Are NKT practitioners real Gelugpas?

There is an allegation about the NKT that comes up from time to time, which is that NKT practitioners are not real Gelugpas. Hopefully the following answer to this will help. If you have any questions, please ask in the comments section.

(See also this latest article for answers to related claims, Has the NKT broken away from the mainstream?)

The truth is that NKT practitioners are actual Gelugpas. Those who exclusively follow Je Tsongkhapa’s teachings are called ‘Gelugpas’. The NKT is a pure Gelugpa tradition because (1) it exclusively teaches Je Tsongkhapa’s doctrine, (2) its lineage Gurus from Je Tsongkhapa onwards are exclusively Gelugpas, and (3) Geshe Kelsang’s spiritual education and root Guru (Trijang Rinpoche) are within the Gelugpa tradition.

In 1998 Geshe Kelsang stated in an interview:

“We are pure Gelugpas. The name Gelugpa doesn’t matter, but we believe we are following the pure tradition of Je Tsongkhapa. We are studying and practicing Lama Tsongkhapa’s teachings and taking as our example what the ancient Kadampa Lamas and Geshes did. All the books that I have written are commentaries to Lama Tsongkhapa’s teachings. We try our best to follow the example of the ancient Kadampa tradition and use the name Kadampa to remind people to practice purely.”

The Gelug or ‘Virtuous Tradition’ (also known as ‘Ganden’ tradition) was founded by Je Tsongkhapa (1357-1419AD), an emanation of Wisdom Buddha Manjushri. As predicted by Buddha Shakyamuni himself in Root Tantra of Manjushri, Je Tsongkhapa appeared in Tibet, the ‘Land of the Snows’, to re-establish the purity of Buddha Shakyamuni’s doctrine by establishing the ‘Ganden’ (‘Joyful Land’) tradition.

Geshe Kelsang first introduced the title ‘New Kadampa Tradition’ to give the Centers under his spiritual direction a distinct identity within the wider Buddhist world. Although the Gelugpas were sometimes referred to as ‘new Kadampas’, the name ‘New Kadampa Tradition’ had never been used previously in a formal sense. Nevertheless, by using this title, Geshe Kelsang is making it clear that practitioners of this tradition are principally following the teachings and example of Je Tsongkhapa. The word ‘New’ is used not to imply that it is newly created, but that it is a fresh presentation of Buddhadharma in a form and manner that is appropriate to the needs and conditions of the modern world. Furthermore, by using the title ‘Kadampa’, Geshe Kelsang encourages his disciples to follow the perfect example of simplicity and purity of practice shown by Atisha and the Kadampa Geshes.

(1) The NKT exclusively teaches Je Tsongkhapa’s doctrine

All of Geshe Kelsang’s books, which are the core of the three NKT study programs, are based on Je Tsongkhapa’s commentaries to the teachings of Buddha Shakyamuni, Buddha Vajradhara, and other great Buddhist Masters. For example:

Geshe Kelsang’s book  / Je Tsongkhapa’s book

Joyful Path of Good Fortune / Lamrim Chenmo (Great Exposition of the Stages of the Path to Enlightenment)

Universal Compassion / Sunrays of Training the Mind (notes compiled by Je Tsongkhapa’s students)

Understanding the Mind / Je Tsongkhapa’s teachings on Commentary to Valid Cognition by Dharmakirti

Guide to Dakini Land / Be dön kun säl (Illuminating All Hidden Meanings )

Essence of Vajrayana /  Be dön kun säl (Illuminating All Hidden Meanings ) and commentary to the Heruka sadhana, Dö jo (Wishfulfilling)

Clear Light of Bliss / Lamp Thoroughly Illuminating the Five Stages

Tantric Grounds and Paths / Great Exposition of the Stages of Secret Mantra

Ocean of Nectar / Clear Illumination of the Intention: An Extensive Explanation of the Great Treatise ‘Guide to the Middle Way’

Geshe Kelsang’s remaining books come from Je Tsongkhapa’s Lamrim (stages of the path) and Lojong (training the mind) teachings, from the Ganden oral lineage instructions passed on to him by his root Guru, from the Kadam Emanation Scripture, and from Shantideva’s Guide to the Bodhisattva’s Way of Life.

While the presentation of the teachings is especially suited to people in this modern world, the meaning of the teachings has not been compromised: the teachings are the same as those given by Je Tsongkhapa himself.

(2) The NKT lineage Gurus from Je Tsongkhapa onwards are exclusively Gelugpas

The NKT has an unbroken lineage of spiritual teachers from Buddha Shakyamuni to the present day. There is a pure lineage from Buddha to Je Tsongkhapa, and a pure Gelugpa lineage from Je Tsongkhapa to Geshe Kelsang Gyatso (see Great Treasury of Merit p. 99-100 [Tharpa Publications]).

The lineage shows that the Buddhadharma practised in the NKT is, firstly, pure Buddhism in that it is the teachings of Buddha Shakyamuni; and, secondly, pure Gelugpa in that it is the teachings of Je Tsongkhapa.

(3) Geshe Kelsang’s spiritual education and root Guru (Trijang Rinpoche) are within the Gelugpa tradition

Geshe Kelsang received his spiritual education in the Gelugpa tradition, at Jampa Ling and Sera Je Monasteries, and principally from his root Guru, the great Gelugpa Master Kyabje Trijang Dorjechang, who was at one time the Throne Holder (‘Ganden Tripa’) of Je Tsongkhapa’s tradition.

In addition to having been trained in the Gelugpa tradition, Geshe Kelsang has continued to follow the guidance and example of Trijang Rinpoche by devoting his whole life to promoting Je Tsongkhapa’s pure tradition, carefully basing every one of his writings and teachings on Je Tsongkhapa’s teachings, and especially by remaining uninfluenced by worldly concerns, thereby acting in accordance with the meaning of Buddha’s teachings.


10 Responses to Are NKT practitioners real Gelugpas?

  1. […] Are NKT practitioners real Gelugpas? Has the NKT broken away from the mainstream? […]

  2. Matthew says:

    Thanks for writing this.

    I’ve always found it odd to hear the NKT referred to as a ‘breakaway’ tradition when in fact, we follow the teachings of our spiritual guide who in turn did the same and so on. It has always seemed to me that the real ‘break with tradition’ came with the Dalai Lama’s decision to abandon the instructions of Trijang Dorjechang, his root guru, and the main holder of Je Tsongkhapa’s tradition in his generation.

    Unfortunately, many have come under the Dalai Lama’s influence, voluntarily or otherwise, as a result of his fame, charisma, political power, and idiosyncratic relationship to the truth. As it turns out, it looks like it’s getting harder and harder for people to continue spreading these nonsense ideas due, in no small part, to sources of information like this one.

    Thank you, and keep it up!


    From New Kadampa Truth
    Thank you for your support. Also, we have incorporated the point you make in your first paragraph.

  3. medibuddha says:

    I appreciate knowing the specific texts Geshe-la’s books are based upon. As a student I’ve often wondered why the sources aren’t clearly stated in the books themselves. So thank you for the information.

    In relation to your third point, could you please explain the relevance of Geshe-la’s expulsion from Sera Je? I do not know anything about this in the context of Tibetan Buddhism, but from the viewpoint of a Western university or religious affiliation, losing one’s affiliation means one can no longer refer to oneself as being associated with the institution or tradition. If a priest were expelled (excommunicated) from the Catholic Church, they would be excluded from the rituals of spiritual community, and would not be allowed to lead others or teach in a Catholic institution. I would expect this to be roughly the same in all religious traditions. Isn’t expulsion from Sera the highest level of censure in the Tibetan Buddhist monastic tradition, and tantamount to being expelled from the Gelugpa tradition? Or do you have another way to view this?

    I would think that expulsion from Sera in itself would serve as the basis to consider any organization that Geshe-la founded as outside of the Gelugpa tradition. I don’t claim to know one way or the other, just asking a question.

    Thanks in advance for your kind reply.

    From New Kadampa Truth
    Hi MediBuddha, thanks for your questions.
    For your first point, the sources are given in the books themselves.
    For your second point, this helps explain the background:

  4. KA says:

    It would be nice to fill out the third point a little bit, by saying that in addition to having been trained in the Gelugpa tradition, Geshe Kelsang has continued to follow the guidance and example of Trijang Rinpoche by devoting his whole life to promoting Je Tsongkhapa’s pure tradition, carefully basing every one of his writings and teachings on Je Tsongkhapa’s teachings, and especially by remaining uninfluenced by worldly concerns, and thereby acting in accordance with the meaning of Buddha’s teachings.

    From New Kadampa Truth
    Thank you, good point. We have added this.

  5. KA says:

    With regard to the comment about Geshe Kelsang’s explusion from Sera Je, I think that the situation and the letter speak for themselves. He was always regarded highly by his peers at Sera Je, and while in Tibet and India was acting fully within the activities of the Gelugpa tradition. He did not receive any censure or criticism from within the Gelugpa community until 1996 when the Dalai Lama implemented a ban on Dorje Shugden. At that time he publicly stated what was already well-known in many circles in Tibet: that the Dalai Lama’s main motivation for the ban was to unite the four schools into one so that he could become their sole spiritual leader.

    The letter from Sera Je makes numerous false claims, such as that he was a”chronic tuberculosis patient”, and has only one main accusation: they claim that (1) the Dalai Lama is Geshe Kelsang’s root Guru, and that (2) by disobeying the Dalai Lama he is breaking the commitment to rely upon his Spiritual Guide. As a consequence, they claim that he should be expelled from the monastery. Geshe Kelsang has explained clearly that the Dalai Lama was never his Spiritual Guide, and that in order to rely sincerely on his Spiritual Guide, Trijang Rinpoche, he would never be able to follow the Dalai Lama’s ban on Dorje Shugden. Geshe Kelsang’s behavior is in fact the opposite of what is claimed in the expulsion letter.

    For the purposes of this article, however, it may be helpful to draw a distinction between “being Gelugpa in terms of view, practice, and action” and “being a member of tehe Tibetan Gelugpa organization”. While the article does a nice job of demonstrating the former, it might be helfpful to make clear that he is no longer a member of the politically-influenced Tibetan Gelugpa organization, because in order to do so he would have to compromise his pure reliance on Gelugpa view, practice, and action.

    From New Kadampa Truth
    Thank you again KA. We have taken the liberty of adding some of your points to the blog.
    Are the points in your last paragraph covered in this other article?:

  6. crescent moon says:

    To medibuddha:

    I think you will find that some if not all of the sources *are* clearly stated in Geshe Kelsang’s books. For instance, at the beginning of Universal Compassion, Geshe-la explains about it being based on Sunrays of Training the Mind a opposed to other sources which may be less reliable. I vaguely remember reading some of the other attributions on the list as well. It’s possible that the whole list is already explicitly mentioned in the books, but I don’t have time right now to check. I hope this is helpful.

  7. dorjeshugdentruth says:

    Dear medibuddha,

    With regard to Geshe Kelsang’s ‘expulsion’ from Sera Monastery, it was clearly a ‘sour grapes’ reaction to Geshe Kelsang’s opposition to the Dalai Lama’s ban of Dorje Shugden. The Shugden Supporter’s Society had shamed and embarrassed the Dalai Lama through its demonstrations and the expulsion was simply the Dalai Lama’s attempt to get back at Geshe Kelsang.

    It was clear when Geshe Kelsang estabished the New Kadampa Tradition in 1991 that it wasn’t part of the Tibetan Gelugpa organization with the Dalai Lama as its head, unlike the FPMT which obviously has allegiance to the Tibetan tradition and, shamefully, puts the Dalai Lama above great Lamas such as Trijang Rinpoche on the Teacher’s page of their website. There’s no doubt where their allegiance is! Geshe Kelsang had, in contrast and in agreement with Lama Yeshe removed the Dalai Lama’s pictures from Manjushri Institute because the DL had made it clear how he felt about Dorje Shugden and both Geshe Kelsang and Lama Yeshe knew that the Dalai Lama would never visit Manjushri Institute (as it was then) and they knew that their continuation with their Shugden practice would drive a wedge between them and the DL. The Dalai Lama was affronted by this. He even complained about it in a French published book in 1997:

    Dalai Lama : The basic principles of Buddhism are the opposite of fundamentalism. They say the opposite – that a great wave is carrying us and that nothing is stable for ever. Despite that, at the moment in England, a well-educated lama is behaving like a true cult leader.

    Jean-Claude Carrière : A fundamentalist lama ?

    DL : Whatever… he’s banned all my books, all contact with me, all images of the Dalai Lama. He accuses me of this and that. His faithful, a few thousand people, are only allowed to read his books, to display and venerate his photograph, and so on… But there you go, it’s only human.

    (The force of Buddhism » by the Dalai Lama and Jean-Claude Carrière, pages 19-20)

    It’s interesting how the Dalai Lama blamed Geshe Kelsang for the breakdown in communication!

    The Dalai Lama had to find some way to get back at Geshe Kelsang – the ‘explusion’ was it. It’s like being written to by your Primary School and being told “you’re no longer part of this school” – um, what would you say? You haven’t been there for decades so how can you be expelled from an institution that you left decades ago? It’s not as if he was thrown out of school! He had completed his Geshe training, apart from taking the final exam. How could their explusion affect his qualifications as a scholar or accomplished meditator? It was simply a political gesture to show solidarity with the Dalai Lama. Buddhism doesn’t need such mixing of religion and politics.

    Geshe Kelsang can’t be told he’s not Gelugpa and has been ‘excommunicated’ because Gelugpa is not a club, Gelugpas are those who follow the teachings of Je Tsongkhapa and Geshe Kelsang has devoted his life to upholding the propagating those teachings so he’s a true Gelugpa.

  8. medibuddha says:

    Thank you all very much for your responses. I’m overwhelmed by them, actually, it will take time to compose a response.

    Sorry about my comment about sources not being in Geshe-la’s books, I should have been more specific. In many books the source is specific, but in others, it is not. For instance, I remember spending weeks trying to figure out which Lam Rim text Joyful Path was based on. I still haven’t found a statement that it is a commentary or condensation of a particular text, and if someone would like to give me a page number where this is stated, that would be helpful, and perhaps then I can understand why I don’t find this info so easily. A fault in my mind, no doubt. I also remember having difficulty figuring out where Understanding the Mind came from, to give another concrete example. To say it’s based on Je Tsongkapa’s writing on Dharmakirti’s work still doesn’t identify which of Je Tsongkapa’s works is the source. Perhaps it’s only safe to say that I have difficulty finding the source references in some of Geshe-la’s books.

    Will respond to other points separately.


  9. crescent moon says:

    Dear medibuddha:

    Regarding Joyful Path, I came to the conclusion that it is essentially a retelling of the Lamrim Chenmo by reading the table of contents of the English translation of the Lamrim Chenmo. It was a long time ago, but I remember thinking that the outline of the Lamrim Chenmo was the same, point-for-point, as Joyful Path. This is my own inference and until this article I had not read a claim by anyone else that Joyful Path was based on the Lamrim Chenmo.

  10. medibuddha says:

    In response to the points made above, I wish only to apologize for any disturbance I created. I was asking what I thought was a common sense kind of question with regard to the reasons why the NKT might not be considered Gelugpa.

    My response to learning more about this situation is to be more dishearted and saddened than before. I’ve never seen some of these sources before, and it strikes me as extremely sad for everyone that there is so much emotion and irrationality in play around these issues.

    Again, my apologies.

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