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.

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Are NKT practitioners real Gelugpas?

December 6, 2008

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.


Another Reply to the Bodhisattva Centre Protestors, Part Two

September 14, 2008

Dear Carol and friends, here we continue our answers to your questions!

Questions about Dorje Shugden

Is the practice of Dorje Shugden modern?

The practice of Dorje Shugden can implicitly be traced back to the time of Buddha Shakyamuni because, at that time, one of Buddha’s eight Bodhisattva disciples was Manjushri, and Manjushri and Dorje Shugden are the same person.

Buddha Shakyamuni encouraged many of his disciples such as King Ajatashatru to rely on Manjushri because they had a strong karmic connection with him. In the same way, Gelugpa teachers such as Je Phabongkhapa, the late Panchen Lama Chokyi Gyaltsen, Tomo Geshe Rinpoche, Trijang Rinpoche and Geshe Kelsang and Sakya Teachers such as Sachen Kunga Lodro, Morchen Dorjechang Kunga Lhundrup and Dagchen Trinley Rinchen have encouraged disciples to rely on Dorje Shugden because of their strong karmic connection with this particular embodiment of Manjushri.

Manjushri manifests as many different Dharma Protectors, such as the various Mahakalas and Kalarupa. It is accepted by the Dalai Lama and his followers that these Protectors are manifestations of Manjushri, but not Dorje Shugden. Why? If your Teacher tells you “Mahakala is Manjushri” and he also says “Dorje Shugden is Manjushri”, why believe one statement and not the other?

The point is the Dalai Lama doesn’t trust his own lineage Gurus, and in particular his teacher Trijang Rinpoche. The Dalai Lama previously referred to Trijang Rinpoche as his root guru:

‘I received the transmission of the guru yoga (Lama Chopa Guru Yoga Practice) from my root guru, the late Kyabje Trijang Rinpoche.’  – Dalai Lama  – The Union of Bliss and Emptiness, Snow Lion Pub.1988.

Rejecting any Buddhist teaching is one of the “great faults”, but the Dalai Lama seems to think he has the wisdom to decide what people should practice and what they should not, even though his view is clearly not in keeping with his teachers’ and he does not have the spiritual authority of being the head of any lineage of Tibetan Buddhism. Such interference in the religious practices of others by a political leader is unheard of in the history of Buddhism.

Refuting that Dorje Shugden is separate from Je Tsongkhapa’s tradition

You ask: If you live in a residential centre of the NKT you are also not allowed to engage in the religious practices of another tradition. For instance, you would not be allowed to have a picture of the Dalai Lama on your shrine. What difference is there in this and in the situation in India?

(It is not completely clear to me what you are comparing here, so let me know if I have missed your point). I personally know of several NKT residents who have pictures or books of the Dalai Lama in their rooms, and this is not disallowed — much less have these residents been asked to leave, as is sometimes claimed elsewhere. We don’t have pictures of the Dalai Lama on the Centre shrines as he is not the NKT’s (or Gelugpa’s for that matter) Spiritual Guide or lineage Guru (see Smear: NKT has split away from the Dalai Lama). It is unlikely that many of the Dalai Lama’s followers have a picture of Geshe Kelsang on their shrines for the same reason! In India, even pictures of Kyabje Trijang Rinpoche are currently being removed from monasteries.

The situation in the monasteries in India is that over a thousand monks have been expelled (from the homes they have lived in since they were children, in many cases). This is for the crime of continuing to do a beneficial spiritual practice they have done their entire lives in those same monasteries, taught to them by their beloved Spiritual Guides who were Abbots, high Lamas and so on of those monasteries. In many cases, they have a life entrustment to do this practice. Some who chose the expediency of giving in to the Dalai Lama and giving up their reliance on their Spiritual Guide have described it as having their heart ripped out.

Just to get this into context, the practice of relying upon Dorje Shugden was a key practice of Je Phabongkhapa (the most famous Gelug Lama in the first part of the twentieth century) and of Kyabje Trijang Rinpoche (the most famous Gelug Lama in the second half of that century). Since the Gelug tradition was by far the largest of the four schools of Tibetan Buddhism, it is safe to assume that relying upon Dorje Shugden was a key practice of a large proportion of Tibetan Buddhists at the time of the Chinese invasion and in the early years of the Tibetan diaspora.

Meanwhile, the Foundation for the Preservation of the Mahayana Tradition (FPMT) have followed the Dalai Lama’s suit and recently barred from their Centres anyone who practices Dorje Shugden. This policy of discrimination is stated clearly on their website, and it seems extraordinary that, in this day and age, no one in the FPMT or elsewhere has questioned it. The NKT does not have anything remotely comparable to this policy and allows anyone to attend teachings; and yet it is accused by its detractors of sectarianism. If the NKT had a blatant policy of sectarianism like the one spelt out on the FPMT website, there would be a huge outcry. Naturally, the NKT would never hear the end of it. So why is there not even a small outcry about the FPMT’s policy? It seems because they feel safe hiding behind the popularity of the Dalai Lama, assuming that people will not question it; and, so far, they are correct in this assumption.

It may be worth pointing out that the Dalai Lama’s discrediting of Dorje Shugden is not simply an attack upon a Dharma Protector who, being a Buddha, needs no defending. Because relying upon Dorje Shugden was a key practice of Je Phabongkhapa and his disciples, an attack on Dorje Shugden is an attack on the spiritual heritage of all these Buddhist masters. If it is true, as the Dalai Lama claims, that Dorje Shugden is an evil spirit, it follows that these and many other Buddhist masters were relying upon an evil spirit — thus discrediting them, their followers, their Gelugpa tradition and their lineages of spiritual transmission. It is this, along with the unprecedented attempt to forcibly ban this practice, that Dorje Shugden practitioners find so unacceptable. They are not saying that non-Dorje Shugden practitioners are not entitled to their own religious practices and traditions, only that they are entitled to theirs.

Is the ‘Dorje Shugden problem’ a political issue?

You say: Concern for the ‘Tibetan people’ is a ‘political’ cause but concern for Dorje Shugden practitioners is not?

Tibet is a country that has a Government in Exile (TGIE) and the issues of Tibet are the issues of the government and political by nature. The practice of Dorje Shugden is an essential part of Je Tsongkhapa’s tradition and it is a spiritual practice. Campaigning for religious freedom is very important because it affects the spiritual lives of Buddhists. The WSS believes that by practising Buddha’s teachings people can attain permanent liberation from suffering. If these teachings are lost or corrupted, there will be no possiblity of finding permanent release from suffering; so maintaining these teachings is a religious and not a political issue.

It may be uncomfortable to hear but, according to Buddha’s teachings, politics, such as campaigning for a free Tibet, will never lead to permanent liberation from suffering, whereas restoring and protecting a pure spiritual practice that can get people out of samsara will.

You say: If this is about religious freedom and not a political issue, why can’t the NKT itself protest against the Dalai Lama? If it is a political issue then why are members of the NKT engaging in Tibetan politics when the NKT pertains to be non-political?

I can understand your confusion. This problem comes from not distinguishing between the religious and the political dual role of the Dalai Lama. I believe even the Dalai Lama has this problem.

The pure practice of Dorje Shugden has never been ‘Tibetan politics’. The Dalai Lama has made Dorje Shugden into a political scapegoat, blaming his failure to get Tibetan independence on the worship of this Deity. All the WSS is trying to do is to protect the lineage of Je Tsongkhapa. Why is this political? Who is engaging in politics here?

The NKT itself does not protest against the Dalai Lama because many more people than those in the NKT are affected by the Dalai Lama’s ban. As mentioned above, there are many Gelugpas in this world. The WSS is an ad-hoc association of Dorje Shugden practitioners. It is not only the NKT that disagrees with what the Dalai Lama has done.

You say: If Tibetan problems are nothing to do with the WSS then why are you protesting against the Tibetan political leader about his management of Tibetan monasteries? There is no ban on practising Dorje Shugden for NKT practitioners. Do you wish to have the approval of the Dalai Lama?

If the Dalai Lama is a political leader, why is he involved in the management of Tibetan monasteries? This would be like President Bush making decisions about what US Dharma Centres do.

The Dalai Lama wants to have his cake and to eat it – he wants to be a politician and he wants to be a spiritual leader at the same time. These roles are incompatible. With all due respect, confusion over what he is seems evident from your questions and responses, and I think this confusion stems from his ambiguous dual role – is he the political or the religious leader? What does he want from the world and its people? Even the media is often unsure how to refer to him and world politicians are ambivalent about whether or not to meet with him. His theocratic role is unique in this modern world and, for those who disagree with him, there is no recourse because of it.

Practitioners of Dorje Shugden will probably never get the Dalai Lama’s approval, which of course makes many of them very sad, as you can see from their stories on this video. But what they need is the freedom to practice, the freedom not to be ostracised from their communities, and the freedom not to be demonized as non-Buddhists engaging in ‘cult-like’ practices worshipping an evil spirit. Since the Dalai Lama is the source of this slander, the Western Shugden Society need him to retract his statements and give religious freedom; nothing more.

I’ll post the final part of the replies tomorrow. Once again, thank you Carol for the opportunity to answer your questions. Hopefully these answers will be helpful for others also who are wrestling with doubts, at least enough for them to respect this position even if they do not agree with it.


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