Anders (2019) argues that although Buddhist texts are presented as instructions for self-responsibility, as a result of commercialisation of Buddhism personality cults with dubious perspectives have developed in the West.
There is no definitive diagnostic instrument or checklist for determining if a group is a cult. Three lists of characteristics that are worth reading however are: 1.) Lifton’s three main characteristics, 2.) Lalich & Langone’s list of behaviour patterns commonly found in cultic environments, 3.) Steven Hassan’s BITE model. In summary, ‘concerted efforts at influence and control lie at the core of cultic groups, programs and relationships’ (Lalich & Langone, International Cultic Studies Association website). According to Rousselet & Grall-Bronnec (2017) cults ‘can be seen as an organized group or a solitary person whose purpose is to dominate cult members by using psychological manipulation and pressure strategies‘.
Some people believe that the word ‘cult’ is derogatory and prefer ‘high-control group’, ‘high-demand group’ or ‘sect’. However expert Alexandra Stein argues that the words associated with cultic groups such as ‘dictator’ ‘narcissistic’ and ‘abuser’ could also be seen as derogatory and therefore we might as well just use the word ‘cult’. I am in agreement with Alexandra and therefore I will continue to use that word in this article for simplicity.
The most widely known characteristic of a cult is the alarmingly enthusiastic and unquestioned dedication to the guru or leader.
Anders (2019) argues that when so called Buddhist organisations spread unreflectively to the West this led to ‘so-called masters taking on the form of personality cults. The resulting dynamics of dependency was nourished by the longing for spirituality and concepts of transcendence considered only viable with the assistance of a supposedly needed human mediator, the so-called masters‘.
NKT members primarily worship ‘Gesh-la’ and mention him far more frequently than they do Buddha.
NKT shrines are known to have more photos of Kelsang Gyatso than of Buddha:
When I lived at Nagarjuna KMC I observed people having photos of KG next to their bed, as their screensavers, everywhere they possibly could. Followers are encouraged to hallucinate him and to have conversations with him in their head, a phenomenon that has been reported in Roger Chabot’s PhD thesis.
The NKT is well known for banning all other Buddhist books from their bookshops. Kelsang Gyatso removed all pictures of the Dalai Lama and books by other authors when he took over the original FPMT centre at Manjushri. This means that members are unable to compare the material in his books with that of others. Although current members sometimes state that they have never been directly told that they cannot read other Buddhist books, they are discouraged to do so in some of the teachings which suggest that reading other books would result in confusion and therefore slower progress on the spiritual path. On entering the building people are greeted with a sign that states Kadam Dharma is the ‘only’ method for achieving inner peace and happiness. On attending a class by Kadam Chris Heyes I was once told ‘Gesh-la says it so it must be true’.
Withholding information about Kelsang Gyatso’s whereabouts (and probably lying about it)
Senior NKT withhold information regarding the whereabouts of Kelsang Gyatso from other members. Hassan lists deception used by cults for information control purposes as:
- Deliberately withholding information
- Distorting information to make it more acceptable
- Systematically lying to the cult member
Members do not tend to question the (lack of) information they are given about KG, as this mystery surrounding KG’s whereabouts seems to have elevated him to an even more mysterious and omniscient figure with more magical qualities. Those who do ask questions are quickly minimised and commenting is turned off so that no further questions can be asked:
A few days after the above thread was shutdown, the NKT made the following video in which they ASK members to talk about how Kelsang Gyatso IS at the opening of a temple (in their minds and hearts) therefore there’s no need to question why he isn’t physically there or hasn’t even sent a message:
Hassan lists ‘extensive use of cult-generated information and propaganda’ as a method of information control. The fact that the NKT feel the need to make this video indicates the extent they are going to in order to control people’s thoughts about his whereabouts. Another example of NKT generated propaganda against the Dalai Lama is here:
Ex-members who are no longer indoctrinated by the magical thinking, emotionally loaded videos and teachings believe KG has been dead a long time or has a degenerative illness. This would mean that the book ‘Mirror of Dharma’ was just a re-write by senior NKT. When I lived at Nagarjuna, members who were excited for the release of this book told me it did seem like it was a jumbled re-hash of KG’s teachings….
Many members believe that Kelsang Gyatso functions more like a God, with the ability to intervene in their lives. The admin director at Nagarjuna KMC told me that ‘Gesh-la always arranges things for when we need them’. She was referring to spring festival, which happens every year on the same date.
Persecution complex, exaggerating danger and paranoia
Followers are encouraged to believe Kelsang Gyatso is an enlightened being and yet they are also encouraged to fear he would be assassinated if he turns up in person. This persecution complex in my opinion reflects paranoia instilled in them by the leadership. In this audio, an ex monk who did security talks about how he was told to take a bullet for his guru. In my opinion it’s a contradiction to the teachings, which state enlightened beings would happily accept annihilation, even murder, as they would have destroyed their ‘self-cherishing’ mind and wouldn’t be afraid of danger. Ex-members believe that the risk of assassination reason is simply used to justify his absence. The persecution complex also keeps people trapped in the group through fear.
Discouraging access to critical information
Hassan lists ‘Minimizes or discourages access to non-cult sources of information, including critical information and former members‘ under information control. Senior teachers discourage members from looking by suggesting that outsiders have malicious intent. The post below disappeared a few days after it was posted. Commenting is usually disabled so that people cannot ask questions or share their perspective.
I believe ‘Lets have compassion for them and be careful with our words‘ is a warning from senior NKT not to be cruel to ex-members (my videos were being posted at this time) because it will further ruin their reputation.
Members are often unaware of the history of institutional abuse and control. Therefore they easily believe the suggestion that outsiders or ex members simply have malicious intent because:
- If you remain in the ‘outer circle’ you may never become aware of how people on the inner circle are treated
- Current members are told that ex-members are mentally ill, obsessed, are (unjustifiably) angry or have unfortunate karma, therefore their testimonies cannot be trusted
- It’s difficult to prove the online abuse by senior NKT towards ex-members because they use fake identities
- Many people are too traumatised or fearful to write testimonies that detail their abuse
- The NKT dominates the internet with advertising so it’s harder to find testimonies
Members are given inaccurate, slanderous information about ex-members in order to discredit their views. They have used fake identities ‘Indy Hack’ and ‘Dr Robert Harrison’ in order to appear like outsiders. These are further examples of propaganda.
I do not include most screenshots of ‘independent journalist’ Indy Hack’s slander of ex-members here as people may not want these viewable, as they are distressing. The NKT emailed my workplace pretending to be a fellow concerned psychologist the day after my psychological analysis went viral. I believe they changed identities because I had already called out Indy Hack in my original report, so they knew they couldn’t use this on me without confirming what I had written. Once they realised I had gotten hold of the email to my workplace they then threatened me and my workplace with legal action should I release it. I never saw these emails but I was told there were pages and pages of legal threats and claims about how despicable I am.
They then wrote an ENTIRE WEBSITE for the purpose of character assassinating me. See DARVO: the defamation website set up in Michelle’s name by senior NKT for more details. A video explaining this further is here:
Threatening ex-members who write testimonies of abuse also serves as information control both to members and the general public. Most of these threats remain confidential in order to protect the victims. They threatened author Gary Beesley with legal action should he publish this. They also threatened the media and staff at Inform, an independent charity that collates information about cultic groups, with legal action. Teachers have been asked to sign non-disclosure agreements and have been threatened with harm should they speak up.
Hassan lists the following as elements of thought control:
1. Require members to internalize the group’s doctrine as truth
- Adopting the group’s ‘map of reality’ as reality
- Instill black and white thinking
- Decide between good vs. evil
- Organize people into us vs. them (insiders vs. outsiders)
2. Change person’s name and identity
3. Use of loaded language and clichés which constrict knowledge, stop critical thoughts and reduce complexities into platitudinous buzz words
4. Encourage only ‘good and proper’ thoughts
5. Hypnotic techniques are used to alter mental states, undermine critical thinking and even to age regress the member
6. Memories are manipulated and false memories are created
7. Teaching thought-stopping techniques which shut down reality testing by stopping negative thoughts and allowing only positive thoughts, including:
- Denial, rationalization, justification, wishful thinking
- Speaking in tongues
- Singing or humming
8. Rejection of rational analysis, critical thinking, constructive criticism
9. Forbid critical questions about leader, doctrine, or policy allowed
10. Labeling alternative belief systems as illegitimate, evil, or not useful
All of the above elements of thought control can be found in the NKT. Followers of Kelsang Gyatso are known to start sentences with ‘Gesh-la says…’. Due to memorisation of his texts they are known to repeat these stock phrases. They practice thought stopping, allowing only positive thoughts, and discourage critical thinking. Ex-members believe that aside from the brief breathing meditation at the beginning of classes, that practitioners are actually practicing guided self-hypnosis. It could be argued that they create false memories of persecution by outsiders due to labelling them as ‘false’ or ‘fake’.
Hassan lists the following elements:
- Manipulate and narrow the range of feelings – some emotions and/or needs are deemed as evil, wrong or selfish
- Teach emotion-stopping techniques to block feelings of homesickness, anger, doubt
- Make the person feel that problems are always their own fault, never the leader’s or the group’s fault
- Promote feelings of guilt or unworthiness
- Instill fear, such as fear of thinking independently, the outside world, leaving or being shunned by the group
- Extremes of emotional highs and lows – love bombing and praise one moment and then declaring you are horrible sinner
- Ritualistic and sometimes public confession of sins
- Phobia indoctrination: inculcating irrational fears about leaving the group or questioning the leader’s authority:
- No happiness or fulfillment possible outside of the group
- Terrible consequences if you leave: hell, demon possession, incurable diseases, accidents, suicide, insanity, 10,000 reincarnations, etc.
- Shunning of those who leave; fear of being rejected by friends, peers, and family
- Never a legitimate reason to leave; those who leave are weak, undisciplined, unspiritual, worldly, brainwashed by family or counselor, or seduced by money, sex, or rock and roll
- Threats of harm to ex-member and family
All of the above elements can be found in the NKT. Sadness and anger are seen as wrong (delusions) and as a result of your ‘self-cherishing mind’. All of your difficulties are viewed as a result of your self-cherishing and never as a result of your conditions or the way you are treated by others. Ex-members report intense love-bombing phases prior to devaluing. Members report feelings of spiritual inadequacy and unworthiness. Those who leave are often viewed by members as ‘deluded’, unspiritual, worldly, or somehow weak. Ordained sangha in particular are told that if they turn away from their teacher this will result in rebirth in hell for ‘a thousand aeons’.
Testimonies of NKT members who were ordained and who lived in NKT centres would reveal many more elements of behaviour control than laypeople or those who only attend teachings and festivals. Cults have an onion like structure, meaning that the control and abuse is more evident when you are part of the inner circle. It could be argued that ordained sangha voluntarily agreed to their behaviour control due to taking vows. I would argue that due to indoctrination and the belief that acting in accordance with these vows would be more likely to assist them in achieving enlightenment, that this behaviour is actually due to the information control, thought control and emotional control.
Dependency and obedience is certainly encouraged (for example, best not to dilute the pure teachings by reading other Buddhist books, don’t click on posts that are critical of the NKT). Testimonies reveal that admin directors frequently attempt to restrict leisure, entertainment and vacation time of those who live and volunteer in NKT centres. Many people report judgement and criticism for engaging in ‘worldly’ activities and for not dedicating enough of their time, money or energy to the tradition or centre.
The NKT has a long history of financial abuse and exploitation (see survivor testimonies). Those in the outer circle do not report punishment or public humiliation for ‘bad’ behaviours. However testimonies of ordained sangha have reported public humiliation and ‘spiritual execution’ by Kelsang Gyatso.
In general, there is no point trying to tell an insider that they are in a cult. This is likely to lead them to view you as a persecutor which serves to strengthen their faith further. Being in a state of infatuation or ‘fervor’ also increases our sensitivity to criticism of the group, guru and teachings.
I’ve been observing the arguments used by NKT members and apologists to dismiss the suffering and concerns of those who have been traumatised:
- ‘No organisation is perfect, it’s samsara afterall‘ (Therefore there’s no need to try harder to safeguard vulnerable people?)
- ‘I’ve been a member for X number of years and never had a problem’ (I got mine-ism/I’m alright jack)
- ‘I’ve been a member for X number of years and I never witnessed anything culty‘ (This person is unable to recognise that only cult members feel the need to defend the group, thus they have just confirmed that it is a cultic group. This person usually goes on to repeat a dismissive uncompassionate phrase only used by NKT members, thus indicating their indoctrination)
- ‘They’re just jealous‘ (what exactly do they think we are jealous of? This indicates group narcissism)
- Only ‘disgruntled’ “survivors” with ‘ordinary’ minds perceive ‘negativities’ or have problems with ‘individuals‘ (gaslighting, suggesting we are spiritually inadequate, lacking in mental ‘clarity’)
- ‘Must be their karma‘ (it’s their own fault/they deserve it). ‘They are so unfortunate, let’s keep practicing to make sure we don’t end up like them‘ (granted post-cult PTSD is pretty nasty, wouldn’t wish it upon anyone, but staying longer and praying harder won’t protect you from developing it one day)
- ‘Lets have compassion for (look down on) them‘ (a warning from senior NKT not to be too cruel towards “survivors” because we screenshot this for our records, thus further ruining the NKTs already ruined reputation)
- ‘It’s discrimination on the basis of religion‘ (persecution complex and paranoia instilled in them by the leader, again reinforcing that it’s a cultic group)
- ‘Must be a mara. Don’t look, it will damage your faith‘
- ‘Move on! Let go! You’re obsessed!’ (This person is still in the group, getting more and more attached to the group and ideology, dismissing those outside the group as ‘ordinary’, and yet they think that those who have left and speak up are the ones who need to work harder at letting go. Post-cult PTSD is incredibly complex, people need to process trauma, telling them to move on basically means ‘be quiet, I don’t like what you are saying’)
Followers have replied:
‘The more we practice Dharma the more control we have over our mind, the hateful, traitorous and obstructors will reap the fruits of such examples, they act as a good example of what it is like to follow samsaric path. Not a road to want to travel down, path to suffering‘
‘There are some really hateful, obsessed individuals who spend so much time obsessing over the NKT‘
Becoming attached to your guru means that when people criticise your guru or practice this can feel like persecution. In addition, if you have given up your old way of life to live in an NKT dharma centre, your security is tied up in the continuation of the tradition. This means that NKT practitioners often attack, threaten and harass those who question or criticise them. This mostly takes the form of passive aggressive suggestions that those outside the NKT are ‘deluded’ or ‘unfortunate’. It doesn’t cross their minds that maybe outsiders are concerned about members welfare, or trying to warn the general public about potential harm.
Debunking common insider misconceptions:
‘It’s not a cult because it’s a religion/Buddhism’
The NKT primarily worship and revere Kelsang Gyatso and his sectarian version of the dharma, not the teachings of Buddha. Religions can easily become cults and Buddhism is not immune to this. Many Westerners have a positive view of Buddhism and therefore they do not think to be skeptical. Just because an organisation markets itself as Modern Buddhism, doesn’t mean that it is. Unfortunately we are not given any education about cults as young people and many people do not know how to spot the warning signs.
‘No one is being held captive, therefore it’s not a cult’
Cults very rarely keep people physically captive. Instead they hook people in by presenting an idealised image of their practices and guru. The doctrine suggests that leaving would result in negative karma. Many NKT members have complex attachment trauma and therefore it becomes very difficult to leave when you have been deeply involved for a significant amount of time.
‘Noone ever pressured me to do anything, therefore it’s not a cult’
Cults have an onion like structure, meaning that it’s possible to be involved on the outer layers for a long time without ever experiencing or observing the spiritual abuse or manipulation that is happening at the core. However, this does not mean that it isn’t happening.
‘It makes me feel better, therefore it’s not a cult‘
Love-bombing and being part of an elitist group that considers itself special and having a special mission, feels good. So does spiritual bypassing of emotional pain, and dissociation in the short term. Feeling parented by a guru and the feelings of ‘blessings’ can also help heal attachment trauma at first. Believing that you have found the answer to your suffering and one day will achieve enlightenment may help alleviate depression at first. People report that they enter a state of relaxation during the teachings, which can be like an anaesthetic for their stress.
Debunking common outsider misconceptions
‘It can’t be a dangerous cult because Buddhists believe in peace and love’
The #metoo movement has only spread to Buddhism in the last couple of years. Prior to this there were not many testimonies of abuse. Sadly, Buddhist teachings have been used to control and oppress people, and to minimise abuse in the same way as religious teachings have in other religions. One particularly dangerous element of Buddhist teachings is the idea that the actions of your teacher are always perfect even if they appear to be abusive (crazy wisdom). It is very easy to gaslight people using Buddhist teachings due to the idea that everything is entirely ‘created by the mind’ (i.e. all in your head).
‘It can’t be a cult because it’s a registered charity’
Sadly cults are often able to become and remain registered charities. One complaint from a person associated with a cult led The Charity Commission to consider deregistering The Cult Information Centre as a charity due to claims it was not impartial enough. Yet cults themselves are allowed to continue as charities for many years despite many complaints of psychological, spiritual, financial, physical and sexual abuse. Tibetan Buddhist groups which have growing number of testimonies and remain registered charities include Rigpa and Shambhala.
‘It can’t be a cult because its rapidly spreading’
The NKT is rapidly spreading due to the back breaking labour that members do in building new centres, due to the belief that they are helping all living beings achieve enlightenment. This is due to indoctrination via the teachings. The NKT is widely known to be obsessed with growth and expansion, and has a history of financial abuse and exploitation in order to ensure this expansion continues.
The NKT has many characteristics of a cult. It may not be helpful to spend too much time debating whether the NKT is or is not a cult however. It’s not illegal to start a cult and arguing that it’s a cult will not initiate deregistration by the Charity Commission unless a sufficient number of complaints are made against each individual centre (as they all have independent charity numbers). For more information on why cults are so difficult to oppose, see this article by Mark Dunlop, whistleblower from Triratna/FWBO. For a relevant podcast that mentions some of the cultic aspects of the NKT you can listen to Matthew O’Connell at Imperfect Buddha.
Anders. A. I. M. (2019). Psychological impact of power abuse in Buddhist groups and essential aspects in psychotherapeutic interventions for the affected individuals. SFU Research Bulletin, 7/1, S. 32-50 DOI: 10.15135/2019.7.1.32-50.