The New Kadampa Tradition of Buddhism was founded in 1991 by Tibetan monk Geshe Kelsang Gyatso (1931-2022), following a fifteen year period during which Gyatso taught within the Foundation For The Preservation Of The Mahayana Tradition but gradually disassociated his teachings from the main Tibetan schools.

I first came across the New Kadampa Tradition in Halifax, West Yorkshire, as the bus I got home to Bradford after the Tai Chi class at North Bridge Leisure Centre stopped outside the World Peace Café. In the window there were posters of seemingly non-depressed people sitting in silence, and this seemed a preferable alternative to the Tai Chi class I had been attending, which was being taught in its martial art incarnation.

I went to the basic teaching/meditating sessions for three and a half years and the experience was completely positive. But the New Kadampa Tradition as an organization has come under heavy criticism for being cultish, money-minded and divisive. There is even a ‘New Kadampa Survivors’ support group.

The tradition promotes itself as a fourth broad school of Buddhism, alongside the Theravada, Zen and Tibetan schools. It seems to me, though, that the NKT is a repackaged version of Tibetan Buddhism, but with a disengagement from social and political affairs, a break from the Tibetan command structure and a different view of the deity Dorje Shugden, whom the Tibetan Buddhists see as an evil spirit and the New Kadampas revere as a benevolent deity. This schism resulted in an acrimonious spiritual war with disciples of the Dalai Lama.

The style of meditation that is taught in the NKT uses visualization, repeated instructions and willed behavioural changes. While I struggled to make progress with this, many of Geshe Kelsang Gyatso’s teachings were helpful.

‘Exchanging Self With Others’ suggest that, instead of prioritizing our own interests and cherishing what we think is our ‘self’, we value everyone else’s welfare. This switch will benefit not only others, but our ‘self’ too, as we will feel good. Imagine a social situation where your own experiences and opinions are not centre stage. Instead, the histories and viewpoints of others are dominant. Rather than feeling indignant, you can acknowledge that other people’s worlds have value. 

‘Accepting The Defeat And Offering The Victory’ is a variation on this theme. We opt out of the race to ‘succeed’ or be ‘right’ and give others what they feel to be significant. For example, some people crave praise and accolades, so we can say to ourselves, “Good luck to them”, while recognizing the fickle and temporary nature of such triumphs. 

In most Buddhist traditions I’ve encountered, it’s not the done thing to charge for teachings or books, but the NKT is quite up-front about it. Some have testified that the deeper they have got within the organization, the more of their money and possessions are expected to be given up for the greater good. I should add that most traditions I’ve had a peripheral involvement with have encouraged donations to the cost of maintaining monasteries, monks, nuns and meeting rooms. It’s just that they don’t insist on it.

This brings us to another accusation levelled at the NKT: blind submission to authority. All the branches I visited in the UK and Canada were in effect vehicles for the teachings of Geshe Kelsang Gyatso, and the teachers consistently promoted his books. 

Although many have spoken about being pressurized, I never felt obliged to commit or go further when attending NKT events. As long as one is open to other views and other choices, much of the advice given by Geshe Kelsang Gyatso can be useful for those wishing to move away from the self-centred.

Dalai Lama at the Skydome 2010.

One comment on “The Pros And Cons Of Geshe Kelsang Gyatso

  • You realize of course that those photos of people meditating on NKT ads are stock images targeted at specific demographics.
    One can draw a clear parallel between Modern Buddhism and Donald Trump when it comes to avoiding consequences for repeated sexual improprieties. Look into Steve Wass Genla Samden. Likewise Kelsang Lodro and Kelsang Thubten ought to be scrutinized. How many senior teachers in the NKT wore robes but engaged in sexual misconduct whilst teaching moral discipline from a throne? The NKT themselves have shown that if an ordained person engages in such actions they can remain in post.
    Secondly, your perceived “disengagement from social and political affairs” is equivalent to Donald Trump’s populist meme “he’s not a politician.” Behaviour of the cult zealots indicates this is not valid –the pseudo-lojong slogans do not sway me.

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