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