Understanding thought reform in the NKT

Understanding how thought reform works and how this applies to your group is an important part of recovery from involvement with a cultic group. Lifton’s (1961) eight components of thought reform as developed from Andres and Lane (1988) can be applied to The New Kadampa Tradition. These criteria are displayed below with my opinion on how they apply to the NKT. You may find it helpful to think about your own perspective on this before reading my opinion in the right hand column however. I only recommend reading if you wish to leave the NKT for good or already have.

Criteria of thought reformApplication to The New Kadampa Tradition
Milieu control
The limitation of all forms of communication with the outside world. Members are discouraged from thinking ‘incorrect’ thoughts.
Outsiders are seen as having ‘ordinary minds’. The teaching on ‘guarding the gates of the senses’ can be used to encourage members to avoid contact with people, activities and objects that increase their ‘desirous attachment’ or destroy their faith. Members are encouraged to only think positive/virtuous thoughts through the practice of mind control and emotional control.
Mystical manipulation
Teaching that the group has a special purpose, and that the member has been chosen to play a special role in fulfilling this purpose. 
The special purpose of the group is seen as helping all living beings achieve enlightenment (exit samsara and cycles of suffering and rebirth) and to have a centre ‘in every city of the world’ in order to achieve this. It is suggested that the member has fortunate ‘karma’ to have discovered the dharma.
Demand for purity
Convincing the subject of his/her former impurity (before joining the group) and the necessity of becoming pure or perfect as defined by the group. 
The teachings are described as pure and the ‘only’ method for achieving permanent happiness. Teachings state that a ‘pure imagination’ practiced with ‘pure intention’ will lead to a ‘pure world’. Purification of negative minds is a central practice.
Cult of confession
Members are encouraged to confess past ‘sins’ as defined by the ideology. 
Confession practice is part of the purification of negative minds, but this is not usually shared with other members. Authenticity and the sharing of hopes and fears is not that common in The New Kadampa Tradition. 
Sacred science
Convincing the member that the group’s beliefs are the only logical system of beliefs and therefore must be accepted and obeyed. 
I was told ‘Gesh-la says it so it must be true’ by Chris Heyes. The NKT believe that Kelsang Gyatso holds the ultimate truth and those who do not believe simply have unfortunate karma. Turning away from your teacher is taught to result in the development of negative karma and therefore a more unfortunate rebirth.
Loading the language
Creating a new vocabulary with special meanings understood only by members of the group.
The New Kadampa Tradition are widely known as having their own phrases and for repeating these even when not requested. For example speaking categorically about ‘inner winds’, gaining ‘merit’ and ‘rejoicing’ in others happiness.
Doctrine over person
Convincing the member that the group and its doctrine take precedence over any individual in the group or any other teaching from outside it.
Neil Elliot’s teaching notes state that the NKT’s only mission is to spread Kelsang Gyatso’s dharma throughout the world. This means that each individual’s physical and mental wellbeing are not seen as important. This is exacerbated by the teachings that suggest all of your basic needs and emotions are simply a ‘hallucination’ created by your ‘self-cherishing mind’. Teachings from other Buddhist teachers are often seen as inferior and impure, although many NKT members have never read anything other than Kelsang Gyatso’s books as they were banned from the bookshops.
Dispensing of existence
Teaching the member that all those who disagree with the philosophy of the group are doomed. 
Those who do not follow the teachings are seen as doomed to live all their life and future lives suffering in samsara.

According to Gillie Jenkinson, survivors need to critically appraise the cultic group’s shared language, beliefs and practices. These and the pressure to conform create the ‘pseudo-personality’ created by involvement with the group, which Gillie believes is layered on top of, and obscures the authentic pre-cult personality. Fervor creates blind spots however when we have been distanced from the group for some time we are able to examine the language, beliefs and practices without experiencing emotional contagion, awe and fervor.

You can hear Gillie talk about the pre-cult personality and pseudo cult personality below.

The importance of nonverbal information

The pressure to conform can be conveyed through nonverbal as well as verbal communication. People who are exposed to these kind of dysfunctional environments for prolonged periods can internalise the norms of the system. Secretive, manipulative behaviours and experiences can be reframed using words such as ‘merit’ ‘virtue’ and ‘purity’ which leads to cognitive dissonance. We may accept the verbal appraisal of the situation or behaviour whilst still picking up on hostile nonverbal cues. (This is indicated in the trolling I receive, which is framed by the perpetrator as well wishes, whilst my body tells me it’s a passive aggressive attack). Remaining in the NKT however (a coercive environment) would make questioning the contradictions between verbal and nonverbal information difficult as they are labelled as an impure mind or fault in perception. Therefore examining the groups methods for minimising nonverbal information could be helpful in understanding thought reform.

If you would like to read more of my (strong) opinion on thought reform you can continue reading below however if you do not think this is for you, you could skip it.

My opinion: Survivors report that they found the teachings disorientating but also like ‘coming home’ at first. Teachers give real life examples of how ridiculous it is to be human and stuck in cycles of grasping at objects and experiences that only disappoint us or don’t last long. Most people can relate to this and it can be convincing. However these stories are oversimplified and told with a hidden agenda – to convince the person that there is no happiness than can be related to anything outside the mind and no meaning in ‘worldly’ happiness at all. The NKT convince people through thought reform and guided self-hypnosis that the only meaningful activity for humans is to train their minds to achieve ‘enlightenment’ (thought control and emotional control).

Through thought reform the member can become convinced that they are benefiting the world and all living beings through their practice, when the sad reality is in my opinion, that they are only benefiting the NKT financially through free labour and paying for classes. The member may feel as if its ‘working’ for them however due to indoctrination, fervor (infatuation and awe), emotional contagion, group narcissism, sense of belonging to a group, and love-bombing through the suggestion that they are developing positive karma or ‘merit’. The idea that enlightenment ‘is coming’ could help combat feelings of meaninglessness or lack of purpose in life. Spiritual bypassing and dissociation from emotional pain also serves to protect the member from pain.

For a relevant video on indoctrination in the NKT see below:


Andres, R., and Lane, J. R. (1988). Cults and Consequences: A Definitive Handbook. Commission on Cults & Missionaries: Jewish Federation Council of Greater Los Angeles, Wilshire Blvd., Los Angeles, CA 90048. 

Lifton, R. J. (1961). Thought Reform and the Psychology of Totalism: A Study of Brainwashing in China. W. W. Norton and Company: New York, NY.

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