Is the NKT a Pure Lineage of Tsongkhapa? The Problem With Root Texts Within the NKT Study Program

GUEST POST by Joanne Clark
Online statements change frequently and I know that organizations, such as the New Kadampa Tradition (NKT) evolve and change. However, at the time of this writing, (Dec. 8, 2013) these claims still appear on a NKT website as part of their statement of purpose. As stated by Geshe Kelsang Gyatso (GKG) in 1998, they write:

We are pure Gelugpas. The name Gelugpa doesn’t matter, but we believe we are following the pure tradition of Je Tsongkhapa. We are studying and practicing Lama Tsongkhapa’s teachings and taking as our example what the ancient Kadampa Lamas and Geshes did. All the books that I have written are commentaries to Lama Tsongkhapa’s teachings. We try our best to follow the example of the ancient Kadampa tradition and use the name Kadampa to remind people to practice purely.

Later in that same web page is stated:

The NKT exclusively teaches Je Tsongkhapa’s doctrine

All of Geshe Kelsang’s books, which are the core of the three NKT study programs, are based on Je Tsongkhapa’s commentaries to the teachings of Buddha Shakyamuni, Buddha Vajradhara, and other great Buddhist Masters.”[1]

The Nkt’s choice of the word “pure” in regard to their statement of purpose, is in itself problematic. However, that discussion is not my purpose here. Readers may view an examination of that topic here.

For my purposes here, I will be using the term “purity” to refer to a meaning of authenticity or correctness—and address NKT’s claim in that regard.

Even in that context, even without knowing anything about the NKT, such claims seem to be extraordinary. Anyone who knows anything at all about Tibetan history and has read any of the biographies of the Kadamapa masters, will be aware that Tsongkhapa’s lineage is a compilation of different lineages (Kagyue, Sakya, Kadampa) and emerged through the efforts of many translators, many scholars, and many extraordinary and realized meditators. The emergence of the Gelugpa was a joint effort of cooperation between different lamas, lineages and translators over hundreds of years. In light of this, GKG’s claim that he alone, with no assistance from Gelug practitioners, scholars or translators outside of NKT, is capable of bringing a pure tradition of Tsongkhapa to the West is quite remarkable!

For example, here is what is missing in the NKT study program from Je Tsongkhapa’s tradition:

  • there is no tradition of the Vinaya as practiced by Tsongkhapa (Vinaya constitutes the rules and commentaries for the ethics of monks and nuns)
  • there are no English translations of the 18 volumes of Je Tsongkhapa’s work in the NKT study program.
  • there are only two texts by Je Tsongkhapa himself in the NKT, the Three Principle of the Paths (two pages) and a lamrim prayer (one page)
  • there are none of the five Maitreya texts which form an important corpus in traditional Gelug study programs.
  • the study and practice of the combination of the three Highest Yoga Tantras, Guhyasamaja, Heruka and Yamantaka do not exist in NKT. These are central to the Gelug lineage and there is a good translation of Tsonkhapa’s commentary on Guhyasamaja available.

I believe that NKT students tread a difficult path. The NKT organization has placed itself well outside of mainstream Tibetan Buddhism—and yet NKT study programs are positioned in the center of mainstream Tibetan Buddhist study. Students are taught to revere Buddha, Nagarjuna, Atisha, Tsongkhapa and Shantideva, the same Buddhist masters that we in mainstream Tibetan Buddhist circles revere. They study from those masters. We also study from those masters. Yet oddly, students are lead to believe that NKT is somehow different, that NKT is “pure”.

Resulting from this is a likely inference that Gelug/Kadam study and practice outside of NKT is not “pure.”—not authentic. This inference results also from the fact that no texts by Tsongkhapa, Atisha, the Buddha, Shantideva, Nargajuna or any other teacher, translated outside of Tharpa Publications, is integrated into NKT study programs or even sold in NKT centers—and no commentaries by teachers other than GKG are studied within the study program. In that way NKT student are totally dependent on Kelsang Gyatso’s texts and if there are any faults in them, or if they miss important points of the path, they cannot go beyond these limitations or correct their misunderstandings derived from it. Therefore it is possible that this inside/outside path (pure/impure dichotomy) could place students at risk for some confusion!

In fact, so little attention is paid to the study of root texts in the NKT study program that the one translation of a major root text available to NKT students contains many errors. Moreover, these errors have not been noticed or corrected in the ten years that the book has been in circulation! This text is the Tharpa Publications translation of Shantideva’s Bodhicharyavatara. Last I counted, there were over 40 verses rendering a different meaning to that given in four other translations that I possess!  Worse still, many of these errors do not appear in GKG’s commentary on the text. Despite Tharpa’s claims that the translation was done “under the compassionate guidance of Geshe Kelsang Gyatso,” he seems unaware of the many errors that it contains!

Here are some stark examples. In the second verse of the text, Shantideva makes a gesture of humility as part of his statement of purpose in composing the text. He writes, as translated by the Padmakara translation Group (and consonant with other translations), “

I thereby have no thought that this might be of benefit to others…” (p.33).

However, the translator from NKT reads this line quite differently and writes,

“My reason for writing this is to benefit others…” (p. 3)

GKG commentary favors the mainstream translation:

“Also, since he has no skill in the art of rhetoric or poetry, he has no intention of benefitting others who have already understood the teachings of Buddha.” (p. 14)

So it appears that GKG is probably reading from the Tibetan and is unaware that his translators have a different rendition! (Of course, GKG does not see this statement as an expression of humility as do other commentators, but that discussion is not my purpose here.)

In Chapter Five, verses 88-91, the Tharpa translation gives a dramatically different rendition to that of other translations, making one wonder if they were reading a different text! Here is an example:

In Verse 88, the Tharpa translation reads:

I should listen to Dharma
With respect and a good heart,
Recognizing it as the supreme medicine
For curing the pains of anger and attachment. (p. 61)

The Padmakara Translation Group (and others) translate as follows:

Do not teach to those without respect
To those who like the sick wear cloths around their heads,
To those who proudly carry weapons, staffs or parasols,
And those who keep their hats upon their heads. (p.74)

How on earth could two such completely different renditions occur?

GKG’s commentary on verse 88 reads:

“Dharma should never be taught to someone who lacks respect either for us or for Dharma itself. Teaching such a person will not benefit him or her and will only create downfalls, or obstacles, for oneself … Shantideva next gives a detailed account of the circumstances in which it is improper to teach Dharma. Because teaching should only be given to those who have the proper attitude we should never teach anyone whose dress, manner or bearing demonstrates disrespect. This would include those who cover their heads though they are not sick, those who have not put down their umbrellas … “ (p. 14)

So GKG is clearly addressing the translation as given by the Padmakara Translation Group (and three other translators), unaware that the Tharpa translation renders his commentary meaningless! Translation by Tharpa of the three verses following, 89-91, have exactly the same trouble, rendering inexplicable meanings that do not accord with any other translations or even GKG’s commentary.

And this is not the only occurrence of such discrepancies. They happen numerous times throughout the text (I’ve lost count!). In Chapter Eight, there are six verses on just two pages alone that render an entirely different meaning to all other translations!

Here is an example of two of these verses:

In verses 43-44, the Tharpa translation reads:

43. When we are very attached to someone
We want to see their face again and again;
But whether we see their face or not,
The real face always remains covered with skin.

44. If we were to remove that skin,
We would realize that they are not an object of desire
But an object of aversion;
So why do we develop attachment for others’ bodies?

The Padmakara Translation Group and GKG both read these verses differently, placing the context in a charnal ground and also in a traditional Indian wedding:

43. Oh what pains you went through just to draw the veil,
And lift the face that modestly looked down.
The face which, looked upon or not,
Was always carefully concealed.

44. That face for which you languished so …
Well here it is, now nakedly exposed.
The crows have done their work for you to see.
What’s this? You run away so soon?

GKG’s commentary reads:

“[43] In ancient India, whenever a man encountered a woman, her face was hidden by a veil. Even at the marriage ceremony, her face would be covered and she would be very bashful … [44] why is he not similarly attracted when, after death, her face is uncovered by vultures? Why does he not want to copulate with her then? Her body is still there but the man only wants to run away from it.” (p. 305).

Then later in Chapter Eight, there is this discrepancy involving two important verses:

In verses 97-98, the Tharpa translation reads as follows:

97. But why should I protect others
If their suffering does me no harm?
If we cherish only others, we find their suffering hard to bear;
So we definitely need to protect them.

98. It is not a wrong conception to think
That it will be I who experience the future suffering,
Because it will not be another person who dies
And yet another who is reborn. (p. 129)

This is another very strange translation that misses Shantideva’s meaning completely. The Padmakara Translation Group (and all others, including GKG) provide an opposing meaning:

97. Since pains of others do no harm to me
What reason do I have to shield myself?
But why to guard against “my” future pain which
Does no harm to this, my present “me”?

98. To think that “I will have to suffer it”
In fact is but a false conception—
In the present moment, “I” will perish;
At another time, another will be born. (p. 124)

GKG writes, ignoring the Tharpa translation: “As I said before, there is no reason for me to protect others from their misery. It causes me no harm. Then why do we work to eliminate the sicknesses of old age coming in the future or even the discomforts of tomorrow and the day after tomorrow? These future sufferings will do us no harm today. But if such misery is not prevented now I shall experience it in the future. This is a misconception. The self of this life will not experience the suffering of future lives.” (p.335).

Here is another example of Tharpa’s translation troubles:

In Chapter Six, Verse 123, the Tharpa translation reads:

If we harm a child
There is no way to please its mother.
In the same way, if we harm any living being,
There is no way to please the compassionate Buddha. (p.89)

This is a very nice translation and does convey a meaning very close to what Shantideva intended. However, I don’t believe that it is what Shantideva actually wrote! Here is the translation from Padmakara Translation Group:

Just as when a man who’s tortured in a fire,
Remains unmoved by little favors done to him,
There’s no way to delight the great compassionate Buddhas,
While we ourselves are causes of another’s pain. (p.95)

And GKG’s commentary on this reads:

“someone who is ablaze with fire finds no pleasure in receiving food and delicacies. Similarly, if we harm sentient beings and then offer elaborate gifts to the Buddha, these offerings will never please him.” (p. 254).

Once again, he clearly favors the translation done by the Padmakara Translation Group!

These are a few examples of the errors I found in the Tharpa translation of the Bodhicharyavatara made “under the compassionate guidance of Geshe Kelsang Gyatso.” Indeed, translators (and lamas) are only human and errors will happen. I myself study this text using four different translations because I know that there will be discrepancies. However, the errors in the Tharpa translation are more pervasive and significant than I have seen anywhere else, and they could render the entire translation flawed. That in itself is not alarming, because there are probably other flawed translations out there. Nor is it my intention to nit-pick. However, GKG has made an extraordinary claim by saying that he alone, without assistance from other translators or commentaries, is capable of bringing the Kadampa/Gelug tradition “purely” to the West. And my question is: How can he claim purity with errors such as these? With errors such as these, he can only claim to be human and to need more help from others!

I also wonder why no student of NKT has ever questioned this confusion—this text was published over ten years ago! Have they become so confused that they don’t even recognize confusion when it appears? Or perhaps they simply have never cultivated the habit of critically reading a root text in conjunction with a commentary.

Thousands of hours of work has been done to translate into English the Kangyur and Tengyur—to translate the great works of Tibetan scholars such as Tsongkhapa—to translate the works of the great scholars of ancient India. Much more work is still to be done. This work is being done because authentic Buddhism cannot be brought to the West without the root texts. That is the robust tradition that Tsongkhapa followed. If the NKT is sincere in “studying and practicing Lama Tsongkhapa’s teachings and taking as [their] example what the ancient Kadampa Lamas and Geshes did,” then surely they would follow the tradition of diverse and extensive study of the many root texts upon which the Kadampa tradition relies? Surely they would put much emphasis on providing students with (accurate!) translations of these texts? Perhaps instead of seeking to follow a “pure” lineage of Tsongkhapa, they would do better to follow a robust lineage of Tsongkhapa, one that questions and investigates and makes cross-references—and isn’t afraid to read texts that come outside of their one, narrow view?

GKG writes in Understanding the Mind:

“it is mixing different religious traditions that causes sectarianism … studying non-religious subjects is less of an obstacle to our spiritual progress than studying religions of different traditions … the practices taught by one teacher will differ from those taught by another, and if we try to combine them we will become confused, develop doubts, and lose direction.”  (pp. 166-167).

Is that true? Or is there greater risk for confusion when students are not given opportunity to question and cross-reference many sources and texts, when they are denied full access to their critical faculty?

As the Buddha said,

Bhikshus and the wise should examine my teachings like goldsmiths analyze gold, by cutting, rubbing and scorching it. Examine my teachings in the same way and then put them into practice. Do not practice Dharma on the strength of blind faith alone.[2]

Contrary to this robust advice by the Buddha, the diet within the NKT study program could be called pre-digested, because all the study is interpreted by one individual alone. The root texts are almost exclusively provided to students through the one lens of Geshe Kelsang Gyatso. Pre-digested is the diet of invalids and babies. Does Geshe Kelsang believe that Westerners are incapable of digesting the rich diet of the ancient texts themselves? Incapable of receiving a full and nutritious diet?

Here is an example. In Lamrim Chenmo, Tsongkhapa writes extensively on the qualities necessary in a spiritual teacher. He quotes from authors such as Maitreya and advises students on how to show respect for the teacher, while still maintaining their ability to judge the teacher and critically analyze his/her teachings. He tells the story of Atisha and Serlingpa:

“The great Elder [Atisha] held the Madyamaka view and Ser-ling-ba held the view of a ‘true aspectarian’ Cittamatrin [Mind Only School]. Therefore, Atisha’s view was superior to that of Ser-ling-ba. Still, Atisha upheld Ser-ling-ba as the guru who was unrivaled amongst his gurus, because Atisha had obtained the spirit of enlightenment and a general presentation of the stages of the Mahayana path in dependence upon him.” (p. 82)

So yes, Atisha held Serlingpa in high esteem—however, he also refuted Serlingpa’s main philosophical standpoint. He did not allow reverence for Serlingpa to dull his own critical faculty. In the two major texts by GKG that I have viewed, Joyful Path of Good Fortune and Meaningful to Behold, there is no mention of Atisha’s philosophical differences with Serlingpa , though GKG does speak of Atisha’s great devotion for Serlingpa.

In addition, if one compares GKG’s main commentary on Lamrim, Joyful Path of Good Fortune with Tsongkhapa’s major commentary on Lamrim, Lamrim Chenmo, it appears that overall, GKG’s instructions on guru reliance are weighted towards blind faith, while Tsongkhapa’s are not. GKG advises us to view the lama as a Buddha, with the reasoning that the faults we see in our lama are actually faults in ourselves and our own faulty perceptions. In fact, I found no teaching whatsoever coming from GKG about how we are to act when the lama advises us to do something that is not in accord with the Dharma, no acknowledgement anywhere that lamas will have faults. He does not provide students with that important dimension to proper reliance on a spiritual teacher—nor does he allow them to believe their own eyes if they see faults.

On the other hand, Tsongkhapa acknowledges that lamas will have faults, saying “if you rely on nonvirtuous teachers and bad friends, your qualities will slowly diminish …” (p.90). He also quotes from several sources about what to do if the lama advises us wrongly: “… the Cloud of Jewels Sutra says, ‘With respect to virtue, act in accord with the guru’s words, but do not act in accord with the guru’s words with respect to nonvirtue.’” (86). Even in the context of the instruction “seeing the guru as Buddha,” Tsongkhapa’s advice is grounded in sound reason, steering students well away from blind faith. He reasons that focusing on the good qualities of our lamas, while ignoring their faults, will help us better cultivate those good qualities in ourselves. Unlike GKG, Tsongkhapa does not stress that it is our own misperception when we see faults in our lamas! He does not put blinkers on our eyes! Faults are faults—not seeing them is blindness. Not focusing on them is a useful training of the mind.

At least, that is my small understanding of Tsongkhapa’s instructions and how they differ from GKG’s. I don’t pretend that it is necessarily correct! I am simply trying to start a conversation, trying to demonstrate how studying commentaries beside the root texts can begin investigations that deepen our understanding and critical faculty. No one denies that NKT’s approach is one-sided. And I particularly don’t deny that GKG appears to be a very intelligent lama. However, I am asking if his approach is safe? Understanding the full diversity of Tsongkhapa’s advice to following a spiritual teacher—an approach that is similar to that taken by HH Dalai Lama in regard to Trijang Rinpoche, for example—is vital for Western students and it appears to be missing from the NKT study program. Students have no access to the extraordinary means—provided by Tsongkhapa himself—by which they can judge GKG’s commentaries—except those means provided by GKG!

There will be many who claim that I am attempting to “smear” the NKT. However, anyone who knows me will know that I also question practices within other Western Tibetan Buddhist organizations, such as Rigpa. I myself study and practice outside of mainstream Tibetan Buddhist communities because of some of the problems I have encountered. These troubles are not exclusive to the NKT, though I believe that the NKT has brought them to new and potentially very dangerous levels.

I believe that Westerners need to be having these conversations and asking these sorts of hard questions. Every Western Buddhist center that is reliant on a powerful, charismatic leader must be prepared to answer hard questions about the Buddhism being taught. If that Buddhism is weighted heavily towards the teachings and texts written by the powerful, charismatic leader, at the expense of the root texts of past masters, then questions need to be asked. Then students are at risk. Students are not being given the whole truth and then we can start talking about cults.

The NKT claims to be a “pure lineage” of Tsongkhapa—and yet they fail to provide students with a full study of Tsongkhapa’s teachings, one that includes the extraordinary breadth of his actual writings and thinking, as evident in those many root texts that have already been translated into English. They claim to provide a study of the Bodhicharyavatara—and yet the translation of the root text they study from is seriously flawed. I could be wrong, but I can see only two directions open to NKT. One is to simply use the translations of the root texts that are available (despite the fact that most have been done by mainstream Tibetan Buddhists and some are dedicated to HH Dalai Lama) and thereby create a fuller study program of Tsongkhapa’s lineage. The other option is simply to bite the bullet and admit that they are not pure Gelug, not pure Kadam, not pure Tsongkhapa nor Shantideva, but pure Geshe Kelsang Gyatso.

Sources Used:

Tsonkhapa, (translated, 2000) The Great Treatise On The Stages of the Path; Volume One; Translated by The Lamrim Chenmo Translation Committee; Snow Lion Publications; Ithaca, NY.

Shantideva, (translated 2003) Bodhicharyavatara; Translated by the Padmakara Translation Group; Shambhala Publishing; Boston, MA.

Shantideva (updated translation 2006); Bodhicharyavatara; Translated by the Padmakara  Translation Group; Shambhala Publishing; Boston, MA.

Shantideva (translated 1979); Bodhicharyavatara; Translated by Stephen Batchelor; Tibetan Works and Archives; New Delhi, India.

Shantideva (translated 1997); Bodhicharyavatara; Translated by Vesna A. Wallace and B. Alan Wallace;  Snow Lion; Ithaca, NY.

Shantideva, (translated 2002); Bodhicharyavatara; Translated by Neil Elliott “under the compassionate guidance of Geshe Kelsang Gyatso”; Tharpa Publications; Glen Spey, NY.

Geshe Kelsang Gyatso; (revised 2007); Meaningful to Behold; Tharpa Publications; Glen Spey, NY.

Geshe Kelsang Gyatso; (revised 1995); Joyful Path of Good Fortune; Tharpa Publications; Glen Spey, NY.

Gesehe Kelsang Gyatso (2002); Understanding the Mind: The Nature and Power of the Mind; Tharpa Publications; Glen Spey, NY.