New Kadampa Tradition: Religion or Not ?
The New Kadampa Tradition is a worldwide organization that was formally established in the United Kingdom in 1992 by Geshe Kelsang Gyatso, a monk of Tibetan origin (Oliver 84). It has evolved from the Gelug School of Tibetan Buddhism and aims to make Tibetan Buddhism accessible to Westerners in the contemporary world (Oliver 85). This NRM’s goal is closely associated with that of the Mahayana school of Buddhism, which focuses on disseminating the teachings of the Buddha and helping other people achieve enlightenment (Clarke 92) but prefers to describe itself as an entirely independent and pure Buddhist tradition guided by the ancient Kadampa Buddhist Masters (Bluck 129). Followers’ faith in Geshe Kelsang and his teachings is a prominent feature of this movement, which allows him to adapt Buddhist teachings for a Western audience as he sees fit (Bluck 142). His unquestioned authority among his them have lead some outsiders to be critical of the movement, but practitioners insist that they are devoting themselves to the movement of their own free will (Bluck 142). This movement also places a high emphasis on extending the study of Buddhism beyond academic learning to include practical experiences (Oliver 85). To this end, Geshe Kelsang wrote many books explaining Buddhism in simple terms to a general reading audience as well as translating many traditional Tibetan religious texts into English (Oliver 85). These books are very popular worldwide and have made the organization very successful: it has over 1000 centres based in almost 40 countries around the world which teach Buddhism at all levels (Oliver 87). The NKT is also known for its international festivals where Geshe Kelsang himself teaches and offers meditation courses (Oliver 87).
This movement has also proved to be quite controversial. Arguably the most visible of those controversies in terms of media coverage is its falling out with the Dalai Lama himself over the worship of the protector deity Dorje Shudgen (Bluck 131). The Dalai Lama, who was originally taught the worship of that deity by his junior religious tutor, gradually moved away from this practice because he saw it as potentially harmful and restricted it to private practice (Bluck 131). However, Kelsang claims that this deity, who holds a heart that symbolizes compassion and sports a fierce expression that symbolizes a capacity to overcome delusion to achieve wisdom, protects the movement (Oliver 87). He even gave a series of public Dorje Shudgen initiations, ignoring the warning notice the Dalai Lama’s office sent him subsequently (Bluck 131). The rift between both parties became extremely publicized in the media when Dorje Shudgen worship supporters organized demonstrations against the Dalai Lama in London in 1996 (Bluck 132).
The New Kadampa Tradition was referred to as a ‘sect’ and accused of being involved in an ‘international smear campaign’ (Bluck 132). A monastery in India even formally expelled Geshe Kelsang for his opposition to the Dalai Lama (Bluck 132). This harsh criticism prompted the NKT to withdraw its campaign of open opposition against the views of the Dalai Lama, although most of the members continued to support the practice of worshipping the Dorje Shudgen (Bluck 132). To this day, the movement continues to defend and restore its tarnished image by devoting a large section on its official website to presenting online visitors with explanations about a list of smears that they claim that the media has accused them of: being a cult, worshipping a spirit and being sectarian, among others (New Kadampa Truth). The New Kadampa Tradition can be considered a religion according to family resemblance theory, since it all seven dimensions of religion according to Ninian Smart. The criteria for mythic content is met with the previously discussed worship of the Dorje Shudgen. Also, one of the main tenets of the NKT is the study of Buddhism through practical actions (Oliver 85). Meditation is considered of paramount importance to train the mind to take a balanced view towards life, free of the discrimination generated by our natural personal preferences (Oliver 87). It is separated in two stages: ‘spiritual instruction’, which makes practitioners contemplate written or oral instructions, and ‘virtuous state of mind’, which makes practitioners pay attention to the inner workings of their mind during the meditation (Bluck 133). To this end, the NKT employs teachers to guide the student through the meditation with NKT books and the teacher’s own personal experience; it even has its own Teacher Training Programme that lasts seven years (Bluck 139). The movement’s heavy emphasis on practical actions reflects their belief that firsthand human experience is extremely important in their tradition (Oliver 85). The main aim of its practitioners is to truly understand the temporary nature of both themselves and the world through personal experience: the movement refers to the successful attainment of this state as ‘emptiness’ (Kelsang 35), a point at which enlightenment has effectively been achieved (Oliver 86). This state of mind is directly related to the NKT’s doctrinal and philosophical worldview of the impermanence of the material world (Oliver 86). In fact, the realization of this truth about the nature of existence is the goal of all the practices and rituals found within the movement (Oliver 87). Likewise, the ethical and moral code of the NKT is set in a way that encourages the attainment of enlightenment among its followers (Bluck 144). The possession of a strong moral discipline is seen as the foundation for a spiritual life: practitioners are encouraged to avoid the ten non-virtuous actions of killing, stealing, sexual misconduct, lying, divisive speech, hurtful speech, idle chatter, covetousness, malice and wrong views in favour of virtuous and positive actions (Bluck 144) that aim to cultivate contentment and reduce desire for worldly pleasure, among other things (Bluck 144). This behavioural prescription is present in the ten ordination vows the movement’s nuns and monks take upon ordination and in the pratimoksa vows lay people can choose to take (Bluck 145). Those vows, along with the meditation practice that has been discussed earlier, are two examples of the ritual dimension of this religion. As mentioned before, the NKT has many books that serve as guides to principles of Buddhism for its followers and for a general audience alike which satisfies the material dimension of Smart’s criterions for being considered a religion (Bluck 133). One of them, for instance, called New Meditation Handbook, contains detailed instructions on how to perform the meditation practice discussed earlier (Bluck 133). Those books emphasize the individualistic aspect of the tradition, as anyone in their possession can start towards a path of meditation (Bluck 133). Finally, the NKT has many social institutions through which it can spread its teachings: for instance, it has its own publishing company called Tharp Publications whose profits are passed on to the International Temples Project, an NKT organization that builds temples around the world (Oliver 87). Since this movement satisfies all seven of Smart’s religious dimensions, it can effectively be considered a religion.
Today, the New Kadampa Tradition still remains polarizing. In the end, it seems that, as the extreme popularity of Kelsang Gyatso books and the rapid growth of the tradition would testify, the core teachings of the NKT are universally welcomed while some of its practices, such as the worship of the Dorje Shudgen, are more questionable.
Bluck, Robert. British Buddhism. London, New York: Routledge, Taylor & Francis Group, 2006. Print.
Clarke, Peter. New Religions in Global Perspectives. London, New York: Routledge, Taylor & Francis Group, 2006. Print.
Kelsang, Geshe. Ocean of Nectar: Wisdom and Compassion in Mahayana Buddhism. Delhi: Motilal Banarsidass Publishers Private Limited, 2000. Print.
New Kadampa Truth. Smears about the New Kadampa Tradition. New Kadampa Truth Fighting the Smears, 2008. Web. 2 April 2016.
Oliver, Paul. New Religious Movements. New York, London: Continuum International Publishing Group, 2012. Print.