Living in an NKT centre: Loneliness, neglect, burnout and institutionalisation

According to Kay (1997), dharma students have reported that living in a dharma centre is crucial during a time ‘when traditional concepts of community and society seem to be breaking down, when relationships are becoming increasingly disharmonious’. Another claimed that ‘Living in a community fulfils social needs I think all of us have and which are almost impossible to fulfil in an increasingly fragmented and individualistic society’.

Advertisements for rooms available at NKT dharma centres give people an idealised image of what it might be like to live there:

Of course there is no indication in the advert that most people living there struggle with severe and enduring mental health problems, that there are no background checks on residents or teachers and no safeguarding policies or procedures. Whilst the grounds may be beautiful, it is the opinion of myself and many other ex-members that the communities themselves are traumatised, fanatical and unstable. I personally witnessed more disturbing behaviours at Nagarjuna KMC than anywhere else I have spent time. There were high levels of sadistic and masochistic traits in residents, and many people who in hindsight I now recognise would have met criteria for narcissist personality disorders.

There is also no indication that you must attend teachings that include doctrine at least once per week in the adverts. Many ex-members are non-Buddhists who moved into centres following a relationship breakdown or experience of homelessness, believing that they would find peace there, only to later find themselves further exploited and traumatised.

Dysfunctional family

The primary metaphor that is used within the organisation for describing the NKT is that of the family. However, given the practices encourage people to practice invalidation of their own and others emotions, to ignore any trauma and to ‘transform’ (repress) anger, and enable abusive behaviours, this is likely to lead to toxic ‘family’ dynamics, further trauma and dissociation. Given those who are drawn to the NKT are likely to be extra vulnerable and to already have experienced trauma and neglect, this is likely to contribute to the development of complex post-traumatic stress.


According to Bell (2002), there is no doubt that despite the rhetoric around the notion of community (sangha) people can feel isolated within Buddhist groups. Many ex-cult members report a feeling of being ‘isolated together’.

This isolation is exaggerated when anxiety about being ostracized causes people to refrain from challenging the behaviour of others. To do so can feel like betraying the idealized notions of Sangha and spiritual friendship that attracted the person to the group in the first place.

There are many factors which I believe contribute to the neglect of current resident’s mental and physical health, and many overlap.

Factors I believe that contribute to the neglect of residents’ mental health include:

  • Lack of understanding in management, inability to spot warning signs of deterioration
  • Insistence that kadam dharma holds all the answers to all physical and mental health problems
  • Lack of consideration for which teachings are suitable for whom at what times
  • The encouragement to focus on understanding emptiness before mastering basic mindfulness skills or resolving obvious mental health difficulties
  • The encouragement and ‘rejoicing’ in the spiritual bypassing of painful emotions
  • The use of fear, guilt and misplaced loyalty through the teachings to overwork people
  • The lack of compassion or support for people who become burnt out or mentally unwell as a direct result of the stress of being involved with the tradition
  • Living in close quarters with many people who have mental health difficulties, trauma, and who are repressing their emotions
  • The risk of vulnerable people being exploited by those with narcissistic or sociopathic personality traits, who have easy access to them
  • No safeguarding
  • The potential misuse of teachings on destroying self-cherishing, perceiving no faults and having gratitude for being abused
  • The encouragement to attend as many empowerments as possible in order to support the tradition or the teacher
  • The pressure to attend Highest Yoga Tantra teachings, which include vows to remain loyal to Kelsang Gyatso for life (and future lives)
  • The use of fear, guilt and flattery to prevent people from leaving the tradition
  • Discouragement of play and fun for relaxation

The admin director at the centre where I lived admitted to me that she did not understand mental health at all. And yet, she was convinced that she understood ‘the mind’. There is no one living in the centres that is responsible for safeguarding or highlighting potential risks or a deterioration in peoples mental health. I believe this to be neglectful given there are many people with severe mental health difficulties living in NKT dharma centres. I myself witnessed several clearly mentally unwell people being encouraged to follow the Buddhist path as the answer to their problems with no questions asked regarding whether they were seeking appropriate treatment. Whilst it is the individuals’ responsibility to seek appropriate mental health support for their pre-existing conditions, I do believe that the NKT actively discourage trusting anyone outside of the organisation. This is made clear in the texts which state that total reliance on the spiritual guide alone is paramount, and that outside influences are ‘degenerate’. As they are so convinced that they understand the mind, and that their practices are a path to enlightenment, a vulnerable person is at risk of abandoning any western mental health care they may already have been receiving. They are highly unlikely to have psychological therapy and may have to keep this quiet especially if they are ordained.

Due to the NKT’s teachings on enduring suffering, and not only that but also taking on the suffering of all other living beings, they do not view self-care as important. In fact, you are actively encouraged to suffer more to help ‘destroy your self-cherishing’, and not only that, but be grateful for your suffering and any abusers because it is teaching you. This means that you are encouraged to view your abuser as your teacher, and to be grateful. This means
that when you inevitably experience deterioration in your mental health, you cannot turn to anyone in teaching or management positions for grounded, validating, normal advice. I myself was told following a panic attack that I should be working harder at feeling nothing, by meditating on how everything arises from my mind, and people do not exist inherently from their own side. I was told that I had an impure mind and that is why I had an impure view. I was told that I must have done something abusive in a previous life to be experiencing abuse in the present.

Luckily, due to my mental health background I knew this was inappropriate and I made plans to leave immediately. However a person who is more vulnerable and lacks knowledge of mental health is likely to berate themselves for being so ineffective and to strain even harder at a time of distress or during a trauma reaction. It is my opinion that they may be likely to experience dissociation and derealisation. I myself did experience this due to hearing that ‘life is just a dream’ during a time of confusion and distress.

Institutionalisation and lack of capacity
It is my opinion that those who live in NKT dharma centres for periods of more than a few months are likely to start becoming institutionalised, meaning that their skills for functioning in the outside world decrease. I myself experienced this to some extent despite working full time outside the centre and still having a car, and friendships outside the NKT. The teachings encourage people to give up their regular life, by suggesting that ‘samsaric’ happiness is meaningless, and that only activities that are virtuous (usually for the NKT) are meaningful. Many members of the NKT have become isolated from previous friends and family, as is common with cult involvement. I would argue that due to the vulnerability of those who get drawn into the NKT, plus the ‘mind control’ factors and guru devotion they may experience, that they may lack capacity tomake decisions about their own welfare at times. The Mental Capacity Act sets out a 2-stage test of capacity:
1) Does the person have an impairment of their mind or brain, whether as a result of
an illness, or external factors such as alcohol or drug use?
2) Does the impairment mean the person is unable to make a specific decision when
they need to?
I would argue that a combination of pre-existing attachment trauma and other mental health difficulties, plus the spiritual practices, doctrine, guru devotion and group mentality, is likely to be an ‘impairment on the mind’ as defined in the Mental Capacity Act.

The factors that I believe contribute to the neglect of residents’ physical health include:

  • The denial of the existence of the body other than simply an imputation of the mind
  • Absence of mindfulness of the body practices within their teachings
  • Lack of physical exercise facilities
  • Banning staff from attending yoga
  • Encouraging people to believe that body sensations such as worry or anxiety have no meaning
  • The long term effects of spiritual bypassing and emotional repression on physical health
  • Lack of understanding of burnout and what is required to recover from this
  • The use of fear, guilt and misplaced loyalty through the teachings to overwork people in order to ‘cherish’ the centre over their health
  • The ongoing effect of emotional and spiritual abuse on the body
  • Discouragement of play and fun for relaxation

High level of burnout

The advert for Thornby hall promises work/life balance. However, survivors frequently report a high level of stress and burnout and I also witnessed and experienced this. Those that live within the centres report severe burnout due to the combination of the teachings with overworking, lack of physical health care and exercise, rest and relaxation. Due to their responsibilities and inability to get away from the place in which they volunteer, residents do not have a work life balance. They often reported to me that they had hardly any time to even meditate, which was the reason why they had moved in. Due to the pressure from the admin directors to work for the centre, and teachings which encourage ‘cherishing’ the centre more than yourself, those who already struggle with assertiveness and self-care are likely to overwork and neglect themselves severely. As joy experienced through ‘worldy’ activities is discouraged, residents often experience a lack of play and fun activities for relaxation. Admin directors are known to actively discourage residents and volunteers from engaging in fun activities in case it interferes with their dedication to their centre duties. Trying to ‘overcome’ their emotions and ignoring their intuition is also likely to contribute. According to Inform:
Some former members have said that they felt pressured to devote the majority of
their time to teaching and supporting the centre and were not given enough time to
pursue their own spiritual development, relationships with friends and family or earn a living, while still being expected to pay for accommodation and teachings

Whilst it is the individual’s responsibility to engage in self-care, this appears to become very difficult due to lack of resources, encouragement, and active discouragement of physical activities such as yoga. I was told that the Education Programme Coordinator was banned from going to yoga due to its roots in Hinduism. She told me that her flexibility and strength had significantly deteriorated during her time in this role due to this ban which was placed on her by the admin director. Many long standing NKT practitioners believe that their body is simply manifested by their mind. I witnessed many people obviously neglect their physical health, which I believe was linked to this belief.

Many ex-members have reported that they were bed-bound or catatonic when they became burnt-out due to their involvement. I myself had three months signed off work sick after leaving and at one point found it very difficult to speak.

Spiritually I was fried, and that’s what the job did for me. I just got burnt out. And I
recognize now a couple of things: One is that I was still doing the job with my sort of
ordinary motivation, or ordinary way that I do things, just full on. But also I think it was
also a real intense spiritual ripening; all this shit just came out, like I couldn’t even
speak sometimes. I couldn’t sleep … I was really not in good shape. [One teacher]
actually wrote me a little note telling me to take a good long rest for about a year. … I
was just totally exhausted. And I found out later, you know, it’s burnout.’
(Michael, an
interviewee from Emery-Moore’s thesis).

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