The ’emptiness’ of trauma in The NKT

By Dr Michelle Haslam, Christian Szurko and Eddie Nuttall

This article explains how The New Kadampa Tradition view trauma, how they believe it should be ‘overcome’ and how they have historically treated those with trauma symptoms. It is based on testimonies, some of which are public and some are private. For a relevant YouTube video that went viral, see ‘How I believe the New Kadampa Tradition hooks you in via your trauma and then retraumatises you’.

Kadam dharma is packaged as a way out of human suffering. Suffering (and therefore trauma) is therefore likely to make people vulnerable to being drawn into the NKT. Those who live in NKT centres are likely to be somewhat estranged from their families and to have complex attachment related trauma. Those who have left could have experienced further trauma whilst within the group, and go on to develop further trauma through the process of leaving permanently and adjusting to life outside the NKT. Ex-members, their families and clinicians could therefore benefit from this information.

No understanding of neuroscience

The NKT believe in a ‘mental continuum’ and believe that the mind is located at the heart, having nothing to do with the brain. Therefore they do not understand the fight/flight/freeze response or the complex neuroscience behind trauma.

Trauma is stored in the body and brain, and affects the limbic system. Therefore it cannot be healed simply by focusing on positive thoughts, reciting mantras or visualising yourself as a Buddha. The NKT believe that people should be working towards being happy all the time. Even if this were possible and healthy, if you are full of trauma and constantly invalidating it, you are likely to suffer with depression, low self-esteem, irritable bowel syndrome and eventually an immune system disorder.

How do the NKT view trauma?

In a nutshell, they don’t. They don’t view trauma reactions as a valid form of suffering. They view pain, whether emotional or physical, as a ‘hallucination’ that is a direct and simple result of ‘self-grasping’ or ‘self-cherishing’. Anders (2019) argues that simplified decontextualized Buddhist ideas have been used to conceal abuse and trauma.

The NKT believe that suffering should assist people in developing a stronger determination to practice renunciation (to reduce grasping at desirous objects). In other words, if you are going through a traumatic event, the teachings suggest that you should be able to overcome this by controlling your mind alone, and not through exiting an abusive situation. (Teachers do sometimes acknowledge that changing your situation can also help, but this is not written anywhere). The teachings suggest that you should be able to control your mind to be ‘happy’ in a life threatening or abusive situation, when in reality your fight and flight response would make this impossible. 

Viewing trauma as negative karma

NKT practitioners who come to the group with pre-existing trauma are unlikely to understand that they have trauma that may need addressing. In general, many people live with trauma, particularly childhood emotional neglect, without viewing these experiences as valid traumas. NKT practitioners may learn to see their trauma as related to negative karma but also fortunate karma that brought them to kadam dharma. This could initially help them make meaning out of their suffering (e.g. ‘it wasn’t all for nothing because it brought me to kadam dharma which is helping me achieve enlightenment’). However this meaning making and sense of being special enough to have come across the dharma (love-bombing and flattery) will not help them process or heal from their trauma. 

Instead of being taught to recognise their trauma, their triggers, to reconnect with their body’s wisdom and their intuition, NKT practitioners are taught to ignore their trauma altogether. Rather than focusing on psychoeducation on trauma and anxiety, emotional regulation, grounding techniques and coping strategies, NKT practitioners are being taught to overcome suffering by straining to control their mind to focus on ‘virtuous’ objects in order to ‘purify’ negative karma.They are taught to label their body, emotional and physical pain, urges and desires as ’empty’ of both existence and meaning. This means that large numbers of traumatised people are spending time together with little or no understanding of their trauma. They are likely to praise each other in ignoring their trauma, their basic needs and in repressing anger as this is considered progress on the spiritual path towards enlightenment. They are also encouraged to take on the suffering of all living beings, and to martyr themselves in the process. Therefore, self-care and boundaries are not viewed as important and could in fact be viewed as self-cherishing.

NKT practitioners tend not to believe that people, or stable pathological personality characteristics exist at all. They tend not to understand narcissism or sociopathy. They are taught to believe that all living beings, but particularly other NKT practitioners (and even more so, teachers) as faultless and all their actions are seen as a teaching and an expression of their Buddha nature. This is a widespread problem in Tibetan Buddhism also which has led to the enabling and minimising of severe abuse. The #metoo movement has now spread to Buddhism and the number of testimonies across traditions is rising. According to Anders (2019) oversimplified karma beliefs have been used to silence trauma completely across Western Buddhist groups with hidden agendas (e.g. expansion).

Gaslighting (it’s all in your mind)

The NKT have no safeguarding policies and procedures despite being registered as a charity. They do not believe safeguarding is important, most likely because it contradicts their teachings on emptiness. To implement rules to protect vulnerable people from being abused by those with power over them would be to acknowledge that abusers have stable personality characteristics and display patterns of abusive behaviour which are not ’empty of inherent existence’ or a reflection of their Buddha nature.

Implementing safeguarding would also acknowledge that spiritual abuse has caused and could continue to cause long term damage and trauma that does not in fact assist the victim in achieving enlightenment. In which case they would need to reword Kelsang Gyatso’s teachings, which they would never do as this would be considered a ‘degeneration’ in their purity.

No such thing as righteous anger following abuse

Anger is viewed by the NKT as a delusion that must be ‘eradicated’ and ‘purified’, rather than as a healthy reaction to having your boundaries crossed, or as a healthy phase in recovering from an abusive experience. On top of this, if you are abused or experience a traumatic event, this is considered a direct result of your previous negative actions (your karma). Therefore, you are blamed and the abuser is not. Developing a ‘negative mind’ towards your abuser would be viewed as an action that would accumulate negative karma, making it more likely you will experience an unfortunate rebirth.

People with trauma are known to struggle more with anger, and need more outlets for channelling this emotion. Without these outlets anger is likely to come out in more covert ways, through passive aggression and underhand manipulative behaviours. This passive aggression is repeatedly displayed in online cyber-bullying by NKT members towards ex-members.

What are the potential consequences of this?

Survivors report that the teachings were used to manipulate them into staying in the NKT, and to tolerate psychological, spiritual, financial and sometimes sexual abuse. For a list of reported types of spiritual abuse via the teachings see here. The worst form of manipulation used by sadistic NKT members would be the misuse of the Atisha’s cook story to suggest  ‘I am teaching you by causing you suffering’. There is a high risk of gaslighting, suggesting that abuse is ‘all in your mind’.

This is likely to lead to further complex trauma on top of the trauma which made the person vulnerable to the group in the first place. Survivors report the enabling and minimising of abuse by their fellow practitioners and teachers. This means that on top of the abusive experience, the wider community is likely to abandon you or emotionally neglect you at a time of distress. Social support is known to be a significant predictor of recovery from traumatic events. If traumatic experiences are minimised or the victim is blamed, this is a further trauma which survivors often report they experienced as more traumatic than the initial traumatic event itself.

NKT members are likely to be practicing dissociation from the body via the practice of contemplating ’emptiness’ of the body. This means that over time they are likely to become even more dissociated and unaware of their body, their triggers and trauma symptoms. They are likely to suffer from depersonalisation and derealisation.

How do the NKT react to those who disclose trauma?

Survivors report that when they sought advice on how to improve their concentration when they were suffering with rumination due to trauma, they were met with remarks that suggested they were spiritually inadequate e.g. ‘you need to develop more faith in Gesh-la, practice more heart-jewel (prayers) or accumulate more merit (work harder).’ This is likely to impact negatively on members self-esteem. Those with trauma already tend to struggle with shame and feelings of inadequacy, and this is likely to exacerbate these struggles.

Survivors report that admin directors in particular, known for having controlling and cold personalities, had no compassion for their trauma. For a relevant cartoon by Andrea Ballance please see her video ‘Emptiness and suffering‘.

The bystander effect, which becomes stronger in larger groups, reduces individual members sense of personal responsibility and accountability to help the victim (Hortensius & Gelder, 2014). This bystander effect is strengthened further by the teachings, inhibiting some people from displaying empathetic responses they would usually display (Anders, 2019).

When survivors have spoken publicly about their trauma which has resulted from their involvement with the NKT and their subsequent leaving, this has been repeatedly dismissed and minimised by members of the NKT both in person and online. The NKT describe those who experienced abuse within the NKT and whom are unhappy about it as ‘disgruntled’, a word which suggests they are ungrateful and bitter. This reflects their teachings that suffering is empty of existence and at the same time should be viewed as something that can be transformed into the spiritual path. Those who have spoken up about institutional abuse have been gaslighted and character assassinated online in attempts to discredit their arguments, and to humiliate and devastate them further.

‘There are implicit rules to never unmask the toxicity of the group or its decisions. Questions are always met with ambiguous or vague answers or outright reprimands and punishment. The victim’s duty is to keep quiet, remain a scapegoat and not make a fuss about carrying out dirty work for the group’.

Shahida Arabi

Anders (2019) argues that this tactic used by ‘Buddhist’ groups is designed to destroy the social and economic resources of the whistleblower. For further explanation of DARVO (Deny, Attack, Reverse Victim and Offender) please see this video. This means that whistleblowers have accumulated even more trauma through their attempts at whistleblowing in order to try to protect others from harm. Social support is one of the biggest predictors of recovery from trauma, and so victims are denied being heard and validated by group members, making it more likely they will develop long lasting PTSD.

Research has suggested that social rejection is similar to the experience of physical pain. The network of brain regions that are involved in physical pain and social rejection are the same (Eisenberger, 2008; Macdonald & Leary, 2005).

Recovery

Psychoeducation on the nature of trauma and its impact on the brain and body would be a good place to start (after your basic needs for accommodation, safety, security etc are met). There are many useful materials and books. Michelle’s favourites are: The Limbic Brain and it’s role in trauma, Understanding complex PTSD, and The Body Keeps The Score

Many survivors of the NKT report complex PTSD symptoms. For more details click here. Recovery focused materials specifically relevant to NKT survivors are currently under development.

References

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. Religions10(11), 622

Eisenberger, N. (2008). Understanding the moderators of physical and emotional pain: A neural systems based approach. Psychological Inquiry, 19, 189-195.

Hortensius, R., & Gelder, B. D. (2014). The neural basis of the bystander effect. The influence of group size on neural activity when witnessing an emergency. NeuroImage, 93, 53-58.

Macdonald, G., & Leary, M. R. (2005). Why does social exclusion hurt? The relationship between social and physical pain. Psychological Bulletin, 131, 202-223.

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