Ex-members, including myself, report that the NKT teachings reinforce perspectives on ’emptiness’ that suggest that nothing exists at all. This can be seen repeatedly in Youtube videos of teachings:
I myself heard many people stating that ‘nothing matters’, that ‘nothing exists’. Occasionally it is stated correctly by adding the ending ‘in the way that it appears to me’ however mostly you hear that phenomena do not exist at all. For Tenzin Peljor’s writing on nihilism in the NKT click here.
Many believe they saw people acting in a way that suggested they believed that their actions no longer had consequences due to this belief. For those with narcissistic tendencies, who already struggle to take responsibility for their actions, this could lead to an exacerbation of these tendencies. For those who wish to speak up about abusive behaviour and safeguarding concerns, they are likely to be met with nihilistic responses and many survivors report that this was the case.
General Programme courses do not generally include emptiness teachings however Foundation Programme and Empowerment days do. Anyone can attend these teachings and no consideration is made regarding their mental state or the length of time they have been studying or practicing Buddhism. Other traditions of Buddhism consider it important that the student practice mindfulness and basic compassion-based meditations for several years before contemplating emptiness. The NKT state ‘show the secret to the one who has achieved firmness’ which is meant to indicate that emptiness teachings are not appropriate for the general public. Yet, they publish emptiness quotes on their social media:
The above image in my opinion suggests that contemplating the emptiness of all phenomena is guaranteed to cure mental health problems if a person were to believe that this is what is meant by ‘mental sicknesses’. However it could be argued that it would be more likely that a person would be experiencing severe dissociation and would be incapable of engaging with others in a socially acceptable manner if they were to hold the idea that nothing exists in their mind at all times.
Risk of derealisation and depersonalisation
It is argued that contemplating the ‘dreamlike nature of reality’ is a powerful tool to assist in the reduction of grasping, at the self, at the body, at objects and people. In Oral Instructions of Mahamudra Kelsang Gyatso states:
All my appearances in dreams teach me
That all my appearances when awake do not exist;
Thus for me all my dream appearances
Are the supreme instructions of my Guru.’
Many people report experiencing feelings of dissociation, derealisation and depersonalisation when contemplating these instructions. It could be argued that this is the intention of this practice. The core symptoms of depersonalization-derealization disorder are the experience of ‘unreality in one’s self’, or detachment from one’s surroundings (Radovic, 2002). People who are diagnosed with depersonalization also experience an urge to question the nature of reality and existence. Reports of peoples experiences of derealisation and depersonalization are both frightening, unpleasant and sometimes pleasant. Studies mainly report distress (Mauricio, 2009; Simeon et al., 2003). Dr. Elena Bezzubova, a Russian psychoanalyst who treats people with depersonalisation in California, calls it a painful absence of feeling. These numbing effects mean that it’s commonly considered as a defense mechanism triggered in times of stress. For those who came to the NKT with trauma, this is likely to result in an exacerbation of these trauma symptoms. Studies which investigate this are required however. The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM) notes that depersonalisation must cause the person distress and have an impact on their daily functioning for it to be classified as clinically significant. Henri Frédéric Amiel, the 19th century Swiss philosopher and writer’s journal is thought to include the first reference to depersonalization. “All is strange to me; I am, as it were, outside my own body and individuality; I am depersonalized, detached, cut adrift. Is this madness?,” In such cases depersonalisation can be considered both a burden and a strange blessing. One sufferer has stated in an interview that whilst she doesn’t exactly equate depersonalisation with enlightenment, she sees it as a halfway, formless state. “I believe I am on the path to enlightenment,” she says.
Emptiness and lack of compassion
Irrespective of whether the individual considers their depersonalization as distressing or not, it would most likely lead the person to struggle with their daily activities and to relate to others, especially those outside of the NKT. To have empathy for others suffering we must be able to feel our own emotions, be connected to our body, and to connect with another person’s felt emotion. If we are cognitively straining to remember that this person in front of us does not exist, and that their feelings are empty, we are unlikely to be able to respond to their suffering with warmth. (See page on ‘Applying antidotes’ for more details on how practicing Kadam Dharma can lead people to invalidate others emotions).
Many survivors report witnessing people displaying disturbing behaviours which they believe indicated less empathy than in the general public. ‘Research suggests that areas of the brain that are key to emotional and physical sensations, such as the amygdala and the insula, appear to be less responsive in chronic depersonalisation sufferers. You might become less empathetic, your pain threshold might increase’ (Lofthouse, 2014, ‘Enlightenments evil twin’).
Emptiness and loneliness
To be in authentic relationship with each other we must be able to connect with our emotions and the emotions of others. Humans need emotional and physical intimacy to survive and thrive. This is not something we can bypass by focusing on ‘ultimate truths’.
‘I’m sorry, folks, but no, friends are not empty forms. Friendship is sacred; it is love, and love, of which there is too little in this world, is both precious and sacred. It is the emanation of buddhanature. The problem that contemporary westerners suffer from today is not clinging and grasping in relationships, but a profound disconnection from each other (even while overly networked), isolation, alienation and depersonalization. People are not able to connect with others in a meaningful way that generates trust, warmth and intimacy. “Friends are empty forms” only exacerbates this form of sociopathology. A compassionate Buddhism treats people as people, with needs and feelings, not as a category of Buddhist dogma‘ (Shaun Bartone, Sociopathic Buddhism).
Cults bring isolated people together and then isolate them further and engulf them. People with attachment difficulties are likely to suffer with a more disorganised attachment style after focusing on emptiness teachings whilst trying to connect with each other and form friendships.
Mauricio, S. (2009). Depersonalization: A New Look at a Neglected Syndrome. Cambridge University Press. p. 1. ISBN 9781139489423.
Simeon, D., Knutelska, M., Nelson, D., Guralnik, O. (2003). “Feeling unreal: a depersonalization disorder update of 117 cases”. Journal of Clinical Psychiatry. 64 (9): 990–997.
Radovic, F. (2002). Feelings of Unreality: A Conceptual and Phenomenological Analysis of the Language of Depersonalization. Philosophy, Psychiatry, & Psychology. pp. 9: 271–279.