An extraordinary power struggle is tearing apart a Buddhist community in England.
While scouring the headlines for stories that might fit on Wildmind’s blog under the “news” category, I came across the intriguing headline “Dispute closes Buddhist centre,” discussing problems at the Maitreya Buddhist Center of the New Kadampa Tradition, or NKT, in Bexhill in East Sussex.
Unfortunately both newspapers that carried the story had removed the article. But a friend came to the rescue by pointing me toward Google’s cache of the story, and someone on Facebook sent me a link to a blog which presents one side of the dispute (read the blog from the bottom up).
First, a bit of background. The NKT were founded by Geshe Kelsang Gyatso, and they’re one of the largest Buddhist movements in the UK. Probably in terms of the number of centers they have, they are the absolute largest, although some of the “centers” are no more than rooms rented for an evening class. They have a strong expansionist policy.
The NKT is also famous for the “Dorje Shugden Controversy,” which is, to my mind, a rather weird dispute about a Tibetan Deity. Dorje Shugden is a deity who has been worshipped in Tibetan Buddhism since the 1700s. However, the Fourteenth Dalai Lama came to the conclusion that Shugden is not an enlightened being but is a worldly figure, and he first spoke out against his worship and then issued a ban on the practice. Since Geshe Kelsang Gyatso is a firm believer in Shugden, this caused a bitter dispute between the NKT and the Dalai Lama. This puts the NKT in the unfortunate position of being opposed to one of the most popular and revered figures in the world.
This particular story, however, has nothing at all to do with the Dorje Shugden dispute, which is a phenomenon I find weird (it’s a dispute over a figure I consider to be purely imaginary). It seems to have to do more with tensions between an individual, and legally autonomous, local center of the NKT, and the central organization itself, to the point where the central NKT is attempting a takeover. Whether or not they have good reason to do that I don’t know, but it doesn’t seem that they have the legal right to do so, if indeed the local centers are constituted as independent charities with their own boards of trustees.
Bearing in mind that we only have one side of the story presented here, the Maitreya Buddhist Centre, which is a charity registered under English law and with its own board of trustees, ended up with a resident teacher, Kelsang Chodor, who made organizational decisions that were unpopular with the board. A teacher who was asked to stop teaching refused to do so, and when Chodor bypassed the trustees in some of his decision making he refused to meet with them. The newspaper article outlines the background and explains the build-up of the conflict:
A volunteer at the Maitreya Buddhist Centre claims “a traumatic and bitter dispute” has left this former haven of peace changed forever.
Now the building in Sea Road is locked with no sign of when it will be opened again.
Andrew Durling helped set up the meditation centre having been at the start of New Kadampa Tradition meditation classes in Bexhill.
He was one of the trustees when the charity was registered and was responsible for the oversight of administration.
The centre became established and thrived with up to 50 people a week attending regular meditation classes led by resident teacher Lam-ma and other teachers she appointed.
However since she retired there has been a breakdown in the relationship between NKT and the centre’s management team, and from there Andrew and others have struggled to reach agreement with the head office based in Cumbria.
One of the trustees claims that the central NKT tried to replace the board of trustees, which would seem to be an illegal course of action:
The Charity Commission has now replied to the submission made to it by the charity trustees of Maitreya Buddhist Centre many weeks ago. The key element of that reply was that the attempts by NKT head office back at the beginning of March to remove the existing trustees of the centre and to replace them with trustees of the NKT’s own choosing was invalid and a breach of the centre’s own constitution
As the newspaper article puts it, “This appears to have become a struggle for control between a handful of volunteers and the umbrella organization which has more than 1,000 branches throughout the country.”
The blog also alleges that the NKT made “repeated threats of litigation” against the center.
From an organizational point of view I find this fascinating, partly because the organization I’m part of (Triratna) is similarly constituted in such a way that individual centers are independent. But what’s difference we don’t have a “head office” that could attempt a takeover. The most that could happen if a center were, for example, to go off the rails, is that the center could be told that they could no longer consider themselves to be affiliated with the parent organization. This actually happened once, with our Croydon center, where the Order member in charge of the situation there had created a kind of personality cult based on manipulation and bullying. He wasn’t the only person involved, because he had created a kind of “gang” that maintained control using the same techniques he himself employed. After attempts were made to correct the situation through dialogue, Sangharakshita, then founder of the Triratna Order, told the board of trustees that they would have to change their ways or cease being affiliated with the rest of the Triratna Community. And things did change as a result, with the ringleader leaving both the Croydon center and the Order.
The Bexhill situation is also interesting to me simply because it’s got to the point where a Buddhist center is no longer functional because of internal politics. That’s quite an extraordinary situation, and I’ve never head of that happening before. I’m not sensing a lot of dialog going on, which is unfortunate. Of course we don’t really know what’s going on. I’ve only seen one side of the story, and even if I was aware of both sides it would be impossible to be certain of the facts. Unfortunately, as the newspaper reports, “The head office was approached several times for a comment this week but none was forthcoming.”
The NKT has quite a traditional authoritarian structure (traditional for Tibetan Buddhism, anyway), where monks and nuns are basically told where to go and when. The NKT tries to be highly centralized, with the guru making decisions for the local centres, but the local centers are (as I understand it) legally separate entities, and so ultimately the guru (or the central organization) has limited legal control over them. That suggests a fragility in the NKT. Two ways to hold a local center in place when it has problems with the central organization are dialogue and authoritarianism. In this case the NKT seems to have adopted an authoritarian approach, through wielding power.
This following excerpt from the blog reveals a fascinating twist in how this power is being used:
A website purporting to be the official site of Maitreya Buddhist Centre, using the charity’s registration number and using its registered address, is currently active. However, this website is entirely without the sanction of the current legally valid trustees and management team of Maitreya Buddhist Centre, and is in direct conflict with the website that has always been the real official site of Maitreya Buddhist Centre, a site registered with the Charity Commission. This fraudulent website has therefore been reported to the relevant authorities, including the police and the Charity Commission.
Creating an alternative website for the center — one not controlled by the trustees — is an extreme step, or mis-step. It suggests that the NKT is struggling, within an authoritarian mind-set, to bring one of its centers back into the fold of central control.
This tactic, of setting up an alternative website, is one I’ve seen the NKT use before, albeit in a different form. Several years ago, members of a Buddhist Center in England were surprised to discover that the NKT had set up a website using the name of their center, which was not in any way NKT affiliated. This was almost certainly a breach of trademark law as well as a breach of UK charity law. It was also rather unpleasant — a kind of spiritual “phishing” attempt. The situation, fortunately, was resolved through dialog between the two organizations.
Back in the Bexhill power struggle, the blog also describes a new management team being sent in to wrest control from the elected trustees:
It appears that Maitreya Buddhist Centre has now been ‘taken over’ and a new management team is attempting to take charge of the premises. This is as flagrant a violation of charity and company law as it is possible to achieve …
Generally, if the board of trustees is properly constituted, then an outside entity has no legal standing to take over the center. Even the parent body — the NKT — can consider itself to be only the spiritual, rather than the legal, head of the center. [This may not be the case with the NKT, although I believe that charities are meant to be independent and not under central control.]
It seems that having opted for an authoritarian approach, the NKT is finding that it’s not a viable option, or at least not a straightforward one.
I take no pleasure in reporting these events. The situation must be intensely painful for all concerned, and I truly hope that dialog and trust can be restored.
I wonder, however, whether dialogue is now even possible in Bexhill now that the authoritarian path has been chosen? Trust is more easily broken than restored.
This pain is evident both in the comments of Andrew Durling, one of the trustees, who has been at the epicenter of the conflict:
“Whoever ‘wins’ (so called) the situation will find there is nothing left. I am as guilty as anyone else.
“This bold experiment in bringing buddhist meditation to Bexhill has, temporarily at least, failed.”
He said the community had been irrevocably split, with some backing him and others supporting NKT, and added: “It is anyone’s guess whether it will be alright.”
It’s also evident in the comments of a woman who had been attending classes at the Maitreya Centre:
“They have taken my place of worship away from me. It isn’t a proper buddhist centre anymore.”
She added: “It is just awful.
“I won’t go back there, it’s a mess. I am really sad. I want to say – how dare you do this[?]”
As the Buddha said, “Spiritual friendship is the whole of the spiritual life.” It’s worth remembering that as we witness this painful conflict.
The question of the deity (Dorje Shugden) is not so weird as it appears, this deity was in the past used by the Gelugpa sect as a political tool, fanatical and extremist gelugpas prayed to him for the destruction of other sects and for the prevalence of the gelug teachings. They saw him as a sectarian protector, enlightened protectors and spirtis being an important aspect of vajrayana tradition. But even within the gelugpa tradition there always existe suspects on him being a malevolent destroyer. The actual dalai lama is a defensor on non-sectarianism within tibetan buddhism, and has worked for increasing the proximity between the different tibetan buddhist sects. So he reached the conclusion that this deity, and how it was invoked, is in contradiction to the buddhist teachings of tolerance and compassion, and discouraged the worship of him among his followers for suspecting of the deity’s character as a real benevolent buddha.
Well, it’s weird if you think these thing exist only in people’s imaginations. To me it’s like Christians discussing whether or not Santa Claus should be part of their tradition — but when both sides actually believe in his existence.
Fascinating from a Theravada viewpoint. These struggles over ideological territory were once familiar and occasionally violent occurrences in Sri Lanka, and to some extent Burma and Thailand, many centuries ago.
Thankfully, such disputes burnt out long ago. This occurred because bhikkus simply gave up the distasteful ego path, left the monastic centres and reinvented the forest tradition. Maybe it’s time for the Mahayana tradition to give up its structural form and return to humility.
From a sociological viewpoint it is sad to see and telling to see this kind of thing erupting in a top-heavy, hierarchical structure.
Organisations always tend to follow familiar patterns of blind-allegiance and conformity to dogma. “Ritualised” centralised, bureaucratic control inevitably emerges where the rules are the rules and those who seem to be acting independently are “enemies,” and “heretics,”who must be re-educated, excommunicated, or crushed, for the sake of a reified, impersonal, organisational structure which is entirely at odds with the original salvational, peaceful, liberating, conception that created it in the first place. The Vatican, the Kremlin, Scientology etc. – historically have all followed the same form and reached the same stifling end.
In dhamma terms its all about the fetters: the delusions surrounding Personality View, and Rites and Rituals.
May all fellow Buddhists – regardless of doctrinal differences- find peace and loving kindness prevailing over narrow self-interests.
It is, looking from a western viewpoint. Western Buddhists tend to have a more rationalistic approach to Buddhism, and there is no exaggeration in this. I myself used to be one. But in asia, and specially in the vajrayana context, mysticism, and the reality and truth of myths is much more direct and powerful. People in tibet, china, are somehow accostumed to see, have apparitions, prophetic dreams, mediums, prophecies and oracles, that such beings (spitits, bodhisattvas) do manifest and are made real and are not just metaphors. Not only great yogis such as atisha in the past, but contemporaries such as kalu rinpoche, dilgo khyentse, they had visions of dakinis, tara, the pure land of amitabha. Almost every han chinese village where buddhism is strong, have someone who died seeing amitabha, leacing relics, giving auspicious signs. For them these beings are real, capable of giving blessings and leading to enlightenment or causing harm if it is really a buddha or not. The Dalai lama himself consults an oracle, that allegedly saved his life (nechung chokyang)!!! But regarding the shugden question, there is strong politics and sectarian riffs present here, the deity maybe an make up or excuse for te more pratical question behind.
I don’t think that this is a west versus east phenomenon to the extent you suggest. Catholics in the west are famous for their visions and apparitions, and take them to be real phenomena. And the westerners in the NKT, I’m sure, don’t see Dorje Sugden as a mere symbol. And I’m sure there are practitioners in the east who see things the same way I do :)
On Dorje Shugden I think its been pretty well said above the reason for HH Dalai Lama banning the practice but think some of the anologies or comments are off (santa?). To people who practice vajrayana they believe in these deities as a matter of faith. Not as pretend or make believe. The same as catholics believe in satan, the virgin mary, or any number of saints. If there was a saint that catholics prayed to to harm, or was associated with harming, the Greek Orthodox Church, the pope might come out in these times and say he discorages/forbids this practice in the spirit of love, honoring god, etc… Why as a matter of faith would you continue a spiritual practice believed by everyone to be harmful to others, either physically (believed by many), or just the ill intent anyways? Its very unbuddhist, so its not such a far leap for HH to ban the practice I believe.
On the NKT, I can’t speak to other countries, but in the United States, at least in the northeast, the NKT behaves in a very cultish manor. Centers are all over. The leaders of these centers, although perhaps very friendly and well meaning, have very little to no training. Asked basic buddhist questions they seem to change the subject, not know what you’re talking about, or refer you to a book. Heavily got the impression that they are nothing more then an Oprah Book club for Geshe Kelsang Gyatso’s books when I visited. Was told by a friend that after a little while of being at the center they ask you or incourage you to pay for and attend a few week course, where afterwards you instantly become a “lama”, wear robes, and open your own center in a nearby town. Hardly a 3 year retreat.
I’m all for well meaning people trying to better themselves, but the taste i got from it was that it was nothing more then a MLM/Pyramid scheme meant to channel money upwards from unsuspecting well meaning people. Have read a lot of cultish stories online as well in regards to people trying to “get out”, being asked to sell their homes giving the money to NKT, etc… Unfortunatly this story doesn’t surprise me
To me all imaginary figures are imaginary figures. I know some Buddhists don’t believe that Dorje Shugden is imaginary, and most Christians don’t think God or Satan are imaginary, and that most children don’t think Santa Clause is imaginary. But I do, so to me that’s not OTT.
The monk I talked to in Missoula was well-versed in the Dharma, although I have heard that NKT teachers are trained to teach “by the book,” and have also heard that some of them flounder when questions stray from their sphere of knowledge.
Bodhipaksa, I only “know” you from your blog. So, to me, you are mostly imaginary ;-)
I’m a Gelugpa and my husband is a Triratna order member. As you can imagine, we often have a similar kind of debate to the one playing out in the preceding comments, mostly because we see things from different viewpoints. Luckily for us, Buddha taught in many different ways for many different minds. However, the habit of wanting to be right is a very strong habit!!
I don’t really understand what you mean when you say “imaginary”. That language is not helpful to me – I’d rather be understanding where you’re coming from because I’m sure we could find some agreement. And I like the way agreement feels! However, my response is to assume you’re making a judgement, and then I want to to defend my way of thinking.
It’s so funny how our reactions are a mirror of our minds. Now I have launched a defensive reaction against my imaginary Bodhipaksa!!!!!!
Thanks for your friendly question.
By imaginary I mean that these beings have no reality outside of our minds, and that they exist only in our imaginations. That doesn’t, to my mind, make them valueless. My dead grandfather now only exists in the minds of those who knew him, including my own mind. But that memory is very precious to me, and I have an ongoing sense of relationship with him. Similarly, the Buddha’s dead and gone (in a conventional sense) and yet I can imagine the Buddha sitting beside me in meditation and feel a sense of love flowing from him. It’s quite tangible. The feeling appears to come from him, but of course (or at least to me it’s “of course”) the love is coming from myself.
But these figures have a different ontological status from ourselves (I’m assuming you’re not, for example, a clever spam bot and that you have a physical existence in the world that can be verified through the senses).
All the best,
Hi again, thanks for your thoughtful response.
Seems like there is a lot of detail packed into your word, “imaginary”. So…. what is the difference between something existing “outside of our minds” and something existing “only in our imaginations”? I’ve never met any African AIDS orphans but I have as much reason to believe that they actually exist as I have to believe that D.S. exists. And do “I” have any more existence than a spambot? I mean “actually relatively existing” and not “actually inherently existing” because, well, we’re Buddhist, ’nuff said!
Anyhow, one thing I have noticed is that wherever D.S. goes, there is always debate. Whether that spirit is real (relatively) or not is not so interesting to me as why we get so invested in defending either perspective. To me, the most “devilish” aspect of that spirit is how het up everyone gets about it, and how that causes us to fight :-( We don’t really need any assistance to make yet more karma!
In this case, I’m sad that many people’s foray into the world of Buddhism has been tainted by personality politics. Here’s hoping they don’t think that’s what all Buddhist groups are like – but as fellow Buddhists perhaps we have some karma with that too – after all, we have made contact with it through the news item and now your blog.
Thanks for your interesting and stimulating words :-)
You may not have met any African AIDS orphans, but it wouldn’t be difficult for you to verify their existence one way or another. And if you id (for example by talking to reliable people who had met, photographed, touched, and talked to such orphans) and someone else doubted their existence you wouldn’t have much difficulty in demonstrating their existence to that person. African AIDS orphans have an existence that is independent of your believing in them or not believing in them.
Dorje Shugden, or Thor, or Tlahuizcalpantecuhtli do not have that kind of existence.
A spambot has as much existence as you do, but it’s a different kind of existence. A spambot does not have a human body, walk around, breathe, fall in love, or wonder what the point of its existence is. Or as I said originally, “you have a physical existence in the world that can be verified through the senses.” So the bot has a different kind of ontological status from you or me. Conventionally speaking.
I find it hard to believe that you actually take your own questions seriously, Suzy.
Thanks for answering my questions so patiently, Bodhipaksa. I’m completely serious! But I am really having trouble relating to what you’re saying, so I am asking all these questions in case there is something that would help me understand. I’ve read your replies a few times and I think I’m beginning to get what you mean. At first I thought you meant that “there’s no reality outside of that which I can prove” but now I think that what you are saying is more subtle than that. I’m not much of a scholar! Anyway it’s given me something to think about, which I suppose is what you want to encourage by posting this stuff, so thanks. I usually never post comments because I don’t enjoy these drawn-out debates. Hopefully it’s of some use to someone other than myself! Thanks.
Thank for your patience with my impatience! It sounds like we may have been talking at cross-purposes, but I’m not entirely sure what your concern is.
I don’t think I would claim that there’s no reality outside what I can prove. Our senses and minds are limited to what is knowable, and the Buddha called this “The All.” There are, I’m quite sure, things that are unknowable, but the Buddha’s position on these is that pursuing these is by definition speculative and a distraction from the pursuit of liberation. Enlightenment is knowable, fortunately!
So there are things that are outside of my knowledge (like enlightenment) that are knowable, and I’m pursuing these. There are things outside of my knowledge that are unknowable, and I ignore them. But from my perspective Buddhas and Bodhisattvas are “projections” of our own minds. They’re crystallizations of unknown parts of ourselves that are becoming knowable. They can be spiritually useful because they’re forms of inner communication, and wisdom can come from our interactions with them. So for example when I’ve had an encounter with Padmasambhava or Tara in a dream or in a meditation, I have the *feeling* that I’m communicating with an external entity, but what’s actually going on (in a conventional sense) is that I’m communicating with the wiser depths of my own mind. But I don’t believe these figures have an external reality in the way that you or I do.
Maybe this helps?
I am NKT and a DS practitioner. I have never prayed for harm to come to another. I have Nyngma, Kyagyu and DzogChen (yes, I am aware of the Nyngma/DzogChen connection) friends. As it happens, HHDL is not their head so they are not necessarily invested in this issue – for which I am grateful.
I find so much of this interesting in that it is all made up at many levels. I agree with the imagined/imaginary statements. If I pray to Dorje Shugden to cause harm to you, I have just committed an extremely un-Buddhist act. But, I could just as easily pray to any other deity with the same request… and it would it be just as bad from my side. But I pray for guidance and help for myself and all sentient beings. I have always had a connection with Padmasambhava and he has a place on my shrine too. I think we should all just relax, park our bottoms on a cushion and do our own practice. I will leave you to do yours in your way. All I ask of any/all of us is that we take our personal practice seriously and remember that Buddha said that we should not accept ‘it’ because someone tells us so but because we have done our own research and have come to this conclusion.
But I will say that the vile and bile I run into from other Buddhists is not very Buddhist and neither is it from NKT people. It is amazing to watch so much ego come into play from both sides. I just don’t care if HHDL makes some proclamation because I am on my journey – not his. Over the years I have heard unpleasant things about HHDL (not from NKTers) but I just bear in mind that he has to deal with the life he is having.
I have practiced with other groups. At the moment, my karma seems to be with NKT. But karma is ever changing and that may change too. I have been associated with Rigpa, Dzogchen, Kyagyu and Shambala. Each and every one has fed me well spiritually. I am grateful to all of them.
As far as Gelugpa using DS as a political tool, that was then and this is now. I could go on and on about any organized religion and the political tools they have used. Using something/someone in an improper manner does not negate its/their positive aspects.
My thoughts got a little scattered here – please forgive me.
Hi this is an interesting article – I am an NKT practitioner with 12 years experience of their study programmes. Before that I was into Theravadhan Buddhism. I have over 20 years experience of spiritual teachings. It seems the NKT has issues, just like other organisations, an eventually they will be learnt from. In the main the NKT people and centres do amazing work and the study and practices of this form or Buddhism are deep, and in complete accordance with the gelugpa/kadampa/vajrayana lineage. The Dorje Shugden issue is well documented and to me DS is a Buddha. I don’t have the right to enforce this view on anyone, it’s my personal choice. I have friends from other traditions (good friends) and we discuss openly. The idea that NKT is a cult is not real for me, neither is the belief we are sectarian – that’s another myth. I met a Buddhist teacher recently who accused NKT as being sectarian, I’d never met him before but as soon as I said I was a Kadampa is was clear he had an agenda. I offered to meet him for tea and a chat, saying I wanted good relations with other Buddhist teachers. He declined saying he was too busy. This kind of prejudice is quite common amongst the Buddhist community, luckily though most of my Buddhist friends are more open. Really the future of Buddhism is down to us, not our organisations or teachers. It’s up to us to decide what kind of relations we want and whether we want harmony and tolerance or narrow minded prejudice. I even have two friends who are folllowers of HHDL – there is a lot of respect and love between us. We know the issues are smaller than our mutual respect.
What happened in Bexhill is sad. I know a little about it and it seems both sides created the problem. I hope and pray it was resolved well, but I think mistakes may have been made. I hope the NKT management learns from this. I know I will try to make sure our centre does not end up in a similar mess.
Just one other point – as a Buddhist I go for refuge to the Three Jewels, not an organisation. It’s easy to forget this.
I know what it’s like when people develop a negative view of a person or organization. Reason often goes by the wayside.
yes it takes time to change a negative view. generally speaking I would say all Buddhists are doing good stuff, but we have to learn from and find a way to transform our suffering into meaningful learning, rather than just acting out of our strong emotional habits. I like your website by the way, I’ve been reading through some of the pages. It has a good vibe, well done!
[…] The New Kadampa Tradition has a similar structure. All centres must unquestioningly abide by the decisions of the leader, Kelsang Gyatso, and the Education council that he dominates. When the centre in Bexhill, UK, tried to rally around their resident teacher who was being fired for teaching “impurely”, as he did not rely exclusively on Geshe Kelsang’s books, NKT attempted to flush our the board and when this failed close the centre outright. (https://www.wildmind.org/blogs/on-practice/dispute-closes-nkts-bexhill-buddhist-centre). […]
I have been studying and practicing in the NKT for over 20 years. I have received hundreds of teachings and have been involved in management of residential centres. In all that time I have received only Buddhist teachings as transmitted through the lineage of Buddhist masters from Shakyamuni Buddha, Atisha, Je Tsongkhapa, Trijang Rinpoche and Geshe Kelsang Gyatso. The Dalai Lama, and indeed many other Lamas, are not in that lineage so I do not attend his teachings or practice according to his instructions. This is no different from Jesus Christ, Mohammed, Krishna or anyone else being outside of the line of descent of the spiritual teachings I choose to adopt for my personal guidance.
I would never force my practice on anyone, and no-one has the right to force me to abandon or follow any other spiritual practice, never mind beat me, ban me from shops and hospitals, or apply any other threatening or violent behaviour to coerce me.
Furthermore, the above comment likening the NKT to Scientology is obviously written by someone who is not familiar personally with both groups. This ignorant comment is pure propaganda, feeding on the historical bad press against and widespread public suspicion about Scientology. Before making such remarks, the author should have ensured he or she knows both intimately.