Mixing Traditions -by Geshe Kelsang Gyatso

There is much speculation on Geshe-la’s stance with respect to mixing traditions and sectarianism. I think this section summarizes Geshe Kelsang’s opinion very well.

In the chapter on effort in Guide to the Bodhisattva’s Way of Life Shantideva advises us that before we commit ourself to engaging in a practice we should investigate it carefully to see whether it is suitable and whether we can sustain it; but once we have committed ourself to it we should never turn back but continue until we attain the final result. Switching from one practice to another unrelated practice not only prevents us from fulfilling our wishes in this life, but also makes it difficult for us to accomplish our goals in future lives. Moreover, it is often the cause of breaking our commitments and severing precious relationships, such as those that exist between Guru and disciple, and between spiritual friends.

We must be careful not to misunderstand the effort of non-satisfaction. Practicing this effort does not mean that we should become dissatisfied with our tradition or with our main practice, and try to follow many different traditions or mix together many different practices. 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. Having chosen our tradition and our daily practices we should rely upon them single-pointedly, never allowing dissatisfaction to arise. At the same time as cherishing our own tradition we should respect all other traditions and the right of each individual to follow the tradition of their choosing. This approach leads to harmony and tolerance. It is mixing different religious traditions that causes sectarianism. This is why it is said that studying non-religious subjects is less of an obstacle to our spiritual progress than studying religions of different traditions.

Once we have decided which tradition to follow and which practices to do, we should engage in them wholeheartedly with a joyful mind. This is the power of joy. Whether we are listening to Dharma teachings, reading Dharma books, reciting prayers, contemplating, or meditating, we should do so with a light and happy mind, like a child at play. If we enjoy a practice we shall naturally have enthusiasm for it. (Geshe Kelsang Gyatso, Understanding the Mind: an Explanation of the Nature and Functions of the Mindpp. 161-162, © 1993, 1997, 2002)

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Some experiences with Geshe Kelsang Gyatso

Also on the internet there has been much criticism regarding Geshe Kelsang Gyatso (Geshe-la) and his intentions, so I wanted to put forward a few small encounters with Geshe-la of my own, which I at least know to be true. First of all although Geshe-la is very busy, whenever I have written and asked something of him I have always received a response. Most of these were questions about emphasising different practices and understanding various practical points to do with meditation. On a few occasions I have been in meetings with Geshe-la regarding issues surrounding Dharma centres, such as for change of location etc… however when I saw Geshe-la after I had been away on a retreat I did see a different aspect. When beginning to talk about the retreat, Geshe-la’s eyes absolutely lit up (in a way I had not seen in previous meetings) and he eagerly leaned forward and said “Tell me your experience”.  This meeting always stuck in my mind. It highlights for me what Geshe-la is really about (in my opinion) which is the actual practice of Dharma, practising the meaning of Dharma and nothing else. After all these years and with the NKT becoming a large organisation it still seems obvious that Geshe-la regards all the other things as merely a necessity – a necessary condition.

               On another occasion I remember privately giving Geshe-la a cheque for several thousand pounds on behalf of someone else. Geshe-la accepted this cheque, but then a few days later I received the cheque back, and crossed out – because Geshe-la wanted the money instead used to help the local Dharma Centre. Over the years everyone can see that the NKT has grown a huge amount, and yet Geshe-la remains as he always did, without accumulating possessions or houses or cars. It is very rare even amongst spiritual teachers for their organisation to become so widespread whilst themselves they remain with very little, as Geshe-la has done.

Hate the NKT? … Love Geshe-la?

Give me a penny for every time I hear “ I love Geshe-la, but I’m not sure about the NKT”, along with many other similar often much stronger sentiments. In this way it seems as though an idea of the NKT has arisen as a soft target- object of blame whilst being able to avoid any overt criticism on the spiritual guide of the tradition. My own feeling in short is :-  I love Geshe-la; and many of the teachers I find excellent; whilst others seem ok and some appear to be downright bonkers; many of the organisers and workers within the NKT appear to be straightforward and charitable people; while others may show themselves to be neurotic power-mongers at times. Alongside all of this, I have to say I love the NKT, I love all the teachings, the temples and books, the good and skilful efforts of many of those involved and the precious internal rules. On the other hand I can’t bear it when teachers start making up their own version of the Dharma through their teachings and example and pushing their ideas worldly and spiritual on to others without acting at all in a genuinely humble and considerate manner, as in the Kadampa way of life. I can’t bear this because it undermines and devalues a wonderful tradition. 

The NKT is clearly Geshe-la’s dedication, coming out of his own practice. He would like the explanation of Kadam Buddhism to become available in every town, which of course would be wonderful. Now the tradition has been the subject of lots of criticism much of it on the internet however I believe it has also been damaged by many teachers and organisers in the past (and some now) not acting in accordance with the Kadampa way of life, or even close. I pray that now and in the future NKT teachers and organisers will act as simple calm practitioners whilst teaching and organising and may they quickly step down when they find that they cannot do this. In this way may this glorious tradition become available in every place in the world.  

Finally I hope that individual Buddhists will always be prepared to conscientiously and peacefully question and stand up to wrongs which they can help to correct, especially where others they know of are persecuted or oppressed.