I think it's safe to assert that religion no longer plays a significant role in the majority of our lives. With fewer Christians attending church regularly and a growing number of Muslims refraining from fasting throughout Ramadan, it's evident that the modern day conception of practicing religion is vastly different from previous iterations. After all, whilst we may have been raised in devout families and have attended religious schools, we all know that it's easy to discard instilled teachings once you're free of the insular environment that they're taught in.
Broadly speaking, today's society can be split into two groups. The first being the so-called "zealots": those that are vocally religious or hardline atheists and in the second group are those who are indifferent or identify as agnostics.
Broadly speaking, society can be split into two groups: the so-called "zealots", that is people who are either vocally religious or atheists and then in the second group, those who define as agnostic. However, atheists and agnostics alike have been dabbling in Buddhism of late, making it the most recent victim of religious tourism. This is of course related to one of the great trends (or fads) of our generation, wellness. The overarching and intrinsically ephemeral idea of "wellness" has come to dominate the health, food and lifestyle industries, turning something that it supposed to be overwhelmingly unrelated to such capitalist propaganda into something that very much buys into the money-making agenda that our world thrives off of. It's somewhat paradoxical. all has something to do with idea of wellness, a trend which has come to dominate the health, food and lifestyle industries. Just take a scroll through Instagram and you will find legions of pictures of incredibly lithe young men and women, surviving solely of avocado toast, chia seeds and kale filled green juices.
In a world which is now obsessed with wellness, of the avocado toast and green-tea variety, in between attending yoga-retreats, chugging green juices and listening to mindful meditation, we're obsessed with anything that provides us with inner-zen. Replicating the LA scene's breed of health and wellness, we aspire to be well-rounded, perfect citizens, and some believe that this process can be facilitated by engaging in the practices of buddhism, a religion that has been conceptualised of late as being the ultimate ideal of wellness, and clearheadedness, arguably a short-sighted vision which fails to factor in some of the more essential, deeper and more controversial teachings which fail to fit into this aspirational wellness model that we see constantly being lauded on Instagram.
"The New Kadampa Tradition is listed on the site under the following description
The New Kadampa Tradition – International Kadampa Buddhist Union is an international association of Mahayana Buddhist study and meditation centres that follow the Kadampa Buddhist tradition founded by Venerable Geshe Kelsang Gyatso."
an "entirely independent" Modern Buddhist order that claims to be a tradition based on the teachings of the Gelugpa tradition of Tibetan Buddhism [nb 1], although they follow only the interpretations of this text by their guru , which has grown to become a global Buddhist organisation and currently claims to have 1200 centers and branches in 40 countries around the world.
Now, it must be stated that there's nothing wrong with learning about a religion and incorporating aspects of it into your life but a more insidious form of religious tourism has been taking place recently, and it involves buddhism.
I was intrigued by the idea of Buddhism being appropriated by those who use it to further their aspirations of living the mould of wellness which is purported by Instagram, so I got in touch who had spent time in a monastery, as an Atheist about how he found the inhabitants to be.
Re-the cult thing might be worth a name change on my part as it may look like I'm shitting on them. But it is an interesting angle.
First question: I don't really have any religious beliefs. My family is really athiestic, though I would describe myself as Agnostic (catholic pilgrimage aside). I went to a C of E primary school and my grandfather was a c of e vicar, though now he's a quaker. I leave the centre unchanged. Though I have a real respect and interest in Buddhism, there are many aspects to it that I disagree with on a fundamental level, specifically policy of not forming attachments. But I've always seen religious figures like Christ or Buddha Shakyamuni as ancient moral philosophers so there are things I've taken from it that will remain.
Second question: I've had a pretty rough year and wanted to go to a place that seemed to be focused on inner peace and love. Plus my flatmates and I were evicted from our place in London, so I needed a place to stay but didnt quite want to move to my dad's place. Here I work 9-5 in the kitchen or garden cooking, cleaning, or gardening and for that I get free food, a bed, and free access to meditation classes and buddhism lectures. Its a pretty great trade.
Question 3: Few of the workers here are committed buddhists. But all are uniquely kind and good people. All spiritually curious and open. We all get on well. The paid residents are buddhists (there are even monks and nuns!) Who sometimes help out. There is a lot of cynicism in the world but not here.
Question 4: This tradition (new kadampa) always seemed a tad cultish. Though Buddhism is one of the oldest religions on the planet. All the teachings come from the books of one particular monk, a man who everyone here is extremely, almost strangely obedient to. His words and works are everywhere here. In his books he says that reading anything other than buddist books (subtly I think he means anything but his books). Are misguided actions which can lead to suffering. Weirdly little is known of his background, only that he was born and educated in Tibet. I've read articles by monks who describe their time in this tradition as brainwashing. Most concerning I have read that he sends people to protest talks by His Holiness the Dalai Lama. Which to me is not very buddhist behavior.
It was a new kadampa buddhist centre, there are centres all over the world. The one I went to specifically was Boddhisattva centre.
There were many things I took that I feel has helped me. I like the idea that happiness is really found within, for example and the notion that every single one of my problems are mental, that if I change how I think about them, the problems disappear.
Also I enjoy thinking about more esoteric aspects, like emptiness, where nothing has a separate existence to anything else. I think since leaving the centre I have become more peaceful as a person. Also meditation has helped me a lot. I really liked it there
Initially I was worried that it all was phoney. But talking to some of the people there, people who have gone through difficult things and found peace through their accepance of Dharma (the teachings of Buddha) and are genuinely some of the nicest and most compassionate people I've met. For example, one person noticed I was looking at a book in the giftshop area, then they brought it for me....
The cultish thing didn't seem present in the Brighton centre, more at other levels of the tradition. I think some have been coerced to swear blind loyalty to the founder of the tradition (Geshe Kelsang Gyatso) which I always find suspicious. Also little is known about his upbringing which may be a issue. Worst is that he has had people protest the Dalai Lama when he appears in the west (this tradition didn't catch on in the east I think...) Some of the banners and messages he has them hand out seem angry and hateful. Though I don't know too much tbh. But someone who is angry and hateful is not a buddhist. Its against all teachings
All the teachings stem from Buddha but the ones at the centre are kind of the interpretations of them by Geshe Kelsang Gyatso...if that makes sense. I imagine he sees himself as a rival to the Dalai Lama but I imagine the Dalai Lama barely thinks of it. Gyatso is a monk who westernised old buddhist ideas and Dalai Lama is essentially royalty. Though I guess things are a bit different.
If that all makes sense, its all kind of new to me