What is the relationship between the NKT and Tibetan Dorje Shugden practitioners?

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.

Different traditions
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.


19 Responses to What is the relationship between the NKT and Tibetan Dorje Shugden practitioners?

  1. JP says:


  2. Khechog says:

    One of the things that inspires me greatly about the NKT & gives me huge confidence in it, is its absolute practicality. Geshe-la has forged a tradition which is all about attaining enlightenment. His study programmes allow anyone to get benefit according to their interest & inclination, be it temporary benefit or ultimate, without ever losing sight of where all living beings eventually need to end up. Geshe-la has been fearless in creating this structure. It is easy to see how he could be (and is) criticised for decisions such as the one outlined here, but he makes them for entirely practical spiritual reasons. It would be easy to ignore such situations in order to avoid ruffling people’s feathers; this would be short-termism & insincere. What is at stake is ultimate benefit. We all like to follow our whims, but that is a luxury Geshe-la has never allowed himself, holding instead with rare integrity to the goal of his spiritual guide – to provide a functioning path to enlightenment for this & future generations of students in this modern world. The decision being explained here exemplifies that practicality and courage. May all traditions, Western & Eastern show such wisdom so that they all function as true paths for those who have karma with them, without ever degenerating into worldly institutions. In this way may harmony & respect prevail.

  3. Jules says:

    A case in point: this visiting Rinpoche said at least two things during his teachings of NKT students (at various people’s houses) that seem to have caused problems.

    He told one student who has been faithfully doing powa practices for some time that this was not a good idea because it can shorten her life. He apparently also told her that there are more powerful powa practices and the NKT should have included them :\ Actually, the NKT has five powa practices that are all powerful and effective — two related to Avalokiteshvara, one to Tara, one within Offering to the Spiritual Guide, and the first bringing of Vajrayogini Tantra.

    It is such a disservice to spread doubt in this way, so that this student has less faith in the powa practice she was happily doing before and it does not work so well for her anymore.

    This criticism coming from a Tibetan Lama is, I think, a classic example of why we respect others traditions and don’t criticize them, but we are also happy with practicing our own without inviting this kind of interference and meddling.

  4. newkadampatruth says:

    “We don’t need to mix our traditions. Each tradition has its own uncommon good qualities, and it is important not to lose these. We should concentrate on our own tradition and maintain the good qualities of our tradition, but we should always keep good relations with each other and never argue or criticize each other. What I would like to request is that we should improve our own traditions while maintaining good relations with each other.” (Geshe Kelsang Gyatso, An Interview With Geshe Kelsang Gyatso, Tricycle: the Buddhist Review, No. 27, Spring 1998, p. 76)

    Here is a good article that has bearing on what is being talked about here:

  5. Richard says:

    (From the same website you just referred to, which has lots of quotes from Geshe Kelsang:)

    “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 on 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.

    Because the New Kadampa Tradition is in Western countries, most of the followers of this tradition are Westerners, so their way of studying and practicing is different. They never use the title New Kadampa Tradition at Sera, Ganden, and Drepung. Generally, the Kadampas before Lama Tsongkhapa are known as Old Kadampas, and after Lama Tsongkhapa, in books the lineages are called New Kadampa. This is because Lama Tsongkhapa had a slightly different way of presenting the Dharma. But the only title used nowadays is Gelugpa. I called our Dharma centers the New Kadampa Tradition. The source of the teachings and practices comes from Lama Tsongkhapa. We have never said that here we are pure, whereas others are not pure. The Dharma is the same.” (Geshe Kelsang Gyatso, An Interview With Geshe Kelsang Gyatso, Tricycle: the Buddhist Review, No. 27, Spring 1998, p. 74)

  6. lois smith says:

    Does the internal rules include elements of the equalities bill 2010?

  7. dharmaprotector says:

    “Today we can see many different forms of Buddhism, such as Zen and Theravada Buddhism. All these different aspects are practices of Buddha’s teachings, and all are equally precious; they are just different presentations.” (Geshe Kelsang Gyatso, Modern Buddhism, p. 3)

  8. Bettina says:

    “… this student has less faith in the powa practice she was happily doing before and it does not work so well for her anymore.”

    With respect to Jules’s comment above (and one or two other things I have heard about this Tibetan teacher’s visit), I was wondering why he wanted to teach Geshe Kelsang’s students in the first place.

    Maybe his motivation was compassion, but did he not lack skill or respect in this instance? For at the least, if the NKT students asked questions e.g. about the powa practice, why did this Lama not simply encourage them to rely on their own Spiritual Guide’s instructions in accordance with the Lamrim rather than criticize the NKT?

    If he is somehow motivated by seeking influence over Geshe Kelsang’s students, the question is why? And are there other teachers wanting or waiting to do the same thing? Is this a one-time event or could the floodgates open? I don’t know, these seem like legitimate concerns though.

  9. Richard says:

    There is a really good explanation of the “One Truth, Many Paths: So What’s Wrong with Mixing Them?” theory, also known as “If it ain’t broke, don’t mix it” here:


    One quote from there:

    For the person who doesn’t believe in there already being ‘the many in the one,’ some traditions have things that other traditions don’t have, implying that none of them is complete. So unless he freely takes from them all, he believes he is ‘missing out on something.’ This perceived incompleteness hinders his faith in any one tradition as being able to provide him with a complete path to liberation. So I have to ask, how is it possible to achieve ‘the one through the many’ if none of them individually is “good enough” for us? Moreover, even if all taken together, would this ever add up to be a complete path? How would we know?

    In contrast, for the person who does believe in ‘the many in the one,’ he has confidence that his tradition of choice can in fact take him to the other shore. And because every Buddhist tradition is equally a complete path, he believes liberation is possible for all Buddhists, each through his own respective tradition. So, the person who practices in terms of ‘the many through the one’ actually thinks more highly of other traditions than the eclectic does! In reality, it is the eclectic approach that shows disrespect towards all the different traditions, while it is the non-eclectic approach that actually regards each of them as supremely precious. Some people take it the wrong way and think that the exclusivity that comes with practicing only one tradition is motivated by sectarianism or disdainful intolerance for anything other than one’s own, when actually it is a wish that all traditions be preserved intact for generations to come. If it ain’t broke, don’t “mix” it!

  10. TM says:

    I was thinking about this Tulku system as applied to the West. It doesn’t seem to have translated all that well — the Dalai Lama has too much mixed religious and political power from a Western point of view (IMHO) and the FPMT has run into a brick wall with Lama Yeshe’s Tulku Lama Osel. Trijang Choktrul has had to break away completely from the Tibetan establishment, even disrobe, so he could continue his practices in peace.

    Then there is Stephen Seagal!!

    Not to say that there are not Tibetan and Western people with great faith in their spiritual teachers, who also happen to be Tulkus in the Tibetan tradition, and that is great. It is just that I can see why the NKT would want to discontinue the practice.

    Geshe Kelsang hasn’t just suddenly come up with this idea. He himself was never recognized as a reincarnate Lama (though he was born on Dharmachakra Day 😉 and he had a very humble childhood. Yet as a child he was clearly unusual and full of Dharma. He wanted very much as a very young child to become a monk, and his mother worked very hard, almost like a slave, for the local landowner so that it could happen. People around at the time say that at his first monastery, Jampa Ling, he was always meditating on Lamrim rather than going out to play for example, and he protected a fellow little monk from the disciplinarian’s wrath by saying he had done the naughty deed himself, and took the punishment. In other words, he has been quite exceptional from the beginning, but never officially.

    I think his is a viable example to emulate these days, and it also means I have no excuses such as “Well, I’m not a Tulku, so I’ll leave it up to them to protect and spread Je Tsongkhapa’s tradition.”

  11. Infinite Aeons says:

    “Some Kadampa Lamas gave very useful practical advise concerning relying upon more than one Teacher. They would say that if we wish to rely upon more than one Spiritual Guide we should ensure that they all share the same lineage and view as our principal Spiritual Guide, otherwise the blessings of the latter will soon disappear”. Geshe Kelsang Gyatso, Great Treasury of Merit, p. 102

  12. dharmaprotector says:

    @Infinite Aeons: “same view” in this context can be understood as “same presentation.”

  13. Michelle says:

    This only studying one teacher was arule made before the NKT existed. It was made by people in our lineage based on their experiences of what works and doesnt. In the history some people studied many teachers some only one. Then the results would have been there. Obviously they saw problems in the people who wouldnt commit to any teacher or had teachers giving opposite advice. Obviously this approach worked for advanced practitioners such as Je Tsongkhapa who had many teachers. But did Khedrubje have many teachers? I think senior people sometimes take many teachers to gather a complete set of instructions if no teacher is presenting a complete set. For example Atishas life story. Its all about if theres something missing. Because Atisha had the complete set of teachings Drontompa could study one teacher. I think in our lineage this is the ideal because you avoid the problems that the lineage Gurus gave this advice to help people avoid. This is why the whole concept of a Root Guru was created.

  14. Julie says:

    Shar Gaden actually put a photo of Geshe-la in their gompa (meditation room). (I saw this on another Dorje Shugden site and will post the link if I can find it again.) They must have done this from their own side.

  15. Duke Okkelberg says:

    I am here at Shar Gaden now and there have been many visitors from the NKT students over the months. When I say many I mean maybe 10-12.
    Two are here now studying Tibetan language.
    Yes, there is a nice picture of Geshe Kelsang in one of the prayer halls. All of the monks here seem to respect him very much.

  16. meditatingone says:

    Having seen many Dorje Shugden Gompas in Majnu Ka Tila in Delhi (the Tibetan colony), many of the Gompas have pictures of Geshe-La in them, almost all of them with khatags over them. A mark of respect of the work and demos which have allowed Dorje Shugden practitioners to continue their worship and practice with far less persecution.

    Thank you for posting this article x

  17. Robert Thomas says:

    I think this is a wonderful article and really clarifies many points whcih often cause confusion for people – perhaps most often that by not inviting “guest” teachers, it means that NKT doesn’t recognise other budhist groups or teachers as valid. The reasoning expressed here, I think makes very clear that this is not the case, and also reveals a little of the special understanding Geshe-la has so incredibly captured and realised, against tremendous opposing forces!. This is vsion and courage is what makes the NKT so precious. Over the years I have known many friends who dispite living all over the world were able to find great happiness because Geshe-la has prepared NKT in such a way that we have center’s in many many places. I can’t begin to say how kind this is!

    Thank you


  18. Robert Thomas says:

    On a seperate point, when you write part two, I think it could be useful to address the definition of our Monastics within the general assembly of Ordained sangha. I know we follow the meaning of the Vinaya and the practice is wonderful for its simplicity, honesty and clarity. However, as you know there has been criticism that we have, by abonding the traditional way of granting ordination, also ceased to be included in the Council fo Elders for example. I personally find this to be an entirely technical point with little relevance to actual practice, but as this may be a continued criticism in the future, I think it would be good to say clearly how NKT monks and nuns are seen by us within the context of all Buddhist monastics.

    For example, Geshe-la cites the traditoin of Geshe Potowa. I understand this to refer to the tradition of meaning and realisation, not an actual “ordination” tradition? Or did Geshe Pototwa actually create a formal ordination granting ceremony based on this understading? Or did he continue to have monks ordained formally according to the Vinaya (with 5 Gelongs present etc) and following the Mulasarvativadin school of Vinaya? But then train them according to his insight where he refers to Dromtonpa as his ordaining abbot?

    Stating clearly this technical point would I think help reduce possible doubts in the future. I think these could be deluded doubts causing a loss of faith.

    With best wishes


  19. drmnaga78 says:

    Thanks for the great post. Is there still going to be a second post?
    Kind regards,

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