‘Be very careful not to give the impression it is a recruitment drive’Neil Elliot (Guide for NKT teachers)
It is important to examine the unsupported claims the NKT make in their advertising in order to sell their classes. Anders argues that ‘the strategy behind establishing huge amounts of international centers involved appointing people who quite often were uneducated about their positions. They then established undemocratic group structures along with their masters, served their hidden agendas, and promoted decontextualized concepts’.
The suggestion that classes will improve mental health
It is my opinion that New Kadampa Tradition classes are described and sold to the general public as tools for worry, anxiety, anger, unhappiness and depression.
Titles for their classes include ‘Dealing with stress and anxiety’, ‘Peaceful mind and happy life’. This means that they are likely to attract vulnerable people who are suffering with depression, anxiety ‘disorders’ and the effects of trauma.
Those who attend their courses might assume that the NKT have an understanding of such mental health difficulties in line with western understandings and guidelines, which is not the case. ‘Education programme’ coordinators do not have any mental health training and use advertising to suggest to people that they WILL achieve joy, contentment and good mental health by attending the courses:
The above picture suggests that a feeling of joy can be achieved through the practices that the NKT recommend. Commercial companies use marketing and public relations techniques to promote an idealised image of their product or service to potential customers, and cults do much the same (The Culture of Cults). The NKT offer a free ebook, called ‘How to transform your life’. This freebie is likely to get the public to believe they are generous and have your best interests at heart, which encourages trust and gratitude. This book suggests that their version of the dharma has all the answers, thus hooking you in to pay for more classes and books, and suggesting that if you try hard enough, it will transform your life. This also reflects the personality and behaviour of a ‘hero’ narcissist, whom insists there is a problem that needs to be solved, and that only involvement with them can do it.
‘People do not seek to join a cult; they are recruited. And recruitment happens when you are especially vulnerable, when you are human and you have unresolved problems, when you are seeking a greater sense of purpose or meaning, and when you happen to encounter people who are recruiting’.Daniel Shaw, The Relational System of the Traumatizing Narcissist
Selling people the idea that their goal should be to achieve happiness at all times
According to Hayes et al (2011) the worlds’ great religions were some of the first organised attempts to solve the problem of human suffering, and they all have practices that are oriented towards this. Buddhism generally focuses on the costs of attachment and practice aims at reducing our grasping at particular things, people, and feeling states. (Although, this is not what the NKT teach in my opinion, as they teach people to grasp at ‘virtuous’ thoughts, images and feelings, Kelsang Gyatso, and to keep them in their concentration).
Hayes et al (2011) state that ‘Western civilization virtually worships freedom from physical or mental distress’. Given the relative success of physical medicine, it is not surprising that mental health has come to be viewed and treated in the same way. Distressing thoughts, feelings, memories or physical sensations are viewed predominantly as ‘symptoms’. Promising Western people freedom from distress is an effective tool for hooking them in to an addiction to a substance, practice or group of people that are believed to be a ‘cure’ for their distress, and offer a way out. NKT members are told that the only way out of suffering is to achieve enlightenment through destroying their self-cherishing ‘mind’. Anders (2019a) states that ‘longing for enlightenment, in the sense of quick relief from suffering rather than through a process of taking individual responsibility and of training, appears to contribute to denying one’s own unconscious aspects, those of the master as well as the resulting group dynamics.’
Myself and many others believe the NKT’s view of ‘happiness’ to be pathological and contradictory. Members are constantly told that life is suffering, and that death will bring more suffering (which is rather depressing) but at the same time are told they should be aiming to be happy at all times. Many ex-members therefore refer to the NKT as a happiness cult.
Believing that we’re supposed to be happy all the time actually makes us more miserable as we struggle more when we cannot ‘achieve’ this. For a video explanation of three happiness myths by Dr Russ Harris, author of The Happiness Trap, see below.
Ex-member Jamie Kostek states ‘Everyone looks so happy when you come in. You have no idea of all the suffering going on behind the scenes’. She stated that she felt pressured to constantly convince herself she was happy, because unhappiness is a sign of spiritual failing. ‘And we truly felt fortunate to have these teachings, because we were constantly told that this is the only path that will lead to nirvana.’
Telling vulnerable people that they should be aiming to be happy all the time and then charging them for the tools they need to get there, under the name of Buddhism, many believe to be highly exploitative. Many are told that if you completely devote yourself to Geshe-la, you will attain enlightenment in three years, three months, and three weeks. This is similar to how a narcissist would say you must devote all of yourself to them in order to avoid being discarded by them for someone better (a more devoted source of narcissistic supply). This could trauma bond you to the guru and organisation as you come to believe that only they have the answers and can assist you in your spiritual path.
Obviously, for those who come to believe in a permanent and irreversible state of enlightenment, and believe that being wiser also would make them happier, this leads to disappointment and despondency when this does not occur. It is suggested by the NKT that if you are not becoming happier through NKT practices and meditations, you are not practicing correctly, or have lost patience, and should try harder and keep going. ‘Then, when you’re still not enlightened, you’re convinced you did something wrong and did not dedicate enough of yourself to Geshe-la’ (Jamie Kostek). This can lead to a feeling of inadequacy and inferiority, and many survivors of the NKT and other similar groups have reported it ultimately leads to depression.
The suggestion that feelings have no meaning
Underneath the first advertisement above it says ‘anxiety and worry have no meaning’. This suggestion appears throughout NKT promotional materials and teachings. If we were to believe that anxiety and worry had no meaning, we would often stay in unsafe situations, ignoring our body’s wisdom and fight and flight response. For example, if you believed that anxiety had no meaning when you were being physically or emotionally abused, you might stay in an abusive relationship leading to learned helplessness, depression, complex post-traumatic stress disorder and low self-esteem. Continuing to ignore your body’s fight and flight warning system would be likely to eventually lead to and exacerbate pre-existing health conditions such as chronic fatigue, other immune system disorders, and irritable bowel syndrome. The end result of this belief would therefore most likely be that you would be more traumatised and physically exhausted than joyful. One could argue that if you believed anxiety had no meaning at all you might get yourself killed, by stepping out into the road and getting run over, or failing to run away from someone trying to murder you. Newcomers are not told that the NKT don’t believe in self-defence, self-compassion or acting to prevent yourself from being annihilated. If death did not frighten you at all, this would be likely to lead to impulsive and harmful behaviours.
According to Buddhist scholar John Welwood:
‘From my perspective as an existential psychologist, feeling is a form of intelligence. It’s the body’s direct, holistic, intuitive way of knowing and responding. It is highly attuned and intelligent. And it takes account of many factors all at once, unlike our conceptual mind, which can only process one thing at a time. Unlike emotionality, which is a reactivity that is directed outward, feeling often helps you contact deepn inner truths. Unfortunately, traditional Buddhism doesn’t make a clear distinction between feeling and emotion, so they tend to be lumped together as something samsaric to overcome.’John Welwood, Tricycle Magazine Interview
Studies have found it highly challenging to measure intuition as a phenomemon, however Lufityanto, Donkin & Pearson (2016) state that we can use unconscious information to help guide us through life, to enable better decisions, faster decisions, and be more confident in those decisions. Cults are known to encourage practices that interfere with people’s ability to connect with their intuition so that it is harder for them to rebel or to leave. The suggestion that ‘we will never solve our problems by worrying’ is also misleading in my opinion. Sometimes initial worry can lead to problem solving. If we did not worry about anything at all, we might not pay our bills or care about the consequences of our behaviour on others. You could argue that if we thought other people’s anxiety didn’t mean anything or wasn’t important we would be a sociopath.
The suggestion that you should be able to ‘take control’ of your thoughts and therefore your emotions and your life
The suggestion that we should be able to ‘take control of our thoughts and therefore our life’ is also misleading. If a person had actually succeeded in disconnecting their emotional reactions from their environment completely, so that nothing could affect them emotionally, even severe abuse, they would have to be highly dissociated. Whilst there is evidence that practicing more ‘positive’ thinking can have a positive impact on mood, there are many other factors that influence our mental health that need consideration. For example if a person is having a panic attack or a trauma reaction,
they cannot simply ‘take control of their thoughts’ using the methods that the NKT recommend. They might need to exit an unsafe situation where possible, practice grounding techniques, deep breathing, self-soothing and seek social support to avoid developing post-traumatic stress. NKT advertising suggests that thoughts alone influence our emotions, whereas common sense suggests that physiological factors such as hormones, physical health, and even environmental factors including the weather can also affect our emotional state directly without triggering negative thoughts. See page on ‘applying opponents’ to ‘delusions’ for more details.
Failure to acknowledge or warn people about any possible adverse effect of their practices
According to Lindahl et al (2017) the limited focus on the benefits of meditation for physical and psychological health and well-being is a modern and largely Western creation that neither represents the diversity of meditation practices nor the range of possible effects of
those practices. In many Buddhist traditions it is accepted that people experience a wide range of meditation experiences – from bliss and visions to intense body pain, physiological
disorders, paranoia, sadness, anger and fear, which can be a source of challenge or
difficulty for the meditation practitioner (Lindahl et al., 2017). However newcomers to the NKT are not warned about this possibility or advised to seek appropriate support for pre-existing mental health conditions at the beginning of classes or through their books. Instead they are told that destroying their ‘self-cherishing’ mind through NKT practices is the only way. The NKT have no understanding of trauma, anxiety or schizoaffective ‘disorders’ and therefore they do not advise people, even those who are clearly acutely unwell on arrival, that their practices may not be appropriate or safe for them at the current time. This is because they believe that kadam dharma is the ‘cure’ for mental sickness and the ‘solution’ to all ‘human problems’.
It is difficult to provide a comprehensive review of potential adverse effects of meditation here. The majority (>75%) of meditation studies do not actively assess adverse effects (Goyal et al., 2014; Jonsson et al., 2011) instead, they rely solely on people to spontaneously report any difficulties to the researchers or teachers. However, participants are unlikely to volunteer information about negative reactions to meditation without being directly asked due to the influence of authority structures and demand characteristics (Fowler, 1998; Turner et al., 1992; Weissman et al., 2008). A recent study found 25% of meditators reported adverse effects (Schlosser et al., 2019). In previous studies some meditators reported exacerbation of psychological problems, including anxiety and depression, troubling experiences of self, and reality being challenged, which included out of-body experiences (dissociation) and in one case resulted in patient hospitalization for
psychosis (Lomas et al., 2014). I personally witnessed several people experiencing
dissociation and anxiety following attempting NKT practices and prayers, and several confided in me.
The suggestion that you have fortunate karma to have discovered kadam dharma (flattery and love-bombing)
Many survivors report in their testimonies that when they first attended an NKT centre they were told that they must have ‘imprints’ from a previous life or ‘fortunate’ karma to have discovered their version of the dharma, and therefore are special. This could be considered similar to love-bombing and flattery employed by those with narcissistic personality traits. Students are repeatedly told that they are extremely fortunate through the teachings, which makes it appear that this version of the dharma and the organisation is therefore extremely precious and valuable ‘nectar’.
The initial sense of community can play a part in healing attachment trauma and low self-esteem (at first). The love-bombing along with the suggestion that the NKT is your family and the centre your spiritual ‘home’ can be a powerful hook, especially for those who have been struggling with grief, abandonment, emotional neglect and loneliness. Survivors report pre-existing low self-esteem and the enjoyment of this flattery, however report that it impacted on their decision making. These teachings on your good fortune are heavily emotionally loaded which is likely to produce feelings of love, awe and gratitude (which the NKT call ‘blessings’). For an example watch the below.
These feelings create blind spots in our view of others behaviour (for an in depth explanation of religious ‘fervor’ with Dr Yuval Laor click here). However, they feel good in the short term, calm our nervous system and spread through emotional contagion. Feeling protected from harm by a guru, group and ideology may provide feelings of safety and security that a traumatised person may be lacking. This would provide conditions required to stabilise a person with acute or complex PTSD (in the beginning).
Anders, A. (2019). Silencing and Oblivion of Psychological Trauma, Its Unconscious Aspects, and Their Impact on the Inflation of Vajrayāna. An Analysis of Cross-Group Dynamics and Recent Developments in Buddhist Groups Based on Qualitative Data. Religions, 10(11), 622
Fowler, F. (1998). Mode effects in a survey of Medicare prostate surgery patients. Public
Opinion Quarterly. 62:29-46.
Goyal, M., Singh, S., Sibinga, E. M., Gould, N. F., Rowland-Seymour, A., Sharma, R., et al.
(2014). Meditation programs for psychological stress and well-being: a systematic review
and meta-analysis. JAMA internal medicine, 174(3):357-68.
Jonsson, U., Alaie, I., Parling, T., Arnberg, F. K. (2011). Reporting of harms in randomized
controlled trials of psychological interventions for mental and behavioral disorders: A review
of current practice. Contemporary clinical trials, 38(1):1-8.
Lifton, R. J. (2014). Thought Reform and the Psychology of Totalism: A Study of
Brainwashing in China. Martino Fine Books.
Schlosser, M., Sparby, T., Voros, S., Jones, R., & Marchant, N. L. (2019). Unpleasant meditation-related experiences in regular meditators: Prevalence, predictors, and conceptual considerations. PLoS ONE, 14, 5.
Turner, C., Lessler, J., George, B., Hubbard, M., Watt, M. (1992). Effects of mode of
administration and wording on reporting of drug use. In: Turner, C. F., Lessler, J. T., Gfroerer
JC, editors. Survey Measurement of Drug Use: Methodological Studies. Washington, D.C:
Government Printing Office.; 177-220.
Weissman, J. S., Schneider, E. C., Weingart, S. N., Epstein, A. M., David-Kasdan, J., Feibelmann, S., et al. (2008). Comparing patient-reported hospital adverse events with medical record review: do patients know something that hospitals do not? Annals of internal medicine, 149(2):100-8.