I generally avoid getting political on this blog. Not because I am apolitical, or think it too messy a subject to broach, but because I have used this blog primarily as an exercise in exploring ideas and experiences I personally find curious and interesting so it’s been a primarily personal affair.
Although I have been attempting to write a blog post on non-duality this December, I have failed three times and the pleasure in the task has evaporated, which is never a good sign. In wondering what to write next, I was surfing the net on Boxing Day and came across a couple of videos by ex-members of a Western Buddhist organisation of which I was a solid member for a number of years, even once considering ordination (yikes!). The organisation is called the NKT (New Kadampa Tradition) and is to be found on many cult-watch websites.
I was involved with the NKT back in the early 90s and I moved out of their failed South-western Buddhist college project after realising how similar they were to Scientology and how incompatible I was with their group think approach. There is much that can be said about them and their nefarious activities, but I will leave that up to others: links can be found below if you are curious. The content of the Youtube videos reminded me of the issue of ignorance so many Westerners have regarding the history of Buddhism and the general lack of knowledge regarding Buddhism as a political and cultural phenomenon.
The videos lead to a website with an article making the same comparison with Scientology and in doing so highlights much of what is suspect about the organisation. As an entity, it is a fascinating case study for it seems to demonstrate all of what is wrong with Tibetan Buddhism in the West, but in a hyper-real fashion. One tactic regularly carried out by the organisation is to white-wash criticism and they have worked their Wikipedia entry countless times. For anyone who reads anti-China, or anti-Russia articles on the Independent or Guardian, their behaviour will be familiar. NKT followers troll sites that criticise any aspect of their tradition and shout as loudly as possible whilst posting links to their own highly politicised website, spookily named ‘NKT Truth’: George Orwell must be shivering in his grave.
Another absurdity is their political opposition to Mr Lhamo Dondrub (the old DL if you don’t recognise the name). White NKT Westerners willingly protest Dalai Lama events globally and assume anyone who speaks out against them is one of his devout supporters. Yes, it’s the old ‘us and them’ game so popular with insecure folks highly invested in their belief systems. It never fails to amaze me how ignorant these people are to allow themselves to be so easily led into fighting for an odd political cause concerning an imaginary figure. I guess a lot of folks are looking for meaning in their lives and this inter-tribal battle seems to fire them up. I guess it is a wonderful release for that special Buddhist brand of passive-aggression readers will be all too familiar with. What strikes me most though in re-reading the same old tripe spouted by these followers is the incredible ignorance of the wider Buddhist context and in particular the history of Buddhism in Tibet made particularly intense by their glorious leader’s insistence that his followers read no other Buddhists books apart from his own. Like a good dictator, control is important and all other Buddhist materials are excluded from his centres.
As with all cherished beliefs, the outside world is threatening and the need for stability and adherence to apparent truths is a fundamental characteristic of the NKT. Orthodoxy is paramount, so followers shout ever more loudly against criticisms, invest more fervently in their secluded pockets of make-believe and eventually, with time, find a comfortable and bland unthinking allegiance to the comfort of certainties that only closed, insular circles of fellow-members can provide. All too aware of how poorly read so many devout Western Buddhists are, I thought it might be worth highlighting a small number of widely available books on Buddhism that put the absurdities of an organisation like the NKT in context. Old Glenn Wallis wrote of Buddhemes in his original account of Buddhism’s self-referential failings, but with the NKT we can speak of a specific dialect called NKT-speak. When it is used by NKT followers, they come across as lobotomised hungry ghosts, perfectly parroting the party line in unthinking devotion and chanting the smug Buddhamantras™: you are angry, you are judgemental, it’s only your opinion, that’s not Buddhist, how confused you are you poor being, you really need to learn to be compassionate, you lack wisdom, you’re not a real Buddhist, you’re so full of hate, I feel sorry for you, you are so negative, why are you such a bad person, your motivation is unpure, you don’t understand the profound truth, your karma is bad, your views are distorted.
Here then are a number of books I found ‘enlightening’. If you know of more, feel free to add them in the comments section. By the way, any NKTers trolling here will be thoroughly ignored.
Update: I was recently sent a link to an insightful article that delves into the NKT ‘V’ Dalai Lama situation that is well worth reading. It’s full of NKT folk commenting and some have actually articulated comments that go beyond the usual diatribes. For those who are involved in the situation, it is a must-read.
Angry White Buddhists and the Dalai Lama: Appropriation and Politics in the Globalization of Tibetan Buddhism
Tibet, by Sam Van Schaik
A fascinating and highly readable account of the history of Tibet, it shines a light on developments in Tibet and provides the historical and political background of current affairs. It helpfully pulls apart many of the preconceptions that Westerners have about Tibet and really is a pleasure to read. Highly recommended.
Prisoners of Shangri-La, by Donald Lopez
A great read and essential for an understanding of Tibet without the romanticism. This book sets out to destroy the myths still lingering in dharma centres left, right and centre.
Civilised Shamans, by Geoffrey Samuel
A thorough review of the history of Buddhism and pre-Buddhist religion in Tibet, it explores the relationship between indigenous, shamanic Tibetan traditions and their influence on the imported Indian Buddhism that came to dominate the high plains of Tibet. It’s not for the timid though and rather encyclopaedic.
Mahayana Buddhism: the doctrinal foundations, by Paul Williams
A sober, accessible overview of key Mahayana doctrinal sources, philosophical views and history that will provide greater context for Buddhists who are enamoured with a single tradition and hagiographic accounts of teachers and teachings.
Modernity and scandal
The Making of Buddhist Modernism, by David L.McMahan
A modern classic which shines a light on Buddhism in the West and its recent history and intermeshing of cultural values. It may make a number of contemporary Buddhists feel rather embarrassed. The NKT is a perfectly Western result of Buddhist Modernism and one of the most adept forms of Western Buddhism at adopting capitalist values with all their moral grey areas.
Shoes outside the Door, by Michael Downing
An interesting account of the power of faith in maintaining ignorance and abuse and the problems with hero worship. The book well highlights the internal mechanisms that lead to unquestioning devotion and the need of Buddhist identities for firm belief systems.
Finally, the best material I picked up from the Speculative Non-Buddhism boys was Glen Wallis’ original text on deconstructing the Western Buddhist confusion. I will link here to his original article which is well worth a look. Nascent Speculative Non-Buddhism.
BBC2 documentary on the NKT and DL bust up
The full BBC video NKT documentary has been removed…who knows why? This link leads to a clip of it. It’s a shame because the BBC allowed Gyatso and some of his followers to contribute their opinions and I think that observing how odd so many of them are, especially the monks, would convince enough of the newly curious how dodgy the tradition is.
Reblogged this on Tibetan Buddhism :: Struggling With Diffi·Cult Issues.
Unfortunately your article lacks the Buddhist qualities of understanding, right speech and humility. You make yourself sound worse than the people you seem to eagerly criticise with tones of bile and sarcasm. I dont know whether your allegations and assessment of the NKT are accurate or not but readers would naturally be unimpressed because of the very unpleasant tone used. I find this to be a common problem as I try to learn something about the organisation.I am aware of the criticism of the NKT but also know a few individuals involved with it who are extremely kind and compassionate people. I have found it difficult to get into geshe kelsang gyatsos books because of his interpretation of certain aspects of buddhism and find I am much more in tune with the writing’s of thich nhat hanh. However the NKT people I know show none of the distasteful characteristics I read of. As thich nhat hanh would tell us if we act with deep mindfulness we will understand why others act as they do and we will respond with right action, right speech and copassion. With a deep bow, fred armstrong
Thanks for sharing your views on the post. The article may well likely lack the Buddhist right speech your refer to. This is certainly a rather outspoken post and there is reason for this. As for readers being put off, maybe. It’s the most read of all the posts I’ve written at this site and has been positively received by large numbers of ex-NKT members. A bit of harshness can be sobering after years of mind-numbing NKT-speak and inane platitudes about compassion and wisdom. Even though I wouldn’t claim my writing here is a form of right speech, don’t mistake right speech for nice-speech.
As for Thich Nhat Han, I think his Buddhism is more appropriate for westerners than that of the NKT, but this is not hard to appreciate. The NKT bases its approach on a monastic model of conservative Tibetan Buddhism, which I tend to consider rather incompatible with contemporary western society and thought. Of course, for some people, its the bee’s knees and that’s all fine and dandy: each to their own.
Thich Nhat Han constantly seeks to make his Zen Buddhism more accessible to Westerners using Western language and inventing new metaphors to express what he understands as the essence of practice and the simplicity of living an awakened and good life. There are pros and cons in his approach and some people consider it watering down Buddhism or pandering to middle-class westerners desire to have an effortless path but I consider him a far better teacher than Kelsang Gyatso, who has isolated himself almost entirely from the wider Buddhist community.
There are some wonderful people in the NKT and some of them a mange to make a path out of it. Some of them are old friends of mine and it amazes me that a couple of them are still with the NKT after all these years. Part of what surprises me most is how they manage to ignore many of the grievances of ex- and current members, switch off to them entirely. There’s a lot of disengagement and spiritual bypassing and a lot of people leaving frustrated and at times hurt.
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In your Academia critical thinking article you imply the NKT named their hq Manjushri. In fact, Conishead Priory was named Manjushri Institute by Lama Yeshe in 1976 before KG went there and before they stole it from the FPMT around 1983.
It is ambiguous, but not implied. I shall update it all the same. Can you tell me where you sourced this information, including your suggestion that the centre was stolen? Thanks.
Mate, I was there, close and personal. Google me (sorry!). Also Google: Good night Lama the blackmail tape.
nickribush i did google you, wow … the Lama Yeshe Archive is a major source of Buddhist information for me. thank you for confirming this piece of information re Conishead Priory. So the Blackmail tape is totally real? I knew there was no way i could stay in the nkt for the reasons Matthew outlined above, but i was devastated when i heard about the tape, because of its implications regarding Kelsang Gyatso. Because it means that he literally stole the institute and broke his vows so all these people in the organisation who regard him as their root guru and even Buddha… I truly feel sorry for them…
It’s hard to feel very sorry for the FPMT, which later tried to steal land from Kushinagari peasants for their “Maitreya Project.”
Keep your comments relevant and say something worthwhile or your comment will be deleted. Present facts if you have them, otherwise keep your agenda to yourself. Any pointless bickering from religious fundamentalists will be eliminated.
I agree. And he’s absolutely wrong about that.
[…] Buddhist Bullshit by Matthew O’Connell […]
[…] The New Kadampa Tradition (NKT) My own article on the NKT, Buddhist Bullshit. http://posttraditionalbuddhism.com/2014/12/27/buddhist-bullshit […]
I just returned from a NKT retreat here in Albuquerque, NM, so I have some experience on this subject. I have also been an active Zen practitioner for over 20 years…..,studying at the S.F. Zen center, The San Diego Zen center, Portland Dharma Rain center, the nearby Albuquerque Zen center, The Diamond Zen center in Hawaii, etc. I decided to go to this NKT retreat because I see no problems with crossing over into different lineages, and in fact recently practiced with the St Petersburg, Fl Shambhala group for over 6 months (who are certainly cult like). I ended up going there because I could not get to the Tampa Zen centers via public transportation from my home in St Pete.
This NKT event was supposed to be a 4 day retreat, and I lasted 1 1/2 hours. While the people seem very friendly and intelligent, their knowledge of authentic Buddhist practice is very naive and vague. Yes, they do only allow their leader’s books to be displayed in their bookstore. Despite some unease about their org, I did try out the retreat, and came away with the definite feeling that they are a cult. I wish I had taken the printed material they gave me, but I felt that was not necessary as I had no intention of ever returning. Among some of their strange, non Buddhist beliefs (and they have a LOT of beliefs) were the ones that stated that any image of a Buddha was to be taken as the Buddha himself, that they were to avoid all contact with anyone who spoke out or violated the dharma (and I guess that they alone would determine who that might be), they were told not to read anything that contradicted their dharma, etc. The teachers of their dharma were also said to be seen to be the Buddha himself.
I came away convinced that this group is not authentic Buddhism, and is what amounts to a personality cult. The followers just blindly accept whatever they are told, and make no effort on their own to achieve the dharma in their practice. The whole “service” today, or what I could take, was had a very church like feel and seemed otherworldly. All these deities encased in glass behind their alter were very Hare Krishna like, and the proceedings consisted of unseen recorded bells, singing, and prayers that went off in mechanical precision. There was really no reason for me to be there, so I left.
Didn’t like what I saw or heard, have lots of experience to base this dislike on, and won’t be back. That’s the Cliff Notes version. I have no axe to grind, and no agenda other than to alert others to what I see as inauthentic Buddhist practices. NKT, and to a lesser degree Shambhala, fit this description. Thank you.
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“…they were told not to read anything that contradicted their dharma.” That says it all right there Steve! Damn they are still peddling their wares. I find myself having to agree with you; they are not Buddhism. Thanks for sharing your story and well done for figuring it all out so quickly.
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