Meet the New Kadampa Tradition

Welcome to the beginning of my new project, ‘Leaving the Sangha.’ We will discuss the New Kadampa Tradition (or NKT) and experiences in this all-encompassing, high-demand branch of Buddhism. Initially, I will discuss my own understanding of the NKT: its structure, culture, practices, etcetera. I eventually hope to attract guest authors, people who themselves have survived the NKT experience, as well as experts on psychology, Buddhism, and particularly recovery from religious abuse.

The NKT Temple in Ulverston, England.

My own experience with the NKT began at the ripe young age of 17. Initially I learned about Buddhism in freshman social studies, and my curiosity piqued as my senior year began. The core tenet of the Four Noble Truths appealed to me; discussing suffering directly seemed like such a refreshing change of pace from other religions, which demanded belief in some person you’d never seen, or declaring with absolute certainty that that person was the last prophet ever. Who am I to know? In the end, the most important thing in spirituality is finding purpose and explaining our suffering; everything else seems like a metaphysical reach.

I used a new thing called Google (this was around 2002) to look for Buddhism near where I lived and I was in luck: there was a Buddhist center in my hometown. It struck me as odd, as this was in a mid-sized town outside Hartford, so I assumed it was kismet. The center was housed in a small building shared with an art studio; a brightly-lit space with statues and yellow walls. The people there adored that I came alone, declaring my good karma, this precious opportunity. At this point the center was too small to support its own resident teacher, so each month a teacher drove out from Kadampa Meditation Center New York — the headquarters of the NKT in the Northeast, and all of the US. These first teachers were all ‘senior students,’ long-time students and devotees of Geshe Kelsang Gyatso. I showed up expecting him, but alas, he was an ocean away.

A Tibetan monk and scholar, Kelsang Gyatso arrived in the UK in the 70s, landing at a place called Manjushri Institute, an old priory turned into a temple, and a gathering place for various Buddhist teachers and their followers under the auspices of the Foundation for the Preservation of the Mahayana Tradition, or FPMT. Eventually the other teachers were pushed out, FPMT’s control of the site was seized, and Gyatso began building his own movement, which he dubbed the New Kadampa Tradition.

The name is a call-back to the remarkable Kadampa teachers of old like Atisha, known for their grounded teachings; though more accurately, the NKT was a branch of the Gelugpas, one of the four schools of Tibetan Buddhism. Gyatso was embroiled in a feud with the Dalai Lama over the worship of a controversial dharma protector, Dorje Shugden. In this dispute, his home monastery Sera revoked his Geshe degree — essentially a doctorate of Buddhist philosophy. Gyatso largely ignored this home fatwa from the comfort of his English domain.

Buddhism in the West was a big jumble of core truths and principles mixed up with myriad Asian traditions. Correctly identifying this confusion among Western people, Gyatso established his own publisher, Tharpa Publications, and set about writing a series of books on the various practices of (his version of) Tibetan Buddhism. They were originally published in English, and then later translated into German, French, Spanish, Chinese, and a number of other languages. In the appendix there were his translated prayers along with an international directory of Gyatso’s centers. He gathered followers through the proliferation of these texts, and the New Kadampa Tradition rapidly expanded throughout the Western world, establishing centers in places from Brazil to the US, Canada, Germany, France, and ultimately, in my case, eastern Connecticut.

The Dalai Lama, photographed by Christopher Michel.

As far as his followers are concerned, he is not only a qualified Geshe, but a spiritual guide, a Lama in his own right. NKT centers are all stocked with Gyatso’s texts, and only his texts. They are available to purchase at a reasonable price; a great read for someone riding a spiritual high after a class. Thus he brought dharma to thousands — but only his dharma. Due to his opposition to the Shugden practice, the Dalai Lama’s images were banned in NKT centers — he was considered to be a religious oppressor rather than holy man. (More on this dispute will come later.) Over time the schism worsened to the point where western monks and nuns were directed to begin protesting the Dalai Lama’s teachings and public appearances in the West. Some of the strangest experiences of my life happened at those protests.

Next week we will go into greater detail on the issue of Dorje Shugden — to some a dharma protector, to some a demon. Shugden is the fulcrum of the schism and Gyatso’s dispute with the Dalai Lama. I thank you for reading, and hope this has been illuminating. Please follow this publication for more updates. If you have any questions or comments, you can contact me on Twitter @geoffinitelyill.