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Controversial KG/NKT


The headline in Tricycle: The Buddhist Review....

"The New Kadampa Tradition is controversial – and growing. Why?"

"Unlike most Buddhist traditions, the NKT asks ordained members to take only ten vows, which according to Kelsang Gyatso replace all the hundreds of vows usually required of ordained Buddhists. “If it were not for the NKT,” says Ani Jamgyal, “I probably would not have chosen to become a nun.

But Jamgyal discovered that the NKT was not as far removed from “feudal Tibetan politics” as she had hoped. By joining the NKT, she was in fact being pulled into a religious conflict dating back centuries and had inadvertently become a member of an organization that has been accused of being sectarian, controversial, and so concerned with religious purity that it has isolated itself from the wider Buddhist world. It turned out that as a member of the NKT, Jamgyal was expected to denounce the Dalai Lama and reject all spiritual teachers besides Kelsang Gyatso, who is viewed by many NKT members as the sole holder and savior of pure dharma.

“Kelsang Gyatso is the source of all authority in the NKT,” says David Kay, a British researcher who wrote his PhD thesis on the organization’s formation. “The NKT presented his books as the emanations of the mind of a Buddha.”

Kelsang Gyatso’s decision to split off from the Tibetan Buddhist establishment and create a new tradition was in fact the culmination of an old conflict about a protector deity associated with the Gelug school named Dorje Shugden.

“There has always been a strongly sectarian stream in Gelug Buddhism,” says Georges Dreyfus, a professor of religion at Williams College who is the first Westerner to have completed the Geshe Lharampa degree, the most advanced Tibetan Buddhist academic degree, in Dharamsala. Dreyfus explains that Dorje Shugden already existed as a minor wrathful deity in the Gelug tradition by the 17th century. But with the rise in popularity, in the early 20th century, of the ecumenical Rimé movement, which argues that different Tibetan Buddhist traditions all offer equally valid paths to the dharma, the conservative Gelug elite felt that the supremacy of the Gelug school was threatened. Pabongka, an influential Gelug monk in Lhasa, promoted the worship of Dorje Shugden in order to preserve Gelug purity and discourage Gelug monks from adopting the Rimé movement’s inclusive philosophy.

Kelsang Gyatso was so aggrieved by the Dalai Lama’s rejection of Dorje Shugden that he decided to split off from of the mainstream Gelug establishment and branch off on his own. With the help of his senior disciples, he translated the key texts of his lineage into English and in 1991 created a completely Western tradition in which he was the only Tibetan: the New Kadampa Tradition, named after the medieval Tibetan Kadam school that later developed into the Gelug tradition.

“Some [NKT] practitioners are absolutely certain this is the last opportunity to find pure Buddhism in the world, and that everything else is corrupt,” says Kay. He has encountered NKT disciples who not only avoided the teachings of other Buddhist schools but also would not even read the English translations of texts by Kelsang Gyatso’s own teachers, because they said they distrusted any text that was not by Kelsang Gyatso himself.

In 1996, when the Dalai Lama instructed Tibetan Buddhists to refrain from worshipping Dorje Shugden, denouncing the deity as “a malevolent spirit that arose out of misguided intentions,” he provoked the fury of Shugden devotees. (In that same year, Kelsang Gyatso was officially expelled from Sera Je Monastic University in India; the expulsion notice read that he was expelled for “blatantly shameless mad pronouncements attacking with baseless slander His Holiness the Dalai Lama.”)

Twenty years later, in 2015, Reuters reported that the NKT was behind a protest group, the International Shugden Community, that organized demonstrations against the Dalai Lama when he visited the US. At every destination on his tour, the Dalai Lama was met by groups of protestors—many of them NKT members—who heckled him with slogans such as “False Dalai Lama, give religious freedom!” and “Dalai Lama, stop lying!”

After several years in the NKT, Ani Jamgyal finally realized that Kelsang Gyatso’s feud with the Dalai Lama meant he expected his disciples to campaign publicly against the Dalai Lama and the Tibetan Government in Exile. In 2011, Jamgyal decided to distance herself from the organization. She had tried to ignore the Shugden conflict because she appreciated the clarity of Kelsang Gyatso’s teachings, but it became impossible to separate the teachings from the politics that came with them.

“Part of it was realizing how completely isolated that group is from the rest of the whole Buddhist world,” says Jamgyal. “It felt as if I were doing something naughty when I was reading books by other teachers, including His Holiness—and it’s just crazy that reading dharma made me feel as if I were 16 and smoking a joint behind a garage!”

Renato Barajas, a monk from Mexico who ordained in the NKT in 2013 and left the organization in 2017, had an experience similar to Jamgyal’s. He says that while NKT seems to newcomers like an open, welcoming organization, it becomes increasingly restrictive and controlling once practitioners are drawn inside. “The NKT has two different faces: one is for the media and the public, and the other is for the people inside the NKT,” he says.

According to Barajas, advanced NKT disciples are told that Kelsang Gyatso is a buddha who watches over them and guides their lives. He is venerated as an infallible source of wisdom, and some disciples have even speculated that he may be the third Buddha, which would elevate him to the same spiritual level as Je Tsongkhapa, whom many Gelug Buddhists consider the second Buddha, and the same level as Siddhartha Gautama, the first Buddha.

This danger isn’t mere theory—the NKT’s modus operandi has led to several real-life consequences for its members. Former NKT member Jamie Kostek, who joined the NKT sangha in Seattle in 2007, when she was 24, and left in 2012, has personally observed the dangers of blind devotion. “Everyone looks so happy when you come in,” says Kostek. “You have no idea of all the suffering going on behind the scenes.” She says she felt pressured to constantly convince herself she was happy in the NKT, because unhappiness is a sign of spiritual failing. “And we truly felt fortunate to have these teachings,” she says, “because we were constantly told that this is the only path that will lead to nirvana.” She believed that if she completely devoted herself to Geshe-la, she would attain enlightenment in three years, three months, and three weeks. “Then, when you’re still not enlightened, you’re convinced you did something wrong and did not dedicate enough of yourself to Geshe-la,” she explains. “So you become ordained or give away all your money to prove you’re worthy.” Kostek had no money to give, but she often volunteered 35 hours per week for the organization while holding down a job and taking care of her young son. “I felt I had to do it to gain spiritual merit,” she says, and adds that she worked herself into such exhaustion, she did not even have time to meditate.

But Kostek started questioning the NKT when she noticed how the organization treated its most vulnerable members. She says some of the ordained people in her community who struggled with serious mental illnesses were encouraged to go off their medications and try to heal themselves through spiritual practice. She also tells the story of an elderly nun who had been encouraged to sell her house and donate the proceeds to the NKT—and then paid rent to live in a basement at the NKT center. Kostek explains that there was constant pressure in the NKT to contribute to its International Temples Project, which aims to build Kadampa temples around the world.

But when members have spoken up to question decisions or mismanagement, the NKT’s leadership has been unwilling to listen. INFORM also reports that the NKT has regularly tried to silence critics by using British libel laws as a threat. (In one such case, the British Buddhist scholar Gary Beesley was forced to withdraw a book about the NKT just before its publication date.)

“The NKT is the end result of a long trajectory of radicalization,” says Professor Dreyfus of Williams College. He remembers Kelsang Gyatso as someone who had a reputation as a learned monk, and says Gyatso’s former colleagues are puzzled. “The whole thing is bizarre. Kelsang Gyatso’s books are good. He is smart. He is learned, he is a good practitioner,” says Dreyfus. “Many Tibetans who knew him told me they don’t understand. They thought they knew him, but now they have no idea what he is doing.”

Dreyfus is convinced that if Trijang Rinpoche were alive, he would disapprove of what became of his former pupil. “I knew Trijang Rinpoche very well, and I know that he would be positively horrified by the NKT if he were alive now,” says Dreyfus. “It’s inconceivable that he would have allowed this to happen.”"

No wonder Gyatso was expelled by his Tibetan monastery and so many followers, Tibetans and Buddhist teachers were shocked when Gyatso split from his training and lineage, began a global campaign against Tibetan Buddhism and attacked it as corrupt.

Kelsang Gyatso and NKT are fraudulent politicians and con artists poisoning Buddhism and assaulting followers and survivors for financial gain and devotion to its empty power.

Their corporate managers are snickering all the way to the bank with the profits and taxpayer subsidies to create a $100 million real estate empire (someday to be liquidated and wealth transferred to corporate owners). Someday, a documentary will be made about them.

The damage Gyatso and NKT are doing to Buddhism, their clergy, their followers and their survivors is horrible.