Illuminating Kadampa Buddhist Gatekeeping, Policing and Ostracism
If he were here today, what would the Buddha teach about conduct with one’s foes online, in this unique landscape of the 21st century? Would he chastise those who smear and troll their opponents in defense of one’s group? Or would he encourage the strident policing and silencing of one’s Sangha critics, rejecting complaints wholesale, so that his doctrine’s pure image may remain intact? If you are in the New Kadampa Tradition’s senior sangha, you would agree with the latter.
As I’ve illustrated in prior posts, there are plenty of reasons to leave the NKT: an aggressive teacher; the erosion of one’s personal space; high pressure to attend more classes, more festivals, more everything until you’re broke or broken. But one of the biggest reasons people leave is the practice of smearing vocal ex-members online, so that the Pure Dharma™ may flourish and spread unimpeded. The latest Survivor of this is Dr. Michelle Haslam, who, after sharing why she left the NKT, found herself the target of a vicious smear campaign by practicing Kadampas — with one NKT practitioner going so far as to build a website specifically to defame her and erode her professional standing.
The NKT Survivors is a diverse community of people from all walks of life, both laypeople and former monks and nuns. The exact number of people who have disrobed is unknown — my personal guess is in the dozens, if not hundreds. And beyond that are hundreds more laypeople who leave the tradition and face similar ostracism if they share their reasons. Most of these tales go untold, with so many horror stories unknown due to the systematic intimidation of all the Kadampas’ critics. These experiences need to be shared online, especially to reach newcomers searching for more information about the NKT — people who deserve to know what they’re getting into when they are first checking out a beginners meditation class at their local NKT center, or maybe committing to a weekly Foundation Program, or even taking the leap into residency at a Kadampa center.
Thankfully, there are those few who have dared to share their stories on the internet, most recently Dr. Haslam. A UK-based psychologist, she published a mini-series of blog posts and YouTube videos about leaving the NKT, stories which are enriched by her professional studies and experience in human behavior. Her act of whistle-blowing sent a shockwave through the Kadampa world and quickly encountered fierce resistance. Obviously, this clear and professional analysis had hit a nerve. While publicly preaching compassion for all, the followers of Kelsang Gyatso believe there is a very clear exception for those who oppose (in their eyes) the true path to enlightenment. They (we) must be silenced.
The NKT has a long history of internet crusading and critic suppression, stemming from its inception in the 1990s, and its fierce opposition to the Dalai Lama and his attempts to unite the four Tibetan traditions. Protection of the one “true path”, the purest tradition of Buddhism in this world, the vaunted Ganden Oral Lineage, is Gyatso’s charge to his followers, who are encouraged to criticize and deny any accusations of abuse within the tradition. Taking up the cause against those with “wrong views” is a sort of ad hoc rite of passage for those rising in the ranks of the NKT’s international hierarchy; a surefire way to ingratiate yourself with your teacher and earn some spiritual merit. While very few ordained monks or nuns are seen directly intimidating people online (with the exception of Kelsang Pagpa), they do groom and unleash their respective circles of eager senior students upon the enemies of Kadampa Buddhadharma.
Kelsang Gyatso has periodically orchestrated campaigns of protest against the Dalai Lama, chanting in crowds outside many of his events. Following some very bad press from the NKT’s first round of protests in the 1990s, they established a Chinese-backed shell organization called the Western Shugden Society, now called the International Shugden Buddhist Community (ISBC). The website still contains media defaming Buddhist leaders and attempting to provoke sectarian strife in the Tibetan Buddhist world. Between the real-life street protests, their policing of opponents continues online, to suppress further criticism and to actively show their students the consequences of speaking against their spiritual masters. It begs the question: how can they not see how this behavior fundamentally betrays the very basic tenets of Buddha’s teachings on loving-kindness and universal compassion?
A staunch missionary zeal is instilled in Gyatso’s students in NKT oral commentaries, authorizing and encouraging them to engage in so-called wrathful action against maras, Buddhist demons. When one complains about ethics or manner of operation while within the NKT, they are advised to holster their ill will and instead work on their own self-cherishing (a fallacious defense known as tu quoque). Dialogue is rejected year after year, with NKT clergy amping up polarization and erecting a firewall around their flock. This attitude leads to fairly high turnover: an uneasy feeling, subtle at first, then building with each invalidation of one’s feelings and concerns. This turnover in NKT centers is never viewed as a sign that changes should be made, but rather that some people just aren’t “tough enough.” Immense pressure to perform is passed down through the NKT hierarchy worldwide via the International Kadampa Buddhist Union (IKBU), from Hong Kong to Mexico City to New York. It is common culture in Kadampa centers to regard ex-members with spite in private; common terms used are “mentally ill”, “strongly delusional”, “damaged goods”, and even maras. Ex-members that dare to speak out are literally demonized. We lose our humanity and become rabid dogs in their eyes. This is their “modern” Buddhism on the inside, with the layers of the optical onion pulled back. The NKT is a registered charity in most countries.
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In the eyes of NKT orthodoxy, it is acceptable and even encouraged to dismiss the ever-growing number of survivors; it is unconscionable to turn against your Spiritual Guide, no matter what rumors might say about their ethics and behavior. The Buddhist saint Naropa was cited frequently in my own studies as a Kadampa monk, a Tantric master whose teachings on uncompromising Guru (teacher) devotion are widely-known legends in Tibetan Buddhism. But they weren’t treated as metaphors, nor tempered with modern reasoning. Submitting unconditionally to whatever your guru dictates is the only way to enlightenment — this is the message at the inner gates to the Kadampa world, beyond the Foundation Program and onward to the promised Pure Land. And while this language is common in Tibetan traditions, the method of application is very different: controlling instead of liberating, while prioritizing aggressive corporate tactics of expansion over best practices for long-term Sangha health.
Survivors will joke about “Kadampa bots” parroting the same tired lines. Narrative is tightly controlled within the NKT and, as so-called authentic Spiritual Guides, they give a yellow-robed license to act in an unchecked manner, some of which is embarrassingly un-Buddhist, un-Christian, un-Muslim, un-human. Within the NKT, a novice student will continuously find their spiritual views nudged, pushed, and displaced by whatever the Kadampa orthodoxy dictates. This happens in private teachings far from the public eye, while pleading innocence and wrongful accusation at the very whiff of a single breach of ethics. The good NKT student will eventually submit to their Teacher’s words and act as Dorje Shugden — dragging, defaming, and trolling their critics into submission. This is the truth: the good Buddhist student would want to leave and continue their quest to find a true Spiritual Guide, one that is not authorized by himself, like Gyatso; one who teaches well and has moral acclaim — one who actually shows up for their students and loves them without expectation. Wisdom must be tested rather than taken on false authority.
Given: the New Kadampa Tradition most likely started with good intentions — in Kelsang Gyatso’s room in India, sidelined by his own home monastery, rebellious against authority and determined to teach the Dharma to the eager West. Ironically but not surprisingly, he invokes such indisputable spiritual authority against his own opponents, and has encouraged his proxies to subjugate critics “for the greater good.” They employ gas-lighting, gatekeeping, weaponization of confessions; every trick of psychological manipulation in the cult textbook, and all in Buddha’s name. Many ex-members, myself included, want to actually see the NKT change, to become more modern and undergo some form of self-regulation, and to adopt measures that protect students. Changes like these are not currently chosen democratically, but by fiat, by word from above, from whoever holds the Kadampa directorate. And with the community policing itself so assiduously, any hope for change within the NKT organization, and reconciliation with any Survivors, is dim at best.
I feel for Dr. Haslam, and I honor her honesty, and her raw courage to speak truth to power, so that the public may know that one of the biggest names in western Buddhism effectively functions as a Buddhist cult nervously guarding the narrative. Ask yourself: why? Where Buddha teaches universal compassion, Gyatso teaches compassion for his flock and subjugation of all obstacles. You seekers must know that if you join, get involved with the NKT, fully let them in, and leave because things go sour, you will find yourself among the spited Survivors. Look before you leap into this sangha, my friends. Beware of those you take into your bed, but beware tenfold those you take into your heart and into your spiritual life.
(Cue Kadampa outrage. Troll me, baby.)