No, it’s not. I only feel the need to write this because the New Kadampa Tradition has been labelled by some people as a cult for two reasons: (1) the NKT broke away from the Tibetan political establishment in a bid to separate politics from religion, and some Kadampa students joined in protests against the 14th Dalai Lama’s ban of Dorje Shugden practice. This difference of opinion did not go down very well amongst some Tibetan and Western followers of the Dalai Lama, who accused NKT practitioners of being “spirit worshippers”, evil demons, not real Buddhists, Chinese agents, and wild entirely unsubstantiated stuff like that; (2) during the first decades of establishing itself, a tiny minority of managers or teachers at a few of the Kadampa Centers behaved in unskillful, deluded, and unprofessional ways (such as asking someone to leave their Center without sufficient reason), and then gaslighting them (eg, accusing them of self-cherishing) if they complained. And although the New Kadampa Tradition as a whole has not condoned this behavior, and has added a great deal of oversight as the years have rolled by (see below), I don’t think it has been as thorough as it could be thus far in routinely following up, apologizing, and making amends where it can. So “survivors” understandably sometimes turn to each other instead. (That’s my entirely unofficial opinion.*)
I also observe that these two groups formed an alliance because they found a common foe in the New Kadampa Tradition and a list of things to repeatedly accuse it of, many of these outlandish (such as worshipping spirits, burning books, being funded by the Chinese government, being murderers, being run by a shadowy cabal, and the apparent disappearance and death of Geshe Kelsang Gyatso many years ago.) A lot of that is addressed here, if you’re interested. What can happen is that if someone who is interested in a Kadampa Buddhist class checks out the NKT on the internet, they may find themselves on a site run by “survivors”. Here they will rapidly be told of all these supposed reasons not to go anywhere near the fake New Kadampa Tradition and, if they take these at face value, they will understandably be spooked. Some of these “survivors” are also actively engaged in a campaign to discredit the New Kadampa Tradition by, for example, calling locations where the NKT is offering meditation classes to warn them off this “cult”, talking from a script.
Despite the existence of this internet chat and controversy, the New Kadampa Tradition is no cult. It is safe. It is authentic and open. The Buddhist teachings and the ethos of the Centers are all to do with people mastering their own minds, not having others control them. Here are two reasons to consider.
The New Kadampa Tradition is an established Mahayana Buddhist tradition dating back 2500 years
The New Kadampa Tradition is part of a well-established Mahayana Buddhist tradition that traces its lineage in an unbroken line back to Buddha Shakyamuni, the teachings traveling from teacher to disciple since that time, including through the fully realized masters Venerable Atisha, Je Tsongkhapa, Je Pabongkhapa, and Trijang Rinpoche. As Jim Belither, then Secretary of the New Kadampa Tradition, put it in Modern Kadampas in 2008:
“Although the Gelugpas were sometimes referred to as new Kadampas, the name New Kadampa Tradition had never been used previously in a formal sense. Nevertheless, by using this title Geshe Kelsang is making it clear that practitioners of this tradition are principally following the teachings and example of Je Tsongkhapa. The word ‘New’ is used not to imply that it is newly created, but is a fresh presentation of Buddhadharma in a form and manner that is appropriate to the needs and conditions of the modern world. Furthermore, by using the title ‘Kadampa’, Geshe Kelsang encourages his disciples to follow the perfect example of simplicity and purity of practice shown by the Kadampa Geshes.”
Is the New Kadampa Tradition controversial? Depends who you ask. In so far as the NKT has been criticized and labelled controversial for breaking away from the Dalai Lama, it might be worth mentioning that all Buddhist schools broke away from one another and branched out in dependence upon the cultural needs of the time; it is a part of the history of Buddhism that goes all the way back to the first three councils.
But I would say that the main reasons why the New Kadampa Tradition became independent are because of the political ban of one of its spiritual practices, its need to break free from the control of the Tibetan establishment, and its wish to be able to bring Buddha’s teachings to a wider global audience.
The Internal Rules of The New Kadampa Tradition
To ensure that it is managed in a democratic way, the New Kadampa Tradition now follows “A Moral Discipline Guide: The Internal Rules of The New Kadampa Tradition – International Kadampa Buddhist Union.” This is a legally binding document that has been approved by the UK Charity Commission within the last 15 years. It contains numerous checks and balances so that no individuals become too controlling and any faulty moral discipline is resolved as soon as possible.
Teachers, students, and managers alike are obliged to make sure that any inappropriate behavior is quickly reported and checked. Within the 1400 Centers, containing hundreds of thousands of students, anything that whiffs of a scandal or possible abuse is investigated and addressed straightaway. The NKT actually errs on the side of caution when it comes to maintaining moral discipline. Personally, I think this a hard balance to get right in any large organization, and the criticism exists that teachers, managers, and students have sometimes been reprimanded, fired, or asked to leave precipitously and/or without enough investigation. However, overall this means that over the years the Kadampa tradition is becoming more and more transparent and accountable, and the instances of unacceptable and/or inappropriate behavior are becoming fewer and fewer.
Anyone can and should ask for a hard copy of The Internal Rules of The New Kadampa Tradition from the NKT Office and report any breach of its rules, whereby – by law – the New Kadampa Tradition managers have to address it swiftly. This is the mechanism Geshe Kelsang Gyatso has left us, whereby the New Kadampa Tradition can and will keep improving. (You can also see the Internal Rules here.)
The need for thoughtful discussion
Nowadays, with the whole world on the Internet, it is possible to bump into bad or exaggerated reports of pretty much everything under the sun—which can sometimes be good but is often bad. I think it is right and fair for “NKT survivors” to speak their truth — I would do the same — and I and many other individual Kadampas have listened to their concerns. I also appreciate debate and thoughtful reflection because it can drive improvement, and am grateful to some detractors of the New Kadampa Tradition for drawing attention to things that needed fixing.
Nonetheless, much of public and political discourse these days is unkind, one-sided, or dishonest, allowing no debate; and this also applies to some assertions about the New Kadampa Tradition. For what it’s worth, in the 41 years or so that I’ve been involved in the New Kadampa Tradition, I have seen some people act idiotically and badly, for sure, but I have seen vastly more acting well. As the New Kadampa Tradition matures and the students practice Buddha’s teachings on loving kindness, wisdom, moral discipline, and so on, overall the Kadampa community is also improving year by year. The majority of people who run into it all around the world would, I think, attest to how kind, open, ethical, and thoughtful this community is. Local centers garner hundreds of good reviews on Google, for example.
The beneficial power possessed by these modern Buddhist teachings and meditations can be seen in the clear transformation of thousands and thousands of lives, and I deeply appreciate the effect they have had on my own life. The New Kadampa Tradition ~ International Kadampa Buddhist Union (NKT~IKBU) is one of the largest and fastest growing Buddhist organizations in the world because it really helps people.
That is why I am putting up this page, just in case it reaches someone before they make up their mind that the New Kadampa Tradition is a cult based on stuff they read on the Internet. The proof is in the pudding. If you have been to a Kadampa center, and you liked the teachings and practitioners, I believe you can trust your direct experience. And if you ever happen to see or hear anything you don’t like, please please report it to the Resident Teacher at that Center and/or at firstname.lastname@example.org, see what happens, and only then make up your mind whether or not to reject these practical, liberating Buddhist teachings and this imperfect but overall fine community.
*Note: Everything in this article is my own observation and view. I am a private practitioner and do not speak on behalf of the NKT.
If you want to read on, here is a brief response to the top 10 criticisms you might find on the Internet (in no particular order):
1. The New Kadampa Tradition is sectarian
The NKT is not sectarian because we respect all religions and the right of others to choose what they want to practice, while we ourselves practice the teachings of this Mahayana tradition stemming from Venerable Atisha and Je Tsongkhapa.
Sectarianism is discriminating against another tradition, religion, or school. It implies being bigoted or narrow minded. The NKT-IKBU studies and practices its own tradition but sincerely respects other spiritual traditions – this point is included in the NKT Internal Rule 8§3.
In Modern Buddhism, Geshe Kelsang says:
Today we can see many different forms of Buddhism, such as Zen and Theravada Buddhism. All these different aspects are practices of Buddha’s teachings, and all are equally precious; they are just different presentations.
2. The New Kadampa Tradition worships a spirit
Not one single person in the NKT worships a spirit. It is rather superstitious, uninformed, and offensive to suggest that they do. As with all Buddhist traditions, the objects of refuge for NKT practitioners are Buddha, the Dharma he taught, and the Sangha (spiritual community) following those teachings. For example, at the beginning of teaching and meditation sessions we recite the Liberating Prayer, which is a praise to Buddha Shakyamuni. As Buddhists, we never go for refuge to an object other than the Three Jewels of Buddha, Dharma, and Sangha.
As part of their spiritual practice, NKT practitioners rely upon the Dharma Protector Dorje Shugden – who is seen as one with the Wisdom Buddha Manjushri – to help them gain realizations of Buddha’s teachings of Sutra and Tantra.
3. The New Kadampa Tradition says that it is the “one pure Dharma”
This is not true. Geshe Kelsang has said that the Dharma practiced in the NKT is pure because it comes from Je Tsongkhapa’s teachings. However, this is not the same as saying that the NKT is the only pure tradition of Buddhism or that other traditions do not have pure Dharma. What is pure Dharma? According to the tradition of Nalanda:
The Dharma is pure if it reveals the entire path that leads to enlightenment, presents each point unmistakenly, and has been handed down in an unbroken lineage from Buddha Shakyamuni.
Any tradition of Buddhism whose teachings possess these characteristics has pure Dharma, not just the NKT.
I might as well note here that over the past several years I have had some very in-depth and interesting conversations with the author of the most recent article to bring up this accusation, Judith Hertog. Amongst other things, we have talked thoughtfully and openly about all the criticisms levelled at the NKT, the real meaning of relying upon a Spiritual Guide in Mahayana Buddhism, and the danger of mixing religion and politics and how to avoid it in this modern era. I am cautiously optimistic that some of this will be reflected in her upcoming book or articles.
4. The New Kadampa Tradition has no pictures of the Dalai Lama in their Centers
This is true, but there is nothing wrong with it. NKT Centers don’t have pictures of the Dalai Lama on their shrines because we are not Tibetan Buddhists and the Dalai Lama is not our spiritual leader. The NKT also doesn’t have pictures of him in entrance halls and so on because he is not our political leader. The Shambala Center in Boulder, to name but one other tradition, also has no pictures of the Dalai Lama anywhere. This is normal.
5. Dorje Shugden is the main practice of the New Kadampa Tradition
This is not true. As with all Buddhist traditions, the main practice of the NKT is going for refuge to the Three Jewels of Buddha, Dharma, and Sangha. As with all Mahayana Buddhist traditions, the main practice of the NKT is also generating bodhichitta and developing wisdom. Because NKT practitioners also practice the Tantric path according to the instructions of Je Tsongkhapa, we rely on the Guru (Spiritual Guide), Yidam (Tantric personal Deity), and Protector in order to fulfill our bodhichitta wish to attain enlightenment. These are manifestations of the Three Jewels, as explained by Je Tsongkhapa. Our main Dharma Protector is the Wisdom Buddha Dorje Shugden. We also rely on other Dharma Protectors such as Palden Lhamo, Mahakala, Kinkara, and Kalarupa.
6. The New Kadampa Tradition is sponsored by the Chinese government
This is not true, and is quite humorous in a way; and of course not a shred of evidence has been produced to support this claim. In the Internal Rules (§3) it says:
The New Kadampa Tradition shall always be an entirely independent Buddhist tradition and the NKT-IKBU shall have no political affiliations.
The NKT has never had, and never will have, any political affiliations with the Chinese or Tibetan governments; or any other government for that matter. This is not least because mixing religion and politics is the cause of huge problems. It is common for anyone who criticizes the Dalai Lama to be labelled “Chinese sympathizers” or to be accused of being on the payroll of the Chinese Government but, in the case of the NKT-IKBU at least, this is an entirely false accusation.
7. The New Kadampa Tradition is profit-driven
This is not true. No individual or Center can benefit from any profits produced as a result of any NKT activities because these profits are used solely to build Temples for World Peace. This is legally enshrined in the moral discipline guide of the New Kadampa Tradition ~ International Kadampa Buddhist Union, the Internal Rules. More here.
In the New Kadampa Tradition, to cover the costs of running a Center or a branch group at a hired venue we charge a facility fee or a suggested donation, which is perfectly normal for any organization. For weekend or longer courses we might also need to charge for accommodation. However, the prices charged by the NKT are kept deliberately as affordable as possible; and no one is turned away from local Centers for financial reasons. Compared with other courses, conferences, seminars, or retreats, NKT courses are often substantially less expensive.
In accordance with NKT Center constitutions, none of the income or property may be paid by way of profit to its directors, trustees, staff, teachers, members, or any other individual person. Many NKT members are supported with sponsorships to fulfil responsibilities such as teaching and other administrative tasks. The NKT has already created hundreds of jobs worldwide and trained many people in skills that they have used later to find other jobs.
8. The New Kadampa Tradition evangelizes and promotes itself
The NKT does not try to convert people, and probably most people who attend classes do not become fully committed Buddhists. Kadampa Centers advertize their classes principally by means of posters, online listings, and Center websites. The motivation is to offer people the study and practice Buddha’s teachings in order to help them develop their wisdom, cultivate a good heart, and maintain a peaceful state of mind. As Geshe Kelsang said:
Our intention in teaching Dharma is not just to spread Buddhism. We are trying to help the people of this world by giving them special methods to solve their daily problems and to achieve the permanent happiness of liberation. In itself, the flourishing of Buddhadharma is not important unless it benefits others. This is the main purpose of Buddhism.
Buddha Shakyamuni himself travelled from town to town to deliver Buddhist teachings. There is no law to say that Buddhist Centers are not allowed to grow.
9. The New Kadampa Tradition only sells Geshe Kelsang’s books
Tharpa Publications, the NKT publishing arm, does largely sell only Geshe Kelsang’s books; but there is nothing wrong with this because they form the basis of the three NKT study programs. It is normal for any organization to sell its own literature.
By selling only Geshe Kelsang’s books, Tharpa Publications is not suggesting that these are the only valid Buddhist texts or that Geshe Kelsang is the only valid Buddhist teacher. There are many Dharma books in this world and many wonderful teachers. If an NKT student or anyone else wants to read books by other teachers, they can and do easily obtain them from any good book store.
Each book contains commentary to a root text by Buddha Shakyamuni, Je Tsongkhapa, or another great realized Buddhist master. For example, Ocean of Nectar contains the translation of Chandrakirti’s entire root text Guide to the Middle Way, Universal Compassion is a commentary to Geshe Chekhawa’s Training the Mind in Seven Points, and The New Eight Steps to Happiness is a commentary to Geshe Langri Tangpa’s Eight Verses of Training the Mind.
There is rarely any criticism of Geshe Kelsang’s books, which are highly praised throughout the Buddhist world as being authoritative and authentic. These books are the Dharma at the heart of the study programs, and the study programs are at the heart of the NKT, which indicates that the NKT is a valid and respectable Buddhist tradition.
10. New Kadampa Tradition students worship Geshe Kelsang
This allegation was started in a 1996 article by Madeleine Bunting in The Guardian newspaper, where she said that NKT members “pray to and worship Geshe Kelsang”, and continued from there, with no evidence ever provided for criticisms of this nature.
For the record, Geshe Kelsang never claimed to be an omniscient being or a Buddha. He rarely talked about himself at all. He was a very humble monk and renunciate. He spent sixteen years happily in strict retreat, only emerging to bring Dharma to the West because his Spiritual Guide Trijang Rinpoche asked it of him. He lived modestly and simply his entire life. He sold the one car that was offered to him in 1986 so that he could donate the proceeds to ‘Live Aid’. He never owned a house, giving away one he was given for a retreat center. He gave away everything that he was offered, including the royalties on his books and all gifts of money, property, statues and so on. He never had a single trapping of luxury, power or worldly success. Nor was he ever interested in or engaged in politics. In the Summer of 2009 he voluntarily stepped down as the General Spiritual Director of the NKT, in a democratic system of succession that he himself has established; and spent the rest of his life in retreat and writing books.
Relying upon the Spiritual Guide, or “Guru devotion”, is a teaching common to all of Mahayana Buddhism. However, Geshe Kelsang managed to introduce these teachings in a skillful way that is acceptable to our individualistic Western sensibilities. In the West, people are (rightly) suspicious of religious systems that promote another person and demand unswerving allegiance. In 2009 and 2013, Geshe Kelsang explained a profound and skilful method to practice relying upon the Spiritual Guide, which enables students to regard their Spiritual Guide as an emanation of Buddha during teachings whilst suggesting they relate to them as a more ordinary person at other times.
Example of an accusation based on hearsay
Just in case you are still here, lol, I will add here a typical accusation and a response to that accusation. This one came up not long ago in a Yelp review for one of the Centers in America. I think it is worth nothing that the other 48 Yelp reviews for this Center are very positive.
“I went to this center to learn about happiness a while back. It was a multi-part series. About halfway through the class, it turns out that Geshe Kelsang (the founder) had died. Anyway, that made me read his obituary and go on a deep dive to research this organization. It turns out that this organization (as well as Shambhala) are cults. Please do your homework before going here. I believe they are dangerous. Suffice it to say I never went back after my last class.”
“Hello, our founder Venerable Geshe Kelsang Gyatso Rinpoche passed away on September 17, 2022 at the age of 91 years. He spent the first half of his life in the East, ordaining at the age of eight, and studying extensively at the great monastic universities of Tibet. He later spent almost 18 years in solitary retreat in northern India. In 1977, he left his homeland to spread pure Dharma (Buddha’s teachings) throughout the West. This decision came in response to a request to his spiritual guide, the great lama, Trijang Rinpoche, to send a qualified teacher to England.
This began the second half of his life during which time he established, with permission from his Spiritual Guide Trijang Rinpoche “Modern Buddhism,” a special presentation of Buddha’s teachings designed for the people of the modern world. As part of this, he established the New Kadampa Tradition, wrote 23 commentaries of Buddha’s teachings, oversaw the building of six International Temples for World Peace, and established three systematic programs for the study of Buddhadharma which are now offered throughout the world. He trained hundreds of qualified lay and ordained teachers, created a project to establish Buddhist temples and Centers in every major city, and opened many retreat centers. There are many other incredible deeds Venerable Geshe-la performed during his life which you can read about online, particularly at kadampa.org.
In his teachings, Geshe Kelsang emphasized the importance of meditation and how to apply it in daily life, the need to be truly happy by training the mind, and how to cultivate a good heart to help others. He inspired thousands of people from many different countries because he taught by example, demonstrating these qualities perfectly in his own life. He was a humble Buddhist monk who had a sincere wish to open the door to liberation and full enlightenment to as many people as he possibly could, regardless of their age, race, gender, sexual orientation or faith.
When you say you undertook a deep dive into our organization and you concluded we are dangerous and a cult, it is worth pointing out that it can be very difficult to know these days whether online sources are reliable, and even to know the identity of the author of anything you read. That is why it is always best to go by your own personal experience. What was your experience of our Center? Were there any nefarious activities you witnessed or extreme requests made of you, such as to stop contacting your family, to give large sums of money to our organization, or to blindly worship anybody? These are characteristics of cults. I know you will not have witnessed any of that, because that is not the nature of our center or our tradition. Instead, you will have encountered a very relaxed and open environment, allowing everyone to participate at their own level and to feel free to question and discuss the teachings, and a very dedicated, loving and friendly community.
Certainly there will be dissenters of us, as there will be of any global organization of our scale. I think a real deep dive would have entailed spending time with the community, talking to teachers and practitioners, who by the way would have happily discussed any concerns you may have had. Kadampa Buddhism is now flourishing worldwide. Why? Because it is improving people’s lives, giving them very clear tools with which to transform their problems. There are many thousands of sincere Kadampa practitioners spread throughout the world who can attest to this. We know this from our own experience because we are among the thousands who attend our annual Dharma festivals (another wonderful aspect of our tradition which Venerable Geshe-la established during his life). In conclusion, you are always welcome to discuss your concerns with us, and we wish you all the very best in your pursuit of happiness.”