Tibetan Buddhist movement takes on exclusivist, authoritarian face amidst expansion

A branch of Tibetan Buddhism known as the New Kadampa Tradition (NKT) is growing globally as it adapts the Tibetan tradition to a Western audience, but is also attracting mounting criticism for its authoritarian practices, according to an article in the Buddhist magazine Tricycle (Winter). The NKT is one of the largest Buddhist traditions in England and is growing in the U.S. and globally, with 1,200 centers currently open around the world. In 2018, new temples and centers opened in Boston, Washington, D.C., Fort Lauderdale, Oslo, and Paris. In 2017, the International Kadampa Retreat Center opened near the Grand Canyon in Arizona, with a nearby temple planned to seat close to 1,000 worshipers. Judith Hertog reports that the organization has also recently expanded to Latin American nations and published its unique canon of texts in several languages. On one hand, the NKT has liberalized its monastic order to accommodate Western nuns, cuttingits hundreds of traditional vows to just 10. On the other hand, the movement has not shed centuries-old conflicts and sectarian tendencies that have isolated it from world Buddhism.

The movement’s leader, Kelsang Gyatso, is seen as the “sole holder and savior of pure dharma” and the source of all authority, according to the article. “Some [NKT] practitioners are absolutely certain this is the last opportunity to find pure Buddhism in the world, and that everything else is corrupt,” says British researcher David Kay. Gyatso and the NKT have criticized the rival Tibetan leader the Dalai Lama and his stance on religious freedom. The two leaders have clashed over the worship of the Dorje Shugden, a deity that the Dalai Lama has a called a “malevolent spirit” but to which the NKT is strongly devoted. Critics maintain that the NKT has two sides, appearing welcoming and open to newcomers, but then becoming more restrictive and controlling once practitioners are inside the organization. INFORM, a British group studying new religious movements, finds that the NKT has been able to grow in Britain through shrewd real estate dealings financed by members’ donations and construction work. The Buddhist group has regularly tried to silence critics by using British libel laws as a threat. The NKT is viewed as the result of a mysterious process of Gyatso’s radicalization from a learned and trusted monk and scholar to a sectarian leader who views himself as an infallible leader and who many followers believe is the third Buddha. The article concludes that the organization and its ideology have thrived “in part because its members are from a social environment in which Buddhism is still new—meaning that they come to the NKT lacking a wider perspective on Buddhist history.”

(Tricycle, https://tricycle.org/)