This article is taken from an on-going correspondence I’ve been having with Judith Hertog, the author of “The One Pure Dharma: The New Kadampa Tradition is controversial—and growing. Why? ”, which was published in Tricycle Magazine.
Hertog reached out to me shortly after it came out in response to an online comment I made on her article, which I found not favorable to the New Kadampa Tradition. We have been talking since then, on and off, including in person – we get along well, and I have actually valued her in-depth questions about Guru devotion and other matters, as I believe she has valued my replies. I would appreciate both her and Tricycle removing that article as it is so full of inaccuracies, and writing a more up to date and fairer article on this ancient, well-loved, and widely practiced Mahayana Buddhist tradition; but for now I will just share some responses to her article in the hope that some people find these.
Please see also this article for our conversation about so-called Guru devotion and “purity” in the New Kadampa Tradition.
“The New Kadampa Tradition is controversial—and growing”
Just quickly, on some of your other points – I believe there are always issues within communities, and, yes, we all need to become increasingly kinder and more respectful. There is a lot of newly discovered scandal within other Tibetan traditions at the moment, so I was wondering why you chose this time to repeat the same outdated old things about the NKT. In any event, I feel safe in saying that Kadampa Buddhists on the whole are into soul searching; they are trying to get to the bottom of their delusions, as I hope and believe are Buddhists in other traditions.
I think it is significant that, despite the undoubted moral failings of some students as the tradition has been getting established here, Geshe Kelsang himself has never been implicated in any sex scandal.
Buddhism is a very forgiving religion because we don’t conflate people with their so-called delusions – which is why the Buddhist scriptures are full of stories of formerly evil people being given the chance to purify and make amends, such as Angulimala or Milarepa. At the same time, it is so incredibly important that Buddhist traditions never condone systematic homophobia, intolerance, or abuse. As a response to the early scandals in the NKT, Geshe Kelsang banned all offending parties, tightened up the Internal Rules, and appointed not just one but two women to head this tradition. This is unheard of in Tibetan circles where privileged monks are the order of the day, rather like old white men in the West. Geshe Kelsang has broken glass ceilings, empowering women, the LGBTQ community, and others, and I suspect he has a lot more up his sleeve.
Criticism of the New Kadampa Tradition
Some of the complaints you mention seem to come from the idea that the NKT spends its money on building temples for world peace rather than supporting individuals, which I find curious TBH. No one is promised a job or support for life. This notion of lifelong material support for all staff and volunteers doesn’t sit easily in today’s society, which is not paternalistic or monastic – people have choice to come and go and obviously hold many different jobs in the course of a lifetime. Oxfam, for example, as another non-profit, doesn’t keep paying people who are no longer working there. What company does? The NKT does support some of its old-timers in the Centers, especially if they are elderly or disabled; but in general people have to take responsibility for their own finances and are free to come and go.
Mixing religion and politics
I agree with Georges Dreyfus that the NKT is all about divesting ourselves of the political luggage that has been carried over from Tibet. We don’t agree with mixing religion and politics – any politics, Tibetan or otherwise. (I would never dream of mentioning Trump, for example, in a teaching, whatever my personal politics may be.) We don’t buy into the Tibetan power system. This partly explains why we are unpopular amongst many Tibetan Buddhists, but also partly why Kadampa Buddhism is popular amongst modern people who have no interest in learning about the Tibetan culture, language, or politics. I used to love learning Tibetan and studying old-fashioned style; but I can see how hugely more accessible the presentation of the teachings is now.
“Last chance of Buddhism”
Your article inclines toward sensationalism, if you don’t mind me saying so, and I feel that this can show a disregard for spiritual sentiment. The subject is more nuanced. For example you quote the academic David Kay to suggest that there are those within the NKT who think this is the last chance of Buddhism, as if to reveal how mad they are. However, this view alludes to a deep Lamrim teaching on our precious human life and the certainty of death. It is not a political statement. We try to recognize that our individual current opportunity for spiritual practice is very rare and precious in order to bring about an internal motivation and corresponding deep personal transformation.
“One pure Dharma”
I feel you have used the word “purity” as a rather loaded, controversial concept in your article. To which I reply, “purity” is nothing to do with being better than other people, but about developing pure mental states of love and compassion. There are many spiritual paths and views that lead to mental purity. We do not comment on other religious traditions, much less judge them — rather everyone has the freedom to choose their path depending on their karma. For us, Guru yoga, Lamrim, and relying on an enlightened Protector are deep and treasured spiritual practices. Portraying them as a caricature of sectarianism and political power hugely diminishes a spiritual path of sincere practitioners who want to develop themselves and attain enlightenment.
Pure view does not incite me in the least to dismantle other traditions or people trying to sort out their lives. Where are these Kadampas who apparently hate other traditions? Are we growing as a tradition because we are all sitting around feeling superior and praying for other traditions to collapse?! Do you really think that?! I’m sure you don’t, but the article comes over with that stereotype.
I can let you know anything you want to know about the Kadampa Buddhist way of life and community in Denver and other places I am familiar with – you only have to ask. I really am just trying to help others find some peace and a happy life, Buddhist or not, per my Teacher’s advice and encouragement and my own deep wishes. Geshe Kelsang is always saying that we must respect others’ freedom and never try and control them or their lives. In our Western culture, theoretically at least, we celebrate the values of freedom from oppression and coercion, as well as taking responsibility for our own behaviors and helping others. I think Buddhist thought has a huge amount to offer practically in all these areas, and often write about this on my blog.
“The politics at play in the Dorje Shugden conflict”
In your criticisms of Dorje Shugden, I feel you are, perhaps inadvertently, besmirching quite a deep practice due to approaching it solely from a Tibetan political narrative. The narrative of sectarianism is all the way through your article, even in the title, “one pure Dharma”, and it’s implication that the NKT is on a puritanical drive. You have used the language of pure view within that to push this agenda, that Dorje Shugden is all about sectarianism. Your angle is to paint the disagreement with the Dalai Lama’s ban of Dorje Shugden as a political play, when the whole thing is about the freedom to engage in a spiritual practice, independent of politics.
My question for you would be why you are tending to see all this as a political drama of adversarial posturing, “he said, she said,” rather than about people’s spiritual practice with deep internal meaning, independent of politics. We don’t rely on Dorje Shugden to increase our sectarianism or cause others to quake in their boots. Other traditions don’t figure in our relationship with him — he is a Wisdom Buddha whom we rely upon to increase our compassion and wisdom, our Dharma realizations, and that’s it. The very title of this article is painting us as a whole community of fanatical sectarians who seek out validity through despising other traditions, which is nonsense. It is a caricature. It is hard to engage in any fruitful debate within this accusatory/defensive paradigm.
Although Dorje Shugden is known as the Protector of Je Tsongkhapa’s tradition, he is also a Wisdom Buddha who protects all living beings, including Buddhists in other traditions. If you want to know the meaning of pure view according to Lamrim or why I rely on Dorje Shugden, you can ask me or any other Kadampa. And one thing you’ll find out straightaway that we don’t rely on him as an intimidating force to frighten other traditions; but as a Wisdom Buddha who protects our inner realizations of wisdom and compassion. The meaning of this practice has nothing to do with politics. We don’t want this practice to be illegal. This practice is very valuable for students, which is why we want to be able to keep doing it.
The NKT has been trying to get away from Tibetan politics for decades, in point of fact. Caricaturing our spiritual leaders as hungry for power (including that literal caricature of Geshe Kelsang’s face which looks nothing like him — and I know you told me that that was a Tricycle decision, not yours) and the click bait language of fanaticism, sectarianism, and stupid white Westerners – that show is so old. We just want to get on with our Buddhist practice. If you want to take that well-hashed approach, you might begin with the question of who is really running the shop amongst Tibetans, politically? Who really has the power and the cult following?
I doubt you will find even one person relying on Dorje Shugden who wants to exert political power to control others – they just want to find inner peace and become kinder and wiser. This is why we want to be able to keep doing this practice and don’t want it to be stamped out.
We all got pretty tired of the mudslinging and regurgitation, and I would welcome a journalist who could cast their net wider and look at this from all the other points of view. There is something beautiful that could be drawn out if you wanted to.
Dorje Shugden practitioners’ relationship with the Dalai Lama
You ask, “Wouldn’t it be a more Buddhist attitude to ignore the Dalai Lama’s misconceptions?” and the answer is “No, not if his misconceptions are harming people.” Also, Buddhist history is full of stories of debates between teachers of different traditions. We do not shy away from bringing misconceptions out into the open so we can discuss them and, where necessary, debunk them. To this end we asked the Dalai Lama countless times to discuss with us, as did many senior Tibetan Lamas in India and elsewhere. But he never deigned to reply to anyone. He just made angrier speeches.
Geshe Kelsang has been blamed by many Tibetans and their supporters for calling out the Dalai Lama, but how is this not speaking truth to power in non-violent protest? What is wrong with that? Geshe Kelsang has never stopped people’s spiritual practices; I have always known him to be respectful of other paths.
Yes, I agree, the Hitler analogy was taking it too far, in my opinion. Sometimes people compare Trump to Hitler – it is a cheap shot, but when someone is trampling on your rights or your spiritual life, the comparison is tempting. Though to be fair it was only mentioned in one place in the literature. Primarily, Dorje Shugden practitioners were always asking the Dalai Lama to give religious freedom and to stop lying about us.
If as your next step you say you want to examine why the Dalai Lama has banned the practice of Dorje Shugden, I think it’d be brilliant if you could start by interviewing any of the many hundreds of monks and senior Lamas of Shar Gaden or Drepung Loseling in Mundgod, India, such as this one http://wisdombuddhadorjeshugden.blogspot.com/2014/02/a-firsthand-experience-of-religious.html, who were evicted from their monasteries and started their own, partly as a result of being empowered by Western support and demonstrations (not just the NKT). You could also interview lay people who have been ejected from their jobs or schools. You may or may not know that the Dalai Lama has offered very different reasons for his ban to Westerners and to Tibetans. There is a lot of information about all this on these 3 websites, including his own speeches, if you have the patience to trawl through them.
Thank you for reading this ridiculously long response! I finally sat down this afternoon and just wrote it all out, and I better send it to you before I think of any more to say! None of it is the official NKT view, of course – for, as it says in your article:
“According to the NKT’s constitution, the NKT cannot be involved in political activity. For this reason the NKT does not accept any requests for interviews.”
Especially interviews from Tricycle, which has always favored the political angle over the spiritual in the case of the NKT, being unquestioninable Dalai Lama fans.
Judith Hertog recently asked if she could interview me as an individual for another Tricycle article, but after the absurd reductionist obituary they wrote for Venerable Geshe Kelsang Gyatso last September, which didn’t mention a single good quality or accomplishment of this wonderful teacher, she knows I am not inclined to. As I said to her:
“You are right, I don’t really trust that Tricycle wish to represent us in a fair or balanced way, unfortunately. They have never focused on the good qualities of the tradition or the fact that so many people all over the world are deriving great benefit from it. They are a Buddhist magazine but have never asked us to share interesting articles about Dharma itself, even though Venerable Geshe-la has written 23 erudite and practical books on the Buddhist path to enlightenment, and there are some great contemporary teachers (lay and ordained) who are touching large audiences with Dharma. Tricycle has always focused only on politics and our breaking ranks away from the Tibetan establishment. I think it is a shame.”
I think Judith Hertog is smart and thoughtful and, like I said, I have really enjoyed our conversations. Perhaps she can help set the record a bit straighter at some point – I am not holding my breath, but it would be refreshing.
More here: Is the New Kadampa Tradition a cult?