Our relationship is one of mutual support, mutual respect and love. We are all disciples of Lama Tsongkhapa, we follow in the spiritual lineage of Gelugpa instructions passed down through the great Lamas Je Phabongkhapa and Trijang Dorjechang, and we do this with the help of our Dharma Protector, Dorje Shugden. NKT students have joined Tibetan monks and Tibetan lay people in the Western Shugden Society demonstrations requesting the Dalai Lama to give freedom to Dorje Shugden practitioners. Geshe Kelsang and a number of NKT students have also supported the new Gelugpa monasteries, Shar Gaden and Serpom Norling, not just morally but with generous financial aid. Shar Gaden acknowledge his courage on behalf of all Dorje Shugdan practitioners and his help in bringing these new monasteries into existence.
Inviting other teachers?
NKT individuals naturally have the freedom to go to other teachings given by other Lamas at different institutions if they wish. Representatives of the NKT, such as teachers and managers, are not however permitted to invite Lamas from different traditions to teach.
Recently, a visiting Tibetan Lama and Dorje Shugden practitioner, who is currently in the States to help highlight the situation with the Dalai Lama’s ban on Dorje Shugden practice, was invited by some NKT teachers to teach at a branch of one of the NKT centers. They were then requested not to do this because, as Geshe Kelsang has said, “We are different traditions.” Over the years, the NKT has consistently resisted inviting Tibetan teachers, including fellow Dorje Shugden practitioners, to teach at NKT centers and this is now in the Internal Rules. This article will help to explain why.
That we are different traditions is evident in several ways. For one thing, it is unlikely that the three NKT study programmes will ever be adopted at the Gelugpa monasteries in India (even though many Tibetans who speak English greatly admire Geshe Kelsang’s commentaries), or that Western NKT teachers, lay or ordained would ever be invited to teach Dharma at Gelugpa monasteries or centers. This is all well and good, as we are different traditions; we are a Western tradition, within Western culture for Western practitioners, and they are a Tibetan tradition, within Tibetan culture, teaching largely in a monastic context.
Here in the West, the majority of practitioners are lay and live in vastly different cultural circumstances from those found in Tibet and India. What works for Tibetans does not easily translate for Westerners and the presentation of the teachings, which has been carefully designed for Westerners, differs widely from the Geshe program taught in the monasteries. As it says in the Internal Rules:
15§1. The Education Programme of all NKT-IKBU Dharma Centres shall consist only of the three New Kadampa Tradition Study Programmes: the General Programme, Foundation Programme, and Teacher Training Programme.
15§2. These programmes form the very core of the NKT-IKBU, and are what distinguishes the New Kadampa Tradition from other traditions.
Other teachers from other traditions can of course be realized beings and qualified to teach holy Dharma in general. The NKT has never said that it has a monopoly on Dharma — that would be going directly against our understanding that Buddhas appear in different forms to help diverse living beings. But, logically enough, only those trained in the NKT study programmes are qualified to teach those programmes.
Geshe Kelsang has taken into account that most Westerners lead very busy and full lives and so the Dharma he presents has become more and more immediately practical. The circumstances are different to the monasteries, where the Geshe program takes twenty years to complete and is intellectually rigorous, involving huge amounts of memorization and formal debate. Some of the monks then go onto do retreats. This system has produced many qualified practitioners, including our own lineage Gurus! But the average Western Buddhist does not have the time or the inclination to complete a 20 year Geshe degree – only one has managed to do this. The NKT study programmes differ from the Geshe program in their very practical emphasis on Lamrim, Lojong and Mahamudra and the emphasis on meditation and retreat. And it is true to say that Geshe Kelsang has conveyed the priceless Ganden oral lineage in a clear, unique and precious way to his Western disciples, for which they are very grateful.
In the NKT the teachings emphasize how to integrate the practices into daily life with family, jobs, etc. Many of the sadhanas have become shorter, with more time for meditation. As it says in the Internal Rules:
16§1. All NKT-IKBU Dharma Centres shall follow the same tradition regarding rituals, retreats, pujas, and granting and receiving empowerments.
These rituals are in many ways far simpler (and shorter) than those in the monasteries. If we examine the life stories of those who grew up in the monasteries, they are utterly admirable, yet utterly unrepeatable for most people in the West. Shar Gaden and Serpom Norling however can recreate these conditions for Tibetan monastic practice in accordance with the changing needs of their own students. Other lay Lamas in the Tibetan tradition can also provide the conditions their own disciples might need.
Even Geshe Kelsang’s detractors acknowledge that his books (which are the basis of the three study programmes) are written by an erudite Buddhist scholar, and no one has found mistakes or inaccuracies in any of them. Geshe Kelsang has not omitted or added anything to the meaning of Lama Tsongkhapa’s teachings. It is clear that Geshe Kelsang is an accomplished Yogi with great personal experience, and through his own experience and wisdom has found ways to help students access the profoundest aspects of Buddha’s teachings as elucidated by Je Tsongkhapa in a swift, achievable, and step-by-step way. His textbooks reveal in astonishing clarity and detail all the stages and practices necessary; a complete road map to attain the enlightened state of Buddhahood. What more can we ask? Our job as NKT practitioners is to put these perfect and detailed instructions into practice every day of our lives.
Within the NKT, all the books, teachings and practices at the centers are given in the language of their country. This means that to engage in the study and practice of Buddhism, people do not have to learn the Tibetan language. Within the NKT Study Programmes, there are no linguistic barriers to the study of Buddhadharma.
Monks, nuns, lay men, lay women
Related to this, the moment Geshe Kelsang arrived in the West he set about training and empowering Westerners to teach Buddhism, based on their own sincere spiritual progress, so that they could teach people in their own languages and cultures. He said he wanted four types of teacher — monks, nuns, lay men, and lay women. Geshe Kelsang has ‘democratized’ Buddhism here in the West by appointing teachers in this way and has said repeatedly that one’s Spiritual Guide can be a monk, nun, lay woman or lay man. This is a vast departure from Tibetan ways. Geshe Kelsang also shows no discrimination based on race or sexual orientation, setting the tradition apart from the Tibetan hegemony of the FPMT and other Tibetan Buddhist centres and the 14th Dalai Lama’s condemnation of homosexuality.
No Tulku system
While to some, the practices of recognizing Tulkus and using oracles for divination may seem interesting and exotic, they are well outside Western cultural norms. With respect to the Tibetan Lama mentioned earlier, one NKT branch teacher recently told a relatively new student that “This Rinpoche is even higher than Geshe-la as he is a reincarnate Lama.” This reveals the danger of the Shangri-la syndrome, naively idealizing foreign cultures and grandiose titles as magically perfect and naturally superior to ours. The Tulku system is one of inherited power where reincarnate Lamas (almost always Tibetan boys, even these days) are discovered at a very early age and then groomed for their privileged status and authority. This system creates an unbreakable glass ceiling for Western practitioners. What is the place for lay Gelugpas in the Tulku system? What is the place for women, ordained or lay? This system worked in Tibet on many occasions, but it can and has also been misused by those with a bad motivation for worldly purposes.
The NKT has decided to elect its leaders instead. Indeed, not just one but two women have been appointed to the highest positions in the organization for a period of at least the next four years. This utter breaking with the Gelugpa monastic tradition makes perfect sense in a Western democracy but would not be appropriate for Shar Gaden, for example, which is a Gelugpa monastery. Nuns in the highest position in a Tibetan monastery would be as much of a cultural hurdle there as relying upon the Tulku system would be to the NKT. It is also worth noting that Geshe Kelsang has not tried to interfere with how Shar Gaden or Serpom Norling are organized, even when his involvement was requested. He has never tried to interfere with any other Buddhist Center in the West either.
No teachers in the NKT have been recognized as a Tulku, most teach without fanfare or recognition. Inviting Tibetan Tulkus and Lamas to teach at NKT centers can undermine the teachers’ credibility simply because Western teachers appear more run of the mill and “like us” than an exotic Rinpoche.
No oracles or divination
The Internal Rules state:
16§2: To prevent Dharma being used for political aims or worldly achievement, no NKT-IKBU Dharma Centre shall follow any tradition of recognising and relying upon oracles, or follow any system of divination.
This is not saying that these systems are always misused or that they never work or should not be used by others. Within our lineage our own great Tibetan Lamas sometimes relied upon oracles and divination. Even Geshe Kelsang himself used divination to find the rebirth of his mother, as explained in the book Introduction to Buddhism. Early on in the NKT years, the oracle of Dorje Shugden came to a few NKT centers and Dorje Shugden composed a beautiful and inspiring long-life prayer for Geshe Kelsang. However, it is true that on occasion this system has been used in the service of political power and still remains open to abuse. Not to mention that an oracle’s possession can present a large cultural barrier to the average Westerner, seeming alien or superstitious. Acceptance of the validity of divinations and oracles, while firmly established within Tibetan culture, is outside of our own.
Ordination within the NKT
At the present time the NKT-IKBU has about 700 ordained people around the world. The way of granting ordination was designed by Geshe Kelsang following the ancient Kadampa tradition. It is very simple and very practical. A great deal has been explained about this on our website and blog.
Independent Buddhist Tradition
The Internal Rules state:
§3 The New Kadampa Tradition shall always be an entirely independent Buddhist tradition and the NKT-IKBU shall have no political affiliations.
Geshe Kelsang has worked hard for the last 30 years to create a modern tradition of Je Tsongkhapa’s Buddhism, one that can be transplanted into any country in the world because it is divested of Tibetan politics and culture. This has not been easy as it has challenged the Tibetan status quo, and over the years even some NKT students have sometimes questioned whether we really need to let go of the Tibetan language, customs and connections with the Tibetan establishment.
However, Geshe Kelsang has a far-reaching, compassionate vision and, as a direct result of his wisdom, skill and courage, hundreds of thousands of people (and millions of people potentially) who would never have met these Buddhist teachings now have access to them and are now practicing Je Tsongkhapa’s clear and powerful Buddha Dharma through the NKT every day. Many Western people in the NKT are making spiritual progress without abandoning their own Western lifestyles, by practicing in their own cultural milieu, and by transforming their own 21st century environments. They are able to do this without having to waste a great deal of precious time figuring out which Tibetan cultural customs and institutions are necessary for their practice and which on the contrary can get in the way of actual inner transformation.
A bridge between east and west, a bridge to the future
This article has outlined some of what has Geshe Kelsang removed and what he has kept. His epic achievement has been in transplanting Kadampa Buddhism from the snowy mountains of Tibet into an entirely alien Western soil so that it becomes a natural part of the landscape of our societies. This is a true bridge. NKT students need to know the nature of this achievement if they are to feel confident about protecting this legacy rather than defensive or out on a limb, or feeling the need to supplement their tradition by inviting other teachers. If we do begin to invite Tibetan Lamas to give teachings at our Centers — teachings that will naturally have subtle and not-so-subtle differences and even contradictions to the three study programmes — what does that say to others about the completeness and effectiveness of our own tradition? And what or whose teachings and path will we then follow?
So, NKT students are encouraged to keep our enthusiasm and respect for all traditions of Buddhism while relishing studying, practicing and realizing our own.
In Part Two of this article we will pursue some of these themes. If you would like to contribute to this discussion, please let us have your comments.