Geshe Kelsang Gyatso
‘Geshe’ Kelsang Gyatso (Wylie: Bskal-bzang Rgya-mtsho) is a Tibetan Buddhist monk and scholar. He was born in Tibet in 1931 and ordained at the age of eight. After he went to Great Britain in 1977 he founded the New Kadampa Tradition in 1991.
He was born in Tibet in 1932 and at age 8 he was ordained at the Ngamring Jampling monastery. Later he studied at Sera Monastery, one of the great monastic universities of Tibet. He was a member of the Tsangpa Khangtsen, one of the fifteen houses at the monastery.
Initiations in Tibet
According to the , as a member of that house, and a part of the general monastic community around Lhasa, he attended many public teachings, including the 14th Dalai Lama’s Lamrim Jampel Shalung at the Norbu Linka summer palace and in 1954 and 1956, along with most of the monks and public from the area, he received the Kalachakra Initiation from 14th Dalai Lama (this was the first Kalachakra initiation by the 14th Dalai Lama).
Geshe Kelsang however denies ever having received Initiations from the Dalai Lama. As he says in :
“I never received the Lamrim Jampel Shal-lung from HH. I don’t know where they got their information from. I don’t know why the people of Sera-Je Tsangpa Khangtsen are saying this. I believe they think they are telling the truth, because they are Buddhist monks. Of course it is true that HH gave these Lamrim teachings at the Norbu Linka summer palace, but at that time I was unaware of this.
When HH was about to give the Kalachakra Initiation in Lhasa, I tried to join this teaching but unfortunately there were no places left, it was full. For a short while I waited with some lay people, and then I returned home. My uncle Kuten Lama knows this is true, because he was with me. So I never received the Kalachakra Initiation from HH.”
Life in India
After the exodus of Tibet in 1959, Kelsang Gyatso stayed at the initial location of his monastery, in Buxar. 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, Kelsang Gyatso left the monastery at Buxar for Mussoorie (a hill station in the Indian state of Uttar Pradesh). According to the , he stayed there for several years as a chronic tuberculosis patient. During an interview in 1996 Geshe Kelsang describes his activities after fleeing Tibet:
“I did a long retreat for many years in Nepal near the border of Tibet in the Himalayan region. The place is called Bangthog Damthang, and I was sponsored by my sister Dekyi who is now living in Switzerland. Later, I did many long retreats in the Dalhousie mountains near Dharamsala. In Mussourie, every winter for several months I did retreat. When I was not in retreat I was trying to help families by performing healing rituals and special pujas. Before I went to Mussourie I lived in Buxa and fell sick there with recurrent chest infections, but it was not serious. Later, in Mussourie the chest infections continued to recur, but I was never admitted to hospital. In this life, I have never spent even one night in hospital! My relatives in Mussourie were urging me to have a thorough check up so I was examined by three different doctors. Two of them said that I had no disease, but that I needed to build up my bodily strength, and one doctor said that maybe I had TB. In reality it was difficult to understand the real problem.”
Geshe Keslang has said about his family and time in Mussorie: “Most of my family are Gelugpas who rely on Dorje Shugden, (but) some of them are Nyingmapas. My younger sister married a Nyingmapa Lama from western Tibet from a renowned lineage, he was called Ngora Lama. They had many children, and I visited them frequently, sometimes he and I would do puja together. I would do Dorje Shugden puja and he would do his own practice. We had a very good relationship until his death in Mussourie, India. When I arrived in Mussourie I had many good friends from the Nyingma tradition, one of whom in particular was called Ngachang Lama. He was an old man, a lay practitioner; one winter he and I did retreat in the same house. In between sessions we talked Dharma, each talking about our experiences. His oldest son would often invite me to his house to do puja. Also, I was often invited to do puja at houses of other Nyingma families.”
Education and Qualifications
Although to have been awarded a “Geshe” degree, according to the he is not a Geshe. Nevertheless, the following is extracted from an account of Geshe Kelsang’s qualifications written in January 1998 by James Belither, Secretary of the NKT:
“In Tibet before he joined Sera-je Monastery near Lhasa, Geshe Kelsang studied on the Geshe training programme for many years in his local monastery of Jampaling. He then took two examinations at the great monastic university of Tashi Lhunpo, one for memorization of texts, the second being the actual examination. After the second examination he was awarded a degree from that monastery, and from that time on the other monks and local people called him Geshe Kelsang. Later, he continued with the Geshe training programme in Sera-je Monastery until he left for India in 1959, where he alternately studied and engaged in meditation retreats. One day he received a letter from Sera-je Monastery in south India, encouraging him to attend a Geshe offering ceremony and to take an examination in order to receive a certificate. In 1973 he went to Sera Monastery and made an extensive offering at the Geshe offering ceremony to a large assembly of monks from both Sera-je and Sera-mey monasteries, in Sera Tsogchen Prayer Hall. He also made the traditional offerings to Sera-je Monastery. On that occasion the monks of his class offered him a ‘katag’, or ceremonial scarf, and gifts in the traditional way. If he was not considered a Geshe then what was the point of inviting him to participate in this ceremony? At that time he declined to take the examination, which was a new system that had been recently introduced. He later explained that this was because he did not think that receiving a piece of paper was important. .. Kyabje Trijang Rinpoche in the colophon to the long life prayer that he wrote for Geshe Kelsang says, ‘This brief prayer for the long life of the Tsang-pa Geshe, Kelsang Gyatso, of Sera-je Monastery, who is endowed with great learning and immaculately pure conduct, ..’.”
Acknowledgement of his teachers
It is also clear that at one time he was highly thought of within the Tibetan establishment as three of his works contained forewords by previous Ganden Tripas and the Dalai Lama. The Dalai Lama contributed a foreward to “Buddhism in the Tibetan Tradition” whilst Trijang and Ling Rinpoches (who each held the position of Ganden Tripa) also provided forewords for his books “Meaningful to Behold” and “Clear Light of Bliss” respectively. Kyabje Ling Rinpoche refers to Geshe Kelsang as ‘this most precious Spiritual Guide’ whilst Kyabje Trijang Rinpoche refers to him as ‘The excellent expounder, the great Spiritual Master Kelsang Gyatso..’.
Journey to the West
In 1968 Kelsang Gyatso accepted an invitation to live and teach in a center (being planned in Canada) by the Christian monk, philosopher and writer Thomas Merton, who was journeying through India that year. These plans were cut short due to Merton’s sudden death and so the center did not evolve.
In 1977 Kelsang Gyatso was invited by Lama Thubten Yeshe to teach at Manjushri Institute an FPMT (Foundation for the Preservation of the Mahayana Tradition) center in England, founded by Lama Yeshe. Later he took over the Manjushri Institute (against Lama Yeshe’s wishes) and founded the New Kadampa Tradition in the 1990’s. The Center is located in Ulverston and is nowadays called Manjushri Kadampa Meditation Centre. It is the main seat of the New Kadampa Tradition. There he lived from 1977 giving teachings and guidance to an ever-growing group of disciples.
Expulsion from Sera
Kelsang Gyatso is a follower and promoter of the controversial deity, Shugden, and his political activities (due to his adherence to this deity) of 1996 through 1998 caused him to be expelled from his monastery and alienated from the Tibetan community.
As mentioned in a 1996 , encouraged by other Shugden followers in April 1996, he was involved in a series of activities and also published letters in open opposition to the 14th Dalai Lama and the Kashag regarding the deity. The open opposition to the 14th Dalai Lama, as well as the tone of his statements in the public letters led directly to the public from his former monastery. Such expulsions are very rare within the Tibetan tradition.
Activities in the West and Present Situation
Books, Programs and Centers
Geshe Kelsang has written nineteen books which provide Western Dharma practitioners with some essential texts of the Gelug tradition on the path to Enlightenment. There are books like a new translation into English of Chandrakirti’s Guide to the Middle Way and many other books on Sutra and Tantra.
Furthermore, he has established three study programmes in his Dharma Centres, called the General Programme, Foundation Programme and Teacher Training Programme respectively. In these programs people can study Geshe Kelsangs books by authorized NKT teachers.
He founded the New Kadampa Tradition in 1991 and since that many NKT centers worldwide, according to NKT sources over 900.
Relations and Authorities
With the controversies on the Shugden issue and the expulsion from Sera Monastery Geshe Kelsang’s views on how the tradition he received from his root teacher (Kyabje Trijang Rinpoche) should be practiced was seen by him as significantly different to the views of the Dalai Lama and the current Ganden Tripa. This means he does not recognise the authority of these teachers with respect to how the NKT is organised and what teachings they emphasise. Examples of these differences are:
- He changed the lineage of the ordination rules (Vinaya), by developing an own ordination system (10 vows) on his own – where he is the sole ordination master and no other full ordained monk is needed as it is usual and was taught in the Vinaya.
- In the Buddhist community New Kadampa Tradition which Geshe Kelsang founded, he is the sole spiritual authority. The democratic rules of the ordained monks and nuns – as taught by the Buddha in the Vinaya – are not present there.
- He doesn’t allow that other novice and full ordained monks or nuns teach at his centers. An exception is made sometimes if the monk or nun study his books at his centers in one of the three educations programs, he developed.
- He passes only a selection of the Gelug Sutra and Tantra teachings to his followers.
- He maintains the practice of reliance on Dorje Shugden and regards him as an enlightened being inseperable from his teacher.
- Views that the most effective way to progress spiritually is to rely on one tradition whilst rejoicing in the practice of others.
- Believes Buddhist teaching should not involve itself with the political institutions of secular society including those of Tibet.
- Regards the system of Tulkus as unreliable and prefers that a person demonstrates good qualities, for this reason Tulku’s are not recognised in NKT.
Because of the fundamental nature of these disagreements he has distanced himself from the institutions of the Dalai Lama, the Ganden Tripa, the monastically authorities and from the Tibetan diaspora that follows them.
Geshe Kelsang’s followers claim that, since he received permission from his Spiritual Guide to make changes to the teachings in accordance with the needs of Westerners (see ), the authority of the Dalai Lama and Ganden Tripa or monastic community (Sangha) are not relevant or necessary for them. However, allthough it is quite usual that when the Buddhas doctrine moves from country to country it changes, in relation with the Vinaya, that a single person on his own changed it and became the sole ruler of the religious order, this was quite uncommon until now.
According to the past representative in Germany, Gen Kelsang Niyma, the incarnation of his teacher, Trijang Chogtrul Rinpoche, is not recognized by Geshe Kelsang. He claims that Trijang Rinpoche told him that he will take rebirth in Tushita. He (Geshe Kelsang) encourages his students and teachers to follow his views on these points.
Through these different views and changes Geshe Kelsang Gyatso became the sole living spiritual authority in the New Kadampa Tradition.
He inspired his disciples to build NKT-temples all over the world, in every major city. He says this task is done to promote World Peace and harmony.
“In January 1987, Geshe Kelsang entered a three-year retreat at Tharpaland in southern Scotland. Although Geshe-la gave no formal teachings during this time, in-between his meditation sessions he continued to work on a number of books, and it was during his stay at Tharpaland that he completed Joyful Path of Good Fortune and Universal Compassion, and wrote The Meditation Handbook, Introduction to Buddhism and Guide to Dakini Land. It was also during this period that he designed the three spiritual programs that form the core of the New Kadampa Tradition” – from the NKT source Modern Day Kadampas
Geshe Kelsang Gyatso continues to give teachings in Europe and North America.
In the past it has been claimed that his followers called him the Third Buddha (see ) and also some former NKT students said that only his books are allowed to be read but according to Kelsang Pagpa, a teacher at one of his centres, “Geshe Kelsang Gyatso has at no time promoted himself as a Buddha, he has never stated that his students should only follow him and not other teachers; and moreover no student of his is prohibited from reading any Buddhist literature that they choose.”
His followers say:
“He has established three study programs and over 800 centers around the world, trained qualified teachers and an ordained community, and created a project to build a Kadampa Buddhist Temple in every major city in the world.
In his teachings Kelsang Gyatso emphasizes the importance of meditation and how to apply it in daily life, the need to be truly happy, and how to cultivate a good heart to help others.
This teacher inspires many people from many different countries because he teaches from example.”
- New Kadampa Tradition
- Kadampa Buddhist Temple Kelsang Gyatso (NKT)