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 evolved much at all; it is still infused with the same sort of self-referential groupspeak, 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 as well as the Jehovah’s Witnesses who I was once foolish enough to debate with when they came knocking at my door.

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 becomes 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

Neil Van Leeuwen wrote an insightful piece at the Philosophy Talk site on self-deception elaborating on what he describes as the ‘religious belief formation process.’ This is the process whereby a person adopts a religious belief and adapts their thinking to conform to the belief. Typically, following a religion involves adopting a network of religious beliefs designed to modify behaviour and establish a set of moral constraints. Religious beliefs are primarily prescriptive as they are seen as serving as an antidote to a perceived ill. They are pre-made and applied. In his discussion on critical thinking and healthy belief formation, Leeuwen rightly points out that religious beliefs in themselves are not necessarily always problematic, but that the a-rational nature of religious belief formation crushes free thinking and limits the creative capacity to think and to reason.

‘The important thing is not to stop questioning. Curiosity has its own reason for existing.’ Albert Einstein

The choice to be critical, curious and creative in one’s exploration of all knowledge is stifled by religious belief which counters the flexibility and revision that are a fundamental part of increasing knowledge and independence of thought. Religious beliefs block our ability to see the world as it is rather than how we want it to be based on our prejudices and religious allegiances. Religious belief formation is clearly a form of manipulation, even when the intention behind its dissemination may appear positive.

It is interesting to note that many of the more rational members of the NKT will state that being against pluralism or secularism in order to follow a single tradition with a single teacher is their personal choice. What’s more, that it is seen as a counter-choice equal to other positions and that all positions are somehow relative. Apart from being a strategy to shut down debate and a contradiction of the innate arrogance displayed through their belief in their tradition’s superiority to all others, this view is mistaken. Jim Walker, in his important essay on the problems with beliefs, points out that those who identify with their beliefs assume that all knowledge is belief. This is false as knowledge exists apart from belief. Our interpretation of knowledge may occur through our beliefs, but it is not necessary. I can believe that gravity exists or not. But gravity continues the same. This simple point is fundamental to understanding why individuals and groups can suffer from such extreme degrees of delusion. When they deal in beliefs and not knowledge, they are dealing in stories about the world and, despite what they believe, even the greatest stories are representations at best. All religious stories are ultimately fictional. As Leeuwen points out, the creation of religious beliefs ‘…stagnates and undermines the healthy process (of developing understanding about the world) just when it could be most beneficial to reflecting on…core beliefs and values.’ The religious belief process is problematic because it causes separation from reality. Being integral to blind faith and unquestioning allegiance to authority, adopting religious beliefs unquestioningly is not a simple personal choice; it is a form of voluntary ignorance. To quote Leeuwen once more:

‘Human actions take on a vicious and inflexible character when they are driven by beliefs that are unresponsive to reality.’

All beliefs are by their very nature problematic; not just the religious ones. Furthermore, beliefs do not establish facts, or truth:

‘It does not matter how many people believe or for how many centuries they have believed it. It does not matter how reverent or important people think of them, if it does not agree with evidence, then it simply cannot have any validity to the outside world.’ Walker

This is a fascinating observation as it highlights the friction between the illusory fantasies that religions construct and their drive to spread their narratives as truth to the rest of the world. Ignorance is not only blinding; it is contagious. Furthermore, this quote highlights the fallacy of the religious identity. Those who are identified with their religious beliefs are unable to acknowledge that their beliefs might not be true and therefore be open to revision. The distinction between belief and truth is antithetical to the religious belief process because it has the power to undermine faith. For this reason, as Leeuwen points out, religious beliefs are too often a form of self-deception.

Walker continues by illustrating how religious belief deals in absolutes and faith. Such forces are very powerful and trigger mental associations and feelings. Beliefs are by their very nature abstractions: they do not represent the real thing. They do act as the justification and support for behaviour though, as abstractions being infinitely malleable can provide the rational for all manner of behaviour. Irrational belief coupled with very strong feeling can lead to utter conviction, even in the face of contrary factual data.

Justification and critical thinking

Justification is perhaps the most powerful impulse among those who feel the need to defend their irrational beliefs and it acts as a form of self-deception when it does so. Any time a person instinctively begins to justify their beliefs or actions without being able to listen or truly consider an opposing view, than they are identified with their beliefs. When this occurs, little meaningful discussion is possible as the door to reality has been closed.

Critical thinking requires effort, discipline and curiosity. Continuously defending and justifying religious belief requires the first two, but importantly, not the third. The incessant repetitive nature of the linguistic structures used to defend and justify irrational belief is a fundamental feature of religious organisations, in particular, minority organisations that feel threatened and/or that have an exaggerated opinion of themselves and view of their own importance. This certainly describes the NKT and SGI which have a tendency to exaggerate their member numbers.

If we are to be generous, then we may talk of spiritual maturity. In the context of maturity we can view the relationship between an individual, a group and the authority figure as being familial. Groups often define themselves in such terms. A dominant father figure rules from above and the children never quite find their true independence. Each child adapts its behaviour to please the father whilst playing power games within the group in order to move up the family hierarchy and jostle for attention. Subjecting authority, religious belief and teachings to critique and rational analysis means undermining the stability of the family. This takes a certain amount of independence and courage and it means being willing to doubt and possibly be wrong. This is what we might understand as a form of spiritual maturation: the development of the ability to think independently, question authority and open to other sources of knowledge. This is one of the problems with religious cults as they amplify religious belief, blind faith and allegiance to the family structure. The division between insider and outsider is strengthened, separations are solidified and an ‘us an them’ mentality is cultivated to strengthen that divide. Purity becomes paramount as outside influence or infiltration would pollute the internal authenticity that has been carefully manufactured by the wise, all knowing father figure. This is where narratives of authenticity, purity, superiority and salvation follow from. It is unsurprising that SGI, Rigpa and the NKT have top down power structures with a key male figure at the helm that is revered as a living Buddha.

Considering how many people turn to religion to fill an existential hole within themselves and how most people’s emotional and psychological hang ups originate within the family, it is no surprise that the alternative family structure is so attractive, even addictive. We all, after all, want to belong and to feel part of something important. Religious beliefs are integral to the narratives played out within religious traditions and the NKT is no different with its fictional narrative of authentic lineage and pure teachings that can be traced back to the original Buddha through TsongKhapa. This is just one of multiple narratives that concern the group’s internal image of itself as the one true tradition from Tibet. In this way, it is not connected to Tibetan Buddhism in its multiple forms, but is somehow believed to be above and apart from it. Ben Joffe in his excellent piece for Savage Minds (recently republished at Tricycle) states that ‘Kelsang Gyatso came to believe that he alone could preserve the authentic and unadulterated Geluk tradition for posterity.’ Of course, this legend became part of the self-referential narrative of the NKT: its own foundational myth of the hero striving against all odds and all pretenders to establish the one true faith.

‘Belief requires faith in something. It’s a certain sort of cognitive activity that requires holding to a script or story… some sort of a narrative or … image or information about a non-existent state of affairs… If the state of affairs is present and real, there’s no need to believe it. That’s what we call knowledge; it’s this acceptance of what’s in front of us.’ Glenn Wallis

What is critical thinking?
Critical thinking is a term that covers a number of thinking and reasoning skills, each of which must be put into practice to bear fruit. Critical thinking requires effort and a certain degree of discipline, as well as a willingness to change beliefs and ideas in the light of fact, evidence and reality. Critical thinking starts with developing the ability to question. It is a creative capacity and covers a range of mental qualities:

‘It is based on universal intellectual values that transcend subject matter divisions: clarity, accuracy, precision, consistency, relevance, sound evidence, good reasons, depth, breadth, and fairness.’ Defining Critical Thinking

Critical thinking is risky business. Why? Because all of us have biases, beliefs and ideas that are important to us and that support our sense of identity. At the heart of critical thinking is the willingness to change an idea, thought or belief if it is wrong by applying equal consideration to opposing views in the spirit of fair play. Critical thinking carried out successfully means aligning with knowledge and reality, not one’s beliefs, with a desire to experience and see the world more fully, completely and accurately. This is why it is so often challenging for those with strong religious beliefs.

‘Critical thinking calls for a persistent effort to examine any belief or supposed form of knowledge in the light of the evidence that supports it and the further conclusions to which it tends…to put to test the conclusions and generalizations at which one arrives, to reconstruct one’s patterns of beliefs on the basis of wider experience, and to render accurate judgements about specific things and qualities in everyday life.’ Defining Critical Thinking

Cognitive biases are the enemy of critical thinking. These are tendencies within individuals and groups that lead to irrationality, manipulation and delusion. They are patterned modes of thinking and belief formation that typically lead to poor judgement. They lead to a form of subjectivity and to the creation of subjective social realities where objective information is discounted or ignored, or otherwise manipulated to feed the narrative of the individual or group. This leads to distortion, illogical interpretations, and the inability to evaluate objectively. This can also be understand as the assignment of the individual’s identity to an ideological prison that fails to open to the world.

Cognitive biases
I will now cover a number of cognitive biases that I have consistently witnessed first-hand in my interactions with NKT members, members of SGI, as well as new-age enthusiasts. There are a large number of these types of biases so I will be necessarily selective. Links follow the article, though if you are motivated to learn more about cognitive biases, Wikipedia is a good place to start.

This type of bias is the result of increasing consensus among group members. Critical evaluation of alternative views is avoided, internal critique is abandoned and members of the group seek to avoid conflict by actively suppressing dissent and alternative views. This is carried out in part by isolating themselves from the outside world. Groupthink is typically the result of an exaggerated sense of morality, sometimes defined in religious circles as purity, and an excessive form of optimism about the group’s value and potential.

Groupthink by its very nature leads to uniformity. The result of this is self-censorship and group censorship by those who hold authority. Deviation from group consensus is frowned upon and at times punished, with expulsion being a key sentence to those elements of the group seen as subversive or divisive. Silence among members is viewed as agreement and there is pressure placed on those who speak out in the group and their loyalty questioned. This results in a strong delineation between members and non-members and those who are opposed to the group are often labelled as evil, biased, judgemental, impure, spiteful or ignorant, which are accusations that the group typically receives itself due to its own cognitive biases. This is what is known in psychoanalysis as projection; the inability to accept one’s own failings leads to them being projected outwards onto others, where they are ostracised, ridiculed and hated.

The term groupthink was coined by a social psychologist named Irving Janis and he summarised a number of factors that are key in organisations subject to groupthink;

1. High group cohesiveness
– deindividuation: group cohesiveness becomes more important than individual freedom of expression
2. Structural faults:
– insulation of the group
– lack of impartial leadership
– lack of norms requiring methodological procedures
– homogeneity of members’ social backgrounds and ideology
3. Situational context:
– highly stressful external threats
– recent failures
– excessive difficulties on the decision-making task
– moral dilemmas

Complaints from ex-members of the three organisations cover most of the items in the list with a key complaint being that they are rife with groupthink; something that I can confirm from my own experience as far as the NKT is concerned.

Confirmation bias
This form of bias indicates interpretation of information in a way that confirms individual’s or group’s beliefs. It does not represent balanced evaluation of information, or the consideration of facts, but rather the tendency to search out information to support one’s own biases. Entrenched beliefs typically lead to confirmation bias as do reactivity to emotionally charged issues. The result is that people avoid evidence especially when it is contrary to their beliefs. What’s more, ambiguous information is used to support their own position. An example of this can be seen in the case of climate change deniers who cite an obscure scientist, usually paid by big oil, to prove their paranoid belief that climate change is non-existent and a mass hoax.

An outcome of confirmation bias is that it leads to exaggerated confidence in personal and group beliefs even when contrary evidence is presented. This overriding sense of confidence leads to further self deception. When conflict exists between groups, confirmation bias can lead to an entrenching of divisions, and in some cases, extremism.

The most common attribute of confirmation bias is that it leads to an inability to rationally and effectively consider and evaluate opposing sides and consider why a held position or belief may be wrong. Even the consideration of self-critique is discounted and squashed by over-confidence and an exaggerated sense of self-righteousness.

These aspects of bias can be rephrased thus;

1. Belief perseverance: when beliefs persist after the evidence for them is shown to be false
2. Attitude polarisation: when a disagreement becomes more extreme even though the different parties are exposed to the same evidence
3. Illusory correlation: when people falsely perceive an association between two events or situations

What follows are typically forms of irrational reasoning. The person may appear to use reason but as they are not committed to understanding, but to forcing their opinions and justifying their beliefs, there is no genuine critical thought taking place. There are three types of reasoning which naturally follow from confirmation bias and groupthink. They are;

1. Emotional reasoning
2. Magical thinking
3. Motivated reasoning

Each of these forms of reasoning or thinking produces certain outcomes;

1. Splitting, otherwise known as black and white thinking
2. Exaggeration
3. Wishful thinking

At the group level, the combination of these three outcomes is collective rationalisation, i.e. justification of the three reasonings. Unfortunately, for those who have left the NKT or any other religious organisation that encourages conformity, these outcomes will be all too familiar.

Emotional reasoning
This sort of reasoning occurs when feelings are considered to confirm truths in spite of evidence indicating the opposite. The person feel so strongly that what they believe is true, that even when it is false and made clear that this is so, they will not change their mind. Because of the emotional and feeling factor, their self delusion is amplified and the foundation or their belief becomes irrational. This is a form of common reasoning amongst the religious and a key feature of blind faith. It is typically encouraged by reliance on an external authority, who represents the basis and validation of their feelings.

Magical thinking
Justification is provided not by reason, observation or objective experience, but by some unseen force or power. Correlations are made that are abstract and unfounded. This is the realm of superstitious beliefs, taboos, unseen forces and mystical powers. Because magical thinking implies some power or ability within the individual or group, or gifted to them, it often represents a form of arrogance or sense of superiority. This sort of thinking can be heard in those that claim they speak directly to God, or that are protected by a mystical mantra or deity. It also leads to one of the outcomes of faulty reasoning, which is exaggeration.

Motivated reasoning
People’s motivation for holding a belief is so strong that they will ignore the facts, the truth and reality, thus engaging in a strong form of self-deception. When people hold firm to false beliefs, even when clear evidence is available and facts show otherwise, they are engaging in motivated reasoning. A person focuses on conclusions or judgements that maximise their prejudices, whilst increasing positive feelings, and at the same time they minimise any negative or contradictory conclusions and irrationally reject whatever stimulates negative feelings.

Faulty reasoning tends to lead to a number of outcomes, three of which I will outline below.

Splitting or black and white thinking
This is a form of defence mechanism in which the whole picture is fragmented into artificial dualisms. This can result in the victim-oppressor dynamic, which I referred to above as the ‘us and them’ strategy. But it can also result in an inability to see the positives and negatives on both sides of an argument or debate. It is a failed ability to see the complete picture. It leads to extreme thinking in which everything ‘we do’ is good and everything ‘they do’ is bad. It therefore leads to exaggeration and heightens uniform thinking.

This is a fairly straightforward form of cognitive bias. It implies ‘a representation of something in an excessive manner’. It can take the form of alarmism and be applied to external threats, which are blown out of all proportion. Exaggeration is often a form of attention seeking. It is particularly useful in uniting group consensus against a perceived enemy, or in stimulating unquestioning worship of an authority figure, an historical text, deity, or ritual. Exaggeration is a seductive element of gossip and is often used to stoke irrational and emotional reaction within groups.

Wishful thinking
People prefer pleasant feelings to negative feelings. This is fairly obvious, but it is rarely considered how this leads to self deception and collective ignorance. Pleasant feelings are often invoked and sustained by choosing to ignore anything that would upset the pleasant feelings. This is the effect of desire on belief formation. This type of thinking leads to people choosing conclusions which are in alignment with their feelings. It can also manifests as a form of projection in which emotional bias to people or circumstances is applied.

What next for lost souls?

‘They strive to diminish the power of their egocentric and sociocentric tendencies.’ Guide to critical thinking

The above quote from the critical thinking website sums up nicely the next step for anyone becoming disillusioned with religion. It would be an act of wisdom to do this anyway. In an exchange with an NKT member that I am friendly with, I made a few suggestions on how to appreciate why people might critique his religion. I had the same exchange with an NKT troll on Twitter soon after. Most NKT folk assume that you are a Dalai Lama supporter if you criticise them. This excites a number of their cognitive biases and once you make it clear that you are actually not the slightest bit interested in joining their political attacks on the Dalai Lama and mainstream Tibetan Buddhism, or condemning them for not adoring his holiness, they typically switch off or state that they have their beliefs and you have yours and they are quite happy thank you very much, and goodbye. The NKT Twitter troll who I quote at the beginning was surprised when I was polite and wished him well, and he soon disappeared after.

The key theme that runs through the forms of cognitive bias laid out above is an unwillingness to commit to truth over personal belief. I have long considered worthwhile belief to be sufficiently strong to withstand genuine critique. I have the same consideration of faith. Blind faith is a form of ignorance and violence. Faith instead, if worth a damn, should be strong enough, not to withstand critique, as in defend itself, but to absorb critique as an opportunity to evolve, mature and become wiser. It is worthwhile pointing out that wisdom has little to do with conforming one’s biases. I make this point as Manjushri, the iconic figure in the picture above, is the name of the NKT headquarters in the English Lake District.

Critical thinking ensues from a desire to know, not confirm or conform. Could the NKT happily continue on with its sectarianism, anti-pluralism and insularity if its leadership committed to dismantling its cognitive biases? I would imagine not. Like the Scientologists, so much of what passes for normal in NKT circles is recognised as delusional elsewhere. Another important step would involve becoming better informed about the context in which the NKT exists, not as a spiritual vacuum of imagined purity, but as an aspect of Tibetan Buddhist history and Buddhist modernism. Not one single member of the NKT that I have met has ever read anything about Tibetan history that is not white washed romantic fantasy. It is enough to point out that only books written by Kelsang Gyatso, the organisation’s leader, are made available at his centres. Reading the more accessible academic treatises on Tibet would be highly educational for all Tibetan Buddhism followers, but especially those with a political agenda. To finish, here are the suggestions I made on Facebook to my NKT acquaintance:

‘One of the critical thinking skills I use to examine my assumptions and alliances is to suspend my position fully at times: to look at it as fully as possible from the opposite side, or the ‘opposition’s’ side, confident in my own ability to see what is real, what is true and important. The other is to ask myself, ‘What if I was completely wrong about this? What would change?’ And to give it some serious thought without defending my position, or tribe, in anyway. Finally, in sectarian disputes, I try to see what the third party are saying, those who have no particular investment in the situation at all, in order to look for objectivity. Try it, see what happens. Apply your own critical thinking skills to your own religious commitment and identity and let go of any ‘us and them’ nonsense and see what you learn. Could be enlightening!


The Making of Buddhist Modernism, David McMahan, Oxford (2008)
The Beauty of the Primitive Shamanism and the Western Imagination, Andrei A. Znamenski, Oxford (2007)

Critical thinking links

Jim Walker The problems with Beliefs

Margaret Placentra Johnston The problem with Religious beliefs

Neil Van Leeuwen Self-Deception and the Problem with Religious Belief Formation

Secular Buddhist Association Podcast. Episode 40 :: Glenn Wallis :: The Problem With Beliefs

The critical thinking community Defining critical thinking (taken from Richard Paul and Linda Elder, The Miniature Guide to Critical Thinking Concepts and Tools, Foundation for Critical Thinking Press, 2008)

What is Groupthink?

What is Critical Thinking?

Links to scandal and cult watch sites

Possibly one of the most complete websites dedicated to informing the public on scandal, abuse and cultish organisations within Buddhism. Lots to see. It covers Rigpa, the NKT and other controversial figures.
Tibetan Buddhism :: Struggling With Diffi•Cult Issues

Sogyal Rinpoche & Rigpa

Marion Dapsance When Fraud is Part of a Spiritual Path

Youtube Video: ‘In the Name of Enlightenment – Sex Scandal in Religion’

Website for the above documentary makers Cogent Benger.

An expose of Sogyal Rinpoche by an ex-student. Behind the Thangkas.
A Guardian article on sex abuse carried out by Sogyal Rinpoche. Mary Finnigan Lama sex abuse claims call Buddhist taboos into question

The New Kadampa Tradition (NKT)

My own article on the NKT, Buddhist Bullshit.

Sober article by a French academic and Tibetologist Thierry Dobin on the history of Shugden. The Dorje Shugden Conflict: An interview with Tibetologist Thierry Dodin

Ben Joffe Angry White Buddhists and the Dalai Lama: Appropriation and Politics in the Globalization of Tibetan Buddhism

Highly Delhi Court turns down Shugden supporter’s claims that discrimination was taking place due to absence of evidence.

Tenzin Dorjee writing on the NKT and their protests at the Huffington Post. 6 things you should know about the protestors.

Cesnur: Centre for studies on new religions. Newsweek article covering the murder by Shugden devotees of Dalai Lama monks. Cult Mystery.

Review from the International Cultic Studies Association on Shugden book.

Edited by Timothy Miller, University of Kansas, USA Spiritual and Visionary Communities Out to Save the World

Multiple links to scholarly articles and academic encounters with the NKT attacks on the Dalai Lama and the Dorje Shugden debacle. Tibetan Buddhism in the West. Possibly the source for the most rigorous assessment of the NKT.

Information on the NKT’s propaganda. NKT World.

Site featuring testimonies by ex-members supporting much of the claims I make above regarding groupthink and cognitive bias. The fact alone that such a site existys, would you’d imagine, lead to some degree of introspection on the part of the NKT followers. New Kadampa Truth.

Further site providing links and critique of the NKT. The New Kadampa Tradition.

Sokka Gakkai International

Soka Gakkai ex-members speak out on abuse. Welcome to Torride.

Cult Information and Awareness Library. A Profile of Soka Gakkai

Teresa Watanabe Japan’s Crusader or Corrupter?

Rick Ross. What’s “Buddhism” got to do with it?

Cult Busters site. Soka Gakkai – A cult of power.


  1. Thank you Mathew for this interesting piece. First I feel I should identify myself so you know from where I speak (I think that is important in a reflexive critical theory). I have been (and to a small extent still am) an academic in “Cultural Studies” so I am familiar with a certain critical tradition. Equally I am a practioner in the Thich Naht Hahn stream of Buddhism- which we might with Stephan Batchelor call ‘reformed Zen’. Once I was more CS than Buddhist, now it is the other way around.

    I concur with much of what you argue about the closed nature of some thinking in Buddhism and the psychological dynamics of some groups. I agree that all beliefs should be subject to continual scrutiny and that evidence remains an important litmus test in some fields (but not all).
    However, ( you knew there would be one right- I mean the terrain is critical theory) there is a distinction between Truth and belief that runs through your argument- is core to your argument, that I cannot uphold.

    Briefly, (no room for more) I would argue with Richard Rorty that there is no way to compare a propostion with an independent object world (reality) to see if the proposotion corresponds to reality because the ‘reality’ one looks at is always already a representation. So, all truth is belief.
    There are distinctions to be made however so that it is not a case of ‘anything goes’. First, the strength of science (You mention gravity) lies not in its capacity to represent truth but in its pragmatic capacity based on expermment to predict. The law of gravity is neither true nor false, but is useful for prediction and more so than magic. Second, we makes distinctions between propostions based on their consequences and our values (Truth is what is good for us to believe, to parapharse Willaim James) which form our ‘final vocabulary’ (ie we cant go beyond it).

    I prefer Buddhism to Neo-liberalism because I value compassion, a peaceful mind, and community.

    I prefer Thich Naht Hanh to NKT because I value openess and conversation ( I although I do wish Thay would stop talking about Truth).

    In neither case do I claim Truth over falsity.

    In my blog i wrote a short (and less dense than yours) piece about this that may interest you:

    Your claim to be able to know the Truth that others do not know worries me because I fear thatit is the foundation of a kind of authoritarism.

    That said, I enjoyed your thinking. But it could be shorter next time please 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Hi Chris,
      Thank you for sharing your views and presenting yourself. Firstly, I find it interesting that you replaced my word ‘reality’ with ‘truth’ because I do not see the two as synonymous and I think this distinction forms the basis for your critique. I will respond to your points, briefly :), and do so not as a philosopher, because I’m not one, but from personal experience and the point at which I am at with my own thinking. I am a long-term practitioner of Buddhist meditation and am exploring Buddhism post-traditionally.
      I think we live in very interesting times as far as ideas are concerned and I find the most fertile terrain to be the intersection between different academic disciplines. If you have read some of my other work on the site, specifically the piece on Radical Identity and Non-Duality, you will see that I am currently exploring the articulation of non-duality with a deconstruction of various elements of Buddhism in a process-relational ontology. I mention this because from the non-dual perspective what I see are lines that mutually co-arise, which is in accord with the theory of the anthropologist Tim Ingold. From this perspective, truth and non-truth co-arise as in relational lines along a spectrum. So that, if I were to talk of truth and untruth, I would not talk about fixed positions, or a space of relativism in which all forms float on an equal plain, but rather of lines along which a truth or falsity both exist, but at increasing distance the more detached they become from material reality.
      In discussing truth and relativism, we can perhaps distinguish between situational truth and untruth that is bound up with the subjectivity of the individual or group, and which may or may not be in alignment with how things actually are in the world. This is where the distinction between belief and reality is so fundamental. The NKT harbour a number of beliefs which are basically wrong. This implies that there is a reality to which they are responsible, as you and I are. Reality has little concern for what is true for them, or for me, or their or my beliefs. We might view reality thus as authoritarian, and thank goodness it is. Believe what you like but putting your hand into fire will get it burnt.
      Back to lines, it is difficult to say whether they have an end and this would give space to the observations of post-modernism and philosophers like Richard Rorty. The theory of lines counteracts though the absolute relativism which is at the heart of post-modernism where all things are equal: showing that they co-exist, but value exists on a spectrum, not suspended in space.
      Another way of considering truth is in relation to ideology. Another failing of post-modern thought is that it often discounts ideologies as relative and of equal standing, but if we accept the Buddhist project, which is ultimately to reduce suffering and ignorance in the world, then we have to acknowledge that ignorance does lead to suffering and that institutionalised ignorance can only be countered by a commitment to the wider, shared fields of knowledge that compose the best of our understanding as a species at this moment of time. As Tom Pepper would say, we have to choose the best ideologies possible and reshape them so as to reduce both suffering and ignorance. The theory of lines suggests that we always move along shared lines (ideological participation), some of which are superior, better, and more in line with reality than others, and so therefore should be given greater respect and prominence than others. Does this bring up ethical issues? Sure.
      All the best.

      Liked by 1 person

  2. Hi.

    I think there’s a number of mistakes in this article.

    You wrote –

    ‘This certainly describes the NKT and SGI which have a tendency to exaggerate their member numbers.’. Can you give me an example of when the NKT have exaggerated their member numbers?

    ‘It is unsurprising that SGI, Rigpa and the NKT have top down power structures with a key male figure at the helm that is revered as a living Buddha.’ The General Spiritual Director for the NKT female so I think this statement is incorrect.

    ‘NKT is no different with its fictional narrative of authentic lineage and pure teachings that can be traced back to the original Buddha through TsongKhapa’ it’s not fictional, it’s a statement of fact

    ‘ ‘Kelsang Gyatso came to believe that he alone could preserve the authentic and unadulterated Geluk tradition for posterity.’ ‘ Geshe Kelsang Gyatso has never said this

    ‘Could the NKT happily continue on with its sectarianism, anti-pluralism and insularity if its leadership committed to dismantling its cognitive biases?’ The NKT isn’t sectarian, it doesn’t criticise any religion or belief

    Do you think these statements are incorrect? Are you going to remove them if they are?




    1. I’ll keep my replies brief.

      1. A number of tweet exchanges with NKT followers claiming hundreds of thousands. The UK national census figures also highlight that the total number of Buddhist followers in the UK are in the very low thousands, so the claims by UK NKT followers of there being thousands of UK NKT members is off. There’s plenty of info out there on national and European religious membership figures and Buddhism is very much a minority in its entirety, the same is true for States and Australasia. Outside of Asia, it is unlikely that you’ll find there are a total of Buddhist followers worldwide anywhere near the numbers claimed by NKT followers.
      Don’t forget to take into account how many people leave the NKT and the number of those who leave greatly disappointed, in enough cases to dedicate personal time to build websites and gather testimony from ex-followers. This shows that even if we were to be generous with the numbers of those who come into contact with the NKT, the leave rate is very, very high.

      2. Who does she answer to?

      3. It is fictional as all religious narratives are fictional. It’s a fairy tale designed to bolster credentials. If you read up on Tibetan Buddhist history you might find a few surprises. If you only accept your traditions reading, typically understood to be hagiographic, then facts I’m afraid will be missing. Don’t take this personally, it’s the same for all religious traditions, even the benign ones.

      4. As just one source, you can start here. Though you won’t like it:

      5. That’s laughable The NKT is highly sectarian. Look up the term in a dictionary. In fact, many of your followers are proud of this fact and have told me so in Facebook exchanges. Being dishonest about what your religion is is rather unfortunate and another sign of an inability to critically review your own position:

      Liked by 1 person

  3. Hi.

    Thanks for replying.

    1) Do you have any official figures from the NKT which exaggerate their member numbers? Can you show me the tweets that you say exaggerate their number? I think you may be talking about tweets about the number of Buddhists who pray to Dorje Shugden rather than the number of members (the NKT doesn’t really have members and I’ve not seen any official NKT statement that attempts to say how many members there are).

    2) It explains on the Internal Rules who the role of the General Spiritual Director. I think she was democratically elected by the Resident Teachers in the NKT, I would have to check that first before saying for sure.

    3) ‘all religious narratives are fictional’ . Is this true? What do you mean by this? How did you measure this?

    4) The link you supplied is not from to an official NKT website and it doesn’t contain any statements from Geshe Kelsang Gyatso which say that he thinks that ‘he alone could preserve the authentic and unadulterated Geluk tradition for posterity.’. Do you have any from Geshe Kelsang Gyatso?

    5) You said – ‘The NKT is highly sectarian’. Can you give me a teaching from an official NKT source that you think supports this statement?




    1. Super quick response, which ought to be the last.

      1. Kelsang Jangdom tweeted me “Hundreds of thousands of people have had positive experiences with the #NKT. It is a pure tradition free from politics.” It was retweeted by two other NKT followers. You can check out the 2001 census figures which I found with ease. Interpret them as you will. Either way, the number of Buddhists is very low:
      Your comment about Shugden doesn’t make much sense. The vast majority of Shugden supporters are NKT followers, but you know that already.

      2. May be so, but again, who does she answer to….My Gyatso should be the answer.

      3. I mean that all religious narratives are fictional, made up, invented, or changed in order to bolster tradition. Organised religion is inherently political. All religion emerges in conflict with pre-existing religions. In order to assert their reign, they have to use propaganda to gain favour with the ruling classes. Tibet, like all pre-modern societies made no distinction between state and religion, thus you have a figure such as the Dalai Lama, but also the Panchen Lama. Even figures like Tsonghkapa were also involved in court politics and had to deal with the political landscape of the time. The Gelugpa branch of Tibetan Buddhism, which the NKT emerges from, was the leading political force. In order to strengthen its position, it became increasingly sectarian over the centuries until the Chinese threat gained momentum in the 19th and 20th centuries. You could read up on Tibetan history, but if you are a true NKT believer, I doubt you will want to, or consider third party accounts of the history of Tibet to be of any importance, especially if they contradict the stories you’ve heard. You can see links to highly esteemed writers on Buddhism on the Buddhist Bullshit post if you want to learn more. If you want to learn more about fictional narratives, engage in some Religious Studies. It’s fascinating.

      4. Look up the other links. Or email Tenzin; link below.

      5. Any NKT text will do. Have you looked up the meaning of the term sectarian? My articles clearly lay out what I was getting at. But to roll off a few features of NKT sectarianism: dis-engagement from all other Buddhist sects/traditions, sole reliance on Gyatso’s books, obsession with ‘so-called’ purity and the ‘one tradition’, total belief in internal narratives.

      I don’t have a lot of time to go on with this exchange as I’m in the middle of teacher training. If you’re after something ‘very’ specific, let me know. Otherwise, if you genuinely want a reasonable exchange with someone better informed than I, you should address further questions to Tenzin. If you want to defend your religious beliefs, I’d suggest going elsewhere.

      Bye for now.

      Liked by 1 person

  4. That first paragraph is so true. Not too long ago, I was having coffee with a lawyer friend of mine. He told me that he was reading a very convincing book that makes the claim that there are intelligent aliens from outer space that have infiltrated our planet. He asked me what I thought of the matter. I told him that there were many reasons why it is very unlikely if not impossible why this could not be true. There is no intelligent life, other than ourselves, that inhabit our solar system. If there was, we would have known it by now. If they didn’t come from our solar system, where then did they come from? The nearest star is 4.2 light years from our planet. A light year is the distance light travels in a year. Light travels at 186,000 miles per second. Since there is no form of space travel that even approaches that speed, just to get from that star to our planet would take an incredible period of time.

    So my friend thought about it and told me I was right. He told me that he was ignorant on such things because he did not have a science background.

    But you know what? Intelligent life is somewhat popular topic, and I have had this conversation many times. And a good percentage of the people that believe that we have been infiltrated simply choose not to believe the realities of what I just discussed.

    That first paragraph reads true with me because with my advancing age, I discovered that I too believe in things because I was simply ignorant as well.

    That entire article was a good read. Thanks so much.

    Liked by 1 person

  5. This is just academic twaddle there is no real context to the work other than a rather negative view of what is a very old religion that people have faith in collectively, so what? Dharma is a cultural norm within countries such as Tibet and whilst esoteric to our western minds it serves a purpose and community of practice. Buddhism and dharma don’t necessarily work if you have pride and the westerner that wrote this has that typical empirical pride that doesn’t allow faith in the esoteric. Maybe in another life 🙏


    1. Fortunately, I rarely get comments of this calibre at this site. This is good news because most folks are too lazy to make a decent insult, which is a shame, and even more rarely make any visible effort to be clear in why their claims are important and accurate. Twaddle is a fine enough word, but calling my article academic indicates that Paul probably didn’t read the whole thing. I assume that claiming it is such is yet another expression of religious discomfort with folks using the intellect to think about Buddhism and critique contemporary Buddhist groups. This is of course a major reason why the groups mentioned in this text exhibit stronger cult-like tendencies and I can only assume that Paul is a faithful follower of one of them. If you start thinking and learning, faith typically suffers as a result; especially if it’s concerned with blindly following teachings, practices or an out-of-reach or supposedly enlightened/perfect guru figure.

      The most unimaginative aspect of the comment, however, is the claim of pride. Where does this come from? How is it that pride gets mentioned by those presumably championing traditional Buddhism? What are they actually referring to with pride and empirical pride? Is this being parroted from Paul’s tradition? Is it a buzz phrase in his group? Such criticisms are often used to shut down or condone dissent. The abstract nature of the critique means it can survive further critique because it mixes the shunning of perceived human weakness (pride is presumably a human quality labelled as particularly bad by his tradition) and a condemnation of academia (oh, those pesky evidence seekers) and by association any intelligent, logical critique based on evidence and an appeal to knowledge.

      The claim to “faith” is also without context. In the first instance, the reference to Buddhism being an old religion is superfluous to the content of the article: what’s the relevance here buddy? It’s like saying that Buddhism originally comes from Asia; yes, we know this Paul. What’s more Paul, many forms of Buddhism eschew faith so which particular strand of Buddhism are you referring to? I suspect Paul may not understand what esoteric means either. Is he making a call to gurus or small elites having unique access to special knowledge or insight? Is he talking about the need for privacy? What’s the connection between these and faith? Or, is he perhaps using language from his tradition again?

      The project here is to open Buddhism to the wider world not close it off in esoteric groups that believe they are special, hold magical keys to knowledge and practices. Faith is a wonderful quality when exercised with great care. It should be based on evidence. Evidence that shows your teacher and group are not cultists and are not afraid to open up their group to the world outside the dharma hall doors.

      Paul, you’ll need to be clearer fella if your comments are to lead the discussion forwards.


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