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Inside Kelsang Gyatso’s New Kadampa Tradition

Former members are speaking out about psychological, financial and sexual abuses they’ve seen or experienced in the New Kadampa Tradition. They claim founder Kelsang Gyatso has built a cult in service of his expansionist drive to put a temple in every city in the world. 


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Written by Be Scofield, M.Div / FULL BIO

In 1997 the Dalai Lama’s closest aid, Lobsang Gyatso, and two of his students were brutally murdered while he was sleeping just a few hundred yards away. Buddhist Scholar Robert Thurman told Newsweek, “The three were stabbed repeatedly and cut up in a way that was like an exorcism.” According to the magazine “the walls of their small chamber” were “splattered with blood.”

Police immediately suspected members of a Buddhist sect that worship the deity Dorje Shugden, a wrathful god or spirit. The murders occurred just months after the Dalai Lama had publicly discouraged Tibetans from worshipping Shugden, which in the past had led to divisions within their tradition. The Times Online reported the killings were done in “revenge” for the Dalai Lama’s actions. 

In 2007, Interpol issued wanted notices for two Shugden worshippers but China had already helped them escape. During a press conference, an Indian Chief of Police named Prithvi Raj stated, “We have identified two of the murderers…one is Tenzin Chozin, the other is Lobsang Chodrak…we have clear indications that the murderers are directly linked to the Dorje Shugden association.”

It would later come out that China’s involvement was much deeper than helping the two accused murderers escape. In 2015 Reuters exposed that the Chinese government had been secretly funding the Shugden resistance movement against the Dalai Lama. As a result, China would end up fueling the cult ambitions of a rogue Tibetan monk hellbent on revenge.

A Shugden Hero Rises

When a shaved-headed Buddhist nun dressed in red robes walked into Sally Myers clothing shop in Williams, Arizona in 2017 hoping to distribute flyers, Sally politely turned her away. “She said it wasn’t Buddhist or religious, it was just about mindfulness and meditation,” Sally told me. But she had a feeling the woman was hiding something.

Sally’s intuition was right. This was no ordinary meditation group. It was an international Buddhist sect called The New Kadampa Tradition (NKT), which many believe to be a cult. It was founded in 1992 by the Dalai Lama’s most notorious arch-rival and prominent Shugden worshipper Kelsang Gyatso. The nun who showed up in Sally’s shop was none other than Kelsang Dekyong, the current worldwide spiritual director of NKT. 

In 2017 NKT built a massive temple and living compound on the outskirts of Williams, a small town famous as an iconic stop on historic Route 66, about an hour south of the Grand Canyon. Ex-members claim the temple was Kelsang Gyatso’s latest effort to challenge the Dalai Lama on a global stage and restore the dignity of his beloved deity, Dorje Shugden. 

A Cult of Worship

“This is a personality cult,” former member Tenzin Peljor told Tricycle magazine in their 2018 critical expose “One Pure Dharma” on Kelsang Gyatso. He is a “narcissistic personality who sees himself as the sole savior of pure Buddhism” Peljor said. “The problem is that Kelsang Gyatso wants his disciples to see him as the only legitimate one” Geshe Dakpa Topgyal told the magazine.

“I was taught only the NKT has pure Dharma. I was taught only the path set forth by Kelsang Gyatso leads to enlightenment.” — former member

Many claim that Gyatso, who embraces the title of a living Buddha, only allows New Kadampa Tradition followers to read “pure” Buddhist texts written by himself. All Buddhist books written by other authors have been removed from their bookstores and centers. Ex-members report having been fearful of “polluting” the teachings with other books or being shunned for reading other texts. Followers believe that all other forms of Buddhism are “corrupt” and that Gyatso’s version is the last saving grace for Buddhism worldwide. 

Linda Ciardiello was evicted from an NKT center for defending her friend who got kicked out for not being “pure NKT.” When she reported the staff person to the leadership she was laughed at and ignored. Linda then realized that type of behavior was commonplace. “One of her decisions was to evict my friend from the centre because she was not pure NKT and therefore seen as ‘negative.’ My friend was devastated and I tried to protect her from the eviction, which ultimately resulted in me being evicted as well.”

“I learned that the last pure being on earth is Kelsang Gyatso.” – Former member

Gyatso has amplified and exploited a minor doctrinal issue to catalyze a cult following around him ex-members allege. He has labeled the Dalai Lama as a “ruthless dictator” and “evil” false teacher who is trying to destroy him and his NKT based Shugden movement. Experts say there is no validity to his claims. With a clearly defined enemy who is persecuting him, claims of Buddhahood and of teaching the “one pure Dharma,” Gyatso has a recipe for cult success.

He has also created a mystical godlike aura around himself. A former member explains.

“The NKT makes Gyatso out to be god like. Even making such statements that he visits each NKT center several times a day. I was told he doesn’t even need to fly on planes to get to empowerments. He can just magically appear. I was also taught if I place all my faith in Gyatso I would not only have a fortunate rebirth so would my family. The NKT uses the mystical Gyatso to have complete control of its practitioners. I for one had deep guilt when I saw faults in Gyatso. I just knew I would go to hell for it.”

Members are also encouraged to have conversations with Gyatso in their heads and even “hallucinate” him in their imaginations. 

At War With the Dalai Lama

Beginning in 1996 and continuing through 2014 Gyatso set up several pro-Shugden groups, staffed by NKT leaders to organize large-scale protests against the Dalai Lama when he traveled to the West. Photos depict NKT members and senior leaders dressed in robes, carrying posters and chanting anti-Dalai Lama slogans in the streets. Former members argue that NKT followers are being brainwashed to believe they are being persecuted and stripped of their religious freedom. 

Kelsang Dekyong, current NKT worldwide spiritual director speaking at an anti-Dalai Lama protest rally. 

In 1997, the same year as the triple murder, Gyatso wrote an open letter to the Dalai Lama chastising him for attacking Shugden devotees and “spreading false information” about him and the NKT.

In 2008 Gyatso wrote a letter to his followers about the Dalai Lama’s attempt to “destroy” them saying:

“To stop this evil action, as the representative of the Western Shugden Society, I personally will organize demonstrations against the Dalai Lama directly. I requested Kelsang Pema and Kelsang Thubchen to do this job for me and they have accepted. Please help Pema and Thubchen with whatever they need.”

Due to his public actions and protests against the Dalai Lama, Gyatso was ex-communicated from his former academic institution Sera-Je monastery. In 1996 the leadership published an open letter called “A Declaration of Expulsion” denouncing Gyatso’s “ruthless smear campaign” against the Dalai Lama. It stated he was “banished” from the school, referring to him as a “cult leader” operating a “cult kingdom” with “fanatical supporters.” They requested the Tibetan people “completely sever any relationship with him.” The murders occurred just six months later. 

Former ordained nun Andrea Ballance calls out the hypocrisy of NKT claiming that their religious freedom is being limited by the Dalai Lama.

“So when the NKT shout about religious freedom you should remember this. None of them have freedom. They have had their freedom systematically removed from them. In their world talking to and taking teachings from the wider Buddhist community is a crime punishable by banishment. That crime is called ‘mixing traditions’. They see everything outside of their centres and teachers as impure and dangerous to their practice. These views are everything from completely deluded to fanatical.”

Gyatso’s first coup was to overthrow the Tibetan Buddhist Manjushri Institute in England. In 1977 he was invited by Lama Yeshe to be a resident teacher and soon garnered a large following. He then blackmailed the school, threatening to release a 100-page document that falsely alleged criminal drug dealing and more. Within a few years, he managed to take over the institution, ousting the Tibetan religious leadership by pushing out anyone who had the authority to keep his power in check. Tenzin Peljor states that Gyatso even bribed one teacher, paying them to leave. He then became the highest authority at the Institute. Today, Manjushri serves as the central headquarters of the New Kadampa Tradition.

The Tibetan Manjushri Institute was taken over by Kelsang Gyatso

Today his New Kadampa Tradition, which he officially started in 1991, claims to have “1,300 centers worldwide” but most of these are not actual temples or buildings. Nearly all of them are gatherings at libraries, community centers or apartments.

Gyatso is “unaffiliated with any known form of Buddhism or any of the official schools of Tibetan Buddhism.” And he is the only Tibetan in his lineage. 

Survivors Speak Out

“I had to unbrainwash myself.” — former NKT member

In recent years many former members of New Kadampa Tradition have spoken out about abuses in the group. There are three Facebook pages; New Kadampa Survivor Activists and New Kadampa Survivor Testimonies and a group called Exposing the New Kadampa Tradition. Former members allege psychological manipulation, brainwashing, financial exploitation, post-traumatic stress and sexual abuses that went unchecked. 

The survivors share a similar story as others who get involved in high demand cult-like groups. At first, there is excitement, zeal, and even euphoria. “Love bombing” and community support draw members in. At some point later they leave disillusioned and traumatized only to spend months or even years unraveling the abuse, manipulation, and brainwashing they’ve experienced. 

“As my time in the NKT came to an end, I reflected on the experience and it slowly dawned on me that I had actually been sucked into a cult.” — Linda Ciardiello

Clinical psychologist Dr. Michelle Haslam who is a former resident of an NKT center left the group and spoke out. She wrote a document called “A Psychological Report on the New Kadampa Tradition” and created a website to warn others. As a result of her actions, she faced an online smear campaign which led to the loss of her job. A day after her report came out her superiors were emailed by a fake psychologist pretending to be concerned for her mental well being. An entire website was set up dedicated to her character assassination. Since then Dr. Haslam has become even more vocal, appearing on numerous podcasts and Youtube videos despite the ongoing resistance. 

Additionally, former members have been smeared online by a character who identifies himself as an independent journalist named Indy Hack. Ex-members who have spoken out publicly have also received threats to ruin their reputations and livelihoods, including lawsuit threats. 

Dr. Haslam claims the NKT focuses on folks with mental health challenges. 

“The NKT target people with mental health difficulties through their advertising that claims their classes will help people overcome depression and anxiety. But they do not understand mental health, and attempt to humiliate people with mental health difficulties in order to silence and discredit them.”

Some of the NKT survivors who are speaking out

One former member describes how those who left were spoken about inside the group. “Common terms used are ‘mentally ill,’ ‘strongly delusional,’ ‘damaged goods,’ and even maras [demons]. Ex-members that dare to speak out are literally demonized. We lose our humanity and become rabid dogs in their eyes.”

Some have tried to reform the group from within but faced backlash. Because Kelsang Gyatso is believed to be an enlightened being, his choice of teachers cannot be questioned, even if they are abusing students. One former member describes what happens, “…people who have dared to question Gyatso have been banned from their center. Not just Gyatso but also their resident teacher. A lot of which were committing sexual misconduct, but those who so dared to report their teacher were more than likely the ones who got into trouble. They were often told not to tell anyone or they may lose faith.”

One ex-member, Gabriella Markgraf explains what she was told when she raised questions. “When I was in the NKT the biggest issue when I dared to asked questions was lacking faith. I heard over and over again, ‘you need to develop faith.’ Faith in this case meant faith in Kelsang Gyatso and the NKT propaganda, as my questions related to the NKT’s relentless stalking of the Tibetan leader and the alleged sexual abuse issues of the organization.”

Carol McQuire, a former ordained NKT nun explains the attitude within the group. “After it became known that the then-current, ordained Deputy Spiritual Director of the NKT had allegedly engaged in sexual misconduct with nuns I had my last conversation with an NKT nun who was a Resident Teacher and a friend. She told me that, unlike ourselves, Gyatso’s ‘special disciples’ who had sex with their students wouldn’t go to hell.”

“She told me that, unlike ourselves, Kelsang Gyatso’s ‘special disciples’ who had sex with their students wouldn’t go to hell.” — Carol McQuire

One senior teacher and supposedly celibate monk, Neil Elliot (Gen-la Thubten), was asked to leave over sexual indiscretions only to return to NKT to teach once again. “He was being exposed for having sexual relations under the guise of a spiritual practice with nuns, single students, students who were married and in long term relationships” describes a former member. 

A former national spiritual director, Samden Gyatso, who was also a supposed celibate monk, was also involved with a scandal. An ex-member describes. “[He] had sexual relations with many women for a very long time (using tantra as an excuse), the only reason he ever disrobed is because one of the nuns tried to commit suicide after falling pregnant with his child; only then did Kelsang Gyatso do something about it.”

When NKT members began discussing the abuses of Samden online Kelsang Gyatso ordered all NKT internet chat rooms to be shut down they claim. Gyatso gave a statement ordering his members to stop. “There is no meaning in talking about silly things publicly on the internet. Instead, make meaningful discussion with our pure practitioners, senior Teachers…Stop this kind of actions.”

Former members claim that the refusal of Gyatso and NKT leadership to address abuses of power further traumatized them. 

Furthermore, ex-members claim acceptance of abuse is ingrained into NKT teachings and methods. Dr. Haslam explains.

“Their teachings are abuse enabling and minimising. When I reported that I was being spiritually abused by an NKT teacher to Bridget Heyes (The National Spiritual Director), she told me that enduring suffering was my practice. Karma beliefs are used to blame the victim and deflect attention from the perpetrator. When all other methods of victim blaming have failed, the management often resort to nihilism. The Admin Director told me ‘nothing matters, that’s what Bridget tells us’. I’ve seen that they wrote a safeguarding policy in 2018, but I believe that followers are too indoctrinated to follow this. They believe that abuse only exists in the mind.’”

There is also heavy pressure to donate money, take out loans that were never repaid or give over their life savings to the group ex-members allege. One person who was asked to take out a loan, but never did, describes what happened to another member. “She gave my center a credit card under her name. After my center folded she was left with thousands of dollars to pay out of her pocket. Other people have given their life savings and even their homes to the NKT.”

Another former member explains more about the financial abuse. “It was customary to give ‘interest-free loans’, pay for building renovation, cars, statues, and even the resident teacher to attend ‘festivals and empowerments’ in foreign countries…Sadly the more I gave, the more it seemed never to be enough, there was always a need for something.”

NKT members are also regularly engaging in “benefit fraud” ex-followers allege. They are instructed to fraudulently sign up for disability and social service financial aid only to then funnel the money into the group. 

The money doesn’t go to pay staff as they are paid a few hundred dollars a month, even the most senior ones. Rather, it is funneled into Gyatso’s “International Temple Fund” which has millions of dollars in it. He wants to put a temple in “every city in the world,” undoubtedly to “challenge the moral authority of the Dalai Lama on an international stage” as author Mike Wilson describes it.

The NKT Temple in Williams, Arizona

Numerous ex-members also describe being overworked and their labor being exploited. A former ordained member, Peter Graham Dryburgh, describes their experience.

“I began to realize that even working from 9 a.m. — 5 p.m. Monday to Friday outside of the centre, I would often be up til 2 a.m. working on the building, and up again at 5 a.m. to ‘get the shrine room ready for the day,’ my weekends had become full of ‘cherishing the centre’ and I lost any friends (and was encouraged to do so as they were negative to the path) who were not connected to the NKT. It became my entire life, my world, my every waking and sleeping moment.”

The exploitation of labor and energy is all part of an “expansionist drive” to spread the teachings with a missionary zeal ex-members argue. 

“The further you travel to the heart of the NKT, the more you are twisted — in the name of enlightened principles — into the very opposite of what it is supposed to be about. And you don’t even realize it’s happening. Until it’s too late.” — former member

Where is Kelsang Gyatso?

One of the peculiar aspects of this story is the disappearance of NKT founder Kelsang Gyatso. He has not been seen since 2013. The senior members claim he is in writing retreat, however, some former members believe that the most recent books were actually ghostwritten by senior NKT. Former members believe that Gyatso is either gravely ill or has died. They say NKT is downplaying or hiding this information because it is harder to recruit students if your all-powerful guru is sick or dead, showing weakness. Essentially it’s not good for business, ex-members claim.

When I visited the NKT temple in Williams the director of education told me that Kelsang Gyatso was supposed to come to their recent large-scale gathering but his trip had to be canceled because they “couldn’t secure the perimeter of the forest.” She said they feared he’d be assassinated. I was surprised at such a declaration. She was very paranoid about him being killed, which seemed like an overreaction. When Kelsang Gyatso was still in attendance, security staff were instructed to wear bulletproof vests and to “take a bullet for their guru.”

One of the many statues Kelsang Gyatso has had made of himself. He requires a strand of his hair to be included in every statue to ensure they are “pure. “

NKT leadership could easily settle the mystery by posting evidence of him in a recent photo or video.

“They employ gas-lighting, gatekeeping, weaponization of confessions; every trick of psychological manipulation in the cult textbook, and all in Buddha’s name.” — Geoffrey Bonn

Many of the classic elements of a cult are present in the New Kadampa Tradition: a charismatic teacher who is the object of worship, financial coercion, behavior control, brainwashing, controlling what members can read, the demonization of former members, suppressing dissent, psychological and sexual abuse and more. Kelsang Gyatso has also created a clear enemy in the Dalai Lama who is trying to destroy him and the NKT. Furthermore, NKT members are told that Gyatso is at risk of being assassinated. 

Dr. Haslam says NKT use deceptive marketing and spiritual practices as a cover for their cult ambitions. “They falsely claim that they teach mindfulness. In fact, they teach thought stopping, thought reform, emotion control, spiritual bypassing, and visualization. What they claim is contemplation meditation is actually hypnosis. Their practices are the opposite of mindfulness according to Western definitions.”

Historically, it’s very difficult for groups like these to enact real change but Gabriella Margraf hopes “that one day the NKT will change its ways and become the open, democratic organization it claims to be, introduces safeguards, takes care of its aging, working, ordained sangha, and deals with its skeletons in the closet, with regard especially to the people who have been victimized, exploited and abused by the organization.” Dr. Haslam isn’t as optimistic, however. “The recent attacks on myself have shown that the NKT will continue to develop more insidious methods in order to control the narrative, instead of taking responsibility. I don’t think they will ever admit that they have been deceiving their followers.”

[Each article takes up to 80 hours to write. Please consider donating to support more life-changing journalism like this.]

RESOURCES

Online

The One Pure Dharma — Tricycle Magazine

Angry White Buddhists Protest the Dalai Lama — Tricycle Magazine

Recovery From the New Kadampa Tradition

Experiences With the New Kadampa Tradition

NKT World — Critical Essays

Info Buddhism —Geshe Kelsang Gyatso

Info Buddhism — New Kadampa Tradition

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