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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."
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.
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."
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."
- 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.
I received this invitation but I didn’t answer for two months.
He knew if my root Guru asked me, then I would agree to go.
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.)
Establishing Buddhist Centres
- See also: Manjushri Institute
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.
Creation of the NKT-IKBU
- See also: New Kadampa Tradition
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."
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.
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.
- "I wanted to encourage people to practice purely.
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.
In 1985, Tharpa Publications was founded, which since has been the exclusive publisher of his works worldwide.
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.
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."
- “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.”
- 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).
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), The New 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 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 Bodhisattva Vow: A Practical Guide to Helping Others, Tharpa Publications (2nd. ed., 1995)
- Buddhism in the Tibetan Tradition: A Guide, Routledge & Kegan Paul (1984)
- Clear Light of Bliss: Tantric Meditation Manual, Tharpa Publications (2nd. ed., 1992)
- Eight Steps to Happiness: The Buddhist Way of Loving Kindness, Tharpa Publications (2000)
- Essence of Vajrayana: The Highest Yoga Tantra Practice of Heruka Body Mandala, Tharpa Publications (1997)
- Great Treasury of Merit: How to Rely Upon a Spiritual Guide, Tharpa Publications (1992)
- Guide to Dakini Land: The Highest Yoga Tantra Practice of Buddha Vajrayogini, Tharpa Publications (2nd. ed., 1996)
- Guide to the Bodhisattva's Way of Life: How to Enjoy a Life of Great Meaning and Altruism, a translation of Shantideva's Bodhisattvacharyavatara with Neil Elliott, Tharpa Publications (2002)
- Heart Jewel: The Essential Practices of Kadampa Buddhism, Tharpa Publications (2nd. ed., 1997)
- The New Heart of Wisdom: Profound Teachings from Buddha's Heart, Tharpa Publications (5th. ed., 2012)
- How to Solve Our Human Problems: The Four Noble Truths, Tharpa Publications (2005, US ed., 2007)
- Introduction to Buddhism: An Explanation of the Buddhist Way of Life, Tharpa Publications (2nd. ed., 2001, US ed. 2008)
- Joyful Path of Good Fortune: The Complete Buddhist Path to Enlightenment, Tharpa Publications (2nd. ed., 1995)
- Living Meaningfully, Dying Joyfully: The Profound Practice of Transference of Consciousness, Tharpa Publications (1999)
- Mahamudra Tantra: The Supreme Heart Jewel Nectar, Tharpa Publications (2005)
- Meaningful to Behold: The Bodhisattva's Way of Life, Tharpa Publications (5th. ed., 2008)
- Modern Buddhism: The Path of Wisdom and Compassion, Tharpa Publications (2010)
- The New Meditation Handbook: Meditations to Make Our Life Happy and Meaningful, Tharpa Publications (2003)
- Ocean of Nectar: The True Nature of All Things, Tharpa Publications (1995)
- Tantric Grounds and Paths: How to Enter, Progress on, and Complete the Vajrayana Path, Tharpa Publications (1994)
- Transform Your Life: A Blissful Journey, Tharpa Publications (2001, US ed. 2007)
- Understanding the Mind: The Nature and Power of the Mind, Tharpa Publications (2nd. ed., 1997)
- Universal Compassion: Inspiring Solutions for Difficult Times, Tharpa Publications (4th. ed., 2002)
Emphasis on lineage
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."
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.
He often said this in discourses.
If we do not keep the commitments after having received teachings, this is a great downfall.
- “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 should never do like this; we need to do everything correctly and purely.
- “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.”
- We need qualified Teachers.
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.
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,
This is the main issue that needs clarification.”
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."
Letter of expulsion from the Sera Je Monastery
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.'"
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."