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Kelsang Gyatso is a Buddhist monk, "meditation master, scholar, and author" of 22 books based on the teachings of the Gelug school of Tibetan Buddhism. He is the founder and former spiritual director of the New Kadampa Tradition ~ International Kadampa Buddhist Union (NKT-IKBU), a Western Buddhist order based primarily on the teachings of the Gelugpa tradition, albeit "not subordinate to Tibetan authorities other than Geshe Gyatso himself." The NKT-IKBU has grown to become a global Buddhist organisation that currently lists more than 200 centres and around 900 branch classes/study groups in 40 countries.
Geshe Kelsang was born in Tibet in 1931 and ordained at the age of eight. After leaving Tibet, he spent eighteen years in retreat in the Himalayas in India. In 1976 he was invited by Lama Thubten Yeshe via their spiritual guide, Trijang Rinpoche, to become the resident teacher at the main FPMT center, Manjushri Institute in Ulverston, Cumbria in England. Following a three-year retreat in Tharpaland, Dumfries, he founded the NKT-IKBU in 1991. He retired as General Spiritual Director of the NKT-IKBU in August 2009 but continues to write books and practice materials.
Geshe Kelsang Gyatso was born on Dharmachakra Day (the 4th day of the 6th month of the Tibetan lunar calendar) 1931 in Yangcho Tang, eastern Tibet. His lay name was Lobsang Chuponpa. His ordination name "Kelsang Gyatso" means "Ocean of Good Fortune". His mother made great sacrifices to enable her son to attend the Ngamring Jampa Ling Monastery because he showed interest and aptitude from an early age. He joined the monastery when he was 8 years old and later described memorizing the Medicine Buddha Sutra:
In my first monastery, Jampa Ling, this was the principal practice. The Tibetan translation of the Sutra is about fifty pages long. I memorized this together with some additional prayers, because this was one of the commitments for being able to stay in the monastery.
(In November 1986, Geshe Kelsang oversaw the rebuilding of Ngamring Jampa Ling Monastery after its destruction, and it was fully restored and reopened by September 1988.)
According to Cozort, Kelsang Gyatso is "a highly trained geshe." After studying on the Geshe training program at Jampaling, Geshe Kelsang passed two examinations at Tashilhunpo Monastery in Shigatse, and received his Geshe degree. Later Geshe Kelsang continued his studies at Sera Monastery near Lhasa, one of the great Gelug monastic universities of Tibet. At Sera Je, he successfully completed the full Geshe studies of five large philosophical texts. He was a member of the Tsangpa Khangtsen, one of the fifteen houses at Sera Je monastery. Contemporaries at Sera Je included Geshe Lhundub Sopa, Geshe Rabten, and Lama Thubten Yeshe.
Waterhouse cites three reasons, traditional in Tibetan Buddhism, why Geshe Kelsang is authorized to be a Spiritual Guide, saying "The combination of experience, lineage and knowledge makes Geshe Kelsang ideal as a teacher. He has the credibility of a genuine Tibetan teacher and the vision to instigate an organization (the New Kadampa Tradition) to present that teaching to westerners."
Geshe Kelsang Gyatso's "Spiritual Father" was the great Gelugpa Master Kyabje Trijang Dorjechang (1900-1981 CE), who was also the "root guru" of the current Dalai Lama. He describes his root Guru as "a vast reservoir from which all Gelugpa practitioners of the present day received 'waters' of blessings and instructions." Trijang Rinpoche was also the Junior Tutor and Spiritual Guide of the 14th Dalai Lama for fifty years.
Geshe Kelsang has repeatedly talked about his complete indebtedness to and reliance upon his Spiritual Guide, describing him as more important than his life.
In 1978 Trijang Rinpoche wrote a prayer for Geshe Kelsang Gyatso's long life that is regularly recited at New Kadampa Tradition Centres.
After the exodus from Tibet in 1959, Geshe Kelsang escaped to India through Nepal and stayed at the initial location of his monastery, in Buxar. All he took with him were two Buddhist scriptures -- Shantideva's Guide to the Bodhisattva's Way of Life and a text by Je Tsongkhapa. Later, after Prime Minister Nehru donated large tracts of land in South India to the community in exile, the monastery moved south. At this time, Geshe Kelsang left the monastery at Buxar for Mussoorie (a hill station in the Indian state of Uttaranchal) where he taught and engaged in intensive meditation retreat for 18 years.
Even before coming to the West, Geshe Kelsang was "by all accounts, a very well respected scholar and meditator" within the Tibetan exile community. Since then, "this diminutive and unassuming Tibetan has won the hearts and minds of people from all cultures and walks of life."
Kay remarks that Lama Yeshe's decision to invite his former classmate to be Resident Teacher at the FPMT's Manjushri Institute in England was advised by the Dalai Lama. The invitation was extended by Trijang Rinpoche, the root Guru of Geshe Kelsang. He arrived in August 1977 and gave his first teaching on Lamrim on September 10. Geshe Kelsang later recounted that Kyabje Trijang Rinpoche asked him to go to England, teach Shantideva's Guide to the Bodhisattva's Way of Life, Chandrakirti's Guide to the Middle Way and Lamrim, and then “check whether there was any meaning in his continuing to stay."
In Geshe Kelsang's own words:
When I was in India I received an invitation from Manjushri Institute in England through Lama Yeshe, who was my very close friend in Tibet. He and I were from the same monastery in Tibet and we had the same Teacher. He wrote to me and requested me please to go to England and give Dharma teachings. I received this invitation but I didn’t answer for two months. At that time it was difficult for me to say yes due to certain commitments to local Tibetan people, and also I thought how could I teach as I could not speak English? I had no confidence. Lama Yeshe was very clever; he went to visit my root Guru Kyabje Trijang Rinpoche, and requested him to ask me to go to England to teach Dharma. He knew if my root Guru asked me, then I would agree to go.
Under Geshe Kelsang's spiritual direction, Manjushri Institute "became a thriving training and retreat center." Geshe Kelsang taught the General Program at Manjushri from 1977 to 1987. At that time, the Geshe studies programme was taught by Geshe Jampa Tekchok and then Geshe Konchog Tsewang (1982–1990). (In 1990 the Geshe Studies Programme at Manjushri Institute was cancelled, as it had been in most of the other FPMT Centres where it had been established.)
On October 13, 1983, Geshe Kelsang became a naturalized British citizen: “I became a subject of the British Queen”.
In 1979, Geshe Kelsang opened a Dharma Center (Madhyamaka Centre in Yorkshire) under his own spiritual direction and apparently without FPMT approval. David Kay explained how many Geshes who happened to teach at FPMT Centers in the early years still considered themselves to be autonomous entities: "Not all of the geshes shared Lama Yeshe's vision of Gelug Buddhism in the West or understood themselves to be part of it."
Robert Bluck explained that as a consequence of opening Madhayamaka Centre, Lama Yeshe asked for Geshe Kelsang's resignation, "but his students petitioned him to remain, and a struggle ensued for control of Manjushri Institute, which eventually withdrew from the FPMT." Although some FPMT students regarded Geshe Kelsang as a "rogue geshe" as a result of his separation from the FPMT, Bluck suggests an alternative view: "FPMT teachers became increasingly remote, with Geshe Kelsang's single-minded approach and personal example inspiring many students."
In 1987, Geshe Kelsang entered a 3-year retreat at Tharpaland Retreat Centre in Dumfries, Scotland. During his retreat, he wrote five books and established the foundations of the NKT-IKBU. After completing his retreat in the early months of 1991, Geshe Kelsang announced the creation of the NKT-IKBU, an event which was celebrated by his students in the NKT-IKBU magazine Full Moon as "a wonderful development in the history of the Buddhadharma." Since that time, the NKT-IKBU has grown to comprise over 1100 Centres and groups throughout 40 countries.
Geshe Kelsang Gyatso is a prolific writer and teacher of Buddhadharma in general, in particular the teachings of Je Tsongkhapa. He has taught extensively on all aspects of Buddha's Sutras and Tantras both in regular courses for the first ten years at Manjushri Institute and then in International Festivals two or three times a year. His teachings draw on the original texts of Buddha Shakyamuni and a number of Indian and Tibetan teachers and commentators. They also draw on his own meditative experience acquired in his long 1959-1976 retreat.
Talking about his training at the monasteries, he explains that it mainly emphasized intellectual debate, and that he would therefore stay up all night to meditate on Lamrim (stages of the path), Lojong (training the mind) and Mahamudra in the meditative tradition of Je Tsongkhapa. His teachings reflect this emphasis on practical teachings based on Lamrim, Lojong and Mahamudra. When he established the NKT-IKBU study programs he said:
"I wanted to encourage people to practice purely. Just having a lot of Dharma knowledge, studying a lot intellectually but not practicing, is a serious problem. This was my experience in Tibet. Intellectual knowledge alone does not give peace.”
Geshe Kelsang explained how he received his Guru Trijang Rinpoche's permission to present Dharma in a more practical way suitable to Westerners. Waterhouse commented that "He teaches in English with a strong Tibetan accent. He is an endearing character to look at; petite with slightly downcast eyes which look about him as he walks or teaches his devoted students." Spanswick observes that "many of those who hear him speak are struck by his wisdom and sincerity."
At the heart of the NKT-IKBU are its three study programs: the General Program, the Foundation Program, and the Teacher Training Program. In these programs people can study Geshe Kelsang's books with authorized NKT-IKBU Dharma teachers.
According to the NKT-IKBU, it "seeks not to offer a westernized form of Buddhism, but rather to make traditional Gelugpa Buddhism accessible to westerners." To achieve this, Geshe Kelsang taught himself English and wrote 22 books that aim to provide Western Dharma practitioners with essential Buddhist texts. His first book published in 1980 was a commentary to Shantideva's Guide to the Bodhisattva's Way of Life called Meaningful to Behold. This was followed by Clear Light of Bliss in 1982. His books were first published by Wisdom Publications. In 1985, Tharpa Publications was founded, which since has been the exclusive publisher of his works worldwide.
A number of Geshe Kelsang's textbooks have received favourable reviews. Bluck writes that "The three most popular works—Introduction to Buddhism, The New Meditation Handbook and Transform Your Life—have sold 165,000 copies between them, showing their appeal far beyond the movement itself." Batchelor says that Geshe Kelsang's books are written with "considerable clarity." Braizer echoes this sentiment, saying that Geshe Kelsang writes "excellent" books that are "an important contribution to Western understanding of Buddhism and its traditions. They can stand on their own merit." Guide to Dakini Land and Essence of Vajrayana have been described as "the most detailed and revealing commentary on specific tantric practices yet to be published in a Western language." In his book review of Guide to Dakini Land, Richard Guard said:
It is remarkable that the author has managed to give us so much information in only a few hundred pages. The editors are to be commended for their skilful efforts in conveying Geshe Kelsang’s instructions in such simple and precise language... By making this book available for Vajrayogini practitioners, Geshe Kelsang has truly brought a blessing into our lives.
Geshe Kelsang regards all his books as "coming from Je Tsongkhapa, with himself as being like a cassette recorder into which the Wisdom Buddha, the Dharma Protector Dorje Shugden, has placed the cassette of Je Tsongkhapa's teachings." And in the preface of one of his books, Geshe Kelsang states:
|“||I have received these teachings from my Spiritual Guide, Trijang Dorjechang, who was an emanation of Atisha; thus the explanations given in this book, Joyful Path of Good Fortune, actually come from him and not from myself.||”|
Biography Research Guide describes Geshe Kelsang's books:
A Tibetan Buddhist monk and scholar; Geshe Kelsang has written twenty books that aim to provide Western Dharma practitioners with essential Buddhist texts; some are books for beginners such as Transform Your Life and How to Solve Our Human Problems, books about the Mahayana path like Universal Compassion (Lojong), and books on Vajrayana (Tantra) like Mahamudra Tantra; (born 1931, in Tibet).
Over a million copies of Geshe Kelsang's books have been sold, and "their popularity is increasing as more people become interested in the teaching of Buddhism." His books include titles for beginners such as Introduction to Buddhism, Transform Your Life and How to Solve Our Human Problems, books about the Mahayana path like Universal Compassion (Lojong), Heart of Wisdom (Heart Sutra) and Joyful Path of Good Fortune (Lamrim), and books on Vajrayana (Tantra) like Mahamudra Tantra, Guide to Dakini Land and Essence of Vajrayana. Two of his books are commentaries on Indian Mahayana texts: the book Ocean of Nectar is a commentary to Chandrakirti's Guide to the Middle Way, and Meaningful to Behold is a commentary to Shantideva's Guide to the Bodhisattva's Way of Life or Bodhicharyavatara.
The books are also highly thought of within the Tibetan establishment. Three of his published works contained forewords by previous Ganden Tripas and the Dalai Lama. The Dalai Lama contributed a foreword to Buddhism in the Tibetan Tradition, while Trijang Rinpoche and Ling Rinpoche (who each held the position of Ganden Tripa) also provided forewords for his books Meaningful to Behold (which was dedicated to the long life of the Dalai Lama) and Clear Light of Bliss (which was dedicated to the late Trijang Rinpoche), respectively. Kyabje Ling Rinpoche refers to Geshe Kelsang as "this most precious Spiritual Guide," while Kyabje Trijang Rinpoche refers to him as "The excellent expounder, the great Spiritual Master Kelsang Gyatso." Tsem Tulku praised Geshe Kelsang and his publications: "The great master, the Kadampa Geshe, Kelsang Gyatso, you can see very clearly his works, his centers, his books, his pure vows, and how many thousands of people he affects."
The books are being translated into many other languages.
Kay says that NKT-IKBU practitioners practice their tradition exclusively, "eschewing eclecticism." Geshe Kelsang's "conservative and traditional presentation of Buddhism" is appealing to Westerners who "wish for a meaningful alternative to spiritual pluralism." According to Geshe Kelsang in Understanding the Mind:
Every Teacher and every tradition has a slightly different approach and employs different methods. The practices taught by one Teacher will differ from those taught by another, and if we try to combine them we shall become confused, develop doubts, and lose direction. If we try to create a synthesis of different traditions we shall destroy the special power of each and be left only with a mishmash of our own making that will be a source of confusion and doubt.
Therefore, Geshe Kelsang has taught in Great Treasury of Merit that the most effective way to progress spiritually is by "following one tradition purely — relying upon one Teacher, practising only his teachings, and following his Dharma Protector. If we mix traditions many obstacles arise and it takes a long time for us to attain realizations."
The lineage Geshe Kelsang follows is that taught to him by Trijang Rinpoche, his root Guru, and in turn by Pabongka Rinpoche, the root Guru of Trijang Rinpoche. One of Geshe Kelsang's teachers, the highly respected Lharampa Geshe Zong Rinpoche, affirms Geshe Kelsang's view on the importance of lineage:
Kyabje Phabongka passed all of his lineages to Kyabje Trijang Dorje Chang. He often said this in discourses. The purpose of this detailed exposition is to affirm the power of the lineage. If we lose faith in the lineage, we are lost. We should remember the biographies of past and present teachers. We should never develop negative thoughts towards our root and lineage gurus. If we do not keep the commitments after having received teachings, this is a great downfall.[page needed]
There are currently 700 monks and nuns within the New Kadampa Tradition, all ordained by Geshe Kelsang. Geshe Kelsang says:
|“||Western people are well educated; they do not have blind faith but immediately question and try to understand the truth. I cannot pretend with you. We cannot be like a fully ordained monk who has taken 253 vows, but who is not even keeping one. We should never do like this; we need to do everything correctly and purely. The Kadampa ordination solves all these problems. Practically speaking, all the 253 vows explained in the Vinaya Sutra are included within the ten commitments.||”|
That is to say, the vows of those ordained within the New Kadampa Tradition do not enumerate the multitude of details specified by the Indian and Tibetan Vinaya traditions. Rather, the vows follow a pragmatic approach in which the ten global commitments held by Vinaya novices constitute full ordination.
The vows held by monks and nuns within the New Kadampa Tradition are as follows:
|“||Throughout my life I will abandon killing, stealing, lying or cheating, sexual activity, taking intoxicants and engaging in meaningless activities. |
I will practice contentment, reduce my desire for worldly pleasures, maintain the commitments of refuge, and practice the three trainings of moral discipline, concentration and wisdom.
Geshe Kelsang founded the New Kadampa Tradition "to bring pure Buddhist teachings to the west," where he would train equally four types of teacher: monks, nuns, lay men and lay women. NKT-IKBU Dharma Centres are mixed communities of lay and ordained practitioners who are all on the same teaching programs. He also promotes the development of local teachers in their own language. This is a departure from most Tibetan Buddhist Centres where monastics take precedence over lay people, monks take precedence over nuns, and Tibetans take precedence over Westerners.
In a teaching called Training as a Qualified Dharma Teacher, Geshe Kelsang explained where the teachers of the NKT-IKBU come from:
We need qualified Teachers. The New Kadampa Tradition cannot buy qualified Teachers, nor can we invite them from outside. We need Teachers who can teach the twelve texts that we have chosen as our objects of study in the Teacher Training Programme and the Foundation Programme. Other Teachers cannot teach these books because they have not studied them and they do not have the transmissions. Therefore, qualified Teachers within the New Kadampa Tradition can come only from our own students.
Although he is in good health, in August 2009 he voluntarily stepped down as General Spiritual Director of the NKT-IKBU, in a democratic system of succession that he established in the NKT-IKBU's Internal Rules.
Geshe Kelsang engages in meditation retreat and continues to write Dharma books and to help to preserve and promote the Kadampa Buddhism of Je Tsongkhapa in accordance with the instructions of Trijang Rinpoche. According to Richard Spanswick, "Since taking up residence at Conishead Priory, Geshe Kelsang has been working to produce a complete set of instructions for westerners wishing to set out on the path to enlightenment." Continuing this task, a new book entitled Modern Buddhism: The Path of Wisdom and Compassion is slated for release in 2010, and its oral transmission will be given by Geshe Kelsang at the Fall 2010 NKT-IKBU Festival.
Consistent with the lineage teachings he received from his root Guru, Kyabje Trijang Rinpoche, Geshe Kelsang believes that the practice of Dorje Shugden should continue to be practised by any Gelugpas who wish to do so. This view differs from that held by the Dalai Lama XIV, who, despite having received the same lineage teachings, after long consideration has renounced this practice and actively discourages it as he considers it detrimental to the unity of the various Buddhist traditions of Tibet. However, as it is an independent Western Buddhist organization, the Dalai Lama has no authority in terms of how the NKT-IKBU is organized and what practices are taught. The controversy surrounding the Dalai Lama's ban of the practice of Dorje Shugden (in communities within his own jurisdiction) is described in the article on the Dorje Shugden Controversy.
Geshe Kelsang said at an NKT-IKBU Festival in 1995 that the Gelug tradition is in a state of "serious degeneration." In explaining this, Geshe Kelsang said that if the Dalai Lama succeeds in destroying the practice of Dorje Shugden, the entire Gelug tradition itself will be destroyed:
|“||If the practice of Dorje Shugden is harmful then it follows that Je Phabongkhapa was not an authentic Buddhist master, and if he was not then there is no doubt that his heart disciples, Kyabje Ling Rinpoche and Kyabje Trijang Rinpoche (the Senior and Junior Tutors of HH the Dalai Lama) were also not authentic. These three Lamas are the most important Gelugpa Lamas of recent times. If these three are not pure Teachers then there is no doubt that the entire practice of the Gelug Tradition is invalid. This is the main issue that needs clarification.||”|
Geshe Kelsang become critical of the Gelugpa hierarchy's attempts to prevent him from passing on Dorje Shugden teachings that he had received from his own teacher. The distancing of Geshe Kelsang from the Tibetan hierarchy has also been underlined by a number of revisions made to later editions of his earlier publications. Geshe Kelsang's dedications to the long life of the Dalai Lama found in earlier editions of Meaningful to Behold are omitted from the fourth edition (1994) onwards.
Also, Geshe Kelsang's students made revisions to the list of Mahamudra lineage gurus in the second edition of Clear Light of Bliss published in 1992. On this point, Kyabje Gehlek Rimpoche explains that "We have two lineage prayers, one long and one slightly shorter one. Geshe Kelsang Gyatso, who had the teaching from Kyabje Trijang Rinpoche at the same time when I was there, gives the shorter lineage prayer and I put in the longer one," and Belither confirms that "one of two existing lineages was removed to avoid possible confusion."
Additionally, in the first edition of Clear Light of Bliss, Phabongkha Rinpoche was followed by Trijang Rinpoche and Ling Rinpoche, the latter being the 'current holder of the throne of Ganden'. In the second edition, Ling Rinpoche's name is omitted and replaced by 'Dorjechang Kelsang Gyatso Rinpoche' (Geshe Kelsang Gyatso).
According to Michael von Brück, in 1996 Geshe Kelsang was expelled by a number of abbots and Geshes from the community of Sera Je Monastery in a letter "calling him an 'apostate' and comparing him to 'Mahmud of Ghazni.'" Their letter of expulsion stated that Geshe Kelsang's outspoken criticism against the Dalai Lama's ban of the practice of Dorje Shugden was not acceptable. A copy of this letter may be found here.
Geshe Kelsang is one of hundreds of other monks and nuns who have been expelled from their monasteries because of refusing to give up their practice of Dorje Shugden. Monks at Sera Je and Gaden monasteries silently demonstrated against the ban; a number of them were expelled for having "broken their vow of obedience to the monastic authorities."
James Belither, former secretary of the NKT-IKBU and editor for Tharpa Publications, asks what it means to expel someone from an establishment they graduated from forty years previously, and explained the political circumstances surrounding Geshe Kelsang Gyatso's "expulsion":
|“||It is only now, when Geshe Kelsang has dared to face up to the Dalai Lama and the Tibetan Government in Exile in refusing to accept the Dalai Lama's ban against the practice of Dorje Shugden—a practice given to him by his Spiritual Guide Kyabje Trijang Rinpoche—that Geshe Kelsang's credentials as a Buddhist teacher have been called into question. |
The campaign to discredit Geshe Kelsang is clearly an attempt to silence him and to act as a warning to others. As one Tibetan Lama living in America said to another Lama living in Germany who was planning to come out publicly against the Dalai Lama's ban 'No, you mustn't do that. They'll do to you what they've done to Geshe Kelsang.'