A response to: Potential harm to mental and physical health through exposure to The New Kadampa Tradition (NKT-IKBU), January 17, 2020
One of the most extensive and scathing criticisms of the New Kadampa Tradition (NKT) is by a Clinical Psychologist called Dr Michelle Haslam. Most of Dr Haslam’s criticisms are based on disagreements with and/or misunderstandings of Buddhism in general and the NKT welcomes the opportunity to discuss these. Dr Haslam for a short time was a resident at Nagarjuna Kadampa Meditation Center in Northamptonshire, England. Concerned about the nature of Kadampa Buddhism, she wrote a long report detailing her concerns and also posted daily videos. The NKT has not responded to Dr Haslam’s criticisms before now. It is hoped that this article will address some of her concerns and help clear up some misunderstandings.
As will be seen, many of Dr Haslam’s concerns relate to the content of Buddha’s teachings and not the practices of the NKT. Since 1991, the NKT has been attempting to present the teachings of Buddha for modern society all around the world. As explained on this site, the NKT has been learning from mistakes made along the way by teachers, managers, and other individuals; and is determined to keep improving. While the NKT agrees with Dr Haslam that it is important to highlight any areas of concern in the organization, it is also gravely concerned about her misunderstandings of Buddhism because these have led to unjustified criticisms. If people believe them, they will be dissuaded from attending NKT Centers and even other Buddhist Centers, therefore not deriving benefit from meditation and Buddhism. Dr Haslam’s report is over 100 pages long. Therefore, although it would be possible to address it point by point, in the interests of time and length the main criticisms in each section will be addressed as succinctly as possible. If you have any questions about anything else in her report, please leave these in the Comments below.
The supposed recruitment
This section of Dr Haslam’s report accuses the NKT of being on a recruitment drive to acquire members by mis-selling the benefits of meditation, apparently making false claims that it can help with mental health issues and make you happy, and hiding the ‘dangers’ of meditation. She also accuses the NKT of ‘lovebombing’ people so that they will become attached to their local Center and practices.
The ‘cult’ accusation
Dr Haslam uses the word ‘cult’ over and over again, without any definition or evidence. She says that members of the NKT will find this “triggering”, which may be true given that the NKT is not a cult but mainstream Buddhism. For more about this, please see this article. According to the Cambridge Dictionary, a cult is defined as:
A religious group, often living together, whose beliefs are considered extreme or strange by many people.
It is true that those who are not religious might find a religious group’s beliefs to be extreme or strange. This seems to be the case with many of Dr Haslam’s objections to the practices of the NKT, which are simply Mahayana Buddhism. It is easy to use the term ‘cult’ as a pejorative for a group that one disagrees with or thinks is different or somehow dangerous; but the responsible thing to do would be to examine the evidence for such a claim before spreading it widely. Many of the teachings found in Venerable Geshe Kelsang’s books can be found in the books of many other respected teachers of Buddhism. They are mainstream Buddhism, not new or strange religious ideas with no lineage or foundation. For more about the books, please see this article. Dr Haslam takes issue with the degree of Guru yoga expressed by Kadampa Buddhists, but Guru yoga (also known as “Guru devotion” and “relying upon the Spiritual Guide”) was taught by Buddha. It is possible for this teaching to be abused by teachers (Skt. Guru); but throughout his life Venerable Geshe Kelsang remained very humble and never once claimed to be special. This continued when he passed away – he wanted no ceremonies, for his body to be quietly cremated, and for his ashes to be cast into the ocean. He did not want a shrine or a stupa as a sign of veneration. He always made it clear in his words and his actions that his teachings and hard work were all about the Dharma, not about him. By point of comparison, many people who are followers of the Dalai Lama publicly worship him as the Buddha of Compassion and God King of Tibet. Any strange or unconventional behaviour by teachers or managers in the NKT needs to be reported and dealt with by the organization, as encouraged in several other places on this site. In his oral teachings, Venerable Geshe Kelsang encouraged anyone who thought a teacher’s behavior did not accord with their Dharma teachings to ask them why they were doing these things. One of the most important qualities of a Buddhist teacher is to show a good example, which is the example of putting the teachings into practice. The NKT is a democratic organization as outlined in A Moral Discipline Guide ~ The Internal Rules of the New Kadampa Tradition. The General Spiritual Director, Deputy Spiritual Director, and National Spiritual Director are elected by the Education Council. Any Spiritual Director or Resident Teacher can be dismissed for inappropriate behavior. Therefore, if someone was narcissistic and authoritarian, for example, or was leading members in a direction contrary to Buddhist principles and the Internal Rules, they would either be voted out or dismissed.
Does the NKT mis-sell the benefits of meditation?
Dr Haslam is a self-professed atheist, and most of her criticisms of the NKT are in actual fact criticisms of Buddhism, which she does not seem to understand well. She applies Western psychological theories to her critique of Kadampa Buddhism, which is not always appropriate because they are different disciplines with different aims. There is no difference between Dr Haslam’s criticism of the NKT and any other non-religious sceptic’s criticism of religion. Such critiques by atheists are not new. Buddhism is a religion that has existed for over two and a half thousand years, and it has brought joy, happiness, and inner freedom to countless people. Because Buddhist meditation has been tried and tested for many centuries, and because those who teach it do so from personal experience, there is good reason to say that it can help make people happy. Buddha explains how the main cause of happiness is inner peace, and how meditation is a method to develop and improve inner peace. Why would it not work? Dr Haslam gives no reasons. Dr Haslam expresses suspicion of ‘freebies’, such as Geshe Kelsang’s free ebook How to Transform Your Life. However, Geshe Kelsang’s motivation in giving away a Buddhist ebook is to make Buddha’s teachings more freely available for people to use. Even though we may live in an increasingly materialistic and self-centered world, it is still incorrect to assume that such altruism is impossible, as Dr Haslam does assume. It is in fact the natural result of Buddhist practice. Without practicing and gaining experiences of these methods herself, it seems unreasonable to claim out of hand that they cannot help other people become kinder and more peaceful. It would be possible to go through her report step by step to show her misunderstanding and disdain for Buddha’s teachings, but, in the interests of time, only some of the main ones will be addressed.
Can Buddhist meditation help or not with mental health issues?
In his 84,000 teachings, Buddha gave many explanations of the causes of suffering and mental unhappiness and how to cure these. He explained that although our nature is healthy, we have uncontrolled thoughts called “delusions”, which are like mental sicknesses or afflictions that cause us suffering. Buddhist meditation therefore helps with many mental health issues such as anger, depression, anxiety, etc. This is the personal experience of people who meditate, and one of the reasons why people who are suffering seek out meditation classes in the first place, in some cases following the advice of their doctors. To claim that it cannot help with mental health issues, as Dr Haslam does, is simply not true. As Dr Haslam correctly points out, most NKT managers and teachers are not mental health professionals (some are). And nor do they claim to be. Kadampa meditation is not claiming to cure illnesses such as bipolar, schizophrenia, personality disorder, and so forth, nor aiming to replace professional mental health services that specialize in these diseases. Venerable Geshe Kelsang always encouraged students to rely on their doctors. However, Buddhist meditation can sometimes help and support.
Is the NKT a ‘happiness cult’?
Dr Haslam claims that the NKT is a happiness cult, ‘obsessed with happiness’. Arguably everyone is obsessed with happiness because everyone always wants to be happy. Dr Haslam misinterprets the claim that meditation can make people peaceful and therefore happy, saying that the NKT is claiming that they should be happy all the time. It is clearly impossible for people who are suffering from delusions – which is all of us – to be happy all the time; but, by reducing and finally eradicating delusions with the methods explained in Buddhism, it is possible to become increasingly peaceful and happy, and eventually permanently peaceful and happy. Dr Haslam can disagree with this, but it is the teaching of Buddha, meaning that her disagreement is with Buddhism and not the NKT.
Does the NKT engage in ‘lovebombing’?
Dr Haslam accuses the NKT of love-bombing – when people first come to a class, everyone is kind and draws them in; and later the trouble begins. Another version of this criticism: in Kadampa photos everyone is smiling a lot because the NKT is all about being happy clappy and not dealing with negative emotions. However, dealing with painful feelings without in any way suppressing or repressing them is an integral part of Buddhist mind-training. It is necessary to identify our delusions or disturbed states of mind, and learn to sit with them patiently with the view to gradually reducing and abandoning them. Dharma is profound medicine and it can take time to master this skill, but this is how Buddhists are taught to take responsibility and mature spiritually. There can be a honeymoon period when people first come to a Buddhist Center – everyone appears perfect. But gradually, where people expected to meet Buddhas, instead they meet Buddhists; and some people become disillusioned by their apparent faults. This disappointment usually has more to do with expectations and holding Buddhists to higher standards, which sets up the scene to blame them. There is no agenda to manipulate new attendees or draw then into a cult. Buddhists are simply people who are trying to train their minds.
Does the NKT engage in flattery?
Dr Haslam claims that ‘Many survivors report in their testimonies that when they first attended an NKT Center they were told that they must have ‘imprints’ from a previous life or ‘fortunate’ karma to have discovered their version of the Dharma, and therefore are ‘special.’ While there is no NKT policy to talk about karmic imprints to newcomers, it could come up sometimes in conversation because it is a Buddhist belief that meeting Buddhism is due to previous karma from practicing Buddhism. This doesn’t, however, make the person ‘special.’ This is a Buddhist belief as opposed to a cynical method of flattering people into becoming more committed. To conclude, at many points in her report, Dr Haslam makes it clear that she has no faith in Buddhism. This is fair enough, but her lack of understanding of Buddhist principles does not provide a valid basis for criticizing the NKT.
The supposed practices and potential harm
In this section, once again Dr Haslam disagrees with the practices of Buddhism as taught by the NKT, and once again her objections are with Buddhism and not the NKT per se, such that she is effectively accusing Buddhism of being a cult. Dr Haslam thinks that a ten-minute breathing meditation at the beginning of a class would be mostly harmless, and this is the issue: she thinks that meditation is dangerous and can have harmful consequences. Buddhist masters for the past 2600 years have all agreed that meditation, if adequately presented, cannot be harmful; and in recent decades their claims have also been backed up by numerous medical and scientific studies. Once again, Dr Haslam’s difficulty is her distrust of Buddhism, not the NKT. Her views are those of a Western psychologist who has read various papers and studies but has no experience of meditation herself. Dr Haslam quotes Lifton’s (1961) eight components of thought reform as developed from Andres and Lane (1988), and attempts to show how this applies to the NKT; but again this is a false comparison. Dr Haslam comes from the perspective not of a curious researcher but of someone who has decided that the NKT is bad. Her bias against the tradition seems to prevent her from giving an objective analysis. The list of people whom she claims supports her report are almost exclusively anti-NKT campaigners. On this basis, she co-opts psychological frameworks to attempt to legitimize her criticism with a veneer of academic respectability. She accuses Kadampa practitioners of ‘magical thinking’ because they believe in the existence and actions of Buddhas. However, this makes them like any other religious or spiritual practitioner who believe in things beyond the realm of the material, and her criticism simply that of any other non-believer. She also has problems with the teachings of emptiness and Buddhist Tantra, even though these profound and sophisticated topics have been taught for centuries and not given any sincere practitioners mental health issues. Quite the opposite.
Does the New Kadampa Tradition (NKT) use coercive control to encourage live-in members and volunteers to self-neglect?
In this section, Dr Haslam accuses NKT managers of not being able to spot the degeneration of the mental health of Center residents, regarding anything other than Buddhist teachings for dealing with mental health as ‘degenerate’, and discouraging those with deteriorating mental health from seeking conventional treatment. The NKT is a spiritual tradition, which tries to support those who wish to practice Kadampa Buddhism with Buddhist teachings and advice. Managers and teachers are by and large not trained mental health professionals, and if someone has a mental health issue they are encouraged to seek professional health and take medicine as needed. NKT teachers and managers would be concerned to learn about the deteriorating mental health of any resident, and if someone is in difficulty managers will certainly try to help and encourage that person to seek professional advice and guidance. Please see the comments below for an example of how Venerable Geshe Kelsang encouraged this. Dr Haslam has also misunderstood the Buddhist concept of self-cherishing, equating it with self-care when it is anything but. Her claims that the NKT discourages self-care is patently untrue, which anyone who peruses course titles at NKT Centers will see because self-care is taught frequently. Of course, people need to care for themselves and not neglect their wellbeing or they can make no spiritual progress nor help others. The NKT is also accused by Dr Haslam of overworking its managers, teachers, and volunteers. We address that here. Managers need to be skillful in never pressurizing staff and volunteers, but people also need to take personal responsibility for how much they work. It is possible to be unskillful and work too hard, but that can happen in any organization and is something to be guarded against.
The supposed abuse
Dr Haslam accuses individual managers of bad behavior. It is true that, due to delusions and lack of training or experience, people can act badly or unreasonably; and this has led some people to leave the tradition. This is really unfortunate and deeply regrettable. Bad behaviour is never acceptable at any time. At no point should abuse be tolerated. It needs to be called out and addressed, and there are channels for doing that within the NKT, from reporting to Center managers or reporting to the NKT Office itself. The NKT holds itself to high standards in keeping with Buddhist precepts, the Internal Rules, and general kindness, and is always trying to do better.
The supposed institutionalization and lack of capacity
Dr Haslam’s next claim is that, by living in an NKT Dharma Center, residents can become institutionalized and unable to live independently in the outside world; and that this then leads to dependence on the Center and the tradition. This is clearly not the idea and we welcome the opportunity to address this. Buddhism teaches people to take responsibility for their own lives so that they can increase their compassion and wisdom and take responsibility for the happiness and freedom of others. Everyone needs to take responsibility for their own spiritual journey. Sometimes people follow the rules in a family, workplace, school, army, monastery or spiritual Center, etc not out of their own volition but because they are told to, expected to, or scared not to — like children. However, actual moral discipline is based on our own discrimination of what to do and not to do, and our own resultant adult decision/intention. The vast majority of NKT practitioners live outside a Center and there is no pressure or expectation that anyone moves into a Center as a resident. Regardless of whether someone is a resident or not, if someone is attending a Center and yet is not becoming genuinely happier, more open, and more flexible as the years go by, they can check to see if they are voluntarily taking responsibility for training their mind or whether they have fallen into institutional modes of thinking and behaving. Also, if people are too attached to, and fearful for, their position in the ‘pecking order’, or their job or status within the organization, this indicates that they need to address this with integrity.
The supposed Center-hopping, ‘cult-hopping,’ and lack of economic resources
Dr Haslam claims that within NKT Centers people were asked to leave their accommodation at short notice. She also claims that if a sponsored person’s sponsorship ended badly they would be bullied until they left the Center because they were seen as a burden and no longer of use. Whenever these unkind or transactional relationships have taken place, they need to be called out and reported and/or resolved with the managers. Managers and teachers at NKT Centers are encouraged to cherish each person and not fall prey to the fallacy of the “greater good” at the expense of the individual. People are sometimes asked to leave Centers because they are causing disharmony or unhappiness that cannot be dealt with in other ways. This is perfectly reasonable in any organization, although it can regrettably cause upset in those who are asked to leave. Dr Haslam’s phrase, ‘Many survivors ‘cult-hop’ to other Buddhist organisations,’ indicates that Dr Haslam views other Buddhist traditions as cults too.
The supposed gaslighting and character assassination of former members and whistle-blowers
Dr Haslam claims that people who leave a Dharma Center are subsequently character assassinated by the managers. There is no set period of time to attend or live at a Dharma Center, and people come and go all the time depending on all sorts of personal circumstances and wishes. Regardless of why people leave, those who remain often want and deserve to know why. If they need to explain the circumstances, clearly the managers must not criticize or demean that person. This does not seem to be a common problem but, insofar as it has happened, it is regrettable.
The New Kadampa Tradition and its representatives are supposedly narcissists
Dr Haslam makes the accusation many times in her report that the NKT and its representatives are ‘narcissistic’. Buddhism explains how all living beings suffer from a state of mind called ‘self-cherishing’ where we regard ourselves and our own happiness and freedom to be more important than anyone else’s. This is something that Buddhist practitioners are keenly aware of and trying to overcome. The whole practice of Kadampa Buddhism – wisdom and compassion – is an antidote to narcissism. Moreover, as a democratic organization, if a leader is abusive, narcissistic, or authoritarian, they will be removed from their position.
The supposed threats to life, health, reputation, and livelihood (‘Fair Game’) from senior NKT personnel
Dr Haslam reports that ex-NKT practitioners have reported:
- Death threats (e.g. their parents receiving funeral brochures with their names on)
- Being stalked in person by current members
- Legal threats (e.g. Gary Beesley, Oxford University Press, Ashgate, Inform, Dr Haslam’s workplace)
- Threats to ruin their reputation by ‘Indy Hack’ for the purpose of ruining their livelihood and discrediting their testimony
- Propaganda created about them by ‘Indy Hack’ on his website and Twitter account (Tenzin Peljor, Carol McQuire, Kieran Atkins)
- Hacking of their survivor-based Twitter accounts and attempts to ban “survivors’” tweets
- Sabotage of access to mental health services
The NKT has never instigated or condoned these activities. Legal threats, where it is known that a person is planning to publish distorted views of the tradition and to defame the character and purpose of the NKT, are fully justified under British libel law because everyone has the right to legally defend their reputation. Personal threats are not acceptable. No sincere practitioner of Kadampa Buddhism should make them – this is anathema to what Kadampa Buddhism espouses and stands for. It is hard to believe that a Kadampa Buddhist would engage in such actions. If this has happened, this is deeply regrettable and the NKT will do everything in its power to stop this kind of behavior. Indy Hack is not a Kadampa Buddhist. He has made that very clear himself. His opinions are his own. Dr Haslam concludes by relating her experiences with a ‘Dr Robert Harrison’. We do not know who this person is. Dr Harrison has not acted with our knowledge or sanction. Dr Harrison says that he has nothing to do with the NKT. Since Dr Haslam related these experiences, the NKT has not been able to find out anything about him. Not knowing who this person is, Dr Haslam unfortunately assumes that Dr Harrison is an NKT member (with no evidence) and accuses the NKT of thinking of her as ‘fair game’ because of her report. For his part, Dr Harrison says that he is a fellow clinical psychologist who is concerned about her seeming obsession and its effect on her patients. However, whoever he is and whatever his motivations, the NKT is neither privy to nor behind any of his alleged attempts to cyberstalk, cause mental distress, or get her dismissed from her job. The NKT is very sorry to hear that Dr Haslam was treated in this way, but also needs to defend itself against her unjustified claim that it is the NKT who did this.
The supposed psychological suffering after leaving
Finally, Dr Haslam reports that ex-NKT members have experienced psychological suffering since leaving the tradition, such as post traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), grief, loneliness, isolation, and other mental health issues. She also reports that various sensory cues would trigger bad memories and a reliving of past trauma. The implication, offered without any evidence, is that the NKT is a cult and therefore responsible for all their suffering. However, this is a false premise. Grief and loneliness come about for many different reasons, which may or may not include leaving a tradition where these ex-members had close friends and felt genuinely cared for. For all the reasons why the NKT is not a cult but a legitimate Buddhist tradition, please look at the other articles on this site.