DI is trying to hear Linda and facilitate a discussion on her attempts to expose the NKT and not allow the the DL franchise escape. We will publish other material by her and look for further responses by our commenters.
My name is Linda Ciardiello and I am an ex-NKT member. Like Lynne Cracknell, I have decided to write my story for the record, in the hope that it will help others who have fallen or may fall into the NKT trap. It’s quite a long account, but hopefully “worth reading”.
As my time in the NKT came to an end, I reflected on the experience and it slowly dawned on me that I had actually been sucked into a cult. At first it doesn’t appear like that but gradually it becomes obvious – due to the total isolation of the group from all other forms of Tibetan Buddhism, or any Buddhism for that matter. The biggest obvious clue that it’s a cult is that they only read and study books by Kelsang Gyatso – you won’t find any other Buddhist books in an NKT centre. I won’t refer to him as Geshe Kelsang, because he never actually completed his Geshe training and has been expelled from his original monastery, for actions not becoming a Buddhist monk. The studying is not real studying either, because it’s just memorising his texts, so that you can become an NKT clone, parroting the same sentences in the same NKT style. People often comment how they all sound the same – it’s no wonder: NKT is like a sausage machine that takes ordinary people with spiritual aspirations and turns them into a type of robot: the KelsangBot. “Beware of the KelsangBots!”: Coming soon to a town near you!
I had been interested in the spiritual path for a long time, having found the ordinary pursuits of worldly life rather unsatisfying and meaningless. However, having been raised as a Catholic and then a Jehovah’s Witness, I was suspicious about organized religion generally, but thought naively that somehow Buddhism was different from Christianity because it did not require blind faith in the existence of God – they say it’s more like a psychology of thought than a religion.
The first talk I attended was a free Public Talk in the spring on 1992 – it sounded like an innocuous and useful subject : The Art of Positive Thinking. During the persuasive and amusing talk given by Thubten Gyatso (Neil Elliott) I felt a sense of “coming home”, that at last someone was talking sense to me: that happiness could not be found in external conditions, but rather in discovering it within my own mind, rather like the sunshine that’s always there but sometimes gets obscured by clouds. I liked that analogy a lot.
So I wanted more, I wanted to find that sunshine hidden within my own mind, behind the dark miserable clouds that had plagued my mind throughout my life. I attended the General Programme classes every week and soon began to get involved in organising them and doing publicity work. I naively believed that if only people got to hear Thubten Gyatso speak, or even my own Resident Teacher, that they would see the Buddha dharma as the key to ending their suffering, as I did.
It wasn’t long before I was enrolled on the start-up Foundation Programme and busily working towards setting up a residential centre. After FP I often used to go for a walk with the Resident Teacher, whom I greatly admired and naively considered to be a friend. One day we were staring over the fence at the beautiful mansion headquarters of Sokkai Gakkai Buddhism and, with a wistful look in his eyes, he said that they must have very powerful protectors to own such a fabulous building. So much for the purpose of Protectors being to protect realizations – by my teacher’s own admission, the purpose of Protectors is for the acquisition of worldly wealth and power ie Nothing to do with dharma practice or realisations, nothing to do with actual Buddha dharma.
Soon we got a rented premises and I moved in. Luckily for me we could not afford to buy a centre, otherwise I would have sunk my savings into it and lost them, as has unfortunately happened to many others. However, I did give up my career path to work full-time for the growth of the centre, and with my teacher’s blessing began to sign on the dole instead. I was given the job of Education Programme Co-ordinator and with so much work being asked of me, I found little time to actually meditate. Despite that, it wasn’t long before I was asked to set up and teach a Branch class. My ego liked the idea of me being a teacher, but the reality soon hit me that far from feeling like an authentic teacher, I felt like a complete fraud as I sat there holding forth about “happiness from a different source” to a bunch of earnest seekers, when I still didn’t really have a clue about that type of happiness at all. I was faking it. We were indeed encouraged to fake it, until you make it.
Gen Thubten came and gave empowerments twice in my time there. I heard him refer to Geshe-la (sic) many times as the “Third Buddha”. Once we all went to a restaurant in Reading afterwards where the owner was very friendly and had a picture of the Dalai Lama on his wall. “Gen-la” was polite but did not reciprocate the warmth, I nudged the admin director and pointed to the picture, thinking that seeing this picture would please her and Gen-la. Far from it. She scolded me sternly, saying that she would not dream of offending her guru by pointing him to the picture. Judging by the black look on his face most of the time, he’d probably seen it already. I was flabbergasted and mystified – I tried to find out why exactly, but received only vague explanations. I chose to ignore the matter and carried on as usual.
With so much work constantly needing doing to run and expand the centre, and so many pujas to recite, especially with my new Highest Yoga Tantra commitment and all its complicated practices, I had little time for the actual meditation I’d imagined I would be doing. Thus it wasn’t long before I started to get ill with burn-out symptoms. I remember waking up one morning in the centre and my body felt almost paralysed. It took a huge effort of will just to lift my arms or open my mouth to speak. Another resident who had become my friend called the doctor who came straight away – seemed she was concerned that I had had a stroke.
Another ambitious woman at the centre had a chat with me and offered to take over my job and I was delighted to hand over the reins to her, as I was worn out. This woman then went about making herself very unpopular by behaving like a bad-tempered tyrant, with the excuse that she was now the “lineage-holder” for Geshe-la’s will towards the centre, and thus if we questioned her authority and decisions it was because we had a “negative mind” and lacked “faith”. One of her decisions was to evict my friend from the centre because she was not pure NKT and therefore seen as “negative”. My friend was devastated and I tried to protect her from the eviction, which ultimately resulted in me being evicted as well. I was actually happy to leave as I had long wanted to go and live at Madhyamaka Centre – it seemed like such an idyllic life there.
Once I arrived at Madhyamaka Centre I tried to make a formal complaint about the woman in charge at my old centre, but no senior people were interested. Samden just laughed at me. What I did not realise then was the sort of antics that went on at my old centre were commonplace in NKT centres. Since then I have heard time and again of instances of the authoritarian management style and bullying that seems to go on as a matter of course in many, if not most, NKT centres.
I settled in to life at Madhyamaka and soon got laden down with loads of work again ie I was put in charge of the kitchen and the food shop. However, the idyllic life I had imagined there did not materialise (obviously) and it began to feel like a pretty lonely, miserable life there. The sense of community was almost non-existent and the atmosphere was cold and indifferent. Worse still, there were many instances I observed of careless, ego-driven behaviour that got me wondering whether any of this so-called spiritual practice was actually authentic at all. Instead, I began to feel that the place was teeming with psychologically damaged, lonely people unable to cope with the “real world” on one side, and on the other, a closed, smug clique of the “in crowd”. The so-called practices appeared inauthentic to me – most of these people seemed to be just trying to escape from the real world into some blissed out notion of a Pure Land, just papering over the cracks in their damaged psyches with their so-called meditation. Here was “Spiritual Bypassing” in action. The fixed false smiles and the glassy-eyed expressions began to make me feel like I was in a kind of psychiatric hospital with nice grounds. Any mention of the role of psychotherapy in helping people was always met with scorn – “just abandon self-cherishing and cherish others instead and all will be well – Geshe-la’s Dharma is all you need”. But it isn’t.
I was finding the Highest Yoga Tantra practices very difficult and not in the least helpful in the cultivation of a peaceful mind. I found the endless hours of puja practice tedious and very reminiscent of my previous life as a Catholic: being bored to death at Mass and doing Penance. I also read in one of Geshe-la’s books that if you abandoned your commitment to HYT practice the bad karma accrued would result in countless aeons in hell. Catholicism again. I went to my teacher for reassurance that if I gave up HYT and went back to basics that I wasn’t going to hell. He could not give me such an assurance – perhaps thinking that the threat of hellish rebirth would keep me in line. Very Catholic. In desperation I sought, and was granted, an audience with “Geshe-la” himself. I tried to explain to him the difficulties I was having, hoping for some personal guidance. I may as well have said nothing, because he took no personal interest in me whatsoever and just doled out the same old trite, potted advice: do Heart Jewel everyday and if I had time to do Wishfulfilling Jewel and Dakini Yoga as well (or something equally useless). Meeting him didn’t help me whatsoever.
After several months I went home for Christmas and applied for a job in Social Services. I’d had enough of hiding out in NKT Centres and getting nowhere slowly with the “meditation” practices. After several years reciting pujas, practising sadhanas and studying, my mind appeared just as unruly and unsettled as it ever was before, when it was under pressure. Trying to avoid pressure by hiding out in an Ivory Tower was not the answer: this just wasn’t working for me. I left Madhyamaka Centre and started a paid job in Social Services. At first I went back to some GP classes at my old centre, but by then the teachings had become trite, repetitive and vapid. In one class about anger, I held up my hand to ask about the view of some Buddhist teachers that all emotions can have a positive side, including anger: “In what way could anger ever have a positive side?” I asked. The teacher said she knew nothing about that, as I “should know” in the NKT they study only Geshe-la’s books. She gave me a big smile but her eyes were not smiling – they had that hard steely look of warning to me: that I should know better than to ask such a thing. Annoyed and embarrassed by her put down, and dissatisfied with what I was hearing, I never went back. Some years later I heard that same nun eloped with her junior sidekick teacher, a young monk – apparently because she was “lonely”. Obviously, she and many like her, are just play-acting at being wise and virtuous ordained teachers, and after a while they just can’t keep up the pretence of being something that they clearly are not.
The last time I visited Madhyamaka centre the news had just broken that Gen Thubten (Gen-la) had been forced to disrobe, under threat from one of the “in-crowd” elite group, that if he did not, she would go to the press and reveal that he had been breaking his vows of chastity with impunity, having “tantric” sex with basically anyone he fancied. Seems he had tried it on with her, despite the fact that she was actually married too. Worse still, it was said that Geshe-la even knew about it, but because Thubten Gyatso was considered “special”, his actions would not accrue bad karma. Indeed, the women involved should count themselves lucky that having received his blessed “white drops”, they would get enlightened quicker!! What a pile of absolutely repellent hogwash: sexually abusive men masquerading as spiritual teachers, turning sexual exploitation into “spiritual practice”.
On that day in 1996 there was also a coach in the car park. My friend, who was relaying to me the news about Gen-la, was getting ready to go off on it. She told me that they were going to protest against the Dalai Lama because, according to her teacher, due to his “ban” on Shugden, the Shugdenpas in India were experiencing “persecution”. I asked her if she had seen any proof of persecution, to which she sheepishly replied “No – but if my teacher says it’s true, then I have to believe her. I have to keep my faith in my teacher”. I commented that she was out of her mind and asked her to remember Buddha’s advice: just because somebody says it’s true, doesn’t necessarily mean it is true, no matter who said it, even the Buddha himself. But she wasn’t listening. I never saw her or spoke to her again. Nor did I want to.
I was pretty enraged by what I’d heard about “Gen-la” too. How could he be such a hypocrite I thought, as my mind went back to one of his Teacher Training Weekends that I had attended: he had told us in no uncertain terms that sexual relationships between students and teachers were a complete no-no – totally out of bounds. So it was one rule for us, and another for him then – presumably because he thinks he’s “special”.
I barely gave the NKT any more thought at all after1996/7, apart from an incident in 1999 when I bumped into an ex-NKT monk at an NLP seminar. He had once been a rabid media spokesman for Kelsang Gyatso in the 1996 round of protests, but I did not know that at this time. He told me that he had left the NKT, disillusioned and disgruntled: he had been sent to Spain as a monk/teacher where he had fallen in love and gotten a girl pregnant. When he asked him for help, Geshe-la reacted with a lot of anger at what had happened, but told him in the end not to worry about it, that he forgave him and to come back to England, forget the girl and baby, and that they would basically do one of their cover-up jobs. This ex-monk was pretty disgusted by Geshe-la’s response, and despite his previous fanaticism, he finally saw the light. So there’s hope for Rabten et al yet. His story was shocking but it also confirmed to me that I had made the right choice: Kelsang Gyatso is not a genuine spiritual master and the NKT does not practice authentic Buddhist teachings.
Fast forward to late 2012 when I caught sight of an erstwhile NKT monk singing in the choir of Handel’s Messiah at the Albert Hall. I went home and googled New Kadampa Tradition and was met with an avalanche of personal accounts and information that affirmed, in no uncertain terms, my suspicions about the NKT all those years ago. No trace of that monk anywhere either – he had obviously left. I was also horrified to see and read what they were saying about the Dalai Lama: it seemed to me this was a clear case of transferred subconscious hostility, because everything they were saying about the Dalai Lama was actually true of Kelsang Gyatso and the NKT – the allegations of hypocrisy, denial of religious freedom, ostracisation, bullying, abuse, all the lies – sounded like a day in the life of an average NKT Centre to me.
It also horrified me that they would put their own self-serving attachment to the worship of some obscure deity above humanity, above the cause of a peaceful and united Tibet, above the cause of the freedom of Tibet. They are prepared to put all that aside and parrot the same anti-Tibetan propaganda that Beijing spouts, as well as putting aside everything they are taught about Right Speech, about how the source of our problems is in our attitude, just to defend their attachment to the worship of an obscure, sectarian and deeply divisive deity, whom they are demanding and insisting that the Dalai Lama recognises as a “Wisdom Buddha”. What has worshipping anybody got to do with real Buddha dharma anyway? While demonstrating for their supposed right to “religious freedom”, they are impinging on everyone else’s right of religious freedom not to agree with them. This is an irony completely lost on them.
Soon after I made these discoveries I went on a 10 day silent Vipassana meditation retreat. There, really for the first time, I learnt how to actually meditate in a simple and systematic fashion that didn’t involve loads of head-work – (contemplate this, imagine that…) I began to feel quite cheated then by what I had been doing all those years in the NKT, where they had been trying to teach me to fly to the moon, without first teaching me how to walk, as if they knew anything about either anyway. At one of the festivals I helped to organise, a committee member suggested as a joke that we organisers should all be given symbolic white sticks: because we were the blind leading the blind. He didn’t know how right he was.
Yet learning to fly to the moon seems a lot more exciting than learning to walk. Trouble is that their course in “how to fly to the moon” (aka Highest Yoga Tantra) turns out to be nothing more than a deluded fantasy of ego-driven spiritual materialism, where the need for authentic self-knowledge is passed over, in the constant striving to gain the merit and blessings required to taste the “bliss” of the “Pure Land” of enlightenment. Self-defeating Disney Dharma. Missing the point entirely.
Nor is it so different from Catholicism either: Catholics were once fooled into thinking they could buy Indulgences to guarantee a place in heaven; NKT members are fooled into thinking if they dedicate their hearts and minds, and all their energy, time and money to the NKT and Kelsang Gyatso, they are getting merit tokens in return, to buy their entry into the “Pure Land”. It’s basically the same idea just dressed up in a different way for a different brand of organised religion, both of which seem to regard the accumulation of gold and temporal wealth as somehow being the work of the Lord. But at least the Catholics do carry out secular charitable work, which is more than the NKT do – the only recipient of their charity is NKT Property Incorporated (Special Gold Palaces Project) and its subsidiary company, the ISC.