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Kadampa Buddhism, Geshe Kelsang Gyatso and the Dorje Shugden (Dorje Shugdan) Controversy


Stress and meditation
Several years ago when I was going through a period of stress,  I saw a poster for an evening meditation course.  It was run by a Buddhist organization called the New Kadampa Tradition ( NKT ). I knew very little about Buddhism (and was later to find what I thought I knew was wrong), and absolutely nothing about the NKT.

So I turned up at the first meeting with some trepidation.  What was I going to find - a cult, a sect, a bunch of latter-day hippies, or weirdo religious fanatics asking me whether I was 'saved'  or 'born again'?   (My mother always said once was enough).

I was pleasantly surprised to find that everyone there seemed reasonably normal (at any rate by my standards) and the 'religious aspects' were very low key. The emphasis was on using meditation techniques to produce beneficial results in our everyday life.

This suited me, because I was a total materialist who had abandoned childhood religious beliefs by my early teens. The NKT teachers gave some philosophical teachings, but for the most part these seemed very humanistic and sensible.  Nevertheless,  I couldn't really see how it was possible for Buddhists to believe that the mind was anything other than the brain, or that there exists any non-material aspect to the universe.

Religious background - early childhood
I was baptised as an Anglican, probably to please my grandparents since my father is an atheist and my mother agnostic. Consequently, I passed my early childhood in blissful ignorance of any form of religion.

This all changed in my first week at school.  In morning assembly  the other children put their hands together, closed their eyes, and repeated the Lord's prayer. I hadn't a clue what was going on, and the teacher (slightly horrified at having such a little heathen to deal with) gave me a crash course of what was expected of me. 

I had been sent to the local Baptist school because it got the best exam results, and Religious Instruction formed an important part of the curriculum.

The religious teachings weren't particularly obsessed with hell-fire and brimstone (I subsequently met people who had attended Catholic schools and had been subjected to psychological child abuse by being fed horror stories from a very tender age).  But Religious Instruction was taught in an old-fashioned and literal minded way.

There was no study of comparitive religion or any beliefs other than Christianity, but I did leave primary school knowing one fact about Buddhism, which I supposed I must have picked up in geography (which was still exclusively concerned with those parts of the map that had until recently been coloured red):    Buddha had a temple of candy in Ceylon, and he'd left a tooth in it. 

A temple of candy seemed  vastly more exotic than our grimy redbrick chapels and millstone grit churches. But maybe the tooth symbolised the dire dental consequences of such extravagance.

Science versus religion
I also learned other things outside school. My uncle was a safety officer in a coal mine, and he had a vast range of technical knowledge - chemistry (of gas and dust explosions) , geology, fossils, engineering and so on. He visited quite often and through questioning him (I was an inquisitive child and must have been a terrible pest) I developed an interest in science from a very early age.

It didn't take me long to realise that the stuff my uncle was telling me about the formation of coal deposits over millions of years, was totally at variance with what my teachers taught about the age of the earth in Religious Instruction.

Apart from that, there was first-hand experience. As boys we used to play on coal waste tips known in the local dialect as 'rucks' (the sides were steep and the surfaces loose and you could sledge down them on pieces of board even when there wasn't any snow).  Among the colliery waste there was a particular type of stone which you could cleave very easily - suppose it was a kind of shale. The fractures often revealed fossils of plants unlike anything that we were familiar with.

In addition, it was the dawning of the space age and I took a keen interest in astronomy. I soon realised  that all the stuff they taught me about God being up in the sky was rubbish as well.

Late childhood and adolescence
By the time I reached secondary school I was,  to say the least, confused about religion

For a short time we had a keen young Religious Education teacher who took the subject seriously, and included a brief treatment of non-Christian religions. From this I learned my second fact about Buddhism - its ultimate objective was to achieve Nirvana, which was a state of total non-existence.

This didn't  impress me as being particularly attractive, as I was rapidly coming to to the conclusion that you entered a state of non-existence when you died - so why hurry the process? I was also disillusioned of my  first fact about Buddhism - there was no temple of candy in Ceylon.

Weekly Religious Instruction lessons continued up to the age of 15,  and everyone made good use of them.  Apart for that one keen teacher, most of the staff regarded the R.I. lesson  as a God-given opportunity to catch up on their workload . The teacher would say something to the effect of  "Take out your Bibles, open them and read". He would then get on with marking test papers from the important subjects.

After a few minutes one of the students, not normally noted for piety, would ask. "Sir, please may we take notes?"   When permission was granted, we would all take out our exercise books and do our English, Latin or science homework.

And so by the age of thirteen I had become totally cynical about religion, and although not a militant atheist, I took the default materialist position that everything is explainable in terms of the laws of physics. I held on to this view throughout adulthood and for several months after I started attending NKT meditation classes.

Checking out the New Kadampa Tradition
I soon realised that the objective of Buddhist practice was NOT to become non-existent. But being a committted materialist I didn't see how any other fate was avoidable. I continued going to the lessons and in the meantime decided to check out the New Kadampa Tradition. At that time 'cults' and 'sects' were getting bad press, with  a series of scandals involving accusations of financial scams, fraud, family break up, exploitation of the vulnerable, sexual abuse, brain-washing, exclusivism [1], ritual Satanic abuse etc.

The stereotype Eastern religious leader was portrayed in the press as a greedy, sex-crazed control-freak with a Hollywood lifestyle, a Swiss bank account and a repertoire of cheap conjuring tricks to impress the gullible.

I was relieved to discover that the head of the NKT was about as far away from the stereotype as you can get.    His name is Geshe Kelsang Gyatso  (Geshe is actually a qualification equivalent to 'Doctor of Divinity' awarded by Tibetan universities before they were destroyed ).  He is an internationally  recognised scholar, translator and author of books on Buddhism.

He lives as a  monk in a very modest apartment in the Cumbrian priory that he and his students have saved from abandonment and dereliction.   His lifestyle and character seem to have far more in common with learned monastics such as the Venerable Bede or the ancient Celtic scholar-monks, than with the glitzy cult-leader playboys who attract so much attention in the Sunday papers.

The Kadampa tradition was founded in Tibet by the Indian teacher Atisha (982 - 1054). Up to the time of the great reformer Lama Je Tsongkhapa (1357 - 1419) it was known as the Old Kadampa Tradition. After the time of Je Tsongkhapa it is known as the New Kadampa Tradition.

The Dorje Shugden (aka Dorje Shugdän, aka Dorje Shugdan ) issue
The only hint of controversy surrounding the New Kadampa Tradition and Geshe Kelsang Gyatso occured a few years ago when the Tibetan establishment decided to abolish the Patron Saint of the NKT.   

A similar situation occured about 40 years ago when the Vatican decided to abolish Saint George, who is the Patron Saint of the Church of England. There was an outcry among Anglicans, and St. George was merely downgraded rather than abolished. 

Unfortunately the problem was more serious for the NKT than for the C of E, because Patron Saints (or Dharmapalas [2] as they are known in Sanskrit) are regarded with far greater veneration in Buddhism than  in most forms of Christianity.

The NKT and other Dorje Shugden supporters protested at the time, but the situation was not resolved.   However the dispute has now been dormant for several years, and it would be unproductive for me to discuss it any further, beyond noting that the difficulty was imposed upon Geshe Kelsang Gyatso and did not arise internally from any activities within the New Kadampa Tradition.

[ Note added December 2002. The Dorje Shugden controversy has erupted again recently in the form of baseless and damaging accusations against the NKT, published by the Washington Times and The Ming Pao Daily news. When threatened with legal action both newspapers published retractions. ]

Emptiness
Having received some benefit from the evening meditation classes and assured myself that the NKT was a bona fide organisation, I decided to go on a weekend course. I still had no understanding of  Buddhist philosophy, and my attitude was ..

'OK,  these Tibetans have accidentally  discovered techniques of calming the mind which have somehow escaped the attention of Western neurologists, but I don't believe any of the rest of their religion'

I turned up at the Dharma centre expecting more of the same - two days of meditation in the style of the evening classes. But I soon found I'd thrown myself into the deep end. The particular weekend course I had chosen was based around the concept of emptiness -  one of the more profound teachings in Buddhist philosophy.

Although emptiness is normally considered an advanced topic, perhaps because of my scientific and philosophical  background (maths, physics chemistry A-level -  biochemistry and philosophy at college), I was able to relate to the teachings.

I realised that the antagonism between science and religion, which had been part of my worldview since childhood, was not inevitable - it depended upon the religion [3]. I also began to understand how the mind -  rather than being an epiphenomenon of matter - is a fundamental aspect of the universe.

I decided to explore the parallels between science and Buddhist philosophy,  and that is the background to the origin of this website. 


Disclaimer
This site is a personal account of a post-Christian materialist encountering the Dharma, as taught by a particular school of Buddhism. I do not claim to represent or convey any Buddhist  teachings nor am I qualified to do so. Hence this site probably contains innaccuracies and nothing on it should be regarded in any way as authoritative Buddhist Dharma.
For authoritative teachings on Buddhism visit here.


[1] Exclusivism = 'Our religion is the only path to salvation. All unbelievers are destined for hell.'      Anyone who claims this is at best suffering from memetic delusions, and at worst is a charlatan and a liar. The NKT emphatically does not claim to be the only valid spiritual path, and recognises that different religious traditions are suitable for different types of personality.

Exclusivism is a typical feature of a cult or sect. The opposite viewpoint to exclusivism is latitudinarianism (not to be confused with syncretism).

Latitudinarianism compares spiritual progress with striving to reach the summit of a mountain.  There may be many paths to the summit, and to people who are still on the paths the summit will always appear different   from their relative vantage points.  Only those who have reached the summit will know what it really looks like.

Syncretism is an attempt to follow two paths to the summit at the same time. This usually results in following no path at all, and as with climbing a physical mountain, leads into thickets, morasses, rock fields and precipices.

The NKT is latitudinarian but not syncretic.The advice is to find a spiritual path that seems to resonate with you. Check it out carefully, and if it's still OK then stick with it. The New Kadampa Tradition does not attempt to evangelize or convert members of other religions. 

The NKT attracts many people like myself, who have lost their traditional religious beliefs as a result of rational or scientific analysis, and find in Buddhism a philosophy that appears especially suited to the modern world.


[2] The Dharmapala of the New Kadampa Tradition is Dorje Shugdän  (alternative spellings Dorje Shugden or more rarely Dorje Shugdan).

[3] Buddhist teachings on emptiness (otherwise known as sunyata or shunyata) are the foundations of Buddhist philosophy, see...

RATIONAL BUDDHISM

If we regard Buddhism as a combination of a philosophy, psychology and religion, then how much mileage can we get from the first two aspects before we have to start invoking religious faith?

 

Christian versus Buddhist worldviews

 

- Sean Robsville

 

Buddhism in Everyday Life
The Daily Meditation