Worries as Buddhist sect spreads in North - Residential centre to be opened
The Journal (UK)/January 26, 1999 By Gareth Walsh
A Buddhist sect at the centre of complaints from concerned families is seeking to strengthen its North power-base.
Followers of the New Kadampa Tradition, once linked with allegations of a plot to overthrow the Dalai Lama, already boast a string of UK properties including two country houses, one of them their headquarters and home of their spiritual leader.
Overseas worshippers of the deity Dorje Shugden have been questioned over the brutal murder and mutilation of one of the Nobel Prize-winning Dalai Lama's closest confidants and two other monks.
And devotees in the NKT have been accused of putting family relationships under strain as their acolytes follow a fast track into the faith.
The NKT is now planning to open a new residential centre in Newcastle. In addition to the sect's HQ in a neo-gothic mansion in Ulverston, Cumbria, the NKT has an established residential centre in Milton Street, Darlington, County Durham, and a Georgian mansion near York.
It already holds teachings in 16 other North-East towns or cities, and plans new sessions in Hexham, Northumberland, and Whitley Bay, North Tyneside.
Ian Howarth, of the support group the Cult Information Centre, said: "We have certainly had complaints about NKT activities, and we are very concerned about them."
The centre has been approached by families and friends of some NKT members worried about personality changes among a number of people who join the group putting strain on relationships.
Concerns have also been expressed about the depth of commitment members make within a relatively short time of contacting the NKT, and about the group's opposition to the Dalai Lama.
The NKT is believed to be Britain's fastest-growing Buddhist sect with more than 3,000 members, and a publishing business.
Jim Belither, NKT secretary, says his organisation as a whole is no longer involved in the Dorje Shugden controversy, although he admits individual members may be.
"Individuals are free to be linked, but as an organisation, we are not involved."
Of complaints to the Cult Information Centre he said: "Sometimes people can get over-enthusiastic about the NKT, but then that rubs off, and they get back to everyday life. It's true some go over the top - but we try to encourage them to have a sensible long-term view.
"I do not believe the criticisms are borne out when you look at them properly. We do not encourage the break-up of families. We encourage people to keep up contact with families. "We do say we alter minds, because we believe all problems arise from the mind. But that comes from individuals, from their own side, not brainwashing." Power Play Plot Were monks pawns in power play plot? - As an espionage thriller it would stretch the limits of credibility. But, as Gareth Walsh reports, truth may be stranger than fiction in the story of a North-based sect.
Centre of attention: Conishead Priory, once a home for Durham miners, is now the base of the New Kadampa Tradition.
AMID mature woodland, at the end of a driveway running through Cumbrian pasture, nestles Conishead Priory.
For more than 20 years the former Durham miners' home has played host to an unlikely resident, Tibetan Buddhist monk Geshe Kelsang.
From the mansion, the New Kadampa Tradition, of which Kelsang is spiritual head, has spread its influence across the UK overseeing the setting up of residential centres for devotees, and is now pouring hundreds of thousands of pounds into overseas groups.
Among its latest targets is Newcastle, where the NKT hopes to open a permanent centre.
On a superficial level the charity looks like an increasingly successful fringe religious group playing to the spiritual dissatisfaction with '90s materialist society - though with a few hiccups along the way.
The NKT's total assets almost doubled from £141,555 in 1993 to £228,663 in 1997. From an income of £367,042 around 65pc went in charitable donations, much to its centres in the UK and overseas.
In its literature, the NKT asks supporters to give interest-free loans, tax-free deeds of covenant or gifts of more than £250, or to be included in supporters' wills. The purchase of NKT centres is largely facilitated by using residents' rents to cover mortgages.
The NKT supporters have been offered, and accepted, more than £90,000 in grants from English Heritage to renovate their Cumbria headquarters, although only £15,718 has so far been taken up.
South Lakeland District Council has previously taken enforcement action following unauthorised work on the grade two-listed priory but says the owners are now complying with regulations.
On a more profound level however, the NKT may have inadvertently stepped into a Communist plot affecting the lives of millions of Tibetans.
Despite the tranquillity of the priory, renamed the Manjushri Centre, all has not been well in Buddhaland. For not only has Kelsang been at odds with the Nobel Prize-winning Dalai Lama, leader of Tibetans exiled by the invasion of their homeland, he may also have unwittingly played straight into the hands of Chinese agents aiming to sow havoc among the Lama's followers.
The quarrel between the two holy men broke out over the worship of a centuries-old Tibetan deity Dorje Shugden. The Dalai Lama insists Shugden worship is crass, commercial and damaging. Kelsang says the Lama is trampling human rights by trying to ban an important religious practice.
Had their dispute been played out in India, seat of Tibet's exile government, it would have made at most a few column inches in the West. It was when NKT supporters - Western Buddhists - took to European streets that the schism made headlines.
Following protests in May 1997 the Dalai Lama eventually entered the fray and criticised Dorje Shugden worshippers for praying to the deity for success in business.
Concern about Shugden supporters grew following the bloody murder of the Dalai Lama's close friend, 70-year-old Lobsang Gyatso,and two young monks, a few hundred yards from the Lama's northern Indian home.
Shugdens in India were questioned about the killings but were not charged.
The NKT says it has stopped its campaign against the Dalai Lama. But the damage may already have been done in the playing out of a covert political plot featuring unwitting NKT members.
For since China invaded Tibet more than 40 years ago and began to flood it with a Han Chinese population, the Dalai Lama has developed a positive image for himself in the West, creating a thorn in Beijing's side and an urgent need for the Chinese party PR apparatus to discredit him.
And in "classified documents" allegedly leaked from a Beijing government meeting in 1993 doing the rounds on the Internet, Chinese officials discuss how best to create schisms among the Dalai Lama's followers as an important means of destabilising him.
The Tibetan government-in-exile believes the Chinese are using Shugden supporters in order to destabilise the Dalai Lama by exploiting the rift.
One exile in the UK said: "We know that the Chinese are encouraging Shugden supporters both inside and outside Tibet. But we have no specific proof - particularly in the West - of how they are being funded."
Yet in Cumbria NKT secretary Jim Belither says: "We feel Dorje Shugden practice is a valid Buddhist practice. There is no harm to it at all. But for reasons which are a little bit obscure the Dalai Lama is against it.
"I should say we are not in opposition to him in general. The Dalai Lama had effectively banned the practice, then we took up the cause of the people who practise it in India. But it all became very controversial and we have decided to stop our involvement. Most of our people are no longer involved. "Tibetan Dorje Shugden practitioners are certainly not sympathetic towards China. They are as much seeking independence for Tibet as any other Tibetan, and we would be totally behind Tibetan independence.
"If this controversy gives strength to the Chinese, then why did the Dalai Lama open up a rift by banning the practice? Which action gives the Chinese support - his initial action, or the reaction to it?"