Critical thinking, creativity & the problem with beliefs: The NKT, Rigpa and SGI

norbulingkashop_1132_manjushri_resize_800x1040_5f011772f1f655b0d91950f1e7b2fd43(Manjushri, the archetypal manifestation of wisdom)

Blind belief in authority is the greatest enemy of truth.’ Albert Einstein
The NKT is a pure tradition free from politics.Kelsang Jangdom

1. An acceptance that something exists or is true, especially one without proof
1.1. Something one accepts as true or real; a firmly held opinion: we’re prepared to fight for our beliefs
1.2. A religious conviction

We are all ignorant: every single one of us. Some of us don’t like to acknowledge this fact, but that doesn’t change it from being one. Even the brightest among us is blind to most of what takes place in the world. Ignorance may be obligatory; an indiscriminate factor of the human condition, but persistent refusal to engage with reality is not, especially when institutionalised. I think of certain forms of entrenched belief as voluntary ignorance. A person or group chooses to ignore facts, refuses to engage with reality, and sticks to their beliefs in spite of all the evidence. This is a problem we see primarily emerging from religious and political organisations and it will be no surprise that when these two come together, the situation worsens.

Religion is the hotbed of voluntary ignorance and Buddhism makes its own contribution with three organisations standing out; the New Kadampa Tradition (NKT), Sogyal Rinpoche’s Rigpa and Soka Gakkai International (SGI). Each of these organisations has received ongoing condemnation, accusations of abuse, as well as ex-members speaking out in similar tones over repressive behaviour, groupthink and cult-like behaviours. The NKT is the only one of the three to have a large number of dedicated websites from ex-members countering the organisation’s public image and to be involved in political activity targeting and defaming the Dalai Lama, in spite of their claims to be apolitical and ‘pure’ as the tweet from Jangdom above shows. I shall link to websites critiquing all three organisations at the end.

Rather than write a piece pulling apart the ideological structure and network of beliefs of the NKT or SGI, this piece was conceived of so that it might provide some resources for people who are unable to contextualise the collective forms of delusion that these organisations engage in. When speaking to NKT members, some of whom are old friends of mine, I have become aware of the sharp distinction between belief and reality visible in their claims, especially when discussing their political agenda. This is coupled with a lack of critical thinking. The sort of dialogue that NKT followers use is fairly consistent and as I wrote in my piece on Buddhist Bullshit last year, after leaving the organisation almost 20 years ago, I was genuinely surprised to find that the way members talk about their organisation and themselves has not changed much. It is infused with the same sort of self-referential groupspeak, groupthink and blind faith and ignorance that motivated me to leave in the first place. Interestingly, the way they self-define resonates very strongly with the language used by members of the SGI I have had dealings with.

It is possible that a good deal of alternative religious movements both within and outside mainstream religion are expressing anti-modernist sentiments of the like discussed in the works of David McMahan and Andrei Znamenski and certainly some of the forms of ignorance I talk about in this article are not exclusive to these three organisations. What troubles me is how these sorts of ignorance translate into abuse and aggressive self-promotion based on deception. Combine this with the evangelical nature of the NKT and SGI and the insular problems of an organisation and their behaviour become a public concern. The second reason for writing this piece is to illustrate the sort of distorted thinking that goes on in all of these organisations and the fascinating capacity of the mind to delude itself. My hope would be to better explain the mechanisms by which an individual succumbs to and then supports the action of an organisation which promulgates ignorance in the name of religion.

‘Religious belief by its very nature is problematic and presents many logical problems…which do not withstand rational thought.’
Margaret Placentra Johnston


Post-Traditional Buddhism Redux


Post = after in time or sequence; following; subsequent
Traditional = 1. of or pertaining to tradition. 2. handed down by tradition. 3. in accordance with tradition.
Buddhism = 1. a religion represented by the many groups (especially in Asia) that profess various forms of the Buddhist doctrine and that venerate Buddha. 2. a religion that originally comes from South Asia, and teaches that personal spiritual improvement will lead to escape from human suffering.

What is a Post-Traditional approach to Buddhism?
I first came across the notion of post-traditional Buddhism in a blog post by Hokai Sobol, a Croatian Shingon teacher who’s been involved with the Buddhist Geeks since its inception, whilst exploring the intersection of Vajrayana Buddhism and Western culture in his own practice and teaching. He wrote in 2011:

“…While post-traditional in the strict sense means evolving Buddhism beyond ethnocentric identities, parochial attitudes, and ideologically-based loyalties, in the broad sense it means also being alert to modern and ‘postmodern’ reactivity when it comes to spiritual principles of authority, verticality, and devotion. In short, it’s a challenging leap with implications for spiritual practice, critical studies, communal discourse, institutional reform, and political culture. Insofar as these spheres are interdependent and mutually inclusive, the actual shift to post-traditional can only really take place as a comprehensive strategic endeavour, bringing together the best of premodern, modern, and ‘postmodern’ contributions, while making sure the core principles of the Buddhist path are reasserted effectively and compellingly.” Hokai Sobol

As he indicates, approaching Buddhism post-traditionally entails leaving behind faithful continuity with tradition, or at least its forms. This implies freedom from the need to replicate a specific ideal of Buddhism as it has been received or sanctified. The extent of departure from tradition will vary according to the extent of disillusionment with tradition that a person has experienced and the personal connection they have to that tradition. Hokai continues with Shingon for his own reasons whilst others leave all forms of Buddhism behind.
A post-traditional approach entails a particular form of freedom when examining Buddhist materials, including teachings, beliefs, symbols, moral behavioural guidelines, key claims and ultimate truth, without having to adopt a Buddhist identity, internalize Buddhist beliefs, and/or be blinded by a tradition’s particular formulation of Buddhism at a personal, social, and cultural level.
A post-traditional approach signifies a desire to unpack, deconstruct and evaluate elements of Buddhism as phenomena rather than as formulations of revealed and ultimate truths. It means being critical and placing Buddhism alongside other sources of human history, human knowing, human understanding and praxis, to test claims and experiment. In this sense, the way I conceive of post-traditional Buddhism has much in common with non-Buddhism which further moves away from Buddhism as a fountain of truth:

“Non-Buddhism is acutely interested in the uses of Buddhist teachings, but in a way that remains unbeholden to–and hence, unbound by and unaccountable to–the very norms that govern those teachings. Once we have suspended the structures that constitute “Buddhism,” once we have muted what to the believer is Buddhism’s very vibrato, we are free to hear fresh resonances.” Glenn Wallis (more…)

Free Speech and Buddhism

Voltaire on a Je suis Charlie poster

The recent events in Paris have stimulated a lot of discussion regarding free speech in the press, blogs and across social networks and the issue of whether free speech equals having the right to insult others has been centre stage in discussion taking place in the UK. I wanted to say a few words on the topic and look at comments that have come from a number of Buddhist sources that I think are complicit in calling for the suppression of free speech. It seems to me that a lot of well-meaning folks are unable to distinguish between being nice and being socially and politically irresponsible, demonstrating at times a rather warped utopian view of the world which seems prevalent amongst well-meaning western Buddhists and liberals. Some of what I write here will be obvious to the politically informed reader, but I am writing it nonetheless, because it turns out that a lot of folks just do not get why a secular pluralistic society is so important and seem all to willing to start giving up on freedom of speech.

I teach English in Italy and have spent the last week engaging students in debate on free speech. I introduced the same questions with high school teenagers, university students and adults, and there have been consistent responses to the questions posed, which are more or less as follow:

1. Do you think free speech is important? Why?
2. Should free speech ever be limited? Why?
3. Is it right to punish people for the things they say? Who should punish them?
4. Does free speech allow us to offend people? Why? Why not? Are there exceptions?


Radical Identity and Non-Duality

(Michael O’Connell, Syncromesh, 1957)

The following is my first attempt to define, describe and put together a view of the world from a non-dual perspective. It’s an experiment, so don’t expect too much. The language may be complicated for those readers with little background in Buddhist meditation, for others it may be inspirational or resonant with pre-existing intuitions. The language I use is increasingly coming from other sources than Buddhism and this is due in part to my desire to cease to replicate Buddhism in its frozen forms. Buddhism as I see it is not ‘Buddhism’ as that thing from the East, but rather a signifier of human potential, both individual and shared. The way I see it, we need to get on with waking up (see a past post for what I mean by this) and translating that into a modern vernacular that breaks from tradition whilst renovating it and making it relevant for this time and place.

Be aware, I write in spurts, squeezed in between family life, work demands and the pleasures of life. I could do with an editor on hand to highlight missing commas, repetition, inappropriate verbs, typos and the rest. If you spot such slips, make a comment and I’ll trim and snip. 

The Need for Context

Societies necessarily need to establish shared ways of viewing and conceptualising the world and establishing the shared subjective landscapes of individuals: a role that has historically been undertaken most commonly by religion, more recently perhaps by Capitalism, materialism and the cult of the self. The same problem tends to emerge from this shared human compulsion to establish familiar routes of becoming: modes of perception and being become frozen or normalised and identities form around them into pre-given destinies, which act as lines along which individuals and groups are expected to travel. An alternative way of conceiving of the world is potentially overtly relativistic and denies any form of truth or the possibility of hierarchy. This is what Tom Pepper would criticise as the failing of post-modernity. As individuals in the West, we are to some degree left to choose: to bind our experience of self to a belief system and ideology that we are attracted to, such as Buddhism, or drift wherever the ideological currents of the dominant society lead. In either case, the collective nature of self is often ignored or under-appreciated.

Non-duality and problems in affirming our existence

When talking about non-duality, there are two sources that tend to dominate contemporary discussion: Buddhism and Advaita. If we look at figures such as Nagarjuna, the originator of the Madhyamaka School of Indian philosophy, non-duality is presented along the lines of reductionism ad infinitum, and the deconstruction of the self to its empty conclusion, but there are other ways to proceed in practice and conceive of the emptiness of being. Hokai Sobol once explained that the Yogacara school of Indian philosophy describes the experience of non-duality, or emptiness, in the affirmative: an experience that is intimately bound up with compassion and the awareness of our co-arising existence or entrapment. Paul Williams states much the same in his textbook on the doctrinal foundations of Mahayana Buddhism whilst observing how early scripture of the Yogacara emerge specifically in the context of first person meditation practice, rather than philosophical argument.

It seems necessary to me that once we work out what we are not, once we deconstruct, delete and deform the narrative self we are expected to mistake as ‘me’, we are left to ask ourselves what remains, what we are, and consider how our view of what remains determines how we build community, establish values, and in the Buddhist context, how meditative and ethical practices are constructed and pursued. (more…)

Buddhist Bullshit

I generally avoid getting political on this blog. Not because I am apolitical, or think it too messy a subject to broach, but because I have used this blog primarily as an exercise in exploring ideas and experiences I personally find curious and interesting so it’s been a primarily personal affair.
Although I have been attempting to write a blog post on non-duality this December, I have failed three times and the pleasure in the task has evaporated, which is never a good sign. In wondering what to write next, I was surfing the net on Boxing Day and came across a couple of videos by ex-members of a Western Buddhist organisation of which I was a solid member for a number of years, even once considering ordination (yikes!). The organisation is called the NKT (New Kadampa Tradition) and is to be found on many cult-watch websites.
I was involved with the NKT back in the early 90s and I moved out of their failed South-western Buddhist college project after realising how similar they were to Scientology and how incompatible I was with their group think approach. There is much that can be said about them and their nefarious activities, but I will leave that up to others: links can be found below if you are curious. The content of the Youtube videos reminded me of the issue of ignorance so many Westerners have regarding the history of Buddhism and the general lack of knowledge regarding Buddhism as a political and cultural phenomenon.
The videos lead to a website with an article making the same comparison with Scientology and in doing so highlights much of what is suspect about the organisation. As an entity, it is a fascinating case study for it seems to demonstrate all of what is wrong with Tibetan Buddhism in the West, but in a hyper-real fashion. One tactic regularly carried out by the organisation is to white-wash criticism and they have worked their Wikipedia entry countless times. For anyone who reads anti-China, or anti-Russia articles on the Independent or Guardian, their behaviour will be familiar. NKT followers troll sites that criticise any aspect of their tradition and shout as loudly as possible whilst posting links to their own highly politicised website, spookily named ‘NKT Truth’: George Orwell must be shivering in his grave.


The Tricky Issue of Being Authentic



“For the dignified Shambhala person, an unwaning authentic presence dawns.” Chogyam Trungpa

Words allow us to enter into new worlds. They allow us to inhabit new spaces, evoke new feelings, receive different ideas and come to the see the world differently. They also allow us to experiment with the creation of those same things. The opposite is also true, familiar words can permit us to reinforce boundaries that separate what is experienced as ‘me’ and ‘other’ and build and sustain allegiances, whilst creating distance from all manner of forms and possibilities. Language is a network of possibilities and worlds.

We have what is called an idiolect, which is our own personal dialect, made up of specific chunks of language, favourite words, and phrases that we use again and again and that stimulate certain feelings and posturing whilst formulating and stabilising our own subjective realm of being and the ground on which we build our ideas and beliefs. Groups have their own dialects too. We usually learn this when we go to university and find a whole lot of specialist terminology to memorize and then use appropriately in order to be able to inhabit a new world of ideas successfully, and importantly, reproduce it. The same is true of religions. In Buddhism new followers of the different traditions begin to learn the lingo and in doing so reproduce the dialect, and therefore the ideas and beliefs, of the group. If they choose to become integral members, they assimilate into the group in great part through the reproduction of the group’s language, which forms a significant part of the glue that binds the members into a shared sense of meaning and perspectives. Such actions have the potential to entrap as much as free and sometimes the line between the two is difficult to perceive.

The more educated, intelligent reader will likely be all too aware of the power of language and the close knit relationship between a basic understanding of language and the ability to think for one’s self, as well as enter into the thinking, ideas and discoveries of our great historical thinkers, writers and innovators. Words matter.
One of the ideas that is central to a post-traditional approach to Buddhism is to examine and reconsider the language that we use when discussing Buddhism. This has two facets. The first is to find our own voice and to use our own words to capture and describe accurately our own experience, thoughts and opinions: where those words are missing, to find other linguistic forms to use through an expansion of the network of ideas that we have at our disposal. The second is to find a way to talk about Buddhism, and experience within and of Buddhism, without relying on the dialects that fill dharma halls. To do so is to challenge assumptions, unpack beliefs and liberate the potential of Buddhist ideas and practices to come into dialogue with the wider world of human experience and knowledge.

This is a key theme that runs through much of my writing and this concept runs counter to many of its more conservative and insular expressions and their claims to absolute authority, with Tibetan Buddhism being a ripe example. To do this, attention to language is key. The choice of words we use is important and an understanding of the relationship between loaded terminology and the uncritical reproduction of ideas is doubly important. Why? Because when a person reproduces such loaded terminology uncritically, it typically leads to the creation of a new self, the blind acceptance of artificial beliefs and the parroting of those ideas, language and behaviour. This is essentially what occurs in any form of committed social alignment of course.

Such language in Buddhist circles consists of a great deal of Buddhist buzz words, such a karma, dharma, Buddha and so forth. For quite some time I have been bothered by the overuse of certain English terms in Buddhist environments: ego being one of them. In the way that it is used, I think it would be quite fair to label it under buddheme. In Buddhist circles, I have heard the word ego used to describe all manner of ills and painted as a bogey man, often becoming the imagined source of all our sins. Although ego can imply an exaggerated sense of one’s own importance, and arrogance too, it is a term that gained real usage in western culture due to Sigmund Freud, who understood it to be a factor of our psychic make-up that allows us to manage the extremes of our selfing process. The ego for Freud was the healthiest part of the human psyche and essential to our ability to participate functionally in the world. Nowadays, amongst Buddhists, it often gets used interchangeably with the self, which is unfortunate. It is funny how such a concept has gotten turned into a big bad wolf that doesn’t exist, but is somehow responsible for our suffering and naughty ways and vilified as a sort of collective enemy to be shunned. Although most modern dictionaries will include a definition of the ego as the self, a quick concordance search shows that its actual usage in society is predominantly negative and overwhelmingly associated with arrogance. Its mention in texts is predominantly found in the fields of psychoanalysis and psychology where it is discussed in Freudian terms. Confusing such a negatively connoted word with the self creates all sorts of unhealthy ideas regarding the goal of Buddhisms, as many of the first generation American Buddhists discovered when paying large fees to psychotherapists to help them deal with spiritual bypassing and all manner of suppression.


Collapse and Awaken: submission for the Dark Mountain (Final)


This is the last part of the Dark Mountain piece, which as I read it again after so long, appears rather forced. It reminds me of how much further I need to go in developing my writing skills and I am afraid to say that I am guilty of letting enthusiasm get the better of me at times, with this piece being one of those occasions. It is different from what came before in that it offers a couple of suggestions on experimental practices, so, read on at your own peril. As always, the link to Dark Mountain can be found here and click here for part one and here for part two.

A Possible Response

A clear theme that runs through to this point is the great gap. At the heart of our environmental crisis is the great divide. We are not able to feel our way across boundaries into primal modes of feeling the great other, and feeling with each other, and therefore we are constantly disconnected and alienated from our shared depths. We are confused on how to mate, not through sexual encounters, but through hiving at a level that bridges humans collectively to their environment as equals. The core principles in combating apathy and disengagement are empathic merging, compassion and care. I like to sum these up as a robust intimacy. Intimacy can be anchored onto externals, but it is best found in co-emergence. To be intimate with a process based lifeworld is to move within and through the spaces we inhabit with feeling and perceptual openness and receptivity. It does not imply being lovey-dovey, cosy and cushti, cute and nice. Intimacy is a feature of combat too. Ask any regular aficionado of boxing or MMA and most will speak of how fighting breaks through masks, strips away pretence, connects you at a raw level and sparks bonds.
The alienation spoken of here is painful. Some are born seemingly more sensitive to others and suffer it more, but there is no denying that our enforced detachment from each other into unfulfilling ritualised social practices harms. The wounds are collective and born by all those who switch off to their fellow species’ suffering, or who never come to touch wounds, or the wounded, with care. It is no wonder that we are so unable to feel. To switch onto the immensity of pain and suffering across all the animal and insect species is too much to bear. We must start somewhere though, because the stifling cocoon of self-preservation is really just a dead end. I see this work in very simple terms. It is a matter of maturity. Do we wish to remain infantilised or eternal teens, and avoid responsibility, or do we wish to accept that it is up to us to find relevant social practices in a changing world? As many of the first nation peoples ask, are we capable of being responsible for what happens to the next seven generations? Our governments and leaders certainly are not. Such a question does open a vast terrain of thought regarding duty, commitment and choice.