Has the NKT broken away from the mainstream?

December 7, 2008

Following on from the last article, Are NKT practitioners real Gelugpas?, there is another related allegation, which is that the NKT has broken away from the main Tibetan Buddhist traditions (including the Gelugpa).

Some critics see an apparent contradiction between claiming a pure Tibetan lineage and separating completely from contemporary Tibetan tradition. Some critics argue that the New Kadampa Tradition, as it is known today, is not part of the ancient Kadampa Tradition but a split from the Gelug school of Tibetan Buddhism. Yet others have argued that the NKT is a so-called “NRM” (new religious movement) deriving from Tibetan Buddhism, and a controversial one at that!

These claims are not new — they were all made in the 1990’s — but they have found their way onto Wikipedia and various other websites. So here is an answer to them, which hopefully will be helpful in showing the differences but also the relationship between the NKT and Tibetan Buddhism. Your comments and questions are most welcome.

The NKT is a Mahayana Buddhist tradition with historical connections with Tibet, rather than a Tibetan tradition. The reason for this is that Geshe Kelsang wishes NKT practitioners always “to present Dharma in a way appropriate to their own culture and society without the need to adopt Tibetan language and customs”. For example, we do not recite prayers in Tibetan, practice reliance on oracles, recognize Tulkus (reincarnated teachers), do Lama dancing, or use prayer wheels, prayer flags, and so forth, which all come from Tibetan culture. Nor do we engage in any political activity whatsoever, including Tibetan politics such as the campaign to free Tibet.

When Buddhism moved from India to Tibet, was Tibetan Buddhism a ‘splinter group’ from the main Indian traditions? No, it was a new development of Buddha Shakyamuni’s teachings in Tibet, and its practitioners were Tibetan (not Indian) Buddhists. In the same way, the NKT is a new development of Buddha Shakyamuni’s teachings in the modern world and NKT practitioners are Buddhists of all nationalities (not Tibetans or Tibetan Buddhists).

The NKT follows the pure Gelug tradition that has been passed down from Je Tsongkhapa (1357-1419 AD) and whose teachings can be traced back through a line of lineage teachers to Buddha Shakyamuni himself. Therefore, Kadampa Buddhism started in India, spent a period in Tibet, and is now flourishing in the West.

While there are Tibetans who are (and have been) Kadampas and Gelugpas, Kadampa and Gelugpa Buddhism are not uniquely or naturally Tibetan. Although Je Tsongkhapa was born in Tibet, it is not necessary to be a Tibetan Buddhist in order to be a Gelugpa. Je Tsongkhapa presented the timeless wisdom of Buddha Shakyamuni, which is independent of culture and nationality.

There is no contradiction between claiming a pure Tibetan lineage and separating completely from the contemporary Tibetan establishment and other Tibetan Buddhist groups, as some people have suggested. It is possible to be a Buddhist follower in Je Tsongkhapa’s lineage but not a Tibetan Buddhist, just as a child of Russian immigrants to America may consider themselves American but not Russian.

Everyone who practices Je Tsongkhapa’s special explanation of Buddha’s teachings purely without mixing is a Gelugpa, and so the NKT is definitely a Gelugpa tradition. However, the NKT is quite separate and different from the Tibetan Gelugpa tradition. Its prayers and teachings are not in Tibetan, it has no relationship with the Dalai Lama, it has no political affiliations, and the presentation of its teachings is Western. It is Gelugpa in terms of view, practice, and action, rather than in terms of being a member of the politically-influenced Tibetan Gelugpa organization.

The presentation of Kadampa Buddhism by Geshe Kelsang is a modern incarnation of this ancient tradition and its presentation is especially suitable for Western and other modern-day practitioners. Before he passed away, his root Guru Kyabje Trijang Rinpoche advised Geshe Kelsang to teach in accordance with the needs of his Western students. Therefore, this presentation has been designed by Geshe Kelsang with the permission and encouragement of Trijang Rinpoche. Judging by the increasing number of Kadampa students throughout the world, it is working very well.

As for the claim that the NKT is a controversial NRM deriving from Tibetan Buddhism, the NKT is not a  “new” movement in terms of doctrine but an ancient Mahayana tradition whose presentation has been adapted to the modern world. Paradoxically, the NKT is described as “traditionalist” and “orthodox” in its presentation of Buddha’s teachings, yet at the same time called an NRM for not compromising on tradition.

The NKT is not part of  Tibetan Buddhism as it has separated out from the Tibetan hierarchy to become an independent organization. This was done in order to not compromise pure Dharma by allowing it to become a theocratical mixture of religion and politics.

“Controversy” arose in Tibetan Buddhist circles due to the NKT’s vocal disagreement with the Dalai Lama in the 1990’s over his banning of their ancient religious practice in the Tibetan exile community in India. This disagreement arose from the intention to preserve the traditional Protector practice of Dorje Shugden, which has been passed down by great Gelug teachers for generations.

Finally, it is in many ways ironic to call the NKT a ‘breakaway’ tradition when in fact they closely follow the teachings of their Spiritual Guide, who in turn relied upon the teachings of his own Spiritual Guide, and so on.  One could argue that the real ‘break with tradition’ came with the Dalai Lama’s decision to abandon the teachings of Trijang Dorjechang, who was both his Guru and the main upholder of Je Tsongkhapa’s tradition in his generation.

We hope this helps. Please leave comments if you wish for further clarification.


Smear: The NKT is Fundamentalist

September 9, 2008

Truth: This is not true. The definition of fundamentalism in Wikipedia is “deep and totalistic commitment” to a belief in, and strict adherence to a set of basic principles (often religious in nature), a reaction to perceived doctrinal compromises with modern social and political life.

Fundamentalism is therefore clinging to a set of principles in reaction to the perception that too much compromise of these principles has been made in the modern world. This does not apply to the NKT. As with all Buddhists, NKT practitioners try to practise Buddha’s teachings as they were traditionally transmitted to them without imposing their own interpretation or omitting anything; however there is a flexibility at NKT Centres around the world to compromise with the norms of society as necessary to benefit others, which is the antithesis of fundamentalism.

There is an expression in Kadampa Buddhism: “Remain natural while changing your aspiration.” One example of this flexibility is the NKT ordination. The ten commitments provide the flexibility to function in the modern world — such as being able to support oneself by having a job, handling money and freely meeting with people to help them — but they also provide the necessary restraint from inappropriate actions that Buddha taught in the Sutras to make progress on the spiritual path. The NKT ordination is far more suited to living in the modern world than the traditional ordination based on the Vinaya. It is critics of the NKT ordination who appear to be fundamentalists by clinging to a fixed idea of ordination that cannot change with the times. For them, NKT ordination offers too many compromises with modern life. However, because Geshe Kelsang understands the essential meaning of Buddha’s teachings, he is able to made changes in presentation where necessary without compromising what Buddha taught or the strength of monastic ordination.

There are many other examples of flexibility and changes to the presentation of Buddhism introduced by the NKT, such as the training of Buddhist teachers of every nationality for every country, the training and promotion of lay women and men as teachers alongside monks and nuns, the translation of books and prayers into modern languages, new sadhanas compiled under the compassionate guidance of Geshe Kelsang, the use of new tunes and modern instruments in the music accompanying pujas, the composition of the Liberating Prayer (a new praise to Buddha Shakyamuni), following the solar calendar familiar to the West as opposed to the lunar calendar followed by the Tibetans. These and many other innovations distinguish the New Kadampa Tradition from other traditions. However, the essential meaning of Buddha’s teachings remains unchanged. In this way, NKT is both flexible and traditional at the same time, but it is not fundamentalist.

This post was copied from the New Kadampa Truth site: Smear: NKT is fundamentalist.