GUEST POST by Carol McQuire
I write with sadness and shock about a person who was my ‘teacher’ for 12 years. I have researched Kelsang Gyatso’s life for the last three months. I have consulted books, websites, videos, academics, monks, teachers, Tibetans, westerners, and of course, listened to other NKT ‘survivors’. I can reference my sources. I will show you that Kelsang Gyatso does not have the qualifications or experience you would expect a ‘lineage holder’ in Tibetan Buddhism to have. The phrase ‘getting away with it’ comes to mind. And ‘beware of too many titles’?
NKT followers will say this does not matter. That is their decision. But in terms of what this means for Tibetan Buddhism and Tibetan Buddhism in Britain at least, is that in relation to what ‘training’ and what ‘Tibetan Buddhism’ is, the NKT is not. To attribute failures to ‘Tibetan Buddhism’ when what is at fault is the corruption of a system that in its own context has produced marvellous human beings is mistaken. ‘Geshe Kelsang Gyatso’ is the product of invasion, destruction and diaspora, perhaps even trauma. His NKT is ‘not’ Tibetan Buddhism – the NKT will already tell you that. But the ways in which it ‘is’ and ‘isn’t’ Tibetan Buddhism – most NKT followers don’t know.
I have made a document. If any Tibetans or westerners can provide added information to complement or discredit my account, it will be welcomed. The process of making it – and it is ongoing – is full of side tracks and cul de sacs. I imagined a stressed NKT ‘Education Programme Co-ordinator’ trying to finish a leaflet, with instructions from his or her Resident Teacher to ‘write about Geshe-la’s life’ and very little information, inventing a few extra details to make up the word count. I enclose one account of his life circulated amongst NKT ordained at the end so that you can see the myths exposed. Like the ‘third Buddha’ attribution – Kelsang Gyatso can always say “It’s up to my students what they say!” And perhaps that’s what his students wanted to hear.
Nothing is clear in Kelsang Gyatso’s life. Even his birth place is unclear, given differently according to your source. NKT accounts differ. There is no authorised biography. There is no biography. It all feels ‘hidden’, uncertain and vague; nothing can be ‘known’ accurately – his teachers, his studies, the transmissions he received, when, where and from whom, even if he was fully ordained. Tibetan sources say he was not. As an ex NKTer said “He goes to great lengths to have his followers talk about him.” He can always say later that they made a mistake!
I have not analysed the ‘story’ of how Manjushri Institute was lost to Kelsang Gyatso and his students. I have reconfigured some ‘facts’ about Kelsang Gyatso in a slightly different way. I have mostly used Kelsang Gyatso’s own words – he tries to keep carefully within the boundaries of what could be called ‘truthful’ in his books and often ‘gives himself away’ in his oral teachings, if you understand the Tibetan context. A lot of the meaning comes from what he leaves out, not what he says. For instance, in his books, he only credits having received two teachings from a particular teacher and these are the teachings he first gave in the UK; commentaries to Lamrim and Vajrayogini practice. Nothing else is given an ‘oral’ source, unheard of in Tibetan Buddhism. For a ‘master’ who complains that His Holiness is ‘destroying the pure Dharma of Je Tsongkhapa’, Kelsang Gyatso has remarkably little of that lineage in himself. Whether through illness or through other causes, he is not remembered by many Tibetan sources as actually being seen studying in Tibet, (though a top Geshe did say that ‘Kelsang Gyatso did well in his studies’) and he managed to avoid the very transmissions from His Holiness the Dalai Lama that would have provided a basis for a ‘Je Tsongkhapa’ lineage. Of course, his uncle was the Kuten Lama, a Shugden oracle, so he most probably had a monastic education, but I can find little proof other than his own words until he arrives in Buxar in exile. I have still yet to find ‘Nyamring’, or ‘Ngamring Jampaling’ monastery where he was living as a child. There are leads, but nothing is definitive.
“How could I teach as I could not speak English? I had no confidence” thought Kelsang Gyatso before coming to England. Perhaps it wasn’t the English he lacked confidence in. How much Dharma did he study? We don’t know. All his major books – presentations of standard, traditional texts common to all branches of Tibetan Buddhism – were translated by Tenzin P. Phunrabpa to whom credit should still be given, including for Ocean of Nectar. Most of the NKT study programmes are based on these early books. NKT students think that these commentaries to introductory texts are ‘Geshe-la’s’ and his greatest and unique kindness to them. They are not unusual – they are packaged properly.
His later books weren’t translated from Kelsang Gyatso’s oral teachings: they were written with the Tharpa editing team and panned out through local NKT study programmes. The focus has been, not teaching his students, but ‘The Importance of Developing New Dharma Centres’, the name of an NKT leaflet published in 1992. Kelsang Gyatso has not published more complex books as he matures, but simpler ones to attract a simpler audience. His attempt at publishing for a Tibetan audience, in 2014, was quickly dropped from the Tharpa website after the gift of 500 books to a Shugden monastery in India, Shar Gaden. I was told by two separate sources, that the Tibetan spelling was remarkably bad. Kelsang Gyatso did offer us the ‘Perfection of Wisdom Sutras’ (I heard him live, I can’t remember the year) but said that we ‘weren’t ready for it’ and should do more Lamrim. That book never appeared.
Kelsang Gyatso has repeatedly stated that ‘the book is the teacher’ and given minimal oral or ‘live’ commentaries to his own published books as he stressed, as his students, that we read the book ‘again and again’ as he did, until it felt like ‘Je Tsongkhapa was talking to him’. In the NKT Teacher Training Programme we were asked how we were going to create those experiences for ourselves. Transmissions from thin air…? In the Tibetan world this is not transmission, especially for tantra: if everything is edited, shortened and rounded out, then ‘what’ were we studying? Like the medicinal tree, we had part of the beauty of Dharma. The danger is in taking that as the ‘whole’. If there’s a long way to fall, as in tantric practice, you need more instructions, not less. You can’t make do with a book and your own imagination. You can easily get lost, disoriented, confused and, dangerously mistaken. And ‘teach’ the same misapprehensions to others, even if you are ‘keeping to the words in the books’ as an NKT teacher. At what point in this process of ‘bringing pure Dharma to the West’ is the ‘transmission’ lost? That is a new question. And we don’t really know what ‘transmissions’ Kelsang Gyatso has. Any Tibetan teacher will tell you; it’s their guarantee.
My conclusion? Read his life. (Out soon!) I think, with so little formal study, that Kelsang Gyatso, faced with a request from Geshe Rabten to go to Switzerland in 1978 to teach Dharmakirti’s Pramanavartika, (difficult even for highly trained teachers), soon realised he’d be better as an ‘independent’ teacher with his own British students, far away from the ‘systems’ he left behind in Tibet. He’s still fighting those systems, so that he can’t be ‘seen’ by them, hiding as he is behind ‘Shugden’ and full of blame. Is this a smoke screen for the fact that he never became what His Holiness the Dalai Lama definitively is, a fully qualified teacher? If you abandon a ‘system’, you have to create your own – I feel Kelsang Gyatso got trapped within his own invention as the very system he rejected is simultaneously also the source of his own attraction.
If my ‘life’ of Kelsang Gyatso provokes a proper biography, or parts of one, I will be content. Kelsang Gyatso is an unknown.
Carol McQuire, New Kadampa Survivors, 31st October 2014.
Last edited on Nov. 2, 2014, 2:23 pm