teachers; recovering from the shock of finding out that the NKT will always prioritise its reputation over the wellbeing of any individual even if this means covering up ill doing – NKT history is constantly ‘revised’ to maintain the illusion of a well run ‘harmonious’ organisation.
As NKT Resident Teachers have no legal contracts (even though they are paid by the centres they volunteer for) they can still be instantly dismissed from their roles if they publicly (and sometimes privately) criticise any NKT policy. This is defined as a privilege of ‘volunteering’ with a ‘modern’ organisation. You know about this kind of dismissal from your own experience, Lucy. So what happens to NKT teachers who have no ‘family nest egg’ or savings from past work? Some even have no rights in their countries of origin as they have been abroad too long, teaching the NKT’s compassion and wisdom and the NKT has not supported them to get residential rights in their new country. Even one elderly and extremely ill NKT senior teacher – Gen Tharchin – who has supported Kelsang Gyatso since the 1970s, has been left with insufficient NKT support and is cared for by UK governmental health services. Other organisations look after those you mistreat.
An organisation that is attracting vulnerable people who have been suggested ‘meditation’ and ‘mindfulness’ by health professionals should have more institutional safeguards in place, not hide itself under ‘religious’ criteria (as ‘chaplains’, etc) and fail to observe what our society suggests is protection for their wellbeing; transparency, honesty and respect for those who suffer. No NKT teacher is trained even to the most basic level expected for social care, teaching or volunteering with a UK charity such as Mind. Newcomers to your groups do not know this.
The recent exposure of misconduct by Buddhist teachers in the West – in Rigpa, Triratna and Shambhala – should act as a warning to the NKT to really ‘clean up its act’ and look after people. I would suggest that the NKT teachers, like yourself, who defend the NKT in public so constantly, need not worry about the ‘conspiracy theories’ you say we have, but should be concerned about the very real ‘karma’ of not being compassionate or wise with your own students and ex students and teachers. Expansion of the empire of temples is less important than an essential integrity.
Lucy, you and other NKT followers demean yourselves by your views towards us as simply wishing to attack you and your group, which we know so well, saying that we have no basis in fact or experience for our criticism – but there are too many of us with similar views and unfortunate experiences with the NKT for you to continue hiding behind your resistance to a proper analysis. If you don’t examine the NKT’s current and past behaviour with a more compassionate, open and contemporary viewpoint the shadows of the past will continue to haunt your ‘modern’ Buddhism and make it even less modern as time goes by.
Your last protests occurred soon after the last appearance in public of Kelsang Gyatso in Portugal, 2013. Hiding Kelsang Gyatso away from his own students, only communicating via telephone through NKT nuns, with no evidence in video or podcast of his current wellbeing, is ‘strange’ behaviour for any religious organisation. The greatest spiritual teachers of our time have lived and died in public, not in private, to give a strong example to their students. It is not an example of our ‘paranoia’ to mention this. Excusing his absence by saying that he ‘receives death threats’ from Dalai Lama followers is not enough – this should be a case for police investigation. Are you protecting Kelsang Gyatso properly if you don’t ask for police intervention? I have regularly received anonymous threats (memes of women tied up, etc) with my name on them from Shugden supporters online. Would I refuse to see my family because of this?
I have only heard of changes to the financial arrangements in each NKT centre – this has been restricted for Resident Teachers. I look forward to any other evidence of change in the NKT’s organisation and the apologies that you say the NKT has given that will comfort the fears that many have about the wisdom of committing to the NKT’s ‘pure vision’.
(New Kadampa Survivor Activists)