Smear: NKT students worship Geshe Kelsang

January 22, 2009

This is the final article exploring how Kadampa students rely upon the Spiritual Guide in these modern times. For the previous articles, click here:

Smear: Geshe Kelsang calls himself the third Buddha and seeks veneration from his students

Relying upon the Spiritual Guide in these modern times

NKT detractors sometimes make unjustified claims about the NKT’s supposed cultish devotion toward Geshe Kelsang. The trend was started in a 1996 article by Madeleine Bunting in the Guardian newspaper, where she said that NKT members “pray to and worship Geshe Kelsang”. One recent example of a public attack on a website (by someone called “Truthsquad”, who has never been to an NKT Center):

“Geshe Kelsang Gyatso, now 78 and worshiped by his devotees as a cult hero, as the greatest Shugden protector, and as a supreme omniscient being whose narcissistic visions, power goals, dharma interpretations, lineage anaysis and fundamentalist politics are infallible.”

There is never any evidence provided for attacks of this nature. Geshe Kelsang has never claimed to be an omniscient being or a Buddha. He rarely talks about himself at all. He is a very humble monk and renunciate. He spent sixteen years blissfully happily in strict retreat, only emerging to bring Dharma to the West because his Spiritual Guide Trijang Rinpoche asked it of him.

While he is in the UK over the summer period, Geshe Kelsang lives modestly and simply in one small room at Manjushri Centre, the same room he lived in when he first came to the UK, and never leaves his room except to teach. He possesses very little. He does not even own a car, having sold the one car that was offered to him in 1986 so that he could donate the proceeds to ‘Live Aid’. He does not own a house, having given away the one he was given for a retreat center. He gives everything that he is offered away, including the royalties on his books and all gifts of money, property, statues and so on.

When he is not at Manjushri Centre, he lives quietly in unknown locations with just one or two assistants, and rarely travels or even leaves the house. There he engages in meditation retreat and continues to work tirelessly to help others by writing beautiful and acclaimed Dharma books and helping to preserve and promote the Kadampa Buddhism of Je Tsongkhapa in accordance with his own Spiritual Guide’s wishes.

Geshe Kelsang does not have one single trapping of luxury, power or worldly success. Nor is he interested in or engaged in politics. Although he is in good health, in Summer 2009 he will voluntarily step down as General Spiritual Director of the NKT, in a democratic system of succession that he himself has established.

As mentioned in an earlier article, relying upon the Spiritual Guide, or “Guru devotion”, is a teaching common to all of Mahayana Buddhism. However, Geshe Kelsang has managed to introduce these teachings in a skilful way that is acceptable to our individualistic Western sensibilities. In the West, people are suspicious of religious systems that promote another person and demand unswerving allegiance (except, curiously enough, when that person is the Dalai Lama!)

In recent years in particular, Geshe Kelsang has been explaining a profound and skilful method to practice relying upon the Spiritual Guide, which enables students to regard their Spiritual Guide as an emanation of Buddha during teachings whilst also giving them the freedom to relate to them as a more ordinary person at other times. It seems that by following these instructions, Buddhist practitioners of the future will be able to continue to make progress toward enlightenment in dependence upon Buddha Shakyamuni’s instructions on relying sincerely upon a Spiritual Guide. However, they will be able to do this without having to adopt unskillful, extreme or societally unacceptable behavior, and without the potential danger of being “cheated” or betrayed by a worldly or badly motivated teacher. For example, in Paris 2008 Geshe Kelsang said:

“It is necessary to clarify what happens during teachings. For example, if I have a pure motivation giving teachings to people out of compassion, and the teaching itself is pure, then the wisdom being of Buddha will enter my body and remain in my heart. In particular, I mainly give teachings from Lama Tsongkhapa, and so I have deep faith in Lama Tsongkhapa. If my motivation, view and actions are pure, and the teaching is correct, then the wisdom being of Lama Tsongkhapa will enter my body, remain at my heart inseparable with my mind, and speak through me. At that time I am like CD player, but the real teachings are coming from Lama Tsongkhapa or Buddha Shakyamuni. This means that at that time, practically, I can be an emanation of Buddha or Lama Tsongkhapa. For as long as that wisdom being remains, I am an emanation of Buddha, an emanation of Je Tsongkhapa. I can say this. If my pure motivation, view, or actions change, then the wisdom being will disappear and I will not be an emanation, I will become ordinary.”

This applies of course not just to Geshe Kelsang but to all those giving correct Buddhist teachings out of faith and with pure motivation, view and actions. “Emanation of Buddha” can refer to those who have attained full enlightenment as well as to those who are temporary emanations, functioning as Buddhas through the force of their faith, motivation and so on. Students can receive Buddha’s blessings from these emanations.

“It is important to distinguish these kinds of things. An emanation of Buddha can have many meanings. One meaning of emanation of Buddha is a person who really is Buddha, but there are other people who are temporarily functioning as Buddhas through the wisdom being of Buddha entering and remaining at their heart when they give teachings. At that time they have the same function as Buddha, and are also an emanation of Buddha. When the wisdom being disappears, they are no longer an emanation. Therefore, at different times, different situations will arise. Sometimes I can be an emanation, sometimes maybe not necessarily.”

Hopefully these three articles have helped to clarify how relying upon the Spiritual Guide is practiced in the New Kadampa Tradition. Similar teachings on pure view, Guru devotion and so on can be found in Geshe Kelsang’s books. For example, in Mahamudra Tantra pps 28-9 he explains how we should not reveal our Tantric realizations as this could result in inappropriate behavior:

“Even if we have the realization that spontaneously believes that we are Buddha Heruka, we should never indicate or declare this to others, as such behavior is inappropriate in normal society. People will still see us as John and not Heruka, and we also know that John is not Heruka. The realizations of divine pride and clear appearance are inner experiences that have the power to control our delusions, and from which pure actions will naturally develop. There is therefore no basis for us to show inappropriate behavior; we must continue to engage in our daily activities and communicate with others as normal.”

Geshe Kelsang himself is a very good example of what he teaches as he never indicates or declares his realizations to others. He gives his students the freedom to develop whatever view they wish of him. They can view him as an ordinary Teacher, or as a kind person, or as a Bodhisattva, or even as a Buddha, as is their wish. But this is their choice and it is a private matter of the heart.

Let us know if you have any questions or comments.


Relying upon the Spiritual Guide in these modern times

January 19, 2009

This article is a continuation from Smear: Geshe Kelsang calls himself Third Buddha and seeks veneration from his students.

The only reason for having a Spiritual Guide is to receive guidance on a spiritual path. And the only reason to follow or rely upon that Spiritual Guide is to make progress on that spiritual path — never to gain worldly power or success.

Geshe Kelsang said in Paris in October 2008:

“To understand who our Spiritual Guide is, we should know what the spiritual path is. If we know this, then we can understand how someone can be our Spiritual Guide…. If we understand that the qualification or characteristic of the teacher is to sincerely lead his or her students to correct spiritual paths (principally the trainings in renunciation, universal compassion and the correct view of emptiness) through giving teachings and showing a good example, we don’t need to worry. He or she will never cheat us. Otherwise we may be cheated.”

We can be “cheated” by someone who abuses our reliance for worldly purposes, for example for power, reputation, prestige or wealth. However, we cannot be cheated by someone who is genuinely leading us along the spiritual path if we are relying upon them for our own spiritual development and not for their benefit.

As Geshe Kelsang says:

“The most important thing is that we are doing this for our own purpose, because faith is our spiritual life. Dharma and the normal aims of samsara should not be mixed. If we separate these there will no problems; if they are mixed then it is possible that some problems will arise because the teacher can misuse his or her higher position due to the students having so much devotion.”

This is similar to saying that religion and politics do not mix – if politics and worldly concerns are brought to bear on a relationship between a Spiritual Guide and a student, the relationship becomes a power struggle wherein the student is inevitably the loser. The teaching on Guru devotion means to develop and maintain deep faith in our Spiritual Guide and to put his or her teachings into practice. “Just this!” There is no need for further relationships, such as business or political relationships, which in fact will only give rise to problems.

(This has been shown, for example, in the situation over the last 30 years in the Tibetan exile community. The dual, conflicting role of the Dalai Lama as their spiritual leader and political leader in charge of their lives and livelihoods has led to great suffering and confusion for many practitioners in the Gelugpa tradition because he used his worldly power against them.)

Pure, effective Guru devotion has in fact always worked independent of politics. There are classic examples we can follow, as Geshe Kelsang suggests:

“We can take examples from ancient times of how, for example, the Indian Buddhist Master Naropa relied upon Tilopa and how Atisha relied upon Serlingpa, and in Tibet how Dromtonpa relied upon Atisha and Milarepa relied upon Marpa.”

However, a note of caution:

“We should follow their example, but because both the teachers and the students were very simple, there were no problems. Now in the modern world it is not simple. Due to the huge development of material activities, people have developed many different aims. So be careful, keep Dharma purely and never allow extreme views. Teachers should never use Dharma for their position, and students should never use their teachers for their position. We should follow Guru devotion only according to the development of Dharma realizations. Because the modern world has developed so much, it is very easy to follow in an extreme way. We know that other religions have this extreme; teachers say something and their students immediately follow them, and this causes suffering to so many people. It is very necessary to prevent these kinds of things.”

In keeping with the Kadampa Geshes’ precept “to remain natural while changing your aspiration”, and the common sense wisdom tradition of Je Tsongkhapa, today’s Buddhists need to avoid zealous types of behavior that have no place in modern, democratic cultures. Our view of our Spiritual Guide must be kept inside the heart. We must avoid fanaticism mentally, verbally and physically — for example, telling the world that our teacher is an enlightened being, using epithets such as “Avalokiteshvara” or “Manjushri” etc.

“Teachers should never show ‘I am a holy being, I am Buddha’ and so forth, and also the students should never say, ‘My Teacher is a Buddha’. This is ridiculous. Saying ‘My Teacher is Heruka’ or ‘My Teacher is Vajrayogini’ is not correct conversation! We should speak and act exactly as normal. We should respect what people in society believe. Otherwise, if we behave and react in strange ways that society does not accept, we will become isolated. They will never appreciate us. Even faithful disciples never talk like this. For example, I have many faithful students, but they never say ‘Geshe Kelsang is Heruka’ or ‘He is Buddha’ or ‘He is Lama Tsongkhapa’. They never say this. … Modern people follow the truth as they see it, so if you say ‘He is Heruka’, ‘He is Buddha Shakyamuni’, people will see contradictions and not appreciate or believe you.”

This approach also has the potential to avert the disharmony that comes from comparing and contrasting one’s spiritual leaders.


Smear: Geshe Kelsang calls himself ‘the Third Buddha’ and seeks veneration from his students

January 14, 2009

Tenzin Peljor on a recent Tricycle editors’ blog, refers to Geshe Kelsang: “In NKT there is an autocrat and he uses his power in an autocrat way.” Elsewhere, the NKT has been accused of calling Geshe Kelsang the “third Buddha” and seeking veneration from his students.

The truth is that Geshe Kelsang has never used any self-aggrandizing terms in relation to himself — he is very humble and self-deprecating, attributing any success or good qualities that he may possess to Je Tsongkhapa and his Spiritual Guide, Trijang Dorjechang.

For example, in a teaching before a Je Tsongkhapa empowerment in 1995 he said:

“We can think, how is it possible that a foolish man like myself can write fifteen Dharma books? These are very different from other books. The NKT Dharma books that we are using as our subject of study and practice are not just a collection of lectures. They are complete with root text, commentary and outlines, made perfectly like Dharma scripture. How can a foolish man write these books? I can say that because Je Tsongkhapa’s teachings are so profound, precious and clear, it gives Geshe Kelsang the opportunity to write these books. All the explanations of NKT Dharma books come from Je Tsongkhapa’s teachings. Because these teachings are so special, even a humble practitioner and foolish man like me has the opportunity to present such beautiful books. Through this alone we can understand the pre-eminent qualities of Je Tsongkhapa.”

Moreover, gradually throughout his teachings and books over many years, Geshe Kelsang has been clearly teaching how not to rely inappropriately or in a cult-like way on a Spiritual Guide. Buddha’s traditional instructions on Guru devotion need to be understood and practiced carefully within our modern Western context. They must be applied in a very different way to how they were (and still are) sometimes applied in Tibetan society, and especially they must not be mixed with political control.

For example, in Paris in 2008, Geshe Kelsang said:

“Generally, of course, relying upon the Spiritual Guide is the root of Dharma realizations, as Buddha Vajradhara said in the Highest Yoga Tantra teachings and Buddha Shakyamuni said in the Sutra teachings. This teaching is everywhere — from Buddha Shakyamuni up to our present teacher, every teacher has unanimously taught this. We cannot change this. But because society, times and other conditions are different, we need to be careful. What we say and what we want should always remain in the middle way, never extreme.”

Geshe Kelsang explains that although it is a traditional and vital Buddhist teaching to view your Spiritual Guide as a Buddha in order to gain realizations of the stages of the path to enlightenment, this view must be kept inside the heart and not verbalized; and the teachers and students must also not claim to be holy beings (whether they are or not).

He explains: “Je Tsongkhapa strongly rejected revealing clairvoyance and miracle powers, or giving physical or verbal indications that we are a holy, pure or enlightened being.”

This is a “middle way” followed in the New Kadampa Tradition, which enables both teachers and students to avoid strange, “extreme” behavior, and to act normally around each other. It is in keeping with the practice of Je Tsongkhapa’s disciples in their monasteries in Tibet. For example, if a monk made a display of his miracle powers or clairvoyance, he would be asked to leave.

More on this subject coming later. Please feel free to make comments or ask questions.


Kadampa Buddhism in Kwa-Zulu Natal, South Africa

January 9, 2009

Buddhism is starting to take root in areas of the world that would have been impossible even a few years ago.

This is one of the advantages of Kadampa Buddhism. Because it is not tied to Tibetan culture and politics, it is able to adapt flexibly to different customs and lifestyles whilst providing the pure Dharma teachings of Buddha and Je Tsongkhapa.

And check out a photo story detailing an earlier trip.


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