There is no definitive diagnostic instrument or checklist for determining if a group is a cult. Two lists of characteristics that are worth reading however are: 1.) Lalich & Langone’s list of behaviour patterns commonly found in cultic environments, 2.) 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).
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 ‘abuse’ 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.
The most widely known characteristic of a cult is the alarmingly enthusiastic and unquestioning dedication to the guru or leader. 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 have conversations in their head with KG, a phenomenon that has been reported in Robert Chabot’s PhD thesis.
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 hash of KG’s teachings….
Those outside the NKT who question the teachings or KG are seen as spiritually inadequate, detractors or maras to be pacified. Current members are indoctrinated to believe that outsiders have unfortunate karma which means they are unable to practice kadam dharma:
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 at all by suggesting that outsiders have malicious intent. The first post below disappeared a few days after it was posted:
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 angry or have unfortunate karma, therefore their testimonies cannot be trusted
- It’s difficult to prove because senior NKT 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 ‘Indyhack’ and ‘Dr Robert Harrison’ in order to appear like outsiders. 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 victim. 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. Senior NKT emailed my workplace pretending to be a fellow concerned psychologist the day after my psychological analysis went viral. They then threatened me and my workplace with legal action should I release the defamation email. Teachers have been asked to sign non-disclosure agreements and have been threatened with harm should they speak up about abuse.
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.
Debunking common insider misconceptions:
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. Followers replied in the students and followers of Kelsang Gyatso page:
‘There are some very hateful obsessed individuals who spend so much time obsessing about the NKT, granted no organisation is perfect its samsara after all :)’
‘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.’
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.
Common statements from insiders include:
‘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.
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.
‘Noone 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.
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.